Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wild Geese

Many, many years ago ~ I am sure that it was October, 1979, so: 32+ years ago ~ I crawled through our small tent opening into the cold air of Isle Royale as skein after skein of geese rose into the sky above Lake Superior.  That I remember that moment with the clarity with which the tangerine colors of the sunrise pierced the darkness of the early morning sky is a testament to one of the few natural gifts with which I was born: a capacity to notice and appreciate that which I saw around me.  

It's no wonder that, when the time was right, it was the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola, with his emphasis on words like repetition and savor,  that called out to me.

When my children were growing up, my approach to mothering was: Notice and Appreciate.  From what they tell me, I was not entirely successful in communicating that dimension of my interior life.  Their memories seem rather fixated on some of the daily expectations that were, in truth, the least significant things to me.  I suppose that the daily cycle of school, homework, soccer, and lessons did seem as if it were what life was made of, but what I was constantly aware of was the sunlight on blond hair, the giggles and meows in the hallway as cats fled to safety, the small bodies crouched over projects on kitchen tables and in creeks and lakes, the gleeful triumph when something was assembled or, much better, completely deconstructed.  I was never in any hurry for them to grow up, for school vacations to end, or for any of them to get on to the next phase, whatever that might have been.

The loss of that capacity, that ability to notice and appreciate, was the biggest consequence of the loss of Josh himself.  The entire universe, with its galaxies and colors and creative and loving people, went dim and flat three years ago. There have been moments, and even hours, of re-connection with hope and  joy ~ but the registry is at a level far below that at which I once lived.

This past week, in connection with the New Year, I've been thinking that I might like to recover some of my lost gift for awareness and gratitude. Or, perhaps more realistically, find a new version.  One of my friends just posted on FB that she loves New Year's and the way it makes her feel that anything is possible.  An entirely foreign thought to me. 

But maybe small things are possible.

St. Therese of Lisieux, the French Carmelite nun of the late 19th century, spoke of doing small things with great love rather than attempting great miracles.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an 18th century French Jesuit, focused upon The Sacrament of the Present Moment.

Franciscan  Richard Rohr's words have been making the rounds the past couple of days:  "Prayer is sitting in the silence until it silences us, choosing gratitude until we are grateful, praising God until we ourselves are a constant act of praise"  (Radical Grace: Daily Meditations).

And Mary Oliver, of course, in her poem "Wild Geese," reminds us that

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Last night I dreamed that I was at camp in North Carolina, visiting The Lovely Daughter during one of her stints as a counselor.  I was supposed to meet Josh later for a river tubing trip, but in the meantime I was helping LD with her laundry.  She had lost a t-shirt she really liked, and I was going through pile after file of folded towels and clothing, peeling each item away from the others, one by one, in search of the missing t-shirt. 

I didn't find it before I woke up. 

Awareness. Gratitude.  Small things. Wild things. This moment.  A willingness to sift through the laundry, piece by piece, for something (or someone) not recoverable.

My word for this year, you may recall, is patience

I think that perhaps I will say a lot less and  photograph a lot more.

Image: Isle Royale Sunset, found here

Friday, December 30, 2011

Nearly New Friday Five

Over at RevGals, Sally writes:

A simple Friday Five for a busy part of the year; indulge me by sharing two fives:

As you look back over 2011 share 5 blessings; they can be as grand or as simple as you like; if your year has been like mine, they are probably a mixture!

As you look towards 2012 share 5 hopes- again, anything goes!

(Yeah, I went on to six.) 


