Thursday, August 30, 2012

Oh, Never Mind

I think I'll just post a happy picture instead.


It's the only word that fits: surreal.

I tell myself that it's only a calendar, a human invention.  One date is no different from another.  But the seasons change, and I can feel it.  I feel autumn approaching; the leaves are brushed with the faintest tint of color and the humidity has receded.  Even if I didn't know the day and the week, I would know.  

On the outside, who could tell?  I'm about off to spend the night with my daughter, who is a great joy to me.  My son is at his first interview for a potential real job after law school, which is a wonderful thing.  But I feel as if I am stepping into the thin air of that void where perhaps God is not. 

My friend Lisa wrote, maybe a couple of years ago, remembering her own most devastating loss, "Every day, you think that you can't go on without them for another minute, and then one day you realize that years have gone by."

Four counts as years.  She was right.

Probably around the same time, spiritual director emeritus wrote to say that "one of your challenges is that you are no longer part of his day-to-day life."  

He was right, too.  Odd, isn't it? ~ when he is so much a part of mine.

Or maybe he was wrong.  Maybe in my prayer, I remain a part of his life.  Maybe.  But not in any way available to my powers of perception.

That's the surreality of it.  (Surreality is not, apparently  a word.  But it should be.)  

This odd place in which one is juxtaposed between life as we know it and life in some other dimension, in part because this life has turned out to be unacceptable, and in part because someone without whom you cannot be fully who you are is in the other  ~ whatever and wherever it is.  

Maybe it's a different season there. Maybe autumn stops rolling around,  with its relentless reminders that Before is no more and now it is After.


I decided to re-post this, for a couple of reasons.   

In part, it's my response to the "I can't imagine" phrase.  In case someone wants to try.

In part, it's a reflection on one small dimension of my experience of God during the past four years.  Is God in all things and places?  That's what I believe, and teach, and preach.  Or are there  places, moments in time, where the universe cracks open and reveals a small and barren cleft which God has abandoned?  Places where people die of suicide.

We wonder that,  some of us whose children have been lost to suicide.  Some of us take refuge in the promises of our faith traditions, and some of us abandon them altogether, and some of us wonder.  

Sometimes, I wonder if Josh tumbled into one of those voids.  Other times,  I think that that small plot of ground on which he died must have been immediately crowded with angels, angels ushering him into a light we really cannot imagine. 

It's a hard week-end.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Late August: Morning Walk

 I love this path, and almost always see deer here.  But this morning there was a dog off leash, running around and barking, with an owner telling me,"Oh, he's fine."  So much for the deer.

Very peaceful this morning.  Not sure how the algae appeared so fast.

I never tire of this view as it changes through the seasons. I am so grateful to the 1960s little old ladies wearing sneakers and carrying binoculars who turned out to be savvy and determined activists.  They saved this spot for the birds and for the rest of us from the folks whose highest and best ambitions involved an interstate highway.  I mean, seriously: Do you look at this and think, "Yay!  Interstate!" ???

A muskrat appeared!  He swam practically under my feet a minute after this, but I couldn't get my phone to re-load, so this photo was the best I could do.


I wonder whether I'll ever figure out what to do with this week.  I guess one simply lives it, all of it.

Late August.  I'm off for two weeks because of just how difficult it is. I've planned out all my sermons -- texts, topics, and even most of the titles -- through November, and begun to think through how I might want to approach Advent.   I'm realizing with considerable satisfaction that next month I won't be "the pastor we just called who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time," and in December I won't be "the new pastor."  I'll be "our pastor."  

Pretty cool, I think.

Meanwhile, my next project involves excavating an attic -- because, you know, I have a sermon to write.  As well as another piece of writing to ponder.  

But I'm remembering a lot as well.

August, 1984 -- a beautiful month, like this one.  I remember surfacing from the city pool like a baby whale, and the furtive glances of teen-aged boys as I climbed out via the ladder, swimsuit plastered to the belly that contained thirteen-plus pounds of babies. I chuckled to myself, thinking that I was doing more to promote the careful use of birth control than any lecture at the local high school might have achieved.

This year, since it's twenty-eight years later, presents the new challenge of the days and dates matching up.  Thursday, today: blissful unawareness.  Friday: Panicked doctors, no longer able to tolerate the presence of a woman more than forty weeks pregnant with twins, and a resultant decision to induce labor.  Saturday:  Happy Birthday, Josh and Matt! - whom I first saw in the mirror during the c-section.  (Yeah, that induction thing . . . kind of a disaster.  As well as  the attempts at alleged anesthesia.)

I'm (obviously) going through a lot of photo albums and transferring pictures to CDs. Some of them are showing up here and on Facebook.  I can't do the ones from the 80s yet, but I'm having a lot of fun remembering subsequent years.

