Saturday, April 30, 2011


I walked down into the cemetery this afternoon to look at daffodils and leave some flowers from our garden on Josh's bench.  I sat there for awhile, watching the Canada geese harass one another with much splashing and honking, and then I looked up and saw ~ a yellow warbler! 
 Migration is finally underway.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Blogging the Wedding

Completely forgot about it yesterday.  Some major life challenges ~all framed within a 24-hour power outtage, so no television or computer at home anyway.

Having been duly reminded about it as soon as I turned on my laptop today, I'm watching it now.

Big fan of Westminster Abbey.  Amazing images from all sorts of vantage points.  Terrific bird's eye view of the wedding party, with that long train on Kate's dress as the star.

So far, some of my favorite music.

The dress is spectacular.  I love Kate's long lace sleeves and V-neckline.

Musing: A wedding, regardless of whether it's a lavish undertaking such as this one or a simple contract entered into before a justice of the peace, represents such extravagant optimism.  The vows hint at the potential challenges ahead, even for those for whom silver spoons litter the palace.  The Queen's arrival, reminiscent of her public role as a national symbol of encouragement and fidelity during World War II, was another hint.  Another lies in the memory of her mother, portrayed so wonderfully by Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech, whom, so I learned last week, lost a brother in World War I and then initiated the tradition of the royal bride's leaving her bouquet on a soldier's tomb. Another, in the absence of William's mother, who would have so loved to have shared this day with her son and his new wife.

Romans 12: A wonderful selection.  And a wonderful homily.

William Blake's Jerusalem.  How I wish my own son were here.  Jerusalem is sort of my boarding school's -- and his -- theme song.  The last time I heard it in person was at his graduation in 2003.

Cathedral and music: extraordinary.

For all the pomp and circumstance, they look like genuinely happy and relaxed partners ~ even in a royal carriage!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Earth Afire With God: Celtic Prayers for Ordinary Life (Book Review)

This little book from the editors of Anamchara Books contains several dozen short, sweet prayers.  Some are modernized versions of ancient prayers collected and published at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, while others were written by the editors themselves.

Three things struck me about this collection.   First, it emphasizes God's presence in the natural world, a welcome aspect of Celtic Christianity.  Second, it doesn't shirk from applying the gentle grace of prayer to contemporary life; there's a prayer to the God of the Internet!  (Nothing about texting, though.) And third, many of the prayers take the form of litanies, with a repetitive lilt that would be appealing for simple, ordinary moments, whether those spent alone or those in which community gathers.

I would caution potential readers that a few of the prayers center on Celtic festivals, such as Imbolc (the Feast of St. Brigid) and Samhain (the Celtic New Year), which might disturb those sensitive to pagan echoes or Wiccan overtones.

That said, I think that in this era of renewed interest in Celtic Christianity, this slim volume would make a lovely gift in honor of a new home, a new baby, or any event in which grateful attentiveness to God is called for.


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

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter: Marys

I'm taking some liberties here.  My first name really is Mary.  No one calls me that (except doctors and people at the BMV), but it does give me some affinity with my favorite woman in the Bible.

Here I am, Easter morning 1960.  My mother went all-out to host an Easter-egg hunt for my first-grade classmates in Vero Beach, Florida. We were about to move from our little rented cottage to the house my dad had (literally) built for us, a few blocks from the beach, but we had a big yard in the meantime.  I have a couple of clear memories of my consultations with my mother that spring, over the decor for the first bedroom that I would have all to myself and over the details of my Easter party. The former involved seashells and fishnets; the latter, prize eggs wrapped in gold and silver foil.

Things change.  Mothers die before bedrooms can be finished, and brothers, and sons.  Oh yes, sons.  You might think I would have forged a friendship with Mary, the mother of Jesus ~ and in fact I have been doing so, very slowly.  

But the person I am mostly likely to have been friends with had I been alive on Easter morning in the year 30 is this one, Mary Magdalene.  The kind of woman who goes off to investigate a cemetery early in the day. Heartbroken, curious, vocal, determined.  "Perseverance" is a word that has been mentioned in my own case.  For a long time, I didn't care.  But now I hope it applies.

Hope.  Risen.  Victory.  Life.  Amen.

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

~ John Updike

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Of Gods and Men

I have no idea what happened to my original post, but I've reconstructed it as best I can:

Last night, for reasons not entirely clear to me, my nonreligious family agreed to accompany me to Of Gods and Men for its first screening here.  From my point of view, Good Friday was an auspicious day on which to see the film for the first time

It's been thoroughly reviewed in many venues, including The New York Times, here, so I'll just offer a few personal observations.

