Saturday, November 27, 2010

Three Things, In No Particular Order

1.  I seem to have pulled what must be some huge tendon that runs down the back of my knee.  Heat?  Cold?  Rest?  Ignore?  Other ideas?  (Ideas that don't involve medical personnel or facilities.)

2.  I notice that all the Thanksgiving blog entries are about either great joy (new babies or redeemed lives) or  great sadness (death or very very very unsatisfactory lives).  This holiday offers no middle ground, does it?

3.  Do any of you carry an image of the Holy Spirit around in your head?  Someone sent me a lovely note a few weeks ago which got me thinking . . . unsuccessfully.  I looked around online and came up all doves.  When I tried searching for feminine representations (which is how I think of the Holy Spirit), I got Wisdom and goddess images.  Anyone?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Advent Blog

And the Lord said, Let there be light.
Harris Gulko painting

I think I'll mostly be posting over at my Advent blog ~ see sidebar ~ this next month.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sarah Allerton Vincent Priest Godbertson, of Bath, Leiden, and Plymouth

Mayflower at Sea ~ Granville Perkins, 1880

Three hundred ninety years ago one Degory Priest, having been a member of the Separatist community in Leiden, Holland for awhile, boarded a ship in Plymouth, England, which 66 days later dropped anchor in what would come to be known as Provincetown Harbor in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Like nearly half of his fellow passengers, all of them still living on the ship, he died of disease sometime during the winter that followed.

The only reason I know all of this is that my great-grandmother was a genealogy buff and a member of the Mayflower Society and the Daughters of the American Revolution.   When my children were in middle school and doing family trees, my father gave them his grandmother's records.  I wish I had known this family history when I was a high school and college student in Massachusetts, visiting and studying the names and places associated with those early European arrivals.  I had no idea, when I read Of Plymouth Plantation in college, that one of my ancestors was a signatory of The Mayflower Compact or, when I wandered up and down Cape Cod and around P-town as a high school and college student, that my earliest American ancestors had made their homes there.

This year my thoughts turn to Sarah Allerton. Already widowed when she married Degory Priest in Leiden at about the age of twenty (records vary), she was the mother of at least his two daughters when she remarried in Leiden and had a son.  She traveled across the Atlantic with her new husband and three children (and possibly two other children, perhaps from her first marriage, as well) in 1623, and died ten years later.  

I see my own life history as one filled with the sadness associated with the deaths of many young people, but apparently Sarah Allerton is my ancestor and sister in more ways than one.  What was that like for her? ~  to follow her religious convictions to Leiden, to be widowed twice, and to cross the Atlantic and arrive in Plymouth at the age of about 30, accompanied by her third husband and several children, and then to have to leave them behind a decade later?  What was her life like, in a Separatist family in England in the Leiden community, as a widowed young mother, on a small and crowded ship?  What was it like to start over in Plymouth, to care for that family and make a home so far from anything familiar?

I had not thought of this at all before today, but maybe, just maybe, in my having made it through these past two years, caring for our children still with us and completing my seminary education, a little spark of Sarah Allerton has survived.  I'm happy to claim her as my great-great-great . . .  grandmother and sister in faith and determination, though I think it's clear that she had it all over me in both.  I hope that she wasn't always too tired and too sad, and that she found some joy in looking out over the Atlantic at sunrise, as I so often have.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Questions Questions Questions - Part III

Bumper Stickers On Your Car?

1. Willamette University.  The Lovely Daughter's college.

2. Tulane University.  Her first college.

3. Northfield Mount Hermon School.   Josh's and my alma mater.

4.  Gwynn Valley Camp.  One of our family's most special places.

 Chicago Son and Lovely Daughter ~ Gwynn Valley Staffers 2004

Questions Questions Questions - Part II

What radio station(s) do you listen to and why?

Three soft rock stations, because I am mired in the 60s - although I am skipping one of them these days, since it stated playing nonstop Christmas music two weeks ago.  Mostly Christmas Muzak.  I don't expect them to have any kind of Advent sensibility, but really -- mid-November?

The Cleveland classical music station.

