Simple Gifts

The past few days have been both exhilarating and exhausting. I cannot fully recap in the brief words of a blog post what it means to bring a project like Turkeys of Thanks through to its conclusion, including the distribution of turkeys and “fixings” to 256 people on a sunny and brisk autumn afternoon with hugs, and shared cups of cocoa, and community. There has also been the wedding of a friend, and movie night with my daughter on the long awaiting opening night of Mockingjay, Part 1. That was all after a week of celebrating, and planning, and teaching, and simply doing the steady, hard work of following through on details to allow things happen seamlessly.

At one point this afternoon, I found myself sitting by myself in a space that is sacred to me. I intended to just sit and be still. But, I started weeping. Once the first tear formed, there was no holding back the floodgates of my emotion. My tears were exhilaration, and exhaustion. They were gratitude and supplication for those for and with whom I serve. Admittedly, there was a good mix of uncertainty and frustration in my tears, too. I have been given a vision of the work of my soul, and I have been given transformative opportunities to live into that vision. I have listened and said “Yes” even when I doubted I had the skills or the strength to carry it out. That risk has transformed me, and is continually shaping and forming me. But inevitably, there are roadblocks, too. At moments like some that I experienced today, it can feel like a wet blanket is squelching the fire in my soul. Maybe my tears were an unconscious attempt…or Divine gift…to redirect that water to keep the fire burning in my soul.

If so, it worked.

I have been reflective all day since that earlier outpouring. Tonight, the background music playing on the dining room stereo…which we refer to as our household soundtrack…hit on a version of Simple Gifts.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Yes, I thought. That’s really the essence of it all. I found the flame in my soul rekindling.

I have been thinking on these words tonight, pausing to fully take them in. I thought I might relate my own translated version of simple gifts…my prose might not fit the tune, but it is how these words of a simple, beautiful, antique song still resonate with me today:

It’s a gift to be ourselves, to be known and loved exactly as we are.
It’s a gift to use the skills and abilities with which we are blessed,
and a gift to be free to explore and uncover new strengths, too.

Unevitably, we will risk and fail. Unquestionably, we will fall whether from our own exhaustion, or when someone trips us, or when something unforeseen gets in our way.

But that doesn’t mean we stop. We keep going.

We are renewed when the One which is Greater than we are sets us back on our feet, and embraces us and wipes away the dust from the fall and reminds us that we were formed and called not just for one thing, but for many.

Others share our dance, reflect our love, and inspire us to journey more deeply, more fully, more communally. We do all that we do for them, too…not just for our own needs and desires and wants. Even the dance of our rising and falling inspires those around us, whether or not we can see.

We are resurrected, unashamed, being formed to our deepest soul perfection with each step that we take in this dance of our lives.

Our delight is that we are never alone.

And we are never done.

This is grace.

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Mega Savings

I come from a long line of frugal people.

Growing up, the grocery story circulars would come around mid-week, and we’d begin making a list by store chain of items listed for sale.  We often re-purposed an old envelope, so that we could have our coupons inside.  After listing out the the weekly sales items that were good buys, we’d sift through the container of coupons that we always cut out on Sunday afternoons from the newspaper inserts.  I’d look at the list and dig for coupons; my Mom would double check the expiration dates and mark a little “cp” next to each item that also had coupon savings.  Those were first priority for purchase in our budget, and largely influenced what would be served at our dinner table during the upcoming week.

Frugality takes time, and I shamefully admit that with the pace of my life it’s been a long time since I dutifully clipped coupons when making my own weekly grocery list.  I do, however, always keep a lookout for sales and always present my “bonus card” for savings.  Like a well-programmed saver, nothing tastes better to me than a good deal.  And, I always try to pick up extra sale items to help keep the Food Pantry shelves filled.

If you’ve been following the Turkey of Thanks campaign, then you know that my current energy is focused on trying to provide Thanksgiving for the 300+ people each month who visit our food pantry to help provide for their families.  Generosity has been pouring out, and notes of thanks written on paper turkeys with each contribution have helped me stop and take note of all that we have to be thankful for this time of year.  This week, the generosity of donations implanted a persistent thought in my soul:  we would have enough.  We would have enough not only for turkeys, but also to be able to offer a bag of “turkey fixings” along with a turkey for each household.   It’s probably important to the story to note that when I began this process, I didn’t actually know the turkey price per pound, nor did I have any factual knowledge of whether we would have enough.  But, deep in my soul, I knew.  As I have learned, Abundance was speaking.

