Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Seven Things for Seven Years

1 ~ A little while ago, I was reminded by Martha's post about seven years of blogging that, as of about today, it has been seven years for me as well.  That means that when I started blogging, my boys were 19-year-old freshmen at Ohio State and the University of Chicago and the Lovely Daughter was a 16-year-old high school junior, doing a lot of choral music and theatre tech.  I was teaching high school English and History to Orthodox Jewish kids, was very involved in my church, and was busy with lots of friends.  My grandmother was turning 98  and would live for nearly three more years.  Josh for five. Usually at the end of March we would have been in St. Augustine, but that would have been the year that we pushed our trip to June, since for the first time ever, the kids' spring breaks did not mesh.  I guess I should have seen the writing on the wall: Things Change.  Everything Changes.

2 ~ I got a unintended blogging present today: a lovely, lovely book from an online friend. Review coming eventually.

3 ~ I started thinking about that plan I had back in December for frontier to be my word for 2011.  Haven't done so well with that.  Haven't done anything at all.  I started thinking about it because I had a brief conversation with the young man who inspired the homily that inspired me.  It seems that I am going to live.  That being the case, I need to start thinking about who I want to be.

4 ~ This past week, someone who is deep into grief asked me about trust in God.  And so I asked someone else who might know a good deal more about that than I do.  And he wrote, in part, "Trust is a handing over of the quest for certitude into the contemplative rest of waiting with love for God to reveal the meaning of being a creature for whom God sent his only Son as companion on the quest and an exemplar of holy waiting . . .  the willingness to hand over your future to Love." 

5 ~ I would like to be that person, I think.   That person who could hand over her future to Love.  It's harder than you might think.

6 ~ Of Gods and Men won't be here for another three weeks.

7 ~ There's a lot of snow out there.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ways to Survive a Child's Suicide - Eight So Far

It has occurred to me that I have a tab up there into which I should toss some of what I've learned over the past 2.5 years.  The following eight things are what come to mind off the top of my head.  They should be read with The Lovely Daughter's  remonstrance in mind: "Mom, everyone is not you."  She's right; I only know what works and doesn't for me.  Some of these probably apply to anyone whose child has died, in whatever way, or to anyone who's suffered any kind of death at all. Other ideas? ~ add them to the comments.

I've passed scripture and theology and worship and polity and exegesis ordination exams. Not one of them asked anything about what I really learned during my seminary years, about how to live beyond your child's death from suicide:

1. Ask everything you can think of to ask; look at whatever there is to look at.  Or not.  My primary sources of information after my son died were the woman who ran his apartment building,  the detective who investigated the "case,"  and my son's girlfriend. I asked what I could ~ which wasn't much ~ at first, and later I peppered the detective with questions and asked him to show me everything that he could.  I talked to the coroner and to the funeral home director and to the crematorium personnel.  I saw my son's body, touched him and held him, and accompanied him to the crematorium.  My husband did not do any of those things, and as far as I know is glad he didn't. 

2. Learn what you can about suicide.  Read, go to groups, look around online.  You will probably be surprised by how little you know and how much there is to learn about this taboo of all taboos.  It will make you sick at first, but gradually you will get used to horrific words and pictures and concepts.  My husband doesn't do this either.

3.  Do your work, whenever you can and in whatever increments you can.  Or find something else, perhaps an activity or event to memorialize your child.  My friend Karen G does amazing work, all kinds of it, with respect to children and cancer.  People told me that it would help me to go back to my seminary and spiritual direction classes, and it did.  (For the record, I thought at the time that they were showing signs of extreme delusional thinking.)  I could not have gone back to teaching energetic and hopeful high school students, but I could return to the fairly controlled and solitary life of a graduate student. 

4. Expect bodily stress, and expect no doctor to inquire about it.  Weight gain, weight loss, headaches, joint aches, sleeplessness, exhaustion, intestinal messes, cognitive dysfunction.  I am just starting to address this particular arena, and I know that I have a great deal to learn.  I have to re-learn how to eat, how to move, and how to sleep, and I am guessing that all of those challenges are inter-related.

5. Find someone with some expertise who will listen to you.  For a long time. Years. A therapist, a spiritual director, a pastor, a rabbi.  This will not necessarily be the person or people whom you expect it to be.  Friends get tired and experience hurt of their own (see below).  Many experts and professionals have little or no experience with the profound grief raving lunacy of bereaved parents, or of anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one by suicide.  Many pastoral types are fearful or feel threatened by people who are intensely angry or feel deeply betrayed by God, or who have completely wiped their hands of God. Very few people have the stamina and creativity required to be present to a parent who has lost a child to suicide.

6. Recognize that your most genuine relationships will change.  Family and friends will disappoint you and you will disappoint them.  People really, really hate it when you become healthy enough to state the obvious and the true: that the "Before" life is over.  They want you to be who you were, and have no way of understanding the courage and fortitude it takes to become the person who lives with and despite this new reality.

