Monday, November 17, 2014

Bring It On

Last week I was invited to a meeting at the Senior Center in the town where i work, along with other leaders from area churches. The director gave us an overview of the services they provide (an amazing amount, really, for cheap or free, for anyone in the city who is disabled or over 60 years old). She showed us the calendar, the list of activities, the services they provide, and explained their hopes for the future. Then, to my astonishment, she said "so the reason I've asked you all here is that I want to know how we can serve you in your churches." 
Shocking, right? I expected her to ask us for help- funding, publicity, connections, space to host programs. But she said that they want to reach every person they can in the city. I raised my hand and said "I know this is ridiculous, but since you asked... it would be wonderful if you could set up a servive that offered rides to Mass on weekends!" I expected her to say "yeah, RIGHT." But she said "okay, good to know! I'm going to see how I can make that happen." 
I've been in social service and ministry work for over 25 years now, and the pervasive attitude of the people I've worked with, including me at times, has been "I am at my limit. Don't ask me to do anything more than I'm struggling to do now." At church, we bluff all the time about how we wish more people would come to our programs, but we don't go out looking for them, we don't do the work to attract them, we don't plan space for more than we usually have. 
And, you know, I get that because I've been there- I am there- maxed out, under-funded, time-challenged, distracted by all kinds of stupid things that pop up here and there. It's enough to make you (me) forget the point- which is, after all, to Go and Make Disciples. This secular servant of people reminded me that I need to re-order my priorities and remember that I am doing God's work, which is hard and overwhelming. And I need to trust that along with the extra people God will send my way if I am open to them, will come their gifts and agency to extend my efforts further than I ever could alone. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How it works, sometimes

So here is how God works in my life...
I'm at the Amazing Parish Conference, in Denver CO. It's really... amazing. Great information at a breakneck pace (plus minor jetlag)- really wonderful speakers, courageous ideas, inspiring stories, and space to discuss and work things out together. I'm here representing my Catholic Community, and blessedly, Scott is here representing his parish. There is a group from another Boston parish and then a handful of Archdiocesan folks. Tonight, after the longest, fullest day, we sat down to dinner with the AD people and had a really nice conversation. Somewhere in there, I found that one of them had made (lived?) a SEARCH retreat in high school, just like I had, and we agreed that it had been a life-changer for both of us.
Search changed my life and made me a minister. It was at Search that I heard my calling. It was at Search that I realized for the first time that God even had a calling for me- that such a thing could even be possible. It changed everything.
After dinner, I approached this fellow Search-er and asked, do you know what number your Search was? He said that in Providence, where he'd lived it, they didn't really do the number thing. I told him mine was Search 92, and the date was 3-16-86... a date that I think I will always remember (they gave us a little wooden cross with the date carved in, and I can't tell you how many times I traced those numbers with my fingertip... I remember that it was carved in straight lines, and that if I touched each vertical line of that date, it was 13 beats- in my head I'd sing along: "know-ing-that-I-love-and-serve-you-is-e-nough-re-ward").
Next we heard from a speaker who lead us in a little Lectio Divina about John 1:39, where the Gospel writer mentions the time of day that something happened. Long story short, the speaker said that the writer mentioned the time of day because for this writer, this was the moment- the moment that the Gospel writer really encountered Christ. It was the moment his life had changed because he had met Jesus.
He asked, "when was your 4:00?"
And I, tired and overwhelmed, started to cry- because, I know when my 4:00 was- it's a number and date that mean nothing to anyone but me (and maybe the people who lived Search that weekend with me). 3/16/1986, Search 92. Like the Gospel writer, I've had other encounters with Jesus, some even more mind-blowing and heart-wrenching. But it was there, in Alfred Maine in March, surrounded by melting snow and strangers who had become family, that was the Big One, the one that changed everything.
As if this wasn't enough affirmation for my soul, music followed the speaker- Matt Maher, a big deal Catholic musician. He has lots of Catholic hits, and is really really good. But woah- in between his songs, he launched into one that felt like a telegram from God to me. It was "Here I Am, Lord." This song- no one sings this song anymore, especially not hip young Catholic musicians. But this song- this song was sung at the closing Mass of my Search weekend. And in that song, in that Mass, on March 16th, I prayed that song with all my heart- sobbing like tonight- and it was in that song that I heard my calling, and in praying that song, that I said "Yes."
I speak to ministers about being called- I tell them that when we say yes to a calling, we are really saying yes to answering the Red Phone from Heaven over and over and over through our lifetimes (the ministry I'm doing now is not the ministry I thought I was saying "yes" to in 1986). But what I also know about saying "yes" to God is that it also gets us a lifetime of saying to God "is this it? Is this what you want me to be doing? Am I doing your will?" And sometimes, the answer comes through, clear as a bell. At least, that's how God works in my life. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

You're Doing It Wrong.

