January 31, 2013

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday):

The tools for letting go: the courage to delete, the grace to repurpose, and the humility to recycle. Whispers from a spirit deep within that give shape and context and occasionally even words to a tumult of emotion. Reports from offspring near and far offering windows to new cycles of life unfolding and the simple delight of dinner at the kitchen counter beside my beloved.

solitude

Years ago I sat with a Henri Nouwen book in which he suggested that the first of three steps on the spiritual journey is the path from loneliness to solitude.  I remember the feeling of reading those words, a feeling which clung to me while I sat with a group of seminarians discussing the text.  The feeling was one of foreboding.  If I embrace this spiritual challenge, I must first face the loneliness that is endemic in my life.

More than a half century later, I still feel the challenge in his words but in this season of life I feel more hope in them.  In this passage I see the necessity of embracing the impermanence that defines our lives whether or not we are willing.  Long awaited children turn first into toddlers and then teens, the fast pace of an elementary mom is inevitably followed by the quiet of the empty nest.  Though I can grieve any particular relational loss, and there are many for which I grieve, the simple truth is that if we are blessed with longevity we will outlive any number of relationships.  If we are blessed with authenticity, we will also outgrow more than a few.  In our younger years our collecting tends to offset the losses, but as we crest midlife we inevitably begin to discover more time with one who gives us breath.

One of my favorite elders is an artistic extrovert who’s life was filled with color and beauty and people, lots of people.  Well into her 80’s she was making friends and stirring conversation.  Blessed with family both in town and literally around the world, she loved to travel and to regale visitors with the tales.  Yet for more than a decade this beautiful woman’s memory has been leaving her.  For many years now she has struggled to piece together words for a conversation and her stories no longer make cognitive sense.  Stranger still is the silence that now sits around us as we visit.  I am struck by the smallness of a world filled now only with caregivers and visits by family members, and even those growing more sparse as months turn into seasons, seasons into years and now years into a decade. Yet as I sit with her and together we take notice of a bird flitting outside the window, I hear a lilt in her voice, her spirit vibrant even as her memory is gone.   As I consider the solitude that I feel in her presence, I am reminded of Henri Nouwen’s invitation to move beyond the loneliness.

As the shape of my life pauses in this transition time, now with both an empty nest and a clear calendar, I feel the invitation with a more balanced mix of emotions.  Realizing the futility of the alternative, I am more ready to face the loneliness that lies in front of the solitude that I now seek.  For this next journey I am grateful for breathing lessons, for lengthening days, and for the patter of the rain drops that hold my tears.

rearview mirrors

The bane and blessing of aging is the growing collection of rearview mirrors.  The mirrors are precious because they hold the sweet memories of our baby’s touch and the first kiss of our beloved.  The mirrors are also painful as they remind us of things we’d rather forget and distort events in macabre ways.  And with each passing year of our lives, they accumulate.  As I careen through the second half of life, their weight is unmistakable.

While one might expect their weight to be an anchor which slows this second half of life, these mirrors function more often as the weight that speeds the downhill run.  I am aware at points that I am racing in a failed attempt to stay ahead of the mirrors.  What I wish my heart knew is that no matter how fast or slow I go, the mirror remains anchored in my side view.  Always.

What does change is my awareness of these mirrors and thereby their influence on my life.  While I cannot change a single event of my past nor the unsettling truth that more of my life is behind than before, I do continually face choices about how I engage with that past.  I can deny the past and be haunted by it or I can welcome the perspective and allow it to be information that guides my choices.

Five years ago this week I made the decision to stop drinking and my carefully constructed life began to unravel. Then I was a woman married to a man with two teenage children; now I am a woman married to a woman with an empty nest.  The most recent loss is that of my professional identity as I retire from my “life’s work” as a pastor.  What is behind me seems clear, but what lies in front of me is not yet discernable.  In seasons like this one,  the invitation of the rearview mirrors is particularly seductive because the mirrors offer a clarity not available looking forward.

