anything

If you could do anything you wanted, without fear of failure and no need to count cost, what would you do?  I hear the question asked in many ways each day and the underlying theme is important wisdom.  When we honor our deepest selves, we invariably offer the best service to others.

If I could do anything, what would it be?  I would lead a simple and largely contemplative life of writing.  I would have deep breaths of wide open space as I drank my morning coffee.  I would stretch my body, mind and soul carefully, aware of the sacred presence in and through and connecting.  And then I would sit at the keyboard and with a scratch pad and arrange words into stories and verse.

As these words emerge on the page I have a chorus of nay-sayers chanting in my head.

One practical section is mindful of the implications.  I need health insurance and tuition money for the kids and, more importantly, who would pay to read my thoughts?   For decades now I have played with words but shared them freely, receiving my paycheck from a church that needed more administrative and programmatic prowess than my spirit could muster.  For the past several years I have been untangling my time and spirit from many of the typically routine tasks of ministry and indulging in what it is that my spirit craves, solitude and word play.  Thankfully these gifts have served the community, albeit in different ways.  And for a time I was able to earn a living and follow the spirit call.  But this is the crossroads.

The practical chorus has invited me, unsurprisingly, to pick up an old skill set, working math problems for a possible return to classroom teaching.  I cannot know what doors will open and offer no predictions.  I know that I have had several unsuccessful but incredibly interesting interviews.  More signficantly, I have found a surprising amount of serenity working math problems in preparation for recertification.  As I watch my approach to this new project, I can see that fear of failure holds me back in a number of ways.  But in the safety of my own home, with no one’s watchful eye in judgment, I actually groove on the rhythm of solving math problems.  Who knew?

What is apparent is that the watchful eye of judgment is an albatross in working problems and (more importantly) in following my heart.  This roadblock presents an interesting paradox.  While the problem is most certainly external, the solution is essentially internal.  There is no disputing that judgment abounds from voices that are not simply inside my head.  The waiting math exam will hold judgment, my co-workers at the church have judgment, even my family.  And I have judgment, of myself and (whether or not I express it) of others.  Judgment may not always be helpful or kind, but it is an inevitable byproduct of the human process of discernment.  A matter of choice, however, is how I respond to judgment.

In the rare moments of my life when I have been certain of who and whose I am, I am impervious to judgment.  In the moment of most profound bliss, the day of my wedding with my dear one, I was utterly heedless of the opinions of others.  At one point my former-hero made a nasty comment and I remember holding the arrow and realizing that I had a choice to allow or not allow the injury.  Bliss is a powerful emotion, and emboldened an experience that I never knew possible as I let the arrow pass.  Now that my eyes are open, I realize a space of choice that is ours each day.

So what is it that you would do if you were not held captive by fear or judgment or perceived limitations?  For this day, I choose to breathe deeply and place some words on a page.  And just maybe I’ll peek at calculus problem.

squirrel dance

I watch the squirrel dance on the tree limb with daring grace and wonder at the lessons offered just outside my window.

I wonder at the squirrel’s lack of felt need to explore career options or really to set goals of any kind.  The day begins and ends with a more singular focus.  I wonder if the choices that flood our senses add to our experience of delight or perhaps perversely suck us dry.

For many months my energy has been sapped by not simply the knowing of my impending transition but more by the felt need to shape and control the outcomes.  The decisions about timing and new directions have been consuming and altogether unnerving.  Sadly I’ve allowed even the decisions to step away from the drama to be bathed in drama.  I am very grateful for calm and faithful friends, by chance now in elected leadership at the church, who have been grounded and gracious as I bobble through this transition.  One day at a time, more will be revealed, breathe.

And so we come to this one day that begins with a squirrel dancing on a tree branch.  Perhaps in search of one last nut before the first snow fall?

As I watch the focus of the run, which is driven by instinct rather than desire or logic, my heart softens for the me that scurries to and fro.  Like the squirrel outside my window, I cannot control the instinctive impulses that beat deep within my being.  But perhaps unlike the squirrel, I have the luxury of reflection which is of course bane and blessing.  I can use my reflection to sit in judgement of myself and others, or I can use my reflection to marvel in the wonder of our interconnections and rest in gratitude.

Like the squirrel, I have this one day.  And I choose to spend it mindful of the breath that fills my being, breath that comes from a place far beyond myself and connects me with all of creation, breath that is sacred, holy, good.

ask, seek, knock

Asking for what one wants is a precarious business, because our wants are not always connected to our needs.  Asking for what we need, however, is essential to our survival.  Figuring out the difference between a want and a need becomes, then, appears to be a matter of life and death.

