Monday, January 30, 2012

Prayer - 2

Several years (decades?) ago, George Gallup, Jr. presented one of the Chautauuqa Institution morning lectures.  Sounds fascinating, huh?  A lecture on statistics? 

It was fascinating!  If you read his Times obituary, you'll discover that he had a lifelong fascination with religion, and religion was the topic he addressed on that long-ago morning.

What stuck with me was his announcement that 96% of Americans say that they believe in God; only 4% claim to be agnostic or atheist.  (I suppose those percentages may have changed somewhat in the past fifteen to twenty years.)

I was astonished.  Had you grown up in my family, you would have concluded the numbers to be somewhat the opposite.

After I wrote the previous post, I tried to think of an example of someone praying, discussing prayer, or teaching prayer, in my family, immediate and extended. 

I have been unable to come up with a single one.

Perhaps prayer happened, but not in any way that was communicated to me.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Prayer - 1

I've been pondering, here on my little sabbatical, the following question: about what might I like to blog for the next while?  Is there something I'd like to explore with some consistency in this context?  

And then, out of some conversations with a whole wide variety of folks over the past few days, waltzed my topic of choice: Prayer. Something those of us who hang out here from time to time might focus upon in a more or less concentrated way for a number of weeks.  

And because this is a blog, and the blogs I enjoy most and those I have written myself focus on explorations of personal experience, I'll approach this topic through the same lens.

I took the image above one morning three summers ago, having rolled out of bed early enough to catch the sunrise over the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I like it as an illustration of prayer. Light and dark, mountains and valleys, trees right before us and vistas inviting us into a distant unknown.  A vast landscape for a vast topic.

But I'm going to start at the beginning.  And lest you think that I have a lifetime of experience upon which to draw, let me say, right at the outset, that the following represents my interest in and attentiveness to prayer for about the first forty years of my life:

How about you?  Was prayer a feature of your childhood or young adulthood?  Or not so much?

Monday, January 23, 2012


It's not much fun to blog when so many people are prevented from leaving comments  by some Blogger glitch.

I'm going to take that as a sign that it's time for a break.  I'm working on a number of other writing projects right now, so maybe this lull is just the nudge I need to focus elsewhere for awhile. 

This photograph is captioned in my files as Last Sunrise.  I know that it's from St. Augustine; I'm guessing that the year was 2008, when none of the kids were available and The Quiet Husband and I went down for a week on our own.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fire After Death

I went to a funeral this morning.

And tonight I read this, which I think might be the very best piece of writing I've ever read on the subject matter in question~ and I've read a lot of them, and written some, too: carrying out our immediate responsibilities and trying to honor our most beloved people in body and spirit  after they've died.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Bleak midwinter outside.  Temperature in the teens and pale gray skies.  Our rug samples arrived ten days ago and are supposed to be returned in four more.  We haven't yet been able to see how the colors look in sunlight.  The furnace guy is here for what must be our 27th annual inspection ~ of the TWO furnaces we now run in our updated system.

We moved into this house 28 years ago this week-end.  It was 16 degrees out that day as well; by the time we finished, having opened and closed the front door all day, the thermostat in the front hall had settled in at 55.  I was pregnant and, although I did not yet know that we would be having twins, I was already suffering from the all-day-all-night morning (?) sickness that would mark most of that pregnancy and all of the next one.  My husband set up the bed, and I crawled into it, pulled some sleeping bags over my head, and got up again in about March.

Now I sleep in the living room, since my present condition precludes lying down on a bed.  I woke up about 4:00 this morning and remained curled up in my recliner, wide awake, for a couple of hours.  A friend's husband died yesterday, and there will be a funeral mass next week.  Tomorrow is the church service for the young pastor who was killed earlier this week.  I prayed for both families and wondered, Do they know the love of God this morning?  My own experience of God during such times is consistently one of absence, but rumor has it that mine is not the universal one.

This living room was the site of such energy and joy during the years in which our children were small.  We struggled so to keep this old house warm, but they ran around gleefully in their bare feet, sipped hot chocolate in front of the fire, and curled up on the couch with the cat for hours of reading aloud.

Tonight my son and I are going to hear the Cleveland Orchestra; his ordination gift to me.  When we selected the concert weeks ago, we hoped that I would be physically healed enough to enjoy it, and I am.  The other things, the memories and the losses, all swirl around us.   We are, as Richard Rohr describes it, "falling upward."  And Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 is the exact right piece of music.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Journey Through the Looking Glass Continues (Breast Cancer)

My visit with the plastic surgeon today was transformed from a procedure into a consultation, and ended with the decision that we were far enough along to schedule the next surgery.  Ideally in six weeks, though my church schedule for Lent may push it past Easter.

My surgeon seemed genuinely pensive and regretful as it finally became clear to him how painful this process has been for me.  "This is definitely unusual," he said.  I have no way of judging.  But he went on to say, "I have a patient who comes in here at lunchtime and returns to teaching yoga all afternoon, and you're telling me that you basically cancel Thursday and Friday?"

"Every week, " I said, "on Saturday I start yoga and walking again, and by Wednesday I'm doing pretty well, and then I come here on Thursday, drive home, and creep into my recliner to stay for at least a day."

Now, though, some hope.  Six weeks to stretch, walk, lose some weight ~ and then I plan to take four to six full days off to recover from what should be a fairly easy surgical procedure.

