Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A core of fire

That Tiny Flame

I think of James Clement (in The Love Letters and Certain Women) telling of the making of cider in the winter, when it is put outdoors to freeze. In the center of the frozen apple juice is a tiny core of pure flame that does not freeze. My faith (which I enjoy) is like that tiny flame. Even in the worst of moments it has been there, surrounded by ice, perhaps, but alive.

- Madeleine L'Engle

Many thanks to RevHRod for gifting me with this Madeleine L'Engle poem this morning. Our move to CT brought us within easy driving distance of Madeleine's home in the Litchfield hills, and though we never made the trek to that area while she was living, I do hope to go and see some of what inspired her. Unlike many people who appreciate her writing, I didn't grow up with A Wrinkle in Time; in fact, I'm not sure I've ever read it. (To prove my point, I had to visit another website to clarify the title--I had originally written The Wrinkle in Time!) The only L'Engle book I know without a doubt I've read is Two-Part Invention. From that moment I was captivated.

But I'm straying from the poem and my point, which is simply this: I've seen and experienced that core of flame within me. Access to that core has come only once, though I've glimpsed it or rubbed up against it on other occasions (most notably, when I gave birth to my two children)--and the gift of visualizing that flame, holding that core of fire in my hands, came in the midst of a great hurt. Though I don't come from a religious body that practices shunning, it's the word that best fits what a friend decided she must do to me based on my disclosure of differences between us. My way of being was....is....simply that offensive to her. Never mind the story of those differences--that is a post for another day. What I am remembering this morning, thanks to RevHRod and Madeleine, is the image of that core. Words cannot adequately capture the experience of holding a swirling ball of fire in my hands, fully aware that this is my essence--that this core of fire has always been in me, and always will be in me, and nothing of this world can harm or destroy that essence. As I held the fire in my hands, it was suddenly not only in me and contained by me, but surrounding me as well. And as the hurtful words of shunning from this friend swirled around me, they were dissolved by the flames. The flames surrounding me, mirroring what was in me, could not burn or harm me, but her words were absorbed before they could touch me. I envisioned them slithering around my body, serpent-like, coming ever closer to me and to that core, but as they approached, they were consumed....burned up....gone forever.

Deep in winter, with ice coating each and every branch, I know within me is That Tiny Flame, inextinguishable, everlasting, purely God, purely me, forever and ever. Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Miracle-filled Monday

What would it take for me to have a miracle-filled Monday? Good news from my father's doctor, as our hearts are preparing for something very bad indeed? A positive word from a friend whose parents, too, are waiting on answers? A complete recovery of the child of a friend who lives, suddenly, at the Children's Medical Center after the discovery of a rare and virulent form of brain cancer? Or would it simply be looking at all the day does bring to me with an eye for those miracles?

As I type, I hear my children's feet prancing like reindeer above me as they try to determine if it is morning-enough to rise. Their sound alone is life....the present....the miraculous. How do I cultivate those eyes? And must it rest on an experience of tragic proportions? Why must every hymn that truly moves me come out of the author's encounter with loss so deep as to threaten to shake the ground on which I stand?

I'm struck at the moment that primary teachers of this "the present is all" philosophy are the parents of Elizabeth mentioned above, suffering through the very largest of questions about the purpose of life, the intention for their daughter's time on earth....because as they see very dire numbers put on that time, they are cherishing her more and more and more. Loss is a continual threat and reality. Those of us not experiencing it simply lose sight of this current that runs beneath us.

How can I focus today on cherishing rather than fearing? What can I already see with grateful eyes?

*Saturday's performance of the Black Nativity, my sister's annual Christmas tradition--shared this year with the kids and me. There's a quotation about music reminding us of a truth we cannot yet know that struck me so fully as the swaying singers sashayed past us singing "Go Tell It On the Mountain," the opening piece. Their voices resonated at a place far beyond my mind, and I was living a truth I cannot seem to grasp with my head.

*The rising of the sun, new every morning. Though I'm in full Monday mode, wishing desperately for another day with my family, this day is new--there are discoveries to be made, contributions to offer.

*The warmth of our home--and the kids' valuing of this through our nightly prayers of gratitude. I'm proud to have a child who speaks about the importance of shelter for people, and what we must do to support people who don't have it.

*Lighting the Advent candles yesterday in church. Though in the moment I was too focused on keeping Lucas from kissing the candle and remembering who was reading what, I loved that as a family we were taking part in this honor.

*Baking my mom's candy cane rolls, a tradition that never fails to bring her to life for me each Christmas.

Wishing you a miracle-filled Monday....

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

To what to pay attention, and how?

I've continued rising early, but with insufficient time to blog! Yesterday the kids joined me in sacred pursuits (or I attempted to still find the time sacred in the midst of their early, early morning company!), and today I hit the snooze button for 50 minutes before a shortened quiet time to be followed momentarily by getting ready to depart an hour early for work. It's condensed paying attention--the only kind in which I seem to excel!

This morning I am struck by the continual choices I make in how I see what is before me. My ability yesterday to greet the kids early with true appreciation--seeing their presence as the sacred gift of that day--is not necessarily the way I always greet such an "opportunity." On any given day, I might describe to you a marriage so distinctly different from my descriptions on other days, you might wonder if I'm speaking of the same people. So, too, my work--I choose my words and my outlook for different audiences sometimes....and sometimes I am the only audience, and still my perceptions shift and change.