1.  Ordination on October 30,

2. A congregation which stuck with me despite my diagnosis of breast cancer just as I was called ("It never occurred to us to do otherwise," one of the call committee members told me a couple of weeks ago),

3.  A husband, children, friends, and readers who have stuck with me through the good, the bad, and the ugly (and there have been a lot of the last two!),

4. A son and a daughter whose resilience and strength are getting them through law school and grad school in excellent shape,

5. Their studies in Russia and Guatemala and our family trips to Florida and North Carolina, all of them signs of the slow healing we are experiencing where we can, and

6. My week on retreat at Wernersville!


1. Mostly, I hope that all the members of my family who are alive today will be alive a year from now.  But also,

2.  I hope that my daughter graduates and finds employment,

3. I hope that my son hangs onto his scholarship for his third year of law school,

4.  I hope that my mother-in-law recovers quickly and fully from her holiday heart surgery,

5.  I hope that my congregation thrives, and, oh yeah . . .

6.  I so hope that the day comes soon when I never have to see the inside of a hospital as a patient again!

Image: Our Nightly Cedar Key (FL) Sunset a year ago.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 Highlight: Tiffany Gardens

My friend Wayne posted some images today of mosaics based on Tiffany designs.  At least I think that's what he posted ~ it's a Wordless Wednesday over at his blog.

His post reminded me of some wonderful artwork I never got around to sharing this past year.

When we visited the Biltmore Estate during our summer vacation in western North Carolina, we discovered that the gardens had all been planted to reflect Tiffany designs.

The photos don't do them justice; they were a delight!

(If you enlarge the bottom image, you will see a dragonfly spread across the diamond-shaped garden.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Breast Cancer: Vulnerability

I'm experiencing what is, for me, an odd consequence of cancer:  a deep sense of vulnerability.

I doubt that it's an odd consequence of cancer itself ~ but for me, it's highly unusual to feel this exposed to danger.  I think that my mother's death and the resultant series of stepmothers taught me one overarching lesson, beginning with a seven-year-old version: You'd better learn to take care of yourself.

I've come to recognize this new reality, this new sense of fearfulness, over the past couple of weeks, as I've become increasingly reluctant to travel to my new congregation for overnights in the manse next door to the church.  Neither the the distance nor the time away from home seemed daunting back in early September as I prepared to accept the call.  The situation wasn't ideal, but at an hour-and-one-half's drive, it was an hour closer than seminary had been for three years.  After my surgery, however, that trip might as well have been to the west coast 2,500 miles away.  Even now that I can do it on my own, the drive is too tiring for a round trip in one day, and the overnights are lonely.

I looked the word up, of course. tells me that vulnerable means "capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt . . . open to assault; difficult to defend."

Well, my body has been wounded and hurt, my experience of medical care is always one of assault, and it is difficult to defend oneself against a series of procedures when one's body's response each week is completely unpredictable.

Still, this is a new feeling for me.   I am generally an adaptable person; in fact, one of my faults is that I am too much so ~ too willing to accommodate, to make room, to abandon my own positions ~ sometimes at the potential expense of my own integrity.  But on the whole, I am adaptable in positive ways: able to move forward in the most impossible of situations; able to tunnel under, around, or through setbacks; resistant to surrender. 

But this, this experience of cancer has been different.  I was unable to make decisions about my treatment with confidence.  I have been in some degree of physical discomfort or, more frequently, genuine pain for three months running (one week off back in early November).  I often feel that I am not at all up to the task at hand where my family and work are concerned.  My energy is repeatedly sapped; I work up to a mile's walk over the course of a few days and then, without warning, I can't leave the house for the next one.

This is nothing at all like the devastation I felt after Josh died.  Then, and for months afterward,  I felt as if I weren't even alive, unless you consider the sense of wandering in an endless and empty universe and having been utterly abandoned by God as a form of life.

These days, I am plenty alive.  But I am, as it turns out, unable to protect myself from even small, hidden harms.

This feeling of vulnerability is not one that I recommend.  I'm not at all confident about how to navigate this one.  

I hoping that I will be surprised ~ in good ways ~ by the journey.

Image: Wernersville Jesuit Center (July 2011)

Monday, December 26, 2011


Before we headed down to my Small Church on Christmas Eve, my husband suggested that we surprise the congregation with luminarias on the walks.  His idea; the kids' execution, as he took off to see his mother, re-hospitalized for complications of her heart surgery two weeks earlier.  (She's expected home again tomorrow.)

I was very grateful that he made it back and that my family was with me for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.  The people at church loved the lights and responded with enthusiasm to both services.  I know that I'm still in my honeymoon period as their pastor, but it's wonderful to serve a congregation that expresses its appreciation at every opportunity.

