Unicorn Convention

gettysburgAt the beginning of Lent, I found myself reading through my past Lenten journeys and trying to get some sense of where this year was headed. Nothing really solidified for me and I sat down the day after Ash Wednesday and wrote Jesus a letter. While most of that is between me and him, I can tell you I wrote this: Show me a way to get closer. I’m not good at trusting but I’m learning. Help me get closer. Teach me a new way to trust. Then I closed the notebook and purposely left it alone until Palm Sunday.

They say never pray for patience or you will be given opportunities to be patient. Well, trust me on this one, asking for a new way to trust works pretty much the same way. I discovered that on Thursday as I drove from my home in Connecticut to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. What should have been a five-hour drive turned into more than eight hours of driving in the rain with limited visibility through the Pennsylvania mountains while being surrounded by more trucks than I have ever seen on any road trip ever. To add to the fun, I couldn’t take the route I had planned to take because the bridge I needed to cross has been closed indefinitely. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for my life in there somewhere but that’s another post entirely. I prayed all the way for the rain to stop. And it did. Right when I crossed the town line into Gettysburg. God has such a sense of humor.

I was there to spend the weekend talking about church and God and life. It is something of a running joke on the Sacred Heart campus that being a religion major is quite a bit like being a unicorn – a rare mythical creature that most people have heard about but no one has ever actually seen one. I spent this past weekend in the company of unicorns. It was such an amazing experience to be surrounded by people with similar passions and questions. As one person put it, “For every question I find an answer to, thirty more questions come up.” And every head in the room was nodding in understanding and agreement. Conversations over breakfast started with things like, “So who’s your favorite theologian?” or “Have you ever read…” There were more formal discussions and small group gatherings. There was time to gather in prayer with my fellow unicorns.

While I kept my usual journal the entire weekend, on Sunday morning I opened the notebook I bring with me on retreats and reread that letter I’d written at the start of Lent and laughed. Okay, really Lord, there had to be a better way to teach me to trust than eight hours of hellacious driving conditions. But then, before us unicorns gathered for the last time, I spent some time alone in the quiet prayer space. I realized that for the first time I can remember I was openly standing still with God. I wasn’t running away from God. I wasn’t chasing after God. I was standing still in God’s presence and had been the entire weekend. And as if that wasn’t huge enough, I wasn’t hiding anything. And as if all of that wasn’t shocking enough, I realized I had done the same thing the entire weekend with people I didn’t even know. Me, the quiet introvert, who loves the back left corner of any classroom, was openly engaged in deeply personal conversations with more than forty people I had never laid eyes on before in a place I had never been to. And I had never felt more at home – physically in that space, emotionally in my own skin, and spiritually at home with God. And none of those things freaked me out. All the way home, on a lovely sunny, almost truck-free Sunday, the realizations kept coming. For every one thing I came to understand led to thirty more.

So there’s a lesson here. Be careful what you pray for. Because God answers prayers and God has a sense of humor.

To Still The Stones

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It had been one of those weeks when all I wanted to do was change my name, crawl under a rock to hide or most preferably: BOTH. Fridays are my freelance days. I work from home, on my own schedule, and sometimes that means disappearing to find a couple hours of quiet. Quiet was definitely in dangerously short supply by the end of this week. For the first time in long time, I walked out towards Stratford Point. Being a weekday and a bit on the chilly side, I had the entire beach to myself. I had been hoping to get my favorite spot below the lighthouse but the tide was up and my last quarter mile was completely under water. I found myself out of beach at the foot of a massive concrete retaining wall, the base of which was buttressed by large boulders. It was a perfect place to finally sit and rest.

I had nowhere else I needed to be and had shaken off the stress of the week on my walk out there. I listened to the waves crashing at my feet and felt the sunlight wrap around me. The nagging Gremlin voice in my head, for once, had been completely silenced. The immensity of that gift is beyond words.

That stretch of beach has a vast array of large stones scattered about. Often times in the summer, I bring my sons down to this part of the beach around sunset and this past summer we started experimenting with balancing stones. Being boys, they were rather fond of balancing them for the sole purpose of knocking them down again by throwing baseball-sized rocks at the towers. It could be a painful experience for anyone caught in the crossfire. As I sat there, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never come down to balance stones on my own. I could actually take my time finding the perfect stones and balance them as high as I chose without worrying about the boys accidentally stoning each other while my back was turned. That was too good to pass up.

I started out with a few smaller towers but they kept shifting and falling. I decided to work with larger stones, some weighing at least 20 pounds or more. But again, as the tower rose, the stones would shift and fall. I learned the hard way, as I seem to learn nearly everything, that trying to catch large, falling stones is a really, really dumb thing to do. Frustrated, I retreated to my spot on the boulders, rubbing my smashed fingers, knowing they’d be black and blue later. I love mechanical puzzles and I have a wicked competitive streak. I often time myself with a new puzzle, then try to beat my best time with each consecutive attempt. That was the way I had approached the stones. I had tried to build higher, faster, concentrating not on each stone but on an image of what the end result would be. That was why I had failed.

Balancing stones requires patience, not exactly my strongest virtue. I knew I needed to try it again. Slowly, this time. As I balanced the first stone on its pointed end, something happened that I had never noticed before, a vibration in my hands that stopped as the stone settled into place. With each subsequent stone, I felt the same vibration and I could feel if the stone would balance or fall. More than that, I could feel when the lower stones were about to shift out of balance. Sometimes that meant discarding one stone in favor of another so as not to topple the entire tower.

Stop.
Breathe.
Wait for the stone to be still.
Only then could I let go.
The end result was impossibly balanced.

Many of the towers I’ve built in my life went up too fast or on shaky stones. Except in life, when I tried to catch what I should have let fall, I smashed far more than my fingers. As C.S. Lewis said, ‘Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn. By God, do you learn.’ And I have learned. I feel the vibrations as it seems it may be time to discard one stone in favor of another and I know I need to wait for the stillness before I can let go. I have no idea what the final result will be, but I know that somehow it will be impossibly balanced.