Thursday, December 31, 2015

Isaiah 43:19

Although it is early in the day, I want to give the flowers the last word in 2015.  They have been wonderful, and wonder- filled way stations for me this year.  Thank you for walking with me.  Blessings on your journey. Know that God is doing something new and wonderful with you and through you, and you are beautiful.

See, I am doing a new thing!
 Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.  

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Tiny Part of the Kingdom

Yesterday I was in a community dedicated to the care of those with Alzheimer's. The folks gathered with me were surprisingly quiet, including the staff. I was grateful to see Lois among those gathered. I have never heard her speak, but when she looks at me and smiles, I know her brightness could guide me through any storm. Nancy was far more subdued than usual.  She said she had not been feeling well.  She did not even want a song sheet. That concerned me; she has a very sweet voice and loves to sing.  Fortunately, we were singing carols, and she could not resist joining in, and a smile returned to her.  I met a new resident, a former professor of literature, who asked for a prayer for his wife who still lives at home.  
As I began the transition into communion, I felt the room fill with love.  There were no visible changes to the people, but love seemed to be everywhere. Not everyone here can take communion, but a surprising number do. It is very humbling to serve them; most of then struggle with even simple physical acts. As I served the staff, I was struck by how weary they looked. They all had worked Christmas. I blessed each one who had come to rest a moment in worship.  Like good shepherds, they come to watch over the residents, but I know they also come because in worship, they can pause, and be loved.
When I read the following prayer this morning, I felt God's gentle encouraging nudge, gathering me in. I heard Jesus saying that the burden is light, and that light is really all I am asked to carry.  This prayer was written by the late Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, Ken Untener, and came to me through the Contemplative Life Weekly Update. I am grateful.  

Dear Friends,
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

In the Temple

Just before Christmas, I had a surprise as I was serving communion in a skilled nursing community. As I placed the wafer on the tongue of one of the elders and said, "The bread and the cup, life eternal in Christ," she leaned over and kissed the cup. She then folded her hands, whispered what I must assume was a prayer, looked up, and said thank you. The moment startled me with both its swiftness and its tenderness. It was a vivid reminder that yes, I purchased the cup years ago and yes, when I am working I carry it everywhere, the cup does not belong me. It belongs to those I serve. Tonight I think of Simeon and Anna who waited with patience in the temple until the baby Jesus was presented to them. They did not hold on to him, but simply gave thanks. Perhaps when Mary and Joseph heard their blessings given by Simeon and Anna, they, too, knew they could not hold on, but accept that he would bloom in his time.    
She was very old; she lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying (Luke 2:36-37).   


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Walking and Waiting

As Jack and I take our morning walks, I often see neighbors hurrying to their cars to go to work or get the children to school, or both.  I sometimes see an older man and woman slowly walk to their car with an even older neighbor who used to drive around town in a decades old yellow BMW, but who is barely able to walk with a walker.  I see neighbors walking their dogs, and kids joking with one another on their way to school. They are mostly on foot, but sometimes they zip around on skateboards and bikes.  One day I even spotted a young man walking and reading, not an electronic device, but rather an old fashioned paperback book. I frequently see a tall man with a pack walking with his slender dog.  I see them all over town so they walk a lot; it could be how they spend their days.  
While I try to avoid it, I sometimes must cross a particularly busy intersection.  There is little that happens leisurely at this crossroads.  At one corner is a small gas station that can get quite congested in the mornings. Across the street is a convenience store.  On either side of the street is a bus stop. It is here that people get on the freeway to head north or turn to go south to either BART or 880. I am often surprised at how loud traffic can be even when someone does not feel compelled to honk a horn to hurry things along. Even with traffic lights, the chaos, frustration, and distraction are barely contained.    
It was on such morning, as two drivers were honking at each other in the midst of busy traffic, when I noticed a  man simply standing at the bus stop by the gas station.  His stillness was in sharp contrast to the flurry of exasperation that was occurring all around him. 
I see him now about twice a month. I cannot tell whether or not he is homeless, but  I am certain his life has not been easy.  The knit cap he probably wears every day has been around for quite sometime. His jacket and other clothes are muted yellows, beige, and browns, faded from long wear. 

