I remember a time when clergy were not provided any time for spiritual renewal. That is ironic, considering that spiritual renewal is their primary business. If there is any vocation in which one needs to stay spiritually and emotionally present and vital this is the one. Not the only one, of course, but most surely this one. It was not that ministers didn’t have vacations; most did and that is fine. But a vacation is not the same thing as intentional rest, renewal and spiritual recharging. Along the tattered way church leaders became convinced that a program of revitalization and renewal was important. The result was the emergence of what has now become standard among ministers, the sabbatical leave with pay after a certain period of service. I’ve earned several of those through the years and relished the time away in order to return renewed.

However important sabbatical provisions are I came to believe that we were still missing the mark. Why? Because the model of sabbatical is based on that found in academia. And ministry and academia are two different things. So I started to imagine what an intentional program of spiritual renewal could resemble. What I came up with is something like this:

Rather than one large chunk of time at the end of five-seven years, we spread out the opportunities for spiritual renewal so that they are shorter and more frequent. For instance, one week a year is provided along with one day in the fall and one day in the spring. That week is not vacation or continuing education. Those are important but have different functions. Then following a certain number of years, say five, the minister takes a month of sabbatical leave. With that he or she could actually have a significant experience of renewal, say in an international program or an inspiring monastery. Perhaps they decide to walk a portion of the Camino in Spain. You get my drift.

When I presented this to my church’s personnel committee and then board, they got it immediately. And that’s what I have now, an alternative to sabbatical, a program of ongoing spiritual renewal. I believe it serves both me and the church more appropriately.

I am on one of my twenty four hour spiritual retreats right now in a place apart. For me that requires solitude, something the inexperienced often have difficulty with. This is different than just “getting away.” The time is intentionally full of simplicity, unplugged time, contemplative walks, reading, meditation, rest and expression of faith in any way that connects, like writing or journaling.

Anyone can do this, of course, and should. It’s hardly limited to clergy. All people who wish to deepen the spiritual life need these islands of stillness, these green pastures. And if you don’t know how to approach a solitary retreat you might try a directed group one first. Later, when you are more experienced, you can try a solitary retreat. It always provides its challenges as we detox from ongoing life.

Right now I am watching the autumn sun disappear behind the trees. I have prepared a simple meal with my own hands. My reading of the evening will focus on some spiritual masters and I will contemplate that until nightfall. I’ll try to keep artificial lights off and allow my sleep pattern to mirror that of nature. I will rise when the sun stirs me. And slowly, slowly, the noise inside my own head will turn to stillness and the cares that seemed so important only a short time before will take their rightful place, making room for what really matters, for real attentiveness to the God who comes, my communion with that, and a compassion that cannot arise as long as we compulsively lope after the dictates of the culture around us.

The Stovepipe Hat

Posted: September 26, 2014 in Uncategorized
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I am presently reading the diary entries of a young Union soldier during the Civil War by the name of George Sargent (For Our Beloved Country: American War Diaries, 1994). Late in the war, during April, as they were stationed near Washington D.C., the troops were notified that they would be reviewed by the President. And here is what he wrote:

The force was between fifteen and twenty thousand strong, making a grand show, a sight not to be seen outside of the army. We were put into the place assigned us, waited an hour or two, heard music in the distance, and presently he came galloping along followed by two or three hundred officers of all rank. We struck up “Hail to the Chief,” playing until the next band on our left commenced then. I must say he is the most awkward looking figure on horseback I ever saw, long legs, dangling down most to the ground, his body bent forward, looking as though he was about to pitch headlong, and an old stovepipe hat many years behind the fashion. … As we stood in front of him, I could not help but notice how pale, haggard, and careworn he looked, as though there was a heap of trouble on the old man’s mind.

The following communion prayer was offered by Dana Fritz at Broadway Christian Church on September 21, 2014:

Heavenly Lord, our Sovereign:

Together we are welcomed to your house, your home, for nourishment of mind, soul, spirit and body. Our eyes are open to you – when we allow it – and now we open our mouths and hearts to your patient blessing, your eternal gift to us that is, indeed, very good. For everyday we are in your house, your awesome home, and even at times most terrifying and confusing. Your gentle gift awaits us as it does before us at this table – your body, broken for us, our first protection, our greatest one …

The Iron Kettle

Posted: September 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

I’m now reading some of the diaries of American volunteers serving as soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Compared to the British they were a ragtag, disorganized and poorly provisioned bunch.

At one point the citizen soldier wrote of how he continued to carry around the standard issue cast iron kettle for cooking food. It was very heavy and carrying it increased the exhaustion that was growing minute by minute.

