Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

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

Monday, December 12, 2016

Seeing is Believing - Reflections from the Train - Advent IV

The fourth candle of the Advent wreath will be lit this coming Sunday and it's the one that represents love. In the Christian sense, love is not the romantic emotion but the unbreakable love that flows and comes down like the rain. It can't be beckoned, it can't be made to stop, and but it does sustain life on earth.

Love isn't something that can be earned or won. It has to be known. I think that love is there all around us, all the time, in between and connecting all creatures great and small. What we perceive as the earning or winning of love is not the acquisition of something new, but the realization or perception that something already been there all along. Like those optical illusion photos that can look like a vase or two faces, what we see can mean more than one thing if we can somehow adjust our perception. It may seem like one image, but suddenly you perceive something else about the picture. Love is there to be seen in the picture of life, but so many times we have blinkers on to keep us from seeing it. Even when we know it's there, when we look away, it's sometimes hard to focus and see it once again.

In many ways, the Advent season asks us to stay awake. I sometimes think it's bidding us to wake up in the first place. To notice. To see. And on Christmas day, we do awaken. We awaken to the realization that in this child, in this baby, is the manifestation of a love that could not be described well enough with intangible words. It's a love that can not be understood or fathomed or to most of us, cannot be believed all the time, especially during times of trial.

But that love becomes apparent, real, tangible flesh and we finally can see that love because it's in a form that we can understand: a baby.

We can believe in a baby. We can see it. Touch it. Kiss it. And if that baby is and can represent love in a way that we otherwise cannot imagine, that means our beliefs can be based in love, of love, around love. Our believing of a baby is believing in love.

I had a miserable Saturday. It was meant to be pleasant and lovely, as I was going to have brunch with a friend on the east bay of San Francisco. I took my backpack filled with clothing and my laptop, as I would proceed from brunch to the airport, and decided to do a walk through parks and along the Embarcadero en route.

I didn't realize that it would soon be raining, and heavily (to this Southern Californian) no less. The paths became muddy and the slopes in the Presidio soon became slippery. I fell twice. I got lost in the twisting paths. My phone couldn't get a signal in that forested park so I could not find my way out easily. I was soaked and in muddy jeans. Unlike the Camino, where people eat in dirty conditions, I wasn't mentally prepared for this and certainly did not feel comfortable sitting in a nice restaurant, so I canceled my breakfast and tried to find a place to wash up. Later on, BART would be malfunctioning so would have to pay 10x more to take a cab and also I'd get salsa and guacamole staining my shirt. My pleasant day turned sour and I seemed to have "one of those days."

What I didn't mention yet was that during the walk in the rain, I strolled past dozens and dozens of homeless sleeping under overhangs, eaves, and bus stops. They were wet, cold, and without safety. I may have felt awful, but I felt drier than they did, felt fortunate. And I also felt connected to them, knowing that my complaints were miniscule in comparison to their difficulties. I loved them for reminding me of this.

Later that night, on the subway from LA Union Station back to Pasadena, I was surrounded by a quirky mob. There were numerous people of all ages dressed in Santa garb. Apparently there was a Santa convention, and I was surrounded by Santas and elves of all ages. The festive mood jarred me into a state of alertness, to note the difference between their merriment and my self-pity.

There were also three young teen boys carrying skateboards, looking like they just spent a day at a skate park. One was Latino, one was African-American, and one was white. Though I assumed they were friends, their conversation indicated that they had just met that day at the park and were taking the Gold Line to their homes in different cities.

There was an innocence in their talk. They were eager to share skating stories, talk about how good their day was, what tricks they should try, and what towns they lived in. They were seemingly unaware that in many parts of this country, it takes much effort to get strangers of different ethnicities to socialize together. 

It seemed so natural, casual, and sincere. These boys did not have the hangups that society eventually places on us. As sung in "South Pacific", racism is something that "has to be carefully taught." Why can't we retain this innocence and keep love alive? This was brotherly love in a most untainted form, and I felt blessed to witness it and let it melt my heart that still shivered from the day I had.

For many, we love kids because of their innocence, their honest personalities not yet tainted or marred by the world. It's why the story of Christmas feels so accessible to us. We are naturally drawn to a child because in the baby, we find life and love.

And as I pondered this on the train, it made me appreciate more a practice that I've been following for a few months. Whenever I talk with a stranger or with someone I'm not at ease with, I imagine that person as a child. That the person is someone who is still cloaked in innocence and unconditional love. With that exercise, I've discovered that it's easier to love that person, to see the person that God created, before society changes them into something else. 

As my perception adjusts between seeing that person as a child and an adult, like looking at the vase optical illusion, I realize that I'm seeing two images of the same person. And I can love this person more easily than if I didn't try to look past their current situation.

In loving care for my own self, I've been trying to imagine myself as a child as well. I'm trying to see me as someone who hasn't strayed yet from God's plans for me. To find myself as I was once meant to be.

