Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Musings on Ministry

This morning The Questing Parson writes about an encounter with a young almost-pastor and his counsel to her with respect to her first assignment, for which she has grand hopes of growth in numbers.  “Slow the decline and then work on increasing the membership.”

Last Sunday, as occasionally happens, a visitor new to our church made a complimentary remark as to the accuracy of what she had heard about me.  As I thanked her, I looked around wondering, "So where is everyone?"  Word of mouth has not translated into numbers.  Not, I realize, that the numbers are about me.  And I'm trying to focus on depth rather than breadth, something which has been noticed (without prodding from me) by our leadership ~ but, naturally, I am aware of the quantitative element.

Meanwhile, my friend Michelle, who is chemistry professor and contemplative, and a published writer on both, is developing a writer's website.  I've just posted a comment on her FB page, stating that "I love the juxtaposition of the worn and battered composition books with the technology of the site -- reflective of your unique personal blend of contemplative and chemist. It evokes both Marie Curie and Thomas Merton gone contemporary in venue. (And you may recall that my 11th grade writing teacher instructed us that we were forbidden to use the word "unique" unless it applied, which situation was highly unlikely to occur. Here, finally, it does.)"

And now I ponder the connection, a matter which I've begun to process only recently.

Back in my Methodist (Questing Parson's milieu) days, I was a young attorney, struggling to make sense of the demands of my profession  in the context of a new and wobbly Christian faith.   In retrospect, it's clear that I had embarked, determinedly but without guidance, on a path toward a contemplative orientation.  Even when I asked as directly as I could (and I hasten to clarify that I did not know how to articulate the questions I had  or what it was that I was seeking), no assistance was forthcoming from pastors or congregational leaders.

I find myself wondering more and more frequently whether, if someone had been able to point the way, I would still be both a Methodist and a practicing attorney.  If I had been able to integrate both dimensions of my life, would I now be sharing my legal expertise as a leader in the United Methodist Church,  as does a Presbyterian friend with great generosity and care, and offering retreats and spiritual direction to my professional colleagues, as does a Catholic lawyer I know?

And what, exactly, is the connection between depth versus breadth and offering a doorway into the contemplative life in the context of the everyday?  I know; it seems obvious.  But in practice, a good deal more difficult than it looks.

I have been ordained exactly seven months today.  I suppose I am not required to have it all figured out yet.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Book

Some of you know that I've been trying to put the writing I did in the first couple of years after Josh's death into book format.

One of the stumbling blocks has been the difficulty of maintaining a sense of balance in life while delving into that material.  A solution finally occurred to me, one which only summer weather and daylight savings time could provide.  For the past week or so, I've made The Book the first hour's project on most days; then at 7:30 or so I head out for my walk and prayer time.  Thus I'm able to  complete the transition from the darkness of those first years into the realities of everyday life as I experience it today, and to get on with my life without becoming mired in the past.

This morning, a quiet and stiflingly hot Memorial Day, I switched my plans around a bit, knowing that I needed to get some outdoor garden work in as early as possible.  I ended up making a lot of progress with the writing and revising once I had returned to the Great Indoors, and even finished the current draft of the book proposal and sent it off to a couple of friends.

I'm not sure what to make of this Book Project.  My life would be a good deal simpler if I were to shelve it for good.  And it's certainly no la-de-da contribution to the memoir genre. 

But I recall how I nearly inhaled everything that came my way on suicide loss in the first months, how desperate I was for someone to put my anguish into words.  And I remember how much I longed to read that someone else was persisting in prayer despite the evident disappearance of God.  

My situation verged on the extreme, as it was in a seminary dorm that I would awaken in the morning to the certainty that God had vanished, but I am fairly certain these days that other bereaved parents sense the same breaking news, regardless of where they are waking up or what their days hold.

Perhaps The Book has some value.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

No Metastasis

"No evidence of metastatic disease."

Those are the words I was looking for.

I've  had a bit of a scare going over the past couple of weeks.  

My basic complaint to my internist was, "I've completely fallen apart."  Among the details:  intense lower back pain accompanied by a host of other symptoms which have made both movement and sleep difficult.

She decided to order an MRI designed to detect the spinal problems that might be the source of my problems, but in doing so she also raised the alarming specter of breast cancer metastasis to the bone.

Not possible, I thought.  My cancer was by definition physically confined and there was never even the most minute evidence of its having spread.  But I did some reading and realized that an infinitesimal possibility for disaster did exist.

I thought about it very little, but the pressure was lodged somewhere in the folds of my brain: the recognition that life as I know it could end yet again, that major treatment decisions might be required, and that my prospects might be dim indeed.

