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On Being ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR): Take 1

February 26th, 2018

Note: this is the first of three explorations into the gifts and challenges of being SBNR.  Wait for the others in the next few weeks.

According to the Pew Research Center, 27% of US adults claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” a jump of 8% in just five years. The term is now so popular that it claims its own abbreviation—SBNR. Compared to the murder and mayhem caused by extremists of many religious, SBNR has to be a positive development in human culture. Yet, some who identify as SBNR may occasionally long for the certitude of more traditional faiths, especially at this time of year. Additionally, some SBTR folks exhibit a self-righteous certitude that can be as dismissive as fundamentalist believers.

To which I say that theological tenets are like building codes, those local regulations that control the design, methods, and materials used in construction. Most local jurisdictions have such laws that are established to protect the health and safety of residents. Anyone building or retrofitting a house (and the contractor or architect) must comply with standards governing the frame, plumbing, electrical, and other features of the structure.

But there are building codes and then there are building codes – specifically prescriptive and performance codes. Prescriptive codes specify what is required – how many inches of what kind of insulation in the ceiling, how many in the walls, etc. They do the same for windows, walls, wiring, and wastewater systems.

Performance codes don’t prescribe requirements; rather, they give minimum benchmarks. They don’t care whether the builder uses fiberglass insulation, plastic bags, old socks, or solar energy – provided that the building meets acceptable standards of safety and efficiency.
So far so good. Unfortunately, some local governments formulate standards the same way many people formulate explanations for God. Builders and smaller jurisdictions usually favor prescriptive standards with detailed checklists. You don’t need a cadre of professional engineers to decide if something will work or not, you just check off each item to ensure compliance.

But architects and innovators typically prefer performance standards that allow greater creativity and flexibility. They can think “outside the box” and devise new solutions to old problems. To require a new state-of-the-art building to conform to prescriptive criteria equivalent to a traditional building could be wasteful, prohibitively expensive, and even impossible.

Isn’t this akin to our understanding of God’s ways? – Some people want the details spelled out and a checklist provided, while others want individual flexibility within a broad framework.

Prescriptive standards – whether they relate to places of the hearth or of the heart – are valued by those who want straightforward, right-and-wrong guidelines. There are times in our lives when we all want straight answers, especially during childhood and trauma. However, as we grow in faith and discernment, many of us find we have outgrown simplistic criteria for faithful living; we want to focus on the big picture of God’s love without falling into the quicksand of other people’s sense of right and wrong. It’s time to move from prescriptive to performance criteria.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook. Local governments must develop and enforce building codes or houses fall down, neighbors get into shouting matches (or worse) over unsightly monstrosities two feet from their dream house, and the building profession is plagued with corruption and deceit. Doing nothing – living without a code of some kind – is not an acceptable response.

Another way of looking at is to think of prescriptive codes as religion and performance criteria as spirituality. There are times when we need strict prescriptions, but mostly we prefer the flexibility and growing edges of performance benchmarks.

And those of us who use performance standards to explain God must work harder than those who are satisfied with black-and-white criteria. Each of us is required to come up with a statement of faith that, while not being prescriptive, is nonetheless a clear and cogent explanation for how God works in our lives and how we translate that into daily action. Otherwise, SBNR is just a cute way of saying you believe in everything or nothing.

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Follow the Freedom Star

January 10th, 2018

Many Christians just celebrated Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas and the day the three wise visited the baby Jesus. It began the tradition of gift-giving at Christmas and also represents the true message of how God came to earth as a helpless infant. For me, it also suggests the power of the natural world to affirm our majesty and power and to open up new possibilities – if only we but follow the heavenly stars to our own new vision of freedom.

You may remember that, during the darkest days in the history of our country when people bought and sold other people whom they could then treat worst than the vilest of farm animals, there were a few courageous souls – God-fearing whites and daring blacks – who developed an elaborate system of secret hiding places to help runaways find their way north to freedom. The Underground Railroad relied on markers in trees, special lights hung out at certain hours, quilts of particular colors hung out to dry, and other such signals to set the path. Many of them had learned the popular folk tune, “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a-waitin’
For to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd.

The verses were elaborate codes devised by an itinerant white carpenter (the “old man”) who went from plantation to plantation, teaching the song to slaves from Alabama and Mississippi. It led them up along the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers to the northern states and, later, Canada. Hounded by dogs and slave owners, the runaways and their accomplices faced torture and certain death if they were caught. The “drinking gourd” is the constellation we know as the Big Dipper. If you look at the two sides of the cup that are opposite the handle and multiply the distance between the two stars by seven, you will see the North Star, also called Polaris.

The black slaves and their supporters were not the first to follow a star to freedom. Two thousand years ago, three kings from the Orient followed a star to Bethlehem. Without knowing much about it, it seems like nice, romantic little tale, but that doesn’t do justice to the story. First, it was a time of terrible oppression. The period of Roman occupation in Palestine was different – but fully as gruesome – as the days of slavery before the Civil War. Taxes were upwards of 60-70%, and people lost their land to pay tribute to the Roman Empire and those Jewish authorities that supported Caesar. Some people sold themselves and their children into slavery, because it was that or starvation. Five percent of the people owned 95% of the wealth, and the rest suffered, cruelly and unmercifully.

Second, “kings” is a misnomer. The three men who came to Bethlehem were probably astrologers from Babylon or further east. Astrologers were the first astronomers, who were, in turn, the scholars and scientists of the ancient world. The term “magi” is the root of magician, and it designated someone of exceptional wisdom and knowledge. Think Gandolf, as in Lord of the Rings, and you get a pretty good idea of the caliber of these three people – men who could envision a world different from what they saw around them, namely a world of goodness, kindness, justice, and freedom. For them, Jesus symbolized a new way of living. In presenting him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Magi were acknowledging Jesus’ kingship, his priesthood, and his humanity, that is, honoring the fact that the God who is king is also fully human and fully vulnerable – just like us. In recognizing the love of God embodied in this tiny child, these three wisest of all wise men could see a way out of the oppression and injustice of the Roman Empire. Think stars, think freedom.

