All posts by Hannah Adair Bonner

Hannah Adair Bonner is the Director of Frontera Wesley, The Wesley Foundation of Tucson. She was ordained in the United Methodist Church in 2012.

Swimming with sharks

“Whatcha going to do with those fish guts?” I called up from the water to Audrey on the dock, who was filleting the day’s catch to cook up for Sunday supper, along with the remainder of the calamari bait. “Throw ’em in the water,” she answered. “Not while I’m down here!” I responded, alarmed. “Of course not, I’ll wait till you’re out,” Audrey laughed at me.

I had every right to be a bit skittish though. The evening before, I had been cooking dinner with marine researchers who showed me videos of sharks swarming down at their dock when the fishermen cleaned their catch. Needless to say, I had no desire to be present when Audrey’s tempting morsels went in the water. While we had no expectation of seeing sharks swarm up for these meager trimmings from our catch of only two groupers, there were other creatures to think about. For instance, the several large barracudas who had been patrolling the spot where I was swimming about half an hour before I jumped in the water. While we had cast lines excitedly in their direction while on dry land, I had no desire to encounter those lovely beasts when they had the home court advantage.

But barracudas or no barracudas, it had not taken Brenda too much convincing to get me into the water with her. First of all, the sand fleas, or no-see-ums, had been tormenting me all day – and nothing numbs that torturous itch like salt water. There are moments when I think I would rather take my chances with barracudas then sand fleas. Second, Brenda’s logic had been simple and compelling as she called out, “Get in the water with me!” The logic went something like this – Audrey and Brenda had not gotten many bites on their fishing bait that day, so we were not likely to get many bites ourselves. “Besides,” Audrey completed Brenda’s argument, “Brenda is already in there, if they are going to bite anything, they are going to bite her first.” With that air-tight argument sealed, I jumped off the rocks and felt the cool water rush over me.

This is how I try to live life these days. A little less caution, a little more daring. A little less thinking, a little more doing. A little less hedging, a little more betting (*figure of speech, I am Methodist clergy after all). It has occurred to me that the majority of the struggle that I have experienced in my life has been through a basic lack of daring, lack of courage. In all my years of living on the margins, pushing the envelope, and laying it all on the line – there has always been a basic area where I have lacked courage. There has always been one person who I have let be trampled without fighting back. Myself. I have never had the courage to refuse a salary that was lowered because of my age, gender, or marital status. I have stood silent time and again when I was told decisions were being made about me because I did “not have a family to support.” I have twice signed papers that, for legal reasons, said I was voluntarily forfeiting part of my rights as an Elder – while inside a part of me died at how helpless and disempowered it made me feel. No one understood the price my soul paid for all that self-betrayal, all that cowardice under pressure.  In all my years, only one person fought for me to have more not less, but that person was not me.  A part of me hopes that if others knew they would not have made choices and statements that made me feel that I was worth less than a man, worth less because I was single, worth less because I was young. In my weakest moments a voice inside pulled the words closer together and whispered “they think you’re worth less… worth-less… worthless” – while I tried to protest that I was a child of God and a person of sacred worth.

When I was in college, I noticed my senior year that rather than promoting the junior and senior women to manager positions, underclass men were being brought in to manage us. Concerned, I began to look at our salaries as well, and teaming up with another Bachelor of Science, I graphed the starting salaries of employees through to the current period. A disturbing trend emerged. It appeared from our graph that the men had been receiving a raise of $0.50 per hour per year. Most of the women, myself included, had never received a raise – which is a big deal when you are working three different jobs to put yourself through school as I was at the time. I shared my graph with the supervisors, who took the situation seriously. But it did little to help those of us approaching graduation; my stomach dropped to think of how much accumulated income loss that was for all of us over the course of years.

A year earlier I had sat in the same building and met with representatives from the fraternities on campus in my role as head of Orientation. They were proposing I accept their sponsorship of a party on campus with an open bar during Orientation the next year. I was having trouble following the logic of why it would be a good idea to have a party with an open bar on a dry campus for eighteen year olds who were away from home for the first time. It was, to put it bluntly, part of my role to educate in order to prevent not facilitate those kinds of situations. It would not be the last time in my life I would see a man’s face turn that shade of red, as one of the young gentlemen began to threaten the five foot two blonde who stood as in immovable impediment to the way he was accustomed to having. “We’ll tell all the freshman you aren’t cool!” finally burst out of his mouth as the final threat in his escalating tirade. It was the kind of sad threat that just evokes pity for the speaker no matter how frightening they are trying to sound. I’ll never know if he followed through on his threat, but I found no evidence of it being effective. Like many times before and many times after, I sat in that large circle of men without a hesitating bone in my body when it came to protecting others, but little knowledge of how to protect myself.

