Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Singing the Difficult Songs

I am finding much solace in the beautiful old hymn, Lo, How a Rose E 'er Blooming. If you had asked me about this hymn prior to this week, you would have heard me say, "No, I don't care for it.  It is kind of hard to sing."  That response, of course, is akin to hearing a lovely chamber piece and shrugging it off with a response of, "Well, it is a little slow." 
As our news continues to be be crowded with questions, statements, and various posturings (some quite pompous) concerning the tragedy in Newtown, I cannot help but think it is too early for all of that.  What we are crowding out is the profound experience of mourning.  We are not letting the seemingly deep emptiness be.  We are trying desperately to take the easy way out because otherwise we hurt. We hear the the psalmists and prophets warning us that a life in God is not always easy.  Those ancient echos scare us.   We want the easy.  We want God to pick up the pace.              
The time for analysis and making changes will always arrive.  However, that is not what we are really yearning for.  We are waiting for a new rose of life.  It is already within us: fragile, and stunningly beautiful.   Let us courageously wait for this tender bloom in hope, and receive it in love.   May all who mourn know that we are waiting with them; they are not alone. We may be frightened, but we will not run.        
Emmanuel.  God is with us.  Alleluias will return.  However, for now, we light Advent candles to ward off the chill, and we wait.  
Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming
from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse's lineage coming, 
as those of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, 
amid the cold of winter 
when half spent was the night. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The People Sang

In one home dedicated to the care of Alzheimer's patients, the pianist who joins me is blind,  Therefore, we typically do not use our monthly song sheets, but rather I depend on a small Rock of Ages hymnal.  If I spot a hymn that I can sing,  will ask the pianist if he knows it, and often he does.   Together we find hymns that he knows the music to and that I have the words to.  We also have several old favorites that we know we can always fall back on, including some of his solos.  Yet, as meaningful as "Amazing Grace" is, as I was driving over that morning, I was thinking that I really needed a break from it.
As I perused the small hymnal, conveniently compiled in alphabetical order, I looked to see if "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee," was there. As I was about to ask the pianist if he knew it, I spotted "Joy to the World."  I suggested we sing it, and we had a lively rendition.  Several more residents joined us. The room where we gather is small, and by the time we had reached the end of the hymn, the room was quite full.   
I could not resist picking another Christmas carol.  Then one more.  I asked the residents if this was silly - this singing Christmas carols in October. Several responded with a resounding, "No! Let's keep going!"   
Just before communion, we sang "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful."  As I moved about the room offering the wafer and the cup, the pianist repeated the carol by playing a very simple, quiet melody line.  I heard one voice singing. Then another. Eventually there were several voices quietly singing.  It was such a beautiful moment because neither the pianist nor I were singing.  From that deep wellspring of memory and devotion, the people sang.  I was so touched I could barely keep going.  Yet, I did, and every person in the room, those who had come well dressed and those still in bathrobes, took communion.         
We finished up with "Go Tell It on the Mountain,"  amid much hand clapping and laughter.   Carol said, "We should sing these everyday!" She has a very fine ear and loves to sing.  She will often throw her head back and sing with an abandonment that I envy.  Sister Juliette, whose tremors sometimes seem ready to overtake her small body completely, quietly exclaimed, "Glorious. Christ is with us."  We had moved from our separate identities as pianist, residents with Alzheimer's, and a pastor, into a community that was experiencing the great mystery that Christ continues to come, and Christmas happens any day where there is love.  

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Found in Out of the Way Places

