Sunday, April 29, 2007

The beginning of an affirmation

I've been journaling some in the mornings about my own theology. There's been a lot that's invited me to rethink what I believe and why I believe it. Most of the time my theology feels like an amusement park ride on which the floor shifts and shakes, and occasionally drops altogether, leaving me pinned to the wall behind me as I spin around at high speed. It changes. I realize now that may be the only thing that ever remains constant about it.

As I've journaled over the past few weeks, I've had a hard time finding a good place to start to describe what I affirm in a more structured way. There's not really anything external that's compelling me to do this, no ordination committee wanting to examine me, no seminary class I have to pass. I guess it's just a way of marking where I am at this point in my life. Whatever the reason, it seemed important to me to know where to begin. What is it that I affirm that forms the basis for the rest of my belief?

An idea hit me in the middle of the sermon today. I suppose with some effort I could figure out how this has something to do with the topic of the sermon, "Birth Control is Wonderful!," but maybe I'll just say it was a moment of inspiration that came from being in a sacred space with others pursuing spiritual things. Truthfully, there is likely a very clear connection to what I'm thinking and the message of today's sermon, but that will be a post for another day.

Here's the idea...

I affirm that there is something deep inside me that stubbornly listens for a life force that woos me to truly live.

What I like about this as a beginning point is that it starts with what I know. I want to think about it some more, but I think I would say it's where faith began for me very early in my life, an awareness or truth that I can trace back to the earliest memories I have of my life. There are many other things that I can easily affirm that naturally grow out of this one statement. But, the hard part for me now is in trying to decide whether or not I want to move toward traditional theological categories and my reconstructions of them, or if I want to attempt to articulate something different. I feel some resistance to the idea of using the traditional concepts, but in the end, I may just have to surrender to the idea that I grew up with them. The stories and ideas in which they are rooted are in my bones. At some point, I suspect, I won't be able to get around using them. At any rate, it's good to have a starting point. Maybe my morning writing will be a bit more productive now.

Don't worry. I'm not throwing away all of the Christian theological education in which I've been engaged for the past 15 or so years (yikes!). I can't throw it away, but for me to develop a theology spoken with my voice, I have to start somewhere other than where most of Christian history starts. I am not writing a theology to protect an institution. I am writing a theology that supports my life. At this point in my life, that's the only thing that makes sense to me.

So forgive me if this sounds self-indulgent, but I do intend to privilege my own voice for a bit. It just seems like an important thing to do right now.

I just wanted to point out that I took down an earlier version of this post because it felt "undone" to me. The great composition teacher, JM, once told me that writing a good essay is like building a hill or mountain on which you ultimately fly your Flag of Conclusion. I didn't want my Flag of Conclusion flying in a stinky pile of poop. You may not feel that I have done anything to improve the foundation for my flag and it may ultimately sink into the muck. I just want you to know that I'm consciously trying to apply the amazing compositional theory of the great JM. I do, however, think you'll find that my sentences are not in the least constipated. I've done a good job varying the length of them to help improve the flow.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Who's apartment is it?

JM and I were talking today and she mentioned that she'd gotten her cats a cool play tent at everyone's favorite store. I had to go to the store to get some things for the apartment, so I thought I'd treat PPBob to a new toy. I checked the pet aisle and found the tent JM was talking about. She loves it. I may not sleep tonight.

She's especially fond of running through the tunnel, which is attached to the side....

When I finally buy a dining room table, I have no idea where I'm going to put her stuff. I asked the catsitter if she thought my house was a little sparse (I have a bed, bookshelves, a small stereo, a glider rocker, and two bar stools for furniture). She said, "No. It just looks like you're an animal lover, especially fond of your cat."


I do need to buy furniture. It's impossible to have anyone over right now. There's nowhere for them to sit. I've been putting my money toward getting some debt paid off. I let that get out of control trying to keep AM happy, and now I'm paying for it, one of many stupid mistakes made over the past eight or nine years.

I have to admit, I started counting on the salary that would come with the new job, already planning for how it would help me get a new car within a year and buy furniture. I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but that is the most disappointing part about not getting the job. Money is far tighter than it should be on my salary. So unless I can find some way of making several thousand more a year than I am right now, car and furniture will not happen this year. I'm going to have to figure out how to keep my current car running for a good bit longer, and get creative with the furniture. And, I've got to quit beating myself up for being where I am with finances at my age. It is what is.

I think when I can get some money saved, I'm going to invite some friends to join me one Saturday and run around to used furniture stores, thrift stores, and garage sales and make it an adventure. I hate shopping and I'm terrible at home decorating, so maybe if I try to turn it into something fun, I'll end up with some things that have great stories behind them, even if it isn't what I would have bought had I gotten the new job.

Got par?

A friend sent me a link for a on-line putt-putt golf game. I actually managed to keep my playing to a minimum, but it's been a great way to take a break from cleaning and unpacking today. Here are my bests so far:
  • Best score: 29
  • Highest # of holes-in-one in a game: 10
  • Best score with cat's help: 34
Can you do better?

