“Tis the season…” June begins a plethora of seasons for me. As one whose days were at one time calibrated to the academic year, I am now am witness to and living into seasons determined by other factors–age, mobility, family evolution and political whimsy. Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a season for everything, a time for everything under heaven. But I wonder if the writer could have imagined the kinds of seasons that I am encountering as a person, a woman, a mother and grandmother, a church member and a citizen.
For a decade or more June for me began the season of the General Assembly of the larger church to which I belong. I went to each gathering, either to participate in deliberations or to teach seminary students about both the Spirit and the instrumental working of the larger church. Hope and feelings ran high and love, every spare minute was booked and accounted for, perspectives were shared and challenged. It was a time of high adrenaline and intensity with a steep learning curve with people to whom you belonged but had never met. I have enjoyed observing from home how GA continues to change and adapt and become the next thing, with new players, new sensibilities, new energy this year. But my season at GA is over. I now take the role of the Prayerful Observer, trusting that the same Spirit that brought energy, imagination and love to the gatherings I attended does so still.
While in academia June began the season of travel–faraway places like Spain, France, Germany, and The British Isles or parts of our own country like New Orleans, New England or New Mexico. Airplane, train and car were all at our disposal, and I loved the exploration, the introduction to new things, and the unfailing beauty of the unknown. I am fascinated as I follow the peregrinations of beloved ones around the world this year–Bhutan, Amsterdam, Nairobi, the Holy Land, France and Iceland. Yet for the time being this is not a season of travel for me. Surgeries, illness, needs of those for whom I care and my awareness of my aging body have kept me tethered to my home space. For now I am an Armchair Traveler, squealing with delight at picture of glaciers and waterfalls, opening wide eyes at beauty in museums and mountain ranges, laughing aloud at happy faces mugging and clowning in exotic lands. And I pray for open eyes and hearts for each one along with safety and protection.
What season is it for me this June? I am discovering day by day what it might mean to be a Prayerful Observer and an Armchair Traveler. I am centered in praying without ceasing: I can’t march downtown, but I can send contributions from my computer, along with my thoughts and prayers. I can’t attend the rallying meetings around the neighborhood, but I can mail in my ballot, and encourage others to do the same. I can’t bring a casserole over, but I can offer words of encouragement and send cards of joy to “encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, and be patient with all of them,” (I Thess. 4:14). And to bring the patience home: to be a peaceful, non-anxious presence in my own immediate sphere, stretching to the elastic and episodic needs of those in recovery, in waiting, in moving through change.
It is a quieter June than past ones, but I am seeking to welcome it, invite it one, and savor the way the Spirit comes to heal, to bless and to give joy!
I was invited to assist in the worship service where I attend church this past week. In my muscles and brain I knew what to do, what to look and listen for, and how to behave. I have led worshiping communities in prayers of confession, pastoral prays of thanksgiving and intercession and dedication of the offering for nearly 35 years. This past Sunday morning I remembered how many stages I have moved through in those years; this particular Sunday I was the Honorably Retired guest, stepping up to meet a need of the present staff.
Years ago I preached my first sermon. I had not yet entered seminary, and I had never heard a woman preach. Later, in two of my three parish calls, I was the first woman on staff. Those were years when little girls in the congregation would draw a picture of me and bring it to me as a gift. Those also were the years when certain parishioners let it be known that they would not welcome a hospital visit from me, no matter if I were the only pastor available, because I was a woman. Those were years of great delights, deep stresses and tears, and a formidable learning curve for me and for the congregation. I was the new one in the life of the church, on many levels. My days were roller coasters of elation and despair, of joy and grief!
I moved into the middle and most active years of parish ministry where I found my voice as a preacher, where I was invited to design and speak at women’s retreats, where I was often the one called to stand in the gap when life or lives in the church frayed. My church worldview expanded as I encountered people from my denomination whose worship expressions differed from those I knew well, and then again as I moved out to engage people in ecumenical gatherings and interfaith dialogues. I had to learn with more sinews some interior spiritual practices of setting boundaries, of discerning which call was for me, of taking a “long, loving look at the real,” of listening to my own longings through the lenses of therapy and spiritual direction. I served three different churches as part of a parish staff, and became more adept in to “reading” a congregation. I loved so much about those years, and cherished not only most of the work and the people, but loved the sense that I had “come down in the place just right” for me.