I will admit that I am a person with more courage than many, but it is a certain kind of courage. It is a courage that cracks the door, but doesn’t push it open. It is a courage that can speak of incidents that took place a decade ago, but not a month ago. It is a courage that speaks enough truth to make people uncomfortable, but not so much truth that they stone me. It is a courage that stands unmoved by peer pressure, but crumbled under burnout. It is a courage that swims with the sharks, but does not have a clue how to avoid being eaten alive. It is a courage that has grown weary after paying over and over again the consequences for trying to “do the right thing” – that has begun to have a delayed response element to it as a result.

So, I am taking this time apart to try to hone my courage into something different. I want to have a courage that is directed, and effective. Not idealistic, but realistic. A courage that may swim in the same waters as sharks, but is wise enough not to go in at feeding time. A courage that is able to say “yes” to a calling that is a challenge, while still retaining the wisdom to say an emphatic “no” to a trap masquerading as an opportunity. A courage that is willing to “go,” but also strong enough to say “Stop!” A courage that is rooted in calling not coercion, grounded in experience rather than innocence, acting out of wisdom rather than naivete.

So these days, I may swim in deep waters, but as I look out my window and see that wind is whipping the ocean into an angry white froth, I know that I will not be going in the water today. My courage is growing up. I am taking every opportunity to say yes to the things that scare me, but not the things that will kill me. I am learning to tell the difference. For true courage, wise courage, and lots of it, will be a main requirement for clergy in the days ahead.

I have learned that the things we avoid doing out of fear, are often the same things that have the power to save our lives, the power to let us live.

Audrey and Brenda fish for supper before we go for a swim
Audrey and Brenda fish for supper before we go for a swim

Wounding Fish

“Lady, you must be brave. Fishing all the way out there with him,” Miguel’s mother called to me as I walked out of the water in Rainbow Bay, spear in hand. I actually had not thought about it that much, but I suspected that the sting ray that had just glided past my feet would probably agree with her.

Oddly enough, swimming out into deep water with Manex, I had not felt a bit of fear. Perhaps it was because the man who had asked me to be his spear fishing partner was a person whose skill and friendship I trusted. Or perhaps it was because, let’s be honest, I had a spear in my hand – it has a way of changing the game a bit.

I had never worn flippers before; I had never used a snorkel before; and I had never shot a spear before… but really those were just details. I learned as we went. First pausing to ask Manex how to get the water out of my snorkel after diving – “blow as hard as you can.” Then pausing to ask what to do when I dove deep and my ears felt like they were screaming – “hold your nose and blow hard.”

It was a lot to balance. Swimming hard enough to keep up with the fish, but not so hard that you pulled a muscle in your leg. Breathing through the snorkel, but remembering to stop breathing when you dove deep under the water. Diving fast enough to get your fish before your lungs gave out, but not so fast that you scared your fish away. Balancing your body under the water perfectly still, while somehow still loading, aiming and firing your spear. Needless to say, despite the fact that Manex said I was a natural, we were really still counting on him to make sure we had something to eat that night.

In addition to my inexperience, I have a slight suspicion my killer instinct was diminished by the fact that it seemed I was in God’s fish tank. Creatures that mimicked the colors and shapes of pet store prizes, only several times their size, swam past me alone and in schools. Vibrant green parrot fish and dark gray angel fish the size of my head. Huge spotted eagle rays that seemed to outweigh me gliding solo. Lion fish as large as a football, for whom I had long ago learned to have abundant respect. And one sweet little bluish bubble that left me with a painful kiss goodbye on my back after engaging me in a twirling dance that Manex called my “encounter” with the “baby man o’ war.”

It was probably the most adventurous outing of my life, but for Manex it was simply the necessary precursor to making dinner… catching it that is. Today, for a couple hours, Manex was not a construction manager and I was not a gardner, we were spear fisherman and spear fisherwoman, and we had “dominion over the fish of the sea.”

After returning to camp to clean, scale, fillet, cook and eat our feast of fresh fish, I thanked Manex for a terrific afternoon and headed off in search of some wifi to catch up on what was taking place back home in the Philadelphia area. What I found in my newsfeed was a scene that did not look all that different from the bucket of wounded fish that I had recently looked down into with sadness-twinged wonder. The news had come in that the Rev. Frank Schaefer had received his sentence for transgressing church law – 30 days to change course or surrender his credentials.

