Words that Abide

I spent last week with my nose buried in the manuscript of Finding God Abiding, going over corrections suggested by my copy editor. I read the whole thing every day–often twice a day–alternating between “track changes” in Word and the old-fashioned printed copy. As a writer friend commiserated, there is no such thing as being finished with editing; you just call time-of-death on the process, praying that no lingering, mortifying errors lurk in plain sight.

Today I thought I’d take a step back and look at the words differently, using a word cloud generator. Based on frequency of usage (and dropping proper names, articles, conjunctions, etc.), what were my go-to words for this book? Here are the results, which I invite you to ponder.

What catches your eye? What stirs your curiosity about the story behind the words? Do you find yourself combining any words, whimsically or meaningfully? What opens the door to a story or memory of your own? Which word might God invite you to sit with in prayer? (Or, simply pick one and pray with it; what comes to you?)

Although I look forward to the day when I can put this whole book in your hands, the publication date (June 7) is still almost nine months away. Until then, may your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed by the God who abides.


Cover Reveal

Saturday is the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola—two years from the day that I stepped down from a twenty-six-year campus ministry career to pursue a freelance existence.  As the second anniversary of my “third act” approaches, I’m delighted to announce that my next book, Finding God Abiding, will be coming into the world on June 7, 2022, courtesy of Woodhall Press.  Here’s the cover, designed by the very talented Asha Hossain.

Cover of Finding God Abiding: An image of two poppies and the book title

So much thought and work go into cover design; that’s what the rest of this post is about.  If you’re intrigued, read on! 

Asha had an unenviable task: design a cover that would be “just like the first book, only different.”  In other words, make it clear that this is a companion volume to Finding God in Ordinary Time, yet offering fresh bread.  Here’s a peek at the thought process (to which many of you contributed via Facebook and Instagram this week):

The Background

Did you even notice the background?  It’s not just white; it’s a woven texture, alluding to one of my overarching themes: life as a tapestry.  In “A God Who Abides,” I wrote:

“The stories in this book are organized around four actions that run like threads through the tapestry of our lives: perceiving, becoming, embracing, and releasing. We awaken to the world around us, discover and rediscover our path, practice love in its many forms, and grieve the loss of much that we hold dear. These movements are neither sequential nor singular; we go back and forth like a weaver, creating a unique tapestry on the loom that is our life.”

The woven background is such a subtle detail; it may never register in the reader’s conscious mind, but it adds to the overall impression.

The Poppies

On the cover of Finding God in Ordinary Time, the hummingbird is what people really remember.  For this book, we wanted something equally memorable.  I shared with Asha a paragraph from my chapter “Finding God in a Fire Siren” and suggested she might find inspiration there.  A few days later, I emailed her back to say, “Or poppies!  I love poppies!  If you find good image, I can always change the language.”  And that’s what happened. Since then, I have given a lot of thought to the significance of poppies, and have a whole pastoral reflection to share, but that will keep for another day.

The Colors

The red and the green were obvious, to match the poppy flowers and stems. But red + green = Christmas, and red + green + white = the Italian flag. Not that I don’t love Christmas and Italy, but neither is what I was going for. When Asha introduced purple for the way it balanced the other colors, my mind went straight to the liturgical year: green for Ordinary Time, purple for Advent and Lent, white for Christmas and Easter, and red for Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and all those martyrs’ feast days. My book traces God’s abiding presence through the joys and travails of our life; how appropriate to have a nod to the whole sweep of the liturgical year–birth, death, resurrection, and everything in between–right there on the cover.

The Fonts 

Oh, my goodness.  Most of it was easy; “Finding God” and “Daily Meditations” are in the same fonts as we used for Ordinary Time (Trajan Pro and Minion Pro, for the curious).  To convey a sense of freshness, Asha presented a choice of fun script fonts for the word Abiding.  I wasn’t crazy about either one, but they arrived as I was about to take a walk with my friend Rose—who can always be counted on for an opinion—so I printed out the samples and headed out the door.  After much discussion (and a three-mile hoof, and some wine), Rose said “You have nice handwriting.  Why don’t you write it yourself?”  This was SUCH an Enneagram One thing to say, and to agree to—one of the many reasons Rose and I get along. Three sharpies and almost two hundred attempts later, we had a winner.

