Where Is Your Citizenship?

When I was growing up I attended a Southern Baptist Church and while I don’t agree with many SBC practices or statements these days I do have some incredibly shaping experiences from that community. One such memory is that of Vacation Bible School. I know, I know, other churches aside from SBC do VBS but no one quite does Bible education the way Southern Baptists do.

Every day of VBS week would open up with a joint worship service and it would start with the procession of the Bible, the Christian flag, and the American flag. We would then pledge allegiance to each item.

I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s holy Word. I will make it a lamp unto my feet and will hides it’s words in my heart that I may not sin against God.

I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands: one brotherhood, uniting all mankind in service and love.

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States Of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.

As I’ve grown both in age and spiritually I have been both thankful and concerned for this practice. You see, it was indeed shaping. I am glad to have those pledges in my heart and soul. Yet, I wonder as American Christian’s whose flag we claim first. If we go by how we describe ourselves “American Christian,” it would seem we claim our American citizenship is foremost in our identity and it is this that leads my heart to grieve and to worry.

In college I took a class in which one assignment was to go to various different churches and describe how their worship space was arranged and what that said about their church theology. What did that say about how they practice their faith? And that lesson perhaps more than any other lesson in college impacted me. I suddenly saw something heart wrenching. Many churches kept their American flags on their altars. Some accompanied by the Christian flag, many were not. And my heart still hurts over it. It’s a common practice in many American churches. 

I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior whose Kingdom it stands.

Several years ago Law and Order had an episode in which the ADA, Jack McCoy, asked a Muslim Imam if he was a Muslim first or an American first. I was outraged. I even complained to my father about it. Why would anyone subscribe to any religion if not to hold their beliefs first and that religious citizenship as priority beyond all else? 

So, when I see my many many Christian friends in worship, in bible studies, in prayer. I get excited. I think they’ve caught on. I think they’ve remembered their heart pledges to the Holy Word and the Kingdom! Praise be! 

But then the real world crashes in amongst us and I hear the rhetoric they spread in public or Facebook. We just heard a sermon on blessing and welcoming the stranger. I remember you saying “Amen” and here I see you spread fear sprouted from hate calling refugees, violent thugs, or invaders.

We just studied what the Scripture teaches about the oppressed. I remember you nodding your head in agreement. But now you say you aren’t oppressing them so their problems are not your own or even more offensive you state that the systemic oppression is “fake news.”

We pray for healing for those that are broken in body and that God would lead the right healers onto their path and then you rail against public policies that would make those prayers reality.

Whose citizen are you? Whose pledge do you honor in your heart? If I had my choice  I’d remove every American flag from every Christian altar in America. I’d remind people of those pledges we spoke as children. 

I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s holy Word. I will make it a lamp unto my feet and will hides it’s words in my heart that I may not sin against God.

I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands: one brotherhood, uniting all mankind in service and love.

And as we approach are duties as citizens in America and go to our voting booths I can tell you what I will be thinking about. I’ll think about making the Bible a light unto my path. I’ll think about being a part of the revolution that unites all mankind in service and love. I’ll think about how my American citizenship is shaped more by my Kingdom citizenship than vice versa. And let’s be clear here. This is not about politics. This is not about Republican versus Democrat or Conservative versus Liberal. This is about whose Kingdom we belong. I know who I belong to. I know who that Kingdom calls me to be. Do you?

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Just One String

Several months ago I started having a recurring dream. I think most people would consider it a strange dream unless you are a knitter. As most of you know I love to crochet and to knit. And as an avid fiber artist I’ve rarely felt daunted by a project. However, for some reason I was convinced that I would never be able to figure out how to knit socks. Especially because imagining how to figure out a method to create a seamless heel seemed impossible.

Yet, there I was night after night dreaming of knitting the perfect heels. Each morning I’d wake up and think that this was crazy. I had so many other things going on that learning how to knit a sock shouldn’t be the most pressing thing on my subconscious. Then the night would come and I’d find myself back in my sock heel dreams.