My last years before retirement were teaching inquirers and students in seminary those things I had learned both in my D.Min work, and also the churches I served. It was a happy challenge to “pay it forward” to women and men seeking to serve God as pastors and chaplains.
And now I am the Honorably Retired pastor and spiritual director. My contributions are more often private rather than public. My congregation numbers one or 10, usually not too many more. It is satisfying and delightful soul work that I am called and allowed to witness.
But sometimes I am wistful when I see the opportunities offered to women in ministry now. There are congregations who can’t imagine a church staff that doesn’t include a woman pastor. Social media has opened the floodgates to women telling their stories of faithful listening to God’s calling them whether it is in academia, like Melanie Springer Mock, in her book Worthy, or like Kate Bowler in her Everything Happens for a Reason; or women in the parish like Heidi Neumark or Rachel Srubas; or women who have carved out ministries at large, such as MaryAnn McKibben Dana and Diana Butler Bass. I read each of them with delight and gratitude, grieving with them where they have suffered, rejoicing with them in locating their particular calling, and letting them be beacons for Light for me as I in my present place also serve and wait.
It is a good and gracious thing to be in service to the Holy One, no matter one’s age and stage of life!
A voice of joy! Advent began with a voice on one crying…in a wilderness! And we take a turn into the season with a voice of joy! I am relying heavily on joyful voices in this season, Music and words combine to life my spirit above the oppressive sounds of so much that is being given attention.
So I have heard Joy in the voice of children in productions of “Beauty and the Beast.” I have heard Joy in concerts downtown at Disney Hall, first all of the Bach motets, then the voices of Chanticleer. My Facebook community supplies me amply with music of Joy of many kinds–country western, early Renaissance, piano and cello, hundred voice choirs, a capella ensembles. On Christmas Eve by candlelight, we heard in variegated voices the story of the birth of Jesus into this world and what it means; it led us to stand and sing together “Joy to the World.”
And then we were stunned at dawn to get a familiar voice on our phone on Christmas morning telling us to go look on our front porch–and there to our shock and surprise was our complete Florida family awaiting to say Merry Christmas and to feed and love us, through this festival week. It has been followed with singular voices of Joy: laughter of cousins, hilarious remembering between siblings, excited regaling with new experiences, eager recitation of encounters with something special–all Joy! Certainly the we have shared the Joy of Christmas with enthusiastic voices this season.
I am convinced that I am to bring a voice of Joy into the new year. It is counter-intuitive if I become saturated with the voices of the world around us–news, op-ed pieces, and Cassandra like predictions of the doom to come. However, the voice of those who are seeking Spirit and intending to live with its energy are filled with hope, perseverance, compassion and imagination because of what we are celebrating this Christmastide. Those are the choruses of which I would like to be a part. I anticipate with expectation the anthems of those who are joining their journey of Spirit with their intention to be part of the healing of the world, whether in political demonstration and action, or in service to those without resources or agency. I align my heart and voice with those who croon softly to the person in pain and despair, or to the ones who feels as if there is no place to call home. I accept the lowering registers of my own voice to calibrate it to the song I have been given to sing for now: God is here, does not leave us, nor can anything separate us from Divine Presence and Care. There is Joy in all!
Good Christian souls, rejoice! with heart and soul and voice…
In this New Year I am adding my voice to the band of angels and saints who hear and care for the voices crying in the wilderness, and then go on to bring a more hopeful, Joyful song of “Peace on earth, good will to all!”
I just celebrated a Big Birthday! Somewhere in my lists of oughts and shoulds, I had been imagining that I would have a new Mission Statement with clear aims and goals for this occasion and part of my life. Instead, I was traveling for fun, coming out of an intense period of focused care-giving and attending to both daily and cosmic need. My heart and mind were muddled rather than at peace. I was delighted to be away from the daily bombardment of news of disarray and sadness, and so it was a journey toward tranquility that took us on a drive up the St. Lawrence River out of Quebec City, devouring and savoring the beauty of the fall colors just beginning to turn.