7. Make new traditions.  New holiday places.  New places to go out to dinner.  New vacation spots.  My friend Karen J has instituted a wonderful tradition of Monday night extended family dinners: They help her busy daughters, bring the warmth of family to her sons-in-law, offer her grandchildren the security of a loving circle (and the opportunity to improve table conversation and manners - Karen leaves no stone unturned!), and assuage some of her own terrible grief.  But ~ all this newness takes tremendous energy.  And so:

8.  Take your time.  It, whatever it is, takes however long it takes. 

Preaching Before and After

Most of us have before and after experiences in our lives:  those experiences that mark a dramatic alteration in our perception of who we are, how the universe is, and who God is.  They seem to have to do with death, a lot of the time, and sometimes with conversion.  They are not necessary instantaneous, road-to-Damscus events, although sometimes they are and it's in the unfolding of them that we realize how much we have been changed.

I have had three such experiences:  the deaths of my mother and brother when I was seven, the year in which I made the Spiritual Exercises, and now the death of my son.

I've been doing a lot of supply preaching, meaning filling in where various churches have an occasional or regular need.  The biggest challenge in supply preaching lies in not knowing the congregation: who the people are and what their cares and concerns are, as individuals and as a community.  The second is that they don't know me; I'm not one of them, and so no shorthand applies.

In a couple of weeks I'm returning to a church close to home where, after several visits, I have made some connections. I'm thinking about preaching the Old Testament text, the "dry bones" passage from Ezekiel.

Two years ago, I was asked to read the Scriptures during my home church's service, and the dry bones vision was one one them.  I looked at it in horror and was about to pick up the phone to say that they would need to find someone else, when it rang; the church administrator was calling to say that they had made a mistake and that I would be reading something else.

Now those two years have passed, and I can both read it and preach on it.  I think.  Because this church and I know one another, the sermon may be more personal than anything with which I would usually be comfortable.

I'm pretty sure that Lazarus, the other main option, is still out of the question for me. But the dry bones; maybe there I have something to say.

A lot to ponder.

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and God brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. God led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. God said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then God said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 

Take that, O death with your sting.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Water in the Wilderness (Sermon)

Last week I saw a cartoon in which two guys were crawling across the desert on their hands and knees, no sign of water or shade in sight, and one is saying to the other, “You and your alternate scenic routes!”
We’ve all been there, right?  Some of those scenic routes are well worth the time – it’s wonderful, for instance, to stretch out a trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains by driving at least part of the way on the Parkway.  But the  Parkway isn’t for those in a hurry – I think the speed limit is 35 mph.  And if you travel with my dad – well, let’s just say that I love my dad, but don’t hop in the car with him if time is of the essence.  On the other hand, if you want to discover some unusual destinations off the beaten track, he’s the driver you want behind the wheel.
And you might want to take a scenic route through even the desert.  I remember being confused by the terms desert and wilderness when I first began to pay serious attention to the Bible.  They sounded so foreboding – and I was a backpacker and a hiker, here, in the United States, so I thought of the desert and the wilderness as desirable places.  To me, desert meant the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona – dry, for sure, but home to saguaro cacti and all sorts of birds and lizards, and a place that blooms dramatically after the spring rains.  And wilderness to me meant places in which I had backpacked, isolated and empty of human company, but filled with great beauty and exuding life.

It was awhile before I got a look at some photos of the Sinai desert, and the desert east of the Jordan River, and understood what desert and wilderness mean in the Bible.  They’re practically synonymous terms, and they refer to hugely empty and desolate places, mountains and cliffs of rock, windswept and dry and barren lands.  Not places in which we really want to spend a lot of time, not unless we’re well equipped with many bottles of water and many camels.

The desert is not just a literal place, of course.  It’s also a metaphor for similar places in our live: empty and desolate, dry and barren places.  Places which we do not find desirable.  And yet here we are in Lent, faced with two desert stories.  Because Lent is a time in which, as writer and artist Christine Valters Painter reminds us, we are invited to honor the desert places in our lives.

There are two great season of preparation in the church year.
During Advent we prepare to welcome the incarnate God, who comes among us in the                             form of a charming baby, surrounded by adoring grown-ups.  And because of the way in which Christmas has been co-opted by our culture of consumer advertising and materialistic focus, it becomes a season of add-on.  What more can we do?  How many parties, how many presents?  How much food, how many family gatherings?  One thing after another, and little of it has to do with God become human.

But Lent?  For Lent, we Christians are on our own. Our culture is not interested in a season of subtraction, of take-away.  A season in which we insist that we must recognize brokenness and sorrow before we can rejoice in resurrected life.  A season which requires of us a time in the desert before the lilies burst into bloom.
 And truthfully, we’re not all that interested ourselves.  We’re interested in the positive, in moving on, in overcoming the hardships of life and forging ahead.

But Lent tells us: there is another facet to our lives, another facet that invites us into a deeper
knowledge of the God who knows our desert places, who joins us there and accompanies us through their treacherous paths. 

