Going plural…

I had never heard the phrase, until about a month ago.  And why would I?  Apparently it is a phrase that comes out of the Peter Drucker school of management theory — not exactly my specialty.  There is even a consultancy manual to guide the executive towards diversification.  The friend who used the phrase in relationship to my life and the many and varied ways I am drawn in my life, said that they first heard it while travelling in Africa and believed it to be a cultural term, not a business one.  In my dreams, my research led me to anthropological tracts about the glorious of a natural, unsegmented life and the evils of the western emphasis on specialization.  I like my made-up definition better, of course, but the truth of it is, though, that hearing those two words lifted the weight of the world from my shoulders and gave me permission, well, to be me.

You see, when you graduate from seminary, everyone expects you to seek ordination.  Otherwise, why did you go to seminary?

And if you have devoted your life to making music and performing, surely you must be all about your singing career, right?

And if you happen to be a somewhat appealing writer, why aren’t you focusing on that career?  Or your call to live into the storyteller’s art?

And what about that call to listen and to teach?  Why aren’t you focusing on growing your practice as a spiritual director?  Why are you still singing?  Why do you spend so much time at the library?

And the ultimate question — why don’t you just grow up and choose something to do?

Why? Why? Why?  These are just a few of the questions that I meet on a regular basis, from people who know me just a little and from people who know me well — because, well, going plural is just not the done thing in our culture, not a willing done thing, anyway.

I used to believe that in that moment when I finally heard God’s voice clearly , well, my calling would be one thing, right?  A solid path, a single way — something clear and, well, direct.  I could not have been more wrong.  And I could not have spent more hours and days tied in knots, thinking that I didn’t yet know my next step because, well, it was a single thing.

There are many threads to my life — and sometimes they get, well, a little tangled.  And I know that to many people, I look unfocused.  And, I spend way to much time crying because I believe their analysis.

I’m changing that.  I choose to believe God’s analysis instead — yes, people, I’m going plural.  I’m stopping the quest for a tent big enough to hold all of these section-top-fabric-1things and tie them together into a single cloth — I realize now that I am that clothe.  I am the woven creation and on the best days, love operates the shuttle.

So, world, I am putting myself on notice.  This is the last day I complain about being splintered, about being pulled in too many directions.  This is the last day that I let that perception immobilize me.  The loom is dressed.  Let the weaving begin.

I’m going plural in a big, big way.  Many colors, many threads — who knows what the final clothe will be like?

Thistles, tea and transformation….healing as a practice

Some days, you just need a reminder that there are people in this world who follow God’s breadcrumbs against all the odds and do the work needed to transform their little corner into a living expression of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world.  Last night I had the chance to listen to just such a person, the Rev. Becca Stevens, founder of Magdalene House, a residential program that “stands in solidarity with”  women who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, and drug addiction as they come in from the streets and changes their lives.   And next, out of a need to support these women and this work, and to teach the skills needed for life on their own, Thistle Farms was born, born out of the idea of  that  the sacrament of blessing (the age old rite of anointing with oil) becomes a lived reality when you embrace the true meaning of these words:


That’s right…that’s all there is to it.  The best, the strongest and the most meaningful teaching, I think, always comes with the fewest words and last night’s event was full of those kind of words.  Love heals, the ultimate lesson of our faith. We saw the fruits of that healing love in the stories of the women who came with Rev. Stevens, in the pictures of the women from Rwanda who make essential oils as a way to heal themselves and their world after the experience of the Rwandan genocide, in the pictures of people coming together over coffee and tea at the Thistle Stop Cafe, raising up the lives of others as they eat and drink together.

And then, there were these words, which I think might have been meant just for me:

Healing is a practice

Okay, I know that they were not meant just for me, but we all feel that way sometimes, don’t we?  The words in the sermon that seem to write themselves in flame across our hearts, the words of a song that ring over and over in again in our soul? Well, last night, those fire-filled words aimed at my soul were these: Healing is a practice.  Not a process, not a destination, not a gift, not a thing to be bestowed upon us — but a practice.

Practice, to me, not only suggests something that is ongoing, but something that is completely participatory.   Either you are all in or not, and if not, then it simply is not a practice.  And another important distinction between something that is a process and something else that is a practice?  That it is ongoing, never ending, always incomplete, always becoming.  I very much like the idea of putting the idea of healing in that framework; that construct bathes the idea of healing in a beautiful light of hope that is simply not present if you think that “being healed’ is a destination to be reached.

Most of all, a practice, particularly a practice like healing, is a sign of hope.  The day may be dark, the road unsure, but if you continue your practice it means that you still have hope.  And for women who have survived abuse and abandonment, who daily face exclusion because of criminal records and economic disparity, the idea that they can imagine the possibility of a future for themselves is the most amazing healing of all.  And a healing that must be embraced and nurtured each and every day that they draw draw a breath of life.