There's a wonderful quotation about either seeing miracles nowhere or everywhere. I know what it is to swing wildly from seeing God at every turn to feeling God is absent from me....and in each state, it is easy to feel I will never shift and be in the other state. Today, when the absence is more palpable--when the frustrations and sadness and longing are overshadowing joy and possibility and hope, I'm going to try to quietly wait for the space to choose miracles once again.

Monday, December 3, 2007

To those who have time to hear

While I'd like to claim that "paying attention," the theme of yesterday's sermon and blog, is quite possible at night--perhaps even that night is the superior time for soaking up truth, there is a continual Biblical theme that puts morning as the time to greet the day and God. I'd rather night because I'm more naturally a night person--I can easily stretch one hour into two into three with a good book or a movie we've been desperate to watch. Just as easily, I slap the snooze button a half dozen times each morning. On many a day we are chastising our kids for not moving more quickly toward the door for school, but we are equally to blame. We just do not want to get up in time to move through the morning with ease.

I remember a time when I woke early on a regular basis. It was pre-children, I was frustrated with my work situation, and I needed a space to set my soul to a new dimension each day. I would rise in the darkness of the morning, put on the tea kettle, grab my journal and a devotional book, and sometimes even squeeze in a run before all this began. (Yes, running is also something long since fallen off the "to do" list--I could blame the kids, but the choices made are mine!) Though it was a stressful time in my life, a time filled with questions of whether or not I had a purpose, whether I would find contentment in work, whether I was bound to a life of perpetual restlessness and dissatisfaction, my primary memories are of the mornings--the stillness, the peace, the quiet. This Advent, I'm going to find my way back to mornings and see if once again I can experience some of the peace of that time.

I set the alarm for 6am--just enough time to get in a short reading and prayer--enough to claim that I was UP! See me, I'm UP! But God had other ideas. Lucas cried out at 5am, unable to get himself fully nestled back into his cocoon of covers. I went back to bed, grateful for one more hour of sleep, but I could not settle. Finally, after 20 minutes, I got up. I'm not one to rush into prayer, you'll see. I went to the basement, emptied the ashes from the woodstove, folded a load of laundry, hopped on the Cardioglide for a few minutes, and only then did I come upstairs for my cup of tea. I opened a copy of Max Lucado's "God Came Near"--I have wonderful memories of sitting with my suitemates in my first year of college, surrounding a contraband candle as we read aloud from this book about the miraculous arrival of Jesus. Given that I've been in a mind (rather than heart and soul)-driven place of questions about the audacity of believing in such a person....such a story....such a possibility, this book seems right.

And indeed it is. Hear the words of yesterday's blog, and then hear the message waiting for me this morning. "Off to one side sit a group of shepherds. They sit silently on the floor, perhaps perplexed, perhaps in awe, no doubt in amazement. Their night watch had been interrupted by an explosion of light from heaven and a symphony of angels. God goes to those who have time to hear him. . . Those who missed His Majesty's arrival that night missed it not because of evil acts or malice; no, they missed it because they simply weren't looking." (God Came Near, Max Lucado)

This Advent, I'm going to make time....I'm going to try to make time to hear God's arrival.....to see God's arrival. I'm already feeling rewarded.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Pay attention

Our senior pastor has been on sabbatical for two months. He's returned for Advent and Christmas, and then will depart again for another two months. It's a model created of necessity, but one that has some real advantages. We get to peer into his thinking, and we have him for this very fresh, alive month--none of that, "I can't believe I'm back here already," energy. Instead we have, "I can't believe I get to head off once again in a month!" I suppose it's as though I went to work on Monday, and by Monday evening was back off for the rest of the week.

His sermon today was entitled, "Pay attention," and was about the seemingly-apocalyptic Matthew passage, the chapter and verse alluding me at the moment. The sermon was an urging to keep our eyes tuned to what is immediately before us--to be living so fully in this moment that we do not miss God's whisper of an arrival. It was a far cry from the "You've Been Left Behind" video series we used to watch as comedy amongst liberal-leaning friends at my Christian college. The message was in essence this--it is not so much that we will literally be left in the field as another is whisked away beside us, but rather than we will simply miss the opportunity to see what is truly there to see. We stand side by side with someone looking through a different lens, and they see, live and experience--and we miss the forest for the trees....or more appropriately given his message, we miss the trees for the forest.

This message was on my mind as we raked sodden piles of leaves in anticipation of tonight's snow. The sky was gray, spitting sleet periodically, and the still air felt anticipatory--there's something about to happen. I set the rake down for a moment, settled onto the edge of our back porch, and looked to the spindly, black branches of the trees reaching toward the sky. I was waiting--trying to pay attention. But while my eyes were pinned on the sky, it was beneath me that I could feel the hum of the universe. The energy of our collective existence was suddenly so palpable, I envisioned those giant trees crashing to the ground as the hum continued steadily on. As almost always happens when I am still, I was not only aware of the vibrations of energy below me and all around me, I was aware that I was in a dance with these vibrations--I was a part of the vibration myself.

With Tom's suggestion before me, I aim to pay attention this Advent. I am to wake early, brew a pot of tea, read wise words from people who stir me, and know that God is forever entering...forever arriving...forever wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. I will celebrate not only being witness to the energy of God's presence and arrival; I will celebrate being part of it. Amen.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thursday, July 12, 2007

My wedding ring must come off. And, then I eventually put it back on. This is not a mind trip, or an indication of a failing marriage. In fact, it’s oddly about my exercise routine, which includes getting in the pool to swim laps a couple times per week.

