Occasionally I meet a holy family. This is my term for a homeless family with a baby. I call them holy because I always think of the traveling Mary and Joseph, rejected and forced outside, exposed to the elements, with the task of doing something Divine.
Such a family walked into the community meal with a baby boy, not quite a year old, with blue eyes and blonde, curly ringlets. The couple had become newly homeless and were living in their car. I tried many different techniques to help them get into housing, working with other agencies, helping them with paper work, but nothing stuck. Even with all my best efforts, it seemed I was unable to find a solution for this family. The layers of their predicament were thick and seemingly impenetrable. They would appear and disappear with great irregularity.
Randomly, they would come into the meal, covered in grease, dirt, and the fatigue of the streets. I would hold the baby, give them supplies, sometimes put them up in a hotel—and my heart would break again. The church did as much as we could financially to help them but after a year of coming and going, they just couldn’t get on their feet. It was so discouraging.
One Thursday night, one of my new mothers from the church came to the meal and noticed that the baby, now almost two years old, had blackened feet. She took a wash cloth and some soap from the kitchen and washed his feet. I had bought two gallons of milk for the meal that night, and she filled a bottle with fresh milk and fed him. The baby laughed at her, feeling safe in her arms. She noticed the dark circles under his eyes, and how tired the baby seemed. She called me that night after the meal, crying.
“I don’t know what to do, I can’t stop thinking about this baby,” she said through tears. “He just looked at me with his eyes, it was like he was crying for help and I just feel like I have to do something.”
I tried to console her. I knew she had made a connection with the baby boy and that he reminded her so much of her own little boy. Her heart was genuinely breaking over the situation.I assured her I would check further into what some of the options might be, though there didn’t seem to be any great ones presenting themselves immediately.
There was the Department of Children’s Services that we could call to come and investigate options for the baby’s safety. I explained to her that I’d done everything in my power to try and get them to commit themselves to the family shelter, but they would have to split up and they refused to do so.
She wouldn’t let it go, her heart had become involved. “I have some money if you think it would help, I can get together some supplies for them, whatever you think.”
“I’ll look into it this week,” I said, and thanked her for her generous offer.
The next day I made some phone calls, tried to track down the couple, but they were nowhere to be found. They had no address other than their car, no one seemed to know them, they were part of a hidden population and they were hidden well.
After church on Sunday the young mother lingered, sitting in the back of the church crying.
Now there are few women in my church from Africa, they are refugees of war-torn countries like Sierra Leone and Sudan. They knew something about the dangers of being homeless with children in tow. One of the mothers, Sarah, from Sierra Leone was forced from her home during a rebel invasion. Sarah’s baby was ripped from her arms and murdered in front of her. The atrocities they have lived through put our problems in perspective.
These two African now American mothers, Josephine and Sarah, began to comfort her and talk with her about this baby’s condition and what might be done.
“In Africa, we would never let a baby live on the streets,” Sarah said. “He would be taken to an auntie or a cousin. Someone would take him in. I don’t understand how we let this happen here in America. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
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The three of us were standing around the young mother who was sitting in the pew, trying to comfort her and come up with a solution. I shook my head. “I guess in America, we are a different kind of village. We have to have the system step in, if we call DCS, the baby will be taken into state custody and then put into the foster care system, it’s not guaranteed that the baby will have one home, it may have many in that system, it’s not perfect, it’s just the system we have, but it does often work out in favor of the child’s safety.”
“I just want to take him home,” the young mother said. “I want to feed him and bathe him and make sure he feels safe. It’s killing me that he’s not.”
“We have to do something,” Josephine said. “We can’t just let these babies live on the streets, we have to intervene.”
The women reasoned through the situation and decided that we should, as a church, call DCS. The only problem: there was no way to locate the couple, and she was expecting another child, due in two weeks.
The next community meal, the couple did not show up. Perhaps they intuitively knew something was going to happen. I haven’t seen them since, and as I asked around—no one knew where they went. I had no words of comfort for the young mother. Only, that these are just the kinds of situations we encounter when we do this type of work. It’s hard, but sometimes all we can really do is pray and keep searching for some kind of miraculous solution, giving what we can give, doing what we can do while we wait. Sometimes, even I have a hard time heeding this advice because my heart breaks, too.
