“Nothing complicated about it”

When thinking about how we move through the day, I’m more likely to imagine a digital clock ticking the minutes and hours away as we scurry from home to school to work to lessons and sports to home to bed. So much of our day is guided by appointments and obligations, most that make our lifestyle possible and others that make our lives enriched, and we consider ourselves privileged to do all this.

Then I come across something like this, reading out of a book I happened upon in our church lending library:

“In ancient times people found it natural and important to seek God’s will. With little spiritual guidance and in utter simplicity, they heard from God. There was nothing complicated about it. They understood that every moment of every day presented an opportunity for faith to fulfill a responsibility to God. They moved through the day like the hand of a clock. Minute after minute they were consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” -Jean-Pierre de Caussade in Abandonment to Divine Providence*

I confess that I do not in every moment think first about how my next move will “fulfill a responsibility to God.” While I may occasionally think, “God, what would you have me do?”, it doesn’t often enter my mind when I am making my daily rounds around the house or through our city’s streets. I’m more likely to be caught up in my own thoughts about what I have or haven’t accomplished on my unwritten to-do list. We are creatures of habit, and my routine is about what I need to do next, what I’m expected to do. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our society is primarily full of egocentric people, taking care of ourselves before everyone else because our primary thoughts are typically about ourselves. It’s natural for us to put #1 first, whether that be me, my family, my country, etc.

What would it be like if it were “natural and important to seek God’s will,” to hear from God, to move through our day “minute after minute . . . consciously and unconsciously guided by God”? De Caussade has a way with words (even in the translation) that points both toward a simple yet profound beauty. This beauty comes to me even as I see photos of the horror of the Syrian refugees and read the clamor of American citizens advocating for rights to marry or to live without fear.

The guidance of God contrasts sharply to the suffering and oppression at hand. Any action that is born of hatred and violence, of fear and anger, does not align with what I understand to be God’s will, that we love God and our neighbor. Christians aren’t the only ones who believe this, either.

Perhaps that’s why there’s nothing really complicated about it. If we let God’s will guide our next move, we move in compassion. If we believe in God, in God’s unconditional love for us, it is our faithful responsibility to share this love with others, including ourselves. This means that we surrender to the will of God: we surrender to experience the tremendous freedom that is found in the power of unconditional love. It’s not popular. It’s risky and counter-cultural. It makes us vulnerable because we open our hearts and become an easy target. I think God knows this kind of love well.

I’m going to replace the battery in my watch, the watch my husband gave me as a gift. I cannot promise that every time the minute-hand moves that I will first be thinking of God, but de Caussade said we can be “consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” When I fail to ask for guidance, may my faith guide me even when I’m unaware.

*As found in Nearer to the Heart of God: Daily Readings with the Christian Mystics, Bernard Bangley, ed., 2005

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Good Friday, 2015

The Triduum–the three days in the church that try to capture the great mystery of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (the Paschal mystery)–will break open our hearts and pry open our eyes if we are strong enough to turn toward God.

These three days come every year.  They are part of the church calendar, a cycle predictable enough to be printed like any other desk or pocket calendar. But like the seasons of the year, there can be times of tumult. A perfect storm arises when conditions are just right.  Weather fronts collide, funneling chaos onto the land, and I cannot help but feel that this is what happens on these Holy Days.

If we dare, we look toward God and invite the past to reenact itself.  As a congregation, we participate in the retelling of the story. We come together to wash each other’s feet and to share a meal.  We walk the Stations of the Cross, and we sit in silence . . . and wait.

Simultaneously, we imagine ourselves among the disciples or in the crowd.  Maybe even just a fly beside one who is choosing to betray or another struggling to do what should be done . . . or near the One choosing to forgive and breathing his last. Can we steel our strength to be the Mother watching her child be crucified? Can we handle the thunder and the silence?

It is easily too much.

