Monday, February 28, 2011

Prayer ~ John of the Cross

I'm taking a class for a few weeks on John in the Cross, and for each night two or three of us are asked to prepare prayers or meditations based on the week's reading.  Mine, for tonight:

We would ourselves choose, always, the light. 
We would choose the light sparkling across the water, the sun burning our shoulders, the warmth of friendship, the sparkle of romance. 
We turn on the lights as we enter a dark house, knowing darkness as the place in which we stumble, bump into tables, trip on the stairs.
We instinctively look up when we go out into the dark, seeking illumination from streetlights, from the moon, from the stars.
We choose Orion's Belt over the blackness of space.
We set our sights on the tail of a comet, not on the darkness through which it speeds.
We aim our spaceships for the moon and our telescopes toward Saturn, toward light, toward something ~ not toward emptiness.
And You are in all things -- in the sunlight, in the warmth, in the lights, in the stars and in the planets.
We count on you to be there.
And we cannot see you in the dark.


We walked and walked in the night.  It was so dark.


Is this where you nourish your beloved?
Is this where you impart strength?
Is this where your river flows, silently and imperceptibly?


We walked and walked in the night.  We did not run away.  We walked right into the dark.
We walked into your embrace.
Your silence.
Your stillness.
Your reticence.
Your humility.


Do you scoop your beloved up in the dark?
Do you catch those who fall in the silence?
Do you embrace those who find themselves wrapped in emptiness?


You create a space for yourself where we cannot.  Will not.  Do not want.
You seek us completely for yourself, and you give us the dark in which to find you.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Enigmas (Today's)

1. Preaching in a new church to a sea of blank stares that cause you to ponder, "What could I have been thinking when I put this together?" ~ only to have people seek you out afterward to thank you, genuinely and profusely, for you know not what.

2. Simultaneously reading the Dalai Lama on the art of cultivating happiness and John of the Cross on the art of making space for God  to cultivate the darkness.

Friday, February 25, 2011


I've realized this week that I've been spending very little time in the present.

The seminary venture quite naturally oriented me toward the future.  The hope of ordained ministry lay before me, and in the interim there were endless tests, exams, interviews, and evaluations to work toward.  (Believe me, there's a reason most people don't embark upon such a path once youth is over!)

Josh's death marked a re-orientation to the past.  Although it required me to do all kinds of things I'd never done before and hope never to do again, all of those tasks were accomplished in the shadow of a past once filled with delight and abruptly demolished.

Having been certified to receive a call and living at home full-time again  has created a sense of life lurching back and forth between past and present with rather remarkable speed.  Every time I've been invited to preach at a church in transition, I've been filled with hope ~ but they are all in stages of transition far too early for that hope to be realized in any of them, at least for now.  And at home I am surrounded by STUFF, all of which needs to be sorted into some form either usable or discardable.  Future and past - both treacherous places.

This past week, having received the world's speediest rejection ever from a church based on paperwork alone ~ paperwork which I had  thought indicated a huge potential for connection between their dreams and mine, but of which they apparently took a quite different view ~ I realized: I have to stop this.  I can't keep fantasizing about maybes.  I can't keep postponing household organization in the dual hope that some of the books could be transferred to a church study and that there will be some extra money to redecorate some of our dilapidated space.  I can't keep avoiding the boxes and folders filled with memories.

This is my present and I have to live it.  Parts of it are absolutely the fulfillment of hopes nurtured even in the face of disaster: I get to teach a religious studies class to college students and I get to do an ever-increasing amount of spiritual direction.  Parts of it are frustrating: preparing sermons for communities I don't know and earning almost nothing for a great deal of work.  And you know what?  Parts of it are luxurious: I have ample time for the things I'm doing, and after the occasional bad night, I can simply sleep in.

So: The present.  I'm going to live as if this is it, because ~ it is.   I'm going to get the STUFF taken care of and do what I can about the house. I'm going to enjoy the work I have and the freedom I have. I have an opportunity to develop a retreat for grieving parents, and some people who could make a difference  have offered their help with another major project ~ all good, I think.

So.  Wherever you go, there you are.  Here I am.  In the present.

(Image: Light and Dark, Wernersville Jesuit Retreat Center.  October 2010.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


"Prayer transforms our perspective on the world."

How and why do I forget that so easily?

