The Harder Path

Double back, or press on?

The trail map of Monhegan Island (population 65) clearly identified three walks recommended for day-trippers, so we had chosen the pleasant, 25-minute stroll to Lobster Cove. We sat on a sunny rock and ate our peanut-butter-on-raisin-bread sandwiches (standard picnic fare), watching the sparkling ocean and enjoying a lone seagull who seemed pretty content on a rock of its own. The view was pretty, but we had grown accustomed to longer hikes during these last two weeks in Maine. We decided to walk out along the Cliff Trail a ways, just to see what the vista was like from a bit higher, then return the way we came.

Lobster Cove: Can you spot the seagull?

We would have preferred to stay on the Cliff Trail all the way around the east side of the island, then cut back down the middle to the ferry dock, but again, the map was clear: two sections of the trail ahead were marked in red, identified as “particularly challenging.” The map was also clear about what happened to tourists who overestimated their abilities and got into trouble. No medical service on the island. No guarantee that there would be enough cell signal to call 911. No way for a vehicle or even a boat to reach some of the places a middle-aged woman in sneakers might injure herself. For added drama, the remains of a tugboat wreck dotted the landscape around of us like a rusting cautionary tale.

Which is why we were going to double back. Except . . .

It was so beautiful! Scary, but beautiful. We scrambled up and down rocks, avoided tree roots and swampy bits, and took at least one false turn, but over and over we looked up and discovered a stunning new view of the sea. It had already been hard, so the thought of turning back and retracing our steps was, frankly, a bummer. We didn’t know if the trail ahead was dramatically harder, of if we’d already done the worst of it. And so we pressed on. (I fought rising panic by singing the jaunty rendition of Psalm 23 that was jogging through my head.)

View from the Cliff Trail on Monhegan Island

Porter took the lead—having under his belt both longer legs and more years of scouting. He figured out the safest steps, and gave me a hand when I needed it. This gave me frequent opportunities to soak in the beauty around us, as well as the chance to begin musing about the “harder paths” offered to us in everyday life.

I found myself remembering the two months my father was in home hospice care, when I took FMLA leave and moved in, along with my brother, Stephen, to care for him. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Every few days, Dad’s abilities dropped off, and the tasks required of us grew more demanding. As on the Cliff Trail, we wondered how much worse it would get, and whether we would hit a point where we couldn’t do it anymore. Yet there was so much beauty.

Even five years later, I have such warm memories of that time-out-of-time: our cousin Mike keeping me company on Wednesday nights when Stephen was back in Baltimore; our cousin Tish sitting with my dad one afternoon so I could take a shower; our uncle Len dragging a vast quantity of recycling to the curb each week as we cleared out the decades of tests, notebooks, and newspaper clippings which the home of two teachers had accumulated. I still savor the way I sat around the fireplace visiting with relatives and friends on weekends, took Stephen’s dog for walks around the old neighborhood in the mornings, and had long, consoling phone calls with distant loved ones at night. And I remember my favorite visit: my friend Liz walking in the door with homemade pizza, an assortment of craft beer, and flowers without a vase—because she figured (rightly) that we already had enough of them.

Those eight weeks were intensely challenging, but I still miss the camaraderie of that special kairos-time.

There is no dramatic ending to my Monhegan story. No one was injured. We didn’t even have any hair-raising near-misses. Eventually, the Cliff Trail intersected with the Burnt Head Trail: a gentle path that led us down an easy slope back into the village, where we shared a blueberry soda (because, Maine) and got back on the Balmy Days II for a ride around the island and return to the mainland.

A few days out, my lingering feeling is great satisfaction with having successfully taken the harder path, mingled with lingering curiosity about life’s harder paths. I keep wondering: when is doing it the hard way worth the beauty and the reward? When is it just too much? When does challenge shade into folly? And how do we know if it’s time to turn around?

I don’t know. But I do know that I want to keep exploring the questions—on foot as well as in prayer. And I know is that getting myself out into nature here in Maine—moving my body in unaccustomed ways and seeing unfamiliar sights—has opened my spirit to fresh metaphors for the spiritual life, and given me a renewed awareness of God’s presence in it all.

The sort of practicing that I did on Monhegan—taking something in the natural world and working the metaphor—will be part of a lovely half-day retreat I’m offering at the Cranaleith Spiritual Center next month. Together, we’ll take a wide-eyed look at the small things in life, and notice the presence of God, hidden in plain sight. The retreat is Sunday, October 6, from 1-4. If you are able to join me, you can register here.

But for now, I invite you to reflect on the harder paths in your own life. What have you tackled that you weren’t sure you could do? Where did you find beauty, or reward? What choice of path lies ahead of you now? How are you being led? Who has your hand? I’d love to hear your stories.

Along whatever path you walk, may your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed!

All that Glitters

The rays of sunset over the bay angled their way between condominiums all the way to the ocean, casting golden beams along the shoreline. I had gone for a walk to clear my mind and prepare for a book discussion the following week. As I enjoyed the enthusiastic remnant of people, dogs, and birds with whom I was sharing the waning beach day, a colorful glint from the surf caught my eye.

I’m not much of a shell collector, but this one was a color I’d never seen. Such a vibrant blue—could it be just a trick of the lingering light? Or was it not a shell at all, but a piece of sea glass revealed by a receding wave? The shops in these towns are full of sea glass souvenirs; could I finally be spotting one in its natural element?

Breaking my stride, I walked over to investigate. The royal blue color held. I dug it out of the wet sand, and discovered that the brilliant object in my hand was indeed glass. Broken glass. (Probably a shard of some pricey water bottle, judging from the color.)

