What’s in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what’s in a name.

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

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

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

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

Reconciliation: that is in a name.

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Remembering the Alamo

It was nine years ago today that I sat with my head buried in my hands, sobbing in the Alamo.  I realize that is a strange image and memory with which to begin a blog post.  But, whether I knew it or not, that moment was…and is…a small point of light for which I remain grateful.

I had defended my dissertation the month prior to my San Antonio visit.  I was “on the market” as a new PhD and actively interviewing for faculty positions around the country.  At that time, this was the big weekend for those interviewing for faculty roles: the Society for Social Work and Research conference.  In fact, my academic colleagues from around the country are all gathered together now.  I am not attending this year (I’ll get to that later…)

Nine years ago was the first SSWR that I had ever attended, and I had several schools with which to have informal (and some formal) interviews about open positions.  I suppose at the time, I was caught up more in the energy of possibility:  which schools wanted to interview me, where would I be a good fit, what would this mean for my family??  I was walking a particularly challenging balance:  finding a place where I wanted to be, and finding a place that wanted me while hoping wherever that was, my family would like it, too.  Throw in the added pressure of mentors who had places they thought that I should be.  I was besieged on all sides, but my head was in the clouds.

I had a mental image of where I wanted to be based on my one-sided gleaning of information about campus locations, glossy mailers of pretty buildings, proximity to research collaborators, and people telling me what was a “good” school.  I had one school that stood out as the shining star in my constellation of opportunities.  The campus was beautiful, the location was great, they had all the programs and collaborators I was looking for, I had my mentors’ seal of approval…from all I could tell it was the perfect place for me.  There were some other standouts, too, and one of those “other” schools had already reached out to me, interviewed me by phone and was flying me out to visit them the week following the conference.  I now realize that I was in an enviable position, although at the time I had no idea of what was typical experience…I was too lost in my own experience.  I was trying to keep my eyes open and make it through the process intact, with a job waiting on the other side.

That particular Friday, I boarded a plane before the crack of dawn and flew to San Antonio.  I was checked into my hotel by 9, and freshened up for an 11:00 interview with my “star” school.  I was ready, armed with information about my dissertation and teaching experience, and how I would contribute to their faculty.  I stepped into a room filled with people whose names I had cited, and whose bios I had read and studied for this pre-employment pop quiz.  Things didn’t start well.  The room was apparently not set up the way the search chair liked, and I listened to him berate the hotel staff as I sat quietly in the hallway outside the interview room.  Insults were used, including an ethnic slur.  I don’t think he realized that anyone was listening, especially a candidate.  Eventually, several other people walked into the room and the person chairing the meeting came back out, which is when I popped up and introduced myself.  I saw by the look on his face that at that moment, he realized I was sitting there the whole time.  I smiled politely, but didn’t say a word.

I started the interview with some typical questions and was asked to give a brief summary of my research.  As I began to describe my dissertation, Parenting after Pregnancy Loss, another member of the group interrupted me as I named attachment theory as an underlying foundation for my research.  He asked (using the term loosely), “Don’t you think that’s a stretch?  I mean…come on…it’s just a pregnancy, and there’s nothing really to attach to.  It sounds like a fictitious attachment to me and you tell us you’re basing a whole dissertation on that?”

I felt my blood boiling, and knew that my neck and face were flushed red with the anger that I was holding back.  Then, I noticed a younger woman faculty member with her jaw dropped in disbelief by this scene.  But clearly, not feeling like she could speak up to stop it.  That was all I needed to see.  I turned to face my questioner and said, “That’s obviously the way you see it.  It’s not the way that many people see it, though, especially people who have been through a pregnancy loss.  I’m sad to hear that your need to assert your opinion could trample over another person’s subjective experience.  That isn’t how I learned to practice social work, and it isn’t how I intend to practice my research, either.”  That was the last lucid thing I remember saying.  There were other questions, and I had other answers.  It became awkward, uncomfortable and was an hour that felt like it would never end.