Our transformed world yesterday

(Image from

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Facebook at the Moment

Seminary classmates  9

Friends in online moms group   3

Former middle/high school students  2

RevGals    2

Former CPE colleague  1

Parent of former students   1

Niece   1

Middle/high school classmate

Friend in local moms group when our first children were babies       1

Elementary school classmate     1

Church member     1


Do you get the feeling that no one who's in or been to seminary is working?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Love That is Gracious Gift and Solidarity

For awhile, there were few things that plunged me into the deepest darkness with more speed than the platitudes offered by people who . . . well, they offer platitudes.  That's what they do. The "God's will, better place, suffering over, God never gives you more than you can handle" folks.  Eventually, I learned not to hear.

My days now tend to be satisfying more often than not.  But sometimes I forget and take on too much, as I did this week-end.  A party Friday night.  An intense meeting Saturday morning.  And a baby shower Saturday afternoon.  The last one finally did me in, and I'm only just now getting up (mid-morning Sunday).

But as I was in and out over the course of yesterday, I read two posts that I urge you to absorb in their entirety.  The first is by Ryan Duns, S.J., a young Jesuit and aspiring theologian (and, these days, a high school religion teacher ~ in their 15 or so years of formation, Jesuits earn all kinds of degrees and engage in all kinds of occupations).  Ryan tackles one of those platitudes with depth and graciousness, urging us to recognize that "God gives us far, far more than we can handle."

He says that "when we face the Mystery of evil and suffering in our lives, the icy terror of loss and suffering, we must resist the temptation to think that this is something that God has done and commit ourselves to what God is doing. This latter insight isn’t meant to take away the pain stemming from fear or the sorrow from loss…but it is to say that we are always being offered more than we can imagine: a relationship with the God of the Resurrection, the God for whom life, and not death, is the meaning of human life."  You can read the entire post here

The other post was written by my dear friend Karen, whom I have come to know as we have both walked this terrible journey.  We don't write theological treatises about it; we live it.  Karen's daughter Katie died from cancer three and one-half years ago, and so in some ways the terrain we've covered has been quite different, one from the other.    Karen's daughter died quietly, surrounded by her loving family; my son died violently, and alone.  Karen's travels have taken her out the door of the institutional church; mine took me back to seminary.  Karen is a woman filled with grace and generosity; I am . . . not so much!  But we have both, as she says, "entered the story of Mary and Jesus."

I particularly admire her final paragraph, in which she says, "It's not what I thought Love looked like. It's not what I wanted Love to look like - I wanted Love to look like rescue. But it is Love, when you look at it from a certain angle - the love that is solidarity, understanding and union. And for that, I am grateful."  The entire piece is here.

If you are in this place where we live, or you accompany someone who is,  both of these posts are well worth your time.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


 Lakeview Cemetery, Cleveland OH  (2010)

Yesterday's Friday Five asked us to come up with five words that identify our passions, spirituality, and/or life.

Do I even like words anymore? I wondered. I suppose that sounds a little silly. Most of my work involves words, and as a Protestant perhaps-almost-Minister of Word and Sacrament, I focus on the Word ~ the Word, Jesus Christ; the Word in Scripture; the Word proclaimed.  I read a lot of poetry and fiction and write a lot of bloggy stuff ~ yes, I do still like words.

But I'll let you in on a secret: When I was trying to decide what to do with my one but seemingly no longer precious life after my son died, I was divided right down the middle for a long time: Should I return to seminary?  Or should I turn entirely to my photography and build a completely new life?

I decided to honor what I had begun, and let the photography slide ~ going on mini photo binges once in awhile, but not attempting to learn anything new, and certainly not trying to express my new reality in that manner, except on rare occasions.  Perhaps today's, taken some months ago after a rain, is one example of those rare occasions.

I have, however, as the fog has lifted, become more and more attuned to images of all kinds.  And recently I have begin to think that it's time to schedule some regular time for museum-going and for some of my own work. I realize now that for more than than two years I have been quite overwhelmed by the unwanted images that crowd my mind; perhaps, finally, some space is opening up for others.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Words (Friday Five)

Jan at RevGals offers the following:

There is a dramatic and surprising venue for Spiritual Formation/Sunday School classes at my church: Each week a different person teaches about a "word" that expresses his/her passion or interest. The first week someone spoke about "hospitality" with abundant treats on her mother and grandmother's china arrayed on tables. Other words have been "connectivity," "Trinity," "money," and "dreams." No one knows which person will be teaching until the class convenes. I am teaching this Sunday and plan to talk about "stirrings."

