Novitiate

In the hazy stillness of afternoon sunlight, I cannot even observe what year it is. I have walked through double doors, cloistering myself away from the pace of life, the attachment of family, the security of that which I have come to know as home. For a span of time, all I know of home is here. There is newness: the grace of beginnings, the hope of kindled awareness. There is something in my soul where yearning once was, but I haven’t yet learned to speak its name.

I leave my shoes and kneel in the center of the room, perhaps invited but more honestly, compelled.

My book opens, and I hear these words, spoken to me:

I am, you anxious one.

Don’t you sense me, ready to break into being at your touch?

My murmurings surround you like shadowy wings.

Can’t you see me standing before you cloaked in stillness?

Hasn’t my longing ripened in you from the beginning as fruit ripens on a branch?

I am the dream you are dreaming.

When you want to awaken, I am that wanting.

I grow strong in the beauty you behold.

And with the silence of stars I enfold your cities made by time.

–Rainer Maria Rilke, Love Poems to God

I cannot rise.

In my mind, I see myself among the anxious ones who have sat in this circle.  Being taught is one thing: history, catechism, liturgy, scripture, prayers.  Learning is another thing altogether: listening, quieting, trusting, opening.  Those soul lessons have filled this space for longer than I have been breathing, or thinking.  Generations of the newly obedient to their inner call.  Some fighting it, some relieved, some fearful, some content.  All some of all of that, at least some of the time.

Perhaps the young novices of another age wouldn’t have even imagined this middle-aged woman, postulant to the priesthood, kneeling here in the Awe of Presence.  How we live out our vocation is a matter of context, history, and social sanction.  The mind tells us of limits, and walls, and rules, and order.  The world in which we live educates us in that which is allowed, permitted, tolerated.  The soul knows nothing of these limits.

I find tears filling my eyes, weeping with gratitude that I am in this context at this time.  But, I am them and they are me.  We are more alike than different, this communion of the ordinary saints of the sacramental present.  We are not in this space from our own merit, nor perhaps even fully by our own choice.  We are learning to follow the nameless yearning that resides within and beyond.  We are praying, moving, making room for the incarnate to become present in ways that are yet to be known and experienced.

We are not different.

I quiet to stillness.

I welcome the new, like a loving stranger becoming a soul friend.

And I know, kneeling here in my silence just as they knew in theirs:

All will be well.

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Sundays

My daughter asked at dinner last night, “Does the week start on Sunday, or Monday?”  It was a loaded question, the way that questions from adolescents generally are.  She had her opinion and she wanted to float it to her parental units so she could either dispute or trump our responses with her own.  My husband went pragmatic, “Sunday.  That’s how people decided to lay out the calendar.”  I decided to walk down her enigmatic path, “My work week starts on Monday so I’ve always thought of that as the start of the week and Sundays as the weekend” I said.  “But, I have to admit, I’m already shifting to Sundays.”

She gave me the half eye-roll, half-respect look that she does these days as she added, “I knew you were going to say that…”  It’s not easy for me to explain how changes in my own sense of self and vocation lead to all these pragmatic shifts, even in my calendar settings.  It’s even harder, I suspect, when you’re twelve and watching from the sidelines.

I have been thinking about Sundays this morning, sitting in my back room with the doors open with my coffee and my computer.  The sounds of crickets and cicadas and songbirds make me feel connected to summer Sundays across the geographic and temporal chapters of my life.  Just this space fills me with a deep, inner calm.  Today, I savored unrushed morning prayer; I’m catching up on my weekly Fresh Air episodes, listening to On Being and perhaps a TED talk or two.  In summer, my church’s services are scheduled later than usual so even with choir practice, I have an extra carved out bit of freedom to breathe in the calmness of a sacred, summer day that way I had honored it for years, whether or not “church” was a fixture in my routine.  On Sundays, my work gets set aside and it’s quite easy for me to say, “tomorrow is another day….”   I love this cadence of Sunday as it falls in my life right now.  I probably love it even more these days because I know this experience of Sunday is unquestionably, as my Buddhist friends remind me, impermanent.  My clergy colleagues point that out, repeatedly.  But, there is a soulfullness to Sundays that seems to remain at the core.

What do I make of the fact that I’m taking on a vocation that centers around Sundays?  How do I reconcile my soul’s need for rest with its calling to minister?  This presents a bit of a challenging conundrum for me which means it’s something I like to think about.

