Category Archives: Listening

Red… Yellow… Green

“Ms. C, will you sing a song for Hannah. Just because it is such a blessing and I have not heard you sing in so long.” As Lanecia spoke, I looked up from the art that I was examining to the form of the artist standing over me; the same beautiful soul that was reflected in her art shone down at me from behind her tender eyes. Sitting at a table in the Knowles-Rowland Center at St. John’s in downtown Houston, at the end of Bread of Life‘s Saturday breakfast with the homeless community, I found myself entranced by the many forms of beauty around me.

“What should I sing?” Ms. C asked, looking at the Project Manager of The Art Project. “Anything you want,” Lanecia answered.

What happened next was something transcendent. “Our Father, who ART in heaven…” I smiled broadly as Ms. C began to sing the Lord’s Prayer to the same tune that my mother had taught me as a child, making sure to emphasize the fact that God puts art all around us, even in our prayers. “…give us this day our daily bread…” Lanecia and I both turned our head slightly, in a subtle act of reflex, as the four year old child sitting in the back of the room behind us began to sing along. “…and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…”

Ms. C finished with her bowed slightly, “It’s been a while,” she said, “my voice is gravel-ey.” “No,” I responded, “it was beautiful. And you don’t know it, but you blessed me in a special way.”

I then began to tell her about the day a couple weeks ago when I had been walking on the beach in North Carolina and the song had come to my heart. I was having trouble finding the words to talk to God, until the song came to mind and I started singing. It was windy and the beach was cold and empty so I sang it to my hearts content, over and over again in Taize style all the way. Two miles from Southern Shores to Kitty Hawk, and two miles back. It was a beautiful walk, don’t get me wrong, but the impact of it did not hit me until that moment. It seemed God was winking at me once again, as my mind turned the two puzzle pieces to see that they fit together, reminding me that there was a thread of meaning through this journey we are on together.

“The Lord’s Prayer is our prayer,” Ms. C said. “The Lord’s Prayer was meant for homeless people. That is why it says ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ We know what it is to need our daily bread.”

“I need daily bread too,” Lanecia said.

“Yes, but no one is more in need of daily bread than a homeless person. No one understands it better than we do,” Ms. C replied.

Lanecia nodded as if to say ‘touche’ and answered, “You’re always teaching me.”

A couple months before, while I was listening to God with my friends on Eleuthera, I had been blessed with a spiritual direction visit via Skype from Pastor Juanita Campbell Rasmus, one of the founders of Bread of Life, Inc., the non-profit of St. John’s responsible both for the morning’s breakfast that fed the community’s bellies, and for The Art Project that fed their hearts. The challenge she had left me with was to ask God how God wanted me to pray. And here, coming full circle as I sat in a building that hosted Bread of Life, was another piece of that puzzle.

I was learning to live my prayers. I was learning what it meant to live as if I really trusted God for my daily bread. It was hard at moments, but God always sent me what I needed to keep my courage up. The day before it had been my beautiful friend Yvette Davis, who had found her way from Pennsylvania, where we had served together, to a conference in Houston. Today it was my gentle friend Lanecia, whose beautiful soul had welcomed me first to Durham, and then to Nashville and now, in this chapter of my life, to Houston.

“Tell me more about your art,” I said to Ms. C, as she and Lanecia finished their dialogue about the Lord’s Prayer. “I love the colors you use, tell me about the colors again.”

She pointed to a small painting of what seemed to be a stop light, with the colored circles stacked – red, yellow, green. It was painted on cardboard because, as Lanecia explained, it provided a way of redeeming the medium that many were compelled to use to make signs asking for help. With a little love and paint and talent, cardboard became a sign of strength rather than vulnerability.

“Red is stop. Yellow is wait. Green is go, it is hope,” Ms. C said. “When a homeless person looks at a stop light, they can see green and see hope and motivation. Green means go. Go to HUD and get housing. Go to St. John’s and get love. Go gets people moving.”

I looked with admiration at the spread of paintings in front of me. Throughout all of them the colors remained, bringing her message through again and again.

Go. Hope. Green. Life.

God had certainly been giving me the green light these days.

I had slammed my brakes on hard a few months back, when after feeling tossed around and battered, I had realized that I did not have to wait for anyone else to say “Stop” or “No more.” When the realization that I had the power to say “Stop” finally washed over me, it was an incredibly liberating feeling and Red glowed with all its warmth and power and welcomed me to its embrace.

Gradually, as the tire skids began to fade, and the shock of a full-on stop dissipated, Yellow came into view. Thousands of miles from home, on the island of Eleuthera, with people I loved and a God who cherished me, it was easier to respect the authority of Yellow than it would have been anywhere else. As I stood throughout those months watching the sun set, Yellow lapped at my toes, as the golden waves rolled in. Yellow lingered, as its grains of sand clung to my dampened skin. Yellow caressed my face, as it’s final rays dipped below the horizon, revealing an echo of red as it disappeared. I submitted to Yellow’s loving command. Wait.

Then a couple weeks before I met Ms. C, Green spoke up. My feet were back in my favorite place, my sister’s home in Arlington, when I heard Green come through my headphones. A song I’d never heard before, by Sandra McCracken, an artist I had long respected, whose music had accompanied me along many other roads.

“Go, go if you want
Go, on your own
Go when you’re ready
Brave girl you are smart
Go when your heart is strong and is steady

Diamonds are your words, babe
Speak them slow, the wisdom is coming
Sure the steps that you take
In sorrow and hope, your beauty becoming…
Hush the noises, hush your doubt
Find your courage, draw it out…”

The time of Green has come. For Ms. C, and also for me.