A week of mixed feelings.  As I walked around the lake this morning, I prayed Mary Oliver's Wild Geese.  The geese won't be flying overhead for a few more weeks (though grebes have started to come through) , but the rest of the poem applies.

. . .
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
. . .
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


This is actually a note for Mary Potts, whose blog went private after she was hacked by a person of unsavory character, and for anyone else I know in Chicago and environs who might want to meet up.  I am starting to planning my October week-end, my first journey back in four years.  Mostly to Hyde Park, probably downtown,  and maybe to Elmhurst.  Mary, where are you???

Monday, August 27, 2012


Josh making a gift for the woman who would be his French mother through his 11th grade year in Rennes - August 2001.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Algonquin Memories

 Matt and Josh ~  2000 Canoe Trip with Grandpa (who, I might add, at the age of 80 has just returned from a week of canoeing in Algonquin with my half-brother).

Friday, August 24, 2012

Death is a Spiritual, Not a Medical, Experience

The title is not mine.  It's from an article that appeared in The Christian Century some years back.  I no longer have the article, but I recall the statement, because it so succinctly reflected my own views.

Let me state my own prejudices up front:

I am not much of a fan of modern medical technology, particularly as applied in end-of-life scenarios.  I am all for the judicious use of medical treatment, but by "judicious," I mean that which takes into account the whole person and those whom she loves and who are loved by her, and in which the focus is not solely on bodily functions in disarray.

I have lost so many people close to me in sudden and horrific ways that I feel tremendous anger and frustration when I see those with the opportunity to be present to the transition from this life to the next let it slip from their fingers in environments designed primarily around technological advances.

That said, I recognize that everyone is, of course, entitled to make his own decisions about medical care.

A friend of a friend is in the hospital right now, dying of cancer.  Guessing the family to be disconnected from spiritual resources, I have offered my presence a couple of times over the last several months, and a couple of times more over the past week.  I have tried to be unobtrusive, and I have suggested, through the others through whom I communicate, taking advantage of the excellent pastoral care department in the hospital.

Last night I vented a bit of my frustration and sorrow to my own family.  "They have pulled out all the big guns, left no stone unturned, in addressing this disease," I said.  "The very best that modern medicine can offer has been brought to bear on this situation from Day One.  But they have never, to my knowledge, sought even the most basic expertise where the spiritual aspects of long term illness are concerned."

I'm sure there are a number of reasons. Unfamiliarity with what might be available.  Discomfort with clergy or other pastoral caregivers.  Fear that someone will attempt to force her own religious beliefs upon an already fragile psyche. 

But . . .  but . . .  but . . .I can say this, having been treated for cancer last year: I was unfamiliar with what was available, uncomfortable with medical professionals, and fearful that they would try to impose their own views on me.  None of that stopped me from seeking help from those trained, experienced, and available to offer it.

How how we gotten ourselves into this situation, where we grasp at technological straws which might at best extend physical life expectancy by a bit, but we turn away from the significant and substantial benefits of spiritual care?

I wonder if people would more readily welcome what we pastors and spiritual directors and chaplains  have to offer if we got ourselves some kind of big blinking and beeping machine to push around in front of us?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Great Teachers

With the school year beginning ~ and around here, the school parking lots were filled with teachers' cars yesterday, and the buses are rolling this morning ~ Paul Campbell, S.J. at People for Others asks to hear about the teachers who've made a significant impact on our lives.  I so enjoyed the opportunity to give that question some thought late last night after the sadness of yesterday that had begun at 5:45 a.m. and, of course, continues, that I thought I'd post my response.  

It occurred to me as I looked at it again this morning that every one of these teachers continues to influence my life nearly every day.  If I am thinking about freedom and grace as I take note of an unexpected bird passing through during the fall migration, that's because of great teachers.  I am reminded of Sir Thomas More's response to the soon-to-be utterly corrupted Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons, when Rich asks who would even know about him if he abandoned his efforts to exert influence at court and became a teacher instead: 

"You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that."

Mine, per last night:

Mr. Curran, our sixth grade teacher, who brought labs and the excitement of biology to a small rural school with no science requirements and fewer resources.

Miss Palmer, our 11th grade (girls’ school) English teacher, who taught us to write, and insisted that we expand our exclamatory oral vocabulary beyond four-letter words.

Mr. Smalley, my 12th grade religion teacher, who handed us Freud and Bonhoeffer and Tillich, and tried to nudge us out of our comfort zones.

And in my adult life:

Harvey Webster of our Museum of Natural History, who let me volunteer and taught me about birds.

Howard Gray, S.J, who taught me all kinds of things Ignatian, in class and through the Exercises and beyond.

Edwin van Driel, who taught theology in seminary and introduced me to Volf and Hauerwas and patiently tutored me through Dun Scotus (the latter with less than dazzling results, I should admit).

