Peace

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Many images come to mind when I think of the word peace. Quiet. Stillness. A snowfall. An empty beach. An early morning cup of tea. A winter night sky full of stars. But what happens when those things are not readily available, or least not available uninterrupted? What happens when life feels like it has been picked up and shaken around like a snowglobe in the hands of an overeager three year-old – what does peace look like then?

I wish I knew. The best I can come up with is that’s something to hang on to. It’s the wall I find to lean against during a panic attack. It’s the warmth of the sun on my fair or the wind in my hair or the voice of a friend that gives me something to hang on to until everything stops spinning or falling in on me or both.

But here’s the thing – all of those are outside of me. The good images that come to mind when I think of peace and the things I hang to when I’m falling apart – all those are outside.

Peace, true peace, is a gift that lies within. It means digging deeper than surface images and finding something – or rather Someone – greater to hang on to. Or perhaps it means allowing myself to be held. Perhaps the path to peace means letting go and allowing myself to be held by the same hands that hold the whole universe steady. Perhaps true peace can only be found through surrender and trust.

It seems like this Advent, if I’m to know peace, I’m going to have to surrender and trust. And I think I’ve been shaken around enough that surrender and trust are less terrifying now. Ask me again around Christmas.

Hope

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The First Sunday of Advent: Hope

What is hope anyway?

I hope I sleep tonight. I hope she feels better tomorrow. I hope this new medication works. I hope work isn’t crazy on Monday. I hope the new U2 album doesn’t suck. I hope this new recipe turns out to be decent. I hope I didn’t forget to buy milk again. I hope we can get the Christmas tree up without drama. I hope I get the classes I want. I hope we don’t end up in another war. I hope the tax plan doesn’t ruin us.

I hope… I hope… I hope…

It seems like whenever I talk about hope what I really mean is a wish. A wish for the ways things used to be. A wish for the way things ought to be. A wish for things to be better than they are right now. Or sometimes even a wish for a different reality.

But is that really hope?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “Our eternal message of hope is that dawn will come.”

Dawn. A new day. But a new day doesn’t mean a new reality, merely a continuation of this one. Maybe things will change. Maybe they won’t. Maybe those things are beyond my control and all the wishing in the world won’t make a damn bit of difference.

But true hope is more than a wish. Hope in the dawn is understanding, as Dr. King said, “That the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate.” Hope is a belief that God can and will bring good out of the realities of this life. Hope is rooted in faith. Hope grows in trust. Hope thrives in perseverance. Hope holds fast in the darkness. Hope is that which carries me when wishes no longer matter. Hope is that which sustains me when reality seems more than I can bear.

Advent reminds me to stay rooted in faith, to trust, to persevere, to hold fast in the darkness. Advent reminds me to hope for God has promised me that the dawn will come.

“The King shall come when morning dawns 
And light triumphant breaks, 
When beauty gilds the eastern hills 
And life to joy awakes.”

The King Shall Come 
By: John Brownlie

 

Advent & Old Movies

This time of year always brings with a mix of feelings I could do without – a hint of nostalgia, a touch of melancholy, a touch of sadness – all things that come up when the Thanksgiving table is set and there are empty chairs that once were occupied. Some years are harder than others. This is one of those years.

stuffingI was put in charge of Thanksgiving dinner this year. It should be said that I didn’t volunteer. I was drafted. I recruited my sister and my younger son to help me. Note to self: offering a 15 year-old boy the chance to wield a large kitchen knife is a terrifying, yet highly effective, incentive to get him take on the role of sous chef. My mom, who usually presides over two days of baking and then preparing Thanksgiving dinner itself, sat this year out entirely. Aside from helping us figure out which of the three faded, smeary, barely legible versions of ‘Grandma’s Stuffing Recipe’ was actually the right grandma and the right stuffing, she left it up to us to figure it all out. In the end, we pulled the whole thing off quite nicely. Despite talk of keeping things low-key, there were four pies, two kinds of cookies, a decent-sized turkey, two kinds of stuffing, and enough side dishes that the leftovers will have us playing refrigerator Tetris for the next week.

