Friday, February 26, 2016


My mom was an English teacher.  For this, I am grateful.  Thanks to my mom, I grew up in a house where correct grammar was modeled and, as a result, my siblings and I grew up with a pretty good command of the English language. (I still struggle with the difference between “which” and “that” and have a proclivity for dangling modifiers and split infinitives, but for the most part, I think I’m pretty solid in my native tongue.)

Like many of you, I squirm when I see blogs, newspapers or billboards using “they’re” instead of “their” or “assure” when they mean “insure” or “ensure,” and, in my business, there is nothing more irksome than seeing the word “alter” when it is really “altar” that was intended- a noun to be used, instead of the verb-   but the one that takes the cake, that has me shouting at the radio in my car, is the latest Capital BlueCross Ad that encourages us to “Live Fearless.”   Oh, how I hate that.  I shout at the radio, “Ly.  Fearless-ly.  It’s an adverb.  It modifies the verb ‘to live.’  Live Fearless-ly!!!”    


Just yesterday, I was driving home from the gym and I heard a new campaign for the University of Maryland on the radio.   It was promoting the new branding of the school to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, all built around the idea of “fearlessness.”  Here is a position statement from their branding platform:

We believe that ideas lie at the heart of innovation and entrepreneurship, the heart of anything worthwhile. Ideas can be inspired by our faculty, our alumni or our students. UMD is dedicated to turning ideas into impact, to make them fearless. UMD believes in the power of fearless ideas to change our world.

What is it about fear?  What is this media messaging that encourages us to shake the oppressive mantle of fear that has us all huddling in corners, unable to live our lives to the fullest or, in the case of the university’s approach, that stifles our capacity for creativity and innovation?

What has us so fearful?

We are afraid of losing control.  We are afraid of being decimated.  We are afraid of being attacked by our enemies, of nuclear bombs, of death and destruction.  That’s the bottom line, isn’t it?

Just above that, we are afraid of our powerlessness in being able to effect change or to maintain the status quo.  We are afraid that we might not be able to make ends meet, to provide for our children, or to skid into the home plate of our retirement with enough money left in the bank to pay the continuing care facility. 

We are afraid of cancer and other health problems that lurk in the shadows of late middle age.

Now that I am of a certain age, I notice that I have started holding onto railings and bannisters when I make my way down flights of stairs.  I am afraid of falling and breaking a hip.

And, oh, how wearying is this fear.

Some of it is manufactured.  Fear is a tool used to keep us in our place and to maintain control by those who can get us to cower. 

And some of our fear is existential.  I remember one of my parishioners told me that when I reached his old age (73- it seemed old, then, but now… isn’t 70 the new 50?)… when I reached his old age I would lose the fear of death.  I’ve thought about that comment many times and have decided that embracing death is not something that is necessarily an event determined by chronological age, but, perhaps by growth in faith, instead of years.

And some of the most unhelpful fear comes from our human desire to keep it together, to be self-contained, to be the master of our own destinies and to resist vulnerability and the influence of others.  This fear is antithetical to the Christian Way.

When we join up with the Body of Christ, we agree to give what we have to the center of the circle, and to share in a bigger and broader existence than just our own.  We are embraced by a community that extends into the ages and that reaches ‘een beyond the veil for strength and inspiration.  To be a member of the Body of Christ is to win triumph over death and fear and demands of us a certain vulnerability.

Our icon for this vulnerabilty is the man, Jesus, nailed to the tree.  And the glorious result of that dark day is the empty tomb that shows us that death and fear have no hold on us- and that God’s love triumphs over all.

It’s a long way, though, from the theological glory of Easter morning to my dark stairwell and the grip that I have on the bannister, keeping me upright and safe.

How do you move through your days?  Do you push fear aside and move, boldly ahead… or are you weighted down by fear and stuck in your tracks?

When I was 22 I had a terrible summer in which I suffered from panic attacks.  I remember sitting in the back of a Greyhound Bus on a late evening passage returning to Hartford, CT from Cambridge, MA where I had been visiting my boyfriend (now husband).  I murmured the phrase “calm, ocean, home… calm, ocean, home… calm, ocean, home…” a mantra that I had learned to settle my nerves and steady me in the face of an impending panicky moment.    Panic attacks are no fun.  But worse than the attacks, themselves, are the in-between times in which one fears the possibility of an attack.  The root of fear is uncertainty… and yet, we live in times that are wildly uncertain.  The key towards managing fear, I think, is to command rationality, reduce uncertainty, embrace honesty, lean into community and be willing to exercise vulnerability.

