Thursday, December 23, 2010

"KK! Look! Santa's on top of the house!"

"Oh wow," she said again and again as we drove through our neighborhood looking at the homes decorated for Christmas. I hear her sharp intake of breath as we turn the corner. "KK! Look! Santa's on top of the house!"

This is life with our four-year-old granddaughter Morgan. Excitement bubbles up in her with absolutely zero false social filters to block its display. When she says "wow," the word is airy, long and drawn out, and something within me wants it to go on forever. As we drove around the neighborhood that evening I sensed that Morgan was inviting me back to a time when I experienced Christmas, too, with that kind of awe and wonder.

One of my mentors, Ruben Habito, relates this story in his book Healing Breath:

A young father and his little three-year-old daughter, taking a Sunday stroll hand in hand through a meadow one day in spring. They came upon a clearing where there were clusters of flowers, and the little girl broke loose from the father's hand and began to prance about, dancing among the flowers. "Look, Daddy, look!"

"Yes, dear, those are violets," the father replied.

The little girl continued dancing and prancing, singing the new word: "Violets! Violets!"

The point here is the difference between the modes of awareness of the little girl and her father. The little girl, wide-eyed and full of wonder at everything around her, saw the flowers in their pristine beauty before she could name what they were. This beauty right before her simply moved her to dance and prance about in joy and celebration, unsullied by any dualistic frame of mind. It is an awareness of being filled with mystery and wonder at beholding the simply beauty of nature.

The father, on the other hand, having come to adulthood and now wise in the ways of the world, "knew" what those flowers were over there--violets--and in so knowing, lost the ability to see them in their freshness and mystery of their being. "Those are
violets." The human capacity to name things, giving us a certain sense of being in control over the things we can name, takes its toll on us, and we lose that sense of mystery and wonder that anything is there at all in the first place. [end quote]

The difficulty we adults have in seeing the wonder and beauty of everything around us is a huge loss for the world. It’s the first step necessary in acts violence, in pollution, and in the killing off of millions of species on the planet. When we can’t even see the beautiful Mystery of life itself, then, of course, we don’t respect it.

I know that “mystery” is a scary word for some of us. We have no power over a mystery; we can’t control it, so we try to take it apart and apply the scientific method to it! Understandable, but sometimes simply letting go and allowing a mystery to “be” is the better course.

It’s always struck me as a bit amusing that for all the violent arguing amongst the theologians of the early church – heresies! error! truth defined once and for all! excommunication! – what they finally declared as “dogma” was total mystery.

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 declared that Jesus Christ was “perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity.” The Council said that Jesus Christ possessed two natures which were “not intermingled, not changed, not divisible, not separable.”

Same with the Trinity. If Jesus is God, does that mean there are two Gods? No. “Substance” unites the three aspects; “person” is what distinguishes them, said Tertullian.

Ah yes, the inscrutability of official doctrine.

I’m not denigrating these early church controversies – making fun of them a bit, I suppose, but in many ways I have great respect for them and find the questions they were addressing fascinating. And most importantly to me, where they finally landed (however ironically!) left the door wide open for Mystery.

That’s important because our experience of the divine is just as important as parsing the difference between homoiousios and homoousios. (That was a huge argument.) To experience the divine we have to allow ourselves to welcome the mystery. In fact, we have to move into it! – move into the mystery of the Incarnation as well as the mystery at the center of our own lives. Yes, it can be a bit scary, disorienting, disturbing, but moving into mystery may also empower our respect for other beings. What I mean is that standing in the center of mystery pushes us to acknowledge that we’re not in control, that we don’t know. Standing in that place of not knowing makes it much easier to acknowledge the inherent dignity of other beings and of creation itself. And standing in that place also brings us closer to our own childlike gift for wonder and awe, hidden for years, perhaps, but still there.

To actually experience Christmas this year, that’s not a bad place to stand.

Advent: awakening to a season of anticipation

The first Sunday of Advent is November 28th – can you believe that? Talk about time flying by. Cindy and I were talking this morning about how “busy-busy” we’ve been with church business lately. Since Dave’s announcement it seems that most of our time and energy has been taken up with “what to do,” “how to do,” “when to do,” “who needs this right now,” and “we need that by tomorrow.” It’s been a mad rush, and now, suddenly, Advent is stepping out from around the corner and holding up its hand in greeting.

On second look, perhaps Advent’s hand is not greeting us, but holding up a Stop Sign to our faces!

Stop!, says Advent. Look around and really see what’s whizzing by as you run 90 miles a minute. Open up your ears; hear the beauty.

I think there’s an art to seeing Advent. In my training as a pastoral theologian I encountered the whole idea of what’s called “phenomenology,” a big word with multiple meanings and multiple nuances within those meanings. I finally landed on thinking of it mostly as simply a way of seeing. Phenomenologically, if you really want to see something deeply, down to its very essence, then you must “bracket” your ‘normal’ way of seeing—you have to let go of ‘normal’ assumptions about what our vision brings us.

If we bracketed our assumptions about Advent, with what would that leave us?
Personally, I assume Advent will be shopping, Christmas lights and trees, winter jackets, hot chocolate, annoying commercials, green and red everywhere, Salvation Army bell-ringers, presents, family-time…all that.

If I bracketed those assumptions, what would Advent be?

For me I think “awakening to a season of anticipation” is a lovely description of the essence of Advent. Beneath the hubbub and clamor, Advent is about the excitement of waiting. Remember as a child how we just couldn’t wait! for Christmas morning? Or how we just couldn’t wait for … whatever is was. That sense of thrill and exhilaration and jumping up and down! The essence of Advent for me is like that, for I know that what comes at the fulfillment of Advent will be amazing, beautiful, full of wonderment and awe. What comes at the fulfillment of Advent is the absolute miracle, the miracle of the ordinary. A baby. Born in obscurity to struggling parents. Happens all the time. And with the eyes to really see it, we know it’s happening all the time. With the eyes to really see it, all of life becomes the miracle it is.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Interim Pastor

Update: Here's the letter I wrote to the congregation when it was announced late last week that I've been contracted to be the Interim Minister:

I’m so excited and grateful to be serving First Congregational as your Interim Minister for the next year while the cabinet moves forward with finding a settled/called pastor. I love this church and I love what it stands for and does in the community. As I told the cabinet at one point in this process, I believe strongly that the whole notion of extravagant welcome is very close to the heart of the Gospel. It’s an energizing and inspiring thing to see that played out with commitment and faithfulness by all of you.
In the interest of transparency, let me share with you that as things progressed after Dave’s resignation announcement, I began to wonder what my role here would be. And I saw the members of the cabinet struggle with that question as well; they were suddenly faced with genuinely wanting to do the best thing both for the church as a whole and for me as an individual. My own personal discernment process was rocky until I began to sense that perhaps God was nudging me toward the interim position. When someone on the cabinet said that she was sensing that very same thing, I felt something inside me shift and the possibility became more and more affirmed in my heart. The future feels very bright to me.
Although I won’t be a candidate for the settled/called position, there are so many wonderful things we can do together in the coming year. And because I’ve been here and worked with you, I believe I have a feel for how to proceed both from knowing what specific responsibilities interim ministers are called to do for churches in transition and from the kind of knowing that comes from spending time with, and
loving, you—the members and friends of First Congregational.
I want everyone to know with what amazingly care-filled diligence your leaders on the cabinet have been working since Dave’s announcement. They have not only given of their time (extra meeting upon extra meeting), but they have given their hearts to this process. Leadership in any capacity, but perhaps especially so in the church, requires courage and authenticity. You walk a tightrope between sometimes competing interests, between the present situation and the unknown future, between wanting to do the exactly right thing in circumstances that simply do not lend themselves to exactitude. Members of this cabinet love this church and have given themselves heart and soul to this process. Next time you see them, I hope you’ll thank Josh, Carol, Ann, Dennis, Katie, Linda, Bob, Phil, Malcolm, Sarah, Mike, Claudia, Sue, and Paige—at one point or another each of them has been present.
Several of you have already expressed concern for what will happen to me after the interim time is over. Well, of course, the future is open-ended, and who knows? What I can tell you is that ministry has always provided lots of options for me. The truth is I’m not worried; I’m excited about this next year. I’m excited about how we’ll continue doing ministry in the name of Jesus Christ in this world, and about how God will work in our lives to clear the obstacles to becoming the people and church God wants us to become. Being a Christian isn’t always easy; but it’s hugely important and deeply meaningful. The world needs what we have to give.
With you on this amazing journey,

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bridge-Time between Pastorates

It's been a wild ride recently at my church. Our senior pastor resigned just four weeks ago; his last day is this coming Sunday. After he leaves I'll be the "bridge pastor" at least through December. After that, well, I'm still in limbo about what my role will be, but I remain confident that All Shall Be Well, All Shall Be Well, and All Manner of Thing Shall Be Well.

