Tree of Life

My daughter and I made our annual visit to the Church Hill Irish Festival today.  Hands down, it’s my favorite street fair of the year to visit, which means we have visited every year that we’ve lived here in Virginia.  Before that, we lived in the midst of “Dogtown” in St. Louis where our neighborhood itself was the St. Patrick’s Day party spot, from Ancient Order of Hibernian parades to flowing green beer which would stale-scent the streets for days afterwards.  The first parade we attended, I was dressed all in green and wrapped her up looking like a leprechaun in a green knit hat, swaddled in a sling.  We had so many green beads festooned upon us that they provided dress up accessories for the whole neighborhood.  Richmond is a bit less intense, but still a great time.  My spouse could take or leave all this festive frivolity, but the women of the family are undaunted in our annual adventure whether rain, snow, sun, or throngs of visitors should appear.

Today was beautiful, a perfect spring day in the southern mid-Atlantic.  Thus, it was “crowds” that presented the daily challenge.  Although we began with a bit of parking drama and some related mother-daughter banter (just keeping it real), we hiked our way to the blocked-off streets and found ourselves walking into the Goat’s Milk Soap booth.  This is our ritual every year, and we stepped into it like a time machine.  Sniffing the scented soap produced it’s healing magic, and soon we left with a bar of honeysuckle imprinted with the image of a goat in the meadow with which we’ll wash our hands all spring.  It’s a different scent each year, but equally grounding.  We went on to embrace our string of usual fun: celtic jewelry shopping, family crest searching (the “Cassidy” clan), novelty hat wearing and last-but-not-least the eating of the giant spiral fried spud washed down with fresh squeezed lemonade, all to the tune of Irish music and dance.  

This year, I recognized the special appearance of St. Brigid who seemed to show up with great regularity in image and name and symbol wherever I happened to look.  When my daughter started pointing this out, too, I took it to heart.  This saintly figure has been symbolically mothering me a great deal during this transformative year.  I got to know St. Brigid a few years ago on All Saints Day when I portrayed her…sheep and all..during our annual “Saints Walk.”  I am constantly reminded in her stories that there is abundance when we give freely, serve willingly, and trust openly.  It’s in the great letting go that we find freedom to truly live.  I bought a small St. Brigid’s cross from one vendor to add to my jewelry collection, and added a blessing medallion from one of the local Roman Catholic Church’s booths before leaving.  My daughter took that moment to announce to their priest that I, too, was in the process of becoming a priest, assuming that would be a point of solidarity between us.  The look on his face quickly informed her otherwise.   I grasped my medal and politely ducked that theological discussion in order to keep the peace; I imagined some loving laughter arising from my patroness as the scene unfolded. 

We decided we were ready to leave when the elbow-to-elbow crowds brought more vape-smokers and flask-bearing drinkers than mid-day wanderers.  Our time here so quickly becomes nostalgic, without even having to speak it.  I see her at age three, wide eyed at bagpipe music; the next year crying because it was time to exit the bouncy-house; in kindergarten jumping up on stage to be taught an Irish dance; on a rainy day in second grade eating spuds beneath an umbrella; growing more independent and aloof as double-digits approached, ducking from booth to booth to keep one arm’s length away.  Now, she comes back as we compare earring preferences and look at flowing skirts and dresses we could both wear.  She drifts away, circles back, and asks when it’s time to share our annual giant spud.  Here, in this cadence, I find my bliss.

This Tree of Life has roots, and leaves, and branches that reach toward the sky.  

Arms outstretched, we touch abundance.

Welcoming small points of light.

  

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Guiding Grace

I generally consider myself to be a relatively intact person of faith: in God, in people, in the slow-yet-progressing movement of humanity’s arc toward Justice.  This past week, I felt a lot of practical, daily acts of faith being put to the test.  First, I listened to my inner voice and set off to visit the seminary where I have felt deeply drawn.  This required me to hone my faith in Siri to direct me through West Coast cities in which I had pitifully little experience behind the wheel.  Within an hour after arrival, I white-knuckled the San Francisco Bay Bridge at an hour that was well past midnight in the time-zone from which I had originated, motorcycles zooming by my economy rental as I tried to hold back my desire to be awestruck by the surroundings.  I found my way in the dark to a building where I had never been in hope of it being the right one with an envelope with my name in the front lobby.  Once arrived, I navigated for several days by car and on foot through streets that bore no familiarity for me beyond brief mentions in books, while my handheld assistant guided my way.  I entrusted Siri with my final destination before my departure, too, bravely requesting her electronic assistance in guiding me from the now familiar Seminary grounds in Berkeley to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  It was only as I crossed Embarcadero Street that I had a flash of recall from a prior cab ride: Grace Cathedral is located on the upper slope of Nob Hill.  