We can awaken to find love all around us, in the person sleeping on streets as we walk by, in the elves laughing merrily in the subway station, in the teens clutching their prized skateboards. We can awaken to see that the love has been there if we want to see it.
May the eyes of our souls perceive, beyond our own confusion, a reflection of the Christ of joy, the Christ of peace, the Christ of hope, the Christ of love.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Counselor is Inn - Reflections from a Christmas Party

Every year, I wonder if I'll be invited to any Christmas parties and, if invited, whether I'll attend. Since becoming a Lay Counselor for All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, I know that we'll always have at least one invitation. But this year, with me feeling downcast because of recent national events, I was wondering if I could be up for the cheer. Last night, at the Lay Counseling Ministry Christmas potluck, I felt refreshed and enlivened.

As we gathered, many of us talked about our recent fears for our country. There's something about sharing our concerns and sadness, our vulnerability and our worries, in a setting of joyful anticipation that seems cruelly ironic at best, or at least woefully inappropriately timed. But it felt soothing to know that there are others who are in the same boat I'm in. I felt at ease being the safety net (or safety pin) for others, as they were a safe place for me. We could share in trust.

You sort of expect that, given that this was a group of people who offer themselves up to listen and offer counseling to other parishioners in a professional, discreet fashion. The ministry offers 10 free sessions with a counselor to any parishioner who needs an ear, a sounding board, a wailing wall. Though we will refer you to professional psychologists if your situation puts you in harm's way, we are able to support many in the community for a few months. And last night, we supported each other.

In doing so, we were able to smile and laugh and be merry. It refreshed the spirits.

One moment at our dinner table stuck with me. In our discussions, it came up that in many Spanish-speaking countries, there is the practice of the "posada" in the week before Christmas. In villages and cities, people go from home to home, eating, drinking, laughing, sharing stories. It symbolizes the way Mary and Joseph had to go from inn to inn to find a place to stay. Rather than turning the stranger away, the modern custom welcomes these wanderers into their home for food and warmth.

Now, when I say inn, I'm not talking Marriotts, Hiltons, or even Motel 6s. The concept of a modern inn didn't exist yet. Instead, people in the time of Jesus would go from home to home to see if there was a place for the traveler to stay and rest. The innkeeper was us. So when Mary and Joseph were turned away at the inn, they were turned away by normal people, people like us, because we had no room.

Or, perhaps, we made no room for the strangers among us... for the strangers who came to us in time of need.

And then Stephen and I noted that the word "posada" did not technically mean journey or party, but was the Spanish word for "inn". When people celebrate the posada, they celebrate the refuge itself, the place of safety and rest, and comfort.

It didn't occur to me until this morning during my daily meditations and prayers that all this came together into a common dialogue. But it made the night's festivities seem more meaningful to me.

We don't always feel able to offer refuge to the journeying wanderers in our lives. Sometimes, we just turn off the lights and lock the doors, to our homes, to our hearts. But we are reminded that if we do, we don't make room for joy, we don't make room for solace. We don't make room for the baby Jesus.

May your posada be full of joy and open to those who come knocking on your door. May your journey take you to the place where hope and warmth comforts and consoles you. And may we all recognize that in the belly of that stranger who comes to our doors lies the Christ who has come to bring us the Good News and Light.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Letting Joy Find You - Advent III

This coming weekend, we will light the third candle on the Advent wreath - the pink candle - which is a symbol of Joy.

It sure is hard sometimes to talk about joy, especially at this time of year. It's dark outside more often than it is bright. It's cooler, and if you lived in my neighborhood last weekend when the wind storms came, that coolness isn't helped by a power outage. I think that the power outage shorted my PC, too, so I'm not exactly feeling perky right now.

We light this candle not because we are joyful at the moment but because we remind ourselves that there is a reason for joy to come. As Christmas approaches, we are counting down the minutes to a day when we celebrate a truly joyful occasion. For Christians, we are recognizing that despite everything, despite our problems, our wandering our hearts, our selfish priorities, there is unconditional love for us. The unconditional love isn't far off in the distance, disconnected from us, impossible to appreciate or even fathom.

It's a love that through the birth of Jesus shows that there is no distance between humans and God. God is among us, walked and walks with us, breaks bread with us. That, surely, is something to celebrate in times when we need joy.

I nearly wept when I saw that the North Dakota pipeline path will be rerouted. Even if the next administration attempts to circumvent this decision, for now, for this moment in time, we acknowledge the worthiness of a people, their water, and their land. There's much to bring joy when people matter more than the profits of a distant investor. In the midst of the frigid plains winter, joy can still come down and quench our thirst for justice.

Earlier this weekend, on a break from the Los Angeles Episcopal Dioceses annual convention, I walked around a nearby lake, through the dwindling light as evening approached, and reveled at the way the sunset light shimmered on a water. I stood under the darkness of the trees to gaze at the serenity. It was easy to see light reflecting on the lake because there are no obstructions. And then I marveled at the way the light found a way, in a straight line like light rays travel no less, to pierce through the canopy of trees, to allow slivers of beams to shine down upon me. The rays were small, almost imperceptible, but they found me and warmed my skin nonetheless.

Like light, Joy doesn't seem possible in darkness. But it will find a way to touch you even when you least expect it, if you notice that it's been there all this time. May your eyes be opened to the joys that surround us, bridging that chasm between our darkness and the light that cannot be stopped.