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!

Welcoming Blessing!

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A Birthday Greeting!

The idea of blessing has been in the forefront of my thinking and pondering in these recent days. Blessing as a spiritual practice is offered in many of the sources from which I am learning, even though I don’t quite feel as if I have a competant handle on it yet; it hasn’t been part of my fundamental spiritual vocabulary to date.

Yet, in the birthday season of this year, that seems to continue on, I found myself being offered blessing from a wide swath of sources, some not even imagined or hoped for. Moreover, I was nudged to move my reflections from my being the one who offered a blessing, as so often pastors, even retired ones do, away from how the blessing came, to reflect on my heart’s capacity to welcome the blessings as they came.

I have been trying to activate my own blessing quotient daily, noticing, thanking and counting. Now, I am eager to see what opens my heart to receive them as they come. What “tunes my heart” to receive them?

  • my open spirit, one that regards each blessing, not only with gratitude but with wonder and amazement. Amazing, “the joy as it flies!”
  • my pace–too often because of speed, distraction and myopia, I don’t notice, let alone appreciate the blessings as they come. Moving with deliberation helps me sense much more!
  • my open imagination, unlimited by what has always been or what I have seen heretofore.
  • my spirit of prayer–traveling, perceiving and welcoming what comes with open eyes, hands and heart, a willingness to see what the blessing might mean.
  • my reflective review–taking the time and space to recall, relive, remember what has come to me with gentleness and wisdom, to pick up something I might have missed initially.
  • deep trust–grounding myself in my belief that “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” That wellness often appears in the the different shapes of blessing!

I encountered the woman in my photo on my birthday this year, in another town, on my way to meet friends, right in front of the place we parked the car. I was drawn to the open tray she was holding, amid a cluster of surroundings–an old hollowed out tree, from which new branches were sprouting at the bottom, a bright green succulent with buds that promised blossom, some unlit twinkle lights strung through the old and new growth, a little rust on the sculptured hair. Right in the middle of all that diversity and contrast, she stood with open hands and capacity to receive what the day brought her. I was blessed, and I was reminded how blessings often come as a surprise, and I received the blessing she bestowed as a gift from the One from Whom all blessing flow! A blessed birthday indeed!

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Give Me A Word

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The ancient spiritual desert dwellers called Ammas, or Abbas, received people who sought them out, and were met with a plea: “Amma, give me a Word!” The Words that came, as they have been collected and handed down, usually came in in a sentence or two, very general, very abstract sometimes, but possibly right to the point of the seekers deepest longing:

  • We carry ourselves wherever we go and we cannot escape temptation by mere flight, Amma Matrona
  • Salvation is exactly this–the two-fold love of God and of our neighbor, Amma Syncletica
  • It is good to give alms for people’s sake. Even if it is done only to please others, through it one can begin to seek to please God, Amma Sarah

I know that many of my friends find it helpful to choose a Word for an entire year that then becomes the plumb line for their discernment and aspiration. Yet, my life and times seem to defy the boundaries of just one word in a year; too many things change, too much is added, too much slips away. So I need to find a Word for the moment in which I find myself. And I am finding it as I go, in many places, forms and tones.

These days I am wishing for a Word, weekly, daily, hourly. There are so many words in the atmosphere–media, conversations, blogs, podcasts, billboards, sermons, radio chatter. The first challenge is to filter out the words that do not fit me or belong to me. I am aware that there is so much information and opinion out there that is not necessary for me, sometimes is even harmful. So the Word I am seeking is one that grounds, nourishes and directs me.

I am hearing it most often these days in poetry:

  • from Bonnie Thurston: We are all healed/in passive voice/and from the inside out.
  • from Belleruth Naparstek: My heart is pierced with gratitude.
  • from David Monteith: Breathe, then share your thoughts/ like paper lanterns on the /river of your breath.

Sometimes it comes in sacred text or liturgy:

  • lift heavy sorrow
  • forgive. forgive yourself.
  • speak the truth in love!

