Lauren Winner’s STILL

As one of the RevGalBlogPals, I was fortunate to receive a copy of Lauren Winner’s new book Still to read during Lent. Because of the nature of my schedule and commitments during Lent, I didn’t get a lot of extra reading done. Just finishing my CPE papers and assignments kept me up many a late night! However, I did dive in to reading Still as Lent came to a close.

Lauren captured me with her comment in the Preface about being “in the middle” of your spiritual life, when the luster has faded and the questions outweigh the solid-as-a-Rock answers…

The assumptions and habits that sustained you in your faith life in earlier years no longer seem to hold you. A God who was once close seems somehow father away, maybe in hiding.

I started this fourth unit of CPE in a spiritually “dry” place. The previous unit of CPE was completed in a setting full of strife and legalism; the summer was full of family needs and obligations. I literally stepped off the plane from being out-of-state into the world of chaplaincy. And I had not had the mental re-set to do so. By Christmas, I was feeling more secure emotionally, professionally and spiritually, having planned and preached for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Rounding into the New Year, I discovered I had my “joy” back — life, while not perfect, was sweet. And then Still arrived as Lent began.

I confess that in mid-February, I only got through the Preface. But I was hooked. Lauren’s refreshing words and thoughts reminded me of the work of The Holy continuing in my life, and in the lives of my patients and their families as they struggled to see God in the hardest of days. An echo of the final verse of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” became my silent prayer:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

OK then. Studying and family filled my days and nights. Work and internship filled in the available corners. And I spent some time pondering where God is in the “silence” of our spiritual experience. Lauren calls it “stumbling into God’s absence, God’s silence” — which pretty much reflected where I had been. But in my CPE work, day in, day out, with people who were struggling to see and know God at work, I found something that made sense to me. As I re-read John 11 (part of my “read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year” discipline), I realized that Mary and Martha sat in that silence, waiting.

When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.” (John 11:6-7, CEB)

“AFTER TWO DAYS…” The words jumped out at me. Yes. I had been there. Waiting. And hearing nothing. I found, as Lauren did, this space of rediscovery, of allowing the darkness and light to co-exist. And sitting in the place of The Eternal Promise that is yet-to-come. The reminder of my baptism. The beauty within the Eucharist, taken in faith and in grace. The challenge of staying in the “loneliness” of the harder places in my life. The trust that God has the “middles” of my life (I would note that “middle age” is not all it is cracked up to me, nor is “middle class” — but neither are a reason for crisis!) In the middling, Lauren ponders the work of the “threshing floor” and the work of God within us to sift, strain and stretch.

And as I read that, I wrote in my journal, ‘Please dear God, let me just get through this.’ Yes. I was definitely in the “middle.” Muddling through, I find that it is the act of praying (sometimes with words), of appreciating beauty (sometimes visualized), and of experiencing the Presence of God in unexpected places and in unusual ways.

In this “showing up” of God’s Presence, Lauren again triggered a memory… of struggling through Greek and middle voice (I still don’t always get it, either) and of the action of prayer which is, actually, just like that Koine Greek middle voice. Some day I will find a way to use that to explain the work of The Holy in our prayers without sounding like a Greek Geek (which I am most certainly NOT). But the reminder that it is God at work AS I pray, AS I wait, AS I try to follow — not me “doing” anything to change myself or grow in holiness. (In other words, the antithesis of most Christian “discipleship” books!) I spent the latter half of my last CPE unit contemplating my existence as a human BEing, not a human DOing, and of knowing with certainty that I am in ministry for reasons beyond my own. And that’s a good thing.

As the book ended, (rather abruptly, to my mind), I sat back and reflected on the work of The Holy in and through me (and many times in spite of me) over the last few years. Moving into chaplaincy as a vocation, the “unanswerable” questions are a part of the work. Because you can’t “answer” them, you can’t skew anyone else’s understanding of them, either.

And that, my friends is why the place of STILLness is so important.

Thanks, Lauren, for writing this book, for sharing your journey, and for being an honest reflection of the heart of God.