In the meantime, I have some reading and discernment to do to decide how much a match matters to me.  I'm inclined to leave my real side alone till I've had some time to see how they both look and how I feel about them.  And to explore alternative methods of pain relief.  Western medicine has completely failed me in that regard, so I'm more than ready to look elsewhere.

Image:  Nina Hope Pfanstiehl, Through the Looking Glass, here.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

Two nights ago a young pastor in our Presbytery was killed in a head-on collision as she was driving to a church meeting.

I had just met her a couple of weeks ago, at our initial gathering of a cohort of first-call pastors brought together for monthly discussions.  Last week our little group led worship for our Presbytery and she celebrated the Eucharist.

She was graduated from my seminary the spring before I arrived there in the fall, and her mother graduated a few years earlier, so we have many friends and acquaintances in common.  

Her church had been without a permanent pastor for years, and was thrilled to call her last fall.

Last night, the news still fresh, I was thinking about her parents and trying to remember the first couple of nights after Josh died.  I don't recall much ~ just some bits and pieces, such as giving up all pretense of sleep and getting up at 5:00 am the first morning, the blur of people coming and going, that feeling of an impossible weight crushing my chest.  And that sense that life had shattered into millions of irretrievable fragments. 

And of course, I am remembering my mother's death in the same way as this young woman's, at about the same age.

And I am pondering the great gifts of ministry that will not be shared and, most of all, the parents left without the son and grandchildren she might have brought into their lives, without the companionship she might have provided as they aged, without the sound of her laughter or the steadiness of her gaze, without the touch of her hand, without the softness of her hair.

This morning, I woke up with the words "Blessed are those who mourn" floating through my head.

I will tell you the honest truth, and that is that I cannot reconcile the first and last words of that sentence.  I could probably write an exegetical paper about them, dwelling on the meaning of the Greek and the reversals of expectation that Jesus insists upon.  I could probably write a sermon about how the emptiness of loss makes space for the compassion of God, both the receiving and the sharing of it.

But, oh God, that emptiness.  It is so vast and wide and the wind howls through it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Guys and Breast Cancer

Something else I'm grateful for: the guys who step up to the plate.

In my family, that would be The Quiet Husband and 27-year-old Gregarious Son.  My husband doesn't say much, but he takes care of almost everything, without fanfare or expectation.  My son does say much, but he's become a pretty good listener where breast cancer is concerned, and has been a big help to me in sorting out options. 

Online, I think immediately of Mike Farely and Stratoz.  I'm not sure that this is the most comfortable sequence of posts for them to read, so I want them to know how welcome their comments are.  In my household, we have a whole new vocabulary and comfort level in speaking of body parts (or lack thereof), but I realize that those things aren't universal.

Among friends, there's that group of Jesuits who've been attending to my spiritual life in various ways over the years.  When I first got started in spiritual direction, some of my friends asked:  Why a man?  A  Catholic priest?  What can I say? These guys are just spectacular human beings.  I will admit that during the first year, when I was making the Spiritual Exercises, there were a few things I left out that I might have shared with a woman director ~ I wasn't sure about elaborating on certain details with a 75-year-old priest.  But I have long since abandoned any such apprehensiveness.  I just consider them spiritual fathers and brothers and converse with them accordingly.

And then there are the surprises.  Last week I called the woman who runs the local Suicide Prevention support group and got her husband instead.  Turns out that he is the first cousin of a prominent columnist in town who has written extensively about breast cancer, as both she and her daughter and other women in their family carry the BRCA1 gene.  For him personally, that means that breast cancer is a possibility and that prostate cancer is almost a given ~ and, of course, that he has all those aunts and cousins who have had either breast cancer or prophylactic mastectomies.

It's kind of interesting (to me) to read this and to see how life events and friends overlap and intersect.  And, wow! - The guys, from 81-year-old Jesuit to 27-year-old law student and all of those in between, are great.

Monday, January 16, 2012


I have been in a real funk lately.  I blame the snowballing of events over the past few months:

The call process, which was extremely stressful from about June to September, the period in which: my new church and I embarked upon serious conversation, the church decided to extend a call to me, and I was approved for ordination within 24 hours of . . . 

My breast cancer diagnosis, which launched my family and I on a ~ so far ~ four months and counting medical ordeal ~

A new life in a new church, this time as the pastor, which would have been a challenge all by its lonesome self ~ 

My ordination and second surgery, which occurred within three weeks of one another ~

Our first attempt at Christmas at home since Josh's death, which brought both its joys and its deep challenges ~

And that's only the big stuff.

And yet . . . I am well aware that that sense of being completely overwhelmed by Way Too Much is fertile ground for the work of the one whom Ignatius calls the enemy of our human nature.  You can call and visualize him, her, or it whatever and however you want.  I, for one, am convinced, after the events of three-plus years ago, that there is indeed a force of evil abroad in this universe.

I am also well aware that the best antidote to that particular power is an insistent response of gratitude.  I'm not good at it, but I'm aware of it.  And lest anyone think that I am completely and utterly hopeless in this regard, I offer, herewith, five things for which I am grateful at this very moment:

1.  The breakfast I shared with The Lovely Daughter and Friend this morning, which includes gratefulness for the fact that our community can support a marvelous new bakery, gratefulness for a Nutella and banana crepe, and gratefulness for the girls' friendship of eighteen years.

2.  The many safe, long drives I have made to and from my church, my home, and various medical facilities around here, which includes especially gratitude that there have been no deer-vehicle encounters.

