Friday, February 20, 2015

Imaginative Prayer Walks

Although long walks are one of my favorite parts of life, they haven't been among its features this year, and most especially not this past week. With temperatures hovering around zero every day, I haven't even been to church or to the university for two days.  So, as part of my Lenten plan to revitalize my prayer life, I have begin to take imaginary walks, looking for God in the places and among the people I have spent time with.  A few days ago, I prayed through a list of many of the institutions of my life ~ churches and schools, for starters ~  and now I am "walking" though their neighborhoods.
This morning's "walk" through the area surrounding my home church included the neighborhood, around which a friend and I frequently walked while our children were in their Montessori preschool there, and a trip across the street to the huge park.  That park has been home to our children's play when they were in preschool, to later soccer and softball practices and games, and to long walks with a good friend.  I recalled one walk  across the park to the Great Meadow and beyond a couple of summers ago,  with a woman whose father and extended family I had accompanied through his death when no one from my home church was available. 
I found myself praying for many people I hadn't thought of in years; and for my home church pastor, whom I know often goes running there; and even in gratitude for the Rockefeller family, whose vision and money established an unusual neighborhood and its expansive park!
I am finding that I walk so much that I know several places in intimate detail, and they are associated with people from all times of my life.  It's an excellent way to pray when the ice and cold have forced me to hibernate. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


The phone rang toward the end of the afternoon.  I was at the church by myself, taking care of some final details. 

"Do you have an Ash Wednesday service tonight?" the woman asked.

I was preoccupied, and so I told her yes, and the time, and we hung up.  Afterward, I thought that I should have said something welcoming.

She arrived a minute or two after the service began.  An elegant, quite beautiful woman, she sat in a back corner, and the shadow that crossed her face from time to time hinted at the meaning the service held for her.  She came forward for ashes, and asked for a star word at the end, and left.

What brings someone, I wondered, what brings someone into an unknown congregation on a cold and snowy night, in order to receive the mark of the cross in ash traced across her forehead?

It was at one time a service which stirred deep movements within me.  But last Saturday I handed a vial containing a trace of ashes to someone who is going to see that they reach a destination to which I cannot go.  She was probably somewhat surprised by the casual ease with which I transferred them, but I am used to that now.  Even so, the ashes in my possession render the remains of palm branches insignificant to me.
I am grateful to be someone called to share the meaning of this day with others.  But without such a role to play, I doubt that I would attend an Ash Wednesday service. 

Star Children (Ash Wednesday Sermon)

Tonight we are invited into what is for many the most moving season in the Christian calendar.  Advent is filled with joyful anticipation, Christmas with the astonishing discovery that God chooses life as one of us, and Easter with the radical fulfillment of our highest hopes: death is no more. 
But Lent – Lent is that season in which we come face-to-face with the great mystery of each of our lives: We are born, and we die.  We are born, quite literally, as star children, for we all bear within ourselves stardust: elements which were once bits and parts of the heavenly bodies above.  (Yes, this is true – almost everything on earth was at one time part of a star, now scattered across the universe.)  And when we die, we turn to dust once again, to earthly dust, to the ground – itself stardust --from which Adam, whose name means “made of the earth,” was created. 
And in between – in between we live lives worthy of both stars and earth.  Lives in which we aspire to the skies, to great deeds and expansive love.  And lives in which we are often grounded by sorrows and suffering.  This night, this season, pull us back to our groundedness, to the reminder of our mortality so necessary to our understanding of the dazzling magnificence of resurrection.  But it also turns us toward the stars, as we prepare to receive the ashes, the dust, which remind us of who we are: creatures of stardust. Creatures of light as well as of earth.  Creatures of life as well as of death.
On the first Sunday of Epiphany, back in January, many of you received star-words, words which I hoped you would put in conspicuous places and would ponder from time to time. To what, I asked, might your word be inviting you this year?  How might it expand your life, ground you, challenge you, encourage you?
Tonight I ask you to consider you star word once again.  How might you live out the Lenten season, how might you journey toward Easter, in light of your star word?  How might it guide you into a deeper experience of this season?
Our text tonight, from Matthew, awakens us to the three church practices of Lent: generosity, prayer, and fasting.  And in this passage, Jesus admonishes us to do these things in private.  How confusing!  So often we rejoice, as a church, in community, in the doing and understanding of things together.  We give together – our weekly offerings are pubic events, and much of the good work we do – the meals, the thrift shop – are done in community.  We pray together every week, in worship and at Bible study.  And when we give up food – we like to let people know, don’t we?  In fact, we ask others to be our support system when we try to relinquish our hold on something really important – like chocolate!
But sometimes, sometimes, it behooves us to practice our faith in private, or silently, or without drawing attention to ourselves.  We give something without anyone knowing about it.  We pray quietly and alone in our own homes.  We sacrifice something, whether chocolate or some other desirable food or activity, without fanfare.  Sometimes we are called to journey deeply into the deserts of our lives, into those places in which it seems that suffering and sorrow reign, into those lands in which confusion and bewilderment hold court, and to do so quietly, seeking the companionship of God alone.  The silent land, author Martin Laird calls it – that place without distraction, without the clamor of community, without the burden of the expectations or hopes of others – that place in which we might find a new clarity, a new discovery, a new recognition, of who we are and of who God is.

