It wasn’t in the plans for our senior pastor to come down with some form of the Maryland “plague.” Nor had I planned on preaching tomorrow. As I did some chores and cooked dinner this evening, I meditated on the verses for tomorrow’s service. I read her manuscript (which is wonderful) and now it’s time to refocus and make it God’s Words through me…
It is a wondrous thing to have just spent the last day with some wonderful clergywomen. We listened, talked and dreamed. More will come from our time together in the days and weeks to come. But for now, my focus turns to the sermon prep I need to do.
I am not worried nor anxious. There is a sense that God has brought me through many twists and turns to come and partner with this congregation and be a part of what the Spirit would do in our corner of Christendom.
As I sat with Scripture tonight, I stopped to re-center, breathe and remember…
… deep breaths
… long talks
… friends on this journey
… Christ at the center
… the Eucharist shared with loving hearts and hands
During the last three Advent seasons, I have led a “Blue Christmas” service. Also called “The Longest Night” service, it is a contemplative, reflective service meant to bring a space of quiet worship into the frantic Advent season.
This year we repeated one of our most asked-for activities, a labyrinth made of Christmas lights. In the softly-lit room, with background music playing, it became an ethereal, other-worldly moment. One participant described it as the “space of beauty and peace” that was needed in the midst of a job transition, moving, and medical challenges.
The instructions are simple as long as you understand basic geometry. Here is a set of complete directions.
1. locate center of room
2. Around center make 4 concentric circles 3′ apart. (with radii of 3′, then 6′, then 9′, then 12′)
3. Measure a string which, when relaxed and not under tension, measures 12′. Secure it to the center point. Use pieces of tape or knots to mark 3′ intervals along the string. (We used yarn)
4. Using the string as a radius, place pieces of tape on the ground every few feet along the circumferences of the circles, as marked out by the pieces of tape on the string-radius
5. Goal: Divide the circle into three equal sections. Steps: locate the desired entrance point to the labyrinth (point A). Locate the point opposite it on the circle (point B), aka the other end of the diameter from point A. Affix one end of the radius to point B. Lay out the radius-string and swing it around, marking the two places where it hits the circumference (C and D). This will roughly divide the circle into thirds.
6. Next, the fun part: laying out the lights. Mark the left edge of the entrance to the labyrinth by measuring 4.5′ to the left of A, creating point E. Plug in the lights and roll out the lights from point E towards the circumference of circle 2, and along the circumference clockwise until the lights intersect line DF (the radius marking the third at pt D). Double back the lights along their path until it gets to point E. Then follow the circumference of circle 4 clockwise, until you reach point C on the circumference. Follow line CF until it intersects circle 2. Follow circle 2 counterclockwise until you are 3′ (aka the pathway’s breadth away from line CD). Double back to follow circle 2 clockwise until you come to a point 3′ away from AF. (Measure this by measuring a 3′ line perpendicular to AF or DF, with one end on the radius and the other on the circumference of circle 2).
7. Remember to tape down your lights as you go! Continue to follow the path of the labyrinth in this manner. We wouldn’t want to deprive you of the joy of discovery!
The cloud cover is denser. The trees are grey. The garden is silent and sleeping. I’m not a fan of winter.
The shorter days get to me. When I’m visiting my hospice patients and it’s getting dark before 5 p.m., I find myself drooping. I get home to a list of chores: dinner, dishes, laundry, and some days even finishing my charting. I’m not happy. I am one who flourishes in the light.
For the last couple of years I’ve tried to keep a sense of where I am emotionally as the days get shorter and shorter. I find that I am short-tempered, and as much as I am an extrovert, I don’t want to deal with people. So as we moved from the Fall Equinox towards the Winter Solstice this year, I made some intentional shifts in my thinking and my practice.
1. I use my “Light Clock” in the mornings as I’m getting ready for work. I need sunlight, even at 6 a.m. There’s one downstairs in the main living area… and one in our bedroom. It helps!
2. I counteract my growing grumpiness by engaging in “A Month of Thanksgivings” in November. Now I get that some people HATE it when people take a whole month on Facebook with posts on what they are thankful for. I get it. I spent last November (2013) hoping for a job — that I didn’t get and it depressed me. But I tried to be intentional in my thankfulness, because I do have much to be thankful for in my life. This year was easier than last year, but I still had to work at it.
3. I am pro-active in helping to plan and lead a “Longest Night” service at our church. The time of Winter Solstice is difficult for many people. Sitting at the bedside of a patient last week, as I sang an Advent hymn to him (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”), he opened his eyes and said, “I am ready. God can come now.” His family would have preferred he make it to Christmas. His heart and his cancer didn’t oblige. I know they will walk through these last days before Christmas and beyond with heavy hearts. And I know there are many who are struggling to be joyful in a time when everything is wrong.
The Longest Night or “Blue Christmas” services you hear about vary from church to church, as we each find our way through the scriptures and the words of Hope that come with Advent, and the longing and waiting for Christmas. Our church tends to be on the contemplative side, with space for writing, thinking, creating and worshipping.
