Clouds (Crowds) of Sorrow

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“give your sorrow all of its due…Elly Hillesum

In taught a class at church in preparation for Lent, I suggested, after Walter Brueggemann, that one path of practice was to take up the ancient practice of lament, of grieving for that which was lost, broken or dead, as a prophetic statement on the way to hope. Little did I know how deeply that is being called for in me in this Lent. Bruggemann says that the practice of grief is counter to denial, and it “summons the city to be fully, deeply and knowingly engaged in its actual life experience.” (Reality, Grief, Hope, p, 57)

Even with that conviction I have not been prepared for the onslaught of sorrows that keep pouring forth in this season: the deaths of people from my past lives–a former student, a seminary companion, a member of my congregation. And there has been what seem like daily losses of the familiar avenues of routine–access to groceries, freedom to move about the city, gathering for worship, the natural friendly embraces on which I rely. Overlying those changes, which range from inconvenience to outright loss, is the loss of trust in what is being said in the media and from “expert” sources. What is true? on whom can I rely? for what?

The presence of the Covid-19 virus among us has exacerbated all those losses with its threat of contagion, contamination and death, I find myself in a group called “elderly,” at risk, and therefore, the loss of the cultural prize of “youth” and its privilege of place. And the threat of disease is real and unknown, hence a loss of a sense of protection and safety for myself, for those I love, for those for whom I pray.

As much as I am enculturated to glide over grief, to “just get over it,” I find myself this fourth week of Lent called to enter into this cloud, or as Rumi puts it, this “crowd of sorrows.” Rumi asks that I welcome them, even as they “violently sweep the house/empty of its furniture.” I am finding again that the Psalmist also lifts a voice, inviting lament to deep and concrete grieving. Both of these teachers demonstrate that this grieving is clearing the path to the Hope that is the final Word.

It is not lost to me that Lenten practice in some communities has often focused on penitence, on personal confession and recognition of brokenness, sorrow for sin, “things done and undone.” And in this crisis of our life and times, I am woefully aware of the ways in which I am more critical, more fearful, more selfish than what I am called to be by living in Grace. That makes me sad. I would have hoped that by my age and stage, I would be more compassionate, more trusting, more full of Grace.

So I grieve! And with the grieving, I stand in solidarity with our world, and its many particular people who suffer in so many profound ways, Rabbi Earl Grollman writes, “The only cure for grief is to grieve…there is no way to predict what you will feel.” I pray my grief–with the Psalms, with poetry, with music, with walking the labyrinth. And I am sure that grief is not the last Word.

I am free to grieve, because I grieve with Hope in mind. Actually that is the endgame of this entire cloudy Lent–there is Resurrection at the end! There are no final defeats! God keeps my tears in a bottle, as I cleanse the way for the Light to arise! I am giving my grief its due, but only its due!

Clouds of Witness

we are surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses

This Lenten season is becoming more and more cloudy, harder to see clearly, to know what to do, how to be isolated, yet connected. If I were to focus on the snags, the barriers, the alarms, I would be in a cloud so dense, I could not see anything. But daily I see a cloud of witnesses to Life, Hope and Love–all around.

So much has been said about this pandemic crisis–helpful hints, strategies for survival, and government directives–many, many words. All I can do is offer a blessing for the Clouds I see who bring Light to the “new normal,” whatever that becomes:

Bless the mail carrier, who is temporary, new to the block, who despite the rain and the threat of contact with virus, keeps delivering the mail, no matter how late

Bless the manicurist who after his appointments today is closing down to protect his staff, his family and his customers

Bless the therapist and doctor who continue to make themselves available to those who really need them RIGHT NOW, even when it mean inconvenient hours and platforms.

Bless the store clerks and stockers who are working at warp speed to try to fill the demands of panicky shoppers

Bless those experts at every level of government who have to wade through miles of red tape and exert patience toward tone-deaf politicians to bring cure and hope to the nation

Bless the compliant who at great inconvenience and discomfort to their lives and fortunes, self–isolate, alone or with their families, for the good of the community and for their own

Bless the service people who keep our communication systems humming and running–by phone, on-line, through social media

Bless those who already feel isolated by illness or auto-immune compromise who continue to reach out to others with hope, with cheer, with prayers

Bless the ones who are vigilant in their protection and help for those in their circumference of care who are less able to navigate this pandemic by offering food delivery, communication expertise and virtual presence