Carrying the Sacrament to the side chapel after the Maundy Thursday service, the glass flagon was heavy and full. The liquid within sloshed with my steps through the darkness.  There was enough light to glint from the glass and to illuminate the wine, the blood.  My throat caught, and my stomach turned in the briefest of moments. The blood of our Lord and Savior.  This was but a drop, and if it spilled, if I were to drop this fragile vessel, I imagined it would spill for miles. But there we were, walking softly, reverently placing the reserves onto the altar.  The candlelight hushed the room and twinkled in everyone’s eyes.

Walking home, the nearly full moon was shrouded by clouds.  The evening continued normally, marked by the “Open” sign at the coffee shop and the frat boys’ shouts at their houses. So many feet to wash.  So many people to love.

Soon we’ll walk along the road of our small town, between a parish and chapel. People will carry a huge and heavy cross, and the fullness of time will push all bounds, trying to break into our consciousness. From Golgotha of the past to Syria of the present to the oppressed and invisible neighbor–all out of sight but very much here and now. All the pain and all the love sucked into one vortex that if we are willing will tap into the conduit of our lives. Nothing more than we can stand but enough to break us open, awake us from our numbness, set us free to love as we are commanded.

On the other side of the suffering and silence, our greatest joy awaits. Only true Love can take us there and back again, year after year, moment after moment.

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Calendar Lust

The past couple of weeks I have been looking at new calendars/appointment books.  The inkling coincided with back-to-school shopping, and I’m as bad as anyone else about wanting to get something new to mark the transition into another school year.

Having decided on one, though, I wonder what is wrong with the current one that I have which will get me into the first week of January–surely plenty of time to find the next one (or actually to get proficient at using my phone calendar!).  In my current well-worn book, dates are marked for the upcoming semester for the three different school calendars; helpful notes are in the back pages.  I have a good thing going.

It was during an early afternoon walk in the woods, in a moment’s rest and dreaming, that I wondered if it might be that I want another chance to manage my time more wisely.  Maybe a new calendar will help me bring order to the coming chaos that is my last year in seminary and the ongoing juggle of having four active children.  That sounds like me, doesn’t it?  Thinking that something that might bring a little more control, a little more order will surely help.

Yes, it sounds like me, but, no, it’s not likely to make anything any better.  It’s just a book with calendar pages, after all, inanimate, void of all engagement.

These thoughts coincide with another thought: I’m working on a week of gratitude on Facebook.  I’m to list three things I’m grateful for each day, and I’m supposed to tag three friends whom I think will/might participate.  I’ve already given up on the tagging bit, but I’m totally in for being grateful.

Once you’re knee deep in gratitude, it begins to surround you.

“I’m not certain that there are such things as measures of our spirituality, but if there are, then gratitude is probably the best one.  It indicates that we are paying attention.” — M. Craig Barnes in The Pastor as Minor Poet (2009)

Barnes reminds me of my old friend Mindfulness, and I realize that I do not need a new calendar.  Temptation knows how to get to us every time. Marking my days with gratitude as so many wise folks encourage has a way of prioritizing one’s life.  The more I am aware of what I am so grateful for, the more I see where and how God is busy at work in my life, guiding me ever-so-subtly while ultimately allowing me to make the decision in every moment.

Am I paying attention?

This life I have chosen to follow still gives me many choices, plenty of opportunities to mess up like anyone else.  Barnes’ little book is full of the rich reminder of the responsibilities I am taking on . . . and seemingly more and more each day.

I will be getting a new calendar in January, if I find I still need a paper one when my current one expires.  In the meantime, it is perfectly worthwhile to remember that a sense of order in my life isn’t found within the pages of the best-intentioned calendar.  A sense of presence and awareness go a long way to creating the best days and a life well-lived.

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Poetry

When I agreed to go to a preaching program, I truly had no idea what I was getting into. Bring a sermon, your prayer book, and a Bible, I was told, so I anticipated sermon feedback and worship And hoped there would be helpful, practical workshops.

