Drawn to Deep Listening

Of all the delightful devices in the Harry Potter series of books, the Pensieve intrigues me the most. It first appears in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire. Entering Dumbledore’s office one day, Harry witnesses him holding a wand to this head as he leans over a large stone bowl.  Dumbledore explains: “I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind…. At these times… I use the Pensieve.  One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure.”

IMG_1171A visit last Thursday to ‘drawn,’ an exhibit at the University of Cincinnati, brought the Pensieve to mind. Created in response to the shooting of Sam DuBose by UC officer Ray Tensing, the exhibit is intended as an “interactive space opened for the university as a blank canvas.” Although the glass-walled Meyers Gallery opens right off the pedestrian Main Street of campus, crossing the threshold marks entry into a place apart. There’s a hushed feeling, like a church, that is calming. Black surface covers the walls like the chalkboards of my grade school classrooms, with sticks of white chalk ready to hand for visitors to write their thoughts. A range of views and ideas were already recorded, from scripture verses to laments of “not again” to statements like “disarm the police.” Hanging above, black and white vinyl banners list headlines about the shooting from local, national and international news outlets. All the surrounding words carry raw emotion, yet it’s as if the Pensieve has siphoned them out, clearing the mind and making it possible simply to be present with the feelings and ideas underlying the words.

A circle of chairs at the center invites face to face interaction in the space, which I look forward to experiencing on my next visit! On Thursday at 12:30 pm I will lead a conversation following the Red Boot Coalition model. This event is open to all. Like the exhibit format, it will invite participants to voice their own experiences and feelings and deeply listen to others’. The Red Boot process creates safe space for genuine interaction, to get beyond labels and stereotypes. IMG_1172There are 11 Red Boot steps and each meeting focuses on a single one. We’ll discuss Step 2:  We came to see that despite sometimes feeling small and powerless, we possess the power to positively influence all those with whom we come into contact, which on any given day can be literally hundreds of people. We are empowered. 

This seemingly simple approach produces profound effects. I think of it as adding compost to the garden, improving the soil before planting. Red Boot meetings ready hearts and minds to engage in more fruitful conversations on challenging social and political issues. They can be one-time events, like this one at UC, or ongoing gatherings such as the weekly Red Boot meetings held at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center  from 7:30 to 8:30 am on Thursdays.

The Red Boot movement was launched in 2014 by Molly Barker, who also founded Girls on the Run. After serving on the Commission for Political Reform, a group tasked with identifying ways to encourage more civil discourse in national government, Molly was not fully satisfied with the results of their work and ventured off on her own to explore the roots of the “us vs them” mentality, embarking on a cross country drive in August of last year. She talked to hundreds of people about this dynamic and upon her return realized that the encounters on the trip had been the sort of open dialogue missing in many of our communities. Several weeks later she wrote the Red Boot 11 Steps and accompanying meeting script based on these experiences.  In October 2014 Molly led the first-ever Red Boot meeting in her hometown of Charlotte, and besides Cincinnati, others have begun in IL, MI, MN, MO and AZ.

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Mourner, Mother, Midwife

More blogging catch-up! The review below actually appeared last summer at Christian Feminism Today. Since then I’ve found myself referring back to the book several times, preparing for a talk or writing on a birth-related topic, so I’m re-posting here as a sort of

MournerMotherMidwifeThis slim book delivers powerfully on the promise of its extended title. Weaving together biblical scholarship, profound metaphor, and the full range of human experience, Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament represents a beautiful new pattern on the loom of tradition. It provides a valuable resource not only for classrooms and personal reflection but also for worship settings.

The book arises from the author’s desire to grapple with violent imagery associated with God as liberator-warrior in Old Testament texts.  A native of South Africa, L. Juliana Claassens is particularly sensitive to the potential for such imagery to reinforce oppression of one group by another through the claiming of God’s favor.

She explores three metaphors for God – mourner, mother, midwife – that are found in key biblical texts associated with the Babylonian exile, a tumultuous time in the history of the Hebrew people that did not lend itself to quick resolution. Believers were forced to reconsider their beliefs in light of difficult circumstances. While the three metaphors are not prominent in the texts, Claassens calls them “subversive voices that offer an alternative to empire theology” (p. 9).

Whenever feminine images are evoked, all too often the result can be sentimental or simplistic, but not in this work.  In the introductory chapter and throughout the book, Claassens skillfully places the texts in full context, acknowledging their complexity in ways that only add resonance to the three metaphors.  She emphasizes that the traits associated with each metaphor ought to be cultivated by men and women alike and should not be used to reinforce gender stereotypes.  “None of the female images for God introduced in this book are passive,” she says. “Instead, all of them are powerful, speaking of courage, strength, kindness, resourcefulness, and skill” (p. 89).

