Thursday, December 31, 2009

Just Confirming....

that I say exceptionally stupid and hurtful things, too.

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

Florida Musings

Although I am far from home and school, I'm thinking a lot about ministry, because I am preparing for the PC(USA) ordination exams, which are now less than four weeks away, and I'm preaching in my field ed church on Sunday.

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

Florida Memories

It's been nearly 24 years since we took our kids (just the two 18-month-old boys boys at that time) to St. Augustine Beach for the first of what would become two decades of annual visits. One day, on a morning just like this - clear and cool and sunny -- I discovered, as I was getting dressed, that Josh was awake in his crib, and asked if he wanted to go out for a walk with me. Of course he was enthusiastic, and so at probably about 7:00 am I carried him and one of the strollers down to the beach and pushed him along the water for a mile or two.

The ocean sparkled in the sunlight, and Josh was so blonde and so full of joy.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Making Room at the Inn

When our children were growing up, it was very easy to make room. It seemed that the more our lives filled, the more room there was ~ for more energy, more light, more people: more joy. When other kids showed up, we folded them in to whatever we were up to. When my grandmother, well into her 80s and not terribly mobile, came for Christmas week a few times, we made up a bed in the dining room and worked dinner for a couple of dozen people around it. When Hannukah and Christmas fell at the same time, there were children lighting candles in our living room for both. I would like to think that if Mary and Joseph had shown up during Christmas Dinner, I would have asked one to light the menorah and the other to stir the gravy, and moved ourselves, as we often did, to the fold-out couch in the (chilly) sunroom so that our guests could have our room.

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.

Merry Christmas.

Image of nebula from

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Unexpected Connections

In the first months after Josh died, about the only place I went to church was the nearby Carmelite monastery. Their usual masses are at the crack of dawn, but on Tuesdays they celebrate at the much more reasonable time of 5:00 pm.

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.

A New Year

For all intents and purposes, a new year has begun. The longest day and the lowest sun are behind us.

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.

(Image: Here.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Meditation for the Longest Night

Tonight Musical Friend, whose husband died in March 2008, and I are going to a Blue Christmas Service together.

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

Long Week Ahead

Maybe I closed my Desert Year blog a week too soon . . .

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

The Best Gift You Could Give

If you know someone who's lost a child recently ~ or ever ~ sit down this week-end and send them a Christmas note ~ email or snail mail, it doesn't matter ~ and let them know, as specifically as you can, that you remember their son or daughter.

It will be the best Christmas gift they receive.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I Would Like To Take All The Credit

. . .but I think I get none.

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

RevGal Meet-Up

Well . . . sort of . . . on the phone anyway: I got to meet Mags!

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!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Immaculate Conception: Something to Think About

Although there's a great deal in Catholicism that I appreciate, I'm not up on all the different observances, and so today's Feast of the Immaculate Conception wasn't on my radar screen. I don't know whether or not Mary was conceived or born without sin; it's not a concept that's part of my theology one way or the other.

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.

Stuck, Stuck, Really Stuck

I think I made a big mistake.

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

Ignatian Accompaniment Through Grief

I've had a lot of time in the past fifteen months to reflect on what it means to accompany someone through terrible loss ~ what it means in general, what it means for me as a devastated mother, what it means for me as a spiritual director, as a would-be pastor or hospital or hospice chaplain. What is good and helpful and considerate? What is not?

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.)