We all know brokenness of some type, because, well, we are human.  These women, however, taught me the greatest healing lesson of all, though — that our thistleown experience of that healing practice must be shared, shared with the woman (or man, or child) who still has not taken that first step.  As Rev. Stevens writes in her recent book The Way of Tea and Justice:  Rescuing the World’s Favorite Beverage from Its Violent History (2014), for those of us who have been helped, “Now it’s (healing) is about taking the stories of brokenness and weaving them together to form a tapestry of hope for others (pg. 6).”

Nothing explains this idea of healing better than the story of Shana, who works in sales and was with us yesterday evening.  Shana’s story was powerful, but it was her sales pitch for the beautiful scented candle that brought me to tears.  Buy this candle, she said.  Buy it and do as I do with it.  Every morning, I light this candle.  I light it so that the woman out there, the woman who now lives this same story, can come in from the streets, like I did.

Yes, of course.  I bought a candle.  And yes, I lit it this morning. I lit that candle for all those in this world in need of a healing practice in their lives.   And I will light it again tomorrow, and tomorrow after that.

I will never again think of a thistle as a weed. Magdelene House and Thistle Farms, healing the world, one woman at a time.  I needed inspiration and yes, I received it.  Let the healing continue…


What I’ve Learned so Far…Learning is Fundamental

I am sitting here at my desk on a frigid bright morning, missing a class on Genesis 22 because of car fires and accidents on the highway that takes me out to the seminary.  My brain and my soul are still full from last night’s discussion of the Holiness Code and its role in the land promises of the Pentateuch.  And, if I haven’t lost you already in the face of this biblical techno-speak, I would point out to you what might not be obvious — I GRADUATED IN MAY.  WHY AM I TAKING TWO BIBLICAL STUDIES CLASSES?

Because, my friends, over the past months, I have understood some important things about myself and  what it means for me to live as a disciple.  Most importantly, I have learned that the quirk in my personality that I thought was an inability to launch was, in fact, the call to practice what is for me the most important of all spiritual disciplines, my most cherished path to a deeper relationship with my God, that of study and learning.

When I began my series called “What I’ve Learned so Far…”, I thought of the title as a way to shine a light on the particular gleanings I gathered during my 2012-09-19_14-07-56_978seminary study experience.  I thought that was important since those experiences came as I blended two (well, more than two really) traditions: I was following a learning path that was primarily designed for the formation of those in the Episcopal church when I was, well, certainly not a practicing Episcopalian.  Not much time needed to pass after graduation for me to understand that the seminary experience can (and in my case did), stoke the fire of a life long quest for learning.  I realized that at seminary I had truly discovered, well, my people — the questioning.

Richard Forster’s description of study as a spiritual discipline has finally come to life for me in my own spiritual journey:

Many Christians remain in bondage to fears and anxieties simply because they do not avail themselves of the Discipline of study. They may be faithful in church attendance and earnest in fulfilling their religious duties, and still they are not changed. I am not here speaking only of those who are going through mere religious forms, but of those who are genuinely seeking to worship and obey Jesus Christ as Lord and Master. They may sing with gusto, pray in the Spirit, live as obediently as they know, even receive divine visions and revelations, and yet the tenor of their lives remains unchanged. Why? Because they have never taken up one of the central ways God uses to change us: study.

Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Kindle Edition (San Francisco: Harper Collins Inc., 2009) 62-63.

You see,  I do not study out of a sense of vocation in any way that this word vocation is understood in my cultural context.  I do not study to get a better job or a certain job.  I do not study to objectify or to control or even really to understand. My call to study comes out of the very mystery that is God — through study and learning, I walk more closely with God, I love more deeply, I experience love more clearly.   I hear God’s voice through hours spent learning to read the Hebrew Bible in its original language;  I learn of God’s love through source criticism and literary analysis and inter-textual study of the sacred books. At this time in my life, the classroom and the fellowship of others in this kind of study is the most sacred place on earth for me, more sacred than any cathedral or church sanctuary. And at last I understand that, for me, there is no separation between my intellect and my heart; those walls have come a tumblin’ down, as the song says.

Even ten years ago, I would have interpreted this kind of call to discipline as a sign that I should redouble my efforts, get the PhD.D., make the sacrifices, fight the age and sex discrimination present in the academic community and go for a life in academia.  The call is strong, right?  That is the way I experience God, right?  I must be meant to follow this path as my way of living, surely?