Blessed be.

Caution: Curves Ahead

I’ve got resumes out there. I’m finishing that all-important fourth unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education).  I’m excited. Nervous. Slightly curious. But mostly, I’m learning to enjoy the ride and not be in the driver’s seat.

I suppose if I could write the script, it would be different. I’d know where the plot was going, or have a sense of what’s next. That’s totally NOT the case. As a friend of mine, a breast cancer survivor says, ‘NOT a fan!’

And yet… I can hang out the window. Enjoy the view. See where we’ve been. Experience the wind in my face. And be in the experience without controlling it. It’s fun, in a free-fall, scared-of-heights kinda way. God’s got this one covered, too.

Psalm 139 says… Even from far away,  you comprehend my plans.

I’m so grateful.

Light and Shadow

Over on my 365 photos blog, I posted this picture and a poem.

I walk through this area every day, many times as I’m headed towards my car, towards home and a “normal” life… something my patients long for, dream of, and dare to believe will be theirs some day. The sudden brightness and contrasting shadows resonated immediately.

There’s many occasions on the average “day-in-the-life” of  a chaplain where I walk from the happiest of moments to the saddest, almost in the same breath. It can happen going from bed to bed, room to room, or floor to floor. If I am not self-aware, I can be slammed with the sudden change from joyous light to deepest sorrow.

Today was a day of contrasts. Of hope. Of despair. Of pushing onward towards healing. Of giving up. I felt the push-pull on my heart. In both situations, God is there. Tonight I celebrate and mourn.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, your perfect love is casting out fear… This song came to me this evening when I was reflecting on my photo-of-the-day…

Second Hesitations

Be careful what ye blog, for verily, thy future employer shall find thee out.

2 Hesitations 1:4

I am eight weeks away from finishing my fourth unit of CPE. I’m polishing the old resume, writing my consultation paper, and working on a “model” verbatim. In addition, I’m trying to finish up all those lovely final CPE projects which kill the evening hours and fill the pre-dawn hours of my life. (What’s a weekend? What’s it like to goof off after work? And will I ever just sit and be a couch potato after work? I dare not believe it.)

But enough whining. If I had wanted a regular, 9-to-5 job, I wouldn’t be a pastor, now, would I? 🙂

To be honest, I’ve had some wonderful experiences in this fourth unit. In addition to my CPE hours, I’ve been working per diem at a different hospital for evenings and weekends. I’m getting the best of the both worlds — professional experience with consultation and supervision. I enjoy being a resource and supporting families as they make some difficult decisions. I have so many stories I could tell, but can’t because of the privacy rules that the institutions require us to follow. (As well they should. The stories are not really mine to tell.)

The second main area where I blog is in the arena of politics and theology. I have been sorely tempted to post on the really stupid things I see in the press, in social media, in society in general. And yet… I recognize that I could jeopardize a potential hire if I scream too loudly of the “wrong” camp (whatever that may be.) My uneasiness increases when I think about my desire to be authentic…  that who you read about, talk to and see are one and the same person. If you’re read my stuff at all, there should be no surprises that I’m a feminist. And a Democrat. And an unapologetic supporter of “green” practices. And that I do believe that there is such a  thing as global warming.

Because of the intersection of these events, the end of CPE and the beginning of a job search, I’m trying to be circumspect in what I post. And hopefully… yes, i’ll still be employable when this post turns up on a bot search.

May God be kind and bless…

What are you waiting for?

For better or worse… here it is… still needs some tweaking.

What are you waiting for?

For thousands of years, the people of Israel were waiting for the Messiah, the King – who would re-establish their nation. They were constantly watching for their Savior. Where was he? When would he come? When, Lord, when?

They were waiting. Impatient. Hungry for God’s promises. And perhaps, feeling a little unloved and uncared for. But were they really being ignored by God? Was God unaware of their cries for help?

Let’s trace their history a little.

