Sunday, January 30, 2011

So what did you do today?

I worshiped at my home church this morning.  It was very nice to sleep in and worry about nothing, and  I made it without incident through the choir singing an anthem (below) that I last heard them sing (per my selection) at my son's funeral service. 

The Lovely Daughter and I went to see Joseph and the TD at the local youth theatre, with which she once performed as a tiny street urchin in Oliver!  Unfortunately we had misread the information; the final performance was last night.  We missed a great show, according to two ladies who also showed up but, in their case, for an encore.  I've seen Joseph several times and had been driving around listening to the Broadway CD for two days, so I was very disappointed.

We then headed over to the university to see an exhibit of paintings based on Ignatian spirituality and discovered that the show hasn't been hung yet.  So we struck out all around ~ though I'm going to see it and hear the artist speak later this week.  On the right day and at the right time, I hope.

So as all turned out, I spent most of the afternoon and early evening wrestling Freud's The Future of an Illusion into something manageable for college freshmen.  It wasn't quite as simple as I had anticipated (How did we ever read that in high school?), but it's finished.  On to John Updike, thank God.

There's a wideness in God's mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There's a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
 There is no place where earth's sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth's failings
Have such kindly judgment given.
 For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

There is plentiful redemption
In the blood that has been shed;
There is joy for all the members
In the sorrows of the Head.
There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss. 
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings

Lotta snow out there.

After a full week, I completely crashed yesterday.  I still struggle with energy issues. But I came to around dinner time and went out for Mexican with The Lovely Daughter, whose insights into her life and mine continue to astound me with their maturity and wisdom.

Felt on top of things this morning and headed out into the blustery winter to the bakery, Target, Office Max, the grocery, and the dry cleaner.  Outlined my idea of what the answer to one of yesterday's ordination exam questions might be for a friend whom I've been helping to study.  Remembered to be grateful that those exams are behind me.  Looked at the RevGals discussion and wished  I were preaching tomorrow, but glad to be able to worship at my home church.

Full week ahead:

I'm starting a six week class (once a week) on John of the Cross through our fabulous local Ecumenical Institute.  I spent a lot of time last winter trying to sort out my own experience ~ depression? grief? spiritual desolation? dark night?  ~ and deal with it; now I'm ready for an academic approach. 

I'm teaching Freud's The Future of an Illusion to my college freshmen.  I love love love teaching college religious studies classes. 

I'm going to the information night for the program from which I earned my spiritual direction certificate to add my encouraging .02 to prospective students.  I'm going to a meeting of the advisory board for said program. I'm going to a continuing ed day sponsored by same on the topic of family systems.

I guess this is going to be a big John Carroll University week.  Oh yeah, it really is ~ I forgot; it's Ignatian Heritage Week there.  So I'm going to a couple of events for that, one of them a presentation by an artist who has an exhibit hanging there of her work based on the Spiritual Exercises, and one a presentation by former Wonderful Spiritual Director who's talking about vocation.  I've really pushed that one for my students, all of whom are thinking about big life decisions, but ~ here I am, in the call process, and I'm thinking about them, too!

When do I get to crash again???

 Image: Ignatius the Pilgrim at Wernersville Retreat Center (PA) ~
October 2010

Friday, January 28, 2011

Favorite Verses: Friday Five

For today's Friday Five, Songbird posts the following:

"Twenty years ago, I was on a Pastoral Search Committee, and one of the questions we asked the ten candidates we interviewed in the first round was to tell us their three favorite passages of scripture. I loved hearing the variety of verses quoted and even learned some that I didn't know, such as the last line of one of this week's lectionary passages:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8) 

For today's Friday Five, list your five favorite passages/verses from the Bible and tell us something about why you love them."


1. I'll start with Micah 6:8.  It's probably the verse most frequently inscribed by adult mentors in the Bibles given to the young people confirmed in my home church each spring; it's the call that permeates our congregation.  Last week a former seminary classmate posted a new class assignment on FB: You have 15 minutes to preach your final sermon, the one that will sum up your ministry.  This is the verse that popped into my head as what I would choose as the text for such a sermon.  To be candid, though, insofar as I'm concerned, it entirely reflects aspiration rather than reality.

2.  Jeremiah 31:3: I have loved you with an everlasting love.  I've been thinking a lot recently about the two or three messages are becoming the ones that I preach over and over.  That's what one of my seminary professors says about preachers; that's what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about novelists: we all have a couple of things to say, and we spend our lives repeating them.  This is the first of my three. God has loved us from all time and loves us into all time.  

3.  Matthew 28:20: I am with you always, to the end of the age.  This is probably the verse that has been most in mind for me since my son died.  I have not cared that much, not at all really, about God's absence where I myself am concerned.  I have been persistently and consistently tormented about where God was for my child, my beautiful child who is gone. And so I try to remember that Jesus is always the most interested in and the most present to those most in need, most lost, most beset by feelings of having been abandoned.