When I saw Roger, he and Charlie were engaged in conversation in the lobby.  My heart is always touched by them both. Roger is highly educated and elegant.  He has little or no mobility in his lower body, and he can no longer read, but his mind is very much intact. I know at times he feels trapped.   The last two times I had visited him, he was ill and quite angry.  Yet, when I saw him this week, his color was good and he was smiling.  He took my hand and said, "Oh, Sue Ann, I have been in the hospital twice.  While I was there, I found myself thinking about some of the people that are here - people who are really very caring.  I found myself thinking about you, and how you are always telling us that God is calling us into relationships.  I think I am finally beginning to understand."
Charlie, who was looking freshly scrubbed, began to tell us yet again, in his carefully measured speech,  that he has a Ph.D. from Harvard.  His life path has not been an idyllic stroll, but rather one marked by the extreme highs and lows of mental illness.  I think that he keeps telling us so he can remember that there were not just difficulties and dramatic  mishaps in his life, but some real triumphs as well.  He reminded us of his thesis that had been returned to him marked, "Immanently acceptable."  And then he smiled and said, "I suspect that Sue Ann believes that we are all immanently acceptable."  We all laughed deeply, but it was a poignant moment of being known and loved for each of us.  We have now known each other five years.     
I think you all for your birthday wishes.  This year I turned sixty, and on October 15 I will celebrate my fifth year with SpiritCare, a truly life changing ministry.   I also have been serving as an interim minister for a small church in San Jose,  New Community of Faith.   Yes, it is a balancing act, but I am grateful.    
This blessing came to me twice yesterday, so it seems wise and well to send it to all of you.   May your courage and your love be rekindled today, and know that you, too, are immanently acceptable, for you belong to God.        

For a  New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life's desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

~ John O'Donohue ~  

Monday, September 3, 2012

Great Expectations

I have a friend who is Hindu, and formally, she is addressed as Swami 
(I believe there is more to her title, but I am a bit of my league with the language). As she goes about in the world with her ready smile, shaved head, and orange robes, she is most certainly noticeable.   She often greets people, and even my dog, with "Oh! I have been waiting for you!"  She says this, not with a sense of "Where have you been, you are late!" but with the sense of great openness and hospitality that creates a sense of belonging even before one arrives.  It is a gift that is wonderful to witness and to receive.  
This, of course, is the sort of hospitality that Christians should extend.  However, my friend told me that recently some young men, claiming to be Christians, announced to her, and not in a loving way, that she was, without a doubt, going to hell.  Now, she is secure in her faith, but it did leave her wondering how professed followers of Jesus could be so unwelcoming.  I often wonder that myself, and I know I am not alone.   I think some of the breach comes from a misguided notion that some are broken, and some are not.  That some are saved and some are not.  That somehow, only  Christians can experience God, despite a very rich and diverse world that is brimming with a variety of cultures and faith traditions. 
Certainly such prejudice is not limited to Christians.  We see this prejudice tragically played out across the world.  Yet, I think for those of us who claim that we follow the way of Jesus, the call is to always to be reaching out with love.  Reconciling with love.  And receiving with love.  That is the gift, and the responsibility of the communion table.  There can be no feast if we do not generously share in love.  The rest we leave to God.    
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him," Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today." So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly (Luke 19:5-6).       
The way we answer the door is the way we deal with the world...When the person knocks - whenever the person knocks - the porter [the one whose responsibility is is to answer the door] is to say, "Thanks be to God" or "Your blessing, please" to indicate the gift the guest is to the community. The porter is to be warmth and welcome at all times, not just when it feels convenient. In the Rule of Benedict, there is no such thing as coming out of time to the monastery. Come in the middle of lunch; come in the middle of prayer; come and bother us with your blessings at any time. There is always someone waiting for you.   
                                                     Rule of St. Benedict, Joan Chittister, O.S.B.  

Friday, August 17, 2012

Dreaming in the Morning

I had such a beautiful dream about running this morning, that I woke forgetting the summer cold that has taken lodging in my chest.  Nonetheless, dreams of freedom and expansive green fields have inspired much and many.  Or can, at least, get us out of bed.  There is much in this life we must bless and release, but let us heed the advice to dismiss nothing.   Such arrogance is doing much harm in this beautiful world.      
May you be blessed with vision today.

See it for the first time

By plucking her petals, you do not
gather the beauty of the flower.

Clouds come floating into my life,
no longer to carry rain or usher storm,
but to add colour to my sunset sky.

Death is not extinguishing the light;
it is only putting out the lamp
because the dawn has come.

Do not say, ‘It is morning,’
and dismiss it with a name of yesterday.
See it for the first time
as a newborn child that has no name.

Don’t limit a child to your own learning,
for he was born in another time.