Our texts today offer us two different looks at life in the wilderness.
Sometimes we find ourselves in the wilderness because we’ve been called there – often rather unexpectedly.  The Israelites – they left Egypt in a hurry, but filled with the assurance that God was calling them to something new.  They expected liberation and prosperity – but, as we see in today’s story, they find much the opposite.  They find hunger, and loneliness, and dislocation, and thirst – and yet, they also find, in their complaining and anger and near-insurrection, that God accompanies them.  “They’re going to do me in!” their leader Moses tells God, and God tells Moses to strike a rock so that water will pour forth, quenching their thirst and re-energizing them for the journey.

When have we felt confident of God’s call, only to find ourselves in the wilderness? Perhaps for one young lady it’s getting that full scholarship to college, her heart filled dreams of medical school – and then she fails organic chemistry.  Twice.  She thought God was calling her to serve the sick and injured, and now the wilderness has closed in on her.  Perhaps a man gets a huge promotion – finally! that second mortgage will be paid off and finally! he’ll be able to show his stuff – and he discovers that he’s in way over his head.  He thought God was calling him to a better use of his gifts, and now desert lies before him.  Perhaps some of you as a church community feel as if you are on something of a wilderness tour right now, as you search for a new pastor.  You know God has called you to this community, to this place, to this arena of worship and mission – and yet, it takes a LONG time to find the leadership you seek.  Where’s the water?!

None of these desert places feel much like scenic routes.  Lent is not much of a scenic route. 

Or, perhaps, is it a scenic route after all?  Is this a time, perhaps, to honor the journey and develop a new layer of attentiveness to the God who accompanies us?  Where might God be inviting us to grow in recognition of God’s presence, in the failed class or in the overwhelming new job?  Where might God be inviting us to look more closely, to see more clearly the underlying story and pattern in the church on a new journey, in the family situation that once looked so promising and now seems to spell disaster, in the friendship that began in hope and has now foundered on the rocks?  Where might there be a trickle of water in the wilderness – or even a gushing waterfall, unnoticed by eyes tired of the long walk across rough terrain?  Where might we find ourselves immersed in the water of grace in the desert?

Now the story of the Exodus is pretty dramatic, and also very much oriented toward community.  That’s one view of the desert experience which our texts offer us today.  But there’s another version, a version that we hear in the story of the woman at the well.

Sometimes we’re just living our ordinary, perhaps solitary, lives and we don’t even recognize that we’re in the desert. Things are going along and, while we may not be satisfied, we accept them as they are; we don’t anticipate or hope for change and we certainly don’t expect a call to new life and wholeness.
The woman at the well might have been such a person: discouraged but accepting.  We don’t know the details, the reasons behind her having had five husbands, but her life must have been a hard one, filled with fresh starts that ended repeatedly in disappointment.  And we see her at the well, not one of a group of women in conversation and community relationship, but alone, isolated from the camaraderie of her village, doing her work but doing it without joy or hope.
 And yet, the water of Christ’s grace comes her way.
How does this happen for us?
As it does for the woman at the well, it usually happens through other people; other people who are Jesus for us. Other people who sit down to help us listen to our lives. Other people who help us see what we cannot: God’s love pouring out and through our most mundane moments.  It’s not very dramatic, but it happens all the time.
Perhaps it happens when the teacher sits down to console and encourage the failing student.  Perhaps it happens when the nurse spreads a sheaf of papers across a table to explain the diagnosis and offer ways of coping.  Perhaps it happens when the co-worker asks you to join him for a cup of coffee so that he can provide some space in which you might reflect on all that has gone wrong.
Perhaps there was someone who noticed that you could be more than you were, someone who recognized that you were parched and alone in the desert.
You know when this happens because you are able to move forward. Not necessarily at your desired speed or toward your originally projected endpoint, but toward a destination beyond the desert. A destination from which you can look back and say, “The Lord was in that place.”
And you may be compelled to share what your encounter has meant. The woman at the well takes off to tell other people about Jesus, and she makes a big impression on them.  She’s one of the earliest evangelists in the Bible, one of the first preachers on a mission to share the love of Jesus with everyone she knows.   And I have to tell you something about why her desire to share the hope of Christ’s living water stands out for me:
You know that the Presbyterian church requires seminarians to study Greek and Hebrew, the original Biblical languages.  And let me tell you, I am NOT a gifted student of ancient languages.  Those classes were a huge challenge for me.  And in Greek, I had a lot of trouble, as most people do, with a particular group of difficult verbs – so difficult that, a young friend of mine, a brilliant young woman, emailed me from Harvard to say that “even the Greeks didn’t understand those verbs.”
Well, on our final exam one term, we had to translate a passage that I just couldn’t get.  “Five men” – it said.  Where on earth does anyone in the Bible talk about “five men?”  I wondered.  And then it clicked – “Five husbands!”  The Greek word anthropos translates to both man and husband.  Once I saw that, I knew that the passage was the story of the woman at the well, and I could go back and put the puzzle pieces together.  Until I got to one of those verbs that I simply could not figure out. That woman – she does something with her water jar. I thought and thought, and finally I concluded: What you would do with a water jar after you’d been to the well is: you would pick it up and leave.  The verb must be “to pick up,” and so that’s how I completed my exam. “She picked up her jar and left.”
“Robin,” my Greek professor shook her head, “she LEFT the water jar behind.  She was so excited that she forgot all about it.  The verb is “to leave.”
 “Oh,” I said.  “To leave.”
 I haven’t forgotten that.  Not the verb – that I HAVE forgotten.  But that she was so excited, so moved by her encounter with Jesus, so changed in who she was and her expectations of life, so compelled to share her new story with others that she forgot all about her water jar and left it behind – THAT I remember.  That she was in a bad place in her life and suddenly she wasn’t – THAT I remember.
The  route through the wilderness is seldom a scenic one in ways that we would like.
It’ s a place in which we thirst, in which we complain and quarrel, in which we find ourselves isolated and heartbroken. It’s a lonely and challenging place, whether we practically dance into its newness and anticipation, confident of God’s leading and oblivious to the hardships ahead, or whether we find ourselves there in our most ordinary of lives, day in and day out, with no hope of release or transformation.
It’s not a scenic byway.  It’s not a place in which we would choose to be.  And yet, it’s a place which Lent bids us to honor, a place in which to pause, to spend some time, to acknowledge our losses and heartaches, to express our anger and our sadness, to live authentically into lives in which brokenness precedes wholeness, in which death is real but resurrection lies ahead.
 The wilderness is the place in which God comes looking for us -
 offering water -
offering life.

