Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Africa Discernings: How I Heard God this past week. Part I.

There are subtle and then not so subtle ways that I hear God talking to me. This past week's experiences were no exception -- especially where my heart has been concerned and a desire to return to Africa has persisted.

How do you hear God? Or how do you perceive the Divine at work in your life? Do you believe in a Benevolent Creator? Who among you gets nervous when I ask these questions? Who among you gets calm? What happens to me when I am writing about this stuff? Why do I write this stuff down? If I insert the word "Jah" or "Yahweh" or "Buddha" or "the open heart" or "Love" - does the question resonate more fully?

As someone who was raised Catholic, it's easiest for me to say, "God." But I get that that doesn't read or bode well for some of your spiritual and practical navigations. I respectfully and humbly submit my notes on such matters. I do so with humor and joy and hope, that, as a reader, you might know compassion and joy and hope as well. Yes. I think compassion and joy and hope are helpful things for my spirit, for your spirit, and for those around us who piss us off. It's best if we can have love rather than getting pissed off, don't you think? More love and compassion, less anger and pissiness. I'm just looking for a way through life that is helpful, rather than harmful. Navigating the love and fear and anger is an important thing to figure out, don't you think?

I digress.

Back to how I heard the Big Love talking to me this past week....

It's Sunday, and I'm in Norfolk, Nebraska. I'm at home for my aunt Peg's wedding, and taking an extra day in a long weekend to spend time with my family: my parents, my siblings, my nieces and nephews, my cousins, my aunts and uncles and friends that are in town.

It's good. It's been a long, long seven months since I've been home, and this trip back for a wedding - that has been a long, long time in the making - is well worth it!

Going home is not ever easy for me, as the eldest, unmarried child who travels solo in this rocking family with these rocking parents and rocking siblings and their spouses and significant others. I adore these people, and recognize how profoundly I am loved and cared for by them all, as well as how much I love them all. But often, I'm lonely in this family, and feel like a crazy older sister who is single and has no visible lover, and so by most accounts is on the track to becoming a "cat lady." I don't want to be a cat lady, by the way. (No offense to people with cats.) I want to be the older sister who rocks the casbah in the world by writing and making change and having a hot lover and partner who adores her and makes everyone laugh and inspires significant topics of conversation when he shows up with me.

Yeah. I want to come home with Barack Obama, or some equivalent of a single, young Desmond Tutu -- or even a kind of a Bill Clinton - without the Monica business. (I like leader types. I like especially leader types who love God and have the capacity to balance me out. Yes. I like leader types with scientific minds who like identifying the root causes of unwellness in our world and are seeking ways to heal us. Those with visions of life beyond the borders of the United States also rock.)

Anyway. It's church time. And I'm walking into Sacred Heart with my mom and some semblance or faction of siblings. And my mom says to me,
"Melissa, you are turning 40 this year. It's a significant birthday, a milestone; have you thought about how you want to celebrate this? Your sister is turning 21, also a significant birthday, maybe you want to do something together?"
And I pause for second and then find myself responding,
"I want to go back to Africa. I think I'm supposed to be back in Africa."
Now saying this aloud to my mom is like saying I want to date someone like Bill Clinton. I'm not sure that she really hears me, or can hear me. Like Bill Clinton, Africa --South Africa has it's overwhelming beauty and charm and promise and power. But also like Bill Clinton, South Africa has a kind of tainted image that brings up some kind of pain and scandal. My mom doesn't want to see me off to any place where there is pain and scandal. (That apartheid business was messy, right? And the poverty there ain't no joke. To say nothing of the HIV/ AIDS pandemic. And what my heart has done when it's been on South African soil or in proximity to citizens of the country?! Well it's all taken a gigantic toll on my spirit and psyche that my mom registers. And, ultimately, it all begs for love and attention -- not unlike the messy, screaming-for compassion-and-outrage impeachment circumstances once surrounding President Clinton. Who wants to spend any time dwelling on such things?!)

But my mom says nothing, and this is huge. A gift. And my words just rest there in the air as a kind of uttered dream, and this feels good to my heart. I don't know what I'm saying really in this moment walking into church, just giving voice to this achy space in my body and spirit that wants to speak and honor what God calls me toward....

Africa...South Africa....Kenya...Uganda...Zanzibar...Tanzania...Ghana...