God as Wailing Woman, or Mourner, comes from the book of Jeremiah, where God weeps over the people’s suffering in 8:21 to 9:1. Claassens develops this image in connection with the wailing women found in Jeremiah 9:17-20 to present a theology of tears that applies equally well to traumas both ancient and modern.  “The tears of the people serve as an important – quite often the only – tool to counter injustice. The tears of God, embodied in the wailing women, call on us to resist those instances where contemporary manifestations of the empire abuse their power – be it in instances of war and genocide, or where big business and oil companies abuse their power, or where unjust governments trample upon whoever is in their way” (p. 37). Cries of lament are holy and healing.

God is portrayed as a Mother multiple times in Isaiah, “describing a people’s valiant attempts to survive the deeply traumatic events of war and state-sponsored acts of terror.” Of particular interest to me was the unexpected pairing of warrior images with birth in 42:13-14.  Both point to God’s ability to do something new; each is transformed by the juxtaposition.  “ . . . even though both the mother and the warrior are in danger and hence quite vulnerable, both are exceedingly strong. The cries and panting of a woman in labor is not a sign of weakness but of strength; a sign of her determination to ensure that her child enters the world alive and healthy” (p. 56). Ultimately God’s role as Mother is one of nurture and care; it reminds us of the possibility for an alternative world and invites us to be part of it.

The metaphor of God as Midwife comes from Psalms 22 and 71 but also harkens back to the two midwives in Exodus 1:15-22 who save Moses from death.  It is an intimate image, God present in the midst of birthing anguish, nearby and able to assist in bringing forth something new. Claassens calls on her readers to become midwives. “Instead of more violence, greed, and self-centeredness, we need women and men who work diligently to bring life into situations of darkness and despair, working selflessly for the good of the most vulnerable, serving as midwives for peace and justice” (p. 79).

Claassens provides substantive applications for her material in the final chapter by exploring how it might relate to the September 11 terror attacks and to the Holocaust. She closes with a few suggestions for incorporating awareness of the three metaphors into education and worship.

With this insightful book, Claassens has articulated a female trinity for our times, when there is so much violence and trauma all over the world. I began reading this book as tensions escalated between Israel and the Palestinians soon after the three kidnapped Israeli teens were found dead, so it was easy to embrace the “subversive voice” that presents a God who weeps at suffering, cares for the hurting and needy, and works with us to bring about positive change.

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Embodied and Cosmic: Responses to Laudato Si

IMG_0377Doing some blog catch-up this morning! Earlier this summer I read the environment encyclical, Laudato Si, with great interest, glad that the pope has called attention to the climate crisis as a theological issue.  His use of maternal and birthing images at the beginning of the document intrigued me, and I took time to ponder them. The resulting essay, “Hidden Seeds in Laudato Si,” explores in detail the birthing implications that Francis likely was not aware of when he used the phrase “Sister Mother Earth.”

Clearly the pope regards climate change as a serious spiritual matter as the encyclical devotes an entire chapter to this aspect, but given his past statements it’s unsurprising that the implications of a feminine image like Sister Mother Earth are absent from the document. However, hidden in plain sight, a phrase used almost casually in the second paragraph opens a fruitful avenue for exploration. Following the statement about the earth being the most maltreated of our poor, the encyclical quotes Paul’s letter to the Galatians saying that creation “groans” in travail,” a text which refers to giving birth.

Creation is indeed groaning, but it’s not because of labor. Creation’s suffering is more like that of cardiovascular disease or cancer. The encyclical’s misuse of this scripture points to a widespread ignorance about the nature of pain in childbirth, a female body process that produces a universal human experience.All of us are born.Clarifying the misunderstanding calls forth new possibilities for an embodied ecological spirituality.
Read the full text at Feminism and Religion. 

The best response to the encyclical that I read was by Ilia Delio, a Franciscan sister and theologian. Writing for National Catholic Reporter, she praises and supports the document but also points out that its view of the human person within creation remains rooted in an old understanding, which limits its impact.

The crises that Pope Francis highlights in Laudato Si’ are not due to recent events; rather they are at least 500 years in the making and are the consequence of cosmological and metaphysical shifts in our understanding of self and universe. Religiously, we have maintained a synthesis that is medieval in structure, while modern science has disclosed a world of change. To this day our prayers and worship reflect a fixed, three-tiered universe even though we do not live in such a universe.