The two local NPR stations -- Cleveland and Kent State. Music-wise, classical and jazz.  News and interview program-wise: different shows at different times.   My favorites:  Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Diane Rehm, Terry Gross, and Talk of the Nation.  

I have very little tolerance for extraneous noise, so I only listen in the car.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Questions Questions Questions - Part I

My friend Stratoz has been asked to submit possible interview questions as part of his church's search for a new rector, and I thought they'd been fun to answer over the next five (now six) posts ~ especially thinking in terms of possible search committees in my own life.  Here's the first one:

Please tell me about the last five books you read.

May I count the two I'm currently reading v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y as my major devotional focus these days?  The Gospel of Luke and The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre de Caussade.  The latter is a classic on prayer and melds helpfully with the contemplative way I am approaching the Gospel.

Another current read: Joanna Trollope's The Men and The Girls. I've enjoyed her novels before and this one was on the shelf in the library's front room, so I picked it up for a leisurely read.

Last Night I re-read Barbara Brown Taylor's When God Is Silent, looking for what she has to say about my main preoccupation in my personal life.

And I've just finished They Come Back Singing by Gary N. Smith, an account of his years in Uganda. I'm leading a couple of book discussions on sections of this very readable and moving book, which the Ignatian Volunteer Corps (adults 55+ who commit to a year of community service and various reflection opportunities) is reading this year as a way of focusing on social justice issues.

What about you?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Church This Morning

I don't usually describe Sunday mornings at church, but maybe I should once inawhile, since I know there are people reading this blog who shake their heads and say, "Church?"

So here was today:

We offer adult education during the hour before worship, and this morning was the last of an eight-week Kerygma (Presbyterian series) study on how to read the Bible.  Our little group, one of several, has struggled to stay together.  Besides the usual scheduling challenges, some folks have been stunned -- I think that is not too strong a word -- by how complex the Bible is.  Despite our Reformed tradition of emphasis on Scripture and our Protestant heritage of scholarship, many people never pick up a Bible on their own and are completely unfamiliar with its sequence and structure, let alone issues of historical context and literary form.  

Today we were supposed to be using a text in one of Paul's letters as a means toward putting together the various techniques and topics we've studied, but we actually spent our time discussing the focus of the text: inclusion and exclusion in the church, especially in the contexts of church traditions, meals, and communion.  Our backgrounds are Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Mennonite, so we had much to compare and talk about.

Someone brought up Sara Miles' Take This Bread, and asked whether I had read it. I said that I hadn't, although I have read quite a bit about it, and added that it was very painful to contemplate from seminary!  While I was holed up in the library memorizing Greek verbs certain to be forgotten before the next year came around, Sara Miles was out there organizing the actual feeding of actual people.  A convert to Christianity for only a few years and officially excluded from much of our leadership in many places because she's a lesbian, she is a far more effective leader -- not to mention published writer -- than I, for all my years in academe, am likely ever to be.

Our church service was, as always, energetic and wonderful: beautiful liturgy, all kinds of music, and a sermon based on the text we'd studied for Kerygma.  We've been off-lectionary (the sequence of texts chosen for three-year-cycles by the powers-that-be, designed to ensure that much of the Bible is covered in the course of weekly preaching) for eight weeks as our pastors have committed themselves to basing their sermons on the Kerygma classes.  

The sermon was about inclusion, about where we succeed as a church community and where we fail.  Sara Miles came up again, as did the Christmas service we are planning for those for whom the holidays are bleak, as did the art exhibit we are currently hosting of paintings by one of our members who is schizophrenic, as did an incident in a nearby suburb some weeks ago in which two of our young men, out selling raffle tickets for their high school football team a few blocks from their home, were accosted by police officers  (skin color and alleged but nonexistent weapons (other than raffle tickets) were at issue).  We ended with a beautiful hymn newly composed by another of our members, which I have tucked away for a maybe-someday ordination service.

After church I talked with a couple of friends -- one has just lost an adult stepson after many years of illnesses, and the other a brother-in-law to suicide a year ago.  I have finally reached the point at which I can be candid and articulate in person about the difficulties of ministry when my own life is a challenge every step of the way, and I was very glad to be back in church with friends who not only could hear that but found solidarity in hearing it.