Epiphany is a Greek word that means to “shine upon” or to “give light.” It means a dramatic uncovering or sudden awareness that changes one’s sense of reality. Suddenly you see what is happening and what is possible in a whole new light. It’s an “ah ha” moment, in which you blurt out, “Eureka – now I see it. Now I understand.” St. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus was an epiphany. The runaway slaves vision of freedom was an epiphany. The Magi’s recognition that a tiny infant could and would change the world was an epiphany.

I had a dramatic epiphany about 25 years ago, during the darkest period of my life. My husband had decided, rather suddenly, to end the marriage, leaving me with two kids, an expensive mortgage, and not much else. I felt alone, helpless, trapped – consumed with terror and anger. The rage was a poison within my body, like the cancer that had killed my mother years earlier. I knew that it only hurt the children and me and had little effect on my estranged husband, but I was powerless to rid myself of it. I began praying with fervor unlike any time previously.

One autumn weekend, I went camping in the mountains with friends. Around midnight, leaving my kids sleeping in the tent with our trusty dog, four of us went walking to view the stars. It was an extraordinary sight: never had I seen so many stars in the world. I thought back to all of the isolated places I had ever and I couldn’t remember seeing so many stars. My mind wandered to the ancient Phoenicians and Norsemen and others who traveled by the stars. And I wondered if the sky sparkled like this when the shepherds watched at the time of the Nativity.

About fifteen minutes into the walk, I saw the shooting star. It didn’t register much at first, sort of a subconscious thought, “Yup, there’s a shooting star,” as it streaked across an eighth of the night sky. But one of my friends had noticed it too, and asked excitedly whether I had seen it or not. I gave her a smile and probably said something pleasant and noncommittal. I really didn’t want to talk, for I was too enraptured just scanning the sky, and searching for the occasional meteor. I thought some about my current life, but spent more time pondering ancient history, my childhood, and the universe as a whole. I remembered that, in native American spirituality, the stars are our ancestors looked down from the heavens, and I felt wondrously peaceful and complete. I was so happy to be there at that time, at that place. The entire sky was sparkling, radiant, glowing.

And then I glanced at the ground, and it was luminous, as were the shrubs and trees. I looked at my friends, and they sparkled also. And so did I – rather like we had all been gently dabbed with Tinkerbell’s fairy dust. The heavens had opened and the stars had feathered their way down to earth. The delicate energy of God was present inside, outside, all around me… I experienced a unity that I had never known before, in which there were no boundaries of time or place. Past, present, and future were one; here and there were one. I was a child visiting her grandparents in the mountains of Massachusetts, I was an explorer on an ancient canoe, I was a shepherd in Bethlehem, I was a mother whose kids were sleeping contentedly in a modern nylon tent. All the stars were friends and relatives who cared for me. They were sparkling with happiness and cheering me on, saying, “You can do it, girl. We know you can.” I just kept repeating, “Thank you God,” to myself. It was involuntary: I had to thank God.

I later learned that this was a classic religious experience, in which one recognizes God’s grace as a powerful and unmerited gift. In that moment, my cancerous rage disappeared forever, for I had felt God’s love as a warm and comforting hug on a cold and private night. I knew instantly that God loved me and that my children and I would, somehow, survive. I was liberated from the rage and the fear. The stars that came to earth and surrounded my friends and me was the most powerful gift I have ever received. It’s the reason I eventually went into ordained ministry, for it changed my understanding of God, the world, and myself. Think stars, think freedom.

And what about you? What is the sudden revelation that the stars might offer? Consider those attachments that keep you from being fully free. Consider those fears that keep you bound in fetters. Is it anger? Jealousy? Physical decline? Loneliness? Is it an addiction that you would like to liberate yourself from? Is it the sense of inadequacy – physical, psychological, financial, or other? – We are so attached to our emotions and to our material supports that they cloud our vision. We live in darkness, blind to the stars and to the holy in our midst.

So, in your mind’s eye, feel the magi’s gifts coming to you. There is myrrh to acknowledge your humanity, incense to affirm you as an agent of God’s love, and gold to honor your majesty. Feel also the stars that come and dance around you, kissing you with God’s comfort and affection. The gifts of the Magi and of the stars are God’s gift to you. They are gifts of courage, freedom, clear thinking, and clear seeing. They are the gifts of liberation from false attachments and false fears. Think stars, think freedom, follow the Drinking Gourd.

On Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, this is God’s most incredible gift to us.. It is nothing to do with belief; it has nothing to do with some supernatural entity directing what happens in the world. On the contrary, it has everything to do with mystery, connection, peace, and freedom. That is the message of the three kings: the freedom to see the world, others, and ourselves in a new way, in the way of Jesus and the runaway slaves, with liberation and love.

Blessings to you on this New Year and throughout 2018.

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Christmas 2017: Unexpected Gifts

January 4th, 2018


(Please note that I have changed the names of my heroes.)

It definitely wasn’t on my Christmas list! But the holidays this year brought an unexpected and life-changing gift: to witness courage in its many and diverse forms.

My primary reason for travelling to California for Christmas was to spend time with son Galen and his new fiancée Jessica. My second hope was to visit Mary, a dear friend, much-celebrated counselor, spiritual director, and wise woman extraordinaire. Mary and her husband Jonathan were in a terrible car accident over a year ago that left her seriously paralyzed and confined to a care facility in Oakland, where she will live out her last years. My third goal was to visit various clergy friends and members of the church I served before coming to NY. But with only five days, I expected Christmas to be more stressful than celebratory. Little did I know that I would receive a gift to treasure for years to come.

Some key background info: about a year ago an unexpected insight came to me, namely that Love (love of self, love of others, love of life) sits atop the three-legged stool of Courage, Humility, and Gratitude. One can’t experience true love without its being supported by the other three. I understood that intellectually but last week brought it to heart.

