FIRE — Use It or Abuse It? — for SheLoves, August 2018

Each week during the winter months of the year just past, our Confirmation students would arrive, shivering in the central California coolness, for our very early 8:45 a.m. Sunday classes. My husband would gather wood from a nearby pile and light a fire in the lovely fireplace in our gathering space. One by one, the girls would line up in front of it to warm themselves. (Generally speaking, middle school boys do not admit to discomfort of any kind!) Some chose to sit on the hearth for the entire lesson, not wanting to leave that cozy space.

Now, juxtapose that picture with this one: last December, the largest wildfire in California history raged through the foothills of our community, after destroying hundreds of homes in a large town to our south. We ate blessed to live in a house-with-a-view, one that put us in a direct line with the Thomas fire’s voracious movement across our city landscape. It was horrifying to watch and left scars that remain visible today, eight months later.

Fire.

Cozy or cancerous? Source of warmth and comfort or disaster and dismay? Something we are drawn to or repelled by?

Depending on the circumstances, both sets of answers apply, don’t they? Fire can give life or take it, it can provide order or create chaos, light up a room or demolish it. Like so much of life, fire is a very mixed bag.

Now take that truth about physical fire and apply it to our use of ‘fire’ in more metaphorical contexts:

“The fire within,” for example — is that a good thing or a dangerous one?                             “We need to light a fire under him/her.“ Good advice or bad idea?                                         “I spend all my time putting out fires.” Negative thinking or reality check?                             “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Wise counsel or needless nay-saying?

It depends, right? The difference between a contained fire, used for warming or cooking, and an uncontrolled wildfire is immense. And a person filled with the ‘fire of faith’ can be a rich source of healing for the broader community or a danger to everyone he or she touches. Where is the line between healthy passion and unhealthy obsession? Even more pointedly, how can we learn to be the light of the world without destroying people in the process?

Far too much of today’s conservative church is caught in the grip of unhealthy, obsessive behavior and language. We find it terribly easy to choose sides, state opinions, and make judgments about people, politics and policies. We make so much roaring noise that whatever light we may carry becomes barely visible. . .

To finish this essay and join the conversation, please click here.

Who Says?? — an essay for SheLovesMagazine, July 2018

We are back from almost a month of travel, returning to excessive heat and a tragic wildfire that was heat and wind driven about four miles from where we live. This has been a year of disaster on many sides. Soon, I hope to spend some time in this place. I’ve got a couple of book reviews to post and some reflective thoughts about travel, church community life, family relationships and life in general. If you are not yet subscribed to my monthly newsletter, sign up and I’ll shoot you a copy of the one for June, which is loaded with travel photos that don’t fit in most of my online venues — panorama of a few of the world’s loveliest locales. I’m back at SheLoves today and you can find the rest of this piece by clicking on this link.

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Sunset refracting on the Baltic Sea, June 2018

Depending upon our age, family background, religious experience, friendships and a long list of other variables unique to our own story, discovering our personal territory can be tricky business. Where do we fit in this world? What tasks or joys are ours to bear and to share? Where do we go to discern answers to those questions?

 

Who says?

 

Whom do we give authority to speak into our life? Do we allow that influence intentionally or automatically? Might there be other options available to us, maybe even preferable for us, than the ones we have assumed?

 

Who soys?

 

I think it may take a lifetime to answer that question well and thoroughly. We are always unpeeling the onion that is us, taking off another layer, carving off the accretions we’ve accumulated from the various ages and stages of our life. There is a lot of two-steps-forward-one-step-backward on this journey. And one of the best questions we can ask as we do the good work of peeling back those layers is this one:

 

Who says?

 

For example — who told us we were ‘less than’ or even ‘differently called than’ because we were born female? Or male? Or somewhere in between? Whom do we allow to define us, limit us, box us in, decide what we can and cannot do? Where do we go for answers? Whose voice echoes most loudly in our interior conversations?