I was was not disappointed.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the joyous fellowship of getting to meet and visit with others in our Episcopal Church–seminarians, those newly ordained, and those who have been at it a long while. And I didn’t expect all the poetry.

For some, they’re stuffed full of the poetic comments and commentary.  For me, I’d beg for another. Some voices I could listen to all day, and others I would rather read myself.

Most importantly, I found that somewhere between the feedback, the plenaries, the laughter, and the many lines of poetry, I heard God. I heard myself being told that I was here not by accident.  I heard that I was here to see and hear for myself things that otherwise I might have missed or taken for granted, and I heard that I am a wordsmith neglecting my trade by not giving the time to hone my skill.

So I am left with a challenge, but it is also permission.  Going forward I know how important it is to read a variety of material and to live gathering diverse experiences. I am challenged to do these things but also granted the permission to do so. I cannot deny the excitement of the possibilities and the intimidation of taking full advantage of the abundant life God has blessed me with.

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It’s All in the Breath

We do everything with a breath. Even if we are holding it, the breath is with us.

When we’re first born, we inspire, we breathe or inhale our first breaths in this world, and we spend the rest of our days living into this inspiration, motivated to make something–if not something material, then something of ourselves.

We perspire, breathing through this creative process because it’s hard. Anyone who says life is easy hasn’t truly made anything. The most gifted people in the world would probably tell you that the process isn’t a cake walk.

If we’re lucky, we get to conspire. “Conspire” has a negative connotation, associated with joining forces to do something evil, immoral. Literally, it means to breathe with. That implies being of one breath, united in the creative process. What you do together may well be something evil, but when we conspire to do something good, beautiful things happen.

At our end, we expire, breathe our last. Those of us who have attended the bed of the dying know that there is a palpable finality in that last exhale; you know that there is no more. We often say that the dead person’s work is done, but not fully understanding what her greatest achievement was, maybe it’s more accurate to say that she will not be creating anything else except through the ripples of her influence.

For a Christian, the breath is synonymous with Spirit. Maybe it’s the only way we can get a handle on something so beyond our comprehension. In pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit), Spirit is sometimes explained in “spirations.” (Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff was my introduction to the spiration concept, though he’s not alone.) This gift of life is made possible only through our breath.

I wonder about those who struggle with breathing disorders. In any struggle, our awareness heightens, and we wrestle more audibly and visibly and obviously, even if we are the only ones to notice. That we struggle with or defy doesn’t negate that which is.

If the breath isn’t with us, we are dead. If we ignore that the breath is with us, pay no attention to the gift of breath or our struggle with it, we may be the living dead, contributing nothing life-giving if there is creation happening at all.

I imagine that this is why so many traditions fundamentally pay attention to the breath. A breath prayer is simply giving focused attenention, intention, to the inhale and exhale. Each breath is a moment in which a decision is made, a decision to create something life-giving, life-affirming. We have to opportunity to conspire with Spirit. This positive, creative conspiration threatens a death-dealing culture, threatens the status quo, but this is the kind of conspirator I hope to be.

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Morning Prayer

Since being at seminary, Morning Prayer has become part of me–not part of my routine but part of my well-being.  Particularly on Saturdays or when the school cancels it for some reason during the week , it might be mid-day before I realize what it was I was missing or forgetting, but I notice.

In group we use the Daily Office out of the Book of Common Prayer, Rite II or I, Episcopalians that we are.  Alone, I take advantage of the gift offered by Mission St. Clare and use my iPad, or I use the Daily Devotion provided in the BCP.  This morning, however, my prayer was in practicing some Taize hymns on the piano.  What a better way to fill my mind and heart with mantras to carry me through this day?  One of my professors often says that the point of practice and worship–of our Christian journey in general–is to be ever-deepening our relationship with God.  In the repetition of the Taize hymns (like this one), I can almost feel the deepening spiral, and it is healing and restorative.

How we choose to begin our day, it sets the tone, does it not?  May your mornings be filled with grace, peace, and love.