My economy rental and I were not quite prepared for this.

I breathed deeply as I turned onto California Street and looked at the near ninety degree angle rising up in front of me.  Siri instructed me to “proceed onto California Street for three quarters of a mile.”  She sounded calm and matter-of-fact, because there are no trolley cars and sudden mid-hill stop lights in Siri’s electronic existance.  I was not so calm, but my little car was in motion and I was committed to forward movement.  I am pleased to note that my mini-mobile and I made it successfully to the top, without incidents more substantial than honking horns and annoyed local drivers.  I have never, ever been so grateful to see a parking garage and hear, “You have reached your destination.”

This back-drop driving drama meant that it was an hour or so before I could fully settle into this sacred space in a fully-present kind of way.  I knew I had plenty of time before my late night flight, and I was pleased to find that this day of my visit serendipitously held an evening candlelight labyrinth walk.  My inner guide began to relax, and soon I settled in to a contemplative afternoon space of seeing, listening, reading, praying, and stillness.

Several hours after I arrived, there were only a few of us remaining in the space; a cathedral employee moving chairs into a circle around the labyrinth, a purple-robed leader of just-concluded evening prayer gathering up prayer books, two women slowly unboxing votive candles.  I was the only lingering after-hours visitor.  Since no one asked me to leave, I stayed.  A musician, carefully surveying the position of the Grand Piano, asked me if prayer was over.  I indicated it was.  He looked around, then smiled, and his hands reached out to the Steinway as if embracing an old friend.  Music slipped from his fingers and climbed the vaulting arches, resonant throughout the space.  The vibrancy of stained glass intensified, and the space came to life from the stillness of the day.  I gasped, filled with unanticipated awe.  The melody continued to unfold, rising in the emotive intensity of musical passion, then slipping into the subtle pianissimo of prayer.  I looked over to the musician, placing my hand over my heart and acknowledging his offering with gratitude for having been allowed to be present for its ascent.  I found a chair off to the side to silently wait while the set up was complete.

Candles filled the space; a second cloth labyrinth was unfurled.  Other musicians assembled with stringed sitars, wooden flutes, drums.  Two cathedral priests mingled, one filled with contagious enthusiasm and the other with loving quiet.  People began to file in, a humbling wealth of human diversity from business suits, to flowing robes, to threadbare clothes of the street.  Without formalities, music began and walking journeys commenced.  I watched, taking in the sight and sound and cadence of this scene.  After several minutes, I felt an inner prompt to begin to make my way to the labyrinth.  Just as I slipped off my shoes, a woman entered with her friend, and her guide dog.  It was clear that she was completely blind.  As I waited for a nod to begin my journey (insuring enough space for each traveller), I watched the woman calmly speak to her dog, who settled in picturesquely beside the statue of St. Francis.  She placed her hands on her friend’s shoulders, and the two moved behind me as I set my intention and took my first step.

Walking a labyrinth with a group is beautiful and humbling.  Some people are immersed in a deeply personal journey.  Others meet my gaze when I am passing.  I am cognizant of both, and for me this type of walk is a ministry in community.  I pray for those I pass.  I bow in gratitude to those who cross my path.  I receive unspeakably more with each act of giving.  On this walk, though, my spirit soared through the vaulted archways that seemed open to all creation, pouring out love and hope and peace.  As my mind emptied of descriptive words, my journey intersected with the women who had been behind me earlier.  I stepped aside and bowed to honor their path.  I will never, ever forget the expressions of both: perfect and complete trust.  

Guiding Grace.