For this Friday Five, please list five words that identify your passions, spirituality, and/or life. Describe as much or as little as you wish.

In no particular order:


Desert Wilderness Tsunami  (So, pretend they're one word.)




Maybe I'll do some writing about these this week.  In the meantime, an image:

Wernersville Jesuit Retreat Center (PA) ~ October 2010

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Extension, Strength and Beauty = Hope and Future

I sent off some information yesterday, an optimistic email with the appropriate forms attached, to a church looking to call someone to an associate position, someone who does the things I do well.  Education.  Spiritual formation.  Organization.  Communication.  Pastoral care. Nurturance of  leaders. Support of volunteers.  Everything in the letter and attachments is true.  At least most of it is true most of the time.

(One always has to wonder, when sending off an email in which one lays claim to being an effective communicator, just how many words one has omitted and how many typos one has inserted.)

But if you were to ask me about what I have seen and heard and wondered in the past two-and-one-half years, about what might be molding me into a minister to the people of God, which is everyone, perhaps I would say . . . this:

In an email written some months after my son died, his girlfriend, who is a ballet dancer and teacher of ballet, said, "I'm told that my dancing has changed.  It's  not my technique."

I hope she doesn't mind my use of her quote and image.

What she said is the truest thing of all.

The most graceful of survivors.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On a Brighter Note (Ecumenically Speaking)

I'm teaching a section of Intro to Religion at the local Jesuit university, where the spring scholar in residence in religious studies is offering a series of six presentations to the community at large.  Last night I ended class early so that my students could attend one of his talks, and decided that I would go as well.  

I've met this gentleman briefly, but was a bit preoccupied at the time.

At the end of the talk, I moved to a seat next to a Jesuit whom I know and said, "Am I right in presuming, from his name and from one of the references he just made, that he's Presbyterian?"

"He is."

"Then there are two of us in the department at the moment."

"We're blessed!"

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Just Sayin', Ya Know?

History:  Yes, I'm an attorney.  It's been quite awhile since I practiced law but, technically speaking, a signature on a document sent to the Ohio Supreme Court and my status is transformed from inactive to active.

More recent history:  

A  l-o-n-g period of discernment involving a number of other people.
Three years in seminary, living away from home half the time.
Field education.
Public examination and approval of my candidacy by my Presbytery
Five ordination exams.
And, I might mention, persistence  (however halting at times) in responding to God despite family tragedy and heartbreak ~ of monumental proportions ~  in the middle of all of it.

Reality: Restricted for personal reasons to this geographic area, in which there are not so many call opportunities at the moment.

Lunchtime conversation with a Presbytery committee member:

Could you go back and practice law?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Quote of the Day

I'm trying to live my life so that when I read my biography in later years I don't puke.

~ Paris Geller

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Walk the Walk (Tomorrow's Sermon)

How many of you have seen the movie The King’s Speech?  Even if you haven’t, it’s been so well reviewed and already the recipient of so many awards that you probably know the story.  It’s about King George VI of England, the father of the present Queen Elizabeth, and his battle to conquer his stuttering problem.

As the second of two sons, the future king didn’t have a whole lot to worry about – because he wasn’t, really, a future king.  In the centuries-honored tradition of the British realm, his older brother would become king..The younger brother and his own family would support the family business by taking part in various public appearances.     

But his father did want him to put on a good presentation at such events, and pushed him to overcome the stutter that rendered him almost speechless.  Eventually, with the help of a sympathetic wife and an unorthodox course of treatment, he reaches the point at which he can, in fact, make a dignified speech to the British people.  Good thing, too – because his older brother puts romance before duty, and ends up abdicating the throne.   

That change of plans puts the new King George front and center as the country prepares for war.  Over the course of the next several years, he makes literally hundreds of speeches, broadcast to the nation at large.  His words are designed to instill courage in a people sending thousands of young men to the front and fortitude in a people besieged at home by nightly air bombings.

