Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year in Travels

New Year's in Toronto, where I got to meet a PFO friend and as a family we did some touristy stuff:

The College of Wooster (OH), where I helped direct a Busy Persons' Retreat:

Dearborn, thanks to an invitation to help with an Ecumenical Women's Lenten Retreat:
Wernersville (PA) Jesuit Center for my own retreat and a week-end led by Marty Laird, O.S.A., author of Into the Silent Land:
Washington, D.C. to lobby for suicide prevention legislation:
Providence (RI) to hang out with family:
and go to Waterfire:
and journey to Boston:
and spend a few days in Little Compton:
and one on Block Island:
Atlanta, to attend an Older Adult Ministries Conference and to remember Josh:
A pilgrimage to Chicago, ashes in hand, with meet-ups with a RevGal, another Loyola Press friend, and a classmate of Josh's:
A day in Columbus to witness Matt sworn in to the Ohio Bar:
A snowy family Thanksgiving in Jamestown (NY):
And a Christmas trip home to southern Ohio and the Catholic portion of my roots:
I was under the impression that I hadn't gotten to go anywhere this year!  I guess I meant that I didn't get to the beach in Florida, a situation which needs to be remedied asap.  But it seems that I got around.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Cool Ursuline Stuff

We've been down in southern Ohio visiting my family for a couple of days.  Since a Great Controversy erupted this past fall among the alums of my Catholic boarding school over a new project to eliminate a dam and reclaim a creek on the nuns' property, I thought I'd go over and photograph the project so that I could post pictures on FB.
While I was there, I took some other photos on the campus.  The one below is a rendition, made by  a sister/artist/friend, of Julia Chatfield's placing of a cross in the wilderness when she and ten other sisters arrived from France in 1845:

The campus is located about 30 miles north of Cincinnati.  Some history (underlining is mine), for anyone who's interested in women's education, Catholic education, Catholic sisters, and a host of others topics, from the website of Cincinnati's Ursuline Academy:

"[In] 1474 . . .  Angela Merici was born in Desenzano, a small town in northern Italy. Early in her life Angela had a direct indication from the Holy Spirit that she would found, in Brescia, a company of women consecrated to the Lord. Angela established the Ursulines in 1535. It was the first non-cloistered community of women in the history of the church, and the first religious community for women begun by a woman. Inspired by Gospel challenges, Angela and her followers reached out to rich and poor alike with special concern for the development of a strong family life. A true educator, Angela empowered people to reach their full potential and to use their skills in service.

From their foundation in Italy, Ursuline communities were established all over Europe. They came to the "New World" via Canada in 1639. Ursulines established the very first religious community of women in the United States in New Orleans in 1727.

The Ursulines of Brown County were founded by another woman of vision and faith, Julia Chatfield. As an Ursuline of Bologne-sur-mer, her pioneer spirit enticed her to accept the invitation of Bishop John Purcell to come to the newly formed Cincinnati diocese in 1845. The Ursulines of Bologne-sur-mer and Beaulieu joined forces and sent Julia Chatfield and ten other nuns to St. Martin where the diocese had built a seminary and established a parish. The seminary was being moved back to Cincinnati and the sisters were given 400 acres of land to be used for educational purposes.
Sister Julia Chatfield became Ohio’s “pioneer nun” whose determination to establish education in the wilderness endures after 165 years. She was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame on June 5, 2001 in recognition of the accomplishments she achieved:
  • In 1845 Sr. Julia answered a call to come to Ohio from France;
  • Sr. Julia founded the Ursulines of Brown County in Ohio, a congregation of women religious that endures today;
  • Sr. Julia established a resident school for young women incorporated in 1846 under the title St. Ursula Literary Institute. After 135 years, the school closed in 1981;
  • Sr. Julia instilled her determination to promote education into her successors; for example:
    • 1896 – establishment of Ursuline Academy of Cincinnati, a college preparatory school for young women;
    • 1940s – Ursuline Sisters’ participation in elementary and secondary education in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and beyond, in higher education, and adult education;
    • 1971 – Chatfield College – St. Martin and Cincinnati campuses serving Appalachian and inner city populations.
Some of the most important things I know about how to be a person, I learned from Ursuline nuns.  From the cemetery, a plaque listing those who came from France: women of faith and courage and determination.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

From our house (where Glinda, the Church Parking Lot Cat, has a starring role) to yours . . . May this be a day of light and joy!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Light Has Shined (Christmas Eve Sermon)

As I started to prepare this sermon, I found myself thinking about light.  Light in all sorts of forms, to start with.  Starlight.  Fireworks.  The diffuse light that illuminates a room.  The sharp and focused light that comes from a flashlight in the woods or a reading light on the page of a book.  Night lights. Ambulance lights.  All kinds of light.