Later that night, my tiny car glided effortlessly back down a hill which appeared bottomless, guided by Siri’s instructions to the airport.  I had learned to trust my driving and her navigating.  More importantly, my trust was renewed and restored for the larger journey of life, unfolding with divine grace step by step.  I caught a glimpse of that guiding grace in moments of stillness, music, prayer, and community.  I was gifted to have looked with awe into the face of perfect trust, of guiding grace.

Gratitude abounds in each small point of light.  





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Rebuilding

When I decided that Sundays in Lent were the only days I would write here on my personal blog, I thought I was giving myself a break.  I’m still writing every day, but during Lent this year, I’m writing daily on the faith formation blog for my church.  That’s new.  This blog…small points of light…started in Lent, and it has been my safe space for several years of Lenten reflections, during what has been a particularly growth-filled time of my spiritual journey.  I’m still keeping the discipline of daily writing, but I am becoming aware that the experience is different when I’m doing it intentionally for others.  It’s still “me” of course, but it’s different to write as a member of an existing community instead of an individual. So, we’re three weeks in and I have a confession: moving away from this particular writing space is harder than I realized.  I realize this personal blog space is a home that I have built, and I find myself joyfully returning here each week.

That realization led me to thoughtfully consider my Lenten weekly theme Rebuild in a deeply personal way.  You see, “rebuilding” is not “building.”  When we are building, we are starting something brand new.  We have the safety-net of knowing that we are starting fresh, and we have no where to go but up.  Progress is guaranteed, at least at the start.  I started this blog on a whim, with no expectations and no followers.  It’s grown into something I treasure. When we are re-building, it’s a different story entirely.  We have already done the building once, but something went awry.  Maybe progress halted, unexpectedly.  Perhaps our building wasn’t as structurally sound as we hoped.  Maybe it was an outside force and fury that knocked us down.  Maybe what we built didn’t end up being big enough, or strong enough, or didn’t meet the need we thought it would.  Rebuilding means that we have gone through that painful process of realizing failure, loss, inadequacy.  It means we have been broken down, stripped of our facade, and disappointed.  We are left with the pieces, and with the lessons.  But, in spite of all that, all hope is not lost.  We can step humbly into grace, and rebuild.

Rebuilding is a pretty significant metaphor for me right now.

I’m travelling this week to visit a Seminary where I hope to be investing a significant amount of my time, energy, and intention over the next several years.  It would be tempting…very tempting…to wrap all that is happening in my life neatly into a package of “new” and suspend disbelief so I could talk about all these emerging opportunities as something brand new in my life, being freshly built from square one.  But that wouldn’t be the whole story.  I’m not building.  I’m rebuilding.

My first attempt at building this particular vocational path didn’t really get much past the foundation.  I spent hours on end sitting amid stacks of theology books, Old Testament and New Testament scholars expounding on topics that were compelling, sometimes infuriating, and always drawing me in deeper.  I managed to find the writers on the “fringe” of that time…the progressive theologians, the feminists, the liberation theology emerging from historic oppression.  I wanted so much to learn, but I was in the wrong zone and I didn’t meet the qualifications.  I’m going to chalk that building failure up to a metaphor of having dug a deep foundation and then being denied a building permit.  I could have fought it, but I didn’t.  I was defeated, and I was done.  I walked away and figured out how to occupy a different structure in another location which could house my intellectual and vocational calling.  It’s been a wonderful place to reside, truly.  But that deeply dug foundation has kept calling to me.

The second attempt was technically more like “squatting” than building.  The fact is, I have logged a lot of hours staying on the grounds of Seminary.  In my case, this was because my former spouse’s mother was following a mid-life call to ordained ministry.  I was wrapped into their family system all the while we were dating, and throughout our engagement and early marriage.  I spent a lot of time as a guest-in-residence.  I spent numerous weekends in their family apartment at seminary, pitched in as musician at the small rural churches where she served, offered advice and support during clinical pastoral education, hung out with seminarians and clergy, talking through the organizational, political, and theological issues of “doing church.”  Mind you, all this was happening while I was flatly and vehemently not doing church myself.  I was a squatter.  I was “spiritual but not religious” and a quickly emerging professional social worker who had a definitive line drawn between professional values and personal faith.  I had no interest in formally building…it was definitely squatter’s rights that landed me a place hanging out with the people I did, having the conversations I did, and eventually connecting the dots between how clergy-minded people moved through the world in ways shockingly similar to my own.  Every time I got close to the reality of that later part, I would enact the other side of my squatter’s rights and get out, fleeing back to open-air spaces where I was free to think and believe outside the structures that felt so oppressive to me.

