Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Because of Katie (Book Review)

Katie Gerstenberger died at twelve from a particularly vicious form of cancer (I know; is there any other kind?) that moved with speed and in silence to strangle her internal organs before offering only the subtlest hints of its presence.  

I don't remember how I "met" Katie's mother Karen.  It happened sometime during that fog of the first couple of years after Josh's death, when I was searching for  . . .  well, I have no idea what I was searching for online, but among my discoveries were other mothers, other women whose lives had been transported to that other place where children die.  I suppose we all live in a Madeleine L'Engle novel, and not a very good one at that.

At some point, four of us connected in a particular way, and spent months together writing our way through a "retreat" with Joyce Rupp's book, Open the Door.  By that time, our children had been gone for awhile, and we had each reached a point at which we wanted to re-engage with the rest of the world.  Of the four of us, three had young adult children who had died suddenly, without warning: an unknown complication of an illness stalked a young man in the night, a rogue wave pulled a young woman out to sea, and depression claimed another young man, in the form of suicide.  Katie was by far the youngest of our children, and the only one to die after a lengthy illness.

Because of Katie chronicles the Gerstenberger family's experience with that illness, from the first hint that Katie was not bouncing back from what seemed to be some sort of childhood virus, through the terrifying testing and diagnosis, through the family move to the hospital, through Katie's return to home and hospice care, through her death.  Throughout the book, Karen offers commentary and suggestions that should be helpful to families and medical caregivers alike.  

I think that the book may prove particularly helpful to parents and older siblings caught in the same maelstrom of illness and procedures.  Karen describes the alarming disorientation of being sucked into the world of children's cancer and hospital life; in particular, the loss of privacy and the sudden appearance of an entire phalanx of personnel in her family's life, each representing a profession and set of responsibilities previously unknown to Katie's family.  Seattle Children's Hospital clearly represents a model of family centered care at its best.  The family is involved in every decision; parents are able to be present for every procedure.  School and tutoring options are available for patients and siblings alike ~ a semblance of normalcy and activity for those who as a family move far from home to access care for a child.  And yet . . .  some interactions go poorly.  And parents sometimes have to travel several floors to use the bathroom or take a shower!

Since the beginning of my breast cancer experience, I have realized anew how important it is to have a guide (or several) whose perspective mirrors your own.  I have learned a great deal about breast cancer from the doctors and nurses, of course, but none of them have provided much in the way of guidance about daily life and comfort.  That has all come from other women: from their books and phone calls and emails and blogs and, in the case of a couple of friends who are nurses, from their generous arrival on my doorstep to help with home care.  In the shocking world of children's cancer care, Karen Gerstenberger is such a guide.

No one would envy a mother whose child has died, but I think that in our little group of conversing mothers, the rest of us have envied Karen her time to care for Katie and to say good-bye.  What shines through this book, and is of far more importance than the medical detail (although I know that parents in similar situations will cling to that, and rightly so), is the closeness of the Gerstenberger family, a closeness forged in honesty and love as Katie's prognosis worsens.  Probably many of us have experienced that awful silence and isolation that accompanies serious illness and death; family and friends vanish into thin air, put off by the vehemence of our reactions, frightened by the physical realities, and afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing.  Karen's forthright approach to her daughter's final months will perhaps ease the way for others to know how to offer companionship to those in trouble.  And her honesty and compassion certainly serve as a model for other parents called to wade in these particularly deep waters alongside a beloved child.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Women Clergy

When I planned last week's installation service, I goofed.  All the clergy participants were women!  We are supposed to attempt balance in such things, but the combination of being in an unfamiliar presbytery and dealing with medical issues on a daily basis meant that my planning capacities were somewhat taxed.

This morning after church a woman in our congregation approached me to ask whether she could tape one of my sermons.  (We are not a high tech place; we don't record services on a regular basis.  Or on any basis.)  It turns out that one of her family members belongs to the Church of Christ (not !!! to be confused with the United Church of Christ), a hyper-conservative denomination that prohibits female leadership and also musical accompaniment of singing. ( Perhaps there's a connection, but I have no idea what that might be.  A particularly unusual reading of the Bible, perhaps?)  This person frequently denounces church practices that do not comport with her own, and is thereby creating some tension in her family.

"I told her that I wish so much that she'd been at your installation service,"  my parishoner said.  "I wish she could have heard and seen those women and all their education and training, all their gifts."  This woman is on the older side, and no doubt did not grow up with women as her pastors.  But she seems to have moved on with ease.

I was reminded of the words of a Catholic friend of mine after my ordination service last October.  "Not only were there so many women clergy," she said, "but it was so ordinary.  Accepted.  Not a big deal."

We don't have all the answers in the PC(USA), not by a long shot.  We definitely don't have all the answers where matters of gender and gender-related language is involved, especially where God is concerned.  We have a long way to go in terms of women's leadership in so-called "tall steeple" churches.  In contexts other than those in which ordination is required, the Catholic Church has a much longer and far more illustrious history than we do in the development of women leaders.

But at least half the students in my seminary are women.  Most of the presbytery executives and administrators I know are ordained women.  Many of the pastors I know are women.  We are used to hearing the good news proclaimed in both feminine and masculine voices. 

All good.  

Somewhere, Mary Magdalene is smiling.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Not Belonging (Breast Cancer)

My next surgery is Wednesday.  Probably my last.

I read some breast cancer message boards, some blogs. Not a lot.

I don't belong there.