But what I was mostly thinking about was: What is light? I know very little, which is to say nothing, about physics, and so I started to google questions like: What is light?  What is light made of?  How does light travel?

These questions got me into big trouble almost immediately.  I didn’t understand anything that I was reading.  One of the things I read, repeatedly and in various sources, was that light is both a wave and a particle.  What, I wondered, are waves and particles?  How was I supposed to come here and talk tonight about Jesus Christ, light of the world, as a wave or a particle?

Getting nowhere on my search, I called my friend Michelle.  Michelle is a faithful Catholic woman who writes with grace and elegance about the spiritual life.  She is also a college physics professor who is accustomed to explaining science to those of us with little understanding of the numbers and formulae that make it all comprehensible.

And what Michelle told me was this: Think of light as a ripple in the fabric of the universe. 

A ripple in the fabric of the universe.  Doesn’t that sound beautiful?  A ripple, constantly on the move, undulating and sparkling as it moves through air, as it sweeps across surfaces of land and water, and as it  penetrates darkness.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” That’s what our reading from the prophet Isaiah tells us tonight.  That the people who walked in darkness have seen a great ripple in the fabric of the universe; it has shined on them.

Isaiah was speaking to a people who lived centuries before the birth of Jesus; he was speaking to a people bowed down by oppression and made weary by loss and hopelessness.  He was not talking about people walking in the literal darkness; he was talking about people whose lives felt dark, people who felt as if they could not find their way, people who could not throw of the yoke of tyranny and subjugation.  People whose lives speak to us, centuries later, as we await the dawn breaking into the darkness. 

We, too, often feel as if we live in a land of deep darkness, don’t we?  We try to avoid it, that land of darkness. On Christmas Eve, fresh from malls and stores, inundated by commercials and still trying to finish wrapping those presents, we want to maintain a festive attitude, don’t we?  But let’s pause for a few moments, to recall the darkness in which we walk:
The loss of loved ones to job changes, to moved, death, to illness, to injury, to divorce, to disagreements,
Problems with health, with marriages, with children, with employment, with unemployment, with relationships of all kinds,
General worries and anxieties, fears, frustrations, depression, loneliness, hopelessness,
                The challenges of shootings, of drugs, of thefts, of homelessness, of abuse, of poverty, and       of hunger,
Clouds of darkness looming over us in the form of Warfare, of natural disasters, of international tensions, of political political and social crises. 
We all face it at least at times, don’t we – walking in the darkness?  And yet – light shines on those who live in a land of great darkness. Light shines on all kinds of people who live in a land of great darkness.

We tell a story tonight filled with people walking in darkness. Some of them are represented by the figures right back here on our communion table, but some of them aren’t, and those are the ones I want to start with.  Let’s start with the emperor, Caesar Augustus, in charge of the Roman Empire at the time Jesus was born.  The Roman Empire was huge, covering the entire circle of land around the Mediterranean Sea and extending upward into what today we know as France and England, and there were many people in charge of ensuring that censuses were taken and taxes were paid.  Lots of people who furthered the oppression forced on subject peoples by the Romans.  People who walked in darkness because their jobs, or their personal allegiances, or their families, forced them into situations in which they were the oppressors.  And yet – on them, light shined.  Whether they knew it or not, light was shining on them that first Christmas night.

Who are those people today?  Pick up your newspaper or open your computer and see: Who are the oppressors today?  Who tyrannizes others: with violence, with warfare, with unjust laws, with repressive cultures, with torture, with crime?  Who walks in darkness in ways we prefer not to consider?  On them, light has shined. 

We have two other people in our story who may have quite literally walked in darkness.  They’re right here in our manger scene. Mary and Joseph have made the long trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to comply with the census requirement.   We can presume that they did most of their walking in the daytime, but we have long understood the words “no room at the inn” to mean that they arrived late in the day, perhaps even at night.  Perhaps they knew the challenge of walking in literal darkness, trying to avoid hazards in the road and hoping that shelter and food lay soon ahead.