I arrived late on Wednesday 12/20 and stayed with Galen and Jessica. The next morning, after leaving a message for Jonathan asking about visiting times for Mary, I called Linda, a clergy friend in Vacaville, who told me that her husband William had died the night before after a week in the ICU. Although I knew he hadn’t been well for several months, this came as a total surprise. With Galen’s approval, I opted to stay with Linda for a night. While there, we attended an ecumenical service to honor all the homeless men and women who had died in 2017.

 

Several people spoke, including the brother of a Vietnam vet who lived on the streets for over twenty years. A woman talked about a homeless friend who was the most generous person she had ever met. At the end of the service, a rather scruffy 60-something man pulled out a set of bagpipes and gave a superb rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Everyone was greatly moved, with some wiping away tears. In chatting with him after the service, I learned that he was a Korean War vet who had played the pipes since junior high school. He now alternates between staying in the country with a friend and living on the streets in Vacaville. He offered several anecdotes about how his love for the bagpipes had sustained him through war and other traumas, waxed eloquent about homeless friends who had died, but never complained about his ongoing challenges. Such love, such courage.

Spending time with Linda that evening, I learned that she would lead worship at the two services (Christmas Eve morning and evening) of her own church, and had also agreed to fill in for another priest on Christmas Day so that he could be with his young family. Humbling…

Then on Friday, when visiting Mary in the nursing home, I saw a beauty far greater than anything I could have imagined. Although confined to her bed and wheelchair and sleeping more than half the day, her face shone with spirit. It reminded me of wisdom of a therapist from years past: “Sh*t happens. Sometimes it’s a little bit of sh*t and sometimes it’s an earthquake. Some people go through a hell that they don’t deserve, while others reap benefits they didn’t earn. Life isn’t fair. The issue is not why bad things happen but whether you can live with the challenges thrust upon you in a way that you can feel good about your life choices. Can you live in such a way that you make the best of what you have and don’t make a bad situation worse? Can you be a hero in your own story? If so, you’re a winner.” Mary is as stellar example of being a hero in her own story. Such love, such courage.

 

That evening, I reconnected with Galen and met Jessica’s family including their 11-year old yellow lab “Bosco” with an obscene growth (the size of a fully inflated balloon) on its hip. The abscess has been growing steadily for over a year, but Bosco’s heart isn’t strong enough to survive the requisite surgery. So the family is enjoying his presence for Christmas, knowing that he will be going to the vet in a few days to end his life on this earth. As we sit in a circle in the living room, there is always a family member sitting on the floor next to his mat, calmly stroking his neck and back. It takes two people to support Bosco as he struggles to go outside to attend to his needs. As an outsider witnessing this mutual love and support for the first time, I am in awe of the bond, as both canine and human family members honor and support each other. Such love, such courage.

A semi-homeless bagpiper, Linda, Mary, Bosco. If I hadn’t gotten the Christmas connection between courage and love, a final witness came to make the point: Jonathan. After attending my old church for the Sunday morning service on Christmas Eve, I drove to Mary’s nursing facility to visit her for the last time before returning to New York. Jonathan was also there, and I was not prepared for what I saw.

Jonathan was a much-celebrated off-Broadway producer who won many awards and hobnobbed with numerous celebrities. In five years of knowing him and Mary as close friends and pastor, he was always the center of attention. Enchanting and engaging, he was also egocentric, leaving her to manage the day-to-day needs of the household. When I left the Bay Area in 2010, he also suffered from various mobility impairments and psychological challenges, including post-traumatic stress syndrome resulting from his being one of the first American soldiers to liberate the emaciated Jews from Dachau. Being Jewish himself, he never quite recovered from the horror. During their fifty-plus year marriage, Mary attended to his every need.

But no more. Gone were the sometimes crutches and occasional walker. Gone were the forty extra pounds. Gone was any expectation that he was the center of Mary’s (or anyone else’s) attention. In its stead, here was Jonathan with flowers, with favorite foods, and with tenderness. Here was the husband doting on the wife with adoration much as the shepherds and wise men attended the Christ child two millennia earlier. Here was Saint Jonathan paying homage to Saint Mary. Now in the final days of packing before moving into a small apartment in another part of the rehab facility, Jonathan is saying adieu to a gorgeous home filled with unique artwork, thousands of books, and enormous and beautiful gardens. He is letting all that glamour and glory go, so that he can be closer and thus more attentive to Mary. Such courage, such love.

I returned to the East Coast humbled and grateful for these, the true gifts of Christmas.

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The After-Effects of 9/11: When Hell Meets Heaven

