Practice Resurrection with Suzanne Rodriguez (Rochester, NY)

Welcome to the sixth guest post in a new-and-improved version of the the Practice Resurrection series!

I’ve invited several friends and acquaintances to share a snapshot of their lives during the weeks of Eastertide (between now and Pentecost Sunday, June 9th). As in other series of guest posts, I pray about who to invite and for this series I was contemplating the ways these women and men consistently invite us through their social media presence to regularly consider restoration, beauty, and goodness even, and maybe especially, in the face of difficulty. I’ve asked each guest to share snapshots of their present daily life inspired by Wendell Berry’s  poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”.

Today’s guest is a friend from our hometown, both of us living in new places now. I’ve been grateful to stay connected to Suzanne through social media not only for the reminder of home but for new insight into the transformative power of love of God, people, and place. Suzanne and her husband Agustin live out the beauty of the Gospel in a truly diverse community of Christians intent on seeing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. I’m always encouraged by Suzanne’s focus on the beauty that surrounds her even in a city struggling to emerge from post-industrial depression. She and her community live out a prophetic imagination that turns places of evil into places of  redemption. I hope you’ll be deeply encouraged by Suzanne’s post to see your own city with a refreshed, resurrected imagination.

First, take a moment to listen to Suzanne read the poem as she walks around the border of the property of Heart & Soul Church where drug paraphernalia can always be found. This is the same plot of land Suzanne held her wedding in the summer of 2016. Talk about practicing resurrection!


(don’t) Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay.

I'm in the process of reducing the hours of my full-time job so that I can have more time to pursue my passions. Though it's a far cry from "take all you have and be poor," it's a baby step in the right direction.

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(don’t) Want more

of everything ready-made. 


One of my favorite activities is making food from as original a source as possible. This week I made Vanilla Bean Custard.

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(don’t) Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.


My husband and I have tried to be deliberate about building relationships with our neighbors who are physically next to us. We've found it's difficult as everyone has such busy lives. It takes being intentional and willing to run out of the house in sweatpants and with messy hear to say hello if that's when the opportunity arises. This week while talking with a family who lives on our street (who we do not know as well as we would like), their youngest son ran up to me and gave me a big, long hug. Then proceeded to run to another neighbor's yard and pick me this tulip. 

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So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. 

For the past few years, my husband and I have made one day a week a Sabbath day where we pause from work and spend a day doing things that fill us and investing extra time with God and with those we love. We also try and spend at least a few minutes in silence with God each morning. In such a hurried culture, my default is definitely to "keep moving!" with an unending list of routine tasks on my mind. These moments, often spent on our front porch, are the perfect reset. They allow me to remember my true identity and calling in Jesus and keep me ever-mindful of my need of and dependence on God.

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Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it. 

Last week my church co-hosted (with the Rochester Latino Rotary) an "Opioids In Our Community" forum with a panel of local experts. Situated in a neighborhood notorious for drug traffickingwe desire to understand the issues surrounding drug dependency and what small parts we can play in stopping the destructive cycle.

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Ask the questions that have no answers. 


We meet up weekly with a group of fellow Jesus-followers to eat a meal together, ask questions (that many times don't have answers), and share in the realities of life with each other.

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Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. 

And herbs! I don't have a great track record being able to keep green things alive (I've killed cacti before), but I'm trying to put in the time and attention it takes to help plants grow and produce fruit.

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As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction. 

Participating in the #the100dayproject has challenged me to just jump in and create something every day. I haven't created a masterpiece each day and that's ok. This project has brought lessons in persistence and grace. It has also led me to dabble in various media, helping me discover which techniques I want to leave behind and which processes I'd like to play with more. (Find Suzanne on Instagram.)

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Practice resurrection.


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Suzanne Rodriguez lives in Rochester, NY with her husband Agustin. They enjoy traveling, breaking bread around the table with friends old and new, and being a part of their multi-cultural inner city church family, Heart & Soul Community Church, where Suzanne is the Director of Arts & Marketing. Suzanne currently works in online advertising and is starting a marketing business with her husband to equip small businesses and nonprofits with what they need to be able to create effective brand awareness at an affordable cost.


