Thursday, February 27, 2014

Making Room – From "Small and Full" to Spacious

ESR Director of Supervised Ministry Stephanie Crumley-Effinger delivered the following message in ESR Worship on February 20, 2014. You can read more from Stephanie on her blog, Surgery and Since.

If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say — "This is not dead," —
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says — "This is enow *
Unto itself — 'Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me."
* enough

(Thomas Edward Brown, Old John and Other Poems, 1893 )

Scripture Readings:
Philippians 2: 5-7  NRSV
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

Luke 10: 41b-2a
“you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one."

Mark 4: 39
[Jesus] got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

Psalm 46: 10a
“Be still, and know that I am God . . ."

We live in a period of high demand for our energy, attention, and time. Multitasking, efficiency, and accomplishment are widely held up as virtues for all to achieve. In middle-class American culture, overworking is expected, and is typically a source of admiration, bragging points and self-esteem.

Communities of faith are no exception; I can’t find the source but see much evidence for the quote that "work is the drug of choice for the church". The sense of responsibility to live our faith by doing more for God and our needy world  tends to drown out the voices calling for centeredness, contemplation, and balance in life. While stewardship of the earth and of our time and finances are often addressed, there is relatively little said about stewardship of our bodies. In Christianity in general and in my own context of Quakers in specific, the influence of the ancient Gnostic anti-body attitude greatly affects us still.

Even while Quakers admire 18th century John Woolman in changing his occupation so as to have less business responsibility and more time for centered listening and responding to God's leadings this is seen as an exception rather than a model for us.

My Christian formation and practice resulted in my seeing faithfulness as something that required a great deal of activity, to which my body needed to be a quiet and obedient servant. When it would protest, usually in the form of back pain, I was annoyed at having to give in to its insistence. After years of chiropractic care and then physical therapy, adding daily exercises and being careful about certain activities such as carrying heavy things or sitting for long periods of time were my only concessions to my body's needs.  I resented the limitations and felt a general sense of annoyance at my body, akin to how I experience a computer when it malfunctions or the washing machine when it breaks.

Then two years ago, in February of 2012, a number of small tumors were discovered in my liver, and after additional tests I was diagnosed with a slow-growing malignancy, carcinoid cancer, which had metastasized to my liver from a primary tumor in my intestines. Unlike most cancers, carcinoid, in the form that I have, develops very slowly and it can be years before treatments that are typically used for cancer, such as chemotherapy or radiation, are needed. That June I had surgery to remove the original tumor and, following a summer of recovery, returned to teaching. But after a few weeks I was experiencing tremendous fatigue and had to make major modifications to my activity level (such as sitting instead of standing) to get through my days. Another round of testing resulted in every test for a reason for this disabling lack of energy being negative. Last summer my oncologist concluded that I had cancer-related fatigue, which according to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network is found in 75% of people with metastatic cancer. A medical leave this past fall semester was devoted to seeking recovery. With the assistance of a clinical health psychologist who specializes in working with people who have fatigue, it was a valuable time of learning and growth such that I am able to be here this semester. It was successful not in eliminating the fatigue, but in diminishing it and in teaching me ways to manage it more effectively.

One of the most helpful parts of the treatment was an eight week course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), at the I. U. Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis. Early in the course we were given the homework assignment for each day of the next week to sit for ten minutes in silence focusing on our breath. When thoughts came we were gently to release them rather than get drawn into thinking. I could hardly stand it. I was very restless and constantly distracted with thinking.  Despite being a quiet-appreciating Quaker for almost forty years, in learning mindfulness practice I discovered the extent to which, even in the silence of waiting worship or individual centering, my still body harbors a relentlessly busy mind.

For many years I had appreciated the [above] poem, especially the lines “thou art all replete with very thou, and hast such shrewd activity” and being “small and full”. Indeed I had often prayed to be large and spacious so that there would be more room for God. What I had failed to appreciate, though, was that my very ways of seeking God were themselves part of being small and full and “replete with very thou.” I had largely mastered the first level of being able to sit quietly, the second one of being less reliant on words, and the third step of moving my thoughts from making “to do” lists to focusing on spiritual questions and themes where God was working with me. But now I was being challenged to move to a fourth level of making room, that of stilling even my theological questions and thoughts, so as to present my mind and heart fully to God in the silence.

This was very helpful, although challenging but I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that mindfulness practice and thus the MBSR course developed out of the Buddhist tradition. What did it mean for me as a Christian? Two questions became forcefully present -- How can I be both faithful and well?  What does it mean for living sustainably, as a good steward of my time, energy, gifts, commitments, and body, that the central figure of the Christian faith died?

