Thursday, December 31, 2009
New Year's Resolution:
Think very carefully before opening mouth or hitting reply, remembering that others are coming from different places and perspectives and will not necessarily hear/read what you say as you intended/hoped.
The world is not waiting with breathless anticipation for your next contribution.
Happy New Year, All.
(I know. Even that one isn't safe. My motives are reasonably pure, however. So if you think that the possibility of a happy year ahead is a slim one: Yeah. I get it.)
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
I'm not happy with my sermon, but I find that I'm enjoying the studying. As I (try to) pull material together and read through a couple of theological overviews, I'm discovering a new appreciation for my seminary education. And I see that I have changed not a little. (Gulp of relief: for awhile I feared that I might emerge from seminary like a couple of other people I've heard about, who upon their graduations said," I haven't changed one bit from the moment I arrived!")
Of course, much of the change has come via another route. Today I am thinking about that in the context of two other things. For one, Quotidian Grace is highlighting blogs of ministers who are mothers. I imagine that someday that group will include me, albeit not as I had planned or expected. And secondly, last fall, two young men in my class preached sermons in which they referred, one explicitly and one by implication, to seminary as a "mountaintop experience."
Not exactly, I thought at the time.
I suppose that it will be many, many years before I will understand what it has meant to study for ministry while grieving the suicide of a child. To explore all those meaning-of-life-who-is-God questions in an academic environment while stuggling through them at the deepest personal levels. To be engaged in hopes and plans for middle-age changes while saying good-bye to a very young life measured mostly by possibility.
God, it has been so hard.
I have no idea what the future holds for me. (Given the past sixteen months, I have to conclude that only someone completely devoid of gray matter would attempt to predict even the next five minutes.) But I hope that my ministry will be marked by a deep respect for the experience of the absence of God, an enlarged capacity for listening in silence, and a vocabulary from which religious cliches have been banished.
(Of course, none of those abilities, such as they are, will be of much help on the ordination exams. And what does that say . . . ???)
Anyway ~ that's the report from the Florida Keys this morning.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
The ocean sparkled in the sunlight, and Josh was so blonde and so full of joy.
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Thursday, December 24, 2009
The grief that accompanies the death of a child alters everything. There is no energy for anything beyond survival; no desire even for that. There is no light. The people who swarm like bees over the house during the funeral week gradually disappear into their own busy lives. The sense of meaning and purpose that enables you to do even the most difficult of tasks evaporates. Pouring a bowl of cereal is almost impossible; the thought that you once made up beds for guests while planning decorations and food and music for large gatherings seems like something you must have read about in a novel.
And there is, sadly, no room at the inner inn, any more than there is in the house itself. Grief is a process that requires almost complete self-absorption. It offers no alternatives, no respite, no new life. Eventually, your body starts to do things that apparently look unremarkable to others, but your heart is a cold, isolated place, filled ~ and filled completely ~ only by the longing for what cannot be. It is necessary and good to be well-defended, because inside you are made up of thousands of tiny pieces of cracked glass that would shatter irretrievably into millions more if the slightest wind blew your way.
No room at the inn. No room until something not of your own making begins to shift.
The stories we have of the first Christmas ~ what are they? Narratives of actual events? Historical fiction? Beautiful tales for gullible children? Formulaic creations of later writers, looking into their holy scriptures and trying to make sense out of an unlikely companion and his even more incomprehensible resurrection?
It occurs to me this year that, whatever else they are, they are exactly the right stories about exactly the right people ~ all of them finding inner room in which to respond to God out of desperate poverty. Mary and Joseph ~ impoverished by oppression, by rigid circumstances, by potential humiliation and rejection. The innkeeper ~ by hassles and exhaustion, by too little capital and too few resources, by too many travelers needing too many things. The shepherds ~ by cold and emptiness and boredom, by too many sheep and too much ground to cover, by thin-walled tents and danger lurking in the night. And even the magi ~ we tend to think of them as regally-attired kings processing across the desert with gold-laden camels, but: let's be serious. They were trapped in their own way, far from home, dependent upon irritable animals and the uncertain hospitality of strangers, seeking solutions to unresolvable questions ~ and probably tattered and tired as well.
None of the characters in these stories, with the exception of Mary, whose Magnificat indicates that she anticipates the struggle and sorrow that lies ahead for her child, is described to us as a grieving mother. But who knows? The innkeeper, one of the shepherds, one of the magi ~ any of them might be a woman moving blindly through the worst of losses. And regardless of specific histories, every single one of the characters in these stories represents a kind of inner restlessness and poverty with which we are familiar.
And yet they all make room. Not just physical room ~ room in a cave behind an inn, or room for a detour with sheep or camels. They all make available space in the inner landscape of their lives in which to respond to something out of the ordinary, something compelling, someone far more significant even in newborn form than the most extravagant display in the heavens.
Bright Morning Star. The way in which Jesus identifies himself in the Book of Revelation.
Perhaps if we, when we are able or maybe even a little sooner, respond to the invitation to make even the smallest of spaces available in our lives for someone beyond ourselves and our immediate concerns, no matter how all-consuming and overwhelming they seem ~ perhaps we, too, will see it shine.