Most assuredly, though, they knew the challenge of walking in the darkness of ambiguity.  For Mary and Joseph, life was uncertain.  Not much money.  A foreign power ruling their lives.  And now – now this unanticipted pregnancy, and visions of angels, and instructions from God, and commands to “Fear not!”  No matter how trusting, how determined to follow God’s call to them to bring forth this unexpected child, they must have been bewildered, and uncertain.  And yet, as two people walking in the darkness of confusion and frustration – on them light has shined. 

Do you know anyone persisting through a state of ambiguity and uncertainty right now?  Maybe even yourself?  Decisions to be made about schools or jobs or moves?  Concerns about health problems remaining to be diagnosed?  Doubts about money?  Questions about aging?    Are you wanting to trust in God and in the ways in which God speaks to you, but realizing that you sense a forboding darkness all around?  On you light has shined.  The ripple of Christmas light pervades your confusing world.

So we have taxing authorities, and we have Mary and Joseph, and finally, tonight, we have shepherds.   More people who walk in the literal dark.  People whose jobs take them into the night and into the cold, away from family and home.    But also: people who live ordinary lives.  Not kings or queens or rulers with the power to make life difficult for others.  Not people like Mary and Joseph, who have been called into nurturing the divine become human.  Just ordinary people like us, doing their work, interacting with family and friends, and walking in ordinary shadows of darkness that, no matter how devastating, are common to us all: losses of people, of money, of jobs, of health, of homes; empty spaces in life replenished with anxieties and fears.   And on them, and on us, light has shined.  

Light has SHINED.  A ripple has been launched, and it surges through the universe. 

And here’s an astonishing piece of news: The light, the ripple, the flow of grace, of gift?  It comes in the form of a baby.  A BABY.    What kind of light is that?  A baby?  Who would expect a baby?

The light of the world?  The hope of the future? More likely would be a magisterial, fully formed, regally clothed and crowned adult.  Maybe a rain of glittering stars.  Or a  battalion of soldiers, swords and shields glistening in the sunlight, ready to take on any enemy that presents itself.  You might expect the light of the world, the ripple in the fabric of the universe, to look like one of those possibilities.

But a baby?  How can a baby be a ripple in the universe?  A baby is so small, so vulnerable, so completely dependent upon the good will of others.

Ah, but let’s remember:  This isn’t just any light.  This isn’t the sort of light that wields arbitrary or ruthless power.  This isn’t a light that crushes people with its brilliance. 

This light is love.  Pure love.  A love that redeems.  A love that saves.  A loves that creates, and recreates, until its ripples transform the fabric of the universe until every fiber with which it is woven radiates joy.

We’re going to sing this love in a few minutes . . .
Silent night, Holy night
 Son of God, love's pure light
 Radiant beams from thy holy face
 With the dawn of redeeming grace,
 Jesus, Lord at thy birth
 Jesus, Lord at thy birth . . .
And we’re going to light candles as a sign of this love, and we’re going out into the night and into the world knowing that this love, in the form of a tiny baby, ripples through the universe bringing hope, and peace, and joy.  Because on all people who have lived in a land of deep darkness ~ on us ~ light has shined.  Amen.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Long Lives and Loss

A friend of mine posted this article on FB this morning, which prompted me to write the following:

In the first weeks after Josh died, one of the multitude of horrors I faced was the recognition that I might have to live for a long, long time without my child.  I was fifty-five years old, and my grandmother had died only a few years earlier at the age of 100.  What if I had to live for forty-five more years?  What if I had to live for forty-five more days?

(My father made a similar reference at least once during that time period.  It took awhile for me to register that he had been surviving that torment for forty-eight years, since my mother and youngest brother had died.  Through three subsequent marriages, seven step-children, one more biological child, multiple life successes and failures, a vast appreciation of music and nature . . .  always, always, always, those early losses loomed large, and sometimes they nearly undid him.)

The other day I went to visit one of my parishoners at New Church, a lady who will turn ninety-five a few days after Christmas. Vigorous, intelligent, and articulate, living in her own beautiful home with her widowed daughter-in-law. Unknown to me until after I arrived, that day was her son's birthday, her son who would have been 67 had he not died three years ago. 

Prominently displayed among her photographs is the only one ever taken of her stunningly wide-eyed infant daughter, who died at five months, after several visits from a neighborhood boy who had been entranced by the baby, but who also had undiagnosed whopping cough.

Husband, son, daughter, all gone.  As she sat there in her large and lovely home, Christmas decorations in place, every room meticulously cared for, and volunteering to do whatever she could to help with church events, I thought to myself, I have wondered how I would survive if I live to be very old.  I guess this is how it's done.