Our first stop was the cathedral of St. Anne de Beaupre. The entire edifice is dedicated to Anne, in legend the mother of Mary, mother of Jesus, and was beautiful in every way–color, light, design. It was for us truly a sacred space. However, the great gift to me amidst the physical beauty was the inscription over the large statue of Anne, declaring: That my joy may be in you. The same inscription in French oversaw the pulpit on the opposite side. I was stopped in wonder, love and praise. I wondered when and how often I has been in a worship space, a worship community, that invited me to be in Joy. I have seen many other churches and cathedrals that have invited me to stillness, to awe, to reverence, but I could not remember such an explicit invitation to Joy.
As the journey continued, both inside and out, I became aware that the Joy comes, not in big pronouncements or agendas, even Vision Statement, but it comes in the attention to the graces and invitations that were offered to me each day. Some were sheer beauty–fields of canola and leaves turning read and yellow and purple. Some came in laughter over new discoveries and shared amazement. Some came in questions raised by what we saw in museums, on sidewalks, and river fronts. And some came in knowing my body well enough to be able to say, “I have taken in all I can accommodate today.”
It brought to mind a quotation from Marvin Hiles that I have carried around for many years: To live sweetly in the bitter days, to shape beauty among the grotesque, to exult in the littles, and to declare in the midst of brokenness a wholeness that comes now and ultimately. God’s joy in me in the daily, in the moment and in the long haul.
As I journeyed home from my trip to Canada, I found that graces and invitations were all around–a Taize service that centered me, a planning meeting that energized (!), the joining of two friends of mine who had not known each other previously in a justice project, opportunities to walk with love ones in distress. Not always joy, not always happiness, but Joy.
This week, as if to add an exclamation to my findings, these words came from Celtic Daily Prayer II, by Andy Raine: These are the days for noticing the small things, establishing trust and saying things that need no words. In the miasma and stench of rhetoric in the public sphere these days, I am cheered by the prospect of an alternative narrative, one that allows for and leads to Joy, and even invites me to be a bringer of the Joy of the Holy that is in me!
Words and sight prompting me to joy are everywhere around me! In the ear of my heart I hear the poetry of Anne Sexton:
There is joy/ in all…
and she catalogues all the elements of her morning kitchen and spirit ritual which delight and inspire her. On my recent family trip when I had solitary moments, I too was able to take joy in where I was–the ocean view, the little Mexican icon in the garden, the cool water, the air conditioner, the fresh coffee, the fountain of live turtles who basked or swam back and forth, the ample time to listen to what i was reading, to reflect, ponder and wrestle with a writer from another location, re-framing questions I seem to be always asking. There is joy in all!
And joy came bursting in the door with each grandchild or grownup as they told their stories of adventure–underwater, around the coral reef, at the ruins, with iguanas, on the back of gold carts, or shopping for chess sets. Each person had a particular way of spinning a narrative, choosing syntax framed with gestures and facial expressions that were illuminating and delightful. And there was laughter and drama and amplification that made my heart spill over with wonder and gratitude. There is joy in all!
It has been more challenging to see the joy is all on my re-entry! There is a calendar of appointments, a list of fix-its, a catalogue of do’s and don’ts, always hanging around each day. And then, when my “plan” is firmly in place, something intrudes, what Rumi calls a “visitor” to be welcomed–a phone call, a knock on the door, a letter of surprise. And the Plan gets jettisoned. So I have been “listening” to Fra Giovanni, 15th C. Italian artist and thinker:
The gloom of the world but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!
When a neighbor needs a ride or a groceries, I can take joy in knowing she is well fed and safe. When someone needs a consultation on a knotty problem, I can take joy in knowing that all those years of education and life experience are still being put to use. When calamity or catastrophe befalls a loved one, I can take joy is knowing that there are ways for me to help and that there is Wisdom to direct me to what those ways are. There is joy in all!
Henri Nouwen tells me, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” That’s what I am choosing to do. That choice does not mean that I fail to notice the terrible grief in the world, the terror of those displaced and abused, the pain of those with unrelenting illness, the violence of arrogant and tone deaf leaders. But, a choice to Take Joy reminds me that those things are not the only realities in the world. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot put it out. (John 1).
So in this second half of the year I am committed to taking joy every day and in every way, wherever I can, so that as I work and pray for the wholeness of the world, for the healing of those who suffer, for the power to overcome injustice, malice and cruelty, I can see behind the shadows, the joy that comes with the Light that will shine and not be put out. I commit myself to looking for and celebrating the Joy that is in all…and sharing it!