I don't' know if I ever feel more Catholic than I do a mid-day Mass. Outside of consistently still flubbing the "Holy Holy Holy, Lord God of Hosts" (it just doesn't roll off the tongue like the older version did), I know all the moves, and could do them with my hands tied behind my back (except, I am thinking, the sign of the cross. I could still do the sign of peace because at daily Mass we don't shake hands. We wave. Even if the person is right next to you! I think it's an old-people thing). I went to this Mass once after having been up half the night at a Hospice vigil and was feeling exhausted- bleary-eyed and snoozy and a little drunk-like. But still, I knew all the moves, and kneeled and sat and prayed almost automatically. I remember finding that comforting-  knowing all the moves and what to do and how to say it so reflexively made me feel like a part of the whole.

Today, on the other hand, a man walked in just at the beginning of the Homily. I heard my Catholic spine whisper "doesn't count if you're not here for the Gospel!" He is a regular at this Mass, I've seen him before. I watched him take a seat and pull out his rosary beads. The chain was broken on them, so they hung in a long line instead of the usual loop. He sat through the rest of the Mass fiddling fretfully with his broken beads, and whispering. I leaned in a bit to hear what he was saying/praying and heard: "Maryyyy- full of grace the Lord is with thee blessed art thou among women and blessed is Maryyyy.... full of grace, the Lord is with thee..." over and over. He whispered these wrong prayers, wrongly, on his wrong rosary, through the homily and liturgy of the Eucharist. When we stood up to pray the Our Father, he stood up too, and whispered his wrong prayer. At one point, he crunched on a mint- I wondered at first if he was eating one of the beads from his rosary- either way, it's wrong; we're supposed to fast for an hour before Communion. When communion time came, he filed up to the front, received, and then went to stand by the door. When the priest was finished serving communion, the man walked out.

He did the whole thing wrong.

But my heart, my heart was breaking for this man- not pity, not even worry- just love love love. I imagined that Mary, hearing her prayer said wrongly, over and over, must feel so moved by his whispers. I don't know his story, where he comes from or where he goes when he leaves our little chapel, but I know he keeps coming back, keeps whispering Mary's name, keeps receiving Christ. I pray someday that in my standing and kneeling and sitting and waving at my neighbors and praying along with the crowd, I can do it as rightly as this man does.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Hello all! Here's on update on our girl Callie. The update is: there's no update! We sprung for a VERY expensive blood test to rule out (or in), if I've got this right, hyperparathyroidism and cancer. The blood test takes 7-10 days to return (it's been 8 as of today)- and so far, no calls.
If it is cancer (which, if I've got this right, hyperparathyroidism is?) they'll want to do a bunch of ultrasounds and/or x-rays to look for tumors, but if we can be assured that we can keep her comfortable, we probably will not go any further in exploring. She turned ten on the day of her blood test, and I am reading (I know I said no more googling, but what can I say?) that she won't necessarily have symptoms to speak of until she's really getting ready to go. If I've got this right, she will basically experience what an old dog experiences- getting old and dying of natural causes. I think that's a better scenario than lots of time spent at the vet's office trying to find/treat something at her age. 
So that's all the news that isn't, yet. I'll keep you posted. Thanks for asking, and for your good thoughts and wishes for Callie-loo! We're spoiling her in the meantime- a friend saw her last night and said "Callie's looking... healthy...." and he meant FAT. But she's loving life, still being the nearly-perfect pup that she is, and taking every chance she gets to roll in the snow/grass with delight. Lookit that face!!