The King’s Speech tells many stories, but one of them is the one I’ve just related:  the story  of a man for whom initial expectations are fairly low, whose life takes an unwanted twist, and who rises to the challenge:  choosing the unanticipated  life offered to him, accepting the only help that will make that newlife possible, and saying a yes to a call, to a vocation – becoming who he is called to become. 

This morning we are confronted by three Scriptural passages in which we are called to do exactly that: to choose the life to which we are called and to become the people whom we are called to become.  “Choose life,” proclaims the Deuteronomist.  “Choose growth,” writes Paul.  “Choose authenticity,” urges Jesus.  Each of these passages is so rich that we could spend weeks on any one of them alone, but I think that it’s well worth our while to take a look a the thread  that runs through each of them, linking them into a gleaming chain of God’s call to each of us.

“Choose life.”  These words are proclaimed as Moses’ final speech to the Israelites.  They have emerged from their forty years of wandering the wilderness and stand on the brink of the land which they have been promised.  Imagine this nation – the oldest among them were children, toddlers even, when they left Egypt.  The young parents and the newest generation were born in the wilderness of Sinai and have no personal memory of the years of enslavement to the Egyptian pharaoh.  All they know is the nomadic life of a people with no home of their own, with nothing concrete to call their own. What they have instead is a collective memory of the God who liberated them and who calls them to the home planned for them. 

But that home comes with expectations, with the expectations of their  God, the God whon has initiated a covenant relationship with them.  “Choose life!” exhorts Moses, and tells them how to choose it.  Love God, walk in the ways of God, obey God’s commandments. 

We tend to think of the Book of Deuteronomy as a book of law – that it will tell us the ways and commandments of God:  how to choose God and  how to love God.  And yet, as Christians, we are sometimes a little leery of the law of the Jewish Bible.  We tend to use words like “legalism” and “harsh” and “unyielding” to describe it.  Well, let’s take a look at that law. 

First, it helps to know a Hebrew word: Halacha.  It’s a word that I first learned several years ago, when I was a high school teacher in an Orthodox Jewish school.  I taught history and literature. Our students studied the usual high school subjects, but they also studied a full complement of courses in Judaic studies.  One of their courses was halacha – “law.”  In fact, we had many fascinating conversations about it – and about the 613 laws set down in the Bible, all of which they endeavor to follow.  

Imagine my surprise when I got to seminary and to the study of Hebrew and learned that halacha also means “walk.”  It makes sense, when you think about it:  to walk in the ways of God is to follow the laws and commandments of God.  And yes, to us it sounds terribly difficult.  One day in my teaching years I asked one of my colleagues, a beautiful and engaging and extremely smart young woman, whether she didn’t find it incredibly burdensome to follow all the dictates of her religion.  What she ate and how she cooked it – all kosher, separate sets of dishes and cookware for meat and dairy products; where she lived – within a mile of so of her synagogue, since no driving is permitted on Saturdays; how she dressed  - no pants for girls and women, hair coverings for married women – all of it was according to the strict laws followed by the Orthodox Jewish community. 

“It’s not a burden at all!” she exclaimed, her face alight as she explained her faith.  “We believe that Hashem – God – cares about every aspect of our lives, about everything that we do.  Why shouldn’t Hashem care about how we dress, or how we eat?  We see the law as a great gift, as something to help us live as God wants us to.”

In other words, to walk -- halacha -- in the ways of God, to follow the law – halacha – is to choose life.  To walk in the ways of God is to choose covenant, to choose relationship, to choose to follow a God who accompanies you through the wilderness and guides you home, a God who offers a goodness with the capacity to encompass every aspect of your life.

It doesn’t always feel like a gift though, does it?  There’s that wilderness aspect, that desert aspect, that persists in making itself apparent in our lives.   When the future King George VI decided to try to overcome his speech problems, they didn’t just magically disappear.  When the Israelite people decided to follow Moses out of Egypt, they didn’t slide right into that promised destination of milk and honey.  You might decide to choose life, but sooner or later it becomes clear that, even in the life to which God so clearly invites you, you are looking straight into the face of risk, of challenge.  No more baby steps.

And so Paul tells us: Choose growth.  Accept the nourishment offered to the mature.  He is writing to the rowdy, disagreeable, conflicted church at Corinth, a church in which appropriate conduct is a matter of constant debate and in which factions in support of different leaders seem to crop up at a moment’s notice.  He tells them that he has fed them with milk, not with solid food, as they were not, and even now are not, ready for the food of an adult.  Yet he urges them on, urges them away from human conflict and toward God, urges them to understand that they each have a part, some to plant and some to water, but that the growth will come from God.