(You can see all the Practice Resurrection 2019 guest posts here.)

Practice Resurrection with Brendah Ndagire (Uganda)

Welcome to the third guest post in a new-and-improved version of the the Practice Resurrection series!

I’ve invited several friends and acquaintances to share a snapshot of their lives during the weeks of Eastertide (between now and Pentecost Sunday, June 9th). As in other series of guest posts, I pray about who to invite and for this series I was contemplating the ways these women and men consistently invite us through their social media presence to regularly consider restoration, beauty, and goodness even, and maybe especially, in the face of difficulty. I’ve asked each guest to share snapshots of their present daily life inspired by Wendell Berry’s  poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”.

This week’s post is from a woman I haven’t yet had the privilege to meet in real life, but have come to respect her perspective as a Ugandan woman telling her own story as well as advocating for others. Brendah consistently speaks with remarkable courage and passion for the marginalized in places throughout the world while also delighting in the beauty in her own life and each place that she’s lived. I’m so glad to be able to share her perspective of practicing resurrection right now. She gives us insight into wonder of the story of the post-resurrection appearance of Christ to his friends on the Emmaus Road and invites us to consider the ways we can join him in that very same conversation right now wherever we live.

First, take a moment to listen to Brendah reading us the poem from her home in Uganda.


Practicing Resurrection on the Road to Emmaus

(Luke 24:13-35)

Kasanvu community along the Uganda Railway, Greater Kampala Area, Uganda. (Brendah Ndagire's photo)

Kasanvu community along the Uganda Railway, Greater Kampala Area, Uganda. (Brendah Ndagire's photo)

When we think about the practice of Christianity, the first ideas that come to mind are: to gather and participate in worship every Sunday morning, getting baptized, or sharing the word of the Lord and participate in Kingdom building, which is also known as discipleship. These acts are all wonderful and they should be celebrated. However, what is usually not paid attention to, is the practice of walking with the poor, the marginalized, the wanderers, and/or hopeless. I equate the latter, with the practice of resurrection, which is derived from Wendell Berry's “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”

Plantain Farming in Kisoro District, Western Uganda. (Brendah Ndagire's photo)

Plantain Farming in Kisoro District, Western Uganda. (Brendah Ndagire's photo)

In recognition of the Eastertide Season. I am focusing my attention on walking with the hopeless, those who struggle with doubt, who wonder, and those who may be poor in whatever way. After the Christ's resurrection, I love reflecting on Jesus' walk from the grave, the people He encountered on the way (His journey to be with His father), the conversation He had with them, and the encouragement and promises He left with them.

If we were to paint an image of what was going on the Road to Emmaus, we would recognize some of the ways we can practice resurrection with the poor, the marginalized, the wanderers, and/or hopeless in our communities.

Street Kid carrying a bag of trash/rubbish in Kisenyi Slums, Kampala, Uganda. (Brendah Ndagire's photo)

Street Kid carrying a bag of trash/rubbish in Kisenyi Slums, Kampala, Uganda. (Brendah Ndagire's photo)

In Luke 24:14-15, we would identify that people were talking with each other about EVERYTHING (probably about their brokenness over Christ's death, or personal brokenness, daily struggles, their doubts, discontents etc). In an age of social media and smartphones, Christians even in an economically poor nation like Uganda, barely have time to speak with each other about everything. If it is hard enough to speak with those whom we have a close relationship with, how likely that we would be able to speak with the economically poor, socially marginalized, and/or the hopeless in our communities? To practice resurrection is to SPEAK/TALK about everything with those we encounter on the way or in our communities.

What else was happening on that road to Emmaus?

In Luke 24:17, we identify that Jesus also came along and walked with the people. But he did not stop there, He asked an open ended and provocative question, “what are you discussing together as you walk along?” And part of how we can practice resurrection is by asking questions and seek understanding from those we encounter on the way, on the streets, or in the ghettos/ slums of big cities.

