Thursday, May 31, 2012

Solitude, a spiritual practice

Solitude, and a life of solitude are two different things, writes Chittister in the eighth chapter of "Called to Question." Both are spiritual disciplines and practices in many faith traditions. The Christian faith has numerous saints (Julian of Norwich, for example) who lived a life of solitude, alone in a dwelling on the grounds of a convent. People who live a life of solitude spend their days and nights completely alone, except for the occasional visitor who comes seeking spiritual advice.

Solitude is a desire for some time out, a space to soothe the soul and enable one to become useful again.

I have never had a desire to live a life of solitude. The idea of being perpetually alone completely unsettles me. In fact for part of my life I couldn't handle being alone for more than a few hours or a day. I hated being alone at night. I didn't know what to do with myself. I couldn't read because the aloneness was deafening. I couldn't work because the alonesnes drove me to distraction. I think I was prone to panic attacks, although in those days panic attacks were not diagnosed. I felt crazy in my inability to be alone.

But slowly, over time, I gained the ability to be alone. Now I yearn for solitude. But I yearn for it as means to restore my equanimity from so much time with people, from spending hours with words, from having my head and heart and spirit full. I yearn for solitude so I can empty myself in order to be made full again.

This ability to be alone, and the yearning for it, has come from years of hard work. I had to go through some therapy and some spiritual direction. I had to acquire the ability to not be afraid of my own inner life and self. Until this moment I've never really thought of it this way. Chittister's reflections on our spiritual life are helping me understand the powerful depth of contemplative, inner work, and its potential for transformation from the inside out.  She writes:

"Solitude brings the raw material of life to the surface of our souls. It turns an inner light on the external chaos of our lives and requires us to come to grips with it." (pg 68)
No doubt, this is exactly how I felt when I was alone - profoundly afraid. I would not have described the fear as she has. But she is right, my external life was in chaos but it was so because my spiritual life was untethered. Curiously enough my response to this particularly chaotic time of living alone was to join a group of Buddhists who practiced daily chanting. We would chant alone once a day and or with the entire group. The chanting and teachings began to anchor me. Eventually I pushed back at this particular form of Buddhism, it touted too many Western values of success - "chant for what you want and the Universe will give it to you." That way of thinking felt wrong to me. But nonetheless, this practice of daily prayer is what eventually led me back to Christianity and the realization that I needed to find a church community to be in relationship with.

I needed community in order to be comfortable with solitude.

Chittister goes on to write: 

"(Solitude) turns an inner light on the external chaos of our lives and requires us to come to grips with it. Then the questions speak to us loud and clear: What should I be doing that I'm not? What am I doing that should go? What sand has collected in my soul that must be dredged away?"
No doubt these are the questions that rose in me as I began to chant and re-engage in meditation. I learned to meditate when I was 19 and Transcendental Meditation was all the rage at my University. But I lost interest in it. Over the years I have stopped meditation and then returned to it anew. By and large I have meditated consistently since I found my way back to Christianity - only now it is part of my daily prayer time. Anyway, in that chanting and meditation time I felt these same questions within me. And the unexpected answer that arose was "I practice Christmas and Easter as spiritual events, not social or cultural, so I must be a Christian! - Well, then I guess I better figure out how to live as a Christian."

Living life as a Christian means living life in community. A church community. And, whereas before I was terrified of Christianity - a fear born from my experience in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics - a fear rooted in the idea that to be a Christian meant one had to be a certain kind of Christian because anything else doomed one to eternal hell. I could not abide by that - in fact such a concept of a narrow, angry God who was always on the watch for my (our) failures - drove me away from church. The God of my prayer life and spiritual life, even as a child, was a God of love and compassion. I don't know how I knew this, I just did. And I believed it completely, still do.

(even though I am critical here of the LDS and Roman Church, I have experienced much in and through them that has shaped and formed me, I am grateful for them. I just can't abide by some their teachings...)

The God of love and compassion that I have come to understand more fully since I have returned to church is not a naive God, nor one with rose colored lenses, nor a warm fuzzy God. This God of love and compassion requires us to be accountable for all the ways we contribute too brokenness in the world and in our lives. Broken relationship of all sorts. We are called to tend too and mend those broken places. There is nothing easy, naive, or rosy about that calling.

The function, Chittester writes, of a life of solitude is not protection from the noise. It is not all smiley and "happy" is, she say, "eternal confrontation with the noise inside us." No wonder I was terrified.

Now, anchored in a life of prayer and community, I often filled to overflowing with words. I write, I create, I speak with words all day long. I listen until I am stuffed. Words. I even work on a project called "WordsMatter" - as if I didn't have enough words in my life. But as a result of being tethered to a faith community and practice, I am able too, even yearn for, solitude. Time to just be.

Chittister writes:

What is needed is honesty of heart and some kind of periodic distance from the daily that it takes to cure ourselves of the infectious disease of a noisy and aimless life...time to give ourselves back to ourselves."
My life is not noisy and aimless, but it can begin to feel that way when I do not tend to my inner life and carve out time for solitude. Living life in community, developing spiritual practices anchored in the tradition and history of the church, have enabled me to give myself back to myself. Because it is that journey that is ultimately leading me to God.

And, according to Chittister, this is the journey that what will lead each of us to our true selves, in whatever way we understand the Divine, the great mystery of God.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Path of Life

"You show me the path of life; in your presence these is fullness of joy." (Psalm 16)

The path of life is a circuitous one. Chittister describes this in the seventh chapter of "Called to Question," but I understand this reality from my own life. I spiral through times of joy and sorrow, fear and anguish, delight and peace. Sometimes the spiral feels out of control, sometimes it feels like a gentle path.

