In less than two weeks, Advent begins. Once again, daily posts from many different people will grace this space, lighting our path as we seek the Christ Child once more. This is the beginning of a new church year, and a time to reflect on all that this past year brought in its days. I’m taking a break from writing – a deep breath before immersing myself in Advent. Until then, I’ll ponder this:
Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path. Psalm 119:105, NRSV
What was good? What was hard? Where did you see God?
These three questions for me are the gist of the Daily Examen of Saint Ignatius, but that’s not where I first heard them all strung together. They guided the evening wrap-up for the teens and chaperones of Saint John’s church, Duxbury, on their yearly mission trip.
It’s been twelve or so years since I heard the questions, and they’ve stayed with me. I’d guess they’ve stayed with everyone who went on those mission trips, in one form or another. In their depth and simplicity, they offer a holy pattern of remembering, of recognizing God’s presence in the people and events that daily life offers. They offer us a glimpse of the holiness of our own lives.
Saint Ignatius came first, but it was Heidi Marcotte who gave me the questions. I am profoundly changed by and grateful for them.
What Was Good?
Heidi Marcotte’s presence in my work at Saint John’s back then, and the blessing of her friendship today.
One of the following, or some other suitable passage of Scripture, is read.
The love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Romans 5:5 (BCP, p 105)
Yesterday morning, a homeless woman wandered into the library just as the doors were unlocked for the day. She wanted help finding an affordable place to live. The two librarians offered to help as best they could – looking online for options, getting her in touch with local outreach groups, etc. She refused the help; it wasn’t in the form she could accept, so she didn’t.
Before she left, she looked at the books on display and read a few of the notices posted on the board. When she walked out the door twenty minutes later, her circumstances were the same. She was still homeless. But something had changed.
For twenty minutes, two people listened to her. They looked at her, and they talked with her rather than at her. They did the best they could to help, and when the help was refused, they didn’t roll their eyes or offer sarcastic comments. They just stayed in that uncomfortable space.
For me, it was as sure a sign as any that God’s love is alive and well, and the Spirit dwelling in our hearts shows herself in all kinds of circumstances.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
Glory to the Mother, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
It has a different feel and flavor in the mouth, the glory going to the Mother rather than the Father. It’s not particularly heretical – there are feminine images for God throughout scripture; but it’s not customary or common. So why the insistence on God as male to the exclusion of God as female?
It’s important to notice gender differences, especially if one gender is valued above another as a general rule. But alternating male and female pronouns shouldn’t be the end goal: a deeper awareness of and openness to God’s presence is what we seek. The words are sacred not because of any magical property, but because we are drawn through them into God’s loving embrace.
Isn’t that the point of this often said phrase? God is, was, and will always love us; God holds our past, present, and future; we are never lost to God.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.
There’s no “officiant only” service that I’ve ever seen, something that doesn’t require the presence or participation of anyone else. Sure, any of the services can be prayed by someone in solitude – but there’s no pretending that no one else exists.
That makes sense to me, reminding me of a deeper truth; you and I are part of a much larger, older community of prayer that is not limited to the souls currently alive on this planet. You and I, we are part of an unbroken chain of prayer that stretches back to the beginning of creation and will stretch well beyond the span of our lifetimes. Neither as officiant nor as one among the people do we ever pray and praise by ourselves.
Worship isn’t a spectator sport or a television soap opera. It isn’t the job of the officiant to perform for me. I am asked to show up and participate, to serve as a conversation partner in this most basic act of honoring God.
They were nineteen years old when I threw them away. I bought them before Jared was born, when Dave and I lived in New Hope with our toddler son, Colin. You can’t see it, but the soles are split, the laces are frayed (this is the second set of them), and the stitching has given out on the heels. They are permanently bent, as if my feet were still in them, lifting up to take my next step. I took the picture to remind me of how much care and talent went into their creation, and of how they carried me in comfort over countless miles.
Images evoke feelings and memories. The same image can mean different things to different people – over time, they can also mean different things for the same person. For these summer days, I’ll share some images that speak to me – like the boots above. I’ll also post a second picture – one at the end of the post. Without words for a few days, then with a story.
If you are so inclined, tell me what you see. A second set of eyes can bring a new perspective…
I was beyond the reach of data and cell towers, so I didn’t find out until hours later. Yesterday, two weeks after his son died, Ben the Elder followed him into God’s embrace.
Ben and his wife were my family’s first neighbors in Wareham, 2002. Quiet, gentle, with the gift of repairing broken things, his skill and humor graced the world. He and his son built the cedar benches that offer rest in the library’s learning garden, a study in sturdiness and simple beauty. Like him, they have made life better without fanfare or flash.