And most especially my children, who taught me to see the world in all kinds of ways I never would have imagined without them.

What about you?  Who have been the teachers who've changed your life?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Always the Unexpected

I pastor a small church, and the only other employees who work any significant number of hours are the secretary and the custodian couple.

Early this morning our secretary of thirteen years, age 47, died of a heart attack.  She and her husband have no children.  Her nursing-home bound mother told me today that her husband died of cancer when their daughter was thirteen months old, and so for most of their lives it was just the two of them, until her son-in-law came into the picture.

I don't even have a breath of protest left in me.  It just is.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Purpose of Ignatian Repetition

The following was posted this morning on the dotMagis blog of Loyola Press, from which I've "borrowed" the title of my post: 

Howard Gray, SJ, explains why much of the prayer in the Spiritual Exercises is repetition—multiple meditations on the same subjects or scripture passages.

The repetitions are efforts to engage mystery, to center on the depth of riches within revelation, and to discover how God specifically invites this particular man or woman to find the meaning of a gospel event for him or her.

In other words, the aim of Ignatian repetition is to personalize prayer. For example, a person hears Mary’s yes in Luke 1:38. In the initial encounter with this scene, the yes of Mary may have been admirable, challenging, and vaguely inviting. In the course of the prayers of repetition, the man or woman making the Exercises may begin to feel drawn to pronounce his or her own yes, to recognize a developing attraction to stand with Mary in personal solidarity with her kind of discipleship. Such a movement will lead in time to a willingness to stand with Mary beneath the cross of her son.

Howard Gray was my director through the Ignatian Exercises. This quotation took me back to a morning as I sat in his office, talking about my prayer of the preceding week, and he said, "You're not finished with this yet, are you?"

"No," I responded in relief, grateful to have been heard and understood, and to know that there was no requirement to "move on" ~ to know, that, in fact, a deeper immersion was called for.

"So stick with it for this next week," he suggested.

I don't remember the substance of the conversation at all (although I'm sure that I could find it in one of the several journals I filled that year).  

What I do remember is how much I learned about prayer from that brief interaction ~ how important repetition is in prayer, how essential it is, in plumbing our relationship with God, to reflect, to wonder, to savor, to wander around, to repeat.  Again and again and again.

Wisdom's Table - Proverbs 9:1-6 (Sermon)

First question: I want you to ask the person sitting next to you, or in front of you, or behind you: who comes to mind when you think about who the great wisdom figures in your life have been?  I want you to take a couple of minutes and share something about that person – or maybe there’s more than one -- and what he or she has taught you in your life.

Some years ago, my spiritual director, the person who spent a lot of time accompanying me as a companion and source of wisdom on my journey with God, was a Catholic Jesuit priest in his seventies. (He’s eighty-two now.)  We met frequently over a two year period; he played a major role in my discernment of a call to ministry.  In fact, I’m sure that I would have never gone anywhere near a seminary had he not been there to listen to me sort everything out and then to encourage and support me in the application process.

The summer after my first year in seminary, I asked him one evening what he knew that I should know.  “You’ve got twenty-three years on me,” I said.  What have you learned in the last twenty-three years that I should know about?” In other words, “What wisdom do you have to share?”

The other night, I went over to Belmont Towers and had dinner with TL and two other women.  As we ate our meal, it suddenly occurred to me that those three ladies could write my sermon for me.  “What about you?” I asked them.  “What has been the most important piece of wisdom that you’ve acquired in your lives?” The next day, I asked HC and CC and AM the same question.  I wonder whether you’ll be surprised at the answers people have given me.

You may have noticed that the people from whom I’ve sought information about wisdom have all been of the older variety.  That’s something we tend to assume, isn’t it? – that our elders are the wise ones.  We should not, of course, make that assumption any more than we should make any other.  Young people are often the bearers of great wisdom; their experiences and imaginations may well rival those of people decades their senior.  I am often astounded by the depth of my daughter’s wisdom – and she’s only twenty-five, and that only as of 2:01 a.m. this morning.

. . .

What do we learn about Wisdom from today’s passage?   

Wisdom, it seems, does five things: She builds, she prepares, she calls, she hosts, and she offers insight. Let’s take a look at them.

Wisdom builds her house; she hews seven pillars to strengthen it.  Building is a matter of no small importance in the Bible.  We might recall that God gives Noah very specific instructions for building the ark.  Much later in time, God does the same when it comes time for Solomon to build the temple and, although that temple is eventually destroyed by invaders, it is rebuilt again, and plays a critical role in the life of Jesus.  Many of the most important events of Jesus’ life take place in the temple, the center of Jewish life and teaching.