Emancipation from the bondage of the soil
is no freedom for the tree.

Every child comes with the message
that God is not yet discouraged of man.

Every difficulty slurred over
will be a ghost to disturb your repose later on.

Everything comes to us that belongs to us
if we create the capacity to receive it.

Faith is the bird that feels the light
when the dawn is still dark.

From the solemn gloom of the temple
children run out to sit in the dust,
God watches them play and forgets the priest.

I have become my own version of an optimist.
If I can’t make it through one door,
I’ll go through another door - or I’ll make a door.
Something terrific will come
no matter how dark the present.

—Rabindranath Tagore. With thanks to it's all dhamma.   


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Home Is Where the Mysterious Heart Is

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home. It is a journey we can make only by the acceptance of mystery and of mystification—by yielding to the condition that what we have expected is not there.
Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness

I love the phrase, arriving "at the ground at our own feet."  We must begin with the humble beginnings of who we are in the bodies we have today.   We will be always be called further along, but most of us will not leave our own skin today.  Tomorrow, perhaps.  These passages are usually not for us to calculate.   Our call is always to come home to the moment.  Not as a this or a that, but as being.  A wise elder shared with me a few days ago:  "The only way I can live in faith is accepting that God is a mystery. Faith is not knowing.  We do not know, so we go in faith."   Despite our fears and our graspings, we really do not need God, or ourselves, to be a quantifiable this or a that.  We do, however, very much need God, and ourselves, to faithfully be where we are - and where we are is quite mysterious indeed.     
Today, I arrive at the ground of my own feet and fingers, and begin to write again.  I am grateful to reconnect.    
I pray the summer is bringing you a sense of connection and joy - in the home of your being in our beautifully mysterious God.    
My thanks to Parabola for sharing Wendell Berry's wise musing. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Belonging, Even When We Don't Know It.

The gentleman in the wheelchair looked suspicious when he asked, "What church are you from?"  When I responded that SpiritCare was non-denominational, he pressed further.  "No," he replied, " I want to know what church."  I told him I was ordained United Church of Christ.  
He refused communion.  "You are not of the The Church," which not surprising, turned out to be his denomination.  "There is only one church and you are not part of is not it."  He wheeled away.  
As I looked around at those gathered in wheel chairs and gurneys, I became acutely aware that I have been walking into that crowded multi-purpose room, turning off "The Price is Right," and jauntily saying, "Good morning, everyone!"  for close to five years.  Many of those gathered that morning I have known since the first day I walk in.  I look around to see that both Francisco and  Estelle have begun their personal rituals of standing to take communion, no easy feat for either of them.  They both slowly come in on walkers and immediately sit down, but in the moment of communion, they courageously leave their chairs and stand.  I noticed that the two activity assistants were taking a few quiet moments to simply sit and listen to the pianist.  Gentle Leona, who is over 90, was dozing, but I knew she would not be happy if I passed by without waking her.  David was patiently sitting and waiting with his mother, as he does every day.  Virgil was raising his hand, letting me know he wanted to take communion, and the sooner the better. The room was full with believers of various faiths, of no faith, of lost faith.  Of found hope, and of lost hope.  Of acceptance and frustration.  The heroic and the disheveled. Of all that we humans are, and all that we are not.  That is indeed church, whether you are in a cathedral, a chapel, a skilled nursing community, or in the park.  Wherever people are gathered,  there the living Christ can be found, and fortunately for all of us, the living Christ is neither arrogant nor squeamish.          
Afterwards we began to sing our song of thanksgiving which was Amazing Grace.  I was surprised to see that the gentleman was back in the room.  This time, however, the dark scowl was replaced by a radiance.  He seemed to be transported by the music.  He looked happy.   Then, he was gone again, and everything seemed uncommonly quiet. I thought of those in the home who had passed and felt their gentle presence.      

But then, I heard the very much alive Charlie ask his regular question, "How do I look?"  I tell him that he is looking just great.  He really is looking better and better as he slowly is able to set some of his personal demons aside.  The activity assistants get up to tend to others once again.  I hear announcements over the intercom, and the ever moving elevators begins to whir.   I hear the tv in the lobby and the ringing telephones.  I am handed the song sheets that a volunteer had graciously gathered.  I repack my bag, and my month of amazing grace was officially underway.