As I scanned through my wounded-fish-bucket of a newsfeed, the irony was not lost on me. The calling to be fishers of men does not look so charming when our school of fish is bleeding and struggling on the end of a spear. And the more vibrant, lively and beautiful they are, the more tragic it seems. When Jesus called the disciples to be “fishers of men”, he certainly did not mean for us to carry that metaphor all the way through to the gory end… did he? I thought about the story Manex had been telling me at dinner – of the damage done to the barrier reef in China from dynamite fishing – and that is what it feels like right here. One small stick of dynamite in Pennsylvania causing shockwaves all around the world as GLBTQ friends and the allies who support them wonder what this will mean for them.

I’m struggling to know what to do with the fish metaphor that has so driven the church after being elbow deep in wounded fish, and then eyeball deep in wounded friends.

If I had to pick a metaphor for today, I’d rather see the church as a school of fish than as a fisherman with a hungry belly and dangerous intent. Such a metaphor just does not work for me today. Rather than a hunter stalking a school of fish, I’d prefer to see the church itself as the school of fish – communicating effortlessly, adapting swiftly, shifting in unison – individuals moving together in unity for the safety and protection of all its members.

But we are not always given either the circumstances or the metaphors that we would choose. And so I am left with neither the metaphor of a school of fish in my scriptures, nor the reality of its unity in my church.

Lord, if you would make us to be fishers of men, let it not be the sort that use dynamite nor the sort that use spears. In fact, Lord, I just can’t reside in that metaphor right now. Not after today. What I need, what we all need, is the good shepherd who leaves the ninety nine to go after the one. And seeing as I have no plans to go to a sheep farm any time soon and find out the conclusion of that metaphor, the image of the God who does not want to lose a single lamb still bears comfort.

So bless these your lambs, Lord, and bless these your fish too. The gray and drab, the green and flashy, the striped ones and the spotted ones – won’t you be a shepherd to your fish? Won’t you tend our wounds? Won’t you bring us back?


A Prayer for Philadelphia

“Slow down,” Pauline, the hospitality coordinator for Bahamas Methodist Habitat told me repeatedly over the past couple of days. With the office cleaned, the chicken coop fixed, and the towels from the recently departed volunteer group already washed and drying on the line, Pauline could tell that I was already slipping back into multi-tasking tendencies. It was only a few days since Alex, my chilling guru, had headed back to the States for medical treatment and Pauline could see I was going to need some help if my own soul treatment here on Eleuthera was going to be effective. “Leave some work for next week. Get out of here! Go to the beach!” she said as she chased me off the site.

The reality, however, is that pink sand and turquoise water cannot distract me from what is about to begin on Monday any better than hard work and long walks can.

On Monday morning, November 18, 2013, my Annual Conference will begin a church trial that has the potential to lead to more. Despite my location and despite my minimal contact with the world outside of Eleuthera, the situation back home is one of which I am neither ignorant nor indifferent. There is truly no way that I could be either due to the fact that I have close friends, family and mentors on both sides of the debate – as well as strong opinions of my own.

It is hard to hear the words church and trial put together. The church is the body of believers who are to show the world who God is through their love for one another and continue Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. A church trial is an act of institutional force – becoming necessary when individual dialogue has not brought about reconciliation. While we can use the language of “tough love” and covenant, the reality remains that a trial is simply not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light. The words themselves trigger for most people images of the Salem Witch Trials and the Inquisition. And it seems the further removed we are in history from church trials, the more painful and illogical they seem to us.

The Philadelphia Episcopal Area, and specifically the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, has seen more than its fair share of painful trials, and it may not stop with this one. In the pre-Civil War era, we were referred to as “The Border Conference” because we were the first Conference north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Growing up only 20 minutes north of the Mason-Dixon myself, I can only begin to imagine what this felt like for residents in the 1800’s. The proximity with slave-holding territories not only provided our preachers with the opportunity to risk their lives riding the circuit and preaching against slavery in the slave-holding Maryland peninsula, but also – and unfortunately – provided some of them with the opportunity to profit from the slave trade while technically living in a non-slave-holding state. Thus, the weight and temptation of slavery advocates in the South put pressure on the Philadelphia area from below, while the weight and frequent criticism of the Northern abolitionists pressed down on them from above, threatening to crush the small Border Conference.