At dinner afterward, I mentioned that monks in the Benedictine tradition make vows of stability, committing themselves to a lifetime in one place, unless asked by a superior to make a move.  "Oh!" everyone exclaimed, wishing they had known that at the outset.  They would have better understood what was at stake in the abbot's abrupt and unilateral decision that they should stay where they were, continuing to serve the impoverished Algerian community in which their monastery was located, and the anguish that accompanied their subsequent communal discernment as to what steps to take in the face of increasing danger.

"Isn't that why you make vows?" asked Gregarious Son.  "So that in a time of crisis, the decision has been made?"

I was quite taken with the abbot as a model of the reconciling behavior to which we are called; my children, with what they saw as his fascination with other religions.  He was fluent in Arabic, quoted the Qur'an to the radicals who burst into the monastery late on Christmas, and eagerly opened the package containing a copy of Chaim Potok's novel, The Chosen.  The monks joined their neighbors for a family celebration at which a lengthy passage of the Qur'an was recited, and worked with and cared for them with an easy camaraderie.  Perhaps reconciliation and fascination are two sides of the same coin: an attentiveness to the many ways in which God labors among us all.

I have been thinking, since somewhere in the middle of the film, about what the Incarnation means, and about our own task of embodying God's presence in the world.  Many years ago, a then-young pastor asked me, "What does it mean that we are to pray without ceasing?" As if I should have known.

But now I think it means that, to the extent that we immerse ourselves in sustained and attentive prayer (as monks do at regular, scheduled times throughout the day and night), so we become in our ordinary lives, conscious or not, thoughtful or blundering, expressions of God's intention for goodness and love among us all.

Happy Easter.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Musician

A memory of Kreisler once:
At some recital in this same city,
The seats all taken, I found myself pushed
On to the stage with a few others,
So near that I could see the toil
Of his face muscles, a pulse like a moth
Fluttering under the fine skin,
And the indelible veins of his smooth brow.

I could see, too, the twitching of the fingers,
Caught temporarily in art’s neurosis,
As we sat there or warmly applauded
This player who so beautifully suffered
For each of us upon his instrument.

So it must have been on Calvary
In the fiercer light of the thorns’ halo:
The men standing by and that one figure,
The hands bleeding, the mind bruised but calm,
Making such music as lives still.
And no one daring to interrupt
Because it was himself that he played
And closer than all of them the God listened.

~ R.S. Thomas

This poem first came my way via a Jesuit friend and spiritual director, who sent it to me during some of my darkest days.  (This morning it appears here.)  He's in town this week, celebrating the Triduum masses at the Carmelite monastery, and that's where I went last night.  

Note to self: The first year, I made it halfway through an Easter vigil service and left.  Resurrection seemed far too improbable, and real life in the face of that improbability was too painful to contemplate. Last year, doing my field education, I survived several services over the course of the week-end in a state of numbness.  No idea what I was doing there, until that note a few months later from another mother with a son lost to suicide, telling me that she was helped by the knowledge that my experience of the holidays over the course of the year paralleled hers.  Last night:  a homily on memory, reverence, and service.  I am, finally, open to all of them, and to the Love at their source.  It seems that perhaps God listens most intently to each of us when our music is that of anguish.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


He-Qi's Praying at Gethsemane

...Become aware that God has been expecting you for quite some time in the deepest dungeon of your rubbled-over heart. Become aware that he has been quietly listening for a long time whether you, after all the busy noise of your life, and all the idle talk that you called your illusion-free philosophy of life, or perhaps even your prayer during which you only talked to yourself, after all the despaired weeping and mute groaning about the need of your life, whether you finally could be silent before him and let him speak the word, the word that seemed only to be like a deadly silence to the earlier person who was you. You should feel that you are not falling at all when you give up the frantically violent interior anxiety about yourself and your life. You do not despair at all when you doubt yourself, your wisdom, your strength, your ability to help yourself to life and the freedom of happiness; rather, you are with him suddenly as a miracle that daily has to happen anew and never can become a routine. Suddenly you will experience that the petrifying visage of hopelessness is only God's rising in your soul, that the darkness of the world is nothing but God's radiance which has no shadow, that the apparent waylessness is only the immensity of God who does not need any ways because he is already there.

(Karl Rahner in The Need and the Blessing of Prayer; HT to Ryan Duns, SJ)

What I particularly love about He-Qi's painting, which a friend sent to me a few days ago and which I have made my screensaver for the week, is that everyone, including the disciples who are out cold, is in the light.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Miscellaneous Monday: Blood, Vision, Holy Week

Conversation with phlebotomist this morning:

"So, how did you get into this line of work?"

