Words of Assurance

While words of assurance often come after a prayer of confession, I think there’s a place for them to stand on their own in personal and communal worship. What I offer here is one of those times.

Little one
During a “remote retreat” this past week, the person facilitating encouraged my fellow retreatants and me to consider imagining a “Sacred Naming” for ourselves – adding a word or short phrase to our names to remind us of the immense grace we are extended.  This could function, she said, as a way to break the cycles of negative self-talk. Just an hour prior to hearing this idea, I was caught in my mind’s own loop of shame, and in a moment of mercy, I heard myself saying, “Oh, baby girl, you’re okay. Just let go.”

Now, those of you who know me will know that this–”baby girl”–is not Valerie language at all. As the words tumbled out of my mouth, I was caught off-guard, but it was exactly what I needed in the moment–I needed comfort, I needed to be reminded that I could let go.  When the retreat director shared the idea of Sacred Naming, I knew I had already found what God’s Spirit had named me: Baby Girl.  (Even if I roll my eyes a little at the thought…)

That’s where “little one” comes into these words of assurance. Perhaps “beloved,” “blessed,” or “my child” fits you better.  What is your Sacred Name?

Be at peace
The words, “be at peace,” were written to me on the same day, with similar effect. I had asked to let go of something I could not hold, to be released from an expectation that was painful. In response, these three little words offered me grace and a blessing.  A commissioning with kindness. I could not have asked for a cleaner cut. (Of course, I also instantly thought of this clip from Return of the King, when Aragorn releases the Army of the Dead, using the same three words.) 

What blessing do you need to hear?

Words of Assurance
This is what words of assurance are at their best: they share a loving truth about us and they speak to us with a kind commissioning.

Rest, little one.
Be at peace.

I see your bleary eyes, your tense shoulders.
            the knots that trace your spine, from your neck to your tailbone.
I love those eyes, those shoulders, that spine.
You’re beautiful.

Time rushes by in a whirlwind –
            five hours later and you’ve written only a handful of sentences,
            labored over each word, frequent sighs, wringing your hands,
            wondering if they ever give epidurals
            for the pain of the soul.
            I labor with you.

You’ve lit a candle today, hoping to be reminded of me,
            and that I am with you.
            I am.
            I am the Hope and the Flame.

You wonder if you’re enough,
            if you’ve tried hard enough,
            if there’s enough of you to go around.
            You are enough.
            And you’re human. You’re finite. You’re okay.

I watch you curl up, and then unfurl your limbs,
            aching for contact. To be held.
            Have you seen the sun-warmed grass outside?
            The grass and I–we will hold you.

Oh yes, little one, I know. My heart aches with you.
You are weighed down by many things.
There is only one thing you need to do:

Rest, little one.
Be at peace. I love you.

Becoming Indigenous: Earth Day 2020

Though I am a professed ecofeminist, I’ll admit I missed most of the reminders that Earth Day was coming up . . . There are so many other good things and hard things in our world right now, and they are all valiantly attempting to regain our attention by piercing through the covid-haze. 

Yet what I haven’t missed are the clear reminders of how much human beings need one another in these days of social distancing.  Articles, posts, and the plethora of friend-and-family Zoom calls are encouraging connections, antidotes to the strain on our mental and spiritual health. Now, on Earth Day, I wonder: can humans extend this awareness to how much we need the Earth? 

Over the last month or two, I’ve been savoring Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plantsby Robin Wall Kimmerer. The book reads like a devotional, each chapter offering enough profound thought for a few days. And Kimmerer invites the reader, sometimes bluntly and sometimes gently, to root deeply in the land, to see our relationship with the land as one of reciprocity, and to see the land’s necessary role in our communal healing and well-being.