I think the report was lost; the results were dictated the day after the MRI, but no summary appeared online until three days after I called a week later. (I have yet to speak to my doctor.) I was beginning to imagine that my cause of death might be Misplaced Medical Records.

At any rate, buried in a host of technical diagnostic terms that I eventually had to look up, the phrase I sought materialized.   I do have some spinal stuff going on that must be addressed if I intend to make a Camino or Mountains-to-Sea walk one day, but that's a minor complaint in light of what night have been.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Real Grown-Up Furniture!

When the kid were very small, we used the second floor library as a family room, because the sunroom downstairs was freezing cold most of the year.  Over time, however, the library became the catch-all space: piles and piles of books and papers, and no where to sit.

Transformation!  We still need to purge the bookshelves, and that "Large Box" is sort of like a kitchen junk drawer at the moment.  But the new chairs and ottomans are wonderful!

Firguring It Out: Ministry and Down Time

Like many pastors, I am more introvert than extrovert.  That doesn't mean that I don't enjoy interacting with other people, but it does mean that I find it draining, particularly when groups of more than two are involved. And yes, a lot of my life involves interaction with groups much larger than two!  

Self-restoration requires a lot of solitude and a lot of silence.

My sense of balance is way outta whack these days.  Earlier in the week, a group of first-call pastors discussed the demands on our time.  The new parents echoed a refrain I remember clearly from younger days: "When I'm at work, I feel as if I should be spending time with the family, and when I'm at home, I think I should be at work."

For me, it's a little different. Many of my friends have reached a point in their lives in which they have new freedoms, and none of them are tied to a Sunday work schedule.  They find it relaxing and energizing to spend leisure time together; for me, the sense of inner tension ratchets way up when I see time for myself slipping away.  

I think it may take awhile to get this right.  I do see that I need to be much more intentional about scheduling one-on-one time with friends.  And I see that after a week like this past one, which consisted of a busy and people-filled graduation day, a complete crash, and then three days of nonstop interaction with pastors and congregants, I need to turn down every invitation that comes my way.

In the context of Ignatian spirituality, one of the things we often talk about is looking backward, once we're in trouble, to try to discern where it all started ~ the idea being to develop the ability to anticipate where stumbling blocks lie ahead in the road.  I think that I need to do some of that work.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Suicide Prevention Education ~ AMDG

Read about it here.

Inspirations Friday Five

Today's RevGals' Friday Five invites us to relate (and I am taking these questions with respect to this past week alone) the following:

1. What has encouraged you?

I am working with the members our church council/session (we are both Methodist and Presbyterian) to grow in understanding of themselves as the spiritual leaders of the congregation ~  a brand-new concept for them.  I was encouraged this week by their willingness to make a stab at discussing the questions posed to them this month; it's unfamiliar  territory for them, but they take it seriously and with an appropriate dose of humor.

2. What has inspired you?

The young man chosen by his classmates to speak at my daughter's graduation from her master's program in social work.  He's from East Cleveland, which lies down the hill from our little city and which I believe was recently ranked as the second-most impoverished city in the United States.  His speech was a buoyant proclamation of "what one of us has accomplished, all of us ~ friends, parents, spouses ~ have accomplished," but the most moving note for me was his ringing claim that, "By graduating from the Mandel School, I am moving East Cleveland from the margin to the center!"

3. What has challenged you?

The same young man.  The Lovely Daughter wondered at his speaking ability.  "I'm guessing he's Baptist," I said, "and he's absorbed hours of fine preaching."

4. What has made you smile?

A brief email from Gregarious Son, telling me that he was enjoying his day of sightseeing in London.

5. What has brought a lump to your throat or a tear to you eye in a good way?

I did a little bit of advocacy work over the past few days, encouraging Ohio friends to contact their representatives in support of state legislation to mandate suicide prevention education for teachers and counselors.  Every time I received an email or FB message stating, "Done," I felt tears welling up.  And the same when my brother, who is active in politics in southern Ohio, said that he had texted all the House Republicans.  (Yesterday afternoon, he sent me a message to say that the bill had passed the House unanimously, adding gleefully that there are some things we can all agree upon!)

That was my week.  How about yours?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Prayer: Looking Back

My friend Michelle has begun a marvelous post here (it continues on another blog), entitled "An Examination of Conscience for the Weary."  I highly recommend it to all of us.