Many of the women who write about breast cancer talk about how they have been changed -- by their illnesses, by their treatments, by their mothers' and sisters' deaths. 

How they have become stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more aware.

But, you know . . .  my mother died a long time ago . . .  and my son died . . .  of suicide.

I don't think I'm  any of those things as a result: neither stronger nor wiser nor more compassionate nor more aware.

Maybe even less?

I learned when I was seven that the universe is a chaotic and restless place in which terrible things happen.   That nothing is guaranteed and that life is hard and full of loss.

And then Josh died and I moved to another universe. 

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I kind of thought, Really?  Another thing?  Oh, well, of course, why not.

It was difficult to digest.  One night as we discussed treatment options, The Quiet Husband said, "You know, it is breast cancer." 

"Oh, yeah, right," I responded vaguely.  "I keep forgetting."

I haven't absorbed it, not at all.  Three surgeries, a breast gone, months of discomfort and pain.  Whatever.  None of it comes remotely close to the loss of a child. 

The main thing that has been a problem for me about breast cancer is that I need all my children and one of them is gone.  I mean, there have been other problems, especially with pain management.  But at the end of the day, none of them matter much to me.

So, there's no real place for me in the breast cancer community. I've talked to some incredible and wonderfully supportive women.  But I don't feel much connected to their particular ordeals.

I wonder, sometimes, if this disease had demanded more of me, if my chances of survival were at all diminished, whether it would seem more real.  I don't know, of course. But I kind of doubt it.

Perhaps women with breast cancer live in yet another universe, yet another one whose inhabitants share experiences from which outsiders are excluded.   But it seems light years to me from the one in which children are dead.

I wonder how many kinds of experiences there are, exactly, which so distance us from one another.

Image here.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Practicing the Desert - Sermon

Most of you probably know that A. is our contact person with the local paper.  Every week she sends in the scriptural texts and title for our Sunday sermon, so that they’ll appear on the Friday religion page.  The other night she stopped me and asked,” Now what was that sermon title?”  The woman from the paper had called her to make sure that she had it right – “Practicing the Desert” – could that be? ”Yes, that’s right,” I said, and A. walked away shaking her head.  I guess the lady at the paper had been shaking hers, too. “Practicing the Desert” -  what a weird title!
The topic of spiritual practice has become a popular one in the past several years.  The ancient church offers us a treasure trove of spiritual practices, or spiritual disciplines, but for several hundred years most of them were largely ignored or, at best, referred to in different terms.  Today we might wonder how to categorize them or describe them.  

 A few years ago, another pastor and I wondered about whether there’s a difference between spiritual practices and spiritual disciplines.  The words indicate different emphases perhaps, if you think about it:  A practice is something that we repeat in order to acquire some skill or proficiency.  Piano practice.  Baseball practice.  It’s a familiar enough word, right?  It comes from an ancient Latin word for work, and an ancient Greek word for to do --- or to see.  Interesting: it seems to involve both activity – doing – and some kind of understanding – seeing.

A discipline, on the other hand – perhaps that sounds a bit more rigorous.  A discipline also involves repetition in order develop a skill or knowledge, but it comes from the Latin word for instruction.  It seems to involve learning, being taught.  And it’s related to  the word disciple – now there’s a word we’re familiar with in the Christian context.  A disciple is a follower, someone who follows and learns from another.  Someone who learns to discern, to sort things out, according to the teaching of another.

So whether we call something a practice or a discipline, it involves repetition, it involves learning, it involves acquiring knowledge or skill from someone whose instruction we follow, knowledge or skill that will help us to discern, to sort, to figure out and live our lives.   

Quaker theologian Richard Foster, in his famous book of about thirty years ago, Celebration of Discipline, refers to the spiritual disciplines as “doors to liberation.”  He likes to break them down into inward disciplines, such a prayer and fasting, outward disciplines, such as simplicity and service, and corporate, and community disciplines, such as worship and celebration.  Dorothy Bass, who directs a university program on spiritual education and formation and has written several books on the Christian life, including one called Practicing Our Faith, emphasizes community.  She tells us that “Christian practices are things Christian people do together over time in response to and in the light of God’s active presence for the light of the world.”  She talks about many facets of life that we know well, but perhaps have not thought of in terms of Christian practice: things like household economics, and dying well, and singing our lives.

And recently, noted preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and college professor, wrote a wonderful book entitles An Altar in the World.  She brings a fresh, contemporary point of view to spiritual practice.  She wonders whether some of the ancient practices are so ritualistic as to turn people away; they sometimes seem hollow and boring.  We need to look right where we are, in our everyday lives, she says, for ways in which to become attentive to God.  “The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives,” she says, on her way to concluding that “What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them.”  She talks about spiritual practices that focuses on the reality that being human “requires a body as well as a soul,” and her chapters have titles like “The Practice of Carrying Water” and “The Practice of Pain.”   

Now perhaps you understand how I came by my weird sermon title.  Practicing the desert – it’s something we’re all called to do, whether or not we give it a name, or think of it as a spiritual practice.

Let’s start by taking a look at how Jesus experienced this practice, this sojourn in the desert.  Not that we get a lot of information from Mark who is, as he so often is, brief and to the point.  But he does give us some crucial information.

First of all, Jesus was driven into the desert.  He was not invited or escorted; it was not suggested to him  – he was driven into the desert by the Spirit. The spirit sees the desert as a necessary, life-forming and life-shaping experience. It’s an emphatic break from a past life, a jolt into solitude, into challenge, and into bleakness.