My partner, dog, and I moved partway across the country six months ago for me to begin ministering at Madison Mennonite. I was just getting into my groove and starting to send down roots when COVID-19 hit.  As I read Braiding Sweetgrass, I have felt keenly just how shallow my roots here are, which makes sense – we’ve just been transplanted into Wisconsin soil.  And while I feel solid connections with the humans of my church and neighborhood, I’m still searching on this Earth Day for a connection with the land.

Kimmerer notes that white Americans have a sort of “pathology of homelessness.”  We lack a sense of being rooted here (in the U.S.) and to the land, as if we have some subconscious nostalgia for the “old world.”  Like our forebears, we live as though we have “one foot on the shore, one foot on the boat” – neither here nor there, forever restless, discontented, and with insatiable needs that come with our roots being shallow. She writes, “For the sake of the people and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place. But can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying?”*

Diana Butler Bass, in Grounded: Finding God in the World, notes that she believes that some of our restlessness and rootless-ness comes from our deficiency of knowing the stories of our ancestors. Our realities are bound only to that which we know and have experienced ourselves; white folks live with little thought of our history—the way it has formed (and malformed) us—and even less thought of a future beyond us.  We’ve become, as Bass writes, “nomads in time,” untethered from a bigger purpose or identity.**

These deficiencies and pathologies impact both our spiritual rootedness and our relationship with the land and other living things.  This isn’t breaking news; we’ve long known of humanity’s betrayal—its violations—of the land’s trust and love. The stories fill our sacred texts and our history books. 

Still, the earth gives and gives and gives, like a mother.  Humans have chosen one day, Earth Day, to remember, to say thanks, to offer some ceremonial nod as a show of reciprocity. It’s hard to believe this is sufficient for truly and deeply honoring the source of all life – the Earth, which is also the Body of Christ.***

Kimmerer would suggest that the invitation of the land (and I would add, the invitation of the Body of Christ) is to “become indigenous” to the land, fully engaging and rooting our souls into the earth.  And not because we want to consume it or profit from it, but because we want to honor it in the same way it honors us.  The land needs us to root, to make a home on it –that is core to the meaning of reciprocity. 

“To become indigenous is to grow the circle of healing to include all of Creation,” Kimmerer says.**** What does it mean for you, for us, to become indigenous to the places we call home?  How can we sink our roots deep into the humus, recognizing that we do so not just to be fed, but so that we can participate in a reciprocal relationship with the land and other life? 

May this Earth Day be the first of many holy days in which I and we put both feet firmly on the soil of our gardens, rooting with love and mutuality on the earth we call home.

*Kimmerer, 207
**Bass, 141.
***This idea has been developed elsewhere by women theologians of the Global South, and perhaps will make its way into a future post.
****Kimmerer, 212.

The Rise of the Collective

Part 1: The Fall of the Empire?

A long time ago (mid-2000s), in a galaxy far, far away (Harrisonburg, VA), I was approaching college graduation. As a part of my senior capstone course, our sociology professor took us across the city to the Other University (James Madison University) for a lecture.

I remember two main things from that lecture (which is saying something…): first, the presenter was Johan Galtung, a world-renowned sociologist, “principle founder of peace and justice studies”; second, he was known for making significant socio-political predictions, including predicting the fall of the Soviet Union. In the lecture I attended, Galtun predicted that by 2020, the U.S. empire would collapse, and we would cease being the most powerful nation in the world. (In the lecture, he also discussed various other nations or groups that might or might not assume world dominance, and while that’s worth talking about, that’s not the focus of this post or my thinking.)

Obviously, Galtung’s message resonated with me and my Anabaptist skepticism about imperial power and exploitative economic structures. With recent elections, including the 2016 presidential election, these predictions seemed to be coming true as social and political forces seemed to be ballooning, dividing the social fabric of the country. And then came the global, life-shaping, structure-rattling, humanity-testing experiences of COVID-19 (with no end in sight). These emerging realities tapped into the memory of the lecture, and I am left feeling both great pain and great hope.

