Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Word of Hope

 In a time in which it is easy not be hopeful.

I am home now from Phoenix and I spent some time this morning  - not only unpacking and doing laundry but putting away the fall decorations and starting to think about Christmas.  That always feels pretty good.

But the truth is that this is - for many people - a hard time of year.  All those external problems are there for us - like shortened days, cold nights, and literally more darkness.  There can be sadness for anyone who mourns because the holidays can magnify grief.

The scripture from Isaiah 54:: 1-10 begins

Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
burst into song and shout,
you who have not been in labor!

It is written for the people of Israel who are in exile.  Walter Brueggemann in an article I found online wrote  :  Not   unlike the society of ancient Jerusalem after the destruction and in the midst of the displacement, our contemporary society is at the brink of  despair.   
And, locally, nationally, globally there seem to be more and more problems. Two days ago in Columbus there was an attack at OSU which was disturbing for many reasons.  A young man from Somali ran his car into a crowd and brandishing a butcher knife stabbed several people.  I just saw online that Donald Trump tweeted : "ISIS is taking credit for the terrible stabbing attack at Ohio State University by a Somali refugee who should not have been in our country."   Like many people, I wonder what the future brings for our country.

 Brueggemann writes about "despair generated anxiety" that is acted out in many ways - like unrestrained greed, privatism (self interest over public good) , violence and nostalgia for the good old days.  The image of barrenness means - that there will be no new life created here.  It is an image of hopelessness.  I can remember 30 years ago - at the end of a marriage - as I was trying to raise three daughters and work - I identified so much with the whole idea of barrenness.  I have been there and it is easy to fall back into it.  The best days are over and who knows what is coming next?

And so this text is a word of hope as Isaiah writes:

For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love
I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer.
This is like the days of Noah to me:
Just as I swore that the waters of Noah
would never again go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you
and will not rebuke you.
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

If you take time with  this text, you will probably struggle with it like I do.  Does God abandon us, does God have wrath upon us?  Or is this the Old Testament God?  Or is this the words of the prophet who gives us his interpretation of going through times of barrenness?  I don't know

All I do know for sure is that God is real, God is love and God is hidden  - hiding in plain sight for each of us as we have the faith to pay attention, to wait, to trust.  And so as we begin this journey to the manger,  I hope to have the courage to face the times in which I feel barren, and the strength to struggle with the hiddenness  and the mystery of God and the faith to continue to spend time in prayer.and engage in what Brueggemann calls "obedient imagination in which unuttered possibility is uttered, thoughts beyond our thoughts are thought, and ways beyond our ways are known."
Here is a wonderful prayer by Walter Brueggemann from Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth.

Do Not Fear
We are a fearful folk, and we dwell in the midst of a fearful people,
fearful of our world falling apart,
in terror and moral decay,
fearful of too many "dangers, toils, and snares,"
fearful of not doing well,
of being found out,
of being left out,
of being abandoned,
of our own shadow.
And then we hear, astonishingly in the midst of our fearfulness,
your mighty, "DO NOT FEAR"
do not fear, I am with you,
with you in wealth and in poverty,
with you in success and in failure,
with you for better or for worse.
We hear, we trust, we receive your comfort and are made new.
We thank you for the newness of our identity,
of our trust, of our calling.
Because of your new utterance of life to us,
we will not fear,
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.
We, your new people, thank you for your newness and notice that
your work newness among us, for we know about being,
lame people who walk,
blind people who see,
dead people who live,
poor people who are unburdened.
We rally round your newness that is both our hope and our work.
Your fearless newness into which we are immersed
is beyond our expectation;
But we are not offended by it;
not scandalized by you;
not ashamed of your newness;
not embarrassed by your healings.
We ask now for energy and freedom, rooted in your fearlessness, for we may live
toward and from and for your newness that bubbles up, even in the midst of us,
all around us to bhe uttermost parts of the earth.
We pray in the name of your fearless gift of newness who scandalizes the
world and makes all things new, even Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

If it had not

The scripture for today is Psalm 124

Psalm 124

1If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—let Israel now say—
2if it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us,
3then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us;
4then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us;
5then over us would have gone the raging waters.
6Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth.
7We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped.

8Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

It is a witness that Eugene Peterson describes as "vivid and contagious."  Yes, as we look back we see the hand of God that was always "for us."  God is with us at all times and wanting only what will bring us new life.

And so, today and during this Advent season, it seems to me that it is a  good exercise to  just look back and seeing what a difference our faith has made in our lives.