This morning, I am remembering back to a little tension that I observed in my youth.  I have come to realize that I have had the “both/and’ spirit of Anglicanism in my nature for far longer than it was in my repetoire of ecclesiology.  The fundmentalism of the churches my family attended in my youth meant that there were some voiced frustrations when our pastor literally interpreted, “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy…” to mean, “Don’t work on Sundays, or I’ll call you out from the pulpit.”  I remember that happening once to my Dad, who retorted back with, “Well, YOU work on Sundays, don’t you?”   Touche.  Score one for Dad.  In a literally translated world, even my blogging or a pastor’s preaching is work.  Even though I gave up that world of literal, fundamentalism years and years ago there has always been something about Sundays that craves to be different.

I might argue that this need is cultural and spiritual, not just religious.  I think the craving for Sunday is true in the secular world, too.   We need a sabbath, a day in which we hold as sacred those things which are holy and life-affirming to us: family, friends, the nurturing of our minds and bodies and spirits.  We need and crave a day to remind us of our wholeness and not just the slices of our working, visible selves that we show to the world and to which others assign our social identity.  We need to be shaped, encouraged, and guided into respect for stillness and a slower pace amid our hectic routines.  Sundays hold us accountable for our full humanity.  The literal day of the week isn’t the issue; the issue is our need for sacred wholeness in a society where we are constantly pushed and reminded that we can never be good enough, smart enough, or rich enough.  We crave a safe space where we can simply BE.

I think about this a lot, particularly as I consider that we have sometimes replaced religiousity with spirituality in our Western expressions of faith.  The two have to work hand-in-hand.  There is true joy in a Sunday where we can create the forms and expression of worship where we can simply BE…be present, be loved, be whole, be in community, be in communion with the Divine.  Where I watch people fall away…where I myself have abandoned ship in my religious past…is when those experiences mirror our working selves:  we aren’t good enough, or smart enough, or rich enough to truly belong.  People leave churches all the time for those reasons:  they feel judged; they don’t understand what is happening in the worship service; they don’t meet the social standard of the community in dress or in lifestyle or in social expectations beyond the hour of structured meeting time.  What has become of us if we remove the sacred wholeness from the very day on which it should be celebrated and appreciated?

For me, I will always have Sundays.  The cadence and responsibilities may change across my lifetime, and that has and will find new expressions.  But, this is a day of sacred wholeness that has transcended whether or not my body could find a worship space that fit it during any one specific point of my journey.  Sacred wholeness is my goal: whether I am the liturgical leader, the Vestry person on duty, the choir member, the Mom, the quiet listener to sounds of nature, the one taking in ideas and concepts larger than my current understanding so that I can be transformed and renewed.  Although many have said that one doesn’t need to be in a church to find this (and conceptually I agree), I can attest to the fact that this can be found in abundance in many formal spaces of worship, both liturgical and free form.  It is a beautiful, holy space where our yearning meets the abundance of divine love and grace.  Sacred wholeness is something that we can embrace with intention, from the small points of light in the ordinary extraordinary of our days to that which is created when our intentions reach beyond ourselves in sacred ritual, song, and worship.

Yes, that is the Sunday that I crave, that I seek and graciously find, that I will strive to be a conduit to offer in my own ministry.  On this Sunday, I delight in divine wholeness in all its forms and expressions.  My soul is fed with abundance.

Grace, peace, and sacred wholeness to you this Sunday…

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Restorative Justice

A few weeks ago, one of my BSW students sent me an email.  She was doing a summer internship with the First Lady’s office and on the side, doing some volunteer work with the office for restorative justice.  Virginia has recently taken some steps forward in granting civil rights back to ex-felons (voting, holding public office and seeking public employment) and she had 1,000 envelopes to stuff for those who had petitioned for their rights to be reinstated.  She was seeing if some of us would gather with her in the library to help stuff envelopes.  I had a flash idea that I ran past her: I thought about taking these to our food pantry where clients are craving service and advocacy opportunities.

So, last night I met her in the parking lot of a campus restaurant and filled my trunk with papers, envelopes, and voting registration forms.  I brought them to pantry this morning…along with my daughter who was willing to help out on a summer vacation day…and we set up shop on a table.  As people gathered in anticipation of pantry opening, I stood up and explained the project and asked if anyone was willing to help assemble envelopes and packets.  What happened during the following hours, I did not anticipate.

