Tuesday, July 31, 2012

An Ending and A Beginning

I have decided to put this blog on hiatus.  The reason for this is that I have decided to start a new blog to signify the next step in my journey.  Starting this blog is a ritual "crossing over" into deeper committed ministry, as I begin training this fall in interfaith spiritual direction with Silver Dove Institute. So much has been coming together the past few months, and that is my first official step into that life.  It is a blog I hope to use more intentionally, not only for personal contemplation, but for sharing the journey with others.

It is too early to decide if I will return to UU Intersections.  This blog has chronicled 5 years of discernment and growth, with all its steps and missteps.  I will certainly keep it open and available, and may perhaps at some future point find the need to return.  I have after all, stepped away at times in the past...and somehow found a way to return. 

So for now, I say goodbye.  I am crossing over.  I am excited to begin the new steps in this journey. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Owl's Gift ~ Agendas Aside

There is an owl that lives in the woods on my path to work.  I saw him for the second time today-- this time his head turned to greet me with those dark hollowed eyes from where he sat high in a tree. I could have watched him for hours, but had to continue along to make the train home in time.

There is a little girl who lives in my home who shares my dimpled cheeks. Tonight she told me she had "nothing to do", so I responded with scary voices and tickling-- "I'll give you nothing to do!" Soon we were both laughing hysterically as we worked together to fold the laundry.  Earlier that day my husband had nearly lost it with her-- and we had dubbed her "the defiant child" for her stubborn resistance to his requests.  

So often we greet life with our own agenda-- the goals we are working so hard to achieve, and we do not have time to simply let life come to us.  There are encounters in our day that if we put our agenda aside, and let the person or creature before us lead the way,  we will be led to beauty and even magic.

There are times- painful times- when agendas are forced to be put aside.  A minister friend shared on facebook today about her morning spent with parents who had lost their daughter in a freak accident. She said it was if they had been "skinned alive and were now standing completely still and exposed and raw."   On a more distant front I continue to follow the blog of UU chaplain Seanan Holland, writing from Afghanistan.  His post today speaks of grief- the loss of Marines, and of flapjacks- the mundane joy. As he writes, I tried to explain that in ministry sometimes we need to be present for both joy and lament in the same moment.  In war, it is the same....

I had this gaping powerful and terrifying realization on an evening last week while reading the early pages Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock's book Proverbs of Ashes, of the horrific encounters the work of spiritual accompaniment calls us to meet with our presence.  Already that week I had been shaken by the news of the Colorado massacre, a nearby murder in Newburgh, and the constant sounds of target practice heard from West Point.  I realized that the steps I was taking to become a spiritual director would lead me closer to darkness.  And yet-- as I preached this past Sunday-- this is true for all of us. This work of sharing our faith is the work of saving our lives.  I hear clearly the words of another who writes to my minister friend on facebook-The privilege of being with people at their most grief-stricken and vulnerable times is an awesome responsibility, a humbling experience, and, in my opinion, the best work there is.  

This past year has led me to such tremendous acceptance of my work in the world, and I have felt an abiding sense of gratitude and humbling awe.  Doubt has faded, and I step forward with assurance and hope.  As my spiritual director said recently- God doesn't give up.  He also said that I will know when to give my gifts, and by listening each and every day I can understand that this is true.  

My spiritual director- a UCC minister- knows ministry in its radical sense, as he has sold all his belongings to live among the poor- the drug dealers and the gangs.  My own congregation's UU minister also lives his call in the radical sense- as he is now on leave as a military chaplain preparing for deployment, and will soon know the realities Seanan Holland speaks of firsthand.  But I suppose, when it comes to ministry, there may be no other way to live than radically.  We must be radical lovers of life to bear the loneliest places of the human soul with courage.  We must be able to connect with presence, to know a light within which can sustain ourselves as well as the ones we walk with. (The light is always there, always present, of course, but it is up to each of us to see it, to remember.)  

I have known darkness and I have also known this light.  Every gift is really just an extension of this holy presence.  Yesterday I was able to offer one of those extensions  in a service to the congregation.  The sermon "Our Saving Faith" was a declaration of salvation on this Earth, of grace and beauty in the here and now, and hearts were moved with hope and resilience in the face of the tragedy and grief we all face in our lives. 