Image of nebula from nasa.gov.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
I haven't been there since summer because I've been in Seminary City, but I'm home tonight. I decided that the quiet of mass with the sisters would be a good place in which to prepare in silence for the next few days.
I walked in and sat down, looked across the chapel, saw someone I was sure I recognized ~ and spent most of the mass thinking about the last few hours I had spent with him. On September 3, 2008. When the service was over, I made my way through a few of the sisters who wanted to welcome me back and ask about seminary, and sat down beside the very tall (and now 93? 94?-year-old) man.
"Aren't you WF?" I asked. "I am," he said, looking surprised. "I'm Gannet Girl," I said. "You were with me when my son died last year." "Of course," he said. "How are you?" "I'm here," I responded. He nodded. "And how are your studies?" And so we talked a little about seminary and ordination exams and the call process and what might be next for me.
This is the Jesuit who was accompanying me on retreat when I got the news that Josh was gone. He was my original spiritual director's philosophy professor; I wish I had thought to tell him that I am doing an independent study on grace and freedom in Aquinas and Scotus and the Reformers as part of my way of coming to terms with Josh's death. He is one person I know who might actually appreciate that news.
He told me that he is spending just a few days at the Carmelite monastery for some prayer time of his own before going to another part of town for the holidays and then back to Michigan.
It seems quite remarkable that I would have run into him. I feel oddly as if I have come full circle, to the place and conversation I was engaged in right before I learned that Josh had died, right before everything about life as I knew it simply ended. Nearly sixteen months ago I spent a couple of hours in his office unloading the trauma of CPE, and there I was tonight telling him that I was contemplating a hospital chaplaincy residency.
It seems almost new-dimensional: as if some of the peace and possibility of the Incarnation has crept very very quietly into my life.
I did go to the Blue Christmas service tonight. It was a disappointment, which was a surprise to me, because the pastor leading it is a skilled and experienced counselor and caregiver. But she rushed headlong into reassurance and hope, and preached a sermon about God's enduring presence.
One first needs to take the time to acknowledge the loss and sadness and the very real experience of God's seeming absence.
And that verse about "all things work for good . . .". Seriously? Let's not use that one with people in so much pain that they are willing to leave their homes a few nights before Christmas to go to a worship service with a group of strangers.
Well. I am going to put that service into the category of "last year."
In my personal last year, I have dealt with the continuing fallout from my son's death by suicide, the very serious health problems of someone else close to me ~ unblogged and unbloggable ~ and my own little cancer scare last month (I'm fine), which caused a couple of blips on my radar screen but, in the face of my son's death, barely registered overall. (Honestly, I am so absorbed by that loss that I'm not sure I would notice if I died myself.) I finished another year of seminary, I more or less finished my training as a spiritual director (still some loose ends to tie up, but the ball's in someone else's court), and started my stint of field education in a church.
I'm not doing much of a job of studying for the ordination exams, which is unlike me, but I don't feel terribly motivated. What seemed so clear two years ago now so ~ isn't. It wouldn't be a terrible thing to fail one or more of the exams next month, which would push my whole process into next fall and give me some space. I'm very glad to have gone back to seminary when I did, and to have spent this time learning with my friends there, but I'm not wanting to feel pressure toward the next thing, whatever it is.
I have come to one new realization over the past few days, and perhaps it means that my "ministerial voice," which has gone underground since Josh died, is beginning to re-emerge as something new. What I have come to understand is that I have a whole new freedom to listen and to speak to loss ~ partly because I have been to a very scary and seldom-traveled place, partly because I know how isolated and in need of companionship people in that place are, and partly because it has stripped away whatever fear I had about looking into the face of death and of terrible, terrible sorrow, and of saying what I see.
It's an odd place in which to find hope for my future.
Monday, December 21, 2009
Mags held one at her church last night. I love that they call it a Longest Night Service, since it was on the calendar the longest night and since this kind of a life does feel like one endless night. (My brother asked me yesterday. "When does it end?" "It doesn't," I said. "It changes, but it doesn't end.")
Anyway, a beautiful meditation:
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Christmas services this morning and tonight at my field ed church, both with dramatic presentations by children . . .
Going to a UCC blue Christmas service tomorrow night with Musical Friend . . .
Two services at my field ed church Christmas Eve . . .
And then with, amazingly, Gregarious Son as company, a midnight service somewhere . . .
And then at 6:00 am on Christmas morning, a flight south.
I wish this week of the Incarnation were not so terribly, terribly difficult. I wish I lived in a remote monastery where it might be a week of solemnity and quiet joy.
Twenty-six years ago we learned right after Christmas that I was pregnant -- a month later, that there were two babies. I looked at the ultrasound pictures earlier this week. It is not hard at all to remember the exhilaration we felt, but it is hard to know now what it would someday lead to.
Two of my nieces have just learned that they are expecting babies in August.
Mixed feelings swirling around.
Friday, December 18, 2009
It will be the best Christmas gift they receive.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
I would still like to say for the record that I am in awe of the Lovely Daughter. Last night she emailed me a copy of her final final final draft of her personal statement for her social work school applications, and it's terrific.
I am astonished by her ability to stand back and look at her desires and experience and articulate her vision for her future.
I am also fascinated. When I was her age and in law school, I thought I was going to be a policy kind of person, out there working for social change and justice. By the time I had practiced law for a few years, I knew that I could barely work up the slightest interest in such an approach ~ I was much more interested in helping individual people solve their individual problems.
