Sunday, May 29, 2011

Back to My Break

Thanks to all who provided help and encouragement for the sermon.  Hours later and I am still completely exhausted, but it seems to have been appreciated!

And now, back to my blogging break.  And back to the countdown: six weeks till a week's silence at Wernersville!

Images: Wernersville (PA) Jesuit Center and 
Detail of St. Ignatius the Pilgrim Statue, 
both October 2010

Saturday, May 28, 2011

TIKVA - Sermon for My Home Church (I Peter 3:13-22)

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

I haven’t even started and I feel like a fraud.  I am NOT always ready to make a defense of my hopeful faith and when I try, I am more often than not timid and awkward, and as a general matter I have been known to forget all about reverence and gentleness.  I do, however, have friends to remind me.

One of those friends is an artist who lives in western Pennsylvania.  Some time after I returned to seminary for the second year, he sent me a small piece of paper upon which he had crafted the word TIKVA.  I groaned when I saw it –my command of Biblical languages is limited at best and all I could see was that he had written something in Hebrew.  Thankfully he had used English letters, and so I was able to google it.  TIKVA means “Hope.”  I shook my head  --  it was not a word I wanted to hear, or see.  Nevertheless, I dutifully pasted his sign to the door to my door in the seminary dorm, so that I would have to see it every several times a day.  But would be a long time before I would be able to understand the word TIKVA as having any relevance to my own life’s journey.

Last week, our PC(USA) moderator Cindy Bolbach reminded us that, in our lives of faith,  we do not get from here to there alone.  We do not find hope or healing on our own.  We carry one another. Let me tell you a little about that experience in my own last couple of years, recognizing that some of you know the story and some not at all.

The last time I had the wonderful opportunity to preach here was just after Easter three years ago.  I was in my first year of seminary and a man in my closest circle friends had just died, very suddenly.  I tried to offer something of consolation to his wife and to our friends who were family to us, most of whom were here.  Little did I know that only five months later, the tables would be turned and the loss would be our own family’s.  In September, as I was preparing to return to Pittsburgh for the second of my three seminary years, our beautiful 24yo son Josh died of suicide.  Many of you were here in the days that followed, and you witnessed the stunned horror and grief in which we in our family found ourselves locked.  You can understand that when I speak about hope, I am talking about a confidence that is the product of along journey across a vast desert.

I did eventually finish seminary, and I am in the process of seeking a call to a church right now.  But the past two and one-half years have not been those of which I had dreamed; the circumstances have not come close to anything I could possibly have imagined or planned. 

Perhaps it’s because I have found hope so difficult to recover that I gravitated toward the reading in I Peter today.  And of course I wondered,: Out of what reality was he speaking?  Who, even, in fact, was speaking?

We all know not to take the authorship of a Biblical text for granted, even when a name is plastered to the front of a book.  We might be tempted to presume that the author of I Peter is, in fact, that fisherman who followed Jesus with an immediacy of commitment that most of the rest of us find difficult to emulate.  But in fact the book was most likely written by one of Peter’s followers in Rome, or by a community of such followers, toward the end of the first century.

The letter is what’s known as a circular letter, a document sent off to be circulated among a number of churches in the northern provinces of the Roman Empire, in today’s Turkey. Those of our members who went to Turkey earlier this year probably visited some of the places in which this letter landed. A circular letter was sort of an ancient version of a chain letter, except that it didn’t end with those ominous predictions about what will happen if you don’t email 16 more copies by midnight.

The writer we call Peter is instructing the young Christian communities in Turkey on how to address the challenges they face in a situation that should be recognizable to us: being church in a world which is somewhat indifferent and even  somewhat hostile to its teachings and practices.  A surrounding community resentful of the church members’ refusal to participate in the civic rituals honoring the Roman gods.  A surrounding community irritated by those insistent upon proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, and willing to hassle them a bit for their convictions.  