Part 2: Nothing New Under the Sun

Many of you may have read this article by Julio Vincent Gambuto on “preparing to be gaslighted” as the world is desperate to “return to normal.” (Gambuto defines gaslighting as, “manipulation into doubting your own sanity.” It’s a subtle form of grooming, often with the intent to have control over another person without their realizing it.) I thought the article was powerful and persuasive, and I agree wholeheartedly that we should resist the temptation to forget–or be convinced to forget–what we have seen in these strange days of late, in order to return to “comfortable” old norms and ways of being…where we sacrifice control for perceived comfort.

But isn’t part of what we’re seeing right now the reality that we’ve already been gaslighted? And when I say “we,” I mean mostly white folks. And maybe especially, white women. Following the 2016 election, vast numbers of white moderates and white folks on the left were astounded at the results, and the collective rage was palpable. Suddenly white folks had to face the fact that white supremacist patriarchy was truly alive and well, that capitalism was not benefitting the masses, that our communities were still segregated and divided. The gaslighting isn’t going to start now for the first time, it will simply be restarted.

I can’t deny that there is a significant part of me that celebrates the crumbling of the U.S. Empire. This celebration-of-sorts comes with the full prior knowledge that the pain of the crumbling will be borne by the very same backs upon which the Empire built itself through terror and violence: People of Color, under-developed urban and rural communities, and the Earth itself. Meanwhile, those who have benefitted from and perpetuated the vast inequalities inherent in the empire will be suffered and walk away largely unscathed.

Part 3: Why I Still Hope

A friend and I were recently discussing ‘survival of the fittest,’ and how it is that Homo sapiens exist, while many other human species went extinct. On the one hand, there is ‘power over’ and ‘aggression’ (e.g. Homo sapiens may have wiped out Neanderthals because we were more violent). On the other hand, we have ‘altruism,’ ‘cooperation,’ and the like that allowed communities to survive through collaboration. The human psyche, I would argue, thrives in the second type of community, and in full disclosure (because I am a pastor, after all), aligns with my understanding of Jesus’ teachings of loving our neighbors.

So, in a time where some are turning to Nationalism and Isolationism out of fear, still trapped in a paradigm of Individualism and Social Darwinism, I am hopeful because of what I see all around me. I celebrate the way our communities are suddenly collaborating more effectively. I celebrate the way our communities are becoming more creative in responding to the needs of one another. I celebrate the resiliency that communities are building to weather all sorts of things for the future. I celebrate that more white folks are waking up to the horrendous inequalities experienced by our siblings of color. I also celebrate that as the Empire falls, the Earth and its other inhabitants are rebounding and taking their own collective deep breath.

My hope lies in our choice to respond to this global, normative-rupturing event out of Love and Hope rather than fear. We can choose to build—not destroy—our capacity to collaborate and communicate locally, nationally, and internationally. To strengthen and support grassroots, resilient structures and organizations rather than top-down corporations. To put our resources into infrastructure that supports human flourishing rather than weapons of human destruction. To put our hope in truer democracies rather than more powerful figureheads. To live as though the kin-dom of God was possible. Here and now.

Where the Empire crumbles, the Collective can rise. Galtung’s prediction may have sounded a doomsday death knell for those who rely on the subjugation and oppression of others in order to “survive;” to those who want to see the thriving of the nations and of the earth, it was a beacon of hope.

At least, I hope so.

Digital image: Abby Bush-Wilder

Celebrating Easter-in-place

The last few weeks, I and other church leaders around the globe have been scrambling to answer the question: In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, can we still celebrate Easter on April 12? If so, can we also celebrate Eucharist?

I’ve heard varying responses from colleagues — some want to wait to celebrate Easter fully until their churches can meet in person again. Others are going ahead with both Easter and the Eucharist. Thankfully, I work and worship in a denomination that, for better or worse, allows congregations to discern for themselves how to answer questions like these.