The Welcoming Prayer is helping, that's for sure.

....................................It's always about trust, isn't it?
Here's what I wrote for our November newsletter:

As we enter together this “bridge-time” after our much-loved Dave’s departure, we enter a time both of sadness at the end of his steady leadership and, hopefully, some excitement about this new era in the life of First Congregational.

“Bridge” is an engaging metaphor. Unlike “interim” or “transition,” a bridge is concrete. Remember those images of the collapsed portion of I-35 in Minneapolis/St. Paul a few years ago? I kept thinking how similar to an earthquake that must have been. What a terror to feel those tons of solid, unmovable steel and concrete start to give way.

Of course, unlike a highway bridge, this bridge-time in our community is upheld by something more than concrete, steel, and human engineering. We cross over knowing that God is with us, in fact, leading us to this new era. Holding on to that awareness of God’s presence will certainly steady us on a journey that will probably feel a bit rocky at times.

Theologically, bridges remind me of liminal space, a term often used in describing worship and rituals. When we worship and somehow sense an encounter with the divine, we allow ourselves to suspend our involvement in “normal” time and space and move into God’s time and space. We inhabit a threshold during those moments, a threshold between what’s familiar and not-familiar, between the ‘old’ which we know and the ‘new’ which is not yet clear to us.

Liminality is said to dissolve the boundaries of one’s sense of identity. College years, for instance, can be a liminal space in which one moves from adolescence to the first stages of independent adulthood. Although I think our identity here at First Congregational is secure—we’re one of the few churches in this city that truly strives to embody the Gospel as ‘radical hospitality’ to all persons—it’s also true that one’s identity is never fixed. A hardened identity only squashes the movement of the Spirit. Perhaps this bridge-time can be a moment in which we further explore our self-understanding.

bell hooks ia a feminist, author, and social critic. She makes an important point about liminality:

“It's interesting—the way in which one has to balance life—because you have to know when to let go and when to pull back.... There's always some liminal space…in between which is harder to inhabit because it never feels as safe as moving from one extreme to another.”
And she’s right, of course. Liminal space, like standing on a high bridge, can be unnerving. What resources do we call upon to endure the tension between the old and new? What do we want to accomplish during this difficult time on this steady, and perhaps at times unsteady, bridge? How do we know when the time is right to move forward? and how do we access the courage required for that movement?

It’s an uncertain time at First Congregational. Writing about the liminal time of twilight, in-between day and night, poet and philosopher John O’Donohue put it this way:

When near the end of day, life has drained
out of light, and it is too soon
for the mind of night to have darkened things,
no place looks like itself, loss of outline
makes everything look strangely in-between,
unsure of what has been, or what might come.
In this wan light, even trees seem groundless.

Too true. As someone on the Cabinet recently remarked, to some extent we seem “muddled.” Well, perhaps “muddled” isn’t such a bad place to be for now. Perhaps it’s the perfect place to be—for a season, anyway, for as O’Donohue continues:

As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow your confusion to squander
this call which is loosening your roots in false ground,
that you might come free from all you have outgrown.
What is being transfigured here is your mind,
and it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
the more refined your heart
will become for your arrival in the new dawn.

While I certainly don’t think for one moment that our ground has been “false” or even that we need to “outgrow” anything, I do think it’s usually true that bridge-time between pastorates can energize a “loosening” movement that can free us for the “new thing” [Is. 43] that God is always doing in our midst.

Liminality can be a time for seeking further clarity regarding our mission—how might our mission evolve organically from who we are? In the coming weeks and months, perhaps what’s called for is some intentional time for discerning God’s voice in the midst of this risky and quite beautiful bridge-time.

With you on this new adventure,


Sunday, October 17, 2010

My freedom to choose to love is undiminished

How to love others recklessly, consuming, unabashed, risking everything, gambling away every gift...?

This is the poem that our Sacred Conversations read last week. It's by Rumi.

Love is reckless; not reason.
Reason seeks a profit.
Love comes on strong,
consuming herself, unabashed.

Yet, in the midst of suffering,
Love proceeds like a millstone,
hard surfaced and straightforward.

Having died of self-interest,
she risks everything and asks for nothing.
Love gambles away every gift God bestows.

As much as I long to be loved in such a way--indeed, there are days when I'm acutely aware of the ache inside me for this kind of love--I know the 'secret' is to first love others in this way. Not because that will guarantee I'll get the love I desire, in some kind of cosmic end-around, but because to love others, to freely love others with wild abandon, is the only -- no, not only -- the best thing for an aching heart.

Instead of closing myself off in a natural desire to protect my heart, it's actually opening myself in a strangely trusting manner that allows God to work that divine alchemy within me, the transformation of my very being into love itself.

But of course only saints experience that kind of powerful alchemy, right? As long as I've been "doing" spiritual formation, so often, still, when the opportunity to risk loving presents itself I choose to protect my heart.

I'm in a situation now in which such opportunity presents itself almost daily. Present day reality easily tempts old wounds to resurface, and before I know what's happening, fear/insecurity is in control of my reactions. I behave as if hiding is my best option, or as if it's best to assume I'm at a disadvantage.

My best self knows that present day reality is NOT the same as those old situations in which I was so hurt and beaten down. My authentic self knows that in this present day reality I can be as free and as loving as I choose.

I can't really blog about the situation itself yet. It's nothing hugely dramatic, just different from the norm and full of unknowns. But then, the future is always open-ended, isn't it? Despite a low level of instability right now, my freedom to choose to love is undiminished.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

We lack nothing

"When you feel stressed you know that the false ego is in control."

Can't remember who said that, but I wrote it down one day recently on a post-it note and put it on my desk.

That false ego is a tricky little thing, isn't he? The false ego wants us to believe that we don't have everything we need, that we lack something important -- so it spurs us to think we need to compete, we need to play some zero-sum game, we need to make up what we lack by doing, doing, doing, more, more, more. Which matches up pretty well with our American culture's messages of work, work, work, no play (or very little), make the big bucks, keep up with the Jones.

When we get on the other side of the false ego and are living our lives from the authentic self, then we can see how ridiculous those claims are. Truly ridiculous. Utterly bizarre.

But getting on the other side isn't easy...sometimes it feels like moving a mountain.

Ah...but Jesus said with God all things are possible.

And I know he's right about that! The peace that comes from living an authentic life, the life God calls us to live, is available...closer than the air we breathe...We have all we need; we lack nothing at all. Simply breathe. Welcome All that Is.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Go to the Limits of Your Longing"

Isn't this beautiful?
Hat Tip to Robin at Metanoia for the link to this:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

"Go to the Limits of Your Longing"
by Rainer Maria Rilke; translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows

Thinking it Through Until Faith Takes Hold

I'm home sick today. The lymph nodes--the ones doctors always check kinda underneath the ears-- have been tender for a couple of weeks now; I've been operating despite feeling depleted physically; ragweed around here is pretty high; and this morning it was like I could NOT get out of bed. Finally took my temperature and I have a low grade fever. And a headache. Went back to bed and slept until 1:30! Wow. That tells me something.

I seem to have several things bothering me these days...emotionally, I mean. Perhaps this afternoon, when I'm stuck at home anyway, might be a good time to think them through.