I have been committed to a practice of bring grateful for a long time time now. Karl Barth tells me, “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” I am Taking Joy!
All summer I have been sending traveling mercies to my friends on the move. Today I pray for traveling mercies for my own moving and wandering:
I pray for peace for this anxious traveler, who worries about connections, forgotten items, anticipated glitches. Breathe your peace into my body, mind and spirit.
I pray for those who make it possible for me to travel, pilots. attendants, agents and greeters and innkeepers. May each of them have what they need to do their jobs with skill and heart.
I pray that I will embody a patient and merciful spirit with systems that have the capacity to break down, delay and confound. Help me to be one who brings compassion and tranquility to any chaotic kerfuffle that breaks out.
I pray for those I love with whom I will abide and celebrate, each with a unique and particular personality and set of needs and wants. I pray for the Spirit to make us a peaceable realm as we hang out together for these days, not just tolerating each other, but learning to love more dearly, with exciting discoveries, deep appreciation and lots of laughter and delight.
I pray that even though I will be a visiting tourist, I will also be able to see those in the area we visit with gentle and welcoming eyes and ears, that I may treat each person with respect and honor while I am given hospitality.
I pray that my heart, body and mind will be open to seeing things I have never witnessed before with curiosity and interest, with great gratitude for the variety in the world that the Holy has made and in which we live.
I pray, most of all, that I take Joy from the Creator in each moment of living, loving, laughing, learning, trusting that the Joy of the Holy is my strength whether I am at work or at play.
I am resting in Traveling Mercies!
Anne Sexton proclaims that there is Joy in all! What more evidence can there be than the blossoming of five irises, with at least five to come amid the long-desired rainfall that appeared in these last days of Advent! Christmas comes replete with tidings of comfort and Joy in the arrival of the Baby Jesus, who at this celebrated moment is only a hope, a possibility and a dream! And I have done all that I can, both to make my beloved ones comfortable and Joyful, and to enter into the Joy myself, sometimes with mixed success. Yet the signs of Hope throughout Advent have kept pushing me to stay awake to the places and ways which, in the words of C, S. Lewis, “…cheerfulness keeps breaking in!”
The signs and the blooms of Joy on this day are everywhere–children singing loudly, even on key, the old Christmas carols with open hearts and wide eyes; thoughtful and prophetic pastors who don’t settle for the same old/same old messages and routine; caring friends who acknowledge my limitations this year, and come round in message or person anyway; posts from those who are feeding the hungry, expanding their giving on behalf of the vulnerable, writing and marching for both justice and mercy for the little ones.
Yet, many among my acquaintances want to make sure that I know that there are many for whom Joy is not readily accessible, and I am deeply aware of that. Hospitalizations, freak accidents, sudden losses, fractures of personal connections that can’t seem to heal, all make Joy a slippery commodity. And the “weary world!” Good grief! what can we say to the callousness, the arrogance, the brutality and the self-absorption that makes up the Slough of Despond through which we are muddling these days!
I submit once again the Joy–the Joy that is heralded by the angels–is not connected to the era in which we live, the location we inhabit, our status within or without families, even our body’s frailty. It is a gift from the Holy One, reflecting that above, around and through all we are created by God. The write of the Psalms remind us that in Holy Presence is fullness of Joy (Psalm 16:11). Two themes go throughout sacred testament–1) Joy is gift of God, even as it was when Christ was born, and 2) humans have the capacity to choose it, even when they are in dire straits and unhappy. I cannot choose for anyone else, but I can make it my aim in my quest to keep the Light shining to choose joy. Karl Barth says, ” Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.”
And so on this Christmas Day I again commit myself to choosing and practicing Joy–in the healing process my body is in, in the disappointment in what people do and don’t do, among the miasma of doomsday prognosticators–Joy because in Holy Presence is fullness of joy, and Christmas comes to tell me that the Christ will never leave or forsake. That belief and ground in Joy is what keeps me centered when I am called to lobby for mercy for the poor, to protest injustice for the displaced, to advocate for those who do not have the privilege I have as a white, heterosexual person with education. .
Joy to the world…God has come and given me power to share and spread that Joy!
