Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

Links to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimages are on the navigation links to the right of the web page.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Advent Meditation - Reading the Leaves

I've always walked and hiked a lot, especially in the past few years. I've realized that I notice more in the world and have more opportunities to reflect on things going on in my life when I go outside, putting one foot in front of the other.

The other day, during this cool December month, I was walking just after sunrise, noting the whiff of firewood from the night before, and found myself gazing at a large maple tree down the street from my home. I know this tree well, as it stands in front of a small house and is naturally decked out at this time of year with exhilarating autumn colors. I stared at the shimmering golden maple leaves, and the unraked layers scattered around the base. As I got closer, feet crunching on fallen foliage, I was struck by an odd vision. Two or three leaves were spinning wildly as they clung to the branches. They were twirling in the wind, trembling, vibrating on the bare twigs.

What made me take notice of these particular leaves was the obvious contrast to the other thousands of others on that tree. The other golden forms were perfectly stationary, as though in a painting. Motionless. Oblivious to those two or three quaking ones just a few feet away. I thought, "Oh, I actually might be able catch these spinning leaves just as they fall away to the ground - a perfect autumn moment on my walk." So I stepped towards the tree and gazed at the shivering ones hoping to catch them in the act of falling. I came to a stop on the lawn below the leaves. I watched and waited to see a spectacle that admittedly is repeated millions of times a day this time of year, but would be seen only by me, at this moment, at this place.

But it didn't happen, at least not in the way that I expected. As it turns out, as I was staring at the twirlers, I saw out of the corner of my eye an unexpected movement. I turned my head, and one of those motionless leaves broke off and started to drift downwards, wafting this way and that, before gently landing on the damp ground below. It was one of the stronger leaves that fell. I looked up, and the spinning leaves still quivered manically in the wind. I looked up and the stationary ones still remained motionless.

So I got to see a leaf fall. What I saw was what I wanted to see, what I waited to see, but it wasn't how I expected to see it. 

And as I took a couple of steps back towards the street, one last shape caught my attention. I saw pigtails and two large blue eyes. It was as though a young child - straight out of central casting to play the role of Cindy Lou Who, the tiniest tot on the Grinch Who Stole Christmas - was gazing out the front window of the modest home. Her head was propped on her hands, her elbows planted on a sofa, her big round eyes staring at the tree. It seems she hadn't noticed me.

I'm not certain what she was looking at, what she was waiting for. Did she want to see the leaves fall as well? Was she wondering where her Mom and Dad had gone to at this hour? Perhaps she was wondering what was for breakfast. But she was waiting and watching up towards the tree. But as I started my departure, she moved her head suddenly, surprised to see someone else there with her. Of course, I was concerned that I had startled her. But she just tilted her head slightly and smiled. She smiled broadly, with innocence and gentleness.

Advent is a season where we often run around madly, racing from one store to the next store, or from one e-store to the next e-store, staring at our phones as we wait in line. We do it because we want to make Christmas special for the ones we love, those who are planted in our lives. We do extra shopping, decorating, cooking on top of our normal chores, with work and family commitments. We spin around the city and it's a wonder we just don't collapse. That we don't fall to the damp ground below. Yet we somehow hang on. And our joys almost always come from unexpected ways. 

We're asked to spend Advent waiting for the baby Jesus. We're asked to be alert, to be watchful, with childlike innocence and wonder. It can often be challenging, if we let our attention drift in the wind to this mall and that concert, to this show and that party.  

May Advent keep us all awake at the sunrise, alert, in a state of wonder, head in our hands, staring out the window for something that perhaps only we can see, perhaps something we all can share. And may it surprise us with meaning far greater than we ever expected.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Do you see what I see?

After the rains above Los Angeles, Feb 2014

From a place of beauty
where the bouncing wind thumps
against a wood frame window

Watching shape shifting clouds
wander confused and dazed
between the mountains and city below

Listening to parrots chatter
catching coyotes scampering
smiling at that cat rolling in the grass

I sit restlessly
not in a state of peace.

Unease competes with my senses
like an itch on my back
distracting me from appreciation

Because in places far away and maybe even nearby
the same glorious sights, sounds, and smells
thud hollow on the heart.

For if I were a refugee, a hungry child, or a widow
would I see, hear, and feel
the same things as the privileged

this man who sits in his warm home he calls his own
staring out the window
seeing the beauty because of good fortune?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Footsteps of the Flies

Some times of our lives or of the year, we seemingly seem to be bumped by death from the left and by the dying from the right. We hear our mortality creeping up behind us, and we see tears and pain in front of us.

It's easy to let loose, go full on emo and drown ourselves in the sorrows of nihilism and fate. We drift alone on an island, fearful of what life has in store for us next.

Last Friday I saw the staged version of Lord of the Flies for the first time. My niece performed in an all-girl production, where they changed the characters from Ralph, Simon, Jack, and Piggy to Rachel, Simone, Jackie, and Piggy. It added a new dimension to see young girls in a classic modern story.

The broad themes stayed the same: the natural tendency for order and rules vs the natural tendency for tribalism and war, the Christ-like lover of peace being misunderstood by all, the innate criminality in some, the futility of intellectual blindness. But the use of girls ensured that these themes were understood to be truly across the human race, and not just among men. The cast was not allowed to lean on a simplistic boys-will-be-boys crutch. And the emotions felt ever more raw.

I bring it up because this show preceded a weekend that also included a memorial for a family member who passed on. That loss of innocence described in the book often times accompanies the departure of a friend or relative. It's part of our nature to question life and our natural place in it.

Lord of the Flies as a title arises literally from Beelzebub, or Baal-ze-bub. That deity is now viewed as a demon or devil. It's as though the devil arises when we're adrift on an island alone. The book implies that the devil is in us, and we hear the footsteps of the devil when left to our own devices.

But we aren't alone on an island. We have each other and most importantly, we have those who brought us here. Unlike the story, we weren't left here by accident. Our ancestors and friends paved a way for us in ways small and large.

Which brings me to this All Saints and All Souls day prayer that I've been saying for the past few years. It's obviously a slight reworking of Hebrews 12 and the prayer attributed to Saint Francis. But it merges them into a journey of hope.

We aren't adrift on an island, cast away to fend for ourselves. We have footprints in the sand that we can follow. And we can lay a path for those who come after us. So yes, like the beast in Lord of the Flies lurking in the shadows of our darkest night, we may find ourselves crawling in fear. At first. For now.

And then we can awake to a dawn, strengthened by the sunlight, supported by those clouds of relationships new and old, walking on the paths that were paved to bring us to this place of beauty. We may not be on this earth for very long, but we are not alone. That sound we hear is not the Lord of the Flies buzzing out of death. It's the prayer of hope that willed us into being. We exist because the love of others brought us here and we too can bring life to those who follow.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Be Not Afraid

Playful in the crypts below Lima, Peru's cathedral. January, 2012.
There's nothing to fear but fear itself.

Don't be a scaredy-cat.

Over and over throughout the Bible, we're told to fear not.  (Except when God's pissed off. Then yeah, be fearful.)

