Putting the Pieces Together

Two colorful greeting cards with abstract designs assembled from angular scraps of paper. One is a blue and green chalice with an orange and yellow flame. The other card is a rainbow.

It has been a full month since I updated here.  

The image above is of a couple of paper-collage greeting cards I made while I was away at school.  (One of the hazards of being “out” as an artist is that I can’t easily get away with sending generic cards from the drugstore.)  

Between the creative craft projects and the intentional practice at healthy human interactions, I sometimes think seminary is a lot like kindergarten – although I do appreciate that I get to use the sharp scissors these days, and as far as I can tell nobody ate my glue.

This has probably been my last long trip to Chicago. I am not done yet – I will not graduate for at least two more years. But I have completed the majority of my academic classes and the rest of my trips will be much shorter.

I feel like I have only just started to learn how to do this thing, this packing my life into hardside suitcases and schlepping it halfway across the continent for full immersion into the thick intensity of formational community, only to have that suddenly now be a thing that is over and I must move on to the next thing I don’t quite know how to do.

I am very much in discernment and contemplation right now, or I need to be – as much as I can, tucked into the crevices between all the things I postponed so that I could spend a month away from home. The suitcases are still in the living room and I just did the laundry yesterday. Reentry is still hard after all this time. And the spring term officially started two days ago so there has been no real opportunity for rest and closure.

But all that is to say that while I have been not-writing on the blog, I have been no less occupied with other things, tumbling around some stories that are not mine to tell, and other stories that are mine but not yet ready for telling. Hard things, heart things. The places where our human masks become thin and – if we look closely – the glow of the holy shines through.

I have seen holy things, these last few weeks.

And I have also been worn thin in places, and generally feel empty and cross and stretched and in need of renewal, and I have a couple of weeks to get some of that figured out before I step into the next piece: spring extended CPE placement. About which I have no small anxiety, given the experience I had during my unsuccessful attempt two summers ago.

Have I grown? Maybe. I hope so. I would like to make better mistakes this time. I fear that I haven’t grown enough yet, maybe, or that this new growth is still too fragile. CPE is supposed to be challenging, but it isn’t supposed to be traumatic and destructive. I am hoping that this time around the experience will prove to be more of a greenhouse than a wood chipper.

Between that and the history class I’m taking this term, I think the first half of 2016 is going to be really light on blogging. I miss doing this regularly, and I need to figure out how to integrate it into my work in the long term.  But that will not happen tonight.

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Drive by posting: Chicago bound

Handwritten in silver on brown paper: "Doing all the Things. How do I get there from here? Remember to breathe."

doing all the things
how do I get there from here?
remember to breathe

I found it when I was rummaging around in a pile of unsorted stuff, looking for things I wanted to pack, and posted the picture to Facebook. One of my friends described it as a love note from my past self. It’s my handwriting, but I don’t remember writing it.

The last few days have been chaotic and in the morning I leave for Chicago again, for January classes. I’m torn between wanting to see people I haven’t seen since July or longer, and knowing that many of the people I would dearly like to be with will not be there, for whatever reasons. It’s how low-residency works: we are never all in the same place at the same time.

So I offer you the above scrap of minor wisdom, from someone I used to be, while I am scurrying around packing last-minute things and fretting about money and time and wanting to be in two or more places at once.

How do I get there from here? Remember to breathe.

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Year in Review: 2015

I wasn’t entirely sure that I was going to write a 2015 year-in-review post, but now it comes down to the end of the line and here we are and it’s time for some reflection, maybe. Maybe not a full play-by-play this year. This year things have moved slowly, dancing to their own rhythm.

Winter did finally show up, after all. Two days ago. I was out in the yard barefoot on Christmas Day, and by Tuesday the high temperature had dropped 40 degrees and we got our first real accumulating snow storm of the season. For all I complain about shoving snow around, the early winter nights sure are dark without it.

And perhaps I won’t get bored looking at it as quickly as I did last year. I’m wondering whether I’m going to need to spray paint the front yard again like I did back in February. It did seem like a good idea at the time.