I imagine that she knows about my Josh; I mentioned him briefly, as I did all of my family members, in the short bio I wrote for the church bulletin the week before I arrived.  I didn't raise the issue of knowing something about loss; I think that I probably exude that knowledge, whether someone recognizes what they are seeing and hearing or not.

She told me that she survives by believing that God must have wanted her loved ones for a reason.  I was silent, that not being any part of my belief system.  She repeated her words a few minutes later, adding tentatively that perhaps she was wrong.  I noted that it is clear that her beliefs have brought  her great strength, and she nodded.  I added that perhaps this is part of God's plan for her, that she serve as a witness of strength to others. 

I was thinking of myself, who needs women like her, and of my grandmother, who was a similar beacon of strength.  My grandmother grew up with a mentally ill mother, nursed her husband through an emotional collapse, lost her father when she was still a young woman, lost three daughters-in-law and a grandchild,  and eventually lost her own hearing and sight.  She also graduated from a Seven Sisters college with highest honors,  maintained the warmest of homes, knew all about music and birds and art and literature, and zipped around the entire planet in her sixties and seventies.   I think she knew quite a bit about Buddhism as well, though she wasn't one to talk about her spiritual life.

As far as God's plan ~ I don't think much about that.  I've come to use the language sometimes where it seems helpful to people, but I don't believe God walks around planning to wreck our lives so that we can help others with their wrecked lives.  That reasoning is a bit too circular to satisfy me.  God does, however, offer gifts of compassion and resilience in the face of catastrophe.

There is a woman in Small Rural Church, ninety years old, widowed twice after wonderful marriages, and living elegantly and courageously in assisted living. (When she came home from the hospital last year and lounged around in a velour sweatsuit for a few days, make-up and jewelry worn with her usual care, she still looked classier than most of the rest of us do on our best days!) The two women share a first name.  It is such an honor and grace to know them a little as their pastor.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Cinnamon and Panic (Friday Five)

"From today's RevGals Friday Five:   As we prepare in our churches and our homes for Christmas to arrive, it is a time of waiting, expectation, and preparation,  However, it is also a time of stress and worry.

For this Friday Five, share how you are in this transition of Advent to Christmas.  As the Savage Chickens show us, we alternate between cinnamon and panic.  Write about five aspects of cinnamon and panic you are experiencing or whatever is in between; maybe mention how you are reminded to stay in the present holy moment."
I think I'm about 100% in between.
1.  With a new church, I am surrounded by people I don't know, some of whom are delighted or relieved that I've arrived, and some of who are filled with anxiety by my presence, and acting out strongly in response.
2.  With a former church, I find myself looking back with some longing as Christmas cards arrive with little notes and bits of news. 
3. With a cat in transition herself, I'm a bit frazzled.  She appeared in the church parking lot last night, bones jutting out all over the place, and practically leapt into my arms.  The Lovely Daughter says that she'll give her a try, which means an introduction to her well-established cat, but the kitty first needs a visit to the vet, so she'll be here for at least awhile.

4. With my children in holiday-mode transition with first jobs and little time off (and myself also with little time off), I'm frustrated and irritated.  Their increased winter time on the road for quick trips home plus a flying trip down to southern Ohio to see some of my family mean another dose of stress.
5.  Oh, and the big one:  my college students finish up their final exam ~ a take-home essay and a short objective section today ~  this afternoon, and grades are due Monday.  I'm about to finish this Sunday's sermon so that I can turn to those 24 tests and start thinking about Tuesday night's sermon.  The students have been driving me crazy with emails and requests to read drafts; I will be grateful when we are down to one last stack of papers.
So . . .  I'm not panicked, but I can't say that I smell cinnamon either.  (Not that I would anyway, because I have no sense of smell! ~ and so, even from a metaphorical standpoint, the concept of smell doesn't do anything for me.)  I have experienced little of the holiness of the season; despite what I had to say in my last post, it's a hard, hard time of year.
But here is my speck of cinnamon (whatever that may mean):  Last week we went to a concert sung by the Clare College, Cambridge Choir.  (The link is to a review of their evening here.) They are spectacular and, if you want some O Antiphons music for these last of Advent, their new CD, Veni Emmanuel, is the one you're looking for.  As they sang the "O Adonai" piece, with the singers spaced throughout the sanctuary and the sopranos up in the choir loft, I thought: If there were angels on the first Christmas night, this is exactly what they sounded like.
I can't find a video of this particular concert, but here's their recording of a familiar piece.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Justice and Joy ~ A Sermon for Advent 3