Lanecia, a skilled photographer, captures a beautiful moment with a beautiful person
Lanecia, a skilled photographer, captures a beautiful moment with a beautiful person

From The Art Project’s website: “The Art Project, Houston’s ultimate goal is to  provide homeless artist an opportunity to make their own trade by creating, displaying and selling their art as a collective body through art exhibits in collaboration with those who are actively engaged in ameliorating suffering and bringing an end to this condition including local agencies, groups, organizations and individuals who share the concern of  the homeless dilemma.”  Interested in supporting homeless artists?  Find out more at http://www.theartprojecthouston.org

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You Are a Gift

“Did you know that everyone in the whole world is a gift to the world?” I smiled as the four year old who had asked to help me gather shells spilled a little wisdom on me. “Well, that is beautiful,” I exclaimed, “who told you that?” “No one told me,” he answered, “no one had to tell me. I just knew. There are thousands of people in the world and every one of them is a gift to the world. Even you. You are a gift to the world.”

It was one of those – “Are you kidding me? Is this actually happening?” – kind of moments. He was a bit off in terms of the number of people that populate the world, but the rest was spot on. I dutifully obeyed the kid for the next couple hours, collecting shells and building an epic sand castle, unable to stop thinking about his endearing words. Regardless of what his reasons were for saying what he said, I was pretty sure that God had reasons for me hearing it, and I couldn’t stop smiling. I taught him what the word Eleuthera meant – freedom – and then I had to teach him what freedom meant. Meanwhile he taught me that it doesn’t take too much knowledge or age or experience to know the important facts in life. “You are a gift to the world. Each person is a gift to the world.”

As the sun set and we headed home in our respective directions, I thought about what it meant to be a gift. My mind returned to a conversation I had almost five years ago, not long after I graduated seminary, with the man our class called “The Bishop.” He was “The Bishop” not because he sought it, although many at Duke are known for doing so, but simply out of deference for the spiritual wisdom he exuded. He was the kind of person you would wish was your bishop. He had pulled me aside that summer as I tried to discern whether to take a job at a mega-church, or remain in the unpaid position I currently held and continue to build ministries with young urban leaders. “You are a gift,” he had told me, “but you have to be opened in the right place by the right people.” In the end, I stayed at the Isaiah House, remained in unpaid, urban ministry, and kept working the nightshift so I could minister during the day. That choice, in many ways, altered the direction of my life. Ever since then, whenever presented with two options, I almost invariably choose the harder one. It is one of the many things about me that both delights and annoys people.

That’s just me. I like a challenge. I accept that about myself.

I’ve been learning something new here on Eleuthera, however. Being willing to take on a challenge, doesn’t mean that you need to take on every challenge. Just as you are a gift and I am a gift, so also is life a gift and everything that comes our way. In order to live life to the fullest, we need to discern which challenges to open and which to decline. Sometimes “no” is the right answer. Sometimes “stop” is the right answer. Sometimes “not now” is the right answer. Especially when you are young, people are more than willing to use your time and youthful freedom and flexibility to try out the experiments they are too established to risk themselves. That time and freedom and hope and joy – those are your gifts, among many other things – but you don’t have to let just anybody open them and use them.

Knowing how and when to use your gifts, and saying no to being used by others, has an awful lot to do with knowing who you are.

If ever there was a place for me to be reminded of that, it was here in James Cistern. The wonderful thing about people here on Eleuthera is that they really do not care where I went to school, or what my resume says, or whether I am ordained or not. The aspects of me that people usually think make me a gift – my experience, my education, my credentials – mean nothing here. Here they care only care about who I am, how I treat, them, whether I show up, and what I contribute to the community. Here I am judged on who I am – my character, my sincerity, and my integrity. They care about the things that make me a human, a child of God, and a servant of God. They do not value me because of what I have accomplished, or who I can introduce them to through my connections.

Oh Lord, how incredibly healing it is to be judged on those kind of scales, and to be found to be valuable and worthy of love and respect. It actually makes a person believe that they are worthy of love and respect. If you can respect me when I have not showered for three days; and tell me that I look better without make up anyway; and expect me to “produce” nothing more than compassion and growth – then you are the type of person that I want for a friend. Then you are a gift.

A couple years ago, I was sitting in my ordination mentor’s office, and admired a framed quote on her wall. So she took it down and gave it to me. Howard Thurman, one of my favorite theologians. “Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Well, Mindy, it has taken me a while to stop loving that quote and start living that quote, but here we go. It is time to know me. To be me. To do me.

At the end of the day, I have learned, what you accomplish is not what is most important. If you are not living into your freedom and calling, then you are just proving what you are capable of doing, not revealing what makes you come alive. You can look pretty darn good, shiny paper and all, and still just be a gift that has not been unwrapped.

If ever there was someone who needed to know that, it was me. If ever there was someone who needed to be taught by these good people of James Cistern that I – in and of myself – am worthy of love, it was me. They unwrapped me. They took off all my shiny paper, and bows; took off all my certificates, diplomas, credentials, and cvs; and all that was left was me. Not Rev. Bonner. Not PB. Not this or that title. Just Hannah. That is what it means to have your gift opened; to meet people that are blind to all the wrapping paper and bows and just see what is inside.

Maxine and Pauline, you looked right through me, to my heart, and you loved me. I know your respect does not come cheap, please know I treasure it; it is as valuable a gift to me, as the gift you made me believe I am.  Thank you.

I found out recently that Pauline’s husband, Edmund, was one of the greatest pitchers the Bahamas has seen. It took me two months to find that out; and they didn’t even tell me when I finally did find out; I saw a picture and someone else explained it to me. Unbelievable. But it makes sense, because like I said, accomplishments are not what makes you valuable here. Who you are and what you contribute to the community is what matters. What a humble and gentle man Edmund is. If I had to tell you what I thought his greatest accomplishment was, I would say his marriage to Pauline and the way they support each other. Even after knowing he is a world class pitcher, I would still say that. I guess James Cistern has gotten into my head. They have taught me to see what is really valuable and what is really important here.

So I am going to do my very best to be me, to do me – and I encourage you to do the same. I have found out that being a gift that needs to be unwrapped in the right place did not mean what I thought it did, and it probably did not even mean what “The Bishop” thought it did. It does not mean finding the right challenge to take on and resolve. It meant finding the right people who could see past all my pretty distractions and show me who I really am. People who looked at me when I was stripped of all the things that I thought made me beautiful and valuble, and still told me that I was both. That is their gift to me.