Finally, I announced, “it’s time to knit some socks. This is apparently something I must do.” My parents, while supportive, laughed a bit at the strangeness of my announcement. Luckily, my fellow knitters came to my aid and were all very excited for me.

At the same time as all of my sock dreams were occurring I was once again finding myself in another health crisis. My body ravaged by a purple rash that covered about 80% of my body. It was painful, exhausting, and made me a bit of a spectacle to see. As we had done before we started chemo treatments when all else failed. At the time I thought how wonderful it would be to have a small knitting project to take with me to treatments. It seemed like perfect timing.

However, I was struggling so much with pain that even a small amount of knitting was making me sick. I just could not keep up with the physical toll that my body was under. In those next few months I was beyond grateful to see the chemo was working and I was looking remarkably better. There was a deep excitement in me even though it was a difficult time dealing with so many new doctors.

Two weeks ago I went in for some test results. Biopsies of the rash and blood tests were ready to be reviewed. The doctor came out and said that all my test came back looking unremarkable. They had no clue what was going on with my body. No understanding of what caused the rash. No idea what we should continue to do but wait. Even wondering if my main diagnosis of lupus that I’ve been under for almost a decade now was even correct.

Now, I know I should be pleased that my results came back looking good. Yet, I was devastated because it changed the entire course of my treatment from something I knew worked to going back to the drawing board with multiple doctors.

22 years. For 22 years I’ve heard the same thing over and over again. “It’s clear something is wrong but we don’t know what.”

What am I supposed to do with that? I’m tired of living this way. I’m not well. The rash is gone but everything else is the same. Do I really have to start fighting for another diagnosis again?

It felt like the fabric of my life was being cut back into pieces and I just couldn’t imagine how I could seam it all back together again. Where is the Holy in this chaos of pain, illness, and confusion? How do we move forward like this?

And as I sat with this new turn of events I wondered how in the world I could turn with them. I just could not imagine a life in this world in which my body would not always be in conflict with itself. Will I ever find relief that lasts while I’m here on earth? It looks doubtful. It looks impossible.

So, as is often the case I took up my needles and decided to finish those socks. Socks that are made with only one string. It changes with beautifully bright colored stripes. There’s no cutting involved, just two needles, one string, and two hands. As I got to my final heel the steps that I needed to take to create it seemed insane. All the sudden I had so many more stitches on my needles. How will this work? Am I doing this right? Wait, did I wrap that last short row? Yikes! How did that stitch get there?

Then, like magic I saw it. A little bump. This tiny piece of fabric that said, “look! You’re doing it! You’re doing the impossible! You’re turning everything! And all it took was one string. No cutting necessary.”

One stitch at a time and that beautiful heel became a reality. Impossibly made from one string. Impossibly engineered by brilliant minds before me who left me an example of how to knit the most beautifully perfect heels.

My life is just one string. It changes frequently with vibrant colors of my personality and character. There are times in which I come face to face with the truly impossible and I am reminded that I am just one string…but the Holy, the Holy has two needles and knits my life together. And in those moments where there must be a heel turned it only takes one stitch at a time.

Impossible, yet inevitable when you place your string into the hands of the Divine. Thanks be to God.

Yahweh

One of the most difficult and rewarding parts of going through chronic illness, for me at least, is the opportunities it brings to quiet myself and focus on the Divine. I’ve mentioned before how I use my illness as a form of spiritual fasting. Anytime I feel overwhelmed by my illness, whether from pain, worry, or anger, I do what I can to lean into those feelings and then take them with an intentional focus on the Holy. I practice passage meditation and breath prayers practically everyday. They have helped center me and have allowed the difficult times shape me in positive ways as opposed to wallowing and spreading the pain.

Yesterday was the day I was finally able to get in to have my port-a-cath surgical placed in my chest. For those of you in the know you will recall that this procedure is done while the patient is awake. They thread the catheter through your neck right up to your heart. Then in your chest the cut open a little pocket above your breast line and insert the port and connect it to the placed catheter. It sounds simple and it is but all that movement and cutting is felt as tugging and takes about an hour or so. 28 internal stitches later and some surgical glue and you are ready to go.

