Sunday, March 19, 2017

Words into Action

I've been praying this winter to listen better to voices not easy to hear, to wisdom not always wanted.

I've been praying for a country in turmoil, for friends living in fear, for my own complicity in a culture that listens too easily to comfortable lies.

As part of that longing to listen more fully, I've turned back to the practice of journaling prayer.

Written prayer was a constant in my years of youth ministry, but more recently I'd let it slide. 

This winter, I took it up again.

I start the day with scripture, then prayer, writing down what comes to mind, pausing to put my prayer in words.

It helps me listen better: to scripture, to the quiet voice of the Spirit, to my own inner conflicts and confusions.

For 15 years, our cat, Princess Fiona, sat beside me in my morning reading and prayer, on my lap if I'd allow it, more often curled against my leg.

This winter, she seemed to stop eating, stopped asking to go out for her evening stroll, stopped jumping up to sit beside me. Still, I'd lift her up, run my hand over her bony back, watch her settle carefully beside me.

One morning, amid prayer about the challenges of the day, I wrote this: "Fiona - Lord, release poor Fiona. Give her little body release and rest." My prayer went on, followed by a long and busy day.

That evening, Fiona was missing. I searched the house, then found her, curled in a hidden spot beneath my youngest daughter's bed.

I left her there, then checked in the morning. She was dead, peacefully freed from a long, cozy life. My prayer that morning: "Sweet Fiona. Lord, thank you for the sweet lives joined to ours."

I miss her every morning as I sit down to read, but I'm finding her death was just an opening act in a season of letting go.

Also this winter I realized, with stark certainty, that I would need to resign from the board of Friends of Exton Park, a group I helped start five years ago. I was suddenly too busy to serve that group well. 
I've been busy, beyond busy, with work on redistricting reform. Concern for injustices in our state led me on an ever deeper journey into trying to understand the structures of our democracy. A role as election reform specialist on the state board of the League of Women Voters provided a platform to help launch a coalition, Fair Districts PA. The more I study the more certain I am: partisan gerrymandering allows unaccountable government, partisan power-games and unjust systems that harm poor people in communities across our sadly-gerrymandered states.

Pennsylvania Newsmakers
Our coalition has been growing very fast. Last fall we had less than ten volunteers. Now we have hundreds, maybe thousands. At the start of the year we had 2000 Facebook followers. Now we're past thirteen thousand.

I've spoken in the last few months to packed churches, full high school auditoriums. One presentation was live-streamed on Facebook, another taped by cable TV and rebroadcast three times in the same weekend.

Last week I was a guest on Pennsylvania Newsmakers, a respected cable news show. This week I was on an hour-long broadcast of Radio Times, my favorite radio program.

If you know me at all, if you've read my blog for any length of time, you know I have struggled most of my life with speaking in front of a group, with seeing myself on film. I have often felt most comfortable invisible. I've absorbed a sad assumption that Christian women should be seen (smiling!) and very rarely heard. 

Yesterday, I wrote in prayer, again: "I feel stretched beyond myself. I believe this is the task you've called me to. I believe you are providing amazing opportunities. Help me to know what's important. Help me to know when to flex, to step back, to hand off, to hang on."

This morning, as I sat down to pray, I saw something else I need to set down: this blog.

In prayer about what I should write today, I found myself writing: "Father, I trust my blog to you. Lead me as I write my final post."

I had not meant to write those words, but as I studied them, I knew a season was drawing to an end.

I posted my first post on November 1, 2010, exactly a month after leaving full-time youth ministry. In the "about" section of this blog, I attempted to explain the name, Words Half Heard:

I've been reading, thinking, and talking my whole life.
BA in English and Humanities from Houghton College - with lots of seminars thinking through the fact that "ideas have consequences."
PhD in lit from the University of Pennsylvania - with endless discussion about deconstructionism, the politics of meaning, the challenge of narrative structure.
Teaching writing at three very different colleges, and ensuing conversations about faith, communication, call, purpose, and the possibility of a harmony between Christian faith and intellectual pursuit.
Ten years at home with three inquisitive kids, and investment in dysfunctional public education, faith-averse civic involvement, and a loving, prayer-filled home group.
Then over a decade of youth ministry in a setting surrounded by universities, in a church full of professors and their very thoughtful kids.
Still, I find myself wondering, how much of what we believe is half-heard, half-thought through, borrowed, believed without examination?
Kids repeat what their parents have said. Adults repeat what they've been told Christians should / do / might believe.
And we all move so quickly that conversation, real dialogue, deep exploration, is almost impossible.
As I leave youth ministry and embark on a season dedicated to "prophetic imagination," I am conscious of Paul's instruction to the Philippians, “—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose."
The Greek word for “work out,” katergazomai, refers to “the specified action which produces what by nature is inherent in something.” In other words, as people who have received the gift of God’s salvation, we’re called to find out what that means, then learn to live it. This isn’t a casual, easy, effortless task: it involves "fear and trembling”, a phrase Paul used to suggest extreme importance. And it’s not a solo activity; the “you” is plural; the calling is communal.
As we obey Paul’s instruction, as we learn to walk in harmony with God’s good purpose, we become visible witnesses, “children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life.” 
As I write this final post, it occurs to me: God has used this time, these years, to draw me toward specified action, to leadership in a task that would have been impossible without all the steps in the journey, the painful stops along the way. He has used so many people to challenge me, encourage me, help me see more clearly who God is calling me to be.

