Unity in Community

If there is one theme that has marked these past several weeks of my life, it is community.  I’ve been driving around Virginia with my project team, spending face-to-face time with our community partners in research.  I’ve spoken at our University’s Community Engagement Institute about “Cultivating Community Partnerships” and I’ve been living into my own words with both existing and new projects.  I’m meeting new community in my own life through “virtual introductions” of my seminary cohort members who will meet each other personally at our first residency together in a few weeks.  In these busy weeks, I’ve been asked to step into several community projects that challenge me in the best of ways to embody social justice, to advocate for those whose voices are often unheard, and to be truly present with people across lines of power and privilege with the goal of getting to our deep, common goal: unity in community.

The joy of community is the sense of belonging that emerges among people who come together for a common purpose: to address a social problem, to offer support, to worship, to learn.  Within it, we find other commonalities we never knew before.  But, it’s the serendipity of community that gives us moments where we realize we are so much greater than the sum of our individual identities.  We meet someone who has walked a familiar path, who comes from the same part of the country, who shares an interest unrelated to our reason for coming together but that binds us even closer.  We have a sense that we have come together not only for our intended purpose, but that we are part of something greater.  I find great wisdom and renewed faith in those serendipitous moments of connection.

Yesterday, I had the great privilege of leading the remembrance ceremony for a community group close to my heart, our local chapter of the MISS Foundation.  I shared some words about community and we joined together in a tangible display of what community means, even in the midst of grief and loss.  I wanted to share these words and photos with my wider community as well this Sunday morning, dedicated to all the beautiful communities who come together in love and remembrance, and to all the moments of beautiful community in which we are given the gifts of grace, growth, and belonging.

May you find yourself surrounded by your own beautiful community today.

Unity in Community

Thank you for inviting me on this Saturday to be with you, in this midst of this beautiful community.

Some of you may be surprised that I chose those words to open this event: beautiful community.  I know that you are all here because of grief that has shaken you and your family to your core.  I can only imagine the tears that you have shed, the nights that are too quiet and the days that are too long.  I have shed those tears, and paced down the pathways of my own losses.  One of things that changed the whole course of my own grieving was when a beautiful community opened it’s arms to enfold me, and to welcome me into a space where I was understood and accepted exactly as I was.  No matter what has happened on your own journey, no matter what has brought you into this place of remembering: today you are beautiful community because of your togetherness, and I am grateful to be in your midst.

When I was invited to join you today, I started thinking about community.  Communities bring together the diverse around something shared.  Communities come together when there is something important, meaningful, beloved.  Communities tie us together in belonging and mutual understanding.  Communities remind us that even when we feel lonely, we are never alone.  We are always greater together, tying together the strands of our memories to create a collective rainbow of beautiful memories.

I began thinking about the beautiful, colorful pieces of memory that I still keep and treasure in my own heart.  I have the delicate, green ribbon like the one that once trimmed a tiny hat.  I have a pink polka dotted ribbon that I know was a favorite of a young ballerina whose stories I have heard told by her parents over and over again.  I have a yellow and brown ribbon that reminds me of their son’s stuffed giraffe that was…and still is…in every holiday card sent since his death.  I have a sparkling gold ribbon that tells a story of precious lives that will be cherished in hopes and memories.  I have a brightly colored strand of “magic wands” reminding me of a dear friend who supported so many grieving people by allowing herself…and them…to laugh until they cried even while they mourned.  I have the delicate, gossamer white that reminds me of the glistening candles and white flowers at the Angel of Hope.  All of these…and so very many more…are the ties of beloved community for me that connect me not just to the memories I cherish myself, but to so many other precious lives and treasured memories of those whom I have companioned through their grief, and those who have companioned me.

Today, we gather to remember at the beginning of this day together, the Kindness Walk of those who companion each other.  Each one of you came here with special people in your minds and in your heart.  We invite you to take one of these bags of ribbon…maybe a color or a pattern will catch your eye and remind you of the one you remember.

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Today, each of us walks with a memory.  Be sure to take one of your ribbons and tie it onto your own bracelet first in honor of this most precious memory.