I am humbled by the gift of ease and openness that I felt in preaching that day.  For the first time in a long while, I was prepared to deliver the sermon, I was not nervous, and I sat in the preacher's chair held in prayerful presence-- attuned to the people around me, the joys and concerns that were shared beforehand, the silences, songs, and the laughter of children.  I let go of my desire to control and simply let go-- and was able to become an instrument in the symphony of the day.  And I received the abundant gift that my words had meaning, and there were human hearts and souls, moved by the song.

Like the owl that greets me on the walk home, or the defiant child who erupts in laughter, life is always there pointing the way. I do not need to build a temple of plans, but simply to keep my eyes wide open and attentive-- attentive to beauty and attentive to light. And in the midst of a world full of pain, it is this beauty which sustains us, and this connection with each other and something larger than ourselves which carries us across. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Crossing Over (The Third Abbey)

I have a friend who is a community organizer in the city of Newburgh.  Today while doing door to door outreach, she witnessed a man take a bucket full of urine and toss it into the street. Her "slightly traumatic" experience, as she called it, is sadly only an echo of the day to day extremes of poverty, violence, and heartbreak that most people think of when they think of "the Burgh".  I hear the stories from my husband who teaches ESOL and GED classes to adults there every day.

So perhaps it may seem a bit strange that at the same time as my friend was holding her nose to the repulsive stench that filled the street, I was driving through those same inner city roads, thinking about resurrection. I had come with my husband to shop for a desk at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore- and while in the city to point out the new "urban abbey" where I had met with my new spiritual director just this past week.  The building, an old senior housing facility, was recently purchased by this UCC minister and his wife, with their vision of an intentional community serving the people of Newburgh- all aspects of their lives- at its core. Right now it is beautiful turn-of-the-century architecture, floors and doors in need of much repair, and a few dedicated people leading the way on faith.

On Wednesday, I had sat with this new director on a blue bench overlooking an empty courtyard- a courtyard which held the vision of a labyrinth and gardens, a place for people of all walks of life to worship and gather.  It is not a far cry from the work that is already being done, as he has been leading street ministry for the past six years, has already opened a drop in center and transitional housing for women re-entering life from prison. Our lives have crossed once or twice before, but the journey that led me most recently to this moment has been an unexpected one....and though I have gazed countless times in prayer across the river, I had not expected to cross it quite in this way.

But I have crossed the river, and in crossing I have realized that my journey has led me to yet another unexpected abbey.  It is the third "abbey" I have visited- unplanned- this year- and if the first was an experience of crucifixion (walking the Stations of the Cross at Maryknoll), and the second of burial and waiting (burying a spiritual teacher at Weston Priory in Vermont), then the third must surely be a resurrection. Suddenly the dots align and this pilgrim's journey appears complete. Four years ago, I heard this minister preach on Easter Sunday- and his story then was of grace as resurrection, as he experienced it daily in the city of Newburgh.

And yet, this blue bench is only a momentary resting place, and I am only at the beginning of another exciting journey.  All the pieces that led me here were really just coincidences, but regardless of how I got there, I am here.  In exchange for spiritual direction, I am being asked for my time.  What I am able to give remains to be seen- but I trust it will appear, as all else has unfolded.

As I looked out on the streets that day, I thought only that this battleground, where too many lives have been lost to gang warfare and poverty, is sacred.  And I thought that here in the darkness, there is also a light. Today's story from my friend does nothing to change my faith in that light, but affirms the need for people and places of compassion more fully.

Tonight I dedicate my meditation to the city across the river.  As I cross over into its streets, I whisper: May you be happy.  May you be well. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Holy Now

Life has been astounding me lately, and I just keep nodding and saying, "Well alright then" in response.   I have looked upon it a bit skeptically, but am beginning to trust a lot more in its still small voice, because it has taken me to some incredible places so far.  Really, I didn't plan any of those.  In fact, it was by dropping my plans that these other ones took shape.  I had such great ideas that never grew to fruition.  But what has emerged, and is continuing to emerge, I simply couldn't have planned better myself!  And I am such a planner, a researcher, a dreamer, an inventor.  But no- this one is all life's.  Maybe I tossed the nets into the sea, and said, "Well why not?  Let's see what I catch.  And if it's too much, if the boat tips, if its the wrong kind of fish...well we'll deal with that later."  And maybe I tossed  a few nets, and there was nothing retrieved from the sea.  It was troubling, despairing.  But there was this other voice, this persistent gently tugging voice, that said- "Well, why not try the other side of the boat?" I had given the other side a glance before, but now I tossed the nets again. And wouldn't you know?  Absolutely astounding. An amazing catch.