I grew up in a very small town. In a small town, there is a culture of remembrance. People remember your personality—the things that made you unique—and your family. There is a deep well of recognition. Even in this day and age, there are no homeless people in my hometown.
But in the city, people fall through the cracks. I don’t know where they go. There are places to hide, even in plain sight, where no one will ever find you. It haunts me just like it haunted this young mother that a baby did not have what it needed to survive, that a little one so tender could be at risk in a great big world. This precious, new life, in danger of slipping through the cracks.
As an urban pastor, I’ve tried to create a culture of remembrance, but it’s hard because sometimes I feel as if my one, precious life is slipping through the cracks, too. There is something exciting about being in a city with its opportunities, but if you are from a culture of remembrance, it’s difficult to stay in that forgotten place.
I often admire the African refugees in my church because they stick together. They are surrounded by their culture here in the city. Even though they joke with me that they have “left the village behind” to fit into the urban culture, this is not really true. The village lives inside of them like my hometown lives inside of me. It guides them to take care of their neighbors’ children, to look out for one another, to be kind, and to protect the vulnerable. They have always carried the village in their hearts and as long as they do, they will never feel lonely.
I’ve learned so much from them and they have become the very heart beat of my church and ministry here, they have so much to teach us about how to love. They are so grateful to be living in what they call a “great country,” free from the kind of violence that drove them from their homeland. Here, they can use their gifts, pursue their humble dreams, educate their children, and make a life for themselves. And yet, they do not understand why we have so many holy, homeless families.
I’m not sure what will happen to the holy, homeless family but I pray for their safety and for the well-being of the babies. I pray for a new world in which we cherish all the sacred, holy families in our communities. I have learned that the only home we truly have is the one that is carried in the hearts of others.
About the Author:
Sherry Cothran, M.Div., is a speaker, musician, author and ordained minister. In addition to her ongoing work as senior pastor, Sherry has been featured in USA Today, UMCorg, been the keynote speaker at several conferences and performed her songs and stories on many stages. She has received two grants from the Louisville Institute for her creative projects in Bible, faith and spirituality. She was the Artist in Residence at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Her sermons and blogs have been featured in Good Preacher, Abingdon Women, Interpreter, Ministry Matters, Alive Now. An award winning recording artist, her most recent collaboration with indie film maker, Tracy Facceli, “Tending Angels” can be viewed on Youtube.
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I’m in the middle of a big transition and it’s scary. It’s anxiety producing and I have no idea how it’s all going to turn out. It’s a magnified version of that feeling I had as a kid reading “There’s a Monster At The End of This Book.” Pages and pages of Grover doing all kinds of creative things to keep me from turning the page, from getting closer to the monster at the end of the book. Only to find out, at the end, the monster is Grover himself! A funny, blue muppet staring back at me.
Click here for a free download of “Tending Angels”, how I found the courage to turn the page.
I find myself thinking about what I’m leaving behind a lot. The security of a regular paycheck, a job I know how to do well, a community and not to mention the factor of being a known person with networks of trust. I am leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, the known for the unknown, all because I’m on a journey of becoming who I am meant to be here on planet earth and sometimes, that requires risk. I know this intellectually, but the reality of it is something else altogether. It’s just plain scary.
Of course, as always, I am given a text this week to deal with in light of my current anxieties. The Israelites wondering in the wilderness and telling Moses that they’d really rather go back to a life of slavery, because at least there they had something to eat! At least they had four walls and a bed to sleep in. That panicked awareness that being broken out of slavery isn’t what they thought it would be. Sure, they were elated at first, but now that they’ve had time to reflect, they feel cheated. They expected that freedom would mean something more than starving, more than the endless wandering, more than having to feel their feelings of fear, anxiety and the ever looming presence of self-doubt.
