Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On Retreat Back in April

For the past several years, I've made a silent retreat of several days, usually at the rural Jesuit Center in Wernersville PA.  Last summer, still pastoring at Tiny Rural Church, I decided that I'd like to make my next retreat in a somewhat more populated locale.  I started thinking about whom I knew, in person or by reputation, in places like New York and Boston, and then remembered that Spiritual Director Emeritus is at Georgetown!  Although my plans for a winter retreat were derailed by the broken ankle episode, I did get there in April.  For whatever reason, I've been thinking about that week today, and so here is my usual pictorial replay:

 I stayed at the Jesuit Residence (the JesRes) on campus, an elegant building in which an incredibly hospitable and kind community of rather amazing men resides.  I stayed mostly to myself, and they all honored my retreat time, but it was a lot of fun to look around at meals and recognize faces from book jacket photographs.  (I think I was probably the only Presbyterian in the building all week, and one of very few women.  Some weeks my life is more unusual than others.) 
My car, sadly, spent several days and a lot of money on its own retreat a local service station.  It had started to sputter as I approached the campus, and the next day was utterly silent and still.  Some kind of transmission line thing.
The first couple of days it was really warm, so I stayed outside as much as possible.
Early morning prayer view:
 I spent a lot of time curled up with my foot elevated and wrapped in my ice pack, probably because I persisted in exploring the campus at least a little bit.
History ~
Trinity Chapel Courtyard ~
My story ~
Crypt chapel ~
Dahlgren Chapel ~
Iggy, of course ~

Michelle and her husband came down from Bryn Mawr for a production in which their son was involved and stopped by for a late night visit:

And a certain spiritual director refused to cooperate for a Serious and Spiritual Selfie.
It's difficult to articulate the results of a week of intensive and silent prayer ~ in this case, relaxed and only relatively silent.  I have a sense, though, that the results of that retreat are starting  to seep into my daily ministry and to sort themselves into a slight and much needed alteration of perspective.
I first became acquainted with a Christ Pantocrator icon at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon.   It probably means something that I ran into another one on the other side of the country during a week that might turn out to have been somewhat significant.

Monday, July 21, 2014

More Asia, More Memory

Some seeds flower into the most astonishing color.
This morning I received an email from Josh's girlfriend's father, to whom I had written apologizing for having to leave his wife's memorial service early (previous post).  He filled me in on what we had missed, which included this video as his final farewell to his wife in  honor of their cross-cultural romance.
It is worth attending to for the entire five minutes.  And, of course, it speaks to all of us in our losses.
Our relationship with this family is tenuous and unusual.  But I think that many families who have lost children find themselves briefly and intensely connected to those who have in some way shared in those losses.
I am extremely grateful that six years later this video has come my way because of one of those connections.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Saigon, Chicago, Cleveland

There's a scene in an early episode of the most recent season of Downton Abbey that goes something like this:
One of the recently widowed Mary's suitors has come to dinner.  At the end of the evening, her mother-in-law Isobel, for whom the event has been excruciating, shakes the young man's hand and says, "I hope that we'll be seeing more of you."  Isobel's nemesis, the Countess Dowager, says in an aside to someone else, "One hates to admit it, but that was very well done."
I think it's something to which to aspire, that people say that we have done well when circumstances seem to dictate that we would not.
Yesterday, the Quiet Husband and I attended the memorial event for Josh's former fiancée's mother.  In a strange twist of fate, it was held here; several members of the far-flung family live nearby, and so they decided that all would gather here.  A's father and I have been in very occasional communication, which meant that he told us when his wife died, and welcomed us to the event.
We debated until the last minute  whether to attend and, if so, for how long. In the end, we decided to go for a bit of the gathering time and stay through the lengthy program (which, finally, we had to leave before its conclusion, since I had another obligation).
I am so glad that we went.
We have not seen A in nearly six years, not since the day she joined us to clean out the apartment she and Josh had once shared in Chicago.   We all learned a great deal about one another and about Josh's death on that day, one of those days that burns itself indelibly into your mind. She and I corresponded frequently for a year or so, but in the ensuing five years she has built a new life, become engaged, and moved to a new city. While I wish that her life were with my son, it was a tremendous relief to see her doing well and talking animatedly about her work and family. 
I don't know how A experienced it, but our conversation reminded me of one many years ago.  Our daughter had flown into Chicago from her semester abroad in Prague, and the two girls and I lingered all morning over breakfast. A told us about her decision to drop out of her academic graduate program and focus her life upon dance; I remember the excitement I felt for her as a young woman finding her authentic path in life.  I felt some of that pleasure for her again yesterday, knowing full well the life-changing terms of the interruption we had all experienced.
Insofar as the memorial event was concerned, it had been engineered by A's father to tell the story of his marriage, beginning with his life in the Air Force in the waning months of the Vietnam War, and the young Vietnamese woman who told the cousin working in the officers' club that she wanted to meet an American.  Slides, videos, photos, memorabilia: the story ~ of 20th century Vietnam, of a young woman whose girlhood had been marked by devastating loss and hardship, of a young officer, and of a family life spent criss-crossing the country in a peripatetic military career ~ was spell-binding.  And A spoke beautifully about her mother, their relationship, and her loss. 