Our local public radio station is having its pledge drive this week, and probably next. I usually grouse and grumble about that, but this time it's OK because I've found myself unable to listen to much news anyway lately. All this gloom and doom about the Tea Party and the November elections is taking its toll -- I can't stand hearing about it anymore. David said a few months ago that he's "in despair" about the nation. I think I understand what he meant...And despair is a huge and ugly emotion; perhaps it's working its wiles throughout my whole emotional system.

The antidote? Hope, of course. Each person working for hope in our own little 'worlds'; joining different action groups that are trying to influence the public discourse toward hopeful civility and caring for our neighbors. I know all that's true, it's just that at the moment I don't feel it like it will do much good.

Another thing working on me is this incessant heat. I'm sick of it. I've been this way since childhood and, of course, it's worsened after menopause. If I had three wishes from a magic geni, I think my first one would be to regulate my body so that heat doesn't bother me. Life would be so much easier!

Third, I seem to have some kind of neurotic need to work myself into the ground. What's it going to take to get me to give up some things and just slow down a bit?

And finally I have some things going on personally that are bothering me -- unbloggable except to say that whenever I think of them my stomach gets all tied up in knots. They aren't huge, just worrisome for their potential to go badly.

OK, so where is my faith? What would my faith tell me in all this?

Hmmm...kinda hard to remember the truth when you're sick and tired.

........OK. Dig deeply here...

Well, my faith tells me that there IS hope, even when I can't feel it, or 'access' it within me. Carrie Newcomer's song occurs to me -- there's a line that says "there's a goodness on this earth that will not die, will not die." I've always loved that...because there IS a goodness on the earth. God is active in the world. When I have the eyes to see, it's so obvious....And when I'm stronger I'll once again be able to carry the pain and not let it get me so down. I just need to rest, I think.

Faith reminds me that it's September 22 -- in about a month it will cool down. It will.

OK. And faith helps me see that there are some things I can let go of. My portfolio at the church is Christian Education and Wellness Ministry. All the other things I'm doing are of my own initiative--no one told me to do them, and I can let them go. I can. I love doing them, but I can let them go.

And the worry about things with potential to go badly is just wasted energy, isn't it? Faith reminds me that ... no matter what happens, all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. St. Julian knew that, and when I dig deeply within myself, so do I. All manner of thing shall be well. Despite how I feel, I know that's true--no matter what happens.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"The River of Sadness Flowing Beneath All of Life"

I'm in a real snit today.

In the last 24 hours:
  • I had the wind really taken out of my sails regarding a project I want to do;
  • I came home last night to a house with no power;
  • we stayed in a hotel and I slept barely at all;
  • and one of my dearest friends is experiencing the immanent death of a beloved pet, one of the sweetest, most well behaved and loving dogs I've ever encountered--I spoke to my friend on the phone this afternoon and we both just broke down in tears.
Crying like that with my friend sort of brought me out of the "snit" stage and moved me toward a better feeling. I guess being authentic and letting myself feel the pain of loss in true compassion/suffering with my friend kind of broke through the vagueness that comes with a 'snit.'

That's true, now that I think of it. There is a vagueness involved in 'snit-ness.'

I named some things above that put me in a 'snit,' but a 'snit' is always more than specific happenings. A 'snit,' to me, involves lots of smoldering issues that sort of come together--even though I can't name them all--but they come together and work to make my spirit irritable and my whole outlook bleak.

I remember once years ago this same friend and I were sitting out in front of the divinity school we attended, and somehow we were both aware of the pain involved in simply living. Isn't that strange? This was a very bizarre experience, really. Something had happened to her that day, and something had happened to me also -- I don't remember what those "happenings" were now, except that they were negative for both of us. As we sat there, one of us remarked that we had both come into contact with the "river of sadness that flows beneath all of life."

That's kind of how I feel today. So many smoldering issues can't help but rise to the surface eventually, at least for us sensitive, existential types....Conflict.....Death and the transitory nature of all that is....Disappointment in other people.....It's all just there. All the time, if we pay attention.

Wow. I'm really in a mood, aren't I?

It's OK. Sometimes it's OK to feel down. I've always remembered something Thomas Moore wrote in Care of the Soul. He said that sometimes we need to honor depression. Wear black, he said. Don't try to avoid it. Built a grotto in the back yard and go there now and again to simply experience, be with, this part of life.

It's OK.


Monday, September 6, 2010

Courage in the Workplace--ah, so refreshing!

Spent a couple of days last week at a training session for Courage in the Workplace, a new program sponsored by Courage and Renewal North Texas. The idea is to learn to be a facilitator of Circles of Trust in order to take "courage work" into businesses, non-profits, and other organizations.

Twenty-one people formed our Circle of Trust, and that included five previously trained facilitators. We will meet six more times, each time experiencing and contributing to the development of six modules that we will then be able to offer.

The first day was introductory and the second day was spent learning the first module: Leading with Integrity (or it might end up being called Leading from Within) and then giving feedback on and fine-tuning it from what we experienced. The other modules are:
  • Managing Complexity: "Both/And" Approach for Organizations
  • Change: Opportunity in the Inevitable
  • Taking Time for Trust
  • Restoring the Heart of Service
  • Creating Healthy and Effective Organizations
  • Transforming Time
  • Mission Alignment

To me, this work is about practicing authenticity, and so often authenticity is exactly what is sacrificed when we work. Sometimes our workplaces foster competition which tempts us to be false in order to win. Sometimes our workplaces stress efficiency/outcomes/productivity so much that time to reflect on what we're doing--crucial to becoming authentic and true--is neglected. And sometimes our workplaces forget their own reason for being and forge into areas in which they cannot produce their best, taking their employees right along with them into these more sterile and depleting efforts.

Part of our work on the last day was to reflect on the meaning of a "live encounter," which, of course, is what our work should include. Live encounters are those interchanges, events, experiences that bring us life, are richly satisfying, and/or increase our energy for the work we've chosen to do. My reflection evoked a powerful sense of gratitude in me for that 'pivot-point' experience in 1994 when God's calling to follow what was my true path finally broke through and I found the courage to make a change. So thankful. And thankful as well for this new opportunity...I feel refreshed!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mystery and the Open Table

An Open Table is extravagant, radical hospitality, and that’s one reason I so love the church I'm serving, because we “get it.” We actually GET that.

I once went on a retreat at the Carmelite monastery over in City to the East. And of course as guests at the monastery we were invited to come to mass, but I was told that since I was not Catholic I couldn’t participate. What I would do, I was told, was go forward with the others, but when it came my turn there to face the priest, I would cross my arms and instead of the bread and wine, I would receive a blessing – a blessing which I have no memory of at all, because by the time I left that place at week’s end, the pain of exclusion was at the forefront of my experience.

I read a little essay by Scott Peck once where he described going on retreat at a convent where the Mother Superior obtained a dispensation for him, so that he could participate in the mass and partake fully of Holy Communion. And the experience of partaking of the body and blood, turned out to be a truly holy experience for him, and contributed a lot to him being baptized and becoming a Christian.

You see, the thing is, we never know what might happen. We can't predict how "the Spirit will blow" in someone else's life. In my view the Table is not our table. We have no right to exclude anyone because it belongs, not to us, but to God. Human beings are so beautifully complex that the ritual of symbols and symbolic action can and do, at times, lead us into something that actually transforms our lives for the better. Personally I don’t believe as Catholics do that the bread and the juice become the actual body and blood of Jesus, and yet . . . can the bread and the juice become doorways through which we pass and are never the same again? Doorways through which we come to know the same power that made Jesus the Christ? Oh yes! That’s the stunning beauty and power of ritual and symbol, and especially, in my experience, of Holy Communion. I've come to believe that the invitation to participate in something with that kind of spiritual potential for good should not be denied to anyone.

Because we never know how the Spirit may be working in that human being's life.