And for Jesus it comes right after the glorious moment of his baptism, a moment when he has emerged from the waters of the Jordan River to see a vision and hear a voice, a moment when his identity seems assured.  He sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove; he hears a voice say, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”    It certainly seems that from here on out all should be well.

But no – the desert lies ahead. And isn’t that so often the way of things?  All seems to be going beautifully, we seem to be making progress, achieving successes; we’re happy and comfortable – and then life falls apart and we find ourselves in a desert, in a wilderness not of our own making and certainly not of our choice.

Mark doesn’t tell us much about it  He tells us that Jesus was surrounded by wild beasts, and ministered to by angels, and that’s all he tells us directly.  We have to go to the gospels of Matthew and Luke to hear how Jesus was tempted by Satan, and how he responded by remembering and quoting the teachings of Scripture.  And we have to read the rest of Mark to learn what kind of a man Jesus became, what his priorities were, what, as some of my friends call them, his “non-negotiables” were, to understand what happened to him in the desert.  To understand what can happen to all of us in the desert.  We have to read the rest of the story, to see him teaching about a kingdom of justice and love, to see him caring and healing for others, to see him suffering and dying on the cross, to understand that the desert made of him an uncompromising ally of God the Creator and God the Spirit.

Early Chistians sought similar experiences of the desert, sought to practice the desert so that they, too, might become stauncher allies of God.  Among the most well known of them was one of the first, Antony of the Desert, considered to be the founder of monasticism. He headed out to the Egyptian desert in the late 200s, where he spent about thirty years in solitude, and became famous for his writings on inner spiritual warfare, on the battle a person does when confronted by those inner demons we all face at one time or another.  

Antony was followed by dozens of men and women, known to us as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who sought the clarity and wisdom that come with solitude.  To most of us today, it seems unlikely that we would find knowledge in emptiness, that we would hear God’s voice in the silence, that we might encounter God in the vast emptiness of a desert land.  We live, after all, in a world in which we are bombarded by sensory stimuli.  Most especially, we are bombarded by sound, and by busyness.  Many of us have our television sets on for most of the day – for company.  We listen to music or talk radio in the car.  We listen to Muzak when we shop, when we wait, when we get our teeth cleaned!  Silence is unfamiliar to us, and often uncomfortable for us.  Look at how we rush to say something when we are pending time with someone else.  Look at how difficult it is for us to sit silently in church!  It’s a universal problem of our age – silence is just not our milieu.

And yet – we find ourselves in the desert.  More often than not we are, like Jesus, driven there.  We don’t choose it.    

When . . .  How . . . have you experienced your own desert times?  When have you found yourself practicing the desert, learning from the desert, discovering that you have to sort things out in the desert, whether you want to or not?
Perhaps it was a failure in school or work?  The loss of a job, a farm, a business?

Perhaps it was a personal loss?  Of a marriage, of a loved one – a husband or wife, a child, a sibling, a best friend?

Perhaps a personal limitation drove you into the desert?  Perhaps an addiction?  A discovery that you are less capable in some areas than you imagined?  A misstep that brought the police to your door?  
             And then -- What does our culture tell us?

             It tells us to ignore the desert – to pick ourselves up -- to get back into
             circulation – to have a           drink – to pretend it never happened.

And we have a long history to back us up!  Need I tell you how many jokes and cartoons have as their subject Moses and the Israelites wandering the desert?  We look for humor in their desert experience because  when we are anxious, when we are filled with frustration and resistance, we want to find a way to laugh it off.  It’s not difficult, given the stories our Bible tells us, for us to imagine that resistance to and frustration with desert practice go back quite ways.
But Lent tells us to practice the desert, to learn the desert.  Lent tells us that there is value in the desert.   Lent reminds us that Jesus emerged from the desert strengthened and committed to his mission.  Scripture tells us repeatedly that, his forty day experience behind him and his ministry at hand, Jesus returned again and again to places of solitude in which to pray, that he found in the desert opportunities to reconnect with God, to seek guidance, to listen, and to be affirmed in who he was and what he was called to do.

Lent tells us that our lives can re-shaped by our desert experiences – that when we live into the demands of the desert, our lives can be re-focused, sharpened, clarified.  We can discover what’s truly important in our desert times.  We can discover who is really important in our desert times.

Now, that’s not always the case.  We all know people whose desert experiences have left them embittered, angry, and self-absorbed.  Sometimes people are broken by the practice of the desert.  Sometimes the wild animals of loss, of grief, of anger, of bewilderment – sometimes they are too much for us.  Sometimes a person finds it impossible to accept the ministrations of others, those angels in the desert who arrive to support and care for us.

But when we can accept our desert times as Spirit-driven, they can prepare us for an unexpected future.  Look back and see: The desert fathers and mothers became sources of wisdom for their followers, for the communities that sprang up after them, and for us today.  Look back further: in the desert, Jesus shed all the expectations which clung to him as a first century Galilean and committed himself to the reign of God, to ushering into human history the good news of new life.   

When we enter the desert, whether driven there by the circumstance of our lives, or whether we choose a season apart, we may find that it deepens our relationships with God. Jeremy Hall, a Benedictine sister in her 80s who herself spent two decades living in solitude, tells us that “[i]n Christian faith and life, the seemingly or really negative aspect is always for the positive.  Not only is the desert for the Promised Land, but Lent is for Easter; death is for more life, as Christ’s death was; discipline is for strength and vitality; real obedience is for real freedom.   [And] silence is for the word, and solitude is for communion."  