Which all sounds melodramatic and perhaps unnecessarily so.  I only know that in those moments when I can find the nugget of true need under the mountain of expressed and unexpressed desired, I have found treasure which is comparable only to water after the thirst of the desert.

After announcing my pending retirement, the drama that is life in a community escalated in perhaps expectable ways.  Unfortunately my spirit, already tender and weary, had no reserves with which to navigate the heightened emotions.  Biology is quick in situations like this and silently delivers a whopping dose of adrenalin which presents the stark divide of fight or flight.  Clearly lacking the energy for the fight, the only option is flight.

For 23 years I have been a pastor.  It is an identity even more than a career.  It is who I am and what I do.  But the mantle weighs so heavy I cannot lift it.

Culturally, the role and meaning of pastor has changed so dramatically in the past two decades that a profession once respectable is now at best considered interesting fringe.  Never one to mind the margins, my own struggle in the profession has perhaps more to do with my own spiritual awakening.  The more I have discovered the sacred beyond the confines of institutional language and practice, the more skeptical I become of their value.  While I have cherished what our specific community of faith has offered to one another and the wider community in terms of witness and encouragement, I am aware that we are also by our very existence propping up an institution which is at best value neutral.  For many years I have preached both with and against the sacred texts, now I find myself spiritually compelled to move beyond the structure of religion itself.  Essentially, I have prayed myself out of my career.

Holding this truth in the context of church drama, my exit is inevitable and my instinct is to jump ship with or without a lifeboat.

Because it is all that I have known, because I have so many years of my life (basically all of my adult professional life) invested, because I am in a community that I have truly loved, the desire to jump overboard has been balanced by a caution woven with respect, familiarity, and genuine grief. Accepting the need to close the chapter, I had negotiated a gradual exit over a period of months.

With the added stress post-announcement, however, the scales were tipped and I was ready to jump.  I wanted to jump, believed I needed to jump, today.  I called the church leaders and said those words.  And then I received an incredible gift:  they listened both to my words and to the truth that lie beneath them.

What you need, they responded with respect and love, is a break.  What you need is to get out of here for a while.  What you need is a vacation, post haste.  Then, and only then, will the next right step become clear.

When I spoke what I wanted, a speedy end to the drama of departure, I was given what I need, encouragement to take a long vacation with no strings on the other side.  What I wanted was the removal of the challenge, what I needed was the strength for the journey.  What I wanted was escape, what I needed was courage to move with grace through this transition.

In finding the authenticity to speak my wants in the context of respectful colleagues, the kernel of need becomes clear and is safely tended.  In Jesus’ teaching there is a koan about “ask, seek, knock” with the promise that we will receive that for which we reach.  Rationally speaking, I know this is not true.  But as I moved through a difficult week, I am struck by the profound truth that is mine:  I asked and it was given in ways most unexpected but altogether satisfying.

And for this day, I am grateful.

 

 

awkward conversations

“What do you want?” asked a friend.  In that moment I realized the dilemma that what I want is not possible.  No matter how much I want it, no matter how much others may want it.  Sometimes we are reaching for option A when the choices are C or D.

When I tentatively approached the church leadership with my intent to retire, I had run a few scenarios in my mind and read a plethora of articles on the subject. I had also taken into account the financial needs of my family and had been transparent in the process. In the articles about clergy retirements, particularly after long ministries, there was a consensus that a significant transition time was in order, anywhere from six months to a year (one outlier article suggested five years!).  With all of this in mind, I began to envision what these seven months might look like.

What I envisioned was a lovefest in which we together lifted up the best of what we had accomplished in the past sixteen years and thereby inspired one another.  I envisioned a series of conversations, an attitude of grace, and air of celebration that cherished and affirmed and left us all with a sense of possibility.

What has unfolded has been so starkly not this image that I can’t quite begin to understand it.  I can only say with certainty that what is unfolding is neither warm fuzzy nor empowering for me and likely equally unhelpful for the church.

Immediately upon my announcement, church leaders began to struggle with overwhelming anxiety about the future.  Sixteen years with a pastor that folk adore and disdain in perhaps equal measure is a hard act to follow.  While I am waiting for the celebration to begin, wheels are in motion and meetings are taking place but all for the purpose of what comes after I am gone.  My presence is awkward rather than revered.   Not only am I not consulted, I am asked to not attend.  Decisions are being made that as a professional I recognize as problematic, tasks are undone that are alarming to me.  But my voice has been displaced from the circle and my concerns untended.

There will be no graceful swan song with melodic and familiar refrains, there will be fingers on the chalkboard.

