Via Creativa: What Now?

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached January 8, 2012 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Psalm 40:1-5: "He put a new song in my mouth ..."
Mark 1:4-11: "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me"
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Our first song this morning comes from French Canadian singer Celine Dion. She became a teen star in Canada and released her first album in English in 1990. This morning's song was a number on hit for Dion in 1999. "That's the Way it Is" is from her Greatest Hits album All the Way a Decade of Song. Let's try it:

Verse 1: I can read your mind and I know your story
I see what you're going through
It's an uphill climb, and I'm feeling sorry
But I know it will come to you
Don't surrender 'cause you can win
In this thing called love

When you want it the most there's no easy way out
When you're ready to go and your heart's left in doubt
Don't give up on your faith
Love comes to those who believe it
And that's the way it is

My red-and-white Husky, Loki, is the only dog I ever bought a house for. Not a dog house - but a real, human-sized house. I was living in an apartment in Atlanta at the time and I really wanted a dog - a Husky to be exact. My landlord was kind and let me get Loki before I secured the house.

I didn't want Loki. What I mean by that is that he was not the dog I was supposed to get. I found him through the company bulletin board at CNN. Another employee had bought two purebred Husky puppies and had decided not to keep them. They had a boy and a girl. I told her I wanted the girl, but when I got to her house to claim my new puppy, she told me she had already sold the girl. All she had left was the boy. I was disappointed and ready to just leave and keep searching for my dog. Then, a little red nose poked through the front door and out rolled the rest of the dog. Loki sniffed me and rolled over for a belly rub. I was hooked. He went home with me.

Loki has been just one of the myriad of animals in my life who have taught me amazing lessons in compassion, presence, authenticity and empathy. Loki's deepest lesson to me has been one of acceptance. While Loki is named for the Norse god of mischief and trickery - his real personality came from the sound of his name and not the underlying meaning. He was the most Low-Key dog I had ever met. No matter how many dogs we had with him, Loki was content to be the low man on the totem pole. He was happiest when he was not the Alpha dog, but the Omega dog.

He fully accepted his place as last dog. It suited him just fine. He had no stress in his life - nothing to prove. While the other dogs fought for status and leadership roles, Loki just kicked back and chilled.

Loki reminds me a bit of John the Baptist who we meet in today's Jesus story. The gospel of Mark has John simply appearing on the scene, "proclaiming a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins." This apparently appealed to a lot of people, because John had a growing following. Now, this may have gone to the head of other groovy camel hair wearing and locust and wild honey eating hippies of his day - but John knew his place. I imagine if John had asked himself "What now?" he would have clearly seen that he wasn't to be the star of the show - but simply the opening act - the announcer of the one who was to come after him. Like Loki, John was able to simply accept how things were - to chill with reality - to live fully into who he was called to be, and know that the Holy was at work in and through it all.

Instead of being enamored with his own popularity, John accepted that he was gathering followers who would leave him for someone else the moment he showed up. He knew that love comes to those who believe it - and that's the way it is.

When you question me
for a simple answer
I don't know what to say, no
But it's plain to see,
if you stick together
You're gonna find a way, yeah
Don't surrender 'cause you can win
In this thing called love

When you want it the most there's no easy way out
When you're ready to go and your heart's left in doubt
Don't give up on your faith
Love comes to those who believe it
And that's the way it is

I'm afraid that when it comes to accepting the reality of how the world really is - we're more like that Jesus guy than we are John. Unlike John, Jesus didn't accept his leadership role with ease. Instead, just after Jesus comes up out of the water - and that voice booms from the heavens that Jesus is the "Beloved" that deeply pleases the Holy - what does he do? Does he immediately take up his mantle and begin to preach and teach? Nope. The first thing Jesus does is run away. He heads out to the wilderness where for 40 days he mulls over his fate - wondering whether this gig is going to be worth his time and effort.

I'm afraid that's usually our reaction when we're faced with truly accepting life as it is. We'd rather run and hide than actually have to acknowledge the facts of life.

I completely understand Jesus' dilemma. I have known almost since birth that I was meant to do exactly what I am doing right now. I have always felt called to preach and to teach. Like Jesus, I fled from the idea - and spent way more than 40 days in the wilderness avoiding that terrifying reality.

It was actually pretty easy to make excuses. Being the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister, it was technically impossible for me to be anything more than a Sunday School teacher in an exclusively female class - since women were not allowed to teach men - let alone stand in a pulpit and pretend God called them to do that! So, dodging that deep call on my life was a matter of doctrine. God must be mistaken - so I'll just go on and do something else.

No matter how much I tried, though, I could never shake the idea that the Holy wanted me to be a preacher. She kept putting people in my path who encouraged me to live into my gift - people who would nag me to live into my gift, in fact. Finally, an opportunity to go to seminary opened up - and while I still resisted being a pastor - I did go to school - and fell in love with passing on the knowledge that seminary had given to me. Preaching has become my passion - but only after I accepted reality - this is who I am - no more running, no more excuse making.

