While it was still dark we grabbed our cups of warm beverages and set off down the nearly-empty street, the watchful eye of the half-moon looking out from the sky growing bluer every moment. Everyone on the beach is a silhouette, recognition made harder by the masks we wear. But somehow we know each other by the choice to be present here in the cold dawn on the colder sand. The singing starts. It’s more muffled this year, but not even thirteen months of pandemic will silence us altogether. We watch the horizon where a band of cloud meets the placid water, and I wonder what we’ll actually be able to see this year. We sing the sky to brightness, and the first streaks of color break through: jagged lines, like stretch marks where the whole world has been waiting to give birth to this particular morning in this particular place with these particular people shouting “Alleluia!” And indeed the sun does crown the cloudy horizon. And a child marvels at just how big it is. And the lake reflects the glowing red into a path of light, a pillar of fire guiding the way into liberation. Death has lost its sting, and God has arisen in the swimming muskrat and the calling seagulls and the little boys gleefully kicking sand as the round stone of the sun rolls higher into the sky, as the pillar of fire grows too bright to look at and sinks slowly into the water where it becomes the promised land.
Written last year as we catapulted into the fullness of the pandemic and Holy Week.
To the tune of KINGSFOLD (To Mock Your Reign)
“My God,” shouts out the suff’ring Lord,
“Why have you forsaken me?”
Our king and the Incarnate Word
Has pow’r for just one plea.
His body bears an anguished pain
Beyond the heavy cross.
No human language can contain
This emptiness of loss.
“My God,” yells out the hungry child,
“Why are you so far from me?”
Their body, dirty and reviled,
Is home to Deity:
The lonely Christ is present there
And joins the tearful cry
That dares to give voice to despair
And hungers for reply.
“My God,” cries out the broken Earth,
“Can you not hear my groan?”
This planet to which God gave birth
Now reaps what we have sown.
The Lord of Life with flesh of clay
Is there in every death,
In each extinction, every way
Creation gasps for breath.
“Where are you, God?” the desperate pray
As they reach out for a word.
Both midnight and the brightest day,
They question who has heard.
The lonely, sick, abused, and poor –
Christ joins them from the cross
And echoes from his wounded core
The fullness of their loss.
I wrote this hymn during the season of Advent this past year because I longed for new lyrics to the familiar carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” But this song also is appropriate for March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, the day we celebrate the angel’s visit to Mary and Mary’s perplexed but wholehearted ‘yes.’ I was inspired both by Mary’s own song and by St. Basil’s ancient words: “Annunciations are frequent; incarnations are rare.” What seeks to be made alive in you today?
The angel came to Mary with the message, “Do not fear!
You are the highly favored one, and God is with you here,
For you will bear the Son of God and bring God’s kingdom near!”
O, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy! O, tidings of comfort and joy!
When Mary heard the angel’s words, she asked, “How can this be?”
The angel opened up to her the sacred mystery,
And even then her longing grew for all to be set free.
O, tidings of wonder and joy, wonder and joy! O, tidings of wonder and joy!
And Mary told the angel, “Here I am to serve the Lord.
I will receive God’s promises according to your word.”
And she prepared her heart to hold the Spirit then out-poured.
O, tidings of mercy and joy, mercy and joy! O, tidings of mercy and joy!
Then Mary raised her voice to God in hopeful, thankful song:
“God has begun the turning we have waited for so long:
Redemption comes to lift the weak and to reshape the strong!
O, tidings of justice and joy, justice and joy! O, tidings of justice and joy!”
The angel comes to each of us, invites us all to bear
God’s love made flesh within our lives. So let your hearts prepare!
Will Mary’s yes take root in us and grow until we share
God’s tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy? God’s tidings of comfort and joy!
I did some very serious pillow punching this morning, hoping that my daily ritual of anger expression would somehow cleanse me of my tangle of emotions.
It did not.
Anger is everywhere I look: in the images of the crowds storming the US capitol, in the Facebook post reactions, in my own frozen, frightened body. And though I want to understand its power as a tool, so often anger paralyzes me. Whether your anger feels like a controlling force or a numbing drug, it can be utterly overwhelming.