And God has expanded my understanding of words central to this blog:

Justice is a vision that must bear fruit in action.

Mercy is a prayer that becomes a way of life.

Compassion compels us from the safety of contemplation to the dangerous stance of active engagement.

God's love prepares us and persuades us to serve a broken, fearful world.

So, for now, I turn from words to action.

From blog to coalition.

Thank you for listening with me. 

Please pray for me, as I will pray for you.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Lent One: Listen

We often have a day or two of “midwinter spring” -  welcome days of warmth that melt frozen lakes and remind us that winter won’t last forever. This year, though, it’s been more like a midwinter summer.

I've been spending recent Sunday afternoons at Marsh Creek Lake, not far from our home, looking for winter ducks. Normally most of the lake is frozen by this point in the year, but this month I've sometimes seen kayaks dancing in the bright little waves and fishermen out in their flat-bottomed boats, scattering the resident flock of coots. 

Today, pausing on the shore between a sleek mink out for an afternoon swim and a beaver inspecting lakeside trees, I found myself celebrating and grieving. 

I have never been so close to a mink in the wild.

We have never seen such warm winter weather.

I'm reminded of Scot McKnight's question, asked in a climate change debate in The Spectator several years ago: “what would it take to change your mind?”  
“Put on the table one of your most cherished theological ideas — say creationism, the historicity of Jonah surviving in a big fish, Calvinism or Arminianism, penal substitution, the gospel as social justice, progressive ideas on the gay/lesbian debates… just put your major idea on the table and ask yourself one question:
What would it take to change your mind?”
McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, documents his own change of mind on the topic of women in church leadership, but his question has far-reaching importance as our president insists all climate change   How do we know what’s true? What kind of evidence are we looking for? Whose voices do we listen to? What are we willing to question?

The Pharisees were sure of a long list of things, which made it impossible for most of them to hear what Jesus had to say. They started from a position of theological certainty and spent their energy looking for ways to discredit their opposition, rather than taking time to listen to see what truth they could learn from a very new perspective.

Ah, but isn’t it dangerous to listen to voices you’re not sure of, to consider ideas that don’t fit the currently accepted grid?

Standing still in the late afternoon sunlight, I hear the cry of the killdeer, the honk of the geese far down the lake. Their insistent voices are hard to miss. Less easy to hear are the coots, feeding nearby. They are almost silent, yet as I watch and listen, I can hear their odd little clucks. 

Sometimes, birding with friends, I'll hear an even softer sound: the high pitched tsip of a gnatcatcher, or the faint, wheezy tsee of a golden-crowned kinglet. 

Hear that? I'll ask. 

Hear what? 

No. Nothing.

There are sounds young ears hear that older ears can't.

And sounds it takes training and patience to hear.

And sounds no human can hear without help: Whale calls. Elephant rumbles. High-pitched cries of bats and tiny monkeys.

What happens when we shut out too quickly voices that are new, or difficult, or threatening? What happens when we refuse to hear those whose message doesn’t fit our own?

In Soul of a Citizen, Paul Loeb talks of an “ethic of listening,” learning to act from an awareness “that our knowledge and perception will always be partial, and that we learn best from dialogue with others.” Loeb notes the need “to cultivate a bit of humility. To hear the souls of others requires silencing the clamor of our own obsessions about how the world should be.” 

Humility is one of those words we don’t spend much time with. We like to be people who know the answers, who have firm opinions, who are quick to make those opinions known.  We like to know which voices are approved, who is on “our side,” and who is not. 

Discussions move quickly from ideas offered to ad hominem attack. Once we’ve labeled someone a communist, fascist, racist, heretic, we can stop pretending to listen and go back to celebrating our own strong opinions.