We just never know.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

God's Dream

Desmond Tutu:

“If we could but recognize our common humanity, that we do belong together, that our destinies are bound up in one another’s, that we can be free only together, that we can survive only together, then a glorious world would come into being where all of us lived harmoniously together as members of one family, the human family, God’s family. In truth, a transfiguration would take place. God’s dream would become a reality.” (God Has a Dream, 24)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"The Idea of the Holy"

A little essay on Rudolf Otto's Idea of the Holy:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him...And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" (Is. 6:1-8)

From its aesthetic sense of majesty and power, to its movement from awe and unworthiness into prophetic action, Isaiah's encounter with the Holy serves as a paradigmatic model for Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy. The Isaiah passage illustrates at least two tenets central to Otto's work. First, that numinous encounters evoke feelings of awe, devotion and utter humility -- religious feelings that are categorically unique and speakable only through analogy. Second, that while holiness is distinguished from morality, an encounter with the Holy does carry within it a moral imperative pointing toward the convergence of the human will and the will of God.

The following summary and critique examines Otto's ideas concerning numinous encounters. Scholars have called Chapters 1 through 13 of The Idea of the Holy a phenomenological account, with the remaining Chapters 14 - 21 a more philosophical treatment of his subject. I will follow this basic division in summarizing the work. The critique will include discussion of Otto's epistemology, a brief look at his work from a postmodern constructionist standpoint, the inherent dualism in Otto's thought, and The Ideal of the Holy as a phenomenological account.

Otto sees the Holy, or holiness, as a unique category of interpretation combining both the rational and non-rational. Interestingly, the rational and non-rational do not exactly correspond to thought and feeling. Rather, they are predicates of an object. If an object can be conceptualized, it is a rational object. If it cannot, it is non-rational. He maintains that as Christians we rightly conceptualize certain attributes of God -- goodness, spirit, reason, purpose, power, unity, selfhood -- thus leading to our sense of the divine as rational and moral. Orthodox Christianity's doctrines and dogmas certainly attest to this, and rightly so, according to Otto. He warns us, however, that this is not all there is to God. The essence of the divine cannot be contained in rational attributions. God is also non-rational, and it is this largely ignored aspect of God within the Protestant tradition that his works examines.

Otto uses the term numinous to denote this non-rational essence, that part of the holy which is ineffable and beyond moral characterization. Numinous refers both to the object and to the experience of the object. Because the numinous itself is beyond words, Otto's analysis is strictly analogical and focuses on the feeling response to the presence of the holy, best characterized with the phrase mysterium tremendum fascinans et augustum. According to Otto, this feeling response is a sui generis category -- irreducible and uniquely religious.

Now to a brief review of Otto's examination of numinous encounters:

The mysterium is the wholly-other, an object eluding all understanding. It is over and beyond what is familiar or intelligible and fills the mind with "wonder and astonishment." (IH, 26) In our encounters with the mysterium we meet something "whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb." (IH, 28)

The adjective tremendum describes this mysterium and our encounters with it in three ways. Awefulness is a feeling of fear, bordering on terror, that "penetrates to the very marrow, making [our] hair bristle and limbs quake." (IH, 16) The body shudders in its awareness of the uncanny. The second element is overpoweringness, or majestas. This aspect is one in which the creature-consciousness appears. We feel ourselves but dust and ashes in the objective presence of the all-powerful other. The element of energy or urgency is characterized for Otto in the idea of the wrath of God -- vitality, passion, will, force, movement, impetus (IH, 23) -- as well as in the mystics' notions of the all-consuming fire of God's love.

Fascinans also describes experience of the mysterium. Although we do recoil, at the same time we find ourselves strangely attracted. The numinous is alluring, captivating and charming, and we somehow sense that knowing it and being in its presence is unaccountably salvific. This mystery is wonder and bliss, providing the 'peace that passes understanding.'

The fascinans is the positive subjective side of the numinous experience. The positive objective side is the augustum, that within the numinous which claims our respect. We pay homage to that which is outside of us, and that which we feel by its very nature much necessarily devalue our own. Here again we see how, following Schleiermacher, Otto makes clear that several aspects of the numinous encounter serve to evoke within us a creature-feeling in which we have a staggering sense of dependence and personal finitude.

Not only does Otto offer the above description of the numinous encounter, he also looks at how the numinous is expressed and develops in an historical understanding of religion. From animism and fear of taboos to biblical notions all the way through Luther's writings, Otto tracks how it is that all of these are different expressions of a sense of the holy. To paraphrase Otto, daemonic power becomes divine power; dread becomes worship; confusion and inchoate emotions become a "shudder" of holy awe. When the numen becomes absolutized in Deity, Otto maintains, is when the word holy is attributed to God. All of this develops in the sphere of the non-rational. (IH, 110)

Secondary to this development is "the process of rationalization and moralization on the basis of the numinous consciousness." (IH, 110) The sense of the holy has historically been "filled in" with ideals of goodness, justice, obligation. Otto applauds this moralization process overall as part of the history of salvation and "the ever-growing self-revelation of the divine." (IH, 111) At the same time, and in view of an increasingly secularized European Protestant culture, he is most concerned to say that we have gone too far with it and need to regain some balance. For Otto, holiness is completed by the moralization process -- holiness is both non-rational and rational -- but morality always has its source in and is determined first by the numinous. It is in this sense then that we can say, as above regarding the Isaiah passage, that an encounter with the Holy does carry within it a moral imperative pointing toward the convergence of the human will and the will of God.

Having described numinous encounters analogically through a depiction and analysis of the associated feelings, now in Chapters 14 -21 Otto tells us how it is that these feelings are indications of an a priori principal at work, an objective reality. He maintains that these feelings, characterized with the phrase mysterium tremendum fascinans et augustum, indicate that human beings have a built in psychological capacity to experience the numinous. These qualitatively unique feelings do not arise out of any kind of normal sense-perceptions, yet, since any feeling requires some kind of stimulus, they must be evoked in response to a non-natural object outside of us, i.e., the numinous. (PA, 83) They point to a "hidden substantive source, from which the religious ideas and feelings are formed, which lies in the mind independently of sense-experience." (IH, 114)

Otto's epistemology stands on the shoulders of theologian Jacob Fries' neo-Kantianism. In contrast to Kant, Fries maintained that we can know reality, the thing-in-itself. He bases this conviction on how our very existence and being in general give rise to what he calls immediate knowledge. This immediate knowledge carries within it its own criterion of truth, a feeling of truth, which is "inescapable and irreducible." (PA, 47-49) This immediate feeling of truth is what characterizes Ahndung (presentiment or intuitive feeling). It is through Ahndung that human beings are enabled to apprehend the infinite in the finite. Ahndung serves as a bridge between rational faith and scientific knowledge.

Otto takes Friesian Ahndung and calls it the faculty of divination:

Divination consists in the fact that a man encounters an occurrence that is not 'natural,' in the sense of being inexplicable by the laws of nature. Since it has actually occurred, it must have had a cause; and, since it has no 'natural' cause, it must…have a supernatural one. This theory of divination is a genuine, solidly rationalist theory, put together with rigid concepts in a strict demonstrative form and intended as such. And it claims that the capacity or faculty of divination is the understanding, the faculty of reflection in concept and demonstration. The transcendent is here proved as strictly as anything can be proved, logically from given premises. (IH, 144-145)

It is an open question whether Otto "proved" the transcendent, as he claimed, and it is at this point that I want to move into a critique of The Idea of the Holy. Interestingly, although it has significantly impacted the psychology of religion and has become a part of the religious culture, this work has had little theological influence over the years. Bultmann attacked its "irrationalism," and Tillich said the philosophy on which it was based left open too many questions. (MR, 10 and PA, 89, respectively)

Otto's attempt to give philosophical credence, through Friesian thought, to the experience of the holy was for me the most interesting aspect of his work, but ultimately, of course, he is making a rather circular argument. Truth verified by the feeling of truth is a philosophically weak position. Although I am among the many who believe (based on personal experience and Ahndung, no doubt) that what he is saying is accurate, I saw nothing in the reading that effectively countered the problem of human proclivity toward self-deception. Otto himself seems to understand that his philosophical argument cannot hope to convince the skeptical when he writes on page 8 that those who have not had encounters with the numinous should bother to read no further.

The Idea of the Holy is ultimately a document of faith, for Otto cannot establish that an "event did not arise from natural causes or was in conflict with the laws of nature." His only defense against this claim is an appeal straight back to the religious consciousness itself which, he says, "rises against this desiccation and materialization of what in all religion is surely the most tender and living moment, the actual discovery of and encounter with very deity." (IH, 145)

Philosophically, we are left not with logical proof but with a presupposition that the numinous is an objective metaphysical reality and not a psychological projection.

