Leaving Church: Praying with My Feet

Enjoying the early morning quiet of a Sunday morning in an empty nest, I am aware of sadness for the losses. The gift of life’s second half is perspective, the curse is the pile of losses that make possible the view. My journey may have more or less than yours, but all of us have stories to tell.

In this sacred space, with the sound of my dear one sleeping, the birds singing of coming spring, and warm coffee with milk, I am also aware of healing as life unfolds on a path quite unexpected. Despite our best laments, the sun rises and time marches on. It’s been more than two years since I left the church, and I realize that grief has been replaced by wistfulness. After a quarter century of Sundays dominating the week, I savor this moment of quiet and take note of that which no longer catches my breath.

Curious is the role of justice work, indeed civil disobedience, that preceded my time in seminary and has come back into my daily routines. Throughout my seminary days, I fancied that my call was to prophetic witness and in my ordination even chose the text from Luke’s gospel quoting Isaiah. But almost immediately I became a servant of the church, my bread and butter about filling pews, organizing potlucks, making flyers, and meetings.

In my last years in the church, I was passionate about expressing a theological frame that was itself progressive. Often we find socially liberal churches with traditional theology (or the reverse). I suspect this is somewhat inevitable for white folk in America because the texts and traditions that we have adopted were written by and for communities oppressed. There is a dissonance inherent in our reading and a need to do critical (self reflective work) unless we flatten them (read: impose tradition). I was jazzed about working to articulate a theology that was relevant, challenging, and empowering. The path was pretty much unchartered and at points contentious, but worth the effort. And it was great fun, until it wasn’t.

The point of parting is still painful. The words spoken, the letters shared, the allegations levied; these haunt. Cruel, but without which I would not have released my grip. Perhaps I grieve the necessity (my grip) as much as I grieve the series of events themselves.

As I sit on this quiet Sunday morning drinking coffee, the sun now full in the sky, I see the path that is mine today.

Prayer Vigil in Ferguson. Photo by dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Prayer Vigil in Ferguson. Photo by dcarson@post-dispatch.com

While my gratitude has many layers and covers a wide berth of life experiences, as I ponder that which is sacred this morning I am mindful of all that I’ve seen and heard and felt on the streets in #Ferguson. I’ve learned more of what it means to be white, and the importance of #whitefolkwork if we really care about justice. I’ve met Jesus in any number of incarnations, Black of course, and often queer and usually a woman. As I’ve prayed with my feet, I’ve learned that my words get in the way and I’ve had incredible opportunities to listen. The veil is lifted as the sacred dances in the street.

The early morning light is now gone and the busyness of the day calls. There are lesson plans to gather, laundry to start, and a protest to attend (#BlackBrunch).

Church, like prayer, comes in many forms.

 

Sweet Possibility and Aged Sorrow – A New Song

Quietly drinking coffee on a Sunday morning, I notice an important silence. In my swang song from church life, music was central.  Drinking in the solitude, I ponder the silence.

Music and those who share it have played a significant role in touching the tender places in my soul for most of my memory. When I fell in love with Jesus at church camp, it was the campfire songs with Mike and Heidi that beckoned.  In college I spent hours and more singing with my friend Beth while she strummed her 12-string guitar, our songs focused on the (Jesus saves version of the) spiritual quest. Church music was similarly important over the years but admittedly less compelling, most often carrying me just shy of that tender place where the soul touches the sky.  A notable exception was church music with my hero at the keyboard.

My hero was a classically trained musician. She was both gifted and practiced, but it was the twinkle in her eye more than her understanding of chord structures that made magic.  When asked, she would smile and say that her years playing in bar bands were invaluable in leading church music. Maybe so. Whatever the case, when she sat down at the keyboard, I found myself singing from that very tender spot.  And smiling. Blessed to share many years together, comfortable with the feeling of soul touching sky each Sunday morning, I grew and stretched and changed more than a little.  Some changes had push back, others catapulted me forward, but always the singing on Sunday mornings put my heart back in order.