We have become radically disconnected from one another because we have become radically disconnected from the whole, the cosmos. Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel Primack expound the relationship between cosmos and anthropos in their book, The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World, indicating that a shared cosmology can help transform our fragmented world into a new unity: “There is a profound connection between our lack of a shared cosmology and our increasing global problems. We have no sense how we and our fellow humans fit into the big picture. . . . [W]ithout a big picture we are very small people.”
Read the full text here.

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Prayer for Disturbance

I have begun implementing de-cluttering tactics from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Japanese consultant and author Marie Kondo. She insists that organizing must be done in order by categories — clothes, books, papers, etc, — and requires you to gather all items of a category in one place before sorting/discarding. Last week I undertook this process and while going through my book collection, a yellowed newspaper clipping with the following prayer on it fluttered out. It looks like it came from our diocesan paper, probably in the 1990s. I can’t recall the timing, but I do remember the sentiments, so perennially appropriate. Preserving it here so that I can discard the paper!

Lord make me a channel of your
Where there is apathy, let me provoke,
Where there is silence, may I be a voice,
Where there is too much comfort,
and too little action,
Grant disruption. 
Where there are doors closed
and hearts locked,
Grant me the willingness to listen.
When laws dictate and pain is 
overlooked  . . . 
When tradition speaks
louder than need. . . 
Our own church . . . 
Our own poor . . . 
Disturb us, O  Lord,
Teach us to be radical,
Grant that I may seek rather
to do justice than to talk about it;
To be with as well as for the poor;
To love the unlovable as well as 
the lovely;
To touch the passion of Jesus in the
Pain of those we meet;
To accept responsibility to be church.
Lord, make me a channel of your
— Gina Kohlhelpp

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Nurturing Seeds of Self-Care

Its always fun when several interests converge in a single project. I enjoyed that experience writing an article about an innovative project called Vitality Cincinnati, launched by a group of folks led by our friend Brian Shircliff. They make Healing Touch and yoga and other self-care approaches available to all at affordable prices. Avidly following their
progress for several years, I wondered how or if I might ever get involved. Then last Vitality3summer Brian and Vitality volunteers began offering Healing Touch at the food pantry where I help out as a shopper on Wednesdays, and I became more
intrigued. In the fall, after much deliberation (Should I do this? Maybe I shouldn’t.) I took the first level Healing Touch training and immediately became converted to its amazing potential to promote relaxation and well-being. I eagerly responded to a suggestion that an article about Vitality be submitted to Energy Magazine, an online publication that explores this field of healing  which works with the subtle energy fields of the body.

The article just came out today in their July/August issue!

An excerpt  appears below, but you can read the entire piece by signing up for a free Energy Magazine subscription at http://energymagazineonline.com/subscribe. It has beautiful images and interesting content about holistic health topics, relevant to anyone.  (It will be publicly available on their website in two months.)

In a converted storefront on a main thoroughfare in Cincinnati, one-hour Healing Touch sessions are available by appointment several evenings a month at a nominal fee. A long rectangular-shaped open room with soft lighting and instrumental music playing contains four treatment tables arranged with pillows and blankets. Meditation cushions and yoga mats stacked along the edges of the room are evi­dence of other uses for this contemplative space, and hot tea is available at the kitchenette in the left rear corner. Clients are welcomed quietly in the entryway and then ushered to a table.

Just a few miles north, desks are moved aside in a second floor classroom of the parish center housed in a converted apartment building to create three Healing Touch stations. Each consists of two folding chairs facing each other. Despite the hustle and bus­tle of the Wednesday afternoon food pantry under­way downstairs, serenity prevails. Clients are greeted with gentle warmth and quiet assurance that they will not lose their place in line as a result of diverting upstairs for 20-30 minutes of Healing Touch before shopping the pantry shelves. Foreheads nearly touch as the seated pairs confer. Soon the practitioners stand, set down the clipboard, and move their chairs out of the way to begin Healing Touch for the clients who remain seated.

Two contrasting settings in two distinct urban neigh­borhoods, but both are the work of Vitality Cincinna­ti, a small non-profit with a cosmic vision for “inviting transformation neighborhood by neighborhood, per­son to person, and breath by breath through gentle and accessible self-care: Healing Touch, meditation, journaling, yoga and Bones for Life.”

Living up to its name, Vitality is always growing! The article concludes by announcing a then-new program in Walnut Hills that just graduated its first group of interns. And I’m growing too, thanks to Vitality. This spring I joined Brian in offering Healing Touch at the pantry once or twice a month.


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Taking in Tragedy

The tragedies of this week are too much to take in. A young white man consumed by racial hatred kills nine African-Americans in a historic church in Charleston on Wednesday night. Here in Cincinnati on Friday morning, a veteran police officer with an exemplary record is shot and killed in a residential neighborhood by a young man who intentionally lured officers to the scene through a fake 911 call. I am heartsick. These terrible events feel surprisingly personal to me, I realized, because of my experiences as a council member in Amberley Village.