The muscle memory of my family frugality kicked in on Friday morning.  As I sipped my morning coffee before work, I immediately took to the stack of grocery store ads that had been accumulating in my kitchen.  I price shopped the major chains and the wholesale clubs, writing down prices for corn, beans, potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce.  The best price, by far, was with one of the stores where I regularly shopped.  I didn’t know if their advertised deals would hold to such large quantities, though.  But, with good intention, as soon as I arrived in my office I called the store manager and proposed my large-scale shopping arrangement using my bonus card savings plus the published prices.  I added one request: with free brown paper bags thrown in.  Those, I have learned, are a commodity.  He sighed, and thought about it.  I told him about our turkeys, our community donations, and our desire to live in abundance this Thanksgiving, side by side with our community.  He put me on hold while he checked his stock.  When he returned to the line, he told me that if I showed up the following morning, he would have what I needed packed up for me, and make good on the published sale, mega-sale and personal shopper-card prices for my high volume purchases.  I decided to take the risk, and I placed my order for 1, 100 items of non-perishable food.

A couple hours after that call, our price-per-pound for turkeys was confirmed at an amazing $.58…a full $.19 per pound cheaper than we’d been told on our estimate.  The savings, combined with the generosity of donors, gave us enough to provide not just Thanksgiving turkey…but Thanksgiving dinner.

This morning, my spouse and I went to the store at the appointed hour in hopes of making good on this deal.  Jimmy, the morning manager-on-duty, had been relayed the information by his boss.  He had everything all stacked up on a big, metal platform cart that he wheeled to the front of the store.  He rang the items up…$2,079 at retail…and I have to admit that I wondered at that moment if this would really go through as anticipated.  My doubts began to kick in.  Then, I wondered if the pick-up truck and SUV we’d driven would hold it all, and my mind started running scenarios about how else we could pay for it.

At that moment, I felt the real Presence of a voice in my soul: “there will be enough.”

Abundance had spoken.  There will be enough.  Enough money.  Enough food.  Enough space.  Enough help.  Enough grace and gratitude to transform us, beyond our imagination.

Then big, burly Saturday-morning manager Jimmy said, “Go ahead…swipe your card…I can’t wait to see this.”  Eventually, Jimmy would call everyone around as the register individually recorded and reflected first the published savings…then, the mega-savings…then the quantity saving on our $2,027 of name brand food purchases.  We stood for a full six minutes while the register kept registering the savings.  The total dropped to $2,000…down to $1,500…then $1,200…then $1,000.  Jimmy laughed, “Oh man, we still have half the items to go!  This is amazing!”  Down the price continued to climb until it rested at $864.  Which, of course, meant we had enough.

With the help of Jimmy and two other stock workers, we found enough room in our vehicles.   Of course, we found enough room in the storage room in the food pantry, too.  I cannot wait to see what other blessings are in store for us this week as Divine Abundance takes on tangible form in this blessed dance of giving and receiving that is taking shape.  Whatever happens, I have one realization that has taken up residence in my soul:  there will be enough.

Maybe this is how people felt in the midst of that ancient story, the biblical tale we recall to our children of the feeding of the 5,000.  No magic wands, no tricks or smoke and mirrors. People are gathered.  People give.  People are fed.  In the midst of all there is the Presence of Abundance, reminding each person tangibly and/or existentially (each according to her or his own need) that there will be enough.

I took a picture of my receipt.  Mega-savings, indeed.

Abundance.  Abundance.  Abundance.

Today’s small point of light.

Turkey Fixings Savings!

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Privilege and Egg Salad

Today, I am exceedingly privileged.

I parked on campus, walked to my favorite vegetarian dive coffee shop and ordered my stand-by favorite lunch of egg salad on wheat with lettuce, tomato and sprouts accompanied by a side salad with orange-tahini dressing. I handed over my $7.95 and rounded up to $10 for a tip. I exchanged pleasant conversation with the hipster student working the counter, then walked to my office building where I chilled my lunch in the fridge and popped a Keurig of hazelnut coffee into the staff lounge coffee maker.

I am exceedingly privileged.