For me, may be my questions may not be as rebuking as Jesus'. But when I walk in the streets or slums of Kampala, I am curious to know the stories of the people I encounter there. I ask myself: Why is this child living in this slum? What is s/he doing on the street? Why is/are s/he or they picking from the trash can? Why is this river in Kasanvu is so dirty and smelly? Why are people living near this river in the first place? What they doing for themselves to live a dignifying life? What can I do to affirm their dignity?

River in Kasanvu slum carrying some of the sewage from Kampala City, Uganda. (Brendah Ndagire's photo)

River in Kasanvu slum carrying some of the sewage from Kampala City, Uganda. (Brendah Ndagire's photo)

There were many things happening on that road to Emmaus. Among these were Jesus reminding the people of who He was, and what had happened. I also want to point out another way we can practice resurrection, is inviting others (the poor, marginalized or hopeless) into our lives (see Luke 24:29- 30). It is not enough to ask questions, it is also important to invite, open our doors, and share our (whether scarce or abundant) resources with others, even when they seem not to be in need of them. At the invitation of Jesus Christ “to stay with them, ...He took Bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to (share) it to them.” And once that happened, “they recognized Him.” I find that particular verse powerful. It teaches me that something beautiful and divine happens when we open our hearts, minds, and lives to strangers, to people who do not necessarily look, have a different economic status, believe/worship, act, or love like us. That too, is the practice of resurrection.


 Prayer for Practicing Resurrection

Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease, or the words of men’s mouths, or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us - the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty - all these and more. But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death. Mercifully grant us, O God, the spirit of Esther, that we say: ‘I will go unto the King and if I perish, I perish.’ — Amen.
— Excerpt from Prayers for Dark People by W.E.B. Du Bois, ed. Herbert Aptheker. 1980. University of Mass Press, Amherst.

My Practice Resurrection Song

“All the Poor and Powerless” by All Sons & Daughters

YouTube | Lyrics

 

Brendah Ndagire is a Ugandan International Development Professional. She is currently working as a Communications Associate with Uganda Christian University (UCU) Partners - a freelance blog writer, writing stories of impact, empowerment, and affirmation. Interested in peace theology, feminism, social justice, and global politics.


(You can see all the Practice Resurrection 2019 guest posts here.)

Practice Resurrection with Sarah Quezada (Guatemala City & Atlanta)

Welcome to the second guest post in a new-and-improved version of the the Practice Resurrection series!

I’ve invited several friends and acquaintances to share a snapshot of their lives during the weeks of Eastertide (between now and Pentecost Sunday, June 9th). As in other series of guest posts, I pray about who to invite and for this series I was contemplating the ways these women and men consistently invite us through their social media presence to regularly consider restoration, beauty, and goodness even, and maybe especially, in the face of difficulty.

I haven’t had the privilege of meeting today’s guest in real life, but I’ve come to appreciate her deeply. In the past couple of years that immigration issues have been in the headlines more prominently, I’ve tried to discern the voices that engage well the intersection of public policy, human suffering, current headlines, and our Christian call for allegiance to the Kingdom of Jesus above all others. Sarah Quezada is the voice that’s become one of the most valuable to me at this intersection. If you’re looking for a trustworthy teacher in this conversation, go sign up for her weekly newsletter right now.

Sarah graciously accepted my invitation to share snapshots her life inspired by Wendell Berry’s  poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”. To help us all get a bit more familiar with the masterpiece, I asked each contributor to include a simple recording of themselves reading the poem out loud to us.

Here’s Sarah reading us the poem from her porch. She has such a lovely reading voice so make sure you turn on the sound!


Ask the questions that have no answers.

There are so many things I do not understand. My mind fills with questions, not the least of which is "Where is God?" But I find myself hearing only one response. God is near to the broken-hearted. God is present. In every sorrow, in every joy, in every unanswered question, God is present.

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Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Sometimes we build and create under trees we didn't plant. Enjoy the good gifts God - and those who've walked our ground before us - have offered us.

