In years past, it’s made my heart sad to not have family around at Christmas. When I knew that I would have this time of Sabbath before beginning my new job, at the top of my list was to be with my grandboys at Christmas. It has been beyond wonderful.
Worship was lovely on Christmas Eve, and it was wonderful going to bed at a sensible hour snuggled with a grandson. However, I have been blindsighted by how I have felt not having a church family near.
I missed walking into the empty nave before worship began and feeling the fullness of a silent night. I missed my face aching at the end of Christmas Eve from smiling and greeting endlessly friends old and new. I even missed awakening with a Christmas morning worship hangover, and then driving to lead one more service and being greeted by holy quiet and the smell of incense in the nave.
What I’ve found myself missing the most was the accountability of being part of a faith community. It has been a challenge to keep the rhythm of offices and holy days.
In retrospect, I realized how much I need those faith relationships to keep myself centered in spiritual practices.
For example, it has been the custom of St. Mary’s to read the Gospel appointed for the coming year aloud in community in its entirety on an evening early in Advent. I committed to do this on my own this year but never made it through the whole of Luke. I need the encouragement of others to do what I know it is best for me to do.
Yesterday was my last day to be paid by St. Mary’s. Today I am officially Missioner of Congregational Vitality and an employee of the Diocese of Texas.
I ended my Christmas trip one day early in order to spend tomorrow looking for my new house. I’ll be working the rest of the week and needed to take advantage of the free day.
As important as it is for me to find a home with an address, this past month has shown me how important it is for me to find a home with a church community. As much as I crave my personal spiritual practices, this past month has clearly shown me how that is not enough for my relationship with Christ.
Good to know.
One of the gifts of being an Episcopalian is that Christmas lasts twelve days. In planning this trip to see my Bend family, I had all sorts of ideas of ways to celebrate each day.
At the beginning of Advent, I sent my grandboys a homemade Advent calendar, of sorts, with a card to open each day. In each envelope, there was a small card with a food item and a Bible verse. The first envelope had a one hundred bill to buy the food items. The plan was to buy the groceries during my Christmas visit and deliver them to someone who might be hungry.
Today, the second day of Christmas, was the day. My daughter-in-law suggested a local agency that serves those without homes called the Bethlehem Inn (how appropriate is that?). On their website, they had a list of items they actually needed so that became our revised list.
As we had made our plan on how to celebrate the second day of Christmas, the boys talked about sharing God’s love, and we decided to do something for someone else before we did something for ourselves.
We shopped the local Fred Meyer, and the boys used their $100 to buy two $50 gift cards. I matched their gift by purchasing the items on the list. The boys chose which specific meat, cheese, butter, cereal, paper goods and other items we would buy (the ones they would want for themselves) for our friends at Bethlehem Inn.
A quick stop at Starbucks for some personal provisions, and then we were off to the Inn.
Our outing was capped off with a trip to see the new Spiderman movie. One of the gifts of being a grandma is seeing movies I’d never choose to see myself–and enjoying myself immensely.
The second day of celebrating Jesus’ birth was full of joy. Jesus’ love shared. Given and received.
It is my first Christmas in over two decades to have no priestly Christmas responsibility. It’s a whirlwind of change as I move to a brand new place (in every sense). The other night my grandson, Austin, read from his Bible the story of Abram and Sarai traveling from their familiar home to the home God had yet to show them. It feels like I am walking with them.
Instead of writing a sermon, I made Christmas cookies with the grandboys.
We went to church early afternoon, and I sang Silent Night with my candlelit family. As we walked out of worship, the world was wrapped in snow.
Christmas Eve was celebrated with my ex-husband and his family. I was warmly welcomed. That evening ended with singing happy birthday to baby Jesus.
All of the joy is underlaced with sadness. I missed walking up the farolita-lit walk to the Eve of the Incarnation at St. Mary’s. I missed the spiritual anchor of being immersed in the preparation and celebration of liturgy. I am on a new way.
On this morning of the Incarnation, my communion bread was cinnamon rolls made by my son. My grandson was the deacon as he read the Christmas gospel as our breakfast blessing. The congregation was my Bend family joined by their cat.
In the steps of the Wise Ones in Matthew’s Gospel, it is home by a different way. Filled with the love of Christ. Finding new ways to share that love.
I have been spending most of this season of Advent looking for a new home.
As my time as rector of St. Mary’s has come to an end, the Rectory needs to be readied for someone new. In this time of transition, I have generously and graciously been allowed to live in the Rectory. But I know that it is quickly becoming no longer my home.