Life is full, and who knows where it will lead....but it's been incredible journey so far, 2012!  I have this fullness in my heart...and there is more to come, I believe, later this week.  For now though, I have this song to share, a song which reflects my sense of awe for this world.  Miracles really are everywhere, if we open our eyes to see and our hands to receive.  I've been listening to Peter Mayer all day (thanks to 'the army chaplain's assistant' who recommended his music a few weeks ago when he visited the congregation......both his visit and the music recommendation were gifts!). I think I will use this song in the opening session of the spiritual deepening course I will be facilitating this Fall.  Another gift is how many have already signed up for this group!  There is clearly hunger and I am filled with joy to be able to lead.

And now that song...

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Love at Every Knock

Living in community is spiritual challenge.  It's also a bit of a paradox. I think so often that the God of relationships, the God of the "in between" us, is the most real God I know...  I think of lives transformed by human love and sacrifice, of connections that heal, of beauty that saves us in the eyes of the other seeing us into being.  

And yet, I also think at times, that Sartre might've been right, that
Hell is other people!  How often the longing is to get away from others, to retreat into the amazing peace of solitude.  Instead we are bombarded: the whiny and complaining ones shoving their way into "alone" time, the bossy ones pointing fingers telling us what to do, the judging ones handing out gold stars and demerits for every action we perform.  We are surrounded by petty annoyances- and real ones- and it wears us into frustration and longing just to be in a place where we can be free to be ourselves.  Or even just to remember who we are in a time before everyone else told us what we were supposed to do.   

In meditation tonight- interrupted multiple times by the youngsters tugging at my sleeve- I considered how difficult the practice of loving the world really is.  
The kingdom is here and now, words echoed in my mind…not in some distant land, but in the hot and sweaty place with a cool fan blowing and several peace-disturbing knocks at the door.  I am not always eager to see it in these, holding on instead to my pre-conceived desires.

But this is kingdom too.  These knocks on the door are from the hands of children who have taken Cape Cod seashells and decorated my room- more creatively than I could have imagined. These whiny voices are of a 7 year old who has memorized the names of mythological god and goddesses from every culture, and of a 5 year old who sings Katy Perry perfect pitch into a microphone in her little rock star voice.  These are the gifted, god-like creatures who will not leave me alone!

Perhaps then every interruption is a call to practice, a pull to stretch the spirit.  It is no great feat to simply love the easy, the beautiful only when it is shining brightly in our faces.  Real soul growth occurs when we are able to see that beauty at the times it is hidden behind clouds; the times when the fighting, yelling, sassy and whiny parts of ourselves have reared their ugly heads.

The practice of love is to believe in that inner light even when it is not apparent. By noticing and acknowledging it we might also bring it into being. We are not only seers of the kingdom; we may also have our hands in its shaping.   It is a practice of constant noticing- and if we begin with these beloved ones- our children, family members, and friends- then maybe with practice we can also extend to the more difficult- to the ones who hurt us, to our enemies.  

This I believe is the love we long for in our solitude; it is not a separate love from the God of relationships. The essence of solitude is connection—a heartfelt realness that expresses itself in the opening of a soul to its inner light. Connection is a practice of regaining wholeness that can be done both alone as well as with others. When we love another person, we see the light within that might have temporarily dimmed, and we help to turn the dial, to brighten the awareness in each of us of who we really are. 

And so I remind myself in the midst of my frustration: to be mindful of each moment I am given to practice this awareness. To birth a kingdom into being by setting aside my rigid desires, expectations and judgments, and to answer the knocks with love in the here and now.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Shining like the Sun

"I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun," wrote Thomas Merton after a personal epiphany.  I read this quote from his book Conjectures of Guilty Bystander  yesterday evening down by Long Dock. It was only the second time in my life I read it-- the first many years ago in college.  (More on that first time another night, but sixteen years later, I think I finally understand.)