Had I been in a different mood, this would have prompted quite the internal rant. Why does a company waste precious resources creating such a thing? Why does anyone buy it? But if they must, why not at least recycle it properly, instead of doing whatever led to this fragment’s washing up on shore, just waiting for some little kid to slice a foot on it?

These thoughts did cross my mind (obviously, since I just wrote them here). But as I held onto my disappointing treasure, it occured to me what a potent metaphor it was for the need for discernment.

How many shiny things catch our attention each day? From objects no one needs to own, to arguments no one needs to have, the distracting temptations are limitless. Then there are life’s bigger choices. Who hasn’t fallen for a sparkly person only to discover that he or she is far from the partner of our dreams, or pursued a job opportunity that seemed lucrative only to be felled by its soul-crushing day-to-day tasks?

These dilemmas of decision-making were on my mind because so many choices lie ahead of me right now. Two weeks into my “encore career,” I have left behind a steady paycheck and daily routines to pursue the dream of a freelance existence. Invitations are beckoning; a quick glance at my Speaker Page will reveal only some of what’s on the horizon. I’m also preparing an online class that starts at the end of this month, and pondering possibilities for 2020 that could take me as far as Nome, Alaska or northern Spain. (And of course everyone keeps asking me if I’ve started my next book . . . do I even have time for that?) How do I choose what do do with my hours, my days? How do I—in the words of a poem I jotted on an art retreat at Cranaleith this summer—

resist
with tender patience
any false
fierce urgency of
Now
that would fill
the arms of my
datebook
with everything that
raised its hand
First?

My sunset walk didn’t answer these questions, but I’m hanging on to the shard of “sea” glass. (And not just to save a child’s foot.) I want to keep it before me as one small reminder of the need to pause in the face of shimmery possibilities . . . to investigate, pray, ponder, discern. What is God really inviting me to? What’s just an accident waiting to happen?

To the One who is endlessly communicating—even through trash on the beach—I give endless thanks.

And to the wonderful women of the Cornerstone group at St. Anne’s Church in Fair Lawn, NJ–whose invitation propelled me on my beach walk–thank you for such a warm welcome and engaging conversation (not to mention astoundingly good coffee cake)!

May your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed.

Stay Awhile

“Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” – Luke 10:42

For many of us, these words of Jesus to Martha do not sit well. “Raise your hand if you feel sorry for Martha,” I often ask. Inevitably, more than three-quarters of the hands in the room go up. The poor woman was just trying to put dinner on the table, for Pete’s sake. (And for James’ sake, and John’s, and Andrew’s . . . . those guys were hungry!)

The “Mary/Martha Incident” is one of my most requested dramatic interpretations, no doubt because it touches into a tension present in church folks everywhere. Call it action vs. contemplation, or doing vs. being. As busy, busy people, deeply involved in families and communities and ministries, we may actually draw our identity from going the extra mile on a regular basis. We don’t want to hear that we’ve missed the mark—that doing better would somehow involve doing less.

Yesterday, the Mary/Martha Gospel was one of the assigned readings for Mass. Today, I want to share one new insight that came as I pondered it with my parish faith-sharing group last week.

The insight came because of the pairing of Luke’s Gospel with the Genesis story of Abraham offering hospitality to three visitors. The Roman Catholic Lectionary is arranged so that the first reading, usually from the Hebrew Scriptures, echoes the theme of the day’s Gospel reading. So, before hearing Jesus chastise Martha for griping about being “burdened with much serving,” we hear Abraham being rewarded for offering lavish hospitality to strangers, who turned out to be God and a couple of angels. (That’s a dramatically over-simplified take on the readings, I know. Hang in there with me.)

One big difference between the two stories, of course, is that Abraham had help. He didn’t make the rolls himself; Sarah did. He didn’t roast the steer himself; his servant did. (I can almost feel Martha rolling her eyes.)

But here’s the new thing that really caught me this week. Running to Sarah, Abraham says, “Quick; three measures of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls.” And then he selects the aforementioned choice steer, and gives it to a servant, who “quickly prepared it.”

I’m sorry; what?

If you’ve ever made bread, you know: if you’re starting with flour, rolls are going to take a while. Like, hours, waiting for the yeast to rise. It also takes hours to make a roast—and that’s when you’re starting with a nice package from the Acme, not a live animal frolicking in your field. The double use of the word “quick” in this story may mean that the characters hastened, but it doesn’t make it a quick visit by any means.

How long did the three visitors sit in the shade of the tree, bathing their feet and sipping a cool drink and chatting with Abraham? What did they talk about? What else might Abraham have had to do that afternoon, that he let go of because being present to these strangers was more important?

“Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.”

Hebrews 13:2

And there’s the rub. For many of us, it is easier to perform quality actions than to pay quality attention. To let the interruption of our day become the substance of our day, without resentment. To take the time–whatever time it takes–to be with those God has placed in our path, entertaining angels knowingly or unknowingly.

I am not always good at this. I empathize with Jesus’ description of Martha in my Spanish Bible: Tu andas preocupada y pierdes en mil cosas. (“You go about worried and lose yourself in a thousand things.”) But I appreciated the reminder, this week, of what I’m called to do.

In the words of Henri Frederic Amiel (1821-1881):

Life is short,
And we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who
make the journey with us.
So… be swift to love,
and make haste to be kind.
And the blessing of God,
who made us,
who loves us,
and who travels with us
be with you now and forever.

Amen!

As always, may your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed–especially when they are interrupted!