Spring cleaning and unpacking

The weather is beautiful here today, and I may slip out and go for a long walk later in the day. The main order of the day, though, is spring cleaning. Included in that is a plan to finish unpacking. One bedroom is full of boxes that have, in most cases, been opened so I could get something out of them, but are still mostly full, even though I've been here nearly eight months. I don't know why it's taken this long to decide I need to get it done, but today's the day.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A word of truth

I think my cat has taught me a valuable lesson here lately. Tonight when I got home from a long day, she climbed in my lap and snuggled with me. I didn't have to ask her to do that. There weren't any long dramatic arguments with her to explain to her my needs, like there were on a regular basis with AM. And, it's really even quite possible that my cat wanted the affection like I did. So, the moral of this story is: If a truth is simple enough that my cat gets it, then I should be able to expect a rationale, reasoning human being to get it without me having to beg and plead for understanding.

If you're tempted to offer me sympathy, don't. I really don't need it. I'm just realizing how skewed I let the truth get in order to keep peace with one person. God, I hope I never do that again!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How to have a day of retreat

A couple of people e-mailed me and asked what one does on a day of retreat. I can't speak for all folks who take a day or more of retreat and it varies for me depending on whether or not there's a specific focus of the retreat or if it's just a generic day to be quiet and listen, but here's what my day consisted of yesterday to give you an idea...
  • Arrived at the retreat center and met a couple of the nuns who help run the center. They exuded the kind of hospitality that Benedictines are known for. The center director showed me to my cabin for the day and acquainted me with the community's schedule so I could decide what, if any, of the activities I wanted to participate in.
  • I sat down at the desk in my cabin, opened the curtains over the window in front of the desk and found four deer grazing outside my window, so I watched them for a long while, and noticed several squirrels and birds moving about in the forest.
  • I journaled for as long as I could stand to sit....mostly just a free associative kind of writing in which I just write whatever comes to mind without any regard for grammar or useage or anything.
  • I went for a long walk in the woods, and at one point, sat down in a chair at a point which overlooks a lake. While I sat looking at the lake, an eagle flew into my view and circled high above. So, I watched it until it passed from view. I prayed some while I sat there, practicing a breath prayer I learned years ago.
  • I hiked some more, and found a turtle on the side of the trail that I stopped and stood still to watch for awhile. He poked his head out and slowly started extending his feet to walk away, but was oh-so slow in making any move at all.
  • I returned to my cabin to find a wonderful cat outside my door. I sat on the porch and petted her for awhile and then went to lunch. Had a wonderful vegetarian lunch with the community and enjoyed the chatter, then helped wash dishes. During lunch I met the community's spiritual director and arranged to meet with her after lunch.
  • When I went back to the cabin, the cat was waiting for me. She followed me and climbed in the comfy chair to watch me while I journaled some more. So sweet. I had to pick her up and take her out when I left for my spiritual direction though. She wasn't happy about that.
  • I spent a half-hour in spiritual direction with a fantastic director who listened attentively to me talk about my life and the struggle I've had with prayer. She asked some great questions, then offered a couple of exercises for me to try. She gave me an image to work with that was absolutely perfect. And then invited me to come back anytime and visit with her again. I will be doing that.
  • I went back to the cabin hoping the dark clouds would disappear soon so I could hike again, but since they didn't I sat at the desk to write some more and felt a powerful sleepiness take over, so I laid down and slept to the sound of the rain falling, and the thunder reverberating through the forest.
  • When I awoke, I watched the rain drip off of a leave outside my window for a long while, and decided I would try one of the prayer exercises for awhile, and a bit more. I hadn't set a particular time to leave, so I decided the rain would be my alarm. Once it ended, I checked out and headed home.
It was a great day. Nothing mysterious or magical about it, but just right to help me slow down and listen. I was able, as a result, to see some significant movement with all of the grief I've been dealing with. One of the exercises suggested to me is one that was recommended to me by a minister at my church, but I resisted it when she suggested it a few months ago. When I started planning it this time, I felt a readiness for it that I hadn't before. I think it will be a significant step for me, involving some private ritual and ultimately a more public one.

That's how I do retreat. Anyone else want to chime in and describe the kinds of things you do?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Tomorrow's news today

An announcement will be made at the seminary some time early tomorrow. I was not offered the job, and the other candidate has accepted. It's the right decision. I don't claim to understand all of the reasons why it is right, particularly why it is right for me, but I believe with all of my heart the right person was chosen. I trust that, in time, why it is right for me will become clearer.

I looked back over the list of things I knew in my soul the day before I started interviewing. Every one of them is as true today as it was three weeks ago. It feels pretty good to say that.

I am taking the day off from work tomorrow and heading out to a local monastery for a day of prayer and reflection. I have this deep sense that something is waiting to be born in my life. It's hard to explain. I don't know what it is, but I think I have some grasp of what I have to do to help it gestate and grow. My hope is that the time tomorrow will help it take greater shape and form, for me to see with a tad more clarity what awaits. My expectation, though, is simply to be faithful to do what I know works, whatever the outcome may be tomorrow or in the future.

Make no mistake, I have cried and felt the disappointment of not getting this job. I've had moments when I've been tempted to catastrophize and give this event far more weight than it deserves in my life. Yet, I have gone through this process from a position of hard-won health, and I can't even begin to describe the difference that makes. No single event in the past few months has proven to me with greater certainty that the changes I've experienced this past year are real and for good. I'm not the same person. Not by a long shot. That's something to celebrate!