Well, yes and know.  Part of my post-seminary learning is this:  God’s call to know you, God’s call to embrace you, frankly, has not one thing to do with the structures of this human world.  That invitation has nothing to do with making a living in this world; there is no worldly career advice embedded in it.  It has nothing to do with success or fame or even acceptance and belonging.  And it has no relationship to the institutions we have created, even (or perhaps especially) those created in His name.

So if you wonder where I am, I am probably in the corner with my nose stuck in a commentary, puzzling over the role of the ancestors in the Genesis narrative.  Or maybe I’m sitting in a classroom or a library somewhere, following some tantalizing crooked finger of God that is leading me on to some new piece of understanding.  One of the great learnings I have received is that thinking about your faith as a scholar and living into your faith as a mystic are not mutually exclusive — that, friends, is my life.  And for that lesson, Virginia Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Columbia Theological Seminary, I will give thanks to the end of my days.



Fog. Literal. Well, maybe….

It is Monday morning and as I walk to breakfast with my eyes firmly fixed on the dark-sky-slipping-toward-light ahead of me, I am thinking about fog.  I am, after all, in the Bay area and there is plenty of it.  I’m actively resisting pulling out my phone to try and capture what I see all around me, because I know it cannot be done.  What I see defies at least my current level of photographic talent — the subtle puffs of white, still clinging to the hill tops and valleys as the sun, painting its tell-tale deep pink stripes across the still grey-black sky in its attempt to chase those puffs away.

I spent much of Saturday morning driving through and walking through fog in the marshes of the San Pablo Bay Nature Reserve.  It was incredibly beautiful, but the fog made photography difficult.  You see, what I know now sinceIMG_3618 I’ve uploaded my shots is this:  even in those moments when I thought that the fog had cleared and gone, it was still there — just enough remaining to obscure my (and the camera’s) vision.  Many of the pictures were very different from the scenes I believed that I saw.

Metaphor?  Well, yes…but maybe one more subtle than I might have expected.  I thought I saw clearly, and yet a film (ever so slight) remained over the scene.  The camera could see it, but I could not.

For those of you wondering what I am doing here in San Francisco (technically, San Anselmo in Marin, County), I am here learning, well, to be the camera.  I have begun formal training in the practice of spiritual direction.  Basically, a spiritual director’s job is to (along with God, the real director) see that subtle film of fog over life and , like a harbor master with a boat captain, steer you through it towards…well, I would say towards God but you might have a different name for your destination.  And that’s okay.

Meeting the fog this weekend, I realized that fog, will, just is.  It really has not intention other than being fog.  It bears us no malice; it does not intentionally try to keep us from seeing.  It is just being, well, fog.  And when the light shines bright enough and warm enough, it will stop being fog and go on to its next form.  There is great beauty and peace in that process, which is so like our own.

So I will go out and walk among the fog again this morning, both that provided by the Pacific ocean and the rolling hills that surround me and that provided by my own spirit.  Maybe I’ll find a great camera along the way.

The Storm is Passing Over, Pt. 3: The Letting Go in the Moving On

I am sitting here in a warm, comfortable condo in Telluride, Colorado, watching the snow fall for the second day in a row.  Out my window, I can see birch trees and clean white powder, chair lifts drifting upwards to freshly groomed mountain ski trails, and the sun as it begins to peak through the snow flakes in this destination resort that claims 300 + days of sunshine each year.  In this week when the people of our nation turn their hearts and minds to the idea of thanksgiving, I am sitting here feeling the deepest of thanks as I embrace the beauty of nature all around me, a brief moment of piece in a world with so much strife.

It is a strange experience.  I am not exactly known as a great outdoorswoman nor am I known for my love of snow or cold. And in truth, I find myself sitting here through the kind of random fate that results when you are looking for a new experience.  But there is a peace and a beauty totelluride sunset this harsh climate that I have never experienced anywhere else in  all my travels.  It is a kind of quiet and beauty that forces you to be quiet yourself.  Perhaps this place helps me experience what Belden C. Lane is talking about in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:  Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (2007), when he says that:

…the experience of threatening wilderness invites us to the unexplored landscapes of an inner geography where that which is most deeply ‘us’ is joined to what we experience as radically Other.  In hostile landscapes of desert, mountain, and thundering clouds we are brought forcibly to the boundaries of what we our minds and bodies are able to sustain (pg. 101).

As I continue to recover from the events of the last couple of years, I seem to desperately seek this kind of experience with nature, over and over again.   There is so much that continues to change.  This Thanksgiving week is so very different from that of last year and so much has passed that has been too difficult to share.  But here, in this amazing experience of God’s creation, I think I will try.