Like every experience, it finally did come to a close.  I stood up and the search chair walked me to the door, pushed it open for me and patted me on the shoulder and said, “You did a good job, dear.”  That incredibly patronizing act (not to mention, patronizing term) was the final straw for me.  I didn’t acknowledge his statement; I simply walked away.  In re-lived dreams, I imagine being bold enough to have found words, or to have said, “No, I didn’t and neither did you.”  Instead, I just walked and kept on walking.  In order to get back to my hotel by the shortest route possible, I had to cross The Alamo.

I held my hotel in my line of vision, trying to walk and not think about the crushing blows that had just been dealt.  I was desperate not to make eye contact with anyone I might know.  I just wanted the privacy of my room for my thoughts, my anger, my disillusionment, and my tears.  My feet were trying to move my body forward, seeking private shelter for overwhelming emotion.  I just had to cross the Alamo.

I didn’t make it.

I found myself in The Alamo, behind an old stone wall.  There was a stone bench, and I sat and I wept with my back to passers by.  My constellation had been destroyed.  Not only did they not like what they saw in me…I couldn’t stand what I had seen, either.  I wouldn’t have taken a position as a colleague in that group if I were offered twice the salary of another place.  Although, that was irrelevant, because I knew none of us were going to be continuing this conversation.  I sobbed as my assumptive world of “star” schools came crashing down around me.

The beauty of a good cry is how cathartic it can be.  Soon, I was brushing off my business suit and walking to my hotel room to freshen up.  There were other interviews, and a lunch with the school where I would be visiting a few days later.  There were friends to lean on and social networking events with acquaintances old and new, and I was caught up in the whirlwind again in no time.  I fell in the love with the school I visited the following week, and that led to a job offer with the place that has been my academic and professional home for eight years now.  My family did like their new home-town, and we have put down roots here where we could grow and flourish personally and professionally.  I’m grateful to have been emptied of my assumptions so that I could see a different opportunity with new eyes.  The place I chose…and that chose me…has allowed me to be myself, and to continue my journey of becoming even as we change and grow together with all the ups and downs that come with that.  A fit of mutual respect is a beautiful thing, in work and in life.

When my assumptive world of “the perfect school” came crashing down, it emptied me.  I remember the Alamo because it was the place where the siege I didn’t even realize was happening overtook me, emptied me, and dropped me to my knees.  But like those stone walls which tourists file through, I wasn’t destroyed.  I was just empty.

The beauty of emptiness is that it opens us to being filled.

Fast forward nine years.  My social work research friends are at our annual conference in New Orleans this year, and my Facebook feed is filled with pictures of beignets  and cafe au lait…check ins at jazz clubs…pictures of scientific posters and rooms filled with familiar faces.  I am on the program to run my special interest group, but others have stepped up to lead when I announced I wasn’t going this year.  I miss it.  I miss spending time with special people, and I miss the energy of large groups of acquaintances and small groups of friends catching up.  Let’s be honest…I also miss the ego-rush of people who want to talk with me about my research and who know me from what I write and publish and now get to know me as a person (I want to live into that with integrity, too).

There is an empty space I am feeling this weekend that I recognize is about more than just a conference.  I am on a journey that is changing, and the course that I have been on for the past nine years is altering.  Many people don’t know that yet but I am aware of it, and I honor the feelings that go along with it.  I am emptying myself for a reason.  I am charting a new course on my journey for which I needed to free up space so that new growth can emerge.  Transformation has already happened.  Now, I sit on the edge of noticeable change becoming very evident in my life, and I can welcome it with openness and freedom.  I didn’t need to be knocked down this time.  And I don’t need to hide.  I learned a lesson nine years ago about that.

Today, I am remembering the Alamo.  I am grateful for the lesson I learned, a lesson that I share:  We need to be empty in order to be filled.

