the wreckage

Lately I have been astonished that any of us can carry on a civil, or really any, conversation with another person. It seems to me that everyone I know is not only fighting a hard battle but everyone is carrying a heavy burden that takes up just about all our willpower and imagination.

Even on a good day, when I have a window open in my own mind, what I see around me are friends and family walking around the wreckage of what we used to imagine life would be. One friend is consumed by and about cancer. Another by and about divorce. A third is caught up in fears for the children. Then there is the one who everyday faces a void. All those whose parent is lost in the world of dementia. This is just in the neighborhood, not in the big ol’ world. Now. Here. Not world history. So how can it be, and it is, that we actually meet each other and see around or through that burden/battle, to find a kind face, which is sometimes our face, and it tumbles around like a kaleidoscope and beauty breaks through?

I am reading a collection of essays by the late pastor Eugene Peterson. Peterson is remembered as a pastor for pastors. He is already, just weeks after his death, missed by many of us. In one of his essays he comments on this “general environment of wreckage” and has this to say. Somehow I find it comforting.

“We believe that God is not a spectator in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history but a participant in it. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage, is material that God is using to make a praising life. We believe this but we don’t see it…What we see are bones. Dry bones.”

When I read this I remembered my recent trip to visit a dear friend in the scorched hills of California. We took a day trip to the see the redwoods. Tall beyond tall. Wide beyond wide. Some blackened by recent and long ago fires. us in redwoods

Most still standing. Some with wide caves we could walk into and wonder what reason there might be to walk out; the smell of earth and wood were intoxicating. Then we left the tall trees and traveled down the road to something that turned my mind inside out.

More redwood but these trees, millions, yes millions, of years ago, uprooted, felled,  wrecked, wrenched from the earth. Tossed about like everyone I know feels tossed about. Time, the kind of time I cannot really imagine, passing over and through these magnificent and very dry bone trees. The trees had been transformed – petrified and transfigured -transformed from the inside out, from wood to rock. petrified rock

Knock knock on what still looked like wood and we found rock. Beautiful forms, with those circles of life, water no longer racing through their veins and yet still powerfully “alive” in their millions of years new form. Wrecked and shockingly present. I could hardly believe, but I saw, and I was called to praise this life.

Now when I walk through the forest of my own life and I meet up with fellow trees, walking on two feet, consumed by our sorrows and our present forces of change, I consider the standing redwoods who even just a few years ago were so terribly burned in fire and now sprout life. And I remember the petrified forest. I look to my friends and family and the big ol’ world and I am shocked that we can, and do, continue, communicate, love, hope, and are willing to keep our imaginations fresh. Who knows what God is doing now, among us?

my mom

We are coming in close to November. All Saints. All Souls. My birthday. My mom’s birthday. Her death day. Thanksgiving. Likely snow upon snow. Memory and hope and gratitude and continued sadness that my mom is not over there in Chicopee, our home town, waiting for me to come take her shopping. I have no clear picture of where she is but here is a sweet picture of who she was. It must suffice. mom

On the day that my mom died, Dorrie’s elder sister Diane died as well. We went, in a flash, from one grief to another, and by the end of that day we were awash in tears of gratitude and longing. A profound sense of sudden incompleteness that over the years has continued to accompany both of us. Maybe this is what is behind our religious vision of being reunited some day; putting  together what has come asunder.

A few days later, maybe even just one day later, we were talking with a dear clergy colleague, telling him about our double loss of mom and sister. I think in fact this conversation happened at a community Thanksgiving dinner at my church. How  odd it is that in grief and age we forget some details. My friend heard our words and saw our faces and received our loss with grace. And then he said something that I will never forget. He said “This is not the end. More loss will come.”

The educator Parker Palmer has recently written a book called “On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old.” From the ripe and worn age of 80, Palmer writes about the losses and the grace of living long enough to be considered old. In one essay he talked about contemplation as a life long spiritual practice of seeing and letting go. “If contemplation is about penetrating illusion and touching reality, why do we commiserate with others when they tell us about an experience that’s “disillusioned” them? “Oh, I’m so sorry,” we’ll say. “Please let me comfort you.” Surely it would be better to say “Congratulations! You’ve lost another illusion, which takes you a step closer to the solid ground of reality. Please let me help disillusion you even further.”

I think that is what my friend was doing. Bringing us a step further into the ground of reality which is the truth that this was not our final chapter in love and loss.

Here is the thing. Even in the moment of hearing him utter those hard words we both felt seen and heard. He embraced us and our condition without a soft and cozy blanket of comfort but with something, as Palmer says, that was more solid and, well, eternal.