You see, this fall, September 19 specifically, was the one year anniversary of my valve replacement surgery. That day we celebrated by facing extreme nature tool, not nature as dangerous as the desert or as challenging as the mountains that now surround me, but extreme by my standards — we  marched up the trail at Sugarloaf Mountain as a kind of proof of life– there I was, physically healed, graduated from seminary and singing again, biking 8-10 miles a day, leaping tall buildings with a single bound (well, not really), just one year later.  And on that day, I began to understand the true meaning of recovery.  Before the surgery, I thought that the moment of great change in my life  was the moment of diagnosis (and that is true), but now I know that everything really changes forever when you realize that you are alive, after the diagnosis, after the surgery, after the release from care, and after you start to connect fully with your incarnated self once again.Recovery is all about letting go so that you can live again.

No one tells you that the act of recovery is more an act of letting go than of getting back — you must experience that reality to understand it.  No one can tell you all the ways you will change, all the ways that you will have no choice but to change.  In my case, because I was so lucky, the biggest task was not the process of physical healing.  The biggest task has been and continues to be developing a new understanding of just how to live my life here and now, in this new experience of what we call reality.  I am so grateful, for the love and support that came my way along this journey, for the friendships that deepened and the new ones that were made. I am sad, too, for the relationships lost, for the ways of living that cannot stand up to this new reality —  because much was lost during this year, much that can never be embraced or recovered again, much that I would not have chosen to lose.

For these last months since the flurry of activity that led up to my graduation from the Virginia Theological Seminary, I  have concentrated on the work and discernment needed to let my mind and my spirit catch up to my body in the healing process.  I’ve been doing something that I now know is called “sorting”…a common way of coping with trauma and its aftermath.  And now that I recognize that process, I realize that I have done it at least once before — during the three years after my divorce, when I spent every moment  (that I was not at my job) sitting in a darkened room, evaluating each and every thing in my life and each and every thing that I believed.  I was busy at that time trying to find some hint of my own voice, and so the questions I asked went like this:  is this (belief, thing, person) part of my intentional living or is it something imposed upon me; is this something that should be abandoned because it blocks me from my higher good.    That is the kind of  language I would have I used in those days.

And the questions for my recent sorting exercise?  Lately, I have been asking:  what blocks me from living into my call and what supports me in that way of living?  Where is my sense of my calling thwarted and unsupported and where do I feel that is is cherished and welcome? Where has my sense of that call been so altered by my incarnational experience that I must release it and allow something new to enter into my living?  My conclusion — life is far too short to continue to try and fit my square peg self into a round hole.

You see, one of the problems with a year like the last one and in particular with moments like I experienced in this last year and a half is this:  if you are paying attention, if you are really living those precious moments instead of living the fear, you may experience something amazing — you may, for even the briefest moment, experience what I have come to call the wholeness of our being.  And I did.  The fleeting seconds between when I said goodbye to the ones I held most dear and when my conscious mind succumbed to the power of the sedatives that would protect me through the violence of surgery, I sat in the presence of God. For just a precious instant, I was whole and complete.  I truly lived the intent of the Psalmist in Psalm 37:7, “Rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him,” a line I have sung time and time again in the famous alto aria from Mendelssohn’s Elijah.   It is one thing to sing the words; it is another to experience them.

Being human, however, the awareness of that beauty is only for an instant. And then, you wake up.  You wake up to a world of tubes and nurses and luckily, not really caring about anything except that you woke up.  And so begins the long journey toward healing.  I was so lucky…in so many ways, my recovery was an easy one.  I had one small setback, but a very small one.  I had little pain.  I had wonderful visitors to distract me.  I had a loving and safe home in which to heal.  As the physical healing progresses, however, the memory of that moment and that wholeness simultaneously grows and recedes…the day to day of life begins to take over once again but the shadow of the mystery remains, telling you each and every day that things can never again be as they were.  I have only just begun to understand  how I have been fundamentally changed by the experience — not just the surgery, but that brief moment in time, that connection to the ultimate mystery…

And so I find myself, once again, in the mountains, in search of an apophatic experience, that experience of God that comes in the moment of true emptiness, when there is nothing to touch but God –just like that moment when you place yourself in God’s hands manifested through those of your surgeon and his team.  As Lane puts it so eloquently:

This I what all of the apophatic writers want to accomplish in their varying ways of employing the imagery of Sinai.  They point the climber to a peak that demands abandoning all the intellectual baggage possible.  The mountain’s ascent requires the letting go of every pride of mastery, every naïve confidence in what might once have been known.  It is finally not stamina or expertise that drives the pilgrim up the mountain, but a profound, inexpressible desire for that which cannot be named (pg. 108).

We move on, up the mountain; but to move on, we must let go.  The letting go in the moving on is painful, but very necessary.  And, I am convinced that it is indeed what God wants here, that that is the true meaning of recovery.  I believe this  because I was allowed to experience the mystery of it all.  The great gift and the great challenge of this time is not just that the outward things of my life have changed and continue to change, but that the difference comes from a deep understanding of life that is completely altered.  Finally, I have some understanding of the words of that great letter writer, Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians:  “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (4:16-18).”