Christine

Plan 54

When I was a senior in college, I played Emily in Our Town.  You may recall that the play treats its audience to a few days in the lives of two families in a small New Hampshire town at the turn of the last century. The first two acts are a long, loving look at the ordinary, but the third act takes place in the town cemetery, where Emily (having just died in childbirth) has been laid to rest, but is not yet restful.  Venerable English professor Frank Olley was directing Our Town at St. Joseph’s University for the third time in as many decades.  Asked how it was different this time, he pondered for a moment, then said simply, “The third act looms larger.”

In October of 2016–almost thirty years after Doc Olley uttered that line–I began working on an essay called Act III, reflecting on the ways that the untimely deaths in my own life had caused me to reevaluate my priorities.  I wrote:

I find myself less willing to store my dreams in the “someday” column. And so I have to ask: when am I going to stop gazing longingly at every RV that I pass on the highway, ante up, and hit the road?  When am I going to bear down and actually write the book that’s been noodling around in my head for a decade?  When am I going to quit my day job and become the “freelance me” that I’ve spent the last 15 years telling people I want to be when I grow up?  Although I don’t know when the curtain will rise on my own Act III, it is starting to loom larger.  It’s time to take more risks.

The RV purchase remains a question.  (Where would I park it?)   But I did indeed bear down on the book.  Less than four months after committing that question to paper, I was curled up on a sofa at When Words Count, writing Finding God in Ordinary Time.  And now I have an answer to the third question as well.  When am I going to quit my day job and become the “freelance me” I’ve talked about forever?  July 31.

That’s right . . . after twenty-six years as a campus minister, I am stepping down from my position at Gwynedd Mercy University at the end of this month.  I am leaving a field I have loved extravagantly, peeling off a label I’ve used to identify myself for almost half my life.  People keep asking me if I’m sad, or scared, and the answer really is no to both.  This is what God is calling me to at this point in my life.  It’s time.

Shortly after writing the essay about Act III, I started a file on my computer called “Plan 54.”  I was 51 years old at the time, and figured it would take me about three years to lay the groundwork for the future I was dreaming of.  With no clear idea how to get from there to here, I named the file aspirationally, and got to work. 

Today is my 54th birthday.

In the final chapter of Finding God, I wrote about my cousin Susan, whose death (seven years ago yesterday) at age 46 was one of the losses that inspired my soul-searching about priorities.  I closed the chapter by saying:

Will I take a risk to pursue a dream?

It is, as they say, a matter of life and death.

Choose wisely!

That is exactly what I’m doing now: taking a risk to pursue a dream.  It may look fanciful, but deep down, it is highly practical.

When I talk about time management at work, I often say this:  do what only you can do.  If you’re up against a deadline on a report that only you can write, and the copier’s out of toner, ask someone else to change the toner; sometimes it really is that simple.  This life change is based on a similar principle: someone else can take the helm of Gwynedd’s campus ministry quite capably; only I can offer the retreats I want to give, talk about the topics I’m passionate about, and write my next book.

The details are still a bit fuzzy.  I have a slate of speaking engagements lined up throughout the fall and well into winter.  But first, I’ll be spending three weeks in September at a cottage in Maine.  I want to give myself a definitive break.  At the time of year ordinarily reserved for countless back-to-school activities, I plan to go for long walks, cook leisurely meals, and watch the ebb and flow of the harbor tide as I ponder the ebb and flow of prayer and productivity that will anchor my new life.  It is something I must discover and decide as I go.  I look forward to sharing the fruits of this adventure with you here.

If you, too, have a dream that requires some risk, may I suggest this:  go ahead and give it a name. 

Who knows what could happen?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned from Sister Kati

Last week, Gwynedd Mercy University held a retirement celebration for Sister Kati McMahon, RSM, our Vice President of Mission Integration, who is stepping down after serving her alma mater in myriad capacities for 36 years.  I was privileged to give the reflection at the prayer service that began the celebration.  More accurately, I unabashedly seized for myself the opportunity to give the reflection, entitled, “Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned from Sister Kati.”  There’s wisdom here for everyone, so—to continue to honor her as she deserves—I’m sharing my words here.

I hope you have a Sister Kati in your life, but if you don’t, please borrow however much of our own Sister Kati’s sage advice as you can use!

Christine

Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned from Sister Kati

Kati has been my supervisor for 15 years, which I’m pretty sure makes me one of the luckiest people in the room. Because, unless put off by vacation, hospitalization, or Middle States, I have gotten to sit down with Kati once a week for fifteen years, to talk about work and life and ministry. So despite the title of this reflection (which I just couldn’t help), this is not a roast or even exactly a tribute. Today’s gathering is a prayer of gratitude and blessing, and so I want to reflect briefly on the wisdom I am grateful to have learned from Kati, wisdom that I hope will be a blessing to many of you as well.

1) Begin with the end in mind.  (Yes, I know it’s really Stephen Covey!)

Kati can tell you how much I came kicking and screaming to the practice of assessment. But I have to say, I now have a little internalized Kati voice in my head, which is forever asking “What is our desired outcome?” I ask it not only when sitting down to do planning in campus ministry, but when making an agenda for a parish meeting, planning a dinner outing with friends, even heading into the occasional argument with my sweetheart. (Believe me, there’s nothing Porter likes more than hearing me ask, “What’s the desired outcome of this conversation?”)

From S. Kati, I learned that to begin with the end in mind is the only way to make sure you get where you want to go. As we are always on the brink of something, as a university and as individuals, it is always worth pausing, to make sure that we have set our sights on the right thing, before we set out.

2) Respect the process.