As I went in to be prepared for the procedure nurses kept asking me if I needed anything and I kept saying I was fine. Which wasn’t necessarily the whole truth as I was dealing with a migraine at the time. But, I hate asking for things even when freely offered so I’ll decline practically everything. My prep nurse asked if I’d like some extra meds to help me relax and I said yes. With my anxiety disorder it’d sure be bad to have an anxiety attack during the procedure.

As I laid there draped for the procedure and I felt the first pinch of lidocaine shots I went into my now natural reaction which is to start meditating using a breath prayer. Typically I use the word shalom. Breath in Sha, breathe out Lom. But for some reason it didn’t feel quite right this time.

Several years ago I heard from someone that the word Yahweh is practically the first word on everyone’s lips as they enter this world. How? Because when whispered Yah sounds like a breath in and Weh sounds like breathing out. It’s an image that has stayed with me as I remember that the breath of life truly is Yahweh.

With that in mind I switched my breath prayer to Yah breathe in, Weh breathe out.

Yah…Weh

Yah…Weh

Yah…Weh

Yah…Weh

Swirling around me I could feel the very breath of life surround me. Molding me, steadying the hand of the surgeon, breathing laughter and joy into the nurses, intertwining with the breath that was already sustaining me.

My heart rate lowered and tears filled my eyes not from pain but from wonder. And perhaps the little extra bit of relaxation drugs helped but there is no doubt in my mind that as I breathed the name of our Lord that the Holy was present shaping everything around me. I called out for the Holy and in grace it not only showed it’s Presence but it actively shaped my experience.

Breath Of Life – Michol Childress

Yah…Weh,

…I Am

Yah…Weh

…I Am Here

Yah…Weh

…I Am Here. Breathe

Yah…Weh

…I Am Here. Breathing Life

Peaceful tears run down. A grateful smile graces my face. Holiness fills my body. And in those moments I find my whole being resonating with the Sacred tones of the Saints before me and the Saints after me. In breathing in Yahweh I have invited myself into the great drama of the Kingdom and all it’s citizens join in the call.

Breathe Of Life – Ferelwing

Yah…Weh

Yah…Weh

Yah…Weh

Yah…Weh

What are you breathing in today? What or who are you inviting into your being? What breathe is shaping you? Today I hope you’ll join me in breathing in Yahweh.

It’s A Dog’s Life

When asked if I am a dog or cat person I can firmly answer that I am a dog person. In fact, all my family would count themselves as dog people. My sister and her family have a sweet dog named Leia. My brother and his family has a beautiful golden doodle named Daisy. My parents have shih tzu named Rosie. And I, of course I have a shih tzu named Khaleesi.

I live with my parents and that means I live with Rosie too. We are a two dog household. Both of our dogs are rescues. Khaleesi was rescued from a puppy mill. She was locked into a small cage and bred over and over again. She rarely was out of her cage. Her life before she was mine was confined with little to no human contact. This has led to a sweetly affectionate dog who is afraid of most things and anxious when her momma (me) is not around. Rosie was rescued as well. She was found wandering the streets of Houston, Texas. When Mom and Dad got her we quickly realized she was partially deaf and mostly blind. She has a strident bark and is pretty bossy but loves to cuddle and hops when we come home.

Last week my face started to swell up, ooze lymph fluid, and bleed. My eyelids swelled up so much that my eyelashes were folded into my eyeball. It was highly unpleasant. I spent the majority of the time with cold compresses on my eyes and virtually blind. I got cranky. I complained a lot. The first day of my eye’s swelling I showed my mom and she promptly expressed her sympathy for her poor blind dog Rosie. Imagining how she must have felt wandering around the streets of Houston blind and in pain.

Now, I must admit, I have enjoyed teasing my mom about that reaction. Poor Rosie?! Poor me! Rosie is better now. Your daughter is sick right now! Love on me!

And, my mom and dad did just that. They loved me through all my complaining and pain. They brought me cold compresses. They let me sit as they brought me food. They did all they could to support me.