For more years than I can count we shared a running joke about our work at church, that whether we stayed or left we did so together. But as is the case with all jokes, the humor points to a place of vulnerability. As I sit now without the music, finding contentment in a wonderland made possible by its grace but without its presence, I have to confess that I do not know where the music stopped nor why.  I remember tension and harsh words and unimaginable conflict, but I suspect that the music stopped before all of that. Only clear is that we are no longer in the same place and living life on life’s terms means doing so without a hero.

Recently I was privileged to sit in a church building and sing songs.  The experience was pleasant save the painful memory that it touched.  Awkward and slightly off-key I followed the musician, painfully aware that I was no longer at one with the sound, no longer upheld by the rhythm, no longer dancing with the wind. Rather than being at one in the moment, the moment pointed to place of loss and I wept. My instinct was to reach out for that which once was but the pathway is not open.  The gift of this yearning is not retrenchment but rather a reminder to dance with the rhythm that is now. External songs may join, inspire and strengthen but always the rhythm must be found within. Lest I miss the opportunity, I honor the gift of the instinct as I let it pass unanswered.

Taoism teaches that our pain is commensurate with that to which we cling. Given that impermanence is inescapable, true happiness is attainable only as we learn to hold with open hands allowing the bird to both land and alight at will. The beauty that graced my life as I sang with Beth in college was unsolicited gift and, as we graduated, left simply and without shame. Without the structure of planned passages, the losses that life brings sometimes get kabobbled in unhelpful ways and such was the essence of my loss of church.  The more we seek to keep things the same, the more the winds of time twist our grip and destroy what was once cherished. Such contortion is the essence of conflict, church and otherwise. Attempts to cling to the familiar drive wedges where bridges would otherwise gracefully sway. Nostalgia blinds us to the beauty of the moment as we reach into the mythic past. Today is imperfect but true, and only in this moment can we dance with the music that is our own.

This morning I watch the wind dance with a forgotten summer toy still hanging in the backyard.  The dance is unseemly but nonetheless bears witness both to yesterday’s unfinished business and to the present beauty of the breath; the contrast of emotions providing harmonic convergence. The grayness of this late December morning would be uninspiring were it not for the quietness of the day that allows the dance of the branches to be visible, a beautiful melody in minor key. In the movement to this passage of life I’ve tasted the giddy bliss of new love and the searing pain of loss, the dance of potentially conflicting emotions has become strangely comforting.  As I watch and ponder, I become aware that it is a new rhythm to which my feet now move. New and yet more primal than any that I’ve heard before, sweet with possibility and yet rich with aged sorrow, this is my song.

And it is very good.

A Holiday Junkie Confesses…

My name is Katy and I am a Holiday junkie.

It all started as a child with the wonder of Santa. The magic of Santa was utterly breathtaking and my parents were masterful at the subtle art of making a big splash one day each year. Truly I am grateful for this gift. As I young adult, I discovered the magic of singing Silent Night by candlelight with choirs in a darkened sanctuary. Rather than trading Santa, I kept them together and added the (truly unparalleled) magic of a newborn.

For more than two decades I danced through December as the minister-mom, creating magic at work and at home. I decorated the house on the first Sunday of Advent and planned social events throughout the season. I wrote pageants and Christmas liturgies and new verses to old hymns.  I sewed outfits, shopped ’til I dropped and baked cookies.  While delivering poinsettias to church members in nursing homes, I stopped at Costco for the roast-beast. Unquestionably the culmination of my holiday fervor was the first year with my beloved, sharing the magic of the lights with her on Christmas Eve and shouting “yes, yes, YES” when Christmas morning dawned with a marriage proposal. 

When I was in it, I was in it to win. I multitasked my way into holiday coma year after year, always trying to do it bigger and better. Bigger. And better. The expectation, the preparations, the expectation, the preparation, the expectation, the preparation.  At some point you discover that the growth, even when linear, is unsustainable and the weight of the expectation crushes the magic it would deliver. Now in the rearview mirror, the wave of emotions wax and wane between nostalgia, pride and even a wee bit of embarrassment.  As I dip my toes in a reflective mode, I feel no small amount of caution.

