Friday, July 31, 2015

Heart Work

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

Heart work is hard work. It involves all of us, and all of our beings, which is to say that heart work includes our bodies, minds, and souls. It’s hard work; and so we need our strength. We need sustenance, food for the journey, and water for new life. We need rest.

Unlike my mother and my daughter, I am not a person of the sciences. I know very little about how the human body functions. I do know however, in plain and simple language, that the heart needs to beat and the heart needs to rest. I know our hearts work hard. I’ve been watching my mother do her heart work recently. It’s hard work to stay alive when you have congestive heart failure. It’s hard to stay alive when everything you eat goes into your lungs, you aren’t interested anyway, and you’re “thirsty enough to die.” You can’t get out of bed even though you try, but you’d sure like to do something other than sleep and sip.

My brother and sister and our spouses have spent some time together in my mother’s hospice room. Naturally, the conversation turns to what’s going on with Mom and her body parts. While we may have been confused before, we understand how her heart is working now. It’s irregular. It fluctuates. It speeds up and it slows down. It beats and it rests. Her mind still informs her body to some degree. She responds appropriately to our questions and statements. Yes, I’m thirsty. No, I’m not in pain. Yes, I love you too. I guess these symptoms are mostly true for all of us. Our hearts work and they rest; they fluctuate.

In this medical environment, I’ve learned a few new things about our bodies. I’ve learned about things that help, things that don’t, and the vast amount of what “we don’t know for sure.” Of course, like the brain, there is a lot of gray matter to consider. I’ve learned how the mind can help you, play tricks on you, and in some cases, it’s no help at all. The mind and heart work hard together, although sometimes they are on different beats. Maybe one is resting, while the other is not. Maybe one is encouraging the other to work harder, or take a time-out and rest.

Mindfulness is helpful. It, like prayer, reminds us to pay attention to ourselves, our souls and our bodies. It reminds us to pay attention to others and to all of creation. Being mindful brings us into the presence of God, whose heart never stops beating, and whose heart never seems to rest. Our hearts break open, and they feel the pain or the pitter patter of love, and then we know that our hearts are hurting or our hearts are beating. We can forgive. We can let go. We can be grateful. We can find peace. Our hearts are renewed  when we’re mindful. Our hearts are renewed for the hard work of love, renewed to beat and to rest. Ready to fluctuate with life and love.

Our bodies need balance, a certain pace, and a huge measure of grace. We need space for mindfulness. After a rest, our hearts can beat. We can offer a word of encouragement, give someone a look of love, write a short note of appreciation, and offer small acts of compassion: ice chips on a spoon gently ladled into a thirsty mouth is an image that comes to mind. Now we decide mentally, even willfully, to do certain things. Emotionally, we let the bluebird of happiness and the black crow of sadness fly in and out of our lives because we know the Holy Spirit Dove is greater, and stronger, and eternal. Then we can rest again.

Today, I’m doing my heart work. I’m still trusting in the love of God, that my mother’s heart and our hearts rest in God’s heart.  I trust that God’s heart will beat and rest and sustain us, no matter the condition of our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls… matter where we live or move or have our beings. No matter, the matter, the beat goes on and I can rest; for nothing is stronger than God’s Love, not even death.

Friday, July 24, 2015


The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

I’m exploring the possibility of group conversations on grief, outrage, and sadness. The group might be called “Lamentations” based upon the Old Testament book in the Bible. The seed for this group began with a young adult, a college student, who could find no way to express her grief, her outrage, and her sadness over the increasing spate of gun violence throughout our country. These shootings appeared to be random acts of violence, although each shooter had his own reasons for his murderous rampage. According to Connecticut Against Gun Violence, “Hartford's Police Chief James Rovella said one percent of Hartford’s criminals are responsible for 75 to 80 percent of the city’s violent crimes. He said they are tracking those individuals, but the recent uptick in crime has been in some “unusual” locations with some “unusual” types of motives.”

All violence is terrible and terrifying; it demands our weeping, wailing, and outrage. For personal and communal reasons, I am grieving. I am outraged. And I am sad. Never underestimate the power of grief. Unexpressed, it leads to many undesirables. Unacknowledged, it lays like a sinking boat in the wide ocean of your soul. As John Grayston wrote in a WordLive Bible study, the author of Lamentations knew “that grief does not follow a straightforward course. There are moments of deep despair and blackness, but there are also shafts of light; sometimes God seems a million miles away, but at other times we recover a sense of God’s presence and receive comfort.” Men and women, extroverts and introverts, people of various religions, ages, and cultures all grieve differently.

