Sibongile means thanks

In 2009 I traveled to South Africa on pilgrimage. While there we visited several of what South Africans call “locations”. Locations are not to be confused with townships. Locations are simply vacant spots on the map where the apartheid government dumped black people to get them out of the way.

We visited one such location called Ezibeleni. We went there to visit a place where children orphaned by AIDS are tutored, learn life skills, and get a snack. It is called a “Safe Park” where kids can be safe for a while, before returning to parentless homes. The afternoon we were in Ezibeleni, the children and the adults that care for them taught us to play the xylophone and drums and to dance.

Among the dances is one that is usually done by girls. It is a sort of face-off between the two dancers who stare into each other’s eyes and hop on one leg while extending the other leg and wagging the lower part below the knee. If you think the description sounds awkward, try doing it. Needless to say, this is something that loose-limbed little girls excel at, but that is hard for adults to manage regardless of gender or athleticism.

Being guests we were each asked to take part in this dance. Fortunately I was not paired up with a little girl. Instead one of the female workers was my adversary/partner. We both did our middle-aged best, and in the midst of the dance someone snapped a photo.

I was not aware of the photo, until one day after we returned to Richmond much to my surprise I saw a huge version hanging in the parish house hallway. The photo captures the joy and abandon I felt in the moment. You see my partner/adversary from behind, but you can tell that she too is smiling and enjoying the absurdity of the moment.

When the missionaries with whom we traveled in South Africa came to visit Richmond one of them, Heidi, beckoned me to look at this photo. She told me that my dance partner had recently died of AIDS. As I looked at the photo I felt a curious mix of sadness and joy. I realized that I could not recall my dancer partner’s name. Heidi told me her first name was Sibongile, which means “thanks” and her last name was Breakfast. Sibongile Breakfast. What a wonderful name.

Since that day I have pondered our slim connection, my joy, and the sense of loss I feel. How is it that I can be so connected to someone whose name I did not know and with whom I interacted for only a minute over twelve years ago?

We meet so many people in our lives. So many of them we hardly recognize as individuals. They are cashiers, waiters, pedestrians, drivers, and shoppers. They are people certainly, but they are more part of the landscape than they are individuals. It feels demanding on my limited emotional resources to have to treat them all as persons just as beloved by God as I am. It feels easier to look through them and not let them all in.

What Sibongile reminds me is that letting people in does not diminish me, it enlarges me. My heart, my ability to love, does not get drained by letting others in, it gets filled. The more people I let in the door of my heart the larger my heart becomes. My heart does not become overcrowded and tight it becomes expansive. It is impossible to have too much love. I think that is what the psalmist meant when he wrote, “my cup runneth over.” More love in, more love going out and my heart remains full.

So even as I mourn Sibongile Breakfast, I also feel joy. I feel joy that she has gone on to larger life in Christ’s love. I feel joy that we had that moment of abandon together. I feel joy that she is in my heart forever.

What a friend we have

One of the many ways that people view Jesus is as friend. We sing hymns such as “What a friend we have in Jesus,” “In the garden,” and “Just a closer walk with Thee” where we express our desire to have an intimate relationship with Jesus. The songs express the yearning for time to walk with Jesus, to talk with Jesus, and to share our thoughts and hopes with Jesus. This desire for a deep personal relationship is essential for many Christians. 

It is also scriptural. For there are a number of times that Jesus expresses that his disciples, and by extension us, are his friends. Just last Sunday we read a passage from the Gospel of John where Jesus says:“You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”—John 15:14-15

A dear friend of mine, Br. Curtis Almquist of the Anglican monastic order The society of St. John the Evangelist, recently wrote, “Jesus calls us ‘friend.’ One of the wonderful things about speaking to a trusted friend is the freedom not to be guarded, to let whatever you need to say just tumble off your lips. A trusted friend will understand you; a trusted friend will not necessarily take everything you say literally, but rather, they will take it truly. They know you. We can take Jesus at his word, that he listens to you as a beloved friend. When you pray, don’t worry that you get it right; get it real. Jesus will get it right.”