All of the building that goes on in the Bible indicates some important truths about us and our lives: We need to frame space for ourselves and for God. We need to create boundaries as way of establishing ownership and significance.  If you think about the wisdom others have shared with you, it often involves establishing foundations and structures for our lives.  Sometimes we start with literal buildings: our parents provide homes for us, and then churches and schools.  Sometimes the structures are metaphorical:  frameworks of faith, of character, of attitude.  But structures and frameworks they are. No wonder Lady Wisdom starts by building her house.

The second thing Wisdom does: she prepares. She prepares her meal – her food and her wine -- and her table. Preparation is necessary in order for a job to be done right, whether it’s raising a barn or painting a room or serving a meal. Preparation demonstrates skill, experience, care, and love – all of them aspects of wisdom.  Think again about the wisdom figures in your lives – regardless of age, or gender, or occupation, would you not ascribe skill and experience and care and love to them and to the way they go about their lives? 

Thirdly, Wisdom calls.  She not hide her light, her skill and care, under a bushel.  She operates in the open, in public. She invites each of us to partake in what she has to offer; she is eager to share, hopeful for the future.  I don’t think that anyone in possession of true wisdom can help but become an invitational, giving person.  It’s in the nature of wisdom to participate in community.   Wisdom is not, by definition, wisdom, when it keeps to itself.  Wisdom is inherently generous.  It seeks to help others, to care for others, to say, “I have walked this path and I can offer you some assistance with the same journey.”  

And so, quite naturally, Wisdom hosts.  Because to be a host or hostess, someone who prepares and calls and serves, is to be a participant in the work of God.  In the Bible, meals are always significant: Jesus feeds us with the life and love of God; angels feed us in order that we may hear the voice of God; Wisdom feeds us so that we may gain what she has and become as she is:  a skilled expert, a caring and loving guide.  “Come,” says Lady Wisdom, “and eat of my bread and drink of my wine.”  Have we heard this before?  We know, when we hear these words, that the generosity of God is at work, gathering and loving God’s community.  

And what does she offer?  What does Wisdom have to give?  Insight, and understanding.  Not, let’s be assured, just the head-knowledge that we sometimes associate with wisdom in a contemporary usage of the word.  But heart and hand knowledge as well.  The knowledge, the understanding, that it takes to make a whole person.  A person alert to all the demands of life, and able to respond according to whatever call comes his or her way.

You all may remember that I told you that I went to the Northfield School for Girls for high school, a boarding school in western Massachusetts founded by the 19th century evangelist D.L. Moody. One of the most important set of ideas drummed into us day after day during those years was that Mr. Moody was intent upon the education of the whole person: the head, the heart, and the hands.  Head: that’s why he insisted on a high-caliber academic program.  Heart: that’s why he insisted that the arts, and friendships, and community volunteering, play a prominent role in our lives. And hand: that’s why he insisted that every student had a job that contributed to the maintenance of the campus and required a daily commitment of time.  Head, hand, and heart.  I presume he was familiar with Chapter 9 of Proverbs and understood from whence wisdom comes.

And how is it that wisdom reveals itself?  If you’d paid attention for this long, you must still be wondering: What have the people I’ve been talking to said to me about wisdom?  What little nuggets of revelation have come their way?

I think that in one way or another, they all spoke about the same thing.  They all spoke about change, and learning to contend with it.

My spiritual director of years ago talked about the importance of memory.  He said that it’s important to re-evaluate and re-interpret events of the past; as the years go by, we come to understand new dimensions of our past experiences.\

On the other hand, several of the ladies to whom I spoke talked about adjusting to unwelcome circumstances: to the challenges of illness—theirs or a spouse’s, to widowhood, to having to move out of their homes, to having to accept the decisions of others about how and where they were going to live, to no longer being in control of their lives.  All of these people, with decades of experience behind them and difficult challenges ahead, exuded a wealth of wisdom as they talked about rethinking the past and accommodating the present.

None of us, as our lives proceed, understand what the events of the present will mean to us decades later. No one really expects to lose a spouse.  No one really believes that she might have to move to some sort of senior facility, or that she might have to depend upon others if she wants to stay in her home.  

It seems that head and heart and hand wisdom all require flexibility and adaptability.  Without those qualities, we risk becoming angry and bitter, and turning inward, toward the dark places in our lives.  With them – with flexibility and adaptability, with the capacity to grow in head knowledge and expand our hearts and alter our bodily lives – we grow in wisdom.  We become people who are able to prepare a table and call others to join us and host a feast of generosity and loving-kindness.   

There’s a wonderful movie out these days that illustrates the flexibility and adaptability of wisdom. It’s called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and it focuses on the lives of a group of older folks from England who, not knowing one another, find themselves in circumstances they didn’t want or expect: widowhood, dwindling finances, broken bodies, disoriented lives.  Independently and all for different reasons, they decide to respond to an advertisement to move to India and live in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which promises a life of happiness and fulfillment in the midst of the colors and sounds of India.

