One of the realities of retirement from parish ministry is the sudden realization that although there are many places where you would be welcome on a Sunday morning, there isn’t one place where you totally belong. And so for now I’ve become a sort of church pilgrim, sharing myself around. This morning, it was pancakes and silence at Solebury Friends Meeting, nourishment for body and soul. Their annual pancake breakfast is timed around the production of maple syrup from the trees on the meeting property. They’re tapped early in the year and the sap is collected and boiled down to syrup—and yes, although it does take an awful lot of sap to make syrup, it really is as simple as that. I love the idea of gathering a community to enjoy and celebrate the sweetness of its own place.
Sometimes I do things backwards. For example, I took myself off to retreat at Holy Cross Monastery and then came back home and read a wonderful book by Ruth Haley Barton titled “Invitation to Retreat: The Gifts and Necessity of Time Away with God.”
There were a number of things that were not exactly as I had hoped or planned during my time away. Just for one example: On my first night at the monastery, the alarm clock in my room–which I had not touched–went off rather loudly a few minutes after midnight, waking me from a deep sleep. I think I must have jumped a few feet off the bed in fright and the accompanying adrenaline rush certainly limited my ability to fall right back to sleep. (And I’m sure this did nothing to endear me to the retreatant in the room next door.)
Many of the intrusions on my sense of peace on retreat were things I had no control over, but I think if I’d had this book with me, I’d have been in a better place to roll with them. I highly recommend it.
I’m grateful to Barton for the prayer in the picture; it’s one I’ll spend some time with at home this Lent. She describes time away with God as a kind of “strategic withdrawal,” and of course she means really getting away, but a lot of what she talks about in the book would apply equally well to a holy Lent.
“We need to pull back from our busyness,” she says, “from life in our culture, from other people’s expectations and our own compulsions, from whatever is not working in our lives.”
The grandchild has learned to say *I love you* without being prompted. There is nothing more endearing this side of paradise.
I found myself wondering what goes on in her mind when she says this, what she’s feeling and what she means by it. Words are still so new, she struggles to pronounce her own full name. What does a two-year-old know about love?
But then again, what does any of us really know? Can you explain it? We spend a lifetime practicing love, succeeding when we’re at our very best, and failing often despite our best intentions.
If you’ve lived a normal adult life and on top of that been to seminary, you will have read thousands of learned words on the subject of love, and yet you’d still feel challenged if you were asked to write a short sermon about it.
And then a two-year-old comes along and says *I love you,* and you get it, and you know she gets it, inarticulate as her understanding may be, because—forget thumbs and big brains—this is the very heart of what it means to be human.
What if we thought of Lent as a time for healing, not just a time of self-denial?
I have a confession to make. I had a massage yesterday. On Ash Wednesday, a day not traditionally observed with acts of personal indulgence. I scheduled it without really thinking about the date, and then I woke up to find my social media feeds full of photos of smiling freezing vested clerics giving out ashes at train stations, and felt a little embarrassed at what I’d come to after only 10 days of retirement.
The thing is, I wasn’t thinking about luxury when I made the date. I was thinking about the pain in my lower back. It’s caused mostly by muscle tension; I know this because the woman I see for massage is always able to tame it for a while, and I really needed her wonderful healing touch. That’s what the massage was about for me: healing.
So what if we embraced all of Lent as a season of healing, not just enduring it as six late-winter weeks of self-denial? A time to seek wholeness, rather than a time for self-inflicted punishment for past failure?
“You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink”
A cry of desolation from a place where pain is constant and pervasive. But the words “bread and tears” also evoke the phrase “bread and wine,” that meal where suffering has been turned into something life-giving rather than life-sucking. What would it mean to share this meal of bread and tears as if it were a sacrament?
~ My contribution to the current online exhibition presented by the Episcopal Church & Visual Arts. Titled “Suffering,” it’s a collection of works that “display the universal longing and anguish which is part of our incarnational experience.” So appropriate for Lent. http://www.ecva.org/exhibition/Suffering/index.html
To be satisfied by … what, exactly? Is there anyone out there who isn’t waiting to know the answer to that very question?
Jenny Holzer’s digital scroll titled “For Philadelphia 2018, at the new Comcast Technology Center in Philadelphia, includes the words of Philadelphia writers, poets, and school children and is said to run for 17 hours before it repeats.
I’ve lost count of the representations of sheep and the Good Shepherd we have at Good Shepherd Church. My favorite is this little statue that stands out in the garden, work of an unknown artist. It’s only a couple of inches tall, so you could walk right by and not even notice it, but I like it very much—and for some reason I love it best in the snow.
