Seen in Town, The Inner Landscape

Late in the Evening

I went to Trader Joe's tonight.

This was my third visit to the new Portland store, or rather my second visit out of three attempts. The first time it was insanely rainy, and I eventually found a parking spot. It was around 4 in the afternoon, which is clearly not the time to go. Next I tried going after picking Lucy up from school, on a slightly rainy day, but we gave up because she had a lot of homework to do.

Tonight, after Church Council, I decided to swing by on my way home. I think I had the vague notion that I would pick up some kind of late night snack, since I have to take RA meds in the evening that require food to be eaten at the same time.

Pumpkin bread You would have thought a pumpkin farm had exploded at TJ's. Everywhere I looked, there was every kind of pumpkin: canned, waffle mix, soup, cheesecake, even pumpkin ice cream. I was looking for the pumpkin muffin mix I bought on my first trip, but I didn't find it. Instead I put some organic canned pumpkin in my basket, and a box of cinnamon coffee cake mix, and a carton of turkey broth.

A sign by the front door invited me to discuss fresh turkeys with the butcher, but all I found was a display, with no obvious place you could talk to a person. I looked at the fresh turkeys (we're looking for one that is all-natural, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they taste better) and wondered what's up with the brining? I don't even know why you brine a turkey. I hope someone will explain it. I found non-brined turkeys, too, but clearly in the TJ's world, brining is preferable. 

I wandered up and down the frozen aisle, but I didn't pick out anything there. It was getting later, and I had no idea what I wanted. 

The wine department at TJ's is HUGE. A big sign invited me to buy a FRUITY! DRINKABLE! Beaujolais Nouveau. Given that I tried to buy one last year and was too late, I put a bottle in my basket. It was not a Two Buck Chuck. (Is that what they call it?) I paid the also-not-so-high price of $8.99, which would not have happened at Whole Foods. They claimed it's perfect paired with turkey. We shall see. #1 Son will have to help me decide. 

There weren't very many people in the store, but one of them was the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He seemed incongruous, wandering around just like me. I guess I think of TJ's as a place for people like me, but what do I mean? Mainstream liberals with a reasonable number of children who don't mind being touched by people of the opposite sex except when they do mind it? Clergy with graduate degrees who worked thirteen hours today and probably ought to be in bed by now? Short women who grew up in the South but transplanted to the Northeast and proved winter hardy?

(It's possible I'm having a little identity crisis. )

Once the rebbe and I were in the pastoral services office together at the hospital, and I forgot the rules he lives by, even though I knew them somewhere in the back of my mind. I was looking through the patient listing to find a church member. I looked on the denominational lists for Protestant and Congregational, and somewhere I found my person's name, and I wrote the room number on a piece of scrap paper from the basket on the desk, using a pen the hospital provided. He was standing not far from me in the little office, and I got up from the desk, to make the list available to him, and without thinking, I handed him the pen. He looked shocked, really appalled, and I got away as quickly as possible.

When I came back to the frozen aisle, I found him holding a carton of pumpkin ice cream, no doubt contemplating the apparent pumpkin explosion.

I moved to the other side of the frozen aisle, gingerly.

Then he sneezed, all over the ice cream compartment.

I never found a snack. I came home and had some cereal that was already on the shelf in my kitchen. 

Isaiah, Midway, The Inner Landscape

Let us argue it out

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more;bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation– I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil,learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

 Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1:10-18, NRSV)

Yesterday I preached about confession being the ultimate in vulnerability. We don't like words about humility in this era of self-esteem, I said, and we surely don't want to make people compare themselves to worms. But our authenticity, which I believe is key to our salvation, requires our vulnerability with God.

I believe that.

Which isn't to say I like it, necessarily. Because being vulnerable with God means being truthful with myself. 


"Wash, wash me clean./Mend my wounded seams./Cleanse my tarnished dreams." A friend sent me this song by k.d. lang not too long ago. 

Though my sins be like scarlet…they shall become like snow. 

For me the biggest sin is to be out of touch with God, to stay in the condition or the hiding place, that won't allow God inside. Well, that I *think* won't allow God inside. God has ways.  Like songs a friend sends to you. Or plane reservations they make to come and see you and be sure you are okay. Or frozen lasagna they leave behind. Or toilet paper holders they install, just because.  Or the affirmation of the congregation on a Sunday when you wondered if you would have any Good News to share at all.