We spent Christmas evening at the dinner hosted by the family who took over our 20-year tradition after Josh died.  We haven't been here for the past three years, but the combination of cancer and calendar conspired to keep us in town this year. The evening was beautiful: the house, the tables, the food, and the friendship.  I came home pretty early, exhausted by the previous two days, but everyone else was there for hours more.

It was hard ~ all the other young men were there, those who live here and those who live in Boston and Portland, and the one who brought his wife and baby home from Chicago, which I see as the future that was intended for us ~ but I guess that I'm getting used to it.   Christmas will never really seem like Christmas again, but then, neither will anything else.

And so . . .  a blend of melancholy and gratitude, missing my boy and yet grateful that I have been given work that forces me out of myself to think of others and their longings.  I am well aware that I'm not alone.  My husband's brother is confronting both his family's grief over his mother-in-law's death a week ago and his own mother's medical situation, two women in my congregation are making their way through their first Christmas as widows, and several others as fairly recent widows, and a friend from my home church stopped me in the grocery a couple of days ago to say that she wished that the Blue Christmas service had been held again this year.

I have to admit that I am grateful that next year's calendar will permit an immediate post-Christmas Eve escape!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Morning Sermon

For Christmas morning, we gathered in our fellowship hall for a light breakfast, followed by a service of alternating readings from Luke and traditional carols.  Bits and pieces of the short message from the pastor went something like this:

As I put today’s bulletin together, I found myself thinking about my girlhood ~
Growing up in a household that was neither religious nor musical ~
But we did have a piano and a book of carols ~
And I used to play through them, every single verse, in an order of my own liking, making up a Christmas pageant in my head

What I didn’t realize was that ~ 
In learning those songs ~
I was learning Scripture ~

A week or so ago, several of us were engaged in a couple of discussions on the internet ~
About our favorite Christmas songs ~
And about seldom heard verses ~  
Which often contain the densest Scriptural and theological allusions ~

Look at some of this morning’s lines:
Not just O little town of Bethlehem ~
But God imparts to human hearts the blessings of God’s heaven ~
God delivers straight into the core of our beings the gift of God’s kingdom
Not just While shepherds watched their flocks ~
But Good will henceforth from heaven to us begin and never cease ~
History has been interrupted and has begun anew; God’s kingdom will never end

And my favorite from childhood:
Not just It came upon the midnight clear ~
But The new heaven and earth shall own the Prince of Peace their King ~
I didn’t know it when I was ten, but those words are from the Book of Revelation and from the prophet Isaiah

These songs?
We sing them every year.  We hear bits and pieces of them on the radio and in the malls and stores. If we’re really lucky, we participate in choir concerts and get to rehearse them for weeks ~

But even then, do we know that in listening to them, and singing them,

               We are learning the story in the first words in which it was told.
               We are learning the Scriptural version of Jesus’ birth.
               And we are learning, perhaps without any awareness at all, of the great hope those words express.

I personally happen to think that music is the best part of worship. 
               In music we find our Scriptural texts
                              We find our sermons
                                             And we find our hearts and minds raised and filled
                                                            With the hope of a new heaven and a new earth

And most especially at Christmas, when that hope comes in the form of the baby whose birth became The First Noel. Which we are about to sing ~
And which, by the way, tells us that the star shone both day and night.  Imagine a star – other than the sun around which we orbit -- that you can see in broad daylight!

               That would be the other Son, the Son of God.  Amen!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Room at the Inn (Christmas Eve Sermon)

It's a monologue, spoken in the voice of Mahala, the midwife and innkeeper, and here's the end of it, more or less:

Where is your inn?  Where is your life crowded, and noisy, and ordinary?
               In your home?  At your job?  On your farm? 
               At your school?  Where you volunteer?
A friend once told me that she had realized that, if Jesus came to dinner, she would be so busy with the preparations and the serving and the cleanup that she would never sit down to talk with him.

What about if he came as an infant?  

Would you overlook him, in order to get on with more adult preoccupations?

