Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Clinical Pastoral Education

"The way of Jesus leads across stony ground, through dark valleys, to the living water.  The peace and fulfillment given in Jesus is both in our midst and yet to come.  To suggest that personal well-being and the wholeness of life on earth are easily within our grasp is to obscure with a facile optimism the judgment and hope in the message of Jesus; but to dismiss as futile all human efforts to love and care and to lead others to wholesomeness is to deny with a false pessimism the incarnate nature of God's love.  Somewhere in the tension between these two extremes there lies the possibility for pastoral care." *

I began taking a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) last August in order to become a chaplain.  I wanted to pursue a career that would value my faith and my volunteer experiences in ministry.  I thought of chaplaincy, and within the space of a week was starting my first class.  It was a moment of providence, I believe -- in more ways than one.  I'm doing something that's in line with what I want my future to look like, but I am also learning so many unexpected and necessary lessons about myself and other people, that are carrying over into the rest of my life.  For, along with the class, the coursework, and the readings, I am required to spend 10 hours a week in a hospital, care center, or prison -- any place, really, where a chaplain, who can supervise me, works. And it's this practical component of the course that is teaching me so much.

My clinical hours are spent at a large care center, whose mostly elderly residents range from being rather active and self-sufficient to being mentally and/or physically disabled and requiring assistance to being bed-ridden and requiring round-the-clock nursing care.  I'm a little surprised by how much I love being there.  The staff are nice, the facility is homey and clean, there is a pretty chapel in the center of it all, with daily services for both Catholics and Protestants, and the chaplain who is my supervisor is a wonderful role model.  But it's the residents who are the biggest draw.  They are such lovely and loving people. Even the people who have a lot of heavy stuff to deal with are friendly and kind.  I don't know what I expected; I don't know why I was so hesitant; but I feel as if I have landed in a good place.

Another surprise to me was learning that chaplaincy is probably as much, if not more, about being aware of your own troubles as it is about helping someone else deal with theirs.  For unless you know what has hurt and wounded you, and where your own fearful and protected places are, you will not be able to be fully present to the other person when they talk about similar things.  You won't be able to just listen to them.  Instead, you may start thinking about your own story and want to share it with them, or you may have preconceived notions about such situations and project these onto the other person, or you may want to flee from such painful topics, brushing over them as quickly as possible.  And in the end, the visit becomes more about you than about the other person.

This happened to me.  When one particular resident wanted to talk about his divorce, and another was concerned about being possessed by the devil, and another was grieving the death of her husband, I found myself wanting to talk about my own divorce, wanting to change that other person's theology, and wanting to help that third person be happier by changing the subject.  Instead of just accepting what was important to that person, and helping them sort through their own pain, I, and my baggage, got in the way.

I think this happens to almost all of us.  We get in the way of seeing the other person as a separate and unique individual, with different experiences, and different interpretations, and different needs.  Instead, we project our own experiences, interpretations, and needs, onto them, and respond accordingly.  We don't see their world through their eyes, we see their world through our eyes.  We don't hear their words, we hear our interpretation of their words.  And these two can be very different.  Consider the difference between how Job's friends first treated him, sitting with him for seven days in silent empathy, for there were no words to express or explain his misery; and how they treated him when he began to speak.  They could not just listen.  And their interpretation of Job's words just made things harder for Job.

Charles V. Gerkin, a long-time professor of pastoral theology at Emory University wrote, "To listen to stories with an effort to understand means to listen first as a stranger who does not yet fully know the language, the nuanced meanings of the other as his or her story is being told." **  I think this is good advice, no matter who we are listening to, whether a long-time friend, our own children, someone you don't particularly like, or someone you've never met before:  try to understand their language.

But perhaps the most difficult thing I'm learning is how to not "help" the other person.  Sounds strange, doesn't it?  You would think that's what chaplains are supposed to do:  help people.  Well, yes and no.   

For example, originally, I wanted to give the residents peace and comfort.  I was quite intentional about that.  I felt good about that.  But, surprisingly, my agenda made it difficult for me to just be with them, to just listen and honor their difficulties.  Instead, I got busy trying to suggest solutions to their problems so they would be peaceful and comfortable.  This, too, became more about me than about them.  For their discomfort made me uncomfortable.  So uncomfortable that I had to do something to change it.  I couldn't just be there with them.

I'm discovering, however, that really that's the only thing I can do most of the time:  just be there with them.  I can't change things for them.  I can't heal broken relationships.  I can't fix dementia.  I can't bring back the dead.  Or even change a person's attitude.  But I can empathize; I can hold someone's hand; I can try to understand a person's hopelessness, anger, loneliness, fear, guilt, etc., in their language.

When there is, absolutely, nothing I can do, I can, most certainly, care. And this is true whether you are a chaplain, a mother, a friend, or hold any other place in someone's life.  

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


* from The Courageous Shepherd, by Alastair V. Campbell, excerpted in Images of Pastoral Care:  Classical Readings, ed. by Robert C. Dykstra, Chalice Press, pg. 61.

** from Images of Pastoral Care, pg. 17

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


"Surely you know..."   (Job 38:21)

Something I wrote a little while ago was taken out of context and used to characterize me in a way that was not true.  It got me to thinking about context, in general.

Have you ever judged someone by just one thing you knew about them?  It could be any thing:  the way they dressed, or what they did for a living, or where they lived, or what they said, etc.  Did you ever decide on someone's character or personality by that one thing?

I have a feeling that this is something we have all been guilty of, at one time or another.