All this courage and fearlessness is thrust upon us. We're supposed to have a strong spine, a stiff upper lip.

And yet. in many ways, it's a tough sell for me. We do have fears. Some carry angst over monsters, others clowns and dolls, some over violence in our streets, and still others criminals. Apparently, many fear even people of a different ethnicity or culture, walking on the other side of the street. That's fear. That's real.

And even the Biblical exhortation to be not afraid can be rough. Don't be afraid? It's not easy when you watch the news. And even if you're faithful, don't be fearful ... unless God's mad? It's like a menacing parent who says they love you but won't hesitate to whip you silly if you don't fall in line. That fear is intrinsically mixed in with love, and frankly it's hard to find that sort of relationship anywhere close to being unconditional love. You see that more in horror movies involving kidnappers. A simple understanding of Biblical courage might be unpersuasive.

Besides, humans as a rule don't like to be genuinely afraid, so we don't need to be reminded to be courageous. Instead, avoid fear, transform fear, deflect fear. We act out in anger and aggression in order to avoid situations and feelings of fear. True fear debilitates and we, in our fight or flight reactions, show that we will do whatever it takes to reduce these terrible feelings. And when we can't evade the horrors of life, anxiety and/or depression settles in to offset the enormous negative energy. Counterproductive as it might seem, but negative emotions are sometimes the only way to counteract other negative emotions.

And then there's Halloween.

It's a holiday that, when I was a kid, was surrounded by mirth and mild fear. Increasingly, it became one of terror, where haunted houses migrated from the corny to bloodbaths. This holiday is now worth 8-10 billion dollars each year in the USA. Thanksgiving is worth less than 3 billion, not including travel. The numbers alone might cause the blood to drain from your face.

By definition, the word Halloween comes from the phrase All Hallow's Eve (All Holy's Eve). All Saints Day is November 1 and All Souls Day (for those who haven't quite made it to sainthood) follows on November 2. The night before, or Eve of, All Saints Day, like the Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, is a time to begin celebrations. The concept of Halloween shifted from focus on Saints and Souls in all their holiness to the dead. More than that, it's moved to the terrifying.

Why do we do this? What is the joy in creating fear in others? The mild stimulation certainly can raise adrenaline. There's also the merriment associated with giving someone a playful fright, a "boo!" moment. Some enjoy gory movies and entertainment, and Halloween provides a date as a focal point for such diversions. Looking around me, I think we can agree that this is the most common situation.

In contrast, we have some who feel that all this is utterly satanic in every respect. They assert that any enjoyment of the dead, the monsters, the blood, and the costumes celebrate a pagan and demonic heritage. I'm not in agreement with these folks, as the history I've described clearly has ties to the remembrance of the saints and the dead.

I think that Halloween has become our subconscious effort to make light of death, to create opportunities for cathartic release, for us to admit our fears and release the rage that would otherwise become manifest if left unchecked.

We aren't calling up demons from other worlds. We're dispatching demons inside ourselves.

My Halloween costumes, when I dress up, have been one of three types: the victim, the maniacal, and the fictional or historical human character. The one exception to these tendencies is that I once dressed as the Grim Reaper. It might be boring, but I prefer to get a laugh or a wry smile out of my costume rather than a frightful chill.

Do I miss out on the catharsis? I'm not sure. I enjoy the efforts of others to induce the fear, but I don't feel the need to immerse in it. It's almost as though there's too much in the real world to create real fear. What subconscious-clearing monster must I confront that can top the horrors of today's news headlines?

Others though enjoy the fright. And I give them latitude in that delight. If that fright lessens the existential or all-to-present dread that permeates our every day life, then I'm in favor of it.

Biblical exhortations to be not afraid aren't meant to eliminate simplistic, superficial fears after all. I think they are intended to root out our real fears and our faith-killing monsters. The opposite of faith isn't doubt. Doubt is often a key indicator of an underlying and powerful faith.

No, the opposite of faith is fear. Real fear. Because when we are afraid, we cannot love. And when we cannot love, we cannot follow the one and only commandment given to us by Christ: to love one another.

So let's give ourselves a fun "boo!", a playful surprise, a well meaning monster. Or, if you're like me, dress up like Harry Potter, or a judge, or road kill. Let's be joyful, knowing that our reverence for the dead might be helped when we acknowledge, admit, and embrace that death and the unknown are indeed frightening.

And let's hold hands as we ask for love, blessings, and candy. We won't be afraid, if we walk hand in hand, knowing that we have each other's love for all eternity.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Good Grief

We're surrounded by death. It's on the news every few minutes. It's so widespread and pervasive that we've even become desensitized to it. Look at the gun deaths out there on our streets every single day. We watch and we slowly turn the tv stations to sports, Netflix, or cooking shows. We pull up Facebook, register our sadness online, and scroll on.

The pain and suffering of those immersed in death feels unbearable and seems impossible to contain. So we let it slip by. Forget Andy Warhol's prediction that we'll each have our 15 minutes of fame. I think today we spend 15 minutes in grief before it's time to turn our attention to the next obsession, our celebrity-of-the-hour of our psychological Id.

We genuflect towards the plight of others and we move on. Is that resilience? Are we strong against what blights our souls? When we turn away from our emotional distress towards something more "productive"?

Or is that denial? Where we turn our backs on the fearful and look instead to alternative realities? When we fill our minds and lips with anything and everything but that which causes us such heartache?
Novodevichy Cemetery & Convent
Moscow, Russia, June 2012

Last year, we lost Stephen's gregarious brother Tim. He left us in a way that created enormous emotional upheaval. I last saw him 9 days before our wedding. He passed away one week exactly before we walked down the aisle at All Saints Pasadena. Our celebration, something we dreamed about because we never thought it could be possible, was forever tainted by the painful departure of someone we expected to be there in the pews with us. We wore buttons with his face to remember him, so he's in all our wedding photos, but it wasn't the same as having him laugh with us, sing with us, sigh with us.

The morning after the wedding, hours after our celebration ended, we collected the reception flower arrangements and brought them to Tim's memorial.

Life is like that. Grief works on us at times we can't control. Death has no on-off switch.

Then last week, we lost Stephen's Uncle Dave. His passing was quick, and his pain didn't get drawn out over months. But it also means that the opportunities to say goodbye weren't there either. Sure, we had a hilarious time filled with family, stories, and games while camping at Yosemite a couple months ago in August. So we at least saw him a few times since the wedding. But many of the family didn't get a chance to say a proper goodbye. The grief sits heavily when you can't find closure.

Grief sometimes smacks you like a sucker punch to the gut when you're looking the other way. You don't expect exactly when it hits, you're not sure how it will feel, you often are bewildered at the pain. It's not fun. I've never enjoyed it and don't enjoy watching others as they cope with it.

But I stand there with them, together, holding hands, holding heads, holding hearts, so that we can cope without feeling alone. No, I don't enjoy it when others grieve, but grieve they must.

I wish them a good grief.