But let’s also remember something important:  we are not walking alone.  We are walking together.  This is a walk of kindness, and we are tied together as beautiful community.  So, as you walk, share your beautiful ribbons and memories with each other.  Tell a story, share a memory or a hope or a wish.  When you do, add a ribbon of another person’s memory onto your own.  With each ribbon…each memory…we tie ourselves into beautiful community and celebrate those for whom we walk.

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Before I close and step with you into a community tied together in loving memory, I want to close with some time for quiet reflection, followed by a few words that speak to the spirit we are creating together in our sharing, our walking, and our remembering today.  It is my honor to open this day, and to walk beside you in this beautiful community of memory and kindness.

In a moment of silence, we gather our memories and hold them together.

It is hard to speak of oneness when our world is not complete, when those who once brought wholeness to our lives have gone, and only memory can fill the emptiness their passing leaves behind.

But memory can tell us only what we were, in company with those we loved;it cannot help us find what each of us, alone, must now become.

Yet no person is really alone; those who live no more echo still within our thoughts and words, and who they are has become woven into what we are.

In this beautiful community, we affirm the worth of each one whose life, now ended, brought us closer to the Source of Life, in whose union no person is alone and every life finds purpose.

–adapted from On Wings of Awe (Jewish Prayer)

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shattered

My daughter has grown fond of saying that the only thing she and I have in common is the roundness of our faces.  While some people seem to think we have a “mini-me” thing going on, she has always taken pride in her individuality and her uniqueness.  Truthfully, while we do have similarities, I’m increasingly aware of our many differences.  Parenting is a constant test, a struggle of how much to try to shape our children’s lives and how much to let go and allow them to move into the world in ways that honor their own distinct strengths, challenges, and idiosyncrasies.  Like many parents, I pray for strength in the daily journey through adolescence.

This week, we have been battling over two particular issues: the management of time, and the accumulation of stuff.  Time management is an area where I think I have some particular strengths: I am planful, manage multiple projects, and have a good sense of when and how to work ahead to accomplish tasks on time and without last minute chaos. My daughter’s muse only springs to life at the 11th hour…literally.  No matter how much I strain and struggle to help create a supportive, early-evening homework routine…the work itself doesn’t really get started until 11:00 p.m.  It creates great anxiety for me, and yet not for her.  I worry nightly it won’t get done.  Every morning, she shows me that it’s complete.

The accumulation of stuff is another tenuous issue between us.  Don’t get me wrong, I like all my collectible vintage finds, and I am sentimental about items gifted to me.  But in the end, for me, it really is just “stuff.”  People, relationships, deep connection: these are my life investments where I place value.  Objects are not of the same value to me, and I could be very happy living in a space where half (or more) of the stuff we have accumulated vanished into thin air.  Stuff neatly displayed I appreciate; stuff laying around on floors or any flat surface tends to get under my skin.  Earlier this week, I announced at family dinner that I was going to do a deep clean of the public spaces of the house over the weekend and asked that any surface-lying stuff be removed to bedrooms or other spaces where I could shut my eyes when I walk past and try not to imagine what lies beneath the piles.

My pronouncement that it was spring cleaning time brought much emotion, of the angst-filled adolescent variety.  At one point, I declared further conversation off limits.  This was simply going to happen, and there was no point of protest.  Just move your stuff.  That particular evening, night before last, I was frustrated.  That particular evening, practically everyone I knew seemed to be frustrated or angry with me, too.  Texts, emails, and conversations in all directions conveyed a tone of mean-spiritedness that drove me to throw up my hands and go to bed at a reasonable hour and just let everything smolder on its own so I could (hopefully) approach it with a clear head in the morning.

When I awoke, I did have a clearer head.  I realized I had a retreat day planned, and had made an earlier promise to take my daughter to the opening night showing of the Avengers: Age of Ultron.  Let’s just say I was looking forward to one much more than the other.  But, given the wisdom of a good night’s sleep, I decided to deliberately live into the unfolding of the day and not take up any causes or sides in the debates that were swirling in my head and resonating through my life.