But, how much can we know about a person by a whole list of things, let alone by one thing?  Seriously, think about this...

I have grey hair.  I used to be a math teacher.  I have three children.  I like to write about faith.  After twenty-seven years of marriage, I asked for a divorce.  The other day, I wore a pretty skirt and top to church.  I'm looking for work.  Some part of my house always needs dusting.  For a while, my toenails were painted turquoise, now they are painted pale peach.  I like Chopin.  I like Awolnation.  I don't like snakes.  I drive a mini-van.  I think God is a active presence in my life.  I could go on.  But even if I did, you still would not know who I am by the list, no matter how long it is.  Each item might add a piece to the puzzle, or it might just confuse you.  But, either way, there would be so much you wouldn't know.  And your understanding of who I am would be different from another person's understanding, because we all have different histories which influence us, too.

A friend told me recently that she attended a class where the instructor invited everyone to introduce themselves by saying where they were from and adding "but I'm so much more than that!"

That's exactly what I'm talking about:  no matter what you know about a person, they are so much more than that.  Really, any thing we say about a person, any judgment we make, whether positive or negative, takes the person out of context.  The context being the totality of that person's life.

Over the past month, reading the Book of Job in the Bible study I facilitate, I wondered if God is ever bothered -- if God can be bothered -- by the way people characterize God.  Job's friends in particular are fond of telling Job who God is and what God is like, and these descriptions are all over the map.  Some of these descriptions may resonate with your own experiences of God, and others won't.  But one thing is for sure:  trying to figure out who God is by reading Job will only confuse you because there is such contradiction in the descriptions, and so much that is missing, despite the seemingly endless verbosity of the speakers.

Which is why I think God goes off on a rant at the end of the story, asking repeatedly in so many different ways, Why do you think you know me?  Were you there when I ...?

Who, of any of the characters in Job, truly know God?  Who of any of us does?  Unless we were there.

I wonder if that is why God tells Moses to call him "I Am That I Am."  For no single name or finite description would do justice to all that God is.

The same is true for us:  unless we are there with a person, through all that they do and say and think and feel, we will not truly know the essence of who they are.  We can, at most, only know a part of the puzzle.

I must say that thinking about all of this has given me a new appreciation for my own ignorance.  On the positive side, however, I know that I will be much less likely to characterize a person from what little, or even what lot, I know about them.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


Thursday, July 30, 2015

The End of the Rope

The open heart shall be filled.*

I discovered something recently... physical pain is much more immediately debilitating than emotional turmoil, at least for me.  Neither one, mind you, is fun.  Emotional crises have brought me to the end of my rope more than once.  But physical pain takes over your body and mind simultaneously, and can truly make you wonder if somebody has it in for you, even if it's only your own body that does.

You see, I recently cracked my foot walking down a short flight of stairs:  my left ankle went sideways and I actually heard the bone crackle as I went down.  A few weeks later, my left foot secure and healing in a big black boot, I twisted my other ankle while just walking straight forward, from one Las Vegas airport gate to another, and fell again, banging up my left elbow and knee rather painfully in the process.  I was traveling to a national Lutheran youth gathering in Detroit with a large group of youth and adults from my church.  We were going to be doing a lot of walking for the next five days.  Dear Lord, I thought, I can't hurt my other foot.  I need to be able to walk.

Unfortunately, I couldn't walk, at least not immediately.  My companions helped me up, and an airport attendant ran for a wheelchair, and I had to just let people help me.  Don't get me wrong.  I was grateful for all the help I could get.  It's just that I really didn't want to need that help. I wanted to be more self-sufficient.

The next day, on a field trip to the Henry Ford Museum, when my usual feminine products proved extremely inadequate for a peri-menopausal menstrual misfortune (to put it mildly), I finally reached the end of my limit of self-sufficiency.  O, Dear Lord!  Help!  And help arrived immediately in the form of one of the women in our group who could drive me back to our hotel.  She told me something similar had happened to her not so long ago, easing my mortification, and she immediately made arrangements with the rest of our group to go on, while she helped me.  Thank God. 

I discovered -- or re-discovered, more like -- something else recently... it's the times when we are at the end of our rope, whether the result of great emotional or physical crisis, or both, such that causes us to seek God's help, that the greatest relief comes.  If we are still at a point where we think we can manage on our own, no matter how desperate our situation, we won't receive the help we so desperately need. 

Coincidentally, in the Crossroads Bible Study, we are reading Job.  In case you don't know Job, it's a story about extreme loss and pain, and God.  Job is a rich and faithful man, who, in the space of a day, loses everything that belongs to him, and all that he loves:  his children, his animals, and all his property.  Can you imagine the emotional pain that would result from such devastation?

But Job merely "tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped.  He said [rather philosophically, I think], 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."  Job's emotional turmoil, although enough to make him fall on his knees in anguish, wasn't enough to cause him to seek help from anyone at all.

In the space of another day, however, Job's body is completely devastated, covered in "loathsome sores" from head to toe.  Like me, it's the physical pain that weighs most heavily on Job.  He is alive, but he would certainly rather be dead.  Finally, he asks, "Why was I even born?"  He asks, "Why am I still living?"  Job is truly miserable, but not enough to turn directly to God.  Personally, I think Job believes God is too far away to care.

Fortunately, Job has friends who come to be with him during this time of trial, who disabuse him of this notion.  Unfortunately, they tell Job that God is punishing him for his sins.  Still, it is this notion of an intervening God (albeit, a vengeful one) that pushes Job over the edge and finally causes him to take his pleas directly to God:  If God is the kind of god who watches his every move, who requires punishment for sin, then why doesn't God just kill him and be done with it?

