During my darkest depressions — when I sought to take my own life — I had no care about whether or not I was losing my mind. It was already gone and I didn’t possess the capacity to care even if I could. Learning about how being made in the image of God has traditionally meant the capacity for reason and self-awareness, my heart sinks into my stomach recalling the oceans of times I have not had either. Clearly, there were times I was not created in God’s image. I…lost it?
Yet even as I formulate these words on a blog, even as I exercise this odd capacity to not only receive this learning but articulate my response to it, I begin to understand how some ancient theologians, like Augustine, believed that the Imago Dei rested in the mind. God is immaterial as is the mind, thus the mind must be the most like God we are.
Yet for the mind to remain alive as the mind, it requires breath. It requires body. Pope Benedict suggested that everyone possesses the breath of God. From the beginning, we read of a Being who breathes into the nostrils of a pile of dirt and brings it life. As the body is returned into this concept of Imago Dei, the mind seems more proportionately relevant, neither greater than or less than the body. Powered by the breath of God rather than apart from it, my mind resonates within me like my heart beats — with proper time and rhythm, broken and fractured, but reflective wholly of God.
I my own life, moving from fundamentalist theology towards an expansive theology is more like a maze filled with tripwires and booby traps than a linear line. In the beginning, my sources of theology were Sunday school and church — both using the bible as the literal, inerrant word of God (sola Scriptura), and most evangelical churches I attended excluded all other historical writings as necessary for salvation.
My theology was also formed through family with a strong Salvation Army background, as well as Puritanism and pietistic traditions. While many churches we attended emphasized correct orthodoxy, my parents stressed right orthopraxy: social justice as a way of life was practiced far more at home than at church or at school (when I eventually began attending a Christian school). This became a juxtaposition of worlds as theologies of God, Jesus, salvation and justice collided between church and family.
As I moved away from the church, I sought theology in agnostic and secular humanist communities. While theology here was condescended to, in my experience, the reverence for community and nature was elevated thus furthering my journey with God in natural creation and God in science.
As I wandered into the Lutheran tradition, mysticism began to unfold to me in unexpected ways. I began to realize that both ritual-making and experiential spirituality were both languages I had been speaking for a long time, and have helped me begin to articulate my own theology as well as the impacts of other theologies have had on me.
I rather like the reality that you were born on September 10 in 1928 and I was born on September 08 in 1978. Not quite a perfect fifty year span, but two days shy is close enough for me to qualify it as a perfection.
I haven’t reached forty yet, so I can’t write a clever blog post asking how life has changed from your first fifty years on towards how things have changed to our shared forty. But thirty-nine is close enough for me to qualify it as perfection.
Now a question: did you ever feel like the first forty or fifty years of your life maybe was a bit of a lost time?
Let’s be fair: we can probably eliminate the first five years of life. I have rather distinct memories from that time, but I know many people who don’t. While I realize these are formative years — clearly not a waste of any time at all — most of what happens in our young lives happen TO us, rather than BECAUSE of us or our choices.
Heck, let’s knock off everything up until the age of eighteen. I know our brains aren’t matured yet, and it’s more than likely we both have already tried straining for our independence, worked to make memories as teenagers, and have experienced traumatic events that perhaps have grown us up faster than we’d liked. But it can act as a mutually agreeable barometer of adulthood for both us. Fair?
When you were eighteen, what did you hope life would be like by the time you were forty?
I planned to be married, have four children (a boy, a girl, and twins — a boy and a girl; while I know people can’t quite plan for these sorts of things so neatly, my newly minted adult self was pretty set on the balance).
I also planned to have five books published — I have one year (minus two days already) to meet that goal, and I don’t think seminary life is going to allow me the time to magically generate five illuminating volumes.
I planned to have opened a drop-in house where marginalized youth could come, find safety, meals, work with all kinds of artistic forms, practice spirituality, and create community. I’ve been close a few times, but it’s never really materialized.
All along, I’ve lived and worked in spaces that would bring me closer to these goals. And yet, I haven’t achieved or been given or ‘been blessed with’ any one of them. My life has not turned out at all how I planned it.
I could take up valuable time by explaining the intricacies about why these goals haven’t been achieved by this point in my life, but that would be, quite frankly, depressing. I would also like to avoid married parent-types who favour saying “But you were meant for something else!” (all the while still upholding marriage and family life as the single most holy form of connection with God there is).
“Loneliness is a taste of death.”
You were fifty when I born. Did you ever regret your life choices? Were you ever bitter about wanting other things for yourself, but were prevented from having them?