Acceptance, Jubilants, is freeing. If we're going to ask "What now?" we need to be able to accept the reality of the answer - and be ready to let it change our lives in ways we have never imagined. When I accepted the reality of God's gift to me, I didn't know it would end up here - in a place of challenge, in a place of blessing, in a place of miracles, in a place where I can help others acceptance and transform their lives.

Writer and theologian John Philip Newell, in his new book "A New Harmony" tells the story of a mourning dove he found trapped in his chimney. After pulling the soot covered dove out of the chimney, he set her on the garden wall. She sat there, stunned, for more than an hour. As Newell approached her again, she suddenly flew off, the soot falling off of her as she flapped her wings.

Newell realized that in that moment - from stunned stillness to finally taking flight - a moment of true acceptance had happened.

So often, we find ourselves stuck in our own dark and filthy chimneys of life, unable to move, and even when someone comes and sets us free - and gives us the chance to fly away - we still won't - because we simply can't accept that freedom.

Newell writes that modern religion has "given us the impression that soot is our essence. The doctrine of original sin has dominated the landscape of much of our teaching. It has given us the impression that what is deepest in us is contrary to the One from whom we have come."

That soot we find ourselves caked in, Jubilants, that soot that tells us we are condemned, rotten from the inside out, and hopeless sinners, is not reality. When we think it is - then we become like that mourning bird - unable to fly, even if we're free to do so. We believe we are unworthy - we believe we are weak - we believe that the reality is that we can never make a difference in this world, so why even try? Why not just hang out, covered in soot, on the garden wall?

What Loki, John, Jesus, and eventually me, all realized is that unless you can fully face the world as it is - you can never change it. As long as we're denying reality and doing everything we can to avoid the way it is, then we continue to live in a state of reaction - like birds covered in soot, unable to truly fly.

When you see the world clearly, though, in all its beauty and all its ugliness - and love it deeply for what it is - then you can act from a place of power and strength. When you realize that you are not tainted by an original sin, but, just like Jesus - you are originally blessed - called God's beloved in whom she is well pleased, then you know the world for what it is - a place where all the bushes are on fire and every moment is full of miracles. Then, Jubilants, you can fly.

Breathe deeply.

When life is empty with no tomorrow
And loneliness starts to call
Baby, don't worry, forget your sorrow
'Cause love's gonna conquer it all, all

When you want it the most there's no easy way out
When you're ready to go and your heart's left in doubt
Don't give up on your faith
Love comes to those who believe it
And that's the way it is

In all of his nearly 12 years here with us, Loki never barked. Not once. In fact, I think I only heard him growl once - and that was he was a little puppy. Instead, Loki sang. No matter what was happening - bad stuff, good stuff, indifferent stuff - Loki never barked at life. Instead he sang his way through it. When he met new people he would sing: "Woooo!" When he went to the vet he'd sing: "Woooo!" When you got home and he heard you get out of the car, he'd sing you to his kennel to let him out: "Wooo!" I could tell him, "Loki, sing!" and he'd respond, "Woooo!"

This is the heart of acceptance, Jubliants. This is how you know that you have fully accepted life as it as and can creatively answer the question "What now?" You stop barking at life. You stop woofing out your complaints against this reality or that reality. Instead of growling, and getting your back up, and barking long and loud at what irritates you about this world - you know you are in a powerful place of acceptance when you can simply sing at the world - and invite the world to sing along.

Sing with me: "Woooo!"

Our second song comes from our honorary Jubilant, Peter Mayer. This Minnesota singer-songwriter has 10 albums to his credit. He began playing guitar and writing in his teens. After spending two years studying theology and music, he decided he didn't want to be a priest, and instead has become a far more effective preacher through his music. This song called "Singing a Song" comes from his latest CD "Heaven Below."

We know this river always keeps flowing,
We will be rowing our whole lives long
And we may never know where we're going,
But we can go there singing a song
Just like a mother to a child she's holding,
Just like a soldier marching along
Just like the faithful on Sunday morning,
Raising our voices, singing a song

CHORUS: Eyes will shine but not as bright,
Arms will hold, but not as tight
When a word is only spoken,
So give it feeling, give it rhyme
Play it in four quarter time,
Sing it with a heart wide open

At the tender age of 11, Laurel Fontaine suffered a massive stroke that destroyed 80 percent of her left brain. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for speech. The doctors told her she'd never talk again, never walk again, never even be able to press a button, ever again. After a year of speech therapy, Laurel could only say a few words.

That's when her mother got her into a new program that helping to rehabilitate people with left brain damage to speak - by singing. The right side of our brains are experts in melody and pitch. What doctors are finding is that by teaching those with damaged left brains to sing - eventually, they can again speak words because the therapy actually grows new nerve fibers in the right side of the brain.