Would you get busy with diapers and formula and forget to gaze upon the newborn?

Or would you realize that you have a manger somewhere?

               That you do have room?  In unexpected places?

I had room out back.

Maybe you make room in those places in which you help friends who need rides and household help. Maybe you have room in those times when you volunteer for the homeless or give to the community center. Maybe you find room when you welcome new folks to church. Maybe you have room in the busiest parts of your life, when you stop whatever it is you’re doing to pay attention to what someone else is saying. Maybe you have room in the darkest, loneliest, saddest places – the places out back.

I think – I think that we’re all innkeepers in one way or another.

But we may not realize just where we need to make room. 

My stable turned out to be the most important part of my inn.

What about in your life? Where is the light glowing?  Where is your manger?

Thanks be to God for the one who is here to make it shine!

Image from The Nativity Story (2006)


King's College Choir, Cambridge

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


This afternoon I discovered via Statcounter that someone had visited my blog from the National Catholic Register.  

That was kind of an interesting turn of events.

The National Catholic Reporter I might understand, but the Register?

The world is such an interesting place.

This person showed up because I made a comment ~ about the previously discussed matter of remembering the grieving during the holidays~ on a blog post of Jennifer Fulwiler's, and she quoted me (and also my friend Mary) at some length in an article for the Register.

Jennifer's blog is mostly about her conversion to Roman Catholicism and her joyfully chaotic brood of five children.  I enjoy it because I'm fascinated by all kinds of discovery-of-and-adherence-to-faith stories.  And I quoted her once in a sermon, requesting her permission in advance and giving her as much credit as would make sense to the (older) congregation in question.  (As one of my online friends said recently, "I would tell my mother that you said such-and-such if I could figure out any way in which our relationship might make sense to her.")

Well, Jennifer did link to my post, which is maybe as much credit as one gets in this day and age.

I'm not always exactly perfect in my blogging credits, especially of images I pick up here and there.

But I kind of think that if you're publishing other people's words in a national article for which (guessing here) you are paid, you should identify them.

The last time this happened to me (that I know about), a spiritual direction website printed an entire piece I wrote under my old pseudonym, Gannet Girl.  They didn't ask, either, and I don't think they linked.  I was kind of stunned to find an entire essay of mine just ~ well . . .  lifted.

I made my students rewrite papers two weeks ago because of exactly this issue.

Just sayin'.

Now ~ back to our much more interesting discussion of words for 2012 (previous post).  I hope you'll add yours!

PS: Yeah, OK, I had no idea how to spell etiquette.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Last year, I eagerly reached for the word frontier.  And then, sucked into the quicksand of the Presbyterian ordination process, I forgot all about it.

In retrospect, nevertheless, this past year was one of frontiers for me:

Preaching in all kinds of churches.

Interfaith work.

Invitations to make presentations on parental grief for nursing students and on discernment for pastors.

A graduation speech for brand-new spiritual directors and their guests.

A call to ministry.

Breast cancer.


All pretty much frontiers for me.

And all leading me to my word for 2012:


It's not nearly as sexy a word as frontier.

At first I toyed with some words that promised more drama.  Words like generosity and magnanimity and creativity.  And maybe 2013 will be the year for one of them.  But even to wander in their vicinity requires a foundational year in patience.

Patience with my body, with its slow processes of healing ~ physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually ~ and the reality that in some ways it will never be close to what it was six weeks ago.

Patience with the reality of my work and the hours of driving it requires ~ hours that can be used for listening to books and presentations and for prayer, if I am gentle with myself rather than hurried and irritated and frustrated.

Patience with my new congregation, which as a whole has an experience of church and a view of the world much different from mine ~ working on what I have to learn rather than on what I have to teach.

Patience with technology ~ figuring out what will really work for me and making the effort to learn it.  This includes things like laptops and ipads and kindles and  cameras and all the associated software.

Patience with the people I love and like best ~ my affection for them does not make them me, or mind-readers of me.

Patience with how long things take ~ I am not required to do five things at once at breakneck speed.

Patience with grief, and with how it changes.