3. The fact that there are two world-class medical facilities within walking distance of my house, which includes gratitude for [most of] the care I have received there, and for some of the extraordinarily gifted and skilled people who work there.

4.  A church that has invited me into a loving community and offered me big challenges, both of them just right for me right now.

5.  Young adult children who are thoughtful, analytical, insightful, and ambitious for their futures, and eager to discuss all kinds of discernment issues and also Somali pirates (another post).

There's no question that  a lot of crappy and unfair and devastating things have happened in my life in the past few years.

And so the gratitude I feel is both hard-won and genuine, stacked up as it always is against a wall of anguish that threatens to crush me every day. 

I am, truly, very grateful for all that I have written about here.

Image: Young Woman at Window by Jay Miller, here.

Astonishing (in Retrospect) Things Said to Me (Breast Cancer)

"I can do a mastectomy next Thursday and you'll be all done."

~ Surgeon number one (not for long).

I suppose that one might generously say that our definitions of "all done" differ.

"That's highly unusual." 

~ Surgeon number two, in response to my reaction (ask Maggie about that one) to a procedure I was told wouldn't hurt. 

(A 25 on a 1-10 pain scale.)

"We have women come in here on their lunch hour and go right back to work."

~ Plastic surgeon's nurse, explaining ramifications of those weekly visits.

Those must be extremely long lunch hours involving multiple margaritas.  

"Sometimes we all have to do things we don't want to do."

~ Plastic surgeon, in response to my comment about the length and difficulty of treatment.

Really?  You just said that to me?  You think I am a spoiled child who has never been challenged by life?

"Just a pinch."

~ Multiple people, said en route to inflicting serious pain.

I just don't even bother anymore.  Like Stevie Nicks, I keep my visions to myself.


My husband asked me this morning whether the plastic surgeon hadn't said that this would probably be the last week.

"Well, yes," I sad.  "But he says a lot of things."

Sunday, January 15, 2012


It's Sunday morning and I should be focused in another direction.  Perhaps that's why I'm writing, to get the sadness out of my system, at least temporarily.  I don't know that I'll leave this post up.

On the surface, I have little reason to feel as dejected as I do.  I am about to lead worship for a congregation that expresses its gratitude for my presence in countless ways.  I have been the beneficiary of an endless stream of support and encouragement in the latest glitch in my life.  My surviving children are doing extremely well.

It's suicide, I think.  I'm not sure that even I can imagine a more profound and complete rejection than that of a child who takes his own life.  Even though I am sure that he didn't mean to, in the sense that he had lost the capacity to comprehend what he was doing.

But lately I've been thinking a lot about our life as a family, which was pretty damn wonderful, and with each memory I think, "How could he have forgotten that?  How could he have let that go?  How could he have turned his back on that?"

And then I am reminded of how completely disoriented he must have been, which only makes me feel worse.

Among the consequences of Josh's death have been many other losses, many things I would have surely done and that our family would have shared, had life been otherwise.  Opportunities in ministry that disappeared.  The travel we had looked forward to, once the three kids and I were all released from our conflicting school schedules and and our finances were on an even keel again.

It's as if life as a whole rejected us and spit us out.

I've realized in the last few days that this sense of rejection is why breast cancer is, in fact, a big deal.  Yes, a mastectomy and months of reconstruction procedures are pretty major: a big loss, week after week of pain and inconvenience, way too much time spent with medical professionals.  

But overall, what it feels like is: rejection.  I feel as if my body has rejected a rather significant part of myself.  I feel as if God has rejected my body.  Not good enough to stay basically healthy.  Not good enough to remain intact.

It's really hard, some days.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Five Recommendation Edition

I love the Friday Fives where the RevGals make recommendations: books, liturgies, music, whatever ~ the lists are always well worth saving and referencing.  So I'm looking forward to reading all the links to revljarla's FF today:

So, it's the time of year I get inundated with requests for recommendations for students that are looking to be camp counselors.  So in honor of camp counselors everywhere, today's Friday Five is the Recommendation edition  (which has nothing to do with camp or summer or anything--work with me, it's late....)

1.   Recommend a favorite worship resource or devotional book.

Right now, thanks to my friend Wayne who wrote about it here, I am reading Jim Manney's book about the daily examen.  St. Ignatius says that if you can manage nothing else in the way of prayer, you should do the examen every day but, like so many people, I struggle with that ten-minute practice.  This book is delightfully readable, has already been a great help to me, and both Jim Manney and his more famous predecessor are right:  You can always find something to pray about when you look for God in the daily stuff of your life.

2.   Recommend a blog that you like to read that you think others might find enjoyable.

I'm finding Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer to be an excellent read and terrific source of insight these days. 

3.   Recommend a fiction book that you think people might like.

My friend Quotidian Grace introduced me to Sharon Kay Penman's historical fiction.  I am only about halfway through my first (and the first of a trilogy), Here Be Dragons because, let me tell you, these are l-o-n-g books ~ but it's outstanding.  As a long-ago English major and a former teacher of world history, I am thoroughly enjoying her focus on the Plantagenet family of medieval England and her attentiveness to the details of royalty, politics, romance, and social custom alike.  I am stymied, however, by the plethora of Welsh names.

4.   Recommend a favorite recipe website.   O.k., if you aren't into cooking or food, then just recommend a random website that you find useful, hilarious, mind numbing or thought provoking. 

Out of my league here!