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Owl Thoughts

This sight greeted me today, in the quiet of a Sunday afternoon. I keep seeing the eyes of this beautiful, majestic bird. In my head, heart, and soul, I keep hearing the imagery of one of my favorite poems of Mary Oliver. Sharing both as tonight’s small point of light…

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“White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field”
By Mary Oliver

Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

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Saturatation

This is one of those Friday nights where I have been completely grateful that my most social interaction needed to take place at the local pizza joint, picking up dinner that could be consumed with minimal preparation or mess. I love Friday pizza night, and the indulgent luxury of ending a re-entry week by soaking up quiet.

Sometimes on Friday nights, I just let it all sink in. Tonight, I could simultaneously cry and laugh at the bizarre, intense, heartfelt, ridiculous, annoying, overwhelming ordinary chaos that has been wrought during this week of re-entry from vacation back to work and school. Whole sit-com episodes and drama series could play out on the week’s adventures. But, as my spouse pointed out at dinner, that doesn’t mean anyone else would actually want to watch it. At least, laughing about it over Friday night pizza entertains us. Perhaps that is enough.

What I am reflecting on tonight is simple: we need down time. We need it because sometimes, we become saturated by life:

sat·u·ra·tion (ˌsaCHəˈrāSH(ə)n/)
noun
1) the state or process that occurs when no more of something can be absorbed, combined with, or added.
CHEMISTRY
2) the degree or extent to which something is dissolved or absorbed compared with the maximum possible, usually expressed as a percentage.
3) to a very full extent, especially beyond the point regarded as necessary or desirable.

That’s it…that is exactly how my whole being feels tonight.

Even though I can be a crazy, busy multi-tasking agent of doing good…sometimes I just need to sit. My body, mind, and spirit need to get in the same place at the same time. I am trying not to allow guilt, to forbid using the term “lazy” or denigrating myself for an evening of quiet. I am learning to appreciate the sacred space to simply be.

I am about to dispense with my electronics, too, and make myself some tea and symbolically stir in honey just to watch it dissolve. I am replacing my saturation of re-entry and all its crazy energy with a cup of warmth, saturated with sweetness.

I will sip on that tonight. Maybe you can do the same?

Taste the sweetness of that small point of light…

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Epiphany and Science

On Christmas day, Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted a little gem that stirred up some sentiment…or at least, some social media air time.  In case you missed it, his now infamous tweet was: “On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642″

While one can infer a host of things about that message (irrespective of whether a “heavenly host” was involved) what clearly comes across in his message is a linguistic and intellectual positioning of science and religion as separate, side-by-side entities which may co-exist, but do not co-mingle.  Many responses to that tweet perpetuated a sentiment that religion (here, Christianity) and science are in some sort of competition for existential meaning and importance on December 25.  Personally, I don’t believe that the two are distinct, nor in competition, but I realize and respect that some people might.  Regardless of how you may feel about Dr. deGrasse Tyson’s December 25th tweet, I hope this blog post offers something new to this conversation.

Today…January 6th…is Epiphany.  Epiphany is for scientists.

Let me explain.

The one common feature that I notice in every one of my scientifically minded colleagues is that there is an unmistakable awe in the possibility of discovery.  That moment of discovery…which in the realm of translational science we even refer to as “T-Zero”…is when something happens that takes us by surprise, and makes us reject the null hypothesis when we didn’t have another hypothesis that we were observing and expecting to occur.  It could be the moment that a cancer cell dies in the presence of a newly introduced substance; it could be an observation of a potentially different species or the prospect of a new element that exists even for a fraction of a nano-second; it could be an intervention that produces a desired effect three times faster than anything else that has been tried. It isn’t yet “proven” through testing, re-testing, and challenging contextual limitations but there has been discovery.  Any scientist who loves what they do will have a “discovery” story to share that has hooked us in our field and keeps us asking the next question, examining the data a little more deeply, considering alternative hypotheses, holding out the prospect of meaning in emergent design.  We can study people, cells, robotics, plants, art, cognition…the list is endless.  The moment of discovery is Epiphany; it is where wisdom meets knowledge and creates a spark.