But with great pressure, there sometimes emerges diamonds – and there certainly were some preachers who emerged decisive and courageous in the midst of these pressures. One of them caught my eye in seminary, a man named John Dixon Long, who had written a book called Pictures of Slavery in 1857 about the slaves held by preachers in the Conference and the conditions they suffered under; J.D. had been promptly brought up on charges of slander at Annual Conference in 1858. There was not much more information than that about J.D. Long at the time, but I got a tip that his letters and journals had been recently donated to the archives at Old Saint George’s in Philadelphia, and consumed with the need to know more about this church trial, I drove home from Durham, North Carolina to spend the day in the archives. With white gloves and careful hands, I pored through countless newspaper articles and opinion pieces; letters between J.D. and his friends – checking to make sure one another were alive while preaching against slavery below the Mason Dixon; notes that J.D. had scribbled in his journal as he interviewed slaves about their lives. Perhaps most valuable, I found an account written by one of J.D.’s friends of the proceedings at Annual Conference that year and the way that his friends were inspired by his courage to speak up in his defense and take risks themselves. The newspapers at the time were in an uproar – especially the abolitionist ones, of which Philadelphia had plenty – and the silence and hypocrisy that had surrounded the issue was split wide open as the region engaged in vigorous public debate.

The conclusion of the whole situation was that the Conference decided to quell the storm of criticism by dropping the charges against J.D. A painful compromise seemed apparent, however, because the charges against the pastors who held slaves were also dropped. J.D. limped off into the sunset, living another 30 years and running a home for children in Philadelphia, but his health was ruined by the stress and toll of the trial.

J.D.’s legacy was clear – one person with immense courage can make a tremendous difference – inspiring others to action, shaking the institution out of complacency, bringing hypocrisy into the light of day and galvanizing public opinion to hold religious leaders accountable to live with integrity and compassion.

While I was consumed with researching this Philadelphia trial, I did so in ignorance of the fact that the trial of a young clergywoman in my Conference had concluded shortly before I began seminary. I spent my life consumed with this trial in the 1800’s that exemplified the pressures often placed on my Annual Conference, while my decade of schooling in the Carolinas kept me completely unaware that the pressure was once again heavy on my home city. The young clergy that would soon be my colleagues and friends were struggling to cope with witnessing one of their own defrocked at an equally public trial. Ignorant at that moment, however, the irony was completely lost on me.

But I am neither ignorant nor indifferent now. Despite my current location, on a small island in another nation, I am carrying the names of all of my friends back home in fervent prayer. It seems the pressure of the denomination is on us once again as we sit in that Border space, that crucial territory, where no caucus has full control and where no opinion reigns supreme, where there is still space for debate and there is a diversity of opinion that is stronger than in areas where opinions lean heavy in one direction or another. Our diversity has always been our greatest strength, as well as the source of some of our greatest pain.

I am carrying love and prayers for you, all of you. I understand the concern of those who feel the responsibility to uphold our covenant and Discipline; your points are heard. However, I also empathize with those who feel, like many before them, that what they see to be an unjust law need not be obeyed.

To my Eastern Pennsylvania friends, family and colleagues, I have this to say – we have been here before and we will be here again. We are strong and we can take the pressure; but don’t stop short at showing the world our strength, reveal to them our compassion as well. May we show ourselves to be the Body of Christ, even in the moment when we look the most like an institution.

To my friends around the world, pray for Eastern Pennsylvania. We have been through so much already; we have born more than our fair share of the traumas of this denomination. From the loss of Richard Allen and the painful split with the AME church at Old St. George’s in 1816, to the trial of J.D. Long forty years later; and now from the trial of Beth Stroud to that of Frank Schaefer a decade later in the same spot. Whatever camp you are in, you will be tempted at one moment or another in the process to throw stones at us, but be kind. Remember what Jesus said to do with stones. Instead offer your prayer and support as Philadelphia is once again made to endure the birthing pains of a denomination finding its way forward.


Daily Labor for Daily Bread

The first morning of my second week in Eleuthera I woke up to the deep muscle fatigue that accompanies a life of manual labor. Nothing hurt exactly, but somehow still everything ached. I was struck full in the face with the realization that years of studying, pastoring and administrating had gradually eroded the strength that I had built up through a youth of chopping wood, hauling sound systems, and balancing pizzas on my shoulder. Where was the girl who had gotten in trouble for building tree houses in the woods alone? The girl who spent hours every summer day slamming her field hockey ball into an overturned picnic table to practice her shots? The girl who won the 4-H hammering contest every time? That girl had apparently long ago been buried by this woman, under massive piles of church bulletins, ordination papers, sermons, grants and weekly/monthly/quarterly progress reports. Pressure had weighed heavier and heavier on my shoulders, and so it was with relief that I realized my shoulders now hurt in a welcome way; a pain brought on not by wading through political tensions, but by honest physical exertion; a pain that indicated growth and strengthening rather than stress and weakening.