5.  And for the last recommendation--it's bloggers' choice!  Make a recommendation for anything!

In the spirit of the introduction to this topic, I recommend my daughter, a camp counselor many times over, for a job out there in international development.  She's finishing up her MSSA with a focus on community development  and she's ready to see the world! Or ~ my preference ~ places closer to home.  (I'm serious.  If any of you have any connections or know of any organizations in your own locales, send me a heads-up.)  That said, I also recommend retreats here!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Getting Dressed (Breast Cancer)

I wish that I could write something wry and humorous about this. 

 I suppose that I could if I wanted to but, actually, I don't. My sense of humor is very much intact, but sometimes . . . 

I don't think much about having been diagnosed with breast cancer.  No chemo, no radiation.  I think about my frustrations: needing to watch my energy as I recover from two surgeries and prepare for more, weekly plastic surgeon appointments, my health insurance in a mess at the moment.  But I'm not "fighting for my life" or anything like that.  

(I actually despise the battle metaphors we use with respect to cancer, but that's another whole post.)

When I do think about it is when I get dressed in the morning.

Because what I have does not match.  

And finding ways to disguise the reality takes way too much energy and creativity early in the day.  Or any time of day.

I am extremely bored with the limitations of my wardrobe at present.

I would like to be able to wear a v-neck sweater during this warm and pleasant winter.

I am a little surprised that I have so quickly become accustomed to what I see in the mirror each morning.  But I don't let anyone else see it, for fear that they would pass out cold and get a concussion, and then I would have to make yet another trip to the hospital.

I have not for one second become accustomed to Josh being gone, and it's been three years. four months, and nearly two weeks.

And I suppose that's what I hate, every morning: That my disaster of a body reminds me, in case I had forgotten, which I haven't, that so much worse has already happened.

Update:  I posted a little before 9:00 this morning.  I then went out for a wonderful morning of breakfast and conversation with a good friend, came home and wrote most of my non-manuscript sermon, and then went to the doctor's.    I'm now in considerable pain, and am grateful that I have no work-related requirements this afternoon.  Not that I could accomplish anything at all anyway .

It interests me that so few people comment on my breast cancer posts.  I make no apologies for my whining, trivia, or explicit exposition.  I'm just documenting it as I experience it.  

More tv time ahead.  Sigh.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Where Do You Encounter God in Church?

Yes, I am genuinely interested in answers to this question.  (And don't worry - the next one will ask about outside of church.)  (And ~ perhaps this is a worry ~  I'm focused on churches here, and not on houses of worship across the board.)

I've spending a lot of time these days thinking and daydreaming and wondering about what church is.  There is, for example, church as my congregation remembers it: a 1950s full house, the multi-generational Sunday focus of everyone in town.  (It's a very small town.)  There's our church as it is right now: maybe one-third full on a Sunday, with most folks well over sixty.  There's our church as it might be ~ but I have no idea what that is.

For most of my congregants, the word church immediately conjures up a companion word: community.   And one of the things that I've been musing about is that, for me, it doesn't.  Not at first, anyway.

An odd acknowledgment for a pastor to make?  But I didn't grow up in a church community.  I found my way into the rich life of the church via theology, and architecture, and music, and communion, and a deep sense of mystery.  I eventually became part of a wonderfully energetic mainline church community, and then another, and now I lead a third, a group of loving, capable, and committed people who long for their church to blossom again.

But what will that entail, exactly?

Longtime readers may recall that after Josh died, I started attending church in a Catholic parish ~ where no one spoke to me, at all, ever.  It's a huge, vibrant parish, with lots going on, but I have no idea how one would become a participant.  I was looking for solitude, for God in music and ritual and prayer, and so the experience worked well for me, but had I been looking for God in community, I would have been lost.

And lest I be accused of singling out Catholics, let me add that when my husband and I, in our late twenties, first joined a large United Methodist church, it was at least a year before we had a conversation with anyone other than the senior pastor.  I had no idea what a church community was, so I was not dissatisifed but, looking back, I find it rather odd that no one at all approached us.  We were eager to become involved with the mission and justice activities of the church, but had no idea how to go about doing so.  And in the meantime, the ethereal music and the challenging preaching were enough.

At any rate, I'm wondering.  I think that if I were in a position to look for a new church for myself,  I would slip into a worship service and watch for mystery made manifest.  It would probably be some weeks before I paid attention to the bulletin and its lists of activities and groups.  But I have the feeling that I'm in a distinct minority.

What about you?  If you were to walk into a new church next Sunday, what would convince you that God was present there?

Image: Prince Edward Island, August 2005

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Without Notes (Preaching)

When I took the required basic class in homiletics (preaching) at seminary, I ended up with a professor whose highest priority was that we memorize our sermons.  So much to talk about in homiletics:  choice of text, exegetical work, theology, congregational demographics and circumstances, delivery . . .  and what we talked about, endlessly, were techniques for memorization.  

For me, a person whose ability to memorize anything was almost completely depleted decades ago, that approach meant that I wrote my two assigned sermons as fast as I could so that I would have as many days as possible available in which to memorize them, and that my delivery was uninspired at best, heartily sick and tired as I was of what I'd come up with.

Unlike most of my classmates, I completed my field ed assignment during my third year of seminary, after my homiletics class was behind me.   My supervising pastor has a doctorate in homiletics and, while our styles differ considerably, he offered me some excellent advice.  He was generous in his compliments about my writing, but he said that it was more appropriate to the page or computer screen, and sought to convince me that a sermon is an oral rather than a written event.