I had just come from a very different set of circumstances. I met my field student at one of the neighborhood food pantries operating in our zip code area. It was a new site to both of us. The volunteers were grateful for extra assistance, and I sincerely believe had helpful intentions. However, the pre-pantry conversation left me stunned. There were clear restrictions placed on receipt of food by age and worthiness: able bodied people under age 40 would not be served. The doors were kept locked between visitors who entered one at a time. There was discussion of people being “busted” for trying to use the pantry more often than once a month. Finally, after what seemed like aching minutes of biting my tongue, I offered up some food for thought to the pantry’s volunteers about systemic oppression, chronic stress and unemployment, and the possibility that abundance rather than scarcity might be a better philosophy for both social work, and for ministry. In a moment of grace, someone offered up that they admittedly did not know…and could not imagine…what it would be like to need to rely on basic support from a food pantry month after month. I felt like there might be hope for teachable moments, but I still found my car headed to the solace of my own faith community down the road to soak up the presence of my colleagues there who are motivated by Justice and abundance. I needed a reminder of their faith and mine to keep myself whole.

I am exceedingly privileged.

Sometimes, I can take it for granted that those of us who work as social workers, clergy, human service professionals and lay volunteers share a common vision. I remember back to the first time I heard about structural inequality. It was like a knife cutting through the piles of rhetoric about those who are “deserving.” We do not live in a world of equal opportunities for all. We live where some people can access food, education, transportation and medical care while others struggle for those same essentials. It is hard work to feed, shelter and clothe a family in a system that is broken. Add to that layers of racism, sexism, classism, heteronormativeness, agism, ableism that compounds the stress of living in the middle of constant chaos. You aren’t even given a script for the act you are expected to perform. You are just expected to “rise above” and act like those of different experiences than your own because they have power, and you make them uncomfortable simply by your presence. The amount of mental fortitude it takes to walk in the doors to a food pantry and ask for assistance month after month astounds me. It’s why I always stand up, shake hands, and introduce myself. My person recognizes and honors your person, and your person recognizes and honors mine. It is step one to dismantling the oppression that surrounds us, invisible unless we choose to open our eyes.

I am exceedingly privileged.

Back at my office, I shared my egg salad sandwich with my friend. I also shared my reflections on the morning, along with this food I had acquired by swipe of bank card. We shared thoughts on any number of topics, actually. No one asked us why we were stopping mid-day to eat. No one hurried us along or rolled their eyes because we stopped to converse. No one commented on the food choices we made. We talked about how much we love grocery shopping, meal planning browsing through our chosen grocery stores to which we can and do drive. I realized that one of my favorite aspects of the food pantry where I typically serve and supervise is shopping. I value offering choice because I value choice. Even if choices are not perfect and sometimes options are more plentiful than others…there is choice. In a world where your options are limited, choice is a luxury. It might be collards and cake, or mashed potatoes and meat. I respect the ability of people to choose. I love walking, and talking, and being real about our frustrations with what our kids will and won’t eat and what our favorite meals are to cook. Talking makes us human. Step two in dismantling oppression.

I am exceedingly privileged.

I finish up prep for my afternoon class, Social Work with Oppressed Groups. Tonight, race and ethnicity is our topic. I close my eyes, thinking about the perfectly good lecture I have planned. I post my PowerPoint to the learning management system instead so they can access it after class. I re-read a few chapters from Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History. I call to mind one of my favorite documentaries about environment and place as social determinants of health. I decide that my students will watch and hear stories of structural inequality tonight, and we will move away from the labeling of race at an individual level and instead climb into the complexity of institutionalized racism and the structural and historical inequalities of our own city. I include photos of the same neighborhoods that border the building where we hold our class in previous decades, and we discuss an unhappy history of forced segregation. I expose information they didn’t hear in high school, and many would rather ignore than wrestle with. We speak of unsettling things, and focus on macro change. Before we part, they are asking questions about advocacy, government, and structural change. They are unsettled. They are the change of the future. This is the third step in dismantling oppression.

I am exceedingly privileged.