Grief comes from loss. It’s easy to identify our grief when a human being or pet dies, or when there is a public human tragedy; but these losses are only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the tip of that iceberg lay many other losses that we need to acknowledge, grieve, and in due time, let go. For instance, grief comes when we lose control, when we lose power, or when we lose our sense of security and safety. Violence has become closer and more personal and at the same time frighteningly catastrophic. World wars used to be “over there”, on the ground, and out of sight. Now death may just show up on our doorstep, in our schools, theaters, recruiting centers, or in the air. We grieve the sudden loss of our identity, our minds, or our previous view of the world. We lose our faith in others; we lose our faith in God; and when we lose hope, that’s when we sink.

We need vehicles to express our outrage, to shed our tears, and to acknowledge that something is wrong.  Life is not always a bowl of cherries; and while some people dwell only on the pits, there are plenty of others who don’t want to talk about them either. While I believe that you can be as happy as you make up your mind to be, I also believe that expressing the fullest range of our God-given emotions in appropriate ways is the best way to live, and die. My theology professor in seminary called death an outrage.

Living in a world where random acts of violence are the new normal can be terrifying, outrageous, and sad. Being in a world where family, friends, and pets routinely die is terrifying, outrageous, and sad. I find prayer helps. Being grateful for life on its own terms helps too. Alongside the Old Testament book of Lamentations, I hold St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in balance. St. Paul writes about faith, hope, and love. While I may occasionally falter in my faithfulness, God does not. According to the author of Lamentations, “Great is God’s faithfulness.”
As for hope, reflecting upon the letter to the Hebrews, Brother Curtis from SSJE, said, “Hope is an anchor. Hope is a sense that you will be able to face the unknown storms of the future because you’ve found your moorings in the past. It’s some sure sense that you’re not sinking, not just drifting in life but of being kept afloat, of being held steady. That’s hope.”

God’s love is ever present in this world, where people lament the violence that exists and rejoice in new life that is fresh every morning. With faith in God as the Captain of our ship, we are anchored in hope, and surrounded by an ocean of love and a great cloud of witnesses. Surely we shall not sink, but zig zag ahead, steady as she goes, both well aware of the icebergs and the Promised Land ahead.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Bill Cosby and Ubuntu

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

I recently finished a book entitled The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. In the first paragraph of the prologue, he writes “One does not have to be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in Syria or the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one of eight witnesses their mother being beaten or hit.” He claims that child abuse is our nation’s largest public health problem.

Coincidentally, I just finished an article in the July/August Yale Alumni Magazine entitled The toughest issue on (any) campus: A panel discussion about sexual misconduct. Allegations of rape, true and false, made by women on college campuses has been a subject of great media attention lately. “Sexual misconduct - and how to handle charges of sexual misconduct - has emerged as one of the most contentious issues in colleges and universities nationwide.” Having served on the Yale Divinity School Sexual Misconduct Committee in 1999-2000, I know rape happens on campuses, even at divinity schools.

I was confused, saddened, and somewhat angered by Whoopi Goldberg’s continuing defense of Bill Cosby. The staggering number of women, similarity in their stories, and preponderance of evidence was overwhelming. It appears that he had abused them purposefully for his own sexual, power, emotional, and control needs. And yet, we’re all innocent until proven guilty in the court of law; and we all have our prejudices. We prejudge someone based upon our experiences and our sympathies. As a feminist, I often prejudge in favor of women. And so I was delighted when Ms. Goldberg changed her mind, asking why a “serial rapist” could remain free. After interviewing a lawyer, she learned that the statute of limitations varies from state to state, and in the case of Bill Cosby, those statutes had run out. He could not be judged in a court of law, only in the court of public opinion. And she concluded that the preponderance of evidence suggests “Guilty.”

The political is personal, and the personal is political. Check your state laws and write your legislators. In my opinion, there should be no statute of limitations on rape or child abuse.

Is our society becoming increasingly more violent? Or are we just becoming more aware of our potential and real power to do one another harm? In the conversation at Yale, there were some notable quotes:
  1. “We have a culture that encourages the use of alcohol to facilitate sexual interaction for all ages of people.” (my emphasis)
  2. “We have sexual freedom in the midst of profound inequality.”
  3. “During the day, students are thoughtful and progressive and embrace feminist ideas. And then, after dark, something really different happens.”
  4. “When it affects their social life, people get a bit more uncomfortable standing by their values.”
Meredith Raimondo, the Title IX coordinator at Oberlin College and special assistant to the president for equity, diversity, and inclusion agrees with Nancy Gertner, civil rights and criminal defense lawyer, federal judge, and current Harvard Law faculty member: “We need a cultural change.” Ms. Raimondo says “any focus on individual behavior change that doesn’t look at structural inequalities just doesn’t work, whether you’re talking about sexual behavior or any other kind of behavior.”