At the same time, however, the notion that The Idea of the Holy fails to 'hold up' on strictly logical philosophical terms needs to be measured against the equally important notion that strictly logical philosophical terms are, after all, only one way of knowing. As a feminist who has experienced first-hand the denigration of "women's ways of knowing," Ahndung is a refreshing 'philosophical' idea. And if both psychology and philosophy are after the same goal, i.e., to make manifest that which is hidden, perhaps Ahndung makes the most sense of all.

To continue with this critique, I turn now to a look at Otto from a postmodern constructionist position. Not surprisingly, his writing carries within it modernist assumptions of universality, a-temporality, and a disregard for placing much importance on the context of experience. His basic proposition, for example, is that numinous experience is sui generis -- irreducible, unmediated by language or circumstance. And he claimed as well to have discovered a universal predisposition in all humans to receive the numinous experience. Both of these claims are at odds with postmodern constructionist insights that all experience is conditioned and that, given the diversity of human existence and the lack of any fixed reference point, universalizing anything is dangerous business.

Perhaps surprisingly, a few aspects of Otto's work do fit rather well with a postmodern perspective.
  • First, his emphasis on religion as an inner experience is in line with certain postmodern spiritualities which consider experience more authoritative than doctrine, texts or priests.
  • Second, as Raphael notes, despite his modernist assumptions, there is little Cartesian rationalism or disembodiedness in Otto. (MR, 5) Indeed, much of the criticism leveled at his work attacks a perceived overvaluation of the body and the senses as well as his position that the intellect cannot ultimately determine religious truth.
  • Third, Otto's comparative study of religion was a powerful precursor to the religious pluralism of the postmodern world. Although he ultimately claimed the superiority of Christianity and felt it to be the most evolved of all religions, Otto's writing also showed unusual respect for the truth found in all major religions and he advocated a change in the West's disdainful attitude toward them.
  • Finally, Otto's insistence that morality and beauty are culturally determined anticipates constructionist insights.

The dualism inherent in The Idea of the Holy must be mentioned here as well. In characterizing the sacred otherness of the divine, Otto seems at times to intimate that the created world can be nothing but profane. Liberationist critique notes that this dichotomy has led to sinful political and religious structures. Liberationists prefer a more holistic view, seeing the sacred inherent in all of life, and offering relationality as a means by which the violence of these systemic structures may be countered. They point out that relationship with Otto's 'wholly other' numinous is a daunting task, to say the least.

Otto's distinction between the sacred and profane is more complex than some liberationists may take into account. First and foremost it reminds us that we are not God, that our status as creatures means we require a system of morality that addresses political and religious injustices. Also, despite the 'wholly otherness' of a numinous encounter, the fascinans element points toward a kind of mystical joy and sense of salvation, both of which call forth a type of intimacy with the numinous object. Finally, I particularly appreciated Raphael's defense of Otto's dualism vs. the liberationist tendency toward a monistic theology:

If there is no principle of division that names religio-ethical transgression, then there are no frontiers to halt the advance of those political structures of alienation from God . . . The division of holiness and profanity produces an urgent, purposive model of history, whereas the problem of modernity is precisely that it robs history of any telos beyond that of the final mastery of nature . . . . If nothing is enclosed or fenced off as taboo or forbidden, closed to economic colonization or scientific reduction, then there is no obstacle to modernity's Baconian unveiling of creation's mysteries. (MR, 188)

Before concluding, I want to briefly include something about the phenomenology of The Idea of the Holy. Despite the fact that this work is commonly considered a prototypical phenomenological account, the scholars I read had some interesting input into this classification. Raphael points out that while Otto does attempt to get to the central aspects of numinous experience (eidetic vision), he does not suspend judgment even for a moment (epoche). Rather, he assumes his judgments regarding the religious a priori are not only correct, but universal. (MR, 16) And Almond notes that Otto's assertion that religious feelings are qualitatively unique is not phenomenological, but is a philosophical presupposition. This is the case as well for his ideas regarding the varieties of religious experience. While Otto's assertion that different religions experience the numinous in different ways is accounted for phenomenologically, his assertion that ultimately all religions are grounded in one metaphysical reality is once again a philosophical presupposi-tion and is not phenomenologically based. (PA, 85)

Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy has powerfully impacted the psychology of religion at least in part because it reads the human document in a profoundly insightful way, offering us an astute account of our ability to know the infinite in the midst of a finite world. It is a transcendental psychology that provides a means of expressing the human capacity to distinguish between the sacred and profane and to apprehend the self-revelation of God.

From a pastoral theological perspective, I think The Idea of the Holy offers meaningful discussion of at least three things. First, it points to how revelation necessitates grace. At its most fundamental level how we know God, indeed, how we know anything, is pure grace. Also, Otto's epistemology reminds the pastoral theologian that feelings of truth, while perhaps disparaged in society worshiping at the feet of technology and while indeed always requiring careful reflection and analysis, nevertheless yield important clues as to how it is that like Isaiah we often daringly move out into the world in response to a powerful experience perceived strictly from a religious consciousness. Finally, feelings of truth also provide a theological foundation for a crucial aspect of human existence -- hope.

Paul Tillich has written beautifully of how we have a right to hope based on our experience of the eternal in us and in our finite world. We feel that this is a holy place, a holy person, a holy time. The feeling transcends the ordinary; it gives more and demands more, and it points to the ultimate mystery of experience and all existence. Those moments of truth show us that our finitude, surrendered to the flux of things, is only one side of our being and that we are both in and above finitude. Rudolf Otto helps the pastoral theologian sense anew this paradoxical backdrop of what it means to be human.

IH The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry Into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, by Rudolf Otto (London: Oxford University Press, 1923)

MR Rudolf Otto and the Concept of Holiness, by Melissa Raphael (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997)

PA Rudolf Otto: An Introduction to His Philosophical Theology, by Philip C. Almond (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984)


Monday, August 16, 2010

A New Spiritual Discipline

I'm trying a new spiritual discipline. I've set the alarm clock on my phone to go off, with soothing harp music, every hour during the day. As I reach to turn it off each time, I read the title that I gave to the alarm: "Body, Mind, Holy Spirit"

Then I stop, just for a few moments, and I remind myself of three things:

1. Body.
I do a quick body scan. After all, the "body is the best spiritual director we can ever have" (Emily H.) Lately, I've mostly been noticing, when I do the body scan, how my foot is still hurting from the fall I took during vacation. But I usually also notice my level of hunger. When I realize that I'm not hungry, it helps a bit with emotional or stress eating.

2. Mind.
Here I remind myself that: "I am not my thoughts. My true self--my authentic self--lies behind/beyond my thoughts. "I" am a particular and unique manifestation of LIFE, the life-force, the divine spark, the creative energy that continues to bring forth the world." I find this to be an amazing thought. It's really helped me vis-a-vis my relationship with death. Plus, in the last couple of days I've actually been 'present' enough to remember that "I am not my thoughts" during times when I am thinking fearfully or judgmentally. It's been a huge release! Wow.

3. Holy Spirit.
Here I take a deep breath and say to myself: "I open myself to the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit." Each time I say this to myself, I feel this letting go inside me. Very powerful.

I've been doing this for about a week. Sometimes the alarm goes off when I'm with someone, so I turn it off and then forget it. Other times, the alarm goes off when I'm focused on something else, so I turn it off and don't go back to it until it rings again the next hour. Mostly, though, I've been fairly faithful, and I think it's beginning to make a difference. Someone at my lectio divina group said "You're taking little Sabbaths throughout the day," and that's a lovely way to put it, I think. Little Sabbaths that bring me back to the present moment and remind me of what is, for me, ultimately true.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

We're Melting Down Here

This is our 15th straight day of temperatures over 100 degrees F. We had a surprising amout of rain in July and we kept remarking how green everything was. Now it's all dead and brown.

Yesterday David complained about the heat, a rare happening. Psychologically, it's wearing us all down. I'm suppose to have "high tea" with a bunch of friends this afternoon--a lovely idea and I'm sure we'll have a lovely time, but the very idea of just getting outside to drive to the antique mall ... ugh.

