Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 10: Leaning into the Cycles of Darkness and Light, with Barbara Brown Taylor

Today’s guest is Barbara Brown Taylor – author, speaker, Episcopal priest, retired professor, and all-around-delightful person. Barbara Brown Taylor has long been a highly regarded preacher, and she has written a number of compelling books on the spiritual life, including Altar in the World, Holy Envy, and Learning to Walk in the Dark. I was in the right place at the right time and got to spend a few hours with Barbara while driving her from Belfast to Corrymeela when she was here on book tour a few years ago, and I was thrilled when she agreed to talk with me on this podcast. In this conversation, we talk about the bird psalms, the bed psalms, and the difficult psalms, and we muse together on what they tell us about our humanity and how God sees us in that. We reflect on making friends with the dust, living gratefully on the earth, celebrating our place in the line of people who come before and after us, and leaning into the cycles of darkness and light, death and new life.  

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More about Barbara Brown Taylor:

http:barbarabrowntaylor.com

Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 9: Speaking to Each Other Across our Depths, with Avivah Zornberg

Today’s guest is Dr Avivah Zornberg, renowned Torah scholar, teacher and speaker based in Jerusalem. I first became aware Dr. Zornberg’s work when I heard a lecture she delivered in Belfast, and I was immediately mesmerized by her deep insights into Hebrew scripture – her studies are based on Midrash, literature, psychoanalysis and philosophy. She really brought Moses and other Biblical figures to life for me in a new way. With Passover in mind this weekend, I wanted to explore the use of Psalms in recounting the story of the Exodus, and I was absolutely delighted when Avivah agreed to speak with me not only from her scholarly background, but from her personal experience of the Psalms throughout her life. Our conversation spans from  stories of her grandmother to a Jewish theology of the Psalms to prayers said at the Passover table to speaking of what’s under the surface in each of our depths. 

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More about Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg:

See https://www.avivahzornberg.com/bio.html

Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 8 Uncovering Deep Grace in a Year of Turbulence, with Karen Campbell

Today’s guest is Karen Campbell, minister and musician, originally from Northern Ireland and currently based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Karen and I met first when we were both serving Presbyterian churches in the Belfast area, but our friendship has extended into our shared love of music, the Psalms, and spirituality – as well as some fun times and good laughs along the way. Here, Karen shares about her connections with the Psalms throughout her life, leading up to the creation of an album she and her husband David put together during the pandemic period of 2020. I’m grateful to the Campbell family for the music in today’s episode – their son Ian’s voice features in the opening song, followed by David’s voice as well as other musicians from the Church of the Servant with whom they recorded this beautiful and uplifting album. In our conversation, we look at how exploring the psalms through music, art, and honest reflection helped her congregation uncover deep grace in the midst of the pains, laments, and hurts that came to the surface in a turbulent year, and how that process has led them to hear the voices on the margins in a clearer way. Check show notes to see photos of some of the artwork that came out of those sacred times of gathering around the Psalms. 

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More about Karen:

Karen grew up in Northern Ireland. Before becoming a pastor, she worked for 3 years in Nairobi, Kenya teaching music and worship at Daystar University. She has worked in both rural and city settings, but longs for people to become fully mature, spirit-filled worshippers and followers of Jesus who unite together in being kingdom influencers in the world.  Karen came to be co-pastor at Church of the Servant in 2018. Karen is passionate about fulfilling Church of the Servant’s mission statement: to enable a fellowship where the burdened and suffering will find support and comfort, where the alienated will be accepted, and where those seeking God will be shown the way. Karen is married to David and they have three sons, Ian, Callum, and Duncan.

Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 7: Shepherding through the Rugged Terrain of the Valley, with Kate Wiebe

Today’s guest is Kate Wiebe, founder of the Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth. We both entered seminary only days after 9/11, an event that influenced many of us as we began our theological studies not far away from the areas that had been traumatized by those events. It wasn’t until years after we’d graduated that I found out that she’d gone on to do doctoral work on how people come through times of crisis, and that her studies led to the founding of ICTG, an organization focused on helping groups respond to large scale crises such as natural disasters and acts of mass violence, as well as more private crises that devastate smaller communities. In our conversation, Kate and I explore how spirituality and the Psalms weave into her life’s work of being a guide for people through the rugged terrain of the valley of the shadow of death. 