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Dog Is Love

Last week we took our dog, Callie, to the vet because she had developed a sudden limp- for a day or so she would barely put her hind leg down at all, and although she seemed like her sunny old self, after a (short) while we thought we should have her seen by the doc. While she was there, they did a blood test to be sure she could handle the anti-inflammatory meds they'd prescribed her, and by that blood test, the doctors found that her calcium levels were "slightly elevated." We were asked to collect a first-thing-in-the-morning urine sample to see what that could tell us. (Which we did, through impressive teamwork. It must have been quite a scene for the neighbors, and I brought in MUCH more urine than was asked for or needed, but hey- success!)
Google has told us that elevated calcium levels in dogs is not a good thing. We still haven't received the results of the urine test but I did spy a note "decision plan at next appointment" on her chart when I was dropping it off, and I've been carrying around a load of (hopefully exaggerated) dread since then. We have an appointment for her this Friday, and in the meantime, we're trying not to google any more and sorting through the possible endings to this story in our imaginations. 
Last night in the car, Scott said "you know you always say that we can trust God, that God has a plan for us" and I thought to myself "Do I say that? It doesn't seem like something I would say..." 
Of course, I do believe we can trust God, and I do, but that plan thing. I'm not really comfortable with that. Maybe it's just my wonky sense of justice but, if God's plan is to bring a big lovey fuzzy beautiful dog into my life only to give her cancer or kidney failure only 8 months later, then... count me out! To me, that sounds like God's plan for me is to suffer. Not to mention His plan for Callie... I get that good things come out of bad situations, I do. But it would be hard for me to worship a God whose plan for anyone involves pain to make a point or teach a lesson. I've been in countless situations with Catholics who say "I know God had a reason for my sister to die from painful cancer at 25..." or some version of that, and it  does make me cringe. What kind of a jerk God does that? 
But I do believe that God is love. And I love that dog, and I love the love that she's brought into our lives, and it's love that impels me to make sure she is okay, as okay as she can be, and it's love that reminds me of her first owner, who died of cancer and had to say goodbye to that fluffy face. I'm thankful for the love that has come to us through her presence in our lives and willing to suffer for that love, I guess, if that's what's gotta happen, and I'm willing to hope for the best, even when Google tells me not to. 
For some reason, Love makes so much more sense to me than Plan, even though it's an infinitely less definable word. Meanwhile, if you're the kind of person who prays for dogs, keep Callie in yours please! And if you're not, pray for Scott and me! I'll keep you posted. 


When I was in high school, I went to one of our Varsity soccer games, in nearby Bath. Soccer was big in our school- taking Football's place as our anchor sport in the Fall. I remember that this game happened on a warm and sunny Saturday morning, and the team we were playing against was very good.
At one point, the ball went out of bounds- way out. In fact, it went out of the boundaries of the field, and down a little slope toward the parking lot. The other team's high scorer was standing at that corner of the field and watched it go. Soon his team mates yelled at him to go get the ball.
He yelled back (in my memory, in some kind of southern accent? It's unlikely, but that's how it sounds in my head 30+ years later) "THAT'S NOT MY JOBBBB!!!" He said it a few times, as his teammates urged him to go get the ball so the game could start again. "That's not my job!! That is NOT MY JOB!"
That phrase, in that accent, has been an inside (my head) joke that still makes me laugh. Something about this team star, muscly athlete yelling "THAT'S NOT MY JOB!" just cracks me up. I can't even remember what happened, or who ended up going to get the damned thing so they could start up again.
I was thinking about it today because this week in one of our trainings, I asked the staff members there, representing all four of our parishes, to commit to being a welcomer at any Mass they attended. Before or after, when seeing someone who needs a seat, when noticing a newcomer- to be the person who says hello to everyone coming in their churches. Most of them raised their hands to commit but some didn't, and I could almost hear them whispering "that's noooottttt myyyyyy jobbbbbb." But of course it is their job, and my job, and yours- not because we all work at churches, but because we are baptized and urged to be disciples who make disciples.
When the pastoral poop hit the fan around here in the 90s and our churches were struggling even to take a deep breath while we tried to stay afloat in the churning waters of scandal, and we all came to the realization that change needed to come to this Church, I saw people walk away, yelling with their actions: "THAT'S NOT MY JOB!" But of course it was their job, and my job, and yours- not because we are trying to keep the Church alive, but because we are baptized and urged to be disciples who make disciples.
I hope that the next time you walk into a church, for whatever reason, that someone will smile at you. If you're late and looking for a seat, I hope that someone will beckon you over to their pew and slide over to give you room. And I hope together we can make the Church a welcoming place for everyone. I'm willing to do what I can to make that happen- after all, it's my job.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Life Before and After Death

Recently I heard (yet another) fascinating episode of RadioLab that has kept me thinking for a couple of weeks now. The episode, Black Box, featured a story about butterflies, and specifically the transition of caterpillar-to-butterfly. I am no scientist, and can’t really explain it well (and definitely not in the fascinating way RL does) but the part that stuck with me was that someone had written in to the scientist in the story saying that the findings on butterflies had answered a question he had about The Afterlife. He said he’d always wondered if, in heaven, he’d remember his previous life.

That came as a surprise to me. I’d never considered that a person in the next life would have no memory of their life now. I’ve never even questioned it- I have a rosy image of people in heaven (as the Church teaches) watching over us and praying for us. But what if? Would that be a bad thing, to be in a whole new consciousness? A living person doesn’t remember their time in the womb- but it doesn’t mean that the time spent there was worthless or negative in any way- on the contrary, I imagine gestation is an overall pleasant time for a baby- floating, sleeping, growing to the beat of the mother’s heart. For whatever reason, it’s not important for a person to remember their life-before-life. Is it important for us to remember our life-before-death?

Last night I served a vigil for hospice and as I watched my patient’s breaths grow ever shallower and shallower, I wondered what he was experiencing. Was he seeing a light? Was he being greeted by his loved ones? And, I wondered why he would hold on so strongly to this life- laboring to keep breathing, keep breathing, keep breathing.