Amen and thanks be to God.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

My Name is Asher Lev (Play Review ~ and Spoiler))

Last night, free tickets in hand, Gregarious Son and I went to see the Cleveland Playhouse's performance of My Name Is Asher Lev, based on the Chaim Potok novel with the same title.

Having taught in an Orthodox Jewish school for several years, I have read much by and about Chaim Potok.  This work follows a familiar pattern: the story of an observant Jewish boy pulled between the rich and demanding tradition of his faith culture and the rich and demanding tradition of another world as he grows into manhood.  In The Chosen, the best known of Potok's novels, the conflict forms the life of Danny, the brilliant son of the rebbe who raises him in silence, so that he will know the pain his father sees as essential to his becoming a legitimate and compassionate leader of his people.  Danny leans, however, toward the new field of psychology, and the contributions of Jewish but atheist Freud, and eventually leaves the Brooklyn yeshiva world for the secular environment of Columbia University.

Asher Lev's gift lies in painting, a completely unacceptable pursuit in the eyes of his Hasidic father, who expects him to study Torah and live the strict life of the most radically observant of Torah Jews. Thanks to their rebbe, the unquestioned leader of their small community, Asher receives an introduction to the painter ~ Jewish but not observant ~ who agrees to train him for five years, beginning, significantly, in his Bar Miztvah year.  Jacob Kahn, the painter, reminds Asher repeatedly that he is entering the world of the goyim, that his path will be one of pain, separation, and isolation ~ within his family, within his community, and within himself.  The two of them make an intriguing pair, Jewish men seated in art museums, studying and copying the work of the great masters, whose subject matter largely concerns the Christian narrative.

One of my favorite lines in the play comes from Jacob Kahn, who tells Asher that he must learn the tradition ~ Titian, Michaelangelo, the other greats of the Renaissance ~ before he can add to it or rebel against it.  Applicable to all of us, in all traditions.

The gulf between Asher and his religious family and community widens as he pursues his work, learns to paint nudes, and becomes the source of increasing conflict between his parents.  Commercial success does not diminish the interior anguish that propels his work, much of it rooted in his understanding of his parents and their world. The final denouement comes after he visits Italy and becomes absorbed in its art, particularly the Pieta.  He returns home to paint the pieces that will both seal his reputation as a great artist and drive him from the community that sees his work as the ultimate betrayal.

The performances were wonderful, and I left with two intensely personal reactions.  First, I felt carried back to my teaching days in the Orthodox community, to my memories of life in a culture distinctly different from my own but that has nevertheless shaped many of my ideas about community, identity, and God. I was not surprised to discover  the name of one of my former colleagues on the program, a rabbi and high school teacher who served as a consultant to the production.

Secondly, I awoke this morning pondering the final crisis of Asher Lev, which leads him to paint a crucifixion with his mother as the subject and his father and himself, the two poles of her life, standing on either side of her outstretched arms.  The subject matter, the crucifixion itself, is profoundly off-limits to an observant Jew, but Asher says that he could not find in his own tradition an adequate rendition of the suffering of his mother, who has lost much (parents, brother, and now his own presence)  in her lifetime.  I was quite taken with how, as an outsider to the Christian tradition ~ and not just an outsider, but an outsider to whom the cross is particularly abhorrent because of the avalanche of horrors it has unleashed upon his people ~ not only could he interpret a Christian icon of such significance in such a deeply personal way, but he could find within himself and his own story the freedom to interpret it so fully, by placing the small and yet powerful feminine figure of his mother at the center.

The word tradition is at the heart of this work ~ the tradition of the Torah world, the tradition of the artistic world.  (One can practically hear Tevye.)  Asher Lev is the outsider and participant in both, reminding us that the vision of a community and its work depends upon the mingling of perspectives of both those within and those without.