"Oh, I always wanted to draw blood!"

Raised eyebrows.

"Yes, it's what I always wanted to do.  I guess that sounds kind of weird."

"It sounds very weird."

"Well, when I was little I was sick a lot, and it seemed that no one knew how to do their jobs very well.  So I decided that I wanted to do one of those jobs and do it very well so that people weren't hurt."

Fifteen or so little vials later . . .

"You did well!  I'm so glad that you were able to turn the bad things from your childhood into something good for others."

"Oh, it wasn't so bad.  Well, actually, yes.  Yes, a lot of bad things happened."

"Thank you so much for what you learned from them."


I am actually learning how to get along with double vision.  The human brain's capacity to compensate is astounding.  I can't type with both eyes open, but I can look at you from a small distance and figure out which one is really you and which one is the extra.

Maybe I 'll be able to drive eventually.  Not yet.  Gregarious Son took me to Target yesterday and people kept appearing out of nowhere. I have no peripheral vision.  Imagine if they were cars.  Well, no - don't.


This deserves a post of its own: I discovered an amazing website yesterday.  The art ~ incredible.  If you like to pray with art, may I suggest spending some time with these paintings this week?  There's an accompanying liturgy, too, if you are more comfortable with words.


It's interesting, isn't it ~ how much you see when you think you can't?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Weeks 2 and 4 (Spiritual Exercises)

A lot of decisions to ponder in the upcoming week.

Easter Sinking In (or Rising Up)

In the week or so after Josh died, I read a lot about Christian views on suicide over the past two millenia.  (Why not?  It wasn't as if sleep were an option.)

In the course of the next couple of years, I realized that, even today, we are some of the "lucky" ones.  I would hear stories, current stories, of families refused church funerals, of funeral services botched.  We, on the other hand, have never been on the receiving end of anything other than sympathy and reassurance, eloquence and encouragement,  from ministers, rabbis, and priests and, on the part of Christian clergy, confidence in resurrection.

"While we are crushed," preached our pastor in his funeral sermon, "Josh has now risen up.  While we are now in the dark, Josh is now in the light.  While we are pressed down in horror, Josh is living the mystery."

The other night, in the college Intro to Religion course which I teach, we were talking about holding differing personal viewpoints in the context of the church.  One young man mentioned that one of his friends believes that anyone who commits suicide (his verb, not mine) goes straight to hell, but he doesn't share that belief.

I don't bring my personal life into the classroom, at least not in that regard, but his comment did register.  A year ago, I might have turned pale and ended the class without explanation.  

This year, I just thought: What a small, and sad, understanding of God his friend has.

It's been a battleground for me, but I'm grateful to be in possession of a genuine, albeit hard-won, Easter faith.

Friday, April 15, 2011

More Questions: What Does the Cross Mean to You?

This is one of those not-for-the-faint-of-heart posts.  But yesterday's generated such interesting answers (which will surely lead to another post eventually) that I thought I'd try something similar today.  

This one began with  a piece Michelle wrote on Wednesday, in which she says that "[i]t is difficult for us who make the sign of the cross when we pray, who let the crucifix lead us into and out of the church, who finger the rosary in our pockets when we are worried to see the cross as anything other than a familiar icon of protection and comfort."  I commented that protection and comfort are not the things I think about when I encounter the cross.  But, of course, she got me thinking . . .     .

As a Protestant, I am accustomed to seeing an empty cross, rather than a crucifix, in church, and I tend to see it as a symbol of victory.  In my home church, however, the center of the simple white wooden cross is encircled by nails, and so for me the cross has often become a focus for meditation on suffering.  I often thought, before Josh died, that I would like to do a sermon on that particular cross.  Now I'm not sure that I have it in me.

In the Catholic church which I began to visit after Josh's death (a complex story involving a need to be with people in prayer and the sense of trauma that bubbled up every time I tried to enter our own sanctuary),  an enormous crucifix hangs above the altar.  One day I happened to glance up as the priest raised the cup and plate and sang the words, "Through him, in him with him, in the unity of the holy spirit . . ".  That cup and plate looked so very small and that crucifix so very large; I was quite struck by the simplicity and fragility of the eucharistic act in the face of the overwhelming evil represented by the cross, and that one man's act of compassionate love had overcome all terror and evil.  It was a significant moment for me as I sought to contend with the horror of suicide and to find some sense of reassurance that my son had found welcome and safety in God's embrace.