So Moses, the epic, archetypal leader, once again speaks to God and hears what seems like a way forward. They don’t really buy it, but God comes through anyway, in yet another spectacular way, I might add. Sending bread and meat from heaven in the form of manna and quail. A fire by night and a cloud by day, the equivalent of an ancient, wilderness compass. Quite creative. But it’s still not enough. Even though God has proven God’s ability to meet their needs, even in a hostile wilderness, the children of God are still riddled with doubt and they continue reluctantly, impatiently, full of anxiety and fear. Like Grover, trying to do everything to prevent the turning of the page.
Still, day by day, God feeds them, gives them water, leads them with signs and wonders, promises them a new life and a promised land. They go on, grumbling, dragging their feet, making huge mistakes but still moving forward, inch by inch. It’s painful to observe and know that this is the same journey I’m on, too. A wilderness journey into the unknown, fighting the urge to build daily barriers that would keep me from turning the page into what I know is my truest life.
The Israelites weren’t just learning to trust God, they were learning to trust themselves. Somehow, these two things go hand in hand. In a world that teaches us that we must be the masters of our own destiny, create a super hero, artificial version of ourselves to conquer our fear, win friends and influence people, build wealth and look good while we’re doing it, the wilderness journey strips all of those things away. On the wilderness journey, we are forced to look within for the resources to make it through. It’s incredibly disorienting at first, none of our usual tricks seem to work on the journey to true freedom.
But over time, we learn on the wilderness journey that there are other resources we knew very little about, and these resources are very powerful because they are connected to God, to the eternal and to our truer selves. These new resources we find are the created ones that were given to us as the image of God within. Only in the emptiness of the wilderness journey can we learn to draw them up, like water from a deeper well, and use them to create life. A true one, not an artificial one. All of this takes time, a long time. For the Israelites, it took forty years. My mentor likes to say, “the story says Moses led them in a circle for forty years because they weren’t quite ready for their freedom.”
We are re-programming our brains, and it takes time. Richard Rohr and Eckhart Toile teach that about 90% of our brain’s thinking is spent either re-processing the past or worrying about the future. We certainly see this in the story of the Israelite journey. They say it is almost impossible for us to think ourselves into the present, we have to learn to think with our hearts. To make this impossible thing possible, we have to be put in situations in which we learn to rely on something deeper than our magnificent brains, the heart itself. Beyond the physical task of pumping our blood, the heart is also the place of our connection with God, it’s where the word “courage” comes from. The root of the word courage is “cor,” the Latin word for “heart.”
I have to remember that although change feels like a death, there is some pretty amazing birth going on inside of me. It is during this period that God is re-ordering the chaos within, creating new pathways by revealing what is stored in my very own heart. Some old ways of thinking will pass away. During this incredibly awkward and uncomfortable time, I am making some pretty major leaps, moving from self-doubt to self-confidence. From all my stored anxiety God is re-creating peace and serenity by providing my needs as they arise and as I am willing to take the next step, to turn the next page on my journey of faith. God is breaking me free from the thinking that has enslaved my heart. God is parting the impassable obstacle before me so that I can enter into the journey I must take to build the tools I will certainly need to become my truest self.
In a cut throat world where violence, hatred, jealousy and competition rule, I am becoming part of a community that is ruled by a covenant and ethic of love. It’s not some idyllic vision of a utopian world, it’s learning how to love in the midst of suffering, uncertainty and anxiety. That love becomes my cloud by day and my fire by night, it becomes my guiding force.
The Israelites didn’t somehow just stop being human beings, they still grumbled, lost their way, hurt one another, and took their own sweet time to get where they were going. But the important thing is that they continued to turn the page, take another step, and even though grumbling, learned to trust their hearts and live from that center where love ruled. At least, they gave it their best, and that is all we are asked to do, that is all I can do on any given day.
Sometimes my best is just showing up, being present in the moment. I don’t have to do the re-programming, I have a Higher Power that can lift from me the old patterns of re-hashing past pain and freaking out about the future. I’m discovering another way to live, in the present, trusting my heart, trusting the wilderness within that has been created by a greater hand. Trusting that God is building order out of the chaos, day by day, one day, one moment at a time. Giving me the courage to turn the page, even when it’s scary.