We, my friends, are gifts to the world, according to my four year old sage. So, open up that gift this Christmas. Strip away everything you think makes you who you are – your clothes, your job, your history, your friends, your home – imagine yourself too without a job and without a home, on an isolated island that is rapidly depopulating for the holidays – what is left when all is stripped away? That is you, that is your gift. Be you, that will be enough.

My spiritual mama's, Maxine and Pauline, who have no idea how much I am going to miss them
My spiritual mama’s, Maxine and Pauline, who have no idea how much I am going to miss them
Building sandcastles with my four year old sage
Building sandcastles with my four year old sage
Last sunset on Eleuthera
Last sunset on Eleuthera
I love sunsets
I love sunsets
Did I mention I love sunsets?  Seeing the sun set just means that we get to rest and then start fresh again.  That is pretty great :)
Did I mention I love sunsets? Seeing the sun set just means that we get to rest and then start fresh again. That is pretty great 🙂

Courage in a time of Trials

Silence. No one here but me. It has been like this all day. Preacher’s Cave, Tay Bay Beach, and the Devil’s Backbone – mine alone. I had come here because it was the only way I knew how to stand in solidarity with my fellow preachers back home in Pennsylvania; burdened today with the task of deciding whether to remove the credentials of the Rev. Frank Schaefer. It had not taken long. I actually knew what the answer had been before I could even make it up to the northernmost point of the island; before I even entered the cave. Rev. Frank Schaefer had been defrocked. Cast out of the Order of Elders. The Order whose members I had only a couple years ago, taken vows to support. Somehow I felt I still owed Rev. Shaefer my vow of support. But there was little left to do but pray.

When I arrived I walked first out to Tay Bay Beach, where the shipwrecked Eleutherian Adventurers had come ashore before finding refuge in the cave. I climbed up on the rocks and ate my lunch in the shadow of a deserted dingy, a shipwreck itself in miniature. Conch shells lay scattered over the volcanic rock, vulnerable as they revealed their pink interior which, along with the coral reefs, were responsible for the pink hue of the sand on this island. Some more beaten up than beautiful, their scars revealed that they had given up more of themselves than others to contribute to the beauty of this beach.

‘Careful’, I said to myself, knowing that the razor sharp rocks that I walked on cautiously would cut me to the bone if I had a single misstep. And then I did – oooooh wheeee – a little something to remember this place by.

As I looked out at the Devil’s Backbone, the dangerous reef that had taken so many ships over the years – and the Eleutherian Adventurers first of all – I marveled at the courage that kind of journey demanded. Courage.

Courage became the theme of my thoughts as I pondered and prayed, and I knew that courage was what would be demanded of us now.

Walking back up the path and into Preacher’s Cave, I did not have the words yet. So I took out my guitar and simply pleaded for God’s grace as I wandered the cave, strumming the chords of Amazing Grace to the rocks and the shadows and the shafts of light.

Finally, I put the guitar away, and climbing up into the naturally formed pulpit of Preacher’s Cave, I found a smooth place to sit.

And, here I sit, and I wonder – Where do we go from here?

A single solitary leaf floats down from the largest opening in the roof of Preacher’s Cave. The sand fleas surround me, but for the first time – almost eerily – not a single one bites me. Nearby I hear the waves crashing and the wind blowing through the large leaves of the sea grape trees. A bird calls out to another and then quietly awaits a reply. Apart from that, all is silence. All is darkness. All is light. That is the irony of Preacher’s Cave. It protects this space with an armor perforated by nature’s power to flood that which should be dark with light.

This is why the early settlers chose to keep returning to this place to worship. It is mysterious and ethereal. A place of darkness where the light rules. A place where shipwrecked freedom seekers came with sadness and left filled with hope. It is a place you come to, but not a place where you stay.

This is my tomb. My place of hope. Where death and despair and discouragement are overturned even at the moment when it seems least possible.

I believe something is changing, I believe it must. I believe the Spirit is moving and I am trying to figure out how to move and shift and sway and dance with her mysterious way.

I believe that I am changing, I believe I must. Courage is the path forward.

No one ever found freedom without courage. The Eleutherian Adventurers put their lives and futures at stake – and those of their children – to search for freedom. Mother Theresa, although she did not want it known, boldly pestered and pleaded with every church authority she could find until she was, after many years, given the church’s blessing to be released from the vows of her Order to begin her own Order. Harriet Tubman, whose feet traced the path North and South that I have traveled more times than I could count, had the kind of courage few of us can even imagine. She had the courage to risk her life not for her own freedom, but for the freedom of others. She understood that all of our freedom is bound up together, and no one is free if anyone is still in chains.

Today my Order lost another person of courage. Simple courage, not dramatic courage – the very simple act of saying and living who he really was. An act that, though simple, is rare. There are few of us who do not have a trial we avoid. Most of us know, if we are being honest, that we can no more agree with and keep every letter of the church law than we can agree with and keep every letter of the law that Jesus speaks of – the law he came not to abolish but to fulfill. The law that has been fulfilled, so that Christ might give us a new way of living.

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Where will we find the freedom to be, say, live who we truly and fully are? We will only find it through courage. The kind that makes your knees shake and your eyes water and your voice crack – the kind of courage, in other words, that emerges not from the lack of fear. As Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Our current trial culture will either bring courage out in some, or drive it back into the shadows.

My skin has grown cold as the sun dips low. Cold like the water of Tay Bay Beach. Cold like the rocks that surround me in this nature made and human improved chancel of Preacher’s Cave. I reach up and touch the rock around my neck – my tomb, my cave in miniature – and say, as I always do, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is shifting sand.”

Where will we go from here? I am not sure, but the only way forward is on the solid rock and not the shifting sand. Speaking only for myself, the shifting sand has been the politics of the church; the desperate search for the survival of the institution; and the corruption of our youthful optimism as we identify those with leadership potential not in order to follow them in new directions, but in order to tell them how to lead us where we have already been. I have been an accomplice in all these things.

