Using what we have to create something new

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.

A good beginning

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.

From a silent retreat

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.

Traveling towards Advent

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.

What God Has in Store

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.  

Broken beautiful things

In Little Rock, I happened upon an extraordinary exhibit, A Piece of my Soul. It contained quilts created by black women of Arkansas. In a room with walls covered in quilts made from leftover pieces of fabric, I sat on a repurposed church pew and watched a video of black women telling how sewing quilts had been a means to share and transform their lives.

Although the quilt tops were made by individuals, they were finished by groups of women who quilted them in community, continuing their story telling as they completed the quilt.

The women interviewed recounted a time when their people were too poor to buy ready made quilts, and so they used bits of fabric they had on hand to create something beautiful to keep their loved ones warm.

I was particularly moved by these women and their quilts made from what others might discard or thought waste because of a poem I had read that very morning. It was I Will Keep Broken Things by Alice Walker. Among the lines of the poem were these:

I will keep 
In my house 

On which 
I will 

Their beauty 

A quilt that most held my attention was a pattern called Broken Dishes. It was finished by
Dorothy Lambert White in the 1950’s. Scraps of color as pieces of discarded pottery: the art of the quilt was full of life and joy and order in what could have been chaos and disappointment.

This is what God does. Takes the broken bits and the scraps of our lives. Fits them together with love and forgiveness. Finishes them through the love of community. Creates beauty and comfort. Through it all tells the stories of the deepest parts of our souls.

Arkansas Birthday Traveler

My best friend and I have taken a trip to celebrate my birthday most years we’ve been friends. The first birthday trip ever was twenty five years ago to Maine and New Brunswick.

New Mexico. Anacortes Island. Alaska to see glaciers. Maui. Isle of Iona. Rockport for whooping cranes. Nova Scotia. Iceland.

One year the birthday road trip to Marfa was rerouted to walk with three year old Judah from this life to the next.

This year we’re returning to a favorite spot in Arkansas.

I’m starting the day walking to have coffee.

Oldering is a very fine thing.

Eve of the end of the Sabbatical: Symphomic Heavy Metal at Harpa

I experienced many firsts on this mini-Sabbatical. Maybe the most surprising was attending a heavy metal concert at Harpa, the extraordinary Reykjavik concert hall.

The last full day in Iceland was spent walking around Reykjavik. It was a glorious sunshiny day.

A knitting basket on the street in front of the local yarn shop inviting passers by to knit a row.

Enjoying the beauty of the city.

Stops for bites at local places. Our Icelandair flight attendant had shared with us her favorite places off the tourist trail.

The culminating experience of the day was a concert at Harpa. The music was a collaboration of the Iceland Symphony, two Icelandic choirs, a children’s choir, and the heavy metal band Skálmöld.

The audience was a mixture of heavy metal lovers, Icelandic locals in their sophisticated dress, and then a few folks like us.Years ago I read a book called Morning Sun on a White Piano. It was about finding the sacramental in everyday moments.

One of the chapters, as I recall, was about listening to music in community. The author talked about all the pieces that had to come together to produce the music, and then the audience’s response in hearing it–this mixture of receiving and giving created a concert.

I’ve never liked heavy metal. The closest I ever came to enjoying it was when my son was a part of a group called Animosity. I went to all sorts of unlikely places to hear him and his friends play.

This concert in Reykjavik was the perfect ending to this trip. Skálmöld’s music is written in the traditional Icelandic lyrical form and the contrast of their harsh style juxtaposed with the symphonic beauty was reflective of the Icelandic landscape. It was a trip to Iceland in a concert.

It was also a witness to what happens when greatly diverse people join and work together–the new and beautiful thing that can happen

There I was. A 66 year old priest from Texas, a grandma, rocking along barely able to contain myself with joy.

It was holy.

Sabbatical. In Iceland

I’m back in Iceland on this trip not to Iceland.

The extraordinary beauty of the Faroe Islands and the warmth of the people has left my friend and me with a yearning to return.

Planning to return is the way we’ve traveled for these twenty five years. Circling back to places we’ve loved, we return with our list of things we missed the first time, places we want to experience again, and being open to the surprises we know will happen.

I am thoughtful on this day back in Iceland. This may be a good way to live each day.

Doing again those things that fill our spirit.

Keeping a spiritual list of those things that are essential.

Always being ready and prepared for the surprises.

On Tuesday, in the rain, my friend and I explored the island of Eysturoy. The surprise was a second flock of puffins, hundreds of puffins, in a cove called Mary’s bænk. Mary’s bench.

On this Sabbatical journey, I haven’t been as still and quiet as is my normal practice. I’m not sure why, but I woke up this morning in Iceland with my heart seeking that still place.

So I sat on a spiritual Mary’s bænk. And waited for the surprise of this day. Not likely to be puffins. But who knows?

Yesterday I was surprised by chocolate cake at breakfast. In a place where I ate each morning watching the sheep graze out the window.

What will be the surprises this day in Iceland?

Puffin Sliding

O Tree of Calvary, send your roots deep into my soul. Gather together my frailties —my soiled heart, my sandy instability and my muddy desires —and entwine them with the strong roots of your arboreal love. Amen.

My friend and I stopped to pray mid afternoon at the church in Børn on Vagar from Prayers for All Seasons. As we prayed this prayer, both of us burst into laughter. You see, only a short while earlier I had slipped while hiking and my backside, from my head to my shoes, had been caked in mud.

I’d like to blame it on the puffins, but the reality is that I’m clumsy even when I am carefully using my walking stick.

Today we spent the day exploring Vagar, the island where the airport lives. To get to it, you have to drive through a long tunnel that goes under the ocean to connect Vagar to Streymoy.

It was a day to paint and hike and picnic.

We stopped in Miðvagur to buy cheese and bread for lunch. The store’s wares included yarn and a Tex Mex section.

The views along the drive were amazing.

The highlight of the day was hiking out to see Mullafsossur, a waterfall that drops off a cliff into the ocean.

The bonus was to discover a puffin nesting right beside the path on the way to see the falls.

I had been told how difficult and how rare it was to see puffins. I was told that my best hope was to take a long boat ride and then, at best, puffins would be sighted from afar. Here was one, right next to where I was walking!

As I looked around, I realized the cove was teeming with puffins. They can be recognized even from afar by their orange beaks and helicopter wings.

I was on my way to get closer to a flock of puffins when I slipped on a path. The slip turned into a slide as I slid down the path on my back. I couldn’t stop laughing. I knew how ridiculous it looked. My friend said it was a most impressive slide.

Folks raced to help me up, and it was at that point that I realized that I was caked in mud from top to bottom. Thankfully, there was a water closet within walking distance, and I had long johns and a sweater in the car that I could change into. Walking in the grass cleaned my hiking boots.

Finding a church with a door unlocked for prayers on the way home was yet another unexpected gift of the best kind of maybe day.