Personal Jesus

I would have loved to post this closer to Easter Sunday, which was three or four days ago now depending how you count them, but better late than not at all.

Easter Sunday was its own kind of beautiful – late this year, and yet the winter clung long enough to still make it “early spring” by the signs of the earth. I did not play with the Occasional Orchestra this year – been too busy to make the practices – but they were in grand form. Our principal violinist this season is about nine or ten and proudly wore yellow bunny ears for the entire morning. It was wonderfully cute.

We are accustomed to doing two different services on Easter Sunday: the early service is always kid-friendly, spring-themed and generally secular, while the late service is billed as ‘traditional’ and the last few years has included as delicate a dance with Christianity as our theologically eclectic congregation will permit. This year’s service, titled “The Many Ways of Knowing Jesus,” included reflections from three of our leaders on their personal interaction with the Christian Easter story and ended with a challenge to those of us in the pew – or in my case, the choir – to reflect on their own experience.

Mine is…. complicated. Continue reading

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Mud Time

This time of year is a place of in-between-ness, definitely not winter any more but not quite properly spring yet either. We had a bit of snow mid-week, the back side of a blustery wet storm, that I hope will be the last flailing gesture of winter on its way out. I can hope. The ice is out of the pool, and Spouse cleaned the first round of leaves out of it today, and now it is like a great bowl of brown soup waiting for the dirt to settle again.

I ought to be well versed in in-between-ness by now; I have been living in spiritual transition for close to two years at this point. But this is ever-shifting territory, with landmarks that don’t hold still and paths that don’t lead where expected.

I did not expect, exactly, to end up slipping quietly into the back of the small Episcopal church in the next town for a Good Friday afternoon service. Nor am I precisely sure what moved me to go in the first place or what I expected to find when I got there. It is a fact of my spiritual life right now that being not sure about a lot of things while I am doing them is more or less par for the course.

A small group of people gathered in the sparsely furnished sanctuary they share with the local Quaker meeting: high ceiling, wooden pews, stained-glass windows letting in the yellow afternoon light. I wouldn’t recognize an ordinary Episcopal service if I saw one, but I am pretty sure this was not exactly that: it turned out to be a powerful reimagining of the Stations of the Cross in modern language and imagery.

I wish that I could share it with you. But the liturgy was created locally, and its creators are not interested in publishing or distributing it. Which saddens me, because the world aches for so powerful a making of connection. Oh, I could re-create it, or something similar. Some of the ideas I will almost certainly use someday, ideas that I have seen used elsewhere. But though I could with research try to reconstruct the original, it feels terribly wrong of me to contemplate doing so. This thing is not mine to share — I felt that in a visceral way. The closest I can explain is that the feeling reminded me of the times I have visited Pow-wow and entered the dance arena. The arena is sacred space, and I find things there as a guest which are not mine to take elsewhere. So also was this.

It is not a feeling I expected to find in someone else’s church.

I have been sitting disquietly with this for a couple of days, rolling it around, and am not done yet.

I am disquieted in part because I was reminded sharply that we UU’s have a peculiar relationship to the rest of the church — peculiar in that so many people draw the boundary of the church universal with us heretics on the outside of it.  And I am becoming comfortable enough with myself and with my faith identity that I forget I am still other and need to behave accordingly in the wider church world, now that I am no longer invisible.  In learning multiculturalism and anti-oppression work it is impressed upon the student that you don’t just go in and grab other people’s sacred things.  I get that.  Except apparently I don’t — or it never occurred to me that it would also apply to me in the context of the white anglo-American church.   I am surely not the first person to make that mistake, but I hope my clumsy enthusiasm was mostly inoffensive.

What I saw was a sacred thing — a simple vessel but filled with meaning.  I can imagine the power of that liturgy for someone at home in that tradition to be the old, deep, familiar Stations of the Cross lifted out of familiarity by the juxtaposition with modern language and imagery — using their understanding of the Christian story as a spiritual lens through which to view the modern condition.  Deep and powerful and hauntingly beautiful.

But for me, the stranger, deep and powerful and beautiful in another way.  What I found there, so powerful in that quiet dusty room, was the old, deep mystery of the Passion of Christ reframed in language and imagery that resonated profoundly with my modern pagan spiritual self — and I saw or felt a fleeting brush with that mystery, a mystery I never touched and had forgotten existed.

I am not able to reconstruct that liturgy, because to be able do so I would need to comprehend the mystery of the Stations of the Cross, a piece of church tradition that is alien to me and not one I have found yet in a UU setting. Without that deep connection to the source, any such translation I produced would be only a rote copy or a hollow imitation.  It would not have the same power.

Still, I am grateful for the translation, and longing for another glimpse through that particular veil. Perhaps, some day.

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Lo, the Earth Awakes Again

What a difference a week or two makes this time of year. The snow is nearly all vanished, except for a few dirt-crusted banks of ice in the shadows under bridges and on the north sides of buildings, sending rivulets of muddy water down the gutters and swelling the brown river, all open flowing water where there was a jumbled crust of ice two weeks ago.