Terrific play.

Image: Noel Joseph Allain as Asher Leve, here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Spiritual Practice (Friday Five)

"My Sunday school class has hit the "pause" button on our study of First Corinthians and is spending Lent on Richard J. Foster's classic Celebration of Discipline. I have had this wonderful and very readable book on my shelf, along with the study guide for it, for years, but have never discussed it with a group.

Because there are only five Sundays in Lent, we are fairly galloping through the book, getting a quick introduction to the various disciplines. The church is also sponsoring a Lenten Centering Prayer group, allowing some of us to sample this discipline in community.

Following the image above, I like to think of the spiritual disciplines as vessels that prepare us to ride the wave of God's amazing love and presence in a new way.

For today's Friday Five, please share with us five spiritual practices or disciplines from your experience. They can be ones that you have tried and kept up with, tried and NOT kept up with, ones that you flirt with at various times, or even practices that you have tried and found are definitely NOT your cup of tea. Let us know what's worked for you...and not."

1. I listen to Pray as You Go on a fairly regular basis, usually more or less first thing in the morning.  Sometimes I listen closely and pray through it, sometimes I journal my reactions and responses as I listen, sometimes I do yoga while I listen.

2. I do a lot of writing as I explore my spiritual life.  I started journaling about my spiritual adventures (and lack thereof) seriously when I made the Spiritual Exercises five years ago and have kept that practice up, to the point were I have filled something like fifteen journals.  Plus a lot of my blogging reflects my spiritual life.

3. Photography is a spiritual practice for me much of the time. Even as I write more and preach more, I am increasingly interested in the visual reception and expression of faith.

4. Reading and listening are critical spiritual practices for me.  I am endlessly interested in what other people have to say about the spiritual life, whether explicitly or implicitly, in nonfiction books and periodicals, in novels and poetry,and in blogs and conversation.

5. This list so far says little about communal spiritual practice, which has been the most challenging arena for me since Josh died.  Three years ago, words like hospitality and worship in community would have been high in the list, but those are matters I am having to reconsider and reframe in light of my sense of vulnerability and fragility.  I am so changed on the inside that I am still working on how to be both genuinely and lovingly engaged and  appropriately reserved on the outside. 

And the all-encompassing spiritual practice for me, the one that can't possibly be reduced to a number on a list, is prayer.  I was thinking about this last night, about how much over the past fifteen years or so my life has tilted, ever so slowly, toward a constant engagement with prayer: formal prayer, intercessory prayer, communal prayer, solitary prayer, visual prayer but, most of all, an increasingly steady prayer of contemplative listening.  This one, I think, gets a post of its own in the next few days.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Standard

The call process is going nowhere for me.  I send my stuff to churches  I think I could serve well in many ways ~ and I'm, you know, not so young, so I have a skill set that encompasses a wide variety of church communities and needs ~ and usually I hear nothing in response.  Or something like, "We've concluded that you're not a match for our needs," which causes me to squint at a church form describing a position that seems made to order for me and wonder, "What do they see that I don't?  What do they know that I don't?"

It's not as if my gifts lie moribund.  I'm teaching a college class, which I love doing.  I'm seeing a lot of people in spiritual direction.  I'm preaching frequently enough.  I'm starting to work on some of my writing for publication.  I'm doing a few little things here and there for my home church.

The professor with whom I visited last week assured me that it's not me; that it's the vastly overcrowded pastor population for the dramatically shrinking church population.   But the reality remains: I did spend three years in seminary in the hope of nurturing and leading a congregation. It's tough, this rejection stuff.  

Today I received a little note from someone dear to me, in which he expressed his hope that I would soon find a place that would "gently challenge" my gifts.  

Hmmm, I thought.  And thought some more.  "Gently challenging."  I like that.   That's exactly what I need at this point. 

Perhaps there's a church out there in need of someone who herself needs a gentle challenge. 

Image: St. Mary's Church of Burton Latimer in England, here.

RevGals Interview!

If you're a regular here, you know that I've found great support and sustenance from the RevGals as I've made my way through seminary and now through the call process.

The RevGals community is a remarkable example of the capacity of women for networking with warmth and hospitality.  And now, Martha Spong, one of its founders, explains its origin and its many facets of opportunity and encouragement for ordained women and those who nurture and support women in ordained ministry.

Listen to the  interview here !

Oh, and there's more.   Carol Howard Merritt, who's also a RevGal and interviews Martha on this program, and Landon Whitsitt continue the discussion about RevGals, blogging, and the redemptive nature of community.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lenten Break

"We are built for contemplation."

~ Martin Laird, OSA
Into the Silent Land
Image: Cedar Key FL

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Simultaneous LIves

Yesterday: a really good day.  A lunchtime conversation with Theology Professor, an afternoon sitting in the sun with a good friend, and an evening presentation by First Spiritual Director.

And then a night of dreams about Josh.  Some difficult, some good.  

But the content doesn't matter. I am always so glad to see him.