But still, I wasn’t sure.  I asked Asha to show me what the cover would look like if the whole title was in the same typed font, and it looked BEAUTIFUL.  Elegant.  Dignified.  What if I used my own handwriting, then regretted the decision?  What if I put that little bit of myself out there, and it made me cringe every time I saw the book?

Can you see where this is headed? 

If I’m worried about putting too much of myself out there . . . if I’m afraid of letting people see my messy edges and imperfections . . . well then, frankly, I should be writing some other sort of books.  Science fiction, perhaps.  A Brief History of Mathematics. Bicycle manuals.

The comment that gave me enough courage to move forward with the handwritten Abiding was from my friend Emilie, who wrote this beautiful observation: “The handwriting provides a suggestion of something personal within.”  Indeed, it should.  Finding God Abiding includes chapters on everything from body image to the clergy scandal, from feeling broke to not being able to stop crying. (Also nicer stuff.)

If I can be brave about all that, surely, I can write my own name on the cover.

Now, back to editing the manuscript . . . deadline, September 1st!

Celebrating Easter at Home

Friends, this week I had the privilege of being interviewed by Lynn Rosen, co-owner of The Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park. Lynn and I chatted about my book for a few minutes, but quickly moved on to talking about the challenge of celebrating Easter from home, when Holy Week is usually marked by such beautiful church services. If you have eleven minutes, check out our conversation on YouTube!

The Open Book is one of those indie gems, a true hub of literature, fun, and friendship in our neighborhood. Like many local businesses, they are finding lots of creative ways to stay afloat and generate digital content during the coronavirus shutdown. (They are also willing to do local delivery of in-stock items, so if you’re nearby and could use a new physical, audio, or e-book, consider supporting them!) You can also watch Lynn’s other author interviews and book recommendations at her new YouTube channel: Lynn Reads a Book!

Finally, I am enjoying doing my own daily audio recordings of Finding God in Ordinary Time along with new, fresh content. If you’d like to jump on in time for Holy Week, visit here.

As always, may your ordinary (and far from ordinary) days be extraordinarily blessed.

Spiritual Sustenance for the Self-Quarantined

Thank you to everyone who subscribed to this; stay tuned for whatever’s next!

No doubt you have experienced a cascade of cancellations this week, as schools, theaters, and other public venues have shut down to try to contain the Coronavirus.  It has all happened so quickly:  yesterday morning, I was speculating about whether to go forward with next week’s Lenten retreat; by last night, our Archbishop had announced the cancellation of all parish activities.

As a new member of the “gig economy,” my first thought was about all the work I would be missing.  Pretty quickly, however, my mind turned to the countless people who hunger for spiritual sustenance during the season of Lent. So many of you have signed up for retreats, programs, or days of prayer which are now not happening, or rely on the company and inspiration of groups which are now not meeting.  Ironically, such sustenance is needed more than ever in these days of unprecedented uncertainty.

So I’m going to try something new.  Starting next Saturday, March 21, I will release the audio file of one chapter of Finding God in Ordinary Time each day, accompanied by a second file in which I muse a bit on that day’s content.  (Fresh bread!)  Counting the Introduction, that’s 29 days of content, which will take us all the way through the Octave of Easter on Sunday, April 19.  For this, I’m asking just $30. (Those subscribing in Week Two will receive 23 days of content for $20.)

People have been inquiring about an audiobook for some time now, and while the quality won’t be quite as good (no fancy intro music or special effects, though sometimes you might get a free train whistle), I hope that you will enjoy hearing the stories in my own voice.  

And now if you could please say a prayer to the patron saint of technology for me . . .

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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?









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!

It’s Out There

Finding God in Ordinary Time has been out for almost three weeks now.  It truly is a dream come true.  When I sat down in the cafeteria of St. Monica in Berwyn to sign books after my first event, I opened the cover, picked up my blue ballpoint pen, and thought, “This is my life now!”  I have wanted to have a book in the world since before I could spell, and now it’s out there.