Thankfully, Job's life is transformed in the end.  But more importantly Job's understanding of God is transformed.  In the end, Job not only knows that God sees what is going on in his life, but is present to relieve his troubles and bless him, if he would only ask.

As Jesus said, "Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you.... Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead?  Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? ... how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"  But first, you have to ask.

So, actually, the sooner you reach the end of your rope, the better.  Thankfully, I reached the end of my rope, emotionally, if not physically, a long time ago.  I know the power of asking God for whatever it is you truly need.  And I know that God will provide you with much more than you could ever expect to receive.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you


* from "Come Away My Beloved," by Frances J. Roberts, pg 53

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Dragonfly's Calling

 As a symbol of Native American spirituality, the dragonfly represents transformation, like a butterfly, but also "happiness, speed, and purity.  Purity, because the dragonfly eats from the wind itself." 1

"The Hopi believe that dragonflies have great supernatural powers and are shamanistic.  The Hopi people credit dragonflies with saving their tribe from starvation... In Hopi and Pueblo tribes, the dragonfly was considered a medicine animal, associated with healing and transformation, whose spirit was often called on by medicine men and women." 2

My boys and I recently took a road trip through northern Arizona, and the first place we visited was Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona.  When I was a young adult this was my favorite spot in the whole wide world.  When I got my first car, and whenever the opportunity presented itself, I would drive the 1.5 hours it took to get out of the oppressive heat of Phoenix just to sit on a rock in the shade of a cottonwood tree with my feet dangling in the cool flowing waters of Oak Creek, and contemplate life. So I was immensely grateful that after almost 30 years away, I found that exact spot again to share with my children.  The place was amazingly unchanged.  All except for the dragonfly.  I didn't remember dragonflies before.  But I couldn't help noticing one this time:  a rather large red dragonfly that repeatedly flew straight towards me or crossed directly in front of me.  It definitely got my attention.

Later, as I wandered around The Chapel in the Hills, a beautiful, striking example of religious architecture set in one of the red rock cliffs of Sedona, I came across another dragonfly, in the gift shop.  This one was made from beaded wire and came with a story of transformation: of  how the dragonfly, after spending much of its life in the muddy depths of a river, crawls up a stem to the surface to find freedom and its natural calling in majestic flight.

At some point, it dawned on me that the book I took with me to read on this vacation was titled "Dragonfly in Amber" (by Diana Gabaldon), and I recalled my last visit with my spiritual director just before I left on this road trip: on her coffee table between us a beautiful altar had been made for her by friends which consisted of nothing but dragonflies.  And finally, after a week of traveling through the Hopi, Pueblo and Navajo lands of northeastern Arizona, I returned home to research dragonflies, only to find that amongst these Native American tribes in particular, the dragonfly is their most sacred symbol.

Are all these coincidences meaningless?  Or is there a message here for me?  

Insects have been meaningful symbols for me before.  Butterflies, a traditional symbol of growth and renewal, have always felt like a blessing, an affirmation, when they cross my path.  And the scarab beetle, which symbolizes spiritual direction in ancient cultures, has on more than one occasion come into my life when I have wondered what kind of work I should be doing.  In fact, just a few days ago, I found another scarab beetle just outside the door of my financial adviser's office, where I had again come to the conclusion that I need to find a job.
I'm at another crossroads, as I was before, only this time much more is at stake.  You see, because my husband and I are getting a divorce, for the first time in a long time, I can't just be a mother and caretaker of house, yard, and family, I can't just do volunteer work, and I can't just occasionally tutor or substitute for a teacher.  I actually need to support myself financially. 

So I have a choice before me:  I can find more work as a mathematics teacher, something I used to do very well and enjoyed, and which would provide a regular paycheck; or I can try to find ways to get paid doing what I feel most passionate about and called to do now:  keep writing about God and faith, finish my schooling and become a spiritual director, and continue promoting Christian unity and positive interfaith relations.  The first is the safer bet, to be sure, but when I contemplate spending most of my available time teaching mathematics, a feeling of deadness comes over me.

This divorce came about for many reasons, but primarily for me  it represented freedom and the opportunity to live fully the life I want to live; to be, in all areas of my life, the person God wants me to be.  But dare I stake all on being the person God has taught me to be, and trust that God will provide the income as needed?  Dare I invest in my future self?  Can I value myself and God's faith in me enough to do this? 

I have listened to God before in many, many areas of my life.  Why is this different? 

I know it is a matter of trust.  I trust God.  Can I trust myself not to mess up?

When I asked these questions of God in prayer, this is the answer I received,

"The Lord hath sent strength for thee." (Ps. 68:28) 3

"Herein is the work assigned to the individual soul, to have life in itself, to make our sphere, whatever it is, sufficient for a reign of our Father's abounding spirit -- thankful, unutterably thankful, if with the place and the companionship assigned to us we are permitted to build an earthly tabernacle of grace and goodness and holy love, a home like a temple, but should this be denied us, resolved for our own souls that God shall reign there, for ourselves at least that we will not, by sin or disobedience or impious distrust, break with our own wills our filial connection with our Father, -- that whether joyful or sorrowing, struggling with the perplexity and foulness of circumstances, or in an atmosphere of peace, whether in dear fellowship or alone, our desire and prayer shall be that God may have in us a realm where His will is law, and where obedience and submission spring, not from calculating prudence or ungodly fear, but from communion of spirit, ever humble aspiration, and ever loving trust."  4

And continuing to answer my questions, lest I have any more doubts, I heard last night at church the following reading from 2 Corinthians, 8:7-15:  "it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something -- now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.  For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has -- not according to what one does not have...."