So much of the Great Grayness that we are living through is covered with noise and disconnection. We read of or hear people screaming, horns blasting, helicopters hovering, sirens klaxoning all through our roads and towns. I long for peaceful silence, and yet there is a hopeful lilt in the atmosphere when I hear beautiful harmony. It is in the old carol’s words, “heavenly music (that) floats o’er all the weary world.”
It grounds me in the promise of Hebrew Scripture that there will come a day with a new heaven and a new earth, where the wolf and the lamb shall feed together and the lion shall eat straw like the ox (Isaiah 65: 17, 25). Things will fit together and make beautiful music together. Most Sunday mornings as soon as I wake, I tune into our local classical music station to the offering called “Soul Music.” For three hours I drink in choral music, primarily sacred, sung to ancient texts of Hebrew and Christian Scripture. Some of it is sung in languages other than my own; some of it offers plangent chords and melodies which cover the words. But the bringing together of the voices themselves–four part, madrigal, chant, echoes–all remind me of the promised dream: Peace on earth and good will to all people.
I practice feeding that dream all during Advent and Christmas. This year so far I have heard Eric Whitacre conduct a holiday concert in the downtown Disney Hall, blending old Christmas songs with his modern compositions. I have heard our church choir sing one of Bach’s less known cantatas, “For Unto Us a Child in Born,” expressing words of hope and trust. In our small group of friends who have gathered for 20 years, as we reflected on this past year and anticipated turning into the new year , we sang in the half-light, “O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here…” Then we sang, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel,” words from the 9th C. Latin, hoping, looking, trusting, as we are trying to do. And the harmonies reassure me that it is all true!
In my conversations in these days, which can so readily turn to despair and bleakness, I listen for the harmonies can keep me hopeful. There is a family widely divergent in their politics whose members treat each other with love and respect. There is a man who has given himself to caring for an aging family member, as he volunteers at his church for the jobs that no one else does. There is a church who provides a community dinner every Sunday night all year long for the seasonal workers who come through the town. There is a community of educators who unanimously vote to safeguard its students who are at risk of deportation. There is a church who goes out on a limb to bring justice and mercy for those who are at risk in the neighborhood.
My call as the music in me and around me brings harmony to the world is to be one of the voices that fills in the chords, that supports the ostinato beneath the solo, that helps the chorus swell with joy as the Light appears, or even as the Hope of it soothes my heart. I sense I want to be one of the angels that the carol sings about and let the Hope in harmony fill me:
And you beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,/ who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,/ look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing:/ O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing. (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Sears.)
The illustration is taken from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
In these Dog Days of August replete with politics, athletics, wild weather (too hot, too many fires, too wet) and the shrillness of uncensored opinion about everything, I am looking to those sources of Grace that keep me centered, grounded, even in Joy! I know that much of my theology, much of my heart, much of joy lies in the songs that have accompanied me from the cradle, and will continue to do so as long as I love. I am sure that in these days of distress all round us, I need to keep close to this source of Spirit and healing from the Holy.
Music was a language into which I was born, primarily sacred music as sung by the communities in which I was nurtured. My family worshiped together in daily prayers, and all of us learned to sing in harmony, as we sang through the Inter-Varsity hymnal year after year. I played the piano in accompaniment. But while I was a seminary intern, I heard for the first time a melody with words that took root in my spirit, and continues to cheer, heal and haunt me. It is a 19th Century hymn attributed to Baptist pastor Robert Lowry. I was preaching one of my first sermons on the prophet Deborah, someone up against military threats, sexism and difficult odds. When she emerges from all the “tumult and the strife,” the next chapter in the book of Judges ascribes a full length song of celebration to her. After I preached, without introduction, a winsome young soprano soloist friend sang a capella from the balcony these words (not Deborah’s):
My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation/ I hear the clear, though far off hymn that hails a new creation./ No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging./Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?
The following verses sing about darkness, tyrants, prison cells, yet a clear deep sense that Love wins, and that alone is the prompt and cue for singing. Augustine has told us, that the one who sings prays twice, and so I am doubling my prayers through song this month–prayers for peace, for comfort, for hope, for healing, for resolution, for vision for energy and action; prayers of gratitude and praise, delight and laughter.
I include a youtube version of the late Jean Redpath singing this song on Prairie Home Companion; she surely could not keep from singing. I plan to follow her example!