So tonight was just the opening of a 1.5 day orientation for seminary. I’ve started my Master’s of Divinity at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC. Associate Dean of community life Rev Dr Asa J. Lee, started by reading John 15:2
He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
The dean then pointed out that if you bear fruit you will be noticed by the master pruner and you will be cut. The Dean posited that we had, along our individual paths, born fruit of the spirit and that is likely part of why we were starting seminary. He went on to warn that we will feel the pruning that happens in school as we grow and learn to focus our gifts, our prayers, and our studies. I instantly recalled a favorite quote I used to have on my wall by Kahlil Gibran:
Shall my heart become a tree heavy laden with fruit that I may gather and give unto them?
I hadn’t thought about how a garden works and how orchards work. There is a delicate balance of pruning a tree to increase the fruit without overburdening the tree. I hadn’t thought of the pruning I’ve had in life as part of the master gardener’s plan to cultivate a fruitful garden. Her hands knowing which branches to let go and which ones to shore up. Knowing what fruit will come even before the first blossoms appear. She knows there will be many seasons and that every tree will grow and fruit in their time.
Over the summer I visited a friends peach orchard and noticed large clumps of peaches and other peaches hanging along a branch like sweet garlands. I wandered like a little kid through the orchard giddy when I found a a group of peaches untouched by the eager birds. I would pluck the ripe fruit and immediately sink my teeth into the slightly warm fruit, filling my basket with what I couldn’t eat for the week ahead.
Here is the longer Gibran poem entitled Part 2 Johannesburg:
And he said to himself: Shall the day of parting be the day of gathering? And shall it be said that my eye was in truth my dawn? And what shall I give unto him who has left his plough in mid furrow, or to him who has stopped the wheel of his winepress?
Shall my heart become a tree heavy laden with fruit that I may gather and give unto them? And shall my desires flow like a fountain that I may fill their cups? Am I a harp that the hand of the mighty may touch me, or a flute that his breath may pass through me?
A seeker of silences am I, and what treasure have a found in silences that I may dispense with confidence?
It seems music will be a major player in my year. Every month since January I have attended a live music show. The first was a local 90’s cover band, White Ford Bronco. They were a ton of fun, with everyone singing, it seemed more like a huge singalong, live karaoke then a concert. In February I saw Greg Laswell at a tiny basement venue. He created a sweet quiet cave of music. In March I attended the amazing South by Southwest (SXSW), a riot of music from all over the world. That brings me to April. I saw an event listing for a global hip hop festival hosted at the Kennedy Center. The artists were a collection of artists who’s faith plays a significant role in their music.
As hosts of the event, the Berkley Center published my report about the event.
Record producer Russell Simmons opened the night speaking about his work on meditation and his recent book Success through Stillness.“With music,” he said, “you look inside. You draw from your experience.” “For me,” he concluded, “Hip-hop and spirituality have always been together. It’s so much easier to get poets and artists to see the sameness in each other than [it is for] politicians.”
It proved true at this event as a lineup of hip-hop emcees and DJs of various faiths and nationalities joined forces from across the globe. Nomadic Wax curated a show featuring Talib Kweli, with artists from as far away as Hong Kong, London, and Iraq and as near as northern California, New York City, and Washington, DC including MC Jin, Poetic Pilgrimage, Am Koullel, Mandeep Sethi, DJ Boo, and the Narcicyst.
Artists were chosen for the concert, presented in cooperation with Georgetown University and the One Mic showcase, because of the role faith plays in their work and how hip-hop interacts in that faith. Sakina Abdool Noor, of Poetic Pilgrimage, a British Muslim duo, grew up in London. She explained how, for her, rap is spiritual, “Music is an ecstatic expression of our Creator. Hip-hop has always been uplifting.”
All described hip-hop’s ability to act as a cathartic force in their lives, as both performers and listeners. DJ Boo, New York City born and raised, reminded the audience, “Hip-hop is a means to share when (the community is) in despair.” He said, “Whether in Detroit or Capetown, every community can say, ‘I’ve experienced that.’”
Opening act Am Koullel, a Muslim emcee from Mali, rapped with a Malian drummer and a track produced by DJ Boo. Performing mostly in the language of Bambara, which is spoken in west Africa, he rapped about uplifting his country through the unifying spirit of music. Nomadic Wax describes Koullel as “the charismatic leader of the Hip-Hop movement in Mali,” explaining on their website how for Koullel hip-hop is “a medium for consciousness and awareness and to defend the disenfranchised. It’s also very festive and quite unique.”
A post-performance discussion moderated by Georgetown sociology professor and author Michael Eric Dyson, with all the artists on stage, illustrated the seamless blending of the international hip-hop movement with the local and personal expressions presented by the artists. Poetic Pilgrimage’s lyrics drew on the oneness of humanity:
“Release the shackles of your soul/ There is no me/ there is no you/ there is only us.”
While the Narcicyst rapped:
“Without you it’s just silence/ We’re just talking to ourselves.”
Many of the artists also blended the local with global by the communal slant to their lyrics. They made it personal, rapping about current issues in their respective cities, and about refugees and voting in Syria, Iraq, Brooklyn, and London.