It was a year of shifting expectations. Major changes in the ministerial credentialing process at the UUA level shook things up in the spring and early summer. I guess uncertainty is the new normal – we are in the grinding gritty edge of things where old expectations and new realities do not mesh up exactly, and it seems sometimes that we are all making it up as we go along while trying to preserve the superficial appearance that everything is perfect, polished and under control.

Forgive me, imperfect world. I don’t have a whole lot of use for that foolishness. If things are uncertain then let us be honest about our uncertainty. If things are imperfect or incomplete then let us be honest about the imperfections, the limitations, the opportunities we might grow into. So often we are shamed into concealing or denying those places from which we might grow – the places where we are not yet all that we might become – and it feels cramped and tight and broken. But the first piece, always, is to take an honest inventory and say to ourselves and to one another, “Yup. This is what I’ve got. It is imperfect, and it is real.”

This is not – however – to say that we ought to stop there. The rush to closure and completeness has another shadow, the shadow that says “This is all I have and all I’ll ever be – no need for changing or growing or transformation, nope. All set.”

I remember just enough of the Latin I took in school to be dangerous, but one of the pieces that stuck was that there were two ways of expressing the past: the imperfect, and the perfect. The perfect form was for expressing events that were complete, that happened once: I ran to the store Tuesday. The imperfect form was for expressing events that were ongoing, or habitual: I used to run to the store every Tuesday. This distinction persists more strongly today in languages like Spanish and French – the grammatical structure of English has Germanic origins rather than Latin ones – but the idea is still under there.

In this way the word “perfect” has two sets of ideas within it, one overlaying the other: flawlessness, and beneath that, completeness. But in this world, this real ongoing world in which we are ever and always in the middle of things – is anything ever complete? I think not – it cannot be, everything has limits – and so, because we are finite and mortal and bounded, we are inherently imperfect and so are all things in this world. I am, and you are, and every human is, and every human system is, imperfect and incomplete, with fuzzy boundaries and uncertain outcomes.

I have spent 2015 getting to the edge of being comfortable with that.

Not, of course, perfectly comfortable. But comfortable enough with the discomfort of limitation and unknowing that most of the time now I can shrug and say, “I will do what I can with what I have from where I am, and leave the rest undone.” This is, maybe, what sanity looks like.

But like anyone newly converted I find myself wanting to spread the gospel of shameless imperfection, and being vexed and frustrated by others’ persistence in (and insistence on) old ways of thinking and being. I do chafe at the presumption that there is exactly one right way to do it, this being human, and that this way or that way is the best answer for everyone and we ought to all be judged accordingly, and ranked according to our approximation of an unachievable ideal. Or, realizing the ideal is unachievable, insisting that our current situation is as close as anyone ever ought to get.

Yeah nope. That’s not how it really works; if our systems are structured to force us into conformity or to freeze us in complacency, then that is an incompleteness in our systems which does not allow for the beautiful complex unfolding imperfection of the world. We are always already good enough; we can always already do better.

“There is a crack,” writes songwriter Leonard Cohen, “a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”

Happy New Year. See y’all on the flip side.

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Wet Christmas

And then, when it seemed darkest, the SUN did rise after all,
and she knew that SPRING would come again.

The funny thing about the winter solstice is that it doesn’t all happen at once. I mean, yes, there is one day marked on the calendar, officially – either the shortest day or the longest night – but the earliest sunset, at least in my location, is usually a few days before then, and it will take a week or more for the sunrise to start creeping backward into the morning. For now, the sunrise is “stuck” as late as it comes, about 7:15 in the morning, and sunset is just past 4 pm.

When there’s any sun at all.

It’s been wet, this December. Wet and raw and unpleasantly cold, without being cold enough for all this water to come down as snow, and while I like to crack wise about not having to shovel rain, all the mud and battered brownish grass is depressing. And it is dark, so dark at night, without snow cover to reflect whatever light there is.

