Saturday, November 29, 2014

Glimpses of hope and love

A reflection on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37 for Advent 1B

Recently my husband, son, and I watched (again) the first two movies of the Hunger Game’s series, in preparation for the release of the third movie. When I read the books a few years ago, I couldn’t put them down and consumed each of the three books, one after the other. I loved and hated them simultaneously. The storyline was so disturbing that it infiltrated my dreams in which I tried to rewrite the story so it was less upsetting. The setting is a post-apocalyptic era sometime in the future, in a country named Panem, which is divided into twelve districts that are ruled by an iron-clad government and where oppression and violence and poverty prevail. Ultimately it is a story of hope, justice and love. 

Apocalyptic texts in the Bible do not forecast the future. Instead they address a present time, a time when life feels hopeless. The apocalyptic tone of our readings this morning are paradoxical, describing a hopeless state while pointing out a long history of God’s presence in the world.  Only as we learn to understand how God has been with us in the past can we come to understand how God is with us through all of life’s challenges.

I have faced many challenges in my life - challenges to my health when I thought I might die; financial challenges that nearly devastated me when investments or jobs did not turn out as I imagined. I have faced deep and profound challenges which have caused me to doubt my faith, dig deeper into my faith, and sometimes wish that God was a magician who would change all the circumstances of my life and in one swift poof, make everything better. I know what its like to be completely broken and helpless and filled with a despair beyond words. And I know what its like to feel God’s presence in that bleak, lost state, and rest in the assurance that somehow life will get better, though I know not how, because God is with me and God yearns for my life, and your life, to be healthy, peaceful, and hopeful. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a famous Christian theologian who lived in Germany during the reign of Hitler. He was imprisoned for being part of a group of people who tried to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s reflections on faith that rises in response to injustice, prison, and even the hiddenness of God, are among some of the most famous writings in Christian literature. He writes that though we yearn for a God who, (like some superhero, will fly into) our lives and with mighty power overturn the challenges and turn our despair into joy, this is not how God has chosen to be with us. Instead,  God does not determine the circumstances of our lives - but God is with us. God rejoices with us when we are happy and suffers with us when tragedy strikes, God loves us along the way. God’s love manifests itself in us through the compassion of other people. God’s love manifests in those fleeting moments when trust prevails and peace can fill our hearts. God’s love is present when we give up the dogged fight to control every aspect of those uncontrollable circumstances. This peace, this release of control is the serenity prayer - God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. The serenity prayer is a prayer of release and hope. “Hope is what is left when your worst fears have been realized and you are no longer optimistic about the future. Hope is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended.” Hope is the feeling that comes to us, as a sign that God is with us.

Tragedy, grief, challenges, despair, fear can silence and paralyze us. But so too, they can open us to know God in ways in which God is otherwise hidden. In our deepest moments of vulnerability we become so raw that God’s presence can be seen and felt in the least expected ways. Like Katniss in the first Hunger Games book, refusing to allow the government to win, refusing to choose between her life or Peeta’s she makes an unexpected choice, an act of compassion. This compassionate act of love and justice sets in motion a turn of events that changes everything. 

Today begins the season of Advent. Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical cycle in the church year. The tone, the colors, the feeling of worship is distinct in Advent - more reflective, more subdued, a contrast to an otherwise hectic world. 

During the four Sundays of Advent we are preparing for Christmas, for the birth of Christ. On this first Sunday of Advent we are called to stay awake. Staying awake means we are to stay aware of and attentive to the world around us. We are also to be aware of what is happening inside of us - how God is acting in and through our lives. God is calling us to action, to love and compassion, to hope and trust, even when everything seems lost. This call is not about magical thinking - which has a child-like quality to it. God’s call to action is about maturing faith, faith that grows deeper through the challenges of life, providing us the substance to sustain us through the most difficult times, affording us the ability to find peace despite all obstacles to the contrary. God’s call to us is a reminder that when all seems bleak and lost, when one door has closed and the other has not opened, when we live with fear and anxiety, when the future is more uncertain than usual, God’s call reminds us to stop, to look, to be attentive, to breathe, to be still, to just be, so that we can feel God’s presence. We may be assured of God’s presence from stories in scripture or our own life experience, and through prayer enabled to feel God as a fleeting sensation of peace. Elusive though the moments of peace may be, Advent invites us to intentionally seek moments of silence, wherein we may catch a glimpse of hope and love, and the potential for the new life to come; the promise of Emanuel and the comfort of knowing that God is with us, and somehow, all will be well. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Friday Five: Lists, lists, lists...

