Thursday, February 28, 2013

I'm okay, just busy...

Last night as I crept late into the quiet house, I heard a little voice call from upstairs, "Mommy, come see me."  When I went to check on my babies, they were both awake and wanting to talk.  As I stroked their hair, they told me about their days, and Brady asked, "Why do you always come home at night after we're in bed?"  My heart cracked.  This morning, Maryn clung to me as I was leaving for work, crying, "I want you to STAY!" (even though she was getting ready to leave for school).  My heart broke.

I realize that this is not a regular thing, but likely due to the three days I was out of town last week, and the later evenings I've had this week.  I try to be home for dinner (well, John and the kids have usually eaten, but they'll join me to talk while I'm eating).  I usually help get everyone going in the morning (even as I'm prone to stay in bed until the last possible moment).  But when I'm at home, I'm still getting emails from work, and reminders about events that others would really like me to attend.  There are things that I would like to be present for that I can sometimes manage, with John's help.  In my limited time at home, John and I are comparing calendars and planning our individual times away, and figuring out who will cover for whom.  It's becoming harder to figure out when I will be able to take time to do the basic things (doctor appointments, buying toothpaste, exercising) not to mention other necessary tasks (updating the kids spring wardrobes, planning birthday parties, planning vacation breaks).  Some looming projects that I'm about to surrender are applying to a doctoral program (seriously, I don't have time now), applying for grants for the chapel (never mind that I'm down to $500 for the rest of the year), and watching the rest of Season 3 of Downton Abbey (I don't think my heart can take it).

I know how incredibly blessed I am, and I'm right where I want to be.  And yet, that doesn't make it easy.  I'm always pulled in another direction, when I know deep down that the way to a fulfilled life is living in the present, right where I am.

I often bemoan the fact that I live in and work in such a busy culture.  At my university, many faculty and staff live on campus and work long and irregular hours.  I'm lucky to have a boss that admits to working too much, but who also encourages me to take time away.  But then the club I advise meets one evening, and has an event on the weekend, and then there's a conflict to work through, and an crisis counseling session, and a meeting with the board...and meanwhile the emails and paperwork are piling up, and there's a service to plan, and an unexpected death, and the budget is due...when will it all get done?  There is church, and volunteer work, and house chores, and I can't tell you the last time I got together with friends just for fun.

It's not like I can switch roles and personas.  During a meeting with board of trustees members, my son's teacher calls about a behavioral issue.  My first thought is, "Is it because I haven't been at home as much?" knowing full well that things are managed incredibly well in my absence.  But the mommy guilt is always pervasive.  Meanwhile the work guilt convinces me that I'll never succeed and never advance, that I will become stuck and stale with nothing new to offer.  And it's a self-fulfilling prophesy because I'm so very tired, and I just want to crawl into bed and read a book (there are 5 on my nightstand that I haven't touched).

I know that this is a passing phase and I'm feeling a lot of the tension that our students are dealing with in the compressed spring semester that leaps forward to the unknowns of graduation.  I understand that the winter has gone on a little too long and the grayness needs to be supplanted by new life budding all around.  I know that the long darkness of Lent will end in the light and joy of Easter.  All this I know, but feeling it is something different.

I guess that's why faith is so important.  It gives us something to hold onto as we're journeying through a barren wilderness, the hope that we will find the Promised Land on the other side.  I pray that as we all journey together, we might see the vision of God in a cloud and a pillar of fire above and ahead of us, leading us ever forward, and that we celebrate our deliverance even now, while we still carry our chains that bind us.  May we be able, with God's grace, to let go and get a taste of the milk and honey that await us.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Stop and notice the beauty

Sometimes I catch a glimpse of her in the rear view mirror as I'm driving, and I have to fight to tear my eyes away, back to the road, as she is simply gorgeous.  She sits with her blond waves framing her face, pink lips pursed in contemplation (of what, I wonder), blue eyes sparkling.

Or I'll stop during dinner and see the way his eyelashes, so long and dark, flutter against his pale skin.  He cuddles around me in bed when I'm so reluctant to get up in the morning and speaks such words of love.

What a precious gift, these two small beings, with such big personalities and strong wills.  They are completely individual, and yet I can see a flash of John and me, here and there, before it dissolves just as quickly and they are just Brady and Maryn, separate, unique.