And it's not only the temps, it's the unrelenting brightness, reminding me of those old Westerns where the hero was left to die out on the desert somewhere, and the sun beating down, and he squints and sweats, and the music portrays a slow, rhythmic forewarning of death, and he thinks he sees water in the distance but of course it's only a mirage... :-)

Right, and if my car unexpectedly breaks down, I'll have to play that part: the heroine, out all alone on the side of the highway, squinting this way and squinting that way (sunglasses don't help all that much, you know--not in this level of blaze) ... and no one stops to help, so I must trudge forward all alone, one foot heavily in front of the other, my pale skin blistering red before my very eyes, sweat falling down from the end of my nose, so parched that my tongue cements to the top of my mouth, I am helpless to staunch my tears. Finally, I feel faint...

Yep, psychologically, I'm definitely wearing down....

Sunday, August 8, 2010


I've always loved this quote about Grace.

The grace of God is "God's transforming disposition towards the whole world." That is, divine grace is expressed as a creative will for dynamic life and goodness, full of ongoing possibilities for transformation and renewal. God bestows on us the risky gift of freedom and responsibility. Grace is a risk God takes in the freedom of divine love, a risk extended for the sake of transformation, for greater wholeness, for fullness of life.
.It's by Walter Brueggemann, as quoted in Companions in Christ series on Grace.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Spiritual Parents

I saw Mary R. this morning. The last few times I've seen her I spend my time in the car driving over there thinking 'I really don't have anything to talk about. Hmm...' But then I get there and she asks a simple question and suddenly all this pain comes flooding out. Today she simply asked me how I was doing with my grief over Andy's death.

Mary was my therapist before and during my years in the Ph.D. program; she heard all of my angst and self-doubt as I struggled to become more and more my authentic self during those vibrant years under Andy's wise and gentle tutelage. And I remember how she'd say, "Katherine, trust Andy's words. Trust his perception of you. Trust his confidence in you."

As we spoke it became clear to me how losing Andy was ... well, he was more than a father figure to me...he was my spiritual father. I think that's a good way to phrase it. When I think back on those years (wow, I first met Andy 15 years ago now), Andy, and in fact Mary R. as well (and I told her this today), were spiritual parents to me. With them, because of them and the grace and wisdom and love they embody(ied), I was slowly reborn.

You know, when someone older and wiser takes an interest in you, really seems to understand you (at times I've thought Andy and Mary both could read my thoughts) and care about you, it opens up such beautiful space for transformation. Even though it remains difficult and painful, that space has always been so enticing to me, partly, I know, because of my love for those who offer it. My "spiritual parents" made it clear that they really want(ed) me to grow and mature and to know what true joy is like -- and part of the transformation I experienced was motivated by my desire to prove their confidence in me was not misplaced. Often, underneath my courage was this thought: "If Andy (or Mary) think I can do this, then I must be able to do it."

Mary knew Andy slightly. She attended a couple of events where he was the speaker and they talked a bit, I believe. She said today that she was always able to feel his power whenever she was in his presence -- he just had an energy of love that she could always feel, she said. Just before his book on the subject was published, she heard him speak about Hope. Somehow we got off on Andy's notion that is it only penultimate hope that we place in people we love, and how "great" it is that the people in our lives are less than perfect because that reminds us that ultimate hope can really only be placed in God. [Pretty funny -- we joked about that, which, of course, reminded me so viscerally of Andy and how so often his greatest teachings were communicated to me through humor.]

Mary said that she believes that Andy could see, like she sees, how much I love God. Part of me objected, and yet when she said it, I immediately began weeping like a baby. Weeping with such fragile hope that it's true. Weeping with an embryonic recognition that she had given utterance to the deepest desire of my life. And weeping with a vague memory of Andy saying something very similar to me.
Dear God, how spiritual-parent-like to convey words with the kind of power to actually evoke exactly that to which they point. So amazing.

I am grateful for my spiritual parents. Grateful that I had 15 years with such a giant of a human being, Andy Lester. And yes, so grateful that Mary R is with me still, still loving me, still offering such wise and gracious space for an ongoing transformation.

So grateful.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Wolf Totem -- highly recommended

I've been reading Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong. Started about 9:00 this morning and am about halfway through. It's amazing. I'm totally transported to another world -- the world of Inner Mongolia's grasslands. It's set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s when a young Chinese intellectual travels to this strange land of nomadic Mongols who live in "perfect harmony with their beautiful but exacting natural environment. At the core of their beliefs is the notion of a triangular balance between the earth, humankind, and the fierce otherworldly Mongolian wolf."

In a very strange way, this book is a page turner. There's no 'mystery-murder,' no 'love triangle,' no 'adventure searching for relics from the Catholic church,' but, still, I've found myself eagerly moving from chapter to chapter, anticipating Chen Zhen's next encounter with the wolves.

Such a different, very spiritual, world. I'm enthralled.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Taos vacation

Just wanted to share some photos from our vacation to Taos...

The photo of our granddaughter near the patio is close to where I fell and sprained my ankle! It's still 'ouching'!

The house was fabulous and had a lovely yard, including the little bridge on which K is standing...

The small photo is of the house we rented--the living room. The house was expensive, so we could only stay 3 nights, but Wow, we all really loved it. 1800 s.f. and about five levels, which were wonderful until I fell!

The vacation was wonderful, but alas, too short. I tripped and fell on Wednesday morning, and we started the long drive back home on Thursday morning. We spent the night in Amarillo and on Friday morning, Deb woke up with the flu (or something like it). So by the time we actually got home, only David and Katie were left standing!

It was such a delight to have little Morgan with us...she brings sparkle wherever she is.

Friday, July 23, 2010


I've been listening to Eckhart Tolle again -- a podcast. He's talking about the "inner space," the "spaciousness" inside us where we are conscious of being conscious. No longer dominated by the mind which is processing sense data, memories, future plans, etc., --this inner space is the gap between all that and the LIFE we really are.

He said LIFE has no opposite because it has no end. And we are manifestations of LIFE in human bodies that will one day turn to dust, but the LIFE WE ARE will continue because it is eternal. We are part of All That Is.

And it's awareness of this LIFE WE ARE that is the "inner space," the "spaciousness," the consciousness and deep spiritual awarness (as Cynthia Bourgealt calls it).

That makes so much sense to me. It's beautiful, isn't it? And to live with this sort of deep awareness, where there is no fear, is where Jesus lived, I think. He lived in the gap between ordinary mind (sense perception, memory, the 'normal' way minds work) and behind the mind. Yes, behind the mind is the LIFE WE ARE, the true and authentic self.

So mystical. Hidden. And yet I know this. I know what he's talking about.

At one point he asked us to move into stillness, close the eyes, take some deep breaths, and then feel the aliveness, the LIFE WE ARE by feeling the energy in our hands. Wow; that was, and is, even now, so powerful.

Absolutely beautiful.

Monday, July 19, 2010

And Now What?

I'm in one of those I-want-to-look-at-my-life moods. Know what I mean? They come at the end of a big job, when I can breathe and broaden my focus again.

What's next?

1. One thing I know I need to do is find some way to focus on grieving Andy's death. Yesterday I came across his name on something and I found myself nearly bent over in pain; for a few moments I could barely breathe. Of course, I came across his name on things constantly in the last month when I was preparing for and teaching my class, but that was different--I was using what he'd taught me. Now I don't have that psychic "protection." The tears threaten to spill over even now.

2. I have to make-up the time I missed from work in preparing the class, so I'll be working on Thursdays this Fall. I've been in a discernment process regarding whether to enroll in Hearthpaths training for the Ignatian Exercises--it would mean every Friday morning from September through May, plus a lot of hours throughout the week. I need that discipline, but I also find myself thinking/feeling that I might 'need' that Friday morning for myself...just me here at home...since my Thursdays will now be 'taken.' Hmmm, I guess I'm wanting to guard my free time.

