God’s Better Recollection

The other night I was ending a pastoral education group. We had spent three hours doing quality work together but part of the discussion was tense with grief, unsettled surprise, and familiar but contested aching.

Discussion took us from foundational theorists in Womanist theology to Black Psychology to striking encounters that hadn’t yet left the students’ minds. It was wonderful and, as before, reminded me of how much I enjoy this part of my life.

A part of the discussion was around ministry to families experiencing baby loss, and I always get very tender and spacious around those conversations. I have my own reasons. Most people in chaplaincy are moved for their own reasons.

As we finished, I asked everyone to consider a caring image of God that they were carrying with them. I invited them to spend a few intentional minutes with the image, to see what it had for them, to see how God was comforting them.

Personally, it wasn’t enough time for me to connect with my image. I was facilitating and that was fine. I wanted to ensure that my students were enabled to open their hearts. I was bracketing my own feelings from the night and rough day, and I knew I’d need more time. I always seem to need more time. I have a timing thing.

A few years ago I told a confidant that transitional moments are times when God wakes me at strange hours. I knew it when I said it but it was the kind of knowing that I needed to hear myself articulate. It’s really true then, when I say it. So, I’ve learned to wrestle less when the seasons emerge.

Early this year was a similar season. Right now seems to be as well. They are not entirely surprising because the air smells when the season shifts. A lifelong Chicagoan, I don’t always know when winter is finished, but I’ve learned to rely on some indicators. My eyes are growing sensitive to slight changes in light, my skin grateful for less abrasive winds. So, this season is, again, one of those which God startles me at dark quiet times and, usually, Spirit sits.

It used to be that Spirit spoke but I’ve witnessed that change over the last decade too. I remember when I used to sense God speaking in unique ways but, fortunately and unfortunately, that speech has turned into a different communication. Silence and sitting are much more common now. It’s strange to accept that God speaks while sitting, while being silent, and while stretching out into a stiffness that is uniquely God’s posture in my life. I don’t like it. It’s deeply disorienting because something in me reaches back for easier “conversations,” but the conversations just get more challenging.

It’s sad to my earlier self that was so used to hearing. He returns sometimes and cries with me that silence is the new speech. But he fades and lets the current me get used to what is. The earlier me waves at the current me who is learning to sit instead of speech, who is learning to watch a still God and not only listen for a speaking One.

The next morning, after the pastoral group, I woke at a time when I’m getting used to waking. I woke to my image and it was one from a months-plus moment that I cannot remember. It’s a part of premature birth story. I was alone for nearly two months in a NICU at Mercy. That’s what I usually say to myself. I was alone in the NICU. This time, though, God reminded me that I was not alone, that I was certainly not as alone as I tell myself.

I think God was sarcastic because it felt like I was being told, in a snarky tone, “You weren’t really there anyway. And how can you remember? Memory structures aren’t formed for years. My memory of those weeks is much better than yours.”

The image of God’s attendance helped because it is working on me now. For years, I’ve told myself something about a basic aloneness that was negatively lonely, a basic experience that was almost disabling, and in the course of my work and life, I woke to something different. I am still waking to it, becoming alert to the realness of Spirit being where I don’t hear God speaking. Whether in a hospital or in my home.

And it connected to learnings from years of therapy, spiritual direction, and clinical supervision. Basic aloneness is not unwelcome but is starkly and clearly human. It is the potential bridge to what humans need: divine proximity. Further, loneliness is not uninhabitable terrain but something, if we’re lucky, we get to have, remember, and have recalled by God’s loving re-memory. There are many who do not know this good, basic aloneness, many who run from it and don’t open empty hands to it.

It is true that my weaknesses and gaps from those early days haunt me sometimes. My best friend has heard me weep my fears around this as have mentors and servants in my life. The hauntings and the weaknesses from whence they come are not always welcome. But the hauntings are in question. They are, in other words, contestable, given the image of God who knows more.

The Spirit remembers better than I do, has a better recollection of my experiences than I do. And that same Spirit is.