The doctors say that by the time Laurel is in her 20s, no one will even know that she suffered such a debilitating stroke. Others, too, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was shot in the head last year at a political rally, have benefited from this kind of "singing therapy."

Perhaps the Psalmist was on to something back in that ancient desert when he wrote that the Holy "put a new song in my mouth." Perhaps, that idea of a new song is just the answer we're looking for when we ask "Now what?" Perhaps a little "singing therapy" is something not only we need to move creatively in this world - but maybe, just maybe, it's exactly what our world needs.

Jubilants, I submit to you that our world has suffered great damage to the area of our collective brain that is in charge of speech. Our speech as a world community is so deeply impaired that the only words we can form are words filled with anger, words meant to start wars, words meant to further divide and separate us into camps of "us" and "them," camps of "1%" and "99%," camps of "saved" and "damned," camps of "moral" and "immoral." I submit, Jubilants, that we, as a world have forgotten how to talk. We have forgotten how to speak words of love, words of peace, words of unity and reconciliation.

Loki holds the cure for us. The first step here is to accept that fact - our world's speech is broken, our cosmic brain is damaged. Once we accept that fact we can stop reacting to that broken speech with broken speech of our own. Once we see clearly that the world's speech is impaired, we can stop trying to communicate with just more impaired, angry or frustrated words. We can stop barking at the world.

Instead, we can do as Loki did - and sing. The Holy invites us to exercise some "singing therapy" in our world - to sing a new song - a song of praise - a song that celebrates the flow of life, a song that celebrates the mystery, a song that celebrates the mother, the soldier, and the faithful. When we start to sing this song, eyes are brighter, arms around us hold us tighter. The Holy invites us to sing, Jubilants, with our hearts wide open.

Sing of the beauty right there beside you,
Bring it inside you, making you strong
So that when trouble comes round to grieve you,
Still it will leave you singing a song

CHORUS: Eyes will shine but not as bright,
Arms will hold, but not as tight
When a word is only spoken,
So give it feeling, give it rhyme
Play it in four quarter time,
Sing it with a heart wide open

There are no incidents recorded in the scripture of Jesus actually doing any singing. In fact, the only time he wrote anything down was in the sand - now lost to the winds of time. But, even if Jesus never sang a note - his message was music to the ears of everyone who came upon him. I would be willing to bet that the heart of every person who came near Jesus sang with joy. That, Jubilants, is our goal when we ask "Now what?"

The answer we're really seeking is the one that is music to our ears - the one that makes our heart sing with joy.

When our heart sings, Jubilants, then we'll know that we are in the presence of the Holy. Our task, then, is to bring that presence out - to give it feeling, give it rhyme and sing our song of Holy love and grace to the world with a heart wide open.

How would it change the way you live into this brand new year if you heeded every single call in this life that made your heart sing? How would it change the way you live, Jubilants, if you truly knew that you are a beloved child of the living, still speaking, and yes, still singing God, and as that beloved child you are originally blessed and not cursed? How would it change the way you live if you could start from that place of self-acceptance - that you are perfect in the eyes of the Holy just as you are? How would it change the way you live if you stopped barking at the world, and instead began to sing a new song - a song put there by the Holy to praise the beauty that's right there beside you - to praise the beauty that's right there inside you?

Acceptance, Jubilants, is about holiness. It is about becoming whole and not rejecting anything of this world. Instead, acceptance is about embracing the world, healing it, and integrating it with the rest of our lives. Acceptance is about joining the sacred and the profane and realizing it is all one - all part of that Holy whole we call life.

Jubilants, our world is damaged and needs that healing power of our song. Our world has lost its voice. All it can do at this point is bark, and growl, and show its aggression. If you've ever seen one dog start barking, or howling, or growling - then you know - all the other dogs start joining in. Let one dog start barking in a quiet neighborhood, and soon you'll have a chorus of barking and howling dogs. When we accept the fact that most of our world is caught up in the chorus of barking, we have the power to stop joining in. Instead, we can begin to sing - to sing a new song of love, a song of peace, a song of unity.

Don't worry if you sing off key - it's not the quality of the sound that matters - but the quality of your heart. If you can sing a song of harmony in this world of disharmony - then, one by one, others will stop their barking and howling long enough to listen. If we're singing the right song, Jubilants - that new song put in our mouths by the Holy - then it will make the hearts of others begin to sing - and soon that joyful sound will provide a shelter for us all - and find us together in that New Jerusalem - singing a song.

Just like Loki, Jubilants, I invite you to through life singing a song: "Wooo!!"

CHORUS: Eyes will shine but not as bright,
Arms will hold, but not as tight
When a word is only spoken,
So give it feeling, give it rhyme
Play it in four quarter time,
Sing it with a heart wide open
And may the music of life overtake us,
Till angels mistake us for a heavenly throng
And may that joyful sound be our shelter,
And find us together, singing a song
We'll be together, singing a song

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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