This episode contains references to numerous traumatic incidents, so please keep your triggers in mind, either by having proper supports in place or by listening to a previous episode instead – I’d recommend Episode 2 which offers lots of practical tips on building resilience in day to day life.

I can’t imagine a gentler guide through life’s rough paths than Kate, and I’m sure you’ll learn so much from the wisdom she shares, as I did when we talked. 

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More about Kate Wiebe:

Rev Dr Kate Wiebe is a pastor in the Presbytery of Santa Barbara, CA, a telehealth counselor at La Vie Centers in Pasadena, and a volunteer with the Institute for Collective Trauma & Growth, which she founded in 2012. 
Over the last two years, Wiebe has found herself increasingly drawn to follow the research and invest time and energy more locally. She supports the development of local resources among individuals, families, and groups to become refreshed and to thrive amid adversity, especially through counseling, mentoring, and encouraging congregational ministries. As time allows, she continues to offer national and international subject matter expertise and consulting on disaster response and organizational restoration after crises. Her most treasured time is with her family, including her husband and four children. 

Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 6: Building Bridges of Salaam (Peace) through Song, with Eric Sarwar

Today’s guest is Eric Sarwar, a minister, musician and academic, from Pakistan and currently based in California. I first met Eric many years ago when he was visiting Northern Ireland, and I remember my kids and I dancing around the kitchen to some of the music he left behind for us to listen to. A few years later, Eric and I met again at a conference in the States, and shared music across our traditions, which shows just how universal music can be. Eric has a deep personal love for the Psalms and has studied the history of the Psalter used in Pakistan. I wanted to hear from him what the Psalms have meant for his Pakistani diasporic community, and also about his fascinating doctoral work looking at the Psalms as a starting point for interfaith dialogue with Muslim neighbors. I’m grateful to Eric for sharing his music for this episode – you’ll hear him singing and playing his harmonium to demonstrate the sounds of the psalter he grew up hearing, and you’ll also hear a recent recording of a musical collaboration that is really delightful. This time, there is a link to the video of our fuller conversation, including footage of Eric playing and singing some traditional Pakistani psalm settings. 

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More about Eric:

Rev. Dr. Eric Sarwar (Ph.D. Fuller Theological Seminary) has a three-dimensional ministry calling: (1) Musician, (2) Minister, and (3) Missiologist. Along with church planting and inspired intuition, he established the first-ever Tehillim School of Church Music & Worship in Pakistan.  Dr. Sarwar is a passionate preacher, translator, an excellent communicator, and a phenomenal catalyst for music and mission-related ministries worldwide. As a music composer and songwriter recorded four albums and various songs for children and youth ministry, published three books and articles, and interviews on worship and witnessed through music in the Islamic context.

Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 5: Creating Rivers of Resilience in Wearying Times

My guest for today’s podcast episode is Erin Hayes-Cook, a Presbyterian minister based in Rahway, New Jersey – a short commute away from New York City. I’ve known Erin for about two decades now – we were shocked to realize! – and I was interested to get back in touch to hear about some of her current work around building resilience in her congregation’s spiritual lives as well as the broader community during these wearying times. In this conversation, we explore marking time through rituals, creating space to meet with God, and poetry as a creative process in understanding who we are. Serendipitously, this podcast coincided perfectly with the launch of Erin’s new project River of Resilience, which offers practices in resilience for people of color traumatized by racism. Through this project, Erin seeks ways to offer healing for people whose bodies, minds and spirits have been affected not only by the pandemic but by the pervasive racism that has been all the more exposed in this past year.         