A no-cleavage, no-nudity post

People are clamoring for cleavage and nudity here. Gosh, you'd think this was Jo(e)'s blog or something. At the Brick Wall, there are standards of decency!

I fear I set unrealistic expectations with my comments about there being cleavage issues, but really it's not so interesting. We just had to deal with a bunch of teenage women parading through the hotel lobby with far too little of their evening wear actually covering their cleavage. PPB was appropriately dressed the whole time I was there. I promise. And while I might have had a bit of a cleavage issue with the shirt I wore on Thursday, she wasn't there to witness it, so it's not verifiable.

Sorry to disappoint.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Another photo

For Jo(e), who thinks the shoe photo was lacking.

This the view from my hotel room window. If you look just past the white-domed roof in the center of the picture you can see a hint of Lake Ontario. We were in a marvelous hotel, and the view was fantastic.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Airport blogging

I'm in the Denver airport, drinking a beer, waiting for my cheeseburger to come. I have no idea what I was thinking when I made my flight arrangements for this trip. I've gone about 800 miles, and 2 hours (or 5.5 if you include the 3.5 hour layover I have here in Denver) out of my way. No, Denver is not on the way from Toronto to my home. Hardly.

I should be grading the stack of papers I brought with me, but where's the fun in that? Usually, planes and aiports are places where I can get a lot of work done. I don't seem to be so lucky today. I just want to get home to my bed, my cat, my sunporch, the park, the church. I believe in my old age I've become a homebody.

It was good to see PPB. We had the evening off yesterday, so we ventured out and found honest-to-goodness Chinese food. Then we sat in the hotel lobby and talked about everything under the sun while we repressed our maternal instincts to jump up and cover all of the very young girls who paraded through in toilet paper evening dresses. It was great to visit with PPB on an occasion when I was actually coherent and capable of normal adult conversation. The first time I met her was this time last year, not exactly my finest hour. She looks fabulous. No fashion crises during her time in Toronto to my knowledge.

I'll have a day at home tomorrow, and then I return to the office, where I will try to regroup and refocus after the events of the past few weeks. An announcement about the results of the job search will be made this week. I found out the final result while I was in Toronto. As soon as it is officially announced, I will post some thoughts here. If I start now, how far away do you think I can get before it's announced? I'm already in Denver. Maybe I could just stay.

Happy Saturday from the Mile High City. It's amazing to think in the past month I've seen Yosemite, the Pacific Ocean, Lake Ontario, and the Rocky Mountains. That's some big nature, folks!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Who's who?

Well, PPB finally got to Toronto today! I walked into the plenary session this afternoon intent on finding someone from the earlier breakout session so I could ask her a question when PPB walked up to me. I swear I looked at her for like five minutes before I recognized her. Sheesh. And she was afraid she wouldn't recognize me, what with the weight loss and all. It's not that I didn't recognize her. It's just that she wasn't who I was looking for at that exact moment. Really, I can be dense. It's okay.

So, anyway, we listened to this school president pontificate talk about how he saved his institution from bankruptcy and how he turned to some woman on staff there to ask her what she thought needed to be fixed and she made him a long list that he carried around with him and whenever he needed to know what was going on at the place, he asked her, and I wondered, "Why didn't they just make her the president?" After I had that thought, I didn't really hear anything else he said. PPB seemed to pay closer attention. She's a better conference person than I am, I guess. But, I digress.

While PPB and I were in the middle of the plenary, she discovered that we have the same shoes, and after she pointed it out to me and we checked to see that they were indeed the same brand, she turned to me and said, "There's our blog photo." The only camera we had before we headed off to change into more comfortable clothes and for me to put on my Birkenstocks (no, it's not too early for them!) was my cellphone. So, here you have a crappy cellphone photo of our matching shoes.

Can you guess which foot/shoe belongs to whom?

And for those who are wondering, there were indeed cleavage issues here tonight.

But they weren't PPB's this time.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Passport and an earlier post

I am the proud possessor of a shiny new passport. Someday when I have the time to scan the pictures, I'll show you how very little I've changed since my first passport was issued in 1985. Looks like I'm headed to Toronto in the morning! I'm excited about that. I've never actually been to Canada before.

A post about the new job that I made earlier in the day today was taken down. It occurred to me that it might not be wise to have the info out in a semi-public way, even though I'm still technically pseudonymous. I'll post about it when it's a more appropriate time to have it where random people can find it.

Good news!

No, not that! I haven't been to work yet. I don't know anything about the job. Stay tuned....

But I am very happy to report that the foxes were playing along the river bank this morning. In the cool morning air, while it was still dark, I walked up to their area of the river and saw four of the babies and the female on the path. The female crossed the path directly in front of me and walked away from the river. Her babies were on the other side. She circled around me, never taking her eyes off the cubs as she did. I was within just two or three feet of them. It was so cool!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Out my window this morning

I was laying in bed answering an e-mail this morning when I noticed the cat was staring intently out the window. It took me awhile to see that she was focused on something. I think it had something to do with the line "Next we're going to ask you to be our pregnancy surrogate" from the end of the e-mail to which I was replying that had my attention. When I finally looked up, I saw that the cat was watching a pair of large, round birds which I hadn't seen before. I don't know what kind they are, but they had beautiful tail feathers. PPBob yelled at me when I moved up to the window to get a picture and they flew away. Maybe they'll come back tomorrow.