Goodbye to Summer

I don’t usually comment on the photos I insert, but Chris Lawton’s image is evocative of this poem by Joyce Rupp. I’ve used Chris’ images in my work and I return to Sister Rupp every other year to intentionally reflect upon loss and grief.

Years ago, I spent a weekend in retreat with the book this poem comes from, My Soul Feels Lean, and I returned home after that readying time to have the unexpected conversation where I learned I’d divorce. Her book, Praying Our Goodbyes, helped anchor me during the grief after my father’s death. Rupp is one of my poet’s and one especially helpful for grief, an emotion that’s basic to the work of the life I live.

Grief happens when change happens. Good change brings it and, more obviously, un-good change brings it. A graduation can bring it just as a person missing from the actual celebration can. The good and the un-good in the same occasion. The emotional response to the good and the un-good is grief. We need language for it and sometimes that language is poetic. As Audre Lorde says, poetry gives us a “distillation of experience” and offers structure to what is “nameless and formless.”

Every unit of CPE, every group of students in a class, all the rhythms of my work and the rest bring me to seeing people and things which change. Every change – semesters that end, courses that are graded, students different from the last ones, and all the other relationships and connections which change – offers a fresh turn away and a new turn toward.

I hope this poem carries meaning and strength for you:

Impermanence, transformation,

seasonal change, goodbyes.

Call it by whatever name,

its bound to leave a crusty mark

on my reluctant spirit.

The time has come to end

my light-filled summertime

when I floated on emerald wings.

Now I stand here by the patio door

looking out at naked trees.

Overnight, determined rain pressed

nearly every leaf to the ground.

Only a landscape of emptiness remains

where once there lived contented fullness.

I take a deep breath, give a sigh

of resignation, gather my precious

remembrance of those succulent months

while my memory takes one last, grateful look

at summer’s dewy dawns.

Now is the time to yield, to enter

the next turning, accept the stark contrast

of barrenness in place of fullness.

As I turn away from the emptied trees

I take my generous basket of summer

with me, trusting it has stored

enough to see me through

until the time of melting snow.

Moving from a Center of Solitude

There are authors I read in rotations. I will re-read a short list of writers because their work helps me remember myself, helps me fall into who I am, enable me to in their work see my own because reading them is a way of listening to the sacred in them – and, therefore, listening to the sacred in me.

I’ve done less reading rotations but I am reaching back for the reading plan that soothes my soul. When I’m at my best, I’m reading bell hooks annually, for instance. I’m thumbing slowly through the words of Howard Thurman. I’m probably sitting with something from Na’Im Akbar, Eugene Peterson, Joyce Rupp, and Gerald May.

Right now, I’m slowly re-reading Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. I met the book when I was reading for my supervisory education training in CPE. I struggled with whether this particular work of Nouwen would make it into my theory of supervision and because I met it pretty late, I decided to have him as a quiet partner in my soul care, even though not a featured one in the papers that I wrote and discussed at committee.

In the book, he’s writing about how loneliness transitions into solitude. He says that allowing loneliness to move into solitude changes anxiousness into love. His work in the book is, in part, to critique culture that engenders compulsive reactions, anxious choices, and unconsidered alertness to things that aren’t core to us. He writes:

“But in solitude of heart we can listen to the events of the hour, the day and the year and slowly ‘formulate,’ give form to, a response that is really our own. In solitude we can pay careful attention to the world and search for an honest response.

(Reaching Out, p. 50)

He says that loneliness births anxiety and that anxiety disables our self-recognition. It removes our ability to see our own core. Without being able to recognize our core, we move from one anxious reaction to another, stepping farther from who we are and from the solitude of the heart.

The solitude of the heart is where the honest response is. It’s where, when we step away from fear provoked by anxiousness, we hear something that sounds like peace even if complicated for the sense it doesn’t make in a chaotic, dynamic world. In that world, we are moved to react. In that world, we are moved by noise.

In the solitude of heart, we move to a core slowness that isn’t about timing but choosing. We pace ourselves by peace not fear. Nouwen gives ways to move toward peace in the book. One way, if you’re interested, is in weeping, learning to weep, and learning to keep vigil.