I’ve been told that anger is a gift – a propelling fire of righteous anger can fuel our movement toward justice. So I began wondering: how do I transform my anger into action? How do I let my fear and my indignation move through me and prepare me for the loving work that comes next in dismantling white supremacy?
Last night, as I considered the stress of this moment in our nation and of the whole past year in general, I shared with my sister something I’d learned about zebras in the wild. After a zebra has survived a predator’s attempt to chase, kill, and eat her, there is a mighty amount of residual adrenaline coursing through her body. So the zebra shakes – shakes and shakes and shakes every muscle until the trauma of the recent encounter has been digested by each cell. The zebra doesn’t shake off the stress – she shakes through it.
This afternoon, after a Zoom call with colleagues and students at the school where I work in which we processed yesterday’s events together, I went into my room and created this ritual space for myself:
- I closed the door. I looked to my window. And I began to shake my whole body.
- I shook my arms, my head, my legs – I tried to get every muscle involved.
- As I did so, I opened myself up to the fear and the anger I’d been trying to hold inside, and I let it shake around in the pit of my stomach. I named that fear and that anger to myself again and again. It almost felt like too much.
- Eventually, I was spent, out of breath. I sat down in my chair, breathing hard, still letting myself experience the fullness of my emotions.
- Once I caught my breath, I began to repeat an affirmation to myself. “I am not alone,” is what came to mind. I repeated the phrase with each deep breath in and out.
- As my breathing began to slow, I imagined threads connecting me to each person around me, to the earth beneath my feet, to my loved ones far away. The imagined shape began to resemble the mycelium networks that burrow through every inch of forest soil, connecting tree to tree. I let that image feel as real as possible. I considered if this is what the Holy Spirit is like.
- I wondered if there is an affirmation for us, together, not just for me. “We are grounded,” I said to myself, considering this web I held in my mind’s eye. And I felt my heartbeat slow. “We are grounded.”
- And then I asked if the Holy Spirit had a call or a summons for us in that moment. I felt the pull to root myself deeply in that connection I’d experienced. So I kept breathing into it.
Shake, feel, breathe, center, connect, listen – I plan to go through these steps as many times as needed in the days and weeks ahead. I am often so afraid of my anger becoming destructive that I never tap into the strength of its holy fire.
We will need a lot of holy fire as we continue the work of growing just communities. So I invite you zebra-shake with me, shake through your anger, and let yourself be grounded in the truth of our connection.
Due to the peculiar nature of layovers, my flight back to Chicago from Southern Oregon took me through Los Angeles. As we flew over the California coast, I saw billows of smoke rising into the air—evidence of the wildfires tearing their way across the dry ground. I was sad, even disturbed, by these fires; they poked at my desperate feelings about climate change and environmental preservation. But I was removed from them in every possible way, soaring miles above in a machine that only added fuel to the fire of the climate crisis.
Instead, my mind was on Oregon and the beautiful Rogue River Valley I’d left behind. I had been there for a storytelling training, once in March to begin and once in October to close out. The place had captivated me—three mountain ranges joined and merged at this valley, filling the horizon with sharp blue shadows. The terrain—the climate, even—varied depending on what side of the mountain you stood on, or how far up you were. I explored mossy creek gullies and snow-capped peaks, drove down winding roads through oak savannas and sat in quiet pine forests. I hiked up volcanic landscapes and watched the valley spread out beneath me. I loved the way the topography was open enough to be a like a map—I could see each landmark no matter where I was, miles and miles away, and hold the shape of the valley in my mind.
At night, I watched the mountain shadows fall over the pastures and vineyards, and I breathed in the smell of wood smoke. In the morning, I cut up pears grown nearby and saw the sun move over the Cascades. This place brought me such deep peace and gratitude.