It was late by the time my day and evening came to a close.  My retreat had been a joyful time of quiet renewal, reflection, conversations both planned and serendipitous.  I met a friend for a drink after work, had pizza with my family, and survived three hours in one of the front rows of a packed full theatre.  I came home and plopped myself on the sofa.  My daughter did the same on the loveseat across from me.  She wanted a blanket, which earlier she had left wadded up on the floor.  I had picked it up, and draped it over the back of the couch where I was now sitting.  We did a little, “well, come get it, then.”  “No, you bring it to me!” and in my late night exasperation, I grabbed the blanket and tossed it over to her.  In the process, I knocked over a cut glass bowl serving as a votive candle holder that had been a gift to me several years ago from former co-workers in another state.  We both watched as it hit the floor, and shattered into pieces.

Our dialogue changed, “I’m so sorry, Mom…I should have walked over to get the blanket.”  “No, it’s my fault, I shouldn’t have tried to throw it.”  I reassured her it was OK, “It’s just stuff” and we just needed to clean it up without stepping on any glass.  She insisted, “No, we need to get it fixed…or maybe we can find one just like it.”  I reminded her it was from 15 years ago in an entirely different state, time, and place.  It was OK.  I liked it, but it was OK.  I picked up every piece, nicked myself twice, and vaccuumed up the tiny fragments that seemed to be everywhere.  I left the vacuum out, since tomorrow was cleaning day.  I put the shattered pieces in the garbage and washed my hands.  She was still on the internet trying to find a replacement when I headed upstairs.

“I’m going to bed,” I said.  “Get some rest, don’t worry about it, really.  It’s OK, really.”  We said I love you’s and exchanged a good-night hug.  I went to bed, exhausted.

I woke up this morning later than usual.  My spouse was up already, and my daughter’s room door was shut so I figured she went to bed shortly after me.  I walked downstairs and heard my spouse say, “What were you both doing last night?  Did you start cleaning early?”  I started to explain about the glass and walked over to the table to describe the event.

And there it was.

When I tell you that this cut glass votive was shattered, I am serious.  I picked up no fewer than 50 pieces of various size and shards  There it was, meticulously and artfully pieced back together.  Every piece was neatly glued together, the whole round cut-glass globe in perfect form and symmetry, with only a few spaces remaining where specific pieces could not be found.

I held it in my hands.  I was in awe.

The entire trash can had been exhumed, the vacuum had been emptied, and every  minute piece removed had been carefully reconstructed.  I was in awe.

I went to her room, speechless.  I finally found words.  “I could never, ever have done this. I can’t imagine who could. It was shattered, completely.  I threw it out because I truly could never have even imagined anyone fixing it…and somehow, you did.”  I looked at her and she smiled, “I know, Mom.  I can just see how things come back together again and I wanted to try for you.  I’m sorry there are still a few holes…”

I looked at this amazing reconstruction, something that I’ve only seen accomplished by my archaeology colleagues with that kind of precise detail…and not at 3 a.m. using superglue and salad tongs.  I saw her vision, strengths and gifts in every precious, retrieved piece of glass and every late-night minute of work.  All of this, driven by her inner desire to mend the broken.

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I write about brokenness so often as a metaphor for our spiritual lives.  God always finds me in my brokenness, shining through the places where I have been shattered and transforming them from ruin to beauty.  It took my tween’s gifts and strengths last night to show me the daily miraculous in how so many pieces can come together to recreate a masterpiece that is now so very much more than it ever was before.

This candle bowl is now a precious gift of my life, and one that I shall treasure always.  It isn’t just stuff.  It the cracks of our brokenness mended by gift of our strengths, held together with glue of love and radiating the vision of the divine.

I have seen my child with newly opened eyes; I have never received a greater gift.

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Never Too Much Ice

Even as I begin typing tonight, my fingers still feel the lingering frostiness of ice.  It’s ironic, actually.  My heart is melting.  It’s been a deeply heartfelt and fully lived day, and I have felt the urge to write for the first time in a couple weeks.  My muse apparently needed a nap, although I knew that she’d return at some point.   The day has been lovely, but long.  I just finished answering my email and setting up for tomorrow’s meetings.  I thought, “I should write…” but lacked a starting point at which to delve into this day that has been filled-to-overflowing.  As I sometimes do, I offered up a little prayer, opening my heart to whatever words may choose to find me.  Then, I flipped open my laptop and promptly knocked over my glass of ice water, sending cubes of ice scurrying all over my floor.