3. Free read. I want to read "Wolf Totem"--David was ga-ga over this book; it sounds fabulous. Katie gave me a couple of books to read that I haven't had time to even look at. "How God Changes Your Brain"--I recommended this book to my friend C, and she's finished it, while I haven't really begun! The list is endless. "Eat, Pray, Love" -- I noticed the movie opens soon and I've wanted to read the book for ages.

4. Free garden. My back won't allow me to really garden, but I want to investigate this Tabletop Gardening as an alternative. Maybe this Fall.

5. Learning to eat mindfully. I've started this, but the last couple of weeks I really let it drop. My meals were whatever was convenient.

6. Free write. Weavings invited me to submit some articles this year, but my time was spent in teaching. I'd love to designate Fridays just to writing, and especially for Weavings.

7. Can one learn to like exercising? "Joyful Movement" is the key, isn't it? I do like to walk with my friend Pam--at the mall, of course. It's too damnhot otherwise until October. What else might be "Joyful Movement" for me? Hmmm, dance lessons. Riding my bike (when it gets cooler). I wonder if I'd use a Wii -- they look kinda fun. InterPlay, for sure; I need to find a group.

8. Prioritizing Centering Prayer in my life. I'm meeting with a group of wonderful friends each Wednesday, but I'd like to have a group meet at my church as well on another day of the week. Since reading Centering Prayer and the Inner Life, I find myself really drawn to this spiritual discipline.

Well, we shall see...

Friday, July 16, 2010

What's happening

The 2-week intensive class is finished.  Whew!  This was definitely the best class I've taught--everything about it for me felt authentic.  I'm still a neophyte professor and can see where I need to improve on some technicalities in teaching, but the main thing is that I felt the class learned some important things and that the students were really engaged.  I'm grateful for that!  I told them today as the class ended that I felt hopeful for the future of the church, knowing that they were going to be part of that.  They really did seem committed and thoughtful, and that was so good to see....Anyway, I'm breathing easier tonight -- no more getting up at 4:30 a.m.!  woo-hoo!  Tomorrow I am sleeping in!

David and I went out to dinner tonight--he's good at helping me celebrate things!

Tomorrow I start grading papers and that's going to take a very l-o-n-g time.  Still, I'm looking forward to returning to church on Sunday; eager to get busy there again.

Things are happening on the homefront, too. We're getting a new roof, and we're refinancing for 4.25%, down from 6.75%, so we're pretty excited about that.

David's riding again tomorrow morning -- just a 40 mile ride, which is easy for him.  College girl is coming for a visit--she wants to ride bicycles with her dad later in the day.
And week-after-next is vacation!  Yippee!


Monday, June 28, 2010

Teaching in July

I'm using a lot of Andy's material (see previous post) to create this class that I'm scheduled to teach in July.  I see his notes on my old papers, and I hear his voice as I read his handouts.  I cry a bit, and then give thanks that he was my teacher.

I've been 'holed up' here at home for over a week now, putting together this class on Pastoral Care.  It's an Intro class, so we're covering a wide range of subjects.  Yesterday I realized I needed to get some guest speakers in;  two people have already responded "yes."  And I'm considering requiring some kind of group presentations from the class--that's a good way to learn, and it saves me from coming up with ever-more lectures and stuff on my own. 

A long way to go....

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Andy Lester

Andrew Lester died June 10, one day after my brother-in-law. I had hoped his memorial service would be held later, but I was still in South Carolina (where I needed to be) when everyone gathered to remember what he had meant to them.
Andy was my dissertation supervisor, my teacher/mentor, officiator at my wedding, and my friend. He and Judy were planning to move to North Carolina and I remember his telephone call to me, letting me know about their plans. He said he wanted me to know because "You and I have always had such a special connection, Katherine."
We had talked on several previous occasions about our 'connection,' and it had to do with us both having an existentialist orientation to life. We were both passionate about authenticity, freedom and responsibility, life/death, anxiety, isolation/community, and meaning.
He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer not long after that phone call. Their house had sold surprisingly quickly, so he and Judy had to move into an apartment while he received treatment. That saddened me; they had a beautiful home. I don't know exactly how long it was from when he was diagnosed to when he died; a year, or perhaps a bit longer.
I remember once in a seminar class, he had asked us to read an article about "master narratives." All of my colleagues critiqued the article, saying that from their postmodern perspective master narratives didn't exist; our identities are created anew each day through social construction. I saw their point, but I spoke up in disagreement because as I had read the article I knew my own 'master narrative.'
"Tell us, Katherine," Andy said.
"Uh, oh, well...," I stammered. My intention had not been to tell that story -- Andy surprised me in so many ways through the years, inviting me, in one way or another, to honor the Authentic Katherine.
I was maybe 19 years old and on break from college. My parents lived in Houston then. On this particular evening, my mother had already gone to bed leaving me alone with my father. I was sitting in a chair in the living room reading a book, I think. He was only slightly drunk and he came over and sat on the couch and said, "So, Katy, where is your life going?"

Where is my life going... Deep anxiety flooded through me. I froze and could only manage to slightly shrug my shoulders in response. He looked away and eventually said, "Yeah. I know. I was never captain of my own ship either."

As the years went on, that little exchange with my father served as a major gift and, indeed, as a 'master narrative' for me. It taught me in the most powerful way that I MUST become the 'captain of my own ship.' My God, I couldn't go through life and end up, at 60, thinking I'd never acted as agent of my own life! No! No! No!
As I finished that story I looked at Andy, and OH!, I'll never forget his face. He was smiling at me and nodding his head in affirmation. My eyes fill with tears now, thinking of it. He was so proud of me. That's what I read into his smile and his nod: Oh dear God, this man I love and respect so much is proud of me! He saw me becoming, and in some ways as already, the captain of my own ship.
It meant the world.
When I asked him to officiate at my wedding I was pretty sure he would say Yes, and he did. But he surprised me with a question also: Katherine, I can only do this if you've thought through the implications for justice. I think I responded with something like "yes of course," and he said 'great' and quickly went on to some nuts-and-bolts questions. He knew that the question would linger in my mind. In what ways, in the excitement of falling in love and planning a wedding, would I tend to give my power away?--that's what he wanted me to think through, I'm sure, because he knew that ongoing sub-story of mine: letting my God-given empowerment dissipate. It remains a hugely important question for me to keep in mind.
Andy was someone I felt the freedom to always be myself around, and at the same time, not. I know I had him on a pedastal as this "father-figure extraordinaire." I wish I could've related to him as an equal more often than I did. He invited that in so many ways.
Well, it's a small regret, really. The main thing is how utterly grateful I am, and will always be, that Andy Lester was part of my life. Being in his presence was sheer gift because, as his obituary said, he was a man who provided "unconditional love." What response can anyone have to that except utter gratitude?
I have always thought that no human being could provide 'unconditional love,' and I've always asked my clients/parishioners to think about that more deeply when they make such a declaration. But when I read that in Andy's obituary, written by his family members I'm sure, I knew it was an accurate statement, arising, I believe, from his amazing commitment to Jesus Christ and his dedication to increasing in spiritual maturity. Andy Lester was a man who walked the earth with a deep assurance in his soul that God was with him--guiding, healing, sustaining, reconciling, and liberating him. It's that kind of assurance that gives us the freedom to love others so well.
Two of my Ph.D. colleagues contacted me upon learning of Andy's death. Duane called me that morning to make sure I'd heard the news, then he emailed me. His email ended with "We stand on the shoulders of a giant." Oh, how true. Andy's work is hugely respected in the field of pastoral counseling and pastoral theology. He broke new ground in narrative theory and hope, and an incredible pastoral theology of anger. Not to mention his books on marriage and on children. It was a beautiful reminder to me, that we his students stand on Andy's giant shoulders as pastoral theologians, counselors, and caregivers. A feeling for me of both humility and celebration.
And Linda's email brought tears to me eyes. She commented on how I had been in her thoughts since the moment she learned he was on hospice. She wrote of the "closeness and significance" of my relationship with him and her certainty that his death would "leave a hole" in my heart. You're right, Linda. So right. And for all of us in our own ways... I'm thinking now of another friend and student of Andy's, M., who mentioned a couple of times to me how she wished one of us could speak to Andy and learn from his wisdom about this process of dying. I think we all assume that this process of letting go was something he experienced with sadness, but grace and a loved-filled peace as well.
The last time I saw Andy and Judy was about 3 weeks before he died. They had come again to one of the "Sacred Conversations" gatherings at my church. He was very pale, and I knew he had recently had to increase his pain medication. As they left, we embraced and I'm pretty sure I said, "I love you." Even if I didn't actually say that out loud, I know he knew it.
He's with God now.
But, of course, he always was.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bike Racing Today

David's riding in a bike race this morning. He got up at 5:30 to get to Italy, Texas in time for the pancake breakfast. His text at 7:15 said he had pancakes with a 69-year-old man who rides this race every year. Encouraging!