Like some of you I sometimes worry about getting it right when talking with Jesus. I worry about speaking beautifully with psalm-like metaphors and in Elizabethan English. But as with any good friend Jesus is more interested in hearing from us than in how well we speak. Trying to get it right becomes a barrier to communication. Talk with Jesus like you used to talk with a sibling or friend at night. Remember how you would turn out the lights and then start talking. You could not see each other, but you could hear each other. Somehow the darkness made it safer or easier to talk frankly. Those conversations were always so good. Imagine Jesus in the other bunk and just talk. Allow for silence that you might hear what he has to say to you. His response may not be clear in the moment, but it will be in time.

Jesus calls you friend. Accept the invitation and live into it. We can have no better friend than him.

Surrender

Surrender. Now there is a scary word. To Americans surrender is anathema. Surrendering is for the weak of will and heart. Think about football the most American of pastimes and allegiances. You have certainly seen games where one side is getting blown out. There is no hope for a comeback or even making it a respectable loss. Yet the losing team continues to try while the announcers try to keep the viewer entertained with trivia. I think it would be better for everyone (except maybe the advertisers) if the losing team just conceded. But no, we never give up. They always have to give it that “good old college try.”

Mary and Joseph surrender to God’s will

But surrendering can mean something other than giving in to an opponent or an enemy. One definition of surrender is to “abandon oneself entirely to a powerful emotion or influence.” Love is one of those powerful emotions that we submit to. In the best o instances we abandon our ego and give up our self-interest to love. That can mean that we give up our personal plans for the benefit of a relationship. Many people, especially women, have given up careers for the benefit of a spouse. Many parents surrender hopes for their personal future in order to increase the possibilities for their children. Many people have given their lives in attempts to save others. I am reminded of the man who kept going back into the icy waters of the Potomac after the crash of the Air Florida flight 90 in January of 1982. And there are the people we see running towards disasters instead of away from them as on September 11, 2001 or the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. These are choices made out of love not out of weakness. It takes a strong person to put self aside for the benefit of another.

Then there is surrender to God. Once again that nasty word gets in the way. We refuse to surrender to anyone. Our ego faced with its submission, if not annihilation, resists. Yet, our Lord and Savior surrendered himself. Some of our greatest saints did likewise. No one would call Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Theresa of Avila, or Martin Luther King, Jr. weak. These women and men were far from meek and mild. Read about them or better yet read what they wrote. These were strong willed, passionate, self-assured people. There is not a weak one in the bunch, and each one submitted their selfhood, their individuality, and their ego to God’s will.

I suspect that it actually takes someone of true strength to submit fully to God. A weak person cannot do so. It is unfathomable to them to give over their self to someone or something else. True strength of character, spirit, and self is not afraid of being subsumed by something greater than itself. It is true not only of saints, but also of the ones that are called the Greatest Generation. These were people who struggled through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. These were people who gave themselves over to a cause greater than their individuality. It might have been love of family, love of freedom, or love of country. Whatever the motivation the love of something other than themself is what made them strong. It is what made it possible for them to make personal sacrifices for the good of something larger. 

This selflessness is possible for you and me as long as we do not give in to fear. As Shakespeare wrote we “screw our courage to the sticking place” committing ourselves to lives of submission to one greater than ourselves. It is one of the paradoxes of Christianity that there is strength in submission and there is victory in surrender; the surrender of Christ on the cross and of saints to the will of God. The minute the words surrender and submission start to get in the way, remind yourself that your strength is in your surrender to the Prince of Peace and submission to the God of love. Dying to self is the key to abundant life in this world and the world which is to come. 

The Peace of Joy

Every once in a while we run across a pithy saying that is more than an aphorism. That is what happened when I ran across this quotation from Anne Lamott.

“Peace is joy at rest. Joy is peace on its feet.”