But, life keeps moving forward.  A foundation once dug continued to call to me and left me with unanswered questions.  My time squatting reminded me that the choice to belong was mine to take, or to leave.  My path eventually brought me back to a new faith community, to seeing the possibility of structures that made my soul sing instead of oppressing my spirit.  I had to ask myself a very difficult question: was I now being limited by my own structure, as lovely as it was?  And it became clear that the answer was Yes.  And my answer to the call to rebuild in grace was also Yes.

So, this week, I am venturing back into the construction zone.  I am about to embark into true, humble, authentic rebuilding.  I have gathered together the pieces I had once cast aside, and I have visited the foundation that I had once dug and have even expanded on it to accommodate new growth.  I have added a whole array of building materials brought along with me from what has been a rich and rewarding twenty-something years as a social work practitioner and academic.  I have found the zone where I know I should be building, and I am surrounded with those who want to support my journey. I even have a building permit this time, thanks be to God.  I am so deeply committed to rebuilding from a foundation of strength, from having stripped things down and examined the materials, the instructions, and the inspiration for something truly magnificent to emerge. But, I also carry my lessons.  I am rebuilding.

But, there is one more incredibly important thing.  This work, this construction…I know this time that it is both mine…and not mine.  This re-building is a greater vision, one in which I’ve been able to see coming together from the miracles of daily ordinary, from the small points of light that still glimmered on my path.  Before I lift a hand to pick up the first brick…or book…I know unquestionably that this re-building belongs to God.  It will take shape from all of these materials, and lessons, and supporters.  Rebuilding is a lesson in trust.

I also know that whatever emerges will be filled with places for the small points of light to shine brightly through.

And I will be joyfully writing about them here.

light path

 

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Follow Where I Lead

I am struggling more than I thought I would be with the weekly theme of “Follow” that is shaping my virtual faith formation blog posts this week.  I have been sitting for quite a while with the word, considering times that I have followed my heart, my instincts, my calling, my sense of justice and vocation in the world.  I have learned, through time and circumstance, to be a faithful follower of these inner voices of wisdom.

I have also had opportunities to lead.  I started out my career path as a somewhat reluctant leader, but found the courage to step up.  I am not the loudest, the most charismatic, and definately have never been the most popular.  But, I do strive to be fair, balanced, and authentically committed to the ideals of the program, organization, or group that I am leading.  When I find myself in positions of leadership, I realize I have followed inner wisdom to get there.  I stick to that inner wisdom as a leader, following an ideal which is greater than I am.

I write this post tonight, still holding the word “follow” without a story clearly emerging as it usually does. Instead, the images that drift into my consciousness are about this blending.  The longer I sit with this word, I realize that it is nearly impossible to separate leading and following.  

Maybe that explains my love of the moon; rising, waxing, waning so elegantly night after night and yet following in a satellite orbit to the earth.  The celestial brilliance of the moon merely reflects the light of the sun.  To live like the moon requires a divine dance of leading and following.

Maybe it explains my draw to the labyrinth: the leadership of claiming each step, and the vulnerable following of a path that isn’t about upward mobility but instead about the unfolding journey that traces back on itself again and again.

Perhaps it explains my own path which has been, and continues to be, anything but linear.  I am doubling back again now, taking up another path as learner even while leading as a scholar on a parallel portion of the journey. I cannot imagine it being any other way.

The journey of life asks us to be leaders and followers; to be courageous and vulnerable; to embrace inner wisdom and outer authority.  

Tonight, I am content to live in this paradox: I will follow where I lead.



(Thanks to my friend Richard for sharing this photo, which so perfectly sums up my daily mission!)

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Waiting with Mrs. Gibbs

This week, I am reflecting on the word, “wait” as a part of the online faith formation for St. Thomas. As I sit with this word, my mind drifts back to one particular time and place.