 

Surely, our parents show up all along the way, bringing with them their own baggage and boxes. Yet cultural mores and values shift constantly, and sometimes, the ones we were raised to believe were sacrosanct, written in concrete, indelible and eternal . . . simply are not. So how much power do we give to parental/familial voices . . .

To keep reading, please follow the link over to SheLoves today. 

Redefining Terms — For SheLoves, May, 2018

Anyone who has read my work for any length of time will know that the content of this month’s essay at SheLoves has appeared, in slightly different form, here and in an ebook I put together about five years ago. It’s a BIG topic for me, essential to my spiritual and emotional health and sanity and I’m happy to have another venue in which to speak it true. I believe this to be one of the most important truths of our faith, one that can help us navigate any misguided theological input from our past. I’d love it if you would click over and join in the conversation at SheLoves.

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When I was a little girl, faithfully attending Sunday school each week, we had a little saying that went like this: “Jesus, Others and You – that’s how you spell JOY.” And I inhaled that sentiment like it was the sweetest of perfumes. YES! We should always be last on the list, giving ourselves away to Jesus and to other people. That’s how you live like Jesus, right? That’s how you are a good girl, a truly good girl.

As I got older, that simple phrase became a little more complicated, and the scent of it a little more cloying. This time, it went something like this: “He must increase, I must decrease,” lifting the words directly out of the mouth of John the Baptist near the end of chapter 3 in John’s gospel. From there, it morphed into, “More of Jesus, less of me,” and the older I got, the more terrified I became when I heard those words.

I didn’t recognize it as terror initially. In fact, I didn’t know how deeply this message had affected me until I began to be interested in spiritual direction. I first learned about direction by reading a series of novels, of all things. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, British author Susan Howatch wrote a great bunch of stories about priests in the Anglican church and I devoured those books when I was in my 40’s. They were earthy, to be sure, but they were also rich and filled with beautiful tidbits of theology and ecclesiology. Throughout the entire series, some of my favorite characters were spiritual directors.

So I began to look for a director, and the first woman I interviewed handed me the beautiful Prayer of Abandonment by Charles de Foucauld. It’s a beautiful prayer, filled with love, joyful submission, and trust. But I could not pray that prayer.

I tried, but I’d get to the word ‘abandon,’ and start gulping great gasps of air. I prayed about it, I talked it over with the woman who had given it to me, and her immediate response to me was this: “Diana, you need therapy. Not direction.” (Did I mention I was in seminary at the time and beginning to hear God’s call to professional ministry? What??? Pastors might need therapy? Well, that’s a great big YES.)

I spent the next twenty years trying to unpack what happened inside me as I read that prayer and, in the process, I have taken a long look at that old Sunday school saying and the use (or mis-use) of that verse from John 3. And I’ve done a TON of personal work on all kinds of important things. . . all because I gagged on the word, “abandon.”

There is lots more to these thoughts — come on over and join us at SheLoves!

Undone: SheLoves — February 2018

Well. The theme this month is “hidden,’ and what came out of my fingertips surprised me. True confessions time, friends, that’s what this one is. Start here and then click over to SheLoves to finish reading and to tell me about how you choose to come out of hiding . . .

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In my therapy session this week (yes, I talk to a therapist every week, have done so for 25 years), the word that emerged was this one: ‘undone.’

Exactly right.

The entire session had felt like a chaotic purge of some sort, one story after another, tumbling out, seemingly unconnected. And yet, as she so often does, at the end of it all, my therapist said to me, “Diana, you are talking today about things that are undone, starting with yourself.”

Ouch.

SO on target, and exactly what I needed to hear. Over the course of my L O N G years of living, I have learned that it often takes this kind of unfettered babbling for the underlying truths of my life to emerge. Why? I think it’s because much of the time, we are hidden people, tucked away, even from ourselves, and turning the spigot of story-sharing to ‘on’ loosens the fences we have built. This is especially true when we are feeling under siege, which has been my default mental setting for many months now. Hard thing, after hard thing, after hard thing — and as I have struggled to make sense of it all, I retreat behind this huge, self-protective bunker.