When the first parts of the interim plan are announced (with no clearance from me), I name a concern with the announced plan.  The response is to reassure me, but it is not reassurance that I seek.  These moves emasculate my leadership role.  Perhaps indelicately, I suggest that a new timeline be established and that my exit date be sooner than anticipated.  My colleagues (now elevated to active leadership) suggest that would be a good idea but imply that I would simultaneously forfeit my contractual rights.  Unwilling to make that choice, I offer a counter proposal to the elected leaders in which the church honors the terms of my contract while relieving me of active duty at an earlier date.  I don’t give it a name – paid leave, vacation, severance, sabbatical.  I simply call it honoring our agreement.

Basically, the church is in high gear evaluating the process for finding a new beau when the old one is still hanging around.  And this old one is not feeling good about the process. To be sure, it was a generous slice of hubris that would lead one to assume that a community would want to dance a final song together.  Once the announcement was made, the stages of grief commence.  Anger is one, denial another.  Desire to create a photo album together isn’t high on the list.

premonition

There are several ways to awaken awash with anxiety.

One is working a math problem as was the case this morning.  Puzzling, I awoke trying to figure out how many combinations (words) might be possible beginning with six letters.  I actually began to understand combinatorics a wee bit better, but I had little doubt that the manifestation of a math puzzles was generated from a deeper place within.  Given the more common alternative (body crunched in a pretzel wince), I’ll take the math problem any day.  The only down side is that when awakened, I cannot let it lie until it is resolved.  With my rusty math brain, this is sometimes a slow process and I’m weary this morning.

Another way of awakening in anxiety that is new to me is that of premonition.  I don’t recall every awakening with such a clear sense of forboding as I had yesterday morning.  We were in a strange hotel that admittedly had a bad presence and I will chalk the experience in the column of unidentified bad spirits.  But I was startled awake with an awareness of impending doom that was both intensely powerful and undeniable real.  Although a picture gradually immerged that fit the possible trajectory of our upcoming day, the premonition was not in its origin about a particularized event.  In fact were it so, I would feel less troubled now 30 hours in the rearview mirror with all of my family safely accounted.  But as I remember the feeling that took hours to settle, I am aware that it is still within me.

Could it simply be a manifestation I feel about the week ahead?  In all (rational) likelihood this is the case.  In addition to the normal workload at church that seems unnerving in this post-announcement period, I also have jury duty on Tuesday and an appointment with a home appliance repairman at home on Thursday.  We are missing one person in the office and it is the week before Thanksgiving.  The Transition Circle is to meet this week (without me, of course) and the “Listening Sessions” begin (also without me, but at least in part about me). Yep, I can feel my anxiety rise as I type the list.

The math problems, like the psyansky eggs that I made when I was white knuckling sobriety, are a fairly healthy channel for the anxiety that is no doubt a part of this transition in my life.  I am grateful for the rhythm and routine, and even the sense of productivity that comes with them.

What is less clear, though, is the role and purpose of the premonition.  I have been pretty clear that my intention is to be more aware of spirit presence in my life even as I step away from religious expression.  But my intention was about sunshine on autumn leaves, not so much about the shadow self that rattles in the deepest night.

Unnerved and still a bit shaky, I am grateful for the powerful light of this brisk autumn morning.  May it hold the fear in balance.

3 to 1

Yesterday began with a trip to the polls to vote.  Voting has become something I do with my beloved and it feels so very special to stand with her in line, to be welcomed by the poll workers as a couple, to enjoy the everday ordinary privileges together – like voting.  Proudly wearing my “I voted” sticker, the day held special promise.

But almost as quickly it turned as I sat down at my desk and opened a rejection letter.  It wasn’t unanticipated and not entirely unwelcome, but the sting was just as real.  I had made a last minute application and received a hasty interview for a teaching position in a district on the other side of the river (literal and metaphoric).  The interview had been educational but definitely not an affirmation and I knew that the position and I were not well suited.  Still, I wanted both the affirmation of the offer and the quick ticket out of my current life.  Instead I had the sting of rejection.

The day was particularly gray, with wetness that landed like rain but carried the hint of winter snow.  With the sun determinedly hidden behind a veil of clouds, I plowed through paperwork, bible study with my elders, and a weekly hospice visit with a carrot before me.  Lunch, and an early one at that, with a friend.  Lunch and friend too rarely co-exist in my vocabulary.  To be sure I have many faux-friends, professional-friends, and even a couple of real church friends.  I have folk with whom I hang in meetings and structured contexts.  But friends that are apart from responsibilities or roles, who simply exist in my life for the sake of friendship, this has been a missing piece and one that is at the heart of this moment of transition in my life.  Admittedly, I approach lunch with a friend with a bit of uncertainty and self-deprecating humor. No matter.  The time shared was so very precious.  A safe space to name the journey that is mine, to hear that of another, to wonder aloud together about the meaning of life and to enjoy good food.  It was the perfect antedote to the rejection, a righting of the order and balance.