Almost a year has passed since that trip, and we’ve circled back around to wildfire season again. I’ve watched with pity as the skies across Washington and California fill with smoke. I’ve wondered how long it will be before we finally take climate change and it’s exacerbating effects seriously. And then, this week, I saw the news on my facebook feed, echoed by the many friends I’d made in Oregon: the Rogue River Valley was burning. The fire was un-contained. The wind was whipping the flames past the farm I’d stayed at during both visits. A colleague’s house was burning down.
Pain filled my stomach. The images of towering flames caught my breath. I felt like I wanted to throw up. Helplessly, I listened to a live video as the firefighters named roads I knew and prepared to evacuate whole communities. In my mind’s eye, I could trace the path of the fire as it devoured that beautiful place. I cried. I railed. I was no longer in an airplane looking down at a distressed but unfamiliar landscape. I was all but choking on the ash made up from a place I loved.
We cannot save the world in the abstract. That’s not how we humans work. The word “courage” comes from the word “heart,” and we fight most fiercely for what we love. The magnitude of the ecological crisis we face—climate change, species loss, ocean acidification, melting glaciers, fiercer storms, degraded soil—it’s all too much. One brain cannot face the enormity of it all and still have the power to act.
So, instead, we must let little pieces of the miraculous world God so loves into our own unfathomable hearts. And it is then we witness how God’s own passion blazes within us, ready to travel through overwhelming grief and impossible odds to show us just how much we love the world, too. We feel our kinship with some small space on the planet, and we grow a determination to help that place flourish.
I can’t stop the fires scorching the beautiful Oregon valley that has captured my heart. Not a single one of us can clean up the whole ocean or reduce carbon emissions enough to make a difference. But because I have opened wide my heart to the love of God present in some small patch of God’s good creation, I will find the courage to love the earth well. To protect the places that bring me delight. To cultivate the imagination needed to envision new systems of energy and commerce. To re-align my rhythms with that of the place I call home. Even to let go of the possibility of ever visiting Oregon again, if that’s what it takes to protect what I love. If we are driven by fear, we will fail. When we are driven by love, that’s when miracles happen.
The change we seek won’t happen overnight, but, spurred by love and sought together, it will grow like fresh new plants after a forest fire—resilient and ready and bursting with hope.
My fellow white siblings, those who are seeking to root out racism, this is for you.
Maybe you’ve been engaged in anti-racist work for a long time. Maybe you have recently begun. No matter where you are in this life-long process, there is significant emotional work for white people to do as anti-racists, particularly at this time in our nation’s life. But as Jennifer Loubriel explains in this article, there are helpful and harmful ways to process our emotions; when we ask Black Americans to reveal our harmful habits or perform our emotional labor or carry our burdens, we perpetuate racial injustice. We need to know when to be silent.
At the same time, the legacy of white supremacy leaves us with little experience of healthy emotional expression. White supremacy, as a constructed system of thinking and behaving, has long privileged the mind over body and feeling and has denigrated outward expressions of emotional overwhelm. Don’t be sissy; hold up; keep a stiff upper lip; stop being hysterical; be rational; calm down–these are the messages we have internalized. I still learn everyday how to acknowledge and lean into my emotions. I haven’t had a lot of examples on how to do so, but I have seen the stunting, life-draining effects of shutting off and shutting down my emotional experience. We are bound to have a lot of feelings about racial injustice, white supremacy, and our own complicity. We need to know when to express our feelings.
And we also need to know how. The article linked above has some good tips on the when. So, my siblings, let’s talk about the supremely important “how.” I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here are some ideas to get us started.
Regular Emotional Practice
At the beginning of the year, I shared how I had developed a regular practice of expressing anger by setting an intention before I punched my bed pillows back into shape each morning. I’ve been grateful for this habit in our current stretched out season of plenty to be angry about; making a practice of anger means that I am learning how let my emotions move through me, how to let the anger rise and fall, how to trust that it will not consume me. Our culture labels emotions as “positive” and “negative,” but emotions don’t carry moral weight. They are neutral. And after years of suppressing them, it can be helpful to practice feeling them in ways that feel safe. Anger is one of my most difficult emotions, but perhaps yours is something else. What feelings have you been resisting or confused by as you’ve watched the news or learned about racism? Maybe you need to paint your sadness or wail your grief or break things in disappointment. Notice what emotion needs practice, and then discover a healthy, held way to embody it.
