Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Request for Jennifer

If you are the Jennifer who was so kind as to send me an email with attachments today, would you please resend it?

The one engineering deficiency in the iphone is that the delete mail button is just above the close button.  I'm afraid that I frequently miss.

Actually, there is a second deficiency: when you delete mail from an iphone, it is really gone.  If there is a way to retrieve it, I have no idea what that might be.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

Sermon Conundrums

I'll be damned if I know what to do about these things.

We had a famous preacher at our Presybtery worship service this afternoon.  He preached what was, I think, an outstanding sermon on the Beatitudes.  I'm not entirely sure, because I missed a lot of it.

Because . . . 

He started out with an illustration involving a young man who had come to see him after a lecture one day, ostensibly to ask a question about the material.  A young man whose real question he didn't see or hear.  A young man who a few minutes later went up to the top of the building and jumped off.  He was the last person to talk with that young man.

I am the mother of that young man, or one like him; the mother who didn't hear or see. 

I can't say that I feel that I am one of those who mourn who are blessed, although I am certainly one of those who mourn.

I can't say that I feel that I am one of those who are the blessed poor in spirit as a consequence of reaching out to save other lives which might easily have been lost because of the one that was, although I have poured my spirit out and all over the place to care for those others.

I can tell you that when I ponder these things, I feel as if God inhabits some other galaxy, long ago and far away, and not this one.

I don't know what you do about these sermons.  I mean, I do know: Nothing.  I've heard at least one that was somewhat similar and, as today, I was stuck in a visible locale in the church, so there was nothing to do but grip the armrest and hope it would end quick.

It makes me really afraid to preach, as I wonder when I am the unwitting spear thrower.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ordination: How Did This Happen?

Lynda asked a few comments back whether I ever think in amazement about where God has brought me, and I responded that yes, that's where these posts are coming from, because I finally have the time to think about it.

Last night I realized that what I meant was that I finally have the peace of mind to think about it. 

Two things I particularly noticed as I listened -- yes, again -- to my ordination service last night.

The first was that the three individuals who read the Scripture passages represent three faith traditions.  A Jewish woman, a dear friend of many years, read Psalm 139 ~ the first verses in Hebrew, and then all of it in English.  A Catholic woman, another good friend and the director of my spiritual direction program, read from Romans 8.  And my best friend from seminary, ordained a UCC pastor a couple of weeks later, read the narrative of the Woman at the Well.

Sometimes I get frustrated and worn out by the dichotomies (or, these days: dichotomies-plus) of my life.  Not troubled ~ it's a great gift to have been offered windows into and roles in such diverse communities.  But the balancing act can be tiring.  Pastor and spiritual director.  Protestant and Catholic, with a hefty dose of Jewish and a possibly new influx of Muslim.  Methodist and Presbyterian.  City and country. 

When this all got started, I was a Presbyterian elder teaching in a Jewish school and putting things together with a Catholic spiritual director.  Go figure.

I'm so grateful that the service reflected that blend.  When you listen to those voices reading those texts, it seems not only possible but very real, that God speaks in all times and in all ways.

And then, the sermon.  If you think about it, the story of the Woman at the Well represents, on the face of it, another dichotomy: Samarian and Jewish.  And if you probe a bit deeper, you find others.  And finally, underneath them all: the blend, the mix, the encounter, the merger, that the narrative is about.  What our preacher, my professor, called "the invasion of God into this world."  The beginnings of resurrection life, here, with Jesus, the one who is the resurrection, the living water, the life.

Probably more than most new pastors, I have been backed into a corner, forced to confront the ways in which life and death merge.  I can't say that I understand any of it at all.  I am surprised, in truth, to have survived the last four years.  For the first couple of them, my only consistent hope was that the ground would open up and swallow me into oblivion.  These days, I would say that I am pretty content, and sometimes even filled with joy ~ but only against a backdrop of anguish that never subsides.  I suppose that it's good for something; I am much more aware of the terrible canvas of pain in this world.  But you are welcome to that awareness if you want it.  Just give me back my child.

All of which is to say that, if Resurrection life has already begun; if our faith really is about Jesus' triumph here and now in the creation he is healing, rather than about some future fantasy land; if living water means what it sounds like it means: present tense ~ then I don't understand it, but I think it's awesome that I get to proclaim it in word and sacrament.

There isn't a day that I don't think about the sight and the feel of the body I held in my arms four years ago.  And last week it was all I could do not to stop in the middle of our communion liturgy to say, "Do you all understand what is going on here ?!"

That's the ultimate dichotomy in my life.