Dear friends, let's love one another, because love is from God...
                                                                                                          1 John 4:7

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Most of the city streets on which I run are pretty flat, but at least once a week I try to run up a nearby hill.  It is only recently that I have been successful in running all the way to the top.  No, it is not a particularly high hill, and if you saw it, you would probably laugh and wonder what the big deal is.  However, in order for me to make it to the top without pausing, there is some strategy involved.  I need to be hydrated and properly fueled.  If I have eaten too much, lethargy will probably take over.    If I do not eat enough, my stamina will be short lived.  I also need to be at a point of my run where I am warmed up, but not at the end of the run when my energy is waning.   Yes, it is a balancing act.  
I ran up this hill a few days ago, and arrived at the top rather breathless.  As I waited for calmness to return, I thought how easy it would be to think of this hill as some sort of enemy that needed to be conquered.  Often, we do put our struggles in this category.  Illness, addiction, or other concerns are often viewed as something that, with enough effort, can be beaten, or at least gotten through and left behind forever.  Worse, we don't think of them at all, but rather we try to just run away, trying desperately to believe there is somewhere else to go.   
Yet, even when one hill is run, there is always another, and my need to learn balance is on going, just as most struggles are. Perhaps we should view these struggles in another light.  Let us learn to see them not as enemy territory, but as sacred ground where we can learn more about ourselves, and about God.  It is often in our struggles where we find a deeper focus and more intense prayer life.  
The first time I sung Fanny Crosby's hymn, "Jesus, Keep me Near the Cross," I found myself wondering why on earth would I ever sing that?  Yet, over the years, I have come to think of Fanny Crosby as one of my spiritual mothers.  When I sing of wanting to be kept near the cross, I am singing of my struggles, and of asking for the courage to not turn and run away from them, but to stay close.  If we do not stay close to our struggles, we can never be transformed by them.   And that is the grand lesson of the cross.  Just as Jesus was never left there, neither are we.    
Fanny Crosby was blinded at the age of six weeks, probably as a result of a quack doctor efforts.  It is reported that she wrote over 9,000 hymns and poems in her lifetime.  A friend of mine once told me that he learned to "see" music differently from a blind pianist.  I think that is what Fanny has done for me.  She has helped me to "see" some of my own blindness that happens when I try to run from that sacred ground of struggle.  I will never believe that we are called to suffer just for the sake of suffering, but so that we can learn to see, and thus live more fully into our sacred humanness.               
Blessings on your journey.  If you are struggling, please know you are not alone.   God is with you, and is always willing to give you some good traveling companions.   Come, let us go together.    We can even sing on the way.       
Jesus, keep me near the cross, 
there a precious fountain, 
free to all a healing stream, 
flows from Calvary's mountain.
                                       - Fanny Crosby 1869

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Truth About Wallpaper

My husband, bless his heart, has been removing the wallpaper in our bathroom.  Finally, after living in this house for well over a decade,  the tiny floral pattern got to us.  He finished most of the removal stage yesterday. The space is currently pretty much completely devoid of color, save a couple of towels.   We have both commented on how surprisingly stark the bathroom is at the moment.  This plain little bathroom has reminded me about how there is a certain amount of illusion in our homes.  We paint the walls, do some decorating, move in some rugs and some furniture, maybe get a cat or a dog.   Most of us really try to do our houses up right.  

However, the reality is, take away the "stuff" and most houses are really pretty simple.  If we are fortunate, we have walls, a roof, floors, plumbing, and electricity.  Yet rarely, as valuable as these are, do such conveniences make a home.  Nor does  comfort.   Not even new appliances.  No, only love can create a home.  What is true of our houses, is true of our lives.   Living in our skins, and living in our souls are not necessarily synonymous.  Just like going to church and living a life of faith are not either.  Love is what helps us to settle in.  Love is what allows us to experience the realness of God.  We can't understand God, no matter how hard we try.  We simply can't.  But, we can learn to live in love.  I don't think God asks much more of us than that - to give our lives over to the love already in us.