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Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Things fall down. Even tall, beautiful trees can lay down across our path. One part of me grieves this death of something strong and statuesque. Another part of me watches as its regal falling allows two kids to rise to new heights, to experience their strength and grow.

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Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

Parenting has been a constant reminder to me that life is up and down. I want the cuddles and the giggles, but more often than not, it feels like it the days are met with laundry, snacks, and meltdowns. But even when we know the facts, we cannot help but laugh with the joyful moments. Each day is filled with the good and the hard. So we expect what feels like the end of the world. And we laugh, too.

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So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute.

Life is hard. Do everything you can to create. 

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So long as women do not go cheap

for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy

a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep

of a woman near to giving birth?

"I saw God's presence when I was arrested."

A woman we met on our trip to Oaxaca shared her story of leaving Honduras after her son was threatened by gang members. She told us how she and her children had been separated from her husband during the journey. (It seemed they had later found each other again.) They were waiting in Oaxaca, trusting God for their next steps.

Someone asked where she had witnessed God's presence on her trip. That's when she gave God the glory for her arrest. My jaw dropped.

She said she hadn't eaten in several days and was near passing out when she was apprehended. She spent about a week in immigration detention in Mexico - eating and sleeping - before being released.

I think somewhere along the way I internalized a theology that I think now may be "Prosperity Gospel Lite." I don't expect wealth and power and influence if I follow God.

But I do expect average. I expect a baseline level of comfort, security, and ease. When something happens that ricochets me too far from the middle, I'm all "Where are you, God?!? What is happening?!?"

But lately, I've been thinking about this arrest testimony and the profound faith I've witnessed among the poor in the States. And it's got me thinking that that perhaps what's not surprising is the injustice, the pain, the suffering. It's the world humans have built. Yet God is constantly present, showing up in moments of grace and mercy.

Collectively, we chose darkness. But the light keeps showing up and breaking through.


Practice resurrection.

It's easy to be distracted by the color and cacophony around us. Even the light at the end of the tunnel can draw our focus. Sometimes, though, if we look up, we will see light.

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Sarah Quezada writes about social justice, immigration, faith, and living across cultures. Her first book Love Undocumented: Risking Trust in a Fearful World was published in January 2018. Her writing has also been featured on Christianity TodayRelevant, Sojourners, ChurchLeaders.com, Off the Page, and elsewhere.

Sarah’s husband Billy emigrated from Guatemala City, and they met and married in Los Angeles. Together, they've walked through complex U.S. immigration system and delightfully enjoy the humor and craziness of a cross-cultural, bilingual relationship.

The Quezada’s home is in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia, where they try to be good neighbors and engage in Christian community development. They love the CCDA (Christian Community Development Association), and Sarah is a member of their Emerging Leaders cohort.

During the Spring of 2019, Sarah and her family are living in Guatemala City, Guatemala, where they’ve founded Bridge, a job creation initiative that is creating building products from recycled materials.

Sarah and Billy have two kids - Gabriella and Isaac - and they are trying their best to raise them bicultural and trilingual-ish. To that end, they speak as much Spanglish as possible at home, and they study Mandarin in school.

Find Sarah on Facebook, Instagram, and her website. Purchase her book and sign up for her weekly newsletter, The Road Map.


(You can see all the Practice Resurrection 2019 guest posts here.)

Weekend Daybook is back: Mother's Day, my graduation, important recommendations for immigration updates and more!

Until Advent (minus some vacation weeks this summer) I’ll share some of the things helping me to worship God, love people, and enjoy beauty each week for you to peruse during your weekend downtime.

(1) photo from this week

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Our friend Jen Thompson, the felting genius, surprised me with this sweet little set for a graduation gift. I CAN’T STOP GIGGLING! Brian and I are going to start using this for all of our profile pics.

Also, they make me think of this…

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I see a whole new way new way to solve marriage conflict.

Thanks, Jen!


(2) new blog posts this week!