Disclaimer: I’ve felt from the start that we’re going to need to celebrate Easter, regardless of the pandemic. And celebrating Eucharist is a critical part of celebrating Easter. So, I set my sights on Madison Mennonite celebrating Easter and Eucharist, however much we could, on April 12. But I continued to ponder this dilemma, wondering if our lives are too fundamentally altered by social distancing and isolating to fully enter into the Easter story. Do we miss the meaning of Eucharist if we are physically separated?

So I sat down and re-read the gospel text for Sunday. There were some hints there that pointed to, “yes, we can celebrate Easter and Eucharist.”* Easter is, among many things, God’s defeat over death and violence. We can still celebrate that fully, even in our virtual gatherings. But Eucharist? For that, I read a bit further and was finally convinced that the chaos that led the disciples to shelter-in-place mirrors the chaos of our own pandemic quarantines–chaos into which Christ still shows up. What’s more, our current reality could actually lend itself to a deeper, transformational understanding of the Eucharist than we’ve known before.

In John 20:19-23, we read that Jesus, in his resurrected power, is not deterred by locked doors. The doors, whether locked because of fear or because of quarantines, are no match for the impulse of the resurrection. John writes in 20:19-20, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

Even when our doors are shut tight, whether from fear or out of love for our neighbors, Christ shows up where we are at and extends his peace to us. This undeniably points us to the “yes” of celebrating Easter and Eucharist together. At Madison Mennonite, we already celebrate an open table, proclaiming that the thanksgiving feast is for all who want to draw near to Christ. Now, in the resurrection, when Christ draws near to us, isolated though we are, should we refuse him and deny his presence? Ask him if he didn’t see the sign to “keep out”? Just as we resist policing the Eucharist, we proclaim, even in these strange times, that the Table is not made holy by the building we celebrate it in, nor that the Table itself is singular and particular. Yes, it is more joyous to celebrate Eucharist in the company of others, and we will do this, as far as it is possible, on Easter at Madison Mennonite; yet this Sunday, instead of gathering around one table in our sanctuary, I celebrate that every table in the homes of Madison Mennonites will become an altar, a testament to the God whose shalom-filled love can be found anywhere.

“Where two or three are gathered” in Christ’s name includes our virtual gatherings where folks meet around screens and fumble to mute and unmute. It includes our messy kitchen tables with juice splatters and cracker crumbs. It includes all of creation, springing alive and singing new songs. Thanks be to God!

Fullness of the Tomb by Lauren Wright Pittman | A Sanctified Art | asanctifiedart.org

*The earlier readings of John 20:1-18 shore up the argument of this post. First, there is, of course, the confusion and disorientation of the empty tomb. While we don’t typically equate our church sanctuaries with the tomb, this year is different. As many have already noted, to gather in-person in our churches on Easter could bring about unfortunate, heartbreaking, and unnecessary death. As hard and confusing as it is to not hold Easter in our beloved sanctuaries, this is the decision that leads to life — and, potentially, to new revelations.

Second, having seen the empty tomb, the “disciples returned to their homes.” (John 20:10) Like the disciples of John’s gospel, we will largely celebrate Easter this year at home, without the usual pleasures of family or community gatherings. Many of us will need to “wait” to understand what it means for Christ to be resurrected — both as we wait to celebrate being the Body of Christ together again and more broadly, as we encounter Jesus at different times in our lives and through various means.

Third, like Mary Magdalene, we are invited to remain present to the disorientation of the empty tomb, listening for the voice of the Gardener. I am struck again and again at the intimacy of the moments in John where Jesus speaks one-on-one with the women who love him. Perhaps this year, the invitation is to listen for the way the Gardener speaks to each one of us, unmediated by priests, pastors, or liturgists. In the Anabaptist tradition, we profess to believe that, through the Spirit, all are united directly with Christ and do not need a mediator. Can we trust this year that Christ speaks to us, personally if we stay present to listen?