Brene Brown, a scholar who has studied the social, psychological, spiritual and physiological aspects of vulnerability says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

How do you do this in your life?
Is Lent a good time to try it on?

Live fearlessly.  Be vulnerable.  Lean into the Body.

Friday, February 19, 2016


A week ago today, I left home with a backpack stuffed with the warmest clothes that I own, my sleeping bag rolled up tightly and tied with a red and white striped shoelace, and my pillow. (well, to be honest, it was two pillows.)

I was about to “happen.”

For the indoctrinated, you know what I mean.  For others, this weird use of a verb (“I have happened”) translates to having attended a particular type of youth retreat called “A Happening” and to have experienced all that the program has to offer in its spiritual, community-building, Jesus-loving kind of way.

Those who  “have happened” have been in attendance at this kind of retreat and have had the opportunity to deepen their relationship with the Sacred One on a personal level and in the formation of relationships with peers, older mentors and caring adults.

The Happening format includes the stuff of many youth retreats:  ice breaker games, the sharing of personal stories and opportunities for connection, familiar Christian camp music, camp food, and  housing in A-frame bunk houses with  squeaky screen doors on spring hinges. 

 The Happening format also includes some extraordinary components that impressed me greatly:  fabulous shared leadership by a team of high schoolers who have already “happened,” support from behind the scenes from  young adult Happening Alumni who are even further removed their own Happening experience but committed enough to gather in a separate part of the camp for the weekend and to work behind the scenes doing much of the “grunt work”  (including carrying luggage!) and keeping the Happeners in prayer, a series of personalized “talks” given by youth on topics like faith, forgiveness, Jesus, etc., and an amazing structure of support offered to the youth by a team of experienced adults- many of whom have been a part of each diocesan Happening since the beginning. (Ours was Happening #9)

There are things that take place at a Happening that are “surprises.” And so, I wouldn’t want to wreck it for anyone who has yet to “Happen” by spilling the beans, here.   And, to be honest, this was a part of the programming that, in this good age of Safe Church and transparency and keeping things above board, made me a bit uncomfortable.  But, having “happened,” I can say that these “surprises”, as they were revealed to me, are hardly the fraternity-type hazing/pledging activities that they might suggest, but,  are instead, additional programmatic activities and caring gestures that are safe and appropriate.  It’s just more fun to let them unfold in due time.

While this could turn out to be a diocesan review of our Happening Program , that’s not what I intend, here.  Instead, I want to comment, briefly on something that I noticed as Chief Pastor of the diocese and, as a child of God, still in formation as a disciple of Jesus:  we all need this.

We all need this.

The most meaningful part of my Happening experience was when, after each “talk,” we broke into small groups to discuss the theme of the presentation.  There were activities to help us ease into these discussions ( story prompts, art activities, etc) but the meat of the discussions was wonderful.  My small group was made up of the adult Happening staff and other adult participants ( there were 3 of us, I think, who were first-time adult Happeners) and we got to talk, in a leisurely  and thoughtful way about sin, forgiveness, joy, Jesus, faith, Church, parenting, responsibility, loss, anger, release, and any number of other subjects that surfaced in our time of reflection.  This ardent group worked in a safe space to express themselves, to listen deeply to each other and to sand down some of the rough edges of their own theological understanding of how we live as Christians.  It was extraordinary.

And so, I wonder.  Adults:  when was the last time you had this kind of honest conversation with another person, working out your own truth in community?

Oh, introverts, I know that this makes your toes curl.  But with care, this is the kind of work that can be offered to even the most committed introvert with good results.

Anyone interested?    Let’s talk.

PS  I say that I have “half-happened.”  It’s because I had to leave late on Saturday afternoon and missed the rest of the retreat.  But then, we’re all works-in-progress, so until I can complete my happening and achieve full “Happener” status, Jesus will have to take me as I am.

Friday, February 12, 2016

lenten metrics

Years ago I had a fleeting career teaching elementary school. 

