Friday, May 30, 2014

Bring Me My Arrows of Desire!

My Northfield Mount Hermon alumnae magazine arrived yesterday, containing the above picture - a tip to our school song on an alum's college graduation cap.
Now, I don't wander around singing Jerusalem all the time.  But, of course, I found a version of that glorious song on youtube last night and listened to it a couple of times.

And I concluded that, given all that life demands of us, it's a good thing if your mind and heart have been saturated with William Blake's word and this music during your adolescence.

The music can be found here.

The words (look it up on Wikipedia if you need the background; I would say that the metaphor extends to all of life ):

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green pleasant Land,

~ William Blake

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Balance and Symmetry

I am sitting on the somewhat battered third-floor deck of a beach house on St. George Island in Florida, wearing a Key West t-shirt and typing despite the sun glare on my laptop screen.  Some things don't change so much.

But others do.  I've been quiet for about six weeks, thinking about what I'm thinking about.    I've tried a few posts, but they remain in draft form, wholly unsatisfactory.  I don't know whether I'll keep posting sermons or not, as they speak increasingly to a specific small community in decline, a community which I hope will open itself to an expanding spiritual life even as it makes some hard decisions about whether to continue open its physical doors at all.

Meanwhile, for myself, I've been wondering about a few things.

The first: How important to life are balance and symmetry? 

In my denomination, as in many others, would-be pastors are required to complete 400 hours of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) ~ a clinical experience in a hospital, or a hospice, or some other setting in which people are in need of the care of a chaplain ~in order to qualify for ordination. People generally think of CPE as a program for "learning to be a chaplain," but, in reality. most of CPE is focused, via lots of reflective writing and individual and group conferences, on issues which extreme stress reveals about oneself, and on learning to manage one's interior life while serving others.

Our CPE supervisor was found of challenging us with questions about things that had happened in our lives and in our ministry, questions designed to make us uncomfortable and questions which often made me feel as if I were responsible for the bad things which happened to this generally good person.  The result? Since my CPE summer, which was quickly followed by the death of my son (and anyone who has lost a child, especially to suicide, knows that the question of responsibility looms large), I've become more, rather than less, reluctant, to focus on such questions.

More recently, however, it has occurred to me to look for common threads in my life, not in order to ascribe blame, but in order to ask what they tell me about the experience of life, life as I have lived it and as it might be of help to others.  Thus, the questions of balance and symmetry.

Think about it:

A broken ankle and sprained foot, a severe and debilitating injury, one which for nearly five months now has affected my capacity for balance and my ability to do much of anything for which two feet and two legs are required.

Breast cancer, which destroyed the symmetry of my appearance in a fairly significant way. Once I had recovered from all those surgeries, my exterior life remained unaltered and, having previously lost a child, a cancer diagnosis ranked fairly low on my personal scale of measurement. Still, when I take off that Key West t-shirt, what I see is a fairly ugly scar where I once took symmetry for granted.

The double-vision crisis a few springs ago.  That one introduced me to the profession of neuro-opthoamology, but resolved itself in about ten weeks, and I've largely forgotten about it.  But for most of that period, I saw everything in pairs and at an angle, which made any sort of physical maneuvering a doubtful proposition.  No symmetry, no balance.

The death of my son. It is difficult for me to imagine any life-event more destructive of one's sense of balance than the death of a child, especially a death to suicide.  Everywhere I go, he is missing.  Everywhere I look, one of my twin boys is nowhere to be seen. Every day is an exercise in life experienced as walking along the edge of a vast and bottomless cavern into which one of the most beloved of people has vanished, knowing that if the light of life does not outweigh that terrible darkness, then we are all lost.   Perhaps, then, balance is not important at all. Perhaps the crucial factor for survival is that the lightness of being outweigh the heft of absence.

And, as has occurred to me only recently, the death of my mother.  I have lived almost my entire life without the balancing act usually manifested by a two-parent household.  And it's not as if the missing half were still out there in another form, as in a divorce, or as if it happened when I myself was more or less grow to wholeness.  I have walked the whole of my conscious life's journey without the person who most made it possible, and with the sense that the sands upon which we journey are in a constant state of flux.