4.  John 20:26-27: "A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” My faith having always been of the wintery rather than the summery variety, always one more characterized by doubt than  by assurance, Thomas is one of my favorite people in the Bible.  And Jesus' response to him ~ Jesus' willingness to do whatever it takes to overcome doubt and to send forth the doubter ~ is one of the ways that I know Jeremiah 31:3 and Matthew 28:20.

5.  Revelation 21:1-4.  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”  The reasons are obvious.  I spent a lot of time on this one in the discussions and paper I wrote for my class on Miroslav Volf last spring, when I became engrossed in his thesis in The End of Memory ~ that the final end of true reconciliation for all of us in the eschaton will be that God will wipe away all tears and that the memory of what we have endured here will be no more.  There used to be a wonderful link to the Edgar Bainton setting on youtube that pictured the music (I find it difficult to follow the words in all four parts), but it's gone; here's another one:


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My Story: The Absent God

It lasted about exactly a year and a half, my certainty that God was gone.

I did not feel held by God, loved by God, surrounded by God.  All those things which people assure you are true:  Nope. 

It seemed clear to me that God had stalked off to some other universe.

No God.  Just gone.

Ironically, I was in seminary.  Reading books and writing papers about God.

I was listening to people talk about God.  God seemed plenty interested in and present to them.

Just not me.

Then, a change.  Very slowly, and sometimes in reverse.

I said to Beloved Former Spiritual Director, he of the 80 years of wisdom, "Have you ever experienced a time in which God seemed to have completely vanished?  Have you ever felt that God was just gone?"

(I was confident that he would say yes, and that then he would tell me how to proceed.)

"No," he said.

(No?  I thought?  Nooooo?)

"No, I haven't, and I wouldn't want to," he said.

Well, that's just great, I thought.  

And more time passed and more conversations with lots of different people took place.  Also a lot of silence.  LOTS of silence.

And so:  God seemed very absent and now God seems very present.  And apparently has been, albeit invisibly so, to me at least.

That's my story; it's the only one I've got.  

I'm thinking now that it probably has some value for ministry, since if anyone ever asks me the question that I posed, my answer will be, "Yes."


The above was inspired by today's post in People for Others, which goes as follows:

Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing. Let there be moments when your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns, unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder, “How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it.”

~ Terry Hershey’s The Power of Pause, attributed to Mishkan Tefilah and  from the Jewish Sabbath Prayer Book.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Josh, Grown Up and Ambushed by Depression

There's a strip of green running east-west near the southern border of the campus of The University of Chicago, between East 59th and East 60th Streets, called the Midway Plaisance.  That's where I first saw Josh as a college student, frolicking in the grass with a group of his friends, playing pick-up soccer.

I didn't get to go to his college orientation.  He and his brother started college on the same day in late September,  and I was teaching, so his dad took him to Chicago,  and I made the much shorter one-day trip to Columbus.  As soon as I had some time off (Jewish school -- long Sukkot break in October), I drove to Chicago, and went looking for Josh where he had said he'd probably be on a late Friday afternoon.

They looked like puppies, those kids.  They were freshmen at one of the finest universities in the world and had emerged victorious after many years of arduous academics to get there, but they looked like a big pack of relaxed and adorable puppies as they played soccer in the waning light.


I knew, actually, quite a bit about depression and other forms of mental illness.  I knew, for instance, that many of the more serious forms of mental illness manifest themselves in a person's young adulthood, when he or she is between the ages of 18-24.  I also knew that one of the most insidious aspects of depression lies in the tendency of those who suffer its hardships to deny that they are facing serious affective problems -- or even to know that they have begun to observe and experience the world differently than they did before, or than their friends do.

What I did not know was that sometime during his college years, Josh began to suffer from serious bouts of clinical depression, an illness that would kill him less than two years after he graduated.  He was radiant that graduation day -- a degree with honors, an excellent job in the wings, a beautiful girl in his life.  But he was already struggling, and he had never breathed a word of it to us.  

I know it now only because of old journals he left behind, because of conversations with his girlfriend after he died, and because of many other clues that I have been able to put together only in painful retrospect.  Josh and his lovely girlfriend had both achieved many successes, and had managed to overcome all the challenges life had tossed their way.  They were both bright and resourceful and determined young people.  Neither of them had the slightest idea that they were up against an illness that, when untreated, is every bit as deadly as cancer.  

Some of the horrific statistics:
In 2007, the year before Josh died, suicide was the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24.

Ninety percent of people who die of suicide have treatable depression and/or substance abuse problems.

Suicidal people often leave clues which become apparent in retrospect, but many people who die by suicide do not communicate their thoughts to anyone else. 