I sighed.  Then I stopped.  Then I laughed and cried together as words flooded my mind.  And now, I write them…

I cannot look at ice cubes without thinking about my brother-in-law Laird.  Every time I saw the man, there was ice.  Ice in his highball glass, ice in his water bottle, ice in his freezer, ice in vintage glass with sterling silver tongs, ice in big buckets on patios and decks, ice in my freezer that was never quite enough for the event we were having, ice that he carried in by the bag to each social gathering I ever hosted, ice in the summer and ice in the winter, ice for which I circled the nursing unit to find with him, sneaking into staff lounges because no one would answer the call bell.  Laird taught me the etiquette of ice:  at least a pound of ice for every person at a party.  No exceptions.  I still tell anyone who calls at the last minute before a social gathering, “Can you bring a bag of ice?”

I started my day setting up for food pantry in my church.  If ever there are moments when I question human kindness, serving at pantry melts it away.  Today, I was scooping ice from our ice machine into drink pitchers when one of our sweetest volunteers came in.  I gave her a hug as she asked permission to stay and work, even though she was supposed to be there picking up food.  There was not a question in my mind as I said, “Of course…you can do both!” and she smiled ear to ear.  She went on to ask me to pray for her; earlier this week her boyfriend had died in their home, lying beside her.  I listened to her story and realized how raw and fragile this person was standing before me, who was filled with both overwhelming strength and deep need.  “I need to be somewhere happy” she said, “and being here makes me happy.”  I completely understood.  She took the pitchers of ice out to the table, and began to serve those who were mingling around the coffee, lemonade, and pastries that we were setting out for the morning.

She came back to find me a few minutes later, in tears.  Her necklace had broken, the silver heart pendant bouncing across the floor as the thin chain snapped in half.  That was the necklace her boyfriend had given her on Valentine’s day, she explained.  She never wanted it to leave her, and there it was in pieces.  I told her not to worry; we could fix this particular brokenness.

For me, the entire full motion of the pantry stopped as I began searching for something to make a necklace.  I enlisted the help of my friend and parish administrator Ruth, going through lost and found buckets and trying to find a replacement.  No success.  Suddenly, it hit me like a flash, and I made my way upstairs to the prayer-bead making supplies that I’d stored there after the Fall parish retreat.  I scooped them up, ran back downstairs to the pantry and wrapped my arm around her to bring her back into the kitchen with me.  She selected the bead twine that she liked the best, and we made up a new necklace for her treasured heart.  Another hug, and she was off spreading her warmth of service to those waiting their turns for food.

Later in this day…after hours of supervision, teaching, learning, dialogues of faith and justice, parenting, partnering, cooking, planning, connecting…I walked into the basement of one of the local charities closest to my heart.  I was celebrating a new beginning of employment there for a colleague, and recognizing forty-something years of revolutionary service that Fan Free Clinic has provided in our community.  In the room with me were colleagues…current and retired…friends, former students, friends of friends, and so many of those who knew me in ways both personal and professional.  I was overwhelmed by my own sense of connection.

One of the leadership staff walked up to me; it had been years since we last saw each other.  It may have even been at one of the memorials for Laird, who had been his colleague before the visit of untimely death impacted all of our lives.  He hugged me, because shared memory forges friendships that transcend time and distance.  He looked me in the eyes and said, “You know, I still have Laird’s name tag on the bulletin board in my office.”  I smiled.  I hadn’t known until that very moment just how much I needed to hear that.  I told him how much I still miss Laird; he was not just family to me…but friend and colleague, too.  We sat together, sipping our well-iced beverages and solving the problems of social service delivery several times over at every family gathering while others talked on about whatever else was happening.  It was an unexpected gift; this moment of memory emerging even though I had gone to this gathering to celebrate someone and something else.