And then there is the Art–from Pompeii before Vesuvius, from our nation Black artists from the 60s forward. There is the natural world–roses abloom again, the ocean, calm and clear, the tree on the block with one branch of red leaves amidst all the green of the rest. These are wordless, yet full of the Word!

So I am learning to look, listen, attend to the Word for the moment whenever and wherever I find myself. These Words came this morning:

  • Pope John XXIII: See everything; overlook a great deal; correct little.
  • Rachel Naomi Remen: May I trust that the way You have made me is the way that is needed.




Those words will get me through this day, possibly tomorrow and a few days after that! The Word is very near! Look, Listen, Open my heart!

Grace Leads

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Full of Grace

I have been enamored by Grace, especially the Grace of the Holy One, ever since, by Grace, I fell into a deep understanding of what it was and what it wasn’t when I was in school. I have practiced it, named it, watched for it, featured it in the decorations on my wall. But some how it, its power and presence slips from my awareness with great frequency, and I relapse into the ways of being that are not grace-filled–anxiety, judgement and indifference.

Then, in a synergistic way I was reminded of Grace and how important it is to my faithfulness and well-being to savor it and to practice it. In a gathering of friends, I was reminded of a seminal sacred text that assured me that the Grace of the Holy One was sufficient for all the bumps, hurts and slights, even the the traumas and the anticipated anxious events coming up. Furthermore, the text reminded me that God becomes evident in the places and time where people feel inadequate, broken, even getting old.

As if to illustrate the truth of Grace, I remembered the way that Grace had threaded its way in that gathering. We have known each other for decades, and have encountered times of hilarity, times of deep learning, times of cheering each other up, times of grieving, and even times of rupture in our loving one another. Yet here we were, all these years later, basking in the aura of the Grace that had illuminated, that had healed, that had forgiven, that had empowered us to continue to be in each others’ presence with energy, imagination and love. Wonderful food and drink were shared, music played, gifts exchanged, memories replayed, and challenges offered. It was a gift of Grace!

As I wended my way home, I mused on the ways and reasons I let Grace slip from my view. It begins when I forget to breathe–deeply, intentionally and wholly. It is exacerbated when my senses get clogged with an overload of sensation, commentary and pontification from the nearby sources surrounding me in print, on-line, on the air waves, or conversation. It sidles away when I rush to evaluate, assess or judge. It evaporates when my memory fails me by popping up with all the wrongs, hurts, grievances and failures, when I forget that it is “Grace that has brought me safe this far,” and is the Truth that is leading me home. And I fail to live in Grace in an epic way when I do not extend Grace to my “neighbor,” anyone who comes into my consciousness, near or far.

Choreographer Ronald K. Brown of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York was asked,”What comes after Grace?” His answer was “Mercy.” He was referring to his dance compositions, but I am convinced that it is also true about living: when Grace is extended to me, in gratitude I am called to extend Grace in Mercy to those I encounter. That Grace may not be well received, or may be ignored, or may be too little too late, as it can be offered in weakness. Yet it is the song by which I want to live, and right now I am feeling the hum of the reminder to be more aware of Grace proliferates itself in my life. I wonder how Mary. mother of Jesus did it; I get only glimpses, but she did it!

One of my spiritual teachers, Ann Lamott, reminds me that “In the long haul, Grace will win out over everything, over the misery, the stupidity, the dishonesty” even my own. I am letting Grace keep leading me home!

Legacy

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Pontormo, The Visitation

Prompted by books on the later stages of life, I am pondering what legacy I might leave behind me. I don’t have an “estate” of note or lots of things to be divided or distributed. However, just this week some encounters emerged that tell me what it might be, something organic and genuine, however intangible. In the matter of weeks I have been able to be present to ministries of women in the Church, profound, compelling ones; prophetic ones; and healing and wholesome ones. They would not have been possible or given space when I began my journey of ministry in the Church over 40 years ago–heads of staffs, solo pastors, bloggers. It became clear to me that even if I had not had a personal encounter with these messengers of grace, my journey toward and in ministry in the Church was to be one of the stepping stones on which these women traveled, bringing them to a broader and more visible place than I could have imagined when I started.