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More about Erin:

In January of 2013 Rev. Hayes-Cook accepted the call to be the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Rahway, NJ.  Her subsequent ordination was on April 7, 2013 at Westminster Presbyterian Church. She has served First Rahway for 8 years as the first woman of color to pastor the community in its 275 year history.  Gaining great joy in walking alongside the diverse community she serves through her local presbytery and synod.She looks forward to the the River of Resilience initiative to help offer healing practices in the face of racism.  Rev. Hayes-Cook and her husband Lawrence welcomed their first child in June of 2019.  She loves a good cup of coffee, writing,  and working out with her Crossfit community.

Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 4: Examining Our Spirits in the Mess of Everyday Life

Today’s guest is Pádraig Swan, trained in the Jesuit tradition and serving as the Director of Faith and Service Programmes at Belvedere College in Dublin, Ireland. Pádraig and I would usually get into interesting conversations about spirituality while our families are visiting each other – kids racing around the room or climbing on us while we talked, amid good food and cups of coffee and tea. Not only that, but when Pádraig brought a group to the Corrymeela residential center on their annual retreat, I had the privilege of leading them in a Taizé evening worship that was always a very special and memorable experience. In our conversation, Pádraig weaves together his background in Ignation spirituality, and in particularly the practice of the daily examen prayer, as well as his experience of living with the Taizé community in France, as we explore together how the Psalms help us to examine our spirits in the mess of our everyday life. 

I’m grateful to the Taizé community for making available some of their beautiful recordings of Taizé chants, and also to Pádraig for his lovely  singing at the end of the episode.  

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More about Pádraig Swan:

Pádraig Swan is originally from Carlow, but has lived and worked in Dublin for many years. He is married to Colleen, and they have two children, Saoirse (8), and Seán (4).Pádraig has a long relationship with matters of faith and how faith meets the reality of human life. His own faith is influenced by time spent at the Taizé community, Corrymeela, 3 years studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood, working in business for over 20 years, transitioning to young adult ministry, deepening encounters with Jesuit Spirituality, and now as Director of Faith and Service Programmes at Belvedere College SJ, a Jesuit Secondary School in Dublin. Padraig is a member of the Corrymeela Community and serves on the parish council of his local parish.    

Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 3: How Singing Together Makes Us Better, with Brian Hehn

My guest today is Brian Hehn, the Director of The Center for Congregational Song with the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. He is an accomplished song leader and musician, and has a huge heart for getting people to sing together. Here, he reflects on the power of singing to transform us into better people, and how not singing together through COVID has been difficult but may lead to some necessary shifts in our singing culture. 

I thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with Brian through recording this podcast episode. While I expected that his reflections on singing would be meaningful, I was struck by his insights into the silence that we find ourselves in right now. I hope and pray that his vision will come to pass – that when we can sing together again, our songs would reflect more clearly and fully God’s way of justice for this world.

I hope you enjoy listening in!

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More about Brian Hehn:

Brian is an inspiring song-leader equally comfortable leading an acapella singing of “It Is Well” as he is drumming and dancing to “Sizohamba Naye.” Experienced using a variety of genres and instrumentations, he has lead worship for Baptists, Roman Catholics, United Methodists, Presbyterians, and many more across the U.S. and Canada. He received his Bachelor of Music Education from Wingate University, his Master of Sacred Music from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and is certified in children’s church music (K-12) by Choristers Guild. He has articles published on sacred music and congregational song in multiple journals and co-authored two books under the title “All Hands In” published by Choristers Guild. While working for The Hymn Society as the Director of The Center for Congregational Song he also serves as adjunct professor of church music at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina. Brian lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with his wife, Eve, and son, Jakob.

Breathing Through the Uncomfortable

I’m sure you’ve all heard about the growing wild popularity of the outdoor sport of “wild swimming.” That is, the sport of entering near-freezing water without a wetsuit, even in the middle of winter. To be a “wild swimmer,” one needn’t be an accomplished sportsperson, but instead must be crazy enough to step into frigid water outdoors – the sea, a lake, a river- and… breathe. That’s right – breathe.

As someone who has in the past few years become a rather avid all-year-round sea swimmer, I can tell you that it’s true: provided the conditions are calm and welcoming, it’s very simple. All you need to do is walk into the water, until it’s up to your neck, and breathe. 

