gentle images, profound truth

The image is familiar, a sensation really, of cowering at the approach of antagonists.  The faces are not constant, but the sensation has become consistent.  As I settle into a meditative place at my first Quaker Meeting, I admit to being annoyed by the return of the familiar scene.  Yet feeling quieted by the space in which I find myself, I allow the image to unfold as it would.  Now in a place of relative emotional safety, I find myself almost magically erecting a circle of trees around myself, at a generous distance, that keeps unwanted intruders at bay.  Visually I have created a giant hoolah hoop around me and it feels truly utterly absolutely safe.

Except that as I sit with the image of safety, I realize that I am alone in my circle.

Keeping people at bay is one antidote for the drama of interpersonal dynamics, but one that precludes connection.  While preferable to doing combat, I realize that though this image of a foliage barrier is compelling, ultimately it cannot deliver healthy relationships.

Comforted by the safety of the image in the quiet of the Sunday Meeting space, another image began to form in my mind’s eye.  This image was one of a more athletic me with a kind of permeable armor, dancing lithely through the field.  Truth be told, athletic and I do not fit in the same sentence, let alone the added images of lithe dance and flexible armor.  All the more I am struck by the gift of the scene coming from a place not my own.  I find myself wondering if it is possible to develop a lightness of step and protection of self such as to allow safe movement in a world of chaos.  Clearly the recent months in the church that I’ve called home have shown that such interpersonal strength is not something I yet possess, but inasmuch as the two images suggest a choice between isolation and healthy inclusion I am compelled to consider the invitation of a new image.

Later in the day in the midst of questions from friends about next steps, I found myself tongue tied and unsure, seeking the calm promise of the protected perimeter.  But I remember the sense of empowerment felt in the brief dance amongst the throng.  It was a dance of delight and one that I would like to learn.

In the quiet of my sleeping world last night, I was visited by the shy child.  She was being interviewed in a setting of honor and publicly confessing, to the surprise of the crowd, her severe shyness.  The gathered room was respectful of her disclosure and in naming it so publicly she felt the power of shame begin to dissipate.  As I now sip coffee with the remembrance of her embrace, I am aware that I long to feel the coalescing of the appreciation and honest vulnerability, to be simultaneously known and loved.

The perimeter of the trees has an appeal but will never provide this encounter.  To experience the full human interaction for which I was created, I must be willing to touch and be touched. Such interaction inevitable means to bleed and heal, to wear scars alongside the bud, to spend time on the ground in sorrow and to rise with new life and dance.  The lithe dancer is one who practices and bears bruises, the one with permeable armor is one with scars.

This has been a year of losses and my heart is heavy as I bear witness to it’s close.  The snow gently falls and so too the tears.  But underneath the snow, Bette Midler promised a rose.  And I choose to believe.

sunday morning

This is the first Sunday morning after the hubbub of Christmas and I am beginning an extended vacation as my ministry winds to a close.  The hope is that at the end of this month, I will return to active ministry for three months of closure.  Although I deeply appreciate the grace that this month represents, I am keenly aware that the thought of returning to active duty in the church makes my insides lurch.  As I sit in my bathrobe sipping coffee on a Sunday morning, I have zero desire to approach a pulpit.

Quite unexpectedly I found myself back in my professional role this past week when my beloved’s step-grandmother died.  In a scenario that is becoming culturally normative, this loving and unchurched woman was surrounded by a thick web of family that had no religious connections and no clergy.  When the funeral director offered to provide a rent-a-minister, they remembered “isn’t that woman that Paul’s daughter married a minister?”  Both because I didn’t know the woman personally and because the family’s expectations about religious jargon were limited, it was an easy funeral to lead.  I didn’t feel compelled to used dated metaphors that chafe or descriptors that felt disingenuine but I was nonetheless aware of the weight as I pulled the pieces together.

I debated about wearing a clergy robe for the service.  I have a bunch of them, mostly unworn these days as I have gradually let go of the religious trappings of my profession.  Approaching this funeral, I wondered though if the garb would carry a helpful authority.  In the end, I opted for what has become my norm – nondescript black street clothes to draw attention away from self, making room for the spirit, focusing on presence and breath.  As the stories emerged, the only religious tradition known to this woman and her family was a Baptist one and I was grateful that I’d opted out of my robe.  Although her children spoke favorably about their mother’s childhood in the Baptist church, and she herself had asked that “The Old Rugged Cross” be played at her funeral, they quietly told the story of her leave-taking from the church.  Grandma was a young mother with six children (two in diapers) when her husband left her the first time.  Tragically, in a fit of orthodoxy, her church family advised her that “given the situation”, she and the kids should perhaps stay away.  Hearing the story, I was all the more determined to offer a compassionate funeral for Grandma as I exit the institution.