If we go back as far as Noah, we remember that humanity’s deliberate disobedience had such a stench to God, that all but one faithful family were obliterated by a flood. Then later the line of Abraham was established – only to be filled with tricksters and rascals. Remember Jacob, stealing his twin’s birthright? And Joseph’s jealous brothers?

A few generations later, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. God rescued them from Pharaoh under Moses’ leadership. They wandered in the wilderness for a generation because of their thick-headed disobedience. Then, when finally it was time to take their land, they hedged their bets and intermarried rather than following God’s mandate to claim and cleanse the land of pagan deities.

Let’s remember how the twelve tribes bickered as they divided the land. Hmmm. Just like siblings. Then they asked for and were given judges to help them follow God’s  commandments. They begged for and were given a king like all the other nations. King David, who committed adultery and killed his paramour’s husband. Solomon who showed great wisdom, yet great weakness. God’s people were first divided as a country, then occupied, then sent into exile. Their temple was destroyed.

As we trace the history of God’s people, we will see this theme of stubbornness, of a tenacity to do what THEY want, rather than what God commands. And despite their less than perfect record, God responded. Every single time. They were God’s covenant people. Though they might lie, cheat, steal, or be unfaithful, God intervened. Rescued them. Redeemed them. Restored them.

When we read the verses in Isaiah this morning, we can hear the words of hope and expectation. God heard their longing for liberation, for release from captivity in Babylon. God promises to favor them, to vindicate them, and to rescue them. Isaiah says that God himself will comfort all who mourn. They anticipate that God will answer.

They believed they would experience restoration, renewal, and rebuilding. They returned to their land. And from the fulfillment of these promises, there is a deep joy. Even in the waiting, there is joy. Isaiah proclaims good news for them, and for us.

Perhaps some of you have read “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” by CS Lewis. In this tale, the people of Narnia are living where it is “winter, and never Christmas.” Yet Lewis spins a tale which tells of a dynamic, joyful, loving God who wants his creatures to experience deep joy and delight. Aslan, the lion of God, returns to a land held captive by darkness and cruelty under the White Witch. The rumors being to fly: “Aslan is on the move!” And when he returned, the long, cold winter began to melt, and human hearts which had long been cold, were changed, bit by bit, into a warmer, living heart for God.

Edmund, one of Lewis’ characters, was at first captivated by the hollow promises of the White Witch. He struggles with experiencing the loving presence of Aslan. As the winter begins to thaw, Edmund starts to experience a strange emotion…

All around them, though out of sight, there were streams chattering, bubbling, splashing and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized that the frost was over.

We feel the power of this metaphor: the cold of winter is blown away; evil no longer has a death grip on Narnia’s citizens. Springtime comes; like Edmund, we look forward to the promised coming of spring. Like the Israelites, we long for personal transformation and the redemption of the whole human race.

In Lewis’ tale, the liberation does not come easily. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy have to fight for their freedom. They experience loss. They slip up and fall back into old habits. They learn how to forgive each other, to cling to the good. Their actions are echoes of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians –

Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every situation. Yield to God’s Spirit. Hang on to what is good. Avoid evil. Count on God being faithful.

This theme of joyous anticipation and preparation is also found in our Gospel story this morning. The voice crying in the wilderness, John the Baptist, spoke of the Light, the promised one who had come to redeem and rescue God’s people. So yes. Thousands of years later, Jesus, the Messiah, the Light of the world, was among them.

John is basically saying, “What are you waiting for? The One you waited for is here! Straighten up! Fly right! Get your acts together!” OK. That’s a bit of a paraphrase! But can you feel his excitement! Can you experience with John the great joy of the final thawing, the coming of the promised One?

John knew that the One was coming. He saw the signs. The slow thaw was coming. A country and a people who longed for their God, who missed God’s presence among them was about to have their prayers answered. He had that sense of anticipation, of knowing God was acting.

The priests and Levites were sent to cross-examine the witness. “Who are you?” John answered, “Well, I’m not Elijah. And I’m not a prophet. And I’m not the one you’re waiting for. But he’s coming! Don’t miss it!”