It has been warm enough of an afternoon to open the window for a bit and let the winter air out and the smells in. The cats are appreciative, sniffing the window screens with twitching whiskers at the awakening of the world. My sinuses are less so, and with the uncovering of the decaying vegetation and dust I rededicate my devotion to allergy medication. I saw the first pale points of green arising in the yard this week, marking the territories where the crocuses and ditch lilies will bloom.

I took a walk this morning, down the hill and through downtown and along the river on the walking trail by the disused railroad tracks with the clear sunlight glittering on the mica in the gravel rail bed and the foam on the rough brown river water. When the snow melts it reveals things that lay hidden through the winter, the fallen limbs of trees broken in the winter storms, damp rubbish, dog shit and broken glass. The swollen brown river is not in flood stage, not yet, but it flows high and strong between its banks with the occasional drifting debris or vestigial iceberg racing down on the current.

I walked this morning with my heart full of death and rebirth and scattered in a thousand pieces among my beloved community. This is my life now: my heart lying in pieces with my people. All my people, scattered.

Continue reading

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To begin again, in love

It’s not quite spring yet, here in Maine. Some of the snow is gone, but a lot of it isn’t, and where it has melted away there are great expanses of damp dead grass and sticky mud. Things are not visibly growing – not yet. Winter has been long this year, and it will take awhile for the world to reawaken.

I am in the calm place after the storm, or at least between the storm fronts. It is strange this time coming home from Chicago without an enormous frenzy of things to be doing next. Well, there are papers to be written and a final project that is just a teensy bit past its original due date, but these are solvable problems, I think, and it seems possible that I might get to the end of the term without having a major academic meltdown.

It is really strange to consider that I am almost a year into seminary and almost two years out from the spiritual crisis that precipitated this bewildering transformation. It feels like the beginning. Perhaps it is the beginning; perhaps it is always the beginning of whatever is happening next as much as the culmination of whatever has just finished happening. The image of pebbles in the surf sticks with me – the eternally shifting mosaic of a beach.

I got stuck last week in one of the vortices of personal suck, the one where I am painfully, viscerally conscious of my own frailties and inadequacies. It’s difficult to talk about this sort of thing. To declare that I am exhausted and empty and broken beyond redemption seems to invite an abundance of gently enthusiastic affirmation from my fellow students, for which I am largely grateful. But it is important to me also to acknowledge the darkness, the absence, the limitation and the bleak comprehension that we, that I, am not only incapable of solving all of the world’s problems but in fact inadequate and insufficient to solve any of the world’s problems in any achievable sense, and yet, and yet, deep down and beneath the weight of certain failure, still hope rises like the inexorable unfolding of flowering plants beneath frozen snow-covered earth.

This is where I get a little bit theistic, I guess. It is not my agency that will save the world but that Power, whatever be its name, which moves me and moves through me and moves through countless others. These hands – my hands, your hands – are the hands of God and by them is God’s work accomplished in this holy, broken world.

It is strange. It is frightening to consider. I am so very small and human, and I don’t pretend to understand mystical experience. I don’t think “understanding” is even part of the deal here. But I feel this peculiar openness, in ways that are difficult to describe, and even though I might consider abandoning this journey, for fear of failure to be wiser or stronger or more perfect than I could possibly be, I know that’s not going to happen this time. I still can’t not do this. I am too powerless to argue about it.

So I begin, again, where I left off: broken, wary, as much in need of my own healing as possessed of any capacity to heal another, grumpy and tired and human and small. It is not possible never to make any mistakes. I will screw up. (I might be screwing up right now, and not realize it.) And perhaps, perhaps – I want this to be true, but I have not learned to trust it yet – perhaps this is okay. Do I need to be forgiven of my transgressions? Maybe. Do I trust that such forgiveness will be forthcoming? I want it to be so. And I am beginning to imagine that it might be. Gift beyond measure, freely given.

And so, when all is cold and barren, I imagine the stirrings of the roots in the earth, and the swelling of buds on the frost-damaged twigs, and I listen for the rustling of birds in the branches and I believe that it will not be winter forever. There comes, eventually, the promise of rebirth.

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Notes from Chicago

So I really was going to post every five days this month and we can all see how well that has happened.  

Last Saturday I flew back to Chicago for spring intensives.  It is good to see my community again, but I am also noticing the subtle shifting and re-forming of that community: meeting a few new people (including a prospective student who received her email of acceptance while a group of us were heading out to dinner) and missing a few familiar ones who are elsewhere for one reason or another.  This community is not one solid granite boulder, an unchanging impervious monolith, but more like a beach of agate pebbles, tumbled by the waves in an infinitely changing mosaic of color and sound.  

The weather is fitfully approaching spring.  Vespers last night included a nod to the spring equinox today.  It’s been above freezing the last couple of days, and it also snowed this morning: big fluffy flakes floating down and disappearing on contact with the sidewalks.  

I almost walked off with somebody else’s winter coat this evening.  Why should there be two long black wool coats in the same closet?  Fortunately my victim had perplexing pocket junk that wasn’t my perplexing pocket junk, so the case of the purloined peacoat ended on page zero.  And I have dug out my silly blingy scarf pin and pinned it to my lapel, so that tomorrow I will not accidentally borrow the wrong coat. 