After a week in the garden, I had learned that when fruit trees and determined Bahamian weeds are involved, the work does not bear much resemblance to the kind of gardening that my grandmother did with yellow daffodils in her soft Pennsylvania dirt. Wrestling with this dusty, weed-filled soil bears more of a resemblance to her husband’s life on the farm. This gardening involves straining and grunting, rather than pruning and puttering. It does not leave me glistening, it leaves me filthy. Sharp barbs dig into my ankles, my hands, the backs of my knees, and anywhere else the weeds can strike at in their fight for survival. This work makes me filthy; it makes me tired; it makes me happy.

It should come as no surprise that my time with God in the garden is more of a struggle than a stroll. That is where God and I are at, and that is why we came here to draw apart and spend some time alone together. We have some hard work and some hard healing to do; this year we have seen my fractured elbow healed, and my wrecked car rebuilt – but now we have a tired mind, a wounded spirit, and a broken heart to deal with and no hospital or garage can help us with this restoration. This is the type of restoration that can only take place in a garden, the place where God first gave us life and purpose; the place where God first loved us and walked with us; the place where God first told us we would struggle but we would survive; and the place where God first told us that our faces would sweat and our hands would toil while we wrestled with thistles and thorns for our food.

I look down and take stock of my hard worked hands, a constant reminder of those verses. I count three swollen sore spots where burs from a few of the hundreds of nasty sharp nettles I have pulled off me stuck. A painful blister fills the gap between the two knuckles of one finger after an afternoon spent with a machete, fighting back the weeds that had outgrown my height. Red bruising covers the knuckles of my left hand where gale force winds slammed a metal door shut on my hand; leaving me wide eyed and gasping for breath for a full 30 minutes as I did my morning garden chores with a frozen bag of peas clutched in my hand. I again give thanks to God that I had been back to practicing Mumford & Sons songs on my guitar by that evening, rather than losing any fingers the way my sister had in a church door as a child. My nails harbor the kind of persistent dirt that clings stubbornly, and reappears almost instantly every time I think I have gotten them clean. Lastly, and only this afternoon acquired, scratches lace the back of my hands and my arms from my recent tussle with a roll of chicken wire.

For days I had been responding to a regular series of outcries – “Hannah! Hannah! The chickens are out!” This cry of alarm would send me time and again scurrying down the hill and past the laundry lines to hunt down the clever hens. The chickens became increasingly skilled at flying the coop – each time teaching another one to join them in their flight to freedom. Unfortunately for our valiant freedom fighters, however, my chicken soothing and capturing skills had kept pace with their brilliant escape plans. Yet, the feeling of living life constantly in a claymation chicken escapade film had grown wearisome. While part of me applauded their cleverness and thirst for freedom; a larger part of me knew this was not a place for free range chickens after a couple had been eaten by local potcakes, the island’s packs of wild dogs. I wished I could explain to the frustrated hens that we all have our struggles to endure, and their cross to bear was a bunch of well-intentioned humans who knew the hens would not last long outside their spacious yard.

So, unfortunately for my day off, as well as for the chickens’ short lived revolution, I spent the afternoon running chicken wire over their path to freedom; creating my own liberation from the constant chase. Enduring twenty chickens pecking at my feet, I finally left the field of battle victorious. A streak of blood ran across my forehead where the chicken wire had gouged me as we turned and tumbled until I pinned it down with one hand and lashed it to the fence with the other. Scratches criss crossed my hands and arms, but I had won. And with that victory, I had earned myself a sunset swim in the ocean, free from the fear that my sweet hens would find victory in escaping only to find themselves in the potcake’s jaws of defeat.

Satisfied that my hands have struggled with the earth enough for one week, I call Brenda and drive to her house. After scanning the horizon for shark fins, as is my somewhat ironic and equally useless habit, I dive off the rocks and into the wild blue sea. As the sun dips below the horizon, I find it fitting that my daily baptism should be just as turbulent as the labor for my daily bread.


“Stop Thinking About Stupid Things”

“You’re thinking about stupid things.” This statement, spoken in Alex’s signature western Virginia accent – at once both relaxed as a cat sunning itself on a windowsill and as effortlessly confident as a Presidential Address – is exactly why I love this guy. “So what,” he continues “People are talking about you – people are always talking about me. Most of what they say about me isn’t true, so who cares?”