Where will it go?  I’ve been delighted to see the Facebook posts of friends and former students around the country receiving their books in the mail.  And my (modest) book tour will soon be bringing me to Arlington, VA, Wernersville PA, and even Morgantown WV, where I will have the pleasure of placing signed copies in the hands of people I meet out there.

But it’s “out there” in another way as well.  Thanks in large part to the creative hustle of Ben Tanzer, (whom I’ve been calling my Marketing Guy but who might be more accurately be called my Champion), news of the book has reached niches I didn’t even know existed–places that are not part of the “Catholic world.”

It has always been my hope that Finding God would connect with people who didn’t already speak the language of faith.  And that’s what I’m hearing from people like my friend George Allen, who had this to say:

Marketed astutely at least in part towards those “skeptical or weary of religion”–which is to say, right at devout agnostics just like yours truly!–the book is a brief-but-powerful series of essays about how the presence of the “divine” (including however those of us often compelled to put that word in quotes might define it) can be located and appreciated in everyday moments and challenges.

I am so grateful for George’s affirmation.  But this latest round of publicity is reaching the eyeballs (and eardrums) of people who do not already know and love me.  How will they respond?  I may never know–though presumably book sales will tell.

Here are some of the intriguing places that word of my book has gone:

The Rumpus.  This online magazine describes itself as ” a place where people come to be themselves through their writing, to tell their stories or speak their minds in the most artful and authentic way they know how.”  They invited me to contribute an article to their weekly “What to Read When” feature, and on 10/5 published my “What to Read When You’ve Lost Your Spiritual Flashlight,” a curated list of books they call “a go-to list for refreshing, down-to-earth, spot-on spiritual reading.”  This was so much fun to write, and it may give you some ideas for what to read next!

Hypertext Magazine.  This “social justice teaching and publishing non-profit” invited me to contribute to their “One Question” feature, whereby an author gets to answer one question of his or her own choosing.  Check out my answer to this question:  Your stories are all from real life; which one are you most anxious about having “out there?”

This Podcast Will Change Your Life.  Recorded live via Skype, my one-hour, unedited conversation with Ben Tanzer ranges all over the place, from how I organized my chapters to the current state of immigration in our country, all under the umbrella of “The Power of Stories.”

Spiritual Directors International.  This vibrant association of more than six thousand individuals on six continents representing more than fifty spiritual traditions graciously accepted one of my chapters as a guest blog post.  It’s the chapter where I get most explicit about the Ignatian grounding of my book:  Finding God on the Oncology Floor.

Lancaster County Woman.  Freelance writer Susan Beam interviewed me for a feature in the Health and Wellness section of this magazine, in anticipation of the weekend retreat that I am giving later this month, called Healing Encounters:  A Retreat for Everyone in the Company of Contemporary and Biblical Women.

Speaking of which, it is not too late to sign up for that retreat, held October 19-21 at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in beautiful Wernersville, PA.  We’ll be praying with all sorts of stories and leaning in to our own healing encounters.  You can find out more and register here!

Thank you to everyone who has helped spread the word, within communities of faith and well beyond them.  I appreciate all forwards, comments, and shares–anything that gets the algorithms of search engine optimization whirring!

Oh wait, speaking of computer algorithms, this cracks me up . . . in mid-September, Amazon named Finding God in Ordinary Time its “#1 New Release in Religious Humor.”  I’m sorry; what?!?  While I do describe the writing as “surprisingly funny,” this is no book of Jesus knock-knock jokes, people.  Let’s hope it’s true what they say:  there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

May your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed . . . and touched with a bit of divine humor!






Before Sunrise

“What is saving your life right now?”  That question, routinely asked by Jen Hatmaker at the end each of her podcast interviews, comes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church: a Memoir of Faith.  If I were to answer it today, I’d have to say “5:00 a.m.”

Five and I have been friends for a long time.  Left to its own devices, my circadian rhythm always has me up at five o’clock–no matter what time zone I went to sleep in.  When I was in my mid-20’s, working as an executive secretary at US Healthcare, I spent six weeks writing my master’s thesis from five to seven each morning, watching the sky lighten outside the big picture window that was our high-rise apartment’s only redeeming feature.