As my pastor reiterated, "It is Christ who gives us strength."  I cannot doubt that, nor that it is God who pulls me forward.  

So I will find meaning in the dragonfly for my own life.  And I will take comfort in the wisdom and understanding of other spiritually attuned people, especially the Hopi and Pueblo, whose depiction of the dragonfly on rocks and artwork looks very much like a double-bar Latin cross --

Dragonfly Symbol
so much so that they had no trouble associating the dragonfly with Christ.

May the Peace
Which passes Understanding
Be with you Always,


1 from  (
2 from ( 
3 from "Streams in the Desert," June 27
4 by J.H. Thom, from "Daily Strength for Daily Needs," June 27

Monday, May 11, 2015

Not Mine to Keep

What Thou hast given, Thou canst take,
And when Thou wilt new gifts can make.
All flows from Thee alone;
When Thou didst give it, it was Thine;
When Thou retook'st it, 'twas not mine.
Thy will in all be done.  
                                 --  John Austen

I must admit, I've had some moments of panic lately.  When I asked my husband for a divorce a month ago, I knew I needed to let him go.  I knew I needed to let my marriage of 27 years go.  Just like I believe God brought my husband and I together, I believe God wants me and my husband to live apart.  But, there are times when I wonder if I did the right thing.  It's not easy causing such upheaval.  It's not easy hurting someone you still care about. It's definitely not easy letting go of a person you have been connected to for a very long time.

But I don't think it matters whether that connection is to a spouse, or a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend, or even a community of people.  It doesn't matter whether you want to sever the connection or not.  It also doesn't matter if you love them or hate them.  It doesn't even matter whether you believe the dis-connection itself is for better or worse.  Letting go of someone is never easy. 

Personally, I'm not sure it's even possible to entirely sever some connections.  Once you have connected emotionally to a person, or even a place, or even some things, whether positively or negatively, a part of you will always resonate with that person, place, or thing -- maybe not as keenly as before, but always to some degree, for as long as you can remember that object.  Distance does not sever some connections at the sub-atomic level, so why would it do so for us who are made up entirely of sub-atomic particles?

And yet, we are also separate objects (made up of separate particles).  We can leave a place we love, or a person.  We can let go of things.  It's not only possible, it's sometimes necessary.  Children are supposed to leave home, and parents are supposed to encourage their independence, and their leave-taking.  And ultimately, whether we want to or not, we all must die, leaving behind every person, place, or thing, we ever knew. 

And so, if both separation and union are incontrovertible facts of life, how do we balance our separateness with our unity? 

I think we must hold them, both our unity and our separateness, loosely.  Neither can be thought of, or clung to, as if they were a possession.  My children will always be my children, but at the same time, they are not mine to keep.  My spouse was never my possession, nor was I his.  The place I call home is temporary.  The life I live will not always be the same.  I will not always be the same person I am today.  Nor will anyone else.  And so, the connections that are formed will change naturally.

That isn't how I have always thought about unity, however.  Unity in my mind was symbolized by the traditional vows I made at my wedding:  "I take thee ... to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part."   I took these vows seriously.  They became symbolic to me of many kinds of unity:  unity among friends, among Christians, among neighbors, among all people. 

These wedding vows are still meaningful to me, but now I know that we cannot "take" someone and "have" them forever.  We can only hold them, more or less loosely.  But we can do that, and everything else, always with great love.    

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Living Word

"Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words."  -- St. Francis of Assisi

In recent blog postings, I have described my experience of God calling me to go out into the community and provide a Bible Study to whomever was interested.  Now I'm beginning to think that that was just a precursor to a similar, but much bigger, calling:  to be the only Gospel some people will read.  And just like that other experience at The River's Edge, I'm not in control.  As usual, my only role in all this seems to be to simply say "Yes," to whatever comes and to put my trust entirely in God's guidance. 

This latest experience of God's presence, however, has been overwhelming.  It is like I am living parts of Jesus's life, only they are a little jumbled up and look a little different.  The more I consider this as a possibility, the more connections I see.  

In the last two weeks, I've been in the Garden of Gethsemane, I've had my Maundy Thursday experience, and I have given up my life as I know it.  I have even, during a moment of extreme discouragement, doubted God's presence in my life, before finding depths of strength and courage I did not know I had.

Looking back a little further, I see even more connections to the life of Jesus that I did not fully grasp at the time.  For example, at Christmas, I thanked the faithful women in our Tuesday morning book club, as well as two other women at church, for being such wonderful Soul Friends, guides and companions along my journey of faith, and gave them little handmade paintings of a simple Celtic love knot.  I made twelve of them.  Then during the season of Epiphany, I felt God calling me to embrace my Belovedness, and to go out into the community to share his word. 

And now, although some members of my family doubt my sanity, and friends give worldly advice with the best intentions, all I can do is put my trust entirely in God's hands.

Is this all just coincidence?  Is it possible for a very flawed, and somewhat silly, middle-aged, female, ex-mathematics teacher, now stay-at-home mother of three young children, from a mid-sized town in the Sonoran desert, to resemble Jesus just a bit and walk hand-in-hand with God?