I was a sophomore in college that year, starting to build my sense of self and moving through the world with intention. In retrospect, a lot was happening in my life that was preparing me to propel into my next chapters. At the time of the audition, though, I was just a college sophomore hoping to be in a play.

The play I auditioned for was Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I had been in plays and musicals in high school, but this time it felt different. I read lines in soliloquy and was asked to read dialogue with several others. It was several days between auditions and the posting of parts. I honestly didn’t expect a role after my first audition. But there I was, on the character list: Mrs. Gibbs.

What I didn’t realize at that time was that performing Our Town in the style Thornton Wilder intended involved much more than learning lines. It involved a slow and steady transformation into Mrs. Gibbs. When the play opens, I am cooking dinner in my kitchen. There are no props in Our Town, so I had to practice this scene creating that kitchen in my mind with such certainty and accuracy that the audience could smell the eggs I was frying. In fact, living into Mrs. Gibbs took time and energy beyond anything I could have imagined. Without props, actions and dialogue are the only way to allow the character to emerge into life.

With time, and much rehearsing, I was able to deeply know Mrs. Gibbs. I knew what she would do, how she would hold her head, what she hoped and what she feared. I learned to love her, to embrace her strengths and flaws. Through the first two acts, we learned to live and move as one.

Then, we came to Act Three.

In Act III, the deceased residents of Grover’s Corners sit in simple folding chairs, detached and passively watching the scene of Emily’s funeral unfold. Mrs. Gibbs is one of the deceased. The first time I played out this scene, I remember feeling this enormous, wet blanket of emotion overwhelming me. Like the characters play out in the script, there is so much attachment to life that it can be palpably felt. Eventually, though, while I waited there with Mrs. Gibbs, the heavy attachment lifted. I began to feel free and light. Not sad. Not morose. Simply present, adrift in memory and lives actively lived.

The last night of our performance, I felt myself suddenly emotional. I realized that I had been waiting with Mrs. Gibbs in her life and in her death. I had lived into her character, and in doing so, I had learned something new about myself. In my waiting, I had touched a piece of something…something more real than living, something untouched by dying.

As the play closes, the Stage Manager speaks the words that I had come to know, to embrace, to embody. I had waited with Mrs. Gibbs, and I was granted a glimpse of the eternal:

We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.

That lesson was worth every moment of the wait. “There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”

Thank you, Mrs. Gibbs, for teaching me. For patiently waiting with me. For giving me a glimpse of the eternal that I cannot forget.

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New Light

Here in Virginia, snow is a rare treat, or at least, a treat for me. I grew up in Western New York with snow as the standard issue landscape for at least five months of the year. Now that I have moved south, snow is infrequent and short-lived. This week, though, it is cold enough that the winter storm brought 8 inches of powdery whiteness to our city, and it looks like it’s going to be here to stay for a while.

I took advantage of the snow day to get caught up on some work, but decided this afternoon that a snow walk was a necessity. I was so glad I made that decision. The snow was beautiful in the late afternoon sunlight, and I realized that I had forgotten just how much ordinary sights can change with the simple beauty of snow. My daughter decided to emerge from her Netflix hibernation and join me.

I paused to take this photo in the most mundane of locations: behind an oil change shop at the end of my street. I have walked by the same location a hundred times, maybe a thousand. But today, it was vibrant. Every ray of the sun found its way through the slats of the fence, brightening a stream of sparking light on untouched snow.

Same place, new light.

I kept that thought in my mind as I walked. I noticed the various greens of trees, the height of what were once tiny pines planted on Arbor Day that now shot up beyond my ability to see the top branches. I noticed the slate gray of my morning dove perched on a power line. She stood out against the snowy white background and let out a characteristic coo as I passed. The branches of old trees touched each other, creating a cathedral canopy over the street. I also noticed that my daughter’s snowy footsteps steps were virtually indistinguishable from my own in size, and stride.

These are the makings of an ordinary day, made extraordinary. As I was thinking this, my daughter asked me a question I had been hoping to hear from her for a long time:

Mom, what happened that made you decide you wanted to take this ‘journey’ that you keep talking about, you know, the whole “being a priest” thing?