This is a strange and wonderful calling.

(Youtube: Not my church, but we did sing this at the end of communion.  Years ago, our children's choir often sang it, and I often think of my daughter's little soprano voice when we reach the descant.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Let Nothing Disturb You . . . God is Unchanging

Don't you think it's kind of intriguing that after I posted here a few days ago about St. Teresa's prayer and my own reluctance to affirm that God is unchanging, the following should be today's music on Pray As You Go?

The singing/lyrics begin at about 1:20.

I was out for an early morning walk in the midst of the changing colors of fall as I listened to PAYG this morning.  And no, I don't make the mistake of believing that the God who is in all thing is all things.  But the paradox of an ever-changing universe ~ - nature, human, and everything else ~ and the possibility of an unchanging God did not escape my prayer.

At any rate, regardless of your orthodoxy or lack thereof, prayer or lack thereof, faith or other structure for life: it's a beautiful prayer and a beautiful piece of music.  Give it the full 6:23.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ordination Redux

My friend Cassie was approved for ordination last night, and this morning she and I had a conversation filled with laughter and excitement, revisiting the Presbytery meeting, talking about her plans for her ordination service, and reminiscing about mine.  

And then I had to make two long drives, so I listened to my CDs.  Including twice to the music, and twice to the sermon.  (And yes, EVD, if you're reading this: that was one magnificent sermon, which spoke directly to everything my life has been about since 9/2/08.)

It was a really, really, REALLY exciting day.  It was also, for me, permeated with the loss of Josh, whom I needed to be there.  And it was smack in the middle of Breast Cancer, Part I, so after I finally got up and took a long walk the next day, it was right back to doctors and tests and surgery.

In other words, it would be my guess that a lot of people get to focus on such a service with a singular intensity that eluded me.

But as I listened to the CDs, I remembered that it was beautiful, and moving, and did almost accomplish one of the tasks I had articulated to my own pastor: to redeem that sanctuary from the also very beautiful but almost intolerably sad funeral service that had taken place there three years previous. 

And there was this incredible line in the congregation's set of responses after the ordination questions:

Do we accept Robin as a Minister of Word and Sacrament, chosen by God to guide us in the way of Jesus Christ? 

Really?  Isn't that rather an  extraordinary affirmation? 

Really?  That's who I am and what I'm doing now, in my own blundering and entirely inadequate kind of way?

It sounds so different, a year later.  So impossible.

I see why Cassie was glowing last night, but seriously: what kind of a person would consider herself up to such a thing?

Obviously you have to understand that it doesn't have much to do with you.  But I'm feeling reluctant even to step out the front door again.

The Spiritual Exercises in Glass, Revisited

Hey!  Look at this!

Remember our trip to Seattle?

I've given a lot of thought to this chapel. 

My own church is not a lot bigger, but it's a traditional white clapboard church set on a small village green.  I feel at home there, having gone to boarding school and college in small New England towns.

But right now, half of our stained glass windows are out for refurbishing, meaning that we have clear glass and sunlight streaming in from the eastern side of the building.  The space is completely altered  by the autumn light.

Between the Seattle chapel and our own situation, I am completely re-thinking my dedication to Chartres and similar worship spaces.  I am beginning to think that my new ideal is stark, and open to light, and home to a few dramatic artistic creations -- and on the shores of a Great Lake or an ocean.

I hope that you re-enjoy the Exercises in glass!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Ordination Ahead!

Tonight I was privileged to find time and energy between jury duty and collapse to attend the Presbytery meeting at which my friend Cassie was examined for ordination.

Here's how the two parallel sets of requirements work in the Presbyterian Church:

Your presbytery, your regional governing body, oversees your progress. At various stages in the process you present yourself for questioning before your own church session (council), before your Presbytery's Committee on Preparation for Ministry, and before the entire Presbytery.  You fill countless sheets of paper with essay answers to questions and with annual reports and reflections.  Your Presbytery is invested with great authority which it exercises through its CPM; it can insist that you attend a Presbyterian seminary (ours usually does), that you complete a unit (400 hours) of Clinical Pastoral Education (ours does), that you complete additional or specialized coursework or other training, that you complete an internship in a specified setting, and ~  I'm sure there are other things!

As you are making your way through the church's process, you are also completing your M.Div., for which your seminary or divinity school establishes its own requirements.  

The two tracks merge toward the end of seminary when, having taken the required coursework and received the permission of your Committee, you sit for the national ordination exams.  Once those are successfully behind you, the CPM meets with you again and, if all goes well (which it does not always do), you are certified "ready to receive a call."  