Depression and suicide have a face for me now, a face of someone I love with a fierceness that is reserved for the love of mothers for their children.   


I wonder, often, whether I would have known how serious things had become even if he had laid them out for me in minute detail.  I wonder whether I would have known to look if my family had been forthcoming about my great-grandmother's bipolar disorder ~ was there a gene silently making its way through four generations, only to emerge in full and explosive expression in my son?  I wonder whether we would have been able to find effective help ~ God knows I have met many people in the last two years whose beloved family members were in therapy . . . had been hospitalized . . .  are nevertheless dead.

Death from suicide leaves behind a host of unanswered questions, a trail of guilt and regret so wide and deep that you think that you will never find its limits, and the destruction of relationships that once seemed designed to last into eternity. Depression is surely one of the most effective tools of evil I have ever encountered.


When he was a college freshman, Josh lived in a dorm of alternating male and female suites.  One day he and his friends returned from Chinatown with a large, whole, entire, fish ~ a fish large enough, for instance, to fill a porcelain bowl.  They deposited said fish in the toilet in one of the girls' suites and settled down in the hallway to await its discovery.  It still makes me smile to think about the shrieks coming from the bathroom, and the low-pitched male laughter beyond the door.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Into the Silent Land: The Healing Balm of Silence

My final post in the blogging exchange in which Michelle and I have explored  the book Into the Silent Land is up.

Michelle's will appear here in the next few days and then, we hope, author Marty Laird will weigh in. 

I'm personally hoping that, among other things, he might address the question of context.  As I wrote my previous post, I noticed that in her book When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor says that, "The polyvalence of silence is what makes it so intriguing.  Context is everything."

Now that I've spent months pouring over Into the Silent Land, and many more months than that listening to God's silence, I find myself in disagreement with her.  Context may surprise or perplex us, but God's silence seems to have a quality that transcends all context.

Perhaps we'll get some answers from the Silence Expert.  Or more questions, which would do as well.

All of our posts are linked in the tab above.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Into the Bright Unknown (Tomorrow's Sermon)

As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”

So that is how it’s done.  That’s how we follow Jesus.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  He comes to us in our everyday lives and invites us to follow him, and we do.  How hard can it be?

Let’s explore this story a bit more closely this morning. Let’s take a look at these two parallel vignettes of call:
Twice, two times in a row, Jesus calls two brothers.  And both times they leave what they are doing, where they are doing it, and with whom they are doing it  -- and follow him.  Immediately.

Does it still sound so easy?  To leave all that’s familiar?  To leave without hesitation?

These men are all fisherman and so, what are they up to?  Peter and Andrew are casting a net into the sea.  James and John are mending their nets. 

They’ve probably been engaged in these activities every day for years and years.  This was a world in which boys followed their father into whatever trade in which he made his living. There weren’t a lot of choices in the Galilean world; a young person did not face years of formal education before going to work in the field of his or her choice.  We see that reality even here, in this short narrative, in that James and John are working with their father Zebedee. 

Peter and Andrew, James and John—they had been mending and casting nets, plying their oars across the water, collecting and separating and disbursing fish, for as long as they could remember.  They were probably good at all of those tasks; they could probably have done them with their eyes closed.  Their rhythms of their work were familiar; they eased into them every morning and brought them to a finish every evening with the comfortable knowledge that the next day they would do it all over again.

Except – not tomorrow.  Tomorrow when they get up, it will be to do something else, because Jesus has called them to leave their casting and mending of nets and to follow him. Jesus has invited them into a new, a completely unexpected, adventure

What is it that you might not be doing tomorrow?  If Jesus is calling you to follow him, what might you be doing instead?  Or differently?  What work might he be calling you to abandon?  What work might he be inviting you to take on?  What new adventure is he calling you to?

And – it’s not as if that’s all there is to it.

When Jesus invites these four disciples to follow him, he means – away.  To new places.  It’s clear – James and John  leave their boat.  That nice, familiar boat. Now I don’t know how comfortable that boat is, but it’s theirs.  It’s the boat they’ve cleaned and sanded and repaired – they may have even built that boat.  They know just how it behaves in the water and the wind; they know its boat personality.  They have their favorite places to sit and stand.  The sides of the boat are worn smooth from the nets they've hauled in, heavy with fish.  That boat is filled with as many memories as it has been filled with fish.  They have a lifetime of hopes and plans invested in that boat.

Except – no more.  Jesus has called them and they are leaving their boat behind, on the beach.  Their familiar, known place.  The environment in which they’ve spent their lives and made their livings.  The adventure is becoming more complicated.

Where might you be tomorrow, if you follow Jesus’call?  What place might you have to leave?   Where might you be going?  What boat do you occupy that you may need to step out of?  To what new surroundings might Jesus be calling you?