Taking this picture yesterday brought to mind a sermon from a dozen years ago that changed my life. It was preached by Bishop Tom Breidenthal of the Diocese of Southern Ohio back when he was Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University and I worked in the civic engagement department there, though interestingly enough I wasn’t in the Chapel to hear it preached. I came across the text online and downloaded it; I have it still, and it continues to be meaningful to me. A reminder to us preachers especially that God’s grace may employ our words in ways we could hardly imagine.
Breidenthal talks about that appealing image of the Good Shepherd “who seeks us out as his own, who calls us by name, and who guards us through the power of his own indestructible life.” The Good Shepherd who embraces us tenderly in his strong arms and keeps us safe, as that little statue suggests.
But there’s more to the Good Shepherd discourse, something I honestly had never noticed before. As Breidenthal says, “Jesus says that the true shepherd ‘calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… He goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (John 10:3-4). That is to say, he leads them out of the relative safety of the walled sheepfold into the mingled promise and danger of open country.”
The Good Shepherd leads them out, not in—out of safety into the risky unknown.
He continues: “When Jesus says he is our shepherd, he is not just saying that he cares for us and will protect us, although that certainly is true. He is also saying that we belong to him, and that he expects us to follow his lead, however much that may entail a radical departure from what seems safe and familiar in our lives.”
I love trains, but for me it’s not about the technical trivia that excite some other train buffs, it’s about the feelings they stir. My first memories of train travel go back to the days when we rode back and forth from New York or Atlanta to Baltimore, to home. I always thought of it as home, even though by the time I was 10 we were moving into my fifth home and I’d lived in Baltimore less than half my life. I think that search for true home has always been a thing for me. But maybe that’s true for everyone, because our truest home isn’t a place; it’s a relationship.
I loved the overnight train from Atlanta. I remember falling asleep to the soft clackety-clack of the wheels and being gently rocked through the night. I remember waking once in the middle of the night to the sound of crossing bells, watching out the window as we rolled in the darkness through a little crossroads town, and feeling a kind of weary loneliness which I treasured until I fell asleep again.
The opening paragraph from Thomas Merton’s essay “From Pilgrimage to Crusade”:
Man instinctively regards himself as a wanderer and wayfarer, and it is second nature for him to go on pilgrimage in search of a privileged and holy place, a center and source of indefectible life. This hope is built into his psychology, and whether he acts it out or simply dreams it, his heart seeks to return to a mythical source, a place of “origin,” the “home” where the ancestors came from, the mountain where the ancient fathers were in direct communication with heaven, the place of the creation of the world, paradise itself, with its sacred tree of life.
Parker Palmer says: “Unlike many folks my age, the young people I work with waste no time grieving the collapse of the ‘old order,’ of the religious, educational, vocational, and political structures that helped form their elders lives. When today’s young adults were born, many of those institutions were well on their way to becoming dysfunctional.*
“Instead of mourning what’s on its way out or already gone, many of the young adults I know are inventing forms of work and life that holds great promise–from political movements, to religious life, to staying connected in communities of meaning. … I find it inspiring to hang out with people who aren’t bemoaning the loss of what no longer serves us well. Instead they’re exploring possibilities that we, young and old together, can midwife into life.”
This, to me, sums up in a nutshell the reason why so many parishes are dying. Imagine the energy that would be released if we directed our attention away from trying to prop up institutions that no longer serve the world’s needs and turned instead to thinking about the true mission of the church. No gimmicks. But what, really, is our mission.
* Parker J. Palmer, On the Bring of Everything, 37
We went down to Ocean City yesterday to look at a house for a big family group next summer and took a short walk on the boardwalk when we finished our business, and I found myself wondering about the nature of time.
We think of time as moving relentlessly forward, and certainly it feels that way to me now, as the days march on toward that date five Sundays from now when I’ll say goodbye to my parish.
We think of time as linear, and yet we also see that it moves in cycles. Yesterday the boardwalk was nearly empty; in six months, it’ll be teeming with people like the seagulls who claimed the space yesterday along the water’s edge. I stood in this spot with my own children 25 and 30 years ago; in August, perhaps, I’ll walk this way holding my granddaughter’s hand.
Church time, of course, is cyclical and more. Jesus isn’t just born into the world again every year, but at every moment, and at every moment he is sitting down in the synagogue and all eyes are upon him as he declares that he’s come to bring good news to the poor. At every moment, we followers are hearing those words as a message of hope and challenge.
And our own memories are with us at every moment, maybe not consciously, but in the way the things that have happened to us continue to shape us, the people who have touched our lives continue to inhabit them. The past year has been a tough one for us as so many people who were important to us have died. Chris’s mother, of course, the last of our parents. So many friends who taught us by example how to live a life. And yet I do believe they’re with us yet, still teaching, as we go on to show others the lessons we’ve learned.