The questions she poses are not only valuable for today, for life as we live it now.  I found them to be immensely encouraging as they led to me the realization that, while I can hardly answer them in the affirmative or negative as appropriate, I have experienced genuine growth in my spiritual life over the past couple of decades.  Many of the matters the reflection calls us to consider were not even on my radar screen in my mid-thirties.  It takes some of us a lot of living before we understand the value of a slower pace, of attentiveness, of calm, of a persistent orientation toward gratitude.

It might be a worthwhile endeavor to address these questions to one of your younger selves, and to the older future self you would like to become.

Monday, May 21, 2012

On To New Adventures!

There she goes, Ms. Master of Science in Social Administration. The Lovely Daughter started her first all-grown-up job last week, at the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership.  She'll be working on housing issues in a city that has seen hard times as industry has vanished.  As we looked for an apartment and moved her in last week, we saw a lot of the city ~ a typical courthouse-centered town square and outlying edges that in some areas are well-maintained and heavily populated and in others are filled with run-down and vacant houses.

I'm making some changes of my own.  The blogs are about to undergo some major housekeeping, this one mostly via the coming and going of links.  I still read all kinds of blogs (if you could see my google reader!), but as blogging has changed, so have I.  I'm abandoning the effort to comment on blogs whose writers seldom or never reciprocate, whether by blog, FB, and/or email.  I am often guilty of the same, so I'm going to refocus on actual blogging relationships that go both ways.

I've left Well of Hope pretty much alone, but I think it's going to become a topical blog, focused on suicide survivorship.  A lot of people have little interest in that topic, understandably enough, but those who do are often famished ~ desperate for companionship, knowledge, or simply someone who is willing and able to articulate their deepest thoughts.  So I'm going to play hostess to a small  space for us.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, May 20, 2012


This is the first time I've cried at a graduation ceremony, ever.  
I think she's amazing.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Almost There

I posted this picture three years ago, as The Lovely Daughter was about to graduate from college.  Tomorrow, it will be grad school. 

In the photo, she is almost seven, sitting on the porch steps of our Chautauqua rooming house with a friend she has made there and gotten to spend time with each summer. They run around playing, eat ice cream, and splash in the lake. It seems that she lives a charmed life.

As it turns out, she doesn't.  Not in the way that I had hoped for her, anyway.  But she has shown a remarkable capacity to move forward through sorrow, to be present to her family and friends and extend love to us, to embrace others without judgment ~ and to love cats. 

I take nothing for granted.  Among my friends are two whose daughters are struggling mightily with inner demons and two who have died, one after an extended illness and one in a terrible accident.  All of them beautiful and beloved girls.  

This is a tough time of year.  As parents post graduation pictures online, friends offer congratulations and laud brilliant mothering and accomplished children.  

If only the cause-and-effect factors were so straightforward.

I am unspeakably proud of my own beautiful girl. But I know the fragility of these successes, and that nothing is guaranteed us.

I am savoring this moment.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Mrs. Kennedy's Death

The headline at which I am staring says that "RFK Jr.'s 2nd wife, Mary, hanged herself."

A little bit further down, a friend of hers is quoted as saying, "I saw her a couple of weeks ago, and she was fine."

Well, no.  She wasn't.  

Could we kindly allow it to be acceptable to be not fine?

When I am not fine, I tell very few people.  I am supposed to be over it, supposed to be strong, supposed to be moving on.  

There are a couple of older women in  my congregation who suffer a great deal from back pain.  When I ask either of them how she is, she says "Fine."  I raise my eyebrows and ask, "How much are you lying?"  "I don't want to be a whiner," is a frequent response.

A couple of weeks ago, someone I know told people that her relative who is dying of cancer "is doing great."

When my son was not fine, he told no one and he died.

When Mary Kennedy was not fine, she died as well.

It is all right to be not fine.

Here's the spiritual take: When Jesus Christ was not fine, he did not say, "I'm doing great."  He said, "Why have you forsaken me?"

Am I wrong to think that if we were better able to listen for feelings of forsakenness,  we might save lives?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Miscellaneous Ministry and Life

"I'm torn between saving the world and savoring it, and that makes it hard to play in the day."

~ E.B. White, quoted by a friend on FB.

"Maybe [my younger self looking at me now would] notice the increased affection grounded in realism with which I speak of people, and the way I don't seem as often to speak dreamily of big life-changing programs."

"We entreat you: make us fully alive."   

~ Eucharistic prayer of Sarapion of Thmuis, quoted in John Chryssavgis's In the Heart of the Desert.

 One of St. Ignatius's favorite instructions with respect to prayer is to "savor" the experience, the engagement with God.


I believe that we in seminary should have given at least an afternoon seminar's worth of attention to each of these quotes.

I believe that they reflect what ministry is, at its core.