I knew that he was right, but I didn't know what to do about it.  His style is energetic and exhortative; mine is quieter and more reflective.  How would I turn the latter into an occasion of oral communication?

I can't say that I've made much effort in that direction, but it's certainly come to my attention that many of my favorite preachers preach without notes ~ including at least one person who always writes out his more academic presentations and more or less reads those.

And, very gradually, I've found myself less and less entranced by my own sermon writing, and more interested in connecting on a deeper level of communication with the congregation.

The final nudge came when I talked to someone at the Presbyterian church my brother and his wife have been attending. It's grown dramatically in the past few years, and I asked the lady in question what she thought the reasons were.

 "Oh, it's Pastor K," she exclaimed.  "He's so charismatic, and he remembers every single name."  Well, that leaves me out, on both counts, I thought.  "And he preaches without notes; it's as if he's having a conversation with you," she said.  Hmmmmm, I thought.

So I'm giving it a try. It turns out to have nothing much to do with memorization, at which I am very bad, and quite a bit to do with conceptualization, at which I'm more or less ok.  

I used to research and think quite a bit about my weekly sermon in big chunks of time until Thursday, at which point I would sit down and write most, if not all, of it down.  I might tweak it a bit over the next couple of days, but on the whole it was a finished product by Thursday afternoon.  And while I certainly didn't read it from the pulpit, I placed a lot of reliance on that manuscript placed securely in front of me.

Now I'm trying a new approach.  I start to write in my head as soon as I start to read.  All week long, I re-think, re-read, re-study, re-illustrate, and re-organize in my head.  On Thursday I write an abbreviated version, and then I proceed with what's going on in  my head and heart.

There's nothing much to memorize, because it's more of an internal dialogue with myself, and I'm keeping track of the conversation all week.  I don't need any cool techniques oriented to brain-functioning; I'm using the same skills we all use to remember our conversations and ruminations in general.

Now . . .  I've only tried this for real a couple of times, and chickened out a couple of times more.  But the response is so gratifying that I'm feeling motivated to keep working at it.  I think that if I counted the hours, this approach probably takes a lot more time ~ but when Sunday rolls around, I feel as if I am immersed in an ongoing experience of the text rather than producing a frozen-in-time explication.  I have to let go of my attachment to the perfectly worded phrase wrung from hours of consideration  and revision.  But I feel much more free to make alterations as I go, whether based on things that have come up in the congregation during the week, or on thoughts that occur to me as I'm speaking.  And . . . when I speak without notes, I'm able to leave the pulpit behind!

I used to wonder what pastors meant when they referred to the Spirit at work in their preaching.  I'm thinking that this new engagement with the spoken word might be what they're talking about.

Check back in six months, and we'll see how it's going.      

Image: None of the above means that I am immune to the allure of a pulpit in the sky.  This one is from Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Journey Begins with a Name (Sermon)

For the second time in the past few weeks, I'm preaching tomorrow without notes.  The following constitutes the bits and pieces I've written down ~ the illustrations that flesh it out are mostly in my head.  I hope.


One verse in the Gospel of Luke tells us:  After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Where did your name or names come from?  I have a project for you: I want you to get together with one or two other people and tell one another:  What are the stories of your names?  Where did they come from?  What do they mean?  Have they turned out to reflect the life you’ve lived?


Anyone want to share a story or two with the rest of us?


Names are important, aren’t they?  The process of naming is important.  Young parents-to-be pour over baby names books – the top names for 2011 were Sophie and Aiden.  (Comment)  The fashions change – my own kids grew up in a world of Matthews and Emilys.  In my generation, the names Brenda and Tom were popular.  Older generations include Harolds and Ednas.

Names represent, first of all, the love parents lavish upon their children.  Time – research – family histories – even family arguments.  

God told Joseph what Jesus’ name would be in a dream. 

They represent a child’s heritage – who and what matters to the parents.  Favorite relatives.  Best friends.  Characters in books.  (My stepsister Thea, named for a character in a Willa Cather novel.) Joshua: God saves.  Jesus's heritage as a Jew. 

Identity – who claims you, before you know who you are, or even that you are.

Jesus – Son of God, belonged to all. 

We like to imagine that we choose who we are.  We make a lot of important decisions in furtherance of our claim to self-identiy: who we marry, what work we undertake.  But long before we are able to make such decisions, God is at work, naming and claiming us.  In baptism: Our real last name = child of God.  Beloved child of God.

When Jesus is brought to the temple, Anna and Simeon recognize him.  They know he is the long-awaited Messiah.  They know that we can all claim him as our own. 

Something to live into. 

At the end of his life, Jesus lives into his name: He saves us all, by dying and rising again.  

How do you live into your name, the one your family gave you? 

How do you live into the name God gives you: God’s child?  God’s beloved child? 

Jesus’ journey, the one that ends not with death but with life, begins with a name.  The name the angel whispers to his earthly father in a dream.  The name he is called during the ceremony of circumcision.  The name that represents love,  that represents all that is important, that identifies him and that offers him something into which to live.  Love.  God saves.  Because God loves. 

What about your name?  As your journey begins anew this year, do you know that God claimed you as God’s own beloved son or daughter?  Do you know that God has invited you into the great journey toward ultimate love?  

Remember your name – your beginning.  Remember that it marks you as a pilgrim on a journey. 

