Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Art of Rejoicing

When I received this month's hymns for SpiritCare, I noticed that the first on the song sheet was "Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart."  I felt some unease because I was unfamiliar with it. I listened to the hymn online, and discovered that it does have a lovely melody.  As I listened to the hymn a second time, I began thinking about the word rejoice and how, unless I am singing with a congregation, I don't hear the word in daily life. I checked Mirriam-Webster online, and learned that usage of the word peaked in the 1850's and has been declining ever since. Doing our part to keep the word alive seemed reason enough to sing. 

The hymn also refers to "waving a festal banner" which does sound lively.  Yesterday, even though I was on a Memory Care floor, I asked the question, "What would your festal banner look like?"  I was expecting a minimal response at best, but I was surprised.  One resident responded that she loved dancing and cooking, so she would put those on her banner.  The pianist, who usually is fairly quiet, said she would put a picture of the ocean on hers.  Another said that she missed being in the mountains, so she would put a mountain on hers. Josie quietly added that she would carry a banner if Jesus was on it.  I thought of the images I have seen of statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe being carried through crowded streets on her feast days and I thought that a starry mantle sky over a darkened blue desert landscape would make a beautiful banner.  

The pianist and I then moved to another floor where the residents' dementia is more pronounced. Here we simply sang, prayed, and I read a short piece of scripture.  As we were just about to start singing our final hymn, John joined us.  He is a tall man, even though he now walks slightly bent over his walker.  He is gregarious and has a strong speaking voice. I asked him if he wanted a song sheet, and he reluctantly said no, that he could no longer read.  I suggested that he and I sing together.  Although I did not have the hymn memorized, I found that our singing side by side with my making eye contact with him as often as possible, helped him sing in a strong voice.  I did indeed rejoice, and John was happy as well.  Most of the residents wanted to keep their song sheets.  I knew those sheets would soon be set aside and forgotten, but I also know that what the residents were really seeking was to hold on to the music and the sense of togetherness as long as possible. 

For now, it seems our festal banners are the size of a legal sheet of paper with large print.  We could, however, use some more hearts and voices.  Come join us.  Pure hearts or not, there  are many who need to experience a sense of rejoicing once more.       
"Rejoice, ye pure in heart. 
Rejoice, give thanks and sing. 
Your festal banner wave on high, 
The cross of Christ your king."      
Edward H. Plumptre, 1865  
Photograph is a detail from a festive fountain in Petaluma  


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

An Abyss of Love

I have been reading quite a bit this Christmas season, and one of the books that has given me much to ponder is Eugene Peterson's, The Contemplative Pastor, Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction, originally published in 1989.  In his chapter entitled, "The Subversive Pastor," he writes:  
Jesus' favorite speech form, the parable, was subversive. Parables sound absolutely ordinary: casual stories about soil and seeds, means and coins and sheep, bandits and victims, farmers and merchants. And they are wholly secular: of his forty or so parables recorded in the Gospels, only one has its setting in a church, and only a couple mention the name of God. As people heard Jesus tell these stories, they saw at once that they weren't about God, so there was nothing in them threatening their own sovereignty. They relaxed their defenses. They walked away perplexed, wondering what they meant, the stories lodged in their imagination. And then, like a time bomb, they would explode in their unprotected hearts. An abyss opened up at their very feet. He was talking about God; they had been invaded! 
Jesus continually threw odd stories down alongside ordinary lives (para, "alongside"; bole, "thrown") and walked away without explanation or altar call. Then listeners started seeing connections: God connections, life connections, eternity connections....Parables aren't illustrations that make things easier; they make things harder by requiring the exercise of our imaginations, which if we aren't careful become the exercise of our faith.   
I probably feel the closest to Jesus when I am walking and looking at leaves and flowers and the curious things I am lucky enough to see in the neighborhood.  Through these walks, I have come to understand a little more about the movement of growth, color, and form.  In other words, I have learned something of my soul, and maybe of angels and Mary: an abyss of beauty that is ever with us.  May we remember that no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, we are not strange and separate, rootless creatures. Rather we are souls that belong completely in the light and love of the Divine.    
Let us exercise our love.    

photograph: Oakland CA, May 2018

Monday, December 24, 2018


"...When the human spirit is transformed in deep union of love with the Spirit, motivation for our love shifts. We no longer love because the object of our love pleases us, but the motivation to love is now in God. We love without knowing why; we simply love and can do nothing but love. The soul now loves God, not through itself but through [God].  'I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20).'"
St. John of the Cross as quoted in "Welcoming Prayer, Consent on the Go," Contemplative Outreach   
Blessings this Christmas season, and always.