Of course, they arrive to discover that the hotel looks nothing like the pictures; it’s a complete shambles.  And the unfamiliarity and energy of India is almost overwhelming.  But the new arrivals come to terms with it, form a little community, and begin to build new lives – with one exception, one woman who simply cannot muster the optimism and flexibility needed to adapt.  Her memories hold her captive; she is unable to translate them into a new life. The rest of them – we see them grow in wisdom each day.  We see them adapting, head, heart, and hand.  We see them called by and responding to Wisdom herself.

Now, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not explicitly a movie about the Christian journey.  But it illustrates the journey that we all make, the journey in which we are called to grow in Wisdom.  And how is it that we can do that?  Well, a couple of the women at our Belmont Towers dinner last week stated unequivocally that wisdom lies in faith in God.

What they meant, I think -- and I hesitate to put words in their mouths, but -- I did listen carefully to all that they said about their lives, and what I think they meant is that faith in God is the building, the structure, the framework, that houses everything else.  It’s within the context of faith that God prepares us, calls us, and hosts us – transforming our very lives into a meal that nourishes understanding and insight.  It’s faith in God, and it’s the faith of God, that gift of faith that God offers us, that strengthens us to re-assess our memories, to re-think our lives, and to grow in the flexibility needed to adapt to whatever circumstances come our way.

"Live and walk in the way of insight" -- thus Wisdom beckons us.  Respond to her call, enter the house she builds, accept her hospitality, and know that she serves the meal that nourishes your head, your heart, and your hands: the food the enables you to respond to the life you are given.  She serves up the abundant love of God for each and every one of us.

*Like RevGal Songbird, I want to thank Dr. Wil Gafney for providing the springboard for much of this sermon.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Happy 25th!!!

My daughter: a woman of intelligence, humor, compassion, strength, and courage.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012

Life and Death All Mixed Up

It's the end of summer, which means, for one particular group of mothers, tumultuous waves through which to navigate.  

It's all in my sidebar.

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of Katie Gerstenberger's death.  Katie was twelve when she died of cancer, leaving behind a family who celebrates her life with energy and joy and hope.  It was our privilege to meet them when we went to the Pacific Northwest in June, to enjoy their deck and view of the water, and to walk on their beach (without quite as much exuberance as Katie did!).  Katie's mom, Karen West, does incredible work on behalf of children with cancer ~ but, oh, if only she could know nothing about that world.

Today is Joey Johnson's birthday, which his family has had to celebrate without him four times now. His mom, Karen East (although she's in Hawaii at the moment, so that makes her Karen Further West), is Grandma Extraordinaire to a beautiful group of children, but she also writes candidly of what four-plus years is like:

We aren't the same without him. We are not better people for having lost him. I hope one day we will be, but  for now, we are still piecing our new lives together. I think he would wish it so, probably prays it so, but we are not there yet. I do believe he inspires me to press forward, to try to love and give and forgive more, to release the petty things in my heart, But I am more rigid, bristly, sensitive, demanding, disappointed than I would like.
 Alas, I feel as fragile as glass sometimes. 

But I am committed to the path of following truth and love all they way down the road.
 I want to live well and right, to make my son, who is now part of that great cloud of witnesses,  proud of his mama.  

In a few weeks, it will be the anniversary of the terrible loss of Sarah Scherer to a rogue wave off the coast of Italy.    Her mom, Chris, is yet another remarkably strong and hope-filled woman, embracing life with her (still-new!) husband and family and preparing to return to Italy this fall.  She, too, is beginning to ponder these weeks aloud, in this beautiful post. 

I don't know what I would have done had I not met these extraordinary women.  I am so very grateful that each of them came into my life.

And then there's us.  I'm already celebrating Marissa's 25th birthday, which actually takes place in two days ~ I'm also grateful to be the mother of yet another extraordinary woman.  And then on September 1, it will be Matt's and Josh's 28th birthdays, and on September 2, the fourth anniversary of Josh's death.

We are going to enjoy Ris this week-end, and then a week later I'm going to take some time off.  We're heading for a Lake Erie beach state park lodge for September 2-3; we try something different each year. 

Look for some photos ~ happy ones ~ the next couple of weeks.  I'll leave the eloquence to Karen and Karen and Chris.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Battle We Didn't Choose: Breast Cancer Photography Exhibit

Photographer Angelo Merendino chronicled his young wife's breast cancer journey in a series of photographs which are currently on exhibit in a wonderful space, a former church, on the east side of Cleveland.

I first read about this exhibit when controversy erupted some weeks ago about its placement at The Gathering Place, an organization and facility which offers all kinds of education and support for cancer patients and their loved ones.  Many of The Gathering Place's clients and friends protested its showing an exhibit in which the stark realities of day-to-day life with cancer are depicted.  They found it depressing and disheartening to walk into a place of support and hope only to be greeted by these graphic reminders of serious illness and death.  And yes, Jen Merendino did die.