And as I sat there blind and in pain I started to have a little more empathy with our Rosie. Suddenly her bossy and strident bark made a lot more sense to me.

As I often do I started to evaluate what this experience teaches me about my relationship with the Divine. I have heard my father say, “people who have not lived through a crisis or tragedy have poor theology.” The reasoning of course is people who have not had to confront what it means to have faith during a particularly difficult time do not have the experience in discovering how the Divine can hold you through that pain.

Now, I love Leia and Daisy but both of those sweet dogs were brought into our family as puppies and haven’t had to experience a life with hardship. They are sweet and devoted pets. However, Rosie and Khaleesi have had a much different experience. And their love is given to us at a more precious rate. For them to break through their past experiences and trust that we will always take care of them is a harder trust to win. And yet, we have won their trust and love.

And I wonder, what kind of dog would I be? Am I Rosie? The dog who has lived life shut off from most of reality, lost to the world only to be rescued and loved so deeply that my strident and bossy attitude is met with laughter and mercy? Am I Khaleesi, a dog who was used and abused to the point where she was cut off from everything and everyone. Rescued and loved so deeply that I am held in loving arms and my anxiety is acknowledged and prepared for lovingly? Or am I a Leia or Daisy? Dogs who have known nothing but love and love their owners without abandon?

I am convinced that I started out as a Leia and Daisy but have lived a life that reflects the hardships of a Rosie and Khaleesi. With that knowledge I can only hope that the kind of faith and love Rosie and Khaleesi have in us, I can have in my relationship with the Holy.

Do I hop in joy when I feel the Holy’s presence? Do I relish the loving arms I’m held in? Do I celebrate the loving and safe space the Divine has created for me? Do I remember that the Holy sustains me and is owed my unabashed love?

You see, as theology goes for dogs, Khaleesi and Rosie probably have pretty good ones. And I pray that as my theology goes it may mirror the ones Khaleesi and Rosie have. One that recognizes what beautiful grace it is to be rescued, taken care of, and loved through all the trauma.

May it be a dog’s life for me. Thanks be to God.

Who’s The Liar Now?

One of the things you learn fairly quickly when you have a chronic illness is that the life you once led is no longer the life you will lead. New limitations are set either due to your condition, the medications you are on, or the relationships that are in or out of your life. And sometimes these new limitations force us to reevaluate how we identify ourselves.

If you are unable to work it is hard to know how to introduce yourself to people. We know that one of the first questions people ask is “What do you do for a living?” And while my immediate internal response is to say, “I exist,” I realize that might not be the best response for politeness’ sake. But still we manage to politely find phrases that express that we are disabled but find other ways to distinguish ourselves.

However, these past few weeks have been so physically transformative in that messy not fun super painful kind of way, I have found myself asking “who is the liar?” Me or my body?

Today I was lucky enough to attend worship with the wonderful community at The First Baptist Church of America and their pastor, Jamie Washam, actually preached a sermon entitled “What is truth?” It was the perfect sermon for what I’ve been internally struggling with. We read the John 18 passage about Pilate and Jesus that ends with Pilate asking “What is truth?”

Jamie asked the children this morning how they could tell if something was true. And that is a pretty difficult question to answer even as an adult. We look at the source of the information and question if that source is credible? We might do some more research and see if any other sources can confirm that information?

But when it comes to a question of who is telling the truth between yourself and a part of yourself, it’s not as easy as searching for verifiable authentication. How do we verify ourselves?

The medications I have been on have drastically changed my physical appearance in a relatively short amount of time. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have gained at least 40 pounds in the past two months. There was nothing I could do to stop this. Those medications were necessary to help preserve my body and livelihood. I have swollen up in every conceivable way and it has not been painless. It is uncomfortable at best and painful at worst. But not only that it is visibly shocking when I see myself in the mirror. Because the woman I see resembles nothing of the woman I know. Who is lying? Me or the mirror?