It's not a big surprise to me that, much as I love to teach and preach, it looks as if my real passions in ministry are going to be spiritual direction and chaplaincy. I am completely entranced by the quiet process of helping someone explore the ways in which God is moving in her life, and it's much easier to imagine myself sitting with a family in a out-of-the way hospital room in the middle of the night than moderating a Session meeting.
The Lovely Daughter is quite the opposite. She is working as an Americorps volunteer doing college counseling in inner city public schools and and says that, while she enjoys and derives great satisfaction from her encounters with individual students, her thought process is much more taken up by the institutions and processes that impede their progress. She imagines making her contribution in policy someday and, observing the knowledgeable confidence and self-assurance she has developed in the past few months, I can imagine it, too.
Her brother's death has forced her to grow up very quickly, and she has moved forward with compassion and grace. We are lucky to have her, and I think the world is, too.
Monday, December 14, 2009
She writes such beautiful sermons, and she gave me some excellent advice about my own, and she was such a delight to "meet"!
Now at least I can put a voice to the sermons, and to the friend!
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
But not a few people have suggested over the past year or so that I give some thought to Mary, and I have done so tonight. I even looked around oneline for some Immaculate Conception artwork, but most of what I found, with the exception of one icon, is of the hazy-ethereal-romantic variety -- Mary floating around in the sky with angels and such.
I wanted something more contemporary, something more reflective of the Mary to whom I have given some consideration over the past several years, if not months: a Mary who is one insistent, determined, bold, and single-minded young lady. A young woman not to be messed with. Not, you know, remotely meek or mild.
It occurs to me that the Immaculate Conception tradition might have a universal application in the hope that perhaps we are born with whatever it is we need for the life ahead of us. I don't know why the mother of Jesus would need to be sinless, although I suppose it makes sense if one believes that sin is genetically transmitted. And I don't believe that we are born with everything we need, either ~ the reality of suicide demolishes that one.
But I like the idea: the hope that we might be equipped for what is to come.
Personally, I have not felt the least bit equipped for the realities of the past fifteen months. But it seems that I am still here, still blundering around ~ equipment-less.
I wonder how Mary felt about it ~ about her own preparedness, after the death of her son.
Would it help, to be without sin?
Somehow I doubt it.
I was feeling better ~ not a lot, but enough. I was thinking that last year at this time, every class, every comment ~ whether by someone else or by me ~ basically every minute back in seminary was followed by the thought "I can't do this; I need to withdraw right this second" ~ and that those feelings have receded. I was thinking that I was more or less all right, and so ~
I stopped being hyper-vigilant with respect to everything coming my way, and so ~
I was completely unprepared for Advent.
It is hard. It is so hard.
It is hard to be in church every Sunday for my internship. It is hard to be taking a class in which the professor has decided that we should begin each morning with an Advent hymn so that we can analyze it for mission-related components. (OK, well, I've decided that I need to be late for every class.) It's hard to read and see all the things that used to give me such delight. It's hard to imagine buying gifts or decorating a tree.
Yesterday a friend told me about the pleasure she had found in preparing an elaborate holiday buffet for a large group of friends last week-end. I used to enjoy things like that, but now I just want to send my 150-year-old heirloom china flying out the window so that I can hear it smash on the sidewalk.
Hmmm. I just looked back at what I've written and thought: people might think I have finally lost it. But truthfully, I am doing well, all things considered.
I just would prefer to be someplace like Mars. (Just not so cold.) And it seems that instead I agreed, in a moment of foolish optimism some weeks ago, to preach a sermon on January 3.
So any of you experienced preachers out there, if you want to share how you managed to share good news in which you actually believe during a time in which it seemed you could not put one foot in front of the other (although in fact you did, every day) ~ please: weigh in!
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
This post, I do believe, is going to turn into a paean to Ignatian spirituality and to those whose lives it shapes, whether Jesuits or others who do spiritual direction in the Ignatian tradition. In my case, it means two Jesuits in particular: my former director, who had the temerity to move away after helping me for two years, but has remained one of my great supporters through seminary and has been a source of wisdom and challenge via email and occasional visits during this past awful year, and my current director, who thought two-and-one-half years ago that he was signing on for a monthly hour of support and guidance for a seminary student, and had to turn into a consistent and faithful source of compassion, prayer, presence ~ and, yes, wisdom and challenge, too ~ during a year of such harsh and time-consuming need that I cannot even begin to describe it.
(And that description doesn't even take into account the many others in my life who have brought their Ignatian experience to bear upon our conversations and friendships. Maybe some other posts someday.)
What is so distinctive about this spirituality that makes it so pertinent to accompanying someone through the journey of grief?
In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius suggests a wide variety of types and forms of prayer. Some lend themselves more to certain situations or meditations than others, but I've never had a director suggest that I should limit my prayer in one way or another. Flexibility ("accomodation" is Ignatius' term) is key, and I have been graced by finding directors who are fearless in their willingness to venture into unfamilar territory.