Bless the faithful pastors and religious leaders who, while caring for themselves and loved ones, are completely committed to keeping connected to the “little ones” in their congregations, who are struggling, but are also willing, to learn new ways of worship and pastoral care under the shadow of this pandemic

As I reflect on each new person who comes into my purview, I claim this prayer from St. Augustine again; it was written for the night time, but it is one that is a pratyer for all of us in the world today and in the days of unknowing that lie ahead of us:

Watch, O Lord, with those who wake, or watch, or weep tonight, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend your sick ones, O Lord Christ. Rest your weary ones. Bless your dying ones. Soothe your suffering ones. Shield your joyous ones, and all for Your love’s sake. Amen

Clouds of Fear

Praying at open windows

We are in a season where the panic and fear seem to cast a cloud over every conversation. Where I live the coronavirus is Topic One in every exchange. Looming large over the nation is the fall election of president and congress-folk who will shape the welfare of individual lives and communities in our nation for the 2, 4 and 6 years to come. Beyond our own shores there is unimaginable suffering and pain–hunger, health, safety, warfare. All of these are reasons to be afraid!

Yet the Lenten challenge for me that keeps making itself evident is the Word most often repeated in Hebrew and Christian sacred texts: Don’t be afraid! This morning I was reading from the book of Jeremiah, about the fearful young one whom God is calling to speak truth to power, the holy words that God speaks are there: Don”t be afraid! The prophet Isaiah charges the trembling ones in captivity in Babylon about to try to go home again: Be strong do not fear! To shepherds out under a night sky, blinded by the Klieg lights of a choral cloud of angels, the opening refrain sung is: “Do not be afraid! And to Mary, called and choosing to be an agent of hope and peace in the world, the angel Gabriel opens with “Do not be afraid!” For one who is on the Lenten journey, this strikes me as the touchstone of the foundation of my meanderings and practice: DO NOT BE AFRAID!

When rehearsing stories of the sacred history, the words are easy enough to read, but what about 2020, with a world which seems to much more interwoven, complex and fraught with the perils of pain and disaster? I am sure that the challenge to let fear go is just as germane for me as it was for each of those hearers, back in their day. Yet, fear feels like an autonomic response in my body, as well as my heart and mind. This Lent how can I say “no” to fear?

I am practicing actions that mitigate my fear. I begin with gratitude; every day I am trying to keep track of the gifts of living I am continually being given–breath, song, beauty–so many more. How can I keep from singing? And singing! That is a powerful way to keep fear from lodging in the heart and ruminations: “I sing because I’m happy I sing because I’m free…” sang Ethel Waters, in “Member of the Wedding.” I also limit my intake of news and social media. I love hearing from and about friends and acquaintances, but too many threads and responses are fear-mongering ones. Therefore, I am deciding to know the bare bones of what’s happening, act responsibly as friend and citizen, and let the rest go unattended.

And I pray. Daniel (in illustration above) never gave up his attention to prayers and thoughts for the welfare of himself, his friends, the people he represented, even when doing so in the way he knew, by an open window, invited the possibility of more suffering. Whatever fears he had were not as strong as his commitment to the God who would never let him go.

This Lent I want to be led by the Spirit, not by fear, by practicing those things which ground me in Holy Presence, fully aware of the reality of the ways of the world. And live in a Spirit of Love, Power and Common Sense.

Frederick Buechner captures it for us all:

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.

Amen and Amen!

Clouds of Lent

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clouds of unknowing

Lent is frequently depicted in linear fashion, one day, one Sunday after another. However, this year I am feeling more as if I have entered a cloud of a season, unclear, unpredictable, with poor visibility. I have taught a class on preparing for Lent, with particular attention to the ways we observe it in my tradition. I have considered and decided practices that I want to follow during these “40 days,” minus Sundays. I have considered the external signs that signify Lent in the Church: purple paraments, special services for Ash Wednesday and Holy Week, a purple candle alight where I sit for sacred conversations, a cross in the sanctuary for prayerful intentions to be tied with ribbons. But somehow in these days in none of those things are giving shape and order to my days, my musing, my habits.