September 11th, 2017

After spending the spring and summer of 2001 teaching a new computer system to Port Authority employees in New York City, I was briefly assigned to another client in nearby Newark for a three-day class in early September. This meant that I was 25 miles from my classroom at the World Trade Center and 200 miles from my home in Washington, D.C., when the world witnessed the event that would forever change our lives.
One of the greatest honors in my life was being asked to return to help the Port Authority folks deal with the aftermath of 9/11.  Of an original team of forty of more, the Port Authority specifically asked for me and two others (and I was the only non-local, which meant that they had to cover hotel and per diem).  So I return in early October to spend a month helping the staff learn the basics of the new system.  Most hadn’t taken the previous classes in the summer, and those who had couldn’t remember diddlysquat. The documentation that my team developed has, literally, been vaporized. But bills are piling up, vendors are demanding payment, and equipment must be purchased.
I spend two days with Jane, who was in my classroom on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit. She and five others escaped, but two classmates went to a different stairwell and were never seen again. Three weeks after the bombing, I see that Jane is still too traumatized to take an elevator or enter a building of more than two stories.
Her husband had been on the 74th floor. He, three colleagues, and a janitor with a lunch box and cleaning bucket, were bunched in the express elevator speeding upwards from the 44th floor, when it suddenly plunged downward about a hundred feet and just as abruptly stopped. Picking themselves off the floor in the pitch-black cage, they had no idea where they were. Prying the elevator doors open, they found only a dark wall.
Smoke was seeping in through the elevator cracks. Covering their noses with handkerchiefs soaked in milk, they took turns with the metal edge of the squeegee to laboriously cut through the sheetrock. They eventually broke into a bathroom, but then had to cut through ceramic tiles. Emerging on the 50th floor, they walked downstairs single-file leaving room for firemen who were running up. They saw the light of day just four minutes before the building crashed. If the janitor had not had a flashlight, a squeegee, a pint of milk, and the cool to mastermind the rescue, no one would have survived to share their adventures of the morning. Was he a guardian angel in disguise?
Several days later, I was at the agency’s temporary headquarters in Hoboken sharing an office with Diane, the training manager, a delightful middle-aged woman with whom I had spent many happy hours over lunch and in meetings. But now, she’s a different person. Once attentive to her subordinates, she has morphed into a protective mother bear; determination and deep weariness have replaced the twinkle in her eyes.
I don’t know what war is like, but I have an idea of what it’s like to “go through the wars”: it is the process by which we are forced to acknowledge our vulnerability. For most of us, war is external; its “over there,” or “back then,” and it involves others. But after 9-11, war is here and now and within. The reality of who we are is struggling with our preconceptions about ourselves. Suddenly we are fearful, and we don’t like the people that we have become.
Another reason Diane has lost her sparkle is because her commute is now 2 ½ – 3 hours each way, instead of an hour previously. This means that she leaves home just before 6:00 am and doesn’t usually get back until 9:00 pm. Twice in the last week, she was an hour late because Penn Central had been evacuated for “something” (never explained); this required her to walk almost a mile to the subway and a then several blocks to the PATH station, extending her one-way commute to nearly four hours. And some of her weariness is because the computer system is often down; what once was a simple, two-minute transaction is now a cause for major celebration.
One morning, as I was reflecting on the difference between heroes (all of the people in or anywhere near that building on September 11th) and saints (those who have devoted their lives to God and God’s people), a woman entered to drop off files. Hearing her mutter “Jesus Christ” under her breath and assuming that she has just broken a fingernail, I looked up to see what was wrong. Instead of a scowl, I was greeted by a warm smile and a cheerful “Good morning, sister” from a woman I had never before seen in my life.
After brief courtesies, Victoria shared her impressions of that day. She was sitting at her desk on the 63rd floor when the plane hit. Rather than run or scream, she dropped to her knees in prayer. She had a clear vision of God “sitting on His throne” looking down on her and saying, “Look at my baby girl calling on me in the midst of this terror.” Directing some unseen angels, God told them, “Go and see about my daughter.”
When the image of God’s radiance faded, she went with waiting colleagues to the nearest stairwell. Walking down, she began reciting the 23rd psalm and singing praise songs. Others joined in, and many came up later thanking her for the calm faith she radiated in that dark, smoke-filled stairwell. Is not Victoria an angel and a saint?
The next day, Don and Raoul shared memories of walking down from the 70th floor. People were orderly at first, mostly because so many had survived the 1993 bombing and trusted the structural integrity of the towers. Don and Raoul were nonplussed by burn victims and others who were actively bleeding, but they never feared for their own lives until the 20th floor, when the smoke intensified, making it hard to both breathe and see. An incredible, inexplicable, rolling, deafening roar (which they later learned was the crash of the other building) made the north tower shake intensely, cutting off the emergency lights and causing people to stumble over each other. After this, it was a superhuman effort to maintain control, and some began weeping. But still, the group kept talking to each other to stay calm, groping their way down, most of them holding hands, some sobbing, but with little screaming and no pushing – just cold, stark determination.
In the middle of this horrific retelling, Raoul blurted out, “And, you know, we were the lucky ones. We had no idea of what was going on. When the south tower fell, we knew something dreadful had happened, but our stairwell was fine and our tower still stood…. Actually, people like Diane had it worse. She was walking in from the plaza and froze, not knowing whether to rush up and help people or run away as fast as she could. A policeman ordered her to leave – which was good because this was just when debris – huge blocks of concrete and metal, enough to kill you if they landed – started falling from the sky.”
Raoul felt sorrier for Diane than he did for himself…
When employees arrive for a meeting and see someone they haven’t seen since 9/11, work abruptly ends and co-workers pour out from cubicles to chat. It is like the excitement that accompanies a woman returning from maternity leave with a new baby in tow. But unlike the gushes over the beautiful child, this is a chastening calm with unspoken but clear affection. It is both endearing and terrifying.
The following week, as anthrax poisoning replaced hijacked planes as the terror of the day, the agency conducted daily safety drills and distributed safety glasses, nose masks, rubber gloves, and flashlights to all employees. Diane was away when a flashlight was placed on her desk; within two hours, five coworkers stopped in to ensure that that the batteries were installed and her flashlight was working properly.
People looked around at their ordinary colleagues with their ordinary foibles and realized that their ordinary assumptions were all wrong. They discovered that they had been working amidst heroes, including the two procurement officials who returned from the stairwell to retrieve their blind colleague from the 71st floor, the ten co-workers who carried a 250-pound, wheelchair-bound man down 69 flights of stairs, and the two marketing managers who got Tina and her motorized wheelchair down from the 68th floor. Of the Port Authority employees, only 74 of the 2,000 in the building were killed (half of them the police and firemen who – according to the people I spoke with – seemed to know that they were going to their deaths). In both towers, only 2,753 people were killed in the collapse. Everyone credited the low number of casualties to the fact that mutual care trumped panic and pushiness.
Returning just before Thanksgiving to my company’s home office in Columbia, Maryland, I found myself suddenly depressed. In the midst of the hell that surrounds us, I had been graced to witness the best of the human condition. For some, self-sacrifice for others was absolute and cost them their lives; for most, it was timid and tenuous – but nonetheless transforming – if only for a time.
And I know that I too am forever changed, for good as well as ill. The trivialities of life gnaw at me. After spending six weeks in the company of saints and heroes, ordinary mortals seem frivolous and self-absorbed. With the exception of faith-filled Victoria who sang and prayed her coworkers to safety, I do not know the religious beliefs of the employees at the Port Authority. But watching people show genuine care for each other, I realize that I have just witnessed the kingdom of God on earth.

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When Seeming Failures Are the Opening for Grace

September 26th, 2016

Those of you who have read previous blogs or Facebook postings know that the keyword for describing my 9 weeks in Britain was … magical. Magical, just magical.