If I asked you to talk about Mary, the Mother of Jesus, what might you say?
Maybe you’d say that she was very young?  She was probably only about 14 when she discovered that she was unexpectedly pregnant, pregnant with the Savior of the world.
Perhaps you’d wonder about the mysterious matters attributed to her story.  A visit from an angel.  A pregnancy without a husband.  The activity of the Holy Spirit.
And if I asked what she was like?  I wonder if words like “demure,” “modest,” “retiring,” and the ever-famous “meek and mild” – would those words come to your lips?  I imagine that you have Christmas cards in your house right now that depict Mary as a quiet, unassuming girl, gazing peacefully at her newborn baby boy.  Am I right?
Well, today, I want us to consider together what she was really like.  Let’s start by setting the stage for our passage today, the passage known as the Magnificat.
Mary has received a visit from the angel Gabriel, who has made his announcement of God’s plans, God’s hopes and dreams for her life: That she will become the mother of the baby Jesus, the baby both divine and human, the child come to set things right, to inaugurate the beginning of a new reign, a new creation, in which all that is broken will be restored and all who are estranged from God will be reconciled to God. 
And now, bearing this unexpected child in her body, Mary has headed for the hill country, to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth.  Elizabeth is also unexpectedly pregnant, although in her case the unexpectedness has to do with her advanced age, and the unlikehood of her ever mothering a child at her age.  
So here they are, these two women who find themselves in rather surprising predicaments.  And they are so happy to see each other!  Of course they are.   Any woman who has ever been pregnant can recall the camaraderie she felt with other women in similar circumstances.  Other women who will understand the bewildering combination of joy and sadness.  Other women who know what it’s like to complain about newfound aches and pains while simultaneously marveling at a body expanding with life.  Other women with whom to share stories and experiences and plans.
But this encounter goes beyond the usual.  As Mary approaches Elizabeth with words of greeting, Elizabeth feels her own child leap for joy within her.  We know that Elizabeth’s child will become John the Baptist, the man who will someday head for the wilderness to herald the coming of Christ and to urge the people to prepare the way of the Lord.  We know that ~ but at this moment in the story, this moment of mutual greeting between two expectant women, all of that lies in the future.  What they know is that something extraordinary has begun to unfold, something that stirs a response of joy within each of their hearts.  
And then: and then Mary begins to speak.  Mary begins to speak in words that debunk any notion that she might be a shy and retiring girl, a meek and mild mother-to-be.  Oh, no – it’s time to erase those images from our minds.  For Mary: Mary speaks the words of a prophet, of someone called to proclaim the future reconciliation of the world to God.  The world in which the lion will lie down with the lamb.  The world in which water will surge forth from the dry and dusty desert and fill the land with flower blossoms.  The world in which those who are lame and speechless will not merely walk and speak; they will leap like deer and sing for joy.  
Last week The New York Times published an article on homeless children in America, focusing its story on a young girl named Dasani who, with her parents and younger brothers and sisters, lives in a room in which mattresses and clothing are piled on the floor,  in a crumbling, roach-and-and-rodent infested shelter in Brooklyn.  The article tells us that “One in five American children is now living in poverty, giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania.” In Cleveland,  the school district served over 3,600 homeless students last year.  Children!  Some of them kindergarten children who live wherever their parents can find a bed, or something resembling a bed, for them.  Elementary school-aged children, many of them supported by working parents, but even more of them struggling because their parents have fallen victim to drug use and have become unemployed and turned to crime as a means of support.
Do you hear Mary’s words, as she proclaims to her cousin Elizabeth that “God has lifted up the lowly?”  Do you hear what she is telling is about God’s priorities, about the coming reign of God?   Do you hear what gospel joy means?
Dasani, the young girl in the article, lives in a city in which tremendous renewal has taken place over the past decades:  new high rises, new parks and bike paths, new businesses.  And her plight is due not entirely to her parents’ inability to function, but also to policies enacted in that city, policies which have cut benefits and housing opportunities with the goal of making the poor homeless more “self-reliant.”  Policies which have left huge cracks in the system through which families like Dasani’s fall.  Policies made by well-dressed and well-fed people in comfortable offices and board rooms.