Yesterday, I put together some materials for a meeting with someone who didn't show up.  I did a little research on a problem our church council needs to resolve next week.  On a usual Wednesday, I would put the final touches on Sunday's liturgy, but I didn't get to that task.  I drove a long way.  I had an MRI.  And I spent an hour with a young friend who's been hospitalized as a consequence of her struggle with bipolar disorder.

How to savor all of those moments of life?

Perhaps our calling in ministry is to learn to do so, and to teach others to do so as well. 

I wonder whether I might still be practicing law if, as a young woman, I had learned in church to savor the moments of my life as places in which God was laboring, experiences in which God was delighting, events in which God was advancing hope.

And while it's most assuredly pushing the envelope, I wonder whether it might be not merely psychologically helpful but a matter of spiritual growth to savor life's most horrific moments (and as you know, I've had my share), the ones that become fodder for post traumatic stress syndrome ~ not, God forbid, in the sense of enjoyment, but in the sense of seeing God present and active in the most impossibly opaque of situations.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Blogging for Mental Health

I've just discovered over at Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer that today is Blogging for Mental Health Day.  I've already unwittingly joined that circle via today's previous post, but here's a more intentional effort:

My great-grandmother, for whom I am named, suffered from bipolar disorder.   She was treated at Johns Hopkins in the 1930s by a college classmate of my grandmother's who had become a psychiatrist.  Little was ever said about her challenges in life.  My father recalls train trips from Cincinnati to Baltimore with his mother to visit her mother.  He reported that his own mother had once said that she had made up her mind never to be like her mother, and that she was proud of having achieved that goal ~ as if it were a matter of self-control rather than genetic luck.  Her mother broke her arm by slamming it down on the kitchen counter one day, and attempted suicide at least once.

On a more positive note, because life is always a prism of complexities, that same sadly disturbed woman ensured that her own daughter completed college at a time when few people graduated from high school, because her own parents had refused her a much desired college education.  She was married to a highly successful executive, and so wanted for nothing material.  

She died when I was a little girl, shortly before my own mother's death.  I have some photos of her, and some of her jewelry . . . 

And apparently I am also in possession of a terrifyingly damaging fragment of her genetic material, which decided to express itself full force in my own beautiful son and to kill him without warning.

Yesterday I read the testimony that another woman in my state is presenting to our legislature in support of a bill designed to promote more suicide prevention education for public school teachers.  She talks about how her in-laws, after her husband and the father of her three children died, wanted her to be silent, not to mention or discuss suicide, and how she chose instead to educate herself and to speak out ~ a stance which has perhaps saved one of her children.

Silence?  NO.

Could we have saved Josh if we had known what was staring us in the face?  We'll never know; we lost what opportunity there was.  Would we have known what to look for, had we better understood my great-grandmother's illness ~ and possibly also the illness of a cousin of hers, who seems to have slipped silently from the world in the 1800s, apparently another victim of unmentioned mental illness and suicide?

Another young person with whom I have a lovely friendship is struggling in the clutches of bipolar disorder as I write this.  The past few weeks have been a bewildering nightmare for her and all who love her.  I am so grateful, on her behalf, that we live in a world in which, where mental illness is recognized, we can be open and try together to provide support and help for each other ~ if we are willing to be present to the darker realities of life.

During my first year back in seminary after Josh died, I sat through a couple of appallingly ignorant statements  by people who should have known a lot better and who should probably be choosing a new profession.  When it happened again after some time had passed and I felt my strength returning, I spoke out vehemently in class one day.  I stated that misconceptions about mental illness will get us nowhere, and that we need to recognize it for what it is and treat it , rather than blaming families or societal problems for the fact that people get sick.  The professor in question apologized immediately, with genuine remorse for "having gotten a little carried away."  Afterward, three of my classmates thanked me, saying that they, too, have relatives who struggle with mental illness and for whose lives they fear.

I looked at my three friends a bit quizzically and said,

"You need to speak up!"

A Little More Breast Cancer Commentary

Plastic surgery commentary, really.

Final post-op appointment yesterday.  Having rescheduled it twice, I thought I might as well get it over with.  

Half an hour's wait for a ten minute appointment.  The doctor offered the usual suggestions for future "work," and then asked me what I thought of the results.

"Really ugly," I said.  Calmly.

He then launched into his usual explanation as to this being "not a real breast."  

Uh, duh.

That was about it.

Surgery is a bizarre endeavor.  As far as I can tell.  This doctor seems to be a very nice man with a great deal of expertise and a good sense of humor.  But limited in what he can or wants to know and address about anything beyond the technical and physical aspects of his work. 