We were standing together near the staff kitchen.  He added, “You know, that ice maker over there is going to get replaced.  When it does, it will be Laird’s legacy.”  He went on to tell several humorous work anecdotes about the broken ice machine, and Laird’s fury that it never was able to get fixed the entire time he was working there.  I told several similar stories about my own falling short in the supply of ice for Laird’s taste and comfort.  At the same time, we both said in loving imitation of our beloved friend, family, and colleague: “You can never have too much ice.”

As I was driving home, I thought of the time that has passed for me here during my eight years in Virginia.  I thought about the amazing community that surrounds me in my work, my faith community, and in my entire life.  I have lived and loved and lost and grieved here.  It is such a gift to be known and loved, both in our shared gifts and our shared grief. There is no gift more human, and no gift more divine.

I look at my glass, filled newly to the brim with fresh ice.  I had enough lurking in my freezer for a second glass.  I think about the day, the melting of love against the coldness of life in so many ways.  What we think we have sometimes slips away more quickly than we would like.  What we receive from others replenishes us, and in our own giving we abundantly receive.

You can never have too much ice.

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All who wander

As fond as I am of a good plan, I rarely have one for Good Friday.  It is a day in which I am prone to wander and allow my soul to lead me through the day.  I have, in the past, stood people up and disappointed them because I am prone to wander on days like this.  I have been late to meals, late getting home, disappear when I am expected to appear.  I wander.  My heart breaks.  I stand at the doorway of life, and death, and meaning.  I am humble and grateful to be turned and tossed in the waves of emotion.  I have sketched, I have worshipped, I have prayed, I have walked, I have sat in stillness.  

I wander through this day.  But, I am not lost.

Today, I left the work I planned to do and followed the lead of my daughter who wanted to visit the botanical garden.  I walked quietly, reflecting on the magnitude of life and loss that bursts through the divine-human connection on this day.  I thought of Mary, of Jesus, of followers suddenly scattered both in fear of safety and in the sudden recognition of doubt.  Death does that.  It cuts into our presumptive world and knocks us into the unknown.  When I revisit the crucifixion narrative, it is that human reality which speaks.  Jesus the human is brutally killed.  Jesus the human forgives, even in his agony.  Jesus the human severs relationships, says good-bye, relinquishes ties to earthly life.  Jesus, the human, invites brokenness into his lived experience.  All of this: lavish, unconditional, undeserving gifts of love that Divine-Human Jesus freely bestows on us.  On me.  How can I possibly receive that.

Today, I wandered after my daughter, following her lead to walk through the gardens together, taking in spring’s emergence.  We stood on a pier, feeling the sway of movement beneath our feet.  The world around was still.  It approached three o’clock.  She was photographing turtles.  I was wandering in a world of spirit, lost in the devastingly beautiful heartbreak of divine love.  The wind shifted, the sky darkened.  I was seeing with my eyes and my soul.  I was wandering in the depths of divine relationship.

  

It was on a Good Friday that I wandered unexpectedly into my first encounters with mortality, rejection, and the shakiness of abandoning my path.  Those encounters were deeply human, life altering, and deeply mine.  Today, nearly two decades later, my own life is richer because of my learning from these encounters.  Today, the heartbreak of Good Friday was most palpable as I heard, echoing in the stillness:  For you.  For all of you.

It’s hard to fathom the kind of Love that wraps around wandering souls, that knows no bounds of time or space.  It’s hard to sink into the belief that we cannot wander from the depths and breadth of that Love. Even the most vile, hateful acts that we inflict on each other cannot extinguish that Love.  Love breaks us open, and creates abundance.  Love multiplies.  Love transforms.  Love resurrects.

All who wander are loved.  Beloved.  

Good Friday is a heartbreaking story of Love.

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Piano Lessons

I was the same age my own daughter is now when I decided to quit playing the clarinet.  I can’t honestly remember what my breaking point was, but I remember moving from being proudly First Clarinet, to quitting band altogether.  It had something to do with the fact that singing and clarinet were not compatible, and I wanted to play an instrument that would allow me to indulge in the pre-adolescent joy of singing love songs and heart-breaking ballads.  Thirty years later, quitting clarinet is intertwined in the soundtrack of my life with choppy quarter note piano chords pounding out “The Rose” so I could do my best to vocally emulate Bette Midler.

