Archive for January, 2012

The Face of The Deep

It was one of those perfect days. Our little boat skimmed along tucked safely inside the shadow of the overhanging wild crabapple trees and hemlocks.  We were sitting lower in the water our hold crammed with the day’s catch and our wake was deep and furrowed.  And then it happened.  The glassy surface in front of us exploded into a cloud of spray and mist as a humpback whale hurled its mass through the barrier between our worlds.  It was there, skin like tire rubber, all glistening and wet, and then it was gone.  I think it winked.

By the time we managed to stop our boat the event was yards behind us, and we bobbed slack jawed trying to absorb what we had seen and thanking God and our lucky stars that the whale hadn’t decided to introduce himself a few seconds later – an introduction that would no doubt have left our boat in smithereens.

I’ll never forget that moment the proximity to something so electric and alive and powerful.  I’ve seen a lot of whales growing up on the coast. I’ve even seen many up close, and even breaching.  But, I’ve never seen a breach so close or when I was on a collision course with it.

Fishermen, sailors, and boat operators of all types have lived for centuries in close proximity with these behemoths of the deep.  It isn’t uncommon to watch a cluster of boats fishing for hours with one or two whales bobbing in and out between them with intermittent puffs of mist announcing their presence.  Whales have always seemed keenly aware of the boats around them and navigate the shared fishing ground as though in an intricate dance with shadows above.  As such, I imagine that the day the whale splashed down in front of our oncoming vessel it knew full well where we were – almost as if it wanted to surprise and dazzle us.  Perhaps, looking at the placid face of the deep, the whale felt the horizon needed a literal splash of excitement.  There was something playful about the encounter.

The ancients loved to play with images of “the Deep” as an apt metaphor for death, the afterlife, the presence of God and all that lies beyond the reach of human understanding.  The depth of the sea was fertile territory full of rich imagery and symbolism for the mystery inherent in the Divine.  Certainly in my own life I have felt more conscious of the holy at those moments when I sat, cradled in the hull of a boat, suspended on the surface of the waves over and atop seemingly endless expanses of water.

I don’t suspect everyone takes to the ocean in the same way, but I would be willing to wager that many of us can attest to the sense that God is most fully known in the unknowing, in the secret places of nature and in the mysterious depths of the human psyche.  And, every once in a while the Divine presence comes crashing through the thin barriers that separate us and for a moment, in a burst of noise and motion and with a smile and a wink we come face to face with the holy.  I pray for those moments, to come face to face with the God of the deep, that I would come to know God just as I am known.  As the psalmist writes, I “was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths…”

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It was fifteen below zero January 25 — thirty years ago tonight –  and after an intense two years of preparation, I was going to be ordained a deacon at St. Mark’s Cathedral.

Just three weeks earlier, my husband had moved out, unilaterally terminating our twelve-year marriage.Memory has filtered what I remember of that freezing cold winter night: my darling little girls, four and six years old, sitting with my dazed parents; Bishop Robert Anderson and his kind spirit; “I Bind Unto My Heart Today,” a red stole, a collar, and an internal battle against the deep sadness and embarrassment that threatened to take over if I let it. 

The poet Emily Dickenson describes such moments: 

“This is the Hour of Lead— Remembered if outlived,

 As Freezing persons recollect the Snow—

First—Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go—“

Of course, the letting go part didn’t happen for a long time.In the subsequent years, I forged a form of ministry that worked for me and, usually, for the church.  For the sake of my kids, I tried to “model resilience”.  In therapy and in other ways, I “did the work”.  Like all of us, I did the best I could.  And like all of us, I was not to get off with just one crisis.
Today, I dug out the invitation to my ordination. Never missing a chance to make a statement, I remember that for the front of it, I wanted an image that was feminine as well as Christian.  I searched the art books and found a picture like the one above.  It decorates the ornate tomb of Galla Placida, Christian half-sister of the Roman Emperor Honorius, 420 A.D.  The eight-pointed figures pay tribute to the eight Beatitudes and to the eighth day of creation: the Resurrection.I could find out little about Galla Placida except the information above, so I put that on the back of the invitation and the snow-flake images above on the front. The beautiful design, the blue color, all spoke to me and somehow I wanted a connection with this woman as I began my official life in the Church. I wanted to affirm her and  I wanted her on my side.  I didn’t realize the connection was more than I thought.

Given the miracle of Google, I thought I’d check on Galla today.  I found a treasure-trove of information about her, including this sentence: “Justina, Galla Placida and Pulcheria are three women who were trying to keep their heads above water while under the influence of men.”

Laughter is healing.

Over the years, it is often in retrospect that I see

God’s handprints, and the ways I have been held up, so very many times.