Not a good grief like Charlie Brown often lamented. Not an exhortation of frustration of something that passes quickly. But a heartfelt, purging, cathartic grief that has no time limit and has no agenda. With a pain that brings us intimately in touch with the billions of people who came before us and will come after us.

For it's in feeling that pain that we reconnect with our humanity, the same humanity that we so fleetingly ignore or pass by because we have no time. Love and loss are time-churning, time-consuming, clock burners. There's no rush and yet the intensity sometimes makes us want to push ahead faster. We want to fall in love faster. We want to cope with loss faster.

And like love, loss cannot be rushed. Our souls are pruned, our hearts bandaged, our psyches mended. The vacuum created by the change may be enormous and may be miniscule, but that gap exists nonetheless.

How quickly we lament that gap. We cut back our rose bushes and see the barren twigs, urging new buds to appear. But life doesn't work that quickly. God not through with us in the timeframe we want. And we can't ignore forever the need to prune back that which is no longer alive in the garden of our lives.

I sometimes wish that my garden were nothing but succulents. They're hardy. They don't need pruning. They just grow. But it's a false expectation. Even cactus plants need pruning.... eventually. It just takes a lot longer to get there. No, the only thing that doesn't have a rejuvenating process are inanimate objects. Stones. Bricks. Pebbles.

They don't die back.

There's no pain of loss that accompanies life.

And there's no chance for life made new.

Amidst the pain of losing someone swirls the often unstated fear, the dread of facing our mortality. As we watch others move away from us to worlds we do not grasp or understand, we can't help but wonder at our own departure. Will we suffer? Will we have a chance to say goodbye?

Let me share with you some words from Mark Nepo. These are words that he writes out of his terror from his life threatening health conditions. But it strikes me as similar in feelings to how many cope with grief.
During this time, I was unable to find my bearings, had no sense of center, and was unsure about everything. But in the center of my terror, there was a small voice stirring, emanating, and building from under all my trouble. It didn't speak in words, and I was unaccustomed to listing for it or to it. I know now it came from the core of all life and all time and began to assert itself through the bottom of my personality, the way sunlight passes through a crack in a barn. This was my first feeling of the touchstone of grace that would grow and lessen my terror over time.
Mark Nepo, Inside the Miracle
Grief may not be what we seek but we still need it to get past loss. I don't wish you to cry over death very often in your life, but when you do find yourself in a time of grief, I pray that you let the process work in you. Let the pruning be a productive one, creating space in your heart, so that life and be fruitful once more, basking in the sunlight that you've allowed into your core.

May your pain be a good grief.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Beatitudes 2.0

Photo by Christina Honchell
Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber came to visit All Saints Pasadena once again, this time with her new book "Accidental Saints". I was working the photo booth but got especially excited when I was asked to lead the final hymn Amazing Grace, after her presentation finished.

It was the culmination of an hour of talks, filled with prayers and stories that touched all of us in the church. Theologically, there wasn't anything that differed markedly from what we at All Saints Pasadena usually hear from our pulpit. What felt different was her delivery.

She's direct and to the point. She doesn't shirk from swearing. Nadia sticks to being her authentic self. She did confide that she's had discussions in the past with her bishop about her communication style, but by being true to herself, she shows herself to be more honest and believable in her relationship with God.

That's not to say that those who don't swear have an untrue relationship. She just won't change herself superficially just to be polite.

One of the most moving moments was when Nadia shared her modern Beatitudes. I include them here for you.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised. Blessed are they who are spiritually impoverished and therefore not so certain about everything that they no longer take in new information. Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are they for whom nothing seems to be working. Blessed are the pre-schoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction. Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears are as real as an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried. Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted any more. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are the motherless, the alone, the ones from whom so much has been taken. Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.” Blessed are they who laughed again when for so long they thought they never would. Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex-workers and the night shift street sweepers. Blessed are the losers and the babies and the parts of ourselves that are so small. The parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that only loves the winners. Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented. Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard – for they are those with whom Jesus chose to surround himself. Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists. Blessed are foster kids and trophy kids and special ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved and never does. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are they who know there has to be more than this. Because they are right.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people. Blessed are the burnt-out social workers and the over worked teachers and the pro-bono case takers. Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak. Blessed are they who delete hateful, homophobic comments off their friend’s Facebook page. Blessed are the ones who have received such real grace that they are no longer in the position of ever deciding who the “deserving poor” are. Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t deserve it. Blessed are the merciful for they totally get it.

As you can see she took the original and expanded them with examples that may resonate more effectively to the modern ear, especially here in the USA. The original Beatitudes are from the Sermon on the Mount and are in Matthew 5:3-11.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

I can't stop thinking about this updated list. It's similar but it focuses on things that are more tangible, more direct. They arise from stories in the pews and in the streets. She didn't change the blessings. She painted real faces, faces awash in tears, of those who the blessings are poured upon.

So since her talk, I've been thinking about my own examples of the Beatitudes. Her examples are from her ministry. We all have different ministries and my will seem different from hers. After much reflection, I find the my list to be already formed in my head but, until now, not written down.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    the spiritual but not religious
    the seekers of their authentic selves
    the suffering who begin to doubt because the pain never seems to end
    the sick who fear their own bodies
    the stranger in our midst who needs a smile, a hug, a friend
    the child afraid to venture outside lest the bullying return
    the scared who fear coming home lest they return to a place of anger and judgment
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,
    the spouse who lost the person they've loved deeper than we can understand
    the lovers who no longer find the trust and joy in each other's arms and say goodbye
    the child who doesn't understand why her parent won't be coming home anymore
    the friends who viewed a couple as one, as was meant to be, but now just find hollow eyes
    the family shocked at the loss of someone taken too soon by gun violence
    the relatives whose loss is viewed by others as collateral damage
    the breaking hearts who did not even have a chance to say goodbye
    the silent who must watch dementia steal someone's memories away leaving just a body
for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
    the teenager who stays in the closet, fearing that the name of their love will be discovered
    the pained who turn to the bottle or to pills to give them strength and energy
    the thinker and artist that lacks the opportunity to share
    the pastors who heal others but wonder who will tend to them
    the friend who realizes that somehow their bodies and souls don't fit a M/F binary
    the nurse who washes our sores    
    the friend that listens to hear us, watches to see us, and grabs our hands to hold us
for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    the foreigner who is told to leave and go to a place of fear and hunger
    the friends who cannot walk down the street in a hoodie or even complain about injustice
    the mother who just wants to get affordable medical care to plan a family
    the inmate facing the final judgment of Man and not our Creator
    the families torn apart because of arbitrary rules regarding homeland
    the kneeling who face violence because of their love for God, YHWH, Allah, Buddha, Shiva, ...
    the proud who won't let others impose their bigotries on them
for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,
    the heros who take care of us behind our backs
    the friends that know all will benefit from roads, sanitation, health, protection, education
    the families who reach out and adopt and care for all children, not just those that look like them
    the older sibling, real or implied, who has our backs
    the comadre and compadre who listen to our problems without judging us
    the teacher who gives of their own time to care for that special child
    the mother and father, sister and brother, who just want you to be happy
for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,
    the custodians at the church, homeless shelter, and hospital
    the teachers who want the most for your child
    the person at the grocery line who lets you cut in front of them
    the staff at the store and restaurant that share the bathroom even if you didn't or can't buy anything
    the ranger who tends to our land so that future generations can marvel at Creation
    the homeowner who sees you lost, gives you water, and guides you home
    the friend who gives you a ride, cares for a prisoner, plants flowers on a trail
for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
    the police and judiciary that understand that true safety starts in trust
    the people who unite us as a human family, rather than divide us like spoils of war
    the artists, writers, and musicians who inspire us to love and compassion
    the fire crew that calms the fearful neighborhood
    the military who put their lives on the line for our protection and not for their glory
    the unknown missionary who lies in a shallow grave for the civil rights of brothers and sisters
    the good Samaritan whose name we never knew, or whose face we've already forgotten
for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    the ones who care for the Children of God
         ignoring false idols
         ignoring their own egos
         ignoring the sense of their own righteousness
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