The service is also one of intentionality: we do not want to stay in the Dark. With quiet, with prayer, and with others, we take one step and another towards the promised Hope found in Christ. We don’t tell each other to “cheer up”… we walk together in our shared struggles and dashed dreams.
This year, with the help of my family, we created a 3-circuit labyrinth in the church’s Chapel. (I’ll share more about how they did it in another post.) The room was dark, lit only by the lights at our feet and some Christmas lights and candles on the perimeter of the room. There was soft music playing and the room had a other-worldly feeling about it, one where the distance between heaven and earth was a very “thin place.”
I had spent over an hour the night before trying to figure out how to do this by myself and ended up being frustrated. A little simple math and geometry, and they had the whole labyrinth done in less than 2 hours!
As I pondered this, I thought about what God had shown me in this liminal space:
– Even though I am frustrated and sad, I need others. I need to know there is another day coming, where the Light will return. I take this as validation that my November postings of Thankfulness are a good spiritual discipline, not only for myself, but for others.
– There’s options I have not always considered…. and there’s strength in numbers. I especially need others to help me get past my frustrations and see that there other ways to do things.
– Rarely does one make the journey from darkness to Light alone. It is almost always overcome-able if you have friends for the journey.
– The practice of gratefulness, for me, is essential. That means doing a little year-end Facebook meme (and knowing that while the year wasn’t perfect, it was full of God’s goodness. I just have to look for it.) That also means I don’t get sidetracked or feel guilty if I engage being thankful. (You’d be surprised — or maybe not — at how people can get snarky about “brag-booking” when in truth I am trying to stay positive.)
– I found ways to enjoy Christmas music all-month long. I am an educated Church musician, and I’ll break all those “Advent rules” and sing Silent Night in Advent. I’ll sing it to my patients who may or may not make it to Christmas. And I’ll sing with heart full of gratitude for the coming Light. Jesus.
A recent stroll through my labyrinth revealed this:
Somehow, the silver maple dropped a branch and it landed upright, stuck in the mud. We had several days of hard rain, and the combination of that rain, a pretty heavy branch, and gravity resulted in my day’s object lesson.
Circuit after circuit on the labyrinth, I saw that stick. I remembered a poem by Shel Silverstein:
Listen to the mustn’ts, child.
Listen to the don’ts.
Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts.
Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me…
Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.
In chaplaincy, we sometimes talk about “re-framing” an event or situation. We provide the opportunity to see things from a new perspective. Not in a “Pollyanna” sort of way, but with the intent to free up what “has always been” to what it “could be.”
It’s not easy.
I neither want to minimize fears and legitimate concerns, not suggest that something is “wrong” with an individual’s thinking. But I also want to educate, to promote “possibilities” that might not have been considered.
“I wonder if you’ve ever watched someone else deal with this…” I might begin… “I wonder if you’ve thought of this diagnosis having a different outcome.”
“I wonder if…”
What I want to give up on completely, God has a way of invoking possibilities. I just have to take the time to see them
I started out to walk the labyrinth in our yard today. Even in the misty rain, I walked, umbrella in hand.
Our neighborhood was especially quiet because it was raining. No soccer games. No lawnmowers or leaf blowers. Just the rain on the leaves and grass around me. I was in a different place, deep in thought, far from suburbia.
On the far side of the labyrinth, two rabbits were having elevenses, their ears twitching and eyes focused on what this human among them was doing. Was she confused? Friend? Foe? Lost? They nibbled carefully and watched.
All was serene until I walked about halfway through the circuit and the insects “found” me. I must have looked quite ridiculous to the rabbits because I was doing the “dance of the mosquitos” (step-slap-step-slap-step-step-step-slap-scratch-step). Then the gnats arrived, floating around my head like some kind of pesky veil. I waved my hands to keep them at bay. At that point I was hard-pressed to return to my former state of reflection and meditation, and the walk became and exercise in perseverance.
Not exactly the beautiful, restive moments I was looking for.
“Well, THAT’S a little impossible,” I thought. And I retreated back into the patio, a little disgruntled. The quiet and peace of the moment now eluded me.
I thought of Augustine’s words:
It is solved by walking.
What had I “solved” through my abbreviated tour of the labyrinth? What lesson came amidst moquitos, gnats, and rabbits?
The answer came slowly as these words from James 1:2 came to mind…
When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends!
Mosquitos and gnats.
Arguments and dissension.
Pain and worry.
Rabbits and birds.
llness and grief.
Sometimes they are just minor irritations, sometimes they are major heartaches, and sometimes they drive us from the path we had planned for the day. I sat on the porch, fans and citronella keeping the pests at bay. I watched the rabbits feed and listened again to the rain.