I have watched S. Kati craft incredibly collaborative processes for things she probably could have sat down with a pencil and done all by herself in a couple of hours. One of these processes involved over 200 people, and took the better part of two academic years. Was the outcome better than it would have been if she’d just done it herself? Maybe. But it certainly had more buy-in. (Which is—see previous point—one of the desired outcomes.) S. Kati taught me that it doesn’t matter how fast you get there, if you leave people behind. And so, as we set out to do new things, let’s always remember to look around, see who’s not with us, and find a way to invite them in.

3) Be careful what you are busy about.

I can be a very fussy person. I fuss about work; I fuss about church; I fuss about family. For the last 15 years, S. Kati has been on the receiving end of a lot of that fussing. And here is what she taught me. If I am fussing about something that I cannot possibly do anything about, that is a waste of emotional energy—not to mention brain space. And so I have learned to ask myself, is this situation in my circle of influence? Will my involving myself in this effect any kind of positive change? If not, I shouldn’t be busy about it. And even if it is in my circle of influence, and I can make a positive change, it’s still not worth being “busy” about, when instead I could simply pray about it then contribute what I can. Just think how much more peaceful and productive we would all be if we could remember not to be busy about things that are none of our business! Which brings me to . . .

4) Know when to work on your weak points, and when to run with your strengths.

I arrived at this job 15 years ago with most of the skills I needed to be a good campus minister and maybe—maybe—half the skills I needed to be a good administrator. S. Kati was incredibly patient about helping me grow, acquire new skills, and learn from my mistakes. But she was also realistic about the fact that no one is good at everything, and that while chiseling at a block of marble sometimes reveals a beautiful statue underneath, jackhammering away at it just makes a mess. She understood that at some point, the energy that we could exert trying to get better at what we’re bad at could be much better spent doing the things we actually love and are good at. So, the next time you’re running up against the stone wall of your own limitations, think of S. Kati, consider whether it might just be time to stop, turn around, and run with your strengths instead.

5) Show up.

Kati shows up. As Vice President of Mission, she shows up for funerals. As Vice President of Student Services, she showed up for games (and probably funerals too). She shows up for events. She shows up for supervision, week after month after year. She has not yet learned to bi- or tri-locate, so sometimes she can’t be there physically. But she shows up with grateful emails after a job well done, and she shows up with holiday wishes when the rest of us are just focused on getting out of the building. At a time when the world is only moving faster, and when a personal touch is so desperately needed, we would all do well to remember those two simple words. Whenever we can, show up.

6) Pay more attention to other people’s pain than your own.

Kati’s body has not always been her friend.   Okay, that’s not really true. S. Kati’s body has rarely been her friend. She would say that she suffers from an excess of Mercy hospitality—a body that flings wide the door for everything from sinus infection to arterial obstruction. Despite how cruddy Kati may be feeling on any given day, in my experience, she has never allowed her pain to diminish her compassionate response to the pain of others. She doesn’t pull out her Likert scale of suffering to assess whether you merit her empathy. In this she embodies CS Lewis’ definition of humility: not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. That kind of humility flows graciously from S. Kati’s merciful heart. And speaking of Mercy . . .

7) Remember that Mercy is not fluffy.

More than any other person, S. Kati has helped me understand that Mercy is not just about being nice, or being friendly, or making people feel better (though sometimes it involves all those things). Mercy is about wading deep enough into a distressing situation to know what people really need, and having the courage to respond in practical ways. Sometimes people need a second chance, and sometimes they need accountability, and sometimes they need a fierce advocate, and none of that is fluffy. S. Kati has shown me the face of Mercy, in all its tough and tender manifestations, and for that I will be forever grateful.  

Begin with the end in mind. Respect the process. Be careful what you are busy about. Know when to work on your weak points, and when to run with your strengths. Show up. Pay more attention to other people’s pain than your own. And remember that Mercy is not fluffy.

If we can hold onto even some of these things, as people and as an institution, then S. Kati’s legacy here at Gwynedd Mercy will be us. And that is really something to be grateful for.

Finding God at My Feet

Snow has begun to fall in Philadelphia.  After a flurry of morning errands, I’m sitting at my kitchen counter, savoring a third cup of coffee.  On my campus, only “essential personnel” are working.  The people who plow the snow and salt the walks—as well as those who feed our students and who ensure their safety—are all on the job.

Already this morning I’ve interacted with so many working people:  the postal service clerk who accepted the package I mailed; the man at Acme who sold me salmon for tonight’s dinner and the lady who rang it up; the woman at the corner bakery where I got some fresh bagels.  They are all at jobs from which they will have to make their way home in weather, having provided services which were lovely and convenient for me to receive, though hardly essential.  

And that’s not even to mention the largely invisible (to me) network of people hard at work doing all sorts of critical jobs:  nurses and doctors and police officers and firefighters and utility workers, to name just a few.  

I know that I haven’t posted anything in a while, so this seems like a good moment to share the chapter from my book that addresses the dignity of work and worker.  This goes out with my thanks to anyone who’s on the job today.  May you be safe, warm, appreciated, and well-compensated!

Chapter 21
Finding God at My Feet

If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. — John 13:14

“Shine your shoes, lady?”

I was in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just south of Laredo, Texas, where I was leading a week of spring break service. My students and I were headed back to the border after experiencing the infamous bridge crossing—Mexicans going one way to work, Americans going the other way to shop. At the moment, I was busy pretending not to hear the fellow calling out to me from the street corner.

I am not a person who gets shoeshines. Having bad feet, I buy footwear that’s as practical and supportive as a good friend. And because I accept (yet resent) the fact that I am never going to skip around in pretty little flats or sexy stilettos, I generally ignore my shoes unless they hurt. But there was no ignoring this persistent young man.