May you find examples of the beatitudes in your own life and live out the meaning of God's blessings. I invite you to share them with me, for in sharing your views of blessing, you bless me with your insight and love.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Welcome Musings

When I travel I find myself seeking out museums, churches, and architecture. I marvel at well laid out streets and plazas, delight in local music, and try to learn about local poets and writers. I go to these places and then just walk around, soaking it in, slowly without a fast-paced agenda.
Picasso's Guernica in Madrid, 2015

This is not the stuff that cruise ship tours do as deeply as I prefer.

I just did possibly my most whirlwind trip ever with my parents in Spain, France, Andorra, and Portugal. The trip moved from city to city because they really aren't as into art and music as much as I am. Mom certainly enjoys visiting churches. Dad enjoys the churches and plazas. But all the other stuff, well, they're more practical than I am I suppose.

But is an appreciation for the works of the muse impractical? The classical muses were the writer, the poet, the historian, the musician, the song writer, the astronomer, the dramatic actor, the comedy actor (and architect), the dancer, and the sacred poet. The sacred poet one has always been the hardest to define for me. She's also into agriculture and pantomime which are about as related as string theory is to string cheese. But these goddesses are there, with their side musings, in the pantheon of Greek and Roman (who borrowed liberally) mythology. And they inspire us to see and hear and think outside of our normal cloistered minds.

They are known for devoting themselves to their crafts. Through the ages, most people have an appreciation for the way these arts influence our emotions and thoughts. They inspire in positive and negative ways. And we feel civilized when we find ourselves surrounded by them.

Civilized by our muses. It seems odd to me that we can have our animal or rougher edges softened by the creative arts. How can cerebral arts bring us to pause and marvel? And yet it affects most of us in ways that are hard to pinpoint, connecting our daily lives to something distant and ever-present, something timeless and true. We grow and become more complete when exposed to the muses.

Although my parents may not want to spend all day amongst all the muses, they most certainly enjoy their preferred ones. The buildings and hymns in churches most certainly were represented. And they certainly found ways to become instant friends with strangers whenever they met other Filipinos. They could share stories and histories. It's like the muses, but more intimate, transient, fleeting.

Curiously, painting and sculpture was held in low regard by the ancient Westerners, and did not have a muse. They were the result of manual labor. This surprises me because I so value the inspiration that I draw from these arts. I think today's artists are held in greater regard because we realize that their hands are guided by as inspired a mind as any of the other muses.

Whether respected or not, the muses sing to us, speak us, enter our beings in ways that are unexpected and tangible. We can block them out, ears covered and eyes shut, but we're not immune to their effects.

I think that happens because most of the time we're not trying to cram them into our beings. Instead, we make ourselves open and receptive to them, and in doing so, we let their magic work us over and make us feel more complete. And by welcoming them in, we invite them to create more and inspire us further.

Isn't that similar to many of the relationships in our lives? Our friendships? Our loves? Our congregations? Rather than overtly trying to hard to bring them in, we just open ourselves up and serendipitously discover the ways they tug on the strings of our heart. And together we grow together in mutual affection and appreciation. So that we can laugh together. Cry together. Sing together. Pray together.

May we welcome the new and creative forces all around us and discover the creation from within.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Blessings over Fear

A visit to Lourdes - Sep 2015
I took my parents on a trip to Spain (and France, Portugal, and Andorra) last month. It's the third time I've taken them to Europe. Each time has been one where I gave a gift out of love and gratitude. They paid for my study abroad back when I was an undergraduate. We didn't have much and certainly this just added to their debts at the time.

My time at Oxford was transformative. It was as though my eyes were opened to beauty and possibilities I hadn't expected. True the food was terrible beyond the pale. I exaggerate not. I didn't know vegetables could be boiled so thoroughly that they could look whiter than beyond pale. But the museums, art, people, and opportunity to experience a different culture affected me deeply and I cherish what I learned and continue to learn on every trip I take to this day.

So I thank them with these trips. This one was their first trip to Spain, a particularly meaningful one because our ancestors came to the Philippines from Spain.

I blog this because as with any time you put parents and with their post-adolescent children together, you have an opportunity for conflict. Much as I try to be a caring child, it's human nature to have disagreements with someone who raised you with firm advice. Much as I cherished the time and valued the blessings and opportunity to spend three weeks with my parents, there were moments when I felt as though I were 14 years old again. I'm sure I was a pill then and I definitely could be tough to swallow when I'm petulant or angry now.

The feelings are worsened when mortality is brought into the mix. None of us live forever. Much as I want my parents to be around, I know at some point I must say goodbye to them. Or, far worse, they have to say goodbye to me. Statistically and from family health history, there's much to make me feel that I need to gird myself for the inevitable. Hence, the trip was a great way to learn more about ourselves and to share in our time.

But I said that's how feelings are made worse. I for one may intellectually accept what will some day come, but emotionally it's not easy. And whenever I saw evidence that my parents were slowing down, or not are more forgetful than in the past, or are ignoring dietary proscriptions by their physicians, I experience the role reversal that often accompanies caring for aging parents. I heard myself scolding for bad eating and getting frustrated by forgetfulness. I've learned to accept the physical slowing down, but then get overly cautious when we aren't slowing down enough.

My mom is the most formidable woman I know. Whenever we moved, she started with entry level jobs yet always rose to be a leader. She finally retired as the Executive Director of the non-education parts of Stanford and Cal State LA. Dad started his professional career as an attorney and became a banker. Even after he retired, and returned to work as a part time teller to keep stave off boredom, he sometimes sold more new accounts than full time staff, winning trips for his successes. And yet he's still strong in his 80s, wanting to carry luggage when I could be doing so for him. Both of them worked all their lives, 2-3 jobs each, just to get us our education here in the USA.

So it bothers me to watch them slow down from the peaks of their careers. And I didn't understand why I was frustrated and angry during the first week of the trip. It took that week to realize that I was getting angry because I was masking my real feelings.

I was frightened.

Fearful of the signs of aging they were showing.

