August Already

Where has the summer gone?

As I write this I realize it’s been over a month since I posted anything. It’s been that kind of summer – rich, full, busy, with lots to think about and not nearly enough time for writing. Well, you know. I have all the same time that anyone else does, but I have been doing things other than writing (or at least blogging) with it.

About a month ago I completed my first unit of CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education, as I’ve mentioned before. It was a very different experience this time around, compared to my unsuccessful attempt elsewhere two years ago; after last time I had expected that I was not at all suited to serve as a chaplain, but this time I fell in love with the work. I’m delighted to be staying on as a very occasional on-call chaplain, at least for the next few months – it means a little gas money, and opportunities to practice my vocation. That I am here, doing this, is a bit of inexplicable grace and wonder.

Continue reading

Posted in Reflections | Tagged | Leave a comment

Summer Solstice reflection

This post is developed from a spoken reflection from notes that I offered to my CPE colleagues in prayer time on Wednesday, in observance of the solstice, which occurred Tuesday.

Breathe in… Breathe out…
Settle into your body…
Feet resting on the floor…
Chair supporting your weight…

I would like to invite you in, into the earth-centered part of my spiritual practice, in honor of the summer solstice, the longest day and shortest night of the solar year. For us in the global north, this was yesterday.

We are probably more familiar with the winter solstice, its associations with Christmas and the secular New Year: the rebirth of the sun, the coming of God into the world, the return of light in the season of deepest darkness… And just a note – Hannukah isn’t about the solstice, it has its own (historical) story – but even so, it falls in the same dark corner of the year, and that story too is one of light shining in the darkness and hope against all odds.

It’s a powerful story, the light that begins to grow in the deepest darkness. That one’s easy. Humans like that story.

But that’s the OTHER solstice – the one six months from now, at least in this hemisphere.

For pagan folks, it’s no less important to celebrate the return of the darkness: the shadow that begins to grow at the point of brightest light.

This one can be harder sometimes to understand. Our contemporary culture, the one we’re all embedded in, idolizes growth, expansion. Onward and upward! Bigger! Faster! Better! More!

But we can’t keep growing forever. It doesn’t work that way.

Unregulated growth in the cells of body is a hallmark of cancer. The wild abundant flourishing of microorganisms means illness for the patient whose body they infect.

Out in the world, unchecked growth – the insatiable quest for more – leads us to overpopulation… resource depletion… pollution… colonialism… mass consumption… addiction… economic injustice at the amoral hands of the free market…

We can’t keep growing forever.

Contemporary pagan practice offers another way. Not necessarily better, but a different approach, a different way to tell the story. Ours is a spiritual system rooted in balance: not static balance, but the dynamic balance of the cycles of the living world.

The sun rises… and it also sets.
The moon waxes.. and then it wanes.
The tides rise and fall.

The seasons turn, each after the next.
Seeds sprout. Flowers bloom. Fruit ripens. Seeds fall.

Air goes in and out with each cycle of the breath.
Blood goes round and round with each pulse of the heart.

We are born. We grow. We change. We live.
And eventually, we die.
The molecules that make up our bodies return to the world, and our spirits are released to whatever happens next.

The thing about cycles is that they circle back onto themselves. There’s a rhythm, a pattern that has no beginning, and no ending. Or, maybe better, every point in the cycle is the ending of what was, and the beginning of what is to come.

Let us sit for a moment with the seed of the darkness that begins to grow in the brightest moment of light, with the peak of the wave just before it begins to fall, with the pause between the in breath and the out breath; with every ending that is also a beginning.

God that we know by countless names,
Eternal Mystery,
You who are above and below,
Within and beyond,
Be here now: hear our prayer….

Posted in Reflections | Leave a comment

Breathing Spaces

I’ve fallen quiet again, despite my good intentions to blog regularly; several of the concerns occupying my attention are situations that I am keeping in my personal, private sphere at least for now. There are a lot of things worth talking about – the Orlando shooting, the Stanford rape case, the ongoing systemic violence that reemerges over and over again in a thousand ugly ways – and a lot of people talking about them, but I am not one of them.