What might your star word convey to you, how might your word lead you, into the silence and toward this renewed openness toward God?  When you receive ash on your forehead or on the palm of your hand tonight, you might ask: What does my word suggest needs to die in my life?  What do I need to release? What attachment is holding me back from the fullness of life?  And when you consider your star, and the stardust from which you are make, you might ask:  What does this word invite me to? What is longing to be born in my life?  What am I called to embrace?

In a few moments, the sign of the cross will be marked in ash upon your face or hands.  The cross – a symbol of death, and life.  The ashes – from earth, and from sky.  This is the season in which we remember that we are creatures, not gods, but creatures of both: of death and of life, and of earth and of sky. And that we are called to turn to our God in wonder and in awe, recalling our mortality and awaiting new creation.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Way Too Overcommitted

Not sure what happened here (I am usually pretty good at saying "no"), but . . .  definitely no posting for awhile.
So: enjoy imagining summer and a hike through Graveyard Fields (NC).

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

No, You Don't Know

This post was so on target that I wanted to share.
It was written in response to another essay which one of my nieces posted on FB.  While the original essay made some excellent points on the need for mothers to support one another, my response (posted much more briefly) was in line with this blogger's.
I hesitated to respond at all, because the post was well-meaning, and my beautiful niece, herself the mother of two darling little girls, sent a much-treasured photograph of Josh and me to me for Christmas.  But it occurred to me, after considerable thought, that the article in question might cause some mothers to say "I know," with no sense at all of the guts quietly twisting in response. 
And so:

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bone-Wearying Tired

That's what happens: I get so tired I can, quite literally, barely move.
I love so much of what fills my life.  I love being a pastor: preparing and preaching sermons, planning and leading worship, spending time with people through ordinary moments and crisis moments, helping with outreach and events, nurturing a visioning process.  I love teaching in a college, watching those young people just beginning to figure things our and watching their passions ignite.  I love doing spiritual direction, listening to stories and opening the doorway for those interested to, as one friend one described it, "learn to pray in 3-D." 
And I haven't even mentioned my family life: the husband moving toward retirement, the young adults stepping into the future, the father approaching a final decade, or maybe two.
It's a varied, fascinating, engaging, and very full life.
But every moment of it is undergirded by the loss of my son, the young adult who is not stepping into the future.   And I get so tired.  Every day, an onslaught of reminders.  Pictures, articles, posts, songs, dozens of them, about places and things he loved.  Every day, at least two or three, sometimes many more, conversational moments in which I can feel the curtain thump down between my inmost feelings and the pleasant facial expression I adopt.
I guess it's the crushing weight of what I know now.  I re-posted an article on FB yesterday about a young Ivy League student who died of suicide.  A couple of friends responded that her story is sad and heartbreaking, as it is.  But my thought?  It's OUTRAGEOUS.  It's outrageous that the world works ~ or doesn't ~ like this.   It's a heavy load, to know that helpless outrage every day.
I am still learning, six-plus years later.  What to do with some time off. (Nothing.) What to do when the days get too full. (Cancel.) What to do when the phone rings one more time. (Ignore.) 
I am sleeping full nights now, for the first time in six years. Seven, eight, consecutive hours.  It's as if my entire body is groping for rest.  I would not call my sleep peaceful.  But at least I can put the hours in. 
Six years.  Just sayin'.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Reading and Watching Mysteries

"What does this mean?" I asked my grandmother. 

About to leave for my first year of college, I was standing over her dining room table, sifting through the stack of condolence cards she had received after my first step-mother's death a few weeks earlier.

"I guess you've pulled out a stack of mysteries again," a college friend of hers had written.

"Oh," she sighed.  "After your mother and brother died, I used to lie on the couch every afternoon before you came home from school and read an Agatha Christie novel.  I couldn't bear real life, so I buried myself in mysteries in order to escape."

She shrugged her shoulders.  My first stepmother had not generated the sort of love that my mother had, a decade earlier.  My grandmother did not, in fact, require a pile of novels the second time around.


I was never much of a mystery reader myself.***  I can't stand suspense, and I certainly can't enjoy the artistry of a work of fiction ~ novel, play, film ~ if I am tortured by an uncertain ending.  I almost always read the end of every book that comes my way within a few minutes of getting started. ( I've already read the synopses of all of this season's Downton episodes, which appeared in Britain months ago.)

Real life is enough perhaps?


But some months ago, inundated by challenges at work and reaching a point at which I felt I had nothing to say for myself about anything at all, I started reading mysteries.

The newest Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus book, which happened to come out just as I needed it.

All ten Inspector Gamache novels.

The first couple of the Kate Shugak series. 

The three Grantchester books, which as of last Sunday night are appearing on television in Masterpiece Mystery form.


I'm not sure what this means.  Approximately one mystery a week  (and my work as pastor and college teacher requires a LOT of reading, plus I am always reading other books as well ).  I have been practically inhaling murder and mayhem, geographic longing (I think everyone who reads Gamache wants to go to Quebec tomorrow, and I'm feeling the same way about Cambridge now that Grantchester has been launched), and the lives of characters whose personalities are as intriguing as the crimes they solve.

Maybe I'll review a few of them.

Maybe I'll figure out the appeal.

(***It seems that 1.5 years ago, I was equally baffled by a wave of mysteries in my life.  Hmmmm.)