I am just about to leave Phoenix tomorrow but tonight I had that chance with Susan and Ken - friends of almost 45 years - to look back in wonder and awe at the ways in which we can see the hand of God at work  We have been through so much - operations, cancer, job loss, divorce, death of parents, and struggles with children.  And we can see that God has been faithful to us - our help.

and so with we  finished this sentence in many ways


 - I would be mired in myself
  - my world would not be so clear
     - I would not have survived my some of the challenges of my life
        - his strength would not have comforted me
            - my fears would take be over
               - my heart would be smaller
                 - I would not have known his Holy Spirit

and so tonight I wonder how we would - on any given day - finish this sentence - "If it has not been for the Lord......."

I know it is easy to be almost simplistic in our faith - attributing every good thing to God.  I write today when a man caused harm to people at OSU, when our country is still roiling from the election, when too many people around the world do not have the freedoms and abundance we have enjoyed.

And I write knowing in my life and my own story that there is help that is beyond us as we continue on this journey of trusting God with our lives - and giving God our attention and our best selves.  So that there are times in which we say - with confidence - IF IT HAD NOT BEEN FOR THE LORD....I would not have found my life.

I end with a quote from Eugene Peterson's A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

"We speak our words of praise in a world that is hellish;
we sing our songs of victory in a world where things get messy;
we live our joy among people who neither  understand nor encourage us.
But the content of our lives is God, not humanity.  We are not scavenging in the dark alleys of the world, poking it its garbage cans for a bare subsistence.
We are traveling in the light, toward God who is reich in mercy and strong to save.
It is Christ, not culture, that defines our lives.
It is the help we experience, not the hazards we risk, that shapes our days."

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Beginning again

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent - a time which is the preparation for our celebration of Christmas.  The birth of Jesus.

And that is a special time for me - days of preparation for the new birth.
I went to church today in Tuscon Arizona and it was a good worship service for the first Sunday.  There was a family that lit the candles, we sang Advent songs, and Audrey preached about Zechariah.

I keep thinking about this season of preparation and wondering what I want to do in terms of my preparation,.  I re read a little of the book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson this week.  It was a reissue of the book and in his epilogue he wrote that he had come to the conclusion that the most important part of pastoring was "scripture and prayer."  I have to say that as I look back I wonder if that is true for me as well.  There is something about coming to the Word of God and allowing it to speak to us again that brings life and new life.  And, of course, prayer is the best way for me to get out of being centered on ME.

Anyway, I begin this season and this blog with the plan to devote time this season - daily - to scripture and prayer,  That is my goal for these days of preparation.

The scripture today is from Isaiah 2:3

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”

My prayer is that during this season I will spend time with God's word so that gradually I may continue to learn his ways and walk in his path.

More tomorrow

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Leaving on a Jet Plane

We are getting ready today to fly out to Phoenix for Thanksgiving. The good news is that the plane leaves at 4:35 this afternoon so we have plenty of time.

It is a real gift to have time as we prepare to leave, because there is always so much to remember.  Cancelling mail and newspaper, packing clothes, bringing medication, printing boarding passes, etc etc.

I am going to spend the week with my best friend from college, Susan, and her family and Audrey will be driving up from Tuscon to be with us for much of the time.  As I was preparing to leave I put the final touches on a drama that Wendy Taylor and I will be doing December 3rd at St Andrews Christian Church.  It is a drama we have done several times - the story of the friendship - the spiritual friendship - of Elizabeth and Mary.

The first time I performed this was with my friend Mary Wood who was - at that time - pastoring a church 5 miles from my church in Bowling Green.  We were (and remain) good friends and I have always felt like her older sister in many ways.  What was a blessing for me in that relationship was our sharing the struggles and the joys of pastoring churches as women in the 90's.  We were both in the same ministerial group working with some men who did not think that we should be in ministry because of our gender.  It was always not only comforting - but strengthening - for me to have Mary  with me who was never afraid to speak up about any kind of injustice.  We preached together several times  - often with her singing too - and I look back on those years with her as just a gift.

Performing with Wendy is also a great blessing.  I have known Wendy for twenty years now and remember well when she was an Advance Conference attendee.  She has always been a source of life and we have found our way together as true seekers - exchanging books and ideas and lots of conversations.  As I look back on our time together over the years, I just feel blessed to witness and support her in  her searching as she is always willing to be vulnerable, to struggle, to learn.  And at the same time she is the most fun people I know with a laugh that Chuck adores.. We have done book groups together, thie drama and in 3 weeks we lead a retreat together.  She is another spiritual friend.