Today, I have heard the tearful, hearfelt felony conviction stories of my friends and neighbors.  I have heard about the wrongs committed, and the aftermath of devastation created in their lives.  I have heard stories of repentence, and felt the awe of the possibility of having some manner of dignity and civil rights restored.  I have felt the hope, and the pain.  I listened to every story.  I gave hugs.  I offered prayer.  I completed forms for restoration of rights with people whose eyes welled up with tears.  I realized that this envelope-stuffing wasn’t just an act of advocacy.  This was reconciliation.  This was a moment of self-forgiveness.

The stories that I heard today I hold with deep confidence.  There is one, though, that sits with me so strongly that I need to write it, wrestle with it, and learn from it.  I will change enough details to protect the person, but keep to the core of the situation.

It was five minutes before the pantry closes, and we had already served everyone who had been waiting.  Volunteers were cleaning up, and I sat down at one of the intake tables to clean off the tablet screens and organize the piles of papers left from the day.  The volunteer at the door handing out numbers pointed someone my way.  As he approached the desk, he said, “…are you Ms. Sarah?” and I said…without thinking about context…”guilty as charged!”

He did a little 180 and then his eyes lit up.  “Well, you and me both!” he said, and then corrected himself by leaning in a little closer, “Actually I’m not guilty as charged, but it just took them seven years to figure that out.”

It turns out that Mr. Jones had run into a friend on the street, who told him that a lady down at the church food pantry was helping people get their rights back.  He was supposed to go there, and ask for Ms. Sarah.

I didn’t actually realize until that moment that I was doing anything other than helping out my student with her summer service project.  But, I should know better.  What I do whenever I enter the pantry is take a step into whatever ministry God thinks I should be doing.  And today, that ministry was restorative justice and reconciliation.

I listened to Mr. Jones’ story.  I heard about his arrest, about the two names that he had been given in 1942 by his mama.  She gave him her name…which wasn’t legal…because his legal name was of his father, the man that had beat her and left her.  I heard about how he used that name…his mama’s name…now as his only name.  I heard about how the other name (which was practically as common as “Mr. Jones”) was identified by someone as the perpetrator of the crime.  I heard how he was arrested, a man of color, accused by one person of privilege solely on the basis of his name.  I heard how he was asked to sign at his arrest and how…because he knew better than to use a non-legal name on an arrest warrant…he signed with his legal name.  I heard about his conviction, and the seven years that he remained in the county jail while people fought over whether it was really him or someone else.  But he had no family, and no friends to help him make bail.  So, he stayed in jail for seven years.

Mr. Jones pulled out his identification and his statement from the governor about his release for wrongful conviction.  He was living in temporary, congregate housing while he applied for benefits and social security, since he had passed into retirement age while incarcerated.  He asked me, “do you know how I feel today?”

I admitted that I could not possibly know how he felt.

He said, “I feel free.”

I sat there with him in that moment.  I was feeling so many things: Anger at the system, anger at racism, anger at injustice and oppression; Joy for his release, for wrongs reversed even if after so long, for the fact the this man came into this space; Gratitude for his presence in this space, for the humble honor of hearing his story, for the spirit of God’s Divine Presence filling that space.

Mr. Jones and I did a few practical things.  We filled out his restoration of rights paperwork, we entered him into the food pantry system so he could regularly be supported with some nutritious food and meals, we discussed social programs he was eligible for and where and how to access them, and we sorted through his papers and talked about what needed to be kept in safe places at all times.  I made him some photocopies of things he should have several copies of in his possession.

Then, we prayed.  Silently.  Together, we prayed.

When Mr. Jones left with his food, he said:  “I will be praying for you, Ms. Sarah” and I said, “I am praying for you even now, Mr. Jones.”

Restorative justice crosses boundaries of age, race, class, need, worthiness, unworthiness.  We are all impacted by the injustices of this world; each and every one of us carries with us things for which we are convicted justly, and things for which we may be unjustly convicted.

In ordinary moments…the small points of light…we come to know that we are one community: united, restored, redeemed.

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Freedom Accolades

It’s an overcast southern afternoon on this Independence Day holiday and I am feeling the deep freedom of an unstructured day.  Often, we are a family of nomadic wanderers on July 4th, packing up the car for a trip to visit either the family in St. Louis or in upstate New York.  While it’s always fun to travel, I’m grateful that this year, we are at home and relaxing.