  1. Third Sunday of Eastertide: Worthy - Hallelujah! Christ is risen! The celebration continues with the Great Fifty Days called Eastertide. Stay tuned for a variety of celebratory posts here on the blog.

  2. Practice Resurrection with Micah Thompson (Hinesburg, VT) - Speaking of the Thompsons and celebratory posts, here’s the first guest post in a new-and-improved version of the the Practice Resurrection series!


(3) Mother’s Day favorites

Over twenty-seven years in and I’m still learning how to be a mother. I’m learning it never gets easier, but it does get deeper and wider as my capacity for love increases. I’ve said so many times before that I’m learning Jesus stretches out time.

 
Relax. You’ve got time, it’s going to take time.

I know, I know - old ladies have stopped you in the store five trillion times to warn you that the time flies by faster than you can imagine and that you need to make the most of every single moment with your cherubs. And that’s sort of true.

Most true, though, is that Jesus is a redeemer of time. He moves outside of time and space, He returns time and stretches it out in just the right ways so He can save you and your kids. When you read any practical suggestions I have to offer please take your time, consider, pray, laugh, relax.

Put another way, maybe the very, very best advice I have to offer parents is this:

Reject hyper-vigilance, embrace spacious grace.
— from my "Parenting Unrehearsed" series (2012)
 

I’ve been grateful for the increasing reminders over the past few years to invite all women into the blessing of Mother’s Day, and to remember there are many ways to share maternal love (indeed, God is the source of maternal love and makes it available for all men and women to receive and to offer.) I hope we’ll continue to remember this reality in our liturgies and our prayers. At the same time, I also believe there’s a place to give thanks for the mothers who are in the middle of the daily grind of it all. Here’s some of my favorite ways to say “We see you!”

  1. The poem and playlist I keep giving my mom each year: A Poem and A Playlist For My Dear Momma

  2. Maybe my favorite essay ever for Mother’s Day: Fifty Things About My Mother | via Slate

  3. In her 2018 album, By the Way, I Forgive, Brandi Carlile released one of my favorite songs ever reflecting the kind of sacrifice motherhood invites. You can listen to the song here: The Mother. (This song carries even more meaning for me this year as this past December we gave our youngest daughter, Natalie the second middle name Evangeline to celebrate her 21st birthday. Listen to the song to see what I mean.)

 

(4) links to help us continue to celebrate Eastertide

  1. Easter Is Just Getting Started by Andrew Peterson - “I feel in my chest a loosening of tension, a relief that the grieving of Lent is past, the hard-fought self-discipline is behind me, and I can enter the days of work and rest with a subtly euphoric freedom from the thistle and thorn that infests the ground." | via The Rabbit Room

  2. Thou Shalt Celebrate (a book excerpt) by Dallas Willard - "The ‘strong drink’ mentioned here was, shall we say, not exactly sassafras tea!" | via Renovaré

  3. Read from two bloggers going all in for #practiceresurrection2019 - Minding the Gap by Kathy Swaar and Practicing Resurrection 2019 (a post for each of the 50 days)! by Peggy Nagy at Inkblot Life.

  4. Happy As Flowers & Peeps by Gretchen Joanna - "There is not one word for the way so many of us Orthodox feel when we have come to the end of Lent and Holy Week, and are finally standing in church on Pascha night, exhausted, brain dead, dizzy from sleepiness, feeling a little (or a lot) out of whack from keeping strange hours and eating little." | via Gladsome Lights

A photo of Church of the Apostles (Fairfield, CT) on Easter morning, 2019. Thanks to our friend,  Adiel Dominguez , for this photo!

A photo of Church of the Apostles (Fairfield, CT) on Easter morning, 2019. Thanks to our friend, Adiel Dominguez, for this photo!


(5) important links to understand immigration crisis

This week I sent the following letter to approximately three-dozen friends and family who serve the Church as pastors and ordained ministers. Now I’m passing the letter and the links to you.