Given the range of prayer in the Exercises, it is nontheless the case that imagination is a significant hallmark of the Ignatian understanding of encounter with God. When a person makes the formal Exercises, there are many opportunites to pray, or meditate (Ignatius usually uses the term contemplation here ~ not to be confused with the emptying form of prayer so popular in contemplative prayer practice today) imaginatively throught the life of Jesus. Imagine the place, imagine the sights and sounds, imagine yourself as a person among his followers or family, on the edge or in the midst of his circle. Imagine yourself watching, listening, speaking, participating. Who are you? Who might you be called to be? Imagine Jesus into the circustances of your own life. What does he say; how do you respond?
You might be able to guess where I am going here. If you're a regular reader, you know that I have often bemoaned the statement so frequently made to me after our son died: that "I can't imagine" sentence. In fact, its repetition by a few individuals has resulted in my consistent avoidance of them. (The Lovely Daughter tells me that people are trying, and that I could be more generous, but I have my own problems with imagination ~ I find it difficult to imagine either that they are or that I could.) As a statement of intended solace, "I can't imagine" is not as bad as "I know just how you feel" ~ but it's close.
This past week it suddenly dawned on me why my Jesuit and other Ignatian friends have been such a source of help to me. Steeped in the practice of imaginative prayer, it never occurs to them to say, "I can't imagine." They seem to slide into imaginative accompaniment effortlessly. They don't have to be parents or to have suffered this degree of loss or faced this kind of horror; they can imagine it, at least well enough.
It's not effortless, of course; even as a neophyte director, I know that it takes considerable intentionality and attentiveness to imagine yourself into someone else's life and concerns. It also takes great generosity of spirit: as you share the Scriptural and prayer lives of others, you begin to understand how differently we all respond to, understand, and encounter God. You seek, always, to reverence both the other person's experience and your own; to absorb the similarities and the differences, to recognize that God is reaching out to each of you, and and to know that you can listen contemplatively and imaginatively even if what you are hearing is nothing at all like what you yourself would have come up with. It's not effortless at all.
But there it is. Just as even I, with some considerable practice, can access the notes to a simple Bach composition on the piano and with them, an entire tradition of music, so someone practiced in imaginative interaction with Scripture can access a tradition of prayer that makes it possible to walk with someone through the universal and yet endlessly unique pathway through grief.
I don't think I've ever heard someone well versed in Ignatian practice say, "I can't imagine." I know that these are people whose imaginations are at work all day, who are accustomed to drawing on their interior resources in all circumstances, and to allowing them to expand whenever they seem inadequate to a particular situation. God's gift of imagination is how we find God in all things, even ~ somewhere, someday ~ in this wilderness of sorrow.
(Cross-posted from Desert Year.)
Monday, November 30, 2009
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come, raise the song of harvest home.
All the world is God’s own field, fruit unto His praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown unto joy or sorrow grown.
First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.
For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take His harvest home;
From His field shall in that day all offenses purge away,
Giving angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store in His garner evermore.
Even so, Lord, quickly come, bring Thy final harvest home;
Gather Thou Thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin,
There, forever purified, in Thy garner to abide;
Come, with all Thine angels come, raise the glorious harvest home.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
This is different. This is so different.
Everything has to go.
OK, not everything. Not much of anything exterior, really. The house is still (barely, per usual) standing , the Quiet Husband is still employed, I am still in school. The Gregarious Son and The Lovely Daughter are employed and moving forward, and working to heal a little. We are all trying to heal a little.
But the interior everything ~ it has to go. I have found virtually nothing in a traditional life of Christian faith and practice, at least as I once knew it ~ and I knew it pretty well ~ to sustain me. I remember that a year or so ago, a fellow blogger wrote frequently of feeling shielded under God's wing. No wing for me. One of my professors, when I visited him last spring to seek some academic advice, apparently felt obligated to offer some of what must have seemed to him to have been kindly words of pastoral assurance. It was all I could do to escape his office without throwing up. I have had a number of conversations with others who have experienced similar depths of trauma in recent years ~ and very few have found in church a place of respite or solace.
I have found nothing in my own efforts. I have been busily erecting walls of self-defense against the endless waves of sadness and anger but there is, in fact, no technology available for building walls thick enough to withstand them. I know that, of course. The primary emphasis of the program which I attended a few weeks ago on death and dying was on the need to go deep into and all the way through sorrow in order to make any sense at all of it and to absorb it into the rest of your life. That was not news. But the reality is that the dailiness of life requires a good deal of wall-building. The balance ~ between the barriers you need to secure in place to walk through the grocery or to withstand a basic class discussion on baptism (oh, right, actually I didn't make it through that one . . .) and the openness and honesty needed in order to confront and accommodate one's real life of struggle and sorrow ~ the balance is a tenuous one to maintain. It's no wonder that bereaved people tend to isolate themselves. I'm certainly much more content when I do.
I like that word, accommodate, at least for now. I've read several comments by parents of children who have died by suicide to the effect that acceptance of our loss will never be a possibility, but that accommodation is a realistic hope. I looked it up in the thesaurus and, while some of the synonyms make sense in this context and some do not, the one that resonates with me is attune. We do have to make room for and host this terrible reality, whether we want to or not, but it is perhaps an additional goal to attune ourselves to the nuances of loss and pain in this world, beyond ourselves.
To dismantle and to re-attune who we are, how we hear, what we see, how we know and how we understand. It seems to me an optimistic approach, given that our lives have been pretty well smashed into little bits of broken debris.