The sad thing is how seldom I stop to notice this beauty in the chaos of our busy lives.  I focus too much on how they chew with their mouths open and whine about not getting their way.  I completely overlook the miracle of how these two have grown from helpless babies to independent children, finding their own way in the world, both connected to and separate from their parents.

It's so easy to get caught up in the routine and lose the beauty of the sacred moments.  Today as I was walking from the parking lot to the chapel, I paused for a moment as I was struck by a memory of my very first time on campus, at the spot between the library and the chapel where I first felt Hollins calling me home.

How many times do I walk by and forget, consumed with pressing demands on my time and energy?  Yet when I stopped, that initial sense of newness and passion I once felt flooded me again.

Perhaps we need these moments to remember our calling.
May we find moments of blessing and renewal right where we are.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Church: a big, messy, dysfunctional (beloved) family

I love church, really I do.  But sometimes I forget that in the business of it.  Sometimes I put it on a pedestal and watch with horror as it all comes crashing down, forgetting that church is really people, and flawed people at that.  Much like those biblical characters we esteem.  I have my share of church scars, of being kicked hard in the heart before being completely kicked out, battered and bruised.  And sometimes I walked away before they could have the opportunity to truly hurt me.  Regardless, I keep coming back.  Maybe it's a naive hope; maybe I just don't know any better as I was raised in the church.  But truly, I think it's the Holy Spirit reminding me that the Church is a family, the family of God.  Families are messy and dysfunctional, but they need each other.  As Augustine famously said, "The church is a whore, but she is my mother."

My current church has been such a healing place for my husband and me, and for many families like us that have found themselves cast out of churches for whatever reason (does it surprise you that many of us are ministers?).  We are not a perfect bunch; in fact, we've recently shown some of our ugliness.  My adrenaline kicks in as it senses conflict, and there's a bit of a PTSD response that makes me want to run run runnnnnnnn or SCREAM at the ridiculousness of it all.  But deep within, there's a calmer voice reminding me that fear can look a lot like anger, and can motivate us to do and say regrettable things because we care so very much.  Our responses are an attempt at protection and come (way down deep) from a place of love.

My kids remind me on a daily basis that while we show our good sides to the world, we reserve the bad parts of ourselves for those we really love, those who have vowed to love us no matter what.  We can be the angry children ranting at our parents when the fear makes us feel unloved.  We can pick the same fight again and again with our husband, knowing that amends will be made.  We threaten and stomp around in our full (if immature) humanity, begging to be accepted, just as we are, hurts and all.

And isn't this what the Church is all about?  A place to experience God's full and redeeming love, even in our  brokenness.  Love can be messy, and it's not easy.  It's full of a hundred choices each day to choose reconciliation over conflict, and forgiveness over grudges.  It's about trusting in the mystery and having faith that it will all work out.  It's about sharing our gifts for God's greater purpose and knowing that sometimes we will fail, and that's okay, too.

Church has been home for me for my entire life, and that is a gift (and a challenge) that's too valuable to surrender.

Have you been hurt by a church experience?  I encourage you to check out Kathy Escobar's blog post, "Whatever you do, don't let them take your faith".

Friday, February 15, 2013


Perspective is a funny thing.  I can only see from my own viewpoint, but I assume that others see the same world I do.  My eyes are opened by conflict, when I begin to understand that we are seeing two different sides of the same issue.  It's been an exhausting and frustrating week of challenges, yet I know that this is where growth and opportunity lie.  

The timing strikes me.  Lent is one of my favorite times of the liturgical year as I am prone to introspection (and to darkness as well, although that's harder to admit).  This 40-day period of fasting, mourning, and repentance is supposed to remind us of our sin and mortality as we symbolically walk with Jesus in his final days on the earth.  We are connected to him in his temptation in the wilderness, and I am tempted to give up, to give in, to wonder if anything I do matters when on the surface it often looks like failure.  On the opposite extreme, I wrestle with dreams of importance--what could I do to truly shine?  Weakness and pride are but a breath apart.