The solid rock, I have found in unexpected places. The comraderie and loyalty of my friend’s who occupied Delaware. The accurate spiritual wisdom of the prophets of James Cistern, Pauline and Maxine. The faithful perseverance of my friends at the Isaiah House, David and Rebekah. Like I child crossing a stream, I have used my discernment to spot the solid rocks and hopped from one to another to find my way. But as we grow up, courage demands that we find the ability to stand steady on our own rock and be a haven for others.

Where does courage come from? It comes from the confidence that we have honestly searched and struggled to know who we are and what we believe. True courage can only ever come from the confidence of convictions.

So we must summon up every ounce of courage we can find, from every dark space we have hidden it in. Bring it all forward to the center of the cave, and find out how much we have when we all come together. Then we will see where God will take this ship we call the church.

One man shipwrecked on an island is Robinson Crusoe; 50 shipwrecked are the Eleutherian Adventurers. One man shipwrecked on an island seeks only to survive; 50 shipwrecked are the first settlers of a new nation.

Courage that makes your knees shake; compassion that makes your heart ache; and a community that sees the walls break. That will be our way forward.

Preacher's Cave as seen from the pulpit
Preacher’s Cave as seen from the pulpit
The approach to Preacher's Cave
The approach to Preacher’s Cave
Spreading some Amazing Grace around the cave
Spreading some Amazing Grace around the cave
Conch shells on Tay Bay Beach, some more battered than others
Conch shells on Tay Bay Beach, some more battered than others
The guardian of Tay Bay Beach
The guardian of Tay Bay Beach
Shafts of light pierce the darkness in Preacher's Cave
Shafts of light pierce the darkness in Preacher’s Cave
A life preserver is one of many objects washed ashore at Tay Bay Beach
A life preserver is one of many objects washed ashore at Tay Bay Beach

Freedom in a time of Trials

“Watcha doin’ tomorrow?” Leroy asked as we postponed my stick-shift driving lessons after his niece Courtney demanded my attention. The child had jumped out of the bathtub and come running straight out the house yelling “Hannah! Hannah!” when I drove by on my way to work that morning, and by the afternoon she was tired of waiting for her promised adventure. It would have been impossible to escape; she had an ear attuned after much practice to recognize the sounds of Brenda’s car and intercept her on her way from Rainbow to Camp Symonette. And now, driving Brenda’s car, I was to reap the benefits of all that practice.

“I’m going to Preacher’s Cave tomorrow,” I answered. Preacher’s Cave had captured my fascination from the first time I heard the words about eleven months ago. On a trip with some amazing clergywomen from my home Conference, Eastern Pennsylvania, I had come across a tea named after Preacher’s Cave. A tea which I, of course, had to purchase and spend the next few months drinking. I have to admit that I did not even realize that Preacher’s Cave was a real place when I bought the tea. I simply thought it was an elegant Bahamian metaphor for the secluded state that is necessary for many when giving birth to a sermon. Don’t ask me why I thought that the marketers believed that might appeal to the general populace.

Imagine my shock and delight then when during my first week on the island, somebody told me that I needed to go to Preacher’s Cave. Whip lash – “Wait, Preacher’s Cave is a real place?? And I am close to it right now?”

Apparently Preacher’s Cave was a real place, but not many people came across it because it was on a secluded island. Yet, wonder of wonders, I too was on that secluded island.

God had already blown my mind with this spiritually tantalizing serendipity, but there was more!

First, Preacher’s Cave was amazingly beautiful and the aesthetics – light filtering in through holes in the roof of the cave – were equally delightful to my eye and to my heart. For someone who chose to name their blog after the Cohen lyrics “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” it felt that this place was the visible representation of the contours of my heart. It revealed the reality that holes and cracks and imperfections are not the things that destroys us, but rather the things that make us beautiful. And yeah, the rain pours in the holes when it is storming, but on most days the sun streams through those same holes; I accept that you have to take a bit of rain on your head, in order to experience the sunlight on your face.

Second, Preacher’s Cave had a powerful story to go along with it’s imposing form. In 1647 a group of adventurers set out from Bermuda on a journey seeking a space to worship and practice their religion in the way they felt led. They called themselves the Eleutherian Adventurers (for those rusty on their Greek, eleuthera means “freedom”). As they passed by a long strip of land, 100 miles long by 2 miles wide, they found themselves face to face with the Devil’s Backbone – a tremendous reef that winds along the Atlantic side of the island. The survivors of the shipwreck made it to shore and found shelter in a large cathedral-like cave. It was there in that perfectly contoured space, that they gave thanks to God for their lives and celebrated their first worship service.

They found the beautiful island to be uninhabited; not because it had gone undiscovered, but because it had been discovered. This island was one of many whose population had been drained and decimated by Spanish explorers.  The original Arawak inhabitants, the Lucayans, had been taken from the island to work the mines in Cuba and Hispaniola, in an era before the attention of the “explorers” had turned away from native populations and towards the continent of Africa to satiate their thirst for slaves.

The shipwrecked adventurers decided that God had brought them to this perilous and beautiful snake of an island, and so they decided to stay. They spread out and became the first to settle the Bahamas, still returning for over 100 years to worship at the cave. They carved a rough pulpit into the rock, seats for the ministers, and even a choir loft. They named it Preacher’s Cave, and they named the island Eleuthera – the place where freedom is found.

In those days, that was indeed how one found freedom. There was plenty of “empty” places in the world to go and set up shop; and if they were not empty you could simply convert, enslave or decimate the populace – usually a combination of all three was employed. Ironically, the way that the European world found freedom, was the same way that the rest of the world lost it.

Thankfully that is not the accepted method to find freedom anymore. Yet, there is still a draw towards freedom, a hunger for freedom. People are still wrestling today about worship; but these days the struggle has shifted from not only how you worship, but also with whom do you worship.

Back home in Eastern Pennsylvania, where my Preacher’s Cave Tea sipping friends are laboring through the final week of Advent, it feels like everything is in question. The United Methodist Church wants to affirm the dignity and sacred worth of people of all genders and orientations; while simultaneously withholding certain positions and ceremonies from those who diverge from the traditional norm. We simply cannot have it both ways. The longing for freedom that has run its course through every phase of the church bears the fruit of its ancient DNA right in front of us today. The pot of discontent boils over, and the voices heavy with the guilt of many years of silence hold their tongue no more.