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A recent article by Harvard Business Review connects the influence of stories with behavior. It is called “experience taking” – we become like the characters in the stories with which we interact. Honest or dishonest, It’s how our brains work, we mirror. We become the stories we believe.
According the neuroscience of narrative, inspiring stories not only make us feel cozy, they cause us to trust the storyteller through the release of oxytocin, a chemical that helps us bond with one another. Often, the kinds of stories we immerse ourselves in become a larger story that holds us together, a narrative glue for our experiences. As storyteller Michael Meade says, “stories hold the world together.” Our brains are built to navigate the way forward by adapting to stories. Poets, storytellers and writers have known this since ancient times, that some of the most important information we need to develop can only be comprehended through the use of poetic and story language.
This is because, as John Truby explains in his book, Anatomy of Story, stories unlock a “dramatic code” that is unique to human nature. Through the use of characters, ancient archetypes, images, challenges and problem solving, stories help us interface with our own unique character and learn how to live out our stories in the world. The stories that we attach to have the effect of helping us to discover the story inside of ourselves. Without guiding stories, we seem to be lost.
Storyteller Michael Meade says that these days we are living in such chaos because we have fallen out of any larger story that would hold us together. When we fall out of a story, whenever we cannot perceive that there is any larger guiding narrative of our lives, we tend to lose hope.
The time of falling out of stories, he explains, is also a dangerous time, because not all stories send positive messages. In these times, people tend to grasp for any story that makes them feel powerful, in control and less anxious. So much of our cultural conditioning focuses on how to “control the narrative.” But the stories that lead us to our own, unique story within will help us learn that we don’t control the narrative, many great writers will quickly tell you that good storytelling is more about asking the story what it wants to be rather than trying to control what it will become. We grow as we learn to trust in a story that is true.
If we are to learn to trust our story, we need storytellers who are capable of pointing us to our true character, teaching us how to navigate the obstacles we will certainly face in our lives and let our story live authentically in the world.
Jesus understood this, he came from a culture of trusted storytellers who perfected the art of telling stories about God. He felt that he had come into the world at a time of chaos, when many people had fallen out of their story, been pushed out or simply had lost faith in a larger story. The spirit of the people had been conquered by many forces, including the force of institutional religion. He felt a particular mission to call back the “lost children” of God to live out their story in the world.
He became a trusted storyteller by so many because he spoke from the world of his own heart. He called it the kingdom of Heaven. He was approached over and over again to tell stories of what this realm of God is like. He used images that people from an agrarian and fishing culture could relate to:
It is like a tiny seed, a weed seed, that is planted in the ground and grows into a large tree that becomes a shelter and shade for all who need it in a hot and dry land.
It is like yeast buried in the dough of bread that makes the whole loaf rise.
It is like this, a master pearl salesman finds the one true pearl he’s been searching for all his life and he throws away all the others which seem to be only imitations of the real thing.
It is like this, too, a man finds a treasure hidden in a field. He goes and sells all his possessions so he can buy this one field where that treasure is buried.
The point is, we don’t have to chase a story in the world or control it in order to find our way. We don’t have to settle for a story in which we feel we are worthless or just cogs in a wheel. We don’t have to force ourselves to believe in a story that just doesn’t ring true.
Jesus tells us there is buried treasure inside of us all, and once we find it, everything we have chased after in our lives seems insignificant in comparison. We find it by living the story he shows us how to live, by trusting that the story he is telling us is true. As we do, we begin to see our lives bloom, we begin to see the impossible become possible. We become living parables in the world.
The greatest story ever told is the one inside of you.
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We all begin in the dark. A tiny seed of life potential sewn into the body of a mother in total darkness. Somehow, remaining in this utter darkness for a period of time is a very important element in becoming what we are created to be.
Jesus compares the children of God to a good seed planted into mother earth. (Matt 13:24-43) In our spiritual journey, we are like a seed with great potential, planted underground. If we are to become who we are created to be, that image of ourselves that God has imprinted upon our very souls, at some point along the way, we have to learn how to see our way forward in the dark.