And so, Peter tells them: always be ready to defend the hope that is in you.  Well, we know what that means: make a defense, be ready to assert yourself and your position.  We all do it all the time, over all sorts of issues.   Just a couple of days ago, a man tried to defend to me, with choice words and gestures, his decision to make a U-turn in front of me on Cedar Road.

We defend most of our choices out of hope – out of hope that we are right, out of hope that things will work out, for ourselves and for those who we love.  Hope grounded in the everyday matter of life that we think we control.  What college, what job, what neighborhood? (What U-turn?)  But those decisions are a few steps away from the hope of which the author of I Peter reminds us, the hope in Jesus Christ that grounds all other hopes.

And that hope, as Cindy reminded us last week, we nurture in one another. We account for it by what we do with and for one another.

A couple of months ago, it was my privilege to teach our confirmation class one Sunday. The topic L assigned to me was: What does it mean to be confirmed? What does it mean to affirm, intentionally, that we have been invited into this life in the church by our loving God?  I invited the class to respond to that question – how does confirmation affect you – in three ways:  How does it affect you as an individual?  As a participant in this church congregation?  As a member of this church in the world? 

I might have framed the question differently.  I might have asked them: How do you account for your hope in Jesus Christ– as an individual, as a church member, as a person engaged in the world community?  How does it change you?

After Josh died, I had no idea what to do about my life. I didn’t care, actually, anything at all about my life.  Hope was no longer one of my vocabulary words.  Those of you who have been there will recognize the feeling.  But my daughter, who had returned to college for her senior year, called me up one night and said, “Mom, you have got to get out of bed.”  I thought about that for awhile, and concluded that if she could get on a plane and fly back to Oregon, I guessed that I could get in a car and drive to Pittsburgh. One person’s hope, and it wasn’t mine.  We love each other, and we carry each other.

In these months, and now years, it turns out that the hope of many, many people sustained me.  Hope expressed in gentleness and with reverence, even when I did not respond in kind.  Hope expressed in meals and gifts, and, most especially, in presence. There were a couple of people who wrote to me and read my emails and sat with me and listened to me for hours at a time.  Even when I hurled angry words at them, accusing them of not listening, they kept right on listening.  They listened with the profound patience of people whose hope is in Jesus Christ, as people who as individuals account for the hope that is in them by being present to others.

As a congregation, how do we account, among ourselves, for the hope within us?  Look at how we worship together, how we care for one another, how we laugh and cry together.  Last fall, EP and I co-facilitated a Kerygma group.  One day when we were supposed to be discussing one of the strategies our lesson presented to us on how to interpret the Bible, we all got into a conversation about some of our more difficult experiences.  Out of that conversation the idea for the Blue Christmas service was born.  I guess that we were, in fact, employing a strategy for interpreting Scripture: we were applying it to our lives and, as hopeful friends of Jesus and one another, seeking to spread that hope around in ways new to us.

If you were here last week, you heard K and LS announce the project inviting us all to note on a paper brick the ways in which we have each contributed to the issues of care and justice for the homeless in our community.  The paper bricks are being constructed into a wall on the Justice and Mission Ministry’s kiosk in Fellowship Hall.  The Ministry makes it easy for the rest of us to contribute to solutions for the homeless and to reflect on what we’re doing: to see that we take the steps we do out of hope.  And not just out of hope that we can help others, or hope that we can chip away at a major societal problem.    But hope that the Kingdom of God is among us, hope that we account for by participating in its growth.

All of this – individual, church, world – all of it is grounded in Jesus and the hope that he is.  We don’t do these things just because we are good people.  We do them because we have hope in the one who is hope himself.  

It's still Easter – did you know that?  It’s hard to believe, on Memorial Day week-end, but it’s the sixth Sunday of the Easter season.  The season in which we particularly celebrate that Jesus died and rose in defeat of death. The season in which we particularly celebrate the hope that lies within us. 