Today is that day…Epiphany…in the Christian calendar.  By tradition, Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Magi…the “We Three Kings” of song and legend…to deliver gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the young Jesus and his family.  Although we are not told a great deal about this visit in scripture, the inference that we have is that these visitors traveled from far away; they were educated, wise, and used all the evidence around them to chart a course toward something that inspired their intellectual curiosity.

We aren’t told that the Magi had any kind of conversion experience.  We don’t really know if or how their world views changed after their moment of discovery.  Like most scientists, they likely didn’t make an instant pronouncement, and they most certainly would not have discussed it with any sources likely to report on it out of context; that happens without scientific effort.  But, like all those of scientific mind and intellectual curiosity, they were seeking to find something…yet, they were also holding out the realization that they might find nothing.  That is one of the hallmarks of science.  As Albert Einstein so succinctly put it (at least according to the plaque in my office): “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.”

The one aspect of the Epiphany Gospel from Matthew stands out to me:  “…and having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”  We are told the magi chose a different direction; this is a response to discovery, to new information, to an unsettling of the status quo.

The one thing that all scientists have in common is the prospect that we will find nothing.  So, when we have a moment of discovery…when we can reject the null hypothesis…when an emergent finding materializes from within an inquiry…wisdom touches knowledge.  We are transformed.  Knowledge is generated.  Epiphany.

I’m not suggesting that any person has to believe that three smart men rode camels across a desert and found a baby laying in a manger the way that carved crèche might suggest.  But, I am holding out the possibility that even in the midst of a religious story, scientific discovery can occur.  And, that during a life of scientific pursuit, a spiritual experience of wisdom can emerge.  In both situations, we are transformed. We will likely go home by another road.

Epiphany: where wisdom and knowledge meet each other, and we are transformed.

With gratitude, as I close this Epiphany, for transformation that has allowed me to travel home by another road.

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Charmed

You never know when a moment of serendipity will emerge; I suppose that is the point of these random acts of cosmic curiosity. Today, as we were driving home after my daughter’s guitar lesson through a crowded part of the city, she blurted out, “Look! Plaid!!” as she pointed out a rack of flannel shirts outside a vintage clothing and whatever-else store. Normally, I might have kept driving toward the highway on-ramp. But, since I was still feeling the freedom of the last few days of my holiday break I said, “ok, if there is a parking spot in the next three blocks, I’ll stop.” Two and three-quarter blocks later, I was parallel parking.

She by-passed the rack of plaid altogether as soon as we walked past and saw it was sized to fit an XXL man rather than a small tween, but she quickly became intrigued by a display of vintage photographs inside. Having spent a summer learning to shoot 35mm film and develop black and white photos in the darkroom, she is now hooked. Sixth grade is clearly the year of flannel, guitars, and black and white photography, I thought. I breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the American Girl era…I was ready to move along from the girls of the year and their over-priced accessories.

I do not need even one more vintage object in my home, so I was rambling about trying not to look at anything too closely while she browsed through the old photos. Jewelry is always safe…or at least, small…so I peeked into a cabinet with a vast array of sterling silver charms and pendants. There were a few sweet little crosses and such which I sometimes pick up to make prayer beads. But one charm, almost buried beneath the others, caught my eye. The owner noticed something had grabbed my attention and came over to unlock the case. He even had a hard time figuring out which one I wanted to see.

That one…the tear-shaped one…it has a celtic cross on it…

He handed me several pieces of celtic knot silver first, thinking I would like them better.

No, the one underneath…yes, that one!. He finally found the one I had spied. I held it in my hand, feeling the weight of cast sterling silver and felt an undeniable connection between me, and that particular symbol. I looked at the beautiful, rustic celtic cross on the front of the pendant:

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Then, I flipped it over. Of course…it all came together:

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The Triquetra knot, topping the words, “St. Martin’s Cross” and “Iona” where the patron saint of my birthdate, June 9, lived out his days in the monastery on that celtic isle.