Now most of the Greek-speaking people to whom Paul writes in Corinth are gentiles, not Jews.  They know nothing of the great story of the Exodus, nothing about a God who chose a people with whom to enter into covenant, a people to liberate and nudge along and save, with the promise that from them would come the savior of the world.  That story is not part of the Corinthian backdrop. 

But it’s part of Paul’s family history.  Paul knows well the story of the God who saves: that that God is also a God who helps us to grow by challenging us, by asking us to contend with discomfort and frustration and difficulty.    We see that path toward growth in the very human story portrayed in The King’s Speech.  The future king will get nowhere by being coddled, by people bowing to him and calling him “Your Royal Highness.”  He has to venture forth into new territory; he has to accept a path that causes more consternation than comfort. 

We know this story, and Paul knew it, from the Israelite journey through the wilderness.   They were nourished there by manna in the form of literal bread from heaven, but also by manna in the form of harsh conditions, manna in the form of a nomadic life that refused them the shelter and warmth of permanent homes, manna in the form of a God who accompanied them but insisted that they conform themselves to the ways of the one God and not wander off in search of the idols of their ancestors and neighbors.

Nourishment for grown ups.  The solid food of challenge and difficulty, of loss and starting over, of uncertainty and determination.  The kind of food that enables children to grow into women and men capable of following a God who gives all and requests all in return.

Choose life.  Choose growth.

And, says Jesus, Choose authenticity.  “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.’   Say yes to walking the path of God, and say no to those things which knock you off that road.  Say yes to solid food, and turn down the jars of baby mush. 

Matthew, in relating Jesus’ words to us, is speaking to an audience with a communal memory of the Exodus, of Moses’ words to his people.  We know that while Paul’s mission was primarily to the gentiles of the Mediterranean world, Matthew wrote his words to a group of Jewish Christians. He sought to affirm to them that Jesus was the new Moses, the Son of God who came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.  And so Matthew tells us that the life of authentic discipleship, the life in which the law is fulfilled, is a life in which, as my teaching colleague told me all those years ago, God cares about everything that we do.  A life in which not only do we not murder, but we do not insult.  A life in which we seek reconciliation not only with those we call our bothers and sisters, but with those we have wronged. A life in which, as Jimmy Carter once famously reminded us, lust in the heart is adultery as surely as the physical act of unfaithfulness.  

Choose authenticity.   Choose – courage.  Be who you are called to be –say yes to that call.  Say no to mediocrity.  Say no to half-baked expectations.  Say no to the idea that God is not engaged in all things. 

Does it sound like too much of a challenge?  The King of England, when he stepped up to the plate – or, to the microphone –  to say “yes” --he was a hero.  And maybe most us don’t feel anything like heroes. 

But these words of Jesus’, difficult as they are to hear and impossible as they might seem to fulfill – they are intended to be reassuring.  They are intended as words of hope and encouragement.  These words are not designed to coerce us into behaving in undesirable ways.  They are intended to invite us into the fullness of life.  Jesus speaks them to remind us that the God to whom we say yes is feeding us with solid food – with God’s very presence and care in all of life.  Jesus invites us to walk  -- halacha – with God, with the God who is interested – no , not just interested, and not just in the details of our lives –but completely committed to a vibrant, joyous relationship with us. 

At the same time that the future King of England was being transformed from a hopeless stutterer into a man who could make a speech, a young Lutheran theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was returning to his German homeland.  Bonhoeffer left behind  a brilliant future in the United States to stand with his people in resistance against the Nazi regime.  His became one of the most eloquent voices  on behalf of the Confessing Church, a movement in Germany in defiance of the state church imposed by Hitler and quietly acquiescing to his policies.  He was executed only a few months before the end of the war, but today Bonhoeffer’s prophetic voice continues to remind us to choose life, to choose growth, to choose authenticity. "Being a Christian,” he said, “is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will."

Choose life.  Walk in the ways of God.   

Choose growth.  Accept the solid food, the challenges, the conflicts, the sorrows, that come your way, so that you can be nourished and grow into disciples of Jesus Christ.   