In my moments of weakness I wonder, a lot, whether it reveals me to be a “bad” minister or an unworthy human being, that I am not right up front and center with eloquent words about each and every thing that is worthy of our collective attention, our rage, our grief, our solidarity. There is no shortage of words, though. Many colleagues and friends are quick to respond to the headlines that clench our bellies with terror and bring tears of rage to our eyes.

I have, at the moment, nothing to say. Nothing to say, at least, that has not already been said a hundred or a thousand times, the words repeated with each violent tragedy until they become absurd and meaningless, a chorus of thoughts-and-prayers that slowly morphs into a post-traumatic version of the “Chicken Chicken Chicken” video. *

Like I said, I might be a bad minister…

Okay then, I am a bad minister, or at least one who is also a human being whose sharp-edged sense of humor surfaces when the mitigating tenderness gets scraped a bit thin. This is what I got, world: nothin’. I got nothin’. Hollow and brittle as a glass jar with just the thinnest scraping of peanut butter coating the walls, passing for full and secretly empty.

I am again at a loss for words. Not this $#!@ again, I mutter, self-censoring my profanity on the internet. I crack wise. My shoulders tense up, then sag under the weight of each breath.

And I pray.

Image is a carved wooden sculpture of the "Weeping Buddha" - a muscular male figured seated cross-legged and bent over with his face hidden in his hands.

I pray for the aching of the world, for the healing of the wounded, for the comfort of the grieving.

For the mending of shattered sanctuary and the reopening of old wounds of the spirit.

For all of us whose guts clench, knowing the fear that comes when identity is also liability; when we are reminded that living our lives fully includes the risk of losing everything.

For the caregivers, of whom I know so many now; shuffling their own burdens of fear and loss and rage to gather the shards and mend the tatters, knowing that the work always remains unfinished.

For all our fractally complex intersections.

I don’t understand hate very well. But I am human too. I get suffering. And I have learned to acknowledge my own capacity to turn my unsoothed suffering – my pain, my fear – into sharp-edged anger. Whether I turn the spiky bits in on myself, or out into the world, it still hurts.

Things shatter and leave sharp edges. It is so easy, so very easy, to lash out, to push the suffering away, onto somebody else. Those people. Whichever ones they are, and the opportunities are legion and rife for politicization. I do not think I am going to list them here; it would be unfair to leave someone out. We are all in this together, this suffering and causing one another to suffer.

The impulse either to fix suffering, or to declare it unfixable and ignore it, is powerful. It underlies so much of what is aching and wrong, at whatever self-similar scale – personal, familial, institutional, cultural. It is so hard to stay present, to neither fight nor run, and hold the suffering moment as long as possible without burning ourselves up in the process. And yet to not at least try is to acquiesce to the violence of the system. There is no sure victory, only the choice between defiance and defeat.

I would like to have an easy answer, some pastoral comfort or prophetic wisdom to put here. But I got nothin’.


* You don’t remember the “Chicken Chicken Chicken” video? Here it is, if you want a raucous absurdity break.


Posted in Reflections | 2 Comments

Spirals

I am puttering around in spirals today. This is a very typical work pattern for me that can drive linear thinkers (like my beloved Spouse) absolutely nuts.

What happens is something like this:

I go out in the yard because it’s not hot yet and I’ve been meaning to do stuff. I pull a few weeds. I realize I want the scissors to trim dead flower heads.

I go in the house to get the scissors from the kitchen. En route I notice some scarves hanging on the staircase that need to go down into the basement. I pick them up and go down the basement stairs and hang them in the off-season closet.

While the basement closet is open, I pull some boxes in and out and gather up an armful of clothes that I haven’t worn in a couple of years, to bring them up to the porch and put them in the box for the next rummage sale. (We have an ongoing “next rummage sale” box on the porch that periodically gets donated to the Boy Scouts or the UU church, depending on who is next having one.)

When I get back to the front porch with the clothes I remember wanting the scissors to dead-head the flowers, and I go back into the kitchen.