And then I wake up.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Why Join a Church? ~ Part II

I'm in Pittsburgh tonight, and this afternoon I had lunch with Terrific Theology Professor, so I asked him how I might frame a response to the confirmation class (see previous post).

"You don't join a church," he said in some exasperation. "You've already been joined to the church by your baptism."

Our professors here at the seminary invest a lot of time explaining to us that the whole idea of "joining a church"  (Church shopping, anyone? Switching churches? Oh yeah, BTDT ~) is a product of our culture of American individualism and freedom of choice, whereas our theology tells us that we are called into the church by God, that our identity as God's children is God's gift to us, that God initiates God's claim on us at baptism, and that it is God, not we ourselves, who is doing the choosing.

Of course, we're Americans, and so we can't stand any of this. 

"If you can get through to them that they aren't joining the church," he continued, "but that they've already been joined to the church by God, then you'll have really done something."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Why Become a Member of a Church?

Why, indeed?

In a couple of weeks I'm teaching our confirmation class of 8th~9th graders, and the title of this post is the topic I've been handed.

In my own particular church, there is virtually nothing that an individual cannot do to make a contribution to the community, church and wider world both, beyond being ordained as an elder or deacon, that requires membership.  We nurture our lay leaders, members or not, elders and/or deacons or not, and all are invited, in some form or another, to participate in worship, to serve on ministry committees, to care for others, to engage in church leadership roles, to serve the community at large ~ to contribute time, money, energy, and skills.  And we extend ourselves to one another, regardless of membership status.  

No one in my immediate family but me is a member of my church, but that fact did not limit anyone's ~ pastors, staff, choir, deacons ~ involvement when Josh died.  And I'm not at all sure that my own membership status was the lynchpin.  When I asked how another family had ended up at our church for a child's funeral, what I heard was that they had gotten to know our pastors and had heard that our church is one that knows how to do the funerals of young people.

One of my friends, my age, recently posted on FB that our church is the foundation of her life in community, the place where her closest friends gather. She got several responses to the effect that others find the kind of closeness and support that she was extolling in other kinds of communities.  She continued to defend church as a unique set of relational engagements, but the fact is ~ most people these days are content with other kinds of communities.  So why become a church member?

It's true that a lot of churches are more exclusivist than mine in terms of who can do what.  I suppose that might be a reason to join ~ although I can't say that it would be a drawing card for me.

During my few sojourns in Methodist Sunday School as a child, I learned the little poem with hands and fingers:  Here's the church, here's the steeple, open the door, and . . . 

The thing is, today the people are elsewhere.

I have of course, many other opinions on this matter, but I'm interested in yours:

Why become a church member?  

Imagine that young teenager and her friends in the back of your van as you drive them to soccer practice, and that's the question they're discussing.  What would you offer them?

Image of future pastor here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Supporting Silence

As you may know from one of the tabs at the top of my blog, my friend Michelle and I invested a lot of time over the past several months in our mutual exploration of Into the Silence, a book on prayer by Martin Laird, O.S.A.  Today, if all goes according to plan, Michelle and Marty are getting together in Pennsylvania while I am moping about in Ohio, wishing that I were sitting in a coffee shop with the two of them discussing the life of prayer.

As it happened, yesterday I was in fact sitting in a coffee shop with another friend, another spiritual director, and he had this to say: "These guys who write about prayer?  They all live in community. They make the rest of us, living with our own dysfunctional communities of family, friends, and colleagues, feel as if we need to head for the empty desert when, in fact, they themselves are surrounded by others who make their lives of prayer possible."

It was actually a much longer conversation, but you get the idea.

And so the question becomes, how do we build healthy communities in which we support one another in the solitude of prayer? 

I've said many times that my own church was simply too busy, too noisy, too active for me after Josh died. 

And how many times have folks said to me, "I couldn't be silent for eight minutes, let alone eight days!"

Most of us are not about to build a literal monastery, and we are unlikely, if we are in mainline Protestant churches or ordinary 21st century families, to find much of an expressed interest in silence, whether communal or solitary.

What do you think?  Do these questions exert any pull on you at all?  Do you have some ideas about it ~ about how to introduce, create, and foster the experience of silence with God?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Imagine ( A Not-for-the-Faint-of-Heart Post)

This is what I read when I opened my computer a moment ago, after bathing the dog in warm water in an  indoor bathroom, after seeing The Lovely Daughter ~ safely home from Guatemala ~ off to work, after making myself some breakfast, using a blender and a microwave in our fully functional kitchen:

"JAY ALABASTER and TODD PITMAN, Associated Press Jay Alabaster And Todd Pitman, Associated Press 3 mins ago

TAKAJO, Japan – A tide of bodies washed up along Japan's coastline, crematoriums were overwhelmed and rescue workers ran out of body bags as the nation faced the grim reality of a mounting humanitarian, economic and nuclear crisis Monday after a calamitous tsunami.

Millions of people were facing a fourth night without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures in the northeast devastated by an earthquake and the wave it spawned. . . .

A Japanese police official said 1,000 washed up bodies were found scattered Monday across the coastline of Miyagi prefecture. . . .