Of course it is.  Many people have resembled Jesus in thought, word, and deed, and have walked hand-in-hand with God.  Gandhi is one of my favorite modern-day examples.  As C.S. Lewis writes, "... the likeness, and in that sense nearness, to Himself which God has conferred upon certain creatures and certain states of those creatures is something finished, built in.  What is near Him by likeness is never, by that fact alone, going to be any nearer.  But nearness of approach is, by definition, increasing nearness.  And whereas the likeness is given to us -- and can be received with or without thanks, can be used or abused -- the approach, however initiated and supported by Grace, is something we must do."**  In other words, although we have no control over how much we look like God, following God is a choice we each can and have to make on our own. 

It's a choice I make because I see how it is possible to heal the people I love.  Given that possibility, any sacrifice I make is worth its weight in gold.

And now, all I can do is continue to be the Gospel to the best of my ability, and hope that those who are blind will someday see. 

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


** from "The Four Loves," by C.S. Lewis (Harcourt ed., pgs. 5-6)

Monday, March 2, 2015


"Someone with personal desires will not experience true peace.  But when all desires merge, like different rivers flowing into the vast, deep, ocean, then peace is easily realized." *

The PEERS Bible Study has started.  Of course, I had some expectations as to what it would look like.  And of course, it doesn't look anything like that.

Primarily, I had envisioned eight strangers, from all different faiths, or even possibly some with no faith, sitting around a table talking about the Bible, God, faith and doubt, and how that all connects, or doesn't, to our lives.  Beyond that, I hadn't given it much thought.  I just wanted DIVERSITY.  To encourage it, I wrote on flyers posted around the community, "Share your point of view!"

I really should know by now that my 'daydreams' of what will happen never turn out quite the way I imagine. What it is are four white American women, including me, from the same Lutheran church, who are friends with each other, sitting around a table talking about the Bible, God, Christianity, faith and doubt, and how that all connects, or doesn't, to our lives.  There isn't quite the DIVERSITY that I imagined.

But, there is, surprisingly, more diversity than you might (or I) expect in such a group.  For we each have different histories and different personalities, we read the Bible in different ways, we think about Christianity differently from one another, we each have different Bible translations, and we each have different desires for what we want to get out of this Bible study.  No matter how similar we may look on the surface, the way we think about things is very different.  

It's a universal truth:  although we often put people into groups -- women, men, whites, blacks, atheists, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Americans, Mexicans, Europeans, etc. --  as if everyone in that group were alike in their thinking, in actuality, we are, each one of us, an individual. 

Even in this group of four, there is so much diversity present that after our first meeting, I wondered...  How can I create a safe and accepting space, in which everyone's point of view is heard, without us getting into a debate or argument?  And, how do I facilitate the discussion, so that we are all enriched and encouraged spiritually?

It comes down to the same question I've been asking for the last eight years:  How do you create unity in the midst of diversity?

So what have I learned in all that time?

Well, first of all, I've learned what doesn't work.  What doesn't work is keeping the differences hidden.  That doesn't make for a very authentic experience, nor a fruitful one. The differences are there for a reason; they are a necessary part of the whole.  What also doesn't work is judging one person's point of view as right (ie. the one like mine), and another person's point of view as wrong.  Whether true or not, and whether voiced or not, that judgment just creates hard feelings, if not division and/or separation. 

The only approach that I have ever found helpful, is listening to the other person's point of view, and trying to understand where it comes from, and what experiences have given rise to it, and accepting it.  Plain and simple.  Not trying to change their thinking.  Not merely pretending to listen, until you get a chance to tell your point of view.  But accepting that point of view for what it is: significant and meaningful to that person

Acceptance is key.  Only when we accept and respect the differences, can we begin to learn a little from each other.  That's because, true acceptance means letting go of our own point of view enough to allow the other to settle in, for a moment, at least.  Only to the extent that we can do this, can we learn from one another what we need to learn, and grow in wisdom.

There was a passage in our Bible readings for the first week that struck me as a fitting description of our study group.  In the description of the Garden of Eden, I read, "A river issues from Eden to water the garden, and it then divides and becomes four branches."  (Genesis 1:10).  In this image, water flows from an original source somewhere within Eden, but it does not stay as one source.  Rather, it divides into four branches, four rivers, which flow outward in different directions from that source to water different areas of the land.  Why four rivers?  I wondered.  Why not just one?  It seems as if one was not enough.

I like to think of us four women as those four different rivers, each having a common source, and each flowing along a unique path to a particular destination -- perhaps the one ocean that has no boundaries or division (though some people like to think it does), as the Bhagavad Gita describes above.  And as we come together to share our thoughts freely, may they, like water molecules, rise up and come together, naturally, and move around and land again in unexpected places.  In this way, we might be able to create a cycle of learning, and lasting spiritual growth, even beyond our imaginings.

May we all find a place of acceptance and respect for our own individuality, and may we learn to accept and respect the individuality of those around us, and ...