And even that’s not quite the end of it.  These disciples – they don’t merely take on new work.  They don’t leave behind only their space and their equipment.  They leave familiar relationships behind as well.  James and John leave their father

In a world in which kinship is everything, a world in which who they are, who their wives and children are, where they live and what work they do, is all determined by the role and person of the male head of the family – they leave him. 

Imagine the life of  insecurity and uncertainty they have just accepted!  At home, they are the sons of Zebedee.  Their friends and neighbors know what that means, know who they are.  They have a status guaranteed them by their father.  When they speak on matters of business and fishing, people listen. 

And, let’s not lose sight of the most important aspect of their relationship with their father: the love between a father and his sons.  A love that has been nurtured and has grown out of the regular sharing of both family life and work life.  A love which has been shared with them in the teaching of skills and the sharing of stories.  A loving relationship that is a part of the fabric of everday life.

Except – no longer, at least no longer as they have known it. No longer will they and their father be on daily, even hourly, speaking terms.  No longer will he be sharing his lifetime of experience with them; no longer will they be assured of an income, a place in the family and in their community.  Jesus has called them and they have walked away from all that has nurtured them. They are going to follow a different leader, in a new community of disciples. 

And you?  Is it possible that Jesus is calling you to accept changes in precious relationships and to form new ones?  Could he mean for you to be building new friendships, to be working with people you’ve never laid eyes on? 

This sounds really difficult, doesn’t it?  And I don’t want to discount the difficulty.  Some of you know that I’m recent seminary graduate, and that means that I have a little bit of experience with this kind of call.  When I applied to seminary, I had a perfectly good job.  I wasn’t out fishing, but I was teaching in a school in which I’d worked for several years.  I was comfortable there. I loved studying and teaching history and literature, and I would have been content to do it for many more years.  I was in charge of all the standardized testing for the school, and I liked being in charge of something.  And instead, I was off to study Greek!  And Hebrew!  And I wasn’t in charge of anything anymore – I was a lowly first year student, on the unnoticed bottom rung of the seminary ladder.  I was doing things which I had never imagined doing.

And I was doing them in Pittsburgh!  Steelers Country!  I had to leave my boat, my nice, comfortable, familiar Cleveland Heights house.  Now, I didn’t have to leave it completely. For three years, I spent three or four days a week in Pittsburgh, and then I came home.  But it was still a shock to the system, to have to learn my way around a new neighborhood after 25 years in the one in which I live up the hill.

Part of that shock was, of course, the new relationships demanded by my new life.  I was secure in my world here.  I have a close-knit group of friends and we’ve all been spending time together for two decades.  I’ll never forget looking around the dining room during lunch the first day at seminary and thinking, Wow!  I have to make an entirely new group of friends! I don’t know a single person on this campus. Not so easy for someone well into middle age who’s lived in the same place for almost her entire adulthood.

So no, I don’t underestimate the challenge of Jesus’ call.  Truthfully, my version was pretty tame at first, compared to the four disciples we’re watching today. I was still spending my days reading and writing and talking, and I was coming home every week-end, and Pittsburgh is really not all that different from Cleveland.  It wasn’t as if God had asked me to become a nuclear physicist in Russia.  And I didn’t do it immediately.   

You notice that word immediately in there?  In both cases?  Peter and Andrew immediately left their nets and followed him.  James and John immediately left their boat and their father and followed him.

That’s a big word in there, immediately.  We think of it in terms of time: right now, instantaneously. Or as having a sense of urgency. But is also means, in English: nothing in between.  No mediation, no middle ground, no bridge from one thing to another.  Im, or in – mediate.  No mediating step.  Just do it.

Today we would probably think of these disciples as impulsive.  Immoderate.  And certainly many of us have wondered about what’s not mentioned in this story.   What happens to Zebedee’s fishing business when his sons suddenly depart?  What happens to wives and children left behind?  We don’t know, and that word immediate is pretty frightening when we imagine some of those consequences.  We think that a mature person should make big decision cautiously, after a period of discernment, of consultation and weighing of pros and cons. That’s certainly what I did where seminary was concerned, and it’s certainly what I  recommend.

But I think that we can understand the world immediately to mean wholeheartedly.  Not necessarily speedily, and not without deliberation – but with the fullness and wholeness of who we are.  With a sense that nothing lies between us and that – or the one – to whom we have committed ourselves.  Our entire selves.   Not holding anything back, but making a full commitment to what lies ahead.    A recognition that this adventure does have a sense of urgency about it. that we cannot be distracted by other things.

To what adventure are you called? What might Jesus be calling you to do  that you’ve never done before?  This church has a beautiful building and a great history, and it sits in the middle of a city filled with need.  To which of those needs are you going to respond? 

