Who needs matches?

Advent wreath, late afternoon sun.

One of the unexpected pleasures of spending as much time in church as I do is seeing the place at times other than Sunday morning, watching the light change through the day and the season, selectively illuminating details we sometimes overlook. And in the silence, becoming aware of that presence we often overlook in the busy-ness of worship. Of course I mean divine presence, but something more, too. Our own faithful presence over months and years leaves something cumulative behind even after we leave, I’m convinced of it.

The sweetness

Today turned out to be that one day a year when I let down my resolve and bu a sweet at Starbucks, indulging myself in a slice of the iced gingerbread that appears there only during the holiday season.

The first bite always produces an instant sugar rush, a not especially pleasant warning that I shouldn’t do this often. Then comes a rush of memories.

I think of the seminary adjunct who introduced me to Starbucks gingerbread, someone I didn’t spend much time with but whose teaching is with me still. I remember the out-of-season gingerbread served at the informal gathering for parents and kids days before my son started kindergarten, our first introduction to a community in which my family would be grounded for years to come. Those kids have kids of their own now, and we still see many of them. I’m reminded that my mother occasionally made gingerbread, and for some reason it wasn’t until I was grown that I realized how much I had always loved it.

Memories, so many memories, and what comes back most especially are all these people I associate with the flavors of cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves.

Remembering these things is healing. Revisiting good times, recalling love, reaffirming that happy things past also are still with us now. Reminding ourselves of the fundamental truth that life is a gift, and it is good. And even in this season of Advent, when we embrace the darkness to remind ourselves of the promise of light, letting go of what doesn’t matter to remind ourselves of what does, there is healing in this simple indulgence of a single thick slice of iced gingerbread.

#AdventWord #heal

See the full community Advent calendar at http://adventword.org

Advent thoughts in passing

The building used to be a church; now it’s an expensive restaurant, and Jesus has been sent outside. Did the diners going in for a break from their shopping even notice the little family sheltered in makeshift quarters close by?

Walking past this iconic Nativity, I found myself wondering if it could possibly have happened this way, and not just because they didn’t have buildings like that in Bethlehem. Recalling my own experience as a new mother, I asked myself: would she have knelt, even for him?

Would she have knelt, or would she have wanted to take him into her arms and hold him close? She’d already waited so long to do that, to feel his warm cheek against her breast, to cradle his head in her palm. To begin to know him as a person, not just a promise. She’d felt the presence of this love all the while it was growing in her, and now it was real.

It’s like that for all of us, I think. We carry a seed of love close to our hearts. It’s what connects us to each other, and to the universe. We know it’s there and we’re hungry to experience it, but that can’t happen until we make it real by bringing it forth into this world, which is labor.

And the certainty that love is real and will be brought forth–that is hope.

So greetings on the first day of Advent from New Hope PA. I do love the name of my little town, love living in a place where hope is always new. May you find new hope in this season of love.

(You can walk past this manger, by the way, but you can’t park in front. The valet service needs those spaces, and anyway, these days traveling Wise Men might more likely arrive by Lyft than by camel, and surely they’ll want to be able to pull right up to the curb.)

Hope and silver

I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I’m pretty sure I received one or two as gifts before I had any awareness of what a spoon actually was.

It was the custom in my family to start giving silver flatware to little girls as soon as they were born. There was no question of choosing your pattern; you got what your mother had, and probably your grandmother, too. This continued through childhood, so if you were a really lucky little girl, your Christmas and birthday presents would usually include a fork or two, or maybe a couple of knives. You can imagine—especially if you know me—how thrilled I was.

The intention was that by the time you were ready to marry and lay a table of your own, you’d have a full set of good flatware ready and waiting to be added to your mother’s when she passed them down. So what I see when I look at this picture is my parents’ expectations, just as shiny and new as they were on the day they were presented, never opened and yet unused.

Because as it turned out, on special occasions I use a different set of silverware that came down from another relative, and only when we are more than 12 at the table do I dip into my birthright to fill out the number needed.

And so most Thanksgivings I find myself face to face with my family’s hopes for me once again. I take them out, inspect them, appreciate them, and put them away again when the company leaves and the house goes back to normal. I don’t really use them, but I can’t get rid of them. That’s how it is with expectations others lay on you. I keep these rolled up in a plastic bag, deep in the cupboard that holds assorted serving dishes. What would my parents think if they knew.

This one leaf

This one leaf. This moment in time. Rain-glued to my windshield, the leaf will be gone in a flash once I pull out of the driveway. It’ll fly away with twenty-five, fifty, a hundred others the rain pasted to my car overnight, whirling and settling as if we were a tree moving through the wind. This moment in time. This one leaf. Neither will come again, but for this one moment, that leaf is all that matters.

I read these words by Joyce Rupp to start our time of silence before Holy Eucharist this morning:

Holy One, awaken my heart. Quiet my mind. Draw back the veil of my illusions to perceive your presence. Settle what stirs endlessly within me. Hush the voice of haste and hurry. Awaken my inner senses to recognize your love hiding beneath the frenzy. Enfold me in your attentiveness. Wrap a mantle of mindfulness around every part of my days. I want to welcome you with joy and focus on your dwelling place. Amen.