The Storm is Passing Over Part 2…the Meaning of Recovery

I am sitting here at my favorite outdoor table on our last morning in Mexico, writing — I know I won’t be able to post this until days after we get back, definitely after Pentecost.  I’ve simply been too lazy to take my computer laptop out of its bag and tussle with the wireless network connection.  But I’m enjoying my last bits of tropical trade winds for a while, and the reality that today is the day of Pentecost, well, I just needed to sit and write for just a moment.

Pentecost is such an important day in the life of our faith — it signifies the day when humanity began to have the slightest sliver of understanding of the grace and glory that is given us through the new covenant.  Pentecost is an important day in my life as well.  It was on Pentecost that I was licensed to the Gospel ministry by the Calvary Baptist Church; it was on Pentecost that I passed out in Israel and began the process of discovery and healing, the repair of a congenital defect that was unknown to me, that surely would have killed me if left untreated.  And today, on this day of Pentecost, I mark my first trip to Mexico (and out of the USA) since that surgery — a surgery and repair that has brought me to a life of health and vigor I have never, ever known.

You might think it odd to commemorate the end of a seemingly frivolous vacation with the other two events and with the Christian day of Pentecost, but I assure you that it is not.  Last summer, our trip to Mexico was the last trip we took before the surgery.  When we rolled up the highway in our comfortable transfer to the airport last year, the only thought on my mind was that I might never see this place of relaxation and healing again–not just because I might be dead, but because I might not be healthy enough to travel to a place relatively far from the kind of medical care that would be needed.  And it was only as we boarded that same transfer at the airport last Sunday that I understood the extent of healing in my life. I was here again, in this place of relaxation that I love, that I have visited annually (and sometimes more than annually) since 2002.  I finally, in that moment, came to understand the true meaning of the word “recovery”. It was not the definition I expected.

At each step of my journey over this last year, I have thought of “recovery” as the next stage, something to attain, something that I wasn’t experiencing yet, and something that had to be put aside until other tasks were completed.  And that might have been true from some perspectives.  But on this trip, in this place, I can say that, like a friend you see from afar and run towards with open arms, finally recovery and I have met up and locked arms as the journey of life continues.

Everywhere in the tropics you see evidence of the real meaning of recovery and healing — as rebirth and new life, as the stretch towards wholeness that is the act of living.  My favorite illustration is something that I’ve noticed over and over again on our trips here and have only just now come to understand.  One of the big reasons we love the El Dorado resort is this — while these resorts may be luxury compounds in every way, the hotel group is locally-owned, locally-managed and exhibits the kind of respect for its people and its surroundings that show a love of the land and the community in which it conducts business.  The core operational philosophy is one of sustainable living and reverence for the nature that makes this such as special destination to visit (a respect for nature that is also part of the culture of the indigenous people of the region).  And one of the visible results of this philosophy is that as much as possible, building is done with local materials as is the landscaping.  So you often see garden borders made with sea stone recovered during the process of cleaning the beach or made with seemingly dead and dried out coconuts.

From time to time as you wander the grounds, you will look at a border and see the beginning of a new palm tree sprouting from one of these “dead” coconuts.  I always thought it was just a coconut gone wild, asserting its call to life against all the odds.  The truth, I find out, is that the new tree growth is intentional.  You see, it takes about two years for that coconut to dry out and begin to sprout.  And then it will take another two years to develop the fibrous root that  lets it begin to be a tree.  it will take another ten years to produce coconuts.  For about coconut

coconut2five years, each tree produces 75-200 coconuts a year, depending on where it is growing (apparently considerably fewer per year in Mexico, according to our guide).  The popularity of coconut products is expanding and puts the tree itself in danger, because of the long maturation period from seed to producing tree, and so the owner of the El Dorado hotels, seeing that popularity and the danger, decided it was a good idea to encourage those borders to sprout, to encourage them to once again become trees and create the next generation of coconut palms.  See…sustainability and beauty; recovery and healing.

And I can’t help but see those same forces at work in the passages assigned for Pentecost. We discuss Acts 2:1-21 and Numbers 11:24-30 as evidence of the action of the Holy Spirit and evidence of the birth of the church, but what about the individuals in these stories? What about the gathered people of Israel and the disciples? What did they feel? What changed in their lives?

These passages tell dramatic stories so that we might understand — speaking in many languages, tongues of fire, pillars of smoke. While all these signs come to life in the telling of the tale, I will bet you that the recovery, healing or the transformation that came from those events — even for the disciples and the assembled elders — was a whole lot more like the experience of the coconut slowly creating new life from old, or my own experience of looking at the ocean and realizing at last that I feel whole again. It was an experience unexpected and a long time coming.