Finally, finally, finally ~ my church, our church, Christ's church ~ is a very good place to be on a Sunday morning.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

OK (Deep Breath): One More Time, Here's How

Scenario:  Sitting alone at coffee shop when acquaintance walks in.   In the air between us:  We have known each other since the summer of 1984, which I know because we met on a maternity ward tour for expectant parents.  She was expecting her first child and I was expecting my first two.  We have not run into one another since Josh died, but I know that she knows, because she is a good friend of a good friend.  She is a THERAPIST.  She looks at me, tilts her head in that solicitous way some people have, and says, without budging from the counter, "How are you?"  "I'm fine," I say across the room.  Fine is such a great word, because in the context of social niceties it can mean anything from "My life is so incredible and perfect that I can't even describe it because you would think that I'm bragging" to "I am so crushed and despairing that I wonder if I will be alive tomorrow."   "Oh, good," she says.

Scenario, this afternoon: Standing in line at same coffee shop, I realize that next to me is a neighbor with whom I almost never cross paths.  I haven't seen her since Josh died either, but I know that she knows, because her oldest son is the same age and this city is just not that big.  "How are you all?" she says.  "Fine" (!) I say, and begin a conversation about how long we've lived where we do (27 and 26 years) ~ always a safe topic in this town of old houses that we are all always shoring up.

OK, Here's how you do it:  You walk up to me and you say, "I haven't seen you since Josh died.  I am so sorry.  You must miss him desperately."

Really, how difficult can it be?  Are you under the impression that there's some time of day or night when I'm not thinking about him?  I suppose you might be; there's that friend of mine who said that she didn't want to remind her sister of her sister's dead son.

Or maybe I should be the initiator.  I had to do that today with someone I have not seen in years who would have had no reason to know, and whose question, "How are the kids?" was a completely innocent one.  It was so much easier to say it right out, to say that one is in grad school and one is in law school and one died two years ago, and she responded with great dignity and grace.  I hope she is not feeling bad about our encounter, because I think she pulled it off beautifully.

The thing is, if you already know, and I know that you know, and I bring it up first, it sounds as if I am accusing you of being an insensitive lout.  So I try not to do that.  

You have to go first.  That's just how it is.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Five: Unexpected Thanks

Name five things that were unexpected in your life that you are now grateful for:

1. The opportunity to go to seminary in my 50s,  and to complete the journey despite previously unimaginable obstacles ~

2. My retreat at Wernersville last month ~

3. The tremendous privilege of sharing the faith experiences of others as a spiritual director ~

4. My own spiritual directors, who have offered countless hours of presence, correspondence, support, encouragement, and hope through our nightmare of loss ~

5.  My three beautiful children, who have been the best part of my life ~ no matter what.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Coming Out of Hibernation . . .

to visit other blogs today.  So nice to focus on others' thoughts rather than my own!

Some ideas for Advent are bubbling up in this little time of quiet, though.  I think that my Praying Advent Through Darkness blog is going to return with a new take.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Taking a break.

What with That Meeting, and substitute teaching ~ a dubious enterprise if ever there was one ~  and the almost-onset of Thanksgiving which is quickly followed by Advent (holiday seasons being, you know, not fun), and planning for a Blue Christmas service, and teaching a Sunday morning class, and the realization that my life has just undergone a Big Shift, in case it hadn't already, and, and, and . . .

every joint in my body hurts, very literally.

Time to step back for a few days.  I'm not going to blog or email or play on FB.  I might read online, but that's it.

Mostly I'm going to inhale silence.