I went back to school for a grad degree in teaching when our first two children were toddlers and by the time I got around to doing my student teaching, I was working on child #3. (She was born one week after the end of the last semester…)  By the time I got around to (re-)entering the workforce, I ended up taking a job in the guidance department of the elementary school (instead of a classroom job) and worked with children with social and emotional needs. It was a great job and a launching pad, really, for my later ministry with children and families with special needs. 

While I worked at the school, there was a mini-revolution about report cards and the grading system.  Like many other mainstream schools, ours followed the usual metrics employing letter grades (A, B, C, D, F) with the added option of plusses (+) or minuses. (-).  I was very familiar with this system from my own 17 years in K-College and, more recently, the 3 years in grad school. (There were a limited number of courses in college that one could take Pass/Fail, but I never took the option- I wasn’t sure how I would operate with that kind of “freedom” and so I stuck to the traditional metrics.)

 In the elementary school where I worked, we voted to try on a new system of grading that gave me flashbacks to my own chaotic, “cluster-‘structured’ (sic)” years in 4th, 5th and 6th grade when we all sat in an open-space classroom singing kumbyah and playing with different colored rods and blocks instead of learning our multiplication tables.   In the elementary school where I worked, we decided to forgo letter grades and to offer, instead, “categories of learning achievement.”  I forget, now, but the categories were something like “exceptional,”  “demonstrating proficiency,”  “in progress,” and “not yet making progress or making minimal progress” toward meeting standards. 

Make sense?

Yeah, in some ways, the words just replaced the old “A, B, C, D” and the dreaded “F”… but the new system was supposed to be more supportive, ego-strengthening, upbeat and nuanced. It was the 1990s.  I found it confusing-  as a teacher and as a parent- and I longed for the good old days.  It wasn’t that I was opposed to change as much as I liked the familiar world of letter grades which had, as their underpinning, numerical ranges of test scores to support them:  ie:  a “B” and its neighbors, B- and B+ were assigned to scores in the range of 80-89. It was neat, tidy, and one knew exactly where one stood. There were no grey areas with the A-F system.

So.. swallow all that.  And the fact that I’m a rule-following-middle-child and an order-loving-Virgo to boot and then, imagine my reaction when a colleague recently quoted his priestly-Grandfather on the subject of Lenten Discipline:  If you do it too well, you'll miss the point.”*   

 That’s right.  If you get an “A” in Lent, you’re not doing it right.

I laughed when I heard this… and then loved the sentiment for its theological right-ness:  Lent is designed to be (partly) an experience of spiritual striving and even a bit of a struggle.  If we choose to follow our (self-selected) disciplines to perfection, (with an “E” for “exceptional”) either we haven’t selected a program rigorous enough or allowed ourselves the grace of living fully human.   What’s the point of making it 40 days without chocolate or wine?  What’s the pay-off for adding a new prayer practice or reading a new spiritual tome?  It’s not the successful completion of these things… it’s certainly not a superior smugness that comes with having “done it all right.”  The metrics of Lent are not measured in what we’ve completed with efficiency or unfailing competence.  The metrics of Lent are about embracing the ragged edges of our humanity that become softened by our very practice-  including our failings.

As I processed all of this, standing in front of my friend, I imagined that perhaps the coveted bowl of ice cream could be mine before Lent’s end.  But this theological nuance is not a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, either.   No, if I were to “fail” and dive into the Ben & Jerry’s it would be unplanned, unintended and forgiven-  like many of our sins that cut much deeper than the illicit bowl of forbidden ice cream.

I loved this new mind-bending, curiously wry twist to Lent:  “If you do it too well, you’ll miss the point.”

What do you think?

* these are the words of The Rev. Churchill J. Gibson  who was rector of St. James Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA from 1929-1957.

Friday, February 5, 2016


Those of you who follow me and my antics on the alternate-reality space called Face Book know that this week I have begun a new project- I am sculpting a ½ size self-portrait bust out of clay.  Yeah, that’s right.  In a moment that could only have been inspired by the Holy Spirit herself, I got myself over to the local arts & crafts store and picked up a 10# box of gray Craft Smart modeling clay and a small cellophane sleeve of wooden modeling tools.

I’m not an accomplished artist.

In fact, the last art course that I took was in 1970 (46 years ago!) when I was in the 7th grade. I remember being simultaneously shocked and delighted when the art teacher