Your name, God’s beloved, has been yours since you were born.  It’s the name which God whispers in your ear: You are my beloved. It’s the name into which you live, as you go forth to share the love of God.  Amen.

An Altar in the World (Book Review)

When I read books ~ or articles, or blogs, for that matter ~ these days, I am looking, with some urgency, for answers to questions about how to live.  The cumulative effect of the past three and one-half years is that I don't live at all the way I used to.  Well, any one of the things that have happened would have accomplished that result, but all together?

The suicidal death of a child, ordination, and breast cancer.  Seriously?  Am I a woman who longs for a child she will not see again, at least not in this life; or a woman who celebrates the Eucharist; or a woman whose body has been rather significantly deformed as a consequence of cancer?  Oh, wait ~ I'm all three.

No wonder I read with an eye toward how to live.  I'm looking for ways of leaning into that word I chose for the year: Patience.  And its friends:  Sight.  Hearing.  Waiting.  Watching.  Absorbing.

I like Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World because she offers some clues, without insisting that her clues are necessarily yours.  I've heard her preach during the summer "season" at the Chautauqua Institution countless times and so, as I read, I hear the gentle southern lilt of her voice flowing out of the Ampitheatre, over the trees and across the lake, under the blue summer sky and across the brick walk.  She sounds like the friend who might have an idea, a non-obtrusive idea, about those how-to-live questions, as you walk and talk across the Chautauqua grounds early in the morning en route to yoga class, or late at night after the orchestra concert.

If you're not familiar with the book already, it consists of a series of short chapters focusing on a number of spiritual practices.  But these are not spiritual practices as you may have come to know them if you are a Christian churchgoer.  These are not practices like "reading the Bible" or "fasting."  These are practices like "Walking on the Earth" or "Feeling Pain" or "Carrying Water."

I should probably admit that I had a practical reason for re-reading this book over the past couple of weeks: I am planning a Lenten sermon series on spiritual practices and I want to step away from the traditional ones on at least a couple of Sundays.  I haven't been feeling terribly original lately, though, and I thought that BBT might give me a jump start.

But in the end, it all comes back to:  How shall I then live?  A couple of suggestions:

"This is how faith looks sometimes:a blunt refusal to stop speaking into the divine silence" (from "The Practice of Feeling Pain"), and

"My hope is that if I can practice saying thank you now, when I still approve of most of what is happening to me, then perhaps that practice will have become habit by the time I do not like much of anything that is happening to me" (from "The Practice of Being Present to God"),

I think that if you are trying to revive or renew your spiritual life, it might be possible to travel a good long way by glancing at a sentence of two in this book each evening and letting those words become your prayer for the next day.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Time, Time, Time (Breast Cancer Recovery)

I've been a morning person for a long time, for my entire adult life, with the exception of the first many months after Josh died.

One of my frequent quandaries has been how to spend the best few hours of the day, those beginning at about 6:00 a.m.  If I have something major to accomplish, that's been the time for me to do it.  A lot of my writing and planning have taken place in those early hours, when my concentration and efficiency have been at their peak.  I can probably accomplish three or four times as much during the morning hours as I can during their evening counterpart, and so  I've often completed a sermon or a paper by 9:00, and only then gotten up for a shower and breakfast.

The dilemma has been that the early morning hours are also my favorite time to walk.  Gym or outdoors; it doesn't matter.  It would make more sense for me to walk late in the afternoon, to take a break and clear my head, but I've loved the sense of clarity and energy that those first hours bring.

Notice that I've been using the perfect present tense.  I have completed . . . I have loved . . .

There's been a change.

I know it's been only seven weeks, but that surgery has depleted me of my morning energy.  I am exhausted until 8:00, 9:00, 10:00 ~ a shadow of my previous self finally appears sometime late in the morning.  Those days on which I've been required to get up and get going much earlier have been a major challenge, as have my efforts to conceal my weariness from others. And, as a consequence of my late mornings, I am often up very late at night and into the next morning, which furthers the cycle.

I don't think it's entirely a matter of physical energy.  When I wake up these days, I am often discouraged before I am anything else.   Uncomfortable, knowing that the simple tasks of showering and dressing are going to demand a noticeable amount of energy, having to exert some imagination to dress ~ day after day after day.  It's hardly anything at all ~ nothing like having to endure chemo, or the loss of a child ~ but it takes its toll.

I dream of waking before sunrise, tossing on a t-shirt, and going for a long walk.  Still at least three months away.

In the meantime, as I write this, I realize that I need to begin to build a late afternoon walk into my schedule and start working up to my old three miles.  If physical pain or a snowstorm causes me to miss a day or two, so be it.  I know perfectly well that I need to expend some energy in order to develop some more of it.

I think that herein lies some advice I could have stood to hear before my surgery: To know that even as my physical healing continues, my life has been altered in ways that discourage and depress me, and that I need to plan ways of circumventing my inclination to lie down and wallow in self-pity.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Suicide Prevention Activism

I am so not an activist. Other than a few walks for peace and hunger in my high school years, I've been more focused on small arenas of activity: family, friends, church, the kids' schools.  

And yet, here I am: a volunteer advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  It's not a big deal, and I have no illusions of grandeur.  Mostly it means that I introduce myself to our representatives and senators, which I've done via email, and keep in touch with them when issues warrant.  There's a local chapter forming, and perhaps I'll become more involved with education and public speaking as opportunities arise.  We'll see.