Several artists described how the music they perform can be misinterpreted with stereotypes. Muneera Rashida, with Poetic Pilgrimage, described how “it sometimes takes people three tracks to move past their [physical] appearance.” Rashida narrated the experience of first time listeners, saying, “Wait, they’re women, they’re Muslims, and they’re wearing hijabs.” Until the listener ultimately arrives at “They’re amazing emcees.”
The artists each talked about their skills as emcees, DJs, poets. and singers to bridge differences. For Mandeep Sethi, aka SETI X, he spoke of music as a way “to elevate the other person’s understanding, to elevate your own understanding. Sikh means student, which means your testament to God is to be a student, is to learn.”
During the panel discussion, Dyson asked Kweli about a viral Twitter debate that trended after he tweeted the words, “Hip-hop heals.”
Referencing tweets which pointed towards hip-hop’s reputation as a source of misogyny and violence, Kweli explained, “Hip-hop has been a healing force for me, but maybe that’s more unique than I thought.”
Even as some of the artists acknowledged how hip-hop still struggles with a negative connotation, each performer said they use rap as a way of healing their communities and themselves.
For Professor Dyson, and the artists gathered, “The real obscenity is what the music is pointing to.”
For a long time, partly in a bid to be better than the body conscious people obsessed with being thin, I have detached myself from my body. However, in reality, I was body conscious and I didn’t like what I saw. I mostly just didn’t pay much attention to my body though I ate a well balanced diet and was fairly active.
In my 20’s, I did learn to appreciate my body yet, my weight loss and fitness level seemed to happen by accident. I realize now that the love I had for my body was limited by my belief that I wasn’t choosing my shape. It chose me. There was little participation and no intention for my body. I took the phrase, “it doesn’t matter what you look like, it matters who you are” to a space that meant it was ok to neglect my body in fact, it was preferable.
A few years ago, I found a 2nd place ribbon from the 2nd grade, for cross-country running. I was shocked that I couldn’t remember being a cross country runner though, even 20 years later, I could somehow remember loving to run. Soon after I began to run with friends and on my own. Then I ran my first half marathon 2 years ago, at 30 years old.
This winter, when I was in Uganda, so much attention was placed on my body, especially as a white woman that, at times, I almost felt naked walking the streets fully clothed. At the end of the 2 months, I saw an ad for a half marathon in DC occurring 2 days after I returned. In that moment I realized just how little exercise and just how much posho (maize), and matoke (plantains) I had eaten. I decided that I was going to kick my fitness level into the next gear, the moment I got off the plane.
Just a few days before I boarded the plane to return home, I also realized just how little attention I had paid to my body in my life. For the 2 months I was in Uganda, I had noticed and paid attention to every piece of food I ate, applied copious amounts of sunscreen and bug spray daily, felt the heat, encountered new bugs and animals that held unknown poisons, and took daily pills to ward off malaria. I wrote about this vulnerability in an earlier post.
A Buddhist proverb states, (that)
When the student is ready, the teacher will arrive.
Last Thanksgiving I was blessed with a sad gift. My grandmother passed away days before her 89 birthday and I was given a small inheritance, just enough to extend my 3 months of retraining and career exploration into a year. It also meant that when I returned from Uganda I could hire my friend, Errick McAdams, to be my personal trainer to help me kick my fitness level up.
By all measurements I was overweight, even if I was happy. Errick asked me what my weight goal was, so I picked a number that the BMI said I should aim for, but assured him my weight was less important than my fitness level. He was/is the teacher I needed for this new re-meeting of my soul and my body. He pushed me when I needed it and pulled me back when I pushed myself too hard. He taught me and listened to me. And when we reached the 20 pounds that I previously thought was an unreachable goal, he listened again and we painted a picture of a new reality. He helped me shape this amazing body. He also helped me experience and develop a new partnership with my gene’s, my food, and my activity. Together I lost 35 pounds and dropped 4 pant sizes.
In writing a thank you note to him, I realized an important lesson from these 6 months. Yes I loved my body when I was a size 14 and 200 pounds. I thought I was beautiful and spent a lot of time working through my hangups. I loved its shape and could really rock my curves. I was fit enough to enjoy the activities I loved and I ate pretty well. However, it was a love based on my view that it was a shape gifted to me without my say and only superficially affected by my participation. The new love of my body, is an appreciation for the hard work of the last 6 months, its also a re-acquaintance with the shape and feel of this body.
This weight loss and fitness journey was an embodiment of this past 2 years learning, of leaving my job at the church and moving across country. My gift of ministry to teenagers and people is a very real gift, that I love. Though in the years I worked at the church, I was only utilizing a very small portion of my gifts. More than a year ago, as I began to contemplate my move, I began again to participate and shape a new future for myself. I began to dive deeper, to explore ALL that moved me, and enlivened me. I began to create a future where I listened to ALL that God had shown me and laid on my heart, as both passions and concerns.
I could’t have begun to discover the depth of my gifts, until I began to use, embrace, and experience my first gifts. Its like Maya Angelou says,
You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.
The more of my gifts that I use, the more I discover, that is God’s true abundance and riches. I have started to see my gifts, concerns, and abilities as a partnership with God to engage the world and my soul. As I do so, those gifts appear to be unending. The truth is that when we begin to embrace our blessings, we are healed and challenged to continue birthing and rediscovering, new blessings as they emerge.