My Bishop stands in the center, and God be with her, is finding the words and the courage to lead us through it. My friends stand upon ground they would never choose – judge, jury and credential-executioner for one of their own. Today the Rev. Frank Schaefer goes before the Board of Ordained Ministry, having refused to voluntarily surrender his credentials after performing a marriage ceremony for his son and his partner. He stands today firm in his integrity, having satisfied the demands of his convictions. He confronts the church with the question, is there not another way?

I cannot be with them on this painful day, a day that cannot be easy for anyone regardless of their stance, and so I will travel up this snake of an island and stand in Preacher’s Cave and I too will ask God, is there not another way? I will plant my feet on solid Eleutherian soil, and ask what freedom means and how we are to find it.

While, thankfully, exploration, conquest and colonization are no longer the methods employed to find religious freedom, it does leave us all with a little less air to breathe. We cannot escape one another, we have to fight it out living side by side.

Unfortunately, we still do find it necessary to employ the other ancient tool of struggle within the church – the trial. The trial is a method that reached its low point during the Inquisition, while throughout the ages never seeming to bring out the best in us regardless of the time or space. In the United States, we usually consider the Salem witch trials to be the low point of church trials, and looking back it is hard to believe that really happened; hard to believe we really did that to one another. The recent genealogy craze revealed the loss of an ancestor on my mother’s side to the Salem witch trials, and it is certainly not difficult these days to feel a sense of sardonic affinity with that virtuous woman.

The funny thing is, the man in whose name we carry out these trials, fell victim to a very similar trial himself. The witnesses were brought in, the rigged questions were asked, and Jesus Christ was declared a religious heretic. His sentence was not the loss of his credentials, but the loss of his life. There was no appeal, and no mercy. And at the will of the jury, we put God made flesh to death. It is just so hard to imagine that same man wanting trials to be carried out in his name.

So today, I will stand in Preacher’s Cave, and I will pray – for a miracle if the Board can find one; and for a new way forward if they cannot. We do not need more trials, we do not need more executions of calling. That is why I wear an Eleutherian rock around my neck rather than a cross these days. It represents for me the cave of refuge, the solid rock on which I stand, and the tomb that gave birth to resurrection. Because it was not a trial, an execution and a cross that changed my life; it was the tomb in which death was defeated, a verdict was overruled, and life burst forth with freedom.

Trial, execution, death – that is only half the story. Shipwrecks have survivors. Tombs have escapees. Trials have pardons. Death has resurrection.

The pulpit at Preacher's Cave
The pulpit at Preacher’s Cave
Holes add to the beauty in Preacher's Cave
Holes add to the beauty in Preacher’s Cave
The entry to Preacher's Cave
The entry to Preacher’s Cave
Plaque at the entry of Preacher's Cave
Plaque at the entry of Preacher’s Cave
Watching the sunset with Leroy's niece
Watching the sunset with Leroy’s niece

Journey to Deliver

“Children, you are not too young. Pray for me as I go on my journey, and as I go I will cover you in prayer.” Vonnia stood at the front of the church, more than eight months pregnant, and addressed the youth of the congregation as she led praise songs. It would be her last Sunday leading worship for some time.

At the beginning of the service, the worship leader had reminded the congregation that “Mrs. Pierce is going to Nassau to deliver. We trust you will bring back a healthy bouncing baby.” It was a curious custom here on the island of Eleuthera, but one that made sense after a little thought. Once a mother is a month away from her due date, the doctor sends her off the island to Nassau. The clinics on Eleuthera cannot handle delivery complications, and so all expectant mothers are sent to deliver at the hospital in Nassau. As the story goes, if you drag your feet and don’t get off the island, the doctor will send his nurses to your house to strongly remind you.

As Vonnia stood in front of the church, encouraging the young people that God had a plan for their generation and they were a part of that plan, the scene was thrillingly fraught with Advent imagery. Vonnia, praising God and giving her speech of thanks, almost the image of Mary mid-Canticle. A woman preparing to leave her home and family, to go on a journey, during which she would deliver a son. Just over a week until Christmas and here it was playing out in front of us.

Giving space for an expectant mother to prophesy seemed to bring the past forward with dramatic reenactment, while simultaneously revealing how far we had come from that past as a woman’s voice addressed the congregation. Vonnia was bringing the word, humbling me with her energy and her vision for my generation. And she was bringing the truth home in song as well, “If it had not been… for The Lord on my side… tell me where would I be, where would I be.” Where would I be indeed. I had been plucked up once again from miry clay and had my feet planted on solid ground. And there were a lot of people that I was grateful to for that. Abe and Brenda for inviting me to stay on Eleuthera. Pauline and Maxine for simply loving me. Manex and Leroy and TJ for befriending me. But as Vonnia led the congregation in song, and I stood, arms reaching heavenward, not fighting the tears, I realized that my gratitude, although warranted, had been misplaced. Psalm 56 once again came to mind, “This I know, that God is for me.”

God, as usual, was intent on me understanding that though there were many who might love me and support me, it was God’s hand that was on me to protect and to lead. The moment, pardon the phrase, was pregnant with meaning and spiritual intensity.

I was looking forward to reflecting on all this powerful Advent imagery when I got home, but was somewhat shocked to find words and meaning eluded me. Yes, it was remarkable and beautiful to see Mary’s story reflected by Vonnia’s leadership. But I felt like there was something deeper, below the surface of the beauty, that I needed to grasp.

Sunday passed into Monday, and still I wrestled; which could mean only one thing, it was time to return to the garden. After a week’s absence due to illness, my body was grateful to feel full of strength and life again and my mind was grateful for the solitude in which to wrestle.

I was plagued throughout the morning with painful thoughts and memories, this had happened before, but for the first time, I thought to ask God, why? Why is all this pain and regret and hurt coming to mind? ‘Because I am trying to show you something. These are walls and distractions.’ Knowing that they were distractions to my attention, and not meant to be the focus of my attention, they began to lose their power and dissipate as I continued to open myself up to hear.