Since we have a call system rather than an appointment system, there is no ordination until there is a call to ministry in some capacity.  At that point, there is one more meeting -- an oral examination before the Presbytery, the meeting of representatives from all the churches in the Presbytery.  Then -- finally! -- a service of ordination.

Cassie and I met four summers ago, when we were doing our CPE at The Cleveland Clinic.  We spent the next summer together as well, taking intensive Hebrew at Pittsburgh Seminary.  And we spent a lot of time together tackling the ords.

Tonight, having been called to a chaplaincy position, she was examined for the ordination that will take place in another five weeks.  She was quite literally radiant: thorough, charming, competent, and radiant.

When I look back at what I've just written ~ at the years of classes and exams and meetings and presentations ~ it's hard to believe that anyone, especially anyone like us, quite some years removed from youth, could possibly be described as "radiant" at the end of it all.  

And yet, there it is.  The radiance of Jesus Christ.  And a first celebration of communion right around the corner.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Welcome Wonder (Sermon - Mark 9:30-37)

I have a question for you:  What’s your favorite childhood age?  If you’re a parent, or an aunt or an uncle, or an interested observer, what age in a child’s life do you find the most appealing, the most charming?  If you’re a child yourself, or a young person, what year of your life have you liked the best so far?

I can think of two years that I liked the best as my children were growing up.  The first might surprise you: I love two-year-olds.  A lot of people refer to that period as the “terrible twos,” but I think of it as the “terrific twos.”

The reason that year can be so hard on parents is, of course, that two-year-olds are achieving independence – and they know it, and enjoy it, and flaunt it.  For a healthy two-year-old, developing according to the usual norms, life means:  No longer confined to cribs or playpens or rooms barricaded off from others.  A new mastery of language, and especially of that delightful word, “No!”  Complete mobility and a new dexterity: the ability to open refrigerators, and cupboards, and doors to the outside world.  

Many of you know my daughter Marissa, and if you do, you know that she is not very tall.  She was a very tiny little girl, and I well remember walking into the kitchen one day to find her two year-old self up on the counter.  I always kept snacks and plastic dishes on lower shelves so that the kids could help themselves, but she wanted something that was stored up higher.  “You know,” I said, thinking of the potential disaster inherent in a fall from a counter which was much higher than she was tall, “you can always ask someone to help you.” 
“I can do it MYSELF,” she declared regally as she surveyed her kitchen domain.

The next summer, we were in vacation, staying in a condo with a small pool.  Marissa was playing happily at the edge when she suddenly decided to jump in – into a pool that, while small, was still much deeper than she was tall.  I, fully clothed, had to jump right in after her, of course – the teen-aged lifeguard was clearly unaccustomed to children who know that they can do things THEMSELVES.

What does this joyful independence of a two-year-old reflect?  Freedom – of course!  Freedom from restraint, freedom from the limitations of a body that cannot yet walk, freedom to act rather than to merely observe.  It really is a terrific time in childhood, if the parents can just survive it. 

My other favorite age is four.  Four-year-olds are filled with imagination, and retain the freedom of a two-year-old in self expression.  In her classic book The Magical Years, which was a staple on my parenting bookshelf, psychologist Selma Fraiberg describes how children make use of imagination to confront the things which challenge and frighten them.  Four is a great year for that response.  Four-year-olds are still very small, but they are out and about, much engaged with other people, and there’s a lot that makes them apprehensive. 

And so they make up stories with characters of great courage and strength.  They draw pictures of heroes who triumph over disaster.  Imaginary animals and stuffed animals are like human beings to them, talking and behaving in ways that they would like those around them to behave – protecting them, playing with them, visiting with them.

I’m sure that you have your own favorite ages.  Years which stand out as those you’d like to relive. Years in which you see qualities in children, or remember in yourself, that stand out as the most desirable qualities for human beings to have. And I want to suggest that perhaps the most important underlying quality possessed by children, the one that provides the foundation for all the others, is wonder.  Don’t we all enjoy the wonder experienced by a small child?  It’s wonder that makes it possible for them to find such joy in a simple activity like blowing bubbles.  It’s wonder that causes those irrepressible grins when a puppy frolics in the midst of a group of children.

It’s wonder that makes children such delightful companions.  I remember another vacation, sitting on a dock with my children watching a particularly spectacular sunset at the far end of a lake many miles long.  They were quite willing to sit there for half an hour or so, watching the colors in the sky change from deep blues and grays to shimmering pinks and gold.

Freedom.  Imagination.  Wonder.  Some of the most magnificent features of childhood.