We might be tempted to acknowledge that it sounds nice and move on. However, it the quote seems to beg the question how we define joy and peace. Joy and peace are words that get casually tossed about and sloganized. This obscures the deeper meaning of these words. We have Joy dishwashing liquid. No matter how great the dishwashing liquid is there is no way that it can make cleaning dirty dishes a joyful experience. An Almond Joy candy bar might give us a few minutes of pleasure and even happiness, but is that what joy is all about?

Peace Brand Rain Boots may keep our feet dry in a very colorful and stylish manner, but I doubt few people find the peace of God through them. Peace Frog is a hip line of beach gear, but does it provide a sense of unity with all humanity?

Joy and peace as Lamott expresses them have very profound meanings beyond what the consumer brands offer. Joy is a profound sense of connectedness with the Divine. It is also a sense of concord between our self and the world about us. Not necessarily that we are oblivious to the chaos and discord of the world, but we are not overwhelmed by it. We do not allow the world to upend our inner sense of solidarity with God. We can be uncomfortable, unhappy, in pain, or worried, and still be filled with joy. Joy is a state that we attain by communion with God. It is not transient unlike happiness and pleasure which are fleeting.

Joy takes work. It is not effortless and it does not just happen to us. Contemplative prayer and periods of solitude and silence are needed to obtain and maintain this inner state. The saints of the Church are those paragons whom we can study to see how they attained joy. Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, and John of the Cross are prime examples. Each in his or her way found joy that would override their illnesses, pains, doubts, and hardships. We are called to study them and learn from them as we seek joy.

Peace is the flipside of joy. Peace is not just the absence of conflict or a state of quietude. Indeed, true peace, God’s peace, can exist within turmoil, conflict and the noise of the world. To me peace is a by-product of joy. When we have joy in God we find the peace of heart and spirit that allows us to move through the melee that is modern life without being overturned by it or feeling the need to engage in it. It does not mean we ignore it, but anxiety and chaos do not have power over our spirit or interfere with our relationship to God.

So peace is joy in a state of restfulness. The joy I feel sitting in the woods listening to birds or on a busy street corner watching the frenzied world pass by without feeling the need to become part of it.

Joy is peace at work. It is as we like to say, being in the world but not of the world. It is being present and engaging life while carrying peace of heart and mind that keeps me centered in myself and in God. When we can attain this combination of joy and peace, peace and joy it is like when athletes say they are “in the zone.” Everything seems effortless, problems roll off, barriers are lowered, and life is no longer a struggle even when all around us are struggling.

Seek joy and peace and living in the God zone. They really is a game changer.

With a Gun

Last week I ended my reflection with a poem by e. e. cummings, “I thank you God for most this amazing.” That poem celebrated the natural wonder of the world as created by God. It is a most joyful poem using the kind of language that falls over itself in delight and ecstatic praise. The last two lines of the poem are

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Being awake and opened can be a blessing. It can also be frightening. For the ears of my ears and the eyes of my eyes are not only awake and opened to the beauty of the world, but also to the horrors of the world.

Among those horrors is gun violence. Nearly every day our ears and eyes are informed of yet another mass shooting. They have become so prevalent that the shooting and murder or injury of one individual is hardly news. Wikipedia lists twenty-one mass shootings in the US since Easter Day, including four on Easter Day itself.[1] These mass shooting have left thirty-seven people dead and seventy-four more injured. The locations are varied including Texas, Washington state, Michigan, Illinois, Tennessee, Indiana, and Connecticut. Many of the sites are urban, but there are suburban and rural sites as well.

In this Eastertide when we Christians are celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we are putting our fellow citizens in the tomb at an alarming rate. The rate is so profound that we are becoming numb to it. Mass shootings are still stories above the fold and at the top of the hour. I cringe to think that there will be a time soon when that will not be the case: a day when they have become so commonplace and routine that celebrity gossip, and articles such as “Glowing skin for your wedding day” will replace these tragedies as headlines.

We, as Christians who believe that life is a sacred gift from God and that every single human being is blessed with the indwelling of God, must stop acting as though our thoughts and prayers are adequate. We should be outraged that an industry focused on profits over public safety and the sanctity of human life has such a powerful hold on our lives.