While living life in the rearview mirror is deadly, the mirrors themselves can offer invaluable lessons.  As I consider the unraveling of my life, I can see the powerful promise that it is in the well tilled soil that the most beautiful new life emerges.  It is in the places where I’ve loosed my grip most completely that the gains have swelled far beyond the losses.  If I dare to face the mirrors with the deepest pain, I am aware that the seat in which I sit today bears witness to the trustworthiness of the road ahead.  Neither running from nor living in the rearview mirrors, they provide context for the gratitude that is mine today.

A way watered with tears is the one lined with flowers.  As I look today in the admittedly hefty pile of broken glass, I see bourgeoning bouquets in their reflection.  And it is very good.

all but the party

This Monday morning is different from all other Monday mornings.  This is the Monday morning after the Sunday morning in which I shared my swansong, my final sermon as a minister (at least a full time employed one!).  This is a morning for which I have been steeling myself, aware that it is inevitably one filled with charged emotions.

Yet as I awoke this morning, I was struck only by the round light of the moon and the whisper of yesterday’s promise, “wade in the water, god’s gonna trouble the water.”  It was a gentle promise with which to begin the morning, gentle but strong.  Truth be told the big emotions that have been crashing through my life in recent months seem to be out of the building for now and I am so very grateful for the quiet.

I admit that it was great fun to preach yesterday and at the same time very sorrowful.  Standing before the community and sharing my understanding of the call of faith, week in and week out, has been a privilege that I have deeply enjoyed… until I didn’t.  At the point that it became painful, it was time to step aside.  And my attempts to hold on only intensified the pain.  Yesterday held a magic in that the community was present and wanting to listen, and too that I had something I wanted to share.  This mutuality had been missing and it’s return in the moment was a gracious gift.

Throughout the day yesterday and even this morning I have had random tasks float through my mind, tasks accompanied with familiar anxiety.  Different this morning was what immediately followed, a knowing that the tasks are not mine.  It is no longer my problem if the page breaks in the bulletin are wrong, no longer my fault if a member didn’t receive proper notice of my departure, no longer my concern to prepare the compelling annual report or any other report for that matter.  I have a headful of information, it is true, and when asked I will happily share and I may even share a data dump (or two!); but whether or not any of my knowledge is valued or used is absolutely none of my concern.  And as I set aside each worry, I have experienced an amazing sense of release.

The call of the historic “wade in the water” melody bears witness to the hardest part of the journey, that of moving to the water.  Once in the water, the song promises that “God’s gonna trouble the water”.  The troubled water is a place where not only are our feet refreshed but our scent is lost to the bloodhounds.  From the god-troubled waters, new beginnings are both possible and imminent. Awaking to the sound of yesterday’s song, I feel it’s hope. While I am sure there will be rapids ahead, I am grateful to bear witness to this place in the river where the walking is easy.

Wade in the water, yes.  Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water… god’s gonna trouble the waters.  Yes.

Swan Song – a closing sermon

1. Swan Song

A swansong is the exquisite burst of music at the close of a silent life, at least according to ancient legends about the swan. So it is with amusement that after a lifetime of making words come together for worship, I come to you having just spent a month in silent worship with the Quakers, now re-entering worship words to share a “swansong”. Words for a minister are perhaps like drinks for an alcoholic, one is too many and a thousand is not nearly enough.

2. Veneration of Knowledge

As I ponder the invitation to share a bit of parting wisdom, it seems oddly appropriate that the text and theme for the day, chosen before the significance was known is “knowledge”.

The topic is appropriate for Peace UCC in Webster Groves MO because we are a community that lauds, perhaps even venerates, knowledge. We pride ourselves with our good public schools in WG, with the intellectual influences not only of Eden Seminary but Webster University and even the proximity with intellectual giants like Washington University and St. Louis University. Too we are proud that both in our zip code and even in our worshipping community we have an inordinate number of members with advanced degrees. We call ourselves an “educated congregation”. And it is very good.