As usual, the poets say it best.  This is from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Heavy”:
                              “That time

                             I thought I could not

                             go any closer to grief

                             without dying                            

                            I went closer,                            

                            and I did not die.

                             Surely God

                             had His hand in this

                             as well as friends…” 

It is a privilege to be with all of you, taking this part of our amazing journeys together.

See you in church.

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Researchers in the UK have proven, at long last, what we always knew to be true – listening is hard work.  More specifically the study I refer to (click here to read an interesting summary and participate in a fun video experiment) tested subjects to see if they could detect subtle audio cues when focusing on an intense visual task.  While engaging with an image test, subjects were 50% less likely to detect a subtle beeping noise in the background.  No duh.  We’ve always known that it is hard to listen when we’re distracted.  Isn’t it great when science catches up to common knowledge?

What interests me is not that distraction makes listening difficult, but that armed with this knowledge (common or scientific) as a culture we still seem hell-bent on finding more and more inventive ways of staying distracted.  What is it that we desperately hope not to hear or see or encounter?  Know that I’m as guilty as the next person of self-distraction.  As I write this in the late evening my headphones are blaring something from my Spotify stream, the “Software Update” icon at the bottom of my screen is bouncing begging me to get the latest version of this or that program, and my Facebook feed is continuously updating me with innocuous banter from friends and family.  I, like you, live amidst distraction, both self-inflicted and not.

The easy solution, some would tell us, is to simply eschew distraction.  Turn off the music, unplug the computer and television, stuff the iPad in your sock drawer, and live more simply.  And, certainly a diet from distraction could help.  But, as they say in medicine, that would be treating the symptom not the cause.  And, what is the cause?

Without being over simplistic I would wager that our intentional distraction, or, if I were honest with myself, my intentional distraction has more to do with my avoidance of pain than anything else.  Life is stressful?  Relationship at work out of whack?  Don’t like the guy I see in the mirror?  Wait! What’s that over there?!?! Squirrel!

Unfortunately, as we all know, the distractions not only drown out the doubt or pain or anxiety over change they also wash away the important and potentially positive voices in our life (let me pause for a second to see if Jude is crying).  Family, friends, colleagues, even the pesky internal voice calling us to change, these are the things we need to listen to.  As Christians too we affirm that the voice of God is often still and small.  God is always whispering to us of God’s love for us, of God’s hope for the future, calling us to grow and blossom and live and love in return.  Sometimes that voice comes to us in the midst of our pain and anxiety.  If the volume is too high, it would be a tragedy, but we might just miss it.



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No Make-up

January 10, 2012


No Make-Up


         We were both women who liked wearing make-up, and neither of us was wearing any last Friday when I went to see her at the hospice.  I don’t bother with the stuff doing errands on Fridays and she had just come from a shower and had her make-up bag in her lap when I walked in. We laughed at how bad we each thought we looked.  Nearly the same age, girly-girls, I suppose, but down to the basics that day

         She was a woman defined by beauty.  Her face was fresh and luminous even though she was dying.  The pictures in the room of her good-looking family were in exquisite gold frames, each carefully chosen.  I was especially taken with the frame on her mother’s picture, rust-colored leather, stamped with gold. 

       “It’s an antique,” she said.  “I love beautiful things.  I guess interior design was kind of my thing.  I wish I had gotten you out to my house.”

         I was glad she was there at  “The Little Hospice,” nestled into an Edina neighborhood, scarcely distinguishable from the other houses on the street.  Big living rooms on each side of the entry; fresh chocolate chip cookies on the counter; flowers everywhere; an open kitchen where colorful, healthy cooking sends out enticing smells.  There are eight people living and dying here, in bedrooms with big windows and upholstered window seats, being given gentle, generous and loving care. 

          I spent well over an hour with her and although I offered repeatedly to help discuss The Big Stuff, instead we talked about our kids, our marriages, our disappointments, our homes, vacations, mutual acquaintances, and, yes, shopping. 

She observed, “For a long time I haven’t bought anything unless I’ve really, really loved it.”

 Everything she had brought into the room showed it.  Taste: you’ve got it or you don’t.  She had it.

         We had not been close friends, not even friends at all until several months ago when she came back to St John’s after a long absence.  She had been sick and sought me out.  We talked, periodically.  We had lunch.  I wish….

         “I suppose I’ll see my mother again,” she said abruptly.

         “I expect so.  Do you want to talk about that?”

         “Not really.”

         She closed her eyes as I read her part of the 139th Psalm (my favorite):

         “Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me … 

        It was you who formed my inward parts;

        You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

       I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made….

