Monday, September 8, 2008

Letting Go

        I won’t be at the 8 a.m. service this year -- at least not all the time.
Someone else needs to lead the Brownie troop. I have reluctantly concluded the Bible Study Breakfast will need to be hosted by someone else. We will need someone new to take on organizing the St. John’s team at the food pantry. I will not be available to chaperone field trips or plan the new First Friday Christian Education program. There will be far fewer cookouts and dinners and day-long excursions with friends.
        I start CPE this week, and combined with two classes, have probably signed up for something rather more than a full-time job. I need to do these things, but I already know that it comes at a cost of doing other things. There are only so many hours in the day, and convincing myself I can do them all will only mean I will not do any of them.

        But it’s really hard letting things go. It’s not just a sense of obligation, although that’s certainly a part of it. The people who will take up my left-behind tasks are mostly just as busy as I am. This year, though, they have put themselves forward to manage some things I can’t, and may God bless their efforts. But if it proves too much for them, too, well, the world will not end because my daughter has to wait until next year to participate in a Brownie troop and the Bible Study Breakfast serves donuts picked up on the way to the church instead of pancakes and waffles.

        What makes this so hard is that these were things I have been happy to do, that have given me great joy. Some I picked up because if I didn’t, no one would, but I came to love the task. Others tasks I sought out because they are something I am passionate about, and leaving them behind is so hard because how can I know someone else will do it as well, or with as much energy and love?

        But they are not the things that are most important. Preparing to tackle the new tasks ahead of me has forced me to examine all the things I currently do and think about what is really important in ways I rarely do. I suppose most of us don’t, most of the time. Instead we let the tasks pile up and pile up until something gives. And then we feel guilty, and pile on more stuff out of guilt. Maybe eventually we pile it on until what gives is something we never would have chosen to surrender if we had thought about it: our marriage, or a friendship, our relationship with our parents or children, our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. Love bears all things, so sometimes maybe we just trust the people we love can always bear just one more thing -- until they don’t. We are not perfect in love, after all. If we were, we wouldn’t let guilt and duty push out the needs of love. We’d know what was most important, and we’d always manage to put it first.

        This is, I understand, what people faced with serious illness or other disasters learn -- that an awful lot of what you thought was essential isn’t, really. I am fortunate that my internal inventory is being forced by new opportunities, not tragedy. I am incredibly lucky that I will have the opportunity to pick many of them back up, refreshed and appreciating them all the more for having had to leave them aside. And some of them I will leave in the hands of others for good, as God pries my fingers from them so that others may find joy in that service.

        Letting go is hard, but it’s all in God’s hands. All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.


Monday, April 14, 2008

Praying Without Ceasing

For years, I’ve listened to people tell me how to pray. I’ve attended workshops on centering prayer, I’ve listened to sermons advocating making time for silence, I’ve been counseled by priests to rise early to say the daily office. And I’ve tried, really tried. But I’ve always ended up feeling like a complete failure. Somehow, I could never sustain this type of daily prayer. I would do it for awhile, but eventually it became such a chore that I would give up. The harder I tried to cultivate silence, the drier and emptier my prayer life became.

Then this fall, I began seeing a new spiritual director. I went to our first meeting with trepidation, because I had just started seminary, and that sit-in-silence time had been the first casualty to my daily commute. I expected to be rebuked: gently, of course, but still... an aspiring priest shouldn’t be a prayer failure.

My director, however, didn’t chastise me. When I confessed I wasn’t finding much time for the daily office or sitting in a prayer corner, she just asked if I felt it as a lack of God’s presence. And I admitted that I didn’t, that God seemed very present in my life right then, in my classes, in my family, in worship services, even in the daily commute. God was present in the very hecticness of my life. “Well,” she said. “Maybe that’s where you need to find God right now.”

Feeling less guilty about my “failure” to pray, I stopped worrying about getting my prayer life “right.” I began paying attention to my director’s favorite question, “Where are you finding God now?” One month it was in interaction with friends, another month it was in the Scripture that I was reading in preparation for preaching. Right now, I think it’s in corporate worship, in Evening Prayer, chapel, and Eucharist, in distributing the wine and even, once, the bread.

I began reading books about different types of spirituality, about personality traits and prayer types, about praying through dancing, or drawing, or walking. And I began to understand that my sense of failure came from seeing my prayer life in a single dimension -- contemplation.

The truth is, I’m not by nature a contemplative. Breath prayer -- where you pay attention just to breathing in and out -- makes me tense. Silence and solitude are not restorative for me -- in fact, they can leave me cranky and depressed. In striving after contemplative prayer, I was forcing myself to embrace practices that too often left me irritable, instead of renewed.

Yet God and I are regular conversation partners. I pray for family and friends while I do the dishes, and frequently stop when reading the daily newspaper to offer a prayer for those suffering through various calamities. When I read a thought-provoking book, I spend at least half my time sitting and reflecting, waiting in silence for fresh insight or a spark of meaning. I talk to God out loud when I am in my car or in the shower.