It was a disrupted meditation, to be sure. As I refocused and prepared for the day’s activities, I was reminded that many times as I walk through this life, I have “holy disruptions.” Plans get changed. Others’ needs trump my own. And all manner of minor inconveniences distract me, which is sometimes OK, and sometimes need to be set aside to deal with at another time.
Sometimes it comes back to walking, listening, and walking some more, and inviting those holy disruptions to walk with me.
The weather forecast for today and tomorrow contains dire predictions. Snow, sleet and lots of both. I haven’t heard the latest predictions, (they keep changing!) but I understand that there will be plenty of whatever falls from the sky.
In the middle of this “winter weather event” (forecaster-ese for “snow storm”), I am on call. As long as the Metro and buses are running tomorrow morning, I’ll get home. Slowly. But I’ll get home and share in the snow-blowing and shoveling and other assorted post-storm tasks. And yes, catch up on my sleep!
It’s really easy to get caught up in the hype. My Minnesotan friends giggle when DC panics over a foot of snow. If they were trying to drive in it with the crazy-pants around here, they’d be less flip about it. No, the easiest strategy we’ve found is to plan ahead, work from home, or, in my case, have a back up plan (or two).
This morning I walked around the labyrinth, taking time to enjoy the quiet. There were large branches down from the last storm. The squirrel and rabbit tracks made it clear that there were a lot of foragers running around, getting ready for the next storm. The ground was crunchy underfoot, the snow pockmarked and uneven from melting. Those bricks in the labyrinth, so carefully laid in August and September, are hidden by leaves. Yet the way to follow is still there.
In my work as a chaplain, there are plenty of moments where it can be peaceful and quiet. I have learned to take the time to breathe, remember Whose I am, and gather in as much of that soaking love of God as I can. I can choose to do paperwork or take a walk-about, visiting the units and talking to staff members. (And yes, there are moments where I just sit and read social media or play a game on my phone. I’m not Super a Woman and there’s no S on my chest! Sometimes, I need a breather.)
And then life (for someone) becomes chaotic, crazed and uncertain. My pager goes off, or the overhead announcement calls out a trauma or a code blue. I carry that moment of peace, the calm before the storm with me.
And sometimes, when I close my eyes to pray with a patient or a family, I think of the over-arching trees and the crunch of snow underfoot. And then I try to convey that peace and hope in my words.
The calm before the storm… The Peace that calms the storm… I carry it with me.
There’s lots I’m pondering and praying through right now. Especially the last two weeks, I’ve been in a period of intentional listening. I was a finalist for a job, but wasn’t selected.
What do you want, Lord?
I ask sincerely, not desperately. It’s not like I haven’t been listening all along. I’m on the right track. My Calling is clear: my work will be in some kind of intentional ministry. If not in a healthcare setting, then in a church or nonprofit. Where I can use my gifts in administration, organization, music, creativity, spiritual care and communication. Where I can work towards continuing my education. And where I’m actually compensated for my work beyond a “stipend.”
So I walk… quietly. Thoughtfully. Carefully. I would rather avoid the pain of rejection again, but I also know that part of this process is being willing to persevere. As Eugene Peterson wrote in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: “A common but futile strategy for achieving joy is trying to eliminate things that hurt: get rid of pain by numbing the nerve ends, get rid of insecurity by eliminating risks, get rid of disappointments by depersonalizing your relationships.”
No… avoidance won’t work.
So I walk… slightly shivering. Hearing the creak of frozen snow underfoot. Lots of slow, careful steps, for my labyrinth has an icy snowfall on top of the grass and bricks. Every step made carefully and thoughtfully. And with every step I felt the compression of the fresh snow, sticks and grass under my boots. Every step left an impression, a disruption of what was a cool, clean surface. There were lots of gentle turns and cautious steps. I didn’t try to go too fast, and I didn’t stand still in the cold. When I was chilled through, I stopped and went inside.
So much of walking the circuit in my yard, and processing recent events in my life are the same thing. It’s about being honest about what I can do and what I need to leave behind…
I’m grateful for a quiet space to put my uber-extroverted self in a kind of “neutral” gear and listen to God. Listen for cues, for reminders, for affirmations and most of all, for redirection.
Sarah McLachlan’s song came to mind as I walked. And God is faithful. God will answer. This I believe. I could hear God’s heart reaching out to mine in these words:
I will be the answer At the end of the line I will be there for you While you take the time
In the burning of uncertainty I will be your solid ground And I will hold the balance If you can’t look down
If it takes my whole life I won’t break, I won’t bend It’ll all be worth it Worth it in the end
‘Cause I can only tell you what I know That I need you in my life And when the stars have all gone out You’ll still be burning so bright
Cast me gently into morning For the night has been unkind Take me to a place so holy That I can wash this from my mind Memory of choosing not to fight
If it takes my whole life I won’t break, I won’t bend It will all be worth Worth it in the end
‘Cause I can only tell you what I know That I need you in my life And when the stars have all burned out You’ll still be burning so bright
Cast me gently into morning For the night has been unkind