You see, it’s very a human response, when extremely cold, to become breathless. I know this happened to me the first time I tried sea swimming in Ballycastle on the north coast – my whole body tensed up, the alarm bells of panic started ringing inside of me, and I was out of the water in a flash. That was in August. 

Now, I swim easily in January. How? 

I learned to breathe. As the water comes up over your shoulders, and you feel yourself becoming breathless, those minutes are the most important. If you breathe, slowly, in and out, your body loses its sense of panic and begins to relax. 

As my tolerance increased, I began to experience the feeling of joy that wild swimming is becoming known for. Soon, my breathing became an act of trust in what would come: the sense of wellbeing that would wash over me and stay with me the rest of the day. 

Sea swimming has taught me to breathe through the uncomfortable and to trust not only that my body can handle it, but that something good is to come. 

I find myself breathing, these days, when stress threatens to overwhelm me – when my daughter is tearing her hair out trying to get her homework turned in online with only minutes to spare; when my son’s ipad crashes in the middle of his virtual class; when the needs and demands of work and homeschool and housework, and never having enough space to myself, leaving me feeling breathless. 

At those moments, I find myself breathing. In, out, in, out. Long, slow breaths. An act of trust that this moment too shall pass, and that a sense of calm will return. 

Don’t we all need to remember to breathe, these days. We so easily slip into a state of panic, the alarm bells ringing about the threat of COVID, the fears for the future, the state of the world, the struggles of the multitude of responsibilities we all carry in our own ways. 

Just when we’re tempted to turn on our heels and give up –  as I did on my first swim – that’s when we can call up the most simple act: to breathe. To breathe long, slow breaths, reminding our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls that we can trust that it will be ok.

For at the root of our faith is the belief that God can bring goodness out of even the most trying of situations. 

So let’s breathe. In, out, and trust that joy and peace and hope and a sense of wellbeing will come. 

Let us pray. Breath of life, when panic and stress rise up within us, breathe your calming spirit into us, and with that breath, remind us that your goodness will always prevail. In your holy name we pray, Amen. 

I was asked to contribute this prayer to the Four Corners Festival, held virtually in Feb 2021.

In a strange collision of circumstances, I was also featured in a BBC documentary the night before I offered this prayer. The sea swimmers recorded this last summer, as a part of a series on The Glens of Antrim, where I live. The Ballycastle Swimrise Group have been a lifeline to me over the past year – prior to COVID and through COVID. Sea swimming has breathed life into me in so many ways! Click the link below to catch a glimpse of sea swimming in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland.

Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 2: Holding the Adversity and the Joy, with Sara Cook

The second podcast episode is ready to go! This week my guest is Sara Cook, a social worker who offers trainings in trauma resilience. She is such a wealth of knowledge and I’m so delighted that she agreed to talk with me on this podcast to share some of the practical skills she teaches in her trainings, and I found it fascinating to explore with her how we find resilience through spiritual resources like the Psalms. I’ve listened to this many times in getting it into podcast form, and I’m still learning new things from what she says every time! I hope you can take away some new skills for building resilience in your lives, or that it reminds you of things you already know, and that you also appreciate looking at the Psalms and our spiritual lives in a fresh way, as I did.

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More about Sara Cook:

Sara Cook is a social worker and conflict response specialist who has extensive experience working with people affected by conflict in Northern Ireland and internationally. Her peace building work includes mediation, dialogue and storytelling encounters between conflict-affected populations, including victims and survivors of violence, security forces and paramilitaries. Much of her work addresses the psychosocial impact of conflict, including the impact of mediation and peace building work on practitioners. For 20 years, Sara has designed and implemented methodologies to address conflict-related impact and provides training and facilitation in mediation, dialogue, trauma intervention and resiliency. She has trained people from over 30 countries, including humanitarian aid workers supporting the resettlement of Syrian refugees in both Turkey and Lebanon. She is a UK representative to Women Mediators Across the Commonwealth and is a board member of Mediation Norther Ireland and the VSB Foundation.