If the long range forecast holds true, we might, might get some snow next Tuesday. I am not holding my breath. It’s not forecast to slip below freezing again until Sunday night.

I write a lot about the local weather, but this December has been unseasonably warm. I like to joke that we used up our entire 2015 allotment of snow back in February, but the combination of off-year weather patterns and a degree or two of global warming has shifted the view outside my window from a classic Christmas postcard to a sorry, sodden mess.

At least we don’t have to shovel it.

I am likely to be scarce from blogging through the end of the year. Classwork and church work have absorbed most of my writing and reflection time – the piece I’m preaching Sunday is turning out more like a blog post than a sermon, but I have to preach something and so I will take what the Spirit sends me and let it be good enough. Maybe it will show up here later. Or maybe it will get repurposed into something for class in January. It is hard to believe that I need to leave for Chicago again in just two weeks.

The image below is from a few years back, but I’ve added the text that I used on a couple of solstice cards this winter:

Black foreground with tree silhouette, golden sky with purple clouds. Tiny sliver of sun peeking over horizon. Text in high contrast letters "And then, when it seemed darkest, the sun did rise after all, and she knew that spring would come again."

A blessed Solstice, a Merry Christmas, and if I’m not back to the blog before then, a happy and prosperous New Year to all.

May it be so.

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Growing Edges

It is cold and raw and dark this time of year. Winter is late in coming, despite the sun slipping over the shoulder of the hill and into darkness by four o’clock in the afternoon. There is no snowpack yet, just half-frozen mud and cold rain. Without the snow to catch and reflect the lights, the early night seems even darker.

I am susceptible to depression at the best of times; when the cold rain and darkness and frantic busyness of the holiday season and end of the semester crowd the boundaries of my reflection time, it takes more vigilance than usual to keep the soul-sucking monster at bay. I’m not sure I’m winning. I feel scraped thin, fragile, insufficient, unworthy. Exhausted.

Okay then. So, that’s what it is: this thinnest ice, with brittle edges, only just starting to form on still ponds and reeds in the crisp of the black pre-dawn. I try to remember the beauty in fragility, the tenderness of one snowflake caught on a loose thread of a glove, the glitter of low-angled sun on ice after a storm. Surely those are real things that I have seen. But sometimes I feel as stiff and brittle as the first sharp raw edge of winter.

That’s the paradox I’m sitting with, at this turn of the wheel: trying to find my own voice and my own balance and the confidence to speak from the authority of my own deep imperfection, with all its cracks and thin spots. This is a hard thing and, well, I can only do it imperfectly.
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O Come, O Come Emmanuel…

The leaves are long gone. There is no snow yet; today was thick with fog and a cold steady drizzle. It is dark early this time of year; the sun slips behind the trees and houses on the shoulder of the hill around half past three in the afternoon, and it is quite dark by 4:30.

On the Christian liturgical calendar we have entered the season of Advent, of waiting in the dark for the birth of Jesus, for the incarnation of light in the world of humankind. Those of us who deepen in the Pagan traditions like to note the similarity of this story to those around our winter solstice observances: the return of the Sun from deepening darkness, the return of light and the promise of spring and summer yet to come. These are deep, old stories with a universal component, even when their particular details don’t match exactly. They are stories of hope, of expectation, of waiting in the unknown and the uncertain.

And so for the last several hours I have been looking out the window into the dark and fog, the air thick with the news of yet another mass shooting. I’m starting to lose count. They come so fast now, the news reports of massive acts of violence, one after another after another. Today it was California – fourteen dead, as many injured, and the incident still unfolding as I write. A few days ago it was a medical clinic in Colorado, three dead and nine wounded. A few days before that, white supremacists shot at demonstrators gathered in protest of police brutality in Minneapolis – no one killed, thank God, but people two and three degrees removed from me were direct witnesses. The week before that, I don’t know, was that the terrorist attack in Paris? or Beirut? Or both? Were the mass demonstrations somewhere in Europe, or here in America? Or somewhere else? Or all of these?