About halfway through the day, up to my elbows in tomato plants, it came to me; or it seemed to at least. The canticle was what my mind latched onto, the similarity between Vonnia’s song and Mary’s. But the delivery of the song was what intrigued me. Whereas Mary delivered her song more privately; Vonnia delivered hers publicly as a woman given a voice in front of the congregation. Whereas Mary delivered hers while an object of suspicion in the community; Vonnia delivered hers while being honored by the community.

It made me ponder how we send people off; how we transition in the church. I wondered what it would have been like if Mary had lived during a time when she could have been honored, when she could have told her story, when she could have been sent forth on her journey lifted up by the people around her. Maybe it struck a chord because it was something I longed for in every transition – support and connection from my community.

I was making progress, but I knew I was not there yet. There was something powerful about the way Vonnia spoke, especially to the children, and the way her community supported her as she departed for her journey. It was something I felt sure I would appreciate and ponder for years to come. But whatever God was trying to reveal, I knew I was not there quite yet.

That night, despite the day of hard labor, I did not find sleep to come as easily as it usually did. It finally did arrive in the midst of a four word conversation with God; my two words, “I’m scared.” God’s two words, “Trust me.” Back and forth until I fell into peaceful sleep on my tear dampened pillow.

The next morning the pain in my quads and biceps told the story of the price my body had paid to give my heart the space to wrestle there in the garden. The up – down, pull – push, reach – lift, rhythm of a full day’s work had left its mark. But I was only half-way through clearing the garden and, the irony not lost on me, only half-way through clearing my head. So on we must go.

I tore through the weeds with vigor, determined that my physical task would be accomplished that day even if my soul searching had not found its goal.

My mind wrestled as my hands fought with the weeds that seemed to become increasingly strong as I approached the edge of the beds where the advance of the deeply entrenched field weeds was the strongest.

I pondered the pain of leaving. How difficult it must have been for Mary to leave her home, her friends, her family to go and deliver in another city where she did not know anyone and there was not even any room in the inn. At least in Vonnia’s case, we knew she had a place to stay in Nassau until the birth. Yet in both cases, it still could not be easy to leave family and friends and deliver in a strange place. I knew I was getting closer.

Then, I received a hint, gratefully. ‘Don’t let gender distract you. Who else beside Mary and Vonnia had to leave family and friends and their own town in order to be faithful?’

Well, then it was suddenly easy, Abraham! And not the Eleutheran one, the Hebrew one.

When God is about to do something new, God often calls people into a journey. This clashes with our culture, and perhaps even our church culture, that tells us that long tenure is the sign of steadfast faithfulness and looks with suspicion upon the wanderer. But when God calls us apart, when God wants us for Godself, when God wants to calm the buzz and hum of chatter and rumor and pressure and conversation – then we go. There is no other choice.

I realized that I had been feeling a bit resentful towards God on Mary’s behalf. Sending her off to give birth alone rather than in the company of her women. But it was not an act of cruelty on God’s part to rip her out of her world; it was an act of faith on her part, and on Joseph’s, to journey first to Bethlehem and then to Egypt. They journeyed as they gestated, delivered, and protected new life.

“Mary pondered these things in her heart.” During her time of delivery, God took Mary on a journey away from the whispers and questions about where this baby came from, away from the daily concerns and gave her a space of greater intimacy with God. A space where she could ponder these things in her heart. Without the midwives of her town, God was her midwife. As the Psalms say more than once, “you took me from my mother’s womb.” Without the support of her family and friends around her, God encircled Mary and her Joseph; God was their mother, father, sister, midwife, friend.

God, who loves to draw us apart, and teach us that life is not always found in the midst of the crowd, must have a special affection for the introvert.

Sometimes a gestation of new life is physical, as in the case of Mary and Vonnia, and sometimes it is spiritual as in the case of Abraham. What a strange thing that God calls us to journey just at the moment when we want to stay, to be comfortable, to nest.  But God does not lead us out because God wants us to be alone; God leads us out because we need this to understand that we are not alone.

The last bit of clarity I felt was just how early I still was in my spiritual gestation. Whatever God was building inside of me, we were just at the beginning. And now, just when I want to stay, just when I want to nest, I know that the journey continues. I know that in a week I will leave this island and I will find my way into whatever the next part of the journey is. This is not where I will deliver. But I was not ripped from my world when I chose to come here, and I am not being ripped from my world now. I am not ripped from my world any more than Mary was, any more than Abraham was. I am choosing to follow; I am choosing to leave just as I chose to come. ‘Take courage, I am forming something new. You are not alone.’ In that there is deep peace for this wandering soul.

“And Mary pondered these things in her heart.” May we all find the space in these remaining days of Advent to ponder deeply what God is gestating in each of us.

Brenda, Maxine and Pauline celebrate with Vonnia before she leaves for Nassau.
Brenda, Maxine and Pauline celebrate with Vonnia before she leaves for Nassau.
Congregation at Wesley Methodist, James Cistern, worships as Vonnia leads
Congregation at Wesley Methodist, James Cistern, worships as Vonnia leads
Garden before the weeding frenzy.
Garden before the weeding frenzy.
Garden after the weeding frenzy.
Garden after the weeding frenzy.
A hard day's work
A hard day’s work
So fresh and so clean
So fresh and so clean

Just Dance (Haiti, Part 2)

“Brace yourself,” Jared said as we exited Willio’s car and approached the door to the Sur Le Rocher compound where a security guard stood watch. On the other side of that wooden door waited a couple of dozen children, and more would be on their way home from school soon.

The door began to open and someone whispered, “Let the petting zoo begin.” Taken aback, I felt certain I was not going to treat these children like a petting zoo. But as they leapt on Gene with delighted shouts of “Gene! Gene! Gene!” and then came for the rest of us, I realized, I was the baby goat not them.

A dozen hands were on me, tugging, pulling, hugging. Anything that was not attached to me needed to be removed and examined. Sunglasses; the rubberband bracelet my niece made me; the little sterling silver ring I had found on the ground a decade ago and had oddly never taken off.