Angelo has written about The Gathering Place's decision to close the exhibit, and several other related articles and posts appear on his Facebook page.  That's not my issue: I have long understood that my desire to know about and to see birth and death up close are not universally appreciated.  Those great transitions of human life have a claim on my curiosity and imagination that is shared by few people, and my wonder at photography and what it conveys seems to be unlimited.  I never found childbirth photos "gross," and I do not find pictures of illness to be depressing or horrifying.

What I saw in this exhibit was the power of love and the strength of human courage. 

And sometimes, the lack of the latter ~ but then, that is part of the human experience as well.  There is a moving series of photographs entitled "Reactions" that should give us all pause.  They were taken in public places, out on the street.  Jen moves through the scenes, a frail and bald woman grasping a walker, while the faces of those she passes are recorded by the camera.  Curiosity, surprise, distaste, rejection.  I remarked to the exhibitor that in not one of those photographs do we see a stranger reacting with a friendly, welcoming face.

In my favorite photo, Jen is seated, I believe in a window, wearing a dress and painting her toenails.  Her hair is gone, her body is thin, and a cane rests nearby.  You cannot miss understanding that this is a woman in great crisis exerting the power of color and beauty over pain and sadness. 

The woman who owns the gallery ~ yes! an artist purchased this abandoned sacred building so that she could house art exhibits ~ and I talked for a long time.  She lost her first husband to suicide several years ago, and so we were able to talk candidly about how losses of such magnitude change who we are and how we respond to life, and to death.   

I have often mentioned my frustration with the remark "I can't imagine" that comes my way so often.  I believe now that in saying those words people are simultaneously expressing sympathy and erecting a wall of protection around themselves.  We all do care for and love each other, but we don't want to imagine, much less know, the day to day trauma of the lives of others. 

For those who are brave enough to learn this particular walk, these images are a treasure.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Girls Only (Breast Cancer and Ministry)

So this afternoon I was at the hospital, where a lovely lady had been brought following an apparently terrible fall.  She was extremely disoriented and agitated, and several of us were needed to help calm her, physically, which meant that I had to contort my body over her bed in various ways.

A little later, walking down the hallway, I realized that something had slipped.  I was able to make a quick and, I hope, subtle adjustment, but it did cause me to wonder: what would I have done if it had fallen out?  There I would have been in a public hallway with some of my parishoners, and also some extended family members I had met only moments earlier, looking at the floor in dismay.

I suppose that I would have scooped it off the linoleum, said, "This is what a fake boob looks like, in case you've ever wondered," and plopped it back in.

On the upside, and no pun intended, and it's not really an upside at all, at least two of the women in that little group have had breast cancer, so they wouldn't have been much bothered.

I'm guessing that guy pastors don't have to think about these things. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Breast Cancer - Things I Notice Sometimes

This evening I went out to dinner at an assisted living facility with one of my parishoners and two of the women with whom she regularly dines.

Afterward, I stopped by the local nursing home to visit briefly with two other folks.  (Very briefly.  As I reached the second room, I realized that I was almost too exhausted to stand up and, seeing one of the man's daughters there, I excused myself as quickly as I could.)

At any rate, most of the employees at these facilities are women, young women and middle-aged women.  And it's summer, so they are wearing t-shirts and light cotton tops.  And it dawned on me that, as far as I could tell (and obviously I can't), all of those women have two breasts, the originals, which they are able to take completely for granted. (Actually, I can kind of tell.  What they have matches, and moves naturally.)

I can't say that I usually give this matter much thought, or any thought at all.  And considering the environments I was in, I probably shouldn't.  The people I was visiting are struggling with the loneliness of widowhood after long and happy marriages and with the consequences of heart disease and major medical incidents.  Their lives are extremely difficult.

But I did feel very sad.  The residual disfigurement of breast cancer is so permanent.

Monday, August 13, 2012


I don't usually do anything like this, but today I did ~ I started a FB group as a statement of support.  Please join, if you're qualified and so inclined:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

God Is The Artist

The first thought that popped into my mind as I began to ponder the "Who is God?" question was that "God is a painter." 

Then I began to ponder the word "painter."  God as an artist.  God as abundantly and infinitely creative and and creating.  I considered adding a few more nouns.  God as a painter, an architect, a builder, a potter, a designer, a musician, a dancer, a photographer.

Hmmm.  Was I responding to the "Who?" question with a litany of what God does rather than an affirmation of who God is? 

I thought about the young man who died this past week, by all accounts a brilliant mechanic and a kind and generous human being, especially to those who found themselves and their cars sideways in a ditch or tangled up with another vehicle.  God is a kind of mechanic, putting seemingly disparate bits of material back together and creating anew. But I didn't want to limit my description of God to that of a utilitarian functionary of some sort.  And the particular mechanic of whom I have been thinking was evidently . . .  an artist.  An artist with respect to both trucks and human friendship.