For me the magic is a drug, and no longer my drug of choice. I decorated a tree this year and bought presents for my beloved and our offspring.  I even made stockings for my children at school and shared with them a Santa-led treasure hunt. But as I shop and wrap and bake, I realize that I do so with more intention, more reserve, and less flourish.

I’ve wondered if my downsized attitude is reflective of melancholy or worse, depression.  I’ve looked as honestly as I know how at the losses that are real and tangible.  No longer a minister, now with grown children, the downsizing is inevitable and so too the grief.  The losses are real and I feel the wistfulness, the patina that is nostalgia, but beneath that thin layer is an uncanny sense of peace.  Quiet but true.  This is a season of letting go and the weightlessness that I feel at this particular juncture is unfamiliar and yet nonetheless gift.

It would be tempting to enshrine this holiday-lite trend with theological significance (read: smug self-righteousness).  Although I don’t much value the Puritan’s ban on Christmas, I have an affinity for the Quaker value of simplicity which eschews the drama of the holidays.  Yet I suspect that my experience with the dangers of holiday intoxication has less to do with theology and more to do with my addictive tendencies.  I can make almost anything into a drug, finding the bane in almost any blessing.

I held this question as I watched the children in my classroom navigate the emotional gauntlet that is a charity Christmas.  A colleague’s church had adopted our school and my wee ones were the clear winners, their desks piled high with gifts on the last morning before the holidays.  I might whine about remote control cars without batteries and white Barbie dolls, but these tiny cuts (though real) didn’t dampen the mood in the slightest. Showered with shiny plastic, the children squealed with delight.  Too I might point out that the wonder expressed was the same wonder I saw when we played with dry ice and again when we made crystal ornaments (read: Borax magic).  What was different in the wrapping paper craze is that the adults cheered while the children whirled, truly a beautiful moment that even my critical gaze couldn’t miss.

Moderation is hard to find and my instinct is to all or nothing.  My morning coffee is gone now and it is time to engage this Christmas Eve day with balance. I have a wee bit of cleaning and cooking yet to do, tasks that beckons gently. Grateful for the calmness of the morning, I give thanks for the many years of busy blessings that have made the pathway to this quiet place. The emotions are many but the balance is gratitude.

And so it is that the days begin to lengthen once again.  One day at a time.

Thanksgiving… the luxury of space to ponder

The sky is dusky in this quiet morning hour and I woke up early but unhurried and able to ponder this one precious day in front of me.  My mission is threefold: breathe, bake, savor.  Our kids, scattered for the day, will gather this evening for dessert and games.  Between here and there are hours to stretch and breathe, taste and touch, a rhythm that allows the luxury of time to sit at the keyboard and put words to feelings.

Last evening we were in the grocery when my engine went dry.  I was suddenly, overwhelmingly, aware that I was done.  Done.  Like a toddler on the precipice of a total meltdown, I implored my dear one to get us home stat.  She laughed, but it was a knowing laugh.  We finished quickly and I fell into bed with the groceries still on the counter.  This has been the rhythm in recent weeks, a blur of exhaustion.  To awaken today with some awareness of space before me is delicious gift and I sit at the keyboard savoring this moment of restedness.

A year ago I was still pastoring at a suburban church where I’d been serving for 16 years.  I was good at my job and, after 23 years in ministry, had reached a professional level of competence which allowed a certain amount of ease (read: I didn’t know how good I had it!). Now, with my ministry mantle retired, I am teaching a K-2 classroom for children with behavior difficulties (read: hands, feet, and objects in flight).  Creating lesson plans is a creative challenge, delivering them a near impossibility, and getting through the day unbruised, well, I don’t.

Although my menopausal body and brain are running on near-empty most of the time these days, it is my heart that has had the biggest workout.  Moving from a place of expertise to that of novice is an amazing shift of ego.  Having bosses is a new thing after a couple of decades of not (mine are truly amazing, I am very lucky) but the real challenge has been navigating with co-workers. Used to calling the shots, it has been a constant learning curve to find the place that is somewhere between “your way” and “mine”, an essential and yet difficult balance.  I know how to defer and I know how to lead, but finding a right-sized place in the middle is a skill that I have not yet mastered and one that I need in a field where our kids desperately need their adults to work as a team.  I can only say that we are all trying.  We are.