The fact that I am now completely alienated from the portion of my body on which he has expended his time and skill is not of any interest to him. 

It's really not of that much interest to me, so I suppose I should expect no more of him.  But it makes me a little sad, you know, that that particular area of my body can now best be described as grotesque. 

Several women have pulled up their shirts to show me their results.  I don't think I'll be one of those.

Well, I'll see how I feel at the end of a hot and sweaty summer.  Maybe I'll do something about the situation next winter and maybe I won't.

I guess that first we'll see how the next mammogram goes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

People and God

Something that I'm finding intriguing these days:

A lot of people connected to churches, institutions to which they are by no means required to attach themselves (we as a culture being no longer consumed by medieval fears of hell or 1950s expectations of suburban belonging), have, as far as I can tell, little interest in a deep encounter with God. 

That's not a criticism; it's an observation, and one that increasingly fascinates me.  I am talking about deeply good people: kind, generous, invested in caring for others. People who are much nicer than I am.   I'm talking about people who seldom miss a Sunday morning in church and are engaged in all kinds of church work and activity.  People who work much harder than I do.  I'm also talking about people who seldom approach a church but, upon being asked, would assure you that they are Christian believers.  Most of them are truly excellent human beings.

I remember myself very clearly as a sixteen-year-old girl standing out in the snow under a star-filled expanse of western Massachusetts sky and asking of the God in whom I did not believe, "Who are you and what are you doing?"

I assumed (and yeah, we all know how to parse that word) that my questions were typical ones.  I'm still asking them.

But I see that a lot of people aren't.

I think a lot of people find God bland, or boring, or easy to take for granted, or just kind of there.  Even people negotiating major life transitions, for good or for ill, don't seem to expect much in the way of involvement from God.

Isn't that interesting?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother's Day 2012

Mother's Day Memories

Matt and Marissa,  Key West, 2008

My momma and my youngest brother, Vero Beach, 1960

Josh and his momma, JFK, 2001

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Other Side of Mother's Day

I wasn't going to write this, but I just read a friend's post that is propelling me forward.

Last night I went to a Survivors of Suicide meeting.  I haven't been to one in ages, probably not in two years.  But I'd been feeling a bit overwhelmed since receiving the news that an article I've written about spiritual direction and accompaniment through the experience of grief will be published (eventually) in a journal for spiritual directors. 

I was incredibly excited about the news, and then began to realize that the article, along with the presentation I made last fall to nursing students about caring for families in which a child has suddenly died, and my signing up as a Field Advocate with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, marks my entry into a new phase of a Life. I. Did. Not. Want.

Suddenly, or perhaps not so suddenly, I find myself moving into the role of one who speaks out, who communicates the the heartbreak, the anger, and the complete devastation of the experience that looks like Yellowstone Park did the year we visited, after the fires.

I wasn't going to say a word about Mother's Day.  Well, I already did, in a misplaced comment on a beautiful piece that someone else wrote on the topic.  But having done that, my plan was to remain silent.  My own Mother's Day will include some moments of genuine joy, as my family is accompanying me to church and The Lovely Daughter is singing, and some overall struggle, as I pastor one of those give-the-ladies-carnations churches.   I would prefer to ignore the day in church completely, and share a quiet evening with my family; I am wishing that I had thought to take the week-end off even after the vacation week that would have taken us away fell through.

Last night, I was reminded of all the reasons for my mixed feelings.  In our little group, two of us will be missing children, one will be without a sister who was also the mother of two young girls, and one without the husband who was also the father of their three very young children.  "It's Mother's Day and it sucks," said one woman through her tears.

Too harsh?  Too much of a downer?  

Here's why I'm writing:  If you are suffering from depression, do not leave this sort of a week as your legacy to your family.  Just.  Don't. 

To leave people via suicide is to cause almost indescribable harm to those you love most.  If you could have heard the conversation of that group of bewildered and damaged survivors last night, you would know that you must do everything you can to recover your health and your one wild and precious life, as Mary Oliver calls it.

We would do it for you if we could ~ we would do anything to save you ~ but we can't.  The terrible irony is that, in such a dark place, you have to mother yourself a bit.  You have to seek the care you need and deserve as someone's beloved child.  If you can't imagine it any other way, imagine yourself as a beloved and beautiful child of the universe, because you are most surely that person.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ministry: The Unexpected (Part III)

Fragmentation or wholeness?  That night be an appropriate title for this final post in this little series.  The dichotomy has enveloped me since I began signing my name to documents in the Presbyterian inquirer, candidate, and call processes: the long and winding road we travel toward ordained ministry.