Two years later, still contending, I spent a lot of time with the Stations of the Cross while I was on retreat at Wernersville.  I wasn't too clear on what the Stations of the Cross were ~ they represent stops in Jesus' final journey, from his appearance before Pilate to his entombment ~ but my retreat director provided some help and sent me off for what became several days of on-and-off focus on Jesus and his mother.  I'm not sure that I'd recommend that particular pilgrimage for a person in my shoes without the companionship of someone who is both a priest and a psychologist, but it was a powerfully healing journey for me. 

Did that experience transform the cross into an icon of protection and comfort for me?  I can't say that it did.  It remains a symbol of anguish and evil, albeit one that has convinced me that every moment of my son's pain was shared. 

I do wonder, though, whether a long-enough confrontation with the cross, of the nature into which I have been forced, might alter its impact.

And what about you?  What has your experience been?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Faith ~ From Our Parents?

A couple of weeks ago a friend remarked that she has always known God's loving, comforting presence.  She has never doubted that God is always right with her, through the good and the bad ~ and she has had some tough times in her life.

Since my experience has been quite different, I've started to wonder where such confidence comes from.  I asked her a few days later whether she thinks that it is a consequence of her upbringing and she concluded that yes, it is.  Her parents instilled a deep faith in her.  Not only did they set a consistent example by regular mass attendance and an obvious devotional life, but they talked frequently about matters of faith and clearly understood God, and especially Jesus, to be as engaged in their lives as they were themselves. 

In truth, I've wondered about this question many times over the past several years.  After the deaths of my mother and brother, God was no longer acknowledged in my family.  Not that God was given much of a place before, but those tragic deaths marked a watershed in our lives.  

And so I've speculated:  What if those who cared for us, for my brother and me, in the aftermath, had mentioned God, even occasionally? What if they had referred once on awhile to a God who continued to love us, who continued to offer us a beautiful world, albeit one marred by tragedy and sadness?  What if they had practiced, and articulated to us, a continued reliance on God as they navigated those very difficult years and made the decisions that would affect all of us for the rest of our lives?

What about you?  How did your childhood experiences affect the faith with which you do or don't live these days?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Relay for Life

The Lovely Daughter is participating in the Relay for Life this week-end as a member of her social work school's team.

I have this fantasy that my Friday morning doctor's appointment will be followed by a meeting with an optometrist who can produce a pair of prism lens by the end of the day, thereby making it possible for me to join her at some weird hour as planned.  If that doesn't happen, I guess I'll go early in the morning when it's light enough for me to walk down there.

In any event, my stepmother Jewel Craig and Karen's daughter Katie Gerstenberger and Mary's daughter Erin Potts and my freind Bean who is a Survivor! will be on my mind.  And my friend L's husband who's gone and my friend G's sister who's here.  And  . . .  

I'm sure that we all have people we remember and people we're rooting for and I urge us all to make a contribution ~ if not to the Lovely Daughter's effort, which it just happens that we can do here, then to someone else walking somewhere else.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Micellaneous Monday: The Good Stuff

Thank you all for listening to and commenting on my venting earlier today. I got some of it out of my system and then went on to some good, good things:

I got to do spiritual direction with two people today, one by phone and one in my home. (The driving problem.)  Both of them are making the Ignatian Exercises and really, it is one of the most wonderful things in the world to accompany someone on that particular journey.  One is near the end, which means that she is walking with Jesus through the last days of his earthly life in her daily prayer at exactly the most perfect time in the calendar and church year.  I am hopeful that she will experience Easter with more joy and amazement than ever before.

I got to meet with a friend and discuss some retreat work we are planning to do together.

A pastor friend and mentor called, so I got to bemoan my current state of affairs, long and loud.  That helped, too.  (Thanks, J!)

I got to prepare this week's college classes, which are mostly on inter-religious dialogue, one of my most favorite topics.  My students run much of the gamut of Judeo-Christian religious experience and faith, but they are all gentle and curious and open-hearted and lovely human beings.  Most of them seem to enjoy a class in which all questions are welcome and all viewpoints are addressed seriously.  I am really looking forward to this week.

Even though I can't actually "look" at much. I also had time for a long nap and I can go to bed soon ~ much needed, because the strain on my eyes is intense.

Our next topic in the class I'm teaching is Hinduism, in which much of the focus is on the visual as opposed to the linguistic apprehension of the Divine.  How ironic can life get ?!

Miscellaneous Monday: Eyes and Church

I hate it when people talk about their physical ailments all the time.  So, permit to to discuss mine:  Yeah, still total double vision.  I've been reading up on its likely cause.  Not good.