Relaxation can be one of those charged words.  I’m not one who can sit poolside staring at my toes (not that there is anything wrong with that, friends….it’s just not in my genetic or personality profiles).  What I mean by that word is that I am embracing the freedom to do the small things that give me pleasure.  I’m working in my garden and picking big bouquets of coneflowers and brown-eyed susans to bring into my house.  I’m getting started on the assignments I brought back with me from my seminary classes in an unrushed and thoughtful way, since I have a long-weekend away from my workplace.  I’m catching up on media stories and videos that I’ve bookmarked for later.  I’m connecting with friends nearby and far away, and cooking unhurried dinners for my family with fresh ingredients from the farmer’s market.  This is the good stuff of my middle-class American life.  These are the ways I live into the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness afforded to me by my privilege to be a citizen of the United States.  I am grateful, I am humbled, and I am reflective.

I have been thinking and reflecting a lot about freedom.  Earlier this morning, I read the text of the Declaration of Independence from beginning to end.  As I read, I wondered how I would have encountered and interpreted it at the time.  Of course, I immediately realized how false this whole notion was, because I would not have encountered it at all.  I am a woman.  I may possibly have been given some rudimentary lessons in writing if I were of the correct social class.  But, I would not have been the correct social class.  My people were peasant, farm people in the countries from which they originated and my people were and are mostly country, farm people here in the United States, too.  Being hard workers grounded to the earth is an amazing attribute, and my family of origin is beloved to me for their personalities and their values.  But, it’s unmistakable reality in our history that workers have been separated from intelletuals for centuries.  In some ways, we still perpetuate that dichotomy.

Today, I am grateful and humbled and reflective of my freedom to be both grounded in the world of the working, and educated in the thoughtful and critical hallways of academia.  My blood still pumps in the circular rhythms of the seasons and craves the daily pattern of sunup to sundown work.  That was modeled for me in my rural farming family of origin, and I honor and respect that heritage even today.  It brings me to farmer’s markets instead of grocery stores and makes me very leery of buying anything prepared in a package.  It’s also why I am productive…not because I am particularly fast, but I do have a hefty tolerance for working long hours.  When people encounter me in some of the very formal and structured institutions of which I am a part, they sometimes remark, “you’re a breath of fresh air.”  I take that as a compliment to my heritage, not my person.  Being grounded to the earth and partnered with the people is something I cherish.

I realize that it seems counter-intuitive to images of July 4th poolside, hot-dogs and beer, fireworks and festivities: but one of the things I am most thankful for this Independence Day is the freedom to engage in meaningful work.  For me, meaningful work involves a combination of intellectual discourse, social advocacy, community engagement, and soulful service.  So, on this Independence Day I am going to give out a few freedom accolates to women who perhaps haven’t had as much coverage in history as they should have, but without whom I would not be following the journey I am today.  I thank them today for ways in which I express my freedom of meaningful work.

As a woman, I am grateful to my sisters of suffrage for beginning to shape an understanding of women’s work in non-domestic settings.  My first freedom accolate on this Independence Day goes to Abigail Adams.  While it would be generations after her death that meaningful work, property rights, and political influence would be granted to women, she was unafraid to use her domestic sphere to influence her husband, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.”  And so it has been.  Accolade to you for your foresight, Abigail…

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As an advocate for civil and human rights, my next freedom accolade goes to one of the first female graduates from a co-educational American University (Oberlin), Lucy Stone.  I give this accolade in honor of the fact that her first actions were not to revel in her own accomplishments, but to advocate for the rights of another oppressed group as a lecturer for the Anti-Slave Society; she consistently linked the struggle for freedom with one group with the struggles for freedom with others. For freedom to be a vocal advocate whether I not I feel I “belong” in the academy, I honor Lucy with a freedom accolade.

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My next freedom accolade goes to Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved African woman who was taken from her home in what is now Senegal and was kept in servitude in the household of John Wheatley.  Her poetry inspired abolitionists in both the United States and in Europe.  I cannot envision her life as an enslaved artist; but in her words freedom finds voice irrespective of her station.  She has several more famous poems, but as someone who has counselled so many grieving parents, this elegy written to parents who are grieving the death of their infant is soulful, theological and comforting:

To shining guards consign thine infant care
To waft triumphant through the seas of air:
Her soul enlarg’d to heav’nly pleasure springs,
She feeds on truth and uncreated things.
Methinks I hear her in the realms above,
And leaning forward with a filial love,
Invite you there to share immortal bliss
Unknown, untasted in a state like this.
With tow’ring hopes, and growing grace arise,
And seek beatitude beyond the skies.