When will our love of God and God’s commandments finally overcome the hollow marketing ploys of the gun runners? When will we actually live into the Good News of Jesus who said, “love your neighbor as yourself”? When will the Prince of Peace become nearer and dearer than profit at any cost? When will the sanctity and sacredness of life, including the lives of children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, coworkers, bystanders, and police officers finally matter more than corporate profits?

God is waiting for us to answer those questions. Until we as a society are willing to take firm action to deal with the epidemic of gun violence, we are just as complicit in the violation of God’s commandment not to commit murder as the one who pulls the trigger.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mass_shootings_in_the_United_States_in_2021

Most this Amazing Day

Photo by Carleigh Underwood

Hallelujah is a word that we do not often use outside of church. It is one of those words like tabernacle, amen, or oblation that reside in the church lexicon. Hallelujah is also one of the few words that has been borrowed from Hebrew into English. Hallelujah literally means “praise to Yah.” In Judaism the sacred name of God cannot be said in full, therefore Yah stands in for the full name YHWH/Yahweh.

Hallelujah–praise be to God. That is a typical shout of all Easter services. This is especially significant because we have not said Hallelujah or Alleluia for the entire season of Lent. We have buried that word under the Altar or in the garden. We raise it up with Jesus on Easter Day.

Not only is it fit for Easter Day it is also fit for this glorious season of spring. We see flowers blossoming, grass growing and trees budding. We hear birds chirping. There are longer days and life returning to the world around us. We can shout Hallelujah praise to God for the glory of resurrection of our Lord and the resurrection of the natural world. The dry leaves of last fall disintegrate into the earth nourishing new growth. Limbs that seemed dead burst forth in green, violet, yellow and pink. Nests that were abandoned during migration now house birds returning from their winter. Bees buzz as they zip from flower to flower taking up nectar to make honey. The world is alive again. 

Eastertide brings to mind a wonderful poem of e. e. cummings, “i thank you God for most this amazing.” Don’t just read it with your eyes. Say it out loud, shout it even, or whisper it if that feels right to you. However you say it, savor the words and enjoy the how the words play on your tongue and in your ear as they evoke the Resurrection of our Lord and the resurrection of the world around us. Revel in the “blue true dream of sky and … everything …which is yes.” Hallelujah!

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

“You Think This Happened Only Once and Long Ago?”


Good Friday is a curious day. When we read or hear the Gospel accounts everything, except for the crowds, seems so matter of fact. There is the rigged trial before the Sanhedrin, while just outside the chamber in the courtyard Peter denies even knowing Jesus. Then there is the transporting of Jesus to Pilate, then to Herod, then back to Pilate. Two men who are said to have despised each other, playing a game of political deference with a man’s life. Pilate questions Jesus and in this Gospel they have a bit of a philosophical discussion about truth. The whipping of Jesus is a formality. The Romans always did it before a crucifixion to weaken the one being put to death. The crown of thorns and purple robe may have been impromptu, but it is just the sort of thing that soldiers do to humiliate and dehumanize a prisoner before execution.

In John, the trip to Golgotha is uneventful. There are no jeering crowds. Jesus does not fall. He carries his cross through the crowded streets of Jerusalem, and no one seems to pay much attention. Once on the cross, Jesus resumes control of the situation. He speaks carefully to his mother and the disciple whom he loved. He does not express pain nor does he express anger at God. He stays in control to the last moment when he says “It is finished” and gives up his spirit.

Even those around him seem calm. Nicodemus who earlier had a discourse with Jesus at night, because he feared his fellow members of the Sanhedrin, comes out in the daylight and assists Joseph of Arimathea with the removal of the body from the cross and preparation for burial, using an extraordinary amount of spices. At this point everyone goes away in sorrow.