Carry on, and I'll be back in a few days.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Revelation, Recognition, Response: This Week's Sermon

It’s my favorite story in the Bible. 
On the surface, it’s a lovely, endearing episode in the post-Resurrection life of Jesus:  he makes breakfast on the beach for his tired and bewildered disciples.  Push a little bit deeper, though, and we see that it paints a picture of the paradoxes inherent in the Christian experience. 
Who is Jesus?  Who are we?  What does he reveal? How do we respond?
 It’s kind of strange that John 21 should be one of my favorite chapters in all of the Bible.  My training and work have taught me to appreciate precedent, and clarity, and form criticism, and historical context – I like to know why things were written down and where they fit – and we don’t know much about this chapter.  It seems to have been added on as a kind of last-minute appendix by a writer or editor. 
After all, the preceding Chapter 20 of the gospel sounds like its conclusion, right?  “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But [the foregoing] are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  Done, the end, we’re finished, we understand, right? 
And then Chapter 21 begins  --  “After these things, Jesus showed himself anew” – and we’re off again.  Someone, writing or editing this book, decided that there was something else we need to know about, and we get a chapter that includes all the   elements characteristic of the gospel of John: signs, discourse, and narrative.  We have a striking sign of God’s presence and project: the empty nets,    suddenly weighted down with fish, so many fish that it seems impossible that the nets won’t break, but they are in fact hauled safely to shore.  We have an instructive discourse in the last half of the chapter, those well-known words of Jesus in which he tells Peter to care for his sheep.  And we have the narrative at the beginning of the chapter – and that’s what we’re going to focus on tonight. 
The strange and lovely narrative featuring the sudden and unexpected appearance of Jesus on the shore, the recognition of the impossible by the disciple whom Jesus loved,the impulsive – as always – response made by Simon Peter, and  the meal of bread and fish cooked over the fire by the One who is always preparing and serving meals for those whom he loves.
I think that one of the reasons I love this story so much has to do with memory.  For many years, our family vacationed each winter at St. Augustine Beach, Florida. When the children were small and out on that wide, wide expanse of beach very early in the morning – VERY early in the morning – we would often witness small fishing boats coming in at low tide and spreading their nets across the sand.  It was exciting for the kids, as the nets were usually filled with various forms of marine life that they could toss back into the sea – rays and blowfish and tiny hammerhead sharks and other creatures not sought after by local dining establishments – and there was lots of noise and action as the gulls and pelicans swooped in. 
The children who swarmed with delight across the beach probably didn’t see what an adult might have:  the reality of the lives of the fishermen – long nights, hard work, little recompense.  Having observed those boats and watched those tired men makes it easy for me to imagine the disciples, demoralized and hungry after a failed night back at work after having followed an apparently failed messiah for three years.
And then – there he is. 
The Greek word on which this passage hinges is phanaro – the verb reveal, show, make known..  Jesus reveals himself to the disciples – for a   third time.  And each time is both very dramatic – and deeply human. 
Twice he appears in the upper room, in which the disciples are hiding behind locked doors, fearful of the repercussions likely to be visited upon them for having been followers of the crucified insurrectionist.  The first time he suddenly stands among     them; the second, he returns for Thomas, who missed the initial appearance and refuses to believe anything he hasn’t seen for himself.  It seems that he just appears – as he does on the beach.
These appearances tell us two paradoxical things about Jesus. They reveal two things about Jesus. One is that he has moved into a life beyond space and time as we know it.  One of my seminary professors explains – as much as anyone can explain – this mystery as one that we might understand in terms of dimensions. 
We ourselves experience four   dimensions, three of space and one of time but: imagine that we experience only two dimensions of space, length and width, despite the fact that three exist.  Imagine that you are a flat piece of paper, just two dimensions of existence.  Now, a finger, a three dimensional object, is waving in the space above you – space also being three-dimensional.  You have no idea that it’s there until the tip of the finger comes to rest upon you, the piece of paper, and you experience its presence as a flat object touching your own flatness.  Then – the hand is raised and the finger vanishes – to where, you have no idea, even though it may be still there, in the air just above you.  
There are thee dimensions to space, but you – we -- are cognizant of only two of them.  So it is with us and Jesus – there are dimensions of which we are aware, but he now lives in others of which we are not – and so when he appears in a room or on the beach, it seems that he has just arrived out of nowhere.  He reveals his divinity in his capacity to transcend what we have come to accept as basic to existence, time and space as we know them to be.
The second thing about the Jesus reflected, revealed, in these appearances is that, despite the transformation of Resurrection, he still responds to his friends in a deeply human way.   He talks with them, shows them his wounds – lets Thomas touch them – and now he makes them breakfast. He doesn’t just reveal himself as if by magic – now he’s gone, now he’s here! – he reveals himself as he always has, as a human companion, marked by the physical scars of suffering, longing to be known and understood, eager to offer a meal, wanting to serve and inspire service in return.
