Monday, November 29, 2010

Closing Words

Moonrise over Lanikai Beach, Oahu, HI
It had to come: my last day   of sabbatical. What
shall I say to mark this ending? How does one
close out a blog?

There are still so many   things I want to write
about.  So many images and experiences to work with   and explore and describe.

But as I've written these posts over the past three months I've had Annie Dillard's The Writing Life echoing in the back of my mind. She goes on and on about taking out sentences and paragraphs, about jettisoning what you think is the best-written part, the key passage, and starting over. Then she quotes Thoreau, who said, "The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or perchance a palace or temple on earth, and at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a wood-shed within them."

Before I began each post I dreamed of writing a bridge to the moon. But now I know it's better to watch the moon and aim for the wood-shed. Even so, perhaps I have written too much. Or not enough about the right things.

I wanted to write about my dog, Sam, and the ways his company during my weeks at home filled my spirit. How he encouraged me to play out back and go on long walks. How his whole face brightens when the neighborhood children run down the hill from the school bus. How he stops for babies. And chases cats. And fetches the paper first thing in the morning. I wish I could have written about him.

I wanted to write about the inspiring women I've seen along my way, women who remind me of the Woman at the Well in her later years.  The older, finely-dressed African American woman at a church I visited who held a tambourine in one hand--which she shook throughout the service. The elderly Hispanic woman who sat with her eyes closed in the healing waters of Ojo Caliente, her arms stretched out before her as if in prayer position. Surely these women have lived long enough to see their share of troubles. Yet they struck me as people who have heard and believed some good news along the way. I wish I could have written about them.

Kilauea Volcano, The Big Island, HI
I wanted to write about Hawaii.  How you can drive from a gorgeous, calm beach to the world's most active volcano in two hours. How people who have lived there for many years still go around taking pictures of plants and sunsets. How you can walk out on a field of lava that stretches to the ocean and witness sea turtles resting in a cove.  I wish I could have written about the awe that overwhelmed me there.

But I will save these things for another time and place. Or share them with you, dear readers, in person. And then I will listen to your stories. I will look forward to two-way, personal exchanges.

"For every time there is a season," says Ecclesiastes.  My sabbatical season has ended just as the season of Advent has begun. So I will return to church tomorrow to wait for the new birth I know is coming, to anticipate the living promise of a God whose word I have never trusted so much.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ending and Beginning

Lanikai Beach: Where Heaven Meets the Sea
I am embarrassed to admit this, but I was a bit weepy before I flew to Hawaii last Saturday. Tears appeared at unexpected times and places. This trip marks the end of my sabbatical and in some ways that makes me sad. So there I was, crying about going to Hawaii. Please.

But I'm starting to see that there's another cause for the tears: gratitude for the people around me. Whenever I try to express my gratefulness to people who have made this time apart possible, I get choked up. It happened when I thanked the organizers of the Contemplative Outreach of Hawaii prayer retreat I went to earlier this week. It happens when I write postcards to people at United Church of Chapel Hill who've worked hard to manage my areas of ministry. It happens when I think about my husband taking care of the kids and keeping up with his extraordinary range of professional responsibilities all the while. A friend of mine told me her husband would let her go to Hawaii by herself for a week, "but he'd be gritting his teeth the whole time." Steve hasn't done that--quite the opposite.

Then there's The Louisville Institute who funded this experience. The friends I've spent time with. The teachers and guides I've had. The list goes on and on.

And I have developed a deeper, broader gratitude for God than I've ever known. I cry when I think about that, too.  As is my frequent habit, I began this sabbatical with more trust in my own plans than in God's grace and guidance and wonder. But I think I've finally begun to give God a little more credit. And more room. And more thanks. I hope.

Yes, this trip marks an ending. But it also marks a beginning. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In Transition

"Everything changes in the next day's light," sings Steve Forbert in his poignant song,  "Autumn This Year." As leaves fall to the ground like radiant beacons of impermanence, it's hard not to be aware of changes from one day to the next. In the natural world--and in life. 

"Let me guess: you're in transition,"
said the leader of the Intuition seminar to a room full of people she had never met.  The Kripalu Yoga Center presenter, Aruni Nan Futuronsky, was right. We were all in some kind of transition. In our relationships with loved ones, in our callings, in our own bodies.

I was transitioning into these precious three months of renewal when I attended that seminar. Now I'm transitioning out of sabbatical. I'm in my last week--at least my last week in the continental U.S.  I fly to Hawaii on Saturday for a retreat on welcoming prayer, followed by a week with my family to explore a bit of Hawaii's rich history and landscape. I'll be back at the church on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. The transition has begun.

But maybe the transition never ended. One thing I've become more aware of during these past few months is that every day is full of transitions. It's how you practice them that matters. 

In yoga classes the teachers often tell us to shift from one pose to another with as little unnecessary movement as possible. To be sure we're stable before we move. To pay attention as we lift our right foot from a standing position back to a lunge position. To land lightly.