Perhaps what makes the adults edgy with one another is the trauma that comes with our students. Yesterday I had a seven year old arrive stoned (you can’t make this stuff up), though we had no reasonable way to prove it. We documented his physical condition and noted the munchies that came midway through the morning. Inescapable was the shift when the unprescribed medication wore off midday and the child was once again drawing pictures of scantily clad women and sharing private body part jokes with his classmates.  When I removed him from the class for being inappropriate, this otherwise very bright child tried to argue that such drawings are indeed appropriate.  Tragically, my voice was somewhat novel as I explained to him that his pictures were not.  This is a child who should be watching PBS Kids, not playing Grand Theft Auto (his personal favorite).  Karen Carpenter sang for little boys like this one, “bless the beasts and the children for in this world they have no voice, they have no choice.” The behaviors that undermine my classroom are simply beacons of the hurt that lies inside my children.

Yet even as my heart opens to this truth, seeing and respecting the pain that each of my children bring, safety (and sanity) dictate that my engagement with my class be far more firm than I would ever chose to be.  They need, and deserve, a teacher who is (as my boss says) “firm, fair, and consistent”.  My boss is quite masterful at being a kind and loving presence and yet at the same time very clear and firm when the situation warrants.  She has a combination of natural gifts and years of experience; I am missing at least one of these and possible both.  I am blessed beyond measure, I realize, to come home to my dear one who is also a master teacher.  Together we process and slowly I learn.  In the meantime, I practice being mindfully present, clearer each day with my expectations, using more awareness and fewer words.  Most days I raise my voice at least a couple of times, but some days I remember to whisper, the whispers are far more effective.

The sun has now brightened the sky and my time to ponder at the keyboard is now passed.  As I consider the thoughts that pour forth on this Thanksgiving morning, I am struck by the place that humility has taken in the center of my journey.  While no stranger to the buzz of hubris and the sting of humiliation, the place in which I labor with my heart and mind and body is largely a place of humility in which I am learning to find the ground beneath my feet and the hands outstretched beside me.  And this is very good.

Now, off to the kitchen I go…

A Quiet Sunday Morning at Home

For all of my adult life, Sunday morning was synonymous with church. For most of my 30 adult years, the church has been the place of my employment as well as my community and also my worship center. The church has been the organizing center of all of my relationships, earthly and otherwise. Just a few short months ago, however, I went to church for the last time. Sunday morning now looks much like Saturday, but with a slightly different rhythm.

I didn’t set out to leave church all together. I retired from professional ministry and with prejudice. I was tired by the effort of being religious in an increasingly not-religious culture. I was crabby from the internal recalcitrance which made the necessary movement nye on impossible. Leaving the employ of the particular church community meant, by definition, finding a new one; which proved challenging in a state of disappointment. In the interim we visited a couple of communities that we enjoyed and respected, but pretty soon settled into the alternative – quiet Sunday mornings at home.

In the quiet, at my desk, I notice the greens and blues that dot the sky and feel the serenity possible in life abundant. I listen to the rhythm of the clock ticking behind me, like the waves that lap on the shore, endless and reassuring. I sip the warm milky coffee, noticing the nurture of familiar taste sensations, grateful for my beloved who prepared it.

Life is good. Life is full. Even this life without church.

But what is missing? For surely after all of the many Sunday mornings dressed up and singing in unison this solitude must represent a lack of some sort. And though there are no doubt missing pieces, a more fundamental truth may simply be that difference is value neutral. To point out that experience A is startling different than experience B is not to suggest that A is better than B, or vice versa. The rhythm of my Sunday mornings is remarkably different than that to which I had become accustomed, but I do not sense one better than the other… simply different.

I confess to missing the sensation of community that I experienced, pastoring with one community for 16+ years. I knew the babies, sat with the families in the waiting rooms, watched the seasons come and go with many precious people. I miss the connection and I miss the friendships. But this loss is one that was inescapable as I moved out of leadership. Definitionally I was required to move away from the particular. The only question was whether I would (or will yet) choose to find another community of faith.