I grew up in a household where argument was plentiful, in a church tradition where the stronger your opinion, the more you were admired. I realized early on that the motivation in most arguments had little to do with the point being offered. What I heard loud and strong in most discussions I witnessed was power, pride, and a deep disregard for the people most affected. 

Solomon's wisdom was attributed to his request that God give him "a listening heart to judge your people, to discern between good and bad."

I've been thinking about the danger when leaders refuse to listen.

Thinking about the harm to Christian witness when churches lose the ethic of listening. 

This week, our president announced plans to cut the EPA's Office of Research and Development by 40%, a move explicitly directed at climate change research, air and water protection and research on sustainability. 

Global Mean Estimates based on Land and Water Data
This week, scores of US cities reported record-breaking highs, while the World Meteorological Organization announced the highest temperatures on record in Antartica.

In Old Testament and New, God warns of willful deafness: ever hearing but never understanding. 

"You have seen many things, but you pay not attention .Your ears are open, but you do not listen." (Isaiah 42:20).

"You are living in the midst of a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear." (Ezekiel 12:2)

Sometimes in Lent I focus on repentance, sometimes on spiritual disciplines.

This Lent I find myself longing for a listening heart, a listening church, a listening nation.

My prayer is to move deeper into an ethic of listening and to invite others to listen with me.

To voices not heard.

To wisdom not wanted.

To the poor, the hungry, the broken.

To this weary, warming, beautiful world.

(Parts of this were taken from an earlier post, Midwinter Wisdom, January 12, 2012. The record high that week was 63 degrees. This week we've had multiple days in the 70s).

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Start with Repentance

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, season of repentance and of waiting. 

Some years the season catches me off guard, but this year I'm ready. My heart is already resting in the words of our weekly confession: 
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. 
We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us, that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen. 
I find myself in an odd space this winter.  Just as the weather has been soaring to unexpected temperatures, with crocuses blooming and hailstones bouncing in the yard, my own life has been unexpected, strange, somewhat out of my control.

Fair Districts PA, the redistricting reform coalition I helped launch last January, has captured statewide attention. I've been speaking to crowds in churches and schools, fielding requests for media interviews. Last week I was live-streamed on Facebook for over an hour - and people, lots of people, watched. Just today I was featured in a 

At the same time I've been talking to legislators, pouring over bills and scrambling to organize a growing band of incredibly capable, passionate volunteers.

My days start early and end late.

The list of what's been accomplished each day is long.

The list of what's been left undone is longer.

I am humbled by my deficits and staggered by all that's accomplished through and around and in spite of me.

I've been reading in the epistles and for the first time hear in Paul's letters the incredible discipline and challenge of a man shepherding an explosive movement. As he traveled through the maritime nations he left eager bands of passionate volunteers sharing God's love, teaching and preaching and healing and praying.

His letters show him coaching and correcting, encouraging and entreating, reaching across borders and cultures. His words reflect the growing capacity of new, young churches reaching out in love. The movement of faith was sometimes chaotic, sometimes divided, sometimes zealous, jealous, confused, yet lives were changed and the good news spread, a tide sweeping along trade routes into every known nation.

Where is the good news sweeping now? 

Where are the lives being changed by faith?

I've been praying for years for increased capacity: capacity for love, for service, for justice.

I've been praying for years to love what God loves, to have my heart broken by the things that break the heart of love.

It's only lately that I've begun to realize that capacity starts with letting go: letting go of old ways, old comforts, self-protective habits, self-determined goals.

I grieved when I left youth ministry. For over a decade I knew it was my calling.

Then that calling ended. 

How could I have known that the first step in greater capacity and greater love is letting go. 

Dying to old dreams.

And it starts with repentance, confessing I wanted my own way most. 

Loved my own ideas best.

These days I'm living out a different calling in a very different way.

I start with repentance. 

And grief.  

Not the emails unanswered, although I regret them.

Not the tasks not yet accomplished, although that list keeps growing.

I grieve the places where fear, doubt, anxious thoughts slowed me down or ate away time.

I grieve the internal patterns of irritation or impatience that undercut effort and undermined unity.

I grieve every moment spent living out false cultural assumptions about value or beauty or purpose or success.

My grief is fueled by the daily news: white evangelical Christians are the strongest supporters of a Muslim ban.

White evangelical Christians are the strongest supporters of a vindictive president with deep conflicts of interest and no visible compassion.  

These are my people.  

How is that possible?