I have been answering variations on that question for officials in the Church and in my own professional circles for months. But, this was the question I most wanted, from the person I most wanted it from, in her own honest pre-teen words.

As much as I craved the question, I hadn’t planned out what my answer to her would be.

The sunlight glistened on the snow, and I spoke the only thing I could: truth. “Do you remember that really terrible tragedy, two Decembers ago, when there was a school shooting?”

She nodded.

“When that happened, of course I felt incredibly sad, just like everyone else. But, I felt something different, too. I didn’t feel like a social worker. I didn’t feel like a teacher, or a professor, or a writer. I felt like a priest. I knew right then that was how I was meant to help people who were hurting. And, I have felt that way ever since.”

It occurred to me in that moment that it really was that simple. All the complexity, and questions, and discernment and formation: all valuable, all important. But I remember that moment when the light changed and I saw myself in it. I remembered that moment vividly, even as I stood there on our snowy street.

I saw myself in new light.

New light changes us. It seeks out the cracks of our brokenness and illuminates hidden places. New light permeates us, and transforms us. Once we are transformed, we have only one choice: we learn to live into that most sacred space of being who we know ourselves to be.

We kept walking; either the answer was enough, or enough for now. The journey is learning to live in the new light of now.

I hold that thought with me as I move into the sacred space of this season we call Lent.

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During Lent, I will be posting primarily on the virtual faith formation blog that I write for my faith community: Sacred Space at St. Thomas. Please feel free to follow that blog on WordPress or by email if you would like to receive daily Lenten reflections and practices. Each Sunday in Lent, I will write an entry here on my personal blog, small points of light, reflecting on the weekly theme.

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Sotto Voce

One of life’s most important lessons

is learning when to quiet your mind

and when to raise your voice.

But, there comes a time, like this one

when you realize that the real lesson

is when to quiet your own voice

and raise your mind’s awareness

so that the still, small voice

burning in your soul

can speak with clear intention

in each and every word.

-SKP

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I See the Moon

I may have written more blog posts about the moon than another other single subject. For whatever reason, the luminous moon is the aspect of nature that most enthralls me. I realize that there is a science to when, where, and how the moon presents in the night sky, but that scientific knowledge takes nothing away from my surprise and delight of the latest moon-siting.

The past few days have been absolutely breath-taking.

I have seen the moon, cresting to her fullness and brilliant in the clear night sky. That was on Wednesday, driving home from choir practice. I drove out of my way to have a bit more moonlight time before moving indoors and out of sight. I carried radiance in my thoughts and a song in my heart. Thursday night, I was up late working and missed the moonlight altogether; I slept only a few hours and rose early for a full day of work before me. As I sat Friday morning, sipping coffee in my breakfast room, I watched the full moon lowering into the horizon at the same time the sun was rising. The morning moon was brightly glowing amid my back-yard trees as I quieted my mind for morning prayer and prepared for the day ahead. I couldn’t even close my eyes…the moon filled and held my vision and allowed my mind to clear as it slowly dissipated into the daylight and below the horizon.

Last night, driving home from a fun evening celebrating a friend’s birthday, the moon was low on its rising horizon. This “moon illusion” of changing shape and size is always a delight to see, and added to the light-hearted nature of the evening as the stress of the work week was alleviated. Even then, I thought, what a wonderful weekend of moon watching it has been. I fully expected that would be the last of my moon watching for a while, given a cloudy forecast and a busy schedule.

Today itself has been filled with much scholarly reading and commentary, as well as preparation for a big day tomorrow. In the morning, I will be addressing my own congregation at our annual meeting in my transition from Jr. to Sr. Warden, and I have prepared a report and comments for that. In the afternoon, I will be giving some words at the installation of a colleague and mentee at his new church congregation. I had just finished word-smithing those remarks when I settled back at the close of this thought-intensive day. To my surprise, at that moment the moon was precisely in my line of vision through my living room window, bursting through wispy clouds and emerging between the slats of my blinds as if checking in on me. I smiled like I had just seen my dear friend, and we spent those few minutes connecting until it was time for her to disappear into the clouds again. I settled into a restful repose and decided that a little more writing was being invited in this quiet, reflective space.