Part of my reluctance is a tenderness around theological ideals. While I believe Jesus about God and embrace fully the wisdom tradition that he embodied, I find traditional Christian worship language grating. Crosses, instruments of death and torture, do not comfort my spirit but rather invoke fear. While our myths suggest life beyond the gruesomeness, too many crosses still burn as warnings on front lawns and loom as gate posts at the edges of communities that wish to keep my kind out. Similarly prayers that link Christ to Jesus without thoughtful exegesis offer a triumphal message which would be trite were it not for the continued imperial power implied. Believing Jesus about God, I find that I cannot faithfully embrace the tradition that bears his name.

I yearn for the kind of theological message offered by the Charter of Compassion initiative, the message of inclusion that looks for our common ground and our communal good. This is the message that we sought to share where I once labored, but it is a message that is seen by Christians as Christ-lite and feared by the the secular community as a bait-and-switch. I continue to believe that it a message that is worthy and relevant, but I see few opportunities for sharing the experience in community.

My spirit these days is nurtured in solitude where I reflect upon the lessons that the children have shared. My spirit is nurtured around 12-step tables where we do our best to share what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now; using the tools of the program as we share our stories. My spirit is nurtured in silence with a small group of Quaker friends who accept the interloper without judgment. My spirit is nurtured in the blessing of intimacy with my beloved. And it is very good.

As this Sunday morning unfolds with coffee and quiet and the familiar feeling of the keyboard beneath my fingers, I am grateful for the ability to hold the yearning, the loss, and the beauty of the present moment all together and feel peace. Serenity is holding gratitude for the many years in community while reveling in this present place of solitude without reaching for tomorrow’s unopened door. For these shards of serenity, most of all, I give thanks.

a new day

Last night I chanced to hear a wise person share her story.  She talked of successes and failures and the challenge of finding her right sized place in the midst of life.  She named her struggle with ego, that even (especially) the business of offering service was prone to kicking her ego into hyperdrive and that in order to find serenity she need to keep her life, her world, her work smaller.  She scaled back the meetings, the connections, the functions.  She gave her life and calendar space.  And she found her right size.

The wisdom she shared was hard won and I heard not only the value but also the cost.  This is the wisdom that has been emerging in my life.  Gradually discovering that no amount of redefining boundaries was going to make a vocational-spiritual mismatch work, slowly facing ego’s cunning in words like “influence” and “responsibility”, coming to terms with the treacherous training wheels that our masks offer.  “Not my will but thine”, “not my church but God’s”, were common phrases in the business of leading a church, but the words are most often juxtaposed with the silent reality that the church’s health is co-mingled with the minister’s ego.  Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, but nonetheless co-mingled.

Some seasons I was on fire, some I was lying low, others I was feeling quite brave, still other’s I felt under attack. Constant was the sensation of being drug by my ego rather than by the spirit I longed to serve.  In part it’s the nature of church in a declining market, with fewer buyers there is steep competition and ministers must market both themselves and their communities.  As church becomes increasingly irrelevant on our cultural landscape, survival of the institution (and it’s professionals) skews the vision and commandeers the heart.  My experience was indeed personal and unique, but at the same time quite common and at points universal. What was ultimately true for me, though, is that in the emotional field that is now the church, spiritual health was at best elusive.

As I begin a new job today, I am keenly aware and deeply grateful that this job is just that, a job.  I will go to work and come home each day at specified hours, I will work as one among many and not be the person in charge, and my family life will be distinct from my professional one.  In all honesty, I haven’t had such a job for 23 years; in the fall of 1989, I “became a minister” and my identity and work life have been as one ever since.  Now retired from church work and in search of a right sized life, I am actually looking forward to a “job”.  More, I am hopeful that the unfolding new rhythms of my life will foster greater serenity.