If a little flower could speak

If a little flower could speak, it seems to me that it would tell us quite simply all that God has done for it, without hiding any of its gifts. It would not, under the pretext of humility, say that it was not pretty, or that it had not a sweet scent, that the sun had withered its petals, or the storm bruised its stem, if it knew that such were not the case.”

― Thérèse de Lisieux
Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux

Bold as it might be to contradict Thérèse, it seems to me that even if the sun had withered its petals, or the storm bruised its stem, the rose would still be beautiful.

Strange November: So many leaves on the trees around my house are still green, and the roses just keep coming.

If a little flower could speak, perhaps it would speak of #hope.

#nofilter

Only an illusion

I had never seen this brilliant trompe l’oeil mural by artist Richard Haas on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia until we happened by it last week. I love it, not just because the deception is so effective, but mostly because the space it suggests is so inviting. I really wanted to walk right into it because it seemed so spacious, clean and bright. Rather more appealing than the city around it, to be honest. Illusion can be like that, and it’s OK to visit–just take care you don’t try to live there.

Compassion through Contemplation

This article was featured in the November 2017 Shalem eNews)

Compassion means to understand another’s pain at such a deep level that it’s like feeling it yourself. Many mentors have told me over the years that the essence of pastoral ministry is connection and presence, being with. One seminary professor liked to say that the most important thing in parish ministry is to love the people you serve. It stands to reason that anything that makes us more compassionate will enable us to enter more deeply into the ministry that is ours as pastors.

The question then is how to develop compassion, which is a bit like asking how we learn to love. Through intention, perhaps. Through practice, certainly. But Henri Nouwen and his collaborators point out in their book titled Compassion that “compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.” In other words, it doesn’t always feel good. Nouwen et al add—and I think this is significant—“Compassion … is not as natural a phenomenon as it might first appear.”

I propose that contemplative practices can facilitate direct connection with other beings, in ways we are only beginning to understand, enlarging our capacity for profound compassion. If contemplative practice can awaken our compassionate hearts, it can help us minister to people—even, or perhaps especially, those we might see as annoying and maybe even try to avoid.

The seed of my interest in this subject was planted in something that took place some years ago, during a period when I was faithfully maintaining a daily practice of Centering Prayer. I walked into a crowded convenience store and crossed paths with a store employee. I was heading for the coffee; she was carrying some bottled drinks to the refrigerator. As she walked by, I experienced a powerful sensation that she was carrying a great deal of pain – not physical, but emotional – and I offered a prayer for her. I felt that same sensation again when I went to pay for my coffee and she was back at the cash register, and this encounter stayed with me for a good long time after I left the store.

What just happened? I wondered. I’d never experienced anything like this before. I sensed that it was more than just a matter of emotional intelligence, i.e. picking up on visual clues such as her facial expression and body language. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience for me, since it involved my feeling some of what I perceived to be her pain; on the other hand, it also felt sacred. Even after those impressions faded, I continued to reflect on what had connected us for those few moments, and how it was even possible.

Much later, when I had returned to the regular practice of Centering Prayer after a time away, I had another similar experience. This one was even more intense. While sitting with others in contemplative prayer, I suddenly had an overwhelming sense of the goodness of one individual in particular. To be honest, this was someone I had previously found rather annoying. But now it was as if this goodness were a tangible quality that was overflowing into the room, blessing all of us; the word that came to my mind to describe this person in the moment was “golden.”

Another time, while sitting in silence with a woman who had experienced real pain in her life and whose physical appearance bore mute witness to what she’d been through, I glanced at her and was overwhelmed by her beauty. Again, it was as if what I perceived as beauty was not a matter of looks but more a kind of energy that radiated from the depth of her person and had moved between us.

As we develop our compassion for the world, we become better positioned to lead our parishes in responding to those needs and fulfilling the baptismal promise expressed in the Book of Common Prayer to “strive for justice and peace among all people.” As Thomas Merton wrote after his well-known Louisville experience, “If only they could see each other as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. … But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

Additionally, many of us believe that good preaching requires becoming aware of what the text might have to say to the particular circumstances in which we preach, and what the people we preach to need to hear. I think the perception of contemplative compassion has something to contribute in both of those areas, but especially in the understanding of who the people we preach to really are, what they are experiencing in their lives, what hurts and doubts nag at them, what they need to feed their souls.

I cannot think of any quality that is more needed in our world today than compassion, and each parish is in its own way a microcosm of that world. If a greater capacity for compassion is a natural outcome of contemplative practice—and it seems that it is—that is a wonderful and valuable asset for anyone in pastoral ministry. We so need that open-hearted connection to God, and to our people.

Hungry

I was moved by the new statue of Hungry and Thirsty Jesus outside the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, and also by the urge some obviously had to give him something–the coins are not part of the sculpture. Though I couldn’t help thinking that if we’d only put bread on that plate instead, he might have fed our hunger.