Thursday, December 20, 2018


When I first entered the ministry, I became a member of  First Congregational Church in Palo Alto.  The reason I chose that congregation was because I felt I needed to be part of a church where I was called to expand the ministry, and that was into Santa Clara County.  At one point, I was asked to chair their outreach board, a role I found utterly daunting.  However, this community was, and still is, full of wisdom and compassion, and the experience was good for me.  

All the boards met on the same evening, once a month. Some of my most peaceful moments occurred when we gathered in the back of the sanctuary before our meetings began. Pastor David or one of the associate ministers would then lead us in a short devotional.  I loved those simple moments of sitting in the quiet of that large sanctuary while we listened to scripture or a story, and then prayed together. 
Now, most Wednesday nights I attend choir practice at the San Lorenzo Community Church.  Here, I read a devotional to those gathered to sing.  Before I left my house last week, I looked for a particular book that I had in mind, but could not find it. Instead what surfaced was My Grandfather's Blessings, by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. It probably was a odd choice to make in the middle of Advent because much of the book reflects on the teachings of her Jewish grandfather who was a scholar of the Kabbalah. No, there is no mention of Advent, but lighting candles in the darkness is a common thread for most of us, regardless of our faith tradition.  We must all learn to live in the darkness.    

Recently, I dreamed that a woman was standing in front of a large window.  The word that comes to mind is looking glass, but there was no recognizable reflection - just grayness.  She smiles and says, "I will leave you here,"  and she steps through. In the dream I do not think of following her. I am not concerned about where she has left me. There are people all around, and it seems to be a school or hospital.  A man walks up to me. He seems to have some sort of teaching role.  There are some musicians gathering, and he asks me if I am thinking of dancing as they played.  I join a few others, including the woman at the looking glass, and we did dance in a circle. There is laughter. However, I lose interest and walk into the hall. That is all I remember, but as I write this, I am grateful to realize that while the female figure in the dream is leaving me in a place where, she, too, is staying.  As I often do, I have been thinking of Mary. The feast day of our Lady of Guadalupe was last week, and Facebook was full of beautiful images and prayers. I often pray that She will spread her starry mantle and bring peace to those who are struggling with illness.  That prayer helps me to be a more peaceful presence.  Sometimes I think that is the best I have to offer. 

I think it is time to reread Dr. Remen's book. She lives with Cronin's disease, and certainly this disease, along with the teachings of her grandfather, has deeply influenced her life and work as a physician.  The first time I read the book I had little understanding of chronic pain and illness.  My left knee is teaching me much, and I am learning to accept the blessing.  
A blessing is not something that one person gives another. A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth, and strengthen what is whole in one another. By making a place for wholeness within our relationships, we offer others the opportunity to be whole without shame and become a place of refuge from everything in them and around them that is not genuine. We enable people to remember who they are.  

My Grandfather's Blessings, Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging 
Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.    
The little drawing that is attached appeared in my journal a few days before my dream.     


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Psalm 70

You take delight, O Radiant One, 
in gracing me with new life. 
O Beloved, come and renew me. 
Let me face my weaknesses 
and all that confuses me, 
that keeps me from joy.  
from Psalm 70, 
Psalms for Praying, 
Nan C. Merrill 
Photograph:  October, 2018, mural on McAllister Hotel, San Francisco. On that day, I met a friend in the city and we went to the Asian Art Museum to see the exhibit, "Painting Is My Everything, Art from India's Mithila Region."  Such a day of juxtapositions.  The beautiful and inspiring art, the warm conversation with my friend that spanned several hours, young drug users, looking older than they should,  passed out on the street on a sunny Wednesday morning (I now understand the heart breaking description of wasted), and this wonderful mural on an old Tenderloin hotel with a community garden planted just beneath it.     
We are all held and we should not give up on this life too soon, even with all our weaknesses.  Sometimes we simply need to look around. 