Just like a tiny seed bursting into life underground, growing roots in the deeper darkness as it shoots its tender, life bearing limbs towards the light of the surface, we also must risk becoming in some very dark, uncomfortable, maybe even claustrophobic spaces. In the darkness, we learn to depend on something we cannot see with our physical eyes, Spirit. Spirit becomes the light we move towards, what we yearn for, need and require in order to grow. In this darkness we develop our spiritual intuition.
We all experience times in our lives when there seems to be no guiding light whatsoever. Times of seemingly unbearable pain, grief, sadness, loss, disappointment, disaster, times when we feel trapped by life’s circumstances. We may feel overwhelmed and think that there are no answers or solutions. St. John of the Cross called this period of spiritual trials, the “dark night of the soul.” It is the time between a major life disruption, a time of darkness, and the place where we have not yet reached a spiritual stabilization or awakening. It can last weeks, months or years. He wrote volumes of poetry about his own “dark night” experience while imprisoned for his radical religious beliefs in a cell with hardly any light. During this time, he learned to see light in the darkness and it liberated him from his suffering. It was to be the critical passage of his own spiritual journey. His writings of learning to see in the dark have inspired millions to perceive the value of a life passage through a dark time and have words and images to navigate through it.
Just as our eyes use light to produce images that send information to the brain about what to think and do, our hearts need to discern a spiritual light within to find the way forward in dark times. The darkness has work to do in us if we allow it. But so often, we avoid the kind of emotional pain we might risk feeling in the dark times of our lives.
We have developed a very strong pain numbing culture and become dependent upon all kinds of artificial light. Most of us spend our days staring at a computer screen and then go home to stare at T.V. screens and go to bed with the bright, electric lights from the outside burning through our windows. This is just modern life. The point is, we need to take some time to turn off the kind of light that distracts us in order to fully experience the work of the darkness within.
We are all packed with painful information inside that we need to feel, process and turn over to a Higher Power in order to grow. If we continue to numb it and ignore it, the darkness cannot do its natural work in us, our emotional life becomes stagnant and expresses itself in negative ways. It seems that if we cannot grow into a spiritual maturity, the kind of soul birth and journey that Jesus proposes, then we go the opposite direction, we decay.
In our culture, we have all kinds of ways of making death look like life, but we are smart people. God has equipped us all with great internal sensors. At some point along the way, we get tired of our own tricks. We reach a point when we can no longer sustain the patterns of anxiety, addiction, co-dependence and all kinds of artificial ways of dealing with internal pain. This crisis point is often where the dark night begins.
Jesus points to a pathway that enables us to become real, authentic, and grow into what we are created to be. To find a higher strength and power that enables us to flourish, even and especially in a dark and darkening world. He tells us that the children of God are meant to shine like the sun, but only after we learn how to bloom in the darkness. (v. 43)
The faith journey is about learning to see in the dark and sharing the hope we find there with others. We bring jewels out of the caves of our dark times and share them with the world. We help others find the way in the darkness. In my own experience, these times of the dark night are when God sends the angels, God in human skin, to point the way forward, a thing that is perceived with spiritual sight. (v. 41) Apparently, the dark night of the soul is where they like to hang out. Perhaps in that kind of utter darkness, they can really shine.
We often have to go through dark times in our lives so we can learn a new way of seeing, through the eyes of God. In these times we develop deeper roots, our sense of what we are created to be grows ever stronger, we surrender more of our own will to God, we become more refined in our faith journey and we learn to trust an inner truth. Eventually, God brings us to the other side and we reach a new level in our faith. We even look back on our times of suffering with a sweetness, a fondness for how we fell ever more deeply in love with God, with people and with what we were put here to do on this earth.
So have faith in your dark times, embrace them, walk through them, know that God is doing something very special in you and will bring you through it to the other side, a place of joy, sweetness and growth. Sometimes we have to sit in the darkness until we learn how to see the light. When we develop this way of seeing, we begin to burst into new life.
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The question is, was he ever?