On some days I am all good with soft blankets and the hush-hush of consolation. But mostly I am grateful for how gravity and gravitas is paving a way forward as I too am getting old. Not as old as Parker Palmer when he wrote his essay. Not as old as my mom was on the day that she died. Not even as old as Dorrie’s sister when she took her last breath. But older. Congratulations are not in order. But maybe, just maybe, my eyes are opened a bit wider and my heart is softened enough to absorb the losses that come with a life lived in love. Maybe Mom, and Diana, wherever they are now, understand.

all registered up

A few days ago I was alerted by a bank teller that lo and behold my driver’s license was about to expire. I was so grateful that someone had noticed before I was caught by surprise. I looked into our home file of paper work and I found that not only was my driver’s license about to expire but so was my passport. I am starting to plan a sabbatical for next summer and might have a chance to use that passport, so now I had two things to update. And then, whoops! Time to get my old car inspected. Three in one. Off I went to spend a half a day standing in lines to deal with self and car inspection and identification.

standing in a line

The morning went remarkably smooth. I had the stack of paperwork that I need to prove that I am who I say that I am and I live where I say that I live. My car was not in quite as bad shape as I thought it was. The lines were pretty short. The people in all the offices were helpful and not too officious. About three hours after I started I was all clear to travel in and out of the country. I breathed a sign of relief.

All morning as I was shuffled from one office to another I thought about how privileged I am to have made it through this day without being turned away or worse. I have a place to live and a car to drive. I have papers to prove that I have an acceptable identity and I have enough money to pay all the fees. I have time to stand in line and I speak the language that the folks on the other side of the desk speak. I have a W2 form that says that I am a pastor in a local church and and sometimes that title opens doors. If my car failed inspection (which it might next time) I have resources to deal with it.

This coming Sunday our text for the day includes a Gospel story where Jesus is warning his disciples about what happens when we put blocks in front of people who are trying to make their way through what can be a very hostile world. He says “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

When Jesus talks about “the little ones” he is talking about people who do not have the advantages that I just described. Money. Age. Race. Class. Ability. Legal status. You name it. He is talking about people living on the margins and who are suspect and who cannot easily gather up a bunch of information and paperwork and money and transportation to prove who they are and be welcomed as they are. He calls on his disciples to beware when we place, or ignore, or jump over, stumbling blocks for other people.

My paperwork is put away until the next time that I am called on to get in line to prove my identity. Jesus’ words about stumbling blocks are glaring at me even as I am sighing relief after my day at the offices. I know that I had a very easy jump over a few hoops. I did not stumble. The path was cleared for me. I am thinking about the people I know who live in tents or worn out cars. People who do not have an address and those who struggle in one way or another with making it through the day never mind the registry of motor vehicles. My eyes and mind and heart are aching – they are so wide open.

Now I know why Jesus tells his disciples to think hard before choosing to follow him on his Way. I understand why he forbids us from talking too soon about who we say we are and who we say we are following. It is much easier (even with that millstone looming) to go about our own business, than seeing who is pushed to the back of the line or who never even gets past the officer at the door and who stumbles over what we so easily skip by. When I am asked the next time, just who do I think that I am, what should I say?

 

 

home coming

Yesterday I took a quick run up to the state forest. The air was cool and the sky gray on gray.  No one but me was swimming but I was accompanied by a pileated woodpecker, some kayaks, and the forest worker who took the opportunity of an empty beach after a rainy day to rake the sand back in shape.

dar

I dove in and soon my companions were a memory and it was just me and the water, the sky, and God who is ever present, even when I am not.

I swam the Serenity Prayer, the Al-anon version, which includes those great verses like “grant me the patience for the changes that take time” and “tolerance for those with different struggles” and “appreciation for all that I have.” Oh, I could swim the length and the breath of that lake many times over and still have gratitudes to add.

This state forest with it’s two adjacent lakes have been my home away from home since my late 20’s. When I come here, memory lingers; deep and wide, good and bad, hopeful and sad. I can smell it everywhere. And even more than memory, a strong sense of  coming home. Home to the peace and quiet. Home to the stroke stroke stroke. Home to the prayer that is lodged in my heart. Home to the swimmer in me.

The swimming season is coming to a close. If I am lucky I will be stroking through mid October. Then the leaves will change color and fall in the water and I will start hiking along the shore and through the woods. But as for now I am glad to be one of a few who come here – searching for and finding home away from home.

not entirely back

more poetry

Summer was a good time for me to get away from my daily routines in my church and home town and to immerse myself at the little cabin on the island in Maine and down the road in the lake at our local state park. And yet.. every summer I come home from vacations, stay-cations, and even a little afternoon get-away and I feel the weight of the buildings crushing in on me. Even my beautiful church and the parsonage are building heavy after days of sitting in silence or messing around in boats with grandchildren.

kayakss

This summer my study reading was poetry. My theological reflection was relationship. My plan of the day was how to be, in company and in silence, with very little stimulation and an abundance of beauty. I took Jesus at his word when he said “Come away for a while” and I did not shy away from his embrace or the embrace of my family.

jamison

Called to pay attention to who and what was in front of me, I responded on most days with a grateful yes. And then, like every other time away, it was time to come home. Home to more family and more friends and more church energy and fall plans. And home, thank goodness, to the advice of a colleague who encouraged me not to return entirely. Not to hold back exactly, but to hold on to all the gifts; of the sea and the woods and the fresh water ponds and the timeless nature of living out-of-doors.