But, in many ways, the sabbatical was marked by failure. First was the failure to get the Lilly Foundation grant that would have made it much easier for the church and for me. Then, in the last Church Council meeting before heading off, I shared my three goals: to finish Circling, begin research on Returning, and lose 20 pounds.

I failed – and yet the sabbatical still was magical.

And now I wonder: is there a connection between seeming failure and undeniable magic? Was there something that God was trying to teach me? Have I focused too much in life on success? Might I have tried so hard to accomplish the goals that our culture identifies as the hallmarks of success that I overlooked the less obvious and more tender qualities of God’s ever-present grace?

I’ll let you ponder that as I give you a brief chronology and overview of the people and places that have caused me to rethink my life…

First of all, there’s Maurizio. Some of you have heard me talk about him before, and most everyone was skeptical. It’s wonderful when you get to a certain age and your children begin to worry about you (nice switch from those decades where parenting was just a synonym for worry and guilt). And so my daughter is on the phone hearing about my plans and asking, “So how do you know him, Mom?” I explain his email connection with the family when he was researching the role of my grandparents in improving the lives of the Sardinian villagers 100 years ago. To which she says “Yes, but …” She then asks how old he is, what he does for a living, whether he’s married or not …” I don’t have answers to any of those questions. Fortunately she’s gracious enough to simply admonish me to be careful rather than call me a blooming idiot.

My plans were just to meet Maurizio in London over lunch or dinner. We had occasional email conversation over the last seven years, but that was all. When he asked where I was staying, I replied that I was looking for an inexpensive hostel or Air B&B because, after all, I did not receive that wonderful grant that would have paid for nicer hotels. He found a convent that had been converted into a B&B, but it was still 125 pounds – or just shy of $200 / night (this was before the Brexit vote) and I was hoping for something cheaper. So I kept looking and then got an email that his good friend Patrick, a chamber orchestra conductor who lived two blocks from Westminster Abbey, would be happy to host me for a week. Magic.

Patrick was delightful and so were all of the assortment of young international musicians who came over to party, practice, and plan their next two concerts. The flat was filled with laughter and music. Another woman staying there was going through some challenging emotional stresses, and she liked to hang out with me and unload. And Maurizio, who had decided to end his work as an economics researcher and concentrate on renting two flats and doing professional tourism, became my personal tour guide for all of the highlights of London. He knew everything and everyone, it seemed. Magic.

We took a four-day trip to Sardinia where I met his family and an elderly couple that had been married at the church that my grandmother helped establish. Everywhere I went, there were hugs and thanks – along with free cappuccino or a glass of wine. They all professed knowing about my grandparents, although – quite honestly – I think they were just being nice to Maurizio and me. Magic.

Maurizio went back to London as I headed for Northumbria, in northeast England, where I stayed in the manse where another new friend, Dave Herbert, lived. Dave was a friend of a friend of a friend, who learned of my appeal to find inexpensive lodging in exchange for helping in whatever way possible. He was going on vacation, and I agreed to manage the garden, preach twice, and deal with any pastoral emergencies. This never would have happened if I had been awarded the Lilly Foundation grant.

Yet I failed here as well. My intention in staying two weeks at the quiet manse was to finish the first book Circling. But I had lost my laptop on the airplane and with it, the latest draft. I had a copy on the desktop but that was a continent away. So I read and walked and watched sheep and played a few too many computer games. I spent time with several women who were part of the associated parishes; one was considering ministry and the others just enjoyed chatting about issues with their churches or life in general. I didn’t accomplish my three goals, but enjoyed the way we each became agents of grace for each other. Magic.

Spending two weeks on Iona with Philip Newell and a bunch of other new friends, I was filled with new ideas and great excitement. But while there was lots of reading and walking, there wasn’t much writing and no dieting. I had become a happy failure. I returned briefly to Northumbria for another preaching opportunity and visits with my new friends before returning to Argyll (the western isles of Scotland) to research ancestral history. And then came what I later realized was a watershed moment.

Wanting to visit the center of the Campbell clan in Inveraray, I reserved a room at a small B&B in Ford, about 8 miles away. A young family ran it; it was homey rather than fancy, and it was cheap. But driving there from Edinburgh took twice as long as I expected. It involved endless miles on small rural roads that were sometimes dirt and often one-lane roads will pullouts for cars to pass each other. Sure, it was 8 miles from Inveraray … as a crow flies. It was 50 miles and well over an hour by car. I arrived around 9 pm and discovered that there were about 5 homes and no store of any kind in this little town of Ford, in Argyll, Scotland. The owners offered to make me dinner, which I accepted happily.

Waiting, I silently chastised myself for my stupidity. In my haste, I had selected a B&B in the middle of nowhere. What an idiot! What a … failure …

Dinner came. It was delicious, and of huge proportions. While eating, I watched a young man in the small living room eating dinner from a paper bag. After finishing what I could, I offered the rest to him. And thus began an unforgettable evening.

Leon is a German working in Scotland embarking on a new career importing fine Scotch whisky into his home country. After the usual pleasantries, I learned that he had a rather traumatic background and wasn’t close to his parents, who were divorced. I also surmised that he had gone through a number of challenges in his youth and that he was now in his early 30’s and hoping for a new start. He worked at a distillery north of Edinburgh and was in Ford exploring distilleries in Argyll. He returned my kindness of sharing dinner with a lesson in how to drink whisky. The young couple and their daughter and dog came and went for the rest of the evening.

I listened as he talked about his family, his work, his love life, his dreams. He had several heart-breaking love affairs but recently met a woman who was nearly 10 years younger but they really liked each other. And, all the while, he punctuated the stories of his life with an education on whisky. Magic.

The next morning, he came down for breakfast and thanked me for our conversation. He said that, although he wasn’t sure that his new girlfriend would ever be “the one,” he realized that he was worthy and good and there was happiness in his future.