ConfederateJon Stewart struck a chord with these words in his non-comedic monologue the night after the attack: “The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him.” Amberley has a significant number of Jewish residents of all denominations, as well as several synagogues and temples and a Jewish community center open to everyone. As a local official and as a person interested in religion, my awareness of anti-Semitism past and present is well developed through many encounters and relationships that mean a great deal to me. How would it feel to have the Nazi flag flying in front of our municipal building? I raised this question with a Jewish friend last night, and he was nodding his head in understanding before I even finished speaking it. Extremely uncomfortable, threatening even, is how it would feel.

RememberFallenThe killing of a police officer in our area hits even harder. Amberley is unique in the friendship that many residents have with our police officers, who also comprise our fire department, but as a council member and chair of the Police/Fire committee I have an even closer appreciation of them individually and of how they work. Though small in size, the department deals with the same issues affecting law enforcement everywhere such as use of force and officer safety. The past two years while attending National Police Week ceremonies, I’ve witnessed the bond among officers across jurisdictions during this annual commemoration of the fallen. Yesterday on Facebook, our police/fire chief posted that he had been at the hospital all day, among those providing support to fellow officers and the family. Of course, I thought. He is a person who goes toward that which is upsetting or challenging or dangerous, motivated by concern for others. Just like Officer Kim on Friday morning, and like every officer on every shift. That’s what it means to work in public safety.

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Ingeniously Watering the Garden

Our community garden plot continues to be a source of satisfaction and enjoyment! The lettuce and kale will be ready to harvest soon I think, and the broccoli is coming along (faster, I wish!). About a week ago, we planted some herb seeds — basil, cilantro and dill– whose appearance we eagerly anticipate. A run of drier weather and higher temperatures has necessitated watering of the garden, and I don’t take for granted the ease of accomplishing this task.  The community garden is located on a former country club golf course with “former” meaning “pretty much abandoned” in the sense that the club house is closed up and there’s no electricity or running water.  Even so, illustrating that sometimes less is more, the property is well loved as a peaceful oasis for walking and in regards to the community garden, an ingenious and practical rain collection system partners with mother nature to provide water for the plants.

Click on the first photo to begin a slide show with captions explaining how it all works.

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Ritual for Earth Day

On the eve of Earth Day, Joe and I seized the coincidence of lovely weather and an unscheduled evening to enjoy a walking ritual at a park near our house. In a sort of mini-pilgrimage, at points along the way we read aloud blessings for each of the four elements. The blessings were adapted from Christine Valters Paintner’s book Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements. (Only brief excerpts are reproduced here.) 

Blessings of wind be upon me.
May I breathe deeply the gift of inspiration.


The day was even breezy so that we could fully experience the element of wind!


Blessings of fire be upon me.
May the flame of love burn brightly within me.


Facing west in the late afternoon, we paused to enjoy the sun’s warmth.


Blessings of water be upon me.
May I be carrried by the flow of the great river of life,
to the shores of the sacred and renewed.


No swimming allowed in this pond, but I dipped my hands and sprinkled each of us as a gesture of baptismal renewal.


Blessings of earth be upon me.
May I live in awareness that all life
depends on caring for earth’s abundance,
in harmony with all creation.


Last stop, our plot at the community garden. I took a moment to dig out a few nettles out of the damp soil.


IMG_0787Returning home, we enjoyed a meatless meal of bean and quinoa chili. Before saying our usual grace, we recited blessings written by Jewish poet Marcia Falk.

Let us bless the source of life that brings forth bread from the earth.

Let us bless the source of life that ripens fruit on the vine.

A beautiful sunset provided a perfect closing rite.

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A Brief Burst of Beauty

IMG_0698In this Easter season of celebrating resurrection, the natural world teaches about the paschal mystery. Visiting Washington DC this week for my first-ever  Cherry Blossom Festival I learned the Japanese word hanami, which literally means “to view flowers” but usually refers to the viewing of cherry blossoms. For more than 1000 years, the Japanese have revered the cherry blossoms. Their practice of hanami consists of picnics with family and friends beneath the branches, and each spring they eagerly monitor blossom forecast maps to be ready for the all too brief season that lasts no more than two weeks.

The first gift of 3000 cherry trees from Japan were planted around the Tidal Basin area and other sites in 1912, and an American version of this tradition has evolved here in our nation’s capital since 1935. For several weeks in late March/early April, the festival includes tours and programs related to Japanese culture as well as cherry trees, live performances, a parade and a street festival. Images of the iconic flower proliferate throughout the city, from stickers affixed to bike rental stands and house windows, to shops selling magnets, water bottles, t-shirts and more, to theme banners on public buildings.