Sot it was in this place of equilibrium that I moved into the darkening gray of afternoon and evening for the sun remained resolute.  Reaching for new routines of simplicity, I walked to the kitchen and pulled down the pot rather than picking up car keys and heading for a diner.  A yummy meal together at our kitchen counter is the life that beckons.  And it is very good.  Together we adjourned to our basement family room to watch the returns, cuddled on the couch.  Nothing could be sweeter.

Except it was.  Cuddled together with cats dancing in and around us, the results began to trickle in, steadily supporting the polling numbers.  Watching Rachel Maddow take her seat at the desk, in command and interpreting the results, we witnessed history.  President Obama was re-elected not as the first Black president but as the one whose path we choose to follow.  And more:  Elizabeth Warren toppled Scott Brown in Massachusetts and brings to the Senate the intelligence of a Harvard scholar with the heart of a woman and the deep passion of an unapologetic voice for people.  And even more:  marriage equality wins in Maryland and Maine and appears to have also won in Minnesota and Washington (still too close to call).  As we made our way toward bed, a new day had dawned.  And a beautiful day it is.

No doubt there will be difficult days ahead with the sun in recalcitrant hiding.  But I suspect that most days are like this one with real bits of sadness woven into tapestries that have rich textures, occasional strands that may be unwelcome, patterns that are comforting when learned and, if we are very lucky, a few breath taking highlights.

familiar posture

Waking up this morning, I found myself once again pulling my neck out of my shoulders where it has been hiding with varying degrees for months.  What began as a Thanksgiving weekend dramafest with my former-hero at church has unfolded into a year of unrelenting drama. Every time I think we are finally through it, there is another round.  And then another.

“How have you managed?” asked my therapist and the answer is that I don’t really know.  I have had incredibly support from my beloved and from a couple of good friends. I have tried to practice the 12 steps and been faithful in meeting attendance.  I have cried and I have made mistakes.  But it would appear that I have weathered the storm.   Unfortunately the storm is not quite over and my ability to bend with the wind  is gone.  Ergo the realization of a need for a career change, the buttressing of supports, and the beginning of this blog.

Years ago when my children were small we were on a canoe trip with the church community and a sudden storm pushed us to the banks, huddled in the rain as we waited it out.  I was grounded, holding a soggy four year old on my lap with one hand and a tarp above us with the other, and I could see my six year old just out of reach, standing alone and looking terrified.  I called to her and though her lip quivered, she would not budge.  I tried to motion to adults near her and finally one moved to huddle beside her.   Later she explained that standing apart, she believed, was important to keep from being hit by lightening.  Even now as I remember her fear, tears fill my eyes.  What I can also see is a stolid resolve in her posture, and this combination of terror and resolve is what I experience.

Remembering STEW’s invitation (noting not only thoughts and wishes, but also emotions and sensations), I took time in my waking this morning to move past the familiar thoughts and pay attention to the sensation of a body frozen.  Even as I type, I am tempted to add clarifying adjectives but the most help comes from the simplest of naming: frozen.  When have I felt that feeling before?  The trip down memory lane pauses for the day at the river but then quickly reels back in time.  I am a child and looking at fearful events.

As I allow myself, encourage myself, to return to the familiar places of childhood fear, I find shards that are new to me.    I see the origin of my fear of rough housing and too of a child expressing anger, seemingly innocent expressions that unwittingly set off explosions.  In each of these memories I am a bystander, watching in horror, shellshocked.

In recent years as I have named my truth, come out, moved out, fallen in love, spoken honestly about religion, and dared to practice leadership in a new way, I have not been a bystander.  And from the storm the grew in response, there has been little or no shelter.  I am no longer a bystander in my life, I am at the center and experiencing for perhaps the first time the full weight not only of the joy but also the sorrow.

And it hurts.

Still I realize an incredible bit of hope in my therapist’s question.  The fact is that I have been in the middle of and actually navigating in the storm itself.  I am wounded and shell shocked and needing a break, but I also have the incredible satisfaction of know that I showed up in my life.  And the payoff for showing up?  A life worth living.

Although I wouldn’t wish the church drama of this past year on even my former-hero, I wouldn’t trade the gift of life itself which is, I realize, what is at stake.  The me that is fully engaged and alive is still timid, more familiar with trying to keep calm from the sidelines.  But now is the moment, this is the dance.  I have just this one life to live, and I even if I must pause occasionally to catch my breath, I intend to inhale deeply.