In a few weeks, our readings will take us back into the life of Jesus. If we pay attention to what he says, and does, and wants, we learn what it means to defend our hope in the person who defeats death and who invites us into participation in the building of his kingdom.  It means that we listen to despairing people in the hope that they will know God’s love in our listening.  It means that we worship together in the hope that we will affirm God’s love in our celebrations and in our crises.  It means that we try to offer ourselves to others out of the rest of the world in the hope that they will experience God’s love in the rebuilding of their lives.

A couple of weeks ago, one of those people who listens to me said that our vocation is to live the love of Jesus.  No matter what else we do in our lives, our real vocation is to live out the love of Jesus.  

And if that is our vocation, how we could we not be people of hope?  Our vocation, if it is to live the love of Jesus, must be to counter death with life at every turn.  All the deaths, small and large – those of loss, of brokenness, of homelessness, literal and metaphorical – our vocation is to counter them with the love of living hope.

I don’t know for sure about all of you, but I know that for me, death is a personal affront.  Very personal.  My mother, my youngest brother, my son – all died at very young ages.  I don’t have any kind or sentimental words about death.  I suspect that on Memorial Day, a lot of us are particularly aware of death as a horrific gash in our lives, as a breach in relationship that we ourselves cannot overcome. 

But if our vocation is to live the love of the person who DEMOLISHES death, the person who replaces it with the life and light for which we were always intended, how could we do anything other than reach out to each other with hope? share in the hope of our community life? and walk into the world as bearers of the message that love is stronger than death, stronger than what looks to be our end?

It was a long time after Josh’s death before I recognized any signs of renewal.  But I have kept my friend’s little TIKVA card, which I plan to frame and hang on the wall in my someday church study.  Because it’s true: we should account for the life of Jesus Christ that dwells within us, and there is no gentler and more reverent way than by quietly communicating one word: Hope.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Blogging Break

Despite having had a major experience of God's consolation over the past several days, my everyday life is one of deep discouragement.  It's filled with frustrations: the lack of employment means that much around the house that we had to neglect during my seminary years remains undone; the profusion of rain and cold means that the yard looks as if no one has lived here in a decade; my double vision means that almost everything I attempt takes twice as long as it should and that I have to depend entirely on others for transportation.

The hardest thing is the empty hole where the call process should be. RevGals today optimistically and joyfully  addresses the process for those just graduating from seminary.  It's been a year since I graduated, six months since I was certified ready to receive a call, and . . .  nada.  I remember how incredibly excited I was about the future on both of those occasions, but now I find myself baffled and bewildered.  I'm not alone; my best friend from seminary,  a remarkably gifted and accomplished woman, remains call-less, and I keep hearing stories of folks two and three years out, still hoping.  There is one church possibility at the moment for which I am both optimistic and enthusiastic, but possibility remains the key word there.

It's not as if I have nothing to do.  In fact, I have begun to receive enough invitations for spiritual direction, retreat work,  teaching, and community work that I am even more uncertain:  How is it that my own church can't come up with work for me, when other people and organizations and institutions seem interested in my contributions? and:  Am I being called into something else entirely? 

Among the many non-pastor items on my plate are a couple of writing projects which may turn into something.  And so I'm going to step back from blogging for awhile and head down that path with as much focus and discipline as I can muster.  I'll still be reading, and I have book reviews to post, but I'm going to start limiting my online time , dramatically, effective . . . NOW.

Image: Path through Atsena Otie, a tiny island off Cedar Key, Florida

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Social Worker

The Lovely Daughter went to Guatemala over spring break as part of her social work master's program and, like at least one of her classmates, fell victim to some kind of ATM card theft.  Apparently someone somehow got card and pin numbers and is slowly making their way through a set of newly created fake cards until "insufficient funds" appears on a screen.  Or perhaps the pretend cards are for sale.

LD discovered that she'd been hit when she was at the BMV yesterday to register her car and turned out to have those "insufficient funds."  More details, this morning: it seems that her account was emptied in the last day or two by someone in the Santo Domingo airport in the Dominican Republic. 