I knew, at that moment, I was supposed to find this. This little moment of serendipity, a charm of blessing and a reminder to center myself in this new year that I am stepping into. It’s an old piece, and it has a history I don’t know. But, it will remind me daily that the ancient past, the present moment, and the future converge and emerge with each step.

I paid for my purchase…a whole $15…and bought a few favorite black and white photos for my daughter, too. We walked the three blocks back to the car and headed home, both smiling contentedly at life’s serendipity.

I close and rest tonight with a prayer from St. Columba, vintage style of course:

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Unsettled

My daughter and I were sitting in our favorite local “vegetarian friendly” diner today. It has haphazard vintage tables strung together, serves all day breakfast to college students, hungover hipsters, and whatever other slices of humanity walk in the door. Growlers, grits, and gluten-free vegan tempeh dishes are all served up amid conversing diners sporting rainbow shades of hair which, in winter, are frequently topped with all forms of hats. There is clearly no dress code: diners wear whatever they feel like, exuding individuality. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are simultaneously served. Fluidity comes in all forms here, from bottomless coffee to local brews to non-binary gender expression.

Did I mention it’s one of my favorite places in town?

We sat down and read through the menu, considering all the vegetarian possibilities. My daughter is adamantly claiming her vegetarian identity these days, so these outings offer good practice for encountering a range of culinary options. I ordered a vegan curried “chicken” salad wrap. Although she stuck with time-honored grilled cheese and french fries this visit, her options widened a bit more for the future. She was more relaxed and at peace with simply being herself than I have seen her in a long time.

Truthfully, it was more than a desire for flesh-free eating that compelled me to suggest our lunch visit today. I am wearied, saddened, and unsettled in my soul by the tragic deaths of beautiful young people like Leelah Alcorn. Whether judged by gender expression, sexual orientation, or other diverse facets of personhood, some beautiful young adults are forced into unsettling hopelessness. I am a social worker who has worked as a grief therapist, so I fully understand the role of mental health challenges that impact suicidality. But, I also agree with Leelah’s last words: society has to change.

While I know that changing society isn’t as simple as lunching in our hipster dive, there is a lesson to be learned here. No one was cast a funny look, not even the relatively mainstream college professor and her tween daughter. We were all seated and served, said hellos, happened to see a friend or two, sat amid strangers and asked for ketchup from a table with two bottles when our table had none…and it was gladly shared. It’s a sub-culture of sharing and acceptance here. We talked about that openly, felt it, and lived it. If I can offer my child one thing, and one thing only, it will be this reality: you are loved and welcomed, exactly as you are. So is everyone else. That was today’s message, implicitly and explicitly.

What would the world be like if we could get over ourselves enough to read through the entire menu to see what all the options were, even if we ended up sticking with the familiar? How amazing would it be to sit and serve and sip with people who experience life so very differently from us, and yet we could share a common place that feels like home? We might even learn that our options are far wider than we ever realized on our own, and find others who seem so different on the surface, but also love the same things we love.

There is another place where this level of radical love and welcome can happen. The Church has that potential, even if we have not always lived into it. I am committed to creating it, living it and nurturing it into being. Radical hospitality, grace, welcome, communion: we can choose to feed others and be fed in a place of welcome. We can choose to be that place of radical welcome.

Being unsettled has a purpose: it’s the harbinger of necessary change that is ready to be set free. We will be unsettled until we can stop judging, until we can stop fearing.

Yes: Society has to change. Church has to change.

Yes: Society has to be forgiven. Church has to be forgiven.

We must learn to share, to serve, and to trust the radically perfect love and welcoming grace of God. We simply need to see it, live it, experience it reflected in the amazing and vibrant diversity of all who surround us.

It is in that radical love and grace where my unsettled spirit can rest tonight.