Phillis, to you I extend a freedom accolade for your willingness to express your soul even when it was in captivity.

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Finally, on this independence day, I extend a freedom accolade to Mary Kenney O’Sullivan.  While she is the most contemporary of my accolades bestowed today, I celebrate with her my working class heritage, my embrace into social reform, and my commitment to community partnership and organization.  Mary Kenney was one of the few working class women to become leaders with Jane Addams at Hull house.  She lived and learned from life and used her knowledge, skills, and vision to blaze a trail for others.  Before and after her time at Hull House, she worked as a labor organizer striving to secure safe and equitable employment for women which included securing the right to vote, hold political office, and be in paid positions of leadership.  I extend to Mary a freedom accolade for establishing the value of professional work in women’s lives and committing your passion to securing a freedom that I celebrate, even on my “off” days….

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There are so many other women and men that I could recognize.  I hate to stop, but other meaningful work is calling me.  But, as we celebrate independence on this July 4th holiday, I’m pleased to have been able to give a few of my heros some additional accolades.

Happy Independence Day….

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(En)Lightening

When I was flying home last week on a late-night flight, I was awakened suddenly during my mid-flight dozing.  As if looking for someone actually awake, a flight attendant caught my eye and said, “Just in time…look over there!”

As he pointed out my window, I turned my head to see that we were passing alongside a massive thunderstorm.  Watching the lightning from above was an amazing…and admittedly somewhat jarring…experience.  Lightning was everywhere, like the flashbulbs of celestial paparazzi going off in all directions.  I was mesmerized with equal parts awe and fear, especially as it seemed that our plane was drawing closer and closer to the location of the storms.  But, I couldn’t look away; I had an all new perspective on what storms look like at 20,000 feet.  I knew that I was seeing something completely different from I would see if I was on the ground, in the midst of the downpours and thunderclaps that were almost certainly happening on the ground below.

That was several days and four airports ago as I travelled back from my West Coast seminary.  Now, I am sitting at home back on the other coast, where the southern summer has descended with a vengeance.  It has been at least 90 degrees every day since I’ve been home, and I’ve watched my car thermometer sail over the 100 degree mark twice.  Just as we were finishing dinner tonight, the skies began to cloud over and there were faint rumbles of thunder in the distance.  Now, a few hours later, the skies are wildly dark, periodically pierced in all directions by flashes of lightning, cutting through the summer heat with gusts of cool and occasional bouts of rain.  I am as mesmerized as I was in the plane.  This time I look up to the skies and wonder:  can anyone see what this looks like from above?  And I know, beyond a doubt, someone can.

So it is with our lives.  Sometimes we are blessed to wake from our sleep, given the gift of seeing something from a newer, higher, wider perspective.  It’s awe-inspiring.  It’s life changing.

I can’t sit tonight and look at the lightning the same way.  I know there is something more; a vantage point that I never even considered until I caught a glimpse.  Right now, the sky is filled with light.  I can see every tree, every dark cloud outlined against the momentary lit-up skies.  I open my windows and my doors, breathing in the stirring, swirling coolness of air.  A huge clap of thunder makes me jump.  I could mistakenly think that this storm is here, in my yard and in my view.  I might even think of it as “my” storm.  But, that isn’t the whole story.  I know there is another vantage point entirely that can see the shape and course of the storm; its power and magnitude can be seen from a distance in ways that I cannot know even as I sit here in its midst.

I think about this tonight.  I think about it vividly.  The experience of these two storms were literal, tangible events in recent days.  But metaphors are swirling in my mind as the winds blow through my hair and torrents of water begin to stream down outside.

Even storms are a matter of perspective.

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Branching

This afternoon, I am noticing things.  I feel the breezes of California that are perfectly warm and yet delightfully cool.  I hear the coo of doves, and the scampering of birds and squirrels around me.  I am sitting where a family of deer has been resident with my seminary colleagues and I these past two weeks, delighting us with every visit.  I notice my own growing familiarity with a “second city” and even my little campus abode that has started to feel like home.  I notice how quiet it is without my community, as we have each given our hugs and said our “until next time!” sentiments of bonding.  I have laughed and cried, struggled and grown with these people. It seems impossible to believe that most of them I have only known for only two weeks.