(And here's something interesting, for the academically inclined: For that mammoth paper I've finished on Psalm 88, I did a little research on the word mishbarim (breakers), because of the line in verse 8, "Every breaker of yours knocks me down." It seems that the word mishbarim is used in ancient Semitic writings in two fundamental ways: to mean either "waves" in the context of the sea, or "pangs," as in birth pangs (which of course, come in waves). In either case, it refers to powers that shatter or break. In one text in the Dead Sea Scrolls (no no no, of course I haven't read the DSS ~ but I can read about them), the images of birth pangs and the waves of a storm at sea are combined, and the mythologies of other Mediterranean cultures are filled with references to waters, waves, and floods of chaos.)
I am quite taken with that information; that for thousands of years people of a multitude of cultures have melded wave imagery for sorrow and brokenness with wave imagery for birth, and have woven both strands into their sacred texts.
Many (many!) years ago, before my children were born, I read some words of wisdom in some magazine article or other. In response to someone's Yuppie-oriented reluctance to have children for fear that they would change her life, the writer suggested that no one should have children until and unless she wanted to change her life ~ that that is the point, to want to change your life by bringing the abundance of love into it in a form that will change it in every possible dimension. To welcome mishbarim, both literally and figuratively.
Well. One does not want or welcome the mishbarim of the death of a beloved child. But here they are. Breakers and birth pangs, the complete dismantling of the old outlook and understanding.
Can it be reshaped, perhaps tentatively and gingerly, with something fragile and frail? That's what I'm going to imagine this Advent. I'm going to spend some time over in my Advent blog, and I'm going to take at least part of it to explore the Advent of the Heart words of Alfred Delp, S.J. Alfred Delp was a Jesuit caught up in the Holocaust. He shares a great deal in common with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose work we read a bit of in school last quarter; both were engaged in resistance work against the Nazis, both were imprisoned, both were executed shortly before the end of the war. (Interestingly, according to the introduction to this particular book, during his imprisonment Father Delp received assistance and care from a Lutheran pastor, and is probably quoting Martin Luther at one point. It would appeal greatly to my ecumenical leanings to know that Deitrich Bonhoeffer received care from a Cathoic priest as well. I have certainly heard him quoted in Catholic sermons. One never knows.)
At any rate, Advent of the Heart has popped up on my computer screen via various sources over the past couple of weeks, so I am taking that to mean something. There was nothing fragile or frail about Alfred Delp or his faith as he confronted evil and chaos during Advent. Nothing about Bonheoeffer or his, either. Mishbarim in both of its meanings, and neither of them ever forgot it, whereas I am much more inclined to let myself be shattered rather than reborn.
May this Advent be for the latter, even if in only the smallest of ways. For the tiniest flicker of candlelight in the midst of all this darkness.
Cross-posting at Desert Year.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
In the meantime, the wonderful Kristin Chenoweth with the Boston Pops ~
And yes, Josh, I have been changed for the better, and for good.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
What do you want so much that you think about it all the time? If you’re younger, maybe it’s a video game, or a particular soccer ball, or some new music for your ipod. Those of us who are a bit older have different material desires – a certain piece of jewelry, perhaps, or maybe something for the house. Perhaps it’s the intangibles that stir up our longings -- a new job? The resolution of a medical problem? A chance to travel to see our families again?
What Hannah wanted more than anything else was a child -- a male child, to be specific. At least the story seems to tell us that that’s what she wanted. She was one of two of Elkhanah’s wives, and his other wife had children and Hannah didn’t. Elkhanah loved her more than he did his other wife, and did more for her, and told her how much he loved her, but the other wife taunted her and gave her a hard time and generally made her life miserable, and besides – in her culture, the production of children was what made a woman’s life meaningful.
Hmmmmm….did Hannah really just want a child, or want a child for the usual reasons we think of for having a child? Maybe not. When Hannah went to God with her longing for a child, she promised that she would consecrate his life to God; she promised that she would turn him over to God. She wasn’t looking to complete a family in the usual way – she wasn’t planning to keep her family together. She wasn’t anticipating the enjoyment of raising a son and watching him grow into adulthood – she was planning to give him away to God.
The evidence, it seems to me, is that what Hannah wanted was purpose and meaning in her life. And in her time and place, purpose and meaning for a woman was all tied up in bearing male children. No wonder Elkanhah’s other wife lorded it over her – the other wife was the successful one, the one whom in the eyes of the community had it made. Hannah had the love of her husband, but without a child she was unable to fulfill her role as an adult marred woman; her life seemed to have little point.
It’s hard for us to understand today, in a world in which women, and men, have many different choices about ways in which to live out meaningful lives. I don’t need to detail them – we all know that we have a multitude of options and choices. But in Hannah’s time things were very different. Her husband, Elkhanah, was actually something of a radical– he thought that she should be satisfied with his love, should see her life as valuable because he loved her. But Hannah didn’t see it that way. She thought that meaning and purpose could be found only in bearing a child.
Or……….. did she? Maybe Hannah wanted something more. Most of us, if we want something deeply, whether it’s a video game or a new job, so deeply that we pray for it -- our idea is that God will fulfill our dreams and we will be grateful and then we will go on about our lives, living them pretty much as we always have. We may find more meaning and satisfaction in a life with some new music to listen to, or we may find new purpose in a more challenging job, or a job with a better future – but we tend to stop there.
