Category Archives: Listening

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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