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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My first podcast guest is the Rev. Dr. Amy Ruth Schacht – a Presbyterian Church USA minister who has served in Laurel, MD for the past 20 years. Amy has studied neuroscience and its connection to the life of faith. In this conversation, she discusses how the psalms have helped her – and her congregation – through difficult times, and how the psalms have helped her carve a new map toward her true home.
I have been working on a new venture! A podcast about spirituality and resilience, through the lens of the Biblical Psalms.
The question I’m exploring is: how do the Psalms, and music, and other spiritual resources such as these, help us through difficult times – through times of personal or collective trauma?
How do the psalms lift our spirits?
I’m inviting friends and respected teachers to speak with me on the connections between spirituality and resilience. My guests will be from a variety of backgrounds – theologians, social workers, hymnwriters, musicians, spiritual directors, clergy, academics, mental health practitioners, and anyone interested in the intersection of spirituality and the lived experience.
Through personal story, field research, and theological reflection, we will delve into the psalms and how they intersect with people lives and areas of expertise.
For me, this is pure joy. When I record my conversations, I’m in a beautiful spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Rathlin Island – and I get to connect with people near and far to talk about things we’re passionate about.
The first few episodes will be released soon, and I hope you will join us on the journey!
It seems every conversation I have with people these days comes down to the theme of limitation. Each one of us, in our own unique way, is experiencing limitations that hinder us and withhold from us certain aspects of the life we knew only eight short months ago.
Limitation defines so much for us right now: we weave our lives around the COVID rules and restrictions of whatever area we live in. We either abide by or resist those rules and regulations, but we’re aware of them nonetheless – building our lives around what we can or can’t do.
Limitation is our current reality. It’s the terrain we must dwell in to keep others and ourselves safe and healthy.
And in that limitation also resides much grief, frustration, anxiety, and helplessness.
Where we used to plan and dream far into the future, this limitation freezes us in a timelessness – forces us to stay put within our homes, our routines, our locale, for an undetermined amount of time.
Where we would have traveled and explored and adventured, we can only cast our mind’s eye to past memories, or turn to images on screens to transport us elsewhere.
Where we would have broken up our days and weeks and months with gatherings large and small, enjoyed blissful moments of witnessing or performing the arts, and taken in festivals or once-in-a-lifetime events, we can only stay within the scope of our mundane daily rhythms.
Where we once extended ourselves into our busy schedules, expending our energies for a multitude of activities and projects and causes, we now struggle to find ways to contribute meaningfully to the world.
I read the story of Mary being visited by the angel in Luke 1 with different ears, from this context of limitation in which we reside.
Two women, both in situations where it should be impossible for new life to grow within them. Two women whose limitations seem obvious.
And yet, the angel says: with God, all things are possible. God announces that new life will spring forth where none should be able to. Limitations no longer claim hold on these women’s lives.
Caught as we are in our own webs of limitation, how freeing it is to imagine God cutting through all that to release us: to bring new life and all it entails – hope, potential, change, dreams.
Could it be that God can break through our confines even without some dramatic reversal of events – without a vaccine, without a cure – and bring forth life in and through our limitations?
Perhaps there is boundlessness within our limitation. A vast world within our boundaries, which we are perfectly free to enjoy.
I consider some of the things that fill my life now that I never had time for or interest in before.
Gardening, for one.
My body eagerly spends hours digging, hauling, mixing, planting, when I wouldn’t have had a clue about it months ago.
Within the confines of my daily existence, I looked out the back of my house and slowly began to envision something new out of what was right before my eyes. I saw flowering bushes and a multitude of bulbs bursting forth with color in spring. I saw climbers and rambling roses. I saw arches and stone paths. I saw shows of color that shifted at varying times of day and season. I saw vegetables and herbs to nourish my family.
And I quickly caught on to the fact that the possibilities are endless.
I have a world to explore, and I haven’t even left my home (except to go to the garden store, which is my new favorite destination).
Boundlessness within limitation. The possibility of new life where there seemed to be none before. The ability to plan and dream and envision something new. A way to plant hope for the future.
Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – we can glimpse that unfettered freedom within our confines.
God breaks through and finds a way to bring new life, even where it seems impossible.
Twelve years ago I was handed a tiny human to hold for the very first time. I still remember the delightful shock of seeing the curves and crevices of this new person, whom no one had ever seen before, in all her particularity. “So you’re the one who’s been living inside me!” I thought. She had a character, a personality, a uniqueness, an “I am who I am” quality about her. And she was wholly mine (ours!) to embrace, to welcome, to love, to embrace. To hold.
Holding our daughter became life’s new activity. Holding her for feeding, holding her to walk from room to room, holding her with extended family, church members, friends – and handing her to them to hold.
What a precious experience it is to hold a newborn baby! There is nothing like their newborn smell, their fragile lightness, their precious vulnerability. And the holy task – the only task we have at those moments – is to show utter gentleness toward the human being in our arms.
Holding her that first moment filled me with such a sense of awe, instantly. Over the following hours, days, weeks the initial surprise transformed into familiarity, as I came to know her every movement and expression, as I developed an intuition for what she might be trying to communicate.
In the beginning there were also hours, days, nights when I felt baffled, holding her in confusion and frustration as I attempted to understand how to meet her needs.
But eventually, sometimes after a bit of a struggle, we would melt into the restful embrace of contentedness. My arms became that place of stillness for her, that place of comfort.
Like a child with mother quieted, reads Psalm 131.
Last week as I reflected on this passage, I recalled the way I had rested in my mother’s arms as a child. Though it’s been a while, the memory was fresh and visceral. I could feel the stroke of her hand through my hair. A sense of wellbeing washed over me – a contended relaxation. I had no where I needed to go, nothing I needed to do. Only to allow myself to be held in my mother’s arms.
Though I’m a grown woman, this memory of being held felt so deeply comforting to me. I continued to remember it throughout that day and the days after. I hope I continue to return to it, over and over again.
For the arms holding me in this image were not only my mother’s – they were God’s.
I was resting in the love, acceptance, and tenderness of the Mothering God.
It made me realize how important those moments of tenderness with my own daughter are, even now. She is growing up, she is developing her independence, and rightly so. I want that freedom for her, and I want her to develop that confidence to strike out on her own, as I did.
But when those moments of tenderness come, I will treat them as sacred. In those times when she rests on me, she is also experiencing rest in the arms of the Mothering God. The God who will hold her and love her much longer, and better, and more fully than I ever could as her earthly mother. I have my limitations, my faults; I make my mistakes. But God is the one who will embrace her forever.
So for now, while I can, I will hold my little girl, who is not so little anymore, and I will give thanks that the Mothering God will continue to hold her all her life long.