Where are you going to go, what places are you going to see, where are you going to share yourselves, as you follow Jesus?  Where are you going to take your gifts, nurtured in this community inmusic and prayer and word, and spread them around?  We live in a world, in a culture, in which many people never venture into a church.  What are you going to take from this church and give to the rest of the world?  How are you going to be God’s people in places outside of this building, away from the familiar and the comfortable?

And to whom are you going?  You don’t have to go alone – you’ve noticed, I’m sure, that in today’s story, Jesus calls two sets of brothers.  He calls people who are already in relationship, already in community with one another.  To whom are you going, in the company of your brothers and sisters?  Who are you going to serve as you follow Jesus?

What lies ahead?  What adventure? I don’t know the specifics.  I don’t know the specifics for me and I don’t know them for you, but I know the reality, the truth that lies ahead:  Light.  Those who walked in darkness have seen a great light, said the prophet Isaiah.  Those who lived in darkness – on them light has shined.  What happens when you respond wholeheartedly to the call of Jesus, when you see the urgency of leaving the old ways behind and respond by wholeheartedly doing something new in new places with new people? 

Light is what happens.  A light that the darkness does not overcome. 

There are a lot of people in this city in dark places.  People who are hungry.  People who are homeless.  People enslaved to drugs and alcohol.  People without adequate health care, without an adequate education, without jobs.   How does light shine into the dark places in which people suffer? How do they see a great light?  It shines and they see it because there are people called by Jesus who are willing to leave their well-worn nets and their well-tried boats behind and follow him wherever he leads them. 

Are we among those called? Are we being invited to leave our nets and our boats to participate in a new adventure with Jesus Christ?  Are we called to engage God’s world in ways we’ve never imagined?

The light shines, in the darkness, across the well-known sea, and down a new and unexplored path.  Thanks be to God.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Josh Growing Up

When I think of Josh growing from middle school to college, I remember . . .

Soccer!  (And the seemingless endless driving that it required.)  Community team, premier team, high school teams, tournaments, indoor, outdoor, preseason, intramural, and beach.  I've never really grasped the appeal of sports, but I did love to watch a soccer ball arc through a blue sky and a mop of blonde hair chasing it down.

Photography - Josh became interested in black-and-white photography in middle school.  I wish he had continued with it past high school; he had a wonderful eye for shape and light.  One of the eighth grade requirements of the kids' Montessori middle school was a peace project, and he decided to create an album of photographs of monuments in Washington, D.C.  He and I drove down there and walked for maybe seven miles one day; we had to take the train to Arlington and to the Iwo Jima monument, but the rest of the day was walk walk walk.  We had such a great time together!

Flying - Yes, airplanes.  In middle school, Josh volunteered at the Auto and Aviation Museum, and in high school he took flying lessons for awhile. I think he even passed the first FAA exam required to obtain a pilot's license; I remember him studying for it.  Eventually the high cost of the whole enterprise became apparent, and he decided that it could wait until he was out of school and working.  In fact, the possibility of his resuming flying lessons in Chicago was one of the last things he and I talked about.

And France.  Josh went to France for 11th grade, living with a French family and studying in an American program in Rennes.  That year was a witness to his sense of adventure and determination, as he planned to fly to Paris on 9/12/01 and made it there with his class about ten days later.  It was an expression of his gentle and generous spirit, as he settled into a new family and a new culture. It was an opportunity for new travel and new relationships for the rest of us.

Josh loved the feeling of being part of a world bigger than himself.  The visual world that he saw through his lens, the world below that he saw from a pilot's seat, the international world that he glimpsed in high school.  On January 1, 2002, the euro made its debut, and he slipped out of our hotel room in Paris  early in the morning to find some.  Three ATM machines later he was back with a fistful of bills, exclaiming, "This is the first event of international significance that I've been part of!"

I heard from his French mother just before this past Christmas, in a long email translated for me by her oldest son, who had been a fine brother to Josh.  It was a beautiful reminder that he was loved there as well as here.  I had so looked forward to the possibility of both families reuniting someday ~ and now that will never happen.

It was a great joy, though, to mother that boy into adulthood.

In which I attempt to explain myself . . .

There's a great little story up here, on People for Others, a blog which I enjoy very much.

Today, though, I find that I don't agree with the story.  Because:

There are people look to God for help all the time and pain and suffering still abound.

There are people who do not evince the slightest awareness of God and goodness and grace still abound.

I don't pretend to know what the connection is between the grace of God and the human glance toward God.  

There are people drenched in, saturated with, the grace of God, whose lives are filled with suffering.  People who extend themselves to the furthest inch to contribute to the repair of our world and are rewarded with . . .  more repair work to do.

It seems, in fact, that to know suffering, whether in one's own life or in the lives toward which we offer care,  is one of the surest means for coming to know God.

It also seems that to know or to observe suffering is one of the surest means by which we can drift far from God.

I do not pretend to understand the causal connection, if there is one.