God is an artist.  That's a what, and it's a "what God does," but most of all, to my way of thinking, anyway, it's a who.  An artist is a who.  An artist is someone whose very essence pours out of herself and into her creations.

God is an artist.  Almost every form of human work and human relationship is a work of art ~ an expression of the one in whose image we are created.

Three intimations of God, the artist:

The universe, which many refer to as a revelation of God's self.  If you had asked me when I was a little girl growing up in my God-indifferent family how I knew about God, I would have pointed to the world around me: the brilliant beech trees on the autumn hillside, the glittering ice in the winter sunshine, the caterpillars turning themselves into butterflies, the lightning bugs filling the summer night spaces, the oriole nest hanging from the tree across my grandmother's driveway, the goldenrod growing alongside the country roads, even the snakes leaving their discarded skins across the gravel road to our own house.  Color, shape, size, form; such dazzling ingenuity.  There is God, I would have said.

Loss and the burden of grief which follows. You might be surprised to hear me say that.  I am surprised, myself,  But when I look at the dimensions in my life which have opened up in the past four years, I can conclude only that a great artist has been at work.  An artist who is not intimidated by an excess of thick black paint, or by deep gashes in the canvas, or by the ceiling caving in and raining chunks of plaster all over the entire exhibit,  An artist who shrugs her shoulders, dumps the black paint into the canyon-deep gashes, crunches up the plaster and tosses it into the mix along with some left over yellow paint and glitter sticks, rocks back on her heels, and says, "Even that is good."  Because out of Friday comes Sunday.  Out of Week Three comes Week Four.*  Out of thick dark comes glittery light.

Silence.  I don't pretend to grasp how glittery light emerges from thick dark. But I am sure now, four years into what has become my life-experience of God and not-God, that God is an artist of silence.  I say that as someone whose local orchestra, the one down the street, is one of the most celebrated in the world.  I say that as someone whose bucket list includes the Westminster Cathedral and King's College choirs.  But I say it also as someone who has practically seen with her eyes God painting with silence as the medium.

God's silence:  Patience.  Anger.  Sadness.  Hope.  Desire.   Infinite gift of self.  God pours silence from God's self into the shape of love. 

And so, who is God?  God is The Artist.

(*For all you Ignatian-folks,)

Friday, August 10, 2012

My Girl

I haven't figured out the appeal of Instagram, but the Lovely Daughter posted this photo today and I love it.

Her tiger-look-alike kitty's name is Jamison, which is a reflection of his having been brought home to her as a gift by her apartment mate, who acquired him from a guy in a bar who was giving away a litter of kittens.

Twenty-five years ago we hosted a third birthday party for her brothers on August 1, a month early, thinking that we might be busy with a new baby by the time September 1 arrived.  On that particular August 1, the first signs of her imminent arrival appeared, but it took her nineteen more days to get here.

I suppose that it was about this week-end that I was hanging out with a friend at her city park and saying, as we sat in the baby pool where our three boys were playing, "I suppose that I might be in labor.  Or not."  "Robin!" she exclaimed.  "What are you doing here?!?" 

"It's hot," I said.

Or perhaps this was the week-end that I spent with another mother of twins the same age as mine at her city pool,  and showed her how much twin skin was still left over when one reached the end of a pregnancy with only one baby.  We had a good laugh over how small a belly with just one six-pound baby inside actually is. 

At any rate, that August spent moving from pool to pool produced an impressive end result, don't you think?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Challenge: Who Is God? (Introduction)

Yesterday, a fellow blogger linked to an intriguing challenge.  It seems that somewhere in recent debates concerning the vitality (or lack thereof) of the mainline church, someone has raised the matter of the reluctance of progressive Christians to talk about who God is. Lots of intellectual theological talk, lots of conversation about social justice and politics, but little about encounter with God. And so this person has posted a challenge: write a post about God.

He has a point.  I recall a young pastor preaching about having failed a seminary exam in which the sole question was, "Who is God?" She had filled a bluebook with a narrative of God's activity from the first page of Genesis to the last of Revelation, and at the end of her last page was that awesome "F."

I wasn't surprised, as she was profoundly uncomfortable talking about God in private conversation.  Her sermon represented an effort to rectify that situation, and I applauded her for it.

Second point: One of the books I've read recently is entitled Kindling Desire for God: Preaching As Spiritual Direction by Kay Northcutt, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution.  Her argument, based on years of reading and listening to student sermons, is that our seminaries fail to teach preachers how to talk about God, how to convey any of the 2,000 years of Christian history of engagement in contemplation, spiritual direction, in discernment.  She may be right about that.  I think that I do many of the things in my sermons that she thinks we don't do ~ I talk about the desert fathers and mothers, about the great contemplatives, about spiritual practices; I talk about who God is! ~ but I can't claim to have learned much of any of that in seminary.  I know for certain that none of it came up in my homiletics course.