Instead I am needing to continue to travel each day as it arises, some days not knowing where I am going or where I will end up. Some of this is shaped by the ongoing recovery of my husband after surgery. Some is shaped by deadlines set by agencies and “powers that be.” Sometimes the calendar for this year demands attention to occasion that are counter in spirit to Lenten solemnity. And sometimes “things fall apart,” according to Chinua Achebe, “the best laid plans go oft agley,” as Robert Burns tells us. Lent is not so much a journey as it is an ambiance, a backdrop, a cloud of mist which covers my intentional forward vision. This week alone, I have encountered tears and laughter, memory and forgetting, beauty and ugliness, health and healing. And I haven’t known what will arrive until is does! No guarantee that what I plan will be what I can or will do!

So am thrown back on the many times in sacred text where the promise is that clarity will emerge, where resources will be provided, and where Grace will abound. I love the early Christian hymn which names that state of unknowing: Now we see in a mirror dimly…Now I know only in part…” (1 Cor, 13: 12). Then the hymn writer points us back to the daily practices, Lent or not: And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (v.13) So in the midst of this cloud, I can find some place to practice paying attention to the Jesus journey, by asking myself as each new event or demand arises: does this help me be Faithful–to the Holy? to the ones I love? to those given to me to serve? And/or does this help me be Hopeful, sharing that hope with those I encounter? And most importantly, will this be something to which I can be bring Love, which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. endures all things?

Joni Mitchell taught me long ago that clouds have many sides to them, that I really don’t know clouds at all, but I don’t need to know what the clouds have in store. I can, with Spirit tenderness and presence, show up for the cloud of each day with Faith, Hope and Love, on this Lenten journey, even as Jesus whom I follow did!

Love Among the Spoons

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Welsh Love Spoon

Today is Valentine’s Day, and it is the 60th Anniversary of the first date I had with my husband. In the years we have been together we have celebrated, acknowledged or honored the day in a variety of ways. I came from a family which honored all kinds of love on the day with paper, glue and hearts; my husband, not so much! So our observances have varied from year to year, place to place, energy to energy. This year while we recover from injury and illness, I am naming this year The Year of the Loving Spoons!

There is a prevalent theory for people who are in the process of healing of all kinds called the Spoon Theory. It posits that a person has a certain amount of “spoons,” units of energy that they are given at the start of the day, and each activity uses up a certain amount of spoons. When one has run out of spoons, one needs to rest up until the energy has been restored. This is what we are finding on our road to healing: limited “spoons,” needs for restoration, yet continuing to love and learning to love. It is not always immediately intuitive to me. Each of us has different speeds, wishes and needs, and to love the other in concrete ways isn’t the same for each of us.

Among what we are figuring out day by day are some of these things:

  • each of us knows our own needs better than the other; if we want help, we need to ask, in some way–with words or another medium
  • we each want the best in body, soul and spirit for the other, so our intentions are loving
  • it is not easy to be quiet, patient, or (fill in the blank) that the other one needs right now
  • we don’t get everything right the first time
  • we are not made to be everything to each other, just some important faithful things
  • when one need to rest, he or she needs to rest
  • it is important to laugh as often and as genuinely as possible
  • we have better imaginations than we knew
  • we have plenty of things to do together here and close by that don’t use too many “spoons”
  • we need to give our forgiveness muscles continuing workouts
  • we have family and friends at the ready to come give us a hand
  • we are held in Grace by the One who will never let us go

So this Day of Loving Spoons, we are sharing five small meals tailored to one of us, savoring two dozen roses from the local store, sharing the humor we encounter in reading, welcoming message of cheer, trying to remember how our first date happened and continues, and practicing deep gratitude for all that was, for all that is and for all that will be! Happy Valentine’s Day!

Blessing the Light That Comes

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Candlemas 2020

While writing my Advent blog posts, I was anticipating a brilliant coming of Light for the twelve days of Christmas, beginning Christmas Day. Instead on the third day of Christmas, I was in the hospital with my husband who was having emergency surgery, to be ensconced there for the next 9 days. New Year’s Eve and Day passed in a great grayness, less in fear, more in what Carrie Newcomer calls, “learning to live without knowing,” The light we had was Santa Monica sunshine through hospital windows during the day, and fluorescent glow by night. No candles allowed!

Therefore, it is with great anticipation, gratitude and hope that I welcome Candlemas. In one part of the tradition, it is the day when people bring their candles they will use for the next year and seek a blessing for them, with the intention of letting each of them be a reflection of the Light that has come into the world. As I look back at the days of Christmastide, there were so many places that Light was shining: meals offered and brought; cards, call and texts received; errands run; surprise gifts to cheer our spirits and a providential meeting with a willing and able dog walker who can handle our ever-so-so energetic, eternally youthful puppy. Prayers were rising from many corners of our past and present lives. The Light kept shining!