Deb over at RevGals offers this Friday Five: The season of lists is upon us! At least, that’s the way I cope with the many events, worship services, visits and potlucks that squeeze in during this holiday season. So let’s talk about how you cope (or don’t) with celebrating minus the stress.
1. Keeping your ducks in a row: Tell us how you manage the craziness. Lists? That faithful old-fashioned pocket calendar? Smart phone reminders? Wall calendar? Sometimes I make lists. Sometimes I write reminders on my iPhone. Often I keep it all in my head and work to calm my adrenalin driven heart until I get through the in-my-head-list.
2. Must-Do Events: What is one event on your list that you look forward to every year and NEVER miss? Not church services — something else that makes the season bright. Bonus points for a picture from a previous year’s event. Every year is a different year, I don't really have an annual "must-do" events. I do have a number of traditions we do every year - cut down a fresh Christmas Tree on Thanksgiving morning, spend the Friday after Thanksgiving doing ANYTHING but shopping (often we go to a movie), decorate the house and the Christmas tree on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and sometime in the weeks between now and Christmas - bake cookies.
3. Kitchen disasters of the funny kind: Lighten the mood with one of your best kitchen disasters. What ingredient did you forget to add, or what dish was left to turn to charcoal in the oven? It may not have been funny at the time, but now it always makes you chuckle! One year I tried to make my mother-in-laws oxtail dinner, something my kids LOVED when the were little. I bought enough oxtails to feed five of us, baked them as she had, but when we tried to eat them we found that these oxtails (versus what ever she used to serve) had NO meat on them. So here we had this hard to make elaborate meal that had virtually no food in it. We threw them away and ordered pizza. 
4. “Honey, I can’t find the __________!” Every year we turn the kitchen upside down looking for the turkey baster and the cotton  twine for roasting the bird. Do you have a similar kitchen gadget or decorating frustration? Or have you solved a perennial problem and can give us a tried-and-true tip? I can't think of anything that I look for on a regular, seasonal basis. I roast my turkey in an oven bag so I don't need a turkey baster or string....and most everything else I cook with I tend to use often enough. Although I will say that sometimes my husband puts dishes away, not where I put them, and then I have to search to find what "logical" place he determined for the item I am looking for. Even then, however, there are only a few options for searching....
5. “I’ll never forget…” Tell us about a sweet holiday memory that you want to always ALWAYS remember! The Christmas when my daughter, then my son, had chicken pox. That year my car died so I was stuck at home, with sick kids, until literally Christmas Eve, when I ran out, kids in tow, and purchased every single Christmas present in one day - and my kids (4 and 7 months) never caught on that I was buying their gifts....I don't remember how I pulled that one off, but Christmas morning was filled with delight and surprise. 
BONUS: For those of us leading Christmas Eve services, what is on your “MUST HAVE” list for the evening? An easy, simple meal between the two services, a meal that will not drain me of energy but sustain until 1am. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Five: Thanksgiving

Jan, over at the RevGals blog offers this Friday Five meme:

Since I am going out of town for the weekend, I am seeing Thanksgiving suddenly approaching in the USA six days away–order food or buy it to cook?? That will be decided next week if I’m not in a funk:
The Cure
Lying around all day
with some strange new deep blue
weekend funk, I’m not really asleep
when my sister calls
to say she’s just hung up
from talking with Aunt Bertha
who is 89 and ill but managing
to take care of Uncle Frank
who is completely bed ridden.
Aunt Bert says
it’s snowing there in Arkansas,
on Catfish Lane, and she hasn’t been
able to walk out to their mailbox.
She’s been suffering
from a bad case of the mulleygrubs.
The cure for the mulleygrubs,
she tells my sister,
is to get up and bake a cake.
If that doesn’t do it, put on a red dress.–Ginger Andrews (from Hurricane Sisters)
So this Friday before Thanksgiving, think about Aunt Bert and how she’ll celebrate Thanksgiving! And how about YOU?
1. What is your cure for the “mulleygrubs”? First of all, I love the term "mulleygrubs." It just seems so fitting and needs no defining. My cure for mullegrubs is usually exercise of some kind - I process life-stuff physically, so moving helps. I ride the exercise bike, or take a walk (not so much in the winter, however), and as often as possible, I go to yoga. Moving always helps me. 
2. Where will you be for Thanksgiving? This year will be my husband, son, and me. We'll cut down a Christmas tree in the morning, watch the parade, have a leisurely afternoon, and then go out for dinner about 4pm. It's seems like a nice idea to not cook since it's just three of us. 
3. What foods will be served? Which are traditional for your family? The restaurant is serving the usual meal plus something they are calling cocoa crusted pork roast - that sounds intriguing.....
4. What do you wish could be deleted (or added) to your traditional Thanksgiving day? I wish my husband didn't have to work retail and leave early Friday morning for a full and crazy day of work. The retail industry is out of control. We were never the type to run out for a bargain on Thanksgiving or the day afterward. We have had a long tradition of going to a movie the day after....
5. In this season of Thanksgiving, what are you grateful for? I am thankful for my family, for health, and the opportunities to grow spiritually and emotionally, which have come my way this year.
BONUS: Describe Aunt Bert’s Thanksgiving. No doubt Aunt Bert's Thanksgiving will include a lot of delicious homemade food, and a red dress. 

Saturday, November 08, 2014

A Practice of "Staying Awake"....

A reflection on the Propers for 27A, Matthew 25:1-13 for Stewardship Sunday

Twenty years ago, when I was a seminary student, my mentor in the ordination process use to say “Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Usually he would say this to diocesan staff or his clergy colleagues, and I always thought he was talking in some kind of code. I mean, I knew he was quoting scripture, but I had no real idea of the context in which he intended it when he said this to the Bishop’s secretary or the receptionist at the diocesan staff office. On the other hand, every time this piece of scripture comes up I think of that mentor and the time he journeyed with me. 

Keep awake, for you never know when Jesus is going to come, is a piece of Christian wisdom that takes on different meanings depending the context in which one considers it. 

We all grew up hearing proverbs and wise sayings from our parents or teachers. Some I remember are: “never eat yellow snow.” and, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

What are some “wise” sayings that you remember? (give people time to speak)

Proverbs and wise sayings are told by parents and grandparents to children through the generations as a way of teaching kids to think, to pay attention, to be aware, and to grow wise. Sometimes these wise sayings stay with us and we end up repeating them our own kids. But actually growing in wisdom, becoming wise and aware, takes more than just repeating words, it takes time and intentionality. 

Some say that people who practice an instrument or are apprentices to an art or a trade need to practice for 10,000 hours before they become a master at their work. Think about that. How long would it take for you to acquire 10,000 hours to become a master at what you do? 

Every yoga class I take at the studio down the street begins with the instructor inviting us to dedicate our practice. The idea is that the class is less a time of instruction, less a work out like going to the gym, and instead a practice, a discipline, that shapes and forms us in deep ways. The invitation to dedicate our practice is not about becoming a master yoga practitioner, its  about the way I engage in yoga and how the discipline and practice transforms me from the inside out. 

For the last eight weeks we have dedicated our stewardship season, and our practice of faith to “Nurturing an Attitude of Gratitude.” Since Sept. 7 when received the money and the invitation to “Grace It Forward,” these phrases have become our wise sayings, our proverbs. 