Whether we follow John’s account or the accounts of the other three evangelists we tend to think this is something that happened once and long ago.1 It is not. Christ is crucified every day. Christ is crucified when a girl is assaulted for going to school as Shamsia was in Afghanistan. Christ is crucified when the Rohingya people are persecuted by the Myanmar government. Christ is crucified when nations go to war, and innocents are slaughtered whether it is in Katyn, Poland, Oradour-sur-Glane, France, or My Lai, Vietnam. Whether it is Christians slaughtering Muslims during the crusades or Christians slaughtering Christians in Ireland and France and Switzerland over their ownership of Christ. Christ is crucified every time someone utters a racial slur, or when a child is terrorized by schoolmates for the color of his skin.

We do not seem to learn. The Crucifixion should have happened only once and long ago. Even if no one else learned the lesson of summary judgment and the brutality of capital punishment we who call ourselves Christians should have. We who know that our Lord and Savior was murdered by the religious and political powers of his day should know better, but we don’t. We just keep on keepin’ on with the same blind and brutal ways of our ancestors. It is true that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children. Until we can break the cycle of bloodlust, vengeance, and fear Good Friday will haunt us as it does each year. Only when we break that cycle will Good Friday truly be good and the darkness at noon will finally break through into glorious light for Jesus will never again be crucified in vain.

[1] Title borrowed from a poem by Marie Howe in her book The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: Poems©2008.

The Comfort of Silence

Yesterday we observed the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. Needless to say this was not a happy anniversary. One of the results of the lockdown was a dramatic drop in traffic on the roads and in the air. There was a wonderful byproduct to this drop in traffic—quiet. Without airplanes overhead, motorcycles thundering through town, and the day-to-day automobile and truck traffic the ambient noise level dropped. All of a sudden, it seemed like the birds, no longer competing with all of that noise, decided to chirp more often and for longer periods of time. The quiet was glorious, amazing, and at times a little eerie.

At first I think many folks relished the quiet as a lovely respite from the otherwise noisy world. However, as time went on we started to feel lonely and sought out sounds that reminded us of being normal. Also, as restrictions eased a bit, some of the traffic noise started coming back. Planes started flying into Dulles more frequently. Motorcyclists came back in droves and brought the sound of their exhaust with them. For merchants and restauranteurs those sounds might translate into the ring of the cash register. For others, birds included, it is the encroachment on our break from the noisy modern world.

What I am finding for myself and others is a craving for a return to periods of quiet. We cannot control the noise of the world around us, but, with some practice, we can control the noise in our heads. The constant chatter of the monkey brain or the cocktail party of voices that are our thoughts can be stilled. Religious folks of all stripes know this and seek this. By silencing these voices, we have the opportunity for the one true voice of God to break in and be discernable.

In recent years, what had been a spiritual practice of monks in the East and the West, has been popularized as mindfulness. That is the seeking of inner peace and calm through the stilling of the mind. In Christianity, this practice, as taught by the late Fr. Thomas Keating and the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, is called Contemplative Prayer. It is a simple practice, but like most simple practices it can be hard to master.

First, adopt a prayer word or phrase. This is something you chant silently to help clear your head of the other chatter. It is also the word that you use to bring yourself back to the center when you discover your mind has wandered off. The word can be simple such as surrender, be still, or a little more complex such as the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”)

Once you have a prayer word find a quiet and spare place to sit. While an icon or candle may be helpful, too much visual stimulation is counterproductive. Sit erect, not at attention just not slouching, with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Allow your hands to rest lightly in your lap. Focus on your candle or gently close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths in and out. Then really long deep breaths through your nose that expand your belly and chest. Exhale through your mouth slowly counting to ten. Do this several times (these are called cleansing breaths in yoga). Then begin silently chanting your prayer word or phrase.

You can allow the silent chanting to simply fade out as your mind calms. If you find your head chattering again return to your prayer word to calm things. Do not chastise yourself if you mind chatters. Do your best not to get frustrated. This is all part of the practice.

Start with five minutes of silence and gradually work up to twenty minutes. If you find yourself having trouble with a longer time then drop back. Like learning to run distances or lift weights we have to build up our prayer muscles slowly. Over time work up to two sessions a day of twenty minutes each. Once again be patient. One session of ten minutes is better than not doing this at all. I expect you will find yourself craving more silence as you feel the benefits of the experience seep into all parts of your life.