God is always here.  God is always.  God is.  God.  
Wallpaper, on the other hand, is not.  Although, it can be pretty stubborn.   

A case of contradictories, both of them true. 
There is a God. There is no God.
Where is the problem? I am quite sure that 
there is a God in the sense that I am sure 
my love is no illusion. I am quite sure 
there is no God, in the sense that I am sure 
there is nothing which resembles what 
I can conceive when I say that word.     
                                                   - Simone Weil (1909-1943)   

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (1John 4:16).  

Friday, May 25, 2012


I was  surprised to find a parking space in the small lot at the skilled nursing community this week.  I was even more surprised to discover that I did not have my song sheets with me.  However, I was not overly concerned, as I always keep a bag of spiral bound large print hymnals in my trunk for such musical emergencies.  As I pulled the bag out, I said a quiet prayer of thanks for the friend who gave me these few hymnals.  They do not have music, only the words, but I knew that the pianist who was joining me has a vast number of hymns memorized, and he is rather fearless about playing them.   I was confident that a good time would be had. 
This coming Sunday is Pentecost. I decided to not serve communion, but rather to give each person a blessing in celebration of the Spirit that calls us together.   The residents of this home are very frail, and many cannot take communion, but it is the rare person who is not moved by the offering of a blessing.   
Arnold surprised me by thanking me as I blessed him.  His is a voice that is seldom lifted, and I was glad to hear him.   After the service, I went back around to thank each person for joining us.  As I did so, the pianist then began to play, "Jesus Loves Me," and, out of habit, I began singing.  I paused by Arnold, and kept singing, not so much at him, but rather "with" him, as he really appeared to be engaged with the music.  Afterwards, he amazed me even more by lifting his fist, not in a combative way, but rather in  victory, and quietly exclaiming with tears in his eyes,  "Jesus loves me."       
As I have been thinking about that moment, the hymn "Victory in Jesus" keeps coming to mind.  It is a hymn not sung in the UCC churches that I know, probably because it sings of the blood.   Yet, I do serve people whose lives have been so difficult that they truly yearn to hear of the redeeming power of the blood.  I am reminded that Jesus did not just vaporize on the cross, he did indeed bleed.  We all do.  Let us remember that on Monday.  Maybe Memorial Day is not the best day to go shopping.         
Nonetheless, I will probably always find the redemptive power in the love rather than the blood, so I leave you with the beautiful second verse of this lively hymn.  My prayer for you is that you, too, know that you are loved with a Love that is beyond comprehension, a Love that is cheering you on because it has already won.  May everyone claim their  victory in love today.  Maybe then our wars can end, and all can find their way home.          
I heard about his healing, 
of his cleansing power revealing, 
how he made the lame to walk again 
and caused the blind to see; 
and then I cried, 
"Dear Jesus, 
come and heal my broken spirit,"
and somehow Jesus came 
and brought to me the victory.   
                                         - Eugene M. Bartlett, 1939       