Tonight I returned to the dock to watch the Newburgh fireworks explode over the Hudson River.  The whole city seemed to light up with colorful shots, shining on on a river scattered with kayaks.

Here at home, lightning strikes the mountain; fireflies flash in the yard.  The clouds part and a full moon appears.  Around us the world is lighting up, everyone in this beloved city is shining like the sun.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Reading the Path: An Independence Day Reflection

There was a monk on the train platform this morning- brown-robed, sandaled, crucifix adorned- a Franciscan friar standing amongst the regular commuters with their anxious poses, iphones and briefcases. In all my many days of commuting, it's the first time I've seen a monk. But he is not the only spiritual seeker I have noticed in recent days.  Yesterday on the train, an elderly Jewish man with wrinkled hands and a young heavyset Christian one with brown ones, leaned in together to discuss the teachings of Jesus.  Today the woman next to me perused her pocket bible, deep in thought.  And Saturday night, at a minor league baseball game, I stood in front of a Tibetan lama, while the National Anthem played.

Monks are not the only ones I have watched this week while waiting on station platforms.  There is also the young man in army greens, an American flag stitched to his bag.  He asks me what time the next train will arrive, venting his frustration that he has missed his stop already twice.  There is the couple reunited, kissing with the passion of a desperately long absence.  There are the two camouflage-clothed bags sitting alone on the platform, waiting without names, waiting for somebody to claim.

Perhaps these strands of faith and war have always been present, twining together at every intersection, and I am simply taking note.   I am reading the mixed-up landscape for colors that match the patterns I have been forming in my mind, perhaps in the same way that my botanically minded friend reads the trail we walked together on a morning not long ago, looking for tulip trees, sassafrass, and stinging nettle.   Now my own lenses are set to sandals and crosses, and my ears to the sounds that drift across the river-- West Point church bells ... the meditative music of Buddhist chimes.

Tomorrow is Independence Day, and there is another way to read the pathway of these tracks.  There are the Revolutionary signal fires that burned on Beacon mountain, the oak tree on Dennings Point where George Washington once slept beneath, and the trail where Benedict Arnold attempted an escape. It has been a long road to freedom, and we are still traveling.

Tonight, I sit alone at water's edge and listen to the lapping at the shore.  This rhythmic rock of water signals freedom to me; it is a place I have come to pray. This is a soothing place, but it is a place that has been remade-- most recently painstakingly transformed by work crews from industrial brownfields to restored wetlands and artistically scalloped dock. But there are other transformations on these shores, ones which have taken much longer over centuries of time. The original founders of this dock in the early 1800's were my Unitarian ancestors, wealthy Dutch landowners who ran a ferry from here, building their philanthropic legacy from a sugar trade inheritance.  Old books denote that John P. DeWindt, the founder of Liberty Hall- the first Unitarian meeting house in this Valley- was also the owner of slaves.

But generations later, the descendants of owner and slave share this river.  We sit at her edge as sisters, she- Caribbean blooded and dark, and me- a pale-skinned daughter of the American Revolution. I have shown her the trail I walk to work and we sit on rocks- - discussing our common struggle with this nation- its military might, its economic plight-  and the promise of beloved community.  She teaches me the names of so many trees. On our walk back through woods, she is gleeful to discover stinging nettle- the farthest she's seen it this far north, she says.  It is the herb of cruelty- and also of healing.

I feel the stinging tears, and I know there is truth in the flower's way.  There is a long-lasting balm to help heal our world's wounds as we travel this road to interdependence.  There is more than one way to read a train or to know an ancient path-- and there is more than one way to read our past. There are the sugar ships, and there are the chains. Somewhere in our present time, echos of bombs still burst loudly in air, and somewhere sandaled monks still kneel silently to pray. But I believe that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, and somewhere in the shadows of this world's cruelty, the bells of many beliefs sing the promise of healing to guide us. And I believe that it is possible to heal our world's brokenness, and that we are the way.