"The path of life is much more than a simple career placement. It is an attitude of mind, an orientation of heart, a quality of soul, a sum of all learnings." (Called to Question, pg 59)
Life is about learning, growing. More than the reality of the situations we are in, life is about what we learn from the circumstances. It is in the learnings that we grow and become fully human. Life tests us and we should test life back. Ignatius called this process, "self-examination." He wasn't talking about looking at one's hand or face. He was talking about a daily process of considering all of one's actions and thoughts, and wondering about them - how did my actions and my words work today toward the love and compassion of God? How have I been loving and compassionate, or not? Where are the broken places in my life? And what have I done to mend them? And where are the broken places in the world around me, and what have I done to mend those?

Life is a spiritual journey, Chittister writes, which takes a lifetime to bring to fullness of the spiritual self. It takes a lifetime to grow one's spiritual insight. But in the process we discover that how we "see" things comes from the center of the soul. She writes:

"We don't 'find' spirituality or 'get' spirituality or 'develop' spirituality. We are simply spiritual creatures who spend a great deal of our lives trying to avoid or deny of ignore the implications of that."

Perhaps it is a paradox that even the reluctance to surrender to new growth shapes us and informs our spiritual beings. We cannot become static. Propelled from the inside out the search continues.  This is our inherent nature, the core of our spiritual beings, our true self, moving within us, moving us along the path of life.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

God Calling

Yesterday I read chapter six in Chittister's book, "Called to Question" - which focuses on being called. She anchors this reflection in two snippets of scripture:

"For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29)


"You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding Spirit of God.' (First Peter) 

From this chapter I launched into what I thought was going to be a reflection on being called. I ended up going elsewhere with that reflection and so return today to the notion of being called.

Chittister says, and I agree:

"...everybody lives to do something that only they can do. Everyone of us is called, by virtue of what we love and what we do well, to give something to the world that will bear the stamp of our presence here. We are called to add something to the creation of the universe."
The baptism rite in the Episcopal Church, and the teachings about baptism, point to this same concept - we all are called and we all are gifted by the Spirit. I said as much in my homily on Sunday when we celebrated Pentecost and a baptism. Holding a more expansive understanding of God's action and Spirit in the world, I think that all people are called and imbued with the Spirit. As Christians we simply see that calling through the lens of Christianity, of what God is doing through the Trinity. Other faiths have their lens, and those who proclaim no faith (which was my mother's understanding for much of her life), still have a calling but might describe it as their strengths.

In response to her statement quoted above, Chittister asks, "How?" and responds, "By using what there is in us that we do best."

The road to understanding what we do best is a winding path - which takes us down some faulty trails, some rocky terrain, and makes for rough navigation. Maybe we think we have taken a wrong turn. Maybe we are devastated from a portion of the journey that hurt us and turned out badly. The search is relentless, the finding incomplete.

All because the search itself is the essence of life - a search for the true self.

(now you may see why, yesterday, I thought I was going to write on the search for true self and the naming of my blog....and well, because I write as I think, it ended up going elsewhere...)

Chittister claims that the road that goes to the self is the same road that leads to God. - Isn't that a provocative statement?

Aren't we taught to move beyond the self in order to find God? Curious. Because I think she means both - the road to the self is not a road of self-absorption, but a road of finding and naming who we are in God, and how we, each of us, is contributing to the ongoing act of creation and recreation of life itself. Because - God has called us, named us, and given us the gifts to do so.

"Call sinks its talons into our hearts. The awareness that we are yet meant to do more than we are signals where God lies in wait for us to become what we are meant to be."
Following this trajectory, Chittister states that (in my words) that Spirituality is greater than we are and drives us to find our most authentic self. We are to, as Thoreau wrote:

"Step to the music we hear, however measured or far away..."
Chittister claims that if we are to be spiritual people we must recognize that life is meant to be a growing ground in God. All of life is a growing of ourselves in God. When we are unable to recognize this, unable to nourish our spiritual lives, in whatever tradition speaks most deeply to us, we experience a sense of being lost. Even Carl Jung believed that each of us has a great hole inside our being that yearns to be filled with God. Our efforts to fill that void, that hole, that hunger, with anything other than God leaves us malnourished and unsatisfied: money, wealth, food, drink, drugs, exercise, sex, clothing, and so forth - are meant to enhance our well being and participate in living a healthy life - but they are not the purpose of life.

The purpose of life is growing ourselves in God. And God has given us the means to do so, simply by recognizing our strengths and gifts and living into them. Maybe you have the gift of negotiation? Perhaps you have the gift of turning words into powerful story? Perhaps you have the gift of abstract thinking? Perhaps you have the gift of compassion? Perhaps you have the gift of diplomacy? The gifts are endless. The purpose though is one, recognizing your gift and using it to build up the world, build up and sustain creation justly, with love and compassion, maintaining integrity of self and others, and respecting the dignity of all.


Monday, May 28, 2012

Irrevocable Call

"For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29)

The summer of 2006 was spent in high anticipation, with the hope that I would receive a new call. I interviewed for, what I thought, was the perfect position. I was one of two finalists and really wanted the position.

So it was terribly distressing to me to not be the one called. In God's good grace, and some six years of hindsight, I can say with all confidence that I would have hated the job. That it would have felt confining and stifling, and that my gifts would not have been enabled to flourish.

How very hard it was to trust the Spirit when doors were slammed in my face and I feared that the flaw was in me, (surely I did something wrong in the interview process?) rather than, perhaps, the idea that God had my back.