What does any of this have to say about the future, or about serving others in ministry? 

Perhaps I have merely been misled by the obvious patterns of symmetry in much of the created world, misled into ascribing to balance a value it simply does not possess.  Perhaps that is a near-universal misconception, and is why we feel so thrown off-kilter when our lives are shattered in ways not possible to repair.
Perhaps lack of symmetry and shifting terrain are the foundational realities of our existence, and the sooner grasped, the better.  After all, the earth tilts on its axis, and spins on the far edge of one of billions of galaxies.
Perhaps rather than seeking coherence, something I've been doing for quite awhile, I should be embracing the expansion, of the universe and of my own very small life.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Litany in Honor of Women

Response: We offer our prayers, O God.

For women who experience the abundant joys of motherhood as mothers, as grandmothers, as aunts, and as friends.

For women who mother as teachers, as nurses and doctors, as child care workers, as counselors, as artists and craftswomen, and in all the myriad ways in which women mentor those who come after them and share their skills and their compassion with future generations.

For women called to roles other than motherhood, women who lead and serve and follow and care as women of strength and valor in all kinds of ways and thus spread love and strength throughout our word.

For women who experience the sorrows of loss as mothers: women who have been unable to bear or to keep longed-for children, women who have suffered miscarriage, women whose children have died or have vanished into unknown places and futures, women alienated from their children, and women whose children suffer from plights from which their mothers cannot save them.

For women who struggle against addiction, abuse, violence, poverty, oppression, and other experiences which rob them of the fullness of life.

For the mothers who gave us life and who lovingly cared for us, or struggled to care for us, or could not care for us.

For all whose mothers suffer illness or are unable to respond to them, and for all whose mothers have died.

For step-mothers and foster mothers and adoptive mothers, and for all women who step up when mothering is needed.

For the mothers of Nigeria whose daughters have been kidnapped, and for those courageous daughters, and for all who seek to find them and secure their release.

For all the women who teach us what it is to serve, to care, to suffer with dignity, and to reach out with generosity.
For all the women who take to heart the words, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and who lead us into new tomorrows.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Another Sad Twist on Mother's Day

I came home yesterday after giving a two-day retreat out of town for my former Presbytery.  One of those events which goes so well and is followed by so many lovely comments that you know you've found your niche.  One of them anyway.  And so I came home, and riffled through the mail, and was startled to see a hand-written envelope among the bills, the return address identifying a family much on my thoughts the past few weeks.
Are we somehow forever connected in ways we can't quite grasp to those we meet in the most desperate of circumstances?
The card was from the father of my son Josh's former girlfriend, letting us know that his wife died a month ago.  I knew that she had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer long before that, but my correspondence with her daughter had come to an end, and so I was no longer privy to her unfolding story.  How odd, I emailed him back, that I should have been thinking of them all so frequently in the month since her death.
When Josh died, this father braved the trip here across several states to be with his daughter among a crowd of mourning strangers.  Three years later, he sent me one of those letters of such eloquence that you treasure it always, so grateful for someone who has reached out to you to acknowledge a shared sorrow.
Only a few months earlier, standing in the Chicago sunshine and then lingering over a breakfast of several hours with the young lady in question and my own daughter, newly returned from Prague, I had imagined that someday this woman and I would be mothers-in-law together.  I imagined the wedding we would plan and the reception we would host.  I imagined our families' continued connections through our children and theirs to come.
And then our children broke up, and then my son ended his life, and now the mother-in-law to be has died. We never even met.
I am so sorry for their family, for a husband who has lost a life partner of many decades, and for two daughters who have lost their mother, one of them only five years after losing the man she planned to marry.
But I ache for myself as well.  I had said a few weeks ago that I just didn't care about Mother's Day angst anymore. I love a little extra time with my surviving children, but with mother and one child missing in action, it's yet one more of the year's sequence of holidays I'd be content to skip.  Still, if other people want to make a big deal of it ~ whatever.    I endure a lot of days that other people find enjoyable.
But that was before I was handed yet another twist on this one.
I am so very, very sad today, for all that never will be. 

And for all of us, who committed so much and worked so hard and loved so very deeply, only to see the future slip from our grasp.