 At first, he would not look in our direction, but eventually he began to nod when he saw us, but then would look away.  We have now moved to a smile and a slight wave.  I have never actually seen him get on a bus, but I must assume that he does. However, for me, he is the one who waits.  There is nothing he can do to make the bus come more quickly. He has no horn to sound to clear the way. He does not appear to have any device to make a phone call, check an email, or take a photograph. I have never seen him with the ubiquitous paper cup obtained from either the convenience store or one of the coffee shops down the street.  Unlike most of us, he simply waits.  
Jesus walked much. But as he walked, I think he also waited. That is why people could find him. He had been waiting for them all along.  
Stand at the cross roads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is,
and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.    
Jeremiah 6:16     

Sunday, December 20, 2015


In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1:78-79, from the song of Zechariah

Friday, December 18, 2015


I did not learn much about Cleophus and Ruth.  They both obviously had some dementia, but they seemed to enjoy coming to worship.  They both took communion, and were warm and gentle with their gratitude.  I never saw them apart, so I was surprised to see Cleophus sitting at the table alone.  I handed him a song sheet and said hello.  He looked up and asked, "Where is my wife?" The activity assistant was standing close-by, and I could tell by the look on her face that this was not going to be an easy conversation.  I excused myself and went over to talk to her. 
Ruth had passed a few days ago.  Cleophus had been told several times, but he could not remember.  She said that his conservator was coming to pick him up the next day to move him closer to his sister.  No, she did not know where.   After the service, I went to Cleophus, and took his hand.  He looked at me and said, "I am lost, aren't I?" 
 "Cleophus, we are never lost in God.  Never."    
We talked for a bit more. Then, as I was leaving, the activity director, whose mother had just passed, wanted to give me a bag of chocolates.  As we were talking, Cleophus walked up and asked very cordially, "How are you doing?"  I knew that for a moment or two, he was at peace.  I also knew the anxiety and the questioning would return.  I also knew that I probably would never see him again.  
This experience has reminded me that the capacity to understand something of mortality and grief is a gift.  While we do not want to be completely engulfed by either (at least not for very long), without this wisdom that comes from painful experience, we are less than whole.  We risk not having a solid enough framework to carry us the distance we can and need to go.  Unfortunately, dementia can rob us of that gift.  Yet, God is always with us, even when we cannot fully comprehend or can simply travel no further.  Nothing can take that inheritance from us.
Cleophus and Ruth, I miss you, but I am grateful for this lesson your presence has taught me.  I shall do my best to spread the word. 
But this is what 
I can ask for you:
That in the darkness 
there be a blessing. 
That in the shadows
there be a welcome.
That in the night
you may be encompassed
by the Love that knows
your name. 
Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace   

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Advent Poem

A couple of years ago, a friend told me about a newsletter called "Thin Places," that is published by Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.  Wonder of wonders, it actually comes in the mail.   Most of the events I cannot attend, but it is nice to ponder them.  In the current issue is a beautiful advent poem that I thought I would share with you.    As I have been thinking about this poem, I realized I experience Christ in unexpected moments of clarity and love.  These meetings can never be planned or orchestrated.   When I am aware of these moments, I do not see or feel Christ as either male or female, but rather simply as Presence.  Yet, as I thought about that, I also realized the pronoun probably just does not matter that much to Christ.   I am loving this poem more and more.   
Blessings to all who are struggling with illness, despair, loss, or lethargy. If you are feeling joyous, I pray you will be good news for those who are working hard to make ends meet (financially as well as emotionally)  in this season that Christians know as Advent.  May we remember that the Bethlehem we journey to is in our hearts.  Let us make room.  
Thou shalt know Him when He comes
not by any din of drums
nor the vantages of airs
nor by anything He wears...
For His presence known shall be
by the holy harmony
that His coming makes in thee.     
15th century


At one point in my walk yesterday, I pondered whether to take a left or right turn.  For no tangible reason, I turned right, and was surprised to discover this tree beginning to bud.  I pondered winter and Easter and Jesus.  Jack and I then turned left to make our way home. I heard the sounds of traffic once more. We passed by three laughing people who were enthusiastically sweeping mounds of leaves out of their yard. Rock and roll was streaming through their front door. They waved and said good morning.  I did the same and continued on, savoring the silence that was, and giving thanks for kind greetings on the return.  