And what about the other two characters upon whom we’re focusing? 
The disciple whom Jesus loves responds to Jesus with a simple statement of recognition.  “It is the Lord.”  He doesn’t move; he doesn’t urge the others to row faster.  He simply becomes aware, deeply and completely aware of the compelling presence on the beach, and communicates that gift of recognition to Peter.  Peter, on the other hand, responds with decisiveness and action – or, one might say, with impulsivity and abandonment of caution.  He’s so excited that he leaps into the water and wades ashore, boat and companions and fish forgotten.
And which of them are we?  The contemplative disciple, or the energetic one?  I suppose that most of us lean one way or the other  -- but as a community of faith we need to hone both approaches.  We recognize that some of us have singular strengths only way or the other, and that some of us are profoundly well-balanced individuals, and that some of us are in flux.  There is much to see- and savor – and  communicate – is the response of the Beloved Disciple the preferable one?  But there’s so much to do that perhaps Peter has the right idea:  Get moving!  A little water won’t hurt you. 
Truthfully, both – both the contemplative and the active – are essential responses to the presence of Jesus.
When I was doing my summer CPE chaplaincy, I met a woman one afternoon who had just received a devastating diagnosis of a stage four cancer that would end her life within a matter or months or, more likely, weeks.  She was processing information so rapidly that she made my head spin --  talking about her husband and adult children, how they would respond to her death, the dreamed-of  daughters-in-law and grandchildren whom she would never see.  She was not, however, thinking about things to do.  She was planning ways to be.  In fact, she was already be-ing the woman she was going to be for the very short rest of her life:  aware of and able to articulate God’s goodness in the gifts she had received, and hopeful that God would remain present to her family and friends.  There was a lot of the Beloved Disciple in her, sitting in the boat and saying, “It is the Lord.”  Saying it to me, the chaplain who was supposed to be there to help her.  Reminding me of the importance of recognizing and naming the presence of     God.
That same summer, I met another woman who was waiting for a kidney and liver transplant.  She wasn’t on one of my regular floors; I encountered her one evening when I was on call for the entire hospital.  We hit if off, and so I kept an eye on her progress – she was, from the standpoint of outward appearance, in reasonably good shape when I met her, and then she was in very critical shape when I stopped by immediately after her transplant surgery.  And then one afternoon a week or so later I went up to her room and there she was, in jeans and a t-shirt,  looking the picture of health and packing up her things to move next door to the hotel where transplant patients are monitored for a couple of weeks before they go home.  The transformation was dazzling.  “I’m going to start a support group when I get home,” she announced cheerfully.   “I have a list of people to call and I’m going to get going  as soon as I can.  There’s a lot I can do to help people going through something like this.”  A Peter kind of person, for sure. 
Now, it’s not as if either of these women were all one or the other.  They were both articulate and take-charge  women of deep faith – I can easily imagine the woman about to lose her life sitting in her kitchen making lists of things for her family to take care of after she was gone, and I can easily imagine the support group founder deep in prayer and attentive to  God’s presence as she began planning her next steps.  Meyers-Briggs aside, we aren’t limited to one set of expressions of faith or one way of interacting   with others.  
 As ministers and elders, all of us eager to serve God in and with our churches, we are invited to respond as both – to become attuned to God’s presence with us, and to act in response to God’s invitation to us.  I think that we Presbyterians tend to emphasize the latter – although not always!  A couple of months ago, Forest Hill hosted four Interfaith Hospitality Network families for a week.  My own part was extremely small – I signed up for an overnight at the church – but as a result I was on the mailing list for the thank-you email that our coordinators wrote.  What was most amazing were the emails that followed, from various volunteers, reflecting upon what it had meant to them to spend time caring for our guests.  There was no question that the examples of both Peter and the Beloved Disciple had been followed.  Folks had jumped into the water – maybe not as  hastily as Peter, but they had prepared meals and played games with children and overseen meals and bedtimes.    And then they had sat down at their computers and said, “We have recognized the Lord, revealed in those whom we have served.”
Jesus, both divine and human, reaches toward us with a presence that is beyond space and time and yet stands on the beach, issuing  instructions for our labors and baking bread and fish to strengthen our bodies.  He calls us to be the people we were created to be, knowing that the church, the world, needs us all, those of us whose task is to point to him and say, “It is the Lord” and those of us whose work it is to dash forward and act. 
He seeks the response of both a Beloved Disciple –see, recognize appreciate, savor – and a Peter – jump, do, make, feed, heal, teach.
Are you sometimes one and sometimes the other? 
                   Jesus Christ waits for you. 
Are you almost entirely one or the other? 
                   Jesus Christ calls to you. 
Are you sometimes unsure, half in the boat and half out, seeing through eyes blurred by water and afraid of drowning? 
                   Jesus Christ seeks you out. 