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The Eve before the Eve before New Years

When I was young, I had a record (yes, a vinyl record) of children’s Christmas songs, one of which was called The Day Before the Night Before Christmas.  I can’t recall all the lyrics, but some of them were, “…it’s the day before the night before Christmas, and I’m busy, busy, busy being good.  It’s the day before the night before Christmas, doing everything a good girl should…” As one might predict, the singer was taking every opportunity to demonstrate to Santa that she has a well-deserved place on the “Nice” list.

Inexplicably, I woke up with those lyrics running through my head this morning.  It’s amazing what trivial information the vault of our mind contains, truly.  Never one to ignore the trivial, though, I started thinking about those words, since (after all) today is the Eve before the Eve before New Years.

I know that it’s tempting to wait until the last minute to enact change in our lives.  I notoriously start flossing regularly when I receive a reminder card about my dental cleanings, and of course resume any ill-fated exercise regime a couple weeks before my annual check-up so I can confidently report what my “usual exercise routine” looks like.  It’s human nature…well, at least its MY human nature…to shift into high gear when I know that accountability is about to find me.

There are areas of my life where I enact change because I want to, of course.  What is harder to deal with are the areas where I lack motivation to change.  People telling me what I should do, or that it’s good for me…that is not all that motivating, I have to be honest.  On my more passive-aggressive days, it might even ensure my non-compliance. In order to actually change, I first have to take in the possibility of change, to really know and believe that I’m getting benefit in either the short-term or the long-term (even better, both!).  Then, I have to integrate the change into my routine in a way that feeds me, and helps me realize the benefits of change. This whole process of motivation to change is what social scientists understand to be the root of all positive behavior changes: we even have a fancy word for it, the “Transtheoretical Model of Change.”

[Note:  For some of us, and we know who we are, fancy words and empirical evidence also help us make these shifts in our own thoughts and actions. It’s OK, really.]

Back to my point, though.  It’s the Eve before the Eve before New Years.  It’s a good day for me to ponder: what have I done this year that makes me want to take note of its benefit, to encourage myself to stay on the course and keep growing?  That is probably a better mental exercise on the day-before-the-day-before than getting out the big stick and beating myself up for what changes I have yet to accomplish.

Phrased this way, my biggest achievement of 2014 is probably stillness.  In 2014, I have worked to refine being still, and listening to what is offered to me in that space.  In the 43 1/2 years prior to 2014, I did a really good job at filling up all the spaces of my time, attention, and energy.  I haven’t lost that urge, trust me.  But, an appreciation for a time of daily stillness has become incredibly important to me this year.  I was able to “hear” things in that space that I would have missed, that have given me strength and confidence, and wisdom.  Yes, stillness will remain in 2015.

Next up: resignation.  I learned, finally, how to step away from something that wasn’t serving me.  It’s not in my nature to step down, and even when I have done so in the past, I generally craft an excuse that makes it sound better than it really is.   I learned how to resign authentically and honestly this year.  I left a position that wasn’t serving me and I have no regrets about it.  I’m making less money, woo hoo!  I’m working just as hard as ever if not harder, and seeing less in my paycheck, hooray!  No tangible rewards on this one, at least not short term or to society’s standards.  But, I have peace of mind; I have freedom to pursue work that feeds my soul and the satisfaction of enjoying it. Now, I know how to engage the process of stepping away so that the next time I feel the need, I will not go through the internal anguish that I did reaching the decision.

Finally, discernment.  This, I didn’t learn on my own.  I have had circles of people helping me, supporting me, challenging me and teaching me the difference between deciding, and discerning.  In fairness, the value of discernment was predetermined for me.  I didn’t intuitively want to like it.  I stepped into a process with the Episcopal Church that valued discernment, and I had to learn how to slow down and appreciate how to discern, rather than decide.  My personal nature isn’t all that process-oriented.  I like making things happen, and getting all the details tied up in a neat little package with a funky eye-appealing wrapping and ribbons to hold it together.  That isn’t what discernment is about, though.  It is the iterative process of stepping in, offering what we have to others and working through a process of actively listening, patiently waiting, and jointly hearing the wisdom that is offered in the process.  The spiritual and emotional place where I closed my 2013 is very, very different than where I am closing my 2014.  Discerning is a supported process where knowledge and wisdom meet each other.  Actually, I learned to love it. There’s a peace here for which I am deeply and reverently grateful.