One more day of class, four one-page reflections and a final paper, and I will be done with this week’s Hebrew Scripture class.  Next week is Introduction to Pastoral Ministry and a 7-to-10 page paper that I need to revise before it’s due on Monday.  And I ought to do laundry some time this weekend. 

And so it goes.

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There is a snowstorm forecast for later in the week; I do not want more snow. It is late enough in the year that I would happily forego any more serious snowstorms. But I especially do not want bad weather on Saturday, because I am heading back to Chicago for two weeks of spring classes. And I want it to be spring, at least a little bit.

Close-up of a torn dried leaf, mostly oval with a pointed tip, splotchy grayish brown in color. It is encased in partially melted ice, greenish-blue and grayish-white, with visible bubbles.

It’s all still a jumble, but it’s a calmer jumble than it was right before leaving for January classes. I am thinking, in no particular order of priority, about Leviticus and leprosy and clay pots and leather garments, about the unfinished personal-reflection paper that is half-written in another window, about the frustration of Time Change Sunday (why does it have to be on a work day? Couldn’t it happen on a Tuesday or something?) and the art of sitting in an armchair while wearing a dress, about packing and laundry and scarves, about selecting hymns and getting proper permissions and writing liturgy for a collaborative vespers service, about paperwork – always paperwork – for various things and hoping I have not missed any deadlines yet, about theories of religious education and creative synthesis and stages of self-actualization or something, about unfinished personal conversations that will happen at another time, about laughter and absurdity and conversations with cats, about denominational history and congregational history and the parts we tell and do not tell, about the logistics of getting paid gracefully, about gratitude for short-notice plumber visits that turn out to be brief and effective, about wasabi peas and shiny red shoes and sitting in the sunbeam as a form of prayer.

Close-up of a crocus, deep yellow with rounded petals and grass-like dark green leaves, growing in rocky garden debris.

I am not ready to go back to classes; I am ready to go back to community. I have more things to do than I have time to do them in and some of the things will be done halfway or delegated or late and I trust that it will, sooner or later, be okay.

When I get back from Chicago, it’s plowing straight forward into a major church event, then I have to decide whether to attend the district conference the following weekend, then the Sunday after that is Easter, then after that things start getting busy with the end of the church year and the end of the school year. I have deadlines for papers in there someplace, and evaluations, and a final project.

And I preach Memorial Day weekend, and the day after Memorial Day I start CPE for the summer. And off we go.

A jumble of thin branches with swelling buds with bright blue sky behind them.

This is what life looks like now. Rich and busy and full of color and chaos, like the rainbow shards of light that flash around the porch when the sunlight catches the prisms I have hanging in the windows. I am a sucker for little crystal prisms – I bought my first one when I was about twelve and visiting California with my grandmother. I think I still have it, but I’d misplaced it in the move to Maine and so I bought another one like it… and it turned up, and I’ve acquired a few more since. When the sun is bright and low-angled, my little porch is like being inside a psychedelic tie-dyed disco ball.

The photos in this post are all from March 2010. Spring came early that year; four years ago the snow was gone by now, and the earth was starting to come back to life and I could believe in spring. Tonight, things are still encased in ice and snow, with more wintry weather on the way. But at least I have the joy of small things and an abundance of work that is worthy of being done. For this I am grateful.

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Edges Thin and Ragged

It’s March already.

It’s a week into March already, or close to it. The snow is getting crusty around the edges as it does – this morning’s dusting coating the gritty gray piles of ice like powdered sugar on chocolate donuts.

I am tired of winter. I have only lived in Maine for nine winters now and still I am not used to this reality, that ice falls out of the sky predictably enough to be something between a minor nuisance and a mere fact of life – and that it stays where it lands for weeks or months at a time. Shoveling the roof and sanding the yard are still novelties.

We are ages from spring here, right now. It was about minus 5 this morning – Farenheit, for those of you to whom it makes a difference – and isn’t supposed to be significantly warmer when the sun comes back up tomorrow. It might get above freezing for a few hours later in the week, if we are lucky.

This has been a long, cold, hard winter.

Eventually the snow will melt. It does not look now like that will be any time soon, but I have faith that eventually the snow will melt off, and I will mourn its passing and the soggy dead garden debris lurking beneath it. Eventually I might even clean that up. I meant to do it last year, but I was busy and winter came early.

And eventually the crocuses will send their wispy thin leaves up through the ice and the muck and open their faces – purple and striped and white and gold – to the thin watery sunlight. Eventually the forsythia bush will awaken into an explosion of yellow flowers and the annual negotiation for my parking space will recommence. Eventually the tulips will unfurl and the rhododendrons will resume their efforts to engulf the front porch. Eventually the lilacs will bloom.

But not yet.

There is so much work to be done in this time of dark and cold and waiting. I leave for Chicago again in less than two weeks and I am writing a blog entry instead of engaging one of the many academic tasks that also want my attention, because I am tired and it is cold and just for a little while, just a little, little while, I want to dream of warmth and beauty.

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