Yet as I sat with this familiar text and teaching this week, I’ve been struck by the difference between knowledge (noun) and knowing (verb) and with my own particular challenge: the more I ‘know’, the less knowledge I have. In my own life I have discovered a consistent and inverse relationship between the two. Most significantly, the more that I’ve come to “know” the sacred, the more certain I am that God is not an external diety to be described but an internal presence to be experienced.

Which, of course, has been an occupational hazard… but let me back up to the beginning.

3. Relevant Heresies

Once upon a time when I was a child in Sunday School, I was invited to share both “knowing” and knowledge. Our Sunday School books were filled with knowledge (wondrous bible stories of intrigue and scandal) and traditional “born again” theology. But our books also offered a rather peculiar teaching in a story about a dude named George Fox. Fox taught about something called the “inner light”, that within each of us is a spark of the sacred, the very presence of God. Original sin or divine spark, which is at the core of our being?

The question was answered definitively when I went to a Christian college and learned about the Gnostic heretics who (we were taught) were an early but mortal threat to the very survival of Christianity, a heretical group who believed in a crazy idea that within all humans there is a … divine spark, the very presence of God.

Admittedly I was skeptical and was delighted in seminary to learn more about these heretics, connecting the dots with the Quakers, and being assured that heretics, though perhaps shunned in their day, were not always the bad guys. My history professor in seminary even encouraged us to study church history from the margins. As we read the theologians who’ve been labeled and set aside we discover that though an institutional religion has consistently affirmed sets of knowledge, there have always been spiritual teachers who’ve embraced a way of being, of knowing, that was outside of and/or at odds with the institution.

Heresy aside, knowing trumps knowledge.

4. Thomas 70

One of the parallel readings this morning was from Thomas’ gospel, an important example of a book that had been labeled as heresy and subsequently lost for many years. The particular verse that we heard this morning has been incredibly shaping in my life for more than a decade and one that speaks to the power of knowing. Elaine Pagels translates the verse this way: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

What we need for this day, all that we need, is as close as our next breath. If we bring it forth, we will find what we need, our salvation or safe-keeping. This teaching, of course, brings me full circle to the inner light of my childhood and the legends of the heretics. It is Marianne Williamson’s “who are you not to shine?” and the spiritual truth that we sing each January Sunday, “this little light of mine”. Found but not contained in our Christian story, this truth dances across continents and generations with a range of expressions and religious names.

The text has some critics, mostly for the second half or the corollary. If we hid our light, it will destroy us. Although I’m pretty much over with the binary categories, the painful truth of life is that a dream deferred not only dies in our closet but sets decay at the very core of our being. Inasmuch as we are gifted with an inner light, that light must be fed; as the light seeks nourishment, if we keep it locked inside it will eat us from the inside out.

So here is the conundrum of life:
If we embrace the truth that is ours, we will soar to new heights.
If we deny our truth, we will be torn asunder.

5. A Bellwether Moment

I had a moment of truth some years ago now when I was working on a bulletin, typing the word “Christ” in a community prayer. As my fingers formed the familiar word a question emerged from within, unbidden. Is that the most helpful word to use in that spot? A silly question for “Christ” is of course a common word for divinity within a Christian community, so why the question? I stopped typing and began to reflect. At the time (and now) there were many hyphenated families in our community: Christian-Buddhist, Christian-Wiccan, Agnostic-Christian, Jewish-Christian. Then, as now, folk familiar and comfortable with religious tradition and language sat in pews beside others smarting from “Christian-eze” and still others unfamiliar with religious language. As I considered the necessity of a particular word in a particular prayer, the answer was “of course not”. As I let go of my assumptions about the need to use the word “Christ” and tried more inclusive options like Spirit and Holy One, I realized that our doors of welcome opened wider.