I have an hour or so before the scheduled shuttle arrives to begin my cross-country trek back home.  Not long, but long enough to truly take a breath.  As I was soaking up some stillness, I opened my eyes and noticed this shadow pattern of branches and leaves:

  
This labyrinth of shadows speaks to my soul today in ways that words cannot fully find yet.  Every branch leads from the center, but these elegant branches cross over each other and form patterns that aren’t simple and direct.  They cross, and bloom; they spiral and swirl.  The pattern cast through the leaves of what is actually a rather plain-looking tree onto the ground have their own stunning beauty.  The pattern cast by the sun through those branches invites me into mystery of where they might be leading. I am drawn in to the patterns of darkness and light, inseparable from each other.  Just like my own journey…

I have made a shift during these past few weeks, further transforming some of the darkness of history into the light filled grace of being present in the now.  So have those here with me.  My greatest take-home gifts aren’t the new sweatshirt, the labyrith scarf from Grace Cathedral, or a new found love of the Brit-com “Rev.”  Those are all wonderful momentos of this time.  My greatest gifts are the words of transformation I have heard spoken by those in my seminary cohort, and the transformation made incarnate in my own inner life.  I am sure they will continue to find a way onto my blog, as I resume a “post-intensive” life that will be its own new beginning, the continued labyrinth walk of formation on which I’ve begun.

For all the small points of light that have made their home in my soul, I am grateful.

Next step: head toward home…

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Forty Five

On this particular anniversary of my birth, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the blessings of an unfolding journey.  I woke this morning in my seminary dorm room, feeling deeply at home in spite of my physical location cross-coastal from my family and everyday routines.  My senses and my spirit were fully awake to greet the day, and I was flooded with words and images of the small points of light that fill my days.

Although I have been taking a little breath from daily writing while I fully immerse into this new chapter of my journey, I wanted to begin this first day of my 45th year surrounded by the many gifts of Divine Presence in daily life, aware and engaged with the movement of Spirit in the world.  So, as is my birthday tradition, I will free form chronicle forty five moments where I have glimpsed those small points of light this year…

…a circular rainbow forms on the clouds mid-flight, filling me with renewed hope.

…a deer greets me at the front door to my building on my first evening on campus.

…a text from my daughter, “did you have a good first day of school, Mom?”

…I sit in chapel with tears filling my eyes as I experience deep belonging which knows no time or distance

…a moment of deep connection with new friends on the journey

…new moments of deep appreciation for friends who have been there at every step

…a chorus of voices filling the night air, chanting by candlelight during a power outage

…a dark and challenging moment in my history being illuminated with the light of grace

…learning to recognize new friends by their laughter

…feeling comfort and familiarity in new surroundings

…the palpable power of ritual to demarcate a change in one’s life course

…the coming together of community around a common goals even in the midst of difference

…realizing that an investment of trust has reaped far more than was ever realized

…following the seemingly ridiculous urging of the Spirit and finding so much God in the most unexpected places

…realizing that all my “paths” are intricately and beautifully entwined with each other, the celtic knot-work of my life

…breathing in stillness

…discovering and cultivating virtual community

…appreciating the gift of trust from those who support my journey

…a breath-taking sunset

…the radiance of the full moon

…the coo of my mourning doves

…a dragonfly that lands beside me on a labyrinth walk

…deep listening

…an “a-ha” moment in the midst of my work day

…my office taking on the look of my blended vocation

…unexpected support from unanticipated places

…learning to say a “Divine Yes”

…the humble grace of learning to say “No”

…feeling upheld in the strength of a spiritual community

…the simple grace of holding space for and with friends and strangers

…realizing how much joy I have in our crazy family dinner conversations

…overflowing abundance of gratitude and groceries at food pantry

…350 turkeys of thanks that transformed my own Thanksgiving

…when words find me

…when my students teach me

…when gratitude overwhelms me

…catching a glimpse of my daughter living fully into who she is, guided by her inner voice

…feeling so small, yet so gloriously connected while standing beneath a sea of stars

…music that finds me in unexpected places

…being fully immersed in the harmony of community

…the palpable relief of letting go and releasing something I’ve been struggling to control

…finding modern truth in ancient language

…the transformative power of radical inclusion

…the blessings of thin places and sacred spaces

…knowing each step is its own emerging journey

Wishing to all many blessings of the daily ordinary to enlighten and enliven your days.

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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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