What I have come to realize, however, is that the act of removing the ring (and then putting it back on my finger) has become a ritual of sorts. I say, “of sorts” because I am – unfortunately - not the type of person who exercises with the regularity I ought. Thus, the act is only as ritualistic as my actual time spent in the pool. Still, over the course of the last two years of swimming, I have gone through this act enough times to think about what the ring means to me.

Coming out of the pool, I am usually invigorated. Whether it’s the middle of a hot summer, or the third Thursday of shitty snowfall in March when I can barely stand the sight of snow, a swim will completely alter my psyche… and only in the best of ways. I am almost always invigorated after a swim. Even if it’s nearly impossible to get to the pool, I feel better once I’m done with my swim. That is simply the effect water has on me. So when I emerge from the pool, with more energy than when I arrived, I am in an altered state. This place, or state of mind, is what contributes to the energy I feel when putting my wedding ring back on to my ring finger.

I am, in that moment, a better version of me. My heart beats strong. My lungs feel expanded. Since I have taken a warm shower, followed by an application of Lavender lotion (applied in the sauna during the winter months), I also feel that “ready to start my day” feeling that typically accompanies such a routine. I also feel like giving myself a little pat on the back for having gotten myself into the pool in the first place; I suppose there is some sense of pride in the completion of my swimming routine.

At some point, I began to associate all of these feelings with not only the completion of a swim, but with the placement of that ring on my finger. And of course, it wasn’t long before the ritual of putting on my ring reminded me of how good it is to be alive – not only after a swim, but in general.

And so, it is in all of the acts which are part of a seemingly mundane swimming routine, that I have adopted a ritual – one that renews my physical self, and that also renews my spiritual self. I never realized that stripping away such a beautiful symbol would actually come to reify its symbology in my life, and to ultimately make me the (better) person I am becoming.


There's no doubt about it. When presented with the choice of "being" or "doing," I know deep down I want to choose "being." I want to be (there's that word again!) the sort of person who "be"s naturally. (How's that for a twist of grammar?) Truth-telling now, though. I'm a doer, through and through. I'm the sort of person who hears the story of Mary and Martha--of Mary celebrated for sitting attentively at Jesus' side while Martha hustled her way through dinner preparations--and gets angry that Jesus reinforces Mary for "doing nothing." While I know how good it is to sit with a Mary at my side, I am still consumed with the question of how all the tasks at hand were completed to allow her to be there. As I said recently to my counselor/spiritual director, "How can I relax and still get the vacuuming done?" It seems I only imagine myself effective when there's a cloud of activity and stress surrounding me. Oh Martha, Martha, Martha--I hear you, sister.

This morning I woke early when Matt left for his morning basketball league. I've been working long days Monday-Thursday in hopes of having a bonus day with the kids on Friday. My hat is off to the many women and men who work hard labor jobs with long shifts or, more difficult still, work more than one job. A few ten hour days in a row and I'm ready to crash. By this morning, my body was craving an extra few minutes of sleep--but my spirit was craving something more. I crawled out of bed, raised the blinds, and climbed back into bed to sit and meditate. Silence. Birds calling and singing. No children's footsteps. No spouse's grunts and groans at too much early-morning sunlight. I kept resetting the alarm, imagining I might still squeeze in those few minutes on the snooze bar. But my spirit continued to ask for time.

I dressed, made a cup of coffee (to counteract the lack of added sleep!), filled my cereal bowl and headed for our back deck. With travels to Boston for our anniversary (last week) and to New York for the funeral of my oldest friend's father (this week), I feel distant at best from my yard. With long days at work, I'm contributing little to the woodchuck/weed hunting consuming Matt's days as he struggles to feed us, rather than the animals, with the garden. Sitting in the midst of the stunningly tall trees, following the flight patterns of the birds from branch to branch, I felt truly home. I was rewarded instantly for showing up, staying silent, and being attentive. I glanced at our clothesline, and there was our hummingbird flying in for a visit. She looked like a Martha, of course--all business, buzzing up to that feeder as though there was no time to waste with a visit or attention to me. But I, for once, felt like Mary--laundry still in the washer, kids still sound asleep in their beds, fully present for the moment before me.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Called by God

I remember a humorous conversation I had with Matt just a few years ago in which I described why I was most certainly "doomed" to be called as a pastor. I provided the succinct, overarching statements that might grace the header of my resume or pastoral profile: passion for connecting people across differences through dialogue, love of theological thought and exploration, skilled public speaker, seasoned writer (with a love for devotional writing, in particular!), pianist and singer, beginning guitar player, capable administrator with years of relevant experience in a comparable field, and a desire to relate to the deepest longings of people and communities. With a self-satisfied nod, I said, "Can't you see it? I'm marked! It's inevitable!"

If you can read that these statements were said without real joy--a distinct emotion from humor--you might well have been in the room with us. As the child of a pastor and grandchild of two, I felt, quite literally, the fear of God each time I imagined serving in the world as I saw them serve. I watched my father and grandfathers come of age in mostly rural protestant churches where clergy members did everything: shovel snow, CHECK; mow the church and parsonage lawn, CHECK; prepare Sunday's sermon, CHECK; serve as hospital chaplain, CHECK; bake bread for communion, CHECK; answer the phone and door at all hours of the day or night, literally taking money from personal bank account to help parishioners and strangers meet financial needs, CHECK; baptize, marry, counsel through divorce, bury, CHECK. I could go on and on. Without strong personal boundaries, or seminary training to establish these, their churches took over their lives. I grew up bearing the consequences of an often unhealthy model of servitude. It was not a call I was in any way prepared to answer. If the phone was ringing, I was most decidedly unavailable.