I rest tonight, in the comfort of my home. We choose what we want to eat, and we cook together. I feel compelled to write, so after homework is done and the dishes are in the dishwasher, I sit in some quiet space. In this quiet space, I pray. For volunteers and students and those who hunger and thirst, I pray. For those who hugged me and talked with me and supported me today, I pray. For those whose lives will be impacted by the system changes my students will bring about in their careers, I pray. For those who hold office and advocate for the oppressed, I pray. For family and friends and neighbors, I pray. And I write, as I recognize my privilege. And I write, because my privilege gives me a voice. And I hit “publish” and hope that this story…my egg salad and my privilege…nourish those who need sustenance and unsettle those who need unsettling.

I am, indeed, exceedingly privileged.

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Turkeys of Thanks

An update on the “Turkeys of Thanks” campaign that I began Talking Turkey back in September.

I stood in front of my congregation today, six weeks after we began, feeling my eyes moisten with tears as I announced that we were well over the $4,000 mark in our Turkey of Thanks campaign. We are no longer worried about having enough money…from here on out, all we continue to collect further adds to how abundant we can be for those with whom we serve. The parish hall bulletin board and our virtual website campaign page are filled with expressions of thanks, each of which accompanied donations from the heart and soul. These hand-written notes on card stock turkeys reflect a community’s willingness to give generously and abundantly to supply Thanksgiving for 350 households of those who receive support from our food pantry. These notes are the palpable blessings of abundance in our community.

Let me recap. I am not a fund-raiser. In fact, I will pretty much do anything to avoid asking anyone for money. Yet, I felt a pull in my soul to say a Divine Yes to raising funds for these turkeys because food pantry ministry has found its way into my soul. My heart, and soul and lips volunteered myself to do this, while every fiber of my logical self said, ARE YOU CRAZY????

I said a “Divine Yes” anyhow.

This blog…small points of light…is about seeing the God in the ordinary, and taking in the power of those daily encounters to transform our lives. Let me describe just a few of those moments that have transformed me and filled my days to overflowing with gratitude ever since I said that “Yes”…

1) my personal friends, past and present, adding their $20 turkey donations and conveying the thankfulness in their lives which made me thankful vicariously for our many blessings;

2) opening an email during a stressful work meeting to find that a donation of $1,000 with a note of “50 turkeys!” had been received that day. Joy overtook my soul;

3) accepting with gracious thanks and equal joy the donated dollars of clients from the food pantry to give back and support our community;

4) the woman who stopped her car while driving upon seeing our food pantry in full distribution to give us all the money in her wallet as a serendipitous offering;

5) the envelope of cash winnings from a 50/50 split at the church auction that were handed to me today as “turkey cash” and a gift back;

6) the notes from friends of friends from all around the country compelled to make a PayPal gift to this cause;

7) the parishioners who quietly slip cash and checks in the turkey of thanks bank each week. Multiple weeks. Every week.

8) the way people smile while wearing the “Turkey of Thanks” hat. You cannot not smile with a stuffed roast turkey on your head, or turkey feet tied beneath your chin and this, too, is God in our midst;

9) the cash pressed into my hand by an elder parishioner with the request, “write a note on one of those turkeys that I’m thankful for my wonderful husband…who would tell me not to single him out, but I want to anyhow!”

10) the gratitude written by multiple parishioners on their Turkeys of Thanks for their freedom to marry the beloved people in their lives thanks to legalization of same sex marriage in Virginia;

11) the youth leader who asked me today if she could gather her friends from school to help us distribute turkeys;

12) the growing knowledge in my soul that answering a call to service with a “Divine Yes” is not something to be feared…it is an act of faithful confidence in the abundance of God’s love and grace.

You cannot be prepared for that grace. You will be overwhelmed and transformed by it, as I have been.

As we say and pray in the pantry:

God is Good. All the Time.
All the Time. God is Good.

Turkeys of Thanks. Small Points of Light.

Turkeys of Thanks Donation Page

Flickr Album of Turkey of Thanks photos

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Wise Moon

I wish I could remember the first time I saw the moon. I mean, the first time I really saw the moon. It would have been a moment like tonight, when my car turned the corner en route from pizza carry-out to my house. It was the most ordinary, unremarkable drive, until that moment when I turned my steering wheel toward home. Shining down on me was the full moon, radiant and glowing. The moon greeted me, beaming, like the face of an old friend.

I even gasped a bit, and my daughter instantly clued in. She shrugged at my awe over the obvious. “Yes, Mom. It’s the moon, Mom.”