I somehow bypass the kitchen and go sit in the chair in the back sunroom, where all the art supplies have migrated from the basement, many months ago when it was too cold to paint downstairs. Perhaps I put a few touches on a work in progress, or maybe I sign and finish something that’s been lingering around unfinished since last winter, when I last made time to paint. I look out the window at the dense green summer wall that was a lacy mesh of winter branches last time I looked there. I realize that what this canvas wants is collage, but all the art paper is upstairs where I last used it.

I go upstairs and dislodge the cat from the computer (she sleeps on it; I think because it is warm) and look to see what’s happened on FaceBook. A post from a friend reminds me that I really need to look at my calendar and figure out what assignment is due next for CPE, or perhaps that I ought to make travel arrangements for some upcoming event. And then there is the daily jigsaw, and the sudoku… and I realize that I am bored with that and need to do laundry. Which I gather up to take down to the basement.

Except that when I get to the kitchen I remember that I wanted the scissors, to dead-head the spent daffodils in the front yard…

And so it goes, today, and my other days off. Lots of things being half done in tiny increments. Eventually, somehow, most of the important parts get done. The papers get written – with lots and lots of reminders to myself that there are next steps; I probably talk about doing them a lot more than I actually do them. The weeds get pulled and the shrubs get trimmed and the lawn gets mowed… eventually. And there is always laundry in some stage of the process.

I am learning to accept that this is just how I get things done; that the fluid mosaic of a pebble beach is also a legitimate way of being earth. We are not all granite monoliths nor need we be. We are not all straight timber but winding vines and swaying grasses also have worth. It goes deeper than not needing to be perfect; I am beginning to sense – if not to grasp – that the aggregate of countless imperfections is far greater, more beautiful, more resilient, more holy than any single perfect whole.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to go back to the kitchen and get the scissors and go into the front yard and dead-head last month’s daffodils. Or something like that.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Resurrection

This is not an abandoned blog.

Close up photo of two daffodil flowers, yellow with orange centers, and some green foliage

This is, however, a blog whose writer is deeply absorbed in things that are happening in the part of the world that is not the internet.

A general update:

This is the first week since I can’t remember when, probably last December, that I have not had something due for some purpose, on deadline. Papers and discussion posts for class, reflections and verbatims for CPE, the occasional urgently long-winded argument somewhere on the internet. Long-form blogging, taking time to think about things and craft a written response purely for the sake of my own satisfaction, has become something of a luxury. I hope to get back to it. Like painting, and textile craft, and puttering in the garden. I don’t know when.

Spring too is the busy season for UU clergy (and seminarians) – search and candidating and call, interviews with the MFC, ordinations and graduations and installations. I have had the genuine pleasure of seeing some dear friends and colleagues move ahead in their ministries; for me it is also bittersweet because I am still in the middle of the process and not moving as quickly or as confidently as I would prefer.

So what is the outcome of all this subterranean busy-ness? I wrapped up the coursework for History of the Western Christian Tradition Part Two a couple of weeks ago, and am waiting – not anxiously but curiously – for my grade on that. It is the second-to-last academic class of my MDiv. (Due to a quirk of scheduling, I may end up having to take my last class correspondence, from another seminary, which was also not part of the original plan. But that is – like so many things – as yet indeterminate.) It is strange not to be “in school.” I had really only just gotten used to that.

CPE is also going well – Clinical Pastoral Education, the chaplaincy internship that I started back in early March, which will continue into early July. CPE is 400 hours per unit; many units are 40 hours a week for 10 weeks, mine is 20 hours a week for 20. In consideration of the privacy of patients and colleagues, I will not be telling tales from the hospital here. Some things in the world deserve to be held gently and close.

But I drive a lot – my CPE site is about an hour away, three days a week. Next fall, I am looking forward to beginning parish internship, a slightly shorter commute but with a lot less parking. And I’ve resumed volunteering at the local hospital, as long as scheduling permits. So I am busy, and getting to practice my calling, a little bit, instead of sitting on the computer thinking about it.