The personal story shared last evening was empowering as it named these themes and pointed to a more sustaining spiritual path. The path is not defined (pro or con) by a particular professional identity but rather by looking for meaning beyond the traditional foci of human striving.  The path is defined by letting go of nouns, holding lightly the people, places and things, and finding ever deepening encounters with the sacred.  Hearing the path articulated and celebrated on the eve of this next step of my own journey was manna, the kind of manna that I’ve come to depend upon in this new land.

on the eve of a new gig

I signed a contract this week and begin a new gig next week as a Teacher’s Assistant at a private school for public school kids with behavior and emotional disorders. The school is actually bordered on the north by the house I shared with my Ex and on the south by the townhouse where I lived after leaving him.  Familiar with the skirt of the campus, I had never actually been in the school before I interviewed.  We live in a very small world with deceptively high walls.  And I’m about to breach them.

The job is pretty much ideal in terms of schedule (same as my dear one’s), supervisory responsibilities (nil), and benefits (jackpot).  The huge plus is that I get to work with kids and don’t have the responsibility of being the teacher in charge.  If I discover that I enjoy the academic setting and continue to want to teach math, the experience garnered  in this position will be invaluable.  The position is exactly what I could articulate as my objective as I started this search:  “an opportunity to bring focused attention to projects that enhance community.”  I wanted to find a position which engaged my time and talent (check), remunerated enough for our family needs (check), and allowed me to be ‘one of many’ (not in charge) in a position which is meaningful (check).

All of which is really good and feels very right.
All of which is also reflective of a major identity shift.

As I prepare to step away from the keyboard and into a classroom, I realize that the last of the familiar routines is shifting.  For more than two decades I have carefully crafted a public persona, and nowhere has this been more evident than at my keyboard.  My writing, my Facebook, my blogging, not to mention all of my public work in ministry, all work to build what amounts to a brand.  This is what I have left, what I am still leaving. And the transition is much more mind boggling than coming out and leaving a 20 year marriage. The very foundation of who I understand myself to be is shifting.  Rightly, appropriately, intentionally… but shifting nonetheless.

As I step into a new routine, I find myself wondering if my fingers will no longer find daily comfort at the keyboard.  I wonder if I will lose my writing and in so doing my voice.  If, on the one hand, the writer is indeed a part of the me that find root beneath the persona, she will have much new material and an important new perspective after a stint working with kids who’ve been removed from their neighborhood schools.  If, on the other hand, the writer was a part of the mask that I’d  developed, her silence will likely not be missed.  We don’t need more words pointing towards faux reality.  Simple truth, but emotionally laden.

Perhaps even more monumental in my post-church experience is the gradual but unmistakable change in the cultivation of friendships.  No longer coasting on faux-relationships handed to me at church (people that I loved dearly, but relationships predicated on professional roles), I am noticing that I engage differently (more authentically) in other arenas.  I hang around at the end of meetings because I am wanting to chat with this person or that.  I follow up with a person that I met through another friend (also a “late bloomer”) and schedule a coffee date.  And I’m noticing (which is in itself remarkable!) that friendships (the real kind) are not instant but begin in small and almost imperceptible ways. All I need do is show up, and keep showing up.

Today is a very good day, very.  Typing happy words, I realize that the emotions I have include both the welcome ones and the not so welcome.  I recognize discomfort, tension in my shoulders, the pull in my abdomen, tell tale signs of feeling unsettled.  At the same time, I feel an canny sense of peace, a spring in my step and a smile at my lips.  This new chapter that has been in waiting is now coming into view.

So before it begins, before I get in the whirl of activity and emotional fullness, before the remarkable becomes the routine, I want to pause and give thanks for the journey that carried me from there to here.  As Maya Angelou says, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”

Oxymoron: Quiet Easter

It’s official: Easter came and went without my help.

Most signficant for me was that I witnessed the coming and going without benefit of all the traditions that I’ve practiced believing are essential. My practice began early in ministry, when I was still an Associate and a seasoned (incredibly talented) church organist remarked that it wasn’t Easter until the organ peeled with the sounds of Ju­das Mac­ca­bae­us, the tune for the Easter hymn, “Thine is the Glory”. I believed the musician about Easter they way I believe Jesus about God and in every Easter service that I planned, 23 of them to be exact, we sang the hymn with gusto.