Sometimes that kind of hidden is a good and necessary thing. When life goes crazy, we need to marshal our resources and hunker down. Pulling in every excess emotion and lining them up in a safe place enables us to more forward, offer help, stand next to others who are fighting similar battles.

But in the long haul, remaining hidden becomes a liability, not an asset. We need to come out from behind the barricade and take a good, long look at everything that is happening — outside of us and inside of us. And for me, this week, that meant admitting that way too many things in my life are in a state of undone-ness.

There are at least two ways to define that word, seems to me. Undone in the sense of incomplete, and undone in the sense of unraveled. Both are true for me — and my guess is, for most people — at multiple points along this journey called life. There are projects to complete, relationships to tend, ideas to make real. And then, there are people in terrible trouble, decisions that cause chaos, and situations that appear hopeless.

Incomplete and unraveled, yea and amen. That is me right now. . . 

Follow this link to continue reading and to join the conversation . . .

Flickers in the Dark: SheLoves — January 2018

Our writing theme for this January is, “A Little Light, Please.” Looking for it in he midst of a horrific tragedy in our central coast community. Follow the link at the bottom to get to the rest of this reflection:

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We taught Confirmation again this morning, my husband, Anna, our student ministries director, and I. We have done this every Sunday since September of last year and it is a task we love. On the attendance roster this year are 17 middle school students, full of energy, kind-hearted, generous, funny and smart.

Today, however was different. There were only eight students around the table at 8:45 this morning, much quieter than usual. I brought homemade granola, fresh berries, coffee cake and OJ, which they gratefully inhaled, and today, we sat together and talked. No lesson this week — at least, no lesson from the binder that contains our two-year course of study. The topic for today was, “Resurrection, Jesus Lives!” and we did reference that powerful part of our shared story during our time together. But a lesson plan, with discussion questions, art projects, readers’ theater or any of the other rich resources that are available to us each week? No, there was none of that.

Instead, we shared stories. We began with stories of devastation, loss, terror and sorrow. In the early morning hours of the previous Tuesday, our community was hit by a deadly combination of events. A rainstorm of record-breaking intensity fell on mountainous landscape that had just been scraped and seared by the largest wildfire in the history of our state.

And the mountain came down.

Boulders larger than small houses, century-old trees, automobiles, even entire homes, were swept downstream toward the ocean, taking twenty human lives away forever and injuring scores of others. Four of those killed were children. One of those rescued from a six-hour burial in thick, viscous mud, was a member of our youth group — the same age as the students around that table. Her father died, her brother is still missing, her mom is in the hospital with multiple injuries, expected to recover.

All of this happened in the dead of night, in a pouring rainstorm, on narrow, windy roads with limited access in the best of times. Swiftly moving debris caused a gas main to explode, destroying one home, scorching parts of several others. That blazing torch provided an eerie light in the midst of all the destruction.

In every other way, it was very, very dark. . .

To read more, please click here.

Wretchedly Familiar: When Life Feels Unfair — SheLoves, November 2017

Have you ever had a really bad day, or an even worse week? How about a terrible month? Try multiple months? Yeah. That’s kinda like where I’ve been this year. So I did some reflecting on that over at SheLoves this month. The theme this month? “Return.” Please come on over and join us!

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Wasn’t it just two months ago that I wrote about lament in this space? I checked, friends, and yes, it was. In September. Today, I find myself needing to return to those songs-in-a-minor-key for a while longer. October’s theme opened my sad heart to a season of rejoicing, for remembering all of the gracious things in my life for which I can joyfully and loudly thank God.

But at this moment in time, as I sit down to write for November, I find the syllables of lament are oh-so-necessary. I am returning to the language that lets me enter my own sadness, that gives me permission to fully experience the pain of this moment on the journey that is my life.