I could ask “why?” Why am I do drawn to the moon? I am not sure the quest to answer that question would be any more rewarding than the simple awe of being present, face to face, with my full moon companion.

I think I do know the answer to that “why?” question, though. The answer lives in my soul, rather than my head. It’s because I know the dark, and I know that the light that shines in the darkness is not from an internal power source. Rather, the light that shines in the darkness as reflected in the moon reflects a power so much greater, more powerful, and yet hidden from our immediate view. We can almost forget about the Sun when we stand in the glory of moonlight on a dark, clear night. But the moon holds and reflects that light. The moon is a vessel, not a source. The moon collects, holds, releases.

I sit and feel the moonlight spill through my window. That light is evidence of the glowing sun, even in the dark of night when we cannot see. The darkness itself is made beautiful in the radiant light.

I sit tonight, pondering on the moon. I recall my dark nights of the soul, and the most clear moments of awareness. The moon has been my constant companion.

I have felt abandoned and alone; but I was never alone.

I have been unsure that there was light in me; yet, light reflected.

I felt suspended; I was actually held.

I have been caught in an inescapable pull; I was, indeed, orbiting.

I have reflected the radiance of divine Light not because of my own worth, but because I continued on each phase of my journey.

Tonight I look in the face of my friend the moon. I am aware of my waxing and my waning. She knows my light and my dark, both parts of the same whole. I have no need to hide in my radiance nor feel diminished when I am only a sliver of my true self.

Wisdom in the moonlight.

A small point of light.

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Prayer of St. Hilda

It’s All Saints Day. This auspicious holy day at my church is marked by our annual “Saints Walk” where various parishioners dress and tell stories of the Holy Women and Holy Men who have lived, and worked, and worshipped in years gone by. As I stood in the women’s restroom trying to stuff my unruly hair under the wimple of a nun’s garb, I found myself wishing my PhD had given me more spatial relations skills. It took me three attempts to get every layer of this reproduced medieval monastic attire aligned correctly. I adjusted my cape, picked up my Crozier and wrapped my prayer beads around my stack of “St. Hilda of Whitby” prayer cards as I headed to the Narthex of the church to welcome those diverse souls who gather for worship in this community where there is neither a dull moment, nor a dreary liturgy.

I had read up about Hilda and knew which aspects of her story I wanted to highlight. Born in 614, this early royal Briton led a rich and full life as a grandniece to King Edwin. She was said to have been fair, loyal, and honest to those living in the lands she supervised. But, it would seem that secular leadership was not sufficient for Hilda’s life calling. At 33…which was mid-life in those days…she felt her calling to the church, and entered the monastic life. She had hoped to travel to France to join a holy order, but was called back to her own people. Eventually appointed as the Abbess of Whitby, she became the leader of this double monastic order, teaching and raising up future leaders of the church while attempting to reconcile the Roman practices of the Church with the Celtic beliefs and practices of those around her…beliefs she personally favored, but had the grace and wisdom to hold with equality alongside the orthodoxy that wasn’t as amenable to change at that time. She became known as a peacemaker, a leader in justice and fairness, and one who welcomed all to find a common good in the midst of diverse opinions and beliefs.

Every time I told St. Hilda’s story today, I would highlight parts that seemed to fit my audience, or that occurred to me from the stories I had read. Sometimes I would emphasize the welcoming, other times the bringing together of multiple sides to find common worship, and often what emerged was her profound female leadership at a time women had so few outlets for these skills and her willingness to respond to God’s call even in the midst of her already well-lived life. She said her own Divine Yes and the second half of her life was richly and spiritually blessed. The more I told her story, the more I started to deeply appreciate her in ways that just reading history can’t quite convey. When I found my parish family joking back at me about the parallels between this saint of old and my own story, I felt blessed. Honestly, that is the best word I can think of: blessed.

I began to realize the saint I was asked to portray today was likely not a co-incidence, either. I suspect my rector (who clearly knows me well) and some divine inspiration should both get some credit for that! Even after moving from costume to choir robe (and dealing with my resulting “habit hair’), I remained deeply grateful for my personal and intimate encounter with St. Hilda, whose lasting inspiration crossed time and distance to touch my spirit today.