He went off to local distilleries and I took the long drive to Inveraray, coming home to another delicious dinner with Leon and more in my whisky education. This time we talked about his business plans. I asked a number of questions and made a few suggestions based on the years when I was running a consulting business years ago. Three hours later, I went off to bed, again feeling warm and kindhearted. In the morning, Leon came down and said he was totally rethinking his business plan based on our discussion. We haven’t seen each other since, but he has sent me several emails and Facebook postings thanking me for our time together and letting me know the success of his new strategy. Somehow, my “failure” in booking a B&B in the hinterlands became an opportunity to bring magic into someone else’s life. It felt wonderful!

I then headed to Leeds to pick up a colleague from the US, and we returned to Scotland to explore her family history – and again spend time with some of my new friends. After dropping her off in London, I picked up Maurizio, who decided he wanted to learn about Celtic Christianity. [This was a big and unexpected compliment because he is a good Roman Catholic boy who hadn’t had much interest in the progressive or Celtic church.] But his heart was opened – more magic.

Maurizio and I went to Lindisfarne (Holy Island) with one of the three ladies I mentioned earlier, and visited the Lindisfarne Scriptorum, where I purchased a beautiful poster. The front is beautiful script, and it reads:

“Love is always patient and kind. Love is not boastful or conceited. It is never rude, and never seeks its own advantage. It does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. These remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest is love.”

The back reads:

“Based on 1 Corinthians 13: 4-13. A good exercise is to replace the word ‘love’ with your own name to see if you match up – not an easy task but one worthy of aspiring to.”

I tried that: “Felicity is always patient and kind. Felicity is never boastful or conceited. Felicity is never rude, and never seeks her own advantage…” Ouch! Oh yes, I am a failure indeed! I am not always patient and kind. I am sometimes boastful and conceited. I can be rude and seek my own advantage… I could go on and on.

And so it was in reading this at Holy Island that I had my epiphany on the connection between failure and magic. The failure was in the need to accomplish something; the magic was with the present and the presence. The magic was the pure and simple grace of sharing time, hearts, and minds with others. The magic was that, for two months, I had been patient and kind. I had not been boastful or conceited; I had never been rude or sought my own advantage. I had not taken offence or stored up grievances. I did not rejoice in wrongdoing….

My need to be successful had become a stumbling block to living in the present and in the presence of divine grace. My failures had nothing to do with losing the sabbatical grant or not completing my three goals. My only failure was that I had forgotten about the magic that comes when one is open to God’s grace as explained by St. Paul in this much-treasured passage.

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Donald Trump: The Devil or the Holy Spirit?

July 1st, 2016

The United Kingdom voted last week to un-unite from the European Union, and the world is suddenly in free fall. Facebook posts from those under 40 are filled with fury while those from the older folks express fear and frustration. What are the implications for us in the still-United States? What are the implications for our world? For our faith?

It’s six weeks into my sabbatical in Britain and, until last week, most people would just raise their eyebrows if the subject of Donald Trump came up. When I either nodded sadly or cast my eyes to heaven, they would respond with silent tenderness. There are clear parallels between Trump’s popularity and the appeal of those who voted to leave the European Union, but even the most passionate Brexit conservatives are at a loss to understand the logic of those Americans who believe that Trump would be a worthy CEO for the most important nation on earth.

What is going on? First – and some would argue most persuasively – there’s the issue of hot air, literally and figuratively. In Britain, to “trump” is to break wind, i.e., fart. While I struggle to honor the gifts of my name (“felicity” means happiness), I don’t believe that Mr. Trump has any trouble living up to his.

The troublesome issue is not Mr. Trump but the people who see him as a solution for the mess we’re in. At another time, I may explain the victim-abuser seesaw and the danger of victim mentality, but right now I want to explore the possibility that Trump is the embodiment of the devil tempting us with simple solutions, prosperity, and peace. In what ways could he be a modern embodiment of the devil that tempted Jesus during his forty days in the wilderness?

As you reflect on this, remember the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (Mark 1: 9-12)

What is going on? A supposedly loving God honors Jesus as the beloved and then immediately sends him into the wilderness, where he has to deal with the horrors of hunger, terror, and vulnerability. In this physical and spiritual desert, the devil tells Jesus to:

  • Make bread out of stones to relieve hunger
  • Jump from the highest mountain and rely on heavenly spirits to prevent injury or death
  • Worship the devil in exchange for worldly power

Certainly there is a connection between this devil and Trump who asks us to buy into his idea of (figurative) comfort food, financial security, and power over lesser mortals.

But again I return to the Biblical narratives and wonder how a loving God could drive Jesus into such a place and situation… Could it be that the devil was just the Holy Spirit in disguise?

However you explain that, I believe the answer is the same as it was for Jesus. Each of the three temptations forced Jesus to examine his understanding of himself, the world, and God. What follows fear? Is it fight, flight, or faith? As Jesus dismissed the devil’s taunts, he also discovered his power and his role as a beloved child of God. And so I argue that the challenge – and the gift – of the wilderness is that it pushes us to identify three things: our power, our passion, and our purpose in life.

The Jesus whom we honor shows us that the path to heaven (certainly in this world and perhaps in another) begins with a faith that (excuse the pun) trumps fear. But he only was able to do so because he had gone through the wilderness where he learned who he was, who God was, and what the world should be.

Our country, if not the entire world, is smack dab in the middle of the wilderness.  We miserable, we don’t know where we are, and we’re desperately looking for a guide to lead us into a modern Promised Land.  Who will it be?  Will Donald Trump a.k.a. the devil win? Will we succumb to his false temptations? Or is God using Trump to make us examine what it means to be the United States of America? Is the God of Love pushing us to discern what American power, passion, and purpose looks like for the 21st century?

That is the challenge. And so it is not Mr. Trump, but the American people who will decide whether he is channeling the devil or the Holy Spirit.

