Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Sunday, May 15, 2016


I awoke to the sound and rattle of wind, moaning in the eves of my house and bending the branches of the trees outside my windows. When I went downstairs I could hear the chimes on my porch dancing crazily in their minor key.

As I awakened on Pentecost Sunday to the sound and rattle of wind, the people of my congregation were soon to gather, to hear the story:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. ~Acts 2:1-4

There is something about this description that thrills and unnerves me. To experience wind, unmediated by the reasonably strong walls of a building around you, is to know a primal sense of vulnerability. This invisible thing is moving you, pushing you, howling at you. It is the stuff of nightmares, or horror flicks. At the same time, when assured of our safety, it is exciting, it is heady. Growing up at the shore we would flock to the ocean as hurricanes were coming in, and gather outside our cars in our rain gear (except umbrellas; don't bother with them, they're useless in the wind) to watch the effect the wind had on the ocean, to feel it push us around. 

Things change when you see the destruction wind can leave in its path. Now my hometown knows what it is to be the place where the second most expensive hurricane in US history makes landfall. People there know what happens when you can't afford to recover from the damage, or to prepare for the next time. People there know what wind can do to your little life.

Wind is dangerous. So, scripture and mystics and poets agree, is God. A post to the Facebook RevGalBlogPals page reminded me of this quote of Annie Dillard's:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. 
~ from Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper and Rowe 1982

I think Dillard's onto something. Pentecost is, at the very least, our annual notice that the waking God wants to draw us out to someplace new, someplace likely to be frightening, thrilling and unnerving, all at once. The waking God of Jesus wants us to walk where he has walked and further-- to walk where we haven't yet dared to walk, but where the wind and fire and healing power of the Spirit are sorely needed. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

All At Once

About ten days ago, a friend and I were talking about my ongoing struggle with self-care. This includes, but is not limited to, issues around sleep, eating, exercise, and, of course, actually taking real, true, time off. What we in the religion game like to call "Sabbath" time, time not in any way dictated by productivity or "getting things done" or work obligations.

My friend said to me, "I wonder what your life would be like if you could walk every morning, and swim every afternoon."

It's always interesting to see what your real reactions are to things, as opposed to the reactions you expect from yourself. My real reaction to this was a deep sigh of pleasure. "Oh, that wonderful."

I would not have expected that reaction. I would have expected to feel exasperated, pressured, overwhelmed with the impossibility of it. Instead, I grabbed onto it, like a little kid being swept downstream who had been thrown a tiny, hard, and yet improbably buoyant life-preserver.

The very next day I found myself at the walk-in because I was wheezing-- loudly, alarmingly. I've never had asthma, I'm not a smoker. My blood pressure was up. They gave me an inhaler.

Three days later, instead of being in the pulpit, I was back at the walk-in being diagnosed with pneumonia. They gave me antibiotics and medications to reduce the inflammation in my lungs, and orders to rest, drink fluids, and do pretty much nothing.

The first part of this week consisted of me trying to get back into the swing of church this Sunday (and today, for the wedding of a beloved member of my congregation). It consisted of me creating bulletins, gathering thoughts for sermons and meditation, writing reports and replying to close to 150 emails.

I know that's not rest. I know that's not nothing.

But it also consisted of me reading. Two books, one novel and one book of church history/ theology. A dense one, one I haven't been able to make mental space for, but which I'm now devouring.

It also consisted of me praying. More, more intentionally. Returning to prayer patterns that have nurtured me in the past, but which have gotten swept downstream, like that little kid.

On Thursday I returned to the doctor again, not feeling a lot of improvement. (The truly disconcerting symptom in all of this has been how weak I've felt. Feel.) An x-ray, more meds. And finally, finally admitting that the idea that I could return to work this weekend was misguided at best.

With tears of frustration and real sorrow I handed off the last of my obligations. One friend had been covering pastoral emergencies. Another covered a graveside service. And one-- God bless him-- took both the wedding and Sunday.

Pentecost Sunday.

And then, all at once, the emails all but stopped, slowing down to a trickle.

And now, I am in a great stillness. My house is quiet (though I am still wheezing). My mind is awake (except when I fall into a deep sleep, which happens a lot).

I read an article this morning from the Well in the New York Times, their section for health and well-being. It says that, in making changes for our well-being, it may actually help us to do several things at once, rather than focusing on one thing at a time. Don't simply change your sleep schedule; do the meditation you've been wanting to do as well. Make your diet healthier at the same time you are adding weight training to your regimen. Take up both walking and swimming.

At least one study seems to show that, not only do we thrive when we make a bunch of positive changes at once, but the effect stay with us, even after we're not adhering to the new regimen perfectly. The new practices reinforce one another. Win, win, win.

I'm wondering how my pneumonia/ enforced Sabbath regimen might be continued after I am back at work. The time I've taken for prayer. The time spent reading. The healthier eating choices I've made (embracing the fact that applesauce appeals more than fries just now). And maybe the addition of a walk in the morning and a swim in the afternoon.

I had been pondering how to make a change, a big change, that would help me in my quest to care for myself better.

The first thing I had to do, evidently, was get sick enough that everything I was doing would be interrupted, all at once. Enforced stillness. A full stop.

Now. Waiting for what's next. But truly waiting.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Kind of Telephone Line Through Time

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.  ~ 1 Cor. 15:1-8

A long time ago, when I was a young mother, I received a birthday gift of the album “Rites of Passage” by the Indigo Girls. One of the songs on that album was called, of all things, “Virginia Woolf.” Here are some of its lyrics.

They published your diary
And that's how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own and a mind without end
And here's a young girl
On a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend
So I know I'm all right
Life will come and life will go
Still I feel it's all right
Cause I just got a letter to my soul
And when my whole life is on the tip of my tongue
Empty pages for the no longer young
The apathy of time laughs in my face
You say, "each life has its place" …

Emily Saliers, who is one of the Girls, wrote that song. Emily is a PK—Preacher’s Kid. Her dad is Don Saliers, a United Methodist pastor and theologian. They wrote a book together on singing as a spiritual practice—A Song to Sing, a Life to Live. I mention all this because when I listen to this song, I hear echoes from this passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.

They published your diary… they told your story… that’s how I got to know you.

The key to a room of your own and a mind without end… the key to the life of Jesus Christ, and life without end.

And here’s a young girl, on a kind of telephone line through time… and he appeared to his followers, and last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

This scripture passage is about the Good News coming to Paul on a kind of telephone line through time. Paul got a letter to his soul: the message he received, and that he also passed on to the church in Corinth. Despite time and distance. Despite, in Paul’s case, an inclination to disbelieve, or even revile. Despite all these things… the message arrived. The message on which he stood, and through which he was saved.

The message from Virignia Woolf... well, I don't know if it saved Emily Saliers’ life. Her mom was a librarian (Emily tells the story in her intro the song on "1200 Curfews," a fantastic live double album). Her mom found the book for her and sent it to her. Did Mrs. Saliers sense that Emily was having a rough time, for some reason? Did she have any reason to believe her daughter might be struggling with, perhaps, her sexual identity? I don't know. It's all conjecture. But Emily sings in this song that, after immersing herself in that life, after meeting Virginia Woolf as one “untimely born,” Emily knew she was alright.

“Rites of Passage” came out in 1992. Both Indigo Girls—who have never been a couple—came out as lesbians in 1994.

Did Virginia Woolf save Emily's life? I don't know. I know she wrote a song about her, and about the experience of recognition of herself in some deep and affirming way. I also know that the Indigo Girls served, in a way, as my Virginia Woolf. Their music spoke to me, at first, on a level I didn't quite fully understand. Why did I listen to this next song, for instance, over and over, at a time when I was, in theory, happily married to a kind and generous man?

dark and dangerous like a secret 
that gets whispered in a hush (don't tell a soul) 
when i wake the things i dreamt about you last night make me blush (don't tell a soul) 
when you kiss me like a lover then you sting me like a viper 
i go follow to the river play your memory like the piper 
and i feel it like a sickness how this love is killing me 
but i'd walk into the fingers of your fire willingly 
and dance the edge of sanity i've never been this close 
in love with your ghost...

I think the answer is that I recognized something of myself in these words and melodies that I only half dared to contemplate. Of course, my unwillingness to contemplate the truth-- the fact that I was a lesbian married to a man-- did not alter the truth in any way. The Indigo Girls spoke to me on a kind of telephone line, if not through time, then, through circumstance. They said, "This is our truth." (They said it pretty clearly even before they said it  officially.) Years later, after a season of pain, I was finally able to embrace that truth for myself. (I fell in love.)

This is my good news, on which I stand. I too am one of those untimely born, to whom Jesus has "appeared" (though in my case it involved an Amy Grant song heard in my Volvo on Route 128 outside of Boston, rather than a flash of light and temporary blindness on the road to Damascus). I am also one who knows herself to be "alright"-- a proud and grateful member of that little LGBTQI alphabet cluster,  who knows that by grace she is loved by the God who ensured that she was born this way.

Seven years ago this week I shared the fullness of my identity with the wonderful congregation I serve, just as, this week, 111 United Methodist pastors and candidates for ordained ministry have shared their truth. It is not an action anyone undertakes lightly while they serve a denomination that could discipline them or, worse, remove or block their ministerial credentials altogether. But these brave souls-- one of whom I am so very proud to call my friend--know that #ItsTime. (We all have a way of knowing that.) The good news on which we stand is this: the love of God is big enough to include and affirm all of us. Blessings, prayers, and love go with my UMC brothers and sisters this week.