So if you find yourself practicing the desert, if you find yourself in a place in which the landscape is bleak and the wind howls through the emptiness, know that Jesus went before you, and he goes before you still.  Where you are called he has been, and he has triumphed on your behalf.  Thanks be to God.

Serendipity Kinds of Things (The Spiritual Exercises)

Yesterday a friend wrote about something unexpectedly wonderful.

And on the Ignatian Spirituality blog, someone posted about how there's always something good.

Well, no.  There isn't.  Sometimes things are unremittingly bad.

But unexpectedly wonderful things do happen.

There were three kinds of responses to my email hacking problem (plus the helpful ones about what to do), which sent evil links to everyone on my contact list.  A lot of the emails bounced back, thanks to spam and virus programs.  Most people figured out what was going on and deleted without comment.  And some people emailed to me ask me whether I'd been hacked.

One in the latter group was my very first Jesuit Jesuit spiritual director.  I sent back an explanation and then, realizing that we hadn't communicated in a couple of months, sent a short email filling him in on my life and asking about his.  He responded with a draft of an article on which he's working in which he talks, among other things, about the revitalization of the Spiritual Exercises in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1960s he was a young Jesuit gaining much from that rethinking of the Exercises; forty-five years later he was passing the renewed tradition on to me.

(And in a humorous aside, one of my own directees commented, after finishing the Exercises, that she had told her friends that she had been sort of surprised by my approach and wondered how it could be called spiritual direction, although at the end she could see that it was effective.  "Oh, that's because I first learned how to do this from H!" I laughed.)

At any rate, I wrote back with a response to the article and how what he writes about has affected me, and he responded with a comment not-for-blogging, about how profoundly God has been active in my life, especially though these past few years. 

And I thought, Now that was a gift of my email having been hacked.

So yes, wonderful things do happen, even in the context of internet chaos and frustration.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Emptiness Friday Five

In an intriguing question for Lent, Sally writes: I have been pondering this Friday Five over and over in my mind, but I am coming up with nothing, so I am wondering; what do you do when you feel empty of all creativity and unable to make/do anything? This is a completely open question, the only rule is name 5 things that fill/ inspire you.

Let's see:

I go for a long walk, usually with my camera.

I write a blog post about emptiness in one of its many guises!

I read poetry, especially Mary Oliver poetry.

I start on what I anticipate will be the boring and tedious part of a research or writing project, thinking that I might as well at least get it out of the way.

I sit around and dwell in the emptiness.

My own personal bonus point:  What I do NOT do is clean house!

Image: Cedar Key FL, Christmas 2010.  When I thought about images for emptiness, this one leapt to mind.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Yes, It's a Virus or a Hacker

Yes, everyone in my contacts list is receiving weird emails.  

I will try to rectify the situation tonight, when I have access to what I might need to do so.  In the meantime, I haven't seen any evidence of the evil emails for about eleven hours, so I'm hoping . . . 

Way too much of my life, including this blog, is connected to that email account, and google has got itself so tangled up in knots that I can't just change the email associated with the blog.

So . . . practice good online stewardship and don't open anything that makes no sense!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ignatian Prayer Adventure - Reflection 2

This video on spiritual freedom is part of the Ignatian Prayer Adventure (see sidebar).

I think we all struggle with what Ignatius called "disordered attachments." Ignatius tells us that we should not allow ourselves to become attached to one preference over the other where they distract us from our engagement with God, from, as Jim Manney says, "becoming the loving [people] God created [us] to be."  Among the examples he gives are health and sickness which is, of course, the one that hit me right between the eyes as I watched the video presentation.

I think that perhaps I am coming to understand this concept of disordered attachments for the very first time, after years of confused attempts to do so.

Since early December, I have been highly focused upon and utterly flummoxed by matters of health.  After my initial surgery, I faced several weekly procedures which I had been told would be relatively uncomplicated and pain free.  It turned out that I was in that group of women for whom such a characterization fell wide of the mark.

Week after week, I would begin to do yoga and take daily walks on Saturday, working myself up to a very slow two-mile stroll by Wednesday; then I would go to the doctor at around noon on Thursday, and find myself completely immobilized by pain for the next 36 hours.   I was taking so much medication to get through those miserable periods that I began to wonder whether liver failure was going to become a complication of breast cancer.

As I struggled with the pain, and therefore with re-thinking all of the treatment decisions I had made, and forced myself to continue with my work and to move my body as much as I could, my life of prayer began to sink below the horizon.  I was all about attachment: to my recovery, to my work, to my sense of determination. 

I can see that now, now that I have had a few procedure-free weeks.  And interestingly, if I go back further, back to my immediate post-surgery days, I see that during those couple of weeks when I could make very few choices about my daily life, when I was not yet capable of focusing upon (or attaching myself to the goal of) improvement, but could only be what I was, someone just out of major surgery, my prayer life was flourishing.

I spent a lot of my imaginative prayer time during those days contemplating Ignatius, he of the cannon-ball injury that produced great physical pain and destroyed his own life plans.  And contemplating how he prayed, and following suit. 

I was not wishing for much; I was not attached to much beyond my recliner in my warm living room.  Everything else was out of my hands ~ whether the cancer had spread or not, whether I would bounce back or not, whether I would ever again be able to focus clearly ~ literally and metaphorically, whether I would ever be a "real pastor" or not. And so I opened myself up to listening to God in ways that a few weeks later would become far more difficult.