"Every step is a step of faith," one yoga teacher said.  That's how I intend to practice the steps of my transition: with faith in the God whose love, unchanging day to day from the beginning, created the ground beneath my feet.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Listening to the Rain Speak

Courtesy of
"I hope it's raining when I wake up," my daughter said last night.  Anna loves to hear the sound of raindrops on the roof as she rises from sleep.  This morning she got her wish.

As I've thought about what it means to behold creation over these past few months, I realize Anna is on to something. Beholding is not just about seeing. It's about touching. And listening. On a sunny day I gaze in wonder at the splendor of an oak tree. I pick up a crisp, orange-splattered leaf and run my thumb over its veins. On a day like today I just listen to the tireless tap of a steady autumn rain.

In his essay, "Rain and the Rhinoceros," Thomas Merton calls the rain the most comforting speech in the world.  Maybe that's why my daughter likes to hear it first thing in the morning. The rain reminds her that she is not alone. It audibly connects her with a source of life beyond herself, with what some might call the hum of creation. I think of it as the love song of God.

The kind of gentle rain we're having now is the kind that keeps us company. It fends off loneliness and fear of drought.  It reassures us with a rhythm whose mysterious beat we will never quite understand, a rhythm not of our own making. With its soothing voice the rain coaxes us into accepting that someone else is in charge. And then it makes us feel good about that truth.

"It will talk as long as it wants, this rain," says Merton. "As long as it talks I am going to listen."

Me, too.

Monday, November 1, 2010

All the Saints

Mosaic of St. Francis
El Santuario de Chimayo, New Mexico
It's All Saints Day, a day to remember all those who have have gone before us to eternal life.  I'm thinking about the immense cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. I'm thinking about saints named and unnamed, from the past to the present. I'm thinking about St. Francis of Assisi and the Woman at the Well. 

I saw a lot of St. Francis images in New Mexico, mostly at Catholic churches, like the Sanctuary of Chimayo. But I even saw one in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe, the oldest Presbyterian church in New Mexico. Protestants respect the saints recognized by the Catholic Church, but we don't often place figures of those saints in our worship spaces--or in any of our spaces, for that matter. In Protestant theology, anyone who is part of the body of Christ is a saint.

The truth is that many Protestants love St. Francis.  We love the story of his conversion from a rich, wild city youth to a poor country monk. "I have been all things unholy," he said. "If God can work through me God can work through anyone." We love the famous prayer attributed to him, "Instrument of Thy Peace." We love his sense of communion with the natural world, how he called the sun, wind, air and fire his brothers and the moon, stars and water his sisters.  We love the stories of his friendships with all the animals, even the fierce wolf.  

As I reflect on what it is to live a holy life this side of heaven, I am helped by the example of at least one of the well-known saints of history. And I'm happy for St. Francis to be the one. 

Samaritan Woman at the Well, He Qi, China
But I'm also aware of all the saints whose names I'll never know, like the name of the Samaritan woman who gave Jesus a cup of water and received the water of life in return.  This woman was an outcast in her own society, first for being a woman and second for having had five husbands and living with a sixth man without getting married. She was recognized by no one. She had no resources, no credibility, no leverage, even among Jesus' followers. Because of an ancient rivalry, Jews were supposed to despise Samaritans. Yet in Christ's eyes this woman was worthy of an endless river of love.  She was a woman on her way to the city of  God. She was a saint.

The Samaritan woman reminds me to think about all the forgotten people God does not forget. She reminds me that grace, not belief, makes us saints.  So today I'm pausing to remember the homeless man who was murdered in Santa Fe in early October.  And the victims of murder and violence in my own state. And the 25,000 children around the world who die each day from hunger. And those in Haiti whose lives have been claimed by cholera. . .

The list of all the saints goes on and on. God rest their souls. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Searching for the Key

"I am in crisis" were the first words out of my mouth on my last morning in New Mexico.  I could not find the key to my rental car anywhere. I was two hours away from Albuquerque, where my flight home was scheduled to depart at 10:50 am. I had precious little time to look.

I was staying at Ojo Caliente, home of the oldest natural hot springs in the country. Thousands of people have soaked in these waters over the centuries, searching for healing and rejuvenation. As I sat in the warmest pool under a canopy of stars, I could see why. A deep sense of peace and gratitude filled me to the brimming point, and I went to bed thanking God for all the gifts I'd been given on my trip.

All of that evaporated at 6:15 am, when I was about to take my things out to the car. The key was not in my purse. It was not in my suitcase. It was not in any of my pockets.

My mind raced from the past to the future as I tried to piece together where I might have left the key and imagined what the weekend would look like if I missed my flight. All the time and energy I had spent throughout my sabbatical on being fully present in the moment was put to the test--and I didn't do so well.

I was aware of the current moment just enough to realize that I had no choice but to pick up the red security phone and call for help.  Since it was so early, the lobby was closed. But the phone on the wall outside was available for an emergency. Which I was in.