Whoever you are, Jesus reveals a gracious God to you. Jesus wants you to recognize and to savor and to respond to his presence. He wants to replenish and nourish you; most of all he wants to affirm that you are loved. 
You are sought after, you are cared for, and you are loved.
 Thanks be to God.

Awaiting Possibilities

Last night I was certified ready to receive a call by our Presbytery's  Committee on Preparation for Ministry.  (See second to last paragraph here for an explanation.)

I was expecting a lengthy and grueling meeting.  Things started out rather awkwardly with a question about joy in my life that had me groping for a response that I couldn't make. (I realize this morning that perhaps it's a standard open-ended question for folks who've reached this point after several years of school and training, but most people haven't had an experience anything like mine.)  

But then I preached my sermon, and people began to say quite lovely things.  

And then I read my Statement of Faith (one page, of which they had all received advanced copies), and they continued to say quite lovely things, and I began to think, This is going very well.  This is going to happen.

And then they offered some excellent suggestions for revising the form which we send to churches seeking pastors.  That one is several pages long and it was clear that committee members had reviewed it carefully with an eye toward offering some solid help.

 And then I came home to a congratulatory cake baked by the Lovely Daughter and spent a lot on time on FB and the phone.

And then I completely crashed.

I'm thinking that productivity is out of the question today.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Four Women

Image: Four Women by Max Arthur Cohn

My dear friend Karen wrote here today about the awesome (in every sense of the word) journey that she and I and two other friends are sharing. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Listening to My Son

I finally took most of Josh's clothes down to the City Mission today.  I had packed them up some time ago, and then left the bags piled in the dining room.  I removed a few items today, a few things with which I just cannot part, not yet.  But then I steeled myself against the inevitable, loaded the bags into the car, and drove off.

I don't know whether or not Josh believed in God. His words on the subject of faith were ambiguous.  I do know that he was a very good man who cared for and wanted to help those in need. "It doesn't matter what you believe, Mom," he said to me once.  "What matters is that you treat other people decently."

I heard him saying those words today, and I imagined him adding, "Mom, it's almost winter.  Take those clothes downtown.  It's ridiculous for them to be piled in the dining room when they might help someone look presentable for a job interview or stay warm against the winds off the lake.  Maybe someone else will survive a freezing night on the streets because of the winter coat you bought for me.  Just do it, Mom."

So. I did.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

26 Months: What I Have Learned About Grieving

I have encountered several people who have had stunning losses in the last few weeks and days.  I don't have much to offer, but here are ten things:

1.  That crushing weight you feel, the one pressing down on your chest and suffocating you, will gradually get lighter and you will be able to breathe normally again.  It will take awhile.  Let it take however long "awhile" turns out to be.

2.  You will be exhausted for a very long time.  (I don't know how long.  Long.)  Plan accordingly.

3.  Try not to make big decisions.  They are likely to be bad ones. 

4.  Most people will drift away or disappear pretty much entirely.  They have their own lives to live.  So be it.

5.  Accept that your brain will not work well for awhile.  Memorization  and complex tasks are better left until . . . I don't know when. Not soon.  Maybe a couple of decades.  If you forget something kind of obvious ~ what you did yesterday, for instance ~ that's usually ok.  Not always,  but whatever.