Choose authenticity.  Choose to be the people you are called to be, to serve God in the ways that you are called to serve.  Let your ‘Yes’ to God be a resounding and courageous ‘Yes.’


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Preaching Ahead of Myself

I've mentioned this a few times.  It's what I've been trying to do for two years.

In February of 2009, I met with the instructor of the Homiletics (preaching) class for which, under normal circumstances, I would have registered during the third quarter of my second year of seminary.  My son had been dead for six months.  I had a number of concerns:  What good news, exactly, might there be to preach?  How would I contend with the professor's expectations for memorization, when most of the time I could no longer remember which city I was in?  What if I completely failed? That last question involved both self-confidence and GPA components, neither of them looking good.

It appeared that taking Homiletics, just like getting up each morning, was probably an exceptionally foolish thing to attempt.

So I did.  Attempt it. The most significant factor in my decision was the statement offered by a friend  in the cafeteria line one day:  "You'll be studying and preaching the Word of God," she said.  "What could be more healing?"

I thought that she had lost her mind but: whatever.  The whole universe was so off-kilter that I was hardly in a  position to challenge her assertion. 

My first assignment was not terrible, and then I made it through the second.  And then a few months later I began working at my field ed church and came up with the idea of "preaching ahead of myself."  My friend Wayne would call it Hope.  TIKVA in Hebrew.  Just like the little drawing he made for me.

Every sermon I preach, I think:  Not there yet.  Look ahead.

I'm doing an online book study/retreat with three other moms who've lost older children.  We've been talking this week about what it means, in our circumstances, as opposed to normal ones, to choose life.  I quoted Deuteronomy 30:19 in one of my posts to them.

Two days ago I received an unexpected call with a request to fill in for a pastor who has to be out of state for a family funeral this week-end.  "Sure," I said.   I continued with my day, I taught my evening class, visited with some friends, came home and had some dinner, and finally opened the computer for a look at the lectionary.

Dear God.

"Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live ."  Deuteronomy 30:19.

Choose life.

The epistle passage: Choose growth.

The gospel passage: Choose authenticity.


I'm beginning to think that I have a dissertation in me on the topic of preaching ahead of yourself.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Distractions: For Gold is Tested in Fire

As most of you know by now, Michelle of Quantum Theology and I have been engaged in a guest blogging adventure, exploring the book Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird.  All of the posts are linked in the relevant page header, and I urge you to take a look at them.  (It seems that we have garnered a number of readers despite few comments, which tells me that people are perhaps intrigued, but speechless in response.  Well, the series is on silence before God, so perhaps the dearth of comments is appropriate!)  Michelle's final post appears below, to be followed, we hope, by one from the author.

Michelle has been given to quoting Evagrius, a fourth century desert father, quite a bit in recent posts, so in order to illustrate this post, I went looking for one of his female counterparts. Herewith, an icon of Syncletica:


Michelle writes:

I went to visit my spiritual director last week at the retreat center where he lives, dragging the tattered shreds of my prayer behind me.  I half hoped that the external silence of the place might bring a bit of relief from the "oh, look, there's a chicken" (or more likely, "hey, did you remember to put the recycling out?") quality my prayer has had for the last while.  At least (barring fire alarms) the only distractions there are in my head, not knocking at my door and flying into my inbox -- which reduces their number if not the overall decibel level. 

I had to admit that I find it consoling to know I'm not the only one who has ever struggled with distraction in prayer, and I've been seeking advice in my library (as well as from my ever patient Jesuit director): Evagrius, Teresa of Avila - and Benedictine hermit Gabriel Bunge.  (I looked up "distractions" in Bunge's index to find "see also Demons" - which promptly started me giving physical shape to my distractions: think large mosquitos and huge blaring plasma screen TVs with tentacles), and of course, Laird's Into the Silent Land. My frank director began by quoting Sirach at me:  when you come to serve the LORD, prepare yourself for trials (Sirach 2:1).  Laird, in The Riddles of Distraction (chapter 5), makes the same point.  Distractions are not to be bemoaned, but welcomed as an "education by ordeal."

Laird (and the rest of the advisors in my library) are clear:  It's not a matter of whether there will distractions in prayer -- there will be; it's how you meet them.  Will you let them put you off prayer, or will you and the clamoring hordes instead deal with each other? 