At the outset, I was an active leader in my local Presbyterian congregation, I was a teacher in an Orthodox Jewish school, and I was studying humanities and in spiritual direction in a Jesuit university.  From an outsider's point of view, my life might have looked somewhat disjointed, but to me it felt like a seamless whole in which many shapes and colors of fabric were melded together.

It was during my first year of seminary that I began to sense pieces breaking off into jagged and confusing parts.  In the first weeks, I encountered a stream of exuberant young people eager to proclaim God's clear activity in their lives: scholarships, jobs, housing, all aspects of life had fallen into place for them, enabling them to conclude that God had clearly called them into ministry.  It was some time before I began to find the rest of the crowd who had acquired third mortgages instead of scholarships, abandoned well-paying and secure jobs, lived or commuted far from family, and had added seminary tuition and expenses to those for college student children.  The group who had sensed God's invitation in a context of confusion rather than clarity.  I felt isolated in a very Protestant environment; I had to alter my personal meal preferences and show up for lunch so that I could engage with other people. But by the end of that first year, a new whole was assembling itself: friends, coursework I loved, a neighborhood in which I enjoyed long walks, a leadership position in a student organization, and grand plans for the fall.

With my son's death, fragmentation with a capital F became the headline for  of my life.  Every day a struggle, literally, for survival.  Papers and exams written in a fog of grief.  Class discussions engaged and promptly forgotten.  Names, words, places, ideas, lost in a formless void.  As the final two years of seminary passed in a haze, I gradually developed the capacity to look and speak and behave in public in a manner that in no way reflected my interior landscape. I must have succeeded; I went to our graduation because one of the young women assured me that it would be "fun."  Without my Josh, it was a nightmare, but no one beyond my family and best friends knew anything about that.

In retrospect, it's a blessing, although it was a frustrating and disappointing one, that a failed exegesis exam (Elijah bringing the widow's son back to life?  Seriously?  "No way could you have passed that," said one of my professors, kindly, when the results came in) and the capriciousness vagaries of the Presbyterian call process would mean that nearly a year and one-half would pass before I was called to a church and ordained. It was an active year from a ministry standpoint, but there was plenty of space and time for the inner integration of heart and mind that were taking place ever so slowly.

And now?  There is a lot of new fragmentation in my life that, curiously, seems to serve as the foundation for a surprising sort of wholeness.  I serve a small, rural church far from my home ~ an hour and one-half, to be exact ~ which in practical terms means I make long drives several times a week and spend a few evenings in the manse next-door to the church itself.  I sometimes feel as if I live two completely different lives:  one in a fast-paced, diverse, somewhat intense city, and the other in a slow-moving community of like-minded people who prefer open fields to streetlights.   The transitions are occasionally a bit bumpy, but yet: I have ample time for prayer, for daydreaming, for planning, for silence.  The ministry I do here seems to be much appreciated.  Just when I think I have accomplished yet another feat  that no one wants or likes, a voice (a literal voice of a real person) will say, "That was beautiful."

I thought I would be working on social justice issues.  I thought I would be designing elaborate educational programs. I thought I would live close to my congregation, and be a daily participant in the events of their lives.  I thought . . .   Well, I don't really remember all that I thought. 

Last evening as I headed out of town to a nursing facility to visit some folks whom I've come to know a bit through their extended health problems, I waved to a small group of kids who had spent the afternoon at our weekly after-school program.  And here's what I think now: if I stay here another eight years, I will get to see all those fourth grade boys through middle school and high school, I'll get to help them with the challenges of adolescence, and I'll get to send them off to college.

If my life has persuaded me of anything at all, it would be: Don't make plans, and don't let your dreams harden into expectations.  So, I don't.  But it would be kind of wonderful, wouldn't it, to pastor a community for a decade, to participate in the growth of its young people to adulthood and to accompany its elders through their final earthly transitions?  To complete a few circles of wholeness?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Retreat from the Other Side

Here I am leading a retreat for a group of Catholic retirees who volunteer their time in the community within an Ignatian context of monthly gatherings and spiritual reflection.  They're all off at the moment, praying with either Tanner's Annunciation painting or Mary Oliver's Summer Day poem.  What a wonderful group of people with whom to spend 24 hours!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Ministry: The Unexpected (Part II)

"I don't understand this at all," I said to one of my own pastors as I began to plan my future.  "I grew up in a place like this, but I haven't been back for more than a few days at a time in forty years.  I've lived in cities since I was a junior in college."

"Inclusio!" she chirped.