So, here I am.  The Eve before the Eve before New Year’s.  Instead of being “busy, busy, busy being good” I am still; I have learned the art of resignation; I am continuing to discern and growing with each iteration.  It’s a joyous place to end the year, and to move forward in faith to what 2015 offers.

Yes, yes…and I will resolve to resume my exercise routine, too!

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Winter Sunset

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The sun sank low
as cold air filled the void
left by its warming rays,
swiftly departing.

As quickly as it sank,
Brush strokes of coral
tinted the western canvas,
exposing the stark outlines
of skeletal trees.

There, then gone in an instant.
All of it, vanished.
The fleeting beauty of winter,
the shortest days
the longest nights
but vibrant living
in between.

–SKP

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Advent Word: Delight

I have vivid memories of Christmas Past that involve the “Festival of Lights” in Niagara Falls. I don’t look back at high school with much awe, I must admit. But, one of my fondest high school memories was arriving by bus to the then-glorious Rainbow Mall; walking through the multi-story winter garden greenhouse hearing carolers dressed in Renaissance garb serenading us in our young friendships and romances; crossing over to the state park filled with light sculptures and eventually walking to peek into the roaring, icy Niagara Falls amid the freezing mist stinging our cheeks.

I held some of that memory in my mind as I coaxed my mother and daughter to make the Niagara Falls drive with me during our holiday visit. I knew we had to stay stateside due to lack of passports, but I was undaunted in my quest to show them both the lights of Niagara this Christmas season.

As it turns out, not only is the former Rainbow Mall now demolished, but the former “Winter Garden” is now a multi-story souvenir and ethnic fast food establishment. Not quite the winter-tide festivities I remembered. On the bright side, the parking was free and plentiful this side of the Falls, with all the action now having moved to Canada.

I admit, I started to get a little annoyed at my daughter whining about not having a passport. I was biting my tongue, hoping and waiting for something to redeem our hour long trek. My Mom was a good sport, though, and we hiked toward the falls through an empty, unlit park. As we approached the Niagara Rapids, I started to feel myself getting drawn in to the stark beauty of the dusk, the rapids, the unlit winter trees standing in stark silhouette to the rushing water:

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My daughter, who had been dragging her feet, suddenly sprang to life and brought out the 35mm camera she has been learning to use. She started testing out settings, lighting, lenses. This was the perfect place to experiment. A dozen or so other people…not hundreds…were gathered by the edge of Niagara Falls waiting in hopes of an illumination. It was past 5 p.m. and dusk was becoming dark. The sky was majestic with winter clouds as the sun dipped low into the horizon. At that moment, the illumination emerged full force from the Canadian side, creating billowing mist clouds:

First, vibrant red:

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Then, an enchanted green:

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Next, bright golden yellow:

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Finally, a lavender dreamscape:

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We snapped pictures through several cycles through each color on that cold, misty evening. It suddenly didn’t matter any more if the timing of a former grand event had come and gone. There was beauty here…total delight, in fact…even in the remnant pieces of nature that were illuminated during the warmth and wonder of a three generation trip.

Even if we think we know the destination, sometimes we arrive to a place different than our expectations. I was reminded that it isn’t about getting where we think we want to go, but about our willingness to take in what gifts are offered here and now, as the present moment unfolds.

Now, I hold this new memory as delight.

In response to the AdventWord global advent calendar project with the Society for St. John the Evangelist. Today’s word: #Delight. Follow the worldwide advent calendar at: http://www.aco.org/adventword.cfm

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