And as the doors opened wider, we discovered that the windows opened too. As my own faith became increasingly light in words and deep in faith, you joined with me on the journey. Together we have wondered about the words we use at the table, what our ministers wear and where they stand, and more. The beauty is that as we become less attached to doctrine, creeds, and even liturgical traditions, we have (unintentionally but very clearly) become increasingly more inclusive. It has been an amazing and wondrous journey, filled with hope and promise.

But also at points an unsettling one. If not in the creeds and traditions and texts, then what can we trust? What is the solid rock? On what can we raise our Ebenezer? When we pull on the dangling thread of the sweater, we fear we will soon find ourselves naked.

Admittedly I stand here pretty naked today. At some point I realized a painful inescapable truth: I absolutely believe Jesus about God, I simply don’t believe the church about Jesus. In very real ways, I realize that I have prayed my way out of the church. I wonder if I am a “none” (one of the growing number of Americans who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”) and as I step outside of the comfort of our community I won’t pretend that the way hasn’t been watered with tears.

I share this story because, directly and indirectly, the theology that we’ve shared has brought us to this fork in the road and presents important questions for you as a community moving forward. I share my experience because I continue to believe that there is a felt need to gather in communities like this one in which we’ve dared to practice a “spiritual but not religious” expression and the temptation will be to reach backward for familiar traditions. Please don’t, at least not without prayerful consideration.

Since I was ordained, our denomination has shrunk by more than half. Churches all around us, even ones with good music and good preaching, are in decline and many are closing. This beloved community has been steady and at points truly brilliant in these same recent years – not in spite of but in fact because we’ve dared to flow with the current and lose our grip the trappings of “religion”. Inasmuch as we have been willing to explore the edges of progressive religious expression, we have found new life, new relevance and new growth. This is a season to stretch the welcome, to be bold and daring, to paint with purple and bring in drums into worship.

The light shines from within. Embrace it and thrive, for we deny it to our own peril.

6. I Sit by the River

And with that I’ve come to the end of my words. Except, of course, there is always room for one more story:
As the teacher grew weary from pointing, she knew it was time to step away in order for the community to see what was right before them. “What is it we fail to see when you are with us?” they asked for they truly couldn’t see.
She waited until perhaps the very last moment to speak her truth, for its simplicity was quite unbelievable.
With a twinkle in her eye and a heart filled with love she explained, “For years I have sat on the edge of the river, handing out water. Now it is time for me to wade in the water. And after I am gone, I trust that you will notice the river for yourselves.” (based on an Anthony de Mello story)

Ready or not, we have come to the water’s edge.
I’m ready to wade. And you?

January 24, 2013

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday)

The saltiness of tears, the softness of cat fur, the healing power of respect, the rhythm of breathing; baby steps that move forward, appreciation for negative numbers and even the irrational ones, technology that brings video conversation with a traveling offspring, impromptu day trips with my beloved and rediscovering the only gift greater than words, silence.

at one with the river

A story is told of an old man who falls into a raging river just above the rapids.  His friends frantically reach for him as the current carries him toward danger.  Helpless they watch as his lifeless body is plunged into the whitewater.  Racked with grief they race to the bottom to retrieve his body.  At the bottom of the rapids, however, they watched stunned as the old man stands and walks towards them.  “How?” pleads their question from disbelieving eyes. “Simple,” says the old man, “become one with the river and it carries us safely through the difficult passages.”

I believe this story and repeat it often, but I confess that in my own life I am most often found on the shore remarking in awe about the water’s power. More dangerous still, when I am sucked into the currents of life, I make the mistake of holding on to branches or rocks or anything stationary to which I can cling.

The problem is that while I am clinging, the river is pulling.  And with my energies rooted to the stationary, the current can be both painful and also incredibly destructive.  Broken bones, mangled bodies. And I curse the current for it’s brutal assault.

The real problem with the current is that I can’t control it.  I can’t even pretend to control it or convince myself that I am controlling it.  The current comes from a place beyond what can be seen and moves with a passion that is not ours to own.  We are merely spectators along the way and our choices, should we enter the river, are whether we will be carried by the current or casualties in its wake.