I only wish that the answer were as simple as human effort, or lack thereof.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Blog Colors

To my dismay, I've been getting more comments on the difficulty of reading white typeface on a black background than on any of the substance of this blog!

How's this?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Into the Silent Land: Grief Observed (Guest Post by Michelle)

Michelle continues our discussion of Into the Silent Land with a reflection on a recent experience of ambush (and I remain fascinated that there seems to be a direct, albeit often obscure, pathway leading from crisis and loss to silence and contemplative prayer):

Robin writes that the penultimate chapter of Laird's book is nestled securely in her heart, as she struggles to meet grief with a "long, loving look," to be a witness to pain, not a victim of it. 

The title of the chapter makes clear this way of facing the world is a practice, not a panacea.  It's neither a way to get "past" grief or pain or to paste them over with platitudes. In the previous chapter (The Riddles of Distraction), Laird notes that in contemplative practice it is "precisely the meeting of chaos that is salutary, not snorting lines of euphoric peace."  Robin is living daily with grief and its attendants, my life these days is much less marked by such difficulties.  Yet, the end of the year chaos, quite unexpectedly, brought pain and this practice of contemplative witness into sharp focus for me.

A few days before Christmas, as the last bits of the semester swirled about like debris in a city alley stirred by a winter's wind, I curled up on the sofa late one night to finally catch up on the news.  The week had been so hectic that aliens could have been discovered living on the far side of the Moon and I would not have noticed.  Scanning the NY Times health and science feed I saw this article:  How a torn aorta can cause lethal damage.  I clicked and read.

In the 54th of his hundred chapters on prayer, Evagrius paints a vivid picture of demons huddled up trying to figure out just how to drag us away from being present to what is here and now.  Images dance past and he says, "we run to see them."  I suspect that the impulse that led me to click through was not so different from the ones driving the desert fathers to fantasize about great feasts.

In 1987 my first husband was pulled from the college pool suffering from what the paramedics first thought was a heart attack.  I was at a faculty meeting.  Things rapidly unraveled.  He hadn't had a heart attack, at age 30 an aneurysm in his aorta had dissected - splitting in two and rupturing into his heart valve.  Surgery to repair the tear and the valve followed and just after 5 in the morning, the surgeon came to talk to me.  "It was like trying to sew together wet tissue paper," he said - an sentence that has stuck with me for almost 25 years.

The article in the Times quoted a surgeon using just the same image: "Sometimes it’s like you’re trying to repair wet tissue paper."  And with those words, I found myself dragged back into those moments of shock and hours - running, as Evagrius would say, to replay them.

It was a sneak attack, but now I had to figure out how to respond to this sudden resurgence of grief.  Among his other good suggestions, Patient Spiritual Director suggested simply sitting prayerfully and attentively with the grief.  Running neither from nor toward, as T.S. Eliot might put it.  This is the practice that Laird is laying out for us here - a help for not just the major upheavals, but for the moments when the universe hiccups as well.  It is, as he says in an earlier chapter, a subtle art, and one I would argue is not possible without serious dollops of grace from on high.

And so, for about 10 days, I practiced (again) with pain.  I leaned on my experiences from the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises, sitting as witness to Christ's pain, hearing again the caution of my director of those days to be present to the Passion, not fall victim yourself.  I let the psalms echo in my bones, "I have entered the watery depths, your torrents and waves wash over me." (Ps. 69:3)

Each time the waves of grief came, I stood, watched, and let the waves wash over me.  It hurt no less, I suspect, but it did not hurt me.  And in that still point, running neither toward nor away, there is a measure of peace.

Some Comic Relief: Tipper Makes a Report

I'm going to follow in the footsteps of Canine Correspondent Beatrice and fill you in on my weekend. 

Robin blames it all on football.

Gregarious Son got up during the game to let me out ~ about time, too.  But apparently he was preoccupied with touchdowns and such, because he forgot about me and went back to the living room.  And his father was in the same state of mind, as the retracing of events afterward indicated that he had come into the kitchen and seen the back door open, and ~ closed it!  When Robin came downstairs later to announce that she was going to let me out and go to bed, there was no me to let out.

Well: when that back door closed, I ran around to the front and waited for someone to let me in that way.  But no one appeared!  So I headed down the sidewalk.  It was very dark and very cold and you know, my experience of life has been quite altered since I've completely lost my hearing.  (I am fourteen years old!)  Also, I couldn't see much, because the snow is mostly higher than I am.  So somehow I ended up out in the street.  Very scary!  Bright lights and cars zipping by!  Terrible!  I am a very small dog. 

And then one of the cars stopped and a woman* scooped me up.  That was scary, too.  Her car was warm and cozy and she made some phone calls -- but who was she?!  Not Robin.  Where were we going? 

The police station!  I'm wasn't sure that that was a positive turn of events.  Officer W. was very nice, and he made some phone calls, too.  But would my humans come?