My childhood and adolescent dread shifted into the bemused, but doomed mentality depicted by my conversation with Matt. And then, it shifted again. During the Maundy Thursday service just over a year ago, I watched as the pastor and associate pastor of my church broke bread for communion and raised the cup into the air, and I experienced a palpable, dramatic shift inside. Planted in me was not dread, but a sense of the honor of their role--the gift of their service. I considered the many pastors I had encountered personally, and the gifts each had offered to me. I thought about Tom, the chaplain who married us and who regularly extended himself as a listener and wise questioner as we sought to adapt to the changes in one another and in our relationship. He might have saved our marriage with some critical, well-considered pieces of advice....he certainly empowered us to save it for ourselves. I thought about John, and the meditation group he initiated--the regularity and sacredness of which created space for me to discover some profound truths about myself and who I have been created to be. I thought about Marlene, serving our church as a volunteer associate pastor after a debilitating accident. Her astute observations about faith were formative in my life, and the selflessness of her service was truly inspiring.

The shifting continues still, as I casually wade my way through seminary courses, exploring what it feels like to be in that environment. I am certainly curious more days than I am fearful, and this openness will yield something rich to my life even if I don't seek to pastor a church one day. In a recent conversation with a woman who is, for me, part therapist and part spiritual director, I was describing the evolution of my thinking over all these years. Looking up, hoping against hope once again that she would respond with some sort of answer, I saw her wry grin as her eyes said to me that she would again respond to me with questions--I would not walk home with the tidy package I came seeking. After she asked me to respond to a series of forced choice questions (e.g., now or not now? being or doing? inside or outside?), she spoke to me words of my true calling. She said, "You will never make any choice, have any role, pursue any study that will make you more the essence of God than you are right now. This is who you are called to be--Jennifer. Fully Jennifer, here and now." Days later, my current pastor reiterated the same essential message in an email to our church community in which he commented on his morning inhaling of the sweet lilac bush outside his home. "A lilac being a lilac--this is the Divine Essence."

Will I someday be called as a pastor? Perhaps. Have I already--in fact, always--been called by God? Indeed. And I'm relaxing, breathing, inhaling and exhaling my way into a full answer to Her call.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Veiled Community

For the past nine months I've been part of an intentionally formed and crafted group of women exploring feminist spirituality. When every chair in the circle is filled, we're 35 or so women, drawn from the greater Northeast region (at least at this moment in our lives), but otherwise representing every walk of life. We are oldish (late 60s) and youngish (early 20s), fattish and thinish, whitish and blackish, and lesbian, bisexual and transgender. Most intriguing, however, is how this previous set of identities intersects with our religious identities, for we are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish-curious, to begin with just the short list of how we likely name our faith.

To create more meaningful, engaged encounters with one another, the entire group is divided into wisdom circles. While chosen at random (a word that has new meaning in the quantum universe in which we dwell), the circles are actually quite representative of the whole, providing each of us with up-close and personal encounters with nearly all the faith identities sitting in the circle of the whole. These wisdom circles create a manageable space to reflect on the readings, but the most public expression of our grouping is the creation and implementation of rituals for the entire group during one of our gatherings of the year. In addition to designing the act of ritual, the wisdom circles craft visual complements to the weekend's theme.

Month after month, the mandalas positioned at the center of our circle have become more and more elaborate, and the rituals have extended past a simple litany and song to become sermons, choruses, seed plantings, champagne toasts (fit for a queen, with crowns upon our heads!)....I could go on and on. As our group was designated for the final month of circle-created rituals, we had entirely too much time to both generate our own ideas, and compare our in-our-mind creations with the groups before us. When our weekend finally arrived, I think it is safe to say we were all ready to be done. Email planning, personality co-mingling, and that strange tiredness that comes with shaking off winter and throwing ourselves headlong into spring had left us more in a state of stress than joy.

The rituals themselves were delightful, and the garden scene created by our most passionate visual artist was enough to convince me that indoors and outdoors had switched. But I felt disconnected, a state brought on by the final stresses of our collaboration and a personal encounter with the sometimes closed nature of our typically open circle. The feelings weren't washed away as I pushed my sunflower seed deep into the moist, black soil and asked God if She would make me more forgiving and open, ready to fully engage once again. When we separated into wisdom circles to further explore projects of leadership we had undertaken in the year (the source of my personal encounter with closed thinking in an open space), I was more than happy to suggest we retreat to the home of the Muslim member of our circle, certain that meeting her children and touring her apartment would distract us from the conversation.

As we giggled our way through her home, curious about whether taking off our shoes was religious or cultural (she's Turkish), whether her children spoke Turkish, Arabic or English, or whether this outspoken, veiled woman used her same sharp humor and wit at home, we began to find one another once again. We piled into her bedroom and, quite spontaneously, she selected and adorned each of us with a hijab. We had known her head only by the elaborate, decorative scarves that shaped her beauty, and yet here she was before us, short-haired, out of her hijab as she placed one upon each of us. In full color and splendor, we retreated to her kitchen table and simply spoke about our lives....current challenges, requests for prayer, compliments and playful jabs. We were once again wise in our togetherness.