In the rare moments when I am able to accept life on life’s terms, to float in the water with my hands resting at my side, I confess that the current has been trustworthy.  The bruises and scars that are mine from the river are, every one, a testimony not to the current itself but rather to my struggle against it.

Today I feel as though I am at the bottom of the rapids, bruised from too much clinging along the way, aware too of moments in which I was held safely by the current.  As is most of life, my learning to be at one with the current is progress not perfection and I am grateful for a pause in the action and a new day in which to practice.

 

 

 

sunrise

Once upon a time a precocious child approached his grandfather with a half glass of water. “Grandpa,” he asked, “is this glass of water half full or half empty?” The grandfather smiled gently and turned to the cupboard pulling out a new glass. “Let’s pour the water in this one and then decide.” As the child poured the water it filled the new glass to the rim. “Oh!” exclaimed the child, “a right-sized glass!”

I awoke early this morning. Also true is that I had a sleepless night and gave up trying just before dawn. Regardless, I found pen and paper and sat with early morning coffee watching the sun rise… and it was very good.

I wonder about the power of our stories for framing our experiences of today and even tomorrow.

Yesterday I lamented to my beloved, frightened by the prospect of my pending unemployment. “I’ve never been unemployed. What if I can’t find a job?” My dear one has been exceedingly patient in this time of transition and also grounding. She gently reminded me that I chose to leave this position, that together we made a conscious decision to step off the secure path, that there is no shame in taking time away from payroll earnings. Her voice is soothing and I realize that even greater than my financial concerns are concerns about identity. Who will I be without a professional role that has given my life shape and definition for literally decades?

Although my employment may cease, whether I am “unemployed” or taking time for spiritual renewal or retooling for a new career, the label I choose will affect how I experience these coming months. Awaking this morning, I had clarity that for today I choose to be honoring this time for personal/spiritual renewal.

And as I sit with this clarity in the shadow of the rising sun, my cup runneth over.

Cloud Break

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
– Meister Eckhart

The sun’s warmth is all the more brilliant after a cloudy day, and the hope in my heart feels all the more precious after a period of mourning. While I will no doubt soon enough be reminded that grief is a circular process and the sadness will pull me under yet again, in this moment I feel the hope that is mine from the tenderest place within my being and I am grateful.

This is not a hope born of external circumstance. Nothing has changed really.

This is a hope born simply, profoundly, of it’s own accord. It is the essence of me dancing with the very spirit of life. And it is joy.

Yesterday… I grieve the loss of what I once loved, the life that was mine as a suburban pastor with tenure and respect. Tomorrow… totally uncertain and may include words and numbers, blogging and classroom teaching, new learning and familiar skills; frightening if I look for definition for it is not yet apparent.

The hope that is mine, palpable in this January sunshine, is about neither yesterday nor tomorrow. The hope is in the peace that I feel in this very moment; the surety that the connection that is mine in this moment connects me with what it is that I need for all time.

Perhaps it is a place of humility, this hope that I feel. In this moment I am not dogged by the hubris that I must create a spectacular next chapter of my life nor the humiliation of defeat in closing the last. In this moment I am aware that I am right where I need to be; quiet, open, waiting.

Breathing in this gift of hope, this moment of peace, one more shackle falls and I, with Meister Eckhart, pray the most important prayer of all time, “thank you”.

January 17, 2013

TILT – Things I Love on Thursday:
Watching the cat stretch it’s paw and remembering my babies’ little hands doing the same, precious moments engendering sweet memories; finding and speaking my truth and having it heard and honored; the unhurried promise of dinner waiting in the crockpot; listening to my offspring find their voices and (even more wondrously) laughter from a place of delight deep within; the voice of my beloved which calls me to the quiet stream.

Note: TILT is a weekly practice invited by a dear friend and inspiration, Jill Stratton.