Nope ~ another man, with a big truck, and next thing I knew, I was at a kennel!  I know about kennels ~ humans leave you there when they go to Florida.  I would like the beach, I think, but they never take me there.  Have they gone to Florida?  They were just there.  I know that Robin wants to move away from Siberia Ohio.  Would she forget me?

This was very bad.  Two nights.

And then there they were!  GS redeemed himself by coming with his mom to rescue me.  I am so happy; my tail might spin off.

Later I heard that The Lovely Daughter had gone to Columbus for the week-end and had had an adventure of her own. It involved friends in a car accident and much back and forth nonsense all night long, ending with one young man in jail.  ("I had nothing to do with the going-to-jail activity!" she exclaimed. ) She did get to practice her social work skills for several hours the next day as she tried to extricate him from his new domicile.

Apparently it cost more to spring me than it did him.

I am a valuable and beloved dog.

Your intrepid friend,


*The woman gave the police permission to give her first name to Robin so that she could to call her to thank her, which she did; it was only the next night, after this story was posted on FB, that it was discovered that my rescuer is someone  Robin knows from church!

Being Stretched to the Limit

It's interesting to me that no one commented on the last post.  Is it too, startling, I wonder, to see how much we have to accommodate all at once?   To know that the person leading your worship on Sunday is offering the Prayers of the People or preaching the sermon while she is thinking about her own terrible loss?

It's been something of a dramatic week-end.  On the outside: dog vanished in the night and rescued by a stranger subsequently discovered to be a church member, and the need to lead worship after having spent an hour tromping around in the snow late the previous night, temperature maybe 20, looking for said canine escapee.  On the inside: lengthy online discussion with other mothers about those last moments and subsequent days.  One of us lost her daughter to cancer; she died in her mother's arms, surrounded by those she loved.  Three of us lost our children suddenly and unexpectedly when they were far from home, and those first hours and days were filled will frantic efforts by parents overwhelmed by shock to get to them, or to get them to us.

"I need you to get my son home," I said to the funeral director at 7:00 in the morning.  "All I have is the phone number of a detective in Chicago.  I need you to find out where he is and bring. him. back."

Somehow, this post this morning seemed extremely relevant.  I think that the four of us mothers, all of us living out various forms of ministry, feel, yes ~ rather stretched.  I suppose we are not optimistic about having reached the limit.


Something to think about ~ The entire life of a good Christian is an exercise in holy desire. You do not see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when God comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.

Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it, and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait God increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.

~ St. Augustine
Homily on the first letter of John

Saturday, January 15, 2011

All At Once

Within about the same half hour tonight, moving back and forth from one thing to another:

Final preparation for Sunday morning preaching: one last read-through of sermon and a new layer of sparkly nail polish (because that's what the old layer is);

Reading through the humorous comments on RevGals as other preachers pull things together for tomorrow;

Reading through comments in a place where four of us are discussing the last moments of our children's lives;

Wondering: This is it, really?  This is my life?  This is the frontier ? This blend of "Come and see" and those excruciating images? (It seems that it is.)

And pondering this, from Joe:

"How, finally, does our own experience of loss and separation prepare us to meet the Risen Lord?"

AMDG, indeed. 

Very Serious Spiritual Directors

A group of us met this morning for peer supervision.  If you've done CPE or similar training, you're probably done this; one of us presents a "case" or scenario and then we discuss his or her reactions.  The idea is not to offer "solutions" to whatever dilemmas have come up, but rather to help the director explore and process his her own responses and thereby improve his or her listening capacity.

We met this morning at one of our homes near the Bering Strait lake and, while the guys abandoned us, the women decided to go for a post-discussion walk. We had been talking earlier about "summery" and "wintery" Christians, and it quickly became apparent who is who.  Those optimistic summery girls are way out there.  That's me in the black coat, along with my wintery friend. (I did finally venture out onto the dock -- but I didn't think it was fun.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Josh as a Little Guy

One of my friends kindly asked me about Josh, and I realized I've never written much about who he was.

It was 27 years ago this month that I learned that I was pregnant with twins.  We'd just moved into this house, the Quiet Husband worked for Big Oil, I had recently left  Big Railroad law department for a very small nonprofit (which was soon to fold), and we had joined a big United Methodist church, where we knew almost no one.  (So many big places ~ what was that about?)

The boys were born at the end of the summer, at 40-plus weeks of pregnancy.  I had a mirror for the c-section that followed many hours of labor, and my first sight of Josh was of his head being lifted from my belly.  (My first view of his brother was of his tiny white rear, still inside.)  In one of our first pictures, of me in the recovery room with a baby in either arm, their personalities are evident:  Josh is peacefully asleep, oblivious to the excitement and happiness surrounding him, and Matt is wide-eyed and alert, looking as if he thinks he has landed in the midst of a major disaster.