LD: "Well, he's probably not a really bad person."

Her mother: "You are SUCH a social worker!"

Sunday, May 15, 2011


It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church's mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.

These words are frequently attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero, but when I heard them at the event the other night, another author was named.  Of course, I could not retain the name for longer than a few seconds and it took me awhile to track it down, but the source is clarified here: the prayer was written by Bishop Ken Untener (to whom they were credited by our speaker).

My daughter frequently reminds me that I should not generalize my experience as a universal one, but I think that I might be on safe ground here:  When you suffer the sudden, unexpected, suicidal death of a child, all sense of the future is crushed. Seeds planted and watered, foundations laid, yeast provided ~ it seems that it was all pointless, and that there is no hope for another future.  I haven't heard anything different from any other parent in my circumstances.

For the rest, though, I will stick to my own experience and not seek to impose it on anyone else.  And my experience, slow and halting as it is, has been to recognize that, whatever our own plans and expectations, however much we hope and however hard we work and however deeply we love, God's grace is at work, not merely on an enterprise beyond our small contribution, but on a project that may be extravagantly more dimensional than that in which we imagine ourselves to be engaged.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


I had a good time last night.  Did you hear that?  I had a really. good. time.

Mother's Day was sad and hard.  Unbloggably so.  If I were still posting in my Desert Year blog, the one I started in which to chronicle the year, and then the next year, after Josh's death, I would probably have written about a blinding sandstorm.

And then a couple of days later, the air began to clear, in a way that it hasn't for two full years and another fall and winter and spring.  I don't think I can write about it yet; suffice it to say that I suddenly understood who and where I want to be, and that perhaps I can ~ can become that person.

Last night I went to the annual fundraising event for the local Jesuit Retreat House.  The woman who runs the spiritual direction program in which I studied was being honored and had invited me as a guest at her table, and my wonderful first spiritual director was the main speaker.  He offered what may have been the most eloquent presentation I've ever heard him make, which is saying something ~ you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.   The tent was packed with people whom I've met through my spiritual direction life over the past several years, many of whom have become very dear to me, and the evening was filled with mini-reunions and lovely conversation and great good humor. (I knocked over only one glass of wine, thanks to my vision issues, and it was my own!) When I got home, much later than anticipated, I realized that I had been having fun, real fun, for hours.  Even a difficult few moments, in which I ran into lawyer friends whom I have not seen  in years and realized that they probably did not know about Josh, passed without incident.

I couldn't help but contrast the evening to the last Big Event I attempted and sorely regretted attending ~ my seminary graduation a year ago.  What a difference twelve months, or a few days, can make.

Image: Tortilla Flat, Arizona by Tom Lussier, here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My Grandfather, The Pastor?

SBC and MRC, c. 1955

My great-grandfather (the one in the photo with me) started the family business, S.B. Craig & Co., just after the turn of the century.  The letterhead (in black, on plain white paper tablets) said something like "Hay Grain Coal Feed Water Fertilizer."  In the early years, so my grandfather said, his father took on any kind of work available.  At one point, he had a contract for the construction of county roads. One of my grandfather's first jobs as a very young man was to bail the workmen out of jail on Monday mornings after their Saturday night carousing in local bars.

S.B. died when I was small;  he walked down the street to "the office" every day into his eighties, until he finally came home for lunch one afternoon, sat down, and died. The business as I knew it as a child occupied a two-story stone building near the center of town next to the railroad tracks, with a scale in the back for weighing the deliveries of grain trucked in from a several-county area.  Roll-top oak desks, a pot-bellied stove, my grandfather and great-uncle, my father and uncle, their friendly secretary, and other men wandering in and out in overalls and rough jackets ~ that was about it.  It felt comfortable and homey to me, much moreso than the place on the outskirts of town to which they moved when I was about twelve, with its small cinderblock office building, tall silos, and massive weighing station.

The business as I knew it as an older child wasn't located in either of the "offices," however.  It was located in my grandfather's heart and mind, and in his relationships with his customers. 