In my despair, that hot summer of 2006, I found myself searching for "what next?" The parish I was serving, a community I had grown to love deeply, was nonetheless feeling like shackles around my heart. The community was built upon very conservative principles, taught by a priest who had been in place for 29 years, who had very strong feelings about gays and lesbians (Love the sinner, hate the sin - OMG!). The priest was beloved by many. He had a cult following who adored his wife and her ministry of "channeling Jesus" (my words). She believed Jesus spoke to her and gave her messages for specific people and for people in general.

It was hard to follow a ministry like that one. Especially because I have a far more expansive understanding of God's nature: God loves everyone, equally. And, it didn't help that people still went to the former rector and his wife for "words from Jesus." (As if Jesus didn't speak to me, or to any of us, but only to this woman).

That summer I read an article in the Christian Century magazine about an Internet based clergy women's group called The RevGals (RevGalBlogPals). I literally put the magazine down and started this blog.

It was a challenge at first to learn how to manage the "code," to set it up and create links and so forth. But more curious to me was creating a title for the blog. There are many wonderful, creative titles for blogs!
I choose "Seeking Authentic Voice" because I felt as if that was what I was doing in life. Seeking ways in which I could explore my authentic voice because the context in which my voice was primarily expressed was not a place in which I could be truly authentic. It was a place in which every word was carefully spoken, written, expressed. Careful to express a sense of hospitality and love, rather than endorse the narrowness of a tiny God who had strict rules about who could belong to our community.

Seeking Authentic Voice became the place for me to explore words and ideas, hopes and dreams. I was for a time anonymous,  using the pseudonym, "mompriest." (Because I was a mom of adolescent kids and a parish priest in the Episcopal Church - and yes we are called priests). Eventually I switched to using my real name - "Terri" - which seemed to be yet another step in claiming authenticity.

I know I am not a "writer,"  in the "professional" way. I don't think too long and hard about sentence structure - I was bored stiff by technical writing class. My writing is intuitive. It's not exactly how I speak, but it is reflective of how I think. I don't have aspirations to write a book or craft deeply moving essays.

However, it is always my hope that what I write resonates with others.

This blog is more like a public journal. I no longer write much about my personal life. Rather I tend to reflect on that which concerns me in my spiritual life - prayer, faith, religion, spirituality.

In a certain way this blog has become a place for my prayer life. I tend to write in the morning, usually with a comment on a book I am reading (such as Chittister's "Called to Question.") or a poem or prayer. I post my Sunday morning sermons because they are often the fruit of my wrestling with scripture - always a good thing to do I think - wrestle with scripture.Sometimes I post photos. Often I play the RevGals Friday Five.

I no longer feel like I am seeking an authentic voice. I feel like God has landed me in a place where I am able to be fully authentic (thank you God, and the good people who called me here). I recognize what an amazing gift this is, following many years of navigating very rough terrain. True, the journey for authenticity never really ends. But at least now even the journey feels authentic. In these six years I have come to understand more fully the idea that the "gifts and calling of God are irrevocable." Irrevocable because, regardless of where we turn on the journey, what decisions we make or which are made for us, God journeys with, God has our backs.

The authenticity of our calling is to trust that our strengths are gifts for ministry regardless of how we live out those strengths. Each of us has a vocation, whether ordained or not, which can be lived out in an office, the home, a religious institution, or some other way.

All of this is to say, I'm not sure how long I will keep this blog. People rarely comment anymore. Which I know is part of the blog culture. But without people to dialogue with I wonder about my desire to write here. It is beginning to feel too much like a monologue, and I could do that in other ways. So, we'll see, I may decide this summer, after six years, that it's time to move on. Every journey, every call, has twists and turns and new directions....

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Inside Out, God

A little girl was visiting her grandmother one beautiful spring morning. They walked out into grandmother’s flower garden.  As grandmother was inspecting the progress of her flowers the little girl decided to try to open a rosebud with her own two hands.  But no luck! As she would pull the petals open, they would tear or bruise or wilt or break off completely. Finally, in frustration, she said, “Gramma, I just don’t understand it at all. When God opens a flower, it looks so beautiful but when I try, it just comes apart.”  “Well, honey,” Grandmother answered, “There’s a good reason for that.  God is able to do it because God works from the inside out!”

God works from the inside out. Today, the feast of Pentecost, we celebrate God working in as and through us.

Traditionally we say that Pentecost begins with the story we heard in our reading from Acts this morning. But, we might say that Pentecost actually begins, with the words of the angel to Mary, in the Gospel of Luke: “"The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Luke 1:35).  Mary’s response is so powerful that it has become known as the “Magnificat” – we pray it and sing it on Christmas. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,  my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;” proclaims Mary.

The same Spirit responsible for the birth of Jesus is also responsible for the birth of the church.  Remember – Luke and the Book of Acts were written by the same author and are companion stories – Luke tells the story of what God is doing in and through the life of Jesus. Acts tells the story of the formation of the early church and what God was doing through the Holy Spirit. The birth of the church in the first two chapters of Acts parallels the birth of Jesus in the first two chapters of Luke.

In summary we might say that from inside a small room the Holy Spirit speaks to Mary and intervenes in the human condition. From inside a woman’s heart and body, God enters human flesh and is born a baby. From inside the upper room where the disciples hid in fear, the Holy Spirit enters – fear evaporates, and hope prevails. The Holy Spirit sends them all out into the world, filled with the Spirit, to do God’s work of love and compassion. God works from the inside out.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost and the sacrament of baptism – both examples of the spirit moving in and through humanity.