I’d like to think your answer would be a “both/and” answer, rather than an “either/or”.
I lived for eleven years in a small basement suite that afforded me more room than many people in the world experience, but less room (and almost zero natural sunlight) than other people in the world. In the summer, the air conditioning was luscious and natural. After long days with lots of people interaction, it became my Fortress of Solitude (do you even watch Superman?). I chose what I wanted to watch on Netflix, and was able to live unashamedly with my liking for horror and supernatural movies. I chose what to eat and when. I chose how messy the place became. I chose my schedule.
It wasn’t until this year that a trusted counsellor pointed out to me that I was exemplifying symptoms of human isolation: ongoing dysthymia with frequent bouts of deep depression, vitamin deficiencies, headaches, anxiety, paranoia (I mean, I HAD TO lock the world away a lot of the time because the world was DANGEROUS), withdrawal from others, skin and light sensitivities, and…loneliness.
Have you ever hated interacting the world so badly that you’ve had to hide on a daily basis, but battled with the inevitable loneliness that comes with such a protectionist lifestyle?
While the depression I was coming to understand better, I had not idea that my entire system was slowly dying away. I thought I had friendships, and then I didn’t. I had a vision of intimate friendship, and then…it wasn’t. Yet it was not really appropriate to talk about either: that little place was one of the few places I could afford to live and it was keeping a dry roof over my head. Who was I to complain?
I’m not complaining about the basement suite. I’m only sharing the effects it had on me living there for over a decade by myself as I watched the years go by without any sign of any dreams emerging. Someone else may have had entirely different responses and experiences.
Yet it wasn’t until I was forced to move out and began living in even smaller spaces still, but places with sunlight and fresh air, that I felt myself perking up if you will. My breathing deepened. My skin felt hungry for sunlight and my system actually wanted it. Whereas before, I knew I was hungry for the sun but had no drive to bundle up, go out, and be in public spaces just to soak in needed vitamin D.
Even in staying with my parents or living in shared quarters at seminary, I’ve noticed just how far from community I’ve been. I never had to make dinner conversation. Who was there to talk to? I already knew what happened in my own day. Even before the basement suite, I lived the majority of my adult life alone. How is it you and your family find things to talk about all the time at meals? It mystifies me!
All this to say…I’m training to become a pastor now. I feel like I’m actually stepping into life for the first time. Truly, I may have been in step all along but there was always a darkness, always a desire just out of reach that I worked hard for or prayed for that never materialized, always doors closed. I was stuck.
Maybe it really did have to be God yanking me out by my roots because God knew that I would never have the strength to do so myself, wanting to preserve what little I had.
I’m likely never going to have my boy, my girl, and my twins. That grief is going to be a long-lasting one which people will need to be patient with me over. However, as the fog of isolation clears, writing books is still a vibrant possibility as are relationships. Stepping into formal ministry might give me all sorts of possibilities to live into a community house dream for youth.
You’re smiling right now, aren’t you?
The isolated person dreaming of community.
Now isn’t that just precisely what you write about that warms your heart?
I’m writing this in response to the Nashville Statement, a pernicious manifesto issued today by a coalition of conservative Evangelical Christians. In a season when the church could be speaking out against White supremacy, agitating for peace in a troubled world, finally getting some clean water for Flint, and mobilizing to help after Hurricane Harvey, they felt it was instead the time to reiterate their condemnation of LGBTQIA+ people and to be particularly specific in their disdain for trans* people.
Now, my Church people, some of you make space for your LGBTQIA+ siblings; we can really be part of the body of Christ with you. Some of you think you do it, but maybe you stopped at making a statement without doing any further work to figure out what might make us feel welcome to do things beyond coming to worship, or worry that if you…
“Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.” ~Jean Vanier, Becoming Human
After a 4:30am wakeup call, driving to Calgary, flying to San Francisco, having a late dinner, and then having a restless sleep, I needed to walk the Land’s End Labyrinth. I needed sacred space. I needed quiet. I needed to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. I could worry about my sermon for my sister’s wedding later. Today, I needed to wander through a labyrinth at the end of the world.
I needed Land’s End. I needed to be away. But as my parents and I neared this portion of the Coastal Trail, there were more people instead of less.
My tension was rising instead of falling.
My life has recently taken some dramatic turns, including losing my job, my income, my apartment, and my community. Some of these changes were in the name of finishing any required seminary classes before leaving on my internship; but others were not. Even now, I’m unsure as to how these unforeseen griefs will live their lives within me. I wish they would simply vanish.