“Shine your shoes?” he called again, literally running with his shoeshine kit down the block to catch up with me. “Look at your shoes!” he cried. “I’ll shine them fast, good price!” Only then did I glance at my sturdy black boots. Scuffed and dusty, they looked like something I’d fished out of a dumpster. The man had a point. I acquiesced, and he went to work—right in the middle of the sidewalk.

I was mortified. Standing there with four of my students while this young Mexican man knelt at my feet for what seemed like an eternity, I felt as conspicuous as if I had purchased a giant sombrero with the words frivolous American embroidered across the brim. Unaccustomed to being served in this manner, I prayed that no one had a camera.

Then I noticed something. He was doing a really good job. He polished and buffed vigorously; he was in the zone. The man was a professional, doing his job with flair and efficiency. My shoes had never looked better—even right out of the box.

As a further mortification, I needed to borrow money from a student to pay him—a “good price” being higher than I had expected, but worth every peso.

What lingers from that encounter is confusion about my own discomfort. The inequality I experienced as the young man knelt at my feet could have gone either way. On the one hand, I was a tourist “rich” enough to hire someone to do this menial task for me, and he was a laborer stuck hustling business in the street. But to leave it there would be to deny the dignity of work and worker. To be on the receiving end of his skill was humbling, for he was a good shoe-shiner, and I am a crummy one. He deserved his good price, and my respect. I’m glad he got both.

Think of the many people who provide services for you (trash collector, grocery clerk) and hold them in prayer, one by one. How do you show your gratitude for their good work, and respect for their dignity as children of God?

 

 

Cloud Cover

There’s a picturesque dusting of snow on the evergreen tree outside my window, heralding the arrival of Winter Ordinary Time.  The snow is gratuitous, of course; it’s also Winter Ordinary Time in sunny Florida, and Southern California, and Mexico City, while here in Philadelphia we had our first (and so far, only) crippling snow of the season way back on November 15.

But it’s not snow on my mind today.  It’s clouds.

Twice last week I stumbled across a reference to the “column of cloud” from the Book of Exodus.  As in, “The LORD preceded [the Israelites], in the daytime by means of a column of cloud to show them the way, and at night by means of a column of fire to give them light. Thus they could travel both day and night. Neither the column of cloud by day nor the column of fire by night ever left its place in front of the people” (13:21-22).  This is a thing about which I have not thought in years.  Decades, perhaps.

The first reference I found was in a poem called Passover Remembered by Rev. Alla Bozarth-Campbell, which I spotted while skimming a binder of reflection resources for service experiences.  It caught my eye last Thursday evening, and moved me so much that I copied parts of it into my journal on Friday morning, highlighting the line “I am with you in the fire, and I am with you in the cloud.”

I am with you in the fire,
and I am with you in the cloud.

The next morning, I glanced at Jesus Calling, which a friend had sent me recently.  My jury’s a bit out on these daily meditations, wildly popular though they are (which may be one reason my snobby little jury is reluctant to weigh in).  There’s something about the language that isn’t quite my cup of tea, but the gift was a very touching surprise from someone I haven’t seen in a long time, so I keep it next to my rocking chair, pick it up regularly, and stay open.

On the morning after I copied and underlined “I am with you in the fire, and I am with you in the cloud,” the Jesus Calling Scripture of the day included Exodus 33, in which the column of cloud stood at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting whenever Moses went there to speak privately with the LORD.

Well.  Now the column of cloud officially has my attention.

The column of fire is a pretty good way to describe my last semester.  Finding God in Ordinary Time came out in September, and I blazed my way through book launch events and new retreats and speaking engagements clear through to mid-December.  I had such a sense that God was opening a way before me, and although I began the season anxious about how I would ever juggle it all, I trusted, and persevered, and made it through to Christmas.  I would hop up and take a bow right now, except for one thing.

Right now, I can neither hop nor bow.

Just as my book was launching last fall, I became aware of some discomfort in my knees.  As the pain began to radiate all the way from my lower back to my feet, escalating interventions included new sneakers, chiropractic adjustments, Advil and Aleve, nutritional supplements, therapeutic massage, acupuncture, X-rays, and physical therapy–all to naught.  Walking hurts.  Driving is excruciating.  Stairs are an adventure, and inclines aren’t great either.  Putting on socks  sometimes feels like the accomplishment of the day.

My chiropractor wants me to have an MRI, but my primary care physician (i.e. the one who authorizes insurance coverage) wants me to see a sports medicine doctor first.  So, even though the only team I ever competed on was forensics (speech & debate), I’m taking my middle-aged, non-athletic self to the sports medicine clinic on Thursday.  (They do say mortification is good for the soul.)

What does all this have to do with the column of cloud?

Well, for one thing, I can’t see the way forward; the cloud cover is pretty profound right now.  There are so many things I want to do, so many exciting invitations on my horizon, but I am hobbled, slow, distracted, and worried.  I don’t know what’s wrong.  I don’t know how to make it better.  I would gladly do what it takes if I knew what it took, but I don’t.

Here’s what I do know.  The column of cloud is trying to get my attention as a metaphor, both for guidance and for intimacy with God.

First, guidance: Scripture is reminding me that the Israelites were led out of slavery in Egypt, not only by means of a blazing fire at night (so exciting!) but also by an obscuring cloud by day.  Day by day.  One foot in front of the other.  Not able to see very far.  Not sure where the journey would end.  But led, nonetheless; the cloud never left its place in front of the people.

In my New Year’s blog post, I pondered the astounding changes 365 days can bring.  I don’t know where I’ll be with this affliction when next January rolls around; the only thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be somewhere else.  I’m choosing to trust that where I’ll be is where God has led me.