Friday, May 4, 2012


When people hear that I serve SpiritCare Ministry to Seniors, often the first assumption seems to be that I am a hospice chaplain.  Truthfully, I make too much noise to enter that exalted realm.  However, as I did yesterday, I sometimes sit at the the bedside of those whose physical bodies are in the last stages of wear. As I write this morning, I believe Anne probably has passed, but, of course, I have no crystal ball.  I do know that yesterday she had moved very close to that threshold.  I do not think God called her to back away, but to go ahead and cross.  
I began my ministry with SpiritCare four and a half years ago, and Anne was already living in skilled nursing when I arrived on the scene. She would sometimes come to worship (when she did, she would don a straw hat with colorful plastic flowers on the brim), but I usually visited her in her room.  In all this time, I really found out very little about her.   Last month when I arrived at the home, one of the long-time volunteers for the home told me that Anne was in hospice.  When I asked if she knew it, he replied that he was not sure.  When I broached the subject with Anne, she replied, "Well, that kind of makes sense.  I knew I was somewhere."       
Skilled nursing communities are noisy.  When I walked into Anne's room yesterday, her roommate's tv was on, but her roommate was not there.  I turned it off, but there was not much I could do about the construction noises coming from the work being done outside.  There were no family members present.   I thanked God for Anne's friendship, and I thanked God for carrying her safely.  I kissed her crepe paper thin forehead and stroked her fine grey hair.   Despite the noise, what I remember most was the silence.  The gentle silence that I often experience at the bedside ofsomeone passing.  A silence that one can take refuge in, and know that God has not forgotten.  Indeed, God is all there is. The real dilemma,however, is that not enough of us are.   
Last night I as I listened to Tierney Sutton sing "The Water Is Wide," I found myself reflecting on the day, and thinking, yes, the gulf is wide, but not impossible - as long as we have the courage to not turn back, but to keep moving with, and towards one another.  Last week, I watched Geraldine, her body swollen with illness and medication, fold her hands on her chest, lean her head back, and sing every hymn at the top of her frail voice.  When I served her communion, she took the wafer in her mouth, and then held my hand firmly  for several seconds.  I had the sense she was at the dock, just about to set sail.  On Tuesday, Charlie reached out to me with his arthritic hands. Lois, gave me her warm hug, though it takes her awhile to maneuver her body because of her stroke.  Stella, who I really thought was completely blind, joined the chorus of waves and good-byes as I prepared to leave after worship.  I am convinced she saw me from across the room.           
Our elders are our pioneers.  The only dependable map for their journey, and ours, is love.  I always try to remember that Jesus got into the boat.  He has never asked me to walk on water, but he always asks me to get in.  Yes, even when I can't readily see an oar.                  

The water is wide, I cannot get o'er 
Neither have I wings to fly, 
Give me a boat that can carry two, 
and both shall row, my love and I    
                                              - anonymous?  

He saw his disciples struggling. They were trying to row forward, but the wind was blowing against them. Very early in the morning, he came to them, walking on the lake...He got into the boat, and the wind settled down.  (Mark 6:48, 51)   
Blessings on the journey, Anne. Thank you.  I shall always remember your funny hat, and the fact that you always offered me a cup of coffee, even when there was never a coffee pot in sight.  Because of you, this morning I understand a little more about love.         

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Ancient Blessing, Ever Anew

Morning in a New Land by Mary Oliver came to me this morning through the World Community for Christian Meditation.  While she writes of Adam, we could easily insert the name Jesus, or Christ, or the names of those who have passed, or those just being born.  Yes, even our own. 
Today is Holy Saturday. Easter season is close at hand. Let us rise early and sing.      
In trees still dripping night some nameless birds
Woke, shook out their arrowy wings, and sang,
Slowly, like finches sifting through a dream.
The pink sun fell, like glass, into the fields.
Two chestnuts, and a dapple gray,
Their shoulders wet with light, their dark hair streaming,
Climbed the hill. The last mist fell away,
And under the trees, beyond time’s brittle drift,
I stood like Adam in his lonely garden
On that first morning, shaken out of sleep,
Rubbing his eyes, listening, parting the leaves,
Like tissue on some vast, incredible gift.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


I find this poem very humbling.  I think of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. I think of Lao Tzu sitting on a water buffalo.  I think perhaps there are no words for this, so I light candles and remember a dream I recently had about my father who passed more than a decade ago.  In the dream he is very, very old.  He smiles and tells me, "I think I can let go of this house now."  He seems so happy.  I am glad.   

 The Moment

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can't breathe.