I remember with clarity the moments of awakening that spurred me to risk entering a process toward ordained ministry: the first woman I ever heard preach, those who unsolicited saw gifts and call in me, the ones who made sure that I had the opportunity to explore and discern what the nature of my call was, those who cleared the logistical brushwork so that I could continue. I was buoyed and carried by the women who published opening understandings of women’s responsibilities and opportunities in the Church. I read the work of Letha Scanzoni, Nancy Hardesty and Virginia Mollenkott avidly, gathered others around me to share the good news. And at the right time went to seminary, I took calls in the wider life of the church in congregations and seminary. At each new call I met someone who had never seen a woman minister before, weren’t quite sure what to call me, and sadly encountered some of the cultural resistances to women in the Church in the form of being underpaid, overlooked and sidelined.

Overall, however, I cherished each congregation I served, loved the “work” to which I was called, and was deeply grateful for the opportunities I was given to come alongside, to be present, to speak and to act on behalf of the Holy One to the lives of others. I also never lost my awareness that it was the legacy of prior witnesses and activists that made my ministry possible. Therefore, it was natural and joyful to “pay it forward” to women testing and entering and daring to enter the arena. I was happy to mentor, to recommend and to celebrate those who were my interns and students, those who just wanted to consult, and to be present for those struggling. I rarely had words of wisdom that led to resolution, but I was honored to be present to the holy struggle.

So this week when these younger women come again into my awareness, I feel I can claim this legacy, of being one of many who made the paths a little straighter for women who are the Church in many guises, forms and styles. I will leave behind the knowledge that by my being faithful to my understanding of call, I have cleared away some of the dust for those who are now doing well, faithfully and bravely, bringing Light to those who seek it. The work goes on; I go on, as long as I have breath to tell the truth, support and comfort, and speak when a Word needs saying. I don’t think I need to worry about much more in leaving a legacy!

What’s New? Eastertide!

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I had imagined that that at the beginning of Eastertide, I would be primed to write about the new things that Easter was bringing that made me rejoice. Instead the ensuing days have included a torrent of the unexpected that has required persistence, elasticity and trust in events that were frightening, disheartening and some just sad. So once again I see that Easter is not a magician’s wave of the wand of Resurrection, but a token in trust that after sadness, there is also comfort, after darkness, there is also Light, after despair, there is also Hope.

Blooming on my deck!

The Hope peeks out in the new flower on my deck that I have never had before, a rock purslane, I am told! Each morning and evening it brings joy to my eyes, reaching down to my heart. I have also encountered Hope in the story of someone who did something never before accomplished, never before achieved, and now done once. I met Hope in a conversation that I entered with fearful trepidation, only to discover that Grace had preceded me, and that the way was open for friendly sharing. I saw Hope shining in the long slow process of healing and curing in one with a tenacious malady. And I saw Hope in the developing growth of wisdom, love and beauty of each of my grandchildren. All new gifts of new life this Eastertide!

I have 3 1/2 weeks of Eastertide to go, plenty of time and opportunity to look for ways in which Hope co-exists with the hard, dark things. Today I am looking for the places where Hope is shining in a complete change of plans. I am looking for it in the anticipated end-of-school-year fray, with parties, graduations, relocation and endings. I would love to discover it, even as I grieve that loss of the familiar and the anticipation of the new, even as I mourn the passing of beloved ones to their new life. I would like to sit with Hope, even when the days are gray, the conversations are flat, and all the air has gone out of the inspirational bromides!

Once again I am invited to pay attention, to look, to listen, to wait, even in Eastertide, where the promise of all things are new has been given life. But not yet everything, Carrie Newcomer gives me words: Do you see, do you see, do you see it? Take a breath,/ Oh. the restlessness, The beautiful not yet.

So, I look–on my morning walk, in the erasures in my Dayrunner, in the new texts or e-mail. And I breathe: Breathe on me, Holy Spirit, breathe in me, Breath of God. And I open my heart to Hope wherever she is waiting to appear!