Afraid of someday saying goodbye to them.

And like most men, I resist fear and transform it into other emotions. The fear became anger and frustration.

Once I realized what I was doing, it became easier to accept my feelings. I was, after all, on this trip to enjoy my time with them and share with them the land of our ancestors. What I feared can not be avoided. So stories were told, memories shared, and we were able to experience a trip with the power of healing and transformation that we all wanted to have.

I watched Mom and Dad at Lourdes. They watched others in wheelchairs, on crutches, in arms of others as they processed into several masses for blessings. They did not want to be among those who seemed more needy, as if their needs were any less than the next person. But I understood. They've always deferred to those more needy and this was no different.

I waded into the stream of Lourdes and let my fears flow out of me into the waters. Some view blessing as the transmittal of a prayer or God's grace to someone. But on that day, on this trip, I realized that to be filled with grace and love, I needed to make room in my soul for that love.

The fear had to be released.

An opening needed to be created.

My mind and heart had to wade into the thin space.

And in the darkened void I created but feared, from that willful purgation into the stream at Lourdes, I made room for grace. I stepped out of myself and found fresh air. And with my parents on this trip, I felt the blessing come into me.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Another Day, Another Horror Story

Why must we march through life accepting hellish conditions? (photo July, 2015)
Another day another mass murder in the US. We've become sadly immune at times to listen to run of the mill mass murders of only 3 people. It takes something on the scale of Roseberg, Oregon's campus shooting to grab our attention. Or the church shooting in South Carolina. Or dozens of tiny children at Newtown.

That's why yesterday, a day when everyone was focused on the revolting news arising from Oregon, we didn't even hear about other mass murders that were unfolding. In Florida, a man shot his wife, her boyfriend, and a Good Samaritan trying to intervene and help, before committing suicide. The boyfriend is hanging on to his life but the others have died. This did not make the headlines, probably because unlike Oregon, it's become too common and two of the victims knew the assailant.

That's right. It's not worthy of news, of our attention, because it happens too often. These poor souls don't get the opportunity for our grieving and for our prayers because their deaths were pedestrian. Just average gun deaths.

A painful malaise has gripped us in the face of all this gun violence. I was wondering what snapped in me yesterday though. I immediately posted a comment "No no no... Prayers for the families of Oregon" (Facebook). But it wasn't enough. I felt that the passive acceptance was no longer tenable.

And I was actually confused by my reaction. I wasn't just sad. I was angry. Angry at the system, yes, but also our acceptance of Sheol, of hellish conditions on earth, of living in a burning rubbish pit. I didn't understand why I felt differently, and not happily doing my prayers.

I noticed a comment online from a former employee who wrote "Forget peace and comfort in Oregon. I am praying for angry, world-changing grief. ‪#‎UCCShooting‬" . That was it. That's what I was feeling. I was tired of praying for after the fact consolation of grieving and the dead. Not that I wouldn't, but that I felt it insufficient. I wanted more.

So I wrote online "Praying for resilience and world-changing grief so that prayers for victims and families will no longer be necessary. Praying for a quiet love that is more powerful than the clanging cymbal. Praying that our eyes and ears grown desensitized to these daily horrors can guide our hands and feet and hearts to still the red-tinged waters of the land." (Facebook)

And I felt empowered by this. I think we all can feel empowered. Remember when personal computers were becoming common place but were a mystery to most people? And Apple computer, during the 1984 Superbowl, unveiled an ad that said that the unveiling of the Macintosh computer will show why 1984 (the year) will not be like 1984 (the book). Catch the ad on YouTube. It was memorable because it promised hope that we did not have to accept the doubleplus goodspeak being fed to us.

I felt like we needed to throw our hammers at the military industrial complex that perpetuates this circle of horror. I saw my culpability as unacceptable any more. And I wondered if others felt the same way, though I didn't want that to stop me from doing something about it.

And I saw more posts from others. More comments of resolve. And by evening, there was a statement by the USA President Obama. And a statement by Rector Ed Bacon of All Saints Church in Pasadena. The feeling of exasperation was palpable last night. (Ed Bacon's statement)

Do I expect things to change? Will the National Rifle Association once again be able to convince us that we need to sit down, pray, grieve respectfully, and look at this as a mental health problem not a gun problem, well after the fact. And then watch as the NRA finances politicians who defund health care at the local through national level. Or as they finance politicians who defund health care and benefits to military veterans, people who actually know how to use these weapons, but are now left sick, untreated, frustrated, scared, angry, and armed. Or as they throw out arguments that it's pointless to ban weapons because bans don't work, but then finance politicians who support bans on drugs, abortions, minority voting access, or marriage equality.

I don't personally support gun bans, just like I don't support these other bans. I think that personal responsibility must be taken. We need licensing, certification, and regular training requirements, across the board from the local level on up. The gun industry must be made accountable for the development of dangerous products, just like the auto and other industries. And even though the relationship is not causal in any way, we have to address the popular scapegoat. If it's mental that's being blamed, we need real mental health financing with information that influences the licensing of gun ownership. We don't license the blind to drive; we shouldn't license unfit gun owners. Australia reformed their gun laws in 1996 in the wake of their worst mass murder incident. They haven't had a repeat in the two decades since.

We need accountability not complicity from law enforcement. Umpqua Community College's local Sheriff John Hanlin had once sent a letter to President Obama stating that he would never comply with gun ordinances from the national level. Is that treason or another Kim Davis situation where the government official needs to be removed from office for not upholding the laws? Either way, he's still sheriff, and in my opinion has some blood on his hands.
As do we all. When we sit idly by, spectators in the bloodbath of this Colosseum arena, we abet the continuation of this travesty. That's why my prayer today is different. 
Feeling gratitude that many are no longer willing to stand in prayer and then stand aside, that instead of standing in a circle of passivity and defensiveness, we stand together marching forward. My prayers for grief AND action yesterday have been echoed by many.
I today pray for forgiveness for not doing enough to create a safe place for all made in Her image, for allowing an idolatrous love to flourish unchallenged, for living in a house of fear rather than the house of love we want to call home.

Please stand with me and with others who want to part the red-tinged waters that threaten to drown us. Let's confront the irrational biases against any form of sensible reform. Let's hold hands and say that rather than waiting for someone to feed us, we should learn to fish and feed ourselves. We don't have to sit idly by, praying, accepting the temptation of easy resignation. We can walk through the valley of peace together.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Love your enemies

The words in Matthew 5:44 from Jesus are pretty straight-forward.

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

Not to mention Proverbs 25:21

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

And then there's the stretch of Luke that just beats you on the head with the "love your enemies" stuff.

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

I would be lying if I said that i follow these verses every moment of my life. It's almost impossible isn't it? The reason people would be classified as an enemy, or at least a royal pain in the behind, is that whether intentionally or not, they are making your life unpleasant. Who wants that? If the cause of  my unhappiness is clearly identifiable, it's a natural reaction to get angry at that cause.

And what of the verse of Matthew 5:39
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also
On the face of it, this one seems to invite you to be a masochist. "Thank you sir, may i have another" whack just does not sound attractive.