At some point, of course, the traditional language and imagery became problematic. Our New Century Hymnal did help in replacing some of the language but the imagery was still very, well, ominpotent. A half dozen years ago, at the urging of another musician, I penned a new verse for the ancient hymn and for many years I experienced Easter’s promise as the traditional tune met with contemporary words to deliver new hope.  (find lyrics here)

But I sang no songs this Easter and heard no organ tones. There was no brass band and no Easter bunny.

I am both empty nesting for the first time and simultaneously now retired from professional ministry.  In the normally fitful days leading up to the feast, now quiet, I practiced listening to the emotions that did and did not fill my soul. I missed my community, I missed the familiar, I missed my children. But I did not miss the rush, I did not miss the work of pageant creation, I did not miss the pressure to perform. And as the day itself came and went, I listened closely for my heart song. Again I heard wistfulness with memories of relationships that have shifted and moved. Importantly though, I realized that I had completely forgotten about Ju­das Mac­ca­bae­us until this morning after. As I bore witness to Easter’s coming and going, I had no awareness of the presence (or in this case absense) of the music.

Intentionally we spent our Easter morning with the Quakers (Society of Friends). We joined the early bunch for a simple potluck breakfast (sans decorations) and began to experience the slow dawning of relationships. The morning closed with the children (and teens and adults) sharing the most non competitive Easter Egg hunt that I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve seen more than a few!); after each egg discovered there was a pause for wonder and celebration with no urgency to proceed (really).  Worship, the heart of the morning, was as always simple and silent. There were a couple of shares in the midst of the quiet hour, each memorable and worthy as they emerged from the silence and moved back again. Most profoundly, in the quiet I noticed the clouds clear and the sun burst forth, I caught a shard of truth that I need in my journey to let go and move on, and I felt the warmth of a welcoming smile from a person who sat nearby. I experienced the miracle of new life, new birth, new hope… Easter.

At days end, I was reminded of Dr. Seuss’ timeless wisdom placed in the mouth of the Grinch. The Grinch was speaking of Christmas, but the truth applies to all holidays worthy of attention: “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.” Like Christmas, Easter is about something more than our human manifestations, about even more than the words and stories that we attach to it.

To be sure, I am grateful for the many Easter experiences that I’ve been privileged to share including the ones with carefully crafted liturgy and mighty chorales. But when all was said and done, as we cuddled into our home after the festivities (or their lack), we discovered our quiet empty-nest Easter had only one missing piece: chocolate.  And this was a lapse quickly remedied with a trip to Walgreens.  (It might also have been remedied had we humbled ourselves to hunt for eggs, but the contents of the eggs was uncertain and we were still rather shy.)

As I ponder the oxymoron of a quiet Easter in the morning afterglow, I discover that it works more purposefully than I might have imagined possible.  As I cherish this unlikely oxymoron, in lieu of the traditional Easter phrases about death and resurrection, I offer a more ancient and simple greeting: L’chaim! (To life!)

(Note: The images on this page come from several sites but all are the incredible art of New Zealand painter Ira Mitchell. You can see more and purchase here work @ http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/ira-mitchellkirk.html.)

dropping the storyline

Once upon a time a little boy had a favorite blanket that became tattered and worn and seemingly useless until his mother refashioned the rag into a vest.  Over time the beloved vest became similarly worn and was then refashioned into a tie.  The tie, when worn, became a button.  When the button fell off and was lost forever, the little boy was certain that the treasure was gone for good.  “Oh, no,” said his mother.  “There is just enough left for a story!”

Stories are powerful.  Stories are treasure.  Yet in tandem with their power, stories can also be destructive, and as I move through this season of life I am aware that the stories I carry are both bane and blessing.  I have been through a major transition and with the metamorphisis comes signficant loss.  Although the story of the broken cocoon is real and worthy, I am aware that the constant drumbeat of the lost cocoon threatens the fragile beauty of the butterfly.  All of the stories that come together to weave our lives are worthy, but our lives will be shaped by the choices we make about which stories to remember and share.  Although a million and one stories fill my heart, daily I repeat only a handful.  These stories that I repeat wear a groove on my soul, and wisdom demands that I tend the selection for the stories shape us in powerful if unseen ways.