Hannah didn’t. Hannah didn’t stop there. She could have prayed for a son and promised to be grateful for his arrival and to care for him and raise him well, living out her life as a respected member of her community. She could have – but she didn’t. Hannah wasn’t just hoping for a child, and she wasn’t just seeking a meaningful life. She was looking to align herself completely with God’s purposes – to fulfill God’s desires. That would mean a big sacrifice for her – she would give her lovely child back to God when he was three or so years old -- but that’s what she wanted. And so she promised God that if God would give her a male child, she would consecrate that child to God as a Nazorite. He would be prohibited from certain ordinarry bodily practices, like shaving his head. He would be precluded from indulging incertain delights – like drinking wine. He would be set aside as someone who would become wholly God’s servant as a priest and prophet.
Maybe we should re-think those things we want so much. Maybe we should re-think what and how we want. Maybe Hannah sets the standard. A new item for the house, a new job Something that will give more meaning and purpose to our lives -- maybe that much desired college admission letter? Not enough on its own. Hannah shows us that we might want to think in terms of aligning ourselves with God’s purposes, that our desires are found within God’s desire for us. And those desires – when they are part of God’s purposes for our lives – they always turn out to be about service.
You already know this, of course. I’m just reminding you. Those of us who are teachers, those of us who are running a store or working in a business or government office, those of us who are in school or raising a family – we know, intuitively, that in our service to others we are living out God’s purposes. But might we think about it a bit more? – might we be a bit more intentional about what we are doing? – how might we, quietly, in our prayers, make a consecration , a donation, of what we do to God? How might we consecrate our students, our customers, our co-workers, our teachers and professors, our own children, to God?
Especially, we might ask – especially when we don’t know the end result! So often we have no idea – will that student perhaps grow up to be an astronaut? Will that customer go home, grateful for a kind encounter in our store? Will our children live good lives, helpful to others?
We don’t know, and again we look to Hannah. Hannah had no way of knowing that the baby she cried out for, the child she consecrated to the Lord, would become the prophet and priest who interfaced between the people of Israel and God over the issue of a king for Israel. All Hannah knew was that she longed for a child, longed for a life of purpose and meaning, longed to align herself with the desires of God. Many years after Samuel’s birth,
If we are able to absorb Hannah’s story into our own, we may find that we live a similar narrative. Our own versions, of course – we face different cultural expectations and limitations in terms of what constitutes a meaningful life in its specifics. But when we seek purpose in our lives by offering God’s greatest gifts back to God in service to others, we not only follow Hannah’s example – we follow someone else who would have known her story. Jesus, in aligning himself entirely with his Father’s purposes, lived his earthly life and then lost it in willing donation on our behalf. In seeking to place our deepest desires within the desires of our God, we imitate Hannah in her quest for a child and her gift of that child to God, and we imitate Jesus in his eternal quest to embody God’s longings by giving of himself to us. Purposeful lives, it turns out, do not come from receiving what we want, but in giving what we receive. Thanks be to God.
(Image: Admont Giant Bible, Salzburg; c. 1150 ~ Here)
Some things change. Soon there will be a new memorial bench in the cemetery. I stopped by on the way home from church today and concrete has been poured. Maybe the bench next week?
Today I assisted at my first baptism, and remembered the baptisms of my children, and then I went and stared at the concrete among the faded leaves on the cemetery ground.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
In the deep fall
don't you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don't you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think
of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don't you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Monday, November 09, 2009
Sunday, November 08, 2009
I just found this article, which might be of interest to anyone wondering about silent retreats.
For the next couple of hours, I am contemplating Mad Men.
But in the background: hopefulness for next summer.
As I used to tell my students: everything is connected.
(I have no idea what the connection between Mad Men and a silent prayer retreat might be, other than that those are the two things on my mind at the moment.)
This morning, as I was shaking hands outside the sanctuary, someone addressed me as "Reverend" for the first time.
As in, "Good morning, Reverend."
Something to think about.
(Image: Iona Abbey, 2006)
"Ironically, one may have great trouble praying after going through an especially beautiful, consoling experience. Such experiences often imply considerable unconscious threat to self-importance in spite of their overt beauty. One's reaction to this may sometimes be to turn away from prayer for a while, and one may be mystified as to the reason."
~ Gerald May, Care of Mind, Care of Spirit (1982)
(Cemetery Image, 2004)
If God has made all things by the Word, then each person and thing exists because God is speaking to it and in it. If we are to respond adequately, truthfully, we must listen for the word God speaks to and through each element of creation ~ hence the importance of listening in expectant silence.
~ Rowan Williams
Where God Happens (2005)
(Image: St. Augustine, 2004)
Saturday, November 07, 2009
Two papers to finish and a mammoth final exam to prepare for ~
Some unbloggable medical challenges ~
A dear friend's wedding ~
Trying to figure out what to do about the holidays this year, holidays which it would be my preference to ignore (and the first one is only a couple of weeks away!) ~
Yeah, that's enough for a couple of weeks.