Now 5 a.m. is saving my life again, for the first time since those thesis-writing days.

The last few months have been my “summer of self-promotion,” as I searched for ways to get Finding God in Ordinary Time in front of the eyeballs of people who would read it, recommend it, and otherwise help me market it.  Now the school year has started, and I’m just a few days away from book launch, and there are SO MANY THINGS I could be doing on any given day, both to promote Finding God and to prepare for the many speaking engagements on my horizon.  And so, most days, 5 a.m. finds me in my rocking chair with coffee and laptop, doing whatever I can to move this work forward.  (At 7:00–at the urging of my doctor–I strap on my Keens and go for a walk before heading to work.  This backfired recently, as my beloved old Keens had worn down so unevenly that they actually threw my back out.  But that’s a blog post for another day.)

As a multi-decade devotee of 5:00 a.m., I would have thought I knew everything there was to know about the hour.  But last month, down the shore (as we say in Philly), I discovered something remarkable.

I have long been a fan of the complicated sunrise, especially over the ocean.  I love watching the sky go through all its vibrant color changes as the sun lights the clouds from below before easing over the horizon; in my book I use it as a metaphor for college campus ministry–witnessing the effects of students’ dawning spiritual adulthood, being grateful each time I am awake to see it.

But in Wildwood, in early August, sunrise is just after six o’clock Do you know what it is at five?  Dark.  Can’t-see-the-ocean dark.  Why-am-I-sitting-on-the-deck-with-coffee dark.

You know what else it is?  Fascinating.

It turns out that–and I am so sorry to know this–the sky is compellingly beautiful a whole hour before sunrise.  The colors keep shifting, but instead of the red-orange-yellow end of the Crayola box, we get a black-navy-purple crayon sky.  I couldn’t get enough of it this year.  I didn’t want to look down–which was okay, because it was too dark to read or write.  I didn’t even want to go inside to refill my coffee, because the sky changed so much from minute to minute.

Wildwood 500

View from the deck at 5:00 a.m., early August, Wildwood NJ

This is how God works, I used to say about the sunrise.  And I still do.  But this is also how God works, I now say about the well-pre-dawn sky.

So many people I know are waiting right now.  Waiting for an employer to call with a job offer.  Waiting for a safe time to break away from a bad relationship.  Waiting for a child to go into recovery, this time for good.  Waiting for discernment to become clear enough for action.  Waiting for healing in body, mind, or spirit.  It’s dark.  Really dark.  Can’t-see-the-ocean dark.  And yet things are happening, well out of sight.  God is at work in each of those situations, I do believe.  The predawn sky has become for me a metaphor for all the spiritual movement that is happening within and around each of us, all the stars slowly aligning, all the things we cannot see that are nevertheless working together for our good.

I’m aware of this happening in my book-launch life.  Much of it is through the behind-the-scenes efforts of Ben Tanzer, whom I’ve never met in person, but who from Chicago is connecting me to all sorts of creative outlets.  (Check out this audio series where you can now hear me read a chapter of my book, or Spiritual Directors International, which featured another chapter as a guest blog post.)  Ben’s going to interview me for his podcast next Friday; that should be a hoot.

And here’s a thing:  I just found out that Amazon has named Finding God in Ordinary Time as their #1 New Release in Religious Humor.  This absolutely cracks me up.  I have no idea how Amazon knows the book is funny, given how many serious topics it includes.  (Four chapters about mothers with cancer.  Four!)  I can’t imagine how it got to be #1 in that super-specific category, but I’m willing to bet that some people will pick it up on the strength of that odd accolade–people who wouldn’t have glanced at it otherwise.  And maybe it will be just what they needed to read.

Herculean human efforts and baffling computer algorithms aside, my hours staring at the black-navy-purple sky in Wildwood reminded me that God is at work in me right now in ways I cannot yet see.  This coming Monday, September 17, the sun is going to rise on Finding God in Ordinary Time.  I will go from being a person who has a book coming out to being an author on book tour (or as much tour as a busy campus minister can muster).  Instead of writing, writing, writing, I’m going to be speaking, speaking, speaking.