One month ago yesterday, an ER doc told me that I had blood clots in both lungs and that one of them had caused an ‘infarct,’ which means tissue death (!!), thus causing the sudden, severe back pain of the previous 30 hours. He sent me home that evening with a new blood thinning medication, to be taken twice a day for the next month. I was also told to visit a long list of specialists, including the hematologist who had been working with me for the last seven years. He would prescribe a new drug at a new dosage to try and prevent this from happening again.

Because, you see, it had already happened once. Which is exactly why this particular ‘returning’ was not on my bucket list. The first event in 2010 put me on the only blood thinner available back then – Coumadin, a drug difficult to manage and which complicated my life for five years. In 2015, I managed to tear a muscle in my abdomen, causing significant internal bleeding and sending me to the hospital for two days. At that point, they reversed the effects of the Coumadin and took me off blood thinning meds, hopefully forever. Hooray!

Now, I am back on them — this time, for good. There are newer versions today, easier to manage, but not without risk. That is sobering. I am seeing a long list of specialists to rule out any other kind of damage to heart or kidneys and must take it easy for another couple of months. And all of it feels so wretchedly familiar. I did not want this to happen again, but . . . it has.

So now, what do I do about this particular ‘return’ in my life? Part of me wants to put on my big-girl pants and suck it up. That’s my go-to, life-long pattern. It feels familiar and even a little comforting. But the reality is, I am now seven years older than I was the last time this happened. And I’m in a season of grief and loss. SEVEN people close to me have died since my mom’s death in April. Two others (three, if I include myself) have received difficult medical news, all involving ongoing treatment, one with a terminal diagnosis, most likely in the next few years.

I feel inundated by sadness, overwhelmed by all the pain in the world at large and in my circle of family and friends in particular. And far more than action, or even re-action, I find that what I need is . . .

Click right here to discover what is helping in this season . . .

Making Room for Lament: SheLoves — September 2017

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In the months from April to August of this year, we have attended five funerals and sent a eulogy to be read at a sixth. These were services of worship and remembrance, held in honor of people we loved, people whose lives intersected with ours regularly, even when those lives were very short.

It began with my mom’s death on the 19th of April after a 7-year journey through dementia. At the end of May, we dealt with the shock of an accidental drowning — a 2-year-old grandson in our extended congregational family. That death was followed about five weeks later by the loss of a dear woman friend and leader in our community. She died only 7 months after an abrupt diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.

The week we came back from vacation in early August, we attended an emotional farewell for a dear 8-year-old boy who was born with only half a heart, and whose life had a lasting impact on our entire city. At the end of that same week, we listened to parts of a life story we had never heard, as we said good-bye to a faithful woman in our congregation who passed away at the age of 105. In the middle of last month, I received news of the anticipated death of a former colleague and partner in ministry who had a heart attack and a brain bleed while in the physical therapist’s clinic. We traveled 100 miles south to be there for his stunned widow and adult children.

I suppose I should not be surprised that the most self-descriptive word I can come up with these days is, ‘weary.’ Although I ‘do not grieve as those who have no hope,’ I grieve nonetheless. I don’t think I have begun to fully internalize all the facets of my mom’s death, what it means to be an orphan in this world. That truth tells me that there is even less space inside to grieve well for each of the other losses which have left such huge holes in our lives.

So the words I want to amplify in this particular season are the beautiful and necessary words of lament. Those words that speak the pain in us out into the atmosphere, those words that call us to be fully human, acknowledging that it sometimes hurts to be alive when others are no longer breathing beside us. I want to make space inside — and outside — for the tears that bring healing, tears that tell stories, tears that say, “I loved them and I can no longer whisper that truth into their ears.”