When I was in maybe fourth through sixth grade, he used to take me "calling" on those long summer afternoons that were otherwise filled mostly with lying in the grass and looking at the sky.  I would hop into his Ford and we would drive further out into the country, stopping at the houses of his customers for a glass of lemonade, a piece of cake, and a long conversation.  Sometimes about crops and weather, but more often about families and weddings and deaths and community events.  

At some point, Gramps acquired a Polaroid camera, and at each visit he would head out to the fields to snap a few pictures of the farmer and his sons, usually as they stood proudly against the growing corn of mid-July or in the midst of a soybean field turning yellow-gold under the September sunshine.  He'd leave a couple of photographs and drop off a calendar, and off we'd go.

My brother worked in the business for several years in his twenties, and told me that when he first went out with Gramps to "take some orders," he came back scratching his head.  "I just didn't see any business happening," he said to one of the other men. "He didn't even talk about what was coming up, let alone write any contracts."  "Oh, your grandfather has his own ways," was the response.  "Give it some time."

And sure enough, said my brother, within a couple of weeks a man would wander in and say laconically, "I stopped by to talk about my corn."  Or perhaps several few weeks after that, another man would simply arrive with a truck full of beans and lean out the window to ask, "How much today?"

My grandfather was not one for any outward expression of personal faith.   He once mentioned to me that a certain Methodist bishop a couple of generations back in my grandmother's family was "surely the most tedious preacher I have ever encountered."  And on another occasion he reminded me that pastors were "good for marryin' and buryin' " and seemed disinclined to concede more.  

As with all of us, however, that story is a good deal more complex, and perhaps I'll tell it sometime.  Suffice it to say that among his best friends in the second half of his life were the Catholic sisters two counties over, and that one of them let out a peal of delighted laughter when I told her of my seminary plans.  "Your grandfather would be the first to encourage you, if that's what you want," she said.

My grandfather is the man from whom I learned to tell stories, and to listen to them.  I'm thinking that, surprised as he might be to hear it, he might have been the real pastor in the family.  I wish, more than almost anything, that he were here to sit on my porch with a lemonade in hand, to share those stories and to listen to mine.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Books, Books, Books - Your Suggestions?

"I had no idea," wrote one of my Intro to Religion students, a middle-aged man who works in information technology, "that there were entire fields of the history and philosophy of religion.  I thought either you believed in it or you didn't, and that was that."  He went on to ask for some reading suggestions and, realizing that he is far from alone, I'm working on a list today to send out tonight after the final exam.

Most of my students are considerably younger, typical college freshmen and sophomores.  About half are Catholic, some having been educated in Catholic schools all of their lives; one is Jewish; one, though Catholic herself, is from a predominantly Muslim majority country. Few of them arrived in the first class in possession of more than a passing acquaintance with the academic study of religion.  We've studied Freud and Tillich, the documentary hypothesis and gospel parallels, and the tiniest bit of Hinduism and Islam.  

I'd love some suggestions for my list, which I'm calling Reading for the Next Decade.  I have Dostoyevsky and C.S. Lewis and Shakepeare and Robert Barron and Heschel and Elizabeth Johnson and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a list of poets.  I'm about to eyeball our own library and head over to the RevGals and to Quotidian Grace for more ideas.  

If you could make a few suggestions to a college student, what would they be?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Great Mothering

Nope, I don't have a whole lotta memories to go on.  But I have this one.  It must be from September when I was in second grade, because the accident that claimed two lives and injured the other two of us happened on October 5, and academic prowess was no longer an issue.  

(Please understand that I grew up way out in the country and attended a small rural school where the teachers performed miracles every day on a shoestring budget.  So if I stood out in any way, it was only because the pond was very tiny. Which was confirmed for me some years later when sports, geometry, and chemistry were introduced into into my life, accompanied by the concept of Failure.)