Just yesterday, while mentally rehearsing my talk for my first book event (at St. Monica in Berwyn), I felt God say, “So, are you going to talk about you, or are you going to talk about me?”  (Whoops!  YOU, Lord.  Thanks for the reminder.)  And that’s why the  5:00 hours will remain essential.  No matter how busy this season gets, I have to stay grounded in prayer, to allow the message people most need to hear to flow through me, without making it about me.

The days ahead will be anything but ordinary.  If you find yourself awake before sunrise, please pray that they will be extraordinarily blessed!



Just Keep Singing

“Calm down,” I told myself yesterday.  “How many times have we been over this?  You know it’s going to be there when you need it.  You blogged about it, for Pete’s sake.  Just keep singing!”

I was cantoring at St. Vincent’s, and the “it” was the Gospel acclamation (i.e. solo verse) to an alleluia that I’ve sung at least a hundred times.  But here was the problem: earlier in the week I’d cantored three Masses on retreat with the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, doing an alleluia that I’ve sung at least a thousand times, with a very similar acclamation.  As I sang the opening refrain (once myself, twice with the choir), I realized that I couldn’t anticipate the verse.  I had no idea what I was supposed to sing next.

I tried to hang onto the wisdom I shared last September in a blog post called Holding it Lightly:

It reminds me of lesson I’ve learned from cantoring at St. Vincent’s over the last nine years. I can’t tell you how often I used to get a wash of anxiety during a ridiculously familiar song—seriously, like the Our Father or the Gloria or the Holy Holy—when I realized that I couldn’t think how the next section began. But of course the reason I couldn’t hear that bit in my head is because I was busy singing the current bit. By the time I got to the worrisome part, the piano would be playing it and my brain would have caught up to the music. Sometimes it was touch-and-go; I’d take a deep breath and open my mouth still not certain what was supposed to come out next, but sure enough, out it came, right on time.

Eventually I accepted that if I could stay focused on what I was singing in the moment, the next one would be given to me. As in Luke 12:12: “For the holy Spirit will teach you in that moment what you should say.” Or, come to think of it, as in the Our Father itself, with its request for daily bread (not Costco-sized multi-loaf packages).

And then came the moment of truth.  The refrain ended.  Valerie, our choir director / piano player, nodded at me.  And the verse was nowhere to be found.  Blank slate.  Crickets. (Or–worse–crickets chirping the Celtic Alleluia instead of the Mass of Hope.)

So much for my wisdom, right?

But then a wonderful thing happened.  I gave Val the “I don’t know the verse” face (and yes, that’s a face:  panic-stricken eyes open wide; slight shake of the head) and she started to sing.  At which point, of course, the whole verse came flooding back into my brain and I was fine.

And so my wisdom from last September gets an addendum.   Sometimes God gives us what we need by having someone else hand it to us.

I experienced that reality in my book-life yesterday as well.  As my publication date is just shy of three months away, there is so much work I should be doing:  contacting bookstores, book bloggers, libraries and parishes; developing marketing materials, and strategizing creative ways to get the word out.  The unappealing task of self-promotion could be a full-time job.  Since I have a full-time job, however, I’m just doing what I can in the bits of time around the edges of my days.

But yesterday, out of the blue, I received a surprising email.  One of the lovely women I met on the IVC retreat (where I was also the speaker) went home to Northern Virginia and told a friend about me.  That woman pre-ordered Finding God in Ordinary Time on the strength of her friend’s recommendation, then invited me to exhibit at the Arlington Diocese’s “Future with Hope” Women’s Conference in October.  Suddenly, I have a chance to bring my book to a part of the country I hadn’t even dreamed of reaching.

Indeed, sometimes God gives us what we need by having someone else hand it to us.

And so I will continue to practice holding things lightly, stay open to the messengers of grace God sends my way, and pray that I can share that message with someone who needs it today.

How about you?  What do you need right now?  And who might need something you could easily give?

May this ordinary day be extraordinarily blessed!