We crossed the small lawn from her home to our classroom and delighted in the expressions of surprise from some of the other participants. We were converted not to Islam, but to the space of true togetherness. While she had crossed over to us in many forms at many times, we had taken a small, symbolic gesture to cross to her and honor her tradition. And for the first time in some time, I sat fully present in the wider circle. The gift of her veil returned to me my voice.

God's voice comes in light and dark, in community and solitude, from our full revealing and from a moment under a veil. Sometimes, if we're present, we hear and we truly listen.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Musing about Messiness

As we experiment with our new life as a one-income family, we've become mildly addicted to Freecycle and the free section on Craigslist. A week and a half ago I stooped to what Matt regarded as a new low (despite his participation!). We drove across town to collect frozen entrees from a woman who had tried one but hadn't been satisfied. As we splashed our way through the rain to collect our still-frozen treasures, Matt questioned if it just might be possible for us to live fully off of freecycle for any length of time. We haven't yet attempted the experiment, but in the week and a half since, we have happily collected a set of shelves for the garage, a smaller set for the screened-in porch, and tennis rackets for me and the kids. Treasures surface continually.

One such treasure is the book The Sisterhood: The True Story Behind the Women's Movement by Marcia Cohen. Offered at the same address as size 34-34 men's Old Navy pants on craigslist, I decided to claim both....the pants for Matt, the book for me. I've been shuffling through over the past couple of months, fascinated by a read that only benefits from its datedness. Published in the late 1980s, The Sisterhood lacks the unifying gloss of some later accounts of the women's movement, focusing often on the flaws and faultlines within "the movement" and the individuals comprising it.

While I have been well-acquainted with accusations that the primary voices of the women's movement neglected women of color and lesbians, I have never before had a front row seat on the sheer messiness of the conflicts. In striving for a palatable "center"--a set of beliefs and demands that could be embraced by a majority--anyone seemingly on the margins was typically further marginalized by a movement that, in theory, should have represented all. The lesson? We are all simultaneously oppressed and oppressor, silencing some even as we attempt to break silence with and for others. The still photographs depicting women united in seeking abortion rights or equal pay for equal work in no way capture the full picture of that time, just as no movement can fully capture the nuanced expressions of a shared message when it takes root in individuals of such varied identities.

Progress is not a clear, straight-ahead path. And few of us, if we claim our full truth, fit neatly into a community, a movement, or a church. In recent months, I've encountered this messiness in many circles. Dynamic and fascinating when read in a text, the experience of feeling marginalized and "outside the circle" is disconcerting at best, and sometimes quite painful. While it is natural to gravitate toward like-minded communities, and all of us need circles in which we are welcomed fully and whole, there is also something true in sitting on a set of pews that can barely hold together under the weight of our difference and division. We feel the pain. We sit there anyway.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Easing my way back in....

After a week's vacation at home with my family, it's always a transition to come back to work--even if I love the role and the institution. Are we unique in imagining that we could craft a perfectly good life with all four of us at home? I suppose not....but the shared nature of the experience means no less impact. I actually cried last night as I kissed the kids while they slept in their beds. A week with them was a reminder of all I miss each day as I drive over the mountain to work. And health insurance and mortgage payments aside, I do actually believe we could have a blissful life riding our mountain bikes around the yard and cooking colorful, thoughtfully-prepared meals. And blogging....of course there would have to be blogging!

Recognizing that I was dragging my feet a bit today, driving in on a brilliantly bright and sunny day but living elsewhere in my mind, I decided I should start my day with gratitude. So after changing my voicemail and email to say I've checked back in, here I am.

Thank you, God of breath and creation and light....this is surely a day brought into being by You. Remind me that every day is a gift from You, and that I am a being created by choice and with choices. I can view my responsibilities as opportunities, and the conversations I'll have today as a chance to serve as light to the world. I can pause and breathe and look out my window. I can feel my feet on the earth and lower my shoulders, easing out the tension I hold, both imagined and real. I can see You in every encounter.

I am thankful for....

....my clever, courageous daughter who was weaving her way through a playground thick with bigger kids than she to make her way back to school after her own vacation.

....my usual parking lot being closed this morning. Parking across campus gave me an opportunity to say hello to a dear friend, and to enjoy more of the outside air on my way to the office.

....the gentleman who cleans my building. His wide smile each and every day is a continual reminder that I choose who I am, how I feel and what I present to the world.

....coffee. Enough said.

....all that awaits me at home this evening, made all the more precious by my time away today.

....now, the present, this moment.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Blacksburg and Baghdad

I have been uncomfortably silent the last few days, simply because the events in Virginia defy words....and I haven't wanted to fill the silence without acknowledging the Virginia Tech tragedy. I look at the senseless loss through so many lenses; it's difficult to know with which voice to speak. There is Jennifer the mother who already tends toward anxiety when I think of my inability to keep my children safe. There is Jennifer the college administrator who immediately begins playing out the "If this were my institution...." questions. There is Jennifer the believer who tries somehow to find sense or meaning in something that so clearly has none. There is Jennifer the skeptic who finds far more questions than answers. There is Jennifer the pastor's daughter who struggled throughout childhood with a clergy father's commitment to staying close to the grief-stricken, serving primarily in the presence of loss....loss was omnipresent in my growing up years, and my relationship to the dead and their survivors is complex. And there is Jennifer, the citizen of the United States (with noble intentions of being a citizen of the world) who some days is deeply aware of the tremendous privilege of living middle class and white in a country where we presume peace, where violence is hidden on city streets or in far-away countries.