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

John 15:4

"Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. "  
John 15:4 
When I walked in the assisted living community, I was greeted by the beautiful young Muslim woman who has worked there for over a year.  We hugged as we always do.  One of the residents who usually meets with me was on her way to a church event.  She paused, and introduced me to her friend, a Jewish resident.  I invited her to come sit at the table where we meet.  She said she would like that, but wanted me to know I would not be able to convert her.  I assured her I had no interest in converting anyone.  Dr. S. joined us.  She is Hindu.  We had tea.  We talked about lighting all kinds of lights at this time of year.  I asked, "You all live side by side. Why can't the world be like this?"   We could not come up with an answer.  More tea and hotter water are needed.      

Tonight I hear Jesus:  Alone, we cannot bear the good fruit. We must hang in there together.  

Luke 19:40

But He answered and said to them, “I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out."  
Eiko is one who barely speaks now.  Her frame is tiny, and while she is not as tidy as she once was, her thin grey hair is always neatly pulled back in a bun and held with a clip adorned with small flowers.  I have never seen her when she was not drinking a cup of tea. 
"Good morning, Eiko.  How are you?" 
"I really am not sure yet."  She says this without a hint of sarcasm. 
I tell her how nice she looks and she smiles.  I also tell her that we will be singing Christmas carols.  I place the sheet in front of her as she sips her tea. 
As we sing, she does not touch her song sheet, but she does put her cup down, begins to move her hands to the music, nods her head, and actually sings some of the words.  She recites  the Lord's prayer. 
Afterwards, I begin to gather up the song sheets and say my good-byes.  Even though she had not looked at it, Eiko asks if she can keep her sheet.  She has never asked that before.  She tells me that the songs were very beautiful.  She wishes us a Merry Christmas, picks up her cup, and sips her tea once more.    
From our first service in December until the last, we sing carols.  While more than one pastor has asked me how do I manage to sing the same carols all month without getting bored, December is actually a mystical time for me. This is when the ancient ones, who are growing silent, sing.  They may not remember all the words, and often they can no longer read, but together, we get the words out.  Together, we are faithful, and we sing. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Psalm 150

Psalms for Praying
Nan C. Merrill
Praise to the Beloved!
Praises be to You in earth's sanctuary;
praises be to You the almighty firmament!
Praise the might works of Love;
Praise the glory and extol the
greatness of Love Divine!
Give praise with trumpets;
give praise with lute and harp.
Give praise with timbrel and dance;
give praise with string and reed.
Give praise with  booming drums;
give praise with crashing cymbals.
Let everything that breathes
praise the Beloved with their lives.
May it be so now
and forever,
I would add:  give praise by simply noticing this good creation, and giving thanks. A few mornings ago, I stood on a busy street and simply admired this rose. I know there was traffic, but I have no memory of its noise. I think I understand something of Hildegard's phrase, "lucid air."

Next I saw the most lucid air, in which I heard in a marvelous way many kinds of musicians praising the joys of the heavenly citizens. ... And their sound was like the voice of a multitude, making music in harmony.
Hildegard of Bingen
from the Friends of Silence, started by Nan C. Merrill in 1987.  They do have a web presence.    
Thank you, Nan C. Merrill.      

Monday, December 7, 2015

Psalm 149

Psalms for Praying
Nan C. Merrill
For the Beloved dwells within,
journeying with us through
all our lives,
leading us in truth and love.
The humble are adorned with honor;
the faithful exult in glory,
singing for joy
with thankful hearts.
In one of the retirement homes I serve, I  am blessed to lead worship twice a month. Other pastors lead on the rest of the Sundays, so there is a vein of consistency and relationship that is nurturing for all of us, including the much loved pianist who plays most Sundays.  When I arrived yesterday, George, who is one of the residents, was already there, and he and I began setting up the room.  He is younger than the rest of the residents who gather with us, and while the home is beautiful, I often have wondered why he was living there at this stage of his life. I took advantage of our few minutes together to ask him where he grew up. 