My preoccupation with this matter has given me a respite from my obsessive thinking about Josh.  Paradoxically, the reality of his death makes this not such a big deal.  I'm guessing that, had this happened three years ago, I would have been in a complete panic.  Today:  OK, one more bad thing, and not so bad at that, relatively speaking.

OTH, the Lovely Daughter tells me:  Mom, this is your general approach.  Something minor that is unlikely to end badly?  Your anxiety level skyrockets. Something hugely disastrous?  You are completely calm.


Yesterday, I learned that a good friend is leaving the PC(USA) and seeking ordination elsewhere.  The lack of support shown by her local governing body has finally caused her to shake the dust from her feet.

I have often thought of doing the same, for somewhat different reasons.  Mostly:  No call prospects.  I won't belabor the point but, objectively speaking, if you looked at what I've accomplished over the past few years, you might think the church would be interested in my service.  It's not.

I have a invitation to interview for something outside the church this week.  The only financially responsible thing to do, and a job I could love.  But I sure didn't have to turn my life upside down to go to seminary in order to do it.


From a holistic standpoint:

Is the vision thing connected to Josh?  Are my eyes (or their accompanying nerves) which can no longer function in concert responding to the exhaustion of 2.5 years of trying to keep it all together?

Or is it connected to the church?  What am I not seeing, about myself, my call, and the church?


Off to a meeting (my son is driving) for some other work I've been invited to do that has nothing to do with the PC(USA).

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Body, Breath, Place (Sermon ~ Ezekiel 37: 1-14)

There's a good chance that when  I preach this tomorrow, I will refer to my son's death in only the most general way.  I realized, as I printed the bulletin into 28-point font so that I can read it, that there may be very young children in this congregation, as they do not usually have Sunday School during worship.  Their parents are not bringing them to church so that they can learn the definition of suicide.  (I remember my horror when one of my friends at my own church, whose wife sings in our choir and was there for our son's funeral, talked about explaining what had happened to his own little nine or ten-year old son.  Horror that my family's circumstances mandated such a discussion in his.)  But this is how it emerged earlier in the week, with a little subsequent RG editorial assistance.