Earlier this week, my own daughter…who has just recently had stops and starts with both viola and guitar…asked me about my green-cased clarinet which still rests in our guest room.  She also asked when I learned to play piano.  I was able to connect the story of the two instruments for her.  It seems like sixth grade is a musical transition year in our family.  

After I quit clarinet at the end of my sixth grade year, I started playing piano.  I began seventh grade practicing on the poorly tuned upright piano that my mother had in the corner of her first grade classroom.  I could already read music, so I exchanged my clarinet practice hour for forays into “Chariots of Fire” and “The Entertainer” as well as some music from the piano classics book we had at home.  After proving my diligence for several weeks, my parents decided to send me for lessons.  Like most others who wanted to learn in our small town, piano lessons were at the home of Mrs. Willis, the Baptist minister’s wife, who lived in the white painted parsonage next to the church on Main Street.  I would walk to her house after school, bringing my $5 per lesson, and learn how to appropriately finger my way through music, play the scales and arpeggios that unleashed the realm of musical possibilities, and improvise on the four-part harmonies of church hymnals.  I also learned to keep my nails cut short, to exercise and stretch my fingers, to keep impeccable wrist posture, and never ever to play volleyball.  The latter was like gold: any “get out of gym free” excuse would keep me to a rigid schedule of daily piano practice.

What I remembered most vividly, though, was getting our own piano.  After remaining true to my hour daily of practice, my family saved and borrowed enough to buy a spinet piano.  It was beautiful: cherry wood, mellow resonance, keys that seemed to perfectly match the touch of my fingers.  I loved that instrument and, in fact, moved it several times to subsequent apartments and houses after I launched from the family home.  My piano and I only parted ways after I moved cross-country; at that point, its moving costs exceeded its worth even in spite of my attachments.  

At one point, I was a decent pianist.  I was always emotionally connected to my playing.  I was never, ever precise enough, though. So, I was never destined to be a great pianist.  That was fine by me.  I could play, and I could sing.  I made quick progress and could work hard and hear my improvements.  My left hand was never as coordinated as my right, but I could work through most intermediate pieces with a modest amount of practice.  More importantly, I could improvise on four part hymns.  As it turned out, in small town USA, that was a great way to make a few dollars every weekend on the country church circuit filling in for vacationing church musicians.  

I thought I would always play piano.  For a short time, I considered adding a music minor in college, but one semester of private lessons convinced me that academics were a stronger fit than the arts for my professional life.  Piano became a hobby when I stopped taking lessons during my sophomore year.  When I experienced a crisis of faith later that year, my hymn improvisation and tolerance of the church circuit went out along with it.  Sometimes, in the years that followed, I would find a piano and play just to soothe my own soul.  “Will I lose my dignity?” from Rent.  Debussy’s Reverie.  Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

I got rusty.  I had a child.  I bought a piano, another spinet, when she started school.  I tried (unsuccessfully) to give her lessons using the “John Thompson’s Book One” that I had kept all those years.  I quickly realized that my daughter has less tendency toward detail than I do.  I also realized that there is a reason I teach adults.  Family piano lessons were not a joy for either of us.   I acknowledged that Mrs. Willis must have had nerves of steel.  I made a few attempts to play, but realized I was practically a beginner again myself.  Discouraged, my piano was relegated to a great place to display photos, and to occasionally plunk out my vocal parts before choir rehearsal.

The other night, I woke up shortly after midnight.  I was sure I heard something, and thought perhaps the stereo was still on.  I opened the bedroom door, and slipped down the stairs.  My daughter was pajama-clad, playing the Harry Potter theme by ear on our piano.  I started to give a “waaaay past your bedtime” lecture.  But, I stopped myself.  I listened, and she beamed.  “I figured it out myself!” was her joyful realization.

Mine, too.

Pianos are meant to be played.  Music was meant to emerge from the soul.  My voice makes music more often than my fingers these days, but maybe I should let my hands return to the keys more often.  It doesn’t matter what the tune is.  Music has its own soul language.  

My daughter is leery of committing to lessons yet, but she taught me one:  Beautiful souls make beautiful music.

That is my piano lesson…and my small point of light…tonight.

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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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