It seems that there is rather a lot to patience.

Now that I think of it, it might be way too big a project for me.

Or it might be a synonym for gratitude.

It might be a frontier all of its own.

Image: Presque Isle (PA), 2011

Blue Christmas

There is no question in my mind; it's my friend  Karen East who should be the pastor.  I don't know many people who can hold a candle to her compassion, eloquence, and faith.  She's written  the best piece I've read this year about the experience of the holiday season for those of us who live on the far side of jolly.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Four-Plus Weeks and a Book Review: The Christmas Cantata

I've had a string of really good days.  Week-ends at my church, preaching (albeit recyled sermons) and doing other worship and pastoral things, then home for the week to rest, teach a little, and grade a lot.  My brain seems to have cleared (four hours of anesthesia = four weeks of fog; the rule of thumb seems to be accurate).

It's an up-and-down process, though.  After a couple of easy weeks, today's medical procedure has produced hours of relentless pain.  X-S Tylenol and narcotics have made barely a dent.  If I sleep tonight, it will be the sleep of the utterly exhausted.  

I have triumphed in one regard this week, however: I've made it from the beginning to the end of a book!  A very small book, but a book nevertheless.

Now, the book is The Christmas Cantata by Mark Schweizer, and I don't quite share my friend Quotidian Grace's enthusiasm for it.  It's not a gem of written expression, a lot of both the plot and the character development seem to be missing, and it's pretty sappy.  But the truth is, I was laughing so hard that my eyes teared up when the woodpeckers invaded St. Barnabas Church to feast upon the beetles lodging in the styrofoam  ornaments.  The woodpeckers are responsible for the best lines in the book, including the "doctrinal schism prevented in 1378 when a woodpecker killed the anti-pope and saved the church."

The book is short and entertaining and, truth to tell, would make an excellent Advent gift for anyone in need of some light reading, such as the recently hospitalized.  That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but I'm actually quite grateful to this book for making it possible for me to read again!

O Lord - Or Not?

I've tried without success to recall anything of significance about the Advent or Christmas seasons of my twenties.  The Quiet Husband and I were married, and in graduate and law school, and then we embarked upon our careers, working in large downtown firms and returning to our first suburban home in the evenings.  We decorated Christmas trees in our apartments and in our first house, and we spent time with family over the holidays ~ but I'm not sure that we darkened the doors of a church or discussed God in any way until the end of that decade of our lives.  It wasn't that we were materialistic or culture-bound ~ we simply were not people of faith.

Yesterday's O Antiphon calls Jesus Lord.  It seems odd to me, now, that there should have been a decade of my life in which the idea of calling and following someone as Lord was entirely foreign to me.  Not surprising ~ most of my closest family and friends are in the same boat today.  But odd, in that, slowly but persistently, Jesus Christ has become so the center and focus of my life that it is difficult for me to imagine it otherwise.

Everything back then was about work.  Clothes, house, friends, vacations ~ everything revolved around work.  

If I look back at that decade with a view toward God in all things, I would say that, insofar as my own life was concerned, God was providing me with many opportunities to prepare intellectually for the call that would become mine three decades later.

I wish that I had been able to notice, back then, and prepare in other ways as well.  I wish that work had not been Lord.  I wish that those years had not been so barren of any knowledge of the God who sustains the universe.

I find that I am envious of those several of my college students who have written papers and emails stating that their introduction-to-religion course has challenged their complacency about their faith, caused them to realize they do not know nearly as much as they once they thought they did, generated an appreciation for other faith traditions and, in some cases, sent them scurrying off to make appointments with ministers and priests for further exploration.  

I was nothing at all like they are.  And I am much the poorer for it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

O Wisdom! Teenage Christmases

Yesterday's O Antiphon hailed Christ as Wisdom.

As I was rummaging back through Christmases past, it occurred to me that the teenage years are not themselves generally viewed as a period of wisdom, at least not in contemporary western culture.  And yet, isn't much of the foundation for what will, one hopes, become a mature understanding laid in those chaotic years?