And it’s not just what I look like. Every morning I say to myself “You’re are not in as much pain as you think. You don’t hurt as much as you believe. You are strong and fierce. The pain is weak and fledgling.” It’s a mantra that I repeat before I even get up. It’s something I must say otherwise I don’t think I’d have the strength to get up at all. Who is lying? Me or my pain?

And what about the riskiest question of all. I think we all struggle with this question in some way. I am told that those with a mystic nature struggle with it more frequently than most others. That is the question of how we reconcile our soul/spirit selves with our physical and bodily selves. They are one and we must find a way to live that out truthfully but so very frequently I cannot see a way to reconcile my spiritual self with this incredibly broken and failing body. Who is the liar? My soul or this body?

Today as Jamie preached she touched on these questions but came at it from a different angle. She didn’t ask “What is a lie?” She asked, just as Pilate asked, “What is the truth?”

And as I was invited to ponder that, I found the answers were at once transformative and discouraging yet uniquely hopeful. Because when I look into a mirror and ask “What is the truth?” I am forced to admit that both my mirrored reflection and my soul reflection are true. I have swollen up to an unrecognizable woman. And my soul is being transformed once again. Both are true and both may have hints of untruth. Because where I see ugliness in my bodily reflection, the Divine sees the beauty of a body holding on to life. And where I see my soul being transformed again the Divine reminds me that my soul has come to this crossroads before.

When I apply the question to my daily mantra I discover that once again both my mantra and my pain are true. I am strong and fierce. I am more than just a pain-filled existence. And yet, my existence is exquisitely marked by pain. When I ask the Divine who is is telling the truth, the Divine reminds me that both my pain and myself are filled with truth and untruths. Because my pain tries to convince me that I am too weak to move forward but it also points to how I can heal myself. And my mantra may underplay how painful this time really is but it reminds me of who I was created to be.

It is not an easy question. What is truth? It is risky to ponder how one might reconcile their soul with their body and earthly reality. And yet, we find the answer in the most remarkable place. It is in the Holy.

What is truth? Living a Christ centered life. What is the truth? Acknowledging that humanity is filled with discovering lies and discerning truth. What is truth? That those things that look like they could never live side by side are actually one and the same. Only the Holy can do that. However you encounter or name the Holy it is undeniable truth that true reconciliation can only be achieved through it.

So, who’s the liar now? I am. Who’s the one living in truth? I am. Thanks Be To God

We’re Fine

It is always surprising to me how you can encounter something entirely new by going through something you’ve already been through before. Perhaps it’s a book you’ve decided to reread and the second time through you catch some subtle foreshadowing that you had missed the first time. Maybe it’s when you sit in a passenger seat while someone else drives the route you drive everyday and you suddenly see a building on the route you never noticed before. It seems that if we are willing we can encounter newness if we take the time to look.

Scripture is like that. Time and time again we can come back to the Word and discover something life-altering. Worship is like that too. In our habitual practices we find that the Divine is molding us for a new reality.

Last week I was finally able to start my chemotherapy. This is not the first time I’ve done this. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at living a life that deals with serious health concerns all the time. I hope that for the most part I am able to walk this journey with integrity. And while I logically know that if I use this experience as an opportunity for further spiritual formation I will once again be born into a new reality, I am always surprised by what the Divine has in store.

It may surprise some to hear that I’m always a bit uncomfortable with people verbally expressing sympathy for my situation. Lovely and kind friends who wish I didn’t have to be in pain and family who affirm me while also voicing their grief over the current situation. It’s all appreciated but it’s also uncomfortable.

So as more and more people started to reach out this week I found myself saying a phrase over and over again. It was a strange phrase that I couldn’t really figure out why I was saying it. I kept saying “We’re fine.”

“We’re”

Why am I saying “we’re?” Who is “we’re?” Am I disassociating from myself and the pain so that there’s the chemo baby and me? Am I referring to Khaleesi, my precious protective comfort of a dog, and myself? Am I talking about my parents and myself? Am I talking about my spiritual relationships with the Holy? Why am I saying “we’re?”

This is a new dimension to this story. I lived on my own before. I went to treatment alone. I made dinner for myself on my own. I had friends and family visit but I was doing it on my own. And I did it relatively well.