Do you hear Mary’s voice, announcing that “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts?”  This is not a timid girl; this is a woman prepared to speak truth to great power!  This is a woman who knows that joy in God leads to justice among God’s people!
Here in Ohio, the number of those who are literally, physically, hungry continues to increase.  Around the world, especially in areas in which droughts have taken hold, or the disruptions of warfare and internal national conflict have displaced people onto the road and into refugee camps, hunger and starvation are prevalent.  And what are the consequences of chronic hunger?  Higher maternal and infant death rates.  Higher rates of infection and illness.  Depression and other mental health issues.  On a global scale, extreme vulnerability to crisis.
And what does Mary declare?  That God has filled the hungry with good things. As the reign of God pervades the earth, the hungry will be satisfied, and starvation will be no more.   Joy and justice will abound.
Do you wonder about these claims, these promises?  Sometimes it seems as if they will never be fulfilled.  And yet here, at BPC, in just a couple of hours, the kitchen and the fellowship hall will be filled with food and our guests will have arrived for our monthly community meal ~ a small but significant step in God’s filling of the hungry with good things. 
As the new girl in town, I’ve been listening and reading and learning, and one of the things I took a look at last week was the several pages of instructions for the community meals.  Wow!  That was my response.  Do you all know what goes into offering those meals each month?  The Food Bank contributions, the trips to the grocery to purchase what’s still needed, the organization of the preparation and cooking and serving, the clean-up, and the plan for the next month ~ it’s all an enormous undertaking, involving many, many people. I wonder . . . when Mary exclaimed that God would fill the hungry with good things, could she have imagined that 2,000 years later her words would take effect in the form of meals prepared all over the world ~ because of her son? 
The low lifted up, the hungry well fed ~ that’s what Mary preaches.   And the powerful shall be brought down, and the rich shall be sent away empty.  What does it all mean?  Does God really mean to reverse all that exists as we know it?  Is Mary really telling us that our goals and priorities are not God’s goals and priorities?  Is Mary telling us that God will bring us joy in ways completely different than those the stores and commercials tell us to seek?
I teach an introductory religion course at JCU, and one of the topics my students and I have explored together is justice.  Just day before yesterday, they were raising questions about their own goals for future success, especially future financial success.  They and their parents have invested a great deal in their college educations, and many of them have told me in no uncertain terms that they are in college so that they will be able to make good living.   Yet yesterday, and in weeks past, they have come face to face with questions about what justice means in God’s way of seeing things.  What does it mean to be an advertising executive using the media to manipulate people into buying your products?  What does it mean to sell products that have been manufactured in developing countries by factory workers who make less than $100 a month when huge profits go to the corporations employing those workers from afar ?  Is becoming rich and powerful the goal God has set for us? 
Do we still think of Mary as meek and mild?  Do we still think of her as the silent, adoring mother whose task is to raise a son who will know his scripture and be prepared to help others? 
Or do we see her for who she really is?  Do we hear hers as the first voice in the gospel narrative proclaiming the joy of a creation restored to justice?  Do we hear her fearlessness?  Do we hear in her the kind of joy and courage that comes with the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives?
Do we hear her voice, in the intimacy of a family moment with her cousin echoing down the centuries and crying out that the words of the prophet Isaiah will be fulfilled?  The weak will be strengthened.  The deaf will hear and the blind will see.  The lame will leap, the speechless will sing, the desert will become a lush and verdant land, all the earth will be restored, and all people will know the healing hand of God.
The next time you look at Mary, quietly seated in a manger scene, remember that this is a young woman who proclaims both justice and joy.  When you struggle to understand poverty and homelessness and hunger, when you wonder why a young lady like Dasani, a girl with a quick and creative mind and a resourceful spirit, is trapped in the cycle of homelessness in New York, remember that God is even now among us as Jesus comes again, lifting the lowly and filling the hungry.  And when you prepare to serve a meal in just a little while, know that you are responding to the words of that very young and courageous Mary, two millennia ago, and that the Mighty One is doing great things!