One thing Loubriel suggests is having a cohort of fellow anti-racist white folks to process with on a regular basis. We absolutely must connect across race and ethnicity, but we also need places where we can ask questions or process ideas that could be harmful to folks of color. Groups like this can take a variety of shapes. I know that my housemates, who are white, are loving, supportive, justice-seeking folks learning to interrogate their own privilege, and we can hold each other accountable. There are white folks in my worshiping community and my workplace who also challenge me and strengthen me and seek to live out anti-racist principles. I need the encouragement of all these folks to continue this counter-cultural work and face again and again the racism within myself.
Who are your partners? If you don’t have them, how can you find them? If you haven’t been able to find people nearby (or are simply dealing with the limits of pandemic social distancing), one online place you can check out is the community of folks at Energetic Justice.
During a workshop with Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, I encountered a ritual called the truth mandala. Go ahead and click that link–this is a moving practice of communal expression and particularly well-suited to the kinds of groups mentioned above. Engaging this practice with a group of people is not always an option, however, especially in our current pandemic experience. So here is how one might bring the wisdom of the truth mandala to a personal practice.
- Gather objects that have emotional resonance for you. In the truth mandala as described above, there is a stick for anger, a stone for fear, dry leaves for sorrow, and an unfilled bowl for emptiness. Whatever objects you choose, you should be able to hold and handle them, connecting your body to the experience of your emotion.
- Create a time and place where you will be uninterrupted. Set out your objects, and set aside all distractions: phone, computer, chores, books, to-do lists.
- Take several deep breaths. Notice where your body has tension. Notice the quality of your natural breathing. If you’re already feeling somewhat connected to your emotions, simply notice what emotions arise.
- If you’re feeling stuck in your head or unsure of how to connect to what you’ve been feeling, let your mind wander through the last several days and weeks and all we have witnessed. When have you wanted to look away? What images stick out to you? Where have you felt resistance or defensiveness? Sit with these memories and breathe through them, and welcome in whatever feelings come.
- Consider which of your chosen objects best represents the emotions you are experiencing. As you engage with the object, try speaking your feelings aloud. Don’t be afraid to voice feelings you feel ashamed of or to express confusion and contradiction. Release the need to judge or edit your emotional expression and simply sit with yourself.
- Give yourself a little more time than feels comfortable–stretch your limits a bit. When you feel like your expression has come to a close for now, do something that feels cleansing or hospitable to your body: take a bath, take a walk, drink a cup of tea, massage your hands, shake your limbs, dance to music.
I’m a little biased in favor of journaling as a practice of emotional release, as its something I’ve been doing for about two decades. Because I’m someone who is both an external processor and an introvert, journaling has been an invaluable practice contributing to my overall wellbeing. If you’re looking for specific prompts related to racial justice, this document contains some helpful questions towards the end (as well as a host of other resources).
Some writing practices I’m hoping to engage in the next couple weeks are writing letters: one to my ancestors and one to my descendants (or simply those who come after). In the letter to ancestors, you might consider these questions:
- What do you wish you could ask your ancestors?
- What legacies leave you feeling guilt and shame?
- What do you wish you could tell them about the present?
In a letter to future generations, you might consider:
- What do you want to confess about your current experience?
- What legacies do you hope to leave?
- What kind of world are you working for?
- Find a song that resonates with you–or better yet, a whole album. Dance to the song(s), letting your body’s movements enact what you’re feeling in this current moment.
- Sing–learn the words of songs that inspire you. For me, that’s songs like MaMuse’s We Shall Be Known, Ella’s Song sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock, and The Kingdom of God from the Community of Taizé. Learn the lyrics of your own meaningful songs and sing them when you don’t have words of your own.
- Admit when you’ve made a mistake–confession is healing for the soul and releases us from guilt. Not a single one of us will ever be a perfect anti-racist ally and accomplice. Confess your missteps (aloud is best!), open yourself to grace, and try again.