As music from brass instruments began to float down to us from the second story, I followed the crowd upstairs to where the older children were playing Christmas songs. We sat down and I was surrounded, two children to my left, two to my right, someone put a baby down in my lap.

The kids marveled at my moles, and looked up at me quizzically – spots of chocolate on my tan skin. As they poked at them with questioning eyes, their looks made me think I must look like an art project that God had left half finished; spraying paint on with the flick of a toothbrush like we did in elementary school art, but not quite finishing me.

My hair was also a matter of fascination. I was accustomed to the children on Eleuthera’s fascination with the hundred different shades of white and yellow and brown that the Eleutheran sun turned my hair as I worked out in the garden. I was not accustomed to so many hands in it though, and not wanting to stand out, I covered it with a hat – a hat which quickly became another removable piece to examine.

Reminiscent of similar stealth missions that my father had carried out when I was a child, Gene, Willio and Jared disappeared to smuggle Christmas presents out of sight while Elissa and I found ourselves alone with the children.

I suddenly realized I was beyond my depth. I did not know what to do. And we needed to find some game other than the ‘petting zoo.’ But with a Creole vocabulary that was limited to the number of words I could count on two hands, I was having a hard time asking where the soccer ball was.

I wished my friend Doris from Philadelphia was there. She would know what to do for sure; she would say “Bonswa Mama,” and be best friends with the women cooking rice and beans in the corner of the orphanage compound before I could put together a “Sak passe.” I had watched her do it before in a marketplace in Nassau. She was a marvel to watch. Why wasn’t she here now?

I wished my friend Brenda from Eleuthera was there. I felt confident that in her past visits to Sur Le Rocher, she must have had the kids marching around in circles playing the alligator hunt within five minutes.

Thankfully, Elissa from Pensacola was there and the mother of four did know what to do. Out came the markers she had brought while a child ran for the paper. Out came her Creole phrasebook and soon one of the older boys had fetched a ladder and was climbing it to retrieve a hidden golf ball that we could use to shoot through the basketball hoop.

As the frenzy calmed down, and the children began to separate into different activities – soccer, basketball, coloring – I began to be able to distinguish individual children from the mass of hands grabbing at me from every direction. I was able to have conversations, I learned their names. And as I have learned countless times before, I would learn again – once I learn a child’s name, they get stuck in my heart.

All of it was at the same time a delightful, overwhelming and confusing experience. I will admit that part of why I was struggling was that I was overanalyzing everything. I was uptight. A million thoughts were racing through my head. Books on paternalism. Articles by my friend Enuma Okoro. Joking with African American friends as they shared their disdain for those white people who just cannot wait to post a picture of themselves with a black baby. I was not one of those people, or was I? Were we delivering Christmas to these children, or were we reinforcing the message that white people have “stuff” and bring “stuff.”

Words raced through my head. Paternalism. Inequity. Poverty. Scarcity. Abundance. Wealth. God. I was scared of doing the wrong thing, I did not know how to do the right thing. I was supposed to take pictures to document the work of the orphanage so that we could help Willio continue to make sure that he could put food in the mouths of the 40 children he had taken into his home. But it felt strange to take pictures. But the children were begging me to take pictures, posing and crying out “Foto! Foto!”

And then as always, God interrupted. Like Jesus calming the waters on the Sea of Galilee, he spoke to my heart, “Peace! Be still!”… “Don’t you trust me”….”I brought you here for a reason”…”Love them.”

I realized that I was not going to find the perfect way of reacting, the perfect way of behaving in the situation. The world is full of complicated contexts; moments that are both painful and breathtakingly beautiful; and, after all, this is Haiti – and as Gene will tell you, everything is a little different in Haiti.

Enuma was not there. And Nadiera was not there. I would have to figure this out on my own. These children were just the same as my nieces and nephews, just the same as the children on Eleuthera, just the same as my friend Roslyn’s children, just the same as I was at their age. They wanted to be picked up; they wanted to be loved; they wanted to play and explore new friendships; they wanted to be accepted. These were children, they were not an ethical dilemma for me to solve.

So we played. I picked them up. I learned their names. I took their pictures and they took mine. I realized that they did the same things that children in New York and Washington, D.C., and Eleuthera, and Durban do. I was sure that my scholar friends would have some kind of term for the conflicted way I was feeling, but what mattered more at that moment was not what they would think but how these children felt. And they felt loved.

After we shared dinner together, we gathered inside the house and the children sang some Christmas songs and they danced and danced. Sitting on the sofa, one of the smallest girls came over and took my hands and pulled. Dancing is something I have done far too little of in my life, and it is on my list of things to change. So I offered no resistance to the tug of her little hands. Like the waters of Eleuthera, I dove into their dance. I lifted my feet high and hopped with my arms waving. I turned my head and, laughing with her, I followed the example of Junice, one of the students from Cap Haitien. I finally let myself be free and let myself be with them, rather than staying alone up in my head.

I danced and danced and danced. Junice smiled, and I smiled, and I do think God smiled with us.

As my friend Josefina Perez says, “When you dance with no inhibition you are only frolicking in the rhythm of your own life.”

Foto! Foto!
Foto! Foto!
Settling into the peace
Settling into the peace
Elissa arm wrestles with Modelyn
Elissa arm wrestles with Modelyn
Elissa finally finds a dodgeball to play hoops with
Elissa finally finds a dodgeball to play hoops with
Soccer, my game of choice, and a humbling experience ;-)
Soccer, my game of choice, and a humbling experience 😉

Divine Interruptions

“You meditatin’?” I looked up from the shimmering school of fish below to find the source of the interruption. Next to me I saw the straight figure of Leroy, leaning against a piling with the sun rising behind him. He had joined me silently while I sat at the end of the James Cistern dock; hanging my legs over deep water on the very last board and watching the school of tiny silver fish that had swarmed around the dock after my presence scared off the sea gulls. Leroy was a good guy. One of the best. Hard working. Kind to his niece Kourtney. Always ready with a big, bright grin and an encouraging word. He had been the first person to cut open a papaya for me, and teach me about coconuts and how to wield a machete. He was kind and gentle with the kids, except when he was throwing dodgeballs at them during wall-ball or correcting them when they misbehaved. One word from Leroy and a child would go running off after whoever they had wronged to beg for forgiveness.