On a sad note, it appears the foxes are gone. I've been down to the river the last two evenings and didn't see them. They weren't there when I went for a run this morning either. I hope they're safe.

The interview committee is meeting from 9:00 to 10:30 this morning to give the dean and the exec vp input on hiring for the new position. They are hopeful they'll have a decision tomorrow. Though I want the job, I'm still fine with whatever they decide. I'm just ready to know.

I'm working at home today, which, of course, means I'll have periods of productivity interspersed throughout games of fetch with the cat, staring out the window with the cat, projects in the kitchen, and quite possibly a nap. It's a rough life.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Waking up

I got up this morning possessed by no greater motivation than the need to get my clothes dry cleaned before Monday. I had to have them in by 9:00 a.m. I rolled out of bed, pulled on some dirty jeans and a t-shirt, brushed my teeth, and seeing that the hairbrush would do no good, I put on a ball cap to keep my fly away hair covered. I looked like Saturday morning with nothing to do. I arrived at 8:59, breathless, arms filled with my clothes.

It's been a hard week. Everyone else around me knew that long before I did. I played tough, wearing the "counselor face," as one person suggested. I'm not really sure why, except that the situation called for professionalism, and I didn't quite know how to just let my stress be and still be professional. Perhaps it would have been good to let down outside of work. Instead, I stayed close to home, ate poorly, and let my normally hyper self-evaluative self work unchallenged. By the time I got home from work yesterday, I was exhausted.

The past few days have begun with the temptation to stay in bed. The evenings have been temptations to isolate. I've gotten up late every morning, and I've done a lousy job of getting out and doing things I know will help. This morning on my way home from the dry cleaners I stopped for coffee and a muffin. I found a gentleman I'd met at a small group meeting a little over a week ago having his breakfast in the bakery as well. Though I'd planned to get mine to go, he invited me to join him, so I placed my order, got my coffee and sat down at the table with him.

I know his first name, not his last. I sat in a group from church with him for an hour and a half, an uncomfortable hour and a half at that, one in which I found myself simultaneously annoyed by a few members of the group and deeply moved by others. He was new and spoke hesitantly at first, but as he felt himself heard, began to speak more confidently. His hair and beard are white, his voice soft and melodic, his eyes searching and bright. I instantly felt a connection with him, but our paths had not crossed since. I was delighted to see him.

As he broke his croissant to eat it, he described what he does everyday to combat the loneliness and frustration of being retired and alone. He gets up and gets out, meets friends for coffee, runs errands, goes for a walk, anything to get himself out the door every morning as if he is going to work. With tears in his eyes, he said, "I want to live. These things help me live. I have to make the choice to do them everyday."

He had no idea the struggle it was to get out of bed this morning. We had been talking for no more than two minutes when he said it. He had no way of knowing that I'm stressed and tempted to fall into old habits. He was simply telling his own story. And I needed to hear it.

This is the sort of thing that happens so often now. I meet people I don't really know and there's this sense of comfort sharing from the heart, not just talking about ideas or events, but talking about life's lessons and the hunger to live. Sometimes I look for it, but more often than not, these conversations just find me, and often in the moments when I need them most. I asked a friend if this was a typical experience in our church, trying, as I often do, to find an explanation, to understand how it works. Her reply was simple, "It's both ordinary and extraordinary. The extraordinary part is that you are awake to it."

I've been asleep for a really long time. Being awake is a new experience, sometimes delightful, sometimes frightening and painful. Like a child who's afraid of missing something when the house is still alive and she's been sent to bed for the night, I fight the sleepy darkness that sometimes woos me, tempting me to give up, to believe that all this hard work is for nothing, that being numb is better. I will fight it, though. Like the gentleman I met at breakfast, I want to live.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Insanity is....

...listening to a two-minute segment of the first Allegro movement of Vivaldi's Spring from the Four Seasons.
Over and over again.
For 1.5 hours and counting.
While on hold with the Department of State.
Waiting to find out when I can expect to get my passport.

And then accidentally hanging up while still on hold! Ack!

What's on my mind

Busy! Making a list so I know what to come back to (or not) at some point...
  • I really need for my passport to come. I applied for it 8 weeks ago. It hasn't come yet, and I leave for a conference in Canada a week from tomorrow, where I will see PPB. I will be very disappointed if I don't to go, but I have to admit, there would be some pluses to not going.
  • I'm still taken with the appearance of the fox family. It's been the impetus for a lot of reflection on my part.
  • I am still planning to finish writing part three of the Tale of Two Places series of posts. Just haven't had time to get it done.
  • I had three weeks to read and comment on papers for my class. Did I get it done? No, I did not. Now I have to read three week's worth of reflection papers before next Tuesday. Why do I do this to myself?
  • JM sent me a brownie recipe that looks outstanding. Perhaps I'll have to give it a try soon. I'm really out of practice with the baking.
  • Have I mentioned lately that life is just damn good? No? Well, let me say it then: Life is good!