So it is with a hopeful and reassured heart that I assemble some of the candles in my life that I hope to light in this coming season: the ones that accompany me when I am engaged in sacred conversation; the beeswax one that illuminates the table where meals are shared, all the while reminding us of the need to keep our natural world as clean and safe as we can; the gifts that remind me in scent and depth that love and caring keep shining even in the most opaque darkness; the tall beacons that call attention to the world, wide and deep, with need for wholeness, for repair, for truth-telling. And I ask for blessing for the calling of each one as it is lighted and spreads it gift in the place where it is planted.

The lighting of candles sometimes seems to me so small when held up to the bonfires and furnaces of the world’s needs. Yet, I am trusting that with each one I light with blessing, there will be love shone, wisdom made clear, discernment seen for those in its periphery. The words of George Sand give me perspective, especially in these times of confusion and acrimony: It is high time that we had lights that are not incendiary torches. Yes, I mean to look for those lights, pass them one, even be one myself!

Through Darkness–inside and Out

“Lighten our darkness!” Book of Common Prayer

It is this fourth Sunday of Advent, coming right after the longest night of the year. I am well aware of the darkness, manifesting itself in so many ways–universally, nationally, and I confess, within my self. I don’t remember an Advent when so many writer, poets and sages reflected on the darkness more frequently than the anticipation of the Light to come, and I observe they have good cause!

Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren wrote this as Advent began:

To observe Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielder of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness . NY Times, December 1, 2019

On this last Sunday of Advent, I am looking within at the darkness that I can bring to my worlds–my grief, my fears, my judgements, my weaknesses, my passivity, my despair–and I begin to see how they can occlude the Light that has already come and is coming again. With each Advent candle I light, the illumination tells me more about my own darkness, and mercifully, begins to show a way forward, which we realize in the birth of a child on Christmas.

There is hope in the observation of Sister Joan Chittister, when she writes:

Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others who journey into the dark spots of life is only just beginning. It’s then that our own taste of darkness qualifies us to be an illuminating part of the human expedition…having been sunk into the cold night of despair–and having survived it–we rise to new light, calm and clear and confident that will be,will be enough for us. “Between the Darkness and the Light: Embracing the Contradictions of Life.” (Image:2015, 19-20)

Being honest with who I am, warts and all, clears the way not only to let the Light shine for and on me, but frees me to be a Light-bearer for others whose own darkness has enveloped and swamped them. I am deepened this Advent with the conviction that I need to persist in recognizing the facets of the dark in me that restrict me, separate them from the parts of the dark that nourish creativity and newness in me, and let them go with forgiveness, repentance and freedom. At the same time I am called to keep being Light for the places where I am called to be with peace, love, hope and joy!

Above all, once again, I am reminded to pay attention. I received a gift at a concert this weekend. An anthem was sung that I had never heard:

I have noticed joy/how it threads below/this darkness./have you seen it too?/And have you heard it/how it speaks/the unspeakable,/the bliss?/A kind of silence, a light/beneath pain./ Have you noticed?/It rises like fingers/and then–look!/It passes through. Threads of Joy, Laura Foley

I light my last candle before Christmas in the truth of who I am and the world is, and in Spirit trusting that the destructive parts of the dark will never put out the Light! The Light is worth the waiting in the dark!

Through Darkness: Terror and Violence

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the land of gloom and deep darkness Job 10:21

What a time this is all around God’s created earth! things not only fall apart, there are streaks of cruelty and violence that are all too visible and audible to all of us across the globe! Darkness of Advent indeed!

So it is a prophetic act I do this week of lighting the candle, not just another Advent candle, but the pink one, the gentle one, that calls us to remember the prophet, Mary, mother of Jesus! It is difficult to separate who she was from all the traditions that have grown up around her over the centuries. Yet from sacred text we can know a few things about her that make her that prophet that she is. She, much more than we, lived in a time of terror and violence all round. She lived in an occupied land, in thrall to the Roman Empire whose modus operandi was terror and violence. She lived without those safety nets in the society, which I, as a white woman of privilege, take for granted–education, insurance, public safety. The challenge that was given to her for her choice by the angel Gabriel was one of great risk. To bear a child was in itself was a risk. To do it unmarried was to risk all kinds of un-peace. And to carry the freight of the angel’s charge–to carry the Son of the Most High–would be enormously daunting! Yet she said yes, not loudly or triumphantly, but with courage and faith.