As a little fellow, Josh was a blend of that laid-back baby and a growing whirlwind of energy and concentrated determination. Blue eyes, white-blond hair, and a belly of joyful laughter.  

He was the adventurous one ~ he started kindergarten a semester before his brother and camp a summer earlier; he was the first soccer player of the three kids.  The first to climb stairs, the first to swim in deep water, the first off a diving board.  

He loved to do art; he loved to build things (a heap of hangars and blocks in the library was a machine for communicating with the stars; a 2x4 with miscellaneous odds and ends nailed to it was an electronic dinosaur.)  He loved white-water rafting and tubing and camping and hiking in the mountains.  He loved the beach at St. Augustine and he loved Washington, D.C.  He loved to make pottery and he loved to hang out with his best friend, Ben.  He loved stories, and although he didn't really become a reader himself until fourth grade, the next year he read the entire Narnia series. He loved his box turtle, Sunfan, and he loved our kitty, Kitty.

We enjoyed a pretty simple and ordinary suburban life, in a city in which funky stores and restaurants and the library and little kid playgrounds are all within walking distance. Our children all went to a Montessori preschool and then moved on to another Montessori school for elementary and middle school, they all played soccer, and they all went to camp in North Carolina.  

We became part of a group of young families at our Methodist church and we all spent a lot of time together -- with no parents in town, we became one another's extended family.  As the moms had second and third children and left employment, we began to get together every week, and we spent many long summer days out at a small lake, kids running all over the place and moms relaxing among coolers and beach towels.

I really do believe that Josh, like his brother and sister, had one of the best childhoods ever.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Into the Silent Land: Meeting Sadness with Silence

I have a new post up over at Michelle's place as we continue with our discussion, begun many months ago, of the book Into the Silent Land.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Cedar Key: Merger of Sea and Sky

Yes, the subject is the same as that in my blog header, but that image was taken at sunrise, and this one late on the previous afternoon.  

I love that the horizon is invisible.

You could swim into the water or into the sky.

I've been looking at my calendar, and the coming week is going to make an astonishing number of demands upon my time and energy.

And so I leave you for a few days with this view of the horizonless Cedar Key horizon.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

How We Learn (or Don't)

 As I've mentioned, I'm teaching a college intro to religion class  next semester, and one of the books we'll be reading is Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which I first read in a high school religion elective class.  I don't remember our discussions with any specificity, but I know that we engaged in them, because for a year there were maybe twelve of us sitting in a circle, and that's what we did ~ discuss.  And we wrote lots of papers.

And, as I've also realized, that little book has had a huge impact upon my approach to life.  As I re-read it last month, it felt completely familiar.

I've read quite of bit of Holocaust literature in the years since, have heard a number of Holocaust survivors speak, and taught many of their grandchildren in my years as an educator in an Orthodox Jewish school.  With each such encounter, my understanding of how to survive trauma and find meaning in apparent meaninglessness has been strengthened.  

Much of that writing has been of help to me in the past two and one-half years.  Dietrich Bonheoffer, whom we also read in that long-ago high school class.  Alfred Delp, S.J., whom I discovered only a few years ago.

Discussion.  Reinforcement.  Application.

How we learn.

In seminary, my first required Old Testament course was presented entirely in a lecture format, and the assessment was entirely objective - multiple choice, fill in the blank, and . . . The Map.  Our professor is an archaeologist, and made an (important) point:  understanding the terrain makes a difference in our understanding of the story.  We had to memorize the map of ancient Israel which, for those of us of a certain age, was quite a challenge.  I put a xeroxed copy, which contained the 50 or so geographical and place names we needed to know, on my bathroom door, and learned about 5 a week.  Ten or so minutes a day most days.  Probably ten-fifteen hours over the course of the term  to learn the whole thing.

The lecturing was brilliantly done, and I have a thick binder of notes that will serve me well throughout my ministerial teaching and preaching life.  No doubt about that.  But did I retain anything?  In the absence of personal engagement of any kind?

No discussion; no essays.  No subsequent  encounter.  And I haven't been to Israel, which would no doubt make a difference.

I'm preaching on Jesus' baptism tomorrow, and I've decided to do a bit of Jordan River geography with the children.  

I realized this morning that I know no Jordan River geography.

So I googled "Jordan River map" and looked at a map of ancient Israel and realized:

Nothing.  No retention whatever.  I could not to save my life have identified a single thing on that map (other than the river running through it).  It was as if I'd never laid eyes on it before.

Memorization.  That's all we did.

NOT how we learn.

(I'm giving the kids messages from a bottle - slips of paper with different names for them to look up on a map so they can report their findings back to me next week.  I know they won't retain the facts for long.  But maybe one of two of them will remember the fun of geographical investigation.)