I don't think that I would recommend major and disfiguring surgery as the road to the practice of detachment.  But perhaps detachment requires that we imagine ourselves into the frame of mind that accompanies such trauma:  Let it go, and see what it is that God invites us into.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ignatian Prayer Adventure - Reflection 1

The scripture reading suggested for this past Sunday, Day 1 of Loyola Press's Ignatian Prayer Adventure, was from the beginning of Isaiah 43, one verse of which reads as follows:

When you pass through waters, I will be with you;
through rivers, you shall not be swept away.
When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned,
nor will flames consume you.

All day, I thought about that verse.  While participating in our adult Sunday school class, while leading worship and preaching, while hanging  out with The Lovely Daughter in the early afternoon, while greeting leaders and guests and engaging in my service of installation  as pastor and celebrating communion and enjoying the reception afterward, while making the long drive home in the dark with my daughter,  even while relaxing with the Downton Abbey finale ~ I thought about that verse.

The waters and fire through which we walk are our terrible loss of Josh.  It is not so hard for me, not anymore, to see how God has been with us.  When I look at the photograph I posted yesterday, I can tell you with great specificity about things which almost every person pictured therein did for us in the first worst days of our lives.  That was how God walked with us.

But among the many plagues of suicide is the relentless question:  Where was God when someone you loved, someone for whom you would have walked straight into any fire or through any deluge of water, was ending his or her life?  Where was God when a beloved child was being swept away and consumed by whatever horror of anguished confusion brought him to such a crucible? 

I suppose that the question is similar for any parent who has lost a child in any way.

And so the question becomes: can you trust in the words of Isaiah when all the evidence available to you is to the contrary?  Can you believe in those words entirely in the dark?  Can you have confidence that God walks even with those who have vanished from our sight?  

People are, of course, swept away by floodwaters and consumed by flame, just as they are swept away by mental illness and consumed by cancer. 

Is it possible to believe in these words by grasping that they are, as mere words, inadequate to the task at hand?   I should think that the second line, for instance, would inflict great pain on a mother whose child was washed away by a tsunami.  But perhaps it is intended to convey something far more wonderful than the literal image:  that although a child be subject to the usual vagaries and catastrophes of earthly life, she will never be swept out of God's purview. 

Because death does not separate us from the love of Christ.

And why should it?  It does not separate us from the love of one another.  If that is so for us, then how much more so  must it be where God is concerned?

There was nothing reassuring or comforting about verses such as these three years ago.  But now, perhaps, perhaps they offer just the smallest glimmer of insight.

Monday, February 20, 2012

These Are the Faces of . . . .

survivors, and the friends who walk with them.

When I looked through the installation service photographs again this morning, this is the one that struck me.  These are the folks from our home communities who came to celebrate with us.  The man to my right is a good friend with whom I have shared training and experience as a spiritual director.  He's also an elder in my home church and delivered the charge to the newly installed pastor (that would be me) yesterday.  The woman to my left is one of our home church pastors and delivered the sermon yesterday.  The man to your far right is our home church senior pastor and preached Josh's funeral service.  The woman smack in the middle is the Musical Friend to whom I've often referred, whose husband died very suddenly only a few months before we lost Josh.

Four of the people in this photograph have survived seminary (which would have been quite sufficient by itself), the suicide of a child, and the breast cancer of the mom over the past few years. All of the other folks have known us through all of that and, in most cases, for two decades before. 

Really, these are the faces of friendship and love.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


When a pastor is called to a Presbyterian Church, a service of installation is held and he or she is installed into the new position by the Presbytery, the regional governing body.

I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament (and, in our new parlance, a Teaching Elder) by my home presbytery in my home church back on October 30.  We had originally scheduled the installation service in my new church and new presbytery for the next Sunday, but the exigencies of breast cancer pushed that plan back until ~ this afternoon!

I think that I'll remember the dates: ordination on Reformation Sunday and installation on Transfiguration Sunday!

And I think the picture I'll post here is one of my family. We have been through hell together, and we miss our Josh, but we sure celebrated tonight.

And P.S., because it would be of interest to certain friends: It was not by design, but all of the clergy participating this afternoon were women!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Daily Examen (Book Reviews)

Since the Ignatian Prayer Adventure for Lent (see previous post) begins tomorrow, this is an appropriate time to mention a couple of books that do a wonderful job of presenting a crucial spiritual practice that many people refer to, as the first title indicates, as life-changing: the examination of consciousness.  

I have to admit to being lax and erratic in this prayer practice myself, which is why I was grateful when my friend Wayne brought the Jim Manney book back to my attention a few weeks ago.  It's on my Kindle, I'd already read it . . . but for some reason the timing for renewal was just right.  And now Law and Gospel has returned from retreat with a review of the second book.  So, OK: you have my attention.

Most often referred to in the past as the examen of conscience, implying that at its heart is a look at matters of conscience, i.e., sin,  the examen has been re-thought and re-imagined in the past several years as the examen of consciousness, meaning:  It's a way by which we become conscious of how God has been present in our days, of when and where we have been close to God, been moving toward God, been aware of God, and when and where not.  In Ignatian terms, it's a way of becoming aware of God in all things.

The practice itself is simple, although different folks tend to emphasize different aspects.  Essentially, it incorporates a prayer to move into God's light, an expression of gratitude, a look at the events of the day, and a plea for help with what's coming tomorrow.  There is good reason to do it at the end of the day, but any time that works will do.  And while the formal examen itself might take no more than ten minutes, a daily practice is likely to result in a growth in examen-type awareness throughout the day.