Already, you may think, with Nouwen, “No one wants to do that.” Precisely. Weeping, he writes, is a way to “listen carefully to our restless hearts.” Rather than medicate them with psychic numbing and anesthetics, he says, being in the middle of sadness helps us locate joy, peace, and the beginnings of solitude.

May we keep moving toward the core, the truth, the slower and stronger revealed reality of who we are.

Something My Therapist Said

I’ve had my current therapist for a touch over five years. I originally started seeing her before I knew I was divorcing. Or before it was confirmed.

I look forward to our sessions and always learn something about myself, learn something about how I am in the world, and how I’m not (yet).

Last session, she told me to do something I wasn’t doing. To give context, I have been grieving a particular loss over months and she has walked alongside me in that, but she has carefully lingered over my avoidance of the language of grief. I’ve used other language, other words, and other ways to talk about what’s been up.

Plus, I’ve been grieving a series of layered losses so me and my therapist have walked through each of them, gently examining me in relation to what was and what is, now, gone.

She told me to enlist my community earlier. She included herself in this. She said other things one of which was that I wasn’t alone and, in effect, that I was acting like I was.

The longer you wait to tell people you need them, the more you’re acting like you’re alone. If you’re the type to figure out loss and grief as if it were similar to other problems to solve, you’re subject to leaving your people out of your emotional life. And you need your people.

I hand this over to you because it’s mobile wisdom. Lots of us grieve lots of things. Lots of people in your life grieve lots of things. Today – the day I’m writing this – I mentioned to a friend a remembrance that the person in her home is “still grieving.” That loss has ongoing impact. Most do.

Give loss credit. Give it all the credit it deserves.

Enlist your people in the process.

In the morning

My most active clinical day is Monday, which is usually true given the structure of my weeks. I see more patients on Monday than other days and Friday follows. I don’t usually work weekends anymore.

I genuinely enjoy the ministry with patients. Always grounding, it reminds me of what my work is, why it is, and how it goes. There is preparation and surprise. I know some of what to expect, including the part of me that knows most of a conversation is, essentially, under the category of the unexpected.

I do not like this but it is true. In fact, most of me strongly dislikes the unexpected. The spontaneous and surprising. The things that you can only prepare for when cultivating a posture of relaxation and openness. If I can relax and breathe, if I can be open to what comes, I’m prepared. But that preparation feels different than memorizing or following procedures. You prepare differently when you know disruptions to plans naturally emerge.

Preparing for the unexpected, then, is not a procedural preparation. Earlier this year, I was in a training with medical providers and we were learning about difficult conversations. The training is built around treating those conversations as procedures. I found it both intriguing to learn for a week with physicians and nurse practitioners and also thought the approach confounding. I learned a lot about what can be done as a procedure and, perhaps, what cannot.

Surprises and their cousins don’t cooperate with plans and so preparing for encounters has to be generous, and this keeps me flexible in the work of spiritual care. When I saw a particular patient on Monday, we talked for a while. We were in the busiest part of the hospital and it was noisy. We spoke for a touch less than an hour, which surprised me, and a lot was heard and held. There were words and things.

I have told students are others that the universe is in an encounter, and that’s always true, in some form, when I sit with a patient in the hospital. I felt that when I was with this person. It reads as dramatic but I’m convinced that sitting with a person in a genuine encounter is absolutely sacred, that it connects those present with holiness. It’s all there. Even if we can’t appreciate it. It’s all present.

The next morning, my colleague saw the same patient who sent word back to me. This happens once a week or so. Our department is large and lots of chaplains can see patients who stay for days. This week, my patient’s message was, “joy comes in the morning.”

Immediately, I went over the encounter in my head, doing what I often do with students in verbatim seminars. I walked back through the main points and movements of conversation, reconnected with my emotions, listened again to the noises and shifts that helped me remember. I asked my colleague with my eyes what our patient could mean and she was stumped, even though both of us knew the biblical origin of the phrase.

It was funny, the exchange between us as we considered the phrase, pulled out and given. But I went to mental and spiritual work. I used the message in another message, in partial response to someone who texted me the next day, still working to place the phrase, to accept the message. I am still sitting with the gift.