On this holy day in the midst of a holy season, I close my night with a small point of light in honor of St. Hilda of Whitby as I say the prayer written in her honor:

O God of peace, by whose grace the abbess Hilda was
endowed with gifts of justice, prudence, and strength to
rule as a wise mother over the nuns and monks of her
household, and to become a trusted and reconciling friend
to leaders of the Church: Give us the grace to recognize
and accept the varied gifts you bestow on men and
women, that our common life may be enriched and your
gracious will be done; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who
lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.

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Seen and Unseen

I have always loved Halloween, even when it was a “forbidden” holiday in some circles that surrounded me in my youth. We may have dressed-up for “Harvest Parties” at church, and perhaps a bit of trick-or-treat to neighbors and family. These alternative sweet-laden celebrations were fun enough, but there was something deeper to Halloween that always called to me. The ghost stories and haunted happenings seemed to be a reflection of a deeper, human yearning to see beyond the veil and catch a glimpse of another world, another layer, another depth. It was like a full scale hide-and-seek kind of holiday, where a mask may hide a friend, or a costume may allow a glimpse of the pieces of ourselves that we hide in normal daylight. Maybe, just maybe, we could catch sight not only of the seen, but of the unseen. Mystery, after all, is part of the human experience. And mystery is something I have always craved.

The past few days, I have been playing a bit of hide and seek with my own schedule, I must be honest. I have worked myself into a heap of exhaustion during frenetic October. I have been yearning for stillness. So, in between some strategically placed time for email and touching-base with the world, I scheduled self-care appointments to nurture mind, body, and spirit. I won’t write about all my “hide and seek” haunts, because I reserve the right to disappear into the mists sometimes and only be found when I want to. We all should build in and maintain a bit of mystery into our lives. However, one moment was such a metaphor for my state-of-mind that I felt compelled to write about it.

Mid-day yesterday, I packed myself a sandwich and some tea and walked around a local park until I found a tree that begged me to come sit beneath it. My noon-time meal was accompanied by falling leaves, a few acorns, and a nosy squirrel. That was exactly the kind of company I wanted to keep. I remained in this most rustic state of picnicking until a roving band of frisbee golf players decided to come along and break my solitude. I knew it was time to find my next quiet place, maybe one where I could write on my blog a bit. I walked to the other side of the park and sat on a bench, just breathing in stillness. The bench was beside a small pond with some ducks and geese swimming. The pond was lined with fall foliage and lovely in its quiet mid-day simplicity. Then, a car pulled up and a photographer emerged. She started circling all around the pond, her camera capturing the water-fowl swimming on a surface rippled with the reflected colors of Autumn. It really was lovely, and I am sure it spoke to her artistically. She was focused at water-level, apparently oblivious to the rustling I could hear higher in the trees by the water’s edge. As she was seeing and photographing the obvious, a Great Blue Heron had lighted and perched in the top branches of a nearby tree. The great bird extended its wings over the whole scene with a wing-span that took my breath away. Then, quickly and quietly, it tucked back amid the foliage. In spite of its grandeur, the majestic heron remained camouflaged, completely unseen.

The scene was a delight. I kept thinking about it long after the photographer left. I put away my own devices and decided to seek some stillness again, nodding to the heron to acknowledge its place in the Universe as I centered back into my own. I couldn’t help but wonder if our mutual respect of each other’s presence was a divine gift for us both in that moment.

In that stillness, I caught sight of times that mystery has spoken with me. How, like my siting of the great heron, there was something larger and majestic watching over while I was focused on duck-pond details. Seen and unseen companions are with us in the divine ordinary. In traditional nature-grounded spirituality as well as church liturgy, this is the weekend we welcome the thin veil between this world and the next. We celebrate Halloween, All Soul’s, Day of the Dead, Samhain, All Saints Day…let’s not even pretend to think the timing of all these dates was coincidental. This is a time to reach beyond the superficial quick-glimpses in our line of vision. This is an opportunity to understand that in all the diversity of our human spirituality there is a co-existing of what we see, what we experience, and what come to know and believe, even if we cannot see. Like the heron’s presence hidden by the sight of the ordinary geese, there is always more unseen than what we have learned to see around us.

It is majestic whenever we catch a glimpse of small points of light in the divine ordinary of our frenetic lives. It reminds us of the Great Unseen, at work in us, around us, and through us. Tonight, I rest with gratitude for the seen and unseen that companion me on my journey.