Baptism, along with Holy Communion, are the two primary sacraments of the Episcopal Church – given to us by Jesus through the Holy Spirit. They are sacraments because they reveal the nature of God’s grace. A sacrament is the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible spiritual grace – in other wards the sacraments reveal on the outside of our lives what God is doing on the inside.

So in baptism the grace that is revealed is the love of God acting in human life to restore order out of chaos, new life out death. The Holy Eucharist is a sacrament because it is the ultimate act of hospitality, of God’s love manifest in the life of Jesus. In the sacraments God’s grace is revealed as radical hospitality and love that transforms human life.  

The sacraments of baptism and holy Eucharist reveal God’s grace in the acts of giving, bestowing, and receiving. Each person ends up with a forehead drenched in water and dripping from the oily mark of the cross  - these are signs of God’s abundance of grace, of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon us, and now present within us. The gifts of the Holy Spirit, the special gifts that each of us are blessed with, are enlivened in baptism.  

Over the last five weeks we have heard scripture readings from Acts of the Apostle, which describe the life of the early church – how leaders were picked, how the church was to function, what the disciples were to do. And now we have come to the place in the Acts of the Apostle where the Holy Spirit blew over the gathered disciples and community, and transformed them into the people of God, the Christian Church. The Holy Spirit enlivened the gifts of each and the church was born.

Walter Kasper, a Roman Catholic Cardinal who spent his life working for Christian Unity, says  this about the Holy Spirit’s work in human life: Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain — wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work.

Whenever the Christian community baptizes a new member we renew our baptismal covenant. We renew our commitment to live into the gifts God has given us, to let God work from the inside out.

In just a moment we will baptize Alexander James. For a month we have been praying for Alexander, his parents, god-parents, and this parish. We have prayed for Alexander James, forgoing his surname, because in baptism we all have the same surname – Christian. Today, each of us has the same last name, each of us belong to the same family of God called Christian. Now we welcome Alexander into this family.  May the Holy Spirit fill him with all good blessings and gifts for a healthy spirit filled life of faith. And may the Spirit renew the same in us. May God work from the inside out. May we go out and share the Good News of God’s love for all.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday Five

Sally, over at RevGals offers this Friday Five - a quick one!

 1.What has encouraged you? I have been searching, or actually yearning, for a new Spiritual Director for sometime - every since I left my long time SD in Arizona. Yesterday I had my first session with the woman who I think will be my new SD. I'm excited to begin the journey. It's always good to have someone to companion with and help process life. After some fourteen years with one person and three years without an SD, it's good to get back on track!

2. What has inspired you? I'm reading Joan Chittister, "Called to Question" and am appreciating the way she articulates the "Spiritual/Religious" paradigm. It's provoking me to think somethings through for myself. (See previous posts, and please comment if you are inclined, I am curious what others think).

3. What has challenged you? I have some unbloggable stuff going on in my personal life which needs my attention, a reminder that once a parent, always a parent.

4. What has made you smile? I am excited about the baptism on Sunday - a parishioner family who came to church last summer, then disappeared (because they moved an hour away), but wants to have their baby baptized at our church. I'm so glad to see them again and look forward to this time!

Also, our garden is beginning to really take shape - I have broccoli heads on the plants, ate lettuce from my garden in my salad last night, and am about to plant beans and cucumbers. I just love having a garden!

5. What has brought a lump to your throat or a tear to you eye in a good way? Can't say that anything has done this, at least not so far....

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Prayer is what links the spiritual and the religious, the inner and outer parts dimensions of life. - Joan Chittister, "Called to Question" pg. 44
 Chapter five of "Called to Question" is a reflection on prayer. Chittister tells the story of novitiates in the convent becoming weary of the busyness of life - from chores to worship to chores to worship -no time for ones self was exhausting. The old nuns would laugh as they told the story of women leaving after six months of this busyness because they could get no rest. Chittister says it took her years to get the "joke" to understand why the old nuns laughed in telling the story.

Prayer, for the novitiates who left, was work, an intrusion into private time. But for those whose life is centered in prayer, prayer is time resting in God.

It seems to me that one reason people don't come to church is because it takes too much work to get ready, to drive or walk over, and to sit in the pew for an hour. It's too much work to pray.

Part of me truly understands that. I can be that way too. The more tired I am, the more busy my life is, the more I just want to sit. Or read the newspaper. Or drink a cup of coffee on the deck and watch the birds. I don't want to go anywhere or do anything.

And yet, as Chittister acknowledges, over time the prayers we pray shape and form us. They are the entryway into God. Prayer reminds us of who we are and whose we are and links us to a deep cosmic eternal truth.

I remember having a debate one year with a parishioner. It was an email debate in which he worked hard to argue his point about the "TRUTH." (and the truth did not include ordination of gays and lesbians...). I wrote back long arguments for the wide expansive loving nature of God, in which all of humanity is an expression of God.

Eventually I grew weary of the debate. It was, after all, pointless. He was never going to change his mind, nor was I going to be persuaded by his argument to change mine. I finally ended the debate with a request that he take the matter into prayer and let it resonate in his hear instead of his head. Shortly afterward he left the church. I was heartbroken that one would choose to leave a community one loved just to follow a doctrine in the pursuit of some kind of certainty about the specificity of TRUTH.

It seems to me that much of my struggle with faith, spirituality, religion, practice, and prayer has been about the degree to which I can manage the tension between certainty, truth, and ambiguity.