Monday, April 09, 2007

A request

A colleague of mine, Gary, and his wife, Cheri, are adopting a baby from Guatemala. Eliana Elizabeth was born in September. Cheri has been living in Antigua since December, providing Eliana's foster care while the adoption process is completed. Shortly after Cheri arrived in Antigua, Eliana's case was kicked out of the normal process because of a problem with the official documents needed to finalize the adoption. You can get the details from their blog, Sunflowers and Lady Bugs. Eliana and her family are not the only ones in this situation. Recently, a bid was made to submit a court petition on behalf of several families together in hopes that they might get a quicker response to the situation. Last week, a decision was made to drop the group petition, and work on each case individually, the "slow train" approach as they called it. This means that the earliest Eliana would come home is three to five months.

Gary and Cheri have set up a new regular blog post showing the pictures of and info on children in Guatemala who have run into difficulties completing the adoption process. It will be a regular weekly feature on the blog. Every Friday, Cheri will post about the Previo Prayer Babies. I am asking you to show your support by doing two things for these families waiting for the day when they can bring their children back to their homes. One, if you are moved by their story and are willing, please commit to pray for them on a regular basis. Two, leave a comment on the Previo Prayer Babies post letting them know of your support and commitment. I admit to not really knowing how prayer works, but have witnessed enough of the difference it can make simply in supporting those in difficult situations. The commitment of others to be with them in this way will make a difference. I hope you will join me in praying for these children and their families.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


I recently found myself growing uncomfortable with a debate about salvation, in which the thrust of the conversation was on whether or not it's even necessary to discuss it as a theological concept. Some who admitted not really getting what the hype about salvation is acknowledged how the concept is sort of lost on them because it carries a lot of baggage from the Bible-belt culture in which we live. I understand that. The same is true for me, and if pressed to talk about the issue a year ago, back when I was really beginning to think that my commitment to organized religion was coming to an end, I would have agreed heartily.

Something has changed for me in the past few months, though. I'm not really any more interested in talking about theories of atonement or anything like that than I was last year. But, I honestly don't think I've ever believed more firmly and unswervingly in salvation. I've experienced it. I experience it everyday, when I go for a run, or write in my journal, or take time to watch baby fox play on the river bank, or have friends speak the truth to me, even when I don't want to hear it, or reach out to someone in need. I am saved everyday by the company I keep and by the choices I make. So, my discomfort was with the determination to keep salvation as a logical concept, one that's understood only with the head, and not through the lens of experience. I acknowledge my lack of patience with heady discussions these days. I'm just deeply aware of how involved I've been in them in the past while life slowly slipped away from me. They have a purpose, I know. I'm just not sure what it is right now.

I feel the same way about resurrection. In the faith of my childhood, the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ was a critical point of faith. But in all my efforts to make sense of that, I watched life slowly fade from my view. I believe in resurrection, now, but it's the kind I experience in this life, the kind that comes from facing grief and finding that it doesn't have the final answer in my life. It will not consume me.

Last year, I felt the bitterness and anxiety of Good Friday. This year, I'm seeing new life emerge. That's resurrection. I don't need to know any more to have faith.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

While looking for a recipe....

I leafed through a cookbook my mom gave me several months ago. I'm looking for a good brownie recipe to use for tomorrow. The cookbook she gave me is a collection of recipes from members of her church in small town southwest Missouri. Some of the best cookbooks I've found are ones from churches. Some observations from my look at this cookbook...
  • There are five recipes for green bean casserole. They're nearly identical, and none of them has any variation from the Campbell's cream of mushroom can recipe.
  • There's a recipe for something called Korean Tempera. Are they aware that "tempera" is paint? That doesn't sound very appetizing....
  • My mom has an original recipe in it, one that I have to call her for everytime I want to make it, because I never remember where I write it down. Maybe that's why she gave me the cookbook.
  • In the front of the cookbook is a page entitled "ABC's of Becoming a Christian." Admit, Believe, and Confess. There you have it, folks. Simple as pie. I wondered why they put that in there. I thought maybe it's because food tastes better when a "Christian" makes it. But then I saw the recipe for Died and Gone to Heaven Peach Pie. The ABC's must be there to make sure your pie sends folks to the right place. Or maybe they're there to help those who eat the So Sinful Southern Coconut Cake.
  • There is a good brownie recipe in it. By good I mean one that doesn't require ingredients I don't already have at home.
Stop by tomorrow. Brownies for everyone....

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday confession

Is it okay if I admit to you that I don't really know what to do with the cross? It's there and it's part of the Christian tradition. I've been shaped by it my whole life, but I find a reason to leave the room mentally whenever it comes up. I think a large part of my problem is that I want to engage it with my head, to look at it from a variety of theological viewpoints and find what makes sense to me. I've been trained to do that, and you know, I'm really good at engaging things with my head.

Interestingly, I've come to realize over the past few months that I treat my own grief in exactly the same way. I turn to the models I know from the books I've read to help me as a chaplain and pastoral counselor. I want to theorize about my grief, because if I'm talking about grief, I'm dealing with it, right? Not right. I theorize about it because it's a hell of a lot better than feeling it.

Maybe that's my problem with the cross. Maybe I want to theologize and pontificate about theories of atonement and that kind of thing because to engage it with my heart, to allow myself to feel the story, to let it wash over me, is to leave myself open to the story of our collective grief and sorrow. It is a story that is meant to be felt in the deepest parts of my soul, but to do so is to leave myself open and vulnerable.