Friday, December 13, 2013


What with the new church and everything, I got behind.  Plus, you know, it's the holidays, and I basically could live without them, probably forever.  There is not a day when I don't feel the knife in the gut at least a dozen times.  My most hated Thanksgiving moments: when people complained that all their children wouldn't make it home for the holiday.  Really?  It's a problem that all your children are healthy and alive somewhere else?  I haven't decided yet what I think about Christmas this year.  I should know, shouldn't I?    But . . . it's hard.  It's really hard.  The music, the stores, the presents ~ they don't bother me (much) anymore.  We're even going to an Advent concert Friday night.  But sometimes I am doing . . . whatever . . .  and I realize that I am on the verge of bursting into tears. 

Anyway ~  we have decided to get a Christmas tree, and so there are piles of old lights from the basement and boxes of new lights from Target in the kitchen and sunroom and living room.   I decorated the mantle, and I meant it when I said that I was nearly incapacitated by that project.  It is only approximately a million times easier to churn out Advent sermons than it is to open boxes of decorations from years gone by. 
Meanwhile ~ I have been grading college papers for the past eight hours.  (Yes, I was really behind, and I suddenly decided to get it over with.)  I am trying to focus on the positive, which mostly has to do with my students' reflections on the course and on some of their "outside experiences."  Many of my Catholic students have been to Protestant worship services (one described a megachurch service as more akin to going to youth group than to mass, which I thought was pretty funny), and many of my Protestant and Jewish students have been to mass for the first time.  There has been at least one humorous moment there, too, involving communion.  Well, I found it  humorous.  I guess I should give better instructions.  The megachurch communion was just sad.  I am hearing a lot about ritual or lack thereof, with the assessments being quite varied.    Lots of the kids went to our fabulous Jewish history museum, and ~ my favorite so far ~ one young man ended up attending a Sikh service at his family's funeral home, where he usually works parking cars, but got roped into helping one day when another employee was sick. 
The comments that make me the happiest come from students who say how much they hated the idea of going outside their comfort zone and how glad they are that they did.  And the ones from students who have found real-life applications emerging from the class: the young Methodist man whose cousin brought a Muslim exchange student home for Thanksgiving, just as we had begun our introduction to Islam, and found the courage to ask her questions and respond to hers, and the young lady who said that for the first time the Mass readings meant something to her, and that she turned to her mom and said, "This is just what we've been learning about!"
The more academic papers . . . well, I can't claim great success there.  But I decided last August that my real role this fall was to be a cheerleader for these students studying religion seriously for the very first time. I think that was a good goal that I have more or less achieved.  Most of them will take their second required religion course and that will be that, but most of them have also started considering matters they've never thought about before.  That's a good result for all of us.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lifetime Books

There's been a question making the FB rounds ~ something about books that have had an impact in your life, books you can't forget.  Here's my list, with a few annotations
1. To Kill a Mockingbird: My first adult book, in fifth grade.  I'm sure I've read it at least 50 times. 

2. Night: I don't know when I first read this, but I've taught it a few times.
3. Hamlet: I think I saw my first Hamlet production, believe it or not, in a Royal Shakespeare Company performance at Stratford-upon-Avon when I was in junior high. 

 4. Macbeth: Junior year high school English ~ big paper on Lady M.

 5. Poems of Emily Dickinson:  When I was a senior in high school, I did an independent study one quarter on mysticism in the poetry of ED.  I didn't think there was much chance of there being a God, but I guess that's never stopped me from pursuing the possibility. 

 6. Poems of T.S. Eliot: Another major feature of my junior year of high school.

 7. Dante's Inferno: I took a college course on Dante, in English in the Italian Department.  I don't think we ever got out of the Inferno.  I'd been waiting for that one since being introduced to it via Eliot (see above).

 8. By the Shores of Silver Lake: I inhaled the Little House books as a child.  I think the later ones made the biggest impression on me.  When we were high school seniors, a friend and I re-read them all, and we would pretend to be  Laura and Mary out there on the Dakota prairie during our nighttime winter walks between our dorm and the library, when the air was frigid and the snow high in the Connecticut Valley of western Massachusetts.

 9. The Secret Garden: I've written about this one before, along with Heidi: Those wonderful childhood books in which motherless heroines prevail and, in the case of Mary Lennox, create something beautiful.  My kind of girls.

 10. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius:  Ten years since I first caught a whiff of these.  How I learned to pray.

 11. The Little Prince:   A children's book for adult readers.  The fox and the sunsets. 
Now that I think of it, I believe that all of this writing is connected. 
Despite my best efforts to the contrary, there are hundreds and hundreds of books in this house, and Kindle is not helping.  But I suppose that I could make do with the above plus a Bible on my proverbial desert island.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Ministry Musings: Transition and Death, Part 2: A Prophetic Response, and a Personal One