Pastor Steve Garness- Holmes, in a reflection in his blog, Unfolding Light, talked about his time canoeing on the Boundary Waters with his son. This is what I heard Steve say, as though he was talking directly to me, someone who had also spent time on the boundary of water and sun and land and endless light. There is more to the reflection but this is my “take away” about not returning entirely.

As always when returning from a time away
my counsel is: don’t return entirely.
Don’t jump back into the panic and swirl.
Others may rush like they’re in a football play,
but you can amble through the chaos.
When you go to a peaceful place,
at least stay long enough and deep enough
to take it into yourself,
swallow its essence, breathe its spirit.
When you return from the ocean
keep its rhythms still in your ears,
its vastness still filling your eyes.

water swirl

I have not come back entirely because the peace and the depth and the sweetness that I experienced is clinging to me and holding me back from giving it all away – to frittering and worrying, to habit and resentment, to the next thing on the to do list.  The vastness has filled me to the brim and I am spilling over. Only to fill again. Because who am I fooling? My world, there and here, is endless in its beauty and in its suffering.  Steve was really reminding me that it is not only unwise, but impossible, to entirely return.

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abandon hopelessness

walking

Abandon hopelessness

all ye who enter here.

Set down your baggage

and your fears

your reluctance to trust

and your ideas that what has happened

defines you and will not be lifted.

Step forward

on a path

well worn by someone

you do not know.

Around the bend

something is waiting.

in these times

Last night my church held a Taize service – quiet songs, interspersed with silence and Psalms and Gospel verses. It was hot in the sanctuary and the fans were working hard to cool us. This was not easy. Not just because we are in the middle of a ridiculously hot summer, but because we are hot around the collar as we walk, alone and together, in our world, in these times.

I spoke recently with one of my brothers. He is a powerful force in my life for love and justice seeking; a lawyer with a heart and mind and a conscience that I imagine keeps him awake at night. We talked about the times we are living in. What he said resonated with me and also made me concerned. For him and for me and for us. He said something to the effect of “I am thinking that we can no  longer be happy. I am so angry.”  This idea, that we can no longer be happy because we are so angry has been weighing on me and is something that, in my tradition, I take up with God and friends and family. I take it up in prayer and in song, in consultation with writers, and when I walk out in the woods.

woodland

One of the writers that I am “conversing with” is Barbara Kingsolver. This week as I was praying about anger and happiness and the hard times we are in, I found her book Small Wonder. It was published one year after 9/11. The opening essay, which the book title comes from, reflects on that horrible day and a whole range of terrible and grace-filled experiences. Two sections stand out for me to I share with my brother and with you. One is about walking outdoors. The other is about happiness and “the point.”

Kingsolver says “In my darkest times I have to walk, sometimes alone, in some green place. Other people must share this ritual. For some I suppose it must be the path through a particular set of city streets, a comforting architecture; for me it’s the need to stare at moving water until my mind comes to rest on nothing at all. Then I can go home. I can clear the brush from a neglected part of the garden, working slowly until it comes to me that there is one small place I can make right for my family. I can plant something as an act of faith in time itself…”

And this. “It used to be, on many days, that I could close my eyes and sense myself to be perfectly  happy. I have wondered lately if that feeling will even come back. It is a worthy thing to wonder, but maybe being perfectly  happy is not really the point. Maybe that is only some modern American dream of the point, while the truer measure of humanity is the distance we must travel in our lives, time and time again, “twixt two extremes of passion – joy and grief” as Shakespeare put it.  However much I’ve lost, what remains to me is that I can still speak to name the things I love.”

During our Taize service I closed my eyes and I did not feel happiness but my mind did come to rest, after a long time, on nothing at all. Or everything at all. And today when I was restless again after church, and I was once again unbearably hot, and I took myself walking in the woods by a stream and then I sat in the cold water of the river, I heard myself naming. What we have lost. What we love. Who we have lost. Who we love.

We can plant something. It is an act of faith in time itself and what Kingsolver calls “Small change, small wonders –  these are the currency of my endurance and ultimately of my life. It is a workable economy.”

Dear Brother. Dear Friend. Dear God,

All that I have is yours. My sadness and my grief. My hope and my  happiness. My ability to walk and my places of walking. My song and my tears. My little bit here and there. My love. I pray today that when it all adds up, as it is adding up even now, that it will be something that will shed a bit of faith and that it will be enough, until, and I know this will happen, something else comes my way and that too, gets added, and sifted, and blessed. These are our times.