 
Dear friends and family serving the Body of Christ,

I’m privileged to know personally so many beautiful shepherds of Jesus’ little flock and am taking a bit of a risk to reach out to you as one collective about an issue that matters deeply to me. I understand that your hearts, minds, and calendars are full of weighty matters and that you are called upon daily (hourly?) to respond in love to all sorts of human concern and suffering. For that reason, please don’t feel obligated to reply to this email, but would you, in the coming week, consider reading one news article and subscribing to updates from one Christian engaging the subject of migrants seeking asylum - particularly the women and children fleeing domestic violence - at the U.S. borders (primarily the southern border)?

I’ve been following this conversation for a while and have tried to discern the voices that engage well the intersection of policy, human suffering, current headlines, and our Christian call for allegiance to the Kingdom of Jesus above all others. Sarah Quezada is the voice that’s become one of the most valuable to me at this intersection and, while I’ve shared her updates on social media, I’m trying to learn the most fruitful ways to communicate this sort of information. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the fruitfulness of conversation on social media is diminishing, at best.

Since I’m fortunate to know personally (heck, I’m related to half of you receiving this email!) so many of you leading and influencing the Church, I wanted to pass Sarah’s name to you to engage at whatever level you’re able.

Thank you, in advance, for welcoming my request. I hold you each in high regard and pray for us all as we seek to build up the beloved body of Christ in this gnarly world.

Hallelujah! He is risen!
Tamara
— Letter I wrote this past week to pastor and ordained minister friends and family
 
  1. Sarah Quezada: newsletterbookTwitterFB, & IG. If nothing else, subscribe to her newsletter for a brief, but essential weekly round-up of current events at the border.

  2. This recent post from Sarah especially caught my attention: “Collectively, we chose darkness. But the light keeps showing up and breaking through.”

  3. 'Someone Is Always Trying To Kill You': The United States cannot erect a wall and expect women to resign themselves to being slaughtered. An NYT opinion piece by Sonia Nazario The article I'm asking you to read this week (it's a difficult one to read, but I found deeply important in my understanding of the essence of an emergency at the border). 

  4. If you'd like to be encouraged about the way the Church is ministering in Arizona, here's a recent article Sarah shared in her newsletter: Why this Arizona grandmother feels compelled to take in migrants seeking asylum.

  5. One of Plough Publishing’s newest releases reminds us of the legacy of walls - A Book to End All Walls: An Interview with Uk-Bae Lee (not just for children!)


(6) photos from my graduation residency

I'm delighted to let you know that on the last Monday in April I completed my Selah Spiritual Direction certification. Thank you so much for all of the encouragement and support so many of you've offered the past two years. In fact, I couldn't have done it without our community.

I've been grateful to build a small practice with directees and am looking forward to serving a non-profit organization working in a small village in Mexico as a spiritual director available to faculty and staff at the beginning and end of their summer institute. I look forward to beginning one or more spiritual direction groups and possibly adding a retreat in fall 2019 or winter 2020.

I'm eager to invite more directees to my practice so please feel free to share my contact information and web page with your family and friends . There’s a contact form at the bottom of the page to send any questions.

Thank you, again, to all who participated in God's abundant and perfectly-timed gift to us. We're forever grateful.


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1 year ago

My kids were all together in Texas and sent me this photo on Mother’s Day. I love them.


May your weekend include plenty of space to practice resurrection. Hallelujah! He is risen, friends!

p.s. This post may contain affiliate links because I'm trying to be a good steward, and when you buy something through one of these links you don't pay more money, but in some magical twist of capitalism we get a little pocket change. Thanks!

Today you will be with me in Paradise: Walter Wittwer [Retrieve Lament 2019]

Jesus gave us a litany of last words as a Sufferer; we refer to them as the Seven Last Words of Christ. The deathbed words of the Suffering Servant provide a framework for the stories of lament we share here this Holy Week.

I count it a high privilege to know -- at least in a small part -- the writers of the mourning stories I'll be sharing here during Holy Week. Their lives walk the path of celebration, yes, but also suffering -- illness, relational disillusionment, anxiety, joblessness, the death of loved ones, and the death of dearly-held dreams. Their stories have helped form me in my understanding of suffering and I believe they could also encourage you too. 