It's no secret that the past year has been about grieving. I made the mistake of trying to put it on a time table and assumed if I could get through a list of particular tasks by the first anniversary of my leaving, that I would be ready to move on from grief and get on to the business of living. This is, of course, a ridiculous perspective and anyone with the training I have ought to know better, but I am as human as anyone else. I don't like feeling pain, so I compartmentalize it and externalize it and leave it another room as often as I can because to allow it to be a part of me, to integrate it into the whole of my being is hard work. It's painful.

This week while looking for a Denise Levertov poem, I came across another poem of hers that I'd never seen. It represents very well what I am trying to do with grief, and on this Good Friday morning, what I'm trying to do with the cross....

Talking to Grief
by Denise Levertov

Ah, grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don't know you've been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to ward off intruders,
to consider
my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A holy moment

I left my house this morning for my usual run. It's cold here today, well colder than it has been, and my legs felt tight, so I thought, "I'll walk. No, I'll saunter this morning." The first thing I noticed is that the sky was that gorgeous color of blue when the sun's light first appears. Then I saw the nearly full moon. As I continued down the path, I saw that the river is very full right now. Normally, our river is a small trickle in an otherwise large and wide bed of sand. Right now it is a river. Then I heard a rustling noise in the brush along the river bank. Since it is not uncommon for people to sleep along that part of the river, I didn't bother to look at what was moving around. I kept sauntering. But on the way back, I heard it again and noticed there was a clearing in the brush wide enough to look down to the river bank. There is a ditch that leads down to the river at that point, and along the side of the ditch is a hole. I saw something moving just outside the hole. Very quickly I realized the movement was from a couple of baby foxes. The fox I saw on Sunday has a den along the river. I saw her run by in the background. She has at least three babies, maybe four, quite possibly five. I knelt and watched them play for a long time this morning. Two of the babies even ran up the river bank and stared at me for awhile.

And right there, as I watched those foxes play, I cried. They are so beautiful....

Don't you all want to visit me here? Come on over. I live in the smallish sort of southern, sort of midwestern city, by the river, just two minutes from downtown, and about a half mile from the fox den. I'll leave the light on.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Tomorrow and Thursday, I will be interviewing. I have never interviewed for a job for 16 hours before. I have never been the internal candidate in a job search before. There will be many new experiences. Here's what I know deep in my soul...
  • I love where I live. I won't be leaving anytime soon.
  • Whatever happens in this interview/search process, I already have a job. I won't be losing it.
  • I can refuse the job if it's offered to me. After 16 hours of interviews, I may decide it's not the right job for me. That's very empowering.
  • I am good at what I do. That doesn't mean it is necessarily the right "vocation" for me. I have finally figured out that what I need to explore more fully to free myself more is what my vocation is in relationship to the world, not to a particular occupation or job or even institution. I am called to be a minister. I'm ready to claim that. Now, I need to figure out how that particular vocation will clothe me, what it will look like as it takes shape in my unique form and character.
  • Whatever happens tomorrow, I have friends who love me and care about me and couldn't care less whether I get this job or not. That gives me a far greater sense of who I am than any job I could ever get.
  • I am going to be focused and articulate and do the best I can the next two days. I will answer from my gut as much as possible, not just my head, and in doing so, I'll know if I don't get the job, it wasn't meant to be.
  • I may be sad if I don't get it, but I'll be okay.
These are awfully good things to know going into an interview. I may well be one of the luckiest people I know.

PPBob: The cat-hater

Further proof that my cat is really a dog.... She doesn't like her own kind. She went to the vet for a follow-up visit today. I just got a call from a very apologetic vet. PPBob refused to come out of her carrier for her, and pooped in rather grand fashion. She was able to get her out to clean her up, but didn't want to stress her anymore trying to get her to pee. Apparently being left in the cat quarters of the vet's clinic freaked her out.

I guess she'll be an only cat....

Monday, April 02, 2007

A tale of two places, maybe three: Part II, Mt. Tamalpais

Julie and I returned to San Jose after two nights in Yosemite. The fact that I am an introvert came home to her very quickly on the drive back. Remember how she didn't sleep because of the mouse, turned wind, turned bear? Yeah, well the next day is when she had to drive home. She talked for awhile to keep herself awake, but when she ran out of stories to tell, the pressure was on me. I'd already pretty well talked myself out on the drive to Yosemite, while we were in the cabin, and when we hiked, so I couldn't think of a thing to say. "Uh, uh, uh," works for awhile, but we weren't even halfway home when the baton was handed to me and I dropped it. Fortunately, we arrived at Casa de Fruta (better known as Casa de Everything) just in time to fill her up with Casa de Coffee and get us home safely.

Since my Half Dome hike years ago, I have a primal association of Yosemite with hamburgers, French fries, and milkshakes. Not just any burgers, fries, and shakes. Only the finest from In-N-Out Burger, a formerly Southern California institution that has thankfully made its way north. There was one close to Julie's place, so she obliged my craving and we feasted. Please understand, I don't normaly eat like this. In fact, there was nothing normal about the way I ate on vacation. It was vacation, afterall, and it's simply not possible for me to return to the Bay Area without letting my taste buds lead me around a bit. Just wait until I tell you about the amazing Cuban food I had the night before I left. Wha!