I’ve been here enough times in the past few months that I think we know each other a bit.  Enough for me to preach a bit more personally then usual, at least insofar as sharing some of my experience in encountering today’s texts.  Perhaps that experience will speak to all of us who have found ourselves in deserts filled with dry bones. 
As I think most of you know, we in our family lost one of our young adult sons two and one-half years ago.  He died of suicide, just as I was preparing to return to Pittsburgh for my second year of seminary.  I use the term “died of suicide” these days because I have learned a lot in those two-and-one-half years.  One of the things I’ve learned is that very few people “commit” suicide, not any more than they "commit a heart attack" or ""commit a stroke."  Most people who die of suicide suffer from unresolved or – in the case of our son – even unrecognized clinical depression or bipolar disorder.  And that’s a problem we won’t even begin to confront successfully until we get rid of the very language that implies the victim is somehow at fault.  And so – my son Josh died of suicide.  That means that he died suddenly, and unexpectedly, and violently, and alone – and left behind a completely crushed and devastated family.
A desert of dry bones, indeed.
Josh’s death also means that when I looked at the OT and gospel texts for today – the texts we’ve just heard, Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones and Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, my heart stopped for a second.  There are certain texts which preachers steer clear of, for personal reasons, and these are the kind that I avoid.  They’re just too hard – one of my seminary professors refers to the situation as one of “existential dissonance.”  My own life experience and that of the text simply do not match up.  Not yet, anyway.
Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have tried.  I would have just gone off lectionary and preached on something else.  But this year – well, Lazarus seems a bit beyond my capacity, but I thought that I might try Ezekiel.  And I tell you all this not to be self-indulgent, but because sometimes, as we contend with our own desert experiences, it helps to have something concrete in someone else’s desert to hang onto. To know that while our experiences are unique to us, the realm of the desert is something that we all experience, one way or another.
One of the things I try to do in my preaching is what I call “preaching ahead of myself.”  We are all called, I think, to move beyond ourselves, especially in our suffering – to move beyond our own self-absorption into a space in which we might have something to offer others.  If I were a nurse, for instance, and my son had died, I would try to work ahead of myself by returning to my unit and caring for other people’s sons, helping them to heal and live.  As a preacher, I try to preach ahead of myself by preaching into what I hope, what we all hope, rather than falling backward into the hard specifics of what I merely know.
 So once I had decided to give it a try, I started to prepare for this morning by thinking about Ezekiel, imagining him and this bizarre vision of his.  I looked at some paintings online; I even found a wonderful short video, which you can probably find as well if you google-image something like “Ezekiel dry bones.” I looked at all these images of deserts and bones, and I thought about all of the people whose bodies I have cared for and prayed with, in my family and in my chaplaincy training at the Cleveland Clinic, and I wondered what Ezekiel thought and how he felt.  What did he think and how did he feel when God invited him into this vision in which death becomes life?
 And so I went back and re-read the text, and I found out.  At least, I think I found out some of what the writer of Ezekiel, perhaps Ezekiel himself, was thinking and feeling as he shaped this vision into words for later generations.
I discovered that at both the beginning and ending of this passage, Ezekiel talks about three things.  He talks about bodies, incarnational beings.  He talks about Spirit – about breath enlivening those bodies.  And he talks about places – geographical places.  Body, breath, place – things we all need to live.
It’s not surprising, I suppose, that these matters come up on the fifth Sunday of Lent, the last Sunday before Palm Sunday.  Lent begins in the same way: with Jesus, the incarnate one, the embodiment of God, being led by the Spirit, into the desert.  Body, spirit, place.  Jesus needs those things in order to live, just as we do, and he needs them in a specific way in order to live into his ministry.  He needs his body as a source of temptation: a body that hungers, that thirsts, that might triumph, that might be imposed upon others.   He needs the Spirit, the Spirit that belongs to and participates in both him and his Father, to lead him.  And he needs the desert, that empty, desolate, vacant place, in which to come to terms with the life to which he is called.  We heard all of this at the beginning of Lent –
And now we hear it with Ezekiel.  The same three requirements for life are brought to bear. “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.”  Me – Ezekiel is the person, the ordinary, embodied human being.  So ordinary and embodied that he describes his encounter with God as a physical one: The hand of the Lord came down upon me.  As metaphorical as that statement might be, we visualize it, don’t we?  We see God’s hand - the same hand that reaches out to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel - we see that hand clamping down on Ezekiel’s shoulder.  The hand of the Lord came upon me –
And he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord – there’s the first appearance of the Spirit who will be so ey to this passage.  The Spirit leads Ezekiel just as it leads Jesus.  Just as it leads us. 
Now we like to think that with the Spirit’s leading, we will be directed to good places.  Joyous places.  Places filled with possibility. 
Not desert places. 
And yet, the place to which the Spirit leads Jesus is the desert. And the place to which the Spirit leads Ezekiel is the valley of dry bones.
Imagine this valley.  You don’t need all those internet images. Just close your eyes for a moment and imagine:  the bare ground, sandy here, rocky there, stretching before you for miles.  Perhaps in the distance some mountains, but they are barren, rocky.  The colors?  Greys, browns, deadened colors, colors as devoid of hope as the ground itself.  And the silence.  The oppressive, weighty silence. 
And then you realize: the ground before you is littered with bones.  All sizes and shapes of bones, grey and brown and bones bleached to white. 
Now me – as you might guess, I see this scene pretty literally.  And perhaps some of you do as well.  It depends, I think, upon what the barren, desert places are in your own life right now.  What bones cover the ground, when you have the courage to look there?  What disappointments?  What frustrated hopes?  What losses?   What lies around, lifeless and hopeless, in your own existence?
Oh, this is a hard one, isn’t it?
God knows it is hard.  And God tells Ezekiel to speak to the bones, and he does, and they begin to get up and be melded together again, muscles and tendons appearing and skeletons being reconstituted.
Now how do you think Ezekiel feels? 