 (Saigon, 1966)
I still don't really know why we went.  To see A.  To honor the mother with whom I had once thought I would share the role of mother-in law but in the end never met.  To honor the father who was a support to me in ways he probably knows nothing about.  To recognize the small and tenuous and yet striking connection between our families.  I don't know.  But I am grateful to have witnessed what I did.
Since Josh died, I have often thought of Eleanor Roosevelt's words: You must do that which you think you cannot do. At first, those words applied to getting out of bed.  Now, to other things, but still often.  I find, though, that I am usually grateful in some way to have done whatever it was that it seemed I could not.  I am grateful for this.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Rediscovering Wonder

When I was a little girl growing up in the country, wonder was an everyday experience. The caterpillars we watched morph into butterflies, the birds we spent days trying to catch, the creek we wandered for hours, the snakes we actually did catch and keep in jars on the stone wall out back until we tired of them and let them go.

Today they say that children experience grief in spurts, moving quickly back and forth between moments of intense sadness and periods of play and humor.  That rings true to me, and it also explains why otherwise intelligent and perceptive adults fifty years ago believed the professionals who told them that children do not grieve.  Those moments of intensity come on quickly for children, and disappear almost as fast, rendering them invisible to people who don't want to see them anyway.  And children are quick to sense the latter, and learn to keep their sorrows to themselves.

Thus I could roam the countryside, play sixteen-inning games of softball, and splash in summer camp brooks and waterfalls, finding wonder easily despite the airless density of childhood loss.

For adults, it's somewhat different.

A couple of summers ago, I heard myself saying to a spiritual director, "I was, quite simply . . . completely enchanted by my children.  And then . . . one of them was gone.  And thus enchantment evaporated from my life."

I've been reflecting on that statement this summer.  Perhaps my capacity for wonder, if not actual enchantment, is making a comeback.  Or, at least, tapping on the door.  This summer has already ushered in its grueling moments, with more predicted ~ most of them having to do with pretending to enjoy myself so that others are not burdened.  But I find that I am longing for some genuine joy.

Interesting, isn't it, that this surge of hopeful anticipation should accompany my renewed ability to walk short distances?  Yesterday I walked a mile around my immediate neighborhood early in the morning, and another mile in the opposite direction in the evening.  It's such a pleasure to see the world on foot again, to notice faces and dogs and gardens in ways that one can't from a car.
In her poem When Death Comes, Mary Oliver, who has certainly experienced her own deep loss, says:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
Regretfully, I will not be able to say that of all my life.   Or, perhaps, I will.  Perhaps the black hole of the last six years, sucking all the gravity into a huge and heavy space of darkness, will someday reveal itself as its own venue of wonder.
But for now, I think I would like to return to the more conventional forms.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Partners and the People Who Love Them

A member of my congregation waits for me in the parlor just outside the sanctuary today.  She is a quiet woman, probably absent more than present in worship, and has never initiated a conversation with me before. I nod ~ "just a moment" ~ as I am deep in conversation with our finance chair, and she waves me off ~ "no big deal" and retreats.
I track her down in the kitchen a few minutes later.  It turns out that she wants to understand our denomination's new decisions about same-gender marriage.  After I explain the new situation in which we find ourselves, with pastors now able to perform same-gender weddings in states in which they are legal, and a vote ahead on changing our constitution to define marriage as between "two people," she gets to the real question: What do I think?
"Entirely in favor," I say, and add that I believe that God created us as we are and created us for loving relationships.  "And you?" I ask.
"Me, too," she says.  "I mean, I could never understand the problem, and now there's my grandson . . . ".  Her voice trails off, and I realize she is still anticipating my disapproval.  Her grandson, it turns out, lives in a nearby city, and is in a relationship, and, well, you never know.