This project was made possible because a gift of money was given to the church to be used for outreach or new mission projects. The Stewardship Commission requested some of the money be given to each one of us to use as we see fit, sharing with others, or using for ourselves, money that was a pure gift of grace. It was an outreach initiative to help us grow within ourselves a deeper awareness of gratitude and generosity. These eight weeks are just a start, just an initiation into what could become for each of us a life long practice of growing in gratitude and generosity. 

Practice takes discipline and developing a discipline takes practice. Practice involves a willingness to move through times when it’s easy to practice and times when its hard to practice. Some days practicing yoga is profoundly rewarding. Other days, my yoga practice feels too repetitive, doing the same thing over and over, and I grow weary of it. But still, I continue to practice. In time the repetitive nature begins to feel challenging and rewarding at the same while also being deeply prayerful. The practice has transformed me inside and out. It will, no doubt, continue to be challenging as I grow in and through the practice. But that is the point, practicing a discipline takes practice. 10,000 hours to become a master is just a metaphor for a life time of  practice. 

We hear in the Gospel reading this morning that the bridesmaids are waiting for the wedding feast. They grow tired and fall asleep. When the groom comes the bridesmaids awaken, but some of them have run out oil and didn’t bring any reserve.  The Gospel asks us to consider what it means to be prepared for the wait. Or, to rephrase this, what does it mean to keep on practicing through good times and bad, through times when it feels rewarding and times when practicing our faith feels dry.

The only difference between the wise and foolish virgins is this: the wise virgins are prepared for the wait and therefore bring extra oil. As we practice our faith, as we strive to grow as Christians, we need to be prepared for the challenges that will try to take us away from our practice. As Christians, particularly as Episcopalians, we are formed by community. This means a significant aspect of our discipline, our practice, is coming to church and being present in worship, being with one another as we pray, sing, listen to scripture, and share the bread and wine. Some days this will feel profoundly rewarding. Other days this will feel dry and difficult. But the point is, it’s in the practice, no matter our state of being, that we are formed and transformed. 

Today we will have two rituals that are part of our practice of faith here at Christ Church. First, after the announcements we each come to the altar and offer our pledge cards - our anticipated contribution to the mission and ministries of Christ Church for 2015. If you aren’t prepared to offer a pledge card come forth anyway and offer yourself. This is for many people a profound invitation to be come to the sacred table and spend a moment in prayer, offering what one is able. It is a reminder that all that we are and all that we have is a gift from God for which we give back with generous hearts. 

The second thing we will do is celebrate a festive communion with the children who have spent five weeks preparing for this day. They have learned about the worship service and Holy Communion, baked the communion bread for today, and created icons as part of their formation and practice of faith. 

Today, as we prepare to come to that altar and offer ourselves to God, remember that Nurturing an Attitude of Gratitude takes practice. Gratitude comes from sharing with others, from “Gracing forward the gifts we have been given.” Let us come forth in thanksgiving for all that God has given us. Let us remember to “Stay awake!” -  for Jesus is near, and one never knows the day or the hour when Jesus will seep deep into your soul and transform your life from the inside out.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Friday Five: Guilty Pleasures

3dogmom, over at the RevGals blog offers this Friday Five:
It happened again this week. In a social setting, during a conversation with people that included some I had just met, I made a reference to the church I serve. “Oh!” one of the new acquaintances exclaimed, “I shouldn’t have said hell!” Sigh. This kind of projection can be so tiring, as can the general need to be mindful of how our words and actions are perceived as appropriate (or not). In light of that, I relish moments to myself when I can shed all such perceptions and projections and just be. Occasionally this involves what might be known as a guilty pleasure.
For this week’s Friday Five, share with us five “perception be damned!” pleasures in which you indulge. We promise we won’t judge, or tell. What happens at RevGals stays at RevGals.
My responses below are less about "guilty pleasures" and more about the reality of my life as an ordinary human being who is also an ordained person, an Episcopal priest.
1. In the community I lived in when I was first ordained, when people encountered me wearing my clergy collar, I was often mistaken for a nun. Really? Apparently some people could not wrap their heads around the idea that a woman could be a priest, a member of the clergy.
2. One of my daughter's high school teachers use to call me a "woman of the cloth." It definitely influenced how she saw my daughter and how she expected my daughter to behave. She and I did not see eye to eye on some of those "expectations."
3. I too have had people apologize for using certain words in front of me. Sometimes I respond by saying, "I've been known to say that, and worse, from time to time in my life." I just don't think that God is overly concerned with those under the breath expressive words. 
4. Yoga. Some people have considered yoga classes to be unChristian. Or they have expressed to me a desire to find a "Christian" yoga class. I get this, but it's a little bit of a misunderstanding of yoga. 
5. Meditation. Likewise, some people have misunderstood meditation and wondered about the practice being unChristian. This is particularly so if one practices a Buddhist style of meditation. Tich Nhat Hahn's book "Living Buddha Living Christ" helped me with this concern. 