Trauma. Dr Van Der Kolk writes, “We know not only how to treat trauma but also, increasingly, how to prevent it. And yet, after attending another wake for a teenager who was killed in a drive by shooting in the Blue Hill Avenue section of Boston or after reading about the latest school budget cuts in impoverished cities and towns, I find myself close to despair.” Add on Charleston, Chicago, Sandy Hook, Aurora and Baltimore and I’ve joined him in the despair department. What’s a person to do?

As we promise in our baptismal covenant, we begin with ourselves. Practice nonviolent ways of speaking and acting. Focus on what David Brooks in The Road to Character calls “eulogy virtues” (the virtues that get talked about at your funeral) more than your “resume virtues”; for as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts it, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart.”  Personally, we all fall short in small and large ways; we all are complicit in systemic evils; and we all collude in this global world of violence.

Pray for peace and reconciliation within yourself and in our world. Inhale peace, exhale peace. Then seek to speak and vote against systemic injustices between genders, races, classes, and religions. Become an informed voter. Think globally, act locally.

Dr Van Der Kolk writes, “My most profound experience with healing from collective trauma was witnessing the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was based on the central guiding principle of Ubuntu, a Xhosa word that denotes sharing what you have, as in ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ Ubuntu recognizes that true healing is impossible without recognition of our common humanity and our common destiny.”

Make no mistake, we are all guilty, and we are all being traumatized by the violence in our world, no matter how it manifests itself universally or touches us personally. Yes, our Body keeps the score. Yes, by His wounds we are healed. And yes, the Body of Christ and the Body politic know how to prevent and treat trauma. The question continues, are we willing to do what it takes for ubuntu?

Friday, July 10, 2015

Breaking Glass Ceilings

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

Breaking glass ceilings can be dangerous. At a minimum, it’s hard work and risky business. And ceilings aren’t the only barriers within a house or organization. I think glass walls can be even more challenging. As the saying goes, life is fragile, handle with prayer.

Paul and I were watching the Women’s Soccer World Cup this past Sunday. The USA team was playing Japan once again. In the previews, these players revealed the enormous sacrifices they had made, not only to make the team, but also to become players on the world stage. Talk about passions, gifts, and discipline! Competition and collaboration are real parts of the process. Politics too. Their positions on the field, their coaches on the sidelines, and life at home can make a difference. Fortunately, their purpose is clear and the same. We want to win the game.

One young woman spoke about the challenge of being vulnerable publicly; another of sitting on the bench while others played. A gay woman encouraged everyone just to be “our unique selves.” Of course there were frustrations and turf wars; and unexpected changes created opportunities for some and disappointments for others. Shadows, sunlight, artificial turf, and the simple benefit of winning a coin toss revealed variables beyond control. Then there are things like genetics, the power of a kick, good timing, and bad luck. Confidence is essential, not only in oneself but also in one’s teammates. And risk-taking? How about Lloyd’s 3rd goal from midfield? So many variables are at play!

It’s hard to break through barriers especially when they are invisible, or to play the game when there’s not equal footing. If glass barriers are clean, you can see beyond them. They serve a purpose. The room has views; light is allowed in; people are protected. The sky is visible; actually the sky’s the limit. And yet, glass houses with their ceilings and walls can also be limiting, even dangerous. They can become like prisons. Just ask animals in the zoo. And, ask the birds outside. If you’re not careful, you might fly into a glass wall, and break your neck.

On Sunday, a bird flew into the glass wall of the room where Paul and I were sitting. Maybe she had tired of earthworms, and wanted some pizza. Maybe she thought being human was better than being a bird. Maybe she wanted company and to watch the World Cup with us. Maybe she was tired, wanted some protection, or just wanted to see how the other half lived. Perhaps she was distracted by her companion, or tweeting, and wasn’t paying attention to where she was going.

Free as a bird, free as the Holy Spirit, she used her wings as God had intended. But she didn’t see the glass wall that lay between her and us. Unfortunately, she didn’t break through that glass wall; instead, she broke her neck. Paul and I watched with horror as she lay quivering, wings flapping, lying on the flagstone beneath our window, until she died. Her feathers slowly floated down around her, while her companion squawked loudly from the branch above her in grief-stricken protest. It’s important to be aware of one’s intentions. It’s important to know whether you’re on the inside or outside, where you want to go, and why. It’s important to be aware of the impact of glass ceilings and walls.