I wondered the resources in Christian tradition for careful and kind stewardship of our bodies, since there is so much that reinforces a body-negating view. While that remains something for further exploration, I have been drawn to the theme of incarnation, of Jesus being present in a body. The first passage [above], from Philippians 2, is set in the context of Jesus’ diminishing of himself from divine to human, and Paul’s model for acting in mutually caring ways toward one another. But what I lift out for our consideration is that Jesus being present in human form can be seen as an affirmation of the importance of being embodied. Presumably God could have simply sent a spiritual resource, but instead we are told that God’s method was to provide a person, a someone, a presence integrating bodyspiritmind. Or as John I:14 states, “the Word became flesh and lived among us”. Similarly, the Genesis stories of God creating the world celebrate in loving detail the physical, material creation. This is especially visible in the Genesis 2: 7 account of God forming the first human being by hand and breathing life into this being.     

The call to be still and focused is a gift of the other three scripture passages -- from Luke, Jesus inviting Martha to stewardship of that moment, from Mark the story of Jesus stilling the storm, and from Psalm 46 the admonition to be still and know God. In these and many other sources, the Christian tradition is replete with guidance to take time from the fullness of activity and thoughts, to make room for God.

Some of the words of the guided imagery CD that my friend loaned me were a bit startling to hear: “ . . . my body has been teaching me something useful, that this cancer has been challenging me to learn and change and grow.” “I tell this cancer these things: ‘thank you for teaching me to stop and listen. Thank you for reminding me of what is truly important. You can go now.’" These words were a bit startling to hear but they are absolutely true to and resonant with my experience of the past two years.

I encourage you, especially if being “small and full” and treating your body like a machine are issues for you also, to make room for God by stilling yourself and seeking to be a faithful steward of God’s gift of your own precious and unique incarnation in this your body in this and succeeding moments. May it not take a “wake-up call” from your body, such as I have gotten, for you to do so.

To lead into open worship, here are words of George Fox, adapted by Paulette Meier:

“Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit, from thy own thoughts. Then thou wilt feel the principle of God, to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive God’s strength and power from whence life comes; whereby thou wilt receive God’s strength, to allay all blustering storms and tempests.”

Monday, February 24, 2014

FLGBTQC Mid-Winter Gathering

ESR student Justimore Musombi reflects on his trip to the Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns 2014 Mid-Winter Gathering in Portland, Oregon:

A view at the Menucha Retreat & Conference Center

I recently attended my first FLGBTQC Mid-Winter Gathering at Menucha Retreat & Conference Center in Portland, Oregon. I treated it as a mini-vacation from my busy and stressful everyday school life. Well, that was my initial take on my retreat day until I finally came to the realization I had during my time there. It wasn't just a vacation. It was a time for me to be able to take a break from my usual life and take a step back to take a look at where I am at the moment and where I want to be in the future.

This was a spiritual growth retreat which blends contemplation and community. Emphasis was on the worship sharing groups, along with ample time for the solitude of prayer, meditation, and reflection. This was a time for all of us delegates to come together to renew our spirits and re-center ourselves through time in the Christian community and intentional time with God.

The theme of the conference was about “Inclusivity” which was well expounded by Mariana Ruybalid. Another topic that we studied was semi-programmed meeting for worship on the theme of theological diversity led by Alivia Biko, pastor of Freedom Friends Church. I also had an opportunity to lead a workshop based on my spiritual journey as a Kenyan Quaker. I shared about my life history, my conversion and call in the ministry, and my understanding of the Bible and homosexuality based on the Kenyan context.

As I am about to finish my Master's of Divinity degree with hopefully two semesters left, I needed that time to know what God intends for me to do as I begin a new chapter in my professional/work life. The retreat was an eye-opener for me. I got to know myself better through the questions asked in our worship sharing groups, each of which had different intentions. An example was the the question “What is my passion?” This made me think of what I would love to do or what I am interested in, disregarding the degree I am taking and what is it about. Honestly, I am not happy with where I am right now and knowing my passion could help me find another path that I could take because doing what I love to do could or might be the best thing.

Justimore (2nd from left) marching in the Indy Pride Parade in 2013

Another question asked was “What is my biggest or most important question in my life as of the moment?” My answer to is was “Why is there need for me to suffer, be dishonored with my family, friends, and church based on my sexual orientation?” My reason was, “I'm just curious to know why because why do I need to suffer if we are all Christians and the Bible says that God is Love and we need to love all people even the unlovable ones? Can't we just all be happy instead?” I don't know but my question sounds cliché. Maybe I am to suffer for me to remember that God is always there for me. And that  I can always find refuge, security and rest in Him.

The retreat also reminded me that in everything that I do, do it for the greater glory of the Lord. There are times when it is hard for me to be productive with God in my mind because I get caught up with mundane things. The solution I was presented during the worship sharing groups was that I need to let go that which holds me back and hinders God's spirit to be manifested in my life.