Monday, November 03, 2014

Becoming One's Self

Highway 89A outside Escalante, Utah

A number of years ago I drove from Tucson, Arizona north to Escalante, Utah with my son and his dog. 

Actually, we were driving to Chicago, but we made a stop in Escalante to see my father. A few days later we drove the "loop" from Escalante along the top of the Rockies and then north to Salt Lake City. Our stay in Salt Lake included some time visiting a number of my family members. 

The  mountain side view from the Salt Lake Cemetery where my mother and many family members are buried.

The most notable aspect of this trip was time spent with family - from my son to my father to my aunts and uncles. 

As a little girl I loved my family and have fond memories of spending time with them. That ended when I was nine and we moved away from Salt Lake. Then my time with family became rare, a mere handful of trips between the age of nine and this trip, as a grown woman of 53. I grew up learning how to be disconnected from family, on the one hand, and overly connected to my mother, on the other. It's a long story, this over-connection to my mother, but it defined me then and is at the root of the challenges I have faced ever since. 

My life has been defined by learning how to be my own person. In Bowen Family Systems theory this is described as being "Self-differentiated." A person who is differentiated is simultaneously clear within the self about who one is and the values, beliefs, and principles that guide one's life AND able to be in relationship with others, particularly one's family of origin. Being in relationship with one's family of origin means the ability to have meaningful conversation while not engaging in the debilitating patterns of family dynamic that cause anxiety such as unhealthy triangulation that blames or shames another; distancing and avoiding others or cutting others out of one's life by moving away or not speaking for great lengths of time. My family easily falls into a pattern of distancing or cutting off. Working to maintain relationship is hard work and it requires intentionality. 

This year I have taken a number of workshops offered by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center which focus on helping clergy and congregations live together and do ministry in a healthy way. The primary focus is on the self - one can only change and work on one's self. One can only look at one's own family of origin, and the joys and anxieties produced in those relationships, in order to come to an understanding of the dynamics that manifest in all of our relationships. 

Becoming my own person means learning how to be comfortable with who I am, solid and centered in my beliefs, values, and principles, which reside in me in a conscious, thoughtful manner. Becoming my own person means recognizing when the anxiety of my childhood is activated in my current relationships but not allowing that to determine how I function, now. It's a process of becoming "self-differentiated." 

When I was ordained my mentor gave me a copy of this poem. It stands for me, and I'm sure was the intent of my mentor, as a reminder of self-differentation, of becoming my own person. 

The Journey
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.
- Mary Oliver

The real task of becoming one's own person, of being self-differentiated, is a process of growing in relationship. One cannot become one's own person out of relationship with others. It's a journey. The journey of life. 

That road trip, from Tucson to Escalante to Salt Lake to Chicago, was a drive through my past and into my present, leading me to my future. The time I spent living in Arizona was fraught with conflict that I was ill prepared to navigate, although I tried. I am not sure I would do any better now, if were to encounter the same dynamics, but I do understand my role in them and what was triggered in me, better. My time there was, on the one hand, a "failure." But on the other hand, it has provided me with a great learning opportunity. Leaving Arizona I left behind some great sorrow and drove toward a new, healthier self. 

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 ...