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


* from The Bhagavad Gita (sloka 2:70), quoted in "The Living Gita: A Commentary for Modern Readers," by Sri Swami Satchidananda (

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The River's Edge

"As soon as the soles of the feet of the priests... shall rest in the waters...the waters...shall be cut off. (Joshua 3:13)"
     The people were not to wait in their camps until the way was opened, they were to walk by faith.  They were to break camp, pack up their goods, form in line to march, and move down to the very banks before the river would be opened.  If they had come down to the edge of the river and then had stopped for the stream to divide before they stepped into it, they would have waited in vain.  They must take one step into the water before the river would be cut off." (From Evening Thoughts) *

A few weeks ago, I wrote about feeling compelled to offer a community faith discussion group at a local coffee shop.  Well, advertisements are in several community papers, and about sixty flyers are posted around local walking paths, bus stops, and apartment complexes for my PEERS Bible Study -- "A non-affiliated, non-traditional Bible Study open to anyone interested in reading, thinking, and talking about the Bible, and listening to all that comes, in a small, diverse community."  PEERS, by the way, stands for People Encouraging and Enlightening Religious Studies.  I'm hoping it will be a way for people, who perhaps don't necessarily belong to a faith community, but who want to read the Bible, to have the support of similarly-interested people.  I'm also hoping it will be a way for people to see the many connections there are between their lives and the lives and faith of these ancient people, and to grow in their faith.  But I'm also a little worried.  The Bible study starts this Sunday, and I don't know if anyone is coming.

You know, I thought I had a lot of faith.  My faith is, I think, one of the gifts God wants me to share with other people.  But recently, I discovered that I still have a ways to go in this department.  You see, I have this great fear that no one will come to my Bible study, that I will be sitting at a table, with a stack of Bibles and a plate of scones, drinking a pot of coffee by myself, for an hour and a half, come this Sunday afternoon.

I've tried my best to prevent this scenario from playing out.  I advertised, like I mentioned.  But as February 15 approached, I began to worry that no one would see my advertisements.  So, I decided to post flyers around the community.  Sixty seemed like a good number.  And I prayed that whoever would like such a study would find the information.  But as I ran around the community last Monday, with flyers and tape in hand, I began to worry some more.  Based upon previous experience with adult faith formation classes at my church, and the percentage of people who participated in said classes out of the number who attended church, I calculated that I would need to notify 400-plus people, to attract the maximum eight people I'd like to participate!  In a panic, I decided to print more flyers and go out again the next day.  But my printer stopped working.

So, I had to stop and think, and take a moment to just breathe.  And I opened my devotionals and read in one:  "Lay aside this ardor of the mind, which exhausts your body and leads you to commit errors.  Accustom yourself gradually to carry prayer into all your daily occupations....  Do everything without excitement, by the spirit of grace.  As soon as you perceive your natural impetuosity gliding in, retire quietly within, where is the kingdom of God.  Listen to the leadings of grace, then say and do nothing but what the Holy Spirit shall put in your heart.  ...with less effort you will accomplish more good."**  And in the other, I read, "There are seasons when to be still demands immeasurably higher strength that to act."***

And I was reminded of another time when I did something similar.  Several years ago, I felt called to bring various churches together in a community Christmas caroling event.  Then, too, as the date approached, I started to worry that no one would participate, and ran around from church to church, trying to get a definite count on how many people would come.  Until, that is, the Catholic priest said to me, "Calm down.  What will be, will be."  At the time, in my head, I was thinking, "But, but...."

But, you know what?  That event was successful.  Oh ye of little faith.

Why do I think I can control the outcome of my efforts?   I cannot.  All I can do is listen to and follow God's promptings, as they come, one by one, even though I don't know what's around the corner, or even what's in front of me.  It's a lot like walking in the dark.  Or, for the Israelites led by Joshua, like crossing the Jordan river, as the quote above describes. Despite great obstacles, they walked forward by faith alone.  One step at a time. 

Can I do that?

I will certainly try.

Come this Sunday, I will be sitting at a table at the Crossroads Coffeehouse, with a stack of Bibles and a plate of scones, welcoming whomever comes.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


* quoted from "Streams in the Desert," by Mrs. Charles E. Cowman, for Feb. 11
** quoted from "Daily Strength for Daily Needs," selected by Mary Wilder Tileston, for Feb. 10
*** quoted from "Streams in the Desert," for Feb. 10.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

At the Crossroads

"Had St. Paul been convinced that he was nothing more than a wandering weaver of carpets, he certainly would not have been the man he was.  His real and meaningful life lay in the inner certainty that he was the messenger of the Lord.  ... It was not the man Jesus who created the myth of the god-man.  It existed for many centuries before his birth.  He himself was seized by this symbolic idea, which, as St. Mark tells us, lifted him out of the narrow life of the Nazarene carpenter."  -- Carl G. Jung*

I'm having a bit of an identity crisis.  I've noticed recently that when people ask me what I do for a living, I have a hard time answering in a way that feels authentic.  On forms I write "home-maker," even though it just doesn't quite fit.  My mom was a home-maker, and she was great at it, but all the things she did wonderfully well are just not my biggest priority.  Sometimes I say, "I used to be a mathematics teacher;" or  "I volunteer at my church a lot."  But neither of these sits well, either, especially these days.  Sometimes I laugh and say that I officially have a job as a substitute teacher with the community college's adult education program, but have worked only one day a year for the last two years -- last year I made $64, almost twice what I made the year before!  The other day I said, "I used to volunteer a lot, but now I'm just a stay-at-home mom, shuttling my three boys from place to place."  Afterward, I had such a sour taste in my mouth that I had to stop and think.  Why don't I say with pride, "I take care of my family"?  Why don't I tell people I write a blog about faith, or that I'm writing a book about faith?  Why do I never say that I participate in several life-enhancing faith discussion groups at church? 

Why is it so hard to talk to people I don't know about what is really important to me in a way that acknowledges its importance? 

I'm going to have to figure this out, because lately I've been feeling compelled to do just that:  to talk about faith in conjunction with life, in my community -- beyond my church, my family and friends.  To actually talk about faith with people I don't know, in person, and not just write about it.