I have been a practitioner of daily meditation since I was nineteen years old. I am now 55. How I practice daily meditation has changed over the years. What my intention is when I meditate has changed over the years. Since about 1997 my daily meditation has been my time of prayer. I enter into silence and spend about thirty minutes in that space. Some days the time flies by, other days I am restless and struggle. But most days I am drawn to those thirty minutes like I am drawn to a cool drink of water. It sustains me and nourishes me. I have no idea exactly how or why. It's not like anything amazing happens or like I leave the time of meditation with grand epiphanies. Most days I leave the meditation time slightly tired, at first, and then greatly renewed in energy. I like to think it enables me to be more thoughtful, to listen better. I certainly think it helps me be better than I would be otherwise - so the effect of meditating is relative to who I am.

I usually meditate in the afternoons. I usually spend some time in the morning reading and writing - prayer time to start my day. Often I begin my day by reflecting on a poem. Here is one of my favorite.

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

~ Mary Oliver ~


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mystery..a poem

Mysteries, Yes
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
"Look!" and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
~ Mary Oliver ~

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Messy Church Teachings: more thoughts on spiritual and religious

Yesterday I reflected a bit on "spiritual" and "religious," ideas that have spurred several books recently from well known church thinkers. Ideas that seem to point to where "we" are as people of faith - are we spiritual not religious - believe in God in some form but not in the institution of the church? Or religious but not spiritual - believe in the rules of the church but not in the mystery of an unknownable God (well, that might be minimizing the statement, but it points to the essence of the criteria)? Or spiritual and religious - living in the tension of mystery and ambiguity while finding some footing in the teachings and practice of faith community?  My reflection was spurred by Joan Chittister's thoughts on this topic, nuanced by the idea that women have been invisible in much of the church's teachings on God, religion, and living a life of faith.

This morning, while reading chapter four of "Called to Question" I am captivated by this opening journal entry from Chittister:

We can't hear mystery, we can't abide the beneficence of the unknown. We "define" the nature of God, the substance of the Holy Spirit, the persons of Jesus. We dogmatize the unknown and we excommunicate people who dare to wonder. I find it very hard to anymore to abide  the dogmatizers though I sometimes admire their sincerity of "faith." Or is "faith: simply another term for the compulsion to know, and the willingness not to think.
Chittister continues this reflection in chapter four with a look at sin, being sinful, and the messy church teachings that also say that God is all loving, forgiving, and every present. Her struggle is in the idea that sin will be our demise, one wrong sin and we are lost in hell forever. God sits, waiting for us to make a mistake, waiting to catch us in sin, waiting to punish us. Yikes, what kind of a God is this? And how does one reconcile this predatory God with a loving God, a God of compassion? Such thinking is what drove me away from church. I could not reconcile my experience of God, as ever present, consoling compassion, with a God who was waiting to thrust me, or anyone, into the fires of hell.

Figuring out sin, and finding language to talk about it, is crucial to our well being. No doubt there is grave sin, simple sin, all kinds of sin in this world. And each of us sin. Each of use cause brokenness, and contribute to brokenness, in ways known and unknown. Each of us could do a better job of being compassionate and loving.

The key is, as Chittister's says at the end of the chapter, our willingness to be part of the journey. God is ever present, with us every step of the way, in every mess and situation, and joy - God is present. God, being God, desires for all of life, for every situation, to be - or to be restored too - fullness of health and well-being. To be in a creative order - sky and land and water - teeming with life and ordered for wholeness and well-being. And so when life slips into chaos, as it does, as we do, God is there, turning and returning our brokenness into new life. We are invited to join God in this creative process. We will, of course fail from time to time, but the invitation remains.

Chittister concludes:

But life is not about getting God, life is about growing in God. "God called me from the womb," Isaiah says, "and from the body of my mother. God named my name...In God I live and move and have my being...There is, I think, a "call: deep in the human heart, a magnet that takes us first to our true selves and from there into a consciousness of the God who is the call...
The spiritual life is much more simple than we might make it. It is simply the ability to abide in the ambiguity of God, trusting that this mysterious God is present with us always.

In spite of the reality that I am rarely convinced by the definitions the church has created to describe God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, I have come to trust the truth of God's abiding presence because I have found roots in the teachings of the church, in religion. Yeah, I know, this too is an ambiguous statement. I find roots in the teachings of the church even as I am rarely convinced by those teachings. Maybe I am just picking and choosing which teachings to follow - but I don't think so. I think I am convinced by a line of honest, time tested, teachings - just not by the teachings that push for a narrow God who is male only and lies in wait for us to fail so HE can punish us.

Rather, the confession of many people of faith, who have journeyed through challenges and fear, and loss and despair, and the anxiety and tension over the possibility that there is no God - without that testimony, and the assurance that God is there nonetheless - sustains my faith through the rugged terrain of life. I am anchored in being both religious and spiritual because I have found roots in the teachings that sustain the ambiguity.

I am not a systematic theologian. I am just a priest trying to work out why I am both religious and spiritual. And I wonder, where are you in this? Where are you in the messy teachings of the church and the ambiguity of the spiritual life?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Spiritual and Religious

After several weeks of setting aside Chittister's book., "Called to Question," I have once again returned to reading it. I am only on page 22, plodding through slowly as every paragraph calls my attention and stirs my thought process. For the most part I appreciate the way in which she is drawing the conclusion that religion and spirituality are intertwined. For example she writes:

The very purpose of religion is to enable us to step off into the unchartered emptiness that is the spiritual life, freely but not untethered. We have under our feet the promise of the tradition that formed us and the disciplines that shaped our souls. We can then wander...religion gives us the structures that weld the habits and disciplines of the soul into one integrated whole. Those same structures can also, however, smother the very spirit they intend to shape...spirituality is a commitment to immersion in God, to the seeking that has no end.