And so we light our pink candles, gentle, courageous, faithful witnesses to our belief that the violent, oppressive darkness will not overcome the Light! It is very easy to be overwhelmed by the report of violence and oppression in the world. From Washington D.C. to Myanmar to Honduras to the Boko Haram, people are doing egregious harm to other beings made in the image of God. Systems seem to be corrupt and fueled by untruths. Yet with each candle lit, I remember that “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5.

In this third week of Advent I am called to light my gentle light as a witness to that Light that cannot be overcome. It was my joy to hear Sister Joan Chittister this past week call all of us the faith community to speak up for love, justice and peace against the roaring clouds of venality and willful harm and thoughtless cruelty, in the public sphere, in the Church and in the places where we live–calling out violent words, oppressive actions and willful ignorance. She says, following the Prophet Jesus, raised by the Prophet Mary, that in doing this, we will be living prophetic lives of love and laughter! I hope to so this, out of the darkness of Advent!

Through Darkness: Not Knowing

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The Lord, my God, lights up my darkness..Ps. 18:28

Sometimes Advent is dark because I need direction. Even in the mundane choices in my world there are so many options! And so much seems to be elastic and unknown. When it comes to making choices that are merciful, just and kind, the right thing is not always clear. Nor are the directions in which I should go–to the right? to the left? straight ahead? back?

The Advent cast of characters must have had similar questions. Mary: what should I do? Joseph: what should I do? the shepherds: where in Bethlehem will be find something that has “come to pass”? And surely the Wise Ones had to make choices or throughways, overnight stays and allocation of resources for the day to day persistent journey. For them there was a Star keeping them on track, and I wonder if lighting the Advent candles, two this week, is a way of my keeping my eyes on the one thing most necessary–looking for the ways that the Holy shines on and in me and illuminates my path, footstep by footstep.

I confess I would like a clear, reliable GPS reading for each day of Advent, in fact for the rest of my life. But I am comforted by the words of Carrie Newcomer:

I am learning to live without knowing/ when I don’t see where it’s going…Here’s a clear space I’ve chose/where the denseness of this world opens/where there’s something steady and true. regardless of me and of you.

Each of the Advent travelers knew this truth, and it is a call to me as I light the second candle. My faith is in the One who daily places a Star on the route in front of me, step by step, even if I can’t see Steps three, five and ten.

The prophet Isaiah knew about not knowing, waiting, watching , listening discerning. He even tells us that God is waiting…to be gracious to us, to me (Isaiah 30:18), and when we join in that waiting, “your eyes shall see your Teacher, And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” (vv.21,22).

So in this darkness I wait with my two candles this week, trusting that there is something steady and true, eager to share another step for me–in aging, in loving, in reaching out, in bringing hope and love to the world in the name of the One in Coming and will come again! Advent continues!

Through Darkness: Loss

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The Light shines in the darkness…

Advent begins in Darkness. I don’t know if this year is darker than other years. Certainly, if I look at the scope of human history, there have been much darker periods. Yet, there is so much gloom around the world, on every continent, in every nation, denomination; sometimes it seems as though that is true of each family. One location of that dark is in the losses we have seen and felt and held close to our heart.

A sense of loss always bring darkness to me. There are the Big Losses: people with whom we loved,lived and laughed, gone too soon. Or people moved away. Or people who once were so immediate, accessible and intuitive are now episodic, far away or another road altogether. There are losses of landmarks, now gone or changed into something unrecognizable–the churches, no longer part of my tribe; the schools morphed into a location or purpose unrecognizable, so that there is no touchstone for me to remember; an open space now covered over with places to park or shop. The darkness can cover me.

Yet as I ponder the participants in the stories we will be telling in these next four weeks, I recognize how many of them began in darkness: Mary and Joseph losing their stories as they had imagined them; the shepherds in the dark of night being confronted with mystery and glory, unlike business as usual; the wise ones far away from a dream, losing security and safety and familiar landmarks. Yet for each of them there was a Light that came to them in a way that gave them reason to keep going, despite the dark, despite the loss, despite the unknowing.

I am lighting the candle today, the first one of Advent, knowing full well the darkness of loss, knowing I have no sure idea of what is ahead or at the end of the road, but sure that there is the Light that the darkness of loss cannot put out. I light it in hope, in trust, and in love.