Since my new office will be downtown, I’ve been searching with my realtor for a place closer into town. I have been surprised how exhausting it’s been–not the Sabbath I expected December to be. You see, the story I’d made up in my head was that God had a fabulous new place already prepared for me (which I still believe is true) and that the process would go much more quickly and easily. Now why in the world did I think this pilgrimage would be different than all of the others of my life?
My new job with the Diocese will be ever so much more different than being a rector of a parish. I’m imagining the kind of home that will fit my new way of life. I first had to decide whether to rent or buy. Since I’ve been in packing and moving mode for the last two years, I’m ready to pack one last time and unpack for a good long while. I’m going to buy and abide.
Part of the challenge of becoming set on my new home is that I’ve spent the last two years reimagining the Rectory and that house, after two renovations in two years, thanks to flood water, is as close to perfect, for me, as any place I’ve ever lived. Oh yes. Except that it is prone to flooding.
I’ve had to decide what is essential in my new home, and what I can do without. As I’ve driven from place to place, walked up and down stairs and opened doors, this has changed.
I’m also aware that any change involves grief. It also involves trust.
And so I’ll sing the O Antiphon for this 19th day of December:
O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
Today I’ll rejoice that I have a home.
Today I’ll rejoice that I have the resources (money, friends, wise counselors) to find a new home.
I’ll remember what Immanuel means…God is with us.
I’ll remember what Israel means…..God prevails.
Gracious! Holy Immanuel and Holy Israel. The Advent unexpected pilgrimage continues. God with. God prevailing.
Being on a Sabbatical in the season of Advent means
Letting the sunrise be my wake up call on a Sunday morning
Having space to visit a friend who is dying
Not hurrying anywhere, and so puttering my way back home
Reading books with abandon
Making a Mickey Cake on a Sunday morning because I feel like it
Having a whole day unfold before me to do as God and I will
I missed sharing the beginning of Advent with my St. Mary’s family. With the ear of my heart, I heard the music of the community. With the eyes of my heart, I saw the nearly bare manger and the new Advent wreath. As are so many things this year, it was bitter sweet.
I decided to create something new from things I already have. I had seen the idea of a living Advent wreath planted with succulents. I mulled the idea around in my head and used what was available to make my own.
I emptied a pot from outside (carefully moving the plants that were already in it). I gathered small live plants from around the house for the greenery:
A small plant that I’ve kept alive for probably nearly three decades. It came from a piece that broke off and was left behind on the floor of our car. The plant was a gift from my then husband and me to our sister-in-law as a thank you for hosting Thanksgiving.
A jade plant that has grown from a small branch that had fallen on the floor of an Episcopal Church in Washington. I had attended worship there on an early weekday morning during a long ago vacation. Later that day my traveling friend and I would receive the news that her mother-in-law had died. I almost lost the plant in the Tax Day Flood, but was able to nurse it back to health.
Two plants from an arrangement given to me by my son and daughter-in-law to thank me for caring for my newborn grandson, Jonas.
A new plant, given by a dear St. Mary’s parishioner, as a goodbye gift.
After Christmas, I’ll remove the candles and hope to keep this arrangement of plants alive until next year. It will be one of the items that will move into my not yet found new home. In the year ahead, if one or another of the plant dies, I know there will be something new that can grow in that no longer empty spot.
Advent at the Monastery began with Saturday night Vespers. One blue candle was lit, and we began to pray.
It is now the morning of the first Sunday of the new Church year. I walked in the dark and the rain to the Monastery from the guest house for coffee and silence before Matins and then Eucharist.
My first spoken words this morning will be words of praise to God. After worship our silence will be over.
The #Adventword for this day is journey.
It has been good. It is good. It will be good.
Now the silence.
Now the peace.
Now the empty hands uplifted.
From a hymn by Jaroslav J. Vajda
On a silent retreat words spoken aloud are in the context of worship and spiritual direction.
For an introvert like me this is not that big a challenge. Of course when I include silence from social media, that becomes my stretching place.
The spiritual practice of silence doesn’t stop the chatter and foolishness in my head. That’s why fasting from all but spoken holy words is essential. Surrounding myself with words that are windows and doorways into God is an opportunity to shape the murmurings in my mind into words that are more compassionate, full of loving kindness, and appreciative joy.
Off to Diurnum (noonday prayers). Time to get another mind full of the. holy.