Recovery seems to come in a flash, like a tongue of fire or a pillar of clouds, but it does not really happen that way. The disciples had studied, they had followed, they had worked hard. The “sudden moment” came as a summation to all that had come before, not necessarily as a causative event. To embrace the old cliche, enlightenment and healing are both a journey, not a destination. It matters not that you reach a stage called “recovery,” but that you understand how to embrace the signs of the gift along the way.

And the task was the same for those present that day of Pentecost so many years later as it is for us today. The sudden, dramatic sign may come to stir our attention — and then, it is over. We are left with the question: now what? What to do with that realization, what to do with that new understanding? The momentary, magical event startles us, comforts us, challenges us — calls us to understand that we have recovered, that we have experienced the ongoing healing that accompanies a life of faith. That momentary awareness of the action of the Holy Spirit startled them into an awareness that there was healing for their fears and their worries in the days after Jesus’ ascension. They were not forgotten, they were not lost, in fact they were living in a time of recovery and that they themselves were agents of that recovery.

My question to you and to myself this day of Pentecost is this — having glimpsed the possibility of God’s healing spirit, what will we do next? Can we live in the uncertainty that is our normal human existence (because even for the most attuned of us, not every day carries with it the dramatic knowledge of realization that came on that Pentecost)? How indeed, do we move our foot the next step after we have experienced the presence of recovery?

I do not have an answer for myself, nor do I have one for you. But I have learned that particularly in recovery, we keep asking the question: what next? What next, friends, what next…

What I’ve Learned So Far….the Graduation Blog

The night we gathered as a graduating class to talk about the work of our Capstone projects and theses was a celebratory one.  Congratulations, hugs, tears…a chance to spend time with our faculty advisers (even though they were in the throws of the final grading needed to get us all to graduation).  And in the midst of that, a friend who had witnessed many times my opening introduction of “I’m not from a diocese, I’m a Baptist” whispered in my ear, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.”   And the Episcopal church did welcome me.  It did not try to convert me, it did not try to change my theology.  Instead, it graciously shared with me its tools and its teachings and allowed me the space and the time to incorporate them into my own understanding of faith.  I was welcomed indeed and welcomed in such a way that in my very difference I found an incredible sense of community and belonging.

And now, some time has passed since the day of celebration, the smiles and the congratulations. Friends have gone their separate way and the adrenaline that propelled us all to the finish, at least for me, has begun to fade.  With time and rest, finally, I have had time to think and process, and graduation singlehave something to say again — something not part of a project or a paper that will move me one step closer to completing my studies.  The day of graduation, the culmination of all this change and growth, and the reaching of a goal that frankly, last year at this time I was not certain I would live to reach…these things deserve remembrance.

There are lots of things that I will remember about that final day, the day when all my studies were signed, sealed and delivered in the presence of friends and loved ones:  I could talk about what it felt like to sing in front of so many again, how I successfully climbed that hill from the Seminary to the Chapel several times in a hurry that day (running between events and rehearsals), how inspiring Barbara Brown Taylor was as a graduation speaker, how moved I was by the presence of good friends who had seen me through my call and the trials of this last year and held me in the light as I scrambled to finish.  All of those things will go in my memory box, along with the physical cards and the ad in the Washington Post and the pressed flowers and programs.

If I had to summarize for you, though, the powerful learning of two years study with the Episcopalians I would offer you this image.  In the midst of the chaos that is a large, grand worship/graduation ceremony (and it was grand, and meaningful, even for this Baptist…and, I might add, beautifully planned and executed), at the end of the procession as I looked up from the hymn page in front of me, I caught a glimpse of an unknown older man at the end of the procession.  I don’t know who he was — he might have been a retired faculty member, he might have been some other kind of honored guest — but on his face and in the movement of his body was the most ebullient sense of joy.  His joy at participating in the worship service and the ceremony sending out another group of disciples created a light that shone throughout the sanctuary.  I could not take my eyes from him, although he was in my sight for just a moment.

And that, my friends, is the greatest gift of learning I have received in these two years of worship and learning in the land of my fellow Christians who commune as Episcopalians.  That even in the dark days when we are worried about church and budgets and committees and all of the things of this world, we have immediate access to the simple light of joy that comes with the acceptance of grace in our lives.  We may argue about how to worship and what kind of music to sing and the meaning of this or that doctrine, but if we cannot put that all aside as things of a less-than-successful human attempt to interpret the divine being known as church, we miss the true reason that we do all of this.