I love my little church, but my presence there remains a compete surprise to me.  It's located in a town so small that a figure-8 walk of a mile covers almost all of its geography.  My first funeral, a couple of weeks ago, was a graveside service in the town cemetery, and the cows belonging to the deceased's family stood guard in the adjacent field.   Many of my congregants farm; the pace of life is slow and people are genuinely and consistently attentive to the needs of their friends and neighbors.  Most of them are in their sixties and older, and two younger women were widowed in the past few years, which is to say that as a congregation they have a deep acquaintance with the vicissitudes of life.  When I came to them with breast cancer surgery looming, they willingly accepted all my plans to manage my almost immediate absence, and opened the church for a day of prayer while I was in the hospital.

"Did you think about not coming?" one of the women asked me some weeks ago.

"Of course I did," I responded.  "I wondered if I were being completely irresponsible in accepting this call."

"We're so glad you did," she breathed in relief.

I do believe I know other churches in which the response would have been quite the opposite.


My folks love their God, and their church community, and  they long for the days when the pristine little building was packed every Sunday morning and children's voices filled the air ~ but they are by no means wedded to the past.  Taize' music, Lenten compline and healing services, an Easter vigil complete with an outdoor fire ~ we've  added those to our lives of worship without pain or trauma.  It's been an intriguing challenge for me to introduce a few new things.  I've come from a world in which people are excited and enthusiastic about experimenting with worship and music, but I've entered a world in which many fear the introduction of the "new" as criticism of who they are and what they cherish.  I think that as we've worked together these past months, they've learned that I can be trusted to honor who they are and that I try to tread gently where change might be warranted.  Increasingly, the response to my suggestions is one of good-natured willingness to "give it a try."  In fact, the Lenten play was entirely their idea, and it was the pastor who had a great deal learn!  I am most definitely not ready for Broadway, as either playwright or director.

(Of course, my optimism about change might be premature.  We're making a couple of alterations in worship this Sunday that might doom my ministry entirely.)  (The key word there is "we." The worship committee raised concerns first and is in full support of the effort.  A lesson in patience.  And another from Montessori days:  The less you impose, the more likely it is that transformative growth will emerge.)


Pastoral care is of big time importance here. And it's not a matter of the congregation wanting the pastor to do it all; often as not, when I show up at the hospital or nursing home, someone else is already there.  It's a matter of their wanting the pastor to make their most personal needs a priority.  And it's harder than I thought because  . . . I forget things.  Sometimes I forget big things.  I've accepted that some of my grief-related cognitive deficits are permanent, but that's not something I can parade as an excuse.  I'm working constantly on tools to compensate for the reality that, sad as it is, you can tell me a story that grabs my attention and stirs my compassion and the next day ~ gone.  I'm beginning to think that the mind and heart can absorb only so much sadness, and I have been on overload for far too long.


The most fun thing?  Maybe it's how much I am growing in  my ability to lead worship and to preach. I am so much more relaxed in leadership as I've come to know the congregation and found worship to be an event of relationship more than it is anything else.   My sermons and delivery have changed as I've come to know the lives and needs and communication style of my congregation.  That movement became dramatically apparent to me this week as I prepared to make use of  a sustainable sermon, one preached three years ago in seminary.  I have a long way to go before I find the meeting place in which my own approach to exploring Scripture and the context in which I'm offering those explorations merge into something beautiful, but the challenge is a satisfying one.   I'm finding that people often compliment sermons or portions thereof with which I am the least satisfied, which is just a little unnerving ~ but gives me plenty upon which to reflect.


The most troubling issue for me: How to address the matter of gay ordination. There are certainly other theological matters of import, but that one does seem to be the litmus test.  I knew when I arrived that I was not coming into a call in which the majority of people share my views, but I have yet to figure out how to deal with that in a pastoral way.  (And I'm nowhere close to a prophetic way!) Years ago, spiritual director emeritus said, "I want to tread carefully and not say anything that makes it difficult for people to pray."  A good standard, I think.  Except:  Which people?  I was deeply saddened when it dawned on me that I have dear friends whose presence as guests in my pulpit would create divisions in my congregation.  On the other hand, I was stunned when someone of whom I never would have expected it expressed anger and frustration that parallels mine.  And on the third hand, I've been pleasantly surprised to discover that people who are clear about their disagreement with me on that and other theological issues are also able to respect my leadership and offer themselves as partners and loving friends in ministry.  

It seems that I have been invited to learn how to be in community with folks who are on every page in the book.