The lens which has struck me most these past few days is this last one. Days after I literally gasped and burst into tears at the early report that 22 people had been killed on a university campus, I clicked on CNN to see the headline for the war in Iraq. The death toll I remember in my mind was something like 178 people, killed primarily in Baghdad. And while I certainly had a moment of pause, there was no kick in the gut--no hand to my mouth in shock and despair. Why? There are some obvious answers--our country's collective apathy and desensitization to a war that seems easy to oppose but much more difficult to end, and my ethnocentric empathy that zeroes in on the losses of people who look and live like me come right to mind. I'm not certain I could open my eyes in the morning and climb out of bed if I absorbed the names, faces and histories of the people lost in the most recent bombing of Baghdad or Fallujah, but I do wonder if I would be a better person. We scroll the local headlines, reading the stories of the hometown fallen heroes, but what of the chaos we've created? If I could look at the Iraqi death toll with an image, a name or a story submitted by his or her childhood best friend, could I honestly watch this war from my living room rather than the streets in protest?

I've been talking to my daughter about war, something I never imagined possible with a five year old. But after her school sent letters to the soldiers ("They keep us safe," I believe was how she understood their job.), and we visited an Air Museum filled with fighter jet relics, it became something I simply had to do. We give the barest of details--people fighting to stop rulers who are out to hurt rather than help people--and share our own conflicted sense of whether it is okay to hurt people in the name of stopping the hurts of others, but it pains me to know that she is growing up with a war abroad that simply must have a wider impact on our conscience, and a war scene at home that seems impossibly close.

God, forgive us. Some days we do know what we do....

Sunday, April 15, 2007

100 Things with the RevGalBlogPals

When I joined the RevGalBlogPals ring, I anticipated an easy link to thought-provoking writers pursuing similar questions. (I absolutely encourage you to click next, previous and random to find women--and the occasional man--pursuing questions of the work of the spirit in this world.) I did not necessarily think I would participate in the group-writing events, but I found people's personal responses to the "100 Things" exercise below so incredibly compelling, I couldn't resist.

Visit here and here to see the original post and the competition which grew out of it. Enjoy, and go forth and create your own 100 Things!

"I have lived…"
1. in the northeast United States for all but one year of college
2. away from my husband and children Monday to Friday as I began a new job and our house sat on a stalled market
3. anxiously, at times, wondering if the too-brief lives of some of my relatives will mean a too-brief life for me
4. in very wealthy communities and very poor, learning that sometimes people are people, no matter the size of the wallet
5. in a house that should have been condemned—with a closet that used to welcome bats to my room each night
6. with plenty, and with want
7. with the same college roommate for three years—I love you, Sue!
8. to regret only a couple of my life’s choices
9. on an island—and was likely too in junior high/high school (gotta get outta here!) mode to really cherish the place and experience
10. to be the first member of my immediate family to own my own home

"I have witnessed..."
1. a young cellist literally merge with the music he was playing during a performance of Holst’s “The Planets”
2. the arrival of a male and female cardinal on the feeder in our backyard
3. an ocean baptism where the waves literally washed people into the water as my father called out “Do you believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?” before the waves came over them
4. the amusing shower-like spray of milk from my ready-to-nurse breasts
5. my daughter’s eyes as she stepped too deeply into a pool and realized she could neither swim nor breathe—and felt that deep lingering panic/relief as my sister leapt in to lift her to the air
6. Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian experiences of worship, prayer and meditation
7. my daughter take her first steps, read her first words, ride her bike without training wheels—and become, day by day, her very own person
8. a decrease in my own tolerance for violent or negative entertainment—having learned that I must metabolize all that enters through my senses, I’m much more selective
9. my own capacity to travel beyond perceived limits as I birthed two perfectly-formed children in two awe-inspiring natural births
10. how great losses can lead to great gains—and yet, the gain does not erase the great pain of the loss

"I have heard..."
1. my grandfather belting out hymns tearfully while surrounded by his family in many a congregation—and now I, too, am a hymn-crier….
2. my children laughing uproariously with one another when absorbed in their own time and space
3. the Indigo Girls many times in concert, and I never tire of the vibration I feel when they hit those perfect moments of harmony
4. my grandmother tell her granddaughters they need to learn to like sex!
5. songs that have, quite literally, saved me—an early Amy Grant concert video was a lifeline in junior high, and I hear Lori McKenna’s “One Man” and know she had a role in preserving my marriage
6. David Sedaris—and think his delightfully nasal voice is as endearing and comic in person as it is via radio
7. news of tragic proportions, and sometimes find myself unable to emotionally respond or react
8. the same piece of music capture both the great loss of my mother at her memorial service, and my children’s inestimable joy as they dance to the piece in our home
9. God’s voice quite literally rising from within me
10. the sweet, sweet sound of my son singing “Silent Night” with me as we snuggle toward sleep

"I have lost..."
1. and gained more pounds than I’d like!
2. the ability to balance on a bike, with some post-pregnancies vertigo
3. the ability to ride a rollercoaster (including the kiddie Polar Coaster at Storyland) due to this same vertigo
4. many, many hours of sleep in caring for a dear son with ear and respiratory infections that meant (and mean) very poor sleep habits!
5. any adolescent myth of immortality I once might have carried
6. a few friends due to our inability to live out a new story of possibility across differences
7. my belief that there are good people and bad, finding instead that we are all a powerful mix of both
8. confidence that right will always prevail—or that there even is a clear “right” to win out
9. some of my desire to travel as an American in foreign countries, wishing we could be a place without borders and biases—not wanting to wear the current reputation of my country on my sleeve as I move about the world
10. any notion that money can buy happiness….but a new roof and a vacation would be nice!