As I scrambled down the dusty path to cliffs over the Pacific Ocean, I rounded the bluff to finally see Land’s End – that sacred space where people walked in silence above the great endless blue yonder.
Except people weren’t walking in silence. One group of women in the centre of the labyrinth were holding out a selfie stick practicing their duck faces; kids were squealing as they slid down the bluff; and other people were literally hopping over and around the labyrinth with their devices, cutting off the few of us who were there to actually walk it.
(Deep breath, Erin. Deep breath. Not everyone knows what it means to do a labyrinth walk. Simply begin and keep to yourself.)
Almost immediately, a crazed girl of about eleven or twelve smashed into me on her way running around the opposite direction. She looked at me, hands on her hips, as if to say “Are you going to move or what?” I stepped aside and she kept running.
I have worked with, walked with, cared for, and engaged children and youth my entire life and never had I been so close as to physically picking up a child and removing her from the area entirely. I’m all for family-friendly venues. Kids need to run and play! But there is a time for running and playing, and a time for children to learn that joy and depth can be found in learning spiritual disciplines.
As I was trying to catch my anger, her little sister also ran into me. Only she ignored my frustration completely and kept running after her older sibling who was yelling “Daddy, take a picture of me! Take a picture!”
I looked over to see their dad with his selfie stick standing at the edge of the cliff, snapping photos of himself in different poses. Judgment rising past my breaking point, I chose to keep walking. One foot in front of the other. Oh, that the story ended there.
That same father turned to his daughters, stepped across the labyrinth’s stone markers, stopped me and asked if I would take a picture. I’m not sure if he saw or understood the look on my face. If he did, he would have perceived that his interruption was not being received well. Couldn’t he tell that I was trying to actually use the labyrinth for what it was actually intended for? Couldn’t he tell I needed quiet, holy space? However, what good would it have done them if I had lectured them?
I took his phone and snapped a few pictures of him and his daughters facing the ocean.
They thanked me and moved on. I returned to my place in the labyrinth – or what I thought was my place in the labyrinth – and found myself exiting the entire thing within thirty seconds. I had returned to the wrong path. I tried repeatedly finding the right away again, but I kept getting turned around and shoved out.
(Good job, Erin. You did something nice for an obnoxious group of people and you got dinged for it.)
Exhausted, grieving over multiple losses, and frustrated at the sheer mountain of ignorance for spiritual disciplines, I was ready to give up. Clearly this labyrinth was being gobbled up just like any other sacred space: it was a haven for consumers, selfies, and loudness.
I love contemplative photography (as you can see), but the ignorance of sacred space I was witnessing at Land’s End was staggering. It was then my mother came up behind me and simply asked “Would you like to follow me now?”
Thank God for wise and patient mothers.
One foot in front of the other, we twisted and turned, breathed in and out, stared out over the great blue yonder, and finally exited the labyrinth.
I stood there and wondered: Just what is being held in this thin space? “Let the little children come to me” (by conceding that kids should be able to run and giggle and go wild at all times as they seek God?); or “Let the little children come to me” (by offering ways children can engage spiritual disciplines as ways of connecting with God); or “Come to me all who are weary and burdened…” (learning to find rest within the literal tumult that refuses to cease?).
They all seemed to resonate somehow.
My mother then offered her take on my story, suggesting that I entered the labyrinth needing some very valid things, but I was interrupted by the needs of another. In stopping to attend to those needs of the other – one whom I had already developed an irritation for – I lost my way, and I couldn’t find it again. When my mother came up behind me, my journey was re-oriented and I walked the whole way. The entire journey didn’t turn out as I’d planned, but it gave me the unexpected.
Which narrative will I choose to tell when I recount this story?
It seems to me that I even though I have a choice about how I tell others what happened, all interpretative strands of this event will still influence me. I might forget to share how genuinely angry I was at a small child, or I might emphasize the need for parents to teach their children spiritual disciplines. But these choices don’t have the power to stop the other echoes bouncing around the story. One day, there will be a need for each narrative to be heard loudly and strongly.
As I sit here and watch the horrors of Charlottesville, I can’t help but wonder how many strands of multiple narratives are echoing around us all. We are hearing but a few strands. There are most assuredly more. I must then ask of myself: Which echoes am I drowning? Whose interpretation am I not paying attention to? Who has been forced into silence?