I'm amazed at the multiplicity of means God has used to argue things out with me, to make sure I cannot possibly feel alone, at all hours of the night and day. God is tired of old forms of behavior and old ways of being, ways that I tried to be the person society expected or the church demanded or my own family history suggested. Forget about all that, God says. Let us argue it out. Let us find the way in which you will be washed clean of all that and really, truly know it. 

Divorce, Dreams, Genesis, Midway, The Inner Landscape

Call Me Israel

Jacob Wrestling

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

 (Genesis 32:24-28, part of a reading for Pentecost 21C)

It must have been quite a night. Jacob sent his family across the river ahead of him: his wives, his children, his servants, his livestock, all his property as a highly mobile desert patriarch. Was he looking for peace and quiet, or did he anticipate a struggle, or an opportunity?

In the middle of the night, at mid-life or really past it as I edge toward 50, I am struggling with God in the night and trying to call it an opportunity. How am I a different person than I was ten years ago? Or than I was at 24, the age of my oldest child, the age I became his mother? (A terrifying thought! Who ever rated me ready to care for an infant when I was so young myself?)

We’re shifting at home, readjusting our view of what life had been, trying to see what the future will be and bring. I have a new call, and a very sick dog, and my marriage is over.

I am striving with God and humans.

I wake in the night, and I wonder what’s next? And I look back at this year and I think I can never call it the worst year ever, no matter what, because my second son flew out of a car and lived, because all three of my children are wonderful, because I found out who really cares about me, and because two people who cannot live together anymore are doing their best to be merciful about it while caring for a beloved pet who is likely nearing his end.

But like Jacob, I am out of joint, and I may walk with a limp. So call me Israel.

Jeremiah, The Inner Landscape

Do not decrease

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, NRSV)

I preached last Sunday about how coming to Maine to live felt like going into exile, so far away from my accustomed flora and seasons that it might as well have been Antarctica or Timbuktu or Caprica. 23 years later, the way the seasons change here is simply the way they change. I've given up grieving for the lovely early springs of my Virginia childhood and reconciled myself to mud season. I don't think there's any question I managed to bloom where God transplanted me. 

That's not to say everything has gone smoothly. At the moment, my personal life is rough and unsettled, at the same time I am experiencing the natural bumps and joggles of learning a new church family, its ways and its history and its needs and its expectations. It's not the first time in my life I've had a lot to handle, and I look back on those times and I am trying to remember what helped and what I lacked to remain upright, to keep breathing, to hold onto hope.  I remember how after the end of my first marriage I could not seem to organize myself to fix dinner, and how hard that made life with three children. Right now every meal I prepare, even one reheated and originally cooked by someone else, feels like an accomplishment.

7wonders-hanging_gardens_of_babylon Babylon, the city whose welfare God asked the exiled Israelites to seek, contained one of the seven wonders of the world, the Hanging Gardens. And it occurs to me that wonder matters because it reminds us that not everything is easily achieved or explained, and that's okay. Why are we here? What is our purpose? Maybe some days it's okay that our purpose simply be to gaze in awe at a beautiful sight in nature, or to ponder the effort put in by a master gardener. The act of wonder makes us right-sized, gives us perspective on our own place in the world and perhaps inspires us to create beauty at our own level.

I'm not that successful at planting gardens. A few years ago I put a lot of effort, with help from stronger arms and backs, into a bulb garden and a few perennials and shrubs in front of my house. I waited eagerly for spring and was rewarded, but the next two years, instead of naturalizing, the daffodils grew thinner and sadder. Earlier in the year, when I thought I might relocate, I put those flower beds on my mental list of failures. No point trying to fix it now, I thought. I'm just a failure at gardening.

But I'm staying, and when spring comes next year, I want to see more flowers. So today I asked a certified Master Gardener in my new congregation what he would suggest to a person who had a major Daffodil Fail in a place where yews and rhododendrons used to thrive?

Lime, he said. You need lots of lime. 

The soil retained too much acid. I suppose it burned the bulbs.

A Google search tells me that fall is the appropriate time to lime the soil. I can find instructions about what sort of lime to use and how to apply it. I'm sure the Israelites figured out the way to plant their gardens in the foreign land, to feed themselves and the families they not only brought with them but continued to make anew. I'll be doing the same, in a sense, seeking the way back to center, to balance, despite the burn I feel today, seeking the increase and not the decrease of love and faith and hope.

Psalms, The Inner Landscape

From the Snare of the Fowler

It was a long night, with little sleep, and after trying fruitlessly to Facebook or Twitter myself to unconsciousness with my iPhone, I looked up this week's Lectionary passages. Not that I hadn't seen them before. Yesterday morning I met with my study group, and I read them ahead of time. Well, I skimmed Jeremiah. But I read the others, I thought.