6.  On the flip side, pursue the work that presents itself to you.   It will be harder and take longer and make little or no sense, but there will come a time when you you will look back and be satisfied with what you have accomplished, and you will be grateful that you were able to do something of significance even when all of life's meaning seemed to have evaporated.

7.  Recognize that being around large groups of people (meaning more than about one person besides yourself) is draining.  Whenever possible, avoid parties, big dinners, and demonstrations on the Mall.  If you simply must go, always know where the exit is located and where your car is parked. 

8.  Know that the burden is on you to understand that your friends and colleagues cannot understand your life.  You care about them, so you wouldn't want them to, anyway.

9.  Cultivate an attitude of forgiveness.  Or, if that is too hard, as it will be on some days, cultivate the practice of silence.  

10.  Believe that it is all right to try to be a decent human being, to find small things to enjoy, and to plan for the future ~ even though your loved one is no longer with you.  You are here, and the world is still beautiful, and people are still interesting, and Micah 6:8 still applies.

It's been so hard; it seems like I should know more.  But I don't.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Slow Reading, Prayer, and Is God in the Desert?

I read a lot, and I usually read very fast.  I just counted and there are 22 books piled up on the floor next to my bed, on the table next to my bed, and in my bed.  (Yes, my favorite place to work is in bed.)  Oops ~ two more under the bed.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided that for my daily focused prayer time (which sometimes is daily and sometimes is not, and sometimes is all at once and sometimes takes place in brief periods scattered through the day), I was going to read and journal about two things v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y.  One, something in Scripture and the other, some kind of classic devotional reading.

I decided on Luke for the Scripture.  I know, the Luke lectionary year is about over, and it might be more sensible to move on to Matthew, but this has nothing to do with work.  This has to do with God and me, and Luke is the gospel filled with healing stories.  I did decide to make one concession to the liturgical year by starting with Luke 4.  I'll go back to the first three chapters during Advent.  So far it's been two weeks and I'm just reaching the end of the Chapter 4.

My other choice is Jean-Pierre de Caussade's The Sacrament of the Present Moment, originally entitled Abandonment to Divine Providence.  I've read it before, via my usual zip-through method, but I thought that it might be a good choice for something more considered.  It's basically a series of letters written by a 17th century Jesuit priest to the nuns to whom he had been appointed spiritual director.  You might be startled to discover how much of what he says applies to a 21st century person seeking to be more attentive to God in the daily.  Two weeks and I'm at page 19.  I 'm doing remarkably well at slowing down, yes?

What has astonished me as I read at this snail's pace is how complimentary these two books are. I read a very short passage in each in the morning or at night or whenever I get around to it, and then use what I've read as the basis for prayer then and through the day, and with almost every set of readings, I say to myself in a surprised inner voice, "They're on the same topic."

You may know that Jesus spends the first portion of Luke 4 in the desert where he is tempted by the devil.  And believe me, that episode reads a good deal differently when you have spent two years as I just have.  But as I was reading de Caussade one night, and trying to grasp what he says about being intensely and completely in the present, I came across a sentence that says, "Thus, the present moment is like a desert in which simple souls see and rejoice only in God." 

And I thought, I don't think that I've ever read or heard anyone say anything about Jesus' forty solitary and tormented days in the parched and barren desert being a time of rejoicing in God.

And, I continued, I'm pretty sure that my Desert Year blog does not represent a time of rejoicing in God.

And then I wondered, Is the desert perhaps not empty, but in fact filled with God?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Books and Quotes and Life

(1) My friend Quotidian Grace of the blog of the same name has begun a companion book review blog ~ I think the sheer number of book reviews that she was writing threatened to knock down the walls of QG itself ~ and I have the pleasure of being a guest reviewer for her today.  The book is about prayer and much of it is grounded in Ignatian spirituality, two of my favorite topics.  So please head on over and visit us both!

(2) Another of those little quotes that's been popping up on my screen:

"Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation."

I can't seem to recall where I initially read it, but the originator is St. Augustine.  He was probably talking about sex, but I personally understand the topic to be chocolate.