"I have found..."
1. seeking often means not finding, but opening and waiting sometimes means the answer is dropped in my lap
2. my sister and I have a root level of shared understanding from shared living that is irreplaceable
3. my marriage has become more intimate and connected as we’ve uncovered and acknowledged its very fragility
4. few things move me more than music that connects me to a meaningful time and place
5. God is far greater than my current imagination and capacity
6. being a parent can dwell in the “best” and “worst” categories of life within the very same moments
7. friendship sometimes takes great work, and sometimes happens in an instant (with special thoughts of some of my new friends who were an immediate “click” for me!)
8. once fixed ideas of my identity are more fluid than I once could have acknowledged—and the more I grow, the less I believe I truly know with certainty
9. that both women and men can abuse power, or can use it for good
10. energy literally emanates from my body when I see my children in pain or need

"I love..."
1. Matthew and, just as importantly, the partnership we’ve formed
2. the smell of my children’s hair and skin after they’ve emerged fresh from a bath
3. imagining living in every place I visit
4. the radio (and now television) program “This American Life”
5. Pepperidge Farms’ Hearty Wheat crackers (particularly with cinnamon apple sauce on top—a culinary delight from my college roommate, Sue!)
6. Anne Lamott’s brutal honesty, revealing the sacred in some of the least expected places
7. how I feel after practicing yoga—and yet I still resist developing a regular practice!
8. women writers of all sorts (Barbara Kingsolver, Nancy Mairs)
9. memoirs, and the revelation through them that all ordinary people live through extraordinary circumstances
10. the post-Thanksgiving sandwich of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and a little bit of mayonnaise

"I can..."
1. type quickly, despite never learning the proper finger placements
2. play basic tunes on a variety of musical instruments, despite being a student of only piano, clarinet and voice
3. find metaphors for the realm of the spirit in every day living, and tune quickly from the practical to a sense of great truth
4. experience true lapses of self-confidence mingled with a sense that I have the potential to create world-changing effects
5. make conversation with academics in most any discipline—though some are harder than others
6. blog better or more faithfully than I can scrapbook
7. write and deliver a compelling message
8. do more physically than I often give myself credit for
9. easily spend a day with a fire in the fireplace and a book on my lap
10. let go of things more easily than people

"I loathe..."
1. racism, sexism, heterosexism—despite that I’m affected by it inside and out every day
2. cigarette smoke—particularly as it affects my possibly-asthmatic son
3. when negative stereotypes are reinforced by individual behaviors, and I have to work to unlearn them all over again
4. the division of religious communities over the question of who is welcomed through the doors
5. how sometimes I decide I don’t like people who I actually secretly admire and envy
6. war, and weapons turned on one another
7. abuse—of self, other, and the planet (again, despite that I’m often an unconscious or conscious participant)
8. how my resistance to forgiving often keeps ME from feeling free, though I imagine who I’m really chaining is my transgressor
9. pithy sayings designed to make sense or order out of events or moments that truly have no earthly sense or order
10. seeing my children in physical or emotional pain

"I hope..."
1. I’ll be able to come up with 100 things—eek, this is challenging!
2. I will vote for and see a woman president of the United States
3. one day to live in a truly peaceful, gentle day—but perhaps I should first start with an hour!
4. current efforts to save the planet will somehow bring about a new sense of unity and shared humanity
5. my father will find more experiences of pure joy than pure sadness
6. to see my grandparents again while they’re still living
7. to travel soon to the Pacific Northwest to visit our family there
8. to retire in a home that lets me see Otsego Lake every morning, noon and night
9. my dear partner will find that life actually has a calling for him, and that future work will hold true meaning
10. my children find one person in life who truly loves them in the way their parents love one another

"I am trying..."
1. to be more present
2. to breathe consciously for at least a moment each day
3. to give people the benefit of the doubt (hence, the name of the blog!)
4. to try more often to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m satisfied
5. to imagine the possibility that I might live a good, long life—and consider how I make today’s choices differently when I conceive of this as true
6. to eat more vegetables and fewer sweets
7. to skim the few magazines we receive as soon as they come through the door—quick recycling, fewer piles!
8. to feel my feet on the earth, and realize She is holding me up
9. to read, write and study more for love than requirement
10. to dwell in a place of love

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Typoes [sic]

God is a remarkably consistent teacher sometimes, I've found--and She's quite insistent that the lessons continue until the learning catches up. Sometimes this takes a long, long time....

Of late, I've seen how God has been nudging me about my perfectionism. I've been exploring some of the stories I tell myself of who I am--uncovering how the "who" of these stories is rarely the essence of me, but rather something I've concocted to stay afloat in the world. One such story is that I'm valuable and worthy because I'm competent. In and of itself, competence is not a bad thing. I am presently in a brand new position creating a brand new foundation for a mid-sized university. As a one-woman show reporting to the president and the board, my day to day survival in this role depends on my competence. But when my sense of self, rather than my continued employment, begins to depend on doing it all perfectly, I realize it's time to simply chill. Chilling is not something I do naturally, though. And this whole competence/perfectionism thing is a very, very old and finely-crafted habit.