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round. 
Margaret Atwood

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Tell the World

For over three years, I have greeted Katherine as Kathy.  She was introduced to me by that name, and up until now,it seemed to do just fine.  However, today she informed me that her name is Katherine, and she repeated the statement just in case I was confused.
 Katherine lives in a community dedicated to the care of those with Alzheimer's. During the time I have known her, I have seen her go through many moods.  Most of the time, she is warm and welcoming, but I have also walked into the room to see her really angry. I have also had her hold my face between her hands as she wept when I gave her a birthday gift of a lap quilt that was quilted for and donated to the ministry.   However, as I think about her, I realize I have never seen her timid.  She is willing to live, both in the good days, and through the difficult ones.      
Today, as we were saying good-bye, she reached out to hug me as she always does and asked when we will return.  Sitting with the other residents, she then added, "Please tell everyone that we say hello."   The statement, that comes so easily to most of us, took on new life for me.  She then looked me in the eyes, took my hand, and repeated the request, word for word.  "Katherine, I will."  She thanked me and told me that she loved me.    
As I walked to my car, I thought of Katherine's charge.  Of letting people know that there are people tucked away in a variety of communities who want to reach out and say hello.   Who are part of us so they are whole.  Who readily share their moods and their love.   And who often really do know their real names.        
I start with you.  Come say hello when you can.   Don't worry if you feel confused.  You are loved.        

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lost and Found

A few years ago I met a man who was completing his seminary studies and was about to be ordained, I believe, as a Jesuit priest.  His order very much wanted him to continue his studies for a Ph.D, but he was convinced that God was calling him first to the desert, to accept the invitation to "come die" with a brother who was doing some missionary work in the American Southwest.  I keep returning to this conversation, and I recognize that it planted the seed of one of my beliefs about trying to walk a Christian path - that it must be taken in humility, and to achieve that humility can sometimes require a great struggle with our very tenacious egos. Letting go of at least some of our ego's expectations (what Henri Nouwen describes as the hunger to make ourselves relevant, spectacular, and powerful) can feel very much like dying.  However, in that struggle we might actually hear how God is calling us to live.          

 Most religions acknowledge a time for fasting and for feasting.  Tomorrow, after the celebrations of Mardi Gras have ended, Ash Wednesday ushers in the great time of Lent - a time of fasting from what may be getting in one's way of accepting God's love.  A time of preparation.  A time to learn to die.  A time of learning to surrender to the vast What Is.  A time of learning to turn and continually return to God, to consciously seek God's help.  A time of learning that we are more than what our egos want so desperately to hang on to.  We learn we are more than just hangers-on.  We are those who can actually grow into God.  We can trade in our desperation for love.       
When Jesus struggled in the desert, he relied on scripture to foil the illusions and temptations of power, wealth, and  independence that were placed before him.  In the wonderful hymn, Love Divine, All Love Excelling, we sing of finding our place where we cast our crowns before Jesus, lost in wonder, love, and praise.  When we dare to take off the  trappings of this world (they will be taken away from us sooner or later anyway so we might as well get used to offering them up now), we may indeed feel a little lost.   But we will also be very much found.  
In the desert, Jesus found himself tended to by angels.  May you also know that as you try to give something up, or take on a new spiritual practice, or to simply feel God's grace in a current loss or transition, you do not travel alone.  We are blessed to journey together.  What are we seeking?  To find God where we have been all along.   

When we do not run away in fear, but patiently stay with our struggles, the outer space of solitude gradually becomes an inner space, a space in our heart where we come to know the presence of the Spirit who has already been given to us.   In the solitude of our heart we can listen to our questions and - as the German poet Rilke says so beautifully - gradually grow, without even noticing it, into the answer.
                        - Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ      
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.  
                                                                  -  Matthew 4:11  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Of Home and Heaven and All That Is In Between

Yesterday was not an easy day.  Early in the morning I learned that the wife of a good friend of mine had passed.  My heart was heavy, and there was more than one moment when I wondered how I would lead the four services scheduled that day.  Yet, I knew that to reschedule those services would prove to be difficult, so I decided to go on as planned.  After the second service, the activities director was arriving just as the pianist and I were leaving.  "I am sorry to be late," she said, and then went on to explain a family complication that had arisen.  "But I knew the two of you were coming and that all would be okay."  And, of course, it was. 
In the fourth home, I was grateful to see the activities director come in.  When I saw her in December, she told me she was leaving the convalescent hospital.  Yet she looked so distraught that day I had to ask her if she was sure.  After all, she had worked there for many years.  She hugged me and nervously said yes, it was time to go.   However, in January, I heard she had returned.  Yesterday, I saw her before she saw me.  I surprised her with a greeting of "Welcome home!"  She gave me a wide smile and a much needed hug.  "Yes, I am home."  
I asked about Mrs. Chin, whom I knew had been in the hospital.  I was told that she was back, but "was not doing well."  I went to visit her.  She was very weak.  I took her hand and called her name.   She looked up, said nothing, but she did hold on to my hand.  We have worshiped together for many months, so I felt comfortable saying a prayer aloud for her, and stayed for a few minutes until a nurse arrived.  As I walked out of her room and into the hall, I noticed a bulletin board with the artwork of some of the residents.  I was stunned to see a beautiful picture painted by Mrs. Chin.  In the center of the picture is a man who is holding a basket of flowers, and a woman who is holding a tidy purse.  They are walking, hand in hand, away from us, into a garden full of colorful flowers. They are young, and have nothing but beauty, color, and a clear blue sky ahead of them. I found myself praying again.  I had just been given a glimpse of Mrs. Chin's heaven.        