We are in the car, and my mommy says:

"Your daddy and I have been talking, and we wonder if you would like to skip into third grade?"


"No?  Really?  We thought that you might enjoy it."

"No.  Second grade is when we learn to write cursive.  In third grade everyone writes everything in cursive and I wouldn't know how and everyone would tease me for being stupid."

"I don't think they would do that, sweetie."

"Yes, they would.  Skipping second grade would be a Very Bad Idea.  It would be a Terrible Idea."

"Do you want to think about it?"




I was all grown up and in law school when someone pointed out to me, Your mother listened to you.

Mother's Day Litany

NOTE: THIS LITANY COMES FROM A PEARL DOWN UNDER, LINKED BELOW.  ITS AUTHOR IS THE PERSON YOU NEED TO CONTACT FOR PERMISSION TO USE.  (And I am happy to add here some information found on the blog of one of her commenters:  it's by the Rev. Patty Lawrence, May 2004
posted on her blog ~ a pearl downunder
on Saturday, May 7, 2011)

We remember Sarai who was taunted by others in the household because of her inability to have children. 

All-encompassing God, we pray for those who feel excluded when we emphasize one kind of family as normal.

We remember Esther, who was adopted and raised by her cousin.  

God who embraces us all, we pray for those who cannot be raised by their parents, for a short time or permanently.

We remember the mother of Moses, who placed him into a raft on the river.  

Saving God, we pray for parents who struggle to raise their children in oppressive circumstances.

We remember Hannah, who loved her child so much she handed him over to another to raise.  

Loving God, we pray for parents who have placed their child in another family.

We remember Naomi, who grieved the death of her sons.  

God who grieves with us, we pray for parents who mourn the death of a child.

We remember Ruth, who gave up her family to be family to another.  

Inclusive God, we pray for those who choose to be family to those isolated by culture or language or distance.

We remember Elizabeth, who had a child in old age and we remember Mary, who had a child as a teenager. 

Ageless God, we pray that as a community we accept people of varying life stages and responsibilities and relationships.

We remember Rachel, crying for her children.  

God of justice and hope, we pray for those whose children are killed, and look to a time when children can live safely in their communities.

We remember Lois and Eunice, who taught Timothy faith by example.   

Faithful God, we pray for those who teach us faith by their lives; may we remember that we also teach about you in the way we live.

We remember other people, not named in the Scriptures, like the mother of the prodigal son.  

Companion God, we pray for those who wait for a phone call or a visit,  cut off from family and friends by distance and disagreement.  

Nurturing God, we give thanks for those
who enrich our lives by their presence
who teach us about your abundant love
who encourage us to journey in faith.

Litany from A Pearl Down Under
Scuplture:  Agia Talassini by Oxana Narozniak, here.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Chestnut-Sided Warbler

It appears that my eyesight is not going to make a complete recovery in time for the height of the spring migration season over the next couple of weeks.  Consequently, I am going to focus (ha ha) on depth rather than on breadth this year, and try to learn some new things.  

This morning I positioned myself against the bridge railing at Lower Lake so that I could use my elbows to steady my binocs for my one-eyed viewing.  I hoped that something more than than the Canada geese, mallards, and rough-winged and barn swallows would show up.  Those are all perfectly fine birds, but I wanted to see someone in transit.

Reward!  One unmistakable bird flitting around in the not-yet-green underbrush along the stream.

I came home and looked up the map.  Do you suppose he was in Guatemala when The Lovely Daughter was there in March?  Will he cross Lake Erie tonight, or will he rest a few days first?  And will he seek a mate and build a nest in Algonquin Park in Ontario, and spend the summer watching folks paddle by in their canoes, as we so often have?

Kind of makes my day, to wonder about those things.

Image by Terry Sohl, here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Evolution of a Sermon ~ 1

"Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence."

~ I Peter 3:15b-16a

I'm preaching at my home church on Memorial Day week-end.

It doesn't sound like a big deal, I suppose.  First holiday week-end of the summer ~ the church will be half empty. I don't even know whether either of our pastors will be there.