But tonight I will be with my oldest friend - the one who knew me in college and through all of the ups and downs of both of our lives.  We have never lived near each other for 45 years  but our friendship is now stronger than ever.  As I reflect on this gift I realize that it is more than just a shared history and a similar sense of humor.  .  It is more than we are  fellow English majors, both  retired and thrilled to be able to be  grandmothers.  What really has bonded us has been a shared spiritual seeking that has added depth and  almost mystery to many conversations we have. 

Spiritual friendships have been life giving for me over the years and I am so grateful for the women who have shown up when I needed them and those who continue to stay with me  over the years.  As I look ahead to this Advent, I do have a sense of giving birth again - I have no clue what that means now.  But I am grateful to be able - like Mary traveling to see Elizabeth - to travel on a jet plane to share my story with a long time friend.

I have much to be thankful for.

Here is a blessing  - by Maxine Shonk
May the BIRTHING God bless you.
May you find hope and promise in the pains of your labor
and may you know life ever new in each grace that comes to you.
May God be birthed in you with every prayer
and may compassion flower in your every relationship.
May the BIRTHING  God be with you.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Lesson in Healing

I have started physical therapy for the pain in my arm and shoulder.  This pain started - or I started to notice it - about three months ago. I noticed  when I lifted my arm sideways there was pain and sometimes I would experience sharp stabbing  in my upper arm.  What was confusing was I had not hurt my shoulder and it was my non dominant (right) side.  Anyway, I went to my doctor with lots of foreboding about what this might mean. (in my mind jumping right to surgery!)

My doctor started me on some pain medication and after a month of the pain not subsiding, I am now in physical therapy.  My first time ever.  And it has been an education for me.  What I have learned is that the arm pain is "referred" from the shoulder issue.  And the shoulder problems  have  a lot to do with my posture.  So, in PT I am learning exercises that don't seem like much at all - but are that are stretching and strengthening my muscles and rotator cuff tendons.  I am also applying ice and finally - and most importantly - starting to pay attention.

It seems like it always comes back to paying attention.
  • What I realize is that this pain has been with me for a while and I have automatically adapted and dismissed it.  I wonder in what other ways I do that with  - not just physical - but other kinds of pain.
  • What  I do  now can  stresses my shoulder and  my posture affects everything - from being on the computer, to watching TV, to driving. New habits can bring new health.
  • Healing happens slowly and I can  I trust this process. As my Physical Therapist showed me an exercise and I could not do the stretch because of pain, she assured me that I would be able to do that later.  Just one step at a time.

So, now I am doing my exercises daily, icing as needed and trying to hold my shoulders back.  And working on these behaviors that do not come naturally to me:
 - being  Mindful  of my body
 - being Disciplined in care of my body
 - trusting in   the slow work of healing

Here is a Healing Blessing by Maxine Shonk

May the God of HEALING be with you,
binding and soothing your every wound, 
moving your gracefully in a dance of nurturing love
 and lulling you back to wholeness and health.
May you be gifted with a healing gentleness and compassion
with which you might touch the lives of others.
May the HEALING  God bless you.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Living Mindfully

Through everything.  That is definitely what I would love to be able to do.  I finally finished When things Fall Apart by Pema Chodren.  I started it months ago never imagining that the election would end with the presidency of Donald Trump.  And it sure has been a great companion during this time.

I have found myself in many, many conversations since the election with people who are devastated with the result.  Sunday I was blessed and stressed to find myself in the pulpit in Delaware Ohio and given the opportunity for deep reflection about life in the present and the wisdom found in the word of God.

The title of my sermon was "Words and a Wisdom" which is quote from Luke 21:15, part of the lectionary text.  I was amazed to find how relevant that text was as Jesus was instructing his disciples about the unimaginable destruction of the temple that was coming.  There is a word that has been used over and over again about this election - "Unprecedented" - there have been so many unprecedented events over the last six months - from the release of private emails through wiki leaks, to a candidate who won't release his taxes,  to a former first lady running with her husband advising, to crude and vulgar language from a candidate, to the election of a non politician.  And that is just the surface.

Now as Trump is scrambling to put together his team that will help to govern this country, I just watch in wonder.  Wondering who he really is?  And how much things will change?  And what is going to happen?  Pema Chodren quotes her teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who said: "the world will never run out of messages."  One message for sure is how little control any of us have.