When I think of Advent seasons during those years, I discover that I was, indeed, becoming more aware of the world around me and of the reality that I was not ~ surprise! ~ at its center. 

The Ursuline nuns who ran the boarding school I attended during my middle school years endeavored to ensure that we understand we were responsible for more than our own little world in part by taking us deeper into the Appalachian countryside to deliver Christmas packages.  One house in particular still stands out in my memory: nestled into gentle hills, its interior walls were entirely covered in newspaper.  I was baffled at the time; now, I suppose it was a matter of insulation.

We all (yes, even I) sang a Christmas concert each year just before our vacation began.  One year when several of us were behaving rather badly, the imposing Sister Miriam, who was in charge of our musical efforts, waved her finger magisterially in the air.  "For many in our audience, this is the one respite of music and cheer that they will experience all winter!  Now pull yourselves together!"

Music flowed through my life in those years, all of it an invitation to something far grandeur than anything I could imagine on my own.  My second boarding school boasted an impressive music program.  Possessing limited abilities, I participated only on the fringes, but two nights, both from December of my senior year, stand out in my memory even today.

The first was an all-school Messiah sing.  I had no idea what Handel's Messiah was, but a friend dragged me out to the event.  Despite my six boarding school years of religious classes and observances,  I had no interest in the God whom I perceived to be an imaginary figure.  The music that poured out of the old auditorium building that evening, into the dark and across the snow, was the first intimation that I might be wrong.

We, too, presented a Christmas concert the night before we all departed for our homes. That particular year, as the magnificent choruses were concluded and we all burst out of the chapel into a snowstorm, one of my best friends, a girl from Arizona, cried out, "I'm so glad that I go to boarding school in New England!"

Most of the time, neither of us were glad of any such thing.  But there is something about the music of the season, something in the generosity of those who share their traditions of service and song with a new generation, something transcendent that hints at the potential for wisdom to emerge . . . someday.

Online Images: 1983 Christmas Vespers at Northfield School's Sage Chapel

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Childhood Christmas

 It was about 6:00 a.m. on Christmas morning and my father, sleepy in his pajamas, was most unhappy.

"GO! OUTSIDE!" he exclaimed, and retreated to his bedroom.

We were a blended family before such a term existed.  My widowed father and divorced stepmother had joined forces the preceding winter, and combined us into a household that included  10-year-old me and 10-year old stepbrother, almost 8-year-old-brother, and 5-year-old-stepbrother.  

We were not destined to become a well-orchestrated unit.  As Tolstoy tells us, "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," and in that regard, I suppose, we are all alike.  The details don't seem to matter anymore, but there were difficult and hateful moments, even on our first attempt at a Christmas Day in 1963. 

But at 6:00 a.m.?  We were a group of kids, a tad bedraggled and unwieldy in our losses of parents and siblings to death and divorce, but kids, nevertheless: exuberant, energetic, and wide-awake to the four glistening snow saucers and four shiny sleds under the tree.

Boots and hats and mittens went flying and so did we, down the hillside on which our house was perched, over and over again in the dark of Christmas morning.  Mr. Shivers, our basset hound, bounded up and down the hill, delighted by the snow and the shrieks of laughter,  and for a few minutes at the crisp and cold break of day, we were

Just Kids. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Last Week of Advent: Resources

We finally got the tree decorated.  Because life is nothing if not ironic, it would have to be this year, the first in four in which I have had the slightest interest in Christmas, and the one in which, since I am sleeping on a recliner in the living room, I would have much enjoyed the lights, that we could barely pull it off.  The demands of the Quiet Husband's work, his mother's heart surgery, and my own recovery, combined with the kids' exam periods, have all conspired to keep Christmas, and even Advent, at bay.

But the tree is up and with a week to go ~ the week of the O Antiphons! ~ I have some wonderful sites to share.

Instructions for an Advent Daily Examen: Longing for the Lord.

Advent Examen Meditations combined with the O Antiphons; as with the above, an offering of the Missouri Province Jesuits.

Artwork for the O Antiphons and Advent in general from  The Virtual Abbey; HT to Meredith Gould, who also provides all the Scriptural references for the O Antiphons.