Without even knowing it, he had hit on what was currently one of my most fervent spiritual disciplines and personal growth efforts – not concerning myself with what people say about me; in other words, not being consumed and distracted by things I simply cannot control. Alex had recognized that glassy eyed look that those who know me well cannot mistake – the look I get when I am having trouble engaging my mind in the moment and answering a simple question someone has asked me. I always try my hardest to answer the question posed, making a sincere attempt at seeming like I am present with them, even though they might as well be talking to a zombie because my mind is in a hot air balloon far above earth struggling with philosophers and ethicists to solve whatever dilemma has taken my brain captive. This is what, since childhood, has happened when a stranger would interrupt my mental acrobats by asking my name or my age – I am usually rendered helpless to answer them for an awkwardly long amount of time. Those who know me best find this to be incredibly charming… I mean irritating. Although, for my part, I insist it is harmless.

This tendency towards rumination may be one of my greatest obstacles to relaxing, for the merit of physical rest or recreation is severely limited when the mind is still hard at work. Couple this with one of the most persistent fears that plagues the feminine mind – ‘are people talking about me instead of to me’ – and you’ve got one brilliantly potent recipe for receiving a molasses slow response from me.

“Stop thinking about stupid things,” Alex’s simple advice for enjoying life is hard to resist; in fact, as hard as my solemn mind tries to fight it, a slow grin crips over my face as I appreciate how steady – and for the record absolutely correct – my friend is.

Not yet at Alex’s level of expertise on enjoying life, I find myself fighting some antiquated, Jane-Austen-inspired notion that a woman’s reputation is all she has – her most valuable asset or her most feared liability. The power of this notion has diminished as women have found increasing freedom and no longer have to hope against hope that Mr. Darcy will show up and rescue them from spinsterhood and its accompanying poverty. Yet, for all of those Elizabeth Elliot wanna-be’s like myself, the idolatry of reputation and the fear of gossip can be a serious bondage – causing us to live stifled, repressed lives in which there is simply too much reading and too little dancing.

This fear is not limited to women, however. I remember having male mentors who would countless times caution me against making some statement or taking some kind of stand with the warnings that I would “get a reputation.” The word ‘reputation’ seemed to bear so much terror for a Methodist pastor in the itinerant system that it seemed they whispered the word with an edge of iciness in their voice that made it seem they were speaking about a newly discovered fatal disease that specifically targeted women in their early twenties with a call to ministry. So much fear seemed to pervade the itinerant culture, that from my earliest encounter with it I have known that to submit to the fear would be to lose who I was.

“Stop thinking about stupid things” – seems, then, to be an excellent new mantra for this journey. Enough of these “stupid things,” I tell myself, you’re living on Eleuthera for goodness sake – it would be a betrayal of the island’s name and its mindset to fail to embrace a little bit of freedom for once in your life.

“Stop thinking about stupid things” is only one of countless life lessons that I owe to Alex, and to our dearly departed Jess (departed from the island not from life – calm down). In between guitar lessons, trips to the clinic, and quality time with the chickens, I have learned the simple pleasure of enjoying another person’s company – without trying to accomplish anything else while doing so. Jess and Alex call this skill “chilling.”

Chilling is never something that has come easy to me; instead “collapsing” is the skill that I have acquired after five years of pastoral ministry with too much isolation, shoulder-crushing pressures, and persistently insufficient resources. The last couple years of balancing two “part-time” jobs, the expectations and pressures became dangerously unrealistic. No lie, I actually kept track of how I spent every moment of every day on my iCal, and there are portions where I did not know what else to write in my calendar but “Collapsed.” That’s right, “Collapsed” from 8:00 pm until 10:00 pm – that was my big event for the evening.

Unfortunately, being burdened with excessively unrealistic expectations, bordering on magical thinking, does not raise red flags or set off alarms for me as a life-long multi-tasker. It is as if the 9 volt battery in some internal alarm died long ago and no one ever found a ladder to climb up and replace it. My willingness to take on a “challenge” borders on the masochistic, still I stubbornly cling to the belief that hope simply cannot be defeated. Even in childhood, I prided myself on my multi-tasking – the ability to do many things at once that is the feared and ancient nemesis of “chilling.” I would find myself fidgeting with some craft while watching a movie as a kid; or end up reading an average of four books a day in fourth grade because the teachers did not know what to do with me when I finished my work so much earlier than the rest of the class. It is decidedly time, however, for my work habits, as well as my fierce understanding of hope, to chill out a bit.

In fact, I have become quite convinced that this whole “chilling” thing that Jess and Alex have been teaching me is very directly related to something God has been trying to teach me my whole life.