Well, turning the other cheek does not necessarily mean taking pain endlessly. These passages to me are more about how we react, how we respond. Surely we have to protect ourselves and defend against violence and violation.

No, to me these passages are about responding in a surprising, unexpected way full of grace and love. Rather than returning assault and insult to assault and insult, we pray for those who offend, love them, offer ways to help and heal them. If forgiveness is central to healing and love, then we can't get to that healing and love without forgiving those who harm us.

These verses were all over my mind this week as I watched the situation in Kentucky where elected county clerk Kim Davis refused to grant marriage licenses to anyone. This she did despite directives from the District Court and from failing on appeal all the way up to the Supreme Court.

My reaction to the avowed "Christian persecution" stance is probably predictable. I'm a Christian and I don't feel persecuted by the change in law. I would feel persecuted in that county, however, if the elected official refused to perform their duties to uphold the Constitution and laws of our country. And a good number of people around the country, as Facebook and Twitter seem to show, were offended by this position.

On the opposite side of the coin, presidential candidates on the right were quick to fall over themselves to support the clerk's right to freedom of religion. The politicization and rhetoric hit the fan in ways where everyone was getting dirty.

And people got dirty. There were many photos of the clerk in the unflattering fluorescent light, as if even Beyonce or George Clooney could look good in county office lighting. People used derogatory, inflammatory, and misogynistic barbs out of their anger at this person. They aired her personal dirty laundry that, admittedly, showed signs of hypocrisy. They made mean-spirited memes that were completely unrelated to what was happening.

And, in their anger, they persecuted and returned hate and venom.

I didn't laugh at any of those remarks. I saw where they came from. They arose out of anger and a feeling of continued persecution. But they attacked a person rather than the elected official. They attacked looks rather than actions. They didn't turn the other cheek.

OK I'll admit freely that I got a great laugh out of the many tweets from a Twitter user @nexttokimdavis who pretended to be a co-worker complaining about sitting in the office next to the clerk. But what I laughed at was not the personal stuff. I enjoyed the common griping that comes when you're trying to do your job and someone else at the office makes things unnecessarily dramatic, the crassness of the media, and the hysteria of the many protesters from both sides. Thankfully, there were only sparing jokes about personal issues.

Is laughing at your enemy loving? I love to laugh. I love to find humor in sad situations. I use humor to sustain me as an optimist. But i think that personal attacks may bring a snicker or laugh and yet in the end leave you without any cathartic satisfaction. I laugh at the circumstance, at our folly, at the system that tricks people into unjust actions because it's more motivating than crying. I try to not laugh at someone's personal expense. I do, but it flies in the face of things that matter to me.

Like loving those who persecute us.

May we all learn how to be loving with each other. We may never agree on certain issues, but the sun rises for all of us, the rain falls on us all, and the rainbow glitters in all of our eyes.

Monday, August 24, 2015

We Wanderers, Given to the Wind, Are Scattered

Frightened and yet soon at peace while in the sky.
Cappadocia Turkey on our Honeymoon - June 2014

"We wanderers, ever seeking the lonelier way, begin no day where we have ended another day; and no sunrise finds us where sunset left us. Even while the earth sleeps we travel. We are the seeds of the tenacious plant, and it is in our ripeness and our fullness of heart that we are given to the wind and are scattered."

Kahlil Gibran - The Prophet

I don't think we're intentionally seeking the lonelier way. To me, it happens unexpectedly, naturally. What I seek, what I yearn for, is a closer relationship to Creation, a relationship that's both distant and deeply ingrained inside of me. It's that contradiction that makes it so hard sometimes to stay in touch with the divine. We teeter closer and then farther, ever nearer, ever further. By wandering, we need to leave our safe spaces and head towards areas that can be both exciting and unpredictable, and yet oddly expected. And that journey can feel inadvertently lonely.

The poem says that our wandering occurs even while the earth sleeps. Actually, it implies that our exploration occurs even while we sleep. I find this serenely true. I wake up at times with a peaceful "Aha". I never used to think of epiphanies as calm. But on this journey, I've started to wake up in more quiet states of awareness, of realization. Unlike the Archimedes "Eureka!" of excitement, these are the sort where you sit up and just nod your head in understanding.

So it seems that while the earth sleeps, while I sleep, we all indeed continue to travel. The scientist in me says, of course, we're traveling at a speed of 1,000 mph around the axis of the earth and 67,000 mph around the sun. That's a lot of space to cover and it'd be shame not to discover something after 8 hours of such speeds.

Most exciting to me about this poem is the final statement. We are seeds. When we are ripe, when we are ready, we go out, carried by the wind, held aloft to unknown destinations, and spread life.

Whether you are a young adult, whether you are a postulent, whether you are discovering life in Christ anew, you reach a new form of fullness. And in that fullness, we are released and sent out, by the wind, by the Holy Spirit, by the forces of the community around us, to be scattered.

The scattering is unpredictable.

The scattering can be frightening.

The scattering brings new life.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Preparing for the Camino de Santiago in 2016

Credentials from my 2014 Camino de Santiago pilgrimage

Once again, I'll be walking the Camino de Santiago, leaving Los Angeles on May 12, 2016.

Rather than starting in the traditional city of St Jean Pied-de-Port, France and following the Camino Frances, I will start in Lourdes, France. This small city sits at the foot of the French Pyrenees mountains. Starting there will add an additional 130 km (81 miles) or so, depending on the route I decide to take, on top of the typical 800 km (500 miles). Based on past experience, I will likely walk another 100 miles just wandering the villages sight-seeing churches and landmarks.

Why start in Lourdes?

My 2014 camino pilgrimage was pretty much about me. It was an opportunity to discover myself, to pursue some discernment about vocation, to explore my purpose. The pilgrimage was also an appropriate way for me personally to celebrate my 50th birthday year.

And as you may have read from my blog postings from the 2014 journey, I noticed that numerous people needed to be with other people, needed to share their lives and pains and joys, needed to find healing. It touched me that they would share this with me. I found it amazing that I could minister to their needs and offer an ear, a heart, a touch that could provide solace or healing. My 2014 blog postings are on the right side navigation: Preparing for the Camino de Santiago 2014 and my posts during and after at Camino de Santiago 2014.

So I'll start in Lourdes, France. Lourdes has been known for two centuries as a pilgrimage site of healing. Millions of people every year head to Lourdes to be blessed. By touching, tasting, and washing with the waters of that community, the pilgrims seek to move from a place of illness and hurt to one of reconciliation and well-being.

I will start out with my own efforts to find healing. As the phrase goes, "physician heal thyself". First, I want to have a couple days of reflection, self-care, and attention to physical and spiritual health. Then, taking some of the healing water with me in a container, I will carry the blessed waters from the Lourdes grotto and take it on the camino with me.

And all who wish to be anointed with the holy water, to be blessed in prayer, are welcome to that water. I will share the blessings with all who seek it, and pray that they be healed.