And then, as it was and is still speaking to me, it occurred to me to, while in my particular searching to fit this gift and message, to hold the phrase. To do nothing with it. I’m trying.

I woke this morning, earlier than I planned, something I should plan since it happens half the week! You’d think I’d notice the pattern at some point. And as with all mornings like this, I heard how time occurs to me in the dark of pre-sun rays. The birds, as before, told me what time it was and how long it would be until I saw light.

I thought to my patient’s message, to the preacher’s message, to the psalmist’s message. The whole phrase, the part she relayed, the entire musical selection. I held and checked the impulse to do that interpretive work that seminarians are trained to do. I tried to wait and listen.

I tried to let the birds, in darkness, sing into me what the message could be.

Four Challenges, Five Fingers

This is one of the requirements for an upcoming test in my martial art, Seido Juku, which I’ve practiced since 2015. Longer than my usual post, the essay is written for that particular international community and for my local dojo but it’s accessible enough to put on my site, as an anchor and reminder of what all the things are all about. If you are interested in learning about Seido, visit here and if you’d like a dojo in Chicago, Thousand Waves here is the place to come.

In earlier rank promotion essays, I wrote about how I came to Thousand Waves in order to connect with the spiritual elements of martial arts without disconnecting the physical work of karate. Not entirely unlike Kaicho Nakamura, who walked by and found Kendo and Kyokushin dojos in his boyhood, I drove down Belmont going to work and told myself how I always wanted to study karate. I wanted “to take karate”. That’s how I said it in my head: “I want to take karate.” I was going to work at a church then, an obvious place of spirituality and I passed by here regularly, holding a desire to take what would eventually offer me so much.

Both the physical and the spiritual come together when I think of my life, training, and striving. In this essay, I hope to show my martial arts practice in relation to the challenges in my work as a minister, in my life as a father, in my efforts to sustain my health, and in my dating life as a once-married man. I will write to these four areas – challenges and gifts, with all the associated synonyms. I live them as questions with and without answers and Seido has provided me with ways to incorporate embodiment with spirituality as I study and live.

Work – “Taking the Wide View”

I am a chaplain educator in a hospital. I am also a pastor, though I haven’t served in a congregation since 2017. Rather than two work sites like I did for a while, I have one. Only working in the hospital and as a pastoral educator gives me many opportunities to focus upon patient needs, family needs, and staff or student concerns. One of things I like about me is that I know how to focus. I can sit with a person and be consistently (not perfectly) alert to them. I know how to stay with a person or an issue. I can attend. However, I don’t always relax my jaw, I’m impatient, I sometimes raise my shoulders without knowing it, I don’t move my feet and leave when I should, and I don’t widen my feet so that they’re placed in the best position for me to stand strong. Sometimes, I focus upon the small detail, the small view, and it is karate that helps me focus on more. It helps me remember that there is more. There are more moves.

I paused my training during a major part of the pandemic. I attended outdoor black belt tests, went to a few classes outdoors, and tried to establish a rhythm with zoom attendance. But I didn’t keep a good, stable rhythm. At work, I interfaced daily with the sickest patients. Though I came home where my children lived, I was so afraid every day that I would expose them or that I wouldn’t survive. More words can be said about that but I was also afraid to expose my karate community.

Between my long days and strange weeks, I don’t think I lived with so much conscious fear in my life. Going into rooms, being permitted to be where relatives couldn’t be, and going home had a transforming way with me. Even as a Black man, most of my fears are relatively unconscious now. I’m forty-five so I know most of them and we’re good enough friends, me and those fears. But with that first half of all-things-virus, I didn’t find a way to coordinate consistently my upturned rhythms at the hospital with the physical work of karate classes. While I know and remember what I was doing in that year and a half, I still wish I was able to invest in the physical journey of my martial practice. I missed training with my first and second karate cohort/people. I missed them. I felt my practice lag.