That man knew the answer.  Many of my Episcopal colleagues know the answer and they were willing to share it with me so that I might share it with others, just as the Psalmist has tried to share that truth with believers down the ages:

For his anger is but for a moment,
    and his favor is for a lifetime.[c]
Weeping may tarry for the night,
    but joy comes with the morning. Psa 30:5

I have many changes ahead, I have much to do, but in those moments when I lose the thread of grace for just a moment, I will remember the joy in that chapel that morning and hear the voice of a friend saying in my ear, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” and I will remember the warm feeling of that special welcome, the welcome of diversity in community, the welcome of joy and grace.  Thanks be to God.

The storm is passin’ over…

This morning my musical brain is full of the sounds of Charles Tindley’s hymn (recast in its popular gospel arrangement), “The Storm is Passing Over” and this is not a random soundtrack for this day.  It is, in fact, a welcome, blessed message from my soul that I have been waiting a long time to hear, a message that as recently as yesterday seemed impossible.

You see, yesterday was the one year anniversary of my seizure while travelling in Israel, the first recognizable symptom of the congenital heart valve defect that I had been living with for all these years.  It was the beginning of the long journey through doctors visits and fear and surgery and tagbharecovery and back to living and learning and life.  Last year, May 19 was the day of Pentecost and we were in Tagbha.  This year, I was rehearsing for graduation at the Virginia Theological Seminary.

And yesterday, this yesterday, may be the first moment that I actually, truly felt the sadness of this last year, the year since that seizure, the year since that last day of Pentecost.  Yesterday, I was sad, I was unable to focus, I was in so many ways frightened all over again.  I was completely unable to feel the joy of the events going on around me, events I was supposedly participating in with friends and colleagues walking the path of graduation together. But this morning, the music in my soul tells me that the famous prayer of Teresa of Avila is truth spoken simply:  indeed, all will be well, all will be well, and all will be well.  And today seems to be the beginning of that transformation.

I keep a picture of the famous mosaic from Tagbha on my wall, above my desk.  That picture has been there all these many weeks and months as a reminder of the beginning (or at least, the
known beginning) of this unwanted journey.  I haven’t always been able to look at its simple beauty, sometimes the pain of remembrance was too great to see the simple faith presented there, just like I have not always been able to see the hand of God in the events of this last year.

Today, though, surrounded by the kind of feelings of possibility that I have not experienced in a long, long time, I look at the basket and the fishes and I think that I will see Tagbha again…that place of remembrance, and so many more.  And I am beginning to see just a little hint of the blessing on my life that has come from this journey — not just the healing itself (for which I am extremely grateful), but the chance to learn about myself and others, and the chance to understand so much about faith and live, things that I would never have known through any other path. And as the clouds clear and the sun begins to shine just a little bit brighter, I really can believe that the storm is passing over…at least for today.

The only thing we have to fear….

You know how that famous phrase offered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt ends…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  But after the last six months and more specifically, the last 6 weeks, of my life, I am no longer certain that I agree with our illustrious President.

Fear, it turns out, is a natural, healthy human reaction, that when properly understood, can lead us to greater understanding and faith.  What we have to fear, most specifically, is our response to the fear we feel.

I have been in recovery from a very serious heart operation these last weeks, an operation to repair a congenital defect that I did not know that I had.  In the years before the diagnosis (meaning my entire life up until June 2013), I will admit that I lived in a great deal of fear although unless you knew me really well you might not have known it.  I spent many, many hours combating my reaction to a variety of existential fears.   I attributed the sometimes paralyzing fear I felt to a lot of different stimuli:  the fact that I had been raped, the fact that I had endured sexual abuse as a child, the death of my brother, the financial uncertainties of my childhood, my divorce — the list can go on a and on and on if I choose.  Fear often expressed itself as indecision, isolation, resistance, and anger.  And sometimes fear expressed itself in my life as seemingly compulsive action and what to many might have looked like risk-taking (a lot of people I know think that singing in public is risk-taking). I had developed a finely tuned method of pushing myself off the cliff of whatever fear I was feeling (except when it came to learning how to swim).

I have spent a lot of my life devoted to overcoming feelings of victim-hood and the grip of those existential fears.   But as I walked through all these things, these things I now know to be the little fears of life, I had no glimpse of the fact that all of these were little rehearsals for a great big moment in my life.

I had no idea that God would call me to face my greatest fear:  that I, like my parents before me, would have a problem with my heart.  That I, like my father before me, would have to undergo open heart surgery. And that like him, I might not survive.