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Said and Unsaid

A seminary education covers a broad spectrum of everything pertaining to the religious life, much of which is unquantifiable.  How does one measure love? wisdom? mercy? grace? good? evil?

We can talk about God, but how does one experience God?  How do we experience God when evil happens in our life or the lives of others?

There is much written and taught about prayer.  There are steps to follow and different styles to try, but the actual doing is up to the individual.  Each experience is unique, and no one knows how God will be revealed in any given moment.

But God was there.  God is here.  God will be forevermore.

That’s hard to teach.  It’s hard to learn.  That’s faith, right?

Sometimes there are no words, and the silence speaks volumes.  

These are the thoughts I had when I saw these photos, a tribute to Boston by Amanda Soule on the day of the bombings.

 

 

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Fog

When folks told me that Sewanee had fog, I really did not think anything unusual about it.  Seriously, though, I had never experienced the fog that I had only seen in movies, the kind like Scarlett O’Hara had nightmares about and the kind like in the movie The Others.  This kind of fog.

The day would have it that my morning would be packed with meeting-to-lunch-to-class, after a paper revision.  But my morning took a more leisurely pace or perhaps a still, quiet pace.  The pouring rain gave way to the mist and fog before I had to leave for my meeting.  Miscommunication upon missed communication later, I find myself returning to my desk, through the fog, to have some more solitary time.  Here I am.

The fog surrounds the plateau, to me becoming an outward sign of the mystery that surrounds us.  We study the history, the context, the methods, the meanings, and we are told throughout it all that we will never plumb the depths of God, the very Mystery we seek to explore.

Often people say they are in a fog or feel foggy.  When they say this, it is sometimes to express a sense of inability to comprehend or to find a way.  The fog is literally a cloud that seems to dull the senses and/or obstruct our view.  Walking to my car, I cast my eyes downward both to protect my glasses from the mist and to keep from straining my eyes in a way that made them hurt.  Driving on the roads, the lights meagerly attempted to alert others of the car’s presence.  I had to drive slowly, cautiously, because there are so many curves, and I do not yet know my way here.   A powerful force in nature just by its presence, the fog renders me vulnerable.

Maybe sometimes I just need to show up.  Of course I do not know even a glimpse of what I need to know.  Of course the way is revealed to me one step at a time.  In a place where there are many learning to be servants and leaders in God’s name, this fog can be a none too frequent reminder of our humanity and our humility and our need for God’s grace.

 

 

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Another Beginning

We give birth to so many things in our lives.  We create art.  We forge friendships.  We beget children.  These are no small things.

What I notice most about the most significant births is that they are born from a place of surrender.  My ego gives up, and I let what needs to be born come forth.  With each of my children, such is the nature of their birth.  In some of my better writing, the words seemed to form themselves.  My most sincere friendships found their own way to my heart and took root there.

This home, this school, this town we find ourselves in now, I imagine the same holds true.  In the stillness of the morning, I marvel at the sunlight falling down through the trees.  I wonder at the moisture, the thunderstorms, having come from a place not far away experiencing harsh drought.  (Believe me, I’m trying to send the rain back home!)  I am here for formation.  For a true birth to happen, I will have to let go.

That doesn’t mean I let go of all that was, of all who are a part of my life.  In as much as this is a community affair, this is mostly a time for me to grow, not away from who I am but more fully into who I am, who I am meant to be.  No one says a birth is easy, nor do I hear often that they’re beautiful affairs to observe (aside from those who hold the process near and dear to their hearts when a baby is being born). But I give thanks in advance for those who will serve as witnesses to my own birth, who will hold the space around me, love me unconditionally, and remind me that the ground is still there when I feel I’ve lost my way.

 

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Light Revealed

A Sermon preached by Sara Milford at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for the Northwest Arkansas Women’s Community Correction Center Baptisms on July 29th, 2012.

The Scripture Texts for the Feast of the Transfiguration:

Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:13-21; Luke 9:28-36


 Open our hearts and still our minds, O God, that we might hear you in both word and silence.