Somewhere along the way I had picked up the idea that active kind of prayer didn’t really count, that the only serious prayer was the sort where you sat alone in your corner, emptied your mind, breathed in and out, and waited for God to speak. When I found this routine impossible to sustain, I considered myself a prayer failure.

What I have learned in the last few months, though, is that God speaks to us in many ways, not just in silence. God answers with flashes of insight, in the laughter of friends, in the pages of Scripture, and in the upturned hands held out to receive the bread. God speaks through friends, teachers, and sometimes total strangers. I am not a prayer failure as long as I am attuned to the ways God is moving in my life right now. I don’t have to go sit in my prayer corner to be in prayer.

But now I can. Freed from the expectation that I do it daily, or do it “right,” I am finally beginning to learn the art of silence. I know now not to turn to this type of prayer when I’m tired and in need of renewal: for me, this silent prayer takes work and energy, and I should enter into it when I am fully rested and energized to devote myself to it. That’s not going to be every day, or sometimes even every month. But knowing I’m not expected to do it all the time, I find I can enter into it much more readily when the opportunity presents itself.

If your prayer life is dry and uninspiring, or if you “never have time to pray,” maybe you should ask yourself whether it’s because you are trying to pray the way someone else says you should. Instead, consider where you are aware of God’s presence in your life. Start there. And don’t be afraid to try unconventional approaches -- dance your prayer, maybe, or draw it. Croon it as a lullaby to a baby. Take a walk around the block, and have a conversation with God. Go to church -- or a different church, just for a change. There is no one way to pray any more than there is one type of person in the world. Finding your way of praying can help open the doors to other ways, as well. You’re only a prayer failure if you give up entirely.

This aspiring priest is no longer ashamed to admit that her “prayer corner” is getting a bit dusty. I’ll point out the rosary in my backpack, and tell you all about the new “drawing prayer” I’m planning to undertake during my May vacation. In fact, I think my struggles with praying will make me a better priest, since I’m not the only person sitting in the pews who has a hard time just sitting and breathing. God loves wondrous variety -- including in the ways we talk to God. It’s about time we celebrated that.



Monday, March 10, 2008

Remembering the Elves and Wizards

A friend from seminary passed on the sad news that Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, has died. Many have written eloquently on D&D’s importance in the geek world, and credited it with being the genesis of everything from video games to Microsoft. As wonderful as all the techie stuff is, though, I wanted to take a minute to share some reflections on D&D from a less “geekly” perspective.

In high school and college, I ran the only girl's D&D game I think I've ever encountered -- D&D tends to be a masculine world, with most games overwhelmingly male. But when the boys didn’t invite me to play, I rounded up a few girlfriends, bought some books, and started my own game. It was soon infiltrated by boys, but they had to play by our rules -- relationships mattered more than the numbers, role playing was more important than dice rolling, and the DM (that would be me) was god. (Or I suppose, god-dess.)

D&D's rules were flexible enough to let you could create a game like that, as well as a numbers-driven game like the one the computer geeks ran in college. (One or two of my friends played in both -- a comment on their versatility or possibly their weirdness.) It was always the role playing that drew me, though. I loved the chance to be someone else, and to play out the most outrageous scenarios with others. Maybe the computer geeks stuck with formulaic characters, but in my game, for every goody-two-shoes Lawful Good priest there was also a Klingon-type Lawful Good paladin. (Think honorable Klingons in Star Trek: Next Generation: You will give courageous opponents a clean death, not shame them with mercy. Effective and within the rules, but rather shockingly different from the sweetness-and-light version of Good.) In role playing, you got to explore what it meant to be good -- and evil. My favorite character was a neutral-evil assassin, who hid from her enemies by joining a good-aligned party and got co-opted by them. (I wonder what the diocesan psychologists would make of that?)

Over the years, D&D was the beginning of many deep and lasting friendships. Twenty years later, I look around at my closest friends and discover many of them had alter-egos in my D&D world. I think those friendships lasted because we learned as much about each other in those choices between good and evil, between flight or fight, as we did about the rules of fantasy. The first world I shared with my husband was the one populated by Citgo Mobil the Mage and Chester the Paladin; how could we fail at building a life together, when we had already shared divine rulership of an entire world? And when I grew up and moved away, D&D gave me a way to find a new home and community in a far-off land. (Ok, Philadelphia, but to this girl who had never lived outside of the town where she was born, that was far off enough!)

I recently started playing with my children, creating yet another generation of elves and warriors, paladins and assassins. My parent’s generation worried that D&D would corrupt its children: I only hope that it will shape my children in the same way it shaped me.

So I will raise a glass to Gary Gygax tonight, thanking him not just for hours of delightful escapism, but a world that introduced me to leadership, living with ambiguity, and the love of my life. Not a bad legacy.