Jim Manney's book has more of an instructional bent; the Linn book is more experiential and anecdotal.  They compliment one another well, and both are short, meaning that they are quick reads and easy to refer back to.

The Linns point out that "the criteria for hearing the voice of God, as Ignatius did, is not holiness, but rather the willingness to become aware."  If you've wondered about a more contemplative approach to prayer, about how to pray in a way that involves more in the way of looking and listening than speaking and imploring, the examen is a good place to start.

(And if you'd prefer an article over a book as a starting point, "Rummaging Backward Through Your Day" is another excellent introduction to this little but powerful practice.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lent with Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises

If you are looking for a Lenten prayer practice, several Loyola Press bloggers have put together An Ignatian Prayer Adventure, an experience that looks as if it will be terrific.   It will appear in a variety of formats across a number of sites, starting on Sunday (day after tomorrow).

A post outlining the structure can be found here.  (And there's a link in my sidebar.) I wish there were one blog on which all the relevant daily posts were being gathered but, alas, such is not the case.  For someone as disorganized as I, it will be a challenge to locate what's happening from day to day, but I plan to keep up as best I can.  (You can subscribe to all the blogs involved, if that would be helpful to you.)

This online series will follow the structure of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, so if you've made the Exercises, the framework will be familiar to you and, if you haven't, it will offer you a taste of what may become a way of life.

I'll no doubt post my reactions from time to time, and I invite you to do the same, whether you are able to follow the entire course of posts or plan just to dip a toe into the water here and there.

Image: Path into the woods, Guelph (ONT) Jesuit Retreat Centre, 2007.

Here Be Dragons (Book Review)

Many thanks to Quotidian Grace for directing me to Sharon Kay Penman's historical fiction.  Here Be Dragons is a fantastic read.

Set in thirteenth century Wales, this first novel in a trilogy focuses on the seemingly unending conflicts over lands and castles among the English, Normans, and Welsh by zeroing in on the loves and heartbreaks of Welsh Prince Llewelyn and his wife Joanna, daughter of King John of England.  Many readers will recognize some of the characters, if from not history, then from a mingling of Shakespeare and film -- John's mother Eleanor of Acquitaine, his brother Richard, and John himself.

The novel offers a lush portrayal of landscapes, personalities, intrigues, gentility, brutality, and relationships forged by both politics and romance, all woven into a fascinating tale by a meticulous researcher and consummate storyteller.  My only complaint? Welsh is a confounding language, and so the names are difficult to track.  But as my husband's family were Welsh coal miners who arrived on Ellis Island in the early twentieth century,  my interest in the lives of their medieval forbears prodded me forward.

I did a bit of googling, and the image above is of one of Lleweyln's castles, Criccieth.  According to the site where I found the photo, "Criccieth Castle, established by the Welsh Prince Llywelyn Fawr (Llewelyn the Great) and later enlarged by King Edward the First of England, is a landmark for miles around and dominates the small town. Welsh castles usually typify the history of the English and the Welsh nations. The English built the castles, the Welsh knocked them down and in-between they fought each other. However, in Criccieth's case the Welsh built the castle, the English tried to knock it down, the English then rebuilt it and in between, they fought each other."

Behind all that knocking down and fighting, the Welsh and their neighbors found plenty of time for personal drama.   Medieval Wales was no place for the faint of heart, whether woman, man, or child, but it made for great stories of human courage, valor, foolishness, cruelty, ambition, and love.

I'm working on the second novel in the trilogy now.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Forget Me Not: A Memoir (Book Review)

I thought I'd catch up with a few book reviews while I recover from  being so sick that I barely moved for several days.

I read Forget Me Not: A Memoir some weeks ago.  It popped up as a Kindle recommendation and I was intrigued by the wildly divergent reviews.  Was the man in question a genuinely loving and committed husband and father whose career happened to interfere with his home life to an extreme degree? Or was he a callow and selfish sort, bent on fulfilling his own desires to the exclusion of all else?

As with most of us, I suspect, the truth lies somewhere in between.  Alex Lowe was a world-class mountain climber, killed in an avalanche; the book chronicles the memories of his wife, artist (and often fellow climber) Jennifer Lowe-Anker, of their courtship, marriage, family, and final separation.

It's not the best-written book in the world, but it intrigued me for two reasons.

For one, our family has always enjoyed the outdoors ~ my husband and I took a few backpacking trips in our pre-children decade, and then with our three we shared hiking, backpacking, and backcountry canoeing.  I always knew that we were rank amateurs, but: Wow!  There is a dimension of outdoor engagement and skill of which I was completely unaware.  This book offers a glimpse into that world, in which people devote their lives to little-known climbing activities in remote and dangerous locales, lives which are often drastically shortened as a consequence of the passion for one more climb.   Sometimes Jennifer forgets her audience, and the jargon obscures the realities for the reader unfamiliar with her world, but on  the whole she presents a vivid picture of a dramatic way of life most of us will never encounter.

I was also intrigued by the struggles between Jennifer and Alex over the demands of his work.  As their sons were born, Jennifer gradually reduced her own outdoor activities, partly because of the demands of motherhood and her artistic career, and partly because her own physical safety became more of a concern once she had children.  But Alex was often away, undertaking lengthy and dangerous trips all over the globe, frequently sponsored by corporations underwriting the ventures of the world's finest climbing athletes.  At times his loving (and frequently eloquent) letters to his wife and sons became part of journeys filmed and written about for public consumption, and they generated debate about his commitment to his family vis-a-vis his passion for risky work that frequently took him far from  home.  