But this time I am not doing this alone. I live with my family now. Mom organizes our world and plans out meals. She figures out what the practical needs are and quietly makes it happen. When I got home from my first infusion Mom had already made homemade chicken soup and biscuits. She had ginger ale at the ready. She thought ahead to make sure I would have something that I could eat. Dad took me to anxiety-inducing doctor appointments and kept me calm. He came to my treatment and made silly jokes that made me laugh. If I have a need he is there ready to fulfill it in anyway he can.

But it’s not just my family that I am with. My pastor has contacted me practically every single day leading up to and after my infusion. Church family have texted and called. Choir friends have brought flowers and cookies. People from other communities have reached out and cared for me. It is astounding the amount of love that has been showered over me.

But all these relationships don’t really quite capture the reason for why I keep saying “we’re.”

There’s that wonderful bible verse that all Sunday School children learn:

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:20

There’s the reason for my “we’re.” Not only am I doing this myself and using it as an opportunity for my own spiritual formation, but those around me have decided to shoulder some of my burden and allow the Holy to be present throughout the journey as well. We are gathering together and in our unity we keep watch for the Divine. Most remarkably as we keep watch the Divine shows up. We’re all there. Me, family, community, and the Divine.

We really are fine. This time I’ve been placed amidst community in ways I have never been before. And in this community it’s not hard to find the Holy. In this community we hold each others lives as sacred and together we encounter a new reality.

Thanks be to God. We’re Fine.

Tag-Along Jesus

Today was the day. After weeks of advocating for myself I finally got my first chemo treatment for this current flare. It was an emotionally draining experience navigating around all the medical grade red tape.

I was relieved to be signed in and was only nervous that we wouldn’t be able to find a good vein. Thankfully my nurse was a pro and found one. She worked diligently and gently. All I had to do was sit back and relax.

My dad came with me today. I’ve never had someone come to these kind of treatments before. I had friends there because they were getting treatment but I’ve not had people outside of that “lupus” world come.

We tease my dad that he can’t do anything or go anywhere without Jesus tagging along. You see my dad is a minister and you’d be surprised how many contacts you have with the community around you when you are a minister and one that ministers effectively. Even our vacations were centered around his “Jesus” job because we would go to denominational conventions. Sometimes it’s nice when we don’t have to talk about Jesus or church stuff. When that’s your whole life it’s nice to get a respite every now and then.

As we walked into the infusion center my dad noticed that one of his colleagues was there. There’s Jesus again tagging along. He visited with his colleague for a while and later they came and visited me. It was nice and I was glad that we had that extra connection.

Several years ago when I first went through chemo I made myself two sets of prayer beads, a full set and a bracelet. I’ve taken that bracelet with me to every chemo infusion I’ve every had. I recite the Lord’s Prayer by using the beads and helps me focus my intentions more strongly on each phrase.

Today while I was praying I was reminded of a man who has had a great influence on my spiritual practice and formation. The last time I went through this he came over and prayed with me before I started the entire process and that visit and prayer helped set the tone of how I would weather that journey. I was a little sad that I was unable to meet with him this time but it would’ve have been quite a commute for one of us. Rhode Island and Arizona aren’t very close on the map.

However, shortly after one of my prayers my dad’s phone rang and it was that man, Gil Stafford. Calling to send us his love, light, and his wonderful mysterious good intentions from Arizona. And there he was. Jesus tagged along once again.

As I sat there thinking of all the ways I could tease my Dad about his (and my) tag-a-long Jesus I had to take a step back. Sure, Jesus definitely tags-along but the truth is he was there before I even arrived, preparing the way, soothing the souls around me, molding hearts with compassion, whispering words of gentleness and healing, and always fostering holy laughter, even if it’s at his own expense.

As we set off on this journey I can hardly wait to see where Jesus lets me tag-along to. If I hadn’t had Dad with me today I might have missed Jesus and wouldn’t that have been a shame.

Today I’m celebrating the habits that foster a tag-along Jesus and praying that I can be a tag-along follower. Thanks be to God!