Second, intimacy with God:  Sometimes I joke that God must want to say, “We only see each other at work!  Can’t we just hang out?”  I was very focused on work last year, using the hours around the edges of my campus ministry day job to write, edit, and market my book, design retreats, work on talks, keep up this blog, etc. But in these slowed-down days, my morning prayer has gotten better.  It’s so much harder to jump up and do something else; so instead, I’m lingering.  Savoring my coffee.  Watching that before sunrise sky.  Mulling over a Scripture text.  Listening to Taize music.  Pondering a deepened compassion for people who find life difficult—whether for physical or emotional reasons.  Talking some.  Listening more.  I’d forgotten what it’s like to have agenda-less prayer time, but I’m appreciating it.

When the cloud lifts and leads, I’ll move.  Maybe limping.  Maybe leaping.  But until then, I’m going to stay here and see what God has to say.

What is your fire?  What is your cloud?

In this Winter Ordinary Time, may your ordinary days—whether firey or cloudy, painful or  pain-free—be extraordinarily blessed.

 

 

Choices and Mysteries

I’m going to be a great-aunt!

Okay, technically, I’m going to be a really good first cousin twice removed. But since that doesn’t exactly fly off the tongue, and since Holly (the mother-to-be) has always called me her aunt, then great-aunt I shall be to this new little love, coming our way in April: the first child of the next generation in my family.

Holly is the older daughter of my beloved cousin Susan—my best friend since the playpen days—who died when Holly and her sister Maddy were just 20 and 17. Holly’s baby will be named Suzannah, a lovely choice that pays homage to Susan and to Susan’s mother (also Susan) while avoiding the burden of “Susan III” (since she will be neither British royalty nor pope in a parallel universe). And as if that distinction weren’t enough, young Suzannah will go by perhaps the cutest nickname ever: Sookie.

Today is New Year’s Day, as well as (in the Catholic tradition) the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Both observances call us to pondering. Like many of you, I’ve been thinking back to this time last year, marveling at the astounding changes 365 days can bring. Last year, this baby was only a twinkle in God’s eye. Yet, by this time next year, our family will barely be able to remember a time when we were Sookie-less.

So here’s where my mind has been going, as I ponder the child on her way.

  • Sookie would not exist if Holly hadn’t been born (obviously).
  • Holly would not exist if I hadn’t introduced her mother to my housemate, Jeff, when I was a volunteer at Freedom House in Richmond in the late 80’s.
  • I wouldn’t have gone to Richmond after graduation if my college friend Joe hadn’t suggested a “theology club” spring break service project to visit his favorite high school teacher, who had become the Executive Director of Freedom House, where Jeff was already a volunteer.
  • Joe and I would not have been friends if I hadn’t gone to Saint Joseph’s University.
  • I would not have gone to St. Joe’s if my dad hadn’t taught accounting there.
  • Dad wouldn’t have taught accounting if he hadn’t been laid off from a corporate job he hated.
  • He wouldn’t have had the job to lose if he hadn’t majored in accounting at Villanova.
  • He wouldn’t have chosen that major if his mother hadn’t pushed him into it when he came out of college seminary after two years, unsure what to do with his life.

But push my Grandmother did, and major my Dad did; then he took a number of tedious accounting jobs before getting laid off and picking up a night school gig at St. Joe’s, which led to a 32-year satisfying teaching career for him and a faculty scholarship for me, which enabled me to graduate debt-free and go volunteer at a street center in Richmond for a year, where I met Jeff, whom I introduced to Susan, who had Holly, who’s having Sookie. Who apparently owes her existence to a pushy great-great-grandmother–among many, many other things.

We never know what will be the pivot-points in our lives, or how our own choices may create turning points for others. But choose we must, all our days. Some things are matters for discernment. But, as we know too well, which way we turn when leaving the house on any given morning can have as much life-changing impact as our career choice. More importantly, our not-great decisions and even tragic missteps still leave God plenty of room to work, since everything (according to St. Ignatius) has the potential to call forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.

The threshold on which each of us stands on this New Year’s Day is the cumulative result of choices—our own and others’—as well as circumstances of no one’s choosing. And so we step across it, trusting that our best and most sincere choices, made in good faith, will lead us home.

As I say in my book: I can only bow before the mystery.

One final note . . . speaking of choices and mysteries . . . Sookie’s mom, Holly, works for a day care center, taking care of other people’s babies. She will have worked there full time for less than a year before the baby is born (for a pittance, by the way–especially relative to what parents pay the Center for their children’s care at her hands).  Not only does she have no paid maternity leave, but they are not even obligated to hold her job, should she happen to need more than one week off after delivery.  They have been very clear about this. It’s a lousy deal, and consequently it’s been hard for her to see a good choice; finances are alarmingly tight. And so, recently, Holly opened her own window, setting up a “Go Fund Me” page to try to finance her maternity leave—the quality time together that every parent and infant deserve.

This is an unusual choice for me in this blog, but the new year calls us to take risks, right?  So I’m just going to put it out there . . . if you are moved to help this mother-to-be (still so sad about the loss of her own mom) to start life well with her daughter, here’s the link to Holly’s Go Fund Me.

And whatever 2019 holds for you, as always: may your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed!

Christine

Far from Ordinary

Today is the last day of the Church year: Saturday of the 34th Week in Ordinary Time. After six months of green, liturgists are breaking out the purple and pink.  At sundown tonight, it’s Advent.

Advent is a time of preparation, as John the Baptist cries: Prepare ye the way of the Lord!  Step outside church, however, and it’s already secular Christmas: Prepare ye the cards and the gifts! Prepare ye the tree and the lights! Prepare ye the cookies and pies!