I began to notice not long ago that every time I communicate with my president, my board, the vice presidents, and others I regard as somehow "positionally significant," I give an inordinate amount of time to crafting my message. It might be a simple, "Let's meet on Friday and discuss the following" email, but I review it extensively. I read it aloud, I occasionally call my husband or my board chair and ask for their reactions, I print it and read it--all before hitting send. And invariably, when I'm printing it later for filing, or happen to review my original message as I'm skimming through a reply, I see a typo. Nothing big--but a typo nevertheless. Maybe a stray "g" appears on the end of a word like appreciationg (this obviously happened in this past week!), or perhaps I misuse a tense or pluralize a singular word. Though the errors manage to avoid my glare in my pre-send scrutiny, they leap out at me in this post-send review. After seeing this happen with uncanny consistency, I decided God was speaking.

Yesterday I said, in essence, "I've learned the lesson--enough!" I took my usual time in sending my board and the president a post-meeting review via email. My chair and I discussed the attachments, I made changes while we were on the phone, and I went through my usual routine--make a call, seek an opinion, print it out, read it aloud. Finally, I hit send. As I shared a coffee with a good friend, I described how God has been teaching me, speculating that I would once again find a mysterious typo reminding me that perfection is simply not my business.

After our coffee I returned to my office and opened the email. Scrolling quickly through, there were no obvious errors. Was I off the hook? I sat back in my chair and read again, feeling a bit of relief. For curiosity's sake, I clicked on my attachments--titles looked right. But as I read a description of our most recent grants awarded, I quickly discovered I had attached not the changed, edited copy from my conversation with my chair--I had attached a draft with a hearty handful of typos.

Apparently I'm still learning!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Why benefit of the doubt?

When "Ecotistical" recently invited a small group of thoughtful, spiritual women to her home to discuss our pursuit of the sacred, our conversation quickly turned to the minor (but cumulatively significant) annoyances that keep us from feeling truly alive, present, joyful and generous. Whether a coworker who seems to have claimed "lashing out at the world" as an additional job responsibility, or the car that invariably cuts you off as you're pleasantly minding your business and following the rules of the road, it seems more often than not that the small stuff of daily living is what most keeps us from the holy.

We shared strategies and tips, and at moments it seemed that our women's spirituality group had shifted to a "coping with the workplace" workshop. The strategies are clever, though, and certainly made for entertaining story-telling. Ecotistical has developed a series of mantras that remind her to be calm and kind. She will intone over and over in her mind "BDBDBDBDBD" to remember to give people the benefit of the doubt--to give the coworker a pass, or allow the car to move forward without the customary New England blast of the horn. And though each of us is probably more naturally inclined to righteous indignation when we feel we've been wronged, we've also all had moments where the release of the indignation brought a far sweeter satisfaction.

Since our conversation I've remembered to sing my own "BDBDBDBDBD" as I'm driving in to work (or comparably, to follow my late mother's rule of responding to every horn with an act of road abundance--like unnecessarily letting out a car at an intersection, or stopping for a pedestrian who is trying to cross away from a crosswalk). There are days when I seem to truly resist the kindness required in giving the benefit of the doubt to the people around me. And as I curiously dig to discover just what that's all about, I almost always find some deep-rooted insecurity. I learn that the kindness I'm resisting toward another is often hardest to extend to myself.

Hmmmm.....perhaps those daily annoyances aren't detractions from the realm of the spirit after all. Perhaps they are opportunities of spirit, opening us to acceptance and love.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

This I Believe, Jennifer

I believe in bread--bread rising, bread baking, bread breaking and butter melting into all the cracks and crevices of a freshly cut warm loaf. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother baking bread....measuring, sifting, kneading and leaving dough to rise on the barely warm radiators, covered with dishtowels still kept in my own cupboard. She would bake for our meals, for friends, for inexpensive Christmas and birthday gifts, and even one year to help us raise money to buy my father a new navy blue bathing suit for Father's Day. Though bread for me and my family is now typically purchased--brown, dense and nutty rather than white and soft--there are some bread rituals each year that tie me back to her, and to the mothers and grandmothers before her.

Bread is not simply a family affair for me, but a spiritual act as well. I break bread with a community of family and friends after we together read a covenant of shared beliefs--beliefs in reconciliation, justice, and our shared responsibility in creating a better world. The words and the bread are intermingled for me, and I think of my church communities through the lens of the loaf--the Portuguese sweet bread of one church, the wheat pitas dipped in wine at the next. No matter the bread we break, or how distracted I am as I lift my piece toward my mouth, there is something in the silent chewing and savoring that brings me fully present. The idea of hereafter, heaven, the kingdom of God, or the ever-elusive peace I seek is for a moment no longer a concept but a reality, present in me, around me, and yes, even through me. I think of the movie "Places in the Heart," closing with a scene of that deeply divided community breaking bread with one another--the living side by side with the dead, black rubbing flesh with white, the murdered passing the plate to the murderer. So it is inside me--the contrary, divided aspects of my own nature for a moment transformed.

Bread....sustenance, symbol, sacred. Mindfully eating a single bite of bread might be my most radical spiritual act.