There is so much fear in the world now, so much anger, so much pain. And humans – neither animal nor angel – when we hurt, when we fear, we do bare our claws and lash out at whatever approaches too closely, even when that is one another. I have done this. And if you are reading, probably you have too.

I wrote about this three years ago, after the Newtown school shooting, the winter before I began seminary. Nothing’s changed. Or maybe everything’s changed, intensified, deepened, become more of the same in a more saturated hue until the violence is so incandescent it burns itself into our souls and leaves a mark. And then when we think it’s over we turn on the radio or the television or the internet and it happens again.

I’m so tired. I try to keep my public language clean and professional but y’all, I’m tired, and seriously? Fuck this shit.

And then I think, okay then. This is what it looks like: the world that we inherit. It is broken. This is not sustainable. It is also not a quick-fix sort of problem but rather the thick tangled thorny kind that has no simple answer – yes, there are a thousand partial answers and gun control is one of them, but it seems to me that even the most egregious mass shooting is only the edge of the shadow, a symptom of a deeper cultural wound festering unexamined.

I honestly, right now, do not care very much what the proximate cause was this time, whether it was political or personal. The compulsion to violence is itself a symptom of deep pain and that is the larger issue that will persist even if – and I hate that I have to write “if” instead of “when” – we get some sensible gun-control legislation at the national level.

And I’m so tired, shoulders heavy, glass empty, looking in the face of the unresolvable dissonance of the human condition and I have no words for the mixed sense of wonder and frustration and weary resolve that says, “Yes. Even this. Go forward and love this holy, broken world. Yes, you. Even though you, personally, cannot fix it – go anyway. It is not yours to ignore.”

It is the Christian season of Advent, and the darkening end of the dark quarter of the year. We wait, uncertain, in the darkness. The old stories tell us that something different is coming – that the holy light of the world will return, soon, small and frail and tender; that it is ours to nurture and to protect until it is strong enough to sustain us. The modern stories tell us that we do not wait for the incarnation of the holy; we must become it: these hands, our hands, the hands of God in this world. It is ours to mend, and none other. Pray, yes, and weep as we must… rest for a moment, then pick up and keep going.

I’m so tired of the violence, y’all. Fuck this shit.

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Drive-by posting: Preacher Process

I have gone a couple of weeks without blogging again. It seems that this is going to be the rhythm of this dance, for now – a slower pace, an irregular beat that stops and starts and picks up again.

A week ago I was looking out the back window at the trees, watching leaves fall, while working on the worship service that I led last Sunday. I am a student; I do not lead worship every week, and for this I am grateful: it is still a Herculean effort to put all the things together, selecting the hymns and preparing the readings and the children’s story and writing the sermon, making sure all of it fits together in such a way that no piece of it undermines the other, that all of it is a coherent whole with a single message.

It has been suggested from time to time that I work too hard at this, that it is okay if some piece or another is not perfect. Yes, and… I do work hard, harder and longer than I will be able to when I have broader responsibilities. And no piece of it will ever be perfect. The whole thing will not be perfect. And in any case, perfect or otherwise, a bit past noon on Sunday it will be over and the next thing coming will be over the horizon and on approach. But there is a difference between unnecessary anxiety about perfection, and wishing to do the work that I am called to do, to the best degree that I am able, in the time and with the resources that I have, and that work is to discern what I message I need to bring to a particular body, at a particular time — and then to do that as completely and wholeheartedly as possible.

To blow that off, for me, feels icky. Wrong. Not in a self-castigating failure sort of way – and I know something about that – but in a “this is not who I am” sort of way.

This calling, it is a very strange thing.

Maybe it works differently for other people. Probably so, at least in some of the details. I am not sure whether I want to ask about other people’s details; I am susceptible to the false belief, or fear, that if my details do not look like the next person’s details than I am certainly doing it wrong, whatever it is.

Very well then. I will do it wrong, as best that I am able. And then I will do the next thing.

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