We need rituals to mark our entrances and exits and perhaps even just as importantly our transitions.  But to what extent do these rituals need to be the domain or expressions of religious institutions?  Is it helpful for these rituals to use metaphors and language that is otherwise inconsistent with life experiences?  In an increasingly non-religious culture, can we create traditions that do not rely on disconnected professionals to stand before us in times of transition?

Looking in the rearview mirror is familiar and important, but I find myself increasingly curious about what lies ahead.  If not church, then what?  This is of course a professional and employment question, but it is so much more.  My social and spiritual life has grown out of the context of religious community, and I am curious about where and how I will grow without church.

On this first Sunday in this space in between, we are going to Quaker meeting.  On the one hand I am aware and cautious that this too is religious community.  I may be trading one religious tradition for another if I transition into the Society of Friends.  On the other hand, Quakers are religiously unreligious.  (I often think that Quakers are to religion what Unitarians are to Christianity.)  Although I grew up with the fundamentalist wing of the Quakers (Evangelical Friends), I have always admired the “regular” Quakers from afar.  The service and witness of the Quakers is remarkable and I was particularly moved when our local embodiment of resistance to the endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan emerged from the community of the St. Louis Society of Friends. Quakers demonstrate a commitment to egalitarian community, service, and simple living.  Famous Quakers include not only President Nixon (ugh) but also Parker Palmer and Carrie Newcomer.  Particularly significant to me is that Quakers (the “regular” kind anyway) order themselves without benefit of clergy.

This morning, as I drink my coffee and look forward to my first Meeting, I realize that I am nervous.  The last time I visited a church as a potential church home (not as a candidate) was 29 years ago.  In each place I’ve lived, I’ve been aware of the Quaker community but also aware that (as an ordained minister, making a living on the words of worship) the Quaker practice was out of reach.  In order to embrace the simple spiritual practice, I would have to let go the professional comforts.  Often I would lament, “were it not for job security, I would be a Quaker.” Whether or not this local Quaker community is the community with which my partner and I will nest is yet unknown, but what is clear to me as I sit with my coffee at the keyboard is that this morning jaunt is deeply significant.  Like the shards of memories that emerged in my naming of my orientation as a woman-loving woman, I move through this morning aware that my path is offering colorful jagged edged pieces.  This too is a calling nested deep within.

As I lie on the river bottom allowing the trappings of my life as a minister to wash over and away from me, I am aware that my spirit grows stronger.

last sermon

Today I preached my last sermon.  Or in at least the first last.  This was the final Sunday before a long vacation, after which it is hoped that I will be able to return for a three month swan song. But very little has unfolded as expected and I am doubtful about the prospect of returning.

It feels odd to be ushered out from a job at which I excelled, to feel shunned in a place I was once the leader.  But what was just a few months ago an uncomfortable rockiness has, since my announced retirement plan, become open hostility and blatant disrespect.  Though I may have hoped that a pending retirement would have diffused the dissent, conversely it has given the grumblies a center stage.  While I may have had visions of love fests, the truth is that there is a combination of boycott and armchair quarterbacking.  Certainly if an exit presents itself, I would jump.  And as I awoke from my Sunday afternoon nap today, my first thought was, “why didn’t I turn in my keys?”.

So today I preached my goodbye.  I took note of who was and wasn’t present, aware that many of the folks with whom I imagine I need closure were notably missing.  Perhaps it is inconsequential for we can only bid a proper farewell to those who are present in the moment.  And I did my best to give a final word of encouragement for the important ministry that has been ours. In fact I felt inspired as I was writing and even more as I was sharing.  And in closing I said, “I am tired.  I am crabby.”  Yes, I am.  “And I am very proud,” which is also true.

But here is a painful irony.  The community that I worked so hard to create ultimately was not community for me.  I realized that a few years ago, and when it become a visible truth I could feel myself begin to withdraw.  I need for myself and my family the kind of community that our church offered to its members – imperfect but open. I have some resentment, a fair amount I realize, that by definition this same embrace cannot be offered to the pastor or staff.  We who work so hard, who sacrifice so much, are always held just outside the embrace. Sometimes we are held above the embrace, on a pedestal receiving honor; other times beneath but most often simply alongside.  Sometimes we feel at one with and are tempted to believe that we are one among many, but such is an illusion.  And when our professional work is complete, our communal connections will also be closed.  It is a painful truth, but undeniable.