Now I understand all the fuss. The actual trees truly inspire awe! Joe and I strolled partway around the Tidal Basin on Wednesday, and chilly, cloudy conditions did not obscure the beauty of the blossoms. Peak blossom time is occurring this weekend, and the sense of anticipation was palpable along with the growing crowds.

IMG_0696In contrast to such outward frenzy, hanami beckoned quietly. “Practice viewing cherry blossoms.” On Friday we heeded this inner voice, rising early without stopping for breakfast or even a cup of coffee to walk several blocks to the Tidal Basin, past the Washington monument where there are also cherry trees, on another misty, chilly, overcast morning. Exquisite beauty rewarded us! Compared to our previous visit just two days before, we noticed some trees completely in bloom, to amazing effect. Their soft snowy fullness embodies piercing vulnerability as well as graceful abundance. A sign of spring re-birth, unflinchingly they witness to the fleeting nature of life.

In the 9th century, Japanese poet Ariwara no Narihira captured this realization in just a few lines of verse.
IMG_0688If this world had never
known the ephemeral charms
of cherry blossoms
then our hearts in spring might match
nature’s deep tranquility.

To embrace such loveliness in full knowledge of its short-lived nature is to be forever changed by death and loss, he seems to say. Friday morning as we came full circle around the Tidal Basin, our son texted that college basketball player Lauren Hill had passed away from the brain cancer that afflicted her since late 2013. It seemed fitting to remember Lauren, who impacted the nation with her courage and in the process helped raised more than $1 million for cancer research, in a place of such contemplative splendor. “What a life she lived,” I texted back. We returned to the hotel and ate breakfast in the restaurant while a tribute to Lauren played soundlessly on ESPN. Later these three quotes from her grabbed my attention via Facebook:

“It was a dream come true to play on the college court. And it was so thrilling to get there and be able to put my foot down and feel the roar of the crowd and the vibrations of the floor boards and I love it so much.”

“I’m spreading awareness and also teaching people how to live in the moment because the next moment’s not promised. Anything can happen at any given moment. What matters is right now.”

“What’s happening now is not going to help me and it’s not going to help everybody else right away. But it’s going to help in the future, and it’s eventually going to make something happen.”

Like the cherry blossoms, Lauren Hill embodied a too-brief burst of beauty that is transformative and unforgettable.


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A Patron Saint for Autism

In honor of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, I am pleased to share a guest reflection below written by my cousin, Ellen Wimberg Cicconi, the mother of two sons on the autism spectrum.  Among her many advocacy activities around autism, for more than ten years she and her family have entered a team in the Walk Now for Autism Speaks fundraiser in the Pittsburgh area where she lives.  Her annual appeal mailing has become a welcome rite of spring, because she always shares something of her journey along with the request for contributions. This year’s brought a true gem of real-life theology.

I have adopted St. John the Baptist as a personal autism patron saint. The parallels between John and people on the autism spectrum are quite striking. Consider what we know about him:

  • IMG_0641His parents were of an advanced age when he was conceived, a known risk factor for autism;
  • He had a very selective and unusual diet;
  • He wore the same clothes daily either unaware or unconcerned about his personal hygiene;
  • He lived apart from mainstream society;
  • He was drawn to water;
  • He perseverated on topics that either did not interest or just bothered others;
  • He was unrelenting in his message and was unconcerned that he gave offense;
  • He was verbally and physically abused (bullied) to death.

John was an outsider, he was different, and yet his cousin Jesus started his ministry with him. Jesus loved his cousin and saw what was beautiful and true in him, what was unique and important for the larger world. Jesus saw beyond John’s difference and recognized God’s love, grace and power acting through John. God blessed John in a special way. The life of St. John the Baptis serves as a reminder that each of us has a place in our church and in our world. We are special and beautiful instruments of God. 


On World Autism Awareness Day, Autism Speaks celebrates its international Light It Up Blue Campaign. Thousands of iconic landmarks, communities, businesses and homes across the globe unite by shining bright blue lights in honor of the millions of individuals and families around the world affected by autism.

World Autism Awareness Day was adopted by the United Nations in 2007 to shine a bright light on autism as a growing global health crisis. Autism is one of only three health issues to be recognized with its own day by the United Nations. WAAD activities increase world knowledge of autism and impart information about the importance of early diagnosis and early intervention. Additionally, WAAD celebrates the unique talents and skills of persons with autism around the world.

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