Into Holy Week: Taking Delight in Love

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Lent is coming to an end, and I turn into Holy Week, and I have just celebrated another wedding anniversary. In my practice of Taking Delight this Lent, I am aware of how many ways Love has shown up and continues to show up, around me and in the events we commemorate next week, enough to fill an alphabet:

Love is Ample. Love is Blessed. Love is Caring. Love is Delightful. Love is Elegant. Love is Forgiving. Love is Graceful. Love is Holy. Love is Imaginative. Love is Joyful. Love is Kind. Love is Lavish. Love is Mysterious. Love is Nuanced. Love is Observant. Love is Pliable. Love is Quintessential. Love is Redemptive. Love is Splendid. Love is Thoughtful. Love is Useful. Love is Volatile. Love is Wrestling. Love is eXtraordinary! Love is Yearning. Love is Zesty.

And Love is all around–in creation, in children, in old folks, in longtime enemies–now reconciled, in congregations and gatherings, in memories, in animals and birds, in friends and lovers. And in the Presence of the Holy.

During this coming week I will be seeing where Love appears still–in sacred texts, in worshiping groups, in conversations, in halls of governance and political encounter (!), and even in moments of solitude and silence. My prayer is not just that I can take delight in the Love I find, but that I will learn to practice and share Love more deeply in the Easter season to come, awash in the gifts given me through the Holy One–compassion, self-giving, and New Life! I will take Delight in the Love!


Lent 5: Taking Delight in Grace

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photo taken in Trois-Rievieres Quebec

I found myself in a very large gathering of people I had not seen for a long time. Each of them had a personal history and a history with me that was checkered and some of which included a great deal of brokenness and pain. While the main text of the gathering was going on, a deeper part of me was reliving and evaluating those narratives, listening to my own judgements and critiques of past events. Mercifully, (and I do mean that literally), as the day wore on, I began to relax into what Denise Levertov describes this way: into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,/knowing that no effort earns/that all-surrounding grace. It wasn’t necessary for me to carry the darkness of the past: in Grace I could let go, and take delight in what Grace had brought into those stories that meant healing, freedom and redemption for everyone involved.

My journey has been revolutionized by coming to recognize Grace, and to continue to learn over the course of my years, “even into old age,” the depths and heights of that Grace. I seldom have had as graphic and audible an encounter as the one I just described, but Grace abounds in daily and dramatic of my life, if I am awake and taking delight in it. I think of this week alone–an accident averted, a garden in bud and about to bloom, the poetry of Lucy Shaw, cards and notes of friendship, acts of kindness by the clerk when I was confronted with automatic checkout at the grocery store. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat in their wonderful book of reflection called Spiritual Rx call those things “gracelets” this signs of God’s presence that indeed feel like gifts.

I am half way through Lent now, remembering to take delight is becoming a little more intrinsic in my daily routine. However, training my senses to discover Grace is a little more challenging. The banner lines and news shouts emphasize “gotcha” moments, bleat out dire predictions, and revise history in a way that frightens, demoralizes and leads the ways to despair. So I need to be vigilant in seeking with grace-filled eyes where Grace is happening. As I sat down to compose this blog entry, a tiny article, clipped long ago by me, surfaced from under the stacks of paper on my desk. The author is Bryan Doyle, and it was included in The Best Spiritual Writing of 2001. Here is is:

First rule of grace: grace rules. Grace lifts, it brings to joy. And what, as we age, do we cherish and savor more than joy? Pleasure, power, fame, lust, money, they eventually lose their fastballs, or should. At our best and wisest we just want joy, and when we are filled with grace we see rich, thick joy in the simplest of things. Joy everywhere.

Notice how many saints–whom we assume were and are crammed to the eyeballs with grace–are celebrated for their childlike simplicity, their capacity to sense divine joy in everything: the daily resurrection of light, the dust of sparrows.

Grace indeed! I am delighted!