There's more than a bit of a paradox here (which Laird readily acknowledges).  The distractions teach, but to learn from them you must ignore them.  Despite Bunge's (and Evagrius and the other desert eremites) characterization of distractions as demons, I find giving them physical and psychological shape to be unhelpful.  They become more real, more troublesome.  Far more helpful has been the frame that Laird gives, to look through them to the vastness in which we are settled. 

This morning as I drove back from giving a talk in rural California, I was struck by the vast plain laid out before me.  Green fields spread out all around me; the shape of the land was not obscured by trees and underbrush.  In the distance, hills rose abruptly, leaving me with the paradoxical sense of incredible spaciousness and being cupped gently in God's hands.  There were thousands of bugs swarming around; my windshield was covered in the bodies of the unfortunates who tried to cross I-5 and instead intersected my path.  But despite my awareness of the collisions and the smears they left on the glass, my experience of that vastness was not impeded. 

I'd love to say that this dawn-fueled insight has led to less distracted prayer, but at least for the moment, the swarms remain.  Still, I sense a subtle shift in what I can see of the landscape, and in comparison with that vastness, there is little that can truly compete, or take my attention away.  So perhaps, I have learned something in the trials.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Football and Church

Professional sports have no appeal for me whatever.  As a result, I know nothing about them.  When I settled down in front of the tv last night so that I could spend the evening with my family, a stack of papers to grade on my lap, I had no idea which team was which.  Actually, it took me awhile to remember which teams were even on the field. 

I have no idea what is so compelling about sports.  Especially sports that you watch rather than those in which you participate.  Even when I was in school ~ I loved to play softball and basketball, but I thought that watching them was pretty boring.  And football? ~ The worst.

This morning I thought: Wow.  That's exactly how most people whom I know feel about church.

No appeal. No knowledge.  No idea who the players are or even what team is involved.  Something to observe, not something in which to participate.  

After the game last night, a friend of mine posted to FB that she's learned a lot about football in the past three years (I'm guessing her son is playing), and is even beginning to enjoy the game.  Not for me, I thought.  I can't begin to imagine three years of watching football games.

But I can imagine the words of so many of my family, friends, and acquaintances:  Three years of church involvement?  Are you out of your mind?

Something to think about.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


So there was this day last week when it had snowed all night and I was out shoveling the drive.  And a man walked by in the street, and then he turned around and came back and introduced himself.

I looked at him blankly, my short-term memory apparently a permanent casualty of Josh's death.

And so he elaborated.  He and his wife are members of my church and knew me by sight and some email exchanges. They lost a young adult son to cancer a few months before Josh died. 

Gradually I put the pieces together, and we talked for a minute about our lives now, and our hopes for our surviving children.  And then he went on down the hill to the university.

That afternoon I went to the art exhibit I've described below.  And there was a man there whom I knew by name, although we had never met.

In a lull after the artist spoke, I pulled him aside and said quietly, "You don't know who I am but I know who you are."  His teen-aged son died in an accident a year after our son died, and it was all over the papers, and we know people in common.

It turned out that he had heard of me, and we talked for a minute about our lives now and about trying to move forward.  And he said that one of the few things that has helped is discovering that there are others of us.  I told him about the man who had stopped in  my driveway this morning, and he said, "And now you've stopped me here."

I wonder what we would have thought of one another, the three of us, had we met three years ago.  As it is now,  we are connected by an invisible bond, the experience we share as the parents of boys who . . .  who what? I wonder.  Who are no longer here.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Perks of Ministry (Friday Five)

Over at the RevGals today, Kathrynzj asks us about five perks of ministry.

Hmmmm, I mumbled to myself.  A preliminary explanation: I finished seminary last spring and was certified ready to receive a call in November.  This past week, I learned in a second-hand way that a church where I've preached four times this winter is not even interested in exploring possibilities with me, and I've had a rough several days for other reasons as well.  I'll be hard-pressed to think of any perks! I thought.  And then I reflected over these past several months as a candidate and a spiritual director, and was suddenly grateful to have been pressed into these reminders:

1. As a director of the Ignatian Exercises, I get to see (yesterday, for instance) someone's face light up when she says,  "I never thought of Jesus in that way before!"

2. As an elder, I get to participate in the big issues of our time, such as voting (last week) for the inclusiveness of participation and leadership to which I believe God calls us as God's beloved people.