Pema Chodron is a popular spiritual teacher who encourages us to honor the feelings that are ours, to sit with them and be mindfully aware of the emotions with one important caveat: “drop the storyline”.

In “My Stroke of Insight”, the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s book about her recovery from a massive stroke, she explains the physiological mechanism behind emotion: an emotion like anger that’s an automatic response lasts just 90 seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it. (Chodron)

Recently I’ve been experimenting with Chodron’s challenge.  As the waves of emotion crash and I begin to recount the story, I practice catching myself long enough to remove words and images.  I seek to focus on the emotion, the body sensation.  Particularly helpful with the painful emotions, dropping the storyline removes the quicksand effect. Receiving emotions sans sticky drama enables us to face and dispatch emotions that otherwise would either bury us or be buried by us.

Sometimes I want the storyline, even the painful one.  Sometimes the storyline is seductive in its promise to revise history, a promise upon which it can never deliver.  I awoke this morning after a dream invoked loaded feelings from a recent loss. I wanted to recount the dream in vivid detail, to examine the story in excruciating detail.  My instinct is to spin and I do it with amazing deftness.  But I’ve been practicing the invitation to drop the storyline today; feeling the emotion as it washes back and forth through the day and letting it flow.  The instinct to reach for the story is strong; I feel the pull, honor it’s presence and return my attention to the emotion at hand.  This too is practice not perfection, and I’m grateful that baby steps yield progress.

Also I am grateful for storylines that are worthy of repetition. I have a picture on my desk of my beloved and I at our wedding.  We are both grinning and my head is resting on her shoulder.  As I look at the picture, the storyline fills my heart with sweetness and I am reminded of the great gift of love.  This is a storyline that opens my heart to compassion and my mind to possibility, a storyline that creates more of what I value in life.  I will keep this one.

Daffodils and Impermanence

The daffodils are blooming just around the corner, an exquisite carpet of yellow on the late winter lawn.  Close on the heels of the crocus, the daffodils are the annual harbinger of new life which is already, if not yet, come among us.  The deepness of the yellow, the intricacy of the bloom, the fragility of the life-bearing stem are all testaments to the earth’s longing for life.  And it is very good.

daffodilsWhen my dear one pulled me around the corner to see them, her eyes were shining with delight.  When I caught sight of them, I could feel the grin that filled my face.  Stopping to take a picture, the gardener smiled knowingly and offered that I could take some home.  His generosity not withstanding, we both knew that I couldn’t accept such an offer.  To take a daffodil, even just one, would remove it from its life source.  To take one home would quite literally kill the wonder.  Daffodils and the wonder of the spring must be observed but not owned or contained.  Yet even in the heartiness of the garden ledge, the blooms will not last more than a long week.  Stop now while they dance this week to soak in the delight.

The spring flowers shower us with essential life lessons as we are ready to listen.  For years mesmerized by their beauty, I was a couple of decades into life when I began to take seriously the fragility of these early spring flowers.  In midlife I began to understand the promise of the annual return and now as I crest this midpoint of life I find myself taken by the message of impermanence. Jesus is said to have given a nod to the lilies of the field in their simultaneous splendor and fleeting nature.  A fundamental spiritual practice is allowing the water of life to flow unimpeded in, through, and around us as we come to peace with fluidity.  Sometimes I would build a damn or cling to a dangling branch, yet movement is constant and clinging is both painful and futile. “Let go or be dragged” (Zen proverb) is the promise of the quickly changing flowers of early spring.

As I revel in the wonder of the daffodils, aware that in their wake will bloom a plethora of fragrant marvels, I begin to see the comings and goings of life put in context.  A short life span is not a comment on beauty, the ending of a chapter is not a testament to its worth, for with the passing of crocus comes the delight of the daffodils and with the passing of the daffodils comes the tulips. Life is filled with beauty and promise just as surely as it is carries sorrows and losses.  The flowers, in fact, rely on the richness of the soil where our sorrows are woven into new life.

Today I share a prayer of gratitude for the daffodils.  Fabulous, truly.