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

My Father's House

When I woke this morning, the house was warm. I thought of my father who would rise early, often as early as 4:30 a.m. The coffee maker was always set on a timer, so the coffee would have been made by 4:15 a.m. On his way to get his first cup ("Always the best one," he would say), he would stop and turn on the heat if the house was cold. I can never remember waking up to a cold house when I was growing up.  A few days after he died, I went into his apartment at the assisted living community where he lived for only a few months. The timer was still set. It was a strange feeling to turn that timer off. I was amazed that the glass decanter had not broken during those days when no coffee was being made. Dad loved coffee, and I think of him this morning as I sip my own cup.  I suddenly remember that the anniversary of his birthday was November 26. This year, he would have been 101.  Dad, I am sorry to have forgotten, but it seems I have inherited your arthritic knee, and as you all too well know, I can get rather self-absorbed. I am reminded of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and walking away, limping, but blessed.  You and I did struggle to understand one another, but I am grateful that we did find reconciliation, thanks to the common ground of love and humor.  I drink my coffee in your memory today.  Yes, the house is warm and the coffee is fine - just the way you would have liked it.        
We are created, we emerge. And as we emerge, as we grow, as we develop, we become more conscious of ourselves – as where we have come from, or what we are emerging from and what we are returning to, or what we are feeling ourselves linked to. It’s not just a mathematical problem or philosophical question. It’s an existential journey that takes time and in which we change. Even our mistakes are incorporated into the journey. Nothing is wasted. We are who we are. Can’t say I should have been somebody else. I am who I am. And this existence, life, is full of contradictions and paradoxes, ups and downs, life and death, sorrow and joy, fear and celebration, fear of incompetence. It’s very variable and of course unpredictable. It is uncertain, radically uncertain. But in this process of existence, of life, of growth, of growing consciousness, we realise, we become aware, self-aware that we are emerging, we are appearing. We’re coming to know ourselves...

Father Laurence Freeman, OSB 
World Community of Christian Meditation, November 27, 2018  

photograph:  Pismo Beach, September 2018

Friday, November 23, 2018

Preparing to Prepare

I woke early to bake a simple bread made with macerated dried cherries.  Tyler is downstairs practicing guitar. Jack is curled up beside me. He seems to be content to not be out walking at the usual time.  We had such a lovely quiet Thanksgiving.  We cooked and cleaned, napped, and then listened to jazz and talked.  I am grateful I do not feel compelled to answer the ever present clarion call to begin the competitive shopping season.
When Tyler and I married 31 years ago, the date was November 27, the day after Thanksgiving.  Since then, we have always celebrated our anniversary on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  It is an easy day to remember and an easy day to take off from our work duties. Often we go to the beach, but not this year.  More rain is predicted, and I don't think walking on uneven sand would do my knee much good.  For now, I am content to take in the silence and calm of this morning. 

This coming Sunday marks the end of the church year, with Advent beginning December 2. As the bread was baking, I turned to a book that truly is an old friend, "Blessings of the Daily, A Monastic Book of Days" by Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette, published in 2002.  Brother Victor writes eloquently of the peace that Advent can bring us, if we accept the invitation: 
Once again, we arrive at the threshold of Advent and are invited by the Church to enter into the mystery that Advent represents. During these quiet four weeks that precede Christmas, the Church asks us to think, live, and pray in the spirit of Advent. But what is the mystery of Advent all about? Advent is that unique and privileged time of preparation for the great event commemorated at Christmas: the Incarnation of the Son of God and his humble appearance among us as a tiny child. 
Unlike Brother Victor, most of us do not live in a monastery, and too often, the four weeks before Christmas are full of activities, list making, worry and weariness. I like that as a church, we can remind one another and ourselves that there is also beauty and mystery to be experienced at this time. We light candles and sing special music. We spend at least a minute or two in communal silence, and we listen to the ancient stories told again.  We try to lift the words, hope, peace, joy, and love off printed pages and Christmas cards and live into them. As best we can, we ready our hearts, knowing that Christ is knocking at the door, even if our heart abode is rough hewn and stony. We learn again that angels sit right next to us.    

I am always grateful when Advent begins in December, rather than the first Sunday after Thanksgiving.  We can indeed prepare to prepare.