With Thanksgiving over, Advent is fast approaching. And in my house, the approach of Advent is steeped in fond memories of my childhood. Some years that brings comfort and other years – well – not so much. This year – yeah – not so much.  Being in a position of splitting time between two churches, and still being considered a newcomer in both, is hard. This year it is a bit easier than last year but being a welcomed outsider still feels like being an outsider. After a last minute decision to pop in to my old Catholic parish on Thanksgiving morning, I learned of the coming retirement of the priest who was my pastor for the better part of thirty years and the only confessor I ever really trusted. I knew that was coming sooner rather than later, but it still caught me off-guard. The feeling that home is no longer home just became a bit more intense. The feeling that time is slipping by too fast also became a bit more intense.

casablanca-1.0.0Maybe that explains the sudden desire to lose myself in old movies. The last few weekends, I’ve curled up with my favorite blanket to be swept away by Doctor Zhiavago, Casablanca, and Gone With The Wind. I have Citizen Kane and To Have and Have Not and a few others in the watchlist. I know every line of dialogue and every note of the score and yet, here I am, tissues in hand, sniffling over the same old movies I’ve watched a hundred times.

Like an old movie, I know the music of Advent and every line of the story. I know what will make me smile and what will have me in tears. Some years, Advent is deeply spiritual. Some years, it’s simply a bit nostalgic. This year, the coming of Advent has me wanting to stop time, even for a little while. That’s not exactly a new feeling. The last few years, Advent has been rough. I know each passing day brings that the long emotional slog of January to March closer. I dread those weeks that bring up dark memories and old nightmares. Some years, I can let myself get caught up in the quiet of Advent and I find great joy in the Christmas season (the real one, not that fake Hallmark crap) and that  joy carries me very well through those dark months. This year, I’m struggling already and I know damn good and well nostalgia isn’t going to cut it. Either I’m going to have to intentionally let myself be swept away by the season of Advent and all the feelings it calls up or Christmas will slip through my fingers, leaving me with little to carry me through my darkest months of the year. Before there can be hope, peace, joy and love, there has to be trust and surrender. I have a week to come to grips with that and it feels like I need a month or two.

Reformation

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Four years ago, I wrote a post titled Ringing Hollow. I wrote, in part:

“I can’t seem to put the laws and practices of this [Catholic] church together with the Jesus who chose to hang out with the most broken and rejected people of his time. The more I’ve come to accept that it was never God who rejected me, the harder it becomes to stay in a church who rejects so many. More and more, it all rings hollow to me and I’m starting to wonder, is it time to walk away? To finally accept that this relationship cannot be salvaged? I don’t know yet. Emotionally, I’m running into the same feelings I had just prior to filing for divorce. Spiritually, I feel like I got dropped into a briar patch. It hurts to move and it hurts to stay where I’m at.”

It has taken me those four years to really even begin to work through the grief that comes from having the religion I grew up with completely unravel in my hands. Long about the time I think I’m doing okay, I find myself in a situation where I am most definitely NOT okay.

One of the greatest lessons, I’ve learned since my divorce is that I tend to prefer my own company. I jealously guard my time alone. But there are times, typically very sad times, when I think maybe having a partner to lean on would be nice. A couple of months ago, I attended the funeral for my friend’s 21 year-old daughter. She had fought a short, heartbreaking fight and I was heartbroken for my friend. I had a five-hour ride alone to contemplate the difference between being alone and feeling lonely. It didn’t take all that long to run through the basic facts of my life. I don’t have strong connections in either my Lutheran or my Catholic parish. My connections at the university are limited. Between work, school, the kids, and homework, my schedule is such that it’s hard to find time to spend with the friends who know me best. And now, here I was driving through tears and I was so keenly aware that there was no one to make that drive with me.

No one except Jesus.

Trust has never been my strong suit. That morning, I felt like a bird who had flown into a window: too stunned to fly and more than a little scared by everything I was feeling. Something changed in my relationship with Jesus that day. I’ve had some powerful experiences of presence before but this time was different. It was quiet. It was just a sense of not being alone. It was as if a pair of strong, steady hands had picked me up and would hold me until I was ready to fly again. For the rest of the drive, throughout the funeral and as I stopped for a cup of tea before driving home, I felt that quiet, steady presence. And that is new territory for me.