"Not in Ohio," I say.  "But they can go to another state, and they can be married by a Presbyterian pastor."
"Even better," she smiles.
Last year, in Conservative Small Rural Church, one of our members was liturgist for the day, which means that he was the reader for various portions of the service.  He decided that the hymn singing between the Call to Worship and the Prayer of Confession would be a good time to lean over and divulge his concerns about a grandson who had recently broken up with his male partner.  We had had many conversations, but this was the first I had ever heard of either grandson or partner.
He was not concerned about his grandson being gay.  He was concerned about his grandson's broken heart.  And he wanted to tell me at a time when no reaction on my part was possible.
After church, we had a longer conversation.  "How are you doing with this?" I asked.
"I'm fine," he said.  "It was hard at first.  It certainly wasn't what I was taught, or grew up with.  But I'm sure that God loves my grandson, and his partner.  I just wish that they could work it out."
There's a lot of public response to our new possibilities.  Exuberant celebration and strident anger.
And then there are people quietly living their lives and hoping that their loved ones can work it out.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mysteries of Preaching

Preaching - it was the first big attraction in ministry for me.  As a member of a large United Methodist congregation, I reveled in the challenging words which poured fom the pulpit each week.  Eventually, I transferred my allegiance to the series of weekly preachers who filled the pulpit at the Chautauqua Institution each summer.  That's where I first heard Barbara Brown Taylor, known to me as my Georgia step-sister's priest rather than as Famous Newsweek Preacher.  She preached thoughtful, reflective sermons filled with stories rather than the exhortations I was accustomed to hearing, sermons which planted a seed of wondering identity my own heart.

Although it would be many years and a few sermons of my own before I found my way to seminary, I still hadn't given much critical thought to the preaching enterprise before I got there.  The one homiletics (preaching) class I took wasn't the one I needed.  By then I had realized a little of how much there is to preaching, but the class was mostly focused on the goal of memorizing sermons - which had better not be the standard upon which your preaching rises or falls if you struggle with short-term memory as much as I do.  (And, as I have since learned, if you want to deliver a sermon without notes, memorization is probably the least effective tool for accomplishing that goal.  At least it is if you're me.)

A couple of of professors in classes other than homiletics, howeve, emphasized the importance of context in preaching.  I knew the definition of the word "context," of course, but in truth I had no idea what my professors meant by it.  
And the senior pastor of my field ed church told me on more than one occasion that I was a solid writer, but that I needed to learn that a sermon is an oral event.  Once again, I understood the words, but not the meaning.

These days, I preach every Sunday, and have for two and one-half years.  And I think I'm finally starting to understand words like "context" and "oral event."  And - it turns out that they represent the coolest parts of preaching.

Oh - I still love to weld words into beautiful sentences.  I love to backtrack further and further into the thesaurus, seeking precision and song in vocabulary (thank you, internet!).  I love to go to the library and pull a stack of books from the shelves containing commentaries on particular books of the Bible.  I love to read the morning paper or a novel or People magazine and think, "That's what Jesus meant!"  I love to toss books down from my own 
library shelves (most of which are two rows deep) because I am sure that Teresa of Avila or John Wesley or Miroslav Wolf said the thing I need that I can't quite remember.  I even love, sometimes, to dig into a word or phrase or sentence in Greek or Hebrew, because it has to mean something other than the obvious (and for that I am entirely dependent upon the internet.)

But I have found that what I love, most of all, is to imagine the faces and voices and troubles and triumphs and questions and heartaches and joys of the people with whom I'll be speaking, and to turn my words toward them.  I love trying to figure out how to convey an idea or a possibility or a hope so that they 'll understand it, or wonder about it, or pursue it in some other way.  I love thinking about where to change my inflection or repeat a sentence or maybe insert a joke or story or maybe not ~ things which seldom appear in a written manuscript.

