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.

Blessings Unseen!

Morning by morning!

The season of gratitude is upon us, not that it shouldn’t be my practice, daily, hourly, and moment by moment! I love seeing the lists that people are sharing, of the people, places and events that fill them with gratitude! But my call this year is to pay attention to immaterial abundance that surrounds me. I am so aware that I can easily fill up a list of the tangible things that are mine due to privilege and location. But this year I am wanting to celebrate the “things unseen,” that are really just gifts of Grace.

Our local coffee shop, in anticipation for the high volume holiday season, began several weeks ago to serve their orders with cardboard sleeves that said: “GRATEFUL for _______.” Since getting a morning shot of caffeine (decaf) is part of our morning ritual, I began filling them out, day by day. The shop has since replaces the sleeves with more festive cups of color and variety, but the manager gave me the extra sleeves, which I have been filling out day by day, sometimes more than once!

Here are some of the things that have prompted my Spirit so far

  • air to breathe
  • baby noises
  • human and animal connections
  • access to water
  • poetry
  • ministry of many kinds
  • affirmations from anyone, far and wide
  • neighbors–many races, many temperaments, many histories
  • music of all sorts
  • words, fitly written and spoken
  • healing over time, or in the moment
  • long-time friends and acquaintances
  • humor and laughter
  • memory AND forgetfulness
  • sweetness
  • forgiveness
  • spiritual spark between people
  • Grace
  • Hope
  • Prayer

I could go on and on, I think, and will do so in my prayerful heart through the season.

I will confess that I have to stop, wait and ponder on some days for “things unseen.” It is much easier for me to look around at what is immediate and palpable and to offer thanks for that. However, especially in the night seasons, I am most aware that the goodness that surrounds me is much deeper than just those tangible things. I believe in the Presence of the Holy One that is intricately involved in all of Life. I believe in the Spirit of Christ that hovers over creation, all that is in it, that is at work in all of the events of human endeavor, whether or not I can apprehend it easily. I believe that the Darkness, whether incarnate evil or just the Great Grayness, cannot extinguish the Light. And so for these Blessings, Unseen, I am grateful today, for this season, and all the days left to me in my life!

Soul Mates and Saints

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“Anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head.” St. Brigid

Today is Halloween, leading to All Saints Day and All Souls Day this weekend. My thoughts are with those who have been and are saints, people who carry Light, in my life.

I have always had people touching my life whom I admire for their goodness, their wisdom, their accomplishments, their spirit. I come from a family of folk who “loved to do Jesus’ will,” as the old hymn sings. I have had particular pastors and professors and spiritual directors who saw things in me that were beyond my ken, and were able and willing to engage with me and accompany me on my journey of becoming. I have surrounded myself in books and articles with many of the elders and sages of the past who have both deepened and challenged my belief systems and also my actions that incarnate those beliefs. More recently I have delighted in delving into the the character and witness of people named by their communities as saints, like Julian and Mechtild, and Brigid and Gobnait. This “cloud of witnesses” has taught me that I am not alone in my pilgrimage, and that I continue have much to learn from the adventurous faithfulness of others!

My primary formal ministry in this season of my life is a calling to be a spiritual friend, a soul friend to people one a journey of Spirit. I have been mentored in this sacred practice by beloved saints, some of who are still on this earth, others who have left us for new life with the Holy One. I am grateful for the academic work, for the practice. for the supervision, for the shared sense of call. I hold my calling gently, with awe, and without presumption. To listen to the odyssey of Spirit through the pain and fancy, tame and wild, quotidian and dramatic course of the life of another is a gift that I give, and one that I receive. This sacred weekend I recognize that soul work is reciprocal; to be welcomed and trusted by another soul is to be blessed in ways that I could not have imagined.

There is a model of spiritual friendship or direction that designates one person in the relationship to be the director or elder and the other to be the seeker for a committed period of time. I treasure this relationship, one that I offer and one that I receive. However, I am deeply aware that at this time in our world, we are a mobile people and everything around us changes swiftly. This week in California we are surrounded by fires–fire that evacuate people for days, that ruin homes, that tie up traffic and foul the air. For some their world is forever altered–new normal, new locations, and new fears and perspectives on the fragility of our lives. Alongside that, I am finding that even without catastrophe things change–people move away, contemporaries die, health declines, sensibilities alter–and it is not so easy to form or maintain long term stable relationships.

So this Sacred Weekend I am noticing. savoring, celebrating the saints/soul friends of a moment:

  • the childhood friend that reconnected with me on social media for one or two moment of sacred memory
  • the person whom I had just met, sitting down for a coffee to listen to a story with compassion
  • a young adult seeking the way of Spirit for a challenging family crisis
  • a person of years of wisdom and experience sharing a piece of holy history that deepens both my perspective and prayer
  • a helper who not only gives me some great service, but spices it with humor and grace

I give deep thanks for the saints of God, some of whom are soul friends, who share my journey, past and present; who challenge me to do course correction when I am in a blind alley; who keep holding me to the Light of Hope, when so much seems hazy and bleary. Alleluia for the countless hosts of saints and soul friends who surround me and keep energizing the healing of the world!