Anti-racism is a life-long commitment, and reconnecting with our emotions is ever-deepening work. Engaging in both opens us up to justice and joy in ways we could never imagine, and we are liberated to be fueled rather than hindered by all we feel.
I originally wrote this after the death of Terence Crutcher in 2016. It remains unfortunately relevant.
When they gunned God down on the side of the road,
they said God shouldn’t have moved his hands so much.
When they threw God in a prison cell for failing to signal at a turn,
they said she should have showed a little more respect.
When they shot God playing in a city park,
they said he looked so old, so threatening.
When they heard God lift up her voice to demand justice for her children,
they said she was too loud and shrill.
When they executed God in his own neighborhood,
they said he looked suspicious.
When they asked God who could throw the first stone,
he bent down in the sand to write us something.
We might know what it was if we hadn’t stopped him.
He was moving his hands too much.
If you do enough reading about Christian spiritual practices, you will inevitably come across writers waxing rapturous about about the daily discipline of reading and praying the Psalms. I’d been skeptical. There were some psalms, it was true, that resonated with me. Psalm 42 has been a favorite for decades. More than once I had turned to the Psalms in times of danger and found comfort there. But it was hard for me to imagine praying these often strange songs day-in and day-out.
I can’t remember what prompted me, but I finally decided to give it a try, reading 5 psalms each day for a month; there are 150 Psalms, so if you read 5 each day, you cycle through them all in a 30-day period. Much to my surprise, I kept to this practice for several months. In doing so, I discovered several aspects of this practice helped me connect best to this ancient prayer book.
First: I read them aloud. The Psalms are songs, written for public worship and expressive reading or singing. Reading a psalm to myself in my head was not easy to focus on, and I would feel my attention slipping, but reading them aloud highlighted the poetry and vibrancy of the language. It forced me to slow down, to contemplate the words, to let them find a place in the world. Sometimes my voice was barely a whisper, but the simple act of breathing the words gave them life.
Second: volume matters. I read 5 psalms every night before I went to bed. I didn’t get to skip any of them (not even the interminably long Psalm 119). Reading a greater number of psalms each day took the pressure off each chapter or verse; I knew that I would be moving through various emotions and experiences in each reading, and it was highly unlikely I would empathize with them all. So I stopped worrying about their emotional resonance and knew that, at some point, I would come across a phrase that felt like an earnest prayer. The rest didn’t have to be my prayer.
Which leads me to my third lesson: praying from the margins. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, when praying the Psalms, we can think of ourselves as joining our prayers to Christ, who prays them, too. I also imagined joining my voice to those who are in distress. When I was in Sierra Leone for several weeks as a teenager, a neighbor began trying to peek into our windows at night, and it was was terrifying. I remember sitting under my mosquito net one night, trying to calm my breathing, reading psalms about deliverance from enemies that I had never really connected to before. Outside this experience, I haven’t felt I needed those enemy psalms. However, when I began my Psalm-reading practice, it was month or so into President Trump’s new administration, and harm against immigrants was ramping up every week. So I imagined frightened families on the border calling out to God for rescue, and I tied my reading to their prayers. So many of these psalms suddenly became relevant, words I knew siblings across the globe were crying out in some way. Praying the Psalms was not about me. It was a way pray with God’s children pushed to the edges of world.
Fourth: repeat the cycle. By starting over again at Psalm 1 when I finished Psalm 150, my prayers took on the shape of a circle rather than a line. My evening prayers were not about reaching a particular destination but about relating to God and to the communion of saints in widely varying circumstances: praise, confusion, assurance, fear, hope. And then coming back to those places again, knowing that each was a part of the human experience. The Psalms and their language became familiar. I would sometimes find myself structuring my spontaneous prayer throughout the day in very psalm-y ways. These songs became a part of me, not simply words I read. Sometimes now I will read through just one psalm before going to bed, and it feels like the entirety of the collection is then invoked in me.