We know from the Christmas story that many people DID miss it. They were looking for someone to overthrow Caesar. They were looking for someone to knock some sense into the lackadaisical, unreligious people around them. Maybe they even thought that they hadn’t suffered enough. That God was going to pour some more dread on them. Maybe they thought they hadn’t waited long enough!

If you think about it, the outward picture had not really changed in Israel. The people were still desperately poor. The Romans were still in charge. The religious elite were running the temple like a trading post. Yet… John calls God’s people to prepare. “He is coming!”

The same is true for us today – it’s time! Get ready! Get your JOY on! When God makes good on his promises, there’s a celebration. Despite the prayers which are not answered. In spite of arguments, quarrels, foreclosures and bankruptcies. Even though there is illness, and pain, and sadness, and death, and suffering.

The Light has come. The promises are true! God will rebuild the things which are ruined. God will restore the places which are deserted, ignored, forgotten. And God will bring renewal.

Perhaps from where you sit, this message of joy, one of anticipation and preparation is hard to receive. It is difficult to experience joy when illness and even death looms. Families and friends may sense it as well – one’s mortality is darker, larger and more real than we want to admit. So is joy incompatible with the health struggles one faces? Where can we find God in this?

Thomas Merton suggests that our understanding sometimes will not be found in logical arguments or visible circumstances. In his book Seasons for Celebrations he writes that “we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance.”

Merton says:

“The Advent mystery focuses the light of faith upon the very meaning of life, of history, …of the world and of our own being. In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its …problems and tragedies. Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent.”

It is a mystery – this coming of the promised Messiah, and the anticipation we have for Christ’s return. We are not just optimistic – we are resting our hopes and fears on the truth of Christ’s Presence among us. Merton reminds us that “Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.” The reality of our faith brings a new meaning to the celebration of the Communion Feast.

My prayer for you, on this third Sunday of Advent, is that you will feel that deep joy. That the promised “thawing” which shall come will be stirring within you. And as you wait, and long, and hear again the Ancient Story of the Baby in the manger, that you will know that God is here – Emmanuel. God With Us. The Child is the one we all wait for…

Thanks be to God.

Living inbetween the Advents

My sermon this week has been difficult. I am speaking to a hospital audience. One for whom ‘the shadow of death’ looms darker, larger and more real than most of us sense on a day-to-day basis. I am bringing the topic of “JOY” — which seems incongruous. And yet it is not, when you dig to the deepest meanings of Advent.

It is “living between the Advents” in its fullest and hardest measure.

This quote from Thomas Merton reminded me…

The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.

It is important to remember the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent, when the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture so easily harmonize with our tendency to regard Christmas, consciously or otherwise, as a return to our own innocence and our own infancy. Advent should remind us that the “King Who is to Come” is more than a charming infant smiling (or if you prefer a dolorous spirituality, weeping) in the straw. There is certainly nothing wrong with the traditional family joys of Christmas, nor need we be ashamed to find ourselves still able to anticipate them without too much ambivalence. After all, that in itself is no mean feat.

But the Church in preparing us for the birth of a “great prophet,” a Savior and a King of Peace, has more in mind than seasonal cheer. The Advent mystery focuses the light of faith upon the very meaning of life, of history, of man, of the world and of our own being. In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies. Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent.

from Seasons of Celebration: Meditations on the Cycle of Liturgical Feasts
by Thomas Merton


Ah… so may it be.

making an impact

Do you ever wonder if you have made an impact? If you have ever made a difference in someone’s life? Most of the time I can measure what I’ve done (or more accurately, what God has done while I tag along.) But sometimes it is hard to know. Particularly if I feel as though I’m beating my head on concrete, or the words I say are ignored.

Then today, walking to the car from CPE, I spotted these images on the sidewalk…

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It was a sort of God-smack. “Child of mine. What are you thinking? Do you seriously think that dead leaves on a sidewalk leave more of an impression than My beloved ones?”

Yeah. That. Oops.

Pity party over.