         If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,

         And the light around me become night,

         Even the darkness is not dark to you;

       The night is as bright as the day,

For darkness is as light to you…”

         I said what I thought was a completely inadequate prayer and she whispered, “Thank you, Barbara.”

         And I kissed her good-by.

         Virginia died today. In my sadness, I went shopping for words and found what Frederick Buechner writes about beauty.  I have read it again and again:

         “Beauty always leaves you aching with longing, not so much for more of the same, as for whatever it is, deep within and far beyond both it and yourself, that makes it beautiful.”

         Beneath beauty, inside loveliness, underlying art, is the deep ache and longing for the More that we call God.

         Rest in peace, Virginia, and rise in beauty.



Virginia’s life will be celebrated at St John’s on Friday, January 13 at 3:00. 

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War Horror

January 10, 2012

War Horror

Joey the “War Horse” galloped into my life this week and I remained corralled in the Grandview Theater for over two hours. 

I first encountered Joey on the stage at New York’s Lincoln Center last summer in the theatrical version of the story.  However, then he was a magnificent puppet, propelled by three master puppeteers from the Handspring Puppet Company. It was a work of elegance and grace, most of all for the restraint that respected the imagination of the audience.  It was decorated with dozens of awards.

When I heard that Stephen Spielberg had won the race for the film rights, I was worried.  I was also angry he had galloped in when the play was still running, cantered off with the film rights, then immediately raced into production with this delicate piece so that it could make good with the Christmas crowds. With all the other works he had in process, harnessing Joey, too, seemed greedy, both artistically and financially. 

Restraint is not Mr. Spielberg’s strong suit, and his movie transformed Joey’s story into something I barely recognized.  His “War Horse” is full of gory violence, with swords plunging into human bodies, hundreds of impaled corpses adorning the battlefield, and horses being shot when they become too exhausted to pull the artillery.  Joey himself is tortured again and again by cruel captors, with countless close-ups of his bloody hooves and battered body.  Yes, he is a “war horse,” but gratuitous violence defines this movie.  It is kind of an equine “Saving Private Ryan” (ironically, one of my favorite movies) – or at least the thirty-minute segment of such graphic war violence that sent sensitive viewers reeling out of the theater. 

Ironically, the set was as pretty as the action was violent.  The hardscrabble Cornwall farm of the boy Albert and his family is Disneyesque, with flower-filled window-boxes and sunlit fields.  One reviewer says that the lighting made it seem like something from “Gone with the Wind.”  I laughed out loud at the Tara-esque final scene that seemed comic in its ridiculous perfection.

Our popular culture has trouble with restraint.  More is preferable; explicit is better than implicit; graphic trumps nuance.  Mainstream media of all types leave little to the imagination. 

Yet we know the real thing when we see it; we respond instinctively to authenticity.  We don’t have to be manipulated out of our minds to get the point, and a puppet and a skilled actor may tell us more about love than an epic extravaganza of excess.

For most of us, the religious journey is rarely epic, seldom explicit, and almost never well-lit.  The writer Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “The word ‘religion’ points to that area of human experience where we sense beyond and beneath the realities of every day a Reality no less real because it can only be hinted at in myths and rituals, where we glimpse a destination that we can never fully know until we reach it.” 

Church helps us trust this journey, navigate it, and celebrate it.

See you there.


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Falling Down

This was the first year that my son Jude took much notice of the crèche.  When we visited St. Patrick’s Guild recently, he careened around the store exclaiming at each turn as the Nativity was set in brightly painted displays that must have seemed, to his toddler eyes, nearly life-sized.  He would point to the Holy Family taking care to announce each of them in a voice that everyone in the store could hear, and then he would count off the Wise Men.  He really likes those magi, with their turbans and gifts.

I’ve never known quite what to do with the wise men.  Theirs is a story that doesn’t fit with the humble trappings of the incarnation.  Perhaps this is why we relegate them to after Christmas in the church, to the feast of Epiphany that we celebrate today – moving their story of finery and gold, of expensive gifts and exotic flair away from the lowly manger, the crusty shepherds, and the beasts of burden.  These kings simply do not fit.

And, yet, we who live on this side of the global train tracks, whose lives are decked with finery and opulence, at least in the eyes of much of the world, we probably have more in common with the Wise Men than we do with most of the rest of the characters in our annual Pageant.  Unlike the shepherds and peasants whose lives are defined by getting by, many of us are in the position of searching the night sky, asking deep questions, wondering after it all – what does it all mean?  What am I supposed to do with my life?  And, like the three kings, most of us occupy a much higher rung on the social order of the world.  Like the wise men, there is little in this world that will cause us to take a knee or to bow our heads.  Most of us, on our good days are firmly convinced that we are the captains of our own ships and the lords of our own land.