 I’m guessing that he’s reminded that bodies are not enough.  It sounds as if these bodies are complete – but they do not live.  They do not live until God tells Ezekiel to speak again, so that the winds will come and breathe life into these bodies.  Wind, breath, spirit – all the same word: ruach – in Hebrew.  The cultural memory is triggered: In the very beginning, according to Genesis, “a wind from God swept over the waters.”  Now a wind from God sweeps over the desert valley.  In one of the Genesis stories of creation, God breathes life into God’s first human creation.  Now God’s Spirit breathes life into an entire population.  A population of bones.  Bones in the desert.  Bodies, spirit, place.
Where are these places in your life?  Where are the places in which bones lie, in which the wind of God needs to rush in, into which the Spirit of life needs to breathe?
This is the why of Lent.  We know that without the cross, there is no resurrection.  We know that unless we look deeply into the desert places in our lives, there can be no wind of life.
“O my people,” says God through Ezekiel. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”  Bodies, spirit, place. 
We can hear this story literally, as the Israelites would have done, as Zionist Jews do today.  Real people, enabled by the Spirit of the Lord, are returned to their land, to Israel. Or we can hear it as God’s engagement with us, regardless of the geography of the matter in question. We can hear that God cares about who we are – embodied people, animated by God’s own Spirit.  We can hear that God cares about where we are, because embodied beings have to be somewhere.  We require place. If we find that we are standing in the middle of a dry valley, we can hear that God is laboring there.  If we stand on the precipice overlooking the valley, afraid to move, we can hear that God is ready to force air into our nostrils.  If we have crashed onto the plain, we can hear God saying, “Oh, my people.”
What did Ezekiel think?  What did he feel?  Was he terrified, watching those bones being re-assembled  into bodies, and listening to those bodies being re-animated by the wind?  Was it all that he could do, to stand there and not run away?  Or was he filled with hope, astonished by God’s love and God’s willingness to try again with God’s people?
In another two weeks, we will celebrate a similar story – a story in which a body is reconstituted, breath is released – and people do run away. At least, some of them in some versions run away, before they all get it right. And when they do get it right, and are able to grasp the reality – body, spirit, place – then they will recognize, and perhaps we will as well, that God still sighs, "Oh, my people.”  That God still seeks to transform valleys of dry bones into meadows of life. 
This is what I mean by preaching ahead of myself.  I mean this: that our God, who sees the starkness, the emptiness, the shattered lives strewn across the deserts of human existence, says to us: This is not the end of the story.  This is the Lenten journey, this is the journey through the wilderness but, Oh, my people, this is not the end.  My hand will roll a stone away from a tomb, and you will know that your God speaks and acts.  You will know that you are beloved and that you live, O my people.

Image: Barry Donaldson, Ezekiel Speaks to the Dry Bones

Women and Ordination

I wrote most of this a few days ago, before the double-vision thing made typing such a challenge.  This morning, reading and participating in the RevGals' conversation about preaching tomorrow,  I feel more strongly than ever the depth and breadth of women's voices bursting forth from the pulpit.


The round of reviews of Half the Church and the flurry of controversy in the Catholic community over the U.S. bishops' recent criticism of Dr. Elizabeth Johnson's work have prompted some musings on my part.

The argument in some Protestant denominations against the ordination of women is based upon a couple of verses in which Paul denounces the prospect of women holding teaching authority over men.  This argument conveniently overlooks the women colleagues whom Paul praises and upon whom he placed considerable reliance, even in a culture in which women had no legal standing or social or economic status independent of men. 

The argument in the Roman Catholic church against the ordination of women is based upon the undeniable fact that Jesus was a man and on the metaphorical construct of the church as his bride; how can a woman stand in the place of Jesus?  That one conveniently overlooks the fact that many of Jesus' disciples were women and that women ~ the Woman at the Well and Mary Magdalene ~ were the first evangelists ~ in a culture in which women had no legal standing or social or economic status independent of men. 

The outcomes for me personally:

The Protestant church does feel very male to me.  Most of our historical leaders and theologians have been male.  My seminary felt something like a men's club; it often reminded me of my law firm life a generation ago.  In both situations, women were/are welcomed and encouraged in our endeavors, but the climate was/is a masculine one.  (Despite the fact that half of our seminary students are female.)  In my city, there has been one female senior pastor of a large mainline Protestant church over the past several years ~ and she's just moved away.  A friend recently commented that her United Methodist Church ~ to which I used to belong ~ feels like the 1950s: three white, male pastors in our community that is half African-American and Latino and half women.

All that said, women leaders are welcomed and supported, and I think that in another generation, the landscape for women in the mainline Protestant church will look quite different.

Ironically, the Catholic church often feels very female to me.  With its devotion to Mary, its plethora of women saints, and its still significant population of women religious ~ sisters and nuns,   highly educated women who often hold positions of enormous responsibility in hospitals, colleges and universities, and other institutions ~ the part of the Catholic church visible to me has a welcoming and feminine aspect.  Catholic priests and sisters have been among my strongest supporters  in my quest for ordination and in the recent dramatic personal challenges of my life.  But . . . no ordained women in the RC church.  The M.Div. program at the Catholic local seminary is off limits to women.  ("We can earn a Ph.D. there," one woman told me, "but not an M.Div.  They're afraid we'll want to be priests.")  When I attend a Catholic mass, I am painfully aware that, once we get to the Gospel reading and thereafter, the leadership other than in music is entirely male.  When I see photographs of Catholic ordination ceremonies of  deacons or priests, they look oddly off-kilter to me ~ because there are no women.  In another generation, I am certain, it will all look the same.