I was blessed to preach because the real message I found - rediscovered - was Jesus saying to his people - and to us - "don't be led astray."  And I believe we are led astray when we walk away from the path of love and trusting in the unseen God.    When I look on facebook, I am concerned about people demonizing those who voted differently from them and assuming that they know their reasons. In my conversations with others and my reading, it is clear to me that we are many and varied in our concerns and most of us are just trying to make our way in this world - making a living, taking care of our families, living our best lives.

And even though it seems we  have no control, we have to pay attention to what is going on right now and be open to what our role is in speaking truth to power.  Because even though we are each only one voice and one vote - we all are part of the solution.

I will end with this quote from the text that gives me some reassurance even as I write this:

So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 

May it be so.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Busy Person's retreat

      I volunteered to be a spiritual director for a "Busy Person;s Retreat" which began last night.  This is a retreat in daily life in which people commit to 20 -30 minutes of daily prayer for a two week period.  They will meet with a spiritual director three times during that time.

     We sat in a circle last night at the Newman Center - 19 directees and about 10 directors and listened to Father Vinny explain this process.  He had his Bible in his hand as he talked about how we can receive a card or a letter from a friend and savor it - or just read it and discard it.  This retreat is meant to be a time to encourage people to pray the scripture in a way that is really savoring the word of God.    I was sitting next to Father Vinny and could see how worn his Bible was and how obviously he had cherished it.  It made me hungry to enter into this kind of practice intentionally.  What had happened to me over the years is that I usually print out a copy of a text from the computer and then mark it up.  And somehow I miss that tangible feel of the Bible.

  So this morning, in preparation for the first time I meet with my directees I took out the Bible that I had carried for three years in seminary and read over Psalm 139 many times.  They are familiar words and yet today, I heard them in a new way.  "Search me and know me"  "Where can I go from you?"  "Lead me in the way everlasting"

  As I always do - I begin a new undertaking with some trepidation and anxiety.  Anxiety about whether I can do this - whether I will be adequate as a spiritual director.  And as I read this word today I found tears coming as well as eventually a sense of peace.  God is here .  God knows me.   God is with me.
I can trust that.

Psalm 139

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts,[a] God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.

 Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Endings and Beginnings

I had my last class for "Women Writing for a Change" on Thursday and here is one of the opening readings:

The Way It Is ~ William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

                                                                                    from The Way It Is, 1998

During our "fast write" period I used one of the lines as a writing prompt - "you have to explain about the thread."  In my writing I came to the understanding that I have found  - after years of trying - that it is really hard to "explain" about the thread.  The thread which is the spirit, the presence of God, the flow.  We glimpse the thread, we experience the thread and in some way we hold on to the thread.  At least I hope so. Anyway, I found this poem to be helpful to explain something to me that I understand but have a lot of trouble explaining to others.  Hmmm

My beginning is getting into the groove of working at the funeral home.  Yesterday I spent four hours being an ambassador before, during and after a memorial service.  What is clear to me is that this is a time of everybody seeking to serve the grieving family.  There is an attention to detail that is part of caring for them - making sure the flowers are here, the coffee is made, the arrangements go without a stumble.  There is also a fair amount of waiting  - for the family to congregate and the service to begin.  I greeted everyone as they entered and showed them the rest rooms and was generally just a - hopefully - friendly and welcoming presence.  And although no one knows it, I am in prayer for them during this time.  

I have been reading and listening to books by Pema Chodren and found myself practicing "tonglen" while I stood there.   She writes this
"The practice of tonglen - sending and receiving - .......i is a practice of taking in pain and sending out pleasure and therefore completely turns around our well-established habit of doing just the opposite."
Another writer, Joan Halifax wrote this
 "The practice of giving and receiving develops our ability to be present for suffering and offers us a way to cultivate natural mercy. It trains us to use the energy of loving-kindness to open our hearts to suffering and transform it into wellbeing. It asks us to invite suffering into our being and let it break open the armor of our heart. The tender spaciousness that arises awakens selfless warmth and compassion. We cannot help but send our love and kindness to the one who is suffering, be it others or ourselves."

As I stand apart from the grieving family and watch everything, I find myself praying for them that in the midst of this deep sadness, they might see some light and love. Usually I am the pastor at the service and in many ways in the center of the grief.  Now as I stand at the periphery I still find that God wants to use me.  

After everyone leaves, then it was my task to bring the room back to order.  Moving flowers, taking chairs down, emptying wastebaskets, etc.  This is servant work that gives me a surprising amount  of satisfaction. It is a different kind of experience for me and I trust that as I continue on my journey that I am holding on to the thread still.