Sunday, February 3, 2008

Get Up, And Don't Be Afraid

This is the text of a sermon I gave at St. John’s in Taunton this week. Those of you who have heard me preach know that does not mean this is necessarily what the folks at St. John’s heard me say! I don’t preach directly from the text, so there’s always some variation, and sometimes quite a lot. But this is was at least my starting point, and I wanted to share it. ~ Suzanne

In the ancient world, mountains were where you met God. Moses met God on a mountain: Our Old Testament reading today recounts how Moses encountered God at the top of Mount Sinai. Elijiah encountered God on a mountaintop as well: 1Kings tells us that after Elijiah fled into the wilderness to escape Jezebel, God called Elijiah to Mount Sinai. There was a great wind, the story goes, but God was not in the wind. An earthquake followed, and God was not in the earthquake. A fire roared past, but God was not in the fire. And then God appeared, as a still, small voice.

So when the disciples begin climging a mountain with Jesus, Matthew's readers had an idea what to expect – Caution, God ahead! Sure enough, the disciples witness Jesus transformed before their very eyes, glowing with the Light of God, and in conversation with Moses – whom God entrusted with the Law – and Elijiah – the embodiment of the Prophets. Matthew's audience, good Jews all, would have seen clearly what Matthew was getting at even before God spoke from the cloud, reiterating the words He spoke at Jesus’s baptism.

Peter -- good old Peter -- immediately offers to build them a place to live. He doesn't even get the words out of his mouth before God interrupts him. "This is my son. Listen to Him."

And Jesus response to the disciples, who are now – perfectly understandably! – cowering on the ground, is "Get up, and don't be afraid."

This is a story where every detail carries wonderful significance, so I don't think this is a throwaway line. I think this is God's call to us – get up, and don't be afraid. The most important thing is not staying in the moment of the encounter. It's what comes next. It's walking back down the mountain with Jesus.

It occurs to me that one reason the encounter with God always happens on a mountaintop because you can't actually live at the top of a mountain. There's no water there, no shelter from sun or wind. It's a marvelous experience, standing on top of a mountain, but it's a fleeting one by its very nature. If you've ever climbed a mountain, you know that the only thing to do once you've finished admiring the view is to start back down.

Peter's instinct to want to build a dwelling for the glory of God, to bask in the light of God's presence for as long as possible, is perfectly understandable. We often want to do the same thing – we look for the "peak" experiences, and often think of the spiritual life like that of a mountain climber, scaling one mountain after another. The more peak experiences you have, the more holy you are.

But God doesn't invite the desciples to set up camp on the mountain top. He shows the disciples exactly what it is he is offering them – his beloved son, part of God's care for his people that began with the Law and continued through the prophets, and would shortly reach its most profound expression in Jesus' death and resurrection. That moment of glory and majesty will stay with them their whole lives, offering strength when the days get dark. They will will treasure the memory of God’s light in their hearts, and it will be a lamp to them as they wait, and wait, for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.

But the task for the disciples is not to make a dwelling place for God on a mountain – or in a magnicient cathedral, or in a lofty liturgy. The task is to take Jesus's hand and walk back down the mountain. On the way down, Jesus reminds them what that means – he tells them not to tell anyone the vision until "the son of man is raised from the dead." The road ahead is not an easy one. It will lead, in the end, to crucifixion. But God, in Jesus, was descending the mountain with them. They are not alone.

On Wednesday, we will begin Lent with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. We will leave the glory of Transfiguration Sunday to be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we must return. We will descend the mountain and walk through the valley of our own mortality. What tasks await us as we descend? Worship will be part of it – we will seek out God's dwelling to give us the light we need while we walk in the valley. But if worship is all of it, we've missed the second part of God's invitation – Get up, and don't be afraid. How will we bring God's light into the world?

The past week, I've been reading the book chosen for Mansfield's town-wide reading program, called Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson. The book recounts the story of an accomplished mountain climber, who on the way back from a failed attempt on the world's second highest mountain, K2, gets lost and is rescued by Pakistani villagers. Moved by their generosity to him, he promises to return and build a school – something they could never afford on their own.

The school takes three years to build -- but in the process, he finds he has discovered his life’s work. He will build dozens of schools in Central Asia, bringing the light of knowledge to villages where hardly anyone is even literate. After 9-11, Mortenson received death threats from people who believed his work was offering comfort to the enemy, but he perseverred, convinced that the only way to counter people who preach hate is to bring the light of knowledge and of hope to vulnerable to such preaching. I think we might even suggest that his work is one way of telling people, "don't be afraid."

Fortunately, most of us don't have to get lost in the Himalayas for God to direct us to the work He has waiting for us. It might be raising money to build schools, or helping to feed the hungry. It might be joining with others in our diocese to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It might be praying daily for our brothers and sisters around the world who are struggling through their own valleys – in Kenya, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan.

We don't have to climb Mount Everest, or Mount Sinai, or even Mt. Monadnok to encounter God. We can do so right here, climbing no higher than the altar behind me. We will encounter God in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. And then we are invited to get up, and no longer afraid, go out into the world to do the work God has given us to do.

For information about Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea, and his ongoing efforts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, visit or your local library.