One of the little things I have to do is send in my deposit for an 8-day summer retreat here. After last year's debacle, I am equal parts anticipation and apprehension. I'm going to start small by taking a couple of days of silence for myself at the local retreat house when we have spring break in March to see how I manage.
Anyway, I am thinking about retreats and silence and attentiveness and mindfulness and all those good things, all in the context of the weeks ahead. So I think for the next while I'll try to find something on which to focus each day and post it here. And by then . . . it'll be time to move over to the Advent blog.
I think I'll go ahead and start right now by posting a St. Augustine (the place, not the man) reminder that there are worlds and creatures beyond the ones which consume our ordinary and frenzied lives:
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Antibiotics making me very drowsy. Not good as final papers and exams and course of drugs cover the same next 10 days. If it were raining right now I would crawl right back into bed and go to sleep.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
I feel like a pioneer woman who took a hatchet to her foot.
The doctor was really nice and very efficient and when she was in school she lived a couple of blocks from my home.
But I don't think this qualifies as "it might throb a little when the anesthetic wears off."
I'll spare you a google-image photo.
Sunday, November 01, 2009
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Two weeks of classes and a week to finish up papers and finals left in this term. I am trying to work very steadily, because I know that if the flu arrives I will be out for a week of my own and even more should one of the kids get it. I'm very much on target, but I can't say that I'm ahead. Although if I stay healthy, that could change in a day or two.
Due to the workload, I'm reading other things that are manageable in very small chunks these days. On my "current" stack:
a book of Anne Sexton poems,
a book of Mary Oliver essays (and a few poems),
a von Balthasar book that's been lying around here for awhile.
And I picked up Rowan Williams' new book on Dostoyevsky at the library this week, but that probably needs to await the end of finals.
The Lovely Daughter has just appeared in her neon pink wig, pink graduation dress, pink Tinkerbell wings, and purple, navy, and green suede books, ready to venture forth as a pink fairy. She and the one of her friends who is also living at home this year have to go by their middle school science teacher's house. He's the one who told them, when they protested a class trip to D.C. over Halloween, that they were too old for trick or treating. Consequently, the four best friends made sure to go to his house every year while they were in high school, and it only seems appropriate that they should return as college graduates.
I got my hair cut this afternoon. Basic bob per usual. As he finished, the hairdresser asked if I'd like him to touch up my make-up. What make-up would that be, I wondered? There is another world out there.
Thirty minutes and we've only had eight trick-or-treaters. It's cold, cold enough that I reminded Gregarious Son of the year he and Chicago Son went out with another set of twin boys from their class ~ in the snow. We had a lot of fun in those days. A beauitful little girl from down the street just came by, and we discovered that she doesn't at all remember the Lovely Daughter, who babysat for her family for years. Of course, the pink wig might have something to do with it.
Well, that's my exciting life. I guess I have to go back to work and then eventually out to dinner.
Monday, October 26, 2009
~ Had a three-hour lunch with the associate pastor at my field ed church; very informative and not at all optimistic about call possibilities in my Presbytery.
~ Went for a walk in the cemetery; discovered that the holes are dug for our memorial bench; had a long phone conversation with a friend about a possible memorial scholarship at the kids' Montessori school; took some photos.
~ Went to a church where I sometimes sit to pray; on the way in, ran into a Jesuit I know who told me about his sister's having lost a 19-year-old son to a car accident many years ago; went inside and sat there and cried.
~ Stopped at the grocery on the way home to pick up a couple of necessities, including a pumpkin.
~ The Lovely Daughter made us stir-fry for dinner; it was very, very good.
~ Packed up for tomorrow's drive; going to try to upload some pictures. Maybe one or two will show up here.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
It was pretty painful to watch, if you happened to be me.
I used to be that mother and my family used to be that family. It was hard to watch them as the person I am now. It was hard to think about myself having made similarly enthusiastic presentations in oblivion to their possible effects. It is hard to think about ministry and how to conduct church services in which the pews are filled with people experiencing all kinds of hardships as well as all kinds of joys.
After they stepped down, we sang the last hymn, and then it was time to leave. I was pretty near the front of the very large sanctuary and I wasn't in a hurry, so as I reached the back, few people were left. But among those who were still there was a small group in one pew: a young girl sobbing into the lap of the woman next to her, another girl about her age curled up in a man's embrace, and a couple of other adults looking fairly dazed and disconnected.
I felt as if I should understand the little scene playing out before me, but there was no reason that I would. And then I thought: I wonder if that's the family of the woman who died in a car accident a few weeks ago, leaving twin daughters behind.
If it was ~ how excruciating it must have been for those girls, to see another mother from their school laughing and talking about all the things that she does with her children. All the things their mother will never again do with them. To see their classmates smiling and waving at the congregation. It was hard for me and I am all grown up and I have had some time.
I wanted to stop and say, I know. I know what it's like to lose your mother in an automobile accident. I know what it's like to grow up without a mother. But of course, I didn't, because I didn't know anything at all about the family sitting there and, even if they were who I think they were, I am a complete stranger to them. But I do think about the family I know of, and pray for them often.
And then I drove home, and thought about a conversation my daughter and I had had earlier in the day, in which she had poured out some frustrations to me and had then begun to talk with delight about something else. And I thought about what it is like not to have those conversations with your mother. Not even to know such conversations exist until you have a daughter of your own.