“Be still… and know… that I… am God.”

I feel fairly confident that learning to “chill” is an essential step in the process of learning to “be.”

Jess and Alex "chilling" in Hatchet Bay while I ran around multi-tasking ;-)
Jess and Alex “chilling” in Hatchet Bay while I ran around multi-tasking 😉
Manex and Alex "chilling" with my sweet little guitar... while I multi-tasked practicing guitar and hanging laundry on the line ;-)
Manex and Alex “chilling” with my sweet little guitar… while I multi-tasked practicing guitar and hanging laundry on the line 😉
Alex and Jess "chilling" at the dock of the bay... while I multi-task by picking up the pizza Manex ordered for us.
Alex and Jess “chilling” at the dock of the bay… while I multi-task by picking up the pizza Manex ordered for us.

“All those things in life…”

“How will you tell our story when we are gone?” Things don’t always end how and when we want them to, and for the Bahamas Methodist interns, the decision has been that their injuries are serious enough to send them home for recuperation. Preparing for their departure; taking leave of new friends that have quickly become like family; some of them can’t help but wonder what version of the narrative future visitors and volunteers will hear. “Will we be described as naive? As victims of a freak accident? As heroic?” For better or for worse, many people on the island seem to be under the impression that they are neither naive nor heroic, but deceased after news spread that they were struck by a rogue wave while walking on the cliffs. Thanks be to God, that narrative is not true, but it is hard to leave not knowing how their story will be told.

Several years ago, when I started in pastoral ministry in North Carolina, a particularly wise Bahamian told me that I must make sure to always tell my story. He told me that my story was my truth, only I knew it and only I could tell it. But if I did not tell it, there would always be people willing to rush in and tell it for me whether it was the truth or not.

That reality is expressed in few places as surely as the church – we love to tell one another’s stories, often with as much enthusiasm and visceral delight as we find in telling the “old, old story, of Jesus and his love.” Stories about others, sometimes called rumors, are traded like rare and valuable baseball cards, that once obtained give a great sense of pride to the owner until they are traded up for something even more valuable.

This can produce anxiety… if you let it. Yet, for our departing interns, as for me, as for you, as for us all, the key is not what story will be told, the key is what story will be lived. Our own actions and our own words are the only thing any of us have authentic control over. That action, called self-control, is a virtue and a fruit of the spirit – while control of others and what they say and do is neither virtue nor fruit. A simple modifying noun makes all the difference. I’ve lived off the high of trading stories and trying to control the world around me enough to know that it is a high that is neither authentic, nor lasting, nor satisfying. It seems the more we try to control what is not ours to control, the less control we truly have; for in the act of control of others, we have lost control of self.

“All those things in life. All those things in life. When you’re dead and you’re gone to Jesus, all those things in life going to be gone.”

I’m shaken out of my reflections by the groans from the woman in the flowered straw hat on the clinic bench beside me. Waiting for the interns wounds to be rebandaged, I sit beside an elderly woman who is writhing in pain after falling and bruising her knee the night before.

“All those things in life. All those things in life. When you’re dead and you’re gone to Jesus, all those things in life…”

She’s right, you know. All those things in life that frustrate you, when you’re dead and gone to Jesus, that is all that they are going to be – all those things in life.

But as right as she is, all those things in life can feel awfully important while you are living through them – and as much as her mind denies it, her body well knows it as she arches her back and throws herself against my shoulder moaning, “All those things in life… All those things in life.”

Helpless to do anything to ease her anguish, all I can offer is my agreement. Yes, all those things in life… all those things in life… we must learn to live more gently through all these things in life.

As we left the clinic, we went back to the cliffs that they had been dragged down. (Don’t worry Abe, not close enough to get caught by another rogue wave, just close enough to observe from a distance). Jess, Alex & Alicia were able to see and remember and begin to understand what had happened to them. And because they were better able to understand their story, they will now be better able to tell it. So friends, go home and tell your story, but be patient with yourself. Some stories take time to tell. Some stories we must tell to ourselves before we can tell them to others. And remember, as long as your life is not over, neither is your story, and the end of the story is never final – it is always be rewritten every moment, every hour, every day.

As you return home, there are many things that you will have no more control over than that rogue wave that arched over you with its white fury. Continue to write your ever-evolving story as you look to yourself to see where you place your feet, for those feet are the only thing you have control over. And look to God, who is no more controllable than your rogue wave, but much more merciful and who always has your best interests in mind.