I see the moon. Perhaps I see the moon by choice, or by chance. I doubt it, though. I think it’s more likely that a part of me is hard-wired to the rhythms of the moon, and my subconscious awareness is cued in to take note of her presence. The moon reminds me that I am connected to nature. I am neither above nature, nor disconnected from it. We are in nature, we are of nature, and we are connected to all things. The natural world is all around, and coursing through our veins. We have a natural rhythm and ordered predictability. We also have serendipity, illusions, and we reflect the Light of a source beyond our own structure. We are mineral, and we are myth.

I see the moon.

On nights like this, I am convinced that the moon sees me, too…

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The Green Spire

My mind was in a hundred different places as I was making my way up the three flights of stairs to my office. My thoughts were swirling with to-do lists, my concentration thrown by the competing priorities among my many vocational pursuits. I am admittedly a slower stair climber than the young collegiates who often spring two-stairs at a time past me, politely nodding in my general direction. It makes me feel old…or at least, older. But, taking the stairs is part of my daily exercise routine, so I trudge up them no matter how I am feeling, nor what I am carrying with me physically or emotionally.

This particular Friday morning, I heard steps quickly approaching behind me. I moved intuitively toward the right and took a moment to unbutton my coat, pausing as if I had deliberately slowed down to do so. While performing this little routine, my attention shifted to the view from the full-length windows emerging at the top of the stairwell. The sky was dark and ominously cloudy, with piercing light cutting through across the city rooftops. It was a breathtaking scene. But, within this landscape my eyes were drawn to a suddenly illuminated green spire from a nearby church. It was the same church, St. James, from which I used to delight in daily office chimes.

The sound of footsteps stopped, and I heard the young man behind me audibly sigh. “Wow.” I turned to look at him, feeling the moment of serendipity which had caught us both. I was about to joke about the “stairwell with a view” when he added, “I don’t usually care much for city scapes, but I have never noticed that green spire before…it’s stunning.”

His words caught me off-guard, since I had assumed he was reacting to the dramatic skyline as a whole. But, instead, it was a simple, aged copper church spire that had caught both of our attention.

We stood there for a few seconds, in silence, surrounded by the scene unfolding in the full-length windows. What an unlikely place to take in a moment of awe. I have often wondered why the building designers had constructed the best view in this entire building inside a stairwell. In that moment, I felt like it could have all been an elaborate plan so that I could get that one glimpse of ordinary, illuminated brilliance on this particular day.

The clouds of my mind parted. I suddenly knew something real, something deep in my soul that was beyond a word, any words. It was the kind of knowing that requires time to sink in before it can fully form as conscious thought. But, unmistakably, it was there.

Outside, the clouds drifted to a more ordinary scene and we nodded to each other and went our respective ways. Walking into my office, I immediately noticed the words of a Mary Oliver poem, “Praying” which I have written on my white board:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

These are days where I prepare, and wait, and appreciate times to quiet my mind. I will treasure all the moments I can to step inside the sacred space of solitude, to listen to the message unfolding.

The green spire, my doorway.

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What’s in a name?

For the past two days, I’ve been a lay delegate to the 220th Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.  I’ve sat and walked, listened and spoke, wrangled and voted, reconnected with friends and made new connections.  All in all, it’s been a good experience with plentiful food for thought which I will dispense to my congregational peers later this morning.  While there is a bigger picture to my Council experience this year, there is also a small point of light that found me in the midst of the proceedings.  As I reflect on this small point of light, I realize that the lesson I have learned over the past 48 hours is to have observed the power of change by observing how much is in a name.

You see, Virginia is one of the few remaining “Annual Councils” of the Episcopal Church.  In this 220th session, we followed up on last year’s resolution to have studied the name of our Council and examine its historical legacy.  At this year’s Council, we voted (overwhelmingly, but not unanimously) to change the name of our annual meeting to “Annual Convention.”  This resolution will need to be revisited next year in order for the full text of language change to take effect.  Change is incremental.  But it is also filled with opportunity.

You may be thinking, “who cares.”  Trust me, there were ample numbers of people who I heard express that sentiment, either within my earshot or to me directly.  Repeatedly, they would say: what’s in a name, after all?