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Feeling the Love on the First Fortnight Away

May 30th, 2016

In the two weeks since I left the US, I’ve experienced the best the world can offer — new friends, beautiful architecture, wonderful history, music, food — in a word, magic. The first week was all about London, where I stayed with Patrick Norohna, a retired-lawyer-turned-professional-conductor, who lives just a block from Westminster Abbey. In the many trips around town, I was escorted by my new friend Maurizio, a researcher, archivist, and professional tour guide. We managed to see most of the important sites as I was regaled by stories of London’s greats. Then I returned to Patrick’s flat where a large gathering of musicians from around the world were rehearsing or planning musical venues. Methinks I died and went to heaven!

A week ago yesterday, Maurizio and I took a quick trip to Sardinia where I stayed with his parents and saw Santa Barbara Church and “Villa Wright,” the home of my grandparents for almost a decade. This is where my grandfather initiated key safety improvements in the local mines and where my grandmother (a devout Episcopalian) helped persuade the Vatican to build and staff a Roman Catholic church for the villagers who lived more than five miles from the nearest parish.

After an airplane flight from Sardinia and an overnight bus trip, I arrived in northeast England on Wednesday. Northumbria is reminiscent of the Finger Lakes, with rolling hills, green fields, and rural peacefulness. The only sounds are the singing of the birds, bleating of the sheep, and gentle patter of a soft rain. I’ll stay here at the manse for two weeks, preaching occasionally and helping with any pastoral emergencies while my host, Rev. Dave Herbert, is on vacation in Europe. Then I head to Iona, the sacred isle of Scotland, before returning here to Northumbria.

And all the while, I’m thinking, “How could this have happened? What did I do to deserve such good fortune? Once strangers, Maurizio, Patrick, and Dave have all opened their hearts and homes to this unimportant visitor from the US. What did I do to deserve this?”

But as I asked that, I knew the answer. I did nothing. The blessings showered on me are the fruits of other people’s labors. Maurizio was researching the history of mining in Sardinia when he discovered stories of my grandparents who lived in the small town of Ingurtosa, just a few miles from where Maurizio lived before moving to London. He contacted my brother and another cousin about seven years ago, and since then we have shared our stories and relished the documents he has uncovered. When I approached him to get together for coffee or lunch while I was in London, Maurizio responded that he would look for inexpensive accommodation as well. He then approached his friend Patrick who was willing to let me stay for a week. And Dave was not a friend, nor a friend-of-a-friend, but a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, who responded when I was asking around for inexpensive places to stay in exchange for helping with pastoral duties.

In considering this immense good fortune, there are three important lessons that I want to share:

  1. Good deeds — even those done 100 years ago by others — have a way of coming back again and again to bring new connections and delights. We just need open minds and grateful hearts.
  2. It’s important to write and share our stories. It was my grandfather’s memoir Tales to My Grandchildren that I shared with Maurizio for his research six years ago that brought us together. And now I claim the Pigas as my “Sardinian family.”
  3. Sometimes not getting what we want is the best thing that can happen. As disappointed as I was in not receiving the Lilly Foundation’s grant (especially because it would have been helpful for the church and my children), it forced me to push the boundaries and reach for new ways of financing the sabbatical. Had I received the grant, I would be taking trains and using rental cars rather than buses. I would be staying in hotels rather than spare bedrooms. And I would not be experiencing the enchantment that I am now enjoying.

Truly God is like a big beautiful spider that is constantly sending out filaments of grace, most of which never land. So God reels them back in and flings them out again until one tender thread lands, then another, and another. Suddenly a web is formed and we experience God’s connective grace in wondrous new ways.  We find connection between past and present, now and then, here and there, one with another.

We give thanks!

PS — For those who want to follow my travels more frequently and with photos, please ‘like” me on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/revfelicity

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Channeling

May 27th, 2016

The young man plopped his backpack on my sofa, scowled, and announced that he would not be driving back with my cousin, staying instead in my small timeshare studio apartment until I worked out a plan to … do what ???

So much for my quiet vacation to finish the book. So much for solitude. So much for … whatever ….

The cousin left abruptly, seemingly pleased with his sudden freedom, and the young man offered a sheepish thanks, apparently assuming that I would do something other than throw him out on the streets, penniless and without even a driver’s license since he had handed that over to my cousin and forgot to ask for it back.

It’s a long and complicated story that I don’t wish to revisit, except to note that my response was uncharacteristic. Specifically, I was kind, I was generous. I found the young friend a room, bought him an airplane ticket, and paid for a taxi to the airport. When he left three days later, I was $900 poorer and feeling blessed. It seemed that the nasty Mr. Hyde part of me had evaporated, leaving only lovable Dr. Jekyll. I liked the peace and pleasantness of the new me but wondered what caused the transformation.

In my gut, I knew. The generosity was not from me but from others: I was simply channeling the tenderness of those who founded The Park Church 170 years ago – people whose love of God translated into acts of uncommon courage and sacrifice on behalf of runaway slaves passing through Elmira. I was channeling the love of those in the church who continue its legacy on behalf of people who are differently abled or of different sexual persuasions, or undervalued and challenged for whatever reason.

I was channeling the generosity of so many friends who have helped me navigate the challenges of ministry throughout the years. I was channeling the kindness of Robin, my best friend from elementary school with whom I had recently reconnected, and her sister Randa. Hearing their stories of courage and sacrifice, my heart went out to this young man, so alone and scared by what was happening to him.

I was channeling the generosity of my grandparents, who made such contributions to a small Sardinian village 100 years ago that a young researcher reached out to my family in kindness. A month after I contacted him in hopes of meeting over coffee or lunch, he informed me that he had arranged for me to stay for a week at a friend’s flat just a block from Westminster Cathedral and two blocks from Big Ben.

It wasn’t me that was kind. I was merely channeling the kindness of ordinary heroes and heroines from my church, my family, and my past. I was channeling the kindness of new friends who extended hospitality in welcoming me to Britain for my sabbatical, finding me free lodging and use of a car during parts of my time there. The blessings from others overflowed such that that they had nowhere to go but onto this young man.

And isn’t this the Kin(g)dom of God?

I am not an especially kind or generous person but on this day I was caught in God’s web of eternal connection. The largesse of the peace more than compensated for the shrinking of the purse.

We give thanks.