Even Jesus said that he didn’t come for the people who already claimed to have found the way, but for those who were lost, wandering, without the great shelter and shield of the religious institution.
Even though I’ve had a “sketchy” relationship with religion, (some would say that’s healthy) I became a pastor of a Christian church. Somehow, because of all my searching, I discerned that religion, at its core, held a mystery within that defied the human desire to control everything unknown. I discovered that religion shared some of the same snares as politics or patriarchy or any system that has a hi-er-archy. Religion can be used, just like any other system, as an avenue for greed, power and corruption. I just got caught up in that net.
In my own long, circuitous journey of healing from religion-induced pain, I learned that God is pretty wild and untamed, regardless of how we feel about it, and very often defies any container that religion (or anyone– agnostic, spiritualist, new age, etc.) seeks to squeeze God into or out of. That makes the pastorate quite adventurous and also quite freeing to know that (on my best days) I get to play in the field of this wild and untamed God.
The other thing I have learned recently in my travels is that we live in a Christ haunted world. As Richard Rohr says: “Christ is just another word for everything.”
I ended up in United Methodism, not that it’s better or worse than any other brand, it certainly has it’s faults, but we do have a unique relationship with Native Americans. We have an entire Native American division devoted to exploring that unique kinship between our faiths. Last fall, this curiosity led me, by way of invitation, to a Lakota Sundance ceremony in New Mexico. On the side of a very high mountain in the “Blood of Christ” mountain range, wearing my long skirt and arms covered, I danced to the songs of the singers. In Lakota, they sang out “Wakan Tanka, Tunkashila” around a cotton wood tree. I felt like an eagle.
Early the next morning in the woods, feeling the chill of the air in that liminal space between sleep and waking, still in a half dream state, there came into my mind an image of Christ on a cross.
I continue to have similar experiences, always to my surprise, everywhere I go.
I visited Cherokee, NC, recently, doing some research for a book and was talking with some Cherokee women. It seems it is a common legend among various tribes that Jesus made an appearance around the time of his death over on this continent. The women told me about the Cherokee version. The legend goes that the “little people” (the spiritual beings of Cherokee lore that live in the woods) cried tears when Jesus died and these tears ended up in the form of little crosses at the bottom of Fontana Lake, hundreds have been found. Of course, there’s a scientific explanation for this but the legend is much more interesting. There are various versions of this story in other tribes.
An African woman in my church tells me that in Sierra Leone where she is from, the Muslims and the Christians all consider themselves part of the same family. The Muslims pray to be with Jesus in death, the keeper of eternal life. There is also a legend that Jesus and Mohammed had an actual conversation.
Jesus has been out in the world for a very long time, doing lots of things Christians may not even approve of very much. Alongside the mother struggling with addiction, with the young man feeling compelled to join Isis, the refugee, the immigrant, the homeless person, the rejected war veteran, the traumatized Native American. Jesus is, in fact, right there beside them, having been hung on the same cross.
We miss the whole point of Jesus when we try to pin him down and make him exclusive. Jesus simply belongs to everyone. “In him, all things hold together,” and he is the “image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1)
The goal of religion, in its purest form, religio, is to bind the spiritual “word made flesh,” Christ presence on earth into a form we can participate in with one another. Divine love needs not only the human vessel but the vessel of the beloved community that doesn’t exist just for itself alone, but for God. With rituals and practices that make it safe for us to experience, to bind, what is unfathomable, God, if only for a brief hour or two.
I’m glad I didn’t abandon the path, because I would have missed out on all of this, the sweetness of communion, the chance to help the homeless find homes, all of us wanderers. I would have missed out on my very own healing, and the opportunity to be part of this massive healing that is taking place in the world around the hurts done in the name of God.
What would happen to a faith, or wonder of wonders, even a religion, that understood Christ as another word for everything? It might shift our understanding of the work of Christ in the world from dominance to infusion, from conformity to love, from rules and laws to simply presence and being. From scarcity to enough, from certainty to curiosity, from death to life. What if Christ really is in all and through all and another word for everything? What then?
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