Is God really calling me to do this???  To facilitate a faith discussion group with perfect strangers even though I have no degree in theology, no seminary training whatsoever, and am not even certified to be a spiritual director yet?  Not to mention all my failures to draw a crowd in faith formation classes at church, or my inability to connect with some of the youth in our church youth group, let alone my inability to pass along my faith to my closest family members.  What am I thinking?

I've been reading Jung's "Man and His Symbols," in an effort to understand his theory of unconscious archetypes better, and I came across the quote above about the power of myths to give meaning to our lives.  It certainly resonated, at least in part, with my own recent reflections.  But, although Jung believed in a supernatural presence in the world, it doesn't seem as if he believed this supernatural presence actively compelled people to do things they wouldn't normally do.  It almost seems, from the quote above and others I could copy, that he believed Paul and Jesus were inspired by the vision of being a "god-man," like some people are inspired by King Arthur legends to re-ennact jousting tournaments.

Granted, I've occasionally thought of doing something like this over the past few years.  I'd like to help people who are curious about, or want to feel closer to, God, but don't feel connected to a faith community.  And, I have wanted for a long time to be part of a more eclectic faith discussion group than can be offered at my church.  However, I doubt that I would ever actually move beyond thinking about it, if I didn't feel increasingly compelled to do so by God.

In recent months, I have come to appreciate even more the faith study groups to which I belong.  They are my church within the church.  For in them I am able to hear God's guidance just as well as in a pastor's sermon.   And in my school for spiritual directors, I've been able to compare one-on-one spiritual direction to group spiritual direction, and refine why I prefer study groups, in particular.  While there is always the possibility of someone getting in the way of God in "direct" spiritual direction, where someone listens to your specific concerns and tries to help guide you forward, there is less likelihood of that happening in "indirect" spiritual direction, where you just happen to hear or see something that connects to your concerns as you discuss something else. That kind of synchronicity is how I recognize God's guidance.

It's that kind of synchronicity that compels me now.  For example, a month ago I was thinking to myself,  "Where should I do this?  The new coffee shop that just opened up, with a small room in the back, or the library?" Almost immediately, a woman in my study group at church talked about the Hebrew people being at a crossroads when Jesus came.  Her comment seemed to come from nowhere in our discussion of "Anam Cara," the book of Celtic spirituality, but it resonated with me because the name of the coffee shop I was considering is called Crossroads.

When I started to second guess myself, wanting to know if it will work well or not before I try it, I read about how Brussels lace is always made in the dark with only a small window for light to see the patterns, and this summary: "If you are in the deep shadows because of some strange, mysterious providence, do not be afraid.  Simply go on in faith and love, never doubting." (Streams in the Desert, Dec. 13) and in another devotional on the same day I read, "Begin at once; before you venture away from this quiet moment, ask your King to take you wholly into His service... Never mind about tomorrow, one day at a time is enough..." (Daily Strength for Daily Needs, Dec. 13).  And later that day,  I saw a license plate that read, LETSTRY.  It seemed as if God was saying, "Let's give it a try and see what happens, both of us together."  It made me smile. 

When I felt that my past failures prevented any future attempts at faith formation, I read about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and how their perceived failure (they were thrown in the fire, after all) became a victory.  And I had to acknowledge that I've learned a lot from my failures.  I could go on.  Each time I have asked a question, or expressed a concern, I have been given an answer, or encouragement, in a surprising way.  There is very little doubt in my mind that God is wanting me to do this.

So, do I see myself as a god-man, or in my case, a god-woman, as Jung claims?  I don't know. 

I had a dream the other night in which my pastor asked me if I thought I was like Jesus.  No, I said, not like Jesus, but I do think God wants me to listen to him, like Jesus listened to him.  From this dream, and from what I understand of Jungian psychology, either my unconscious was offering up to my conscious an awareness of this god-man archetype to balance out my inferiority complex, or my inferiority complex was balancing out my god-man tendencies! Either way, it's a balancing dream, like most archetypal dreams.

Personally, I'm not sure that Jesus saw himself as a "god-man," a divine being in a human body, as Jung explains.  Unlike Jung, I think Jesus was just listening to God, and following God's will to the best of his ability, because to do otherwise was not possible for him.  In terms of the Incarnation, it makes more sense to me that Jesus was flesh made into Word, that he became the Word of God over time, rather than that he was the Word made flesh, that God was born into him from the beginning.

In a book I began re-reading yesterday, Henri Nouwen's "Life of the Beloved," to prepare for an discussion this Wednesday evening, I found an affirmation of that idea and many others.  In this wonderful little book, Nouwen writes that we need to beware of our tendency toward self-rejection, and instead claim our belovedness.  "...we will not rest until we can rest in that truth.  From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. ...Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make.... Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do.  It entails a long and painful process of appropriation or, better, incarnation."  (pg. 43-45).  According to Nouwen, we are the Beloved and we are forever becoming the Beloved, on whom God's favor rests.