On Wednesday we observed Ash Wednesday with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads, the cross a reminder that we are connected, too, in Christ's suffering and death.  We are mere mortals made of dust, insubstantial and fleeting.  We are humble beings, tied to the very earth we walk upon, just as the first man and woman were made from the earth.  If anything wrecks my pride it is this.  What are we, that God should be mindful of us?  
And yet, God's love for us is immense, powerful, sacrificial.  So strong that God came to us in the form of another fragile lump of clay, God in human form, who would eternally serve as our connection from this earth to life eternal beyond.

As I was preparing my homily for Ash Wednesday, I read where much of our earth, even our own bodies, perhaps, are composed of materials from stars.  So it may sound simple that we are made of dust, but there is also a sparkle to it, a connection that stretches backwards and forwards millions of years.  A friend took my words and rephrased them much more eloquently and succinctly: "For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return" = "For you were made from stars, and to stars you will return".

May we seek to find blessing in the dust that grounds us, and also keeps us ever looking upwards.

Blessing the Dust
A Blessing for Ash Wednesday by Jan Richardson 

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—
Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Like a bird taking flight

Haruo Ohara Sítio Tomita, Londrina, Paraná (1955)

My brain feels clogged, ideas stagnating after a day full of paperwork and staring at a computer.  The outside called repeatedly to me to come for a walk, to move, and yet there was always the pull of just one more thing to complete...and then another.  After a brief break to connect with church friends over conversation, laughter, and drinks (ok, root beer), I forced myself to settle down and get serious about the work that lies ahead this evening.  But, stuck, I found myself wandering onto Facebook and Pinterest, pretending to seek inspiration, but really just looking for another outlet for procrastination and avoidance.

My word for the year, "Sanctuary," comes back to me, ironically (or not, as I should be planning my Sanctuary worship service for tomorrow), and I think that sanctuary must be found anywhere but here.  It is beyond the realm of kids fighting bedtime, or messes to be cleaned, and lunches to be packed.  It's beyond the worry for friends who are struggling and a prayer list that grows ever longer.  Sanctuary certainly is on a sunny beach or a quiet retreat center.  It is not within me, this muddled mess of busy, yet unproductive, chaos.

And then I remember a similar day last week, leaving work.  I felt loaded down with an unfinished to-do list  and more work to greet me at home.  It was cold and growing dark, and the winter was wearing out its welcome as I hurriedly shuffled to my car.  Noise outside penetrated the noise within, and I glanced up, started to see birds covering every branch of every tree surrounding me.  The sound of their squawking was almost deafening and it would be a creepy omen for anyone, much less a bird-phobic person like myself.  I walked faster, almost at a jog, but came to a stop when I realized their cries had stopped.  The silence was as startling as the sound had been.  For a second, two, there was a pause of anticipation, and then in one perfectly timed swoop, they all took flight, the only sound being a rush of air.  I stood in stunned silence, in awe of the mystery and beauty of their graceful coordination.

Like the birds, I wish to be lifted up, to soar above the "shoulds" and find my way to the dreams in the clouds above.  I long for the silence that brings peace after the noise, and to find sanctuary in the trees, in the sky, or wherever I may land.  May I find sanctuary in the Creator of such lovely mysteries, of flight and endless sky, and even creepy birds.  May sanctuary be found inside of me.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Disney Magic

We all need a little magic in our lives, especially in the dead of winter when all seems still and gray.  I recently had the joy of escaping cold and snowy Virginia for five days to attend a ministers' conference on Creativity in warm and sunny Winter Park, Florida.  We were inspired with workshops on storytelling, multi-sensory preaching, brainstorming, and worship planning.  But perhaps the biggest draw was the prospect of a day spent at Walt Disney World.

I hadn't been to the Magic Kingdom since I was 5 or 6 (30 years ago!) but it was amazing how the memories came flooding back: the monorail ride into the park, the entrance gates, the view of Cinderella's castle from Main Street, and "climbing" up the Swiss Family Robinson's treehouse.  The sounds of "It's a small world" and the smells of the food were sensory triggers taking me back to my childhood.  I stood in wonder taking it in, much like I must have done as a child.  It's amazing how a place built to entertain children can still seem magical to a cynical adult.