And he walks with me 
and he talks with me  
and he tells me I am his own
and the joy we share 
as we tarry there 
None other has ever known.   
                                                     - In the Garden 
                                                       C. Austin Miles     
Today, I take the time to weep for those who are going ahead.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Our Grandmother's Church

Several weeks ago I noticed an invitation to come worship in a church that claimed to not be "your grandmother's church."  I began to think about the grandparents and great-grandparents that I am blessed to worship with just about every day, and how much I would miss them if I were not in their church.         

Ginny and Georgie always sit together.  Lately, Ginny has been wearing her full length fake fur coat.  Georgie loves sequins and eschews grey hair for red.  When it comes time to sing, they put their heads and song sheets together, and between the two of them they come up with a pretty strong voice.  Ginnie, who has not a tooth in her head, doesn't remember our names, but she always thanks us by saying, "You lift my heart," and she never fails to include a special thank you for the one she calls, "Piano Player."   Georgie, whose hair was a particularly bright shade of red the last time I saw her, often says to me, "I never really knew God's love before now. I am so glad you have come."  
There is George, whose hands are so very crippled now.  However, after he takes communion, he always wants to hold my hand between his for just a few moments, giving me a sense that I am being held by an ancient, gnarled tree. Carl, whose body seldom does what he wants it to, tells us every month with a laugh that it is time to "kick the devil out!"  
 I recognize that age groups probably do need their specialized services and gatherings, and I also suspect that I would make a pretty poor youth minister.  Yet,  I pray that we do not abandon the idea that worship means we can come together to celebrate that we are more than individuals who make up a particular demographic.  We are children of God, whether we are two or 102.  Worship gives us a chance to set aside the sometimes small but remarkably burdensome thoughts of who we think we are.  Together, we learn we are more, and not just more of the same.  We learn that we are all a part of God's dream of the living Christ today.  
Come worship with us in your grandmother's church.  Let's be more together.  

I have been reminded of your sincere faith, 
which first lived in your grandmother Lois 
and in your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded,
now lives in you also. 
                                                 - 2 Timothy 1:5 

Friday, January 27, 2012

At the Table

I was blessed to sit and talk to some good friends today, who gently reminded me that I have not been writing much. Yes, I, too, have been aware of that.   As I have been trying to balance serving two ministries, I have not yet found the way clear to sit with my prayer candles and write.   Good friends that they are, they simply encouraged me to keep going, but to keep writing.   And so, I promised to send this epilogue from Mary Oliver's book entitled Thirst that I read to them today. 
  We all hunger and thirst - to make sense of our lives, to keep going, to serve God.  Sometimes, the hunger and thirst can be satiated with  good conversation over the communion of laughter, tears, and lunch.  However we feel we are called, we are first of all called to reach out and connect. This hunger and thirst, I think Jesus knew, and why I try to follow, tuna salad on a bagel in hand.             
Another morning and I wake with thirst for the goodness I do not have. 
I walk out to the pond and all the way God has given us such beautiful lessons. 
Oh, Lord, I was never a quick scholar but sulked and hunched over my books 
past the hour and the bell; grant me, in your mercy a little more time. 
Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart. 
Who knows what will finally happen or where I will be sent, 
yet already I have been given a great many things away, 
expecting nothing, except the prayers which, with this thirst, I am slowly learning.