Whether it is my first last or truly my final sermon is yet unknown, but certain is the process of grieving which is a loopy cycle of intense emotions.  To have successfully navigated this one day, I am grateful.  For the assurance that the breath within will carry me beyond, I am grateful.  For a place to process thoughts and share the journey, I am grateful.  For all the rest, I will try to withhold judgment.

ordinary days

Seasonally this is the time of transitions.  I feel at one with the earth itself and the scene beside me in the window.  The leaves have fallen and the world appears barren.  I am alone in my home more and more of the time.  The clamor for my attention from both parishioners and family has subsided.  I type these words and feel the ping of sadness with a nip of regret and too a sense of peace.  I know that what is happening outside my window is happening inside my life.  Deep in the earth there is constant motion, unseen from the outside looking in but with a power that will burst forth with beauty in due time.

To be sure I have caution and fear.  But this is an unmistakable transition, not a premonition.  This place in my life is not the late summer day that hints at autumn, this is the early December morning when the sky is gray and the lone squirrel is scrambling for the last scrap.  I am in the cocoon and ready for the long sleep before the new beginning.

I have three weeks of church work, then a month of leave time.  When I return to work it will be for the three months (give or take) of swan song.  “Just keep swimming,” says Dora.

a place apart

Many years from now I suspect that I will look back on this place of life with a mixture of emotions not unlike the ones I have traversing it.  The freedom of this place is intoxicating, so too the fear of flying.  In the rearview mirror, I suspect that much of it will have more clarity than I have in the moment.  Which is humbling.

Yesterday I preached on the conception of Jesus, the scandal of the pregnancy, the sacred borning outside our culturally acceptable boxes.  It wasn’t a sermon that felt right on Saturday, but it was fun to deliver, the feedback was encouraging, and it felt very good at noon on Sunday.  I was able to speak my truth, offer what is to me important critique, share vulnerability, and maybe even offer a word of inspiration and/or encouragement.  As preaching goes, it’s just about as good as it gets.  I am grateful for these moments.

Today I have an interview with an urban outreach center hiring math tutors.  It’s a juxtaposition to move from the seat of privilege, of which a suburban church surely is, to a place of absolute need.  I am not sure I have what is needed, am not sure it is my call at the moment.  Excited about the position when I applied a week ago, I have a myriad of hesitancies as I approach the interview.  Mostly my cautions are that that work is very part time and I am loathe to make a commitment of my emotional resources in this context.  Still, the position has much appeal and I am grateful for the chance to interview.

After the interview, I will jump back on the interstate and return to suburbia with a meeting about our church’s new website.  Dawning slowly is another piece of the puzzle of this shift in my life.

At the outset of ministry, I carried a passion for social (read: economic, racial, political, lgbt) justice.  My reading and writing, preaching and teaching, were grounded in this passion.  Slowly but surely as I swam in the waters of suburbia, I became one with the water.  I began to want what other suburban mothers want, I began to fashion a ministry that might have some appeal to suburban families in the neighborhood.  To be sure my sermons are still peppered with the passion of my youth, but in a land of affluence I have been cautious in speaking truth to justice.  Quite frankly, it doesn’t pay or play.

As I become aware of where I feel called in this season of life, it is consistently to places apart from the privilege of the suburb that has been my place of life and ministry for many years.  The large lawns and gracious front porches are no doubt compelling, but they hide the more sinister truth of the classism that is fundamental to their existence.  For someone to live in the big house, another someone lives in service to it.  Rather than feeling comforted by the beauty of tree lined streets, I am increasingly agitated.  I recognize that the agitation is an internal piece calling me back to a place that is more in line with my core values.  Judgment of the suburb is misplaced, the dissonance is not external but rather a witness to my own misplaced energy.

When my beloved and I married just over a year ago, we moved into what had been her home on the edge of the city.  Just a couple of miles from suburbia, the air here is markedly different.  The expectations, the class lines, the storefronts, even the trees that line the streets.  It’s grittier some might say and I can’t disagree.  But it is unmistakably home to me and the move has been significant in resetting my center.  Walking to the K-Mart rather than driving to the Target, my choices are fewer and the prices comparable.  Both clientel and staff appear to be doing more with less, and it feels like a right-sizing of the consumerism that had too long held me hostage.  There is freedom on the other side of suburbia and it calls to me.

It is Monday and I hold the pieces lightly, gingerly even, as I prepare for my day.  Grateful I am for yesterday, hopeful for the gentleness of this new day. All is well even as it is unsettled.  And for this awareness most of all I give thanks.