This is why the story of the Wise Men is so vital, if a little troubling, in our life of faith.  The wise men bow down and worship.  Whatever they encounter in that humble abode – whatever glory glimmered through the lowly garb of a peasant compelled them to fall to the ground in worship.  It doesn’t seem possible or likely.  Kings don’t bow down.  The powerful and rich are not easily humbled, which is probably why the crèche usually has the kings in a respectful pose, nodding their head or taking one knee – nothing too common or too humbling.  It’s all very dignified.

During college a friend of mine was wandering home one wintery night and stumbled upon a light-up nativity (you know, the plastic ones that glow from within) wherein one of the wise men had blown over and was laying face first on the frozen ground.  I remember she told me that the accidental pose seemed much more appropriate, as though the wise man was prostrate before something truly worthy of worship.  She dashed over and toppled the other two wise men and then fled into the night.  I always remember her story at this time of year, how the gift of the incarnation, the presence of the glory of God shining out among the poor and the least and the humble was enough to drop kings to lay face-first on the ground in absolute abandon and worship.  And, it always leaves me wondering when have I encountered something so glorious that I was compelled to do the same?

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Two of the best things in my life occurred because I was not given a choice: growing up in the Fifties, and living for eighteen years as a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran.

To understate in massive terms, there were downsides to each of these.  The Fifties were a relatively innocent, cozy, family-gathered-around-the-black-and-white-television time – at least on the surface — when I felt safe walking around town alone, when  “drugs” meant penicillin or aspirin, and when having beer at a high school party was only for the very wildest kids (we called them “the Hoods” (rhymes with woods) — I’m still not sure what the reference was but I know I wasn’t one of them.) This was also a time of repression, sexism and racism but I truly didn’t get that then.

I wasn’t given a choice about going to church and church activities. My mom dropped me off most Sundays, and the fact is, my life wasn’t so saturated with other activities that I minded.

During services, I sat by my best friend Pam and we passed notes or played Hangman during most of the service, but I’m pretty sure I absorbed something.

I was way into Sunday School and then Confirmation classes. The major challenge here was to memorize stuff and I was good at that so got lots of gold stars (literally).

Youth group was a social event for me.  I wouldn’t have gotten to go on hayrides otherwise, or meet kids from other schools.  In our formal meetings, we talked about the Bible, certainly about nothing racy or directly “relevant” to the massive longings and confusion brewing in the heads of most of us.  (The Hoods didn’t come to St. James Lutheran.  To be honest, almost all of them were Catholic – I’m just saying – which increased their Dangerousness Factor even more and, for the boys, their attractiveness).

In terms of the musical “Grease,” I remained an eternal Sandy – the blonde, Olivia Newton-John character — a sundress-wearing, bow-in-hair, innocent.  (By the way, “Grease” was not produced until 1971 – it would have been pornography in the late ‘50s’s and early ‘60’s!)

I wised up in college.

While I am, frankly, astounded at the theology of the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans now, it didn’t matter until I was older.  The Church served me well as a kid and young person.  Like the era itself, it was safe, bland, and a great community for a lonely kid.  (Plus, I learned a lot about the Bible – a great legacy I continue to appreciate).

I was baptized at St. James when I was one.  Twenty-nine years later, away from any church for many years, I only came back because my mother wouldn’t let up on me until I had my kids baptized.  The initial impetus was to get her off my back. When I relented, I said it wasn’t going to be at St. James Lutheran!

The Baptisms ended up being at an Episcopal church I had “stumbled into” in Minneapolis.  The rector said that we couldn’t just get the kids “done” but had to be part of the community first and see if we wanted to buy into it. His refusal to give us a choice on this requirement for Baptism formed my reentry into the Church and became the foundation for my ordination some years later.

My entry and re-entry into the Church were both marked by Baptism – my own and my kids’.  My mom followed through on the commitment she made at my Baptism to support me in the faith.  Going to church and Bible study weren’t presented as a choice, and she pestered me into Baptism for my kids.

I failed in my commitment with my own daughters.  I was divorced, “alone,” and serving at the altar myself many Sundays.  At the church I served, the Sunday School was little more than daycare; there was no youth group; and by the time my girls were teenagers I had given up and they just stayed home, as they wanted to.

Ironically, it was the ELCA Lutherans who gave them their main church experience.  Many of their friends went to nearby Mount Olivet and my girls joined them and went to a weekly youth group and to Cathedral of the Pines camp in the summer.  They loved it.

My story proves nothing if not that the Spirit of God can work despite the hindrances we place in its way.  But some times, too much choice can be one of them – for our kids and even for ourselves.

See you in church.


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