And it looks like there will also be reflections for this final week on Dating God as well.

Hmmmm . . .  Maybe I'll write some, too.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Advent: Yes, It's Hard

I haven't written anything at all about Advent this year.

I don't know whether I will or not.

For three years, I keep a bog entitled Praying Advent Through Darkness.  This year, I find that I feel more neutral, and more capable of self-restraint.  A few nights ago Musical Friend and I went to a Taize service, and then we spent an hour sitting in the car discussing our experiences of loss, of her husband and my son.  At this point, three and one-half years having passed, we see that few other people are interested in hearing about the deepest realities of our lives.

I do notice that, among my blogging friends, some of the bereaved moms are letting some of the sadness seep out.  And for one, a new loss in her closest circle of friends has rocked her world, while another marks the second anniversary of her beautiful daughter's death in a few days.

Maybe I'll have more to say; maybe not.  In the meantime, what follows is something that I wrote three years ago, three months after Josh died.  It still applies.


I have, as a consequence of my son's death, received what I think must be some of the most extraordinary missives ever written. Emails, cards, letters -- the form of transmission doesn't matter. The words do. Some are about my son, some about those of us left behind, some about God. There is apparently something about magnitude of loss that drives ordinary people to eloquence.

I literally carry some of this writing around with me. There are moments, many of them, when I think that I will not make it to the next one, and then I read what people have sent me. I read them as prayers, regardless of how they were intended. I look for what God might be saying, in a phrase or a paragraph, and sometimes I see them, small clues to the mystery that binds us together, whether the people who articulated them knew what they were doing or not.

If you have a friend who is longing for someone else this Advent, especially someone who died in the last year or two, sit down this week-end and write a note, or send an email. It might be the most important thing you do this month.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Made My Day

I've had a lot more energy in the just the past couple of days, and I've been able to give much more focused attention to my work in the last week ~ which has made me painfully aware of how spacey I was for most of the fall.  My poor religious studies students!  I did the best I could, but the ordination and church call would have spread me a bit thin all on their own.  Add a cancer diagnosis and at least one and up to four doctor visits pretty much every week, and then a mailbox that filled up and closed down and spewed student papers into the hinterlands while I was completely out of it ~ well, I was just hoping that they learned something.  Anything.

And then this arrived via email after today's final, from a thoughtful older student who is at a place in life where he is making decisions about his education with great care:

"Thank you for a wonderful class! This class was one of the main reasons I choose to transfer to this school, and it surpassed my expectations."


Monday, December 12, 2011

The Other Side: Prayer (Not Whining At All)

It is really difficult to know how to help someone from a practical standpoint.  As I engaged in my little tantrum this morning (and really, it mostly had to do with the lights, and the fact that I finally had to go to Walmart), I was reminded, more than anything else, of how little I have done for others at critical junctures in their lives.  Because, honestly, I did not know.

I did not know that when a child dies, a mother simply stops getting out of bed and that, when she does have to go out into the world, if no laundry has been done in weeks, then she just puts on whatever she finds lying on the floor.

I did not know that when surgeries across two generations happen during the holidays, the holidays, perhaps, don't. At least not as once intended. 

But I don't want to belabor the point.  I want to say something else entirely.

I have felt, for the past month, completely enveloped by the prayer of others.


It started with the Caring Bridge site and all those candles, and then there were all the cards, and the emails, and the surprising gifts that began to arrive.

I've been awake at all hours of the night over the past few weeks,  Always, I wake to the feeling that I am being held in prayer by someone, somewhere.

And all that prayer, what did it do?

It didn't alleviate my anxiety, it didn't eradicate the trauma to my psyche and my body, it didn't eliminate the pain.  It definitely didn't "fix" things, and it didn't make me all cheerful and positive.  It didn't make me brave, or witty, or a paragon of virtue.  (Too late for that, I'm afraid.)

What did it do?

It made me feel cared for.

It gave me the certainly that God was laboring on my behalf.