I'm a tad worried, but I know he should be fine. He rides over 70 miles on other blistering hot days without a problem, so this 67-mile race shouldn't be hard.

He'll come home tired, but feeling good about himself, I'm sure. And who wouldn't be proud of an accomplishment like that? I think it's amazing.

Tomorrow's Father's Day, of course. I know the girls will be here; not sure about Young Man with Integrity -- he and his family are just now driving back from a two-week vacation to Montana, so they might not be up for it. Hope so, though. It would be great if all of us together could celebrate David!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Journey Begins

My brother-in-law of 30 years died June 9. I officiated at his memorial service last week in South Carolina -- it was an informal service with lots of storytelling about Stan and expressions of what he meant to us. I shared a beautiful memory I have of him --
When my mother was dying in 1994, I, along with my sister and brother, were keeping vigil at the hospital where she lay in a coma. Exhausted, I went back to my sister's house each evening to regain a little strength for the next day's waiting. Part of my time each evening was to clean my contact lenses which ended up dirty with salt from my tears during the day, and I couldn't wear my glasses because they were broken. I returned home one evening and Stan had repaired my glasses for me. A small act of kindness, but one that has stayed with me all these years. It meant so much because I was too spent to do anything for myself, and to come back and find my glasses waiting for me meant that Stan had thought about me during the day and had some compassion for how my eyes were hurting each evening. It was a gift that carried tremendous meaning for me.
The story of Stan's death is not a pretty one. Despite hospice care, he suffered greatly, I think. Still, he died knowing that his family members--Susan, my sister, and Ashley and Keith, his daughter and son--were there, and they loved him greatly.

Thirty years is a long time to have someone be part of the family; I haven't yet really processed what it will be like for me to visit their home and Stan not be there to greet and welcome me. And that's just me. Stan was always there for my sister, her confidant and best friend. As she herself said on the day after the memorial service, "So now my journey begins." Poignant words. Her journey of grief and tears and anguished adjustment now begin. It is a journey of creating a new identity for herself, even though in a very important sense Stan will remain with her. She'll have a different relationship with him now, but no relationship ever really dies, for we are forever changed by loving others. They become part of who we are.

It was truly wrenching for me to leave Susan and Ashley and Keith; I very much wanted to stay and feel like I was helping them somehow. But all of us knew that these journeys of grief must be taken alone. (Not that other people don't help; they do. It can help tremendously to be in the company of one who cares and loves.) But the internal work of grief is just that -- a work of inner transformation that each of us must undertake as individuals-in-relationship.

I know they'll be fine; they are fine. And I know that it's through the pain that true joy can be made known. Christ shows us that. Still, part of me wishes they didn't have to go through any pain at all. I'm praying that even in the midst of heartache they'll be able to sense God's loving and gracious presence with them, sustaining and healing them.

Yes. May it be so.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Twenty Questions

1. When you looked at yourself in the mirror today, what was the first thing you thought? I was in such a hurry to get ready this morning that I was just thinking "OK, hair done. OK, makeup on." Didn't think much about anything except getting the job done so that I could get to church!

2. Do you miss anyone right now?
I do. I miss my sister and her family -- my brother-in-law is on hospice and I'm concerned about him and my sister, niece and nephew. They are really on my heart.
There's a dear friend I really miss; she's too busy these days to really get together. Grieves my heart, to tell the truth.
I miss my friend Wendy who moved to Missouri.
Funny (strange) thing...I woke up from a dream one night last week in which I was walking down the hall of our house screaming: "Mamma!" Very disturbing dream. After 16 years of being without her, I still miss my mother.

3. If you could move anywhere else, would you?
I'd move to a cooler, prettier place. It's only June and already we're way above 100 degrees here in north Texas. I hate it.

4. If you could choose, what would your last meal be?
Perfectly prepared chicken-'n-dumplings. (That means fluffy dumplings.)

5. What famous person, dead or alive, would you want to have lunch with?
I think I'd enjoy lunch with Henri Nouwen, talking about his life, and, I have a suspicion, talking about mine as well. He'd ask.

6. What was the last book you read?
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault

7. What was the last movie you watched?
In the theater, Robin Hood.
Via Netflix, As It Is in Heaven (great movie!)

8. What was the last song you heard?
It was something on my I-Phone--Joan Baez, I think. I listened to it on the plane ride home yesterday.

9. What is your dream vacation?
Someplace cool with a wonderful view of the mountains or the ocean. For two weeks--time to really relax!

10. What is the next trip you will take?
We're driving to Taos, NM, at the end of July. I've rented a house near the town square for three nights. Looking forward to that!

11. Did you ever go to camp?
No, I never did. I hear folks talk about the truly formative experiences they've had at Youth Camp, but I can't resonate with that. I do remember going camping once or twice with my grandparents. My grandfather had a motor boat, so we'd go on area lakes.

12. Have you ever been in love?
Yes, I have. Still am. We've been married over six years now. At the moment, we're watching the 5th game of the Stanley Cup together.

13. What do you want to know about the future?
Hmmm, gosh. I really can't think of anything. Guess the present is OK, and I do have a pretty good level of trust, I think.

14. Where is your best friend?
"Best friend" isn't a phrase I use. I have several "soul friends." They're in Fort Worth, Dallas, Princeton NJ, Maryville MO...

15. How is your best friend?
They're all doing great.

16. Who is the biggest gossiper you know?
I know some folks who gossip, but I certainly wouldn't name them here!!

17. What does your last text message say?
"Got it. See you then. Love." That's from my husband after I sent him my arrival time and gate information yesterday.

18. What are 3 things you've always wanted to do, that you still plan to accomplish?
I'm at a point in my life when the "big things" have all been done. We'll see what the future brings.

19. What is one thing you learned from your parents?
I learned to dig deep and find the courage to face unpleasant things about myself. (They did the opposite, so this is a negative learning.)

20. What is one thing you hope to teach to your own children?
I hope my stepchildren and granddaughter will learn something about being truly authentic from me.

I got these from Seeking Authentic Voice, and I think the rules are that if you copy these from me and answer them on your blog you are supposed to let me off I go to let Terri know...

Compassion is the Key to Bridging Opposites

We had another different worship experience this morning. I used the Widow of Nain story, with the idea (that I read somewhere) about the story being of two processions meeting each other. One procession is about death -- the widow leading the procession with her dead son's bier, and the other with Jesus leading a procession into Nain. He'd been doing a few miracles in the area, so there was a large crowd following him.

Two processions on a collision course -- what will happen when Life meets Death? The focus of the sermon was on Compassion as the bridge between life and death.

Our musicians were so incredible...through them I was really able to worship, even while being "responsible" for worship myself. I'm so grateful to them, and for them. We've come a long way with music that really fits the theme and provides such a beautiful, worshipful experience.

I decorated the worship space with contrasting colors -- yellow (Jesus and Life) and dark blue (the Widow and Nain and Death). That was meaningful for me, creating a space that supported the sermon and theme for the morning.

Lynn provided homemade bread for communion, and she gathered the folks together to illustrate the story as Scripture was read. Thanks, Lynn.

I don't know how many were present. 70, perhaps, including the children.

Unfortunately our air conditioning in that space is on the blink, so it was a bit uncomfortable. It probably mattered to me more than anyone! I pretty much melt in the heat!

At the book study after worship, Cole suggested having some discussion questions that fit the theme each Sunday...we can provide these questions at the Table Fellowship that always follows the service. Loved that idea!