On this Sunday, the scripture and songs are not-so-subtly speaking to me. This is nothing unusual, however. Hearing God's voice in scripture? Please. That's the whole point! This former English teacher takes it all in stride: literature is literature is literature doing it's job reflecting and opening us up to ourselves and our world. What I note, however, is that the Gospel reading from Matthew is being repeated for the third time this week, and that is unusual.
(Per my bus- riding-routine to work, I'm praying with scripture daily via my pda.) Here I am for the third time this week, reading and hearing about Jesus and Peter, as the disciple is being called to walk toward Christ on the water. What's Peter do? He doubts. He second guesses himself and who God is, and he starts to sink.

When I read this passage on the Monday prior, it wasn't lost on me: Do not doubt God's love! When I read it on Tuesday, it was another gigantic reassurance: Do not be afraid! Step forward! Hearing it for the third time this Sunday, I am mildly blown away.
"Mom," I say to her next to me in the pew, "It's the third time this week this gospel has appeared."
And so I cry. Because I know: I have been doubting. I have been sinking. I have felt wildly like Peter in so many ways: believing, but fearing. And it's just not helpful, the fearing part. Because after all, when we doubt, we start to sink. Who needs more sinking? God sure doesn't. We are better off to trust and to receive and believe in love, than doubt in its source.

And then what happens next is the bigger "Wake up, Meliss and Pay Attention" jolt. A guest homilest rises in the pulpit to break open scripture, and his name is Francis, and he's an Oblate of Francis De Sales.

For those who don't know, Francis de Sales is one of the founders of the Visitation Order, and one of the groups of nuns I spend a lot of time with as a "Visitation Companion." He and the co-foundress, Jane de Chantal, are like my spiritual parents. I tune in.

Brother Francis is funny. He tells jokes. He brings comedy to his role in talking about the missionaries in the world. He likens Jesus' walk on this planet with the walk of the missionaries around the country. He talks about the gift of poverty. Of traveling and learning a new language. Of having to build relationships across culture and class and experience...Of having to ask for help. Of walking outside our comfort zones and following God's lead.
I am moved deeply. I am calmed by this man's message. My sister-in- law, Jodi and I exchange knowing glances after his sermon. Jodi's niece, who has just returned from South Africa, has announced her own intentions to become a missionary. Jodi and I pray for this niece and for the voices of concern and doubt and questions that have come forward. We get the ramifications of anyone making such an announcement to family. We pray.

My mom turns to me and says,
"Where do you think this guy is from? Your dad said there was a visiting priest from South Africa who was in church. Does he seem like he's from South Africa?"
I'm thinking "No, this Brother sounds like he's from New Jersey." But I appreciate that my dad is tuning into such things and asking questions....

And then it's time to sing. It's communion time, and the song the congregation is invited to join singing: Be Not Afraid.

And so in our two pews, our family does what we love to do: sings. My mom and I harmonizing, and the words inspiring more crazy emotion.

You shall cross the barren desert,
but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety,
though you do not know the way.

You shall speak your words in foreign lands,
and all will understand,
You shall see the face of God and live.

And I cry. I sing, I cry. I love. I feel it all. I know the desert. I am in the desert. I am wandering. I am safe, but I don't know the way. I want to return to this land where I've known overwhelming love, but I am afraid. I don't understand this call or why it persists, I just know it's here, and won't take a back seat. And so the words pour out as sung, harmonized prayer with my mom, "Be not afraid..."

And then we are done, and the congregation is sitting quietly in our post-communion contemplations, when Brother Francis comes back up to the mic.
"By the way," he says, "For those of you who don't know, that song was written by a Jesuit for a young nun. I'm sorry, a young SISTER, who was returning to Africa, but was nervous and afraid about her call to go."
Really? I mean really? I started laughing. It's like God was hitting me over the head: "Meliss, just in case you missed the message earlier, and you are doubting this desire, this invitation, yourself, me, here's another clue: Get your ass back to Africa! Quit being afraid! This sister was scared, and so are you, but it's okay. Go."

That's what I heard at least. I'm sorry if it offends anyone, too, when I hear God saying the word, "ass." Translation of God can be hard. I could be way off my rocker here. But the continuing coincidences or serendipitous messages reassure me.

I think I exchanged looks with my mom then. A smile. A knowing.

I will go.

Who am I to doubt or be afraid?

By the way, when I spoke to my dad later that day he inquired about the missionary's talk. He had attended the earlier 9am mass by himself and had a different guest speaker. "Did you have the brother from South Africa who sang the end of his homily in Swahili?" he asked me. "It was so awesome. I told your mom that you'd love it."
I appreciate my dad tuning in to such things. He's getting his own message, I think.