I've confided to some that my 2016 camino will be all about others. I amend and correct myself publicly now. One can never take a pilgrimage for others. One takes a pilgrimage for themselves. But, my camino will be a shared camino. In sharing the holy water, in sharing the healing, in allowing myself to be in communion with others, I will find myself fed and nourished, and share in the bountiful grace of God. That's my camino in 2016. That's why I will start in Lourdes.

I may be walking with friends from church along this trip. If schedules work out, I'll be meeting some at St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. Others might be joining us in other cities and villages. Because of this, I will walk on average 25 km (15 miles) each day instead of my normal 35-40 km (22-25 miles) . This is related to making my journey a part of others' lives and not about my own. My husband Stephen, after school lets out and he goes on his annual teaching vacation, will fly out and join me in Leon - a 300 km (200 mile) pilgrimage.

In the meantime, my camino walk continues. I'm rather surprised at my attraction to walking now. I used to walk around downtown Pasadena. Instead of driving to various places or to church, I would just walk. Now, I work from home. That actually began the month before my 2014 pilgrimage. And surprisingly, I walk everywhere now. I've walked to family gatherings in Glendora almost 40 km away.

It started gradually, with about 5-7 mile walks every other day. Now I find myself walking to downtown Pasadena from home, an almost 10 mile round trip, several times a week. Rather than driving to lunch, I just walk. As of this posting, I've walked 1360 miles since New Year's Day, about the distance from New York City past University of Nebraska in Lincoln. I don't even notice the physical part any more. It's part of my journey in mind, body, and spirit. I'm seeking more time away from busy interpersonal interactions to have time with myself, time to ponder and free associate, time to reflect and pray.

(Note: For 2015, I ended up walking 2100 miles. That's the distance from NY to Salt Lake City... Los Angeles to Pensecola Florida... Chicago to Mexico City... Manchester England to Istanbul Turkey...)

I hope you join me, online or even along the Camino Frances, walking beside me as I journey towards my journey of healing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

This Thin Place in Life

I walk through doors into seemingly empty spaces, lobbies, hallways in homes, hotels, businesses. Usually, I pass through without thinking about these transition areas. They're not meant for you to stay in them. These passages allow us to get out of the sun, wipe our shoes, or prepare to leave the building.

They're areas that connect a more important place to another more important place. Those places typically are more important than these transition spaces. They're given room numbers or names. Hallways don't usually get names.

My office at home is overflowing with books and paperwork. Surprising isn't it? Here I am, this tech person who has always preferred electronic documents and works in an industry that ostensibly reduces the need for paperwork, and yet I am inundated with physical words and numbers.

The family room is likewise loaded with symbols of relaxation: tv, sofas, games, tables, current books, memorabilia, remote controls. It's a pleasurable den to have quality time with my husband and to let go of external concerns.

And in between the two rooms is a hallway. It's a rather simple passage, a couple frames hanging, a dark wooden floor in the shadows of a space that needs little illumination.

Yet I traverse that hallway many times each day. I cannot get to the other rooms without passing the hall. It's a transition space between one aspect of my life and another. The hallway has no mirrors, as some do, so it doesn't show me what I look like when I am in this place.

But it's a liminal place, a ritualistic moment between what was and what will be next. Some have compared liminal places to a space between rooms. I use the hallway often, and yet it has occurred to me that it is akin to my place in life right now.

To anthropologists, liminality is that middle time during a series of rituals, when you're not what you were but not yet what you will be. It can be unsettling, being neither in nor out. We don't often think about these transition times and places because we would rather define ourselves as sitting being in one place or another.

And yet on a spiritual pilgrimage, on our individual Caminos, during our discernment, in our grieving, in our growing, we are always reminding others and ourselves that it's not the destination that is our goal. Our destination is a guidepost, a beacon to focus on so that we don't get lost. But it's in this transitional journey that we reorder ourselves psychologically, spiritually, emotionally.

What makes this transitional place so exciting and so scary is that it's often a thin place, where one senses the divine. I'm not saying that I see God whenever I walk through my dark hallway. But in the corridors of life, we sometimes go down ways that aren't as predictable and automatic as usual. That's where I'm walking right now. There are untested doors and I feel as though I'm somehow not alone.

When I first started to attend All Saints Pasadena regularly, I was like others drawn to the phrase "Wherever you are in your journey of faith, you are welcome at this table." It's an invitation to meet at the table of Christ, regardless of our station, status, or strength. The phrase acknowledges that many of us are on a spiritual journey. It even hints that we all are on one.

Perhaps that's what struck me inside. I was on a spiritual journey and was only then, slowly, unwittingly discovering it. My walk was and has been about realizing that in the thin space that is in Christ, I am in a liminal place, straddling the world and the divine.

I'm not in one place or another, but I'm not alone, and I feel excited to be alive. I wander towards the other rooms in wonder and awe.

Monday, August 17, 2015

I Only Know What's Not Here

Rumi, the great 13th Century poet, scholar, mystic from Persia wrote

I start out on this road,
call it love or emptiness.
I only know what's not here. 
Resentment seeds, backscratching greed,
worrying about outcome, fear of people.
When a bird gets free,
it does not go back for remnants
left on the bottom of the cage.
Close by, I'm rain. Far off,
a cloud of fire. I seem restless,
but I am deeply at ease.
Branches tremble. The roots are still.
I am a universe in a handful of dirt,
whole when totally demolished.
Talk about choices does not apply to me.
While intelligence considers options,
I am somewhere lost in the wind.

Most of us have experienced the feeling of purpose, of what calls us into being, of what drives us forward. In many cases, this is intimately tied to job searches or career objectives. To some of us, it leads to perhaps an existential crisis or an exploration of spirituality.

I might not have understood this poem a decade ago. Perhaps after I separated from a partner of almost two decades, I might have understood the feeling of being lost in the wind. But what strikes me about this poem is that it finds meaning in nothing, in what's not here.

Only when demolished am I whole.

It's a reversal of conventional wisdom. How can you be whole when you've been destroyed? But that's what my journey is currently showing me. In breaking apart the edifice that I've built up about myself for the past several decades, in destroying the mirage of seeming successes, I'm discovering within the void is the road to love. Or emptiness.

I've included a photo of my visit to Yosemite Valley earlier this month. It's a gorgeous vista that was once at ground level. A river did not excavate this valley. Instead an enormous glacier once covered the land. As the glacier withdrew, it carved out the sheer, vertical cliff of El Capitan, the striking Half Dome, and numerous meandering valleys of drama. And what makes Yosemite so interesting? It's the void, the emptiness left by the once omnipresent and destructive glacier. From that destruction and withdrawal, a beauty arose.

Love and emptiness, wholeness and demolition. I allow myself to be lifted in the wind, seemingly lost in nothingness but always held aloft in love.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Finding My Way - Walking the Camino of Discernment

I have begun a vocational discernment process. Vocational discernment to Episcopalians is the seeking, sharing, investigative journey into the mind and heart with members of your church to see if your vocation or calling leads to a path towards ordination. The process has been going on for some time, but it's now in motion with others.