Even as I rail against it, I have to acknowledge that I enjoy many of the trappings of secular Christmas, because I’m pretty good at cards, gifts, trees, lights, cookies and pies. (Well maybe not so much with the pies.) Do I have to stop enjoying all these things in order to “do” Advent properly?

Of course not.

But I do have to think about the how and the why of the things I undertake in the next few weeks. Am I doing them compulsively, from a sense of ought? Or am I doing them lovingly, in a spirit of hospitality?

One thing the Advent and Christmas seasons have in common is that they are all about hospitality. We prepare to welcome Christ into our hearts as we prepare to welcome people into our homes. The sweet spot is when we can do both: welcome people into our hearts as well as our homes. That is the essence of hospitality.

When I was in the volunteer community at Freedom House in Richmond some thirty years ago, we used Henri Nouwen’s definition of hospitality to explain what we were trying to do for people experiencing homelessness. Hospitality, Nouwen suggested, is the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.

Hospitality is the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.

I have been thinking a lot about hospitality lately. Who or what requires free space to enter my heart this year? Who or what feels like a “stranger” to me, needing to be befriended?

I have an inkling about some of the answers to these questions, but I want to sit with them a while, pondering them in my rocking chair through the dark mornings of Advent. One thing I do know is that it has to do with change.

Everywhere I go these days, I seem to find myself in conversations about letting go. Letting go of cherished people and places. Letting go of faith communities that no longer feel like family. Letting go of agility and ability through illness and aging. Letting go of titles and roles that once defined identity. 

In all these scenarios, it’s easier to see what’s going than what’s coming. Tempting to cling to what was with nostalgia, and to regard what will be with suspicion.

What would it look like to be hospitable instead? To create a free space in our hearts where a strange and even frightening new aspect of life could enter and become a friend? To allow room for a new relationship or reality to grow within us—intentionally, gradually, peaceably?

In St. Vincent’s choir, my new favorite Christmas song is Friends in Christ, Rejoice. The refrain is simple but powerful: Like no god we had imagined is the baby in the straw. And that’s the point, really. As Christians we believe that God chose to enter our world in a way no one had imagined: the most vulnerable way possible. And it is still into the vulnerable parts of our lives—and our world—that this God is born, again and again.

Like no god we had imagined is the baby in the straw.

And so my prayer for you, this Advent season, is this:

May you create the space you need to be hospitable to yourself.
May you to take time to pause, to ponder, to pray, to notice.
May your hospitality overflow in gracious welcome
  to whoever and whatever will be part of your life in the year to come.
May the God of surprises come to you like no God you had imagined.

And may your far-from-ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed.

Christine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Stroll in the Orchard

On October 27, I had the great privilege of giving the keynote address at the 5th Annual Friends of the Newman Center dinner at West Chester University, where I served as Associate Director from 1993 – 2004.  Although I spoke from notes, here is (mostly) what I said . . . asides excepted.  Enjoy!

Tonight’s liturgical readings call us to gratitude, which is fitting, because whenever I think about my eleven years here at the Newman Center, gratitude is the first and last and primary thing that I feel. (Also amazement at how I ever managed to work past 10:00 five nights a week for ten academic years, when all my life I have wanted to be in my PJ’s at 9:00—and now often am!)

There are so many memories in this building, but for the sake of time I promised myself that I would stick to things that happened right here in this room. Liturgical things, certainly, like celebrating the Easter Triduum with so many exceptionally well-trained liturgical ministers, and recording our choir CD, Go Make a Difference. I also remember great service events, like schlepping heavy grocery bags filled with donations for our Thanksgiving outreach. And of course there were fundraisers, like the Great Newman Center Garage Sale, and the BINGO nights when Sara Marks and I worked this room on ROLLER BLADES. (That was before this lovely new floor, obviously.)

But my deepest gratitude, when I think of the Newman Center, is for the opportunity to walk with so many students as they grew in their relationship with God. If there’s a better job description, I don’t know what it is.

In the first chapter of my book, I use the analogy of a complicated sunrise. Not the sunrise of a perfectly clear day, when the sun simply pops over the horizon, nor a completely overcast day, when you can’t even tell when it’s up. Complicated sunrises are those days when you can see the sun’s progress only by its dramatic effects on the clouds. Here’s what I wrote:

I love a complicated sunrise for the same reason I love my job in college campus ministry. Just as the sun is rendered more beautiful by its effect on the clouds, God’s glory shines most clearly when it touches the shadowed parts of people’s lives.

A timid student begins to glow in the warmth of a faith community. Foggy lack of direction gives way to the illuminated path of a discovered call. God’s healing power touches broken places—disappointments, abuses, failures, betrayals—and renders hearts stronger than they were before. People in pain discover that the darkness in their lives does not have to stay dark, and when God’s light reaches those troubled crevices, they are transformed from sources of shame into radiant signs of the divine.

Morning arrives in its own way for each one, as clouds give way to light. I am grateful each time I am awake to see it.

One of the things I am most grateful for–and miss the most about this place–is the hunger that Newman students have:  to know about the faith and to grow in friendship with God.  This seems to be true of Newman ministry nationwide. I am 53 years old, and I’ve spent 44 of those years in some kind of educational setting, but West Chester is the only secular school I’ve ever been affiliated with. I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through grad school, and since leaving here I’ve been at Gwynedd Mercy University. Obviously I’m very happy with my own Catholic education (clearly it got me to a good place) and I love where I am now—I so admire the charism of the Sisters of Mercy, their commitment to critical concerns, and the integration of all that into the curriculum and the life of the University. But Newman ministry is special because students at a place like West Chester often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. You go to class and encounter an atheist professor who thinks you’re stupid for being Catholic, and then you head back to your residence hall to deal with the fundamentalist Christian roommate who thinks you’re going to hell for being Catholic!