(3) I hate the new google thing whereby google tries to guess what you're writing in the search box.  Apparently my searches are not common ones, and it takes a long time to type and re-type until google gets the message. Perhaps I should develop more of an interest in Heidi Montag and Bristol Palin.

(4) Lots going on right now.  Preaching, teaching adult ed at church, public school subbing, major Presbytery stuff.  My plan for a week from today involves staying in bed until at least dinnertime.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Friendship with God

Sixty! ~ that was the birthday celebrated several days ago by a blogger whom I read regularly. Her birthday celebration was quite simply wonderful ~ she was surrounded by all of her children, including a couple of them who had traveled quite a distance to surprise her.  She remarked upon how her life has gotten better with each decade and how she anticipates the same continuing.  A wonderfully generous and expectant attitude in our youth-driven culture, a culture in which people bemoan turning thirty as if that's one of life's worst curses.

Her experience will not be mine.  I was startled to realize that for me the thirties, two decades past, will always be my best one.  My late forties brought some sad and difficult challenges and my fifties, begun in such joy and anticipation, have brought with them one of life's greatest sorrows.  I can, and do, look forward to many things in work and in love, including most especially the possibility of my surviving children's marriages and their own children, all of which, should any of it occur, will bring me tremendous joy.  But there will always, always be the reality that Josh is not here to share it, or to add his own wife and children to the mix.  The girl he was hoping to marry is beautiful and brilliant and gifted and sensitive, and the loss of her as the daughter-in-law of whom I had dreamed is another facet of this endlessly turning prism of sadness.

And so I was greatly pained, in an envious and angry kind of way, to read of my friend's happiness on her birthday.  (Charming, yes?  Envy is such an attractive personality trait.) And then I thought, as I have begun to on occasion (RARE occasion), that perhaps my experience harbors another kind of blessing.  The invitation to accompany Jesus into this kind of wilderness is an offer of tremendous friendship, in the sense that we long for our friends to share and understand our experiences.  And when I think about it ~ with whom do we share our most searing pain and our longing for wholeness?  Very few people.  I know that as a spiritual director I am often awed by what people entrust to me, knowing that it is a great privilege to receive some of their hardest and saddest experiences ~ because I myself offer mine to only a very few and deeply trusted individuals. 

Flannery O'Connor says that the Christian life involves taking up one's cross everyday.  Well.  Here we are.  I cannot think of a single more unlikely or ambivalent candidate than myself. The idea of embracing suffering has no appeal for me, none whatever.  I have no interest in being brave or strong or an inspiration to anyone.  I am pretty sure that most anyone who reads this will be fairly convinced that I have lost my mind or gone over to the far side of religious extremism, but let me assure you:  I would be quite willing to embrace a perfectly ordinary suburban life, all sparkly with grandchildren and puppies.  I have never, thanks to my childhood, taken for granted the grace of ordinary hopes and expectations fulfilled in ordinary ways. 

But ~ it's gone, that ordinary life ~ at least the wholeness of it is. And with it, any chance of my engaging in a relationship with God without being profoundly drawn into the matter of human suffering and ultimate hope for release and healing.  No ~ I go there and I want to know what that cross is about and what that bread and cup are about.  I want to know what is shared with us and what is healed, restored, recreated.  I want to know what God's friendship really means, what it means on God's side and what it means on ours.

And so I wonder these days about another of Mary Oliver's poems, the one ~ I think it's called "The Uses of Sorrow"  ~  in which she says,

"Someone I loved once gave me a box of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift."

Perhaps someday I can report back on what the exact number of those years is.

Hmmmmm . . . .

I've read  a few short sentences recently that  hit home.

I rather like this one:

Presume that others are quietly putting up with your awkwardness, idiosyncrasies and annoying behaviors that you aren't even aware of. Try to do the same thing for them.

(I am sure that I engage in no annoying behaviors.  Just ask my family.)

HT to Brother Charles who is, I believe,  a fairly conservative fellow who's landed at a fairly liberal university in order to pursue graduate studies.  Sort of the opposite experience from mine in seminary.  I hope he finds the same delight in conversation and friendship with folks with whom he differs as I did.