Is this a surprise? Allow me to describe how I got here.

Like many young gays, I left the Church (Roman Catholic) because of it felt that though we weren't to be ostracized, we still were held apart and were also asked to live a life of celibacy. We weren't sinners if we didn't do or touch anything. We were basically told to go into a corner and not say a word. As a teen and young adult, I knew this wasn't feeding me - how could it - so I parted ways. Not fully leaving the Church, but just my home Roman Catholicism. And yet, I still snuck back to try and find God and peace, though to no avail.

Like many in the 1980s and 1990s, my life partner and I would go to parties and dinners on Saturday nights, sleep in on Sundays, and somehow miss that there were other things happening on the weekend that might have been fulfilling. It's a work hard, play hard mentality that I suppose I've always had and there was no room for organized religion.

But it also left little room for grace. For 6-7 years during the 1990s, on Christmas and Easter, we would visit my ex's Episcopal church in Bakersfield or All Saints Pasadena. And although I had received invitations to come and attend, I finally heard a tone that I suppose I never recognized because it seemed implausible: welcome.

So with that welcome, I came back to the Church in January 2000, this time as an Episcopalian (part of the worldwide Anglican church), and I was content to practice in a via media life that resembled my Roman Catholic upbringing. I joined the choir and happily listened to messages of love and justice. It nourished me during times of duress. Well, most times. My separation from my partner, after 18 years, despite 2 years of couple counseling, was devastating and I even took time off from choir. I felt that the Holy Spirit had forgotten who I was. I needed space when what I also needed was grace.

Slowly, though, with the prayer of Taize and contemplative time walking the labyrinth, I eventually healed and renewed. The tiny cracks of hope kept widening and the Holy Spirit took root once more in me. And, through the love and inspiration of friends at church, I was invited to join the labyrinth ministry. I'm not sure what they saw, but it made me realize that I had gifts to share with others, and it didn't have to be a work skill.

Things shifted into higher gear in 2009. I volunteered at the church booth at the Episcopal General Convention in Anaheim. I found the discussions amazing. I came to appreciate the depth of commitment that can be shared not only within one's church, but also with the diocese and the Church itself. And I made friends. One priest not only befriended me, he made sure I met Bishop Barbara Harris because I mentioned that I found inspiration in her historic role as the first female bishop in Anglican and Catholic history. I met non-Los Angeles folks from Integrity, the LGBT interest group for Episcopalians, for the first time.

Soon, I felt comfortable, even drawn, to helping and serving others in whatever ways were needed. Whether asked to tote that barge or lift that bale, it now seems right to serve others in the name of God. By 2012, when I helped out at the next General Convention in Indianapolis, I distinctly felt an urge or voice if you will to not just serve but also to lead.

I don't know if it's because of my natural affinity to leadership situations. I've been placed in such situations or put myself into those roles as far as I can remember. But I began to feel that I can serve, must serve, the Church with these skills I've been granted. And rather than just offering my hands and feet, I began to feel called to also offer my voice.

Like many who fear change, I did a something rather common: I ignored this voice. Well, that's really too passive. I pushed it away.

I'm a tech geek.

I'm running a business.

I'm speaking in public about technology, not God. God and technology don't mix, do they?

So I rejected these feelings and went about my way. The funny thing is, though, people kept asking me, in person and online, if I was on a journey to ordination. 

I would laugh and say heavens no. I was raised in a Roman Catholic tradition where you had 1 priest, 6 or 7 masses in 24 hours, for one or two thousand of people. If lay people were not involved, church wouldn't happen. The laity must serve if they want to be fed by the Church. My parents serve at their church 5 days a week, and my 76yo Mom and 80yo Dad would be baffled if asked to slow down. 

But such questions from others persisted and my feelings persisted. One of the primary reasons I went on my pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago was to help understand these feelings and to find in my spiritual center, in my quiet place, an answer to what this all meant.

I didn't find the answer by looking inside. I didn't find the Holy Spirit under the brim of my hat. No, I kept to myself during the first many miles but eventually began to chat with others. And to my foolish amazement, I found the Holy Spirit calling to me from within the tired but passionate people I encountered.

The first person I talked to at length thought I was a minister. In fact, perhaps five people on the walk or at the dinner table eventually made comments as though they thought I was a minister. I was not quoting the Bible when this happened. I did what I feel has been my habit for the past few years: I listened, I asked, I shared stories, I tried to reach out. 

And I ended that journey living out the lessons. I mentioned on my post-Camino presentation and in this blog that on the long flight from Madrid to Dallas, I just wanted to sleep, rest, and read. And yet this young man in a suit beside me wanted to talk for much of that flight. Now, if you've flown enough miles, you know how it can feel to be trapped in a conversation on a plane. I tried at first to politely shift to my reading but he kept at it. So I thought about the many lessons I learned on my journey, and I gave in and listened. And talked. And shared. And he grew content. Finally, as we were deplaning, an older woman in a business suit, came across from her seat in Business class and asked him if he's ready for the next meeting. And then she said, "I'm sorry you had to spend your birthday on a crummy plane, but maybe you got some good rest."

I didn't know if I sensed his sadness or loneliness directly, but realized in a concrete fashion that he somehow needed me, that I was expected to help, and that my journey wasn't ending on this flight. I was to continue this pilgrimage, connecting with others in a healing way, every day.

So eventually I talked with our priests at All Saints Pasadena. And I've started the ball rolling to see if I really am called to ordination to be a priest or deacon.

For those who attend All Saints Pasadena, you may recall that on Sunday January 25, our Rector (head pastor) Rev. Ed Bacon gave a sermon about vocation, or calling. He described some important aspects of vocation, which a discernment process helps discover and confirm. If you wish to listen to that sermon on YouTube, as well as his comments on the late Marcus Borg, watch the video below.

How does this play out with work and home life? I don't fear school or work when my vocation at home is the greatest blessing and strength for me. After all, my marriage to Stephen is in itself a vocation. I couldn't do this without his support and love. And I've come to realize that much as I have a competency at work, it's not my calling. I was originally a pre-med student specializing in gerontology. Perhaps because it was too soon and too close to my grandmother's decline, I couldn't emotionally stay in medicine, as the tears flowed to freely for me. Now, decades later, I understand and manage these feelings more effectively.

So that's how I got here. 

As I begin this process with a committee at church, I will keep this prayer by Thomas Merton ("Thoughts in Solitude", 1956) in my heart:
My Lord God,I have no idea where I am going.I do not see the road ahead of me. Nor do I really know myself,And the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this,You will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust You always though, I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, And You will never leave me to face my struggles alone. Amen.
I pray that you will walk and sit with me, sing and pray with me, hold my heart and my hands with me on this journey. I have always felt called to the table, but for reasons that I can't explain, I now feel that I am asked to set that table, maybe even prepare the nourishment for that table, and invite others to join. May we break bread.together at this table in the next few months, in grace and love.
Lead me, guide me along the way,
For if you lead me I cannot stray.
Lord let me walk each day with Thee.
Lead me, oh Lord lead me.