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Pilgrimage as Embodied Faith

April 29th, 2016

“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

— Rabbi Abraham Heschel

 Who are we and why are we the way we are?  I surmise that our identities are fashioned by those people and places that have combined to give us our values and thus our identity. Some of these were given us (family, country of origin) and some we acquired on our own (friends, college, job, travels, spouse).  It’s true of organizations as well.  The church I pastor is a progressive church because of our location (in Elmira, a central conduit of the Underground Railroad) and the people who filled its pews and pulpits in the past.  With different people in a different setting, The Park Church might not have emerged as a national landmark and leader in justice issues.

But too often we take these values as defaults without exploring, questioning, discarding, or celebrating them.  The result is that we live on autopilot without exercising much control over our destinies.  It was for this reason that God (or, if you prefer, the earliest wisdom teachers who collected their culture’s wisdom in the form of the great religious texts) developed the idea of Sabbath, the seventh day of the week during which God rested and instructed us to do the same.  This kind of holy rest is not vegging out at the beach or hanging out with friends; it is a deliberate time set aside to reconnect with the best of ourselves and reclaim our identity as beings made in the image of God.

In exploring our identity and values, we also need to consider the role of faith, which is too often confused with belief or contaminated by heaven-or-hell pronouncements of the institutional church.  This ignores the fact that doubt is to faith as dissent is to democracy – you can’t have the latter without the former or it’s sham.  We meet fundamentalist Christians – or Muslims or belligerent atheists or anyone else with simplistic truth-and-falsehood, good-and-bad, heaven-and-hell explanations of God – and they just don’t seem … real.  Rigidly held beliefs are so antithetical to the human experience that it’s hard to take them seriously; faith is not authentic if there isn’t some doubt at its core.

A wise elder shared an important insight about twenty years ago when I was tormented by whether or not to go into ministry.  My head said this religious stuff was just phooey, but my heart was telling me that the call and the joy, however inexplicable, were real.  On a spiritual retreat, I met with the resident priest, explaining that I was spiritually bipolar; my head and heart were in constant tension.  After listening to my plight, he leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “It’s not your head and your heart at war; it’s that you – like everyone else in the world – is on the seesaw between mystic and cynic.  Mysticism, however tenuous and inexplicable, brings joy, whereas cynicism is deadening.  You’re a mystic trying to follow the rationalist explanations of the modern world, and you’ll never find peace until you honor the validity of the experienced God as the source of peace since the beginning of time.  Remember, that’s why we call it ‘the peace that passes all understanding.’”

In short, faith can never be understood or explained scientifically.  But there is the very real experience of connection with something outside of us that brings joy, peace, and energy.  It is not rational or irrational; it is extra-rational.  It is of the heart, not the head.

Events that take us to a new understanding of God and ourselves are not reserved for holy nutcases.  On the contrary, several recent studies have reported that fully half of all Americans have had a life-changing religious experience at least once in their lives.  In other countries, the percentage is even higher.  As a rule, mystical experiences seem to be like grace, an unbidden gift from above.  But there are definitely things we can do to connect with the divine.

One of these is a pilgrimage. The ancient Jews were expected to go to Jerusalem three times a year – for Passover, Shavuot (or Pentecost), and Sukkot.   To this day, Muslims are required to travel to Mecca at least once in their lives. In our Christian history, those of us of European ancestry will think of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Pilgrims on the Mayflower – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Pilgrimage has been a major component of all the major faiths since the beginning of time – either mandated by the religious texts or encouraged by the culture.

Dear readers, have any of you ever gone on a pilgrimage?  If so, what prompted you and what did you get out of it?  Friends of mine who have undertaken a formal pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca or along the Camino de Santiago or to the places of their ancestors typically return with a clearer understanding of their own identity and purpose in life.  They return with a sense of the peace that passes all understanding.

As I begin my sabbatical with pilgrimages to Iona, Lindisfarne, and a collection of ancestral sites, I welcome your insights and prayers, for truly a pilgrimage is embodied faith: the work of the heart and the journey to discern our identity as children of a loving God.

Blessings on the journey!

Rev. Felicity

 

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Trying to live like a saint … or perhaps just a hero in my own story

November 2nd, 2015

On this All Saints’ Day, I’m recalling those people — grandparents, ministers, teachers, friends — who have lived as saints for me, by which I mean those who live in such a way that one knows that their love of God is central to everything they feel and do.

Whether or not I might qualify for sainthood, the bigger problem for me its just being a hero in my own story. Here’s the history and the challenge…

Many years ago, I jointed a support group for parents of children with birth defects. During the introductions, the psychologist, an elegant older woman who reminded me of the renowned psychologist Anna Freud, asked for a one-word synonym for parenting. Most of us came up with the usual schmaltzy stuff – “caring,” “nurturing,” “loving….” Some were more honest, with responses like “anxiety” and “worry.”

When we finished, this classy woman who reeked of wisdom sat back in her chair, took a long pause, and smiled knowingly. “Bullshit! There is only one true synonym for parenting, and it is ‘guilt.’ Get used to it; guilt will be a major part of your life from now on. The only difference between you and other parents is that you will have a worse case of it, because you have the added guilt of whatever caused your children to be here in this hospital. Learn to live with it, and don’t let it rule you.”

Over the years, I’ve shared her wisdom with new parents everywhere. Guilt really is about the most honest and fundamental synonym for parenting that I’ve ever heard. It was many years after my daughter died that I understood the kind of guilt that I felt – the guilt over inexplicable events – was its own kind of hubris. In my own way, I was playing God just by holding myself responsible for things I had no way of causing or understanding, let alone fixing.

A decade later, a pastoral therapist and close friend summarized it differently: “Try to live life so that you can be a hero in your own story. Things go wrong. If you’re responsible, then fix it. But don’t play the blame game. You can blame your parents, your spouse, the President, God – but that only makes you a victim. Acting like a victim is a terrible, destructive way to live. First, they are no fun to be around, and second, they may unwittingly use their victimhood as justification for abusing others – witness religious militants. So work at being a hero in your story, managing life’s challenges with grace and courage rather than succumbing to them. That’s as good as it gets.”

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