If you’ve been following the blog for the last year, you’ve met today’s guest more than once. Walter and his wife, Karen, are kindred spirits in our congregation at Church of the Apostles. Walter’s heart for the marginalized is only outmatched by his heart for Jesus. Actually, as Jesus told us, the two are inseparable. You can read here. all of the posts Walter records from his prison visits with Kairos. I’m grateful to him for sharing one of them with us here today.

Would you read Walter's story with me, and listen with an open heart for any words Christ might be speaking to you?

Icon of Christ the Prisoner , Nikolai Tsai   Source

Icon of Christ the Prisoner, Nikolai Tsai

Source

 
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’

But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God’, he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’

Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’
— Luke 23:39-43 (ESV)
 

Prison Memo #43

by Walter Wittwer

How does one describe the Holy Spirit’s work? How does one help others understand what happens at a spiritual retreat taken with prisoners, in prison? People doing serious time but freer than many not behind razor wire.

 How does one adequately describe the power of 60 men, half free, half not, every age and every color, singing louder than most congregations, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

 How do I paint the quiet joy on a person’s face because, “This feels so normal. I don’t feel like I’m in prison. It’s just a bunch of guys havin’ a good time together. I’ve never felt this before.”

Can I do justice to the transformation of hard, suspicious faces into delight? How does this happen? F. said, “Kairos is from the heart of God!” I believe him of course, but how do I tell you what that feels like? When J. said that when he came Thursday night, he was dead, but now, Sunday, “I’m alive.” The same man who hung himself a few years ago, ending up in a coma for 6 months. No one thought he would live, yet now he is truly alive. And I saw him dance to, “I Saw the Light!” Can I really tell you what resurrection looks like? Have you seen it? Come to prison and you always see people come out of their graves.

Stories. Mundane miracles. Simple graces. Transfigurations. Heart transplants. And not just among the prisoners. Does anyone believe it? Would I believe it if I only read about it?

And surprises. O. had a stroke and may still have a tumor. He is not an old man. His conversation is disjointed, rambling, often hard to follow. Sometimes almost poetic, “I know I’m here, but I may not be because I’m also over there and someplace else.” Having experienced much community rejection of individuals with disabilities, I would expect abuse and mocking here in prison. But no. Did I see accurately? Only support and encouragement. An inmate explaining to me, “You have to be patient and listen. He’s doing the best he can.”

The rejected of society, acting civilized, talking intelligently, tackling difficult subjects more maturely than……expected. We talk racism, even politics, and no one yells, no one calls names. I’m sure the atmosphere that’s created helps. I wish we could create this atmosphere everywhere. Sharing deep thoughts, hurts, pains, angers, all listened to with love.

C. told of being from Mississippi and remembering the riots and the mistreatment by…. some of you folk’s color. Friday and Saturday nights he had visions of Joseph and his many-colored coat. He wondered what it meant. Sunday morning he had the vision again and finally he understood. We are all different colors, but we are made into the same coat. For the first time, he said, he was able to forgive us. He had been sullen most of the weekend, but Sunday he shared this story with us and the community that was able to come in and witness the closing, and he smiled.

V. is a peaceful man who struggled with how to evangelize in such a “dark place.”

Ch. is a thoughtful, philosophical man who is searching. He attends Bible study, Buddhist meditation, chapel, takes classes in psychology, reads a lot and asked many questions. He says he was a hard-headed man who is trying to learn how to be teachable.

K. testifies to forgiving the man who killed his son. G. tells how he came close to killing the man who was having an affair with his wife. The crying of the man’s two young boys stopped him. The stories are hard. They are brutal. They are TV stories lived out in real life. They are not what I’m used to. I don’t usually hang out with murderers. But these are different. They are not monsters, they are people. I don’t really understand it. They have done monstrous things…yet Jesus loves them…as much as me and has forgiven…even them.  