I read the prayers for Ash Wednesday. They have much to say about the space we live in, the state of the church, the challenges surrounding us.

My challenge, this Lent, is to live deeper into these words and to continue to grow in capacity to love, to serve, to share and be good news:
We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.
We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.
Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.
Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.
Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.
Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.
Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.
Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.
        (Book of Common Prayer, Ash Wednesday)

Other Ash Wednesday posts:

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Prayer for the Eagles

This week's post was written by my daughter Anna Kocher, artist, musician, mother of three. The photos were taken by my friend George Tallman at Conowingo Dam, a large hydro-electric dam on the Susquehanna River, crossed by US Route 1 between Pennsylvania and Maryland. I am grateful to both for sharing their work and for their wise stewardship of unexpected beauty.

In response to Senate confirmation of Scott Pruitt as head of a the EPA and to the Audubon headline, The New Head of the EPA is a Major Threat to Birds and People:

When I was a kid, I remember being taught in school about our National Emblem, the Bald Eagle, and how it was in danger of becoming extinct. We learned that the Bald Eagle had nearly disappeared from the United States, and how important it was for us to reduce, reuse and recycle, etc. as our way of doing our part for the planet. What I didn't understand at the time was the role EPA regulations played in their protection.

My mother and other members of my family are avid bird-watchers and take great joy in recording their rare and unique sightings. I love to watch birds, for their beauty and freedom, but I'm not naturally a keeper of records or lists. I'm as happy watching a flock of pigeons as I am a pileated what-have-you. I always joke with my family when they get excited about a rare bird sighting, saying, "Don't even tell me unless it's a Bald Eagle!"

The other weekend my sister and I were driving home from DC, having gone down for the Women's March to be bodies in the crowd of millions of people trying to say, through our presence, "This is not ok with us. We have a voice and we are not alright with this." We were touched by the peaceful friendliness of the marchers.

After the march we spent a lovely night and morning at our brother's house, but on our way home on Sunday we hit a ton of traffic. So many others were also trying to return home after the march that traffic on 95 was crawling and I needed to get back to my kids. We took an unfamiliar detour and wound up crossing over the Conowingo Dam.

We were driving over the bridge with water on either side when all of a sudden my sister looked out and said, "Wait, what's that there?"

We both looked out and I spotted it too: a Bald Eagle, massive and regal on a branch hanging over the water. I started to scream and swerve (safely, within my lane) and we continued to look over the edge (while maintaining safe following distance). Then we saw another! And another! Eventually I had to drag my eyes back to the road, but my sister counted ten Bald Eagles!

I was so moved. I've seen a few Bald Eagles over the last few years, and have always reacted with an embarrassing level of excitement; but this was different. This was proof, with my own eyes, that a species had been successfully brought back from the brink by our society rallying, regulating, changing and choosing to do what was maybe less convenient in the moment in order to achieve a greater, future good.

If you've known me for any length of time you know that I'm not usually very political. I'm also not confrontational. I also don't like making phone calls. Doing things like speaking up about this kind of thing and making phone calls to my senators is a bit of a departure for me.

But for me, this is not about politics. I've never been a registered member of either of our country's leading political parties. It's also not about being liberal or conservative. I imagine many of you would accuse me of being too liberal and many of being too conservative.

It's about the deep disappointment and disgust I feel towards those in power for actively dismissing and dismantling those things I always, naively, thought we could all fundamentally agree upon, however different our opinions of how to achieve them: the common good, the future good, the protection of the vulnerable, the "just and proper use of your creation," as we say in my church.

Lately I've been saying a lot, old-lady style, semi-joking but mostly serious, to the possible chagrin of my family members, "Why do the wicked prosper?"

But I've been saying to myself with equal frequency the words Martin Luther King Jr. used when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." That's what I'm praying for, and that's what I'm praying I'll learn how to work towards.

If you've made it this far in my little speech, thank you. Pour yourself a Friday night beverage, or Sunday afternoon tea, and let me know if you see any Bald Eagles.
In peace, we pray to you, Lord God.
For all people in their daily life and work;
For our families, friends, and neighbors, and for those who are alone.
For this community, the nation, and the world;
For all who work for justice, freedom, and peace.
For the just and proper use of your creation;
For the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression.
For all who are in danger, sorrow, or any kind of trouble;
For those who minister to the sick, the friendless, and the needy.
For the peace and unity of the Church of God;
For all who proclaim the Gospel, and all who seek the Truth.
For all who serve God in his Church.
For the special needs and concerns of this congregation.
Hear us, Lord;
For your mercy is great.