I have a third post in the mix, but an extremely busy few days ahead.  I guess I'll get to it when I get to it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ministry: The Unexpected (Part I)

I imagined, in a vague sort of way, that when I finished my work in seminary, I would be called to a church much like the ones in which I had worshiped as an adult or the one in which I had completed my field education.  A fairly large church in the city or in an inner-ring suburb, a church with a tradition of outstanding preaching and spectacular music, a full complement of programs for education and mission, a congregation from varied backgrounds, and perhaps something of a need for more depth in spiritual knowledge and practice.  A place in which I could put some of the more unusual (for a Presbyterian pastor) facets of my background to use, and in which I could sit back and enjoy Bach and Mozart every week.

I imagined that I would be called to some sort of associate position.  I hoped that it would be in education, spiritual formation, and/or pastoral care, but I knew that in my home city, where churches  are not large according to any national standard and, therefore, have few ordained pastors on staff, any available associate position was most likely to be for a generalist.  I expected that I would be  accountable to a senior pastor, and would probably have little input into vision or liturgy or programming or mission. But I would not have to think about paving the parking lot or any other matter for which I have no intuitive bent whatever.

I imagined that my schedule and my life would no longer be my own.  I hoped that I would be able to maintain a miniscule practice of spiritual direction and perhaps on occasion accept a speaking engagement or retreat leadership position outside the church, but I knew that I would be at the bottom of the totem pole, with little say in my assignments in the congregation and little flexibility for work in other environs of the larger church.  (I got into trouble during my field ed year when my father-in-law died late on a Saturday afternoon and I called in to say that I would not be making the six-hour round trip into town and back out for the Sunday service, knowing that the church's two pastors would be there and that my basic task was to read one passage of Scripture. You can analyze that situation in a number of ways; my point here is that I imagined that in my first call I would be facing a similar set of expectations over which I would have no control.) 

And, oh: I imagined that my unknown future congregation would be largely progressive or at least neutral in theology and politics.  Because, let's be serious here: who else would call me?

So, here's what I envisioned:  Staff associate at everyone's beck and call, doing programs that others dreamed up, getting an occasional chance to preach or develop an educational or spiritual opportunity that would draw upon some of my own particular passions and fields of expertise,  and being assigned areas of subject matter jurisdiction that no one else wanted.  The trade-off would be the music program, with respect to which I would have no say, but which I would enjoy tremendously.

I imagined that I would be happy and content to serve God and others, that I would learn to keep my mouth shut, and that I would remain, as I did through seminary and the call process, largely unnoticed.  I would do my work and someday I would move into teaching and writing and supply preaching, and that would be that.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Book Clubs

Two of them.

The more recently inaugurated is virtual.  We meet on google hangout, a group of women whose expressions of faith vary but whose commitments are solid.  We pray together and we talk for an hour, intently and with few detours, about different topics each month.  We don't have to concern ourselves with food or clean houses, and we all love what we are reading.  It's not a conflicted experience for me.

The other was initiated by a few of my close friends in the months after the deaths of Musical Friend's husband and of  my son.  Neither she nor I went for a long time, not until after we were told that the book club had been started "for us."  We were both baffled; she doesn't read for pleasure, and I was finding group activity of any kind to be painfully bewildering.  We weren't, either one of us, exactly book club material.

Actually, the part about not going is not entirely true.  I did go to the latter book club a few months after Josh died.  The book under discussion was a local author's story of her home's renovation, a subject dear to the hearts of those of us who live in  big old homes built more than ninety years ago.  I mentioned that I wanted to burn my home to the ground; it was so filled with memories of our children that I could hardly stand to be there.  Now THAT statement brought discussion to a halt.  Oh, I thought to myself.  They thought we were talking about new kitchens and I thought we were talking about dead children.  I realized that I had no business going out in public.

Well, that evening took place three and one-half years ago, and this week I am finally hosting the book club for the first time.  It's not so much a book club as a social occasion; it seems to me that there's a lot of competition for the best spread of food and wine.  My friends are excellent cooks and bakers.  I am neither, so Thursday will be an expensive day for me, as I seek to purchase what other women know how to prepare.

The irony is that we're reading (my choice this month) Sara Miles's Take This Bread.  Although I don't cook anything much beyond grilled cheese, her subject ~ the transformation wrought in individuals and communities nourished by the Eucharist ~ is dear to my heart.

The last time in my memory that we had a genuine book discussion  was some considerable time ago, when Musical Friend was the hostess and the book was Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, about the first year of her life after the death of her husband.  Musical Friend wanted desperately to share her experience of having been catapulted into sudden widowhood at a young age with her friends.  Some of the women were unhappy with her choice and its failure to provide an upbeat ending, but we engaged in a probing discussion for two hours.

I wonder whether I dare aim for the the same thing when the topic addresses the brokenness and possibilities for openness of the church?