As I've already said, I haven't been much interested in suicide prevention activism.  I've seen suicide primarily as a personal and family tragedy and, even if there were more to it, I haven't had the inclination to do more about it than write in my little blogs, and make the occasional presentation on care for grieving parents.

But my breast cancer experience has changed my attitude.  I've experienced firsthand what the publicity and funding efforts of the past few decades have accomplished.   When I was a girl, furtively reading my grandmother's women's magazines, I understood that breast cancer was a matter of such embarrassment, and the usual surgical treatment so extreme, that many women ignored their symptoms until their survival was unlikely.  And if they were treated and survived, they seldom discussed what had been done to their bodies.

How times have changed!  The world as we know it in October is PINK.  No secrecy, no hesitation.  We are far from a cure, but the research has come a long way, and treatment is dramatically different than it was 30 years ago.  

And then there's suicide prevention.  Little money, little publicity.  Little knowledge. Great stigma. 

My great-grandmother Robin Anderson, the woman for whom both I and my son Josh were named ~ Josh's middle name is Anderson ~  suffered from bipolar disorder, and attempted suicide at least once.  (I learned the latter piece of information only recently, although it was no surprise to me.)  Her daughter and only child, the beloved grandmother who played a huge role in my life until her death a few years ago, almost never mentioned her mother, and never described her challenges except to refer on occasion to her frequent hospitalizations at Johns Hopkins, where she was cared for by a college classmate of my grandmother's who had become a psychiatrist.

I am certain that Josh suffered from what was, to us, completely disguised severe clinical depression.  And it killed him.

What if my grandmother had been more open?  What if bipolar disorder had been discussed as freely then as breast cancer is today?  What if mental health  self-examination cards had been available to hang in the shower?  What if colleges and clinics offered routine mental health screenings?

Would we have known what we were seeing?  Would Josh have known what he was experiencing?  Would someone among us all have known to seek help?  Would there have been effective help?

Those left behind after a suicide face a lifetime of "What ifs?"

Maybe we could eliminate some of them.

I don't think that breast cancer activism has much need of me.  And frankly, breast cancer has had little effect on our family, relatively speaking.  But suicide has left a deep and terrible gash across our lives, one that will persist and will affect my grandchildren and then their children. 

Maybe I could do my small part to stop it from doing worse.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year's Sermon: A Time to Seek

I don’t know whether any of you have seen the film The Way?—it’s mostly appeared in small theatres, but it was directed and produced by Martin Sheen’s son, Emilio Estavez and Martin Sheen has the starring role.  He plays a man named Tom – a successful doctor who works hard and plays a lot of golf.  He’s frustrated by his adult son’s lack of direction, and irritated by his son’s decision to take off for Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago.

The Camino de Santiago, which translates to The Road of St. James, is a route of about 500 miles that winds across Spain and ends at the Cathedral of St. James, which marks the place where, according to legend, the bones of St. James the Apostle rests.  In medieval times, the idea of a pilgrimage, a long journey toward a sacred spot, such as the final resting place of a saint, was a popular one, and it’s a concept that’s been resurrected in the last few decades.  A  pilgrim’s journey is not that of a tourist – it’s not about seeing the sights, about observing from a distance – it’s about some kind of personal engagement with the matter at hand.  The son in the movie is on a journey to figure out who he is and what he wants from life – a not uncommon situation for many of the thousands of pilgrims who walk the Camino these days.

Martin Sheen’s character Tom is on the golf course when he receives the telephone call with the voice on the other end telling him that his son has died, killed in a freak storm on his first day on the Camino.  Tom decides to cross the ocean to retrieve his son’s remains and then decides to walk the Camino himself, making the journey in memory of his son and scattering his son’s ashes along the way.  The movie tells the story of that pilgrimage – of the people Tom befriends, and who befriend him; of the deeper understanding of his son that comes to him as he travels; and, in a very subtle way, of his reconnection with his long lost sense of faith.  

It’s an age-old story, this narrative of journey, of pilgrimage.  The ancients of all cultures tell stories of pilgrimage in which someone seeks a sense of self, a knowledge of the world, an encounter with God.  When the wisdom writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that “there is a time to seek,” he is affirming the persistent longing found within human beings, the longing for something beyond ourselves, and the persistent determination of human beings to get up and get going in search of that ineffable something.  

Certainly we see it today – in the books of all kinds that line the “spirituality” shelves in the few big bookstores that are left, in the television talk show interviews with gurus of various kinds; people are out there, or in their living rooms on their computers – seeking.  As we go back through the centuries, we find the pilgrimage paths of old, many of them newly popular.  Not just the Camino de Santiago, but the roads to the great cathedrals in France.   In high school or college, you may have studied The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1200s and based on a then-common pilgrimage made to Canterbury Cathedral in England, where a great saint praying at the altar was murdered by a king.  The Holy Land itself – certainly a desirable destination for Christian travelers for nearly 2,000 years – and the missionary routes of the Apostle Paul.  What are all these people seeking?

Go back a little further and we come to St. Augustine, the great church father and bishop of the 4th and 5th centuries whose writings influence all that we believe.  Augustine is famous for having said, in addressing God, that “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”  We seek, don’t we, an encounter with the Living God?  We are made for that encounter; we are made by God to seek God’s presence.  Today, people often speak of a “God-shaped hole” in the human heart, another way in which many writers have reflected upon Augustine’s words.  