We are blessed – those of us here in this place this afternoon.  Together, in a time intentionally set apart, we get to witness transfiguration.

Transfiguration, indeed, is “Christ’s appearance in radiant glory” to Peter, John, and James, as accounted in three of the Gospels.  More generally, it is “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state,” “an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change.”

Consider those moments when you have seen for yourself a transfiguration in those you love.  Have you beheld a bride and groom in a quiet moment after their marriage ceremony?  Have you seen the face of a mother or father as they gaze at a newly born child?  Think of the child who suddenly realizes they can ride a bike by themselves or a person of any age who realizes they can actually put letters together to make words as they read on their own. What about the women who complete their time at the correction center and walk through the doors to the other side?  Are they the same women who entered only months before?

Can we witness such moments and not be affected?

What is our responsibility, having seen such a gift?

Peter, John, and James just happened to be awake and saw the Transfiguration of Jesus while he was praying, when “his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  And then they see Moses and Elijah with him.  Moses, whom we heard earlier, whose face was ever shining, so long as it wasn’t veiled, because he had spoken with God.

God is there.

Peter wants to make dwellings to honor the place. “Not knowing what he said”?  Wasn’t what he saw a good, amazing thing?  Doesn’t Peter want to glorify and exalt the Lord, marking this holy place?

Then the booming voice from the clouds.  “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  Now Jesus was alone, and they were silent.

They saw Moses and Elijah with a radiant, dazzling Jesus, and they told no one.  Silence.

You women know a thing or two about silence.  I think we all know that even when words aren’t spoken, volumes can be revealed.

It doesn’t say Jesus told his disciples to be quiet.  But hearing the voice of God telling them to listen to Jesus, you bet they did.  They knew what they had seen.  Perhaps the Light of Jesus, the Christ Light, shone brighter for them than ever before, and as they listened to Jesus, it transcended all words.  They listened in silence.

From Second Peter, we’re told “to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

“…be attentive to this…”  “This” meaning, I believe, that Christ is God’s son, God’s beloved, as the Spirit proclaimed upon his baptism.

The Light of Christ, the Love of God is real and true.  Hold onto this until you have it in your own heart . . . until you realize it’s been there all the time.

There’s a quote attributed to St. Ignatius:

A thick and shapeless tree-trunk would never believe

that it could become a statue, admired as a miracle of sculpture,

and would never submit itself to the chisel of the sculptor,

who sees by her genius what she can make of it.

We are all children of God.  In our baptism, we, too, are transfigured.  We take the opportunity to wash away the barriers the block our Light so we can be who God created us to be.  As a prayerbook I have concludes St. Ignatius’ quote, we can “ask for the grace to let (ourselves) be shaped by (our) loving Creator.”  I am God’s beloved child.  You are God’s beloved child.

Witnessing moments of God’s revelation in ourselves and in others, we are affected.  If you’ve ever seen the glory of God in any circumstance, you cannot un-know it.  We can forget.  We can turn away.  We can re-build those barriers.  But it doesn’t change the fact of what is, the evidence of God’s great beauty and love — even in the midst of hatred and fear.
What’s our responsibility?  I asked earlier.  Be awake.  Peter, John, and James only saw Jesus because they were awake, but they were tired.  They could have been asleep, but they weren’t.  What do we miss when we let our minds wander and our attention wane?  Who do we miss?  Where have we missed seeing Jesus in our lives.  Be awake.

And listen.  Obviously they weren’t silent forever, or we wouldn’t have this story.  We need the story, though, because we weren’t there.  As they were listening to the living Christ, we, too, need to listen for the Living Christ, often described as that still, small voice.  Probably a lot like the voice, the pull, the desire, that brings you today to your own transfiguration.

There are very few people

who realize what God would make of them

if they abandoned themselves into his hands,

and let themselves be formed by his grace.

Again, St. Ignatius.

A prayer:  “I ask for the grace to trust myself totally to God’s love.”

And may you know how brilliantly you shine.

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