I was learning though and the practice was reaching downward. I was digesting how to take the wider view of this art, learning to accept with gentleness and patience how absolutely necessary I found karate in the medical intensive care unit even when I couldn’t be in Thousand Waves. I needed every yoga class I had with Shuseki Shihan Nancy to remember to breathe and stretch, every reminder from Kyoshi Tom to widen my stance, relax my shoulders, or turn my thumb, every precisely placed teaching from Senpai Mattie about generating power, slipping, and pivoting. I needed the emotional memory of standing in front of Kyoshi Katherine, Kyoshi Wai, and Kyoshi Akinwande and all the fear and joy I always feel from them when we partner. I needed the background contact in sparring with Sensei Richard and Senpais Jeff, Mark, and Scott, knowing the work ahead in our meeting one another. I needed Sensei Ryan’s entire manner when he checked in with me about a very hard problem. They were how I took wider views. It is not an exaggeration to say that I maintained my ministry when I couldn’t maintain my attendance. I sustained my martial arts practice by sustaining my chaplaincy.

Parenting – “I’m here to be watched”

Kaicho writes about “taking the mountains too easily” as a boy. When I read of he and his friends spending a rainy night on the side of a mountain, sharing and savoring insufficient rice and wine as evidence of their childish thoughtlessness, impulsivity, and freedom, I cannot help but think of my own sons. I think of their qualities and quirks, their natures, their beauty.

I’ve nicknamed my boys with at least two names. Early on, I offered names that emerged from a specific act that I saw from each of them. They laugh at that personal name, roll their eyes, and I hardly use those names. Those are known by me and them, perhaps by their mother, but no one else. After I was at Thousand Waves, I was trying to intentionally integrate my art with my parenting. My oldest was at a different dojo then. I gave both boys additional nicknames: Pinan for the oldest and Seido for the youngest. First, it tells you everything that they, including the 7th grader, don’t know what the names mean. They know how to search for things and they still ask me, “what does it mean?” Urgh.

I gave them these names for a couple reasons. First, every time I call them, I’m naming them again. Second, every time I call them, I’m reminding myself to be the way I’ve called upon them to be. Third, every time I call them, I’m seeing and walking the path of martial arts again as a father. I’m reminding them, known to them or not, that as their father, I am here to be watched as we pursue peace, love, sincerity, and respect. Being there to be watched is what Senpai Jordan said during my first months at the dojo. We were in the basement then and I – having been trained religiously to not look upon women with a steady, uncaring gaze – didn’t know how to see my Senpai. She, like all my teachers, would say, “I’m here to be watched. I’m here so you can see me.”

Her teaching and modeling began to reshape my vision and readiness to learn. They also became a way for me to understand who I am to my sons. I’m here to be seen and watched by them. They see my form, my stance, my face (like moon or not). They’re on their own path. I want to play my role well in their lives.

Health – “This is the body I have”

In some ways this is a separate challenge and in other ways, it can be a summary of all of them. I am proud of how hard it is for me to answer someone’s question about self-care. At one time, I’d slice an answer in order to talk about faith or spirituality. At other times, I’d talk about physical practices that were obviously physiological or body-centered. As I’ve read and studied in my doctoral work and prepared chapters on this dissertation about the experiences of Black patients and faith, it’s gotten more involved. My life with karate has mixed in and I’ve found myself thinking in ways that remember the body. My challenge is to remember this body.

I think to Shuseki Shihan’s words about this being in the body I have and Senpai Mattie’s words about being thankful for the bodies we have. Their leadership in gratitude and training anchor how I want to be in, with, and for my body. Technique and gratitude join. I want both. I want to stay thankful that I am in my body, that Seido is very much about the body. I feel it every time I wake up the day after a class where we’ve practiced falls, rolls, and intermediate self-defenses. Finally, I do think of expressly Christian language when I hear my teachers. There is a phrase where Jesus speaks to his students and, during a meal, conceptualizes the bread as his body. It has a way of producing within me a theological motivation for living in this body, presenting it in the best way I can, and in preserving it as long as I am blessed to relate to it.