As I wondered about the many questions raised by the situation explained in my previous post, I found one of my usual standards for discernment coming to mind: Micah 6:8.  And I considered:
The new pastor:  It is surely a matter of justice that she be allotted the space and freedom in which to commence and establish her new ministry.  It is a matter of kindness that I not clutter her life with the distraction of my presence and others' feelings about me.  And it is a matter of humility for me to recognize that I am no longer called to minister to that congregation.
Moi:  It's an issue of justice that I am no longer officially burdened by the demands of a former congregation.  It's a kindness to myself that my care is focused on one group of people and not dispersed between two -- something I should surely recognize after the month of November! ~ in which I was preparing to leave one church and to begin anew at another.  And certainly I am humbled by the recognition that the new and unfamiliar is now my bailiwick, rather than the known and comfortable.
The deceased:  Well, he's dead. I'm not one to see signs of the dead in this life.  Maybe once, with Josh.  My mother has been dead for 53 years and not once have I felt her presence.  But I think that if this gentleman could come back, he would tell me that I had served him generously and well and, as someone long active in the church and its transitions and politics, he would say, "It's time for you to move on and let the pieces of the puzzle fall into their new places.  The church is imperfect in its practice of justice, kindness, and humility, but it's better that we try than that we just blunder along on the basis of our own limited responses."
And, the most important person, to my way of thinking:  The widow.  Here's where it falls apart for me.  It is, to some extent, both just and kind that her and her family's immediate care, including the entire funeral, be the responsibility of the pastor to whom she is entrusted for the next several months.  That pastor is likely to learn much more about her in my absence than she might in my presence, and thus will be able to provide better care in the weeks to come.  And as far as walking humbly with God ~ without a tried and trusted pastor of two years alongside of her, she may be pushed toward God in ways that I might delay, simply by virtue of being a familiar comforting presence.
The truth is, it does not seem kind to me that someone should be without someone she has come to trust in a time of acute grief.  And, knowing full well what it is like to see people of every degree of relationship return to their lives with astonishing speed, I really, really, really hate being one of those people.
I suppose that I, myself, am being pushed toward a deeper understanding of the communion of saints.  But I'm not exactly inclined to embrace that possibility.
Does this raise issues? Oh, yeah.  I am so thoroughly sick of death and its ripples throughout every other relationship in life.  At sixty, having just closed out a decade in which many of my friends have encountered death up close and personal for the first time, I feel as if it has saturated my entire life ~ and it's going to get worse, not better, as we all age. 
I have no conclusions to offer.  I have some more personal reactions to explore, though: Maybe in a few days.

Ministry Musings: Transitions and Death, Part I: The Conundrum

As I left Small Church in the Country two weeks ago, one of the patriarchs of the church lay dying in hospice.  I've spent a lot of time with him and his wife over the past two years, and she was frantic at the thought of my not being there for the funeral. Our denomination, like most, has clear rules about pastors concluding their relationships with former congregations when we leave.  I had explained those rules, and my plans to follow them, before I left.  We did leave the matter of the funeral hanging, with me telling my parishioner that I was sure the new pastor would be a great help to her and that, if her husband lived for another couple of weeks, she would probably be more comfortable with my successor, who would no doubt be spending a great deal of time with her ~ but also indicating my willingness to participate in the funeral in some way, if that was acceptable to the new pastor.

The husband did die a couple of days ago, and eventually I received an email from the interim pastor, saying that the new widow would appreciate my sharing my memories at the funeral.  As it happened, I thought that I had a conflict, so the matter was out of my hands.  I also read between the lines ~ and in the lines themselves ~ and understood that the invitation was from the widow, and not from the pastor herself.

The situation generated a great deal of discussion, both among pastors and in my own family.  The pastors, on the whole, emphasize the importance of boundaries set to respect both new and former pastors, while often recognizing the need for flexibility, especially where only a short time has passed between the pastor's departure and the death of a congregant. My children found the "rules" baffling and, in my daughter's words, "cruel." Trained in social work, she is well aware of boundary issues, but told me in no uncertain terms that in this situation pastors are more concerned about ourselves and our colleagues than we are about our parishoners.

As for me, I see the need for clear boundaries, and recognize that my own gut response emphasizes their purpose.  As someone actively grieving, and apparently facing a lifetime of same, I know that my own immediate responses for myself, to seek out people who know me well, are mirrored in my desire to care for others in the same boat.  And having been so often disappointed by loved ones ~ which I now understand to be nearly a universal experience shared by the bereaved, one which shocks us all at first and then gradually becomes one more part of the process we have to accept ~ I am very deeply and personally horrified to have become one of those who disappoint. 
But I have come to terms with it, in an ambiguous kind of way ~ next post.