Can I convince you of the power of the prayer hands? I’ve convinced very few. Only about 10% of the people I ask fill one out. Perhaps many struggle with praying for criminals. I understand. Until I went in, I would have been hard-pressed to do it. But these hands move mountains. M. told V. that he had counted 160 of them on one wall. Given somewhat even distribution, there were at least 500 people out there who hadn’t forgotten them. This was a source of great astonishment. It always is. How do I help people understand this? Many say, I’ll be praying, and I believe they do. But to these men, the fact that people are praying for them is more important than that they are praying. Everywhere they look they see love. They see it. Telling them that people are praying for them means little. They cannot imagine that. Prison kills imagination. It kills hope. Those pieces of paper with names and times on them, along with other posters and pictures, restores hope, enlivens their imaginations, and renews their spirits.

And the prayer! Will you understand the power and depth of prayer, that shakes walls and trembles earth, that these men pour forth? Are there words to successfully recount the gratitude these men express. I always marvel how much there is in prison and how little in churches of free people. The prayer brought me to my knees. “There’s a lot of demons in this place but we’re called to be a light in this dark place!” “Oh Lord, that You would rescue such as me!” “Lord save the young who still have a chance in life. Guide them to safety.” We prayed for our families outside. For the weekend we had that in common.

And the letters! Have I told you about the letters? Each team member writes each Kairos retreatant a letter. Each got 30 letters, sealed and made personal by Holy Spirit. Past Kairos retreatants (this is our fourth year at this prison) can come and be angels (helpers). Each told us they still have everyone of their letters and still read them, over and over. Mail is scarce in prison, and the longer you’re there, the scarcer it gets. V. mentioned that he had not received a letter in over two years, and that one was opened. Now he has 30, all of which were sealed.

Should I tell of the last talk? B. started off by saying, “I’m a murderer in prison for life. I’m 29 years old and they are still investigating me for another murder in Connecticut and the FBI is still looking into my connection with other crimes. I was not a nice man. My uncle testified against me and he’s a free man. I will never be. My homies all deserted me. I still can’t believe I’ve been rescued by a bunch of crusty old white guys. Now, even though I’m not free, I am, and I know where I’m going when this is all over. I smile all the time (he does) and I try to help the younger guys, guys who still have a shot at making something out of their lives (I’ve witnessed him doing this).” His talk shocks some people from the outside. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not sure exactly what to make of a testimony like this. It is one thing to speak in Christian theory, it’s a whole ‘nother thing to see it face-to-face.

 And finally, the team. Sunday mornings tend to be the most segregated time of the week, but not this group. The (very good) worship team consists of three guitarists; a Baptist heavy machinery mechanic (retired), a Methodist CPA and a Catholic aviation inspector, a Pentecostal landscaper plays bass and a Presbyterian chiropractor plays the trumpet. 5 of the 30 are ex-cons, one is recently from Ghana, another from Sweden, and we are multi-colored, from blue collar to white collar, representing every major Christian religion and then some, young and old, united for one purpose, to be ambassadors for Christ to incarcerated men.

It is an honor and privilege to serve these men. As one man told his wife, “Honey, I don’t think I can ever stop doing this!”

Pray:

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
— Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Monday in Holy Week

Walter Witter is a first-time grandfather, married to lovely Karen, Clinical Team Leader at an agency in Westchester County, NY, responsible to 22 adults in 5 homes, active in Kairos prison ministry, and moving toward vocational diaconate within the Anglican Church through Church of the Apostles in Fairfield, CT. The best way to heal your own wounds is to help others heal theirs.

You can read more about Walter’s journey as a chaplain, prison minister, reader of good books, and writer of poetry at his blog ChainsGone.com


Once, ritual lament would have been chanted; women would have been paid to beat their breasts and howl for you all night, when all is silent. / Where can we find such customs now? So many have long since disappeared or been disowned. /

That’s what you had to come for: to retrieve the lament that we omitted.
— Ranier Maria Rilke, "Requiem For A Friend"

(See all of the Retrieve Lament stories from this year here.)