So let me say this as loudly and as clearly as written space in an e-magazine will allow: lament is required when we walk through the valley. Imagine that I am using my big-girl, outdoor voice when you read those words, will you? Because this is important: there is no such thing as loss without pain and suffering. The bromides and clichés that are too often bandied about at such times are less than useless. In fact, they can be harmful. People do not want to hear about “God’s plan” when they are in shock, when they are completely exhausted and empty, when they don’t know how they are going to get through the next hour, much less the next year. . . 

Please click here to read the remainder of this reflection and to join the conversation at one of the finest magazines on the interweb.

Charlottesville: No Words — SheLoves, August, 2017

Do you find yourself at the limit of things right now? I do. Here are my reflections for SheLovesMagazine this month — you can begin this essay here, then click over to join the conversation there. I hope you will!

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I like to think of myself as a person of words. I love to read, talk, preach and write — all of which require some facility with language. I even had a dear friend whisper in my ear a week or so ago, “You know what I love about you? Your vocabulary!” My what?? Well, okay, I’ll take it!

But at this particular moment in time, in the aftermath of the horrors of Charlottesville this past weekend, I find myself at a complete loss. I discover very few words anywhere within my usually active brain. I feel unmoored, uncertain, frightened and deeply, truly sad.

I am a person who does not understand cruelty. So deep is this lack of comprehension that I often feel powerless and rudderless in the face of it. I’ve known a few people in my lifetime whose currency is cruelty. Blunt, thoughtless, critical remarks are their stock-in-trade, and every time one of those remarks is directed toward me, I stutter and stumble around, trying to find a comeback, a simple sentence that will stop the flood of vitriol.

Nada. Nothing. No words.

What is with that??

It’s not that I want to be cruel back. Honest and true, it is not. It’s that I simply do not know what to do in the face of it. If it’s directed at someone else in the circle, I can sometimes muster an objection or a clarification, but I never make it as far as a firm, clear, push-back that stops the ugliness. More often than not, I beat a retreat as quickly as I can and then ponder it all for days and days. What could I have said? What could I have done? What should I do next time?

Today, I am past pondering. I am done. And the one word that keeps coming back to me, over and over again is this one: ENOUGH. Stop. Just stop. Put away your swastikas, burn them all. You may have a legal right to your misguided opinion, but you do not have the right to name-call, bully, harass, or drive your automobile into a crowd of folks who disagree with you, and are brave enough to stand up and say so.

There are no more cheeks to be turned, my friends. None. And I refer you to the fine work of Walter Wink, written decades ago, about the subversive nature of the words of Jesus that have been so abused in the centuries since they were uttered. Turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile were acts of resistance to an intolerable government and they are beautiful things when rightly understood. They are not useful as tokens, bromides, or any other sugar-coating of evil words and deeds. Evil demands resistance. Full stop.

And what we witnessed this past weekend, what we’ve seen over and over and over again in the systematic killing of people of color, is evil. It is an evil that has its roots in fear, the ‘elephant in the room’ I wrote about last month, but it is evil, nonetheless.

Continue reading at SheLoves today, friends. I’d love to hear how you’re doing and, even more importantly, what you’re doing about our national sin and need for repentance. And if you are not a resident of the USA, your comments and insights are always welcome — we clearly need help. Just click right here.

“Open Your Eyes to the Light” — SheLoves, July 2017

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Benedict of Nursia:
          “However, late, then, it may seem, let us rouse ourselves from lethargy. That is what scripture urges on us when it says: the time has come for us to rouse ourselves from sleep. Let us open our eyes to the light that can change us into the likeness of  God. Let our ears be alert to the stirring call of his voice crying to us every day: today, if you should hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

 If we trace it back, the root of lethargy is often fear. And this is what I know about fear: it slams the door on light. When we are afraid, anxious, worried, preoccupied with all that is wrong, evil and difficult in our world, there is no room for the light to shine.

So let’s talk about fear, shall we?