Yesterday, I stood with my husband and younger son on the lower part of Mount Greylock. Flurry clouds obscured a distant mountain, offering only the barest glimpse of a dim and smoky outline. All three of us knew it was there, not one of us could discern its true form. Yet, the mountain, even shrouded, was as real and solid as anything on this earth.
I see Ben in that image, in that moment in time. Quiet. Solid. His life not lost, merely obscured by my limited vision and vantage point.
The multi-colored lights still hang off the front edge of my roof, and nets of the same still blanket the shrubs below. My Christmas tree is up, and there are still things underneath it. Most of the gifts have found their way into their permanent places, but a few boxes and baskets remain – to the great delight of my two cats who relish sleeping in them. That this is the state of things on January 15th is strange – Christmas is usually stowed in the attic a couple of days past Epiphany.
But this isn’t a usual year. Pandemic deaths and hospitalizations are at record levels; there are thousands of National Guard soldiers camped in the Capitol, and a threat of violence hangs over the capitols of all fifty states; the deaths of my father-in-law and a dear friend brought loss and sharp-edged grief into our everyday lives which cannot be marked and lessened with shared prayers, services, and meals. There’s a heaviness to this time weighing on my body, mind, and soul: is that why the tree still stands? I can’t say.
This morning, I opened the curtains, fed the cats, and greeted the light of a new day. Looking at the tree and all the work it represents, something shifted. Instead of boxing ornaments and lights as quickly as possible, I’m going to turn the take down into a spiritual practice. I’ll remember the Christmases past that each ornament represents; I’ll remember holiday gatherings with my father-in-law, Bob, and be grateful for his presence. I’ll recall the Christmas day that Ben and his wife Lena dropped by – and the laughs we shared over the mess of Matchboxes, Legos, wrapping paper, and ribbon that surrounded us. When all the trappings and trimmings of Christmas 2020 are gone, I’ll do something I haven’t had the heart to do yet: give Bob and Ben back to God with love and gratitude.
As for life beyond my own door: I can’t cure the pandemic, but I can certainly make sure I’m doing my part to lessen its damage; I can’t prevent mob violence, but I can do my part to act firmly and wisely, and avoid embittering and embarrassing others.
Love God, love self, and love neighbor. It shouldn’t surprise me that it comes down to this once again. But sometimes, it does.
For years, whenever I pulled my refrigerator out to clean the coils and scrub away the grime that had grown under it, Ben would knock on the door – an instance of synchronicity the universe created not because it was of great significance, but because it was funny. Ben’s knack for laughing at life’s quirkiness turned those many encounters into fond memories.
Ben could tell a good story. Whether it was about his childhood, how he met his wife, Lena, or the many adventures he had on Buzzard’s Bay and ski slopes, Ben shared the people and events of his life with a light touch. The humor in his tales was never at someone else’s expense.
My son, Jared, learned to walk at his beach house because he and his wife let us stay there for the first month we lived in Wareham. He brought several of my relatives out on the water to see his oyster farm; he brought oysters and patience to a couple dozen preschoolers as part of a summer program; he and his father built the benches and planters in the public library’s learning garden – a gift of skill and beauty that makes life in Wareham a little bit richer.
Today, Ben left this life he loved. He leaves behind a loving family and good friends. He returns to God sooner than I’d imagined or hoped. Thank you, Ben, for sharing your life with me and my family. What a precious gift you’ve been to me and mine. And to the world.
2020 was tough. There were blessings, yes, but they tended to be difficulties that turned into learning opportunities. Death surrounded us, on the news and in our home towns. Political unrest and a lot of anger – some righteous, some not – was on full display. The flaws in our imperfect governing institutions and the limitations of those working within them had tangible and almost immediate attention and effect. 2021 might be here, but 2020 lingers in our pandemic-caused isolation and the mounting death toll across the country. There is no quick (re)solution and we remain in an alternate social reality still.
What about 2021? It’s starting with loss, but also hope for a healthier national reality. The patience required to stay vigilant until vaccines are universally available just might translate into a willingness to look for long-term, more permanent strides toward racial and gender equality. Grief at the loss of so many loved ones may turn into an abiding compassion for the suffering of all people – those close by and those flung far across the globe.
Perhaps spending so much time at home will move us to get our houses in order – to let go of what doesn’t matter and to love what does. Such an endeavor isn’t exactly a typical New Year’s resolution, but it seems like a good way to enter this new year.
May God’s peace abide with you in all circumstances, and may you be God’s peace for others. Amen.