"Bolivia," he responded.  "I came to the United States to study mathematics. In my last semester, I was in a terrible car accident.  I had severe back and brain injuries and was in the hospital for six months. I still have many problems."  

I asked him if he was ever able to return to school.  "Yes. After I got out of the hospital, I did finish.  It was very difficult because I had almost no memory.  Up until my accident, I made straight A's. My last semester I struggled to make C's, but I am proud that I was able to finish."  

He then added, "We never know what life has in store for us, but this has worked out well for me.  I am actually a caregiver." Because I have never seen the man he assists, I never thought he was there in a caregiving role.  It does seem to be a good solution for them both. 
Tonight, as I ponder George and his tenacity, I give thanks to the retired chaplain who was lived in this home and who reached out to the various pastors and a pianist to make certain that regular Protestant services would be available for the residents. After his wife died, he moved to live with his daughter, and he has since passed. None of the residents who worship with us now knew him, but we all continue to benefit from his spiritual legacy. I am grateful.           
Holy One, thank you. You do knit us together in surprising ways.    

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Psalm 148

Psalms for Praying
Nan C. Merrill     
Let all people praise the Beloved,
who is exalted in heaven
and on earth;
whose glory is above
heaven and earth.
For all are to be called friends,
companions to the true Friend,
giving their lives joyfully
as co-creators and
people of peace.
Praise to the Blessed One,
the very Breath of our breath,
the very Heart of our heart.   
Friends, we are coming to the end of our journey through Merrill's psalms, although I am sure they will continue to appear in my writings.   Psalm 1 was sent on June 15.  Summer was already underway and the drought deepened.  What came up for me in this regular practice is that in the midst of so many reports of violence, and a rising tide of arrogance and intolerance for others in our own society, the voice of Love is unwavering.  At times, sitting here and turning the page to another psalm felt silly to me. Yet, once I could get my ego out of the way, I was reminded that the loyalty to Love is what faith is. 
While obviously there is much I love about Merrill's renditions, I have been sparing you the heavy use of exclamation points that runs through her work.   I seldom missed the more traditional translations of the psalms, but at times her renditions do seem to wander pretty far.  However, my commitment to eliminate the word enemy deepened, even in these profoundly troubled times.  Defending our human constructed ideologies is destroying our humanity and our planet.  We are abusing every sacred gift in the quest to make certain we are seen as right, supreme, and strong.   That is not worship, regardless of what name you call God.  
I believe my ministry with SpiritCare changed and deepened during this time. I am into the eighth year of this ministry, and am in the last third of my life.  While yes, many of those I serve have lived very long lives, I feel more and more that I am simply moving among fellow human beings.  Yes, some are older than me,  but many are younger.  This is a slight, but profound shift.  I believe I do my deepest work in skilled nursing, rehab hospitals, and in communities serving those with dementia.  In these communities I often have a sense of entering a monastery where illusions slip away, or at times are yanked off, layer by layer.  It is here that the constant reminder that we are all God' children can truly be a healing balm for this new and tender skin.  Every once in awhile, a young activity assistant will ask me where I go to church.  I am hoping that First Church in Redwood City is a central enough location that they just might visit or maybe even join us.  Some of these young women and men I have grown very fond of. Many do their work with such full hearts that at times I feel I should kneel as I watch them move among the frail and ill.  Most have long commutes, and often must work every day to make ends meet for their families. Some of their work environments are stark.  It is here where I acutely feel Jesus' presence, encouraging me to continue the practice of showing up in love.   I now know many of the assistants are feeling that same presence.   I want them to remember that.    
As I walk, photograph, and write, I also have come to feel closer to the Jesus who walked and noticed vineyards, flowers, stones, and mountains. Several of you have asked me, "Well, what next?".  I think I am going to spend some time in the gospels.    
Today, Christians are lighting the candle of peace.  May we remember that our hearts are the Bethlehem that we sing about.  The place where Christ can always be born anew, if we but make room.  
For my friends in chilly wintery climes, and for those who are ill or weary, I give you the color yellow today.   Thank you all for your presence in my life.  You, too, are part of this monastery that is dedicated to serving the living body of Christ.  Blessings on your journey.
Sue Ann    