Occasionally I am invited to preach or to speak somewhere other than my own church (or classroom, a situation in which the building of community is similar to the process that takes place in church). I find that I don't enjoy those opportunities nearly as much as I once did.  It's so much more fun when preaching is part of long-term relationship. Riskier, I suppose, but still a lot more fun.

Who knew?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Let Us Pray (Sermon)

Many years ago, I happened to bump into one of my pastors at a local park.  I was out for a walk, and he was sitting at a picnic table with his lunch and a book.  I sat down for a moment’s chat and he said, “You know, I’m reading Paul’s letters, and I’m reading his words, ‘Pray without ceasing.’  That seems like a tall order to me.  I don’t even know where to begin.  What do you think that means, ‘Pray without ceasing?’”
“Me?” I said.  “Hey, you’re the pastor! How would I know?”
How would I know?  Even though Jesus is always going aside to pray, as he does in today’s gospel passage, before embarking upon a full day of ministry.  Even though I’m now a pastor, too, and a spiritual director, which means that I have some specialized training and experience in helping people with their lives of prayer, and with giving retreats on prayer – I still find that the same questions arise constantly – for myself, for other pastors, for people in all walks of life: What does it mean to pray without ceasing?  Or, as today’s Message translation invites us to do, to pray “all the time?” What does it mean to pray at all?  Why do we pray?  How do we pray?  Do we pray?
Some of us pray only in church, if even here.  Prayer means the words which we say out loud, or to which we listen, as written in the bulletin or as led by the pastor or liturgist.  Sometimes those words are a bit ponderous, like the title of this sermon – “Let. Us. Pray.”  Solemn words, often with many syllables – the kinds of prayers that result in jokes because we don’t understand them and they make us uncomfortable.  (I’m thinking of jokes like the one about the little kid who asks why prayers always include vegetables – “Lettuce pray.”) If the prayers contain enough big words and are said with enough seriousness – well, then, prayer must be something formal and incomprehensible, something for the experts.  Something we couldn’t possibly do ourselves, and certainly not all the time.
For many of us, prayer means asking for something.  We have been taught, and indeed Jesus himself tells us, “Ask and it will be given you. Seek and you shall find” (Matthew 7:7).  Thousands of such prayers are directed heavenward every minute.  Prayers of small children: “Please don’t let my dog die.”  Prayers of students: “Please let me pass this test for which I have not studied one bit.” (Don’t let anyone tell you there is no prayer in school!) Prayers of parents: “Please keep my child safe.” Prayers of children: “Please heal my mom.”  Prayers of the sick, the injured, the broke, the homeless, the lonely, the angry, the divorced, the defendant, the cold, the tired: “Please help me.” And, of course, prayers of the frustrated: “Please, let me find my keys.” Or, as a friend put it this past week when I confessed to the prayer for keys being one of my most frequent, “Open my eyes that I may see!”
All good prayers.  All important prayers. (Even the one for keys!) All prayers which God encourages us to speak, whether in worship in community or in small groups or in the quiet of our own homes.  And, in fact, when we are faced with a great desire, such as a hope for a new job offer, or when life is going badly, such as when someone is dying, we may find that, at least for that period of life, we do know what it means to pray without ceasing, to pray all the time.
But all of this prayer, all of this formality, all of this asking and hoping and longing, all of this pleading – it’s all just a beginning, just a scratching of the surface of what prayer is about.  It’s a grand beginning – grand because through these prayers we acknowledge that we are tethered to someone beyond ourselves, grand because we understand that we need help and solace, grand because these prayers are expressions of hope, and hope in this world is always a grand thing – but still only a beginning.
And that’s ok, because, as the great masters of prayer have been reminding us for centuries, “We are all always beginners. We are all always beginners.”
How can it be that we are always beginners?  Surely we can improve if we but set our minds to it? I remember taking swimming lessons as a little girl at summer camp, and making my way through the Red Cross gradations of swimming levels.  It took me a loooong time to get the hang of swimming, and I remember how much I wanted to acquire that stack of little white cards indicating that I had passed the tests for each level.  I remember that I especially wanted to move from Beginner to Advanced Beginner.  Advanced Beginner!  That meant that I was no longer a mere tadpole in the shallow end of swimming.  That meant that I had moved beyond the simplest of strokes and the shortest of distances to something a bit more complicated.  Deep water and diving board, here I come!