Since I spent my final Sunday as rector of St. Mary’s, it’s been a whirlwind of change and last things. As I worked on my transition plan, I knew I had a gift of an empty Sunday on the first day of Advent, when the Church celebrates a new year. I decided to go on a silent retreat with the sisters of St. Helena in Augusta, Georgia.
The podcasts and devotionals that have begun my mornings have been full of words about beginnings and endings. I feel a gift of opportunity in this time as I move from one part of my life to another.
There’s no direct flight to Augusta, so a friend offered to meet me in Atlanta and drive me to the Monastery. We went via one of my favorite towns, Athens, with time for coffee, a movie, a visit to a favorite potter, and a couple of great meals.
We walked into town for breakfast this morning. The need for silence was coming upon me, and my friend was wanting to visit a museum. As God would have it, my friend saw a notice for mindfulness meditation at the Georgia Museum of Art. Starting in twenty-five minutes.
We power-walked back to the hotel for the car and drove to the museum with five minutes to spare. Nothing like rushing to be still for meditation.
Inside the museum, we walked to a small gallery. We sat on folding stools and cushions with a group of people while a professor led us in an hour of meditation. For part of the time, we were invited to continue our meditative practice as we gazed at the art on the walls surrounding us.
The room where we sat in stillness was an exhibit of works created by Ted Kincaid called “Even if I Lose Everything.” On the walls were his digital images of clouds.
Using words like compassion, loving kindness, and appreciative joy, we meditated sitting, and then we stood or sat in front of the art and joined what we saw with the silence within.
The blues of the paintings and the intentional mindfulness was an unexpected beginning for my Advent retreat.
Now arrived at the Monastery, the silence begins.
When I was called as rector of St. Mary’s, I committed to stay for at least three years.
Each year since, I’ve intentionally prayed about whether or not I was still called to serve as rector.
I had some opportunities to test that call–three times candidate for bishop, invitations to serve in other rector search processes, a couple of invitations to consider whether or not to serve on the diocesan staff. I’ve even asked God if it’s time to retire.
Each testing of the call was another yes for St. Mary’s.
For twenty one years God has said yes to my call to St. Mary’s. Few rectors receive the gift of a long pastorate.
Last spring I was at the Diocesan Center at a meeting, and I thought about how very grateful I was to be serving at St. Mary’s. I recalled the times I’d wondered about serving on the Diocesan staff, and was thankful that God had kept me in the center of St. Mary’s parish life.
I should have known.
Later that week I was invited to be part of discernment for the position of Missioner for Congregational Vitality. I have to admit. It was lovely to be wanted and to have my gifts affirmed by people I respected. However, almost immediately, it appeared that door closed as the diocese decided to look in some wider circles.
I was thankful to have my call to St. Mary’s be another yes. I was grateful after all of the moves of the past two years because of a twice flooded rectory to settle in and be present with the people I love in a house that feels like a gift everyday.
I couldn’t have been more surprised (really!) when late this summer, returning from my mini-Sabbatical, I was asked to be the Missioner for Congregational Vitality. I hadn’t applied. I hadn’t sought it out. I was simply called.
I went through one of the most difficult months of discernment of my life. I met with my therapist and spiritual director. I sought the counsel and prayer of trusted friends.
I grieved deeply, deeply the thought of leaving the parish I have loved and called home for the past twenty-one years.
Frankly, the thought of moving yet again felt daunting beyond measure.
God and I had a lot of long, heart-wrenching talks.
And then, there it was. The peace where I knew what my next call was.
When I was about ten years old, I heard my first call to ministry. God spoke in my spirit and told me that I was called to be a missionary.
That call has shaped deeply who I was as a lay person and as I am as a priest.
It is not lost on me that God has now called me to actually have that title, more or less, as Missioner for Congregational Vitality.
My heart breaks to leave St. Mary’s.
There were things I thought I was called to do at St. Mary’s that will not be complete–building a labyrinth and leading a capital funds mission to renovate our aging campus. I did not achieve the goal for which I had hoped and prayed–for our whole parish’s commitment to sharing all of the gifts God has given us; there are still friends who live out of a theology of scarcity. We are still revisioning our ministry with children, youth, and young families. As I write this, I am not sure what our discernment will be about same gender marriage.
And then there are the precious, precious people of St. Mary’s. There are no words, only tears.
And yet joy–at a God who continues to surprise.
This weekend I will make public my next call–knowing that my new call gives St. Mary’s a new call, too.
May we all be blessed.
Art pictured in this blog are photos I took on my trip last week to Chrystal Bridges Museum and Bentonville, Arkansas.