I'm not a stranger to the magnetic pull of Disney.  My family took a cruise on the Disney Dream two years ago and it remains an all-time favorite memory.  I left feeling like I had been brainwashed, but in the best possible way.  While I'm normally pretty frugal and the thought of spending so much on a trip seemed frivolous at best (and perhaps irresponsible as the money could have been used for much higher purposes), by the time we left, I felt that we had gained much more than we paid for.  We were pampered and entertained, and had the luxury of enjoying family time, couple time, and personal alone time.  We didn't have to worry about cooking, cleaning, or even bills (as all of our charges were added to our account with a swipe of our room key, no need to even see the escalating expenses...hmmm, maybe that's not so good).  Although I worried that our kids would be spoiled by everyone calling them "prince" and "princess" and catering to their every need, to my surprise, they were able to relax and enjoy the vacation, becoming less high maintenance.  Although it seemed corny at first, I came to believe the sincerity the "cast members'" (Disney's word for employees) phrase, "Have a magical day!"  By the end, I was sold (literally) on their amazing customer ("guest") service and their business model.  I started devouring blogs and books about Disney culture, and that is where I ultimately decided to attend the Creativity conference as folks connected with Disney would be leading some of the presentations.

In our workshops, we learned about Disney's "Blue Sky Thinking" brainstorming process.  What would you do if there were no limits (time, money, skills, resources)?  Anything goes in the initial stages.  We learned how they inspire creativity in one another through collaboration and utilizing each other's differing skills.  Discussing how their use of story is incorporated into everything, from the park's entrance to the closing show, I thought about the importance of story in our lives.  In understanding their priorities (safety, courtesy, show, and that order), I reflected on the values that guide my work and mission.  We discussed the questions "What can the church learn from Disney?" and "What can Disney learn from the church?" and realized we had more examples for the former than the latter.

As I explored the new Fantasyland and watched the "Wishes" fireworks spectacular at the closing, I kept wondering, "How do they do that?!" until I finally allowed myself just to get lost in the mystery and beauty.  And then it hit me what Disney can learn from the church.  We have the ultimate story of Mystery and Beauty--the story of eternal Love and redemption.  It is not a fairy tale; it is much better than that.  Fairy tales may be about "happily ever after" and if "you dream it, you can be it", but the Truth of God's story is that even in the broken messiness of real life, we can find peace and contentment.  We're not guaranteed a happy ending in this life, but we are given the responsibility and authority to work towards bringing about the kingdom of God.  And that's way bigger than the mouse's Magic Kingdom.

Friday, February 1, 2013

the story in the Story

There is such power in story.  Whether we read books, watch movies, or just talk with friends, we are drawn in by drama, conflict, and shared experiences.  In a workshop today, we discussed how there are only three major storylines: the journey (like Odysseus), romance (like Romeo and Juliet), and redemption (like God's story), yet each retelling seems fresh with new truths.  We connect in our shared experiences and relive the emotion of our own memories through the journey of others, whether real or fictional.  As a minister, I think about our individual stories in connection to the larger Story of God's redemptive work in the world.  The creator God made us in God's image, as co-creators, and our creative acts add a new layer to the ongoing work of God's kingdom.  As I write my own story, I can't help but see how it is just a small chapter in God's larger book that is ever-expanding.  Thanks be to God that the story is not finished (and yet we already have foreshadowing of the happy ending).

My heart and mind are full as I end three days of a conference on creativity in ministry, where we explored the wonders of Disney for inspiration.  There is so much to process and so little time to reflect.  I want to make the most of what I've experienced and learned without making the mistake of immediately implementing all the ideas in my head and making a mess of it.  I fear, too, that I will get stuck by the overwhelming thought of all the changes I would like to make and instead do nothing.

In a somewhat jesting way (particularly as I just preached on signs a couple weeks ago), I prayed that God would give me a sign that I would be prepared for the journey ahead, empowered to do what needs to be done, and inspired with the actions to take.  I asked God to show me that I am called and capable, particularly when I feel so ineffective at times.  As soon as I finished the prayer, the worship leader switched to the next song and I smiled when I recognized my ordination song, "Here I Am, Lord".  While it's pretty common for ordination services, I've never heard it sung as a praise song in a service.  Got that message loud and clear, God, thanks!

Every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  There is conflict and resolution.  But resolution doesn't always mean a happy ending, and it doesn't even mean completion.  The story goes on and on, taking us to places expected and surprising.  The way is sometimes unclear, but because of my faith in God's greater story, I have hope.  As Gungor shares in their song, "Beautiful Things":

All around

Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us