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Psalm 147

Psalms for Praying
Nan C. Merrill
Divine Love brings peace
to the heart, peace
that is beyond our knowledge.
Divine Love cuts through
the ignorance that fosters
greed and arrogance,
humbling and breaking
open the heart.
Divine Love severs the veil that
separates realms
of the profane and sacred;
Holiness radiates through all
touched by Divine Love,
a refining Fire!
Wisdom flows from the Heart
of Divine Love
to all receptive hearts 
nurtured in the Silence.
Yes, the Divine Word is written
on every heart-scroll,
a guide to pilgrims on the way.
May everyone awaken to Divine Love,
that peace and integrity
and assurance
may be born again in every land.

In a small church I attended years ago, we often sang a gathering song about the Refiner's fire.  I always thought we were somewhat glib about asking God to aim that torch in our direction. Yet, it is true that fire can gently lift us as we ponder a beautiful piece of music, or a leaf on the wind.  Let us be gentle with one another today.  

Friday, December 4, 2015

Psalm 146

Psalms for Praying
Nan C. Merrill 
Put not your trust in riches,
in illusionary things 
that fade away.
For when the day comes
to depart this world,
at that very time,
we carry only the love
imprinted on our soul.  
Yesterday, just as I turned on the street where a convalescent hospital I serve is located, the wind came up, the rain began, and leaves were suddenly flying off the many trees that  that line that block. The transition from fall to winter was happening all at once.  Leaves of various shapes, sizes, and colors were swirling everywhere.  I was in a whirlwind of color and motion.  As I mundanely searched for a parking space, I looked to my left, and in the midst of falling leaves and rain, I noticed a man with a leaf blower, vainly trying to do his job of clearing a parking lot. His efforts were futile.   The leaves refused to be corralled. This was their moment to be wild. 
This morning I sat for a few minutes and watched and listened to a video of Segovia playing "Danza in G."   With so much seemingly going so wrong in the world, I am grateful that Segovia picked up an instrument and dedicated his life to playing it.   

We must love the world.  We can only tame ourselves.  

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Psalm 145

Psalms for Praying
Nan C. Merrill
That your Light might be their
guide to holiness,
and your Love nurture them
toward wholeness.   

Psalm 144

Psalms for Praying
Nan C. Merrill
Blessed are You, O Radiant One,
You, who are hidden within
our hearts,
even as we are hidden within
your Heart.
You invite us to participate
in the Divine Unfoldment,
as we give birth to creativity. 
Open us that we might recognize
the divine in every person,
and become sensitive to all
we meet along the path.
For You are the Breathing Life of all,
the infinite and eternal
within our hearts.   
The phrase, "by invitation only," implies that some will not be allowed to enter and participate. However, that is not God's way.  The invitation to a full life, regardless of our circumstances, is for all.  However, when we accept the invitation, we must be prepared to be transformed.  I know an elder who is really struggling with aging. She is angry, and can't understand why she is still alive.  Someone who knew her from years ago said that even then she refused to consider the idea that she might become ill and dependent on others for care.  At the risk of over simplification, I think there is an invitation for her, and all of us, to simply let our lives unfold. All of us have an unopened invitation.  The gift of Advent is the reminder to accept the gift of Mystery.  Yes, sometimes the Beckoning One will ask us to go where we think we do not want to go. Even Jesus had a moment of reluctance, but he was practiced in the art of surrendering his life to the One he called Abba, and so he went.  Let us do the same.    
Blessings on your journey.   

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Psalm 143

Psalms for Praying
Nan C. Merrill
O Bringer of Joy, awaken my heart;
pour your love and blessings
through my being.
Free me from attachments and desire, 
that I may become a clear mirror,
reflecting your love to the world. 
Today I am reminded that we read psalms not because our lives are perfect examples of faithful love, but rather from a deep yearning.  They are gifts for those of us who sometimes struggle.  
We are embarking upon our last seven psalms.  Thank you for continuing to pray with me.  This picture is from Los Osos, CA taken on a late September day.  As I hear reports of upcoming winds and rain, may I remember.