[Part I, Yosemite is here]

The day after our return, I drove up to Marin County to meet a friend for lunch. I left early enough to hike on Mt. Tamalpais for awhile before lunch. I also took some time to explore some of the places I frequented. My Flickr set has a picture of the church where I was pastor before leaving California. I also drove through some of the places where I lived.

On the drive up from San Jose, a light rain began to fall. I drove from partly cloudy skies into the fog that enveloped San Francisco and the North Bay. I could not have ordered a better day. The fog is such a distinctive characteristic of the landscape, it would not have seemed right to be there without it. In spite of the fog, it remained warm, in the upper 50s, lower 60s while I was there. Perfect weather for hiking.

Timing is everything, and the sequence of my visit to Yosemite followed by my visit to Mt. Tam brought the new awareness of the role place plays in my spiritual journey into clearer focus for me. I drove up the familiar tree-lined street to the small parking lot at the edge of a park below the dam for Phoenix Lake. As I stepped out of the car, I could hear a turkey calling. The sound of rain hitting the leaves of the trees that form a canopy over the park welcomed me home.

The Phoenix Lake trailhead was a five-minute bike ride from my condo in Larkspur. Three or four times a week, I would get on my bike after work and head over to the trails to run, and later, after my feet and knees sustained too much wear and tear from running down steep hills, to hike or ride my bike. On weekends, I would often take longer hikes up the steeper slopes of Mt. Tam. So familiar are its trails, I can return to the place in my imagination with little effort.

Mt. Tam is my spiritual home. It is a place so familiar and important in the narrative of my life that walking its trails is like tracing the well-worn creases in the face of a much beloved grandparent. The ground knows the tread of my feet. It is a place where I am known completely, where nothing is hidden. As I've caressed the face of the mountain, I've leaned in close to whisper my deepest secrets to her. She knows my deepest longings, my hopes for life. She's been the first to hear a hundred sermons, offering her critique in the wind that blew or in the song of the red-wing blackbirds who flew above the lake. She was the first to know of my growing understanding and acceptance of my sexuality. She holds the secrets I dared not share with another person deep in the belly of her soul. Her creeks run with my tears, carrying them with those of a thousand others far away into the ocean that waits on the other side of the mountain, and her canyons echo with my laughter.

On her trails, I worked out my response to the theology of my youth, learning to reject it, without rejecting faith in the process. The mountain witnessed to me of a God who stands in stark contrast to the God of which I learned in church as a child. No God who condemns would ever embrace me as warmly as that mountain did. She was a mediator of grace. Out of her flowed the love and acceptance I needed to experience to know that I was okay, and in her midst freedom's fledgling wings first took flight in my soul.

I walked up the hill to the lake, and around to the fire road that runs to another lake farther up the mountain. The lemony sweet scent of the scotch broom that takes over the hillsides in spring refreshed me like a cool glass of lemonade on a hot summer day. The rain picked up and in little time, it had soaked through the hood on my jacket. I brushed it back, choosing to the let the rain baptize me in the newness of spring.

My memory carried me to the unmarked trailhead that sneaks off the fire road. Within seconds, I was in a world by myself. My memory filled with all that's happened since I moved away 9 years ago. The flood of stories came to my mind like the hurried chatter of friends long separated. I wanted to bring those stories to this place, to write them on the heart of the mountain. With each step, I recounted significant events of the past 9 years.

As I hiked, I took in the familiar scenery around me. I thought of all the many ways in which I had seen that trail. Mt. Tam wears her moods openly. She is not afraid to let the fog envelope her, to hold her in a shadowy embrace, and when the sun breaks through, her smile brightens the darkest corners of her forests. She taught me to love the seasons of my life. I learned not to fear my tears. I learned that anger could be my ally. I learned that even in those times when sadness turned me inward and narrowed my view, there was still much to be seen and heard and understood, that even the greyness of such times was a gift, a way of preparing me for what would come next.

I walked on up the Hidden Meadow trail, enjoying what felt like a joyous homecoming. The pull of a place where I am known, and yet accepted for who I am now, is what gives me the sense that Tam is my spiritual home. No other place knows me so intimately. I could return to her, and know that who I am today is celebrated, that each rock on which I sat, each tree to which I spoke, each canyon into which I laughed for years when I lived there knows my voice and locks me in a warm embrace. It is a place to which I can return again and again and know that who I am each time is rooted in the person I became when I walked there so frequently.

Mt. Tam assures me of a God so close I know I'm never alone. In contrast to the fierceness and strength of God I encounter in Yosemite, I feel the warmth of a nurturing God on Tam. After hiking Yosemite's majestic Valley, Tam felt small to me. It was close and intimate, much more easily known. Any sense of alienation from God and from myself that I felt in the vastness of Yosemite was quickly erased in the intimate aquaintance of Mt. Tam. Yosemite has a sense of danger to it. Mt. Tam feels safe.

After all that has happened in the past few years, I needed to see who I was in a place that knew me long ago. My own family does not celebrate the person I am today. Many of the friends I held dear for years have long ago distanced themselves from me. I cling to this place because it is what helps me feel rooted. It gives me a deep sense of home.

Crazy like a fox

I saw a fox in the park when I drove to church yesterday. He was running scared through the open field, trying to cross the street. It was 11:oo in the morning, broad daylight. He looked scared.