The general conversation around these issues tends to focus on issues of justice and discrimination involving women who are called to the ministry or priesthood.  That is certainly a critical discussion.  But increasingly I see the most significant one being justice and care for the people we are called to serve.  The voice missing from ordained leadership is even more significant to those who are not permitted to hear it than to those not permitted to exert it.

I have heard Catholic women friends say that they long to be ministered to by a woman priest. Perhaps more significantly, I have NOT heard Catholic men friends say the same thing.  It has not yet occurred to them that it might be a differently valuable experience to be ministered to by a woman. I know that in certain churches, no one will ever hear an Advent sermon from someone who has experienced pregnancy and childbirth.  No one will hear an Easter sermon from someone who has known the mother's experience of the death of a child.  In a church in which I preached some months ago, a woman came up to me afterward to relate her fears about some female-only health issues for which she was about to undergo testing.  Would she have had the same conversation with an unknown male pastor? 

And I am not talking only about "women's issues," whatever those might be.  I'm talking about all issues. I'm talking about voices missing from conversations, be they about Moses or about Miriam.  I'm talking about bodies missing from leadership roles in sacred encounters, encounters in which babies are baptized or communion is served.

Even my lovely and wonderful 80-year-old Jesuit friend, in response to my pointing out that he would never be ministered to by a female priest, argued that he often seeks the advice and counsel of women colleagues.  "But you will never receive communion, at least not in your own church, from a woman," I said.  I'm fairly certain that it had not occurred to him that he might be missing something.

I've only read one or two of Elizabeth's Johnson's books, as options in the course of a seminary education in which no work by feminist theologians was required.  The present controversy fermented by the Catholic bishops means that I will probably start working my way through all of them soon.  But in the meantime, I can ask, "Would a male theologian have ever conceived (pun perhaps intended) a book entitled She Who Is?" Based on the theological literature published in the nearly 2000 years of Christianity before that book's appearance, I think I am safe in presuming that the answer to that question is "No."

And how much, therefore, have we all lost?  Not merely the women called to ministry as priests and ministers, but all of us, women and men and girls and boys, who have never heard God speaking through the voice of a woman, through the scholarship of a woman, through the experience of a woman?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Darkness to Light

Dorcas at the RevGals' Friday Five today invites us to supply evidence in our lives of darkness into light.

I could probably do that in a big way, but instead I am reflecting on the very small space of dark-light frustration in which I find myself at the moment with this double-vision diagonal-world problem.

I have to choose between far and near distance.  I'm sitting at the dining room table typing, but if I want to go and do the laundry or clean the bathroom, I'll have to put a contact in first, so that I can see, you know, the walls. (Clearly, I mean. I can run into them just fine without a lens.)  Then if I want to do some reading or writing, I have to take the lens out.

My right eye gets really tired.  So I'll switch the patch.  Oops -- can't balance with my left eye only.  Can't even think about going near the stairs.  The table, seen with my left eye only, is not where it actually is.

How do I feel about going out in public with this eye patch?  Oh - not an issue.  There's no one available to drive me anywhere today.

I was worried about my Sunday sermon drawing too much attention to my own experience.  Now I have to worry about my very presence drawing too much attention to myself.  My sermon is in 28-point font at the moment.  I am going to have to do the same with the bulletin and readings. 

This has the potential to activate major depression.  I can't take any movement or activity for granted; I have to plan and try to foresee (ha ha) everything.  REALLY tedious.

There are plus sides, of course.  I didn't die of an aneurysm and I'm not trying to recover from a stroke.  The neuro-folks are five minutes away.  I had completely forgotten about the distance many people have to travel for that kind of expertise until I was leaving and the nurse asked, How long a trip home do you all have?  Up the hill, I said, puzzled, and then realized that most people don't have such speedy access to these kinds of specialists.  (Actually, most people here don't either, but I'm not harping on health insurance at the moment.  Although it reminds me to be grateful for my husband's job.  Our insurance is expensive, but it's there.)

I am hoping that embedded somewhere in my brain tissue there's a nerve in the process of healing itself.  That would be a good resurrection for me right now.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Too Much Adventure for Me

Acute and quite terrifying onset of double vision yesterday.

May I NOT recommend a sleepover at The Clinic, complete with CAT scan, MRI, and a House-like team of neurologists surrounding your bed to start the next day?

No aneurysm, no tumor, no stroke. In fact I am a remarkably healthy person according to all kinds of tests, except for probably a damaged nerve to the eye.

So another appointment with a neuro-opthamologist next week, a hope that this will resolve itself, and a Moshe Dayan fashion look.  Everything is very much double, but the literally blinding headache is gone.

Posting and response to emails will be light.   This post alone has been quite a challenge!