“You meditatin’?” he repeated as I removed my ear buds. “Yup,” I answered, smiling. I found myself laughing internally that I had come all the way down to the end of the long James Cistern dock to be alone, only to find it was a crowded place to be at this time of day; what with the seagulls, the never ending school of minnows, the large jack fish, and the smaller pike fish. And, of course, Leroy.

“I’m just sitting here watching the big fish eat the little fish,” I joked to Leroy.
“That’s what happens all day long here,” he replied, “All. Day. Long. Big fish eating smaller fish.”

He was probably just talking about fish, but he said it with such profound weight – each word dropping like a bag of flour – that it struck a chord in me that summoned broader thoughts. It’s the way of the world, I suppose. Big fish eats small fish. Rich nation uses poor nation. Superstore bankrupts Mom & Pop Shop. Big church devours small church.

I had not realized I was a small fish when I started out in ministry. I’ve never been very good at accepting my limits. To me, fish were fish. Pastors were pastors. Churches were churches. People were people.

So, it was a bit of a wake up call when a pastor came up to me at a church meeting a few years ago and said, “Oh, you’re Hannah Bonner. I’m going to take over your church.” Simple as that. And I went from being a pastor who does pray, to being a pastor who is prey. He had a large church, they were looking to expand by putting other churches in the area out of business, or by subsuming them, and I was to be honored that I had been chosen for the latter category. Small churches, like small fish, were only good for eating. I disagreed.

What a confusing situation for an inexperienced pastor. I felt like high school Michael Jordan – recently cut from the varsity team – finding himself on the court with NBA Michael Jordan. I felt I needed to protect my flock, but I did not really know how. So I was strong, and stubborn and did my best to fight for my church to have the space to find out who they were and live into that calling. We had our ups and downs, but I had a blast with them and we moved forward in major ways. I survived. That strong little church survived. We all kept swimming.

I have survived a lot of situations. Mostly brought on by the fact that my package does not match the wrapping. When I was a child my mother warned me about that, but it took me years and years to understand. When she was a doctoral candidate at Bryn Mawr, she had warned me that being small and bubbly leads people to expect weak and bumbling. When they find instead someone who expects to be treated as an equal, it is as if they are stubbing their toe on a stone – the unexpectedness of it can be very painful both for them and for the little stone.

As a little stone, I have survived a lot. I can survive a lot. I have even been picked up by David a time or two. But I want to do more than survive. I want to do more than be that boxer in the ring proving how many hits I can take. I am not a little fish. I am not a little stone. I am a woman. I am a pastor. I am a leader. I am a servant.

So this boxer took herself out of the ring.

I recalled why I had come here to Eleuthera. After resigning from an untenable situation, I had decided to accept Abraham and Brenda’s generous invitation to spend some time here because I knew there was one thing I needed more than anything else. More than financial stability, health insurance, a home, or security – I needed God. Oh did I ever.

It should be a pretty big clue that if you have slipped into surviving ministry, if you are submitting to the pressures and giving up the things that Jesus would never give up – Sabbath, time apart with God, rest, food – then you have let someone beside God take the helm of your ship. If your ship is heading towards burn out, that is never a direction God would steer you in under any circumstance.

You don’t consciously hand over the reigns of your calling to your supervisor or your church or your denomination or your own expectations. It just happens, bit by bit, meeting by meeting, pressure by overwhelming pressure. And then you look around and you realize, how did we get here? Well, we got here by believing that we are the ones who make the impossible happen, rather than God.

This past week I read the letters of Mother Theresa and was amazed by how constantly and nonchalantly she talks about retreat. For she and her colleagues, it is a celebrated, anticipated and regular part of life. It is how she found her path. Yet, in the institutional waters I have swum in, it is often seen as a sign of weakness. Pastors brag about how they have not used any of their vacation time this year; Bishops and DS’s tell you how busy they are; and church bureaucrats share with you all the places they have been and the meetings they have attended for the glory of God. Leaders like Bishop Martin McLee – who does a great job of modeling Sabbath for young leaders by posting constantly about how relaxed he is while on vacation – are rare. It is as if our excessively militarized culture has distorted the spiritual merit of the word retreat so that it can only be seen through the lens of defeat; we fear it will mean running away from something and giving up, rather than running towards something and claiming life.

Everyone needs retreat. Both the big fish and the little fish. It is when we don’t get it that we start to eat one another.

I have chosen to retreat. With holy boldness. With a passion for life. With a conviction that my calling cannot be devoured, subsumed, stolen, defeated, or destroyed. With a determination that it cannot be bought because it is not for sale. With a peace that it will still be there when I return, because “there” is wherever God is. With joy that retreat does not mean I am lost, it means I am being found.

A calling moves and adapts like water; it hits a rock and it flows around it; it finds dry ground and it seeps into it; it finds no way to the sea, so it carves a canyon. We are not the ones to create or control our callings. We will not know what they are unless we are quiet enough to listen.

I say this not as an expert, but from a place of deep humility and regret.

Retreat is when the divine interrupts our schedule and our plans and our goals and reminds us of whose we are, of who we are, of who we want to be.

I am learning to be thankful for divine interruptions.

So as I looked up at Leroy standing above me on the dock, I had to smile. Leroy was my divine interruption. Reminding me that I was not alone. Reminding me that the world is full of wonderful people, and that many of them are my friends. Reminding me that big fish eat little fish all day long – but I’m no fish.

As Leroy headed back down the dock, I opened my bible. I was planning to read Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions… The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

I turned the page, and in the damp air, the pages stuck together, skipping me forward to Psalm 56, “This I know, that God is for me.” This. I. Know. That. God. Is. For. Me. Once again, each word falling with profound weight on my soul.

God likes to interrupt.

Leroy laughing with his niece Kourtney.
Leroy laughing with his niece Kourtney.

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