This past Thursday, I found myself at another funeral. This time for a dear, sweet old lady from my former Catholic parish. She had visited my dad many times when he was in the hospital dying of cancer and was a source of comfort, joy, and laughter in some of my family’s darkest hours. During the years that I attended Mass every day, she was a fixture there, always quick with a smile and a laugh that was infectious to say the least. I was completely unprepared for the waves of emotion that came over me at her funeral. I cried the rest of Thursday and a good chunk of Friday. There was something final in this particular visit to my old parish and it took about a day or so for it to really sink in. To be in that space, surrounded by a community that I had once called my own, to pray hand-in-hand with people I used to see every single day could have have been a source of comfort. Instead, I felt quite intensely that I was a visitor to a place that was no longer home and no amount of hugs or handshakes or warm greetings is ever going to change that. It was like visiting the home of a friend – pleasant, but definitely not home. I found myself again finding my only refuge in that quiet, steady presence.

Saturday night, I had the opportunity to see Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speak at an Episcopal church in Greenwich. Having read both of her books, many of her sermons, and having seen or read many interviews with her, I was still blown away by her honesty and her passion to understand people wherever they are. It was a powerful thing to see so many women clergy present, some of whom I know from Twitter.

This morning, despite the stormy weather, there was nowhere I wanted to be more than in my Lutheran parish. I find joy and love there that I don’t seem to find anywhere else. To hear a woman preach and to hear a woman proclaim the consecration affirms something deep within me. I feel like I’ve found home.

So on this Reformation Sunday, 500 years after Martin Luther found himself with the religion he grew up with unraveling, I find myself with my own faith being formed and re-formed, expanding in ways I’d never dreamed possible. I don’t know where my own re-forming will lead me, but I do know that I won’t be alone. More than ever before, I know I can trust the hands that hold me steady.

 

A Woman Like Me

butterflyToday’s gospel is one that I have hated for years. I realize how horrible it sounds to say that about sacred scripture but, God knows, it’s the honest truth.

Most people hear Jesus say, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Ask them what this gospel passage is about and they’ll tell you Jesus saved her daughter from the demon. Yay! Go Jesus! Or they’ll tell you about the faith of the mother. Yay! Go Mom! Be persistent in your faith!

They don’t hear, or they deeply discount, the lines prior to it in which Jesus compares a woman, desperate for His help, to a dog. I’ve heard a lot of explanations for that. The two leading favorites are that He was trying to show those who with Him their own prejudices and/or that He was testing the mother’s faith.

A woman like me has learned the hard way that a man who will call you a dog, humiliate you in front of his friends, and essentially make you beg for what you need is not a man who loves you, nor is he to be trusted.

A woman like me. That’s a perfectly awful term to use. Like I’m a freak of nature or an alien creature. I am a domestic abuse survivor. I was brutalized by a man who stood at the altar and swore to love, honor and protect me. And then did the exact opposite.

The textbooks will tell you that repeated trauma rewires the brain, causing victims to be hyper-aware and hyper-vigilant. In plain English, a woman like me sees and hears everyday things differently and I do it all the time because my brain is on constant alert for threats to my safety. I’m keenly aware of the distance, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words, and any and all movements of those around me. So, yeah, when Jesus starts sounding like my ex-husband, I have a problem with it. A big, big problem with it. Trusting a guy who calls a woman a dog is the exact opposite of what my brain wants to do. Because I’ve been down that road and it gets damn ugly. But…

But long, long before I got married, I was schooled in the twin arts of sarcasm and gallows humor. One of the important lessons I learned early on is that not everyone will get the joke. As the saying goes, in that huge overlap between the things I find funny and the things that should not be joked about lie the reasons I’m going to hell. But there are those people with whom I have a good relationship, with whom that I know the banter back and forth is not insulting or harmful and with whom I can be pretty sarcastic. No harm. No foul.

My favorite client routinely answers the question ‘How are you?’ with a deadpan ‘Meh, I’m still this side of the grass, if that’s what you want to know.’ It goes without saying that we both know I really want to know if he’s doing okay and we both know he’s not seriously implying that I’m just checking to see that he’s not dead yet. There is an assumed level of safe relationship there.

What if the back and forth between Jesus and the Canaanite mother wasn’t as harsh as I hear it? What if there was an assumed level of safe relationship there also? Perhaps, instead of hearing this in abusive tones, I can learn to hear it in the sarcastic tones of safe relationship, one where both sides understand what goes without saying.

For a woman like me, that is a tough, but necessary, leap of faith. Because if I keep hearing this in abusive tones, I’m stuck trying to balance a Jesus I can’t trust with the Jesus I do and that will never, ever balance.