But it is a big deal.  I haven't preached there in three years.  The last time was the Sunday after Easter, a few weeks after the husband of one of my best friends had very suddenly died.  Five months before Josh died.  I was a first year seminary student, full of joy and anticipation, trying to offer some hope to my heartbroken circle of friends of two decades.  I had no inkling of how very changed I myself would be before the long-awaited summer was over.

I wonder what I should do.

I've preached maybe thirty sermons in these past two years.  (None at all in that nightmare of a  first year.) I think the best are probably those completely soaked in the personal experience that goes unmentioned.  

I took a quick look at the texts a couple of weeks ago and decided on the one above, because the words "gentleness and reverence" leaped out at me.   Partly because my first spiritual director so often frames his remarks in the context of "attention, reverence and devotion," meaning that the word "reverence" brings a number of connotations immediately to mind.  And partly because "gentleness and reverence" are two words and I am contending with double vision, literally and metaphorically, these days.

So.  I have a passage. I've looked up a bit about the authorship and context of the letter in question. I've started to wonder about the nouns: defense, anyone, accounting, hope, gentleness, reverence.  They're an interesting set of words, all strung together in one sentence like that.

And.  I'm thinking about that sanctuary of ours, which is so beautiful, and about what it's like to go there.  After that funeral.

It's still difficult. 

Image: The beginning of I Peter, from a 1407 AD Latin Bible on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England,  here.

Brother Lawrence: A Christian Zen Master (Book Review)

Let me say at the outset that I am not qualified to review this book except insofar as I approached it as many western readers might: with a little knowledge of Brother Lawrence and even less of Zen.  Brother Lawrence's name I recognized as that of a 17rh century French monk known for the simplicity of his approach to prayer, and for a capacity for becoming present to God in the most ordinary of tasks.  He was not a theologian nor even a particularly well-educated man, but his brief writings were compiled into a book that continues to influence many to this day.

Insofar as Zen is concerned,  I am aware of it as a Buddhist practice of mindfulness, and of the appeal of mindfulness practice to many of us caught up in the rushed demands of contemporary culture.  The well-known writings of Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hahn on Buddhism and Zen ~ particularly their work on suffering ~ have meant a great deal to me as I have dealt with some of the major challenges of my life. But I have never studied either Buddhism or Zen in any more depth than that required to provide high school students with an elementary survey of world religions.

All that said, this book is not intended as an academic approach to the interface between Christianity and Zen.  Rather, it offers a series of paired meditations from Brother Lawrence and from various Zen masters.  They demonstrate some of the many substantive similarities between the two expressions of contemplation.

I had at first thought in terms of noting that the coupled meditations might offer a fresh approach for Christians for whom some of the frequently repeated aphorisms sometimes cause the eyes and mind both to glaze over.  However, it occurs to me that the reverse might be true as well.

And ~ frequently westerners, completely unaware of existence, let alone the depth of the Christian contemplative tradition, turn to eastern religions as part of a search for a quiet, attentive posture of presence to something beyond ourselves.  (One of my college students wrote just last week, "It's too bad that we have no tradition of meditation in Christianity!") This little volume might be an excellent starting point, regardless of your own tradition or lack thereof, from which to glean some insight into two distinct and often very different traditions that share contemplative commonalities.

An example?  Among the big words with which I have been wrestling for the past two-plus years since my son's death are trust and surrender.  Here, from a page in the book:

The way of faith -- total surrender --
will lead us to completion;
it will show us how to achieve our full development.
[Brother Lawence]

If he comes we welcome.
If he goes we do not pursue.
-- Zen sayng

A person might spend a good many days with that page.

For anyone interested in more information, an appendix in the back of the book provides very brief notes in the Zen teachers quoted.  I would suggest this book to those who teach courses in prayer or religious studies, as well as to those who like to keep a page of meditations open for reference during the day.