Prayer is not quite like that. Oh, there are lots of people and lots of books that will suggest advanced levels of prayer.  There are people who write exquisite prayers, people who write prayer that is, quite literally, poetry of the highest order – people like George Herbert, the 17th century Welsh poet and Anglican priest, whose language can sometimes take hours to disentangle, or like Mary Oliver, the contemporary poet who lives on Cape Cod and writes in phrases seemingly easy to understand that yet give us pause and ask questions that we ponder for days.  Are George Herbert and Mary Oliver “advanced pray-ers?”
There are people who spend hours each day in prayer – monks and nuns whose task is to pray for the world and for all of us, most of us people with concerns about whom they have never heard.  Theirs is a calling often little understood – wouldn’t their time be better spent teaching, or caring for the sick, or dishing up food to the poor?  Would it?  Or all we all much better served because there are those whose task is to pray deeply – and unceasingly – for us?  But are they “advanced pray-ers?”
And then there are people whose prayer has moved from words to silence, people who spend almost all of their prayer time in quiet solitude, people who have left behind prayer as we are accustomed to thinking of it for something still and dense and free.  Are they “advanced pray-ers?”
Or are we, indeed, all always beginners? I think we are.  Certainly there are those who pray with more sophisticated words than we do, or for longer periods of time, or with greater degrees of attentiveness.  But in the end, we are all always at the beginning – because prayer is, first and foremost, encounter.  Prayer is relationship with God.  And what do we know about encounter and relationship? That we are always beginning.
Think of a long-term marriage, or of a lifetime friendship, or of parenting of decades of duration.   Sure – the length of time and breadth of experiences give depth to such relationships that shorter ones lack.  But aren’t we always beginning?  Aren’t we always encountering one another in new ways?  Aren’t we often faced with situations and challenges that reveal something about both the other person and ourselves that we did not know?  I remember attending a play with my grandmother, a play made up of vignettes in a married couple’s life which spanned fifty or sixty years.  “You have to be old to understand this play!” – that was my grandmother’s review at the end of the evening.  The couple was always starting anew, always at the beginning.  Always encountering one another differently.
Prayer, like all relationships, is not so much a matter of hierarchical progress, not so much a matter of moving from Beginner to Advanced Beginner to Intermediate to Swimmer, not so much a matter of achievement, as it is a matter of expansion. Of growth.  Of movement, of response, in all directions, some of them seemingly backward.  One minute, you’re on the edge of the pool ready to dive into the deep-water end, that Advanced Swimmer certificate within your grasp.  The next, you’re sitting in the three inches of water in the baby pool, knowing that for a time your life is all about splashing your feet and turning your face to the sun.  Different times, different demands, different invitations.  An expanding world of experience, of relationship.  An expanding, changing, surprising world of grace – a world in which encounter with God grows and deepens and is found in all things – and then somehow, becomes confused and tortured and murky – and we begin again.
For the next several weeks, we’re going to make our way through the summer by considering prayer together.  We’re going to focus on different sorts of prayer, on different ways of praying, on learning more about how to pray all the time.  I’m hoping that you will respond in an active way to this series of sermons.  You’ve already begun, with the bit of praying with the psalms which we started earlier this month and will be continuing in various forms.  For this week, I have a simple assignment for you:
On the back of your bulletin is an invitation to settle on a prayer journal. It can be as simple as an empty spiral-bound notebook of lined paper already lying around the house.  Or as elaborate as a beautifully bound leather or cloth journal for which you make a special trip to a bookstore.  But whatever it is, I want you to have a place in which to record something of your prayer life this summer. I’ll make suggestions each week.  Prayers already written by others, in the Bible or in other sources. Drawings or pictures or photographs you may find or want to make yourself.  Prayer for yourself, at whatever stage of life you find yourself. Prayer with family and friends, in solidarity with whatever’s going on in their lives.  Prayer for our church, as we prepare for a Visioning Day in September by gathering and absorbing information about where we have been and where we are now.
You don’t have to do this, of course. But I can safely promise you that if you keep some form of record of the weeks ahead, your prayer life will be deeply enriched, both now and years from now, when you want to look back and re-consider what people and concerns and questions and encounters with God filled your life this summer.
Have you prayed lately?  Have you prayed even at all – or all the time?You have, you know – because all of life is, in one way or another, prayer.  All of life is encounter and relationship with God.  So – next week, and the week after, and the rest of the summer – Come and see!