3. As an educator, I get to hear someone say (in October) "I've never actually read the Bible before" as a text lies open on the table in front of him.

4.  As a worship leader, I get to initiate a plan (in December) for a Christmas service for mourners, and to hear someone who lost a child to suicide say, "I had my doubts, but now I feel freed up to go ahead and celebrate this year."

5.  As a mother, I get to engage (all the time) my adult children in  a life of faith via discussions about the God in whom they do not believe by reflecting on my reading and my work.  (I think there might be seven prepositions in that sentence!)

Now that I write it down, I think: not bad for someone making no headway!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Adsum - Holly Schapker Art Inspired by Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises

I was right (finally!) ~ the painting from Holly Schapker's Adsum exhibition depicted in my last post is of Ignatius' own shoes, worn and dilapidated, which sit in his rooms in Rome.  A few months ago I saw a video of a visit to those rooms. I thought that I remembered the camera resting on those shoes as the narrator commented on their condition, evidence of a man who walked many miles and spent little on his own needs.  

The shoes also remind me of Ignatius' frequent reference to himself as a pilgrim.  I've been thinking about that quite a bit in the past several months, because within that time frame I've listened both to an extended Jesuit commentary on spiritual pilgrimage as our life's journey and to Barbara Brown Taylor's reflection at Chautauqua last summer on having abandoned the word journey as a metaphor in favor of a focus of living in the present moment.  I think that one of life's many paradoxes is that we do both simultaneously, and it's interesting to see where a particular individual places his or her emphasis at any given time.

What you can't really see in the online print is that the shoes are bordered at the top by stars ~ the combination intended to indicate that "Ignatius walked miles on the ground but gazed toward the stars," said the artist, Holly Schapker.  Holly is a delightful young woman who spoke simply and lovingly yesterday of the impact that the Spiritual Exercises have had upon her life ~ of her surprise to find so many feminine elements in Ignatius' approach, of the contemporary feel to prayer in the Exercises, and of how coming to understand that she is the co-creator of her work with God has changed her art.

The paintings are huge ~ I guess if I had paid attention to the dimensions on the website, I would have known that, but their size was a dramatic surprise to me.  In the icon of the older Ignatius, and in the painting of his shoes, his robes and the sidewalk are covered with maps from various parts of the world; they were pasted into a collage and then painted over, so they are faint but insistent: a reminder of the movements of Jesuits in mission all over the globe.  I think I've mentioned before that my very Presbyterian missiology professor in seminary is much enamored of the Jesuits and their passion for and approach to world-wide mission, which began immediately in the 16th century and set a new tone for understanding God's activity in cultures other than those of western Europe.

One of the most beautiful paintings, in my view, is of the Manresa woman, who appears in Ignatius' Autobiography as an anonymous but strong influence on his life and prayer.  And the painting of the donkey is exquisite in its texture and detail.  You'll have to read the book to get the whole impact, but the gist of it is this: early in his new life of faith, Ignatius let the donkey he was riding determine the direction they would take, thereby avoiding a possibly disastrous encounter.  Holly interprets the story as one of surrender of the will; I've tended to think of it as evidence that even Ignatius, the great master of discernment, got off to a rocky start.  I suppose that, again, it's a matter of both/and. 

Adsum by the way means "I am here" ~ Mary's response to the angel Gabriel, indicating presence and availablity to serve God, and a hallmark of Ignatian spirituality.

I see that the exhibit is headed to St. Louis in June ~ and I know that some of my friends are there and reading this!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Shoes ~ Holly Schapker Art Inspired by Ignatian Spirituality

The Big Blizzard has not yet materialized here, so perhaps this afternoon I will make it to the right place at the right time to hear artist Holly Schapker speak about her work.

Everyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows that I am profoundly influenced by the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola, ~ that making the Spiritual Exercises turned my life around and sent me off to seminary ~ that I do my best to practice spiritual direction within the framework articulated by St. Ignatius ~ and that I credit some of his sons of the 21st century with keeping my wobbly self on track for the past couple of hard years.  Ignatius himself I think of as an affectionate older brother who through his writings and their many subsequent interpretations made Jesus Christ come alive for me to call me into a life of ministry.

I have an idea about this painting, but I think I'll wait to see what the artist has to say before  offering my own quite possibly clueless opinion.  I'm very much looking forward to hearing her.