"Can you pick a lock?," I asked the calm, young Hispanic man who answered the phone and came to my assistance. I figured I had locked my key in the car. Where else could it be? I had only been at Ojo for twelve hours, and the place wasn't that big. I was running out of ideas.

It took a few tries, but my savior managed  to get a coat hanger through the window on the driver's side and down around the door handle. I praised him for his brilliance. But the key wasn't there. 

I retraced my steps, back to the restaurant where I ate supper. Surely my key did not just spontaneously fall out of my purse, but again, I was out of ideas. The restaurant was deserted except for a handful of guests gathered around the early morning coffee service the hotel provided.  Frantic energy must have radiated from me in large waves as I looked; it didn't take long before one of the other hotel guests asked me what I was looking for.

"We found a key to a rental car yesterday in one of the chairs in the lobby, and turned it into the front desk," he said, to my joy and relief.  I never would have guessed it, but my key had slipped out of my pocket when I sat down to retrieve my boarding pass from my laptop.  The guard opened up the lobby for me and handed me my way home.

Thanks to the kindness of strangers and sheer Providence I made it to Albuquerque with time to spare--and with a sweet security guard scratching his head at the half-crazed anglo woman who pulled out of the parking lot.

As I've reflected on my anxious search for the car key, I've thought about all the other searches I've been on.  For integration of mind, body and spirit. For deeper relationship with God and neighbors. For meaning and understanding. I've thought about all the books on spiritual growth I've collected that involve the words "journey," "quest," and "seek."  I've thought about my longing to spend time in "Nature Out There," as Lyanda Lynn Haupt calls it, instead of in my own back yard.  And it's dawned on me that I've been looking for all kinds of keys.

The truth is that while they may be hidden from view, the keys aren't that far away.  I just have to give up the notion that I can find them on my own, and learn to receive them. Even from people and places I will never see again.  "Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed," writes Mary Oliver in her poem, "It Was Early."  I'm still looking for a lot of keys, but Oliver has handed me one of them.

When the first leg of my flight back to Raleigh stopped in Orlando, the flight attendants announced that there was a special boy and his family on board: Marcos,  a Make A Wish Foundation recipient.  The passengers burst into applause as we pulled up to the gate, all of us suddenly more acutely aware of the fragility of life. And the gift. And the relative insignificance of whatever we had been through to get to the airport that morning.

I thanked God for a safe trip.  For the moment, that was enough.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Slow Lane

Trail marker, Ghost Ranch
I've been called something I've never been called before: a slow person. I was in line at the grocery store, and the man in front of me had a form to fill out; that took some time. My transaction was a bit complicated, too. As I was picking up my bags I heard the cashier ask the man behind me how he was. "Not so good," he said. "There are all these slow people in front me!"

I almost laughed out loud. Back in college I used to say, "The fast lane is not for me." Yet in many ways the fast lane is exactly where I've lived.

True confession: years ago, before I got married and had kids, I racked up three speeding tickets in one year. As a result I received a harsh note from the DMV telling me that I was "a danger to yourself and others." DMV required my presence at a special session for people like me. The room was full of the broadest cross-section of society I have ever been privy to in terms of age, ethnicity and profession. All of us traveling in the fast lane, a danger to ourselves and those around us.

The officer leading the session presented us with terrifying facts about highway fatalities. As we silently absorbed the information, the truth of the letter we had received began to sink in. But what I recall more than anything is the officer's fury at the people he pulled over who, when he asked them how fast they thought they were driving, simply said, "I don't know."

"You have to know how fast you're going!," he shouted at us.

I've thought about that statement often. I keep a much more careful eye on my speedometer now, but I don't always keep an eye on my other movements through the day. I often speed from one task or thought to another, hardly taking a breath, completely unaware of how fast I'm going.

"To move slowly and deliberately through the world, attending to one thing at a time, strikes us as radically subversive,  even un-American," says Belden Lane. "That is our poverty." We are, perhaps, inspired by the story of the naturalist Louis Agassiz who said he spent one summer traveling--only to get half-way across his back yard.  But we could never imagine moving that slowly ourselves.

Yet as I've experimented with moving slightly more slowly over these past few months I find myself actually enjoying it. I identify with other slow people and I have more patience for anyone who can't get around too quickly.  The slow lane is not as boring as I feared. In fact, it has a lot to offer.

The fast part of me isn't gone. I can hear my own voice in the voice of the impatient man at the grocery store. I used to be impatient with slow people and sometimes I still am. I used to be impatient with myself and sometimes I still am.

My shadow on the labyrinth,
St. Francis Cathedral Basilica, Santa Fe
But I'm developing a greater appreciation for the wisdom of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who advised us to cultivate a patient trust in ourselves and in the slow work of God.  We are impatient in everything to reach the end without delay, he said. The intermediate stages are essential, however. The key is not to force anything but to trust that our own ideas will mature over time, through circumstance and grace. And to trust that in the process God's hand is slowly forming a new spirit within us.

It's slow going, but I'm starting to trust.