That’s why it’s so important for there to be a place like this: a safe space where you can be part of community that helps you learn and practice an adult Catholic faith. Not the faith you had when you made your first Communion at age seven or when you were Confirmed at age 12, and not the faith of your parents, but your own, owned, adult Catholic faith. And that is why it is so important that we do this ministry very well.

When I left here and went to Gwynedd Mercy, I knew that the ministry settings were different, but I had no idea how much they would be two totally different jobs . . . that I would go from being, essentially, an associate pastor, to being a college administrator. One of the challenges of being a college administrator was learning to do assessment—a huge task in higher ed. Over and over again I was asked, “How do you know that you’re being effective?” I came kicking and screaming to the world of assessment, once even telling my boss, “Do you know how I’ll know that I did a good job? When I get to heaven and look around and see who else is there!” That’s a joke, of course. But the truth at the center of it is the wisdom contained in that prayer often attributed to St. Oscar Romero but actually written by Bishop Ken Untener: We plant the seeds that will one day grow. We water seeds that have been planted, knowing they hold future promise.

Campus ministry is about planting and watering and weeding and cultivating and fertilizing; it is not about harvesting. The harvest comes later. Much later. Because how holy you feel on the morning after a retreat–or even how well you can articulate your faith on the night before graduation–is not nearly as important as the way you live your life after you leave this place. The difference that we want to make in students’ lives is for the long haul. So how do we know if we’re doing a good job?

Well, one of the answers is, stick around. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, which means that some of my original students are bona fide middle-aged people now.  I find that one of the blessings of Facebook (though we know its evils as well) is how it has enabled me to stay connected to alumni. When I see the careers you have chosen—how many of you are in ministry, or social work, or counseling, or some other helping profession—and I see the kind of people you are choosing as your life partners, and the remarkable children you are raising, and how profoundly you are navigating life’s challenges—I know that this work has borne fruit. And we’re not talking raspberries and strawberries, here, but whole orchards of long-lasting fruit!

Many of the stories in my book were set during my time here, but there’s one in particular that I want to share with you tonight, because it describes an encounter that continues to bear such fruit.   This took place during Project Mexico X, in January of 2005.  (At that point I was already working at Gwynedd Mercy, by the way, but Fr. Sam hadn’t found a successor for me yet, so I got to go to Mexico one last time.)

This is Chapter 18:  Finding God in Forgiveness

Tim was so sick. We were in Mexico City for our annual service-immersion experience—eight college students and two campus ministers—and on the final day, Tim went down hard. Perhaps it was the water, but more likely it was the way he had hurdled the language barrier with the men in our host family by eating every food they dared him to, no matter how spicy or unidentifiable. Twenty-four hours before we were due to fly home, our host grandmother, Inocencia, took Tim to the doctor, who gave him a shot of something and instructions to continue the injections every six hours.

At 2:00 a.m., twelve hours before flight time, Inocencia got up to give Tim his next shot. But we couldn’t find the syringes! We searched frantically, and even woke up Tim’s roommate, Mark, to ask if he had seen them, to no avail. Since Tim was so sick and flight time so close, Inocencia asked her son-in-law Luis to drive her to get more syringes at a twenty-four-hour pharmacy some distance away.

Luis’s car had barely disappeared around the corner when Mark stumbled sleepily into the kitchen. “Is this what you were looking for?” he asked, holding up the missing box. Apparently, he had decided to be helpful and pack the communal suitcase a few hours earlier, and had thrown in everything he thought was ours—including the syringes.

Now the wait began. This was before cell phones. We had no way of contacting Ino and Luis, and they were gone for a very long time. Mark sat at the kitchen table looking just as miserable as Tim. Our students adored this host family, and the realization that his careless mistake had sent these dear people out into the city in the middle of the night weighed on Mark terribly. Finally, the door opened, and as they walked in, Mark guiltily held out the box, braced for their reaction.

I was watching their faces, and what I saw was amazing. There was not even a fleeting trace of annoyance. There was nothing that suggested they were glad we were leaving in eleven hours. There was only laughter, and giving Tim his shot.

By breakfast, Tim was much better, but Mark was still a mess. “I can’t believe I did that,” he said. “They were so good about it. How can I ever repay them?” I told him what I knew to be true: he couldn’t. “Mark, you have just experienced the kind of utter forgiveness that most of us only get from God. All you can do is be grateful, and remember this feeling the next time someone offends you.” Mark is a police officer now, and recently told me he frequently recalls that lesson.

So much human forgiveness is partial, grudging, or conditional. No wonder we have a hard time imagining the fullness of God’s mercy. Isn’t it ironic that the only way to catch a glimpse is to stand in need of it?

This is how our God works. Mark made an innocent mistake—as we all do from time to time. He could have blown it off, and forgotten it entirely. Or it could have lingered as an embarrassing or even shameful memory. But instead—because he was in a place, in a community of faith, where someone could help frame that moment in a spiritual context—it became an enduring lesson.

And not just for himself. As of this morning, according to Amazon’s report, Mark’s story has reached 27 states, including Florida, Texas, California, and Washington.

The Lord has done great things for us. We are filled with joy!

We may never know the impact that our ministry has in people’s lives. But every once in a while, if we’re lucky, we get to take a stroll in the orchard.

Thank you, and God bless this Newman Center community!