Have I mentioned that I live just two minutes from downtown?

I love living here.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

A tale of two places, maybe three: Part I, Yosemite

The contrast of hiking two different places on my trip to California helped me understand something new about my relationship to landscape. The role of place in the narrative of my life is key to understanding who I am. The places I visited are largely familiar to me, some more than others, and what I realized as I walked their paths and took in the beauty of the world around me is that I meet God in different ways in each of them.

I'm going to do a series of posts which reflect on this new awareness. The first two will be about places I visited on vacation. The third will be on another place, one that wasn't visited, but which I'm now seeing differently because of what I learned while on this trip.

Part I: Yosemite

It's really quite hard to write about the beauty of Yosemite. I take comfort in knowing John Muir, naturalist, writer and champion of Yosemite, resisted writing about it himself. It was years after he lived there and walked its paths daily before he ever put into words what he saw and experienced. In an article he wrote (Our National Parks, Chapter 3: "The Yosemite"), he said,
But to get all this into words is a hopeless task. The leanest sketch
of each feature would need a whole chapter. Nor would any amount of
space, however industriously scribbled, be of much avail. To defrauded
town toilers, parks in magazine articles are like pictures of bread to
the hungry. I can write only hints to incite good wanderers to come to
the feast.*
I write about it for myself in my journal and doing so records the pictures in my mind's eye of the places I saw, the particular feelings evoked, the sense of breathless awe upon seeing nature in its grandest, most magnificent fashion. It is not, I think, that Yosemite is more beautiful or more worthy of praise than any other place in which natural beauty is allowed its fullest display. It is, I think, that the sheer size of its features speaks to me in a louder voice, with words that transcend my vocabulary. Again, Muir says it so well in his own journal (John of the Mountains, 47): "God's glory is over all His works, written upon every field and sky, but here it is in larger letters—magnificent capitals."

Magnificent capitals indeed! When you think of mountains or valleys or waterfalls and trees, to picture how they appear in Yosemite means to see MOUNTAINS, VALLEYS, WATERFALLS, and TREES. And, still such description fails to convey the majesty of the place. It must be seen, experienced up close and in person. You have to know what it's like to feel the mist at the bottom of a waterfall completely soak you in fine, tiny dots of moisture, to hear the roar of its water and know how deafening its sound can be. You have to experience the powerful smell of cedar and pine which cleans the air and invites you to breathe deep, to fill your lungs with its freshness. You have to have your breath taken away upon first glance of the Valley, to take in the forceful effect of a glacier as it slowly inches forward, carving through the granite landscape that once existed there. You have to know what it's like to be intimidated by the size of a rock, and then find that one slow step at a time can bring you to its highest peak.

As we hiked (or sauntered, as Julie pointed out and writes about here) around Mirror Lake in Yosemite, we were in the shadow of Half Dome. Years ago, I hiked the 16+-mile roundtrip trail to the top of Half Dome, the last 600 feet of which is at a 45% grade up a sheer granite face. It is one of the most physically challenging things I've ever done. As we hiked last week, I kept looking up at the mountain, amazed that I'd ever made it to the top. Everything in Yosemite inspires awe, and Half Dome's particular awe for me is the feeling I get when I close my eyes and picture the world I looked out upon from the top of the dome. When I've written about it in the past, this is what I said,
As I came to the last cable rung and saw that one step up would put me on flat ground, I reached with every ounce of energy I had left to hoist myself to the top. A few steps forward brought me to the rock's edge and the most spectacular view I've ever seen. I couldn't breathe. When I looked up, I saw nothing but sky and clouds and solitary birds circling in the wind. The sky was bluer and the clouds closer than any I'd ever seen. When I looked out, I saw the vastness of the Yosemite Valley stretching for miles in front of and around me. Trees and rocks blurred together, creating a view much like an impressionist painting. Though surrounded by friends, I felt completely alone, invisible, humbled. I found conversation impossible, so I walked to a place where I could sit alone for a few minutes. I contemplated the landscape and felt myself slowly disappear, swallowed up in a place bigger than me, a place so enormous that it was scarcely aware of my presence.
The God I encounter when I am in that place is unfamiliar, almost distant, a God of fierceness and strength. Looking upon the face of God in that place, I would quickly look down, hide my face and shrink. I used to fear that God, concerned that I would be overtaken, but what I failed for the early part of my life to realize is that connecting with the fierceness and strength of God is necessary for learning about myself. That God seemed distant and unapproachable because I fear my own strength.

On a summer day years ago, I set out to reach the top of that mountain, not really certain I could do it. Much of it physical, a lot of it mental, I dug deep for strength to walk, strength to overcome fears, strength to endure and I made it to the top. I dared to encounter the fierce and strong God, and came out of it aware that I, too, am fierce and strong. My fear of being overwhelmed by God was really a fear of those very qualities in myself. Like Moses, I saw that face of God and lived. Like Moses, I saw what I feared most in myself and lived.

[to be continued]

* I am indebted to Julie for the Muir quotes. She is a quote machine. I have read a bit of his writing, but not nearly to the extent that I can pull these gems out. Instead, these are things Julie has brought up as we've talked about our experience in Yosemite, things she knows well from working on her kick-ass thesis. You are working on it, aren't you, Julie? ;-)