Jody said...

love, love, love, this. Even though I heard some of this from you I love being able to read it now. 'cat lady' yep I get that sentiment as I have felt that way many times.

One of your gifts is writing that is for certain. So my question Melissa Borgmann is when are you going to get started on an article or a book or something which all those who know and love you can hold in their hands, show to their friends and family, and marvel over the talent you have as a writer?

YES. Grad school or no, you have got to continue to use and develop this talent and share it with the world.

Thank you for this lovely piece today. THANK YOU


Chris Schmit said...

Great read Melissa!!! I felt like I was reading the cliffs of a book or movie. I can’t wait to hear the ending. Something great and miraculous is destined for you trip.

Good luck!!

Lincoln, Nebraska

Emily Borgmann said...

So did you get your ticket? When do you leave? Do it.

What a birthday – to be in Africa. If you come home with some Obama type I’m going to be really jealous…he’s smokin’!

You’re wonderful Melissa, I’m blessed I was lucky enough to marry Aaron, but then I got you too. That’s pretty cool.

Love you as big as African skies.

Arlo Dissette said...


You, more than anyone I know, are focused, alive, listening and hearing, seeing and believing.

I've been racing like a crazy man, not stopping, listening, seeing, or breathing. You stopped me in my tracks. Thank you. You are such a gift.

I want to know when the going away party is scheduled. I want to be there to wish you my best.

I will attend my friend's daughter's wedding this weekend in Waconia, and will think of you as I meet MY new African friends.

Thank you, Melissa.

Minneapolis, MN

Julie said...

God bless, I hope you go soon. It sounds like your soul is in need of something only found in the beauty of Africa. I think of how you spoke to the sheltered girl scouts of your experience there and the profound effect it had on them. They still speak of it.

Peace and love to you,

Henriette Angela Bissoy said...

Dear Melissa,

Your story is so beautiful. Hear God's call. Follow His voice. HE will lead you. It is OK to be afraid, to doubt. Jesus did not let Peter sink and he will not let any of His children do so.

Love, sing, and Praise as you know how to; if anyone is offended, that's fine, too! How many were offended by Jesus's
Miracles and speeches?

With Love.

Henriette Angela Bissoy
St. Philip's

Judy Chapmas said...

Wow! I say go for it, girl!

Judy Chapman
St. Philip's

Stephanie Johnson said...

I don't like that you feel lonely when you come home. I do think you are my older sister that rocks that kasbah with your writing and inspiring work. I too wish for you to have that partner that makes us all laugh. I am sure he will magically appear one of these days!

Love ya,

Daniel Kerkhoff said...

Hey Melissa, thanks for sharing your thoughts and discernments. Bring on that serendipity! Looking forward to seeing you in Africa!

I just got to hear Sowa Mensah this past Tuesday at the Minnesota History Center. You probably heard of him, drummer from Ghana who teaches at Macalester. Very inspiring!

Minneapolis, MN

Anonymous said...

Dear Melissa -

Thanks for sending this writing to us.

It was a message that I needed to hear right at the time that I read it yesterday morning. It touched me deeply and brought tears to my eyes. I could really relate to it, especially this part: "Because I know: I have been doubting. I have been sinking. I have felt wildly like Peter in so many ways: believing, but fearing. And it's just not helpful, the fearing part. Because after all, when we doubt, we start to sink. Who needs more sinking? God sure doesn't. We are better off to trust and to receive and believe in love, than doubt in its source."

God hasn't spoken to me for a long time now or maybe I just wasn't listening close enough but I heard him/her/it loud and clear yesterday thanks to your writing. I wanted you to know that I really appreciate that.....thank you.

You are a great writer and I hope you will continue to send us the highlights of what you write and keep us updated on your adventures if indeed you do return to Africa.


Anonymous said...

Wow!!! I didn't have time to sit and read your missive when you first sent it out and I just knew not to be dismissive and give it a cursory glance. I am sooo glad I didn't. So, I guess you're going, huh?

Good for you. I think God does speak to us all the time. We just have to sit still long enough to listen. But he's always there talking and guiding us to do more and be more. I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to pass this on to another friend so she can read it and let your words and God's ideas pull her to do more and be more in her own life.

Take care. Thank you for thinking of me. God bless....

later, me