The irony was that they had no food to cook in the kettle anyway. So the cast iron burden they bore, perfect for another time when a stew simmered over the fire, served no purpose. And yet they continued to drag it from place to place.

Finally, the journal writer wrote, perched on the top of a hill, he gave a swift kick to the kettle and it rolled all the way down the hillside until it crashed into a fence. He later discovered that others had done the same.

How often do we continue to carry around what seemed to work yesterday though it has become not only useless but even a burden today?

Mixed Feelings on 9/11

Posted: September 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

Like so many I remember that day, where I was, what I was doing. Like others I followed the news and participated in memorial services. And also like others I recognized anniversaries of the calamity in successive years. But now, fourteen years later, I am left with a question: “How long do you grieve?”

If you lost a loved one at the Pentagon or in the Twin Towers or as a responder or on one of those planes … the answer to the grief question is, “A very, very long time. I will struggle with this off and on for the rest of my life.” If you were a resident of the city in which the disaster took place you will feel it intensely and in a very personal way.

But how long does a society commemorate such moments? And in what way?

As I explored the forms of many world-wide remembrances of disasters they shook out in several ways, whether it was something colossal like a large scale war in which millions died, a genocide, a singular act of destruction or a natural disaster: National Days are established on the calendar, monuments or museums are erected, and programs or lectureships established to address whatever the root cause of the issue happens to be. During ongoing conflicts or violent campaigns mothers gather in town squares carrying pictures of disappeared ones. Protestors march in noisy or silent vigil.

In the case of 9/11 we erected structures, staged anniversary remembrances and, yes, conducted wars. War was not only a strategic response or the chance opportunists had been waiting for. It was a collective and very expensive purge of sadness, rage and revenge. It was a ritual that depended on blood to settle the score. Of course, it can never do that, but that’s what people hoped.

In older societies, those living centuries longer than our own, tragedies are often dealt with differently. Among the Europeans, those who have long ledgers of wars to their credit, the aftermath of a calamity is generally not something to chew but to swallow. Once when I was in Belfast during the troubles a friend took me to a hotel that had recently been bombed. When he told me that the restaurant in which we were eating had recently been blown to smithereens a short time earlier I could hardly believe my own eyes. “How can that be?” I asked him, looking around the orderly space. “Because,” he answered, “we’ve had so much devastation that when more comes we don’t hold on to it. Neither do we give any gratification to those who committed the crime in the first place.”

I have often thought of that response. And I wonder how repeating dramatic commemoration – especially of a terrorist act the magnitude of 9/11 – actually works against us. What if after we grieved, cleaned up, and resolved to change or remedy the situation that created the mess, we concentrated on leaving no trace on which we could fixate or any source of satisfaction for those who sought evil?

Most of the seventh and eighth graders beginning school this fall were not yet born when the debris came falling out of the skies that fateful September so many years ago. For them it is something that lives in a history book, taking its place along side other shattering moments on the world stage. Maybe we should begin to view it in the same way.

Pat Okker is a professor of English at the University of Missouri. She is completing a memoir about becoming a two-sport athlete at age 52. It includes the following story which was shared during worship at Broadway Christian Church, Columbia, Missouri, on September 7:

“I can’t recall if I’ve ever heard an Easter sermon about fear before. It’s entirely possible, of course. After all, the Easter story includes an angel, who declares, as angels always do, “Do not be afraid.” And the people in the story—those brave and loving women—do not, in fact, heed the angel’s command: they run from the empty tomb, filled with fear. No doubt I’ve heard these details before on Easter, but if fear itself was ever the topic of the day, I have no memory of it. For me, Easter has always been a day—the day really—to tell stories of joy and hope and rebirth. All those things as bright and sweet as Easter candy.

But this year’s Easter wasn’t in any way typical. I wasn’t even expecting to go to church. I was in Boston to run my first Boston Marathon, and running was all I could think about.