You can read the report of the task force formed to study the historic origins of the naming of Virginia’s annual meeting if you would like to take in the nature of the debate and the role of history and politics as it has played out in a founding colony, that became one of the original independent states, and later seceded to be the capital of the confederacy.   Virginia now has a reputation as a “purple” state, where elections on the local, state and national scene are filled with changes along political party lines.  Virginia has it all within our citizens, and it’s quite easy to faction along party lines.  Even the structure of our “commonwealth” leaves very little room for collective, unified voice and action.

So, I think it’s actually rather miraculous that a group of people across the political continuum (even within one religious institution) voted with enough strength to change the name of an annual meeting.  The small point of light I observed wasn’t in the politics, though.  It was in shared consciousness.

Some of what was heard during debate on the floor, as well as in side-bar conversations in the hallway, was that history was unclear about the direct relationship between the naming of the meeting and the establishment of the Confederate States of America.  I’m a scholar, so I realize there is truth in that assertion.  But, I also found opportunities to remind people that history tends to be written by those in power; Virginia’s oral history traditions of a formerly enslaved people often do not carry the same weight as the written and published history of its institutions.  Even what we presume is “fact” is filled with perception.  The history that we are writing in our proposed actions at this meeting has to do with reconciliation: the coming together of disparate groups with historical power differentials to re-establish relationship.  The new relationship must have opportunities to give voice to historical hurt, to promote healing, and to move together in a way that fosters growth.  Like any relationship of our lives, we cannot do that if the relationship carries hurtful baggage.  Even if we have been working side by side, there is power in a name that divides, rather than unites us. To reconcile, we have to recognize history while embracing a common present which we can all claim.  We have to recognize that differing perceptions comprise a common history.  Making a deliberate change, even a seemingly small one, can bring all of us into a common space where we can hear, and be heard, and move forward together in a spirit of mutual respect.

Reconciliation opens the door to grace and growth.  It begins with single acts that off-set the status quo.  Re-naming is not re-writing.  It is an act of reconciliation.  And that is the power of a word.

I didn’t need to speak yesterday, as the points articulated in this debate were expressed eloquently by others.  On the note papers scattered at my table were two quotes I had brought with me, in case I felt compelled to make a point.  One, from John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice:  “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”  I realize that in my life, justice is an action step.  I have the mental capacity and fortitude to hear debates of theory and philosophy that contribute to systems of thought.  But, what matters to me is what happens in the living out of those theories for practical reality.  Justice requires us to embrace change, not because change reflects an ultimate truth.  But, simply, because it is our actions that can silence, repress, or harm others. Our actions can contribute to a perception of truth that is unjust.  Sometimes justice is holding the door open for both the more powerful and the less powerful voices to step through, together.

That’s what’s in a name.

I also carried my favorite quote, of course, from Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:  “Liberation is a praxis.”  Friere reminds us…reminds me…that what changes the world is not talk about changing the world.  It’s actual praxis…practicing, implementing, doing, revisiting, re-evaluating, continuing to act.  Change happens incrementally most of the time, although sometimes even quickly and with a flourish.  However change happens, it happens because we engage it.  Friere’s writings remind us that engaging change must occur not just with those who have the power, but also with those who do not.

I witnessed a moment yesterday, an exchange between two people.  One had historic power and one did not.  The person without historic power had stood to tell her story in support of the motion to change the name of the annual meeting, and revealed in her narrative the perceived power of the status quo to dis-empower her and others from full participation.  The person who had power…planning to vote to keep the name as it was…said, “You changed my mind. You spoke, I heard, and it changed me.” I thought to myself: perceptions have shifted.  Instead of debating, we are choosing to walk together through a different door.

What’s in a name?  The power to change.  In the single moment I witnessed, at least three people were changed: the two speaking, and the observer.  Liberation became praxis.

Maybe each of them will share their change with others.  I will write this blog, and hopefully people will read it and the power of reconciliation will continue to spread.  Each of us can make a choice for change.  There is power in change.  There is power in a name.  Changing a name: this is not a small action.  It’s a moment filled with the capacity for change and reconciliation.

Reconciliation: that is in a name.

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