I am relieved to say that I picked up quite a bit of it from my own Presbyterian pastors, who talk and preach all the time about who God is.  And some of it from a few wonderful theology courses in which we explored the ways in which others have wrestled with God.  But most of it from my own reading and my work in spiritual direction.

And from lots of conversation with people who love to talk about God, about who God might be and who God might not be, and about our experiences of God.  But . . . 

Third point: It is hard to learn to do.  I think that most of us mainliners struggle to develop an ability to talk directly about God, and my Catholic friends tell me that the same is true for them and those in their communities.  

I clearly remember that when I first started spiritual direction, I felt so inarticulate in my efforts to speak about my life of prayer with my eloquent and knowledgeable spiritual director that I hit upon the idea of plagiarizing the life of someone like Catherine of Sienna or Teresa of Avila.  I thought that I'd just read one of their biographies and report the experiences therein as my own. 

It occurred to me, however, that my director was probably well aware of their stories and would recognize my ploy for what it was.  And so making the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises turned out to be, among many other things, a year-long course in learning to talk about God.

All of this is to say, I'm going to attempt the challenge at issue.  How about you?

Image: Michelangelo's ~ the one with which so many of us begin.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Communication (Conundrums of Ministry III)

Internet technology ranked high among the reasons I was willing to undertake a pastoral call far from home.  Website, email, virtual meetings ~ how hard could it be?  I am in regular communication with people in their seventies and eighties via email, and the blogs I read are written by people of all ages ~ all possible decades from college onward.  Well, I'm not sure that I read any blogs written by people past ninety.  But emails, for sure.

I expected to be around, of course.  But I thought that technology would fill the gaps.

But I find myself in a place where many people don't even own computers, and many of those who do don't use email.  Several either don't have voice mail, or don't make use of what they do have.  And age clearly is not the issue.  It's all about outlook.

When I mention how much easier it is to schedule a meeting online, whether through email or various internet tools, people look at me as if I'm nuts.  All those phone calls to schedule and reschedule events, the multiple efforts needed to reach and re-reach folks as we try to pull everyone together?  No problem.  

I am learning that it's all about pace and relationships ~ a different pace and a different mode of relating.  People aren't bothered by phone calls; they view them as welcome opportunities to connect rather than as untimely interruptions. I'm revamping the church website ~ but no one really cares.  Who would look at it?

This morning I mentioned (via phone) to a committee chair that we need to meet to complete some paperwork for the Methodist Church.  She said that she was awaiting the arrival of the packet of forms.  "Uh, I don't think there will be a packet," I said.  "They're all online."  (I did then call the district office and confirmed: they have no plans to mail out hard copies.)

It's difficult to know what to do.  In some ways, I want to accept the pace and expectations of where I am, and learn to enjoy the absence of the internet.  In others, I want to nudge my folks along, knowing that it will become increasingly more difficult for them to maintain their connections with others, both official and unofficial, without at least some technological competency.

Several times a day, I hear the clip-clop of Amish horses pulling buggies on the highway that runs through town.  They do give me pause.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Some months ago I gave the Pinterest website a try.  My email was subsequently hacked and phished, and I think that the timing was not coincidental.  Sloppy password decisions.  

I shut my Pinterest boards down (and changed all my passwords to everything), but a few weeks ago I wandered back again.  I love my playtime there.  It's utterly relaxing to engage in a purely visual activity, pinning images of things and places and artwork for the sake of pure enjoyment.

I'm sure, enjoyment aside, that there is deep and dark psychology behind the board choices.  Among my most used is one entitled "Doors."  So far it includes ordinary doors, archways, and natural doorway formations.  I suppose that all those doors that are so appealing to me represent something about my ambivalence about moving forward in life, that oh-so-common blend of curiosity and resistance.  I notice that a lot of people have boards focused on doors, windows, archways, and other sorts of means of passage.

Interesting, isn't it?  Pinterest Rorschach images.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Things People Say (Conundrums of Ministry II)

A young man in our church town, a husband and father of two very young children, one an infant, was killed in an accident at work this past week.  I am about to head to the funeral, which is being conducted at the church to which one of his brothers belongs.  Our church hosted a dinner for the extended family and their guests after the funeral home visitation yesterday.  Their terrible loss has been much on everyone's mind, as this is a small place and the family operates a business that has served everyone at one time or another.

"I just don't understand why God would take someone who . . .".

"I guess God needed him more than we do."

And other things.

Honestly, it would not be possible for me to believe in a God who "takes" people because God "needs" them.

How is it that people find comfort in these kinds of statements?

Maybe because there is no comfort to be had, and so we flail around and grasp helplessly at whatever comes to mind.