The discovery raised the official death toll to about 2,800, but the Miyagi police chief has said that more than 10,000 people are estimated to have died in his province alone, which has a population of 2.3 million.

In one town in a neighboring prefecture, the crematorium was unable to handle the crush of bodies being brought in for funerals."

I have spent time with the bodies of only two loved ones ~ my last stepmother, whom I was with when she died of cancer, and my son, whose body came home to us two days after he died. (I'm not counting my mother; I was with her in the car accident in which she died, but I have no memory at all of that event.)

I have never had to contend with more than maybe a few bodies in the course of a day, and all of them during CPE at Famous Giant Hospital, where people die quietly in clean beds, sometimes struggling for those last breaths, but always well tended and almost always in the company of people who love them.  When I was on call one night, four of my patients died, and there had probably been one or two earlier that day, but that would have been the most in one 24-hour period.

I've only been to one crematorium, a place a bit off the suburban track but nevertheless well-staffed, pristine, and smoothly functioning.

Those of you who've been reading my blogs for awhile know how I protest against that phrase so frequently made to the grieving, that "I can't imagine" phrase.

I think that we should be trying hard today to imagine.  I think that we should imagine being the person who discovers that she is the lone survivor of  her family, trying to scavenge something to eat and drink, trying to pull some fragments of wood and concrete together for a bit of warmth and shelter, and trying to figure out how to get those damaged and bloated and beloved bodies to an overwhelmed crematorium when there are no roads and no transportation.

I think that we should be trying to imagine her shock and horror and anguish.

I think that we should be praying with her, in solidarity and for resiliency.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lent in July

The following is a post from my Desert Year blog, from the summer of 2009.  My husband and I and two of our children had ventured to the wedding of our next-door neighbors' son.  Our own Josh, in love with a Vietnamese-American girl, had died less than a year previous.  Nevertheless, we felt that we should attend this wedding; our children had all grown up together and spent many years running back and forth between the two back yards.  It turned out to be even harder than we  had anticipated, and we've turned down all wedding invitations that have come our way since this one.

I've been thinking (wondering) a lot about happiness and freedom and suffering and God, and when I came across this post today, it suddenly seemed very Lenten.


The wedding is much like one I had once imagined. Simple, elegant, a small crowd in a Catholic church. A quiet, self-possessed groom; family and friends here from Germany. A lovely and delicate bride; family and friends here from Korea.

The groom's grandmother approaches me at the reception. "I don't believe a word of it," she announces. "Ridiculous."

"Weddings?" I ask her. "You've given up on marriage?"

"No, no ~ weddings are fine. The religious stuff. It's absurd."

"Oh. I thought you were Catholic, too."

"Not me. None of that stuff for me. I can't believe that otherwise intelligent people buy into it." She squints up at me. "But I suppose you believe it, don't you?"

"Yes," I say.

"Does it help you; does it give you any comfort?"

"No," I say.

The real answer is actually much more complex. But this is a wedding reception.

"I don't know how you stand it," she says. "I suppose you have to."

I look at her and wonder if I am supposed to have some kind of answer. Some kind of satisfactory explanation of the universe. 
She has two daughters, six grandchildren, two great-grandchildren. All well and happy. For the last two weeks, I have been watching her twin great-grandchildren, little towheads here from Germany for the month, playing in the back yard next door, where the groom and his sisters, one of them now the mother of the towheads, grew up. They look exactly like the little people who used to play in my yard. 
I don't think that I have any explanation of the universe, satisfactory or otherwise.

"I don't like the mushrooms and I don't like beef, so there's really nothing for me until dinner is served," she says. "I guess I'll get another drink."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Matthew 4:19

Reuters Image

Friday, March 11, 2011

New Venture: Books!

In the past few weeks, I've received requests from two publishers to review new books of theirs in my blog.  And I have the books!

My friend Quotidian Grace has graciously offered me some excellent advice on how to approach this new venture; hence the disclosure statement that now appears in one of the tabs along the top. (Yay for RevGals community and connection!)

Yesterday's Pray As You Go focuses on John the Baptist's activities and challenging words at the River Jordan as he anticipates the ministry of Jesus.  The meditation describes John the Baptist as re-enacting the arrival of the people of Israel in the Promised Land: This is it.  Heaven is about to take charge on earth.  This is what we've been waiting for.  Are you ready?

It has occurred to me, as I've thought about those words over the past 24 hours, that, in my own small arena of life, as in all of ours, this is it.  This is the life God offers us. In a big way, my life is not remotely what I want, or what I want to believe God had in store for me. But in many small ways, I see that I need to pay attention: This is, in fact, it.  And this new opportunity is a new facet of my new life.  So . . . bring the books on!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Something to Ponder During Lent

When God promises to do a new thing, God uses people ~ often, unlikely people; frequently, surprised and alarmed people.

~ from yesterday's Pray As You Go

~ Taize music from today's:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

"[We] become free with the perfect freedom of the sons [and daughters] of God by virtue of the fact that, having followed Christ into the wilderness and shared in his temptations and sufferings, [we] can also follow him wherever else he may go."