In the end, I felt that the separations were not unlike those many families endure for the sake of a career; perhaps they seem more significant in the case of the Lowe family simply because of the dramatic and unusual nature of the work at hand.  My guess is that many wives (and some husbands) of world class performers in any arena ~ executives, musicians and artists, sports teams ~ have similar stories to tell, and that Jennifer's frustrations and dilemmas would resonate with them.

Overall ~ a quick and intriguing read, set in a world of outdoor adventure little known to most of us.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Wernersville Silence

For my friends who continue to wonder about the silence:

Another lawyer-turned-pastor and seeker of silence, Law and Gospel begins to write about her recent Wernersville retreat. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Calvin and Ignatius: The Lighter Side

I've long been intrigued by the simultaneous presence of John Calvin and Ignatius of Loyola in Paris during their student years.  Supposedly their portraits hang next to each other in what is now a government building.  We never managed to see them when we were there a few years go, but a friend and professor of mine attempted to do so last month.  It seems that the paintings have been moved and, according to her FB post, the response of a librarian to her request for information about their location side-by-side was as follows:

"Jamais, jamais ~ cote a cote dans l'eglise catholique ~ jamais!!" ~  with hands demonstrating an emphatic "Impossible!"

Choice? Response? Wrest? Accept?

I give these matters a lot of thought.

Do we choose our lives? Or do we respond to (or reject) the invitations our lives present to us?

Do we wrest and wrangle our life choices from a plethora of options?  Or do we gracefully (or not) accept what comes our way?

Do we make our own way?  Or does something or someone greater than ourselves call us, seek us out, offer our lives to us?

Are there genuine differences among the answers to these questions? 

Intriguingly, these two images popped up on my computer this morning, the first from a breast cancer blog and then second from a Facebook friend's post.  

One or the other?  Both?  It depends?

I'm starting to know what I think, believe, and understand about these questions; what about you?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Serious Illness: What Would You Want to Know?

Due to a series of encounters over the past few years, I've come to realize that my own thirst for knowledge (INTP-related, apparently) is not universally shared.

A few months ago, a local pastor asked me to fill in for him while he was away, and so one day I spent some time with a gentleman who was suffering from metastasized cancer.   He was alert and engaging, discussing the national political situation, his recent travels, and his doctor's suggestion that he consider hospice care.  His own preference was to continue with his chemotherapy.

"What does your doctor say about your prognosis at this point?" I asked him.  "What effect is continued chemo likely to produce?"

"I don't know," said the man.  He paused.  "That's not really a question you want to ask."

I sat quietly, thinking, "That's exactly the question I would ask."

The conversation reminded me of several that I had had with my dying stepmother a few years ago.   When her doctor told her that he was cancelling the remainder of her course of chemotherapy, that it was doing more harm than good, she refused his counsel and insisted on a treatment that afternoon.

My stepmother and father and I had many conversations over the short course of her illness, but never, to my recollection, did we have a candid discussion about her prognosis.  I made some attempts, but was rebuffed at every turn.

At the time, I blamed the doctor.  It seemed to me that at the beginning of their relationship, he had built up, or permitted to be built up, her expectations for survival  ~ despite her appearing in his life with three inoperable lung tumors and ten lesions in her brain ~ and that a few months later, his approach caught up with him:  he  had not provided the information and counseling necessary to support an end-of-course change in direction.

But now . . .  I wonder.  In retrospect, it seems that my stepmother was incapable of hearing the words that would have described the reality of her predicament.  And my father as well.  After she died, my father expressed tremendous resentment toward the doctor for not explaining what her treatment would entail, stating that if they had understood how sick the chemo would make her in exchange for a 1% chance at survival, they would have opted out.  But who knows, in the aftermath, who said what and who heard what?

That sort of conversation is not an immediate concern for me personally.  There is no reason for me to expect anything to come of my bout with breast cancer.

But if it were a concern for me, I'm 99.99% sure of what I would do.  I may not be much interested in plastic surgery, but I am very interested in disease progression and outcome.  I am most especially interested in life and death.

If I had metastasized cancer, you can bet that I would insist upon a lengthy conference with my doctor(s), and that I would emerge with a clear picture of all likely outcomes and what each would involve.  And then I would call hospice to arrange a similar meeting.

And if we were talking weeks, or even months, I would put aside everything else for the things I would like very much not to miss in this life.

And I would, I think, be intrigued by and curious about my final months here.  As someone said in a Christian Century article some years back, "Dying is not a medical process.  Dying is a spiritual process."

(And, you know, one of my children is dead.  There is very little left for me to fear.  Other than physical pain ~ I'm not a fan of that.)

My real concern now is not me, however.  My real concern is other people.  We live in such a death-phobic culture that even deeply religious people (and the man with whom I was meeting was a lifelong church leader) approach their own in a state of resistance and denial.

And I'm not at all sure of how to approach that.  

People often make remarks, in funeral homes and at gravesides, to the effect that "He waged such a valiant battle."  And if someone tells his doctor that he's finished, had enough, is headed for home and hospice, those friends of Job say, "Don't give up."  Over and over again in my hospital  chaplaincy did I witness the latter: adult children insisting that elderly parents in what were clearly the last days of their lives "not give up."