I thought about how a youth group kid of mine had once told me that his religion teacher said that heaven is just staring at the face of God for eternity. He was upset by this description, asking “what if that’s not what I want to do??” But I remember Jesus saying in the Gospels that we have to love God more than our parents, our spouses… I remember Him saying that there is no marriage in heaven. Maybe this is true, transcendent faith- to only want to gaze on God’s face.

Still, last night, my patient breathed on for whatever reason, and as I crawled into bed I couldn’t help but think- what in heaven could be better than Scott’s toes touching my toes, a cat on my hip, a snoring dog nearby?


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Non-Homily for Ash Wednesday

Today I led my first Ash-Wednesday prayer service at one of my new parishes, for a crowd of about a hundred people. They seemed surprised to see a lay female in the sanctuary but they rolled with it, and I got some really nice comments afterward. Here's the not-a-homily I gave:

Last year on Ash Wednesday, I was ready to roll. I was determined that that was going to be the Lent where I really did it right. I set my sights on three changes: I was going to cut back on carbohydrates, improve my posture, and stop playing Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook.

I was actually excited for Lent to start! I wanted to make changes- to turn my life around. Cutting out carbs would be great for my health, cutting out Bejeweled Blitz would increase my productivity, and sitting up straight is a habit I never formed in my youth. This would be the year. I was going to dedicate my efforts to God and make every one of those 40 days count, and as a reward for my efforts I would wear a smaller dress and sit up straight at Mass on Easter Sunday.

Then, though, reality set in. My family went through a stressful time last Lent- my parents had entered that scary stage where they began to need more care than they can give, and the stress of that distracted me from my devotions.

So I pretty much abandoned my low-carb- deal; instead I was stress-eating Toblerone bars like they were vitamin pills. Ultimately, I abandoned that effort. That is, I would still try, every morning, to start again, but if it was too hard I would cut myself a break, and focus on the other two efforts. I did okay with cutting out Bejeweled Blitz… that turned out to be the easiest of the three efforts.

I was surprised to find that sitting up straight is actually a lot of hard work. I guess that’s why I’d never done it before. Not only is it awkward and not my usual comfortable position, but it takes a mindfulness that I had not expected. Not only did I have to sit up straight but I had to notice when I was slouching.
I tried not to give up on this effort, because I started, last year, to see these Lenten decisions in a whole new light. When researching about Lent in order to teach it to a parent group at my parish, I read something that said “giving up things for Lent is not a requirement. But the Church asks us to do something penitential during Lent.”

Somehow in my 40-some years of Catholicism, I had missed that detail! The changes I make during Lent are supposed to reflect not just my wanting to improve, or to get healthy, or even to demonstrate my devotion to God. They are meant to be signs that I am sorry for my sins.

In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus reminding his new followers of this idea. He advises: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them… do not blow a trumpet before you… do not let your left hand know what your right is doing… do not look gloomy (when you fast)…”

He is reminding them, and us, that fasting and giving and praying are meant for a greater purpose than just to do something good or difficult, more than just having a list of things to check off or to work on. These are meant to be penitential, personal acts that bring our attention to our sinfulness.

In light of this, my physical slouching took on new meaning. Because, I realized how comfortable I have been in my sinfulness. That slouchy, thoughtless position that I slide back into, without even noticing sometimes- it’s similar to the state of my soul. It’s easier to be sinful than to be mindful. It’s easier to go on with my day, than to focus on God all the time.

So when I would catch myself slumping over, I tried to remind myself  that it’s not just my  physical posture that needs straightening up- it’s my spiritual posture.

Lent is more than a tune-up.  Lent is supposed to have a certain degree of gloom to it. On Ash Wednesday we step forward to join the ranks of the sorry. We wear a sign on our heads that shows the world (at the grocery store and the other parents picking their kids up at school) that we are aware of our sinfulness, and are sorry for it.

The author Parker Palmer says, “...there is a hard truth to be told: before spring becomes beautiful, it is plug ugly, nothing but mud and muck... But in that muddy mess, the conditions for rebirth are being created...”

All through Lent we do some degree of correcting ourselves for our imperfect postures. It would be so easy to just fast-forward over the mud and muck to Easter flowers…but that is not how we roll in the Catholic Church. We know that in order to have Easter, we must pass through Ash Wednesday, we must endure Good Friday. To experience the beauty, we must first face the ugliness- and to become holy, we must first face the ugliness that is within each of us.

So today we begin our journey together from a cold, dark Ash Wednesday through a plug-ugly muddy 40 days of Lent, toward a glorious and joyful Easter. Let’s pray each other through it. God bless you this Lent.