As I opened myself up to the multiple perspectives I could take on my Land’s End experience, I began to realize that one singular narrative even within myself can limit me or limit someone else’s interaction with me. If I dare to be awakened to the many echoes of even one event in my life, perspectives suddenly have the possibility of blowing my world wide open.
Even during a time of grief and pain, what miracles can now happen in my wide open world?
I attended my friend Bev’s ordination service yesterday. Everywhere were symbols of life, service, sacrament, and ministry. There was music from all sorts of traditions, a drumming circle, children waving ribbons, prayers, candles, stones, and (of course) the sharing of The Table. It was a powerful and remarkable service, each element its own vocal reminder of one aspect of life together with God.
As I sat there watching the ceremony, I began to smell something strong wafting through the sanctuary. It was the unmistakable smell universal to churches, community halls, and kitchens alike: buns and chili.
No matter where I’ve travelled in North America, every church potluck has a few forms of bread — some baked onsite — and at least one crockpot of chili kept bubbling hot until ravenous parishioners join together after all official proceedings are done and we all dig in. More than a few of these get-togethers see multiple crockpots set up around church kitchens and fellowship halls, all sharing any available electrical outlets. At least one brave soul remains in the kitchen during the service to stir any stews, soups, or gravies sitting on hot stove elements.
Brewing coffee only strengthens the smell of baking bread and simmering stews. Even if there isn’t “chili” specifically, or if breads have been baked ahead of time, there is always that warm, delicious smell of shared-food-to-come. It is distinct. You can’t miss it. It makes my mouth water even if I’m not hungry.
The smell also evokes in me the taste of “church juice” — juice made with Tang crystals (or a no named version thereof). Every church I’ve attended or visited has at least one package of church juice hiding in the cupboards. Usually there would be a jug of orange flavour and a jug of grape. Peach flavour would be served on special days. So as a kid, along with chili and bread, I could be reassured that I would also be entreated to a straight up liquid sugar rush.
Whether it was intentional or not, Bev’s service contained the smell of welcome and of sharing. It beckoned people to stay and visit, to be refreshed, to celebrate, and to break bread together. Many hands — young and old — had taken time to produce (ooohhhh this is the time of year for produce!), prepare, cook, and share dishes of all kinds, sandwiches, desserts. And more hands still stirred juice and brewed coffee and tea.
All of these delights could be smelled during the singing of hymns, the readings, and the laying on of hands. This beautiful idea of bringing together humble food for everyone to share wafted across each and every portion of the service. It became the air we breathed — another shared experience — and reminded me of our shared need to breathe and our shared need to eat and to drink.
It reminded me of our shared need to share.
I’ve lived my entire life in church culture, and I know that, for many people, church potlucks are the only community meals they are able to attend. For some, these are the only places they’ve been welcome to participate in. The come for the community of friendship as well as the community of feasting, the ministry of presence as well as the ministry of food.
While visiting and laughing are huge, integral parts of breaking bread, I often find myself far more nourished holding back and watching people engage in this breaking of bread and life together – chili as a form of mutual love and respect. It’s quite a spectacular thing to bear witness to: people being nourished by God and one another in body, mind, spirit and connection.
When I finally arrived home last evening – well after midnight – I looked up was speechless witnessing the enormous starry sky. The crescent moon hung low over the horizon, so the stars dominated the darkness. It never ceases to amaze me how such small lights can overwhelm a dark world when one big bright light moves out of the way a little bit.
The smell of chili and buns during Bev’s ordination reminded me a little bit of this starry brilliant universe: when the big stuff moves out of the way, we can see the billions of lives coming together to create something powerful, wonderful, and nourishing. The many hands, the many recipes, even the ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ moments all come together and become an entire array of life-giving-life and life-giving-to-life.
Next time you’re sitting in church or a club meeting or a retreat and there’s a potluck afterwards, take a break from the sermon (not too long, ha!) and inhale deeply. Take a good long sniff of what’s wafting on the air.
What good is sitting in silence for 30 minutes of contemplative prayer every day going to do when there are racist groups in our communities?
It’s a fair question that I have pondered very often. I have a few responses:
Contemplation changes us into compassionate people.
Contemplation can help those in the grip of hate face their false selves—the false selves that drive so much of their hatred.
Contemplation re-centers us in God’s generative love for us and for other people.
Mind you, I’m saying that contemplation can “help” as one part of a larger action plan. I don’t want to oversell this here. Meditation and prayer have long been viewed as integral parts of Christian social justice work. Some groups make them essential aspects that members agree to incorporate into their daily lives.
When I have encountered hate speech or hateful events in the news, they can…