No doubt I left church because the structure, dogma, doctrine, and practice of church was confining my understanding, my experience of God. I did a lot of wandering in the subsequent sixteen years. It's curious to me, actually. It would have been so easy to just wander off and never return. To just live untethered, and follow the whims of my spirit. I certainly was headed that way, down a "New Age" path of enlightenment. But even I realized that that path was like wandering into an abyss, I needed to be anchored by community. I needed a way to explore and question and search without being lost at sea.

Finding my way back to church has given me a new sense of structure, one within which I can journey freely, but safely. It's not without problems. Even this Church falls, from time to time, too heavily into the confines of human teachings, seeking to limit the expression of God. But nothing in the church requires us to follow that path of human-made limitations. The teachings invite us to explore. Unlike Chittister, limited by the maleness of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, in the Episcopal Church we can explore the female nature of God. But like the Roman Church we seldom do this. Chittister writes:

Key of David we had called God for over a century here and for centuries before that in Europe. We'd (the Benedictine sisters), been singing God's praises as 'Morning Star, rock and refuge of sinners, gate of heaven, dove of peace, wind and fire, and light,' for century after century. They were awesome litanies, time-tested and true tot he God who is everywhere...and, always, always, God was, 'God our Father.' we never, ever prayed to 'God our Mother.' God, the source of creation, God the Eternal Womb, was never - ever- recognized as a mothering God....where were women in these images of God?  And, if they werent' there, what kind of God was this? (pg 32)
I remember working with some of the supplemental liturgical texts being prepared for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. It was 1997 and I was in seminary. One of the images in a Eucharistic prayer spoke of the "waters" of creation "bursting forth from the womb" - and wow! Did that get a lot of push back from the seminary students. Too graphic, no one wanted to think about womb and birthing, not literally anyway.

And yet, isn't the spiritual journey often a messy process? A painful struggle that is also filled with some utterly amazing aspects? If you have ever given birth you know the physicality of the process, but also the emotional and spiritual. Every time I gave birth, I thought, "I want to do this again!" For immediately after the birth, the pain and struggle was forgotten, blessed in the mystery and amazement of new life.

And so Chittister continues:
What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with Gods; own. 'This is wrong,' I said to a sister beside me. 'We have to be patient.' she said back with a smile. I couldn't help but wonder if two thousand years wasn't patience enough for her. I also had to wonder what it said about a women's sense of self that she was willing to become invisible and patient about it.
Finding a God big enough to be God was a spiritual task of no small proportions.
Searching for a "big enough" God has definitely been part of my spiritual journey. A big enough God and yet one that isn't just enabled to be anything "I" make God to be. Finding God as big enough within the structures of a tradition that provides a path through the woods and a compass to navigate the turbulent waters.

This, compass, this path, is for me at least part of why I am both spiritual and religious.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Five: Pests...

Jan, over at the RevGals is having issues with fleas and other weather-affected pests. She offers this Friday Five:

1.What kinds of pests are in your neighborhood or area? We have a ginormous raccoon that frequents the garbage bins for the church, which share a driveway/parking area with me, the church, and the resident caretaker. We have lots of ground squirrels, tree squirrels, rabbits, and deer, which mess with our gardens, trees, and bird feeders. And, a couple of huge woodchucks that live under our deck.....and, because the house was empty for two years and then remodeled, we have had a lot of spiders - constant white house spiders, mostly. Which are no big deal...

But, really nothing all that serious. Much different from the toxic pests we had in Arizona - poisonous spiders, scorpions, snakes, Javelina, coyotes, mountain lion,...

2. Is there a time of year or day that increases their activity? Weather affects their activity or not? The deer and tree squirrels are here year round, but the other creatures tend to hibernate or leave during the winter.

3. Is there any pest that was new to you when you moved to a new location? No, all familiar creatures here.

4. How do you treat insect bites? Are you allergic to any? I take daily doses of seasonal allergy meds - zyrtec - so usually that helps manage any effect I may have from a bite. I do get spider bites once in awhile. And, in some years, mosquito bites, too. But mostly I don't do anything.

5. Anything else you want to write about connected with insects/pests? The photo above is of a wolf-spider. Once, while on retreat at a desert retreat center, I sat on the floor preparing to do some yoga. Suddenly I was charged by a giant wolf-spider. The speed and size of the spider caused me to react quickly - I jumped up and dropped my computer (with the yoga DVD in it) on top of the spider. The spider died, but thankfully the computer was okay.

Friday, May 11, 2012

RevGal Friday Five: Random

In an effort to get to know one another a littel better RevKarla, over at the RevGals, offers this Friday Five on Randomness:

1. What is the first thing that comes to your mind (right now) that you want to share about yourself.  My mother used to tell me that we are related to Mary, Queen of Scots and that one of my paternal ancestors was an Apache who married a man from Ireland. I've never been able to prove either one, but I have always wished I had Navajo ancestors. I value their peacefulness and beautiful baskets and pottery. Apache, at least as they were portrayed in my childhood, were warriors, which is not my thing.

2. What is your favorite piece of jewelry or accessory? Why? For my birthday this year my husband gave me a sterling silver necklace with a dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. I wore it every day. A couple of days ago I lost - somehow the clasp had opened and it fell off. Thankfully he found it near my desk at the office. For Christmas he gave me a couple of sterling silver bracelets, handmade by a local artists. I also love these. None of these are expensive, but they are lovely. I am  fond of bracelets.