I see it everywhere these days — on the news, in the headlines, spreading its tendrils all across the internet. Some days, it is downright palpable. Even more alarming, I see it creeping into conversations within the broader Christian community. It often takes the form of suspicion, accusation, bullying and labeling.

            “How can you call yourself a Christian if you believe ________
“If you welcome
those kind of people, then how can you be true to scripture?
             “The sin of person “A” is so much worse than the sin of person “B” that s/he                                     must be excluded at all costs.”

Words are flung around like darts, leaving wounds wherever they land, lines are being drawn, battle cries sounded. And curling around every shout, every barb, every accusation, is the acrid smoke of fear.

We are afraid that the Bible will be mistreated.
We are afraid that our standards will be lowered.
We are afraid that our doctrinal stand will be softened.

And most of all, we are afraid that if these things happen, our image of God will be forever altered. The bottom line, if we’re really honest, is that we are terrified that our understanding of who God is and how God behaves and whom God loves will slip out of our ‘control.’ We have given in to the fear that the foundation will be shaken beyond recovery and that the slippery slope will lead us all straight to hell.

Whoa!

Can we take a breath here? Can we step back from the precipice and re-focus our attention on the God we meet in the work, words and person of Jesus Christ, the one who is revealed to us in the pages of our scripture and in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our world?

“Let us open our eyes to the light that can change us into the likeness of God.”

 Read that line out loud, would you? Several times.

If you breathe in those words, focus on them, meditate on them, I think you will discover them to be the antidote for all the fear we carry . . .

Please follow this link over to SheLoves today and join the conversation about the power of fear and how we so often get things backwards!

The Land of Tears — SheLoves, June 2017

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            From The Little Prince: “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
                                                                     — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This land is a place I’ve visited many times over my life, a strange and secret country, indeed.

I could say it feels familiar, except that it doesn’t. Not quite. Each visit is unique, bringing its own sadness, regret, emptiness, and eventually, fullness and replenishment as I wend my way back to the familiar terra firma of ‘regular’ life, whatever the heck that is.

After a winding journey of several years, my mama died from Alzheimer’s disease in April of this year. There have been tears all along the highway of this Thief of Time and Remembering, of course. Oodles of them. But none quite like the ones that spilled that Wednesday afternoon in April, standing by her hospital bed. I saw her leave us — an open-eyed gaze, two loud gasps, followed by the strangest silence I’ve ever experienced. I will be forever grateful that I was able to say good-bye . . . thank you . . . I love you.

Or the tears that sprang to my cheeks as I drove out of a doctor’s parking lot one week later, remembering how I have always planned my medical appointments around mom’s schedule these last few years, and wishing fiercely that she could be next to me in my car just one more time. I know there are many tears that have not yet worked their way into the air that surrounds me, tears I carry in this body, waiting behind my eyelids, behind my heart. Each one, shed or yet to be, remind me that grief is a land of secrets, of strange and sudden surprise.

I understand that losing my last parent at the age of 72 is a rare thing. I am grateful for that truth, grateful for her long life, and for my own, glad that we could be together more closely these last few years. Nevertheless, this feeling of loss is real. It winds its tendrils around me in ways that surprise and perplex me, showing up in simple things — like driving down a particular street or watching a television series we used to enjoy together. It stings when I see the bags of clothing waiting for the Goodwill truck or when I pick up a photograph. Though I’ve been here before, this trip feels particularly treacherous and very, very lonely.

We held her memorial service a full month after her death. It was a lovely afternoon, full of memories, scripture, and sweet, old songs. There were digitized home movies, good Mexican food in our backyard after the service, and lots and lots of shared stories. She would have loved every minute of it. In fact, I’m quite sure she did.

The next morning, life moved on. It was time to be ‘the pastor’ for a while, six years into retirement. I led in worship, preached a charge to our fine new confirmand, then went home and collapsed, eager for some space to weep and rest.

But it was not to be. Why?

To find out why it was not to be, please click on this link and read the rest of this piece over at SheLoves today. Join the conversation!