“All those things in life. All those things in life…” Let us learn to live more loving, through all these things in life.

The edge of the water near the cliffs that a rogue wave overwhelmed
The edge of the water near the cliffs that a rogue wave overwhelmed

Sea of Stars

“Care for a cup?” This is the way every day should start, I say to myself, as Leroy goes to get me a cup of his special blend. Coconut water and pulp from the trees out front. Milk. Sugar. Stir. Its pretty much the best thing you’ll ever put in your mouth. Electrolytes, they tell me, electrolytes are why you drink it. It will make you stand up tall and ready to take on the day. Yet, certain that no amount of coconuts will make me taller, and already prepared to take on the day, I drink it for one reason alone. It is absolutely delicious.

And after three days of teasing me to go in the kitchen and fix him a meal, Manex does what is at the same time both unexpected and inevitable – he makes us breakfast. I decide that this morning what I have witnessed is not a feminist victory, but an authentic act of kindness and so I receive it with appropriate gratitude. Chicken eggs freshly gathered from the hen house are transformed under the delicate touch of BMH‘s Assistant Construction Coordinator into what may just be the most perfect over easy eggs I have ever seen.

This day has begun with what I felt sure were heroic acts of community and love. This day had begun just about as well as the night before it had ended.

The night in question had ended as Jess and Alex and I had lain flat on our backs on the rooftop patio of BMH counting the shooting stars that crossed overhead. It was amazing to me that the longer I lay there, the more stars appeared – as if the sky that arcs over the surrounding sea was a sea unto itself in which more bright specks of light floated to the surface the longer you watched. Our eyes, becoming accustomed to the darkness, spotted one shooting star after another as our mouths and hands took turns pointing and crying out “there’s another!”

After a long day that ended in a vigorous hour of play with the local school children, we had debated for probably about an hour how to spend the evening; the lackadaisical conversation somehow itself becoming the evening’s activity. How should we spend one of the last nights that Jess and Alex would be on the island. Beach? Too likely to fall with their injuries. Movie? Really? On a beautiful Bahamian night? But pondering the stars, spread across the sky in a quantity I have never seen before – that was an activity worthy of such a night.

I reflected on how unlikely a choice this would be for me back home. With so many distractions – gadgets – television – cable – phonecalls – “to do” lists – deadlines. Stars? Who has time for that? And yet, in that moment, it was hard to believe that I had ever spent an evening in any other manner.

As we lay on our backs, spread out around the roof, completely horizontal, we took a poll to gauge our tiredness factor – Alex was at 6 of 10, Jess and I were at about 7. Not quite ready to sleep, but getting there. I decide that I will wait for just one more shooting star to cross the sky. And after that one more. And one more. And maybe just one more.

This vibrant, moving, shifting sky is a place I can easily imagine sleeping under; truly, more than just imagine sleeping under, long to sleep under. But knowing that while that choice could easily be made in the intoxicating darkness, by daylight my body would be swollen with bug bites and scolding its nocturnal half like a chiding spouse. Yet, it is hard to pull myself away. Growing up camping, I have always loved sleeping under the stars. When I was a child, I was given glow in the dark stars for Christmas. Predictably, like the focused and determined child I was, I took a star map and painstakingly applied them to my ceiling. Even now, when I am home, I delight in turning out the lights and watching the night sky and constellations burst into view above my head.

But this sky shows me something altogether different. No static, stationary, pasted-in-place stars here. These stars twinkle, they pop, they soar across the sky in shooting arcs. This sky is alive. Just as alive as this place. And I realize it is all moving, all alive. The plants in the brush. The water in the sea. Even the stars in the sky. Unlike the fixed, concrete world I have spent so much time in – this world is alive.

I long to come alive like this place. Not to be bound, stuck, stationary. Not to be predictable, common place, anticipated. There is no way that an imitation of life can be acceptable once the authentic thing has been experienced. And with that I rejoice and give thanks to this great, powerful, mysterious, uncontrollable, unpredictable God who “danced in the moon and the stars and the sun.” No, not give thanks to God, I give thanks with God, knowing that God rejoices in my delight just as I rejoice in God’s.

And with that, I slip away to bed, unsuspecting that the morning would hold its own divine delights as Leroy and Manex, now asleep in their beds, would whip up blessings of encouragement and fellowship for my injured friends and I. But not quite yet. For a few more hours this narrow strip of land would slumber, as I did, surrounded below by its sea of liquid mystery and above by God’s endless sea of stars.

Leroy and I share a coconut during our hard day's work.
Leroy and I share a coconut during our hard day’s work.