3. If you could have a starring role in a T.V. show/movie/series, which one would it be, and what would your character be like? If I were a young woman I'd want to be on "So You Think You Can Dance." If I were a famous woman I'd want to be on "Dancing with the Stars." But, I am neither young nor famous. So, I think I'd like to be religion journalist on NPR or for the Today show and portray the progressive voice of Christianity as one of faithfulness and, yes, orthodoxy - as we say in the Episcopal Women's Caucus - "Justice is Orthodox Theology"....

4. What is one thing you will eat this weekend? My husband and I will both work all weekend. But typically I have soft boiled or scrambled eggs on Sunday morning before I head off to work - I have found that eggs, protein, helps with my stamina. Then, after church I am driving to Chicago. I will have dinner at The Cheesecake Factory in Oak Brook, IL with my daughter, her boyfriend, and his parents. So, there is a chance I will also have cheesecake. I'll be in Chicago for a couple of days taking care of some business, it's my first trip back since I moved to Michigan a year ago.

5. How do you waste time? (If you do, that is...) I can get totally lost on Facebook and reading blogs, a huge time suck. Lately I am working to have more balance between work and my personal life, in particular self care. I am finally re-engaging with yoga, having found (and LOVE) the free video podcasts from Yogamazing. I am also taking classes at the local yoga studio. It is always easier for me to exercise in the warmer weather of late Spring, summer, and fall. In winter I tend to hibernate.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

God Questions: Stunted Growth, a metaphor

As I mentioned yesterday I am reading, again, Joan Chittister's book, "Called to Question," in part as a response to the NPR "Talk of the Nation" interview Theresa McBain, the UMC minister turned atheist. "Called to Question" is a sometimes brutal reflection on the differences and connections between "religion" and "spirituality." Chittister considered this eight years before Diana Butler Bass, Brian McLaren, and Marcus Borg, took it up. Actually, because the book is the culmination of five years of journaling and then the creation of a book she probably started considering this question in the late 1990's. A Roman Catholic nun much of her scathing response to religion is the result of living in the confines of the Roman church and the limitations imposed upon women and laity by the teachings of the church. I appreciate much of what she writes.

This morning I am reading the second chapter of the book. Taking it slowly, pondering the portions I underlined when I read this book the first time. Considering what stands out for me now. In particular I am struck by this:

"Some people who haven't gone to church for years are still very tied to it in psychological ways and never go beyond it....What forms us lives in us forever. The important thing is that it not be allowed to stunt our growth."

In my previous post, and on other occasions, I have reflected on my leaving church and becoming an
"intentionally de-churched" person, and then finding my way back to church. I've been criticized for this and I've been called a heretic more than once. However, as I understand it, I am planted in the bedrock of Episcopal theology and understanding of church and spirituality, somewhere in the center with strong progressive leanings. The Episcopal Church has given me roots and a place to blossom.

But I resonate with the idea of being formed, and influenced by that formation, and the subsequent risk of being stunted in the confines of our reaction to that formation. I left a church I loved because it was stunting my growth and limiting my understanding and experience of God. I understand the risk of moving beyond, asking questions and searching, of living in ambiguity and uncertainty. Although I found my way back to church, in no way has this movement provided me with security. In many ways the questions have deepened, a chasm that lacks clarity. Of one thing I have become sure of, God is always present.

I say that even as I will admit that I often wonder if that is true. Ambiguous, right? I am certain of God's presence and I wonder if it is true, often at the very same time. The certainty usually comes in hindsight. I live in wonder - where is God? How is God acting? What does God desire of me in this situation? Why do I feel so alone in this? I pray, and I tolerate the ambiguity - a point that Robin raised in her comment on my reflection yesterday - "The most important quality for a leader is the ability to tolerate ambiguity. I would say that that's especially true of a leader in faith." Exactly. Because in hindsight I am usually able to "see" how, where, why, when, God was stirring within and guiding me. Perhaps I trust that hindsight, or the potential of it? I trust the nudges, the tugs and pulls. Not at first, but after consideration. Or sometimes as an impulse...but usually after exploration, prayer, consideration.

The second chapter of this book is a compare and contrast of religion and spirituality. One thing I take issue with is her comparing rites with religion and not with spirituality. It may be that I find the rites to be spiritual because I was raised in a non-ritual, non-liturgical church. And as a result I find great meaning and potency in the rites and rituals of church. Which, of course, ties right into her statement about formation, becoming stunted, or growing. I am forever seeking ways to enliven our rites and rituals and draw out of them their spirit-filled potential. It is an area that gives me pleasure in my life as a priest, and one I hope inspires others as well.

I seek to trigger spiritual growth spurts within the very heart of church and religion.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Called to Question

My Facebook and blogging friends have engaged in a conversation following the NPR interview with Theresa McBain which aired on Talk of Nation  with Neal Conan on Monday, May 7 (I tried to create a link to the transcipt but it won't work). McBain is the United Methodist minister who decided she was an atheist and left the ministry. Apparently there is a movement afoot, some 200 former clergy who have joined a cause called "The Clergy Project." Reading the transcript of the interview with McBain was a reminder that in this country we tend to think that Christianity looks a certain way, follows only certain dogmas and doctrines. The religion correspondent for NPR, Barbara Bradley Haggerty, perpetuates this idea, sadly. For me, the real issues that we ought to ponder here is not the shift to atheism, but the idea that people define themselves as atheists because the do not believe the limitations of Christianity as they know it. (And, I suppose this would also be true for those who leave Judaism and other institutions of religion).