~ Thomas Merton, (speaking on the monastic vocation, but surely applicable to us all), found in Silence, Solitude, and Simplicity by Sister Jeremy Hall, OSB (2007).

For a thoughtful five-minute Ash Wednesday reflection on friendship with Jesus, listen here.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Approaching Lent

I suspect that many of us for whose lives the desert has become a primary metaphor have spent time contemplating Jesus' sojourn there as depicted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  This poem was unknown to me until this morning; I'm grateful to have discovered it.

Lent Darkness

Dragons lurk in desert spaces
Penetrating the mind with evil claw.
Serpent’s teeth seek out the chinks
insidiously, relentlessly, gnawing on the bone;
searching out the interstices of muscle and sinew.
Such is the pain of the wilderness.
Alone, alone, alone,
Christ sits
in the waste place of abandoned pleas and questions
until exhausted
at last
the realisation
that in the end
there is only
In the night-time of our fears
in the present reality of abandonment
when family and friends
turn and run,
be present, ever present God.
Be present with those
camped out in the fields of hopelessness
with refugees and homeless,
those who live lives of quiet desperation.
Be present until the desert places
blossom like the rose
and hope is born again.

– Kathy Galloway (ed.), The Pattern of Our Days: Liturgies and Resources for Worship (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 1996), 130.

Kathy Galloway was the leader of the Iona Community when our church group spent a  week there five summers ago (I don't think she was there at the time).

 HT to Jason Goroncy at Per Crucem ad Lucem

Image: The hillside Columba climbed when he arrived on Iona in 563 CE and, according to legend, wanted to be assured, in his own loneliness and despair, that he would not have to see Ireland across the sea again. (In truth, he probably continued to travel back and forth.) (July 2006 photo)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Preparing to Prepare

Christine Valters Painter has written a thought-provoking essay on Ash Wednesday and lament, which I highly recommend to you.  I've been thinking about it since she posted it a few days ago, trying to discern where it does and does not resonate with me.  I've been thinking about it as I try to make a decision about whether to go to the Ash Wednesday service at our church.

The essay begins with these words:

"Ash Wednesday marks a threshold when we leave ordinary time to enter into the journey of Lent through the desert. The desert is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of our seemingly secure and structured world, where things begin to crack."

I hadn't noticed the reference to ordinary time until just now.  It's only been a couple of days since I mentioned that the term "ordinary time" has lost its meaning for me. And as someone learning to make her home in the desert, I don't need Lent as a portal.  My secure and structured world is long gone and I'm here, building my house right on top of the cracks, because there is nowhere else to go.

Nevertheless, I sent the essay to a friend who has just lost her brother, and she responded with gratitude and said that she has forwarded it to family and friends.  And I'll be sending it to two other friends this week.  One's husband died of cancer a year ago today; we had breakfast Saturday. One's husband died three years ago Thursday, and we are planning a long walk in the cemetery that afternoon.  One told me that she has been focused on distractions; the other, that people clearly want her "to get over it."  I think that the essay will speak to them both, each in her own place of grief and longing.

And I think I'll stay away from the service Wednesday night.  As I did last year.  As I should have done two years ago.  I have spent so much time this past year caring so gently for ashes ~ ashes that have become one with the forests and streams of the North Carolina mountains and with the waves of the Atlantic ~ that they have lost the distance that a symbol requires to persist as an invitation and gift. 

I do plan to observe Lent.  But I am looking for signs of life around my little house in the desert. Perhaps I will find a truth beyond the song of lament I now know so well.  What do you think of this illustration ~ both the house and the name of its locale ?!

Plexiglass House in Wonder Valley CA, here.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Warm-Up for Lent

This morning I was able to worship at my home church. I'm so glad I got myself over there; last night's snowfall made the prospect of staying home an extremely tempting one.

Some of the highlights:

Sitting between and talking with two friends with whom I've worked many times, one a middle school band teacher and the other a big-firm attorney, both of them men  passionately committed to the mission of the church;

A lively and moving rendition of the spiritual Ride the Chariot by the men of the choir, with a spectacular solo by a high school senior;

A dynamite sermon by our senior pastor on Acts 19: 23-28,* urging us to remember the both-and-ness of our call:  to live on the margins and to draw others to the center, and to be disturbed indeed about issues of justice and inclusion;

A terrific offering anthem described in the bulletin as a dithyramb, a  wild passionate Indian hymn using just one syllable to express uninhibited festivity on this last Sunday before Lent;

More conversations after church with friends whom I seldom see these days.

Look at those adjectives I used:  lively, moving, spectacular, dynamite, terrific. It was wonderful to worship without leadership responsibility in a service that was so filled with energy and variety and community.  

*We are off-lectionary these days, as the adult education classes are studying the Book of Acts, in part because it was just a good idea and in part because a group is leaving for Turkey in a few weeks.  Our pastors committed themselves to a preaching schedule that both accompanies the study and gives us all a taste of the texts that relate to the pilgrimage, which will trace some of Paul's steps.

Image: The Great Theatre at Ephesus, here, where the great riot against Paul took place 
and where I am not going anytime soon.