In the night, a Psalm seems right. After all, they are the prayers and songs of people just like us, trying to put into ritual form the human experience: joy, anger, fear, disappointment, repentance, praise and even a thirst for revenge.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation. (Psalm 91:1-6,14-16)

And there it was, what I needed to read and hear as I struggled in the night. God will deliver you–us! me!!–from the snare of the fowler. 

Fowler's snare I'm not a bird-watcher. I like birds, I think they are beautiful, but I'm not a student of birds. I dream of flying, often. The resonance of Songbird as a nickname, a name that goes back to the late 1990s for me, really comes from a pitiful source. In Ibsen's play, "A Doll's House," Torvald refers to Nora as a bird, and when I saw the play in the winter of 1999, I felt like Nora. I was divorced, hoping to meet someone again, confused about what I wanted in life, but lonely. I had made a not-so-good choice about dating someone and wanted to duck him on AOL IM. So I needed a new identity, not just my first initial and last name. Thus, Songbird, which has reappeared in various forms for close to a dozen years now, on my license plate and on my blog and in sundry email addresses.

This poor bird is caught in the fowler's snare, and as my previous blog, Set Free, implied, I knew I was the one holding myself in a cage of some kind. I spent years trying to define it so I could get out of it. But that became a sort of cage, too.

I changed blogs, hoping that would help. I even gave up the nickname, partly, but that makes no difference. It's a cute name. The name is not the problem.

I'm inclined to get tangled up, to be perplexed by human beings in my life, really more in my personal life than in my ministry, though it happens there, too! But especially in my personal life I have been a bird, like Nora, or I have tried to be, at the same time I claimed I wanted to fly free. 

Bird_180 Somehow, in the middle of the night, reading this Psalm, I got a different message. 

God wants me to be free. God will free me from the fowler's snare.



Let's give that a fly.



Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Ministry, The Inner Landscape

Visibly. Invisibly.

Invisible Illness Awareness Week, or something along those lines, just ended, and I am thinking a lot about the things that show and the things that don't. When I got home tonight, after a pretty long Sunday at church–a very good day, but long–I wanted to take Sam for a walk. LP had given him dinner, and the window of opportunity for being outside before dark was narrowing. He seemed excited to go with me, but when he realized I planned a neighborhood walk instead of a ride in the car to more exciting places, he balked.

This happens often. It's got nothing to do with his cancer. 

But my desire to stay in the neighborhood had to do with my invisible illness, Rheumatoid Arthritis. After a long day, and sometimes after a regular day, I have joints that complain. My right rotator cuff is the worst, so I did not want to get back in the car and take the kind of short car ride that involves a lot of turns. 

I find it sort of hilarious, in an awful way, that the joint I find most bothersome is one I never knew anything about, except in other people's stories. I'm not sure I even knew exactly where it was.  A friend refers to it as my "old football injury," and that entertains me. It's surely true that the only throws I make now are gentle, underhand slow pitches of a cookie into Sam's mouth. 

But to look at me, you wouldn't know anything was the matter. 

Sam, on the other paw, now has a big lump on his back leg. It was invisible, at first, because black and rust-colored fur covered it. I found myself talking about his diagnosis at the Farmer's Market the other day, and then hearing someone else repeat it to the person she was with, pointing out the tumor as if I could not hear her though we were only a few feet apart.

A histiocytic sarcoma is pretty awful. The sarcoma interferes with limb function, so when it appears in the extremities, the limb needs to come off, which was not really an option for Sam in the opinion of our vets or, frankly, our family. He's 7-and-a-half, which is beyond the average life span for a Berner, and he has arthritis in both elbows and one wrist, and it all sounds like too much trauma when there is no guarantee it will extend his life. 

Though of course it might.

But then he's left with one adult in the house to rehab him after surgery, one adult whose invisible illness makes her less able to help a big dog who might require if not lifting then support for walking. 

This makes me sad and not a little angry. I felt the same way as Molly declined, and we discussed her care and recognized that as she needed to be lifted in and out of the car and had trouble even with the ramp, I would not be able to manage her by myself. It was a hard, hard situation as we got ready for my husband to go away for work and weighed her enthusiasm for life against her increasingly crippling arthritis in three legs. 

Her visible illness, my invisible one.

My tendency to take the blame for everything, to take full responsibility, probably sounds a lot like what my own illness does. In Rheumatoid Arthritis, your immune system attacks your joints. Because it's a disease found primarily in women, books are written that speak the self-blaming, self-attacking language in ways that hurt even more. The medicines that are effective suppress immune response, so the system stops freaking out.