Joan Chittister in her book, "Called to Question" writes about her own journey of questioning everything she knows about her religion. She writes, "It is God that religion must be about, not itself. When religion makes itself God, it ceases to be religion...But when religion becomes the bridge that leads to God, it stretches us to live to the limits of human possibility. It requires us to be everything we can possibly be: kind, generous, honest, loving, compassionate, just. It defines the standard of the human condition...religion at its worst is a sham...religion at its best anchors us to the best in ourselves as enables us to find meaning in life." (pg. 14-15)

I know something about this. I left Christianity when I was fifteen and did not return for sixteen years. I left intentionally because I could not believe in the God and the teachings of the church that were held out to me as absolutes for my salvation.

I did not, however leave God.

Maybe that's the difference? I did not leave God. Oh, I tried too. I worked hard at questioning and wondering. No doubt I had days or years when I told myself there could be no God. "God" didn't make sense. But ultimately I was trying to make sense of a God that was supposed to fit into something I could make sense of. When I realized that that was ridiculous I found myself on a path of returning to Church. It helps that I found myself in a church that embraces God as mystery, and doesn't try to have dogmatic answers or tenets of belief that I must adhere too - well, except that we are to love as God loves.

I read "Called to Question" several year ago, but I think I'll spend some time with it once again. Chittisters honest probing speaks to me, resonates with my experience, and offers me perspective. It's not certainty that I yearn for, it's nourishment that sustains me through the questions. I don't want to judge McBain, and others like her on their spiritual journey. I've been there. I will however pray for her, that she finds the courage to explore with depth, rather than reject God simply because she can't reconcile herself to a God defined by narrow human constructs.

Because the truth is, God has never left me. And I'm sure God has not left her.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Sun

Yesterday it rained, slow and steady, with a chill in the air. It was the kind of day that beckons one to stay indoors, curled up with a book, or knitting. It was my day off and I didn't do much of anything. Today the sun rises, and it's back to work. But first a moment of prayer, and a poem.

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone -
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
of every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance -
and have you ever felt for anything

such wild love -
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too turned from this world -

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

- Mary Oliver, "New and Selected Poems"  Volume One, Beacon Press, Boston, 1992

So, off I go, to prepare for a long day of work. A day in which I pray I will not go crazy for power and things but reside in gratitude for the gift of life in all the ways that creations manifests our creators love.

Friday, May 04, 2012

RevGal Friday Five: Birthdays

Kathrynjz over at RevGals offers this Friday Five, with the disclaimer that while she is celebrating the birthday of an adult family member, she is not fond of birthday celebrations:

1.) What is the first birthday you remember? I know my parents always had a simple family celebration for each of our birthdays - usually the birthday person got to choose the meal, either at home or at a restaurant. I do remember my sixteenth birthday, I got a bunch of blue irises from my parents and dinner at a local Mexican restaurant with my bf.

2) Do you recall a favorite gift? Usually I get a gift certificate for a massage (one of my fav), or other little treats. Nothing huge, just nice tokens of affection.

3) Has anyone ever tried to surprise you for your birthday? Did it work? Was it fun? It was my 50th birthday, a day I spent a year preparing for by creating this one I was dreading. Which is weird, because typically birthdays and aging don't really affect me. Anyway, as a family we had plans to go to my  favorite restaurant for dinner. I came home from work to get ready and found that my kids had decorated the house with balloons and streamers and confetti - it was a big surprise, very festive and fun! We did go out for dinner, but the night took on a much more festive flavor.

4) Do you have a favorite birthday dessert? Fancy chocolate cakes - chocolate mouse, chocolate with raspberry filling, chocolate fudge, chocolate. chocolate.

5) Describe what would be your 'perfect birthday.' My birthday is in February - a typically cold winter month in the Midwest, USA. I would love a trip to someplace warm, with my husband and kids, for a short trip - maybe a beach and a good meal. But on the other hand, I am always content with a simple birthday, a good meal and  my family.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012


It is over. What is over?
Nay, how much is over truly.
Harvest days we toiled to so for;
Now the sheaves are gathered newly,
Now the wheat is gathered duly.

It is finished. What is finished?
Much is finished known or unknown;
Was the fallow field left unsown?
Will these buds be always unblown?

It suffices. What suffices?
All suffices reckoned rightly;
Spring shall bloom where now the ice is,
Roses make the bramble slightly,
And the quickening sun shine brightly,
And the latter wind blow lightly,
And my garden teem with spices.

by Christina Georgina Rossetti. We celebrated her feast day from "Holy Women Holy Men" last week, and reflected on the text of her beautiful hymns in the Episcopal 1982 Hymnal (On A Bleak Midwinter, for example).

I am thinking about gardening. In part because we blessed the church garden last Saturday. I enjoyed the process of doing research on Rogation Day and creating a liturgy for blessing the garden. I have planted some produce in the garden, but it is struggling - my lettuce has yet to take hold and rebound from being transplanted...and the fluctuating temperatures have not helped - warm and then too cold. Oh well. I can always plant more. Soon I hope to add the rest of my crops to the garden and plant some herbs in the flower pots we've put on the deck.

I've been here one year. A year ago May 2 was my first day in the office. It's been a good year. No doubt gardening is a good metaphor for the year. Amen.

Homily for the Festive Eucharist at the closing of the Episcopal Women's Caucus

The readings that we chose for the service tonight were all picked specifically for this service because they lift up the role of women ...