Meanwhile, Spouse decided that this was the year of removing and replacing the shed. It is still a work in progress, but progress is visible. The woodchuck that used to live under the old rotten-floored rusted-out shed is actively displeased with this turn of events; I hope it moves along and squats in someone else’s garden instead. I have not even planned to plant this year and it is already the end of May with June coming fast; possibly there will not be a garden at all, except for Spouse’s squashlings, which need to be planted out soon – but the shed needs to be finished first, because the squash bed is, in the local vernacular, “up behind where the shed usta be.”

We navigate by the absence of landmarks, here. There’s probably a sermon in that.

So that’s the news from the Sand Hill. Lots of mileage on the old red wagon, lots of paperwork, half a shed, a displeased woodchuck, and the great circle of life grinds on.

Posted in Reflections | 1 Comment

On a Screen, Dimly

I really wanted to get this up three weeks ago but, well, life intervened, as it does. This spring is rich and full and involves lots of deadlines and commuting and similar externalities.

Public, Private, Professional, Personal- Part Three

Previous segments: Part 1 and Part 2

Square divided into quadrants: top left (purple) Public and professional; top right (orange), Private and Professional; bottom left (green), Public and personal; bottom right (yellow), private and personal.

This model is a way to visualize the understanding that some pieces of our personal lives can be public – or, to put it another way, that some parts of our public lives can be personal. Not only is it inevitable for many of us, but it’s important. Our public personal selves add realness – even authenticity: a little bit of quirk or grit or color to an otherwise bland, tepid professional image. All work and no play, as the saying goes, makes Jack – or Jo – dull and lifeless. A touch of the personal, where the world can see it, makes our public selves human.

But that’s not all. Continue reading

Posted in Reflections

A Model for Navigating Public Presence

Public, Private, Professional, Personal- Part Two

One thing seminarians hear regularly is that a minister is, in some sense, always a minister: that there is no completely setting aside the ministerial role – except in situations where the people you’re interacting with don’t know you’re a minister. I can report there’s some truth to this: on more than one occasion I’ve said “grad school” rather than “seminary” and changed the subject to avoid having to listen to people fall all over themselves apologizing for using profanity, or not going to church anymore.

(Just so you know: That gets old, FAST. Whether or not you go to church? That’s your business. I haven’t met anyone past their first year in seminary who doesn’t cherish the opportunity to talk about anything other than church stuff. If one of your personal friends is in seminary or active ministry – and you aren’t – talk to them about the ball game.  Your favorite new TV series.  Art.  Gardening. Cat pictures. Something you saw on the internet. Whatever you would talk to your other friends about. I promise your clergy friend will be cool with that. If they aren’t into cat pictures, they will change the subject.) 

The other thing we seminarians keep hearing is that ministers need to keep good boundaries between their professional and personal lives.

“Don’t overshare.”

“Preach from your scars, not from your wounds.”

This advice is absolutely true – for the health of both the minister and the congregation – and also deeply challenging in a vocation defined less by specific tasks or context than by the simple presence and person of the minister. Our tools are our selves. When we show up, we’re on. Could be any hour of the day, any day of the year – but because we are also human, we can’t be available all of the hours of every day or all of the days of every year. And so we must draw a line somewhere, carve out a few spaces for being just us.

For my whole adult life the internet has been one of the spaces where I can relax and be human, free from job and family expectations. But I’m increasingly finding that this freedom and familiarity goes against the emerging conventional wisdom I get from my colleagues – students and otherwise – for whom the online sphere is a kind of pulpit, inherently public and therefore automatically and exclusively part of the professional realm. I suppose that’s one way to do it: arranging your life so that all things public (including your online life) are only professional, and all things personal are kept private – and offline.

But I’ve been online for as long as the internet has been available to the general public, since the early-mid 1990s. Online presence has been part of my personal life since way before my call to professional ministry – this blog is only the latest iteration of that. Having a personal life that’s entirely unplugged is not an option for me: that train left the station over twenty years ago. And I expect the same is true for many Gen Xers and Millennials, especially the younger folks for whom there has never really not been an internet.

Those of us with long digital trails can’t separate things the easy way – Professional – Public – Online on one side and Personal – Private – Offline on the other. Instead, my model looks something like this: Continue reading

Posted in Reflections