This practice can be done alone or in groups. It can be done at home, in a park, or in the church. Experiment with the location, time of day, and partners. If you are having trouble getting in tune with this let me know. We can set up a location for a group to meet or even have sessions via Zoom. I participate in a Zoom contemplative prayer session each week and find it very helpful.

Whatever you do find ways to cultivate silence in your life. You will find it transformative, healing, and you will be drawn closer to the heart of God.

Be Lent

As we finish the first full week of Lent, I hope that your intentions for this season, such as fasting, study, and prayer are taking hold and propelling you into a different spiritual place. Last week I advised taking some time to rest as we entered the season. We needed some time to clear our heads and hearts in order to get the most out of our Lenten disciplines. Now, like a hiker after a few days on the trail, we hope to be hitting our stride. What if we aren’t, then what do we do?

It may be that we needed more rest and more time for clearing our head. These past months have not been easy for anyone. The pall of the pandemic hangs over our heads. The newscasts with the daily and cumulative death tolls weighs us down. The illnesses of loved ones raise concern. The fear of catching the virus ourselves heightens our anxiety. That is just the pandemic.

This country and the world seem to be living through a liminal time. We are leaving something old and familiar behind and headed into something unknown. Even if the promise of the future is one of greater equality and justice for all, what do we have to give up to get there. We don’t know. We are hopeful, but even good change creates anxiety.

Lent is so important in times like these. Lent is a time of returning to God. The still small voice of God does not add another boom of burden and responsibility. Rather, like the comforting embrace of a mother, God soothes our hurts and pains. When we settle ourselves into God through prayer, meditation, or simple silence we can give up our worries and fears and place them in God’s care. There is nothing magical to this, it is like handing over a heavy package for another to handle. We feel lighter. We breathe easier. We stand straighter. We find our minds cleared.

I suggested giving up twenty minutes of screen time in exchange for twenty minutes of silence, meditation, or prayer as a Lenten discipline. This time of year one can easily sit at the window or even outdoors and contemplate nature. We can notice the trees budding, the daffodils peeking through the dead leaves or ice, the songs of birds as they return, the new slant to the sun, the whisper of clouds in the sky, and much more. The time spent in peace instead of in front of a screen will be restorative. Over the course of days you will find it easier to do and the rewards will be accumulating.

Perhaps instead of striding into Lent, we can sit our way into it. Perhaps the disciplines we set our sights on are not nearly as important as claiming peace and silence for our nourishment. Our good intentions may have revealed a deeper need to just be, rather than doing one more thing. Settle into being, it may be the most important journey you take this year.

Resting into Lent

Our first Lenten discipline may not seem like a discipline at all. It is rest. I can hear my conscience say, “But Lent is about doing something. I have to give up something or take on a new discipline.” This year let it be rest. We are so busy doing that we have little time for just being. Let us give up busyness and take on the discipline of rest.

When we rest we allow ourselves to breath. We allow our bodies to release the stress of daily life. We set aside chores for respite. We allow ourselves to feel our body, to hear our heart beat, to feel the intake of breath, the filling of our lungs, to work of our diaphragm, and the release of the breath back to the world.

Rest also allows us to relax our mind. Our brain is like a monkey in a cage jumping from side to side, bouncing off the floor and ceiling. It is responding to stimuli from all around us. It never has time to settle. Screens only make it worse as respond to rapid fire images, messages, and sounds assailing us from all around. Our brain needs time for peace, silence, observing the clouds or stars, and daydreaming to clear the clutter and rest.

Give yourself the gift of the discipline or rest this Lenten season. As you do you will find yourself refreshed in body and mind. You will also find that you are more attuned to your inner world and to God. Even God when the creation was finished allowed time to rest. That gift of rest was bestowed upon humanity in the form of Sabbath. Whether it is a weekly or daily discipline, Sabbath is an acknowledgment of God’s gift, and a celebration of God’s love for you just as you are, and you don’t have to do a single thing.