Go back even a little further, and we come to the magi.  “There is a time to seek,” and the magi were seekers.  There are a number of hypotheses about who they were.  Maybe they were Persian priests – which means, in present day geographical terms that they came from Iran.  Maybe they were Babylonian astrologers – which puts their origin in today’s Iraq. There is a Chinese belief that at least one of them was Chinese.  It is becoming something of a tradition today to portray them as coming from different continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. And a scholar has recently suggested that at least one of them may have been a woman – not because he’s trying to be politically correct, but because there are indeed other Scriptural references to feminine travelers and wisdom figures.

Whoever they were, the beloved figures of the three magi have come to personify the concept of seeker for us.   Pilgrims on a journey.   And not just pilgrims who set out because they had some kind of idea that they should take a trip – but pilgrims who were called.  Pilgrims who were responding to God’s initiation of relationship.  Pilgrims made restless by God – just as Augustine tells us, people whose hearts are restless until they rest in God – in their case made restless by a star. And they were not just any old pilgrims – but pilgrims who represent the world far beyond Bethlehem.  We may not know exactly who they were, but the story is clear that they were not Jews, they were not Romans, they were not locals.  God calls every kind of person; God reaches out to people the world over – including magi from afar.   

The journey of the magi, those who knew and responded to their time to seek, is something of a prototype for pilgrimage.  Theirs is not an easy tourist passage – just as the Baby Jesus’s parents found no Holiday Inn in which to stay, the magi found no resorts along the way.  All you have to do is take a look at a map to know that a winter’s journey across the Near East 2,000 years ago with nothing but a small company of people and a few camels would have been no picnic.  But the terrain was not the only challenge.

First, those travelers encountered turbulence – turbulence in the form of King Herod.  Herod was a king of Judea, the land of the Jews, put and kept in place by the Roman Empire.  He did not count as good news the word that a king had been born to the Jews – such a king, were he destined to be a political ruler, would have threatened Herod’s role, his power – his very life.  And so he creates a situation, cross-examining the travelers about the child they seek, lying to them about his own intentions, and trying to make them his allies in his quest to retain his power.  “Come back and tell me where this baby is,” he demands of them.  Suddenly their journey contains a new element of danger. And the reality is that when we set off on a journey, on a pilgrimage, things don’t always go as planned.  And sometimes our hopes, our longings, are threatened.  A pilgrimage is not a Caribbean cruise; it’s not all lolling by the pool and dining on exotic foods.  As Tom discovers in the movie The Way and as we discover in our own lives, the journey can be rough going. 

Secondly, though, that first bit of turbulence at least temporarily behind them, the magi encounter delight.  The Bible tells us that they were “overwhelmed with joy” at the sight of the newborn king.  Think about how surprising their response is!  They are usually depicted as kings themselves – kings with fine robes and dazzling jewels – even having traversed the desert, they are always portrayed as wealthy royalty.  And they were going to visit a newborn ruler – don’t you think that they were expecting something a bit different from a simple manger and simple, peasant parents?  At least a little palace and some ladies-and-knights-in-waiting, don’t you think?  And yet they were filled with – even overwhelmed by – joy and delight.  A pilgrimage should bring us into such moments.  No matter the difficulty of the journey, or the animosity of some of those encountered – a pilgrimage offers insight into the sacred, into an understanding of God’s kingdom, a kingdom far more expansive and loving than any earthly one. 
And finally, the magi return “home by another road.”  Even the end of their journey is unexpected: they are warned to avoid Herod, and so instead of retracing their steps, they find a new route.  Isn’t that the likely outcome of a true pilgrimage?  We are changed by the journey, and can no longer do things exactly as we did them before.  In The Way, Tom, the father, is changed by his 500-mile walk, by his experience of God through his companions, through the lands and villages he wanders, through his encounter with his son and his son’s dreams and questions.  We don’t see the consequences of his pilgrimage, but we can be fairly certain that he does not return to life as it was.  The magi are changed – by their encounter with the hostile Herod, by their experience of God through the infant Jesus, by their own dreams.  And while we don’t  know the specifics of their return, that their story has come down to us at all is a hint of the first big change in thinking and in hope: that Jesus, the long-awaited messiah, was for everyone.  For all people.  For people from far as well as near.  For wealthy as well as for poor.  For those in power and those with none at all.

How are we changed?  

When God beckons, when God invites us on pilgrimage, when God seeks relationship with us –

Do we in turn seek God?

Do we encounter turbulence?  Most likely.

Do we encounter delight? Overwhelming joy in the God who has come to rescue us? Most certainly!

A new road?  A new journey?  An invitation to share?  Surely we find those things as well.

This year, 2012, my hope is to weave the underlying themes of journey and pilgrimage throughout my Sunday sermons.  It’s a powerful metaphor, the idea of a journey.  It underlies the whole history of the people of God.  It’s a way of looking at all kinds of things:  who we are, what we learn from, what we give, what traditions we follow – and who our most important companion is.  So you may hear these words – journey, pilgrimage, traveler – from time to time, or even somewhat frequently.  If our hearts are restless until they rest in God, if God has created a space in us which only God can fill – then we are on a journey.  It doesn’t require a 2000-year-old 500 mile road in Spain; it simply requires a heart which God can enter.  It doesn’t require a star, or a literal journey at all.  What it requires is what we have already been given: a God who has created a time to seek.


Image: Martin Sheen in The Way.