I hope those girls have daughters someday.
I hope they get to wave good-bye as I did today, to a 22-year-old woman sporting a bright pink wig, off to meet a friend at her Montessori school's Halloween party, eight years after she last attended that party as a student. I hope they get to live as mothers the lives they are missing out on as daughters.
I hope they can someday find a way to be in church, filled with peace rather than with sorrow.
I hope I can, too.
Cross posted at Desert Year.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
In my googling around to figure out my pathetic state and what to do about it, I found a youtube ~ a young (I presume) woman's video of her messed-up toe with her voiceover saying "Look at my toe -- owie, owie ~ it's so sore ~ owie, owie." Just how I feel! She comments that she can't believe it's her most viewed video. Misery loves company, I guess.
Toe nothwithstanding, The Lovely Daughter's Americorps colleagues came for breakfast this morning en route to Children's Hospital Down The Hill where they are hosting a Halloween party. They are all doing college counseling in Big City's Less Than Stellar School System and today's is a required service project but, required or not, they are a terrific group of young people. They left here after pancakes et al. as Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, a vampire, a fairy princess, a witch, Harry and Hermione, and I guess a couple of characters I can't remember.
I spent the rest of the morning at the local Jesuit retreat house with a woman I met when I co-led a retreat there last spring. Like me, she is without one of her adult children; in her case the mother of three of her young grandsons. We talked, not surprisingly, for two hours. There was a retreat going on at the center and we had planned a fall walk, but her hip and my toe (owie, owie) kept us inside and we found a tiny chapel in which to sit, undisturbed and undisturbing.
Nap time, I do believe.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
This morning I am doing the readings in the main service, and tonight I am preaching in a smaller service. My sermon is sort of on the topic of gratitude, which you can imagine is a difficult one for me. I try to remember the words of one of my seminary friends, now out in the world and looking for her first call, when I questioned my capacity for taking Homiletics last spring. "You will be studying and proclaiming the Word; what could be more healing?"
I have this to say: Healing comes in odd forms.
As I am getting ready this morning, I've read two things that apply. The first, a wonderful and brilliant sermon from Songbird, which I suggest you read in its entirety, closes with the following:
" . . . Jesus is turning the whole idea [of greatness] upside down for us, reminding us how far we have to go to go with him. He made it plain how far you have to go: all the way to the bottom, out of love for all. . . . "
The second, quoted on The Website of Unknowing, is from Parker Palmer's The Promise of Paradox.
"The way of the cross is often misunderstood as masochistic, especially in an age so desperately in search of pleasure. But the suffering of which Jesus spoke is not the suffering that unwell people create for themselves. Instead, it is the suffering already present in the world, which we can either identify with or ignore. If pain were not real, if it were not the lot of so many, the way of the cross would be pathological. But in our world — with its millions of hungry, homeless, and hopeless people — it pathological to live as if pain did not exist. The way of the cross means allowing that pain to carve one’s life into a channel through which the healing stream of the spirit can flow to a world in need."
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
As a spiritual director, I use some of Joseph Tetlow's materials. He's a contemporary of my first Jesuit director, and the interview gives a little sense of the gentleness, intellect, and insight behind the generation that re-thought Ignatius' work and made it accessible to those of us who would never have encountered it without their efforts.
Monday, October 12, 2009
I finishd the editing on a 5-page outline for a group project. Two of us are rather particular about our work and two are not. Would it be snarky of me to say that in a couple of years the two young men will have found calls to churches before they even graduate and the two middle-aged women may stil be looking? And that that division reflects the division of labor on our project?
To be fair, the young guys DO NOT HAVE ANY IDEA what they are overlooking. I suppose I was very much the same as a young lawyer, and I must have driven my older colleagues equally crazy.
I am going to take another stab at my paper on virtual life and bodily life. It's supposed to be 750 words and when I got it down to 800 on the sixth try I decided I could not allocate any more time to it. But now it's kind of a game, and also a way of procrastinating Hebrew. I was going to write something very personal about blogging, but I ended up with something far more academic and only the vaguest reference to my online life. A lot of what I do in seminary is connected to my personal and family tragedy, but it's not necessary that everything be.
I AM going to do some Hebrew eventually. And clean the kitchen and vacuum the first floor. I would clean my car but -- it's not here, too bad.
On the subject of blogging, I'm also watching the poll over at Desert Year. I am fascinated by the fact that at the moment, two-thirds of the respondents describe God has having been far way or absent at the time of their deepest loss. Obviously this is a completely inaccurate poll of only 36 people so far. But the question I have at the moment: does that percentage reflect something vaguely accurate about the experience of loss, or does it merely reflect that people are less likely to respond to a question when their experience has been positive and more likely when they have something negative to say?
"The downside of technological communication emerges when we permit it to disrupt existing real-life relationships. It tempts us to forget that which embodied community reminds us: relationship requires engagement with others. Texting or twittering during church services or meetings raises serious issues of attentiveness. The immediacy of virtual interaction exacerbates impulsivity and discourages more measured and thoughtful communication. Bonhoeffer’s insistence upon the value of a community life paced by monastic tradition speaks to this concern. It is difficult to advance the “encounter [with] one another as bringers of the message of salvation” when we are engaged in constant expression of self."