And so as I went through these last six months, each and every day, I was called by life to live in fear.  Yes, I could choose to push it away and live in denial, but I accepted the call to live in fear.  I accepted the call to embrace the fear and face it and talk to it and welcome it in…because no matter what I might have tried, the fear would be there anyway.  I will never forget the day that fear became my friend and not my enemy.  We were meeting with the surgeon who would do my procedure and my friend said, “she’s really afraid.”.   And my doctor, to whom I will be grateful until the end of my days and beyond, looked at her and said,  of course she is afraid.  If she wasn’t I would be calling the psychiatrist.

You see, the scientist understood where the theologian did not.  The scientist understood, where President Roosevelt did not.  My fear was part of my beautiful humanity, part of my God-created self, and my fear did not stand alone.  My fear stood alongside my faith — I could be both afraid and comforted at the same time.  He of course thought that the comfort came from my understanding of the facts about the surgery and my confidence in his skill.  Those things were comforting, of course, but the real comfort came from my relationship with a faithful God and my strong bonds with my community of faith.  And from something else that I didn’t understand until a couple of nights ago.

We have an active small groups program at the Calvary Baptist Church, and I have been a participant in the Wednesday night group, called Wednesday Night Words, well, since it started.  And this fall we are reading a book by John Indermark called Do Not Live Afraid:  Faith in a Fearful World.  Truth be told, because of what I was going through, I read the whole book before the surgery.  And at the time I wasn’t sure whether or not I would recover quickly enough to go to any of the group gatherings at all.  Last Wednesday I was able to attend and we talked about the chapter donotliveafraidtitled “For the Sake of Vocation”…and we talked about the relationship between fear and vocation, we talked about the times in our lives when we felt called and how fear played into or fought against those moments.

And I heard myself say these words:  of course, the surgery and the recovery are part of my calling.  I understood this at some level all these months, but had never said the words to anyone.

And I wrote down these words said by our Pastor:  “Vocation is any place where we like Peter (Luke 5:1-11) are called forward into something unknown.” I have certainly been living in a place of something unknown and I continue to live there every day.

My life is the same but not the same;  I have no more clarity about the next step than I did before the surgery, although I have a lot more energy and focus.  I have much to understand and much to forgive about the LBS (life before surgery) so that I can best steward these days in LAS (life after surgery).  But this I do know:  I am never to be afraid of being afraid ever again.

My fear, like my faith, is a part of me.  It can be my friend or it can be my enemy.  I choose friendship, because in friendship is understanding, and in understanding there is life and purpose and the chance to live out my purpose according to that greater plan which I simply can’t see.

So you see, President Roosevelt, we have a lot more to fear than fear itself.  We should fear those who deny the healthy recognition of real fear in their lives, because they will take their fear out on those around them.  We should fear our own denial of our own fears, because in the embrace of those less than wonderful feelings comes fuel for great change and beauty.

Better to say:  be afraid, love yourself, seek community, and face what lies ahead with grace and faith in the God who will not desert you.  Fear and faith are not opposites; they live together in us. And in that lies our strength to live into the calling we see or do not see before us, but which is there no matter what.

Wherever two or more are gathered…

I read that quotation again this morning as I read Pastor Amy’s amazing article about the importance of community in the new book Gathering Together:  Baptists at Work in Worship, but the truth is, I have been thinking about it for weeks and in particular these last few days.  Because right now I am in a unique position to testify to the power of  a community of worship.

You see, on Sunday, as I attended what will be my last worship service for a while, people of my community gathered around me and sang songs and prayed over me and laid hands upon me and hugged me.  They cried with me, they smiled with me, they invited God into the events of our lives together.  The liturgy was short; the love was large.

And the love continues…with notes, with cards, with flowers, with Facebook posts, with unseen prayers.  And I am lucky enough to have two such communities in my life.  I am truly blessed in so many ways.

So we have completed all the tasks over which we have any control — we have redecorated, we have cleaned, we have prepared.  Our beloved fur child Gracie has gone to what we call the 20th susansnestStreet spa, where she will be comforted and cared for by someone we trust and love.  And now, we leave for Baltimore.

And so I want to take a moment and tell anyone who reads this, there is power in community.  I feel loved and cared for, I feel as safe and enfolded in possibility as a person facing the events of tomorrow can.  And that is all because of my community of faith, their love, and the standard of devotion to which we hold each other in times of crisis, and well, always.

I go forward to take the next step on this journey wrapped in the warmth of that community.  I go forward to do what I need to do to go on serving the God I hold dear, and, if all goes well, the people around me who love that God with their whole hearts, as do I.

So I’m including a picture of the nest that I have carefully built for my recovery.  When you think of me this week, yes, you can watch opera videos of me on Facebook, but I would prefer that you see me in this nest, next week, well on the road to a life that I cannot even imagine tonight as we begin the process of repair and recovery.

And I say to all of you, embrace the community around you.  Because wherever two or or more gathered…well, you know how the quote ends.  Just know that it is so true…