I continue to be surprised by how much this practice has changed my relationship to the Book of Psalms, to scripture in general, and to prayer itself. Perhaps you, too, have felt curious about praying the Psalms – if so, take whatever from these observations feels helpful and discover what your own practice looks like.
Yesterday I ventured to my favorite Evanston beach, longing for a sight of the wildflowers I knew would be there. I also walked along the shore and remembered a poem I had written last year about collecting sea glass in this season. Here it is.
Springtime is sea glass season.
when the ice floes have dissolved again into churning lake,
but new leaves are only a thought curled in a budding branch.
The freshly-freed pebbles cast shadows on the wet and gleaming sand,
and lying between them
are rounded, sanded shards:
creamy white, jade green, coffee brown,
a weathered but brilliant blue.
The foraging is not hard:
wander along the waves
(it’s best in rubber boots)
until a shining flash or impossible color
catches your eye;
scoop up the object, with as little sand as possible;
rinse if necessary,
and if the surface isn’t still cloudy when wet,
the sea glass is not yep ripe;
the edges should be smoothed,
like the pebbles at your feet.
If the sea glass is ready,
slip it into your pocket
to clink with all the other treasures there.
You’ll know you have enough
when your pockets weigh heavier than your boots.
But if the sea glass is not ready,
if the patina washes off with the sand,
or a lingering sharpness remains,
there is still a job to be done.
Gently bury the shard in the crunchy sand
or toss it with vigor into the waves.
The earth and the water will continue their work,
slowly wearing down the sharp edges
and the shiny surfaces,
the brokenness softening into pieces rounded enough to hold,
until something miraculous remains,
something that another beach-goer,
with pockets weighed down
and boots squelching,
will gather in
and carry home,
or throw back to the water,
to begin again
the journey to ripening.
When I was in college – when Facebook profiles still fit on one page and I tended toward a bleaker spirituality – my religious views on Facebook read: “We live in a Holy Saturday.” My point, I think, was to highlight the “already-not-yet” nature of Jesus’ beloved community, the waiting and unsureness we all feel when we are seeking God in the world. Today, it would be more accurate to say I believe we migrate through Holy Saturday, again and again, as part of our wrestling with the Divine. And right now, I think, many of us are camped in Holy Saturday, waiting, alone, not sure how to be hopeful.
I’ve often imagined what it would have felt like to be one of the women who followed Jesus, waiting for a whole sabbath day to anoint his body, sitting observantly still on the outside but tangled with fear and confusion and shock within. I’ve imagined a sort of heavy grayness, even on Holy Saturdays when the sun shines brightly. What would it feel like to believe that God had be executed, tortured, killed? To live without even an echo of resurrection?
When I walked to my congregation’s meeting house yesterday, preparing to set up the Zoom broadcast for our Good Friday service, I felt a profound sense of unreality. I couldn’t make my mind remember that I would be in the sanctuary alone, that my worship collaborators would be visible only through a screen, that every house I passed was filled with people sheltering in place, that New York had started digging mass graves for virus victims. I still felt numb when the service ended. I put away the worship elements in an empty building, and when I got home and climbed into bed, I tried to imagine what Easter could be. I cried. And I waited.
I was hoping, by the time I got to this point in writing this post, that I would have something profound to say. But I don’t. I just have emotions calling out past the numbness for expression. Anger at systems that have not prioritized the vulnerable. Grief for the many little normalcies my life has lost. Sadness for the people dying and mourning alone. Fear as I wonder what parts of our world will be resilient. There is no other call in this moment but the call to stillness, to sit with the reality of the world as fully as I can. The women who followed Jesus knew that their task with the jars of spices would wait. They all could wait.
Most of the theological explanations for what Jesus did on Saturday have focused on the “harrowing of hell,” a sort of final victory for Christ over the death-dealing powers of Satan. The Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus “descended into hell” as its only description of what happens on this strange Saturday. No one actually knows what happened. And knowing what happened, I think, is not the point. All we can know – what can give us consolation – is that whatever happened, Jesus was present in this day, in this unreal, isolated, waiting day. And Jesus is here with us still.