So, at this new crossroad, maybe it's about time I truly acknowledge that I am God's Beloved.  And maybe it's time I meet other people at The Crossroads.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you


* from "Man and His Symbols," by Carl G. Jung (Doubleday ed., pg. 89)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Wellspring -- Part Two

"The one and only person who can love us deeply, constantly, and under all circumstances is us.  Our own Essence is the source of love we seek because it is an expression of Divine love and therefore cannot be conditioned, withheld, or diminished....  We cannot will ourselves to love ourselves or to love others.  All we can do, paradoxically, is to recognize the presence of love in ourselves and others." *

As I mentioned in the last posting, I've been studying the Enneagram, and have been finding it very helpful for figuring out why we are the way we are, why we fall into certain patterns of behavior, and how we can get out of unhelpful ruts.  According to the Enneagram, our strongest personality traits come about as the result of something impactful that we learned from our parents as a child, either some fear we learned from them or some lack or loss in their parenting itself.  We all have a Basic Fear, and a significant portion of our personality develops as a defense mechanism against, or avoidance of, that fear.  It's these fears that create the patterns that have a tendency to rule our lives, unless we face them and overcome them.

That's what I addressed in the last posting.  Since then, I have continued to ponder these fear-to-personality connections.  My purpose here, however, is not to present you with everything I have learned about the Enneagram.  Dan Riso and Richard Hudson, experts in the field, do a wonderful job describing each Ennea-type, and I highly recommend their book "The Wisdom of the Enneagram," if you want to know more about the details of each of the nine personalities --  and also if you don't mind looking at yourself with a very bright light.  What I'd like to share, instead, are some of my own insights about the fears that create our personality.

One is:  facing and overcoming these fears is easier said than done.  It's taken me ten years to face my fear of conflict and argue for my point of view, and --  despite evidence to the contrary for several people I know --  even now I still sometimes feel afraid to speak up.  For me, it's been like a game of Snakes and Ladders:  sometimes I make great strides forward, speaking up for my point of view, and other times, I slide back down, too fearful to say a word; and this repeats:  up, down, over and over again.  People who do not have my same fear would find my progress, or rather my lack of progress, frustrating.  What's the big deal, after all?

Well, to put it plainly, these aren't your average fears.  These aren't the kind of fears that you overcome one day and are done with.  These are fears that get to the core of your whole belief system about who you are and what life is about.  At their core, in my opinion, these fears are fundamentally about Love --  Love with a capitol L.  They are about whether or not we can be loved, fully and truly loved, just as we are. 

For example, I have tended to avoid conflicts, because deep down I'm afraid that if I get into an argument with someone, or disagree with them, they will stop loving me.  Someone else would not be able to just sit and relax, even on vacation, because they are afraid they aren't worthy of love unless they are doing something productive.  Another person tends to avoid talking about their feelings because they are afraid that too much emotionalism will turn people away from them.  Another person tends to avoid taking care of him- or herself because they're afraid that other people won't even like them if they are perceived as selfish.  Another person becomes a perfectionist because they are afraid they won't be loved if they make mistakes. Another person emphasizes their uniqueness because they're afraid they won't be loved if they don't stand out from the crowd.  Another person avoids standing out in a crowd because they are afraid they won't be loved if they are too different.  It is clear to me that every Basic Fear described by the Enneagram comes down ultimately to a fear of being loved conditionally.

This understanding comes about for each of us because of real-life events, usually repeated ones, that embed these fears in our minds.  As children, and possibly also as teenagers and adults, we were teased, scolded, yelled at, isolated, ie. punished in one way or another, and not just by our parents but also by friends and strangers, for these behaviors.  I have, for example, experienced, repeatedly, the ending of friendships because I have voiced disagreement.  So, these fears are legitimate fears.  The thing we don't want to happen has happened to us:  we have not been fully loved by significant people in our lives because of these behaviors.

But guess what?  That's life.  Sorry to be blunt, but no one is ever going to love you perfectly all the time.  Nor are you ever going to be able to love someone else perfectly all the time.

Why?  Because we are all fundamentally imperfect creatures.  We miss the mark, a lot.  Even someone with the best intentions to be loving, even your spouse, even your parents, even your children, will not be able to love you perfectly all the time.  The most we can count on from our fellow human beings, and from ourselves, is to be loved and to love perfectly at specific moments in time.

What does it mean to be loved perfectly?  Well, Riso and Hudson note insightfully, "Love is not primarily a feeling -- although various feelings may arise in its presence.  Love is something that cannot be won or lost, because it is always available -- but only to the degree that we are present and therefore receptive to it." (ibid)  Love is being fully present to another, seeing them, listening to them, being with them.  "I see you," as the African word Ubuntu connotes.

Unfortunately, we cannot be this fully present to one another all the time.  The most we can hope for is to learn to be more fully present to what is going on in our lives, one moment at a time, to be fully present with the people we are with, and to pay attention to what we are doing, one moment at a time.

Only God is present everywhere, all the time.  And thus, only God's love is perfect.

However, and this is the key to all the rest, knowing God's Perfect Love opens the door to loving ourselves and our neighbor more perfectly.

The only reason I have been able to, at times, overcome my fear of conflict and voice my contrary opinion, even while knowing my words were not going to be well-received, was because I have felt compelled to do so by God, because speaking up was actually more loving than not speaking up.  And the only reason I listened to that calling was because I knew God's love for me would always be there, even if no other love was.  I knew, I know, that I am loved unconditionally.  And that Perfect Love, as John writes in his First Letter, "casts out all fear."  With that love behind me, and in front of me, and within me, I am able to do things I would never have imagined myself doing in my wildest dreams.

In order to know that Perfect Love, however, we, too, have to be present to it.  We have to open our hearts and minds to that Presence that is all around us.  In other words, we have to set some time aside for quietly being present to what's going on in our own lives, our own hearts, our own minds, and paying attention to all that comes.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you


*  from "The Wisdom of the Enneagram:  The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types,"  by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson (Bantam Books, pg. 149)