Simultaneously, I watched Americans cheering loudly from their own perches in the soccer stadium in Canada. Even though it was only a handful of women standing on the podium, I shared their victory. It’s easier, I think, to see how God is working when you’re standing on a podium of power and feeling triumphant, or on the sidelines and not in the thick of play, or high up in the balcony with a bird’s eye view. One can see what holds another player back, who pushes the ball forward, what barriers get in the way of fair play, and how teams organize themselves to win. At the same time, I shared Japan’s defeat, suffering with the Japanese goalie who could not stop crying. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians, “When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. When one part of the body rejoices, we all rejoice.”

Life is hard work and risky business; it also can be dangerous and exhilarating. There are barriers, visible and invisible, that may protect us or prevent us from God only knows what. Underneath our professional jerseys, or fluffy feathers, we are all living creatures with real human needs and real human desires. We give and we receive. We watch and we play. We stand on the shoulders of others, and we bump into barriers. We squawk. We cheer. We sit and we fly; and in the end we all die.

Even so, we all have the same purpose. “The glory of God is the human being fully alive” and we thank God every day for that gift. I believe that in Christ, we all win; we all stand on the podium of victory, clothed from on high with the power of God’s Spirit. Jesus broke the glass ceiling, and broke through the glass walls that divide us, and God came into our glass house. Game over.

In Christ, we are set free, free to fly where there are no walls, where there are no visible or invisible barriers, where there are no defeats, and there is no death. We’re all playing the game on equal footing, celebrating who we are, as beloved and beautiful creatures of God. All of us are creatures, great and small; all means all.

The question for us is not specifically about glass houses, glass ceilings, and glass walls but rather about what part we want to play on the global team, how might we use our wings to fly, and how we might break down and through those barriers. How will our feet push the ball forward? How will our mouths squawk at injustice and proclaim the good news of victory? Together and individually, according to our gifts and our passions, knowing we are different and the terrain is uneven, knowing there are barriers seen and unseen, how will we be part of the Body and the Bird? How will we play on?

Friday, July 3, 2015

Unfinished Business

The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

Letting go is hard work, and it’s daily work. I usually think I’m done with letting go, and then I get a reminder. I have a habit of wanting to get where I’m going, sooner rather than later, and then rest in my “happy place.” I tend to do things quickly. Although I have no speeding tickets, I frequently use cruise control, and not just on highways.

Walking has helped me to slow down. Claiming my life-long vocation as a pilgrim helps to remind me that the journey isn’t over until it’s over. And why would I want to rush to the end?

Part of the challenge of my life, and perhaps yours, is that I always have “unfinished business.” Some people can happily live with unfinished business, but not me. I’m a list maker, project completer, and “let’s deal with the issues” kind of person. I like attending to business, sooner rather than later. I like to finish what I start. I don’t like dangling participles, hanging chads, or messy lives. As a highly organized person, I like my business to have structure and clear lines of communication. Personally, I can overreach. Some times I think I’m minding my own business, as opposed to someone else’s, and then I get that reminder. It’s their business to finish, not mine. Let it go; leave it alone; shut your mouth.

Recently, I became aware of some of my own business that I thought was finished; clearly it is not. I pondered some questions. Why can’t I finish this? I want to be done with it. Can I finish this business now, once and for all? If so, how? And if I truly can’t finish it now, then when? or why not?

Sadly, I realized that I had come to a point where I truly needed to let go. I felt as if I had done everything humanly possible to address this business over a significant and extended period of time. I had been counselled by many different types of people with various perspectives. I had tried many remedies. I gave it time and space and grace; and it remains unfinished. This business reared its ugly head, stared me straight in the face, and laughed.


What has finally occurred to me is that this business may never be finished on this side of the Great Divide. This business may be finished in God’s hands, but not in mine. Recently, a colleague posted a picture about letting go on FaceBook. It was entitled: “Control. Things I can’t control are other people’s actions, other people’s feelings, other people’s opinions, other people’s mistakes, and adversity. Things I can control are my attitude, my effort, my behavior, and my actions.”

My attitude may be bad, but prayer adjusts it. My efforts may feel unsuccessful, but life is about being faithful not successful. I still manage my bad behavior with cruise control; and my actions remain the same. I’m letting go. Again. Today.  Business is finished. Thank God.