Dating – “The Five Fingers Meets Harmonious Sparring”

I separated from the woman I was with in April of 2017 and divorced in September of 2018. As committed as I am to disturbing the trend for anchoring my relational life by those dates, I name them as a way to speak to how karate enabled me to face love changes with strength. I remember speaking to Shuseki Shihan after a Sunday yoga class – ah, I miss those classes! – and I told her that I had used all my fingers, that I was cycling through them again, and that I had to fight. She listened so care-fully and told me things still blossoming “like a plum” in my heart. Since then, I have held to the ways those fingers have enabled me to retreat with strength, to exercise perfect control, to respond with continued movement until threats have ceased, and to, at times, spar and not fight. I have lived through unnecessary litigation and necessary litigation, encroachment upon my person and space in ways requiring my martial reflexes in deeply surprising ways. A friend commented recently on how moved she was by my handling of adversity, and my first thought was Seido, the way of love, respect, and sincerity and how naturally intermingled it is with my Christian aspirations.

This is a long introduction to dating. I began dating in 2019, felt the stings of it, got ghosted in 2020 (which I didn’t know was a thing), and met someone who I connected with for a few years until that joyous connection retreated into friendship last fall. I am dating, something that is both an act and a status. Perhaps, it is correct to just say I am open to dating. If you’re a karateka and if you’ve been in the dynamic world of gesturing toward connections and being open them, you already see the possibilities between martial arts and the connecting stuff of relating. My practice of karate feels in my body like the five fingers meeting harmonious sparring. Of course, it is not entirely fair to draw the safety framework we use at Thousand Waves into what is a loving discussion. But go with me here: love and safety belong together. Looking for love and being open to it are exercises in consideration, assertion, coming and going, conflict engagement, and communication. In my life, dating and love move like meditations with thinking, yelling, running, fighting, and telling. There is nuance but they’re together like sparring partners who, rather than “fighting” per se, are learning together. Open to contact, dating or attempting to connect is a kind of harmonious martial work. Those partners – I am trying to be one of them since this is my life we’re talking about – are discussing levels of contact, keeping appropriate distance for the task, and learning and how to protect each other.

As I close this essay, I want to reassert my appreciation for the leadership of Shuseki Shihan Nancy, for her continued striving with patience in her life project that became Thousand Waves. Her living work at her martial arts practice introduced me to Kaicho, to Seido, to Sei Shihan Sarah, and to all my many splendid teachers. Though I’m not passing by on a Belmont bus or parking to actually enter this place, I am very much at another beginning stage, parts of which I’ve sketched in this essay, parts of which you’ll always see when I’m on the floor. You’ve seen me and you’ve known me. You know where my injuries are, where my growth has been. The essay can’t capture what the floor and community know. Still, I look forward into the broad and wide view ahead with confidence, a little less tension in my shoulders, and a smile because I’m surrounded by waves of love, respect, and sincerity. Osu!

Love, Respect, Sincerity

When talking about Seido Juku, the martial art he created, Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura offers a number of core elements in The Human Face of Karate. The book tells his story of his early practice of karate and outlines how he came to create Seido.

He includes his critique of early Japanese martial arts and how, when he arrived to the United States, he faced a need to leave the art he had known in order to create the art he imagined. Seido resulted.

Seido is an art with the core elements of love, respect, and sincerity even while it features the physical and technical aspects of other Japanese martial arts. These three pieces feature widely in Kaicho’s work, in the pursuit on the path, in the striving with patience which occurs for persons practicing the art.

As he says, at certain points along one’s way, a person has to choose which path – in karate as in life – which road that person will walk. Kaicho made choices in his life, choices that included, at times, the difficulties of leaving. He came and went. He arrived and departed. He started and ended.

When he created Seido, he wanted to ensure to create a martial art that had the strength and physical aspects but that had a different core. Love was the core. Respect was the core. Sincerity was the core.

I draw upon my practice of Seido in a number of ways these days, and will continue to, but I’m returning to these three lately. What is the most loving thing to do? How would this act express my respect for my own humanity or for another’s? Given this act, what do I most respect, cherish, and value? How would I gauge my sincerity? To what move am I committed? If I were to listen to what I just did, would I hear love?

Whatever they mean for you, these three words, I hope you find them in your life and journey. Sometimes, it’s easy to find one but hard to find the others. I commend them to you. May you, as we say, strive with patience.