 

 

A Soul Rekindled

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In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans. And God who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.   (Romans 8:26-27)

In what often feels like another life, I used to take my boys camping. Now it should be noted that my very loose definition of camping involved a 35- by 8-foot trailer with a screened-in porch, electricity, running water and WiFi. But it was the woods – okay so it is was in a campground with dirt roads, lots of trees and real woods around the borders – but there were chipmunks, bugs, and frogs aplenty. And dirt – there was lots of dirt – everywhere. In those days, I got very good at building fires and making s’mores and I taught my two little boys how to use the hose to make a giant mud puddle for their trucks. That trailer was a safe haven for me at a time when home was not a safe place to be. I had a freedom there to just be me. Many nights, I would tuck my boys into the queen-sized bunk and set them up with bedtime snacks and Scooby-Doo cartoons on my laptop. I would go sit outside and watch the fire burn down to embers. In those days, most of the time it felt like God and I were on very shaky ground. But at night, sitting in the quiet darkness, watching the fire dance in the embers, it was different. Gradually, I would realize that there was a gentle and familiar presence there that didn’t require fancy words or proper rubrics. Had you sat down beside me then and asked me if I was praying, I would have said no. I was at a point where I was all out of prayers and I wasn’t so sure God had been listening to them anyway. But I would sit and watch the fire play in the embers and feel the presence that was all around me, never realizing that just sitting by the fire was a prayer in its own right.

To say that life has changed drastically since then would be something of an understatement. Those little boys are almost grown now. Mud puddles and toy cars have been replaced by a driver’s ed classes and an old Bonneville parked in my driveway, waiting to be driven. Scooby-Doo has given way to Lord of the Rings and The Fast and the Furious. The trailer is long gone and it’s been over a decade since the last time I got down on my knees and built a fire, coaxing flames to burn ever higher. And what about God and I? I know the ground I’m standing on is solid and I know God is standing right there with me and that’s a very good place to be – most of the time. I still have my moments when things feel a little wobbly and I suppose I always will.  I’ve come to accept that it’s all part of this whole learning how to trust thing.

When I went to Gettysburg, I had some time alone in a quiet prayer space and when I first entered that space, I walked right into the gentle and familiar presence that I had known so well around the campfire. Except this time, instead of gradually becoming aware of God all around me, God was already there, fully present and waiting for me. It was so startling, I instinctively turned on my heel and walked right back out of the room and sat down in a chair in the hall. The brief inner monologue went something like this: That’s God in there! Well, duh, what did you expect?!  It took a minute or two before shock gave way to wonder and I was drawn into that space where God was waiting for me to come and sit and just be for awhile. I was invited to come in and sit down and know the presence that surrounded me. I didn’t need words, which was a good thing because words completely failed me.

A little later that day, about three hours into the drive home, I suddenly realized that for the first time since I was child, I was seriously making long-term plans for my life. I had spent so many years in survival mode that I had forgotten what it was to have dreams and plans for a future. I was so stunned by that realization that I started to cry and I ended up having to stop for awhile until the tears stopped. I found myself sitting in a noisy crowded McDonald’s, looking out at the blue sky stretched over the mountains of Pennsylvania and being aware of the presence of God, even there amidst the mundane and noisy chaos of a fast food joint on the side of the highway.

That was how I spent Palm Sunday. Holy Week and Easter have now come and gone. My younger boy was confirmed last Friday night. My classes have ended for the semester. Finals week is upon me. My older boy’s graduation is coming up quickly. Summer classes will be starting soon. Life, in all of its glorious and messy chaos, goes on. And yet, in all of this, that gentle and familiar presence is still there, in the space between breaths, if I but stop to notice. I came home from Gettysburg very much changed and yet very much the same. I am far more aware not only of God’s presence but also that I am completely at home with who I am in God’s presence.

Friday evening, after coming home from a visit with Deacon Ron, I went out for a burger with my older son. On the ride home, we opened the car windows, enjoying the first warm spring evening we’ve had thus far. Someone in the area had a backyard fire pit going. The smell of a campfire brought all those memories of my nights at the trailer roaring back. And it occurred to me that all those times I had spent silently watching the embers, I had been seeing a reflection of my soul. The fire had been burning deep inside all along, waiting for the breath that would rekindle the embers to flame at precisely the right moment. It would happen in God’s time and not mine, and it would happen regardless of my ability, or lack thereof, to express it in words.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.                                                                                                                                 (John 20:21-22)

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.