I am so grateful for Earlham School of Religion for the traveling assistance and West Richmond Friends Meeting for my registration fees. I was given chance to share about ESR. I discovered that most people at the retreat didn't know much about ESR. I was lucky to find friends who showed interest of coming to ESR for further studies. It was such a wonderful moment in my life to connect with my tribe and my new family. Glory be to God!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bringing Them Home: Warriors Becoming Citizens, Citizens Becoming Companions

Thomas Swann shares his thoughts on Earlham School of Religion’s 2014 Willson Lectures featuring Rita Nakashima Brock:

A person can be hard pressed to pigeon hole Rita Nakashima Brock into a single label: feminist, theologian, reverend, protester; she moves with intention but also with the grace of an adventurer that knows the road often brings us to the unexpected, which is a gift of grace.  Her arrival to her current work as the co-creator of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School brings her journey to an issue exploding on our country's fabric of moral wholeness.  This year alone some 140,000 soldiers are expected to return from Afghanistan and start the journey back towards becoming the individuals they once were. “Without a new social, emotional, spiritual system that can help veterans of war move from a military system to civilian life, we sentence many of them to military cocoons or lonely states of limbo from which transition is nigh impossible.”

Bringing the warrior back home to their family starts at the end of the gateway at a local airport each and every day as deployments come to a close. Familiar scenes of joy, tears and relief are just the start however. Brock believes that bringing them to a place of wholeness is a journey demanding the cultivation of long-term friendships, which are as intentional as the course that molded them into the effective soldier that they became during 8 weeks of warrior formation known as boot camp.  As the soldier is trained to act upon a moral code of conduct essential to successful war campaigns with automatic response to orders of destruction, “moral reconditioning creates new moral systems” that does not eliminate the warrior code but lays upon it a new set of understandings that can bring healing and repair to the moral injuries of war.

In a series of lectures delivered at Earlham School of Religion she developed layers of understanding as to what is necessary to accompany returning soldiers in the often foreign journey of reentering a peacetime culture.   The tools to accompany this traverse come from a diverse palette ranging from the latest neuroscience to the ancient rhythms of ritual as displayed in the Navajo “way” blessings that draw a community into a 9-day healing focus of singularity and commitment. At the heart of moral injury is a brokenness that goes well beyond the body of the individual and leaves families and cultural institutions in a shambles. However it is the soldier with the broken soul who often reaches a place of lifeless existence and in alarming rates takes his or her life to end the pain.

Brock sees the church as a place where communities can step into a common energy of decompression and healing.   “The church is the only institution that commits to an individual from life to death” and thus has the potential to walk as a companion in this uncharted territory. At a time when the church seems to be seeking redefinition as its relevance is questioned by declining participation, the opportunity of forming new alliances and ways of bringing comfort to anguished souls cannot be missed. A warrior nation that does not return its warriors to full societal participation does not sustain itself. Hopefully, the sharing and acknowledging of the deep spiritual injury to our humanity may also shift the paradigm of aggression that dominates our current measures of choice in conflict resolution.

No one must look far into his or her own family or along the street to see the consequences of our country's inability to welcome back our soldiers to a world of wholeness, hope and possibility. We, even if a conflicted we, drove them into a place that has horrors that must be released and relived towards a place of return to something new and full of the marrow of life. The journey, as for Brock, has interesting turns for each of us and moves across boundaries of comfort. 

Rita Nakashima Brock is an accomplished woman of substance who finds a certain irony that her life has led her into conversations of partnership with people that once were on the other side of protest lines and now she sits with them at tables looking into the same pool of neglect and carnage. Generals and poets, scholars and citizens all can help to bring these injured souls back into the presence that they left behind not all that long ago. As we learn to serve these wounded warriors with our deep listening to their stories we may actually be taught by their companionship that good work can lead to new creation, bringing old and new into a flow of formation, which heals beyond our imagination. This is not a journey for the meek or self-absorbed. Anger will accompany this journey; silence, bewilderment and amazement. The narrative stories of these warriors are piling up on the shelves but so also are their bodies. The bodies, the loss, comes from not embracing “our body”, not to treat, but to walk, heart to heart, one single step at a time until they truly are home. Until our morality shifts and becomes inclusive to the wounds of moral injury their lives are bleeding a slow death.

Rita calls out in many directions, firmly and with penetration. One of her convictions is “that congregations are one place that should be welcoming veterans home, but few have committed to this work. It should not be undertaken with just simple good intentions, though good intentions matter a great deal. To welcome veterans into a community's life, we need to understand how to assist the transition from the values of military life to religious life. We must advocate for better services for treating PTSD, and we must support veterans' families and all they go through to welcome veterans home.” If we can spend endless resources to make them warriors what is the fair equivalent upon their return?

After sitting through a day of captivating and thought-provoking presentations the truth is that it is estimated that another 24 victims of moral injury have taken their lives to ease the pain. Yes, one an hour, day after day. I am left wondering if I can I say this is important enough to my sense of morality, important enough to move out of comfort and join in the discomfort. It only matters if my yes is followed by a step towards this new walk in a way different than we have chosen to this point in this war and all the others that have occupied our history.

Thomas Swann is a member of the Earlham School of Religion community and studies writing as ministry. This piece is a combination of information noted during the Willson Lectures and the reading of a series of posts by Rita Nakashima Brock in a BeaconPress Broadside. Thomas may be reached at and