I received a pdf version of this book ~ and nothing else ~  from the publisher, and offered no guarantees in return.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Over at People for Others yesterday, the following question was raised: "When have you been astonished?"

My response: "Twenty-seven years ago this month, when the ultrasound doc said, “Two BOYS.' "

I realized that the fact that one of them is gone does not diminish the joy and pleasure of that memory ~ thank God, quite literally.

I had known since January that I was expecting twins, but I assumed that they were girls, or a girl and a boy.  How would I, a girl myself, mother two boys? (Yes, I do realize that all boys have mothers.  It just hadn't registered that such a reality might apply to me.)  I was very, VERY surprised to discover that there were two boys in there.

I've been thinking about that day, and about being the mother of boys, since the royal wedding.  Yes, Kate is beautiful, and her dresses and her sister and her sister's dresses as well, and the princes are handsome and charming, and Westminster Abbey and the music were spectacular, and the cartwheeling verger was quite lovely.  But really, what I thought about the most was Diana's absence.  How much her sons must have wished her there!

When I dream about Josh, it is as if he is right here.  Whatever age he is, he is as real as he was to me at the time in question: his voice, his gestures, his posture, his laugh, his blond hair, his sparkling blue eyes.  The nightmares seem to be behind me (again, thank God), and now the neurons in my brain seem to be capable of retrieving the most wonderful details.

I have never, to my knowledge, had any such dream about my mother.  I know what she looks like, of course, from photographs, and I have a few memories of our interactions ~ but her glance, her features, her movements ~ they are all lost to me.  She had a beautiful singing voice, which very much skipped a generation (!) and reappeared in my own daughter, and I can remember her singing, but not the sound.  I remember several of the things she said to me, but not the voice in which she said them.

A lot to have lost, I think.  But then I had two boys and a girl of my own.  

I remember the moment The Lovely Daughter was identified as such as well.  She had just been born, after a particularly harrowing labor, and my doctor said, "Look, Robin ~ she is a girl." (As had been suspected but not confirmed.) And then, "This baby's fine."  

I think that I was astonished then as well, although after two days of trying to get her here, I was more dazed than anything else.

It's a very good thing to have those memories ~ of the best kinds of astonishment.

Monday, May 2, 2011

On bin Laden

Like everyone else, I suppose, I had other things in mind for today until the internet started buzzing late last night.

And everyone else has said it all better than I ever could.  I went to the PC(USA) website but couldn't find anything at all, so I'm going with the Vatican:

Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions for this purpose. 

In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before [people], and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Cemeteries: Pennsylvania

Anyone who reads this blog knows how entranced I am by cemeteries.  I've wandered a couple in this past year that I haven't gotten around to writing about, so this week I think that I'll rectify that situation.

Next door to the Wernersville Jesuit Retreat Center in eastern Pennsylvania stands St. John's (Hain's) United Church of Christ, which began life in 1735 as a congregation of the German Reformed Church on land donated  by George and Veronica Hain.  Since I spend a lot of my prayer time in motion, I have now walked through the church cemetery a number of times.   (Wayne had told me that I would see bluebirds there, which turned out to be an accurate prediction.)

The German words on the oldest gravestones, those closest to the church, are fading  into obscurity, but you can still make out birthplaces and family relationships.  Fifty-seven veterans of the American Revolution lie buried there, as well as numbers of babies and small children, so often encountered in older cemeteries.

I, of course, like that the Jesuits and a Reformed congregation are next door neighbors.

Yellow Warbler Migration

I was inspired to look up the yellow warbler's migration routes yesterday after Kat mentioned never having seen one.  Here on the North Coast of Ohio, they seem most abundant during the spring migration, but lots of them stick around for the breeding season.  We've seen them along riverbanks, where they frequently nest, when we've been out canoeing in midsummer.

As is the case with so many very small birds, one can only marvel at the feat of migration.  Many yellow warblers cross the Gulf of Mexico twice each year.  We need a boat or a plane; they require only two very tiny wings.