In Jesus’ time and community, children were not nearly the focus of attention that they are today.  They were loved and cared for and taught, but in a world of poverty and political oppression, there was little leisure time in which to attend to the emotional and creative needs of children.  And like women, children were low on the totem pole of status – lower, in fact, if that is possible. 

Children were a form of family property, they began to learn to work as soon as possible, and their very survival was often a matter of hope more than reality.  Injury, disease, famine, warfare – all of those things took a disproportionate toll on babies and small children in the ancient world.  Few people gave much attention to the small children running around on village roads and paths.

How unusual it is, then, that Jesus gives such attention to children!  We are perhaps accustomed to think of him doing so.  We’ve all seen many pictures of him seated, perhaps on a small hillside, surrounded by young children, holding two or three of them in his arms.  Those images come from texts like today’s, in which he takes a child in his arms and says that whoever welcomes such a child welcomes both him and the one who sent him.    Go a few verses later, and he is warning us not to put stumbling  blocks in the way of the faith of small children.  Go to the next chapter, in which Jesus has been on the road again, and he again points to children, responding to the disciples who are trying to prevent people from bringing their children to him.  It’s in that setting that Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  And again, he takes children into his arms to touch and bless them.

And so we have a set of narratives, a few key moments, in which Jesus tells us that to welcome a child is to welcome him, and also the one who sent him, tells us that children are not to be trifled with, and tells us that we must receive the kingdom of God as a little child.

What does that mean? In a world in which children were of small significance, these must have been startling metaphors.  In a world in which all decision-making power and economic power and social power lay in the hands of adult men, these teachings must have given people great pause. 

These teachings are quite distinct from the usual ones.  It was the place of scholars and priests to welcome God, and to do so in formal and sacred settings.  It was the place of the father, the head of the household, to decide how children would be reared and treated.  And to enter the presence of God was presumed to be conditioned upon great righteousness and seriousness.  How did children suddenly become prioritized where God was concerned? 
Perhaps we need to look again at who children are.  Perhaps we are being invited to look at children not as the legalities and family systems of the first century looked at them.  Perhaps we are being invited to look at them not as our own tangled family situations and consumer society look at them.

Perhaps we are being invited to look at children in more essential ways.  As creatures of freedom.  Of imagination.  Of wonder.

Perhaps we are being invited to recover those gifts in ourselves.  Freedom.  Imagination.  Wonder.

Martin Luther, the great church reformer of the 1500s, wrote an essay in 1520 entitled “On Christian Freedom.”  In that work, he captures the paradox of which Jesus speaks when he, Martin Luther, says that, “[a] Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”  Freedom does not mean, as we might think of it today, the freedom to do whatever you want.   Freedom means freedom from unnecessarily imposed restrictions in order that we become endowed with freedom to give, to serve.  Freedom to become the most authentic human beings we are called to become, freedom to become the people we are destined to people: people who love God and give of ourselves to others in the way that we were uniquely  to be and to do.

It takes imagination to become people of such freedom.  Children imagine wonderful things, and so can we.  In Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland,  Alice says to the Queen, “There is no use trying,” she said, “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Believe impossible things.  Believe that the hungry will be fed.  Believe that the homeless will be housed.  Believe that the poor will be helped.  Believe that the despairing will be given hope.  Believe that the meal we are about to share will fill us with Jesus.  Believe that bread and juice become the spiritual body and blood we so need to sustain our imagination. 
Become, in other words, people of wonder.  Welcome the wonder in yourselves.
Jesus says that when we welcome children, we welcome him.  When we welcome wonder, we welcome him.  He says that we must become as children to enter his kingdom.  We are called to enter his kingdom as people of wonder.
Sometimes it’s easy.  We look out at the changing colors of autumn, and we can hardly help ourselves but to wonder in awe at the brilliance of the colors and at the natural processes of growth and decay that create them. 

Sometimes it’s hard.  We sit at the bedside of a dying loved one and we catch a glimpse of the reality that this life is a passageway to a greater one – that’s a more difficult form of wonder.
Sometimes it’s simply a mystery.  We are called to service and we recognize the commonplace and yet awe-inspiring wonder that when we give, we receive; when we teach, we learn; when we served, we are served.

As we gather at the table this morning, let us remember that we do so as the children of God.  Let us remember that we are free to serve one another and to be served: in bread and cup and in all other aspects of life.  Let us remember that we are people of imagination:  people called to see in a simple meal the fulfillment of all human aspirations for love and hope and reconciliation.  Let us remember that we are people of wonder: people who walk with a God who calls us, over and over and over again, into a kingdom of love.  James tells us, echoing the Jesus who pulls children into his arms, “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”  Surely that is the great wonder of our lives.