And it was fun!  I found myself imagining the chapel at Wernersville, and Lake Superior, and a labyrinth in Tallahassee,  and Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown, and a synagogue in St. Louis where I've never been, and Ursuline chapels in northern and southern Ohio, and candles in windows overlooking both oceans, and the sanctuary of the church I now serve, and offices at John Carroll University and at two Presbyteries and some of their churches, and . . .  and  . . .  

Those were good thoughts to which to awaken, even at 4:00 a.m.

Image: Duluth Harbor, taken by a friend of Shelly Robbie's.  I don't want to BE there ~ too cold ~ but it's a beautiful place to imagine.

Just Call If You Need Anything (Whine!)

One of my dear friends once wrote about her gratitude for the friends who were still showing up, months into her chemo, long after everyone else had forgotten.

Last night a friend called and mentioned a Taize service this week and a Blue Christmas service next.  "I'll go!" I said.

I am three weeks and three days post-surgery, no longer on the brink of collapse, but watching my expenditures of energy of all kinds very carefully.  My mother-in-law is three days post open-heart surgery, one and one-half hours away.  My husband is, we hope, at the end of a major and chaotic project at work that has required 60-80 hour weeks for months.  (Literally.  On Saturday morning he went to see his mother.  On Saturday night he went to work at midnight and came home early Sunday afternoon.)  The kids are in law and graduate school finals.

Here's what to substitute for the "just call if you need anything" line:

1.  I'm on my way to the grocery.  What could I pick up for you?"

2.  I'm going to the drugstore,  Do you need any prescriptions picked up?

3.  Could I come over and bring your lights and ornaments upstairs?  (Or down, as the case may be?) 

4.  Would you like me to come over and untangle the old lights?

5.  Could I pick up some new lights so that you don't have to go to five different stores because you were supposed to buy them over Thanksgiving when you were high on morphine-based pharmaceuticals?

6.  Would you like me to put the lights on the tree?

7.  Dinner is on the way!

8. Doctors' appointments every week?  Want some company?

9.  I'm coming over to change your beds.

10.  I'm coming over to clean your bathroom.

11.  (Bonus - wins you a go-straight-to-Boardwalk and it's yours for free)  There's a hole in the bathroom sink porcelain?  Tell me what you want and I will get a new sink delivered and installed. (This only works for people like me, who are not product-obsessed or even interested.)

Obviously we have some lighting issues around here. 

And as enlightening as this has been for me with respect to my own past failures where family and friends are concerned, it has also been enlightening to me where The Quiet Husband is concerned.  He has been making the money (at considerable personal cost for many months), providing the health insurance, taking care of me, and now visiting his mom.  

And, completely unlike me in any way, he does all of this without complaint or even commentary.

(Don't worry; I have no plans to emulate him with respect to the latter. I know my limitations.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Focused Fox

This afternoon I read a quick blog post about theologian Karl Barth's being a hedgehog, as opposed to being a fox. 

There are a lot of things about Karl Barth that I really like, and some I don't, but in any case my immediate guess was that if he's a hedgehog, then I'm a fox.  Sure enough.  There's an explanation here; philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay with a title referencing Greek philosopher Archilocus: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

One of my seminary professors remarked that Karl Barth once said that it all boils down to, "Jesus loves me; this I know."  That statement would be consistent with his hedgehog-ness.

As for me, I've long been aware that my thinking is more diffuse than focused.  I know many things, and I've forgotten lots more.  As I embarked upon my first call, I began to realize that I need to find a way of organizing all that material that appeals to me, so that I can actually retrieve it when it might be useful.  And I as practically drowned in the events of the past few weeks and lost all capacity to focus on anything at all (Imagine!  Three weeks of recovery time and I have read not one single book!), I started to feel a sense of urgency in response to the sense that everything I read or hear is floating away from me.

So I've started a new notebook on my computer.  I'm calling it my Resource Book, and I'm going to try to toss all kinds of things in there, cross-referenced by topic and author or artist and church calendar.  I don't know how long I'll be able to keep it up, but I love this shiny new (and unusual) feeling of being organized.

Image: Lakeview Cemetery, Spring 2006