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Prayer for Sleep

Sleep, O sleep in the calm of each calm.
Sleep, O sleep in the guidance of all guidance.
Sleep, O sleep in the love of all loves.
Sleep, O beloved, in the Lord of life.
Sleep, O beloved, in the God of life.

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For my daughter, who is sleeping against my shoulder tonight as I pray…

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We’re In This Together

For the past several days, I have been immersed in the learning, reconnecting, and networking of a professional social work education conference. I have to be honest: I have been to this conference for six consecutive years, but in recent years I haven’t always taken the time I should to attend sessions simply to learn. I feel a constant pull to conduct screening interviews for job applicants, or to engage in wonderful mentoring and networking roles that sometimes conflict with the program schedule. These are the busy…and mostly enjoyable…roles of an academic social worker. But this particular year, for a host of reasons, I simply needed and wanted to be a learner. So, I have chosen to do so, unapologetically.

I offer this prelude because one of the conundrums I had in making this decision was the fleeting thought of when I was going to find time during my “learning” to complete my weekly virtual faith formation work for my faith community. I didn’t really even know what I would write about or what media I would use to illustrate the week’s Gospel theme, even though I had been reading the words each morning to start my day. I carried the words on my heart which, I am reminded, is probably the most important way that we pray. As I moved from session to session over the past few days, my thoughts kindled in resonance with the theme of the weekly Gospel lesson:

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40

I held these words of my faith tradition in my own heart. I was holding them as I listened to the lecture of economist Jared Bernstein, self-described Zen Buddhist, comparing the difference between political philosophies of YOYO (“You’re On Your Own”) and WITT (“We’re All In This Together”) on poverty reduction. You can read his blog post on this subject for a sense of the lecture. As he spoke, I began to consider the magnitude with which it is impossible to end systematic, structural poverty as a solo act. Even if a few outstanding successes are noted, acting individually does nothing for the structural inequality underscoring the issue. So, we are compelled not only to “find our bliss” or ameliorate the poverty in our lives, but to act collectively. It isn’t enough to give a dollar to someone we deem worthy on a street corner, nor just to invest in our own well-being. If we truly love our neighbors, we will want to act on the collective behalf of our local, national, and global communities. Our acts of faith to engage in systemic change are a response to our greatest commandment.

Later, I had a truly inspired opportunity to talk about faith and justice-in-action with another group of social workers and other professionals transforming their Washington, DC church through not only individual, pro-bono health and mental health services but through embracing collective trauma, and seeking communal healing through mind, body, and spirit. I began to realize, sitting in the audience, the ways in which my faith community at St. Thomas is also working together to take these steps as were several others colleagues in other churches around the country who were collectively sharing that session with me. We were seeing our lives, our professions, our neighbors, and our varied expressions of spirituality and faith coming together in service to something beyond just our own interests. I had a visceral sense of the coming together of the two great commandments in the Gospel within the people collected together in that room. We were feeding each other: mind, body, and spirit. I thought of a video I recently viewed that depicted the Allegory of the Long Spoons, attributed to folktales deriving from Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian origins. Take a look:

Allegory of the Long Spoons

These thoughts coalesced even further this morning in a plenary which beautifully wrapped concepts of social justice, privilege, and anti-oppression practice into living, daily examples of how we relate to each other. As I sat and listened, a different realization began to take shape. I began to realize that my neighbors were not only people. My neighbors are also my communities, my professional identities, the communities and professional identities that touch my own life. My neighbors are ideas, and inspirations. My neighbors are knowledge and wisdom, teaching and learning, mentoring and being mentored. As I learn to more fully move into an embrace of multiple identities, multiple perspectives, collective idea sharing…I grow. We all grow. We collectively grow. Indeed, each of us grows only if and when we are investing in others, and in that which is greater than we are. In each encounter where we reach beyond ourselves, we gain a glimpse of the Divine, and we learn a bit more of what it means to love God wholly.

As we move into Monday’s world, on this last Sunday of this faith formation series, I ask each one of us to live into the possibility of being the “collective I” that sees our own selves reflected in relation to each other: individuals, communities, global allies together in a common vision. It is dedicated work. It is collective work, not a solo endeavor. And, like my lesson this week, you have to be willing to be a learner.

We’re all in this together.

That is the greatest commandment.