I tend look at these situations in a way diametrically opposed to that which our culture fosters.  To my way of thinking, a person who asks to be told what is likely to happen to her, and then insists upon the beach over the hospital, is one with great fortitude.

But I can't slice of gash of clarity into another person's carefully constructed portrait of himself.  I can't assume that, because my own thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, so is that of everyone else.  I have to realize that careful omissions of information that I would angrily refer to as "lies" are can be sources of comfort for others.

What to do, I wonder?  How to listen?

What would you want to know?

Image here.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Trying to Develop an Interest in Plastic Surgery

Actually, I just can't.  Breast reconstruction is simply not a topic of interest to me.

I have an appointment with my plastic surgeon this morning.  His office called to arrange it; I suppose that it's for the purpose of a final discussion of options.

I just don't much care.

I suppose that if I were doing this for solely cosmetic reasons ~ something that I personally cannot fathom but, you know: whatever floats your boat ~ I would be obsessed with every detail, and would be headed in there with a notebook filled with questions.

But I'm doing it so that I look ok when I'm dressed.  That's my standard: Be able to wear an ordinary t-shirt without causing people to look at me with raised eyebrows or to run screaming from the room.  

There is, quite simply, no surgery that will restore my body.  From what little I've read, each option has its pluses and minuses so ~ whatever: choose one.  In a few years there will be one or another kind of complication, or there won't.  I have no real control over any of it.

And do I care?  Not much.  I suppose that I will care a lot if the silicone leaks and I end up with an autoimmune disorder.  But I have no control over whether the silicone leaks. 

As far as the surgery itself, which takes place in three weeks (if I can get rid of this cold, which keeps coming and going), I feel about the same.  Maybe the pain will be minimal and I will sleep for a few days and then get back to church, all as predicted.  Maybe it will be horrible and I'll have to take unexpected time off.  Again, I have no control over it.  (Same refrain.)

The only positive thing I've been able to do for myself is to look at the website of the local Buddhist meditation center.  Look; that's all.  I may call today and see whether anyone affiliated with it does one-to-one mindfulness meditation instruction.  I think I could stand some help with that "long, loving look at the real."

Basically, I can't believe this.  I have all of Lent to prepare for.  I have my installation service in ten days.  I have about ten people suffering from cancer and its treatment, falls, broken body parts, and various other physical crises.  And I have to think about silicone.

Image: Jean Mannheim, here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Life as a Pastor

I realized a few days ago that I've written very little about my new life.  Partly, I haven't yet sorted out what I can write about and what I can't.  And partly, and I think that I might be forgiven this, the last few months have been a series of challenges that often snowball into a sense of being completely overwhelmed: call to a church, breast cancer diagnosis, approval for ordination, two lumpectomies, ordination (!) service, mastectomy, several months of enduring varying degrees of pain (no, not "discomfort"),  and of course, overshadowing and often overpowering everything, the terrible loss of Josh.

But yesterday I took some time to reflect upon what I do with my time these days, and realized that while I have my doubts about working, yet again, far from home, I am deeply grateful that a Sunday of mine included:

Leading worship and preaching,

Chairing a nominating committee meeting of folks dedicated to the well-being of their church,

Visiting and getting to know a young man in the hospital,

Visiting a woman in the hospital previous night's shopping trip last night resulted in three breaks in her leg, and

Stopping by to pray with a woman ~ as well as with her daughter and a friend ~ whose cancer has taken an aggressive turn for the worse.

As a bonus, I got to spend a couple of hours Friday with some of my favorite people, as I serve on the advisory board of the program in which I trained as a spiritual director, and then there are the people with whom I am  able to meet again in direction, now that my energy has returned.

And as this week has progressed, there have been more hospital visits and, this afternoon, our first foray into after-school programming.  The three children who are regulars in our church showed up, along with three others, and by the end of the day they were enthusiastically asking whether they might bring friends next week.  After the kids had left and everything had been cleaned up, I sat down for a long and candid conversation with one of the women who'd helped and realized, as we left, that I am beginning to feel at home here.

A few years ago, all this seemed an unattainable fantasy.  Absorbed by my life with God, fascinated by lives in ministry, completely intrigued by the then unknown to me practice of spiritual direction ~ I was filled with longings, but convinced that a complete life transformation for a woman in her fifties with two careers already under her belt and three sets of tuitions demanding payment was out of the question.

Life did not unfold as I hoped, of course, and yet: here I am. Minus a child, minus a breast (and only one of those losses  matters at all, and it matters completely, and neither is a subject for gratitude), and yet:

I am so grateful that my work invites me into the nooks and crannies of people's lives of faith.  I am so grateful that, when it became clear that ministry called, I did not sit around downing margaritas and muttering about how old I was.  I am so grateful that, when matters of discernment loomed large, those spiritual directors in my life never communicated the slightest apprehension about my efforts to move forward.

Last year at about this time, I suffered an enormous disappointment with respect to a ministerial position which I deeply wanted.  I was surprised and hurt by the rejection, and in a state of considerable despair ~ should I just give up? ~ called the Jesuit who has directed my last two eight-day retreats.

I could hear him rolling his eyes over the telephone.  "You're doing just fine," he said.  "What does Jesus say?  'By their fruits shall you know them,' right?  You're teaching, you're doing spiritual direction, people are happy with your work.  Look at the fruits; you're fine."

I'm finally beginning to believe that he might have been right.

Image here.