As the person for whom The Onion headline "Area Mom Freaking Out Again for No Reason" may have been coined in the first place according to my kids, I get this. 

When the groundwork has been laid so effectively, so deeply, so invisibly, how do you stop blaming and attacking yourself for everything?

I'm going to say that one of the biggest growth steps for me has been working as a pastor. Somehow in my pastoral life, I can see the difference between things that are actually my responsibility or fault, and things that are not. I may not be able to do it 100% of the time, but it's a vastly larger percentage than the one in my personal life. Over the past eight years, I've experienced a slow-growing understanding of the distinctions, and maybe someday I'll be able to apply the recognition, visibly, to heal the invisible wounds long since scarred over, the wounds of self-blame.

Learned From My Mother, Ministry, Prayer, The Inner Landscape


Do you ever think about who taught you to pray?

I guess I learned from my mother, goodnight prayers taught and repeated over and over again. She liked prayers with a form. I think she found them reassuring. 

"God is my help in every need. God does my every hunger feed."

When she was dying, she avoided her own church and had a friend take her to the Unity church mid-week. In those last months of her life, those friends committed to pray for her each morning at the same time. I found it fascinating that they prayed separately, in the privacy of their own homes. 

The other thing she liked was quiet. She didn't like the hubbub of a busy church service, or the appraising looks of anyone not in her carefully chosen inner circle.

I am not like her. 

On the RevGalBlogPals cruise in April, Nanette Sawyer asked us to think of things that helped us find the feeling of God's presence in the core of our beings — or something very close to that, I may not be saying it right. And I remember jotting notes on a post-it, one of which was "Praying with others." 

It's not something we do a lot in Congregational UCC churches in Maine, at least not in my experience. As a little Baptist girl growing up in Virginia, I remember the whole Sunday School class praying, sentence prayers we called them. If you felt shy or didn't know what to say, you could squeeze the hand of the person next to you. So from Bernadette Lane, and other teachers, I learned to pray on my feet, to find something to say no matter what the situation, to be comfortable putting words on the murmurs of my heart that I could speak aloud in a room full of people.

I liked the way it felt, that we all prayed together.

As a pastor, I get to pray in worship almost every week. Sometimes I write a prayer, but often I bind up the themes of the day the way a florist wraps ribbon around the stems of flowers to make a bouquet. I hope the effect will be evocative, that people will hear something and feel something that brings them closer to God.

In my first church, I remember sitting in my little garret office with a woman who worked for a Nazarene congregation. She came to see me about starting an afterschool program, but somehow, most likely because of her kind pastoral presence, I told her about the job search I was in at the time. I remember that on a darkening autumn afternoon, she offered to pray for me. I remember feeling cared for, deeply, both by this person I hardly knew and by God. As she said "Amen," tears slipped down my cheeks.

I pray a lot with other people, prayers for and about them, their needs, their worries, their fears and hopes. I do it willingly, gladly, sincerely.

But when it comes to praying for myself, I find I am quite inarticulate. Many of my prayers are monosyllabic, consisting of "please" or "help!" 

It helps me understand my mother's love of that prayer already formed, meant to be repeated, comforting. I can pray those prayers. In the first months of being treated for Rheumatoid Arthritis, awake at night due to the prednisone that helped so much, but made life a little miserable at the same time, I dug from memory the Serenity Prayer, or something close enough to it that repeating it made me feel less alone.

But what I really love is to pray with others, and sometimes my desire for that and the lack of it means I don't pray as much as I might should.

In this phase of my life, as I try to discern what's next, taking into account the multiplicity of personal and professional factors involved, I find I am confused and changeable. Friends whose natures are more organized recommend lists and systems, but I live by intuition, and I also know how to "con" a list of factors, for and against. I know how to con myself. Robin recommended the Ignatian method, and since I am ignorant of it, I turned to Google for further information.

First on the list: Pray assiduously.

And I suspect that means some combination of all of the above: prayers with others and alone, prayers sitting still or walking the dog or driving the car (eyes open!), prayers sung and prayers written, prayers of one word and of many words and of no words at all.

One of the other things my mother taught me was that there was always a right way to do something, one right way. I'm not sure she was right about that. I suspect God could use me in more than one place or more than one way. But it's my hope that there is a better way than others, a place I can be fierce and fabulous for Jesus, a place I can honor as many aspects as possible of my call to be a minister and my call to be, well, Songbird.

So I will pray, assiduously. Feel free to join me, wherever you are.