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Jettison Cargo

Over the past couple weeks as I’ve been living in October’s “over-drive” mode, I have had a couple brushes with ordinary mortality.  A seemingly healthy, not-much-older-than-me neighbor died suddenly.  Close friends are battling with cancer.  In the course of being a helpful-yet-boundary-setting social worker, a client made a threat against me.  Candles lit by friends and colleagues and co-workers on pregnancy and infant death remembrance day reminded me of how many lives end before they even have a chance to flourish.  These are the kind of incidents…the daily ordinary… that can prompt us to take a breath and realize:  life is fragile.

Life is fragile and precious, and our days are of limited quantity.  Most of us know this.  We don’t care to think about it, but we know it.

What is weighing on my heart…and making me a bit snippy, I will admit…is how we act in the face of that knowledge.  Lately, fear fills every newscast, newspaper, and social media streams.  I am growing increasingly impatient with people’s fear-filled and distant responses to tragedy.  It starts small, “How did he die?” someone will ask, with an undercurrent meaning of “let’s hope that it was something unrelated to the risks I take in my own daily life…”   Or, in the tragedy of Hannah Graham, missing college student from the University of Virginia, we second-guess why she was where she was and give lectures to our daughters about self-protection as if we can shield those we love from every evil by the cut of our clothes.  Then, the fear and distancing grows.  We begin talking down about people and trying to point fingers of blame.  We start building up the “us vs. them.” statements, speaking of “those people with HIV” or worse yet, thinking of a new uprising of Ebola as something “those Africans” experience.  Somehow it didn’t seem so bad when it was “over there.”  Our statements become infused with political rhetoric, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism.  We lose sight of the fragility and connectedness of life.

These distinctions we make serve only one purpose: to ease our fears by trying to control our personal circumstances.  What we can fail to recognize is that our circumstances are a part of the human dynamic.  What happens to one person, affects every person.  Wise leaders, like Martin Luther King, Jr. have spoken those words:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

So, today, I am suggesting that we stop and ponder for a few minutes the possibility that our individual circumstances are not “ours” to control.

While writing this week’s faith formation series for my faith community, I heavily pondered this idea of “giving to God what is God’s.”   What if that statement applied to our fears, our preoccupation with controlling our individual lives, our fascination with trying to ease our conscious worries by keeping more and more walls of protection between ourselves, and our neighbors?  What if I could jettison some of the cargo that I carry: trying to protect, prevent, isolate, distance.  What if I could hand today’s worries off and instead live deeply into the present moment of being a force for love and grace in the world.  What if each of us could see that our daily ordinary worries of human life really are God’s worries:  for each person, and for the whole fabric of humanity.

At one of the counseling agencies where I worked over the year, my colleagues and I used a particular phrase with our clients and each other:  Jettison Cargo.  We carry so much pain, grief, despair, and fear.  What if we could mentally jettison that cargo away from our lives and into a greater understanding of what it means to be alive.  Even for a moment, giving up some of that angst can transform us.

I believe that this courageous act of letting go is what propels those who serve, those who care for those experiencing the pain and suffering of this world: from Ebola, or cancer, or grief, or poverty.  For one suspended moment, I can stop trying to control my own destiny and realize that I am a part of something far larger than myself.  That moment is transformative, to ourselves and to the world around us.  That moment is divine.

This is Sunday, and in my faith tradition many of us will make our way to a church.  Many others will worship on this day or other sacred days in their own faith traditions, too.  We may listen to wisdom and inspiration shared in word.  We may be reminded of Divine Presence in music, in prayers, in community.  We may shake hands with and embrace others, greeting their divine spirits with our own divine spirits.  We may be invited to make our communion with God.  If and when we do any of these things:  Jettison Cargo.  Give to God what is God’s.  God’s love and care for each person, God’s love and care for the fabric of humanity.  God’s benevolence to the Universe in creation, evolution, science, knowledge and wisdom.  God’s grace in granting us minds to question, hearts to love, hands to serve each other.  Jettison the human cargo.  Give to God what is God’s.

Be transformed in that present moment and let it nourish you throughout your week.  In Monday’s world, this may make me a more caring professional, a more loving partner, a more patient parent, a more committed human being.  I may move to other moments of transformation, living with, embracing the possibility of the present moment instead of fear for the future.  I may live differently.

We may be amazed.

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