Image: Sunrise at Wernersville (PA) Jesuit Retreat Center.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Blogging (Friday Five)

Well, the Friday Five is up, and I have a couple of major projects to complete, so I am in procrastination overdrive.  Hence, another post!  Jan writes:

Blogging at Google's Blogger, I recently was boondoggled by the new designs of the site, which includes my blog. I felt like I had lost track of all the blogs I daily check so that I asked for help both at my blog and on Facebook! Still trying to learn the ways of these new ways of blogging, I am turning our minds to blogging for this Friday Five.

1. When did you start blogging? What/who prompted you?

I started blogging on AOL  journals in March of 2004.  I had some kind of idea that I would get healthier (read: lose weight)  if I engaged my struggles in writing, in public.  That didn't happen, but I had a lot of fun, and I think that my writing improved, thanks to the daily discipline of putting something out there.  Those were great days -- pre-automatic readers, it wasn't unusual for a post to garner 15-25 comments, and a little community began to grow.  Two friends from those days are still blogging, and we remain faithful readers of one another.

2. How often do you post? How often do you visit blogging friends and/or other blogs?

I post most days, and there are several blogs which I read every day.  And several more which I read on occasion.

3. Why do you keep on blogging?

Beats me.  No, seriously, many of the things which have happened in my life are not all that usual, which is to say that among my circles of local friends, I have few who share the same experiences.  Blogging broadens the possibilities considerably.  None of my close friends at home have lost a child, but I have developed several deep friendships with other bereaved mothers through blogging.  None of my close friends here have had breast cancer, but a RevGal came to the rescue with emails and a phone call when I was at my lowest.  I could offer several more examples; they boil down to: I enjoy being connected to  a bigger world than the one within my physical grasp. 

4. What do you like to write about?


5. Have your blogging habits changed--or are they changing?

I used to both write and read more about politics (a little), travel, and photography.  After Josh died, I lost interest in pretty much everything, although I could force myself to deal with what was right in front of my nose.  I'd like to think that that's beginning to change.

Bonus: Recommend a blog or two.

You'll have to go to today's previous post for that!


No Friday Five yet, so I think I'll take a cue from my friend Jan and post seven random things. 

1.  I am feeling extremely restless.  I have way too much to do, a problem exacerbated by the fact that I have jury duty next week.  I am just this morning recognizing that I am going to have to complete many of my usual tasks in the evenings when I am tired and cranky. 

2. An excellent read: my friend Karen's post on her response to a well-intended but ultimately heartless remark in a church context.  I have to admit, though, that while I am sympathetic, having been the beneficiary of countless hurtful comments that were intended to help, I am also reminded of my own multiple failures in this regard.

3.  One of Christianity's most basic tenets is that God is unchanging.  It's not one that I have ever particularly believed.  I have no idea, really, why people find it to be comforting or reassuring or whatever they find it to be, to imagine or believe or hope that God is unchanging.  But this morning I woke up wondering whether it might be true, and what it might be like to know, in the core of my being, that God does not change.  And then I thought of Teresa of Avila's prayer:  

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

So, you know, I wonder.

4. Another excellent read: this one, from Law and Gospel.  I think that she must be an extraordinarily fine pastor.  I love being a pastor, and a spiritual director, but lately I have been thinking that I'm not very good at either.

5.  I am supposed to have my annual mammogram next week.  I suppose that I will have to change that appointment, due to jury duty.  I am trying not to think about it.  I tend to forget, most of the time, but last week I happened to be getting dressed in front of the bathroom mirror, and I happened to glance up, and I reacted as follows: "Oh my GOD!"

6. We are going to have our garage largely rebuilt.  It is, like our house, a nearly 100-year old brick building.  It has taken my husband and a friend six months to find matching bricks and guys who can do the work.  One of the walls was damaged by a tree planted much too close to it by the original owners; we removed the tree long ago, but the wall did not regenerate itself,  The front overhang was destroyed by carpenter ants a few summers ago. Our kitchen is a shambles, but we are going to get a garage.  I'm sure that says something.  

7.  I had a dream about Josh the other night.  He was standing on the steps in the breezeway of his high school, wearing his red and white soccer uniform, and talking to me about something mundane.  And then I woke up.  I am sure that that dream of a few seconds is why I am so unsettled and so desperately sad.  I hope that, unlike Karen, I manage to avoid people with fixing in mind.