As soon as I landed in Boston, it was obvious that I was hardly alone in obsessing about Monday’s race. It’s what the entire city was thinking and talking about. On Saturday morning I walked by Old South Church, founded in 1669 and located just yards from the marathon’s finish line. Church members were on the street offering thousands of hand-knitted scarves (in the yellow and blue colors of the Boston Marathon) to anyone running on Monday. The ninety seconds it took for me to get my scarf was, in so many ways, typical of the brief but fiercely intense connections I made with other people all weekend. One minute I was walking alone, quietly nursing my self-doubts, wondering if I really could do this thing before me. The next moment a woman was gently wrapping a scarf around my neck, telling me simply, “With this scarf we wrap you in love and courage. May you have the race of your life.” I wore that scarf all weekend and clung to that one word—courage—just as tightly. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

And so I found myself the next morning back at the “Church of the Finish Line,” as they describe themselves, expecting to celebrate resurrection, life’s victory over death. But that is not what Rev. Nancy Taylor offered us. Instead she spoke about real, palpable fear: of Y2K, the Cold War, nuclear holocaust, empty retirement accounts, terrifying medical diagnoses, climate change, and yes, the tragedy and heartbreak of last year’s Boston Marathon. And unlike the Easter angel, Rev. Taylor offered no easy, immediate fixes. Refusing to dismiss our human predilection towards fear, Rev. Taylor acknowledged that Easter is “a daunting thing.” It’s okay to be afraid, she assured us. It’s okay not to believe.

If ever there was a congregation ready to hear an Easter sermon about fear, it was this one. As much as the city demonstrated its incredible resilience, reminders of last year’s horror were nevertheless all around. People on the street spoke openly about where they were when the bombs went off, ceremonies at the finish line all weekend honored the many survivors, and just steps from the church’s front door stood a small memorial to four people who died in last year’s tragedy: Krystle, a 29 year old restaurant manager from nearby Medford; Lu, a graduate student from China studying statistics at Boston University; Martin, a local eight year old, who loved math, Monopoly, and sports; and Sean, an MIT police officer killed during the extended manhunt.

And there were other fears, petty ones in comparison to what others were facing, but real, nonetheless. For months people had asked me if I was afraid to run the Boston Marathon. Not a bit, I always said. But that was only partly true. I may not have worried about bombs or terrorists, but I was afraid. Really afraid. Of mile 21 and 22 and 23 and 24 and 25 and 26 and yes even those last 385 yards. I had run just one marathon before Boston, and the emotional challenges in those last 6.2 miles, especially the overwhelming sense of loneliness, had been far more difficult than the physical obstacles. Even at the end, those feelings of pride and jubilation that I was expecting proved elusive, at least initially. The moment I crossed the finish line the only emotion I could muster was a profound sense of emptiness. So yes, I was afraid: afraid that I would have to go there again and, even more, afraid that I wouldn’t have the courage to do so. Maybe, I worried, I’d get to mile 21 and stop pushing. Maybe I wouldn’t want it enough.

Rev. Taylor didn’t erase those fears, but she did something that even the Easter angel couldn’t manage. By boldly admitting that Easter is a “daunting thing”—by refusing to pretend that fears and doubts and disbelief can simply be waved away—the Old South Church gave all of us runners that day a space to name and hold our fears, however profound or petty they were. And somehow by allowing us to acknowledge these fears not in private but together in a jam-packed, teary-eyed church, Rev. Taylor gave us something else that morning, something as palpable as our fear: a reminder that we would never be alone. Not that day. And not on race day.

It was, again, exactly what I most needed to hear.

It was also, as it turns out, not exactly what Rev. Taylor said.

Weeks later, while exploring the Old South Church’s website, I stumbled upon the written transcript of the sermon. Easter, it turns out, isn’t a “daunting thing.” What Rev. Taylor actually said is that Easter is a “dawning thing.”

No, I thought. She has it all wrong. “Daunting” is the right word—the perfect one. It’s the only word that captures so precisely the kind of fear that Easter—and yes the Boston Marathon—inspire. It’s not a fear of pain or injury. It is instead based entirely on scale and magnitude. It’s the realization that the thing before us is too big, too much, too overwhelming.

Until, of course, somehow—slowly and miraculously, like the dawn—it isn’t too much. It isn’t impossible or even inconceivable. And maybe that means it can be daunting and dawning all at the same time.”


The Irony of America The Beautiful

Posted: September 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

Originally posted on Sisters in Song:

Due to the vicissitudes of life and constraints of time, I have been ignoring this blog. But the idea of further exposition of women already in my book came upon me yesterday. The wonderful pastor of my church asked me to speak on “America the Beautiful” and it appeared to go well. Why not expound further? So here goes:

In 1893 when Katherine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful”, our country was undergoing turmoil. In January, the US. Marines intervened in Hawaii to overthrow their queen. In May, there was a crash and panic on the New York Stock Exchange thus beginning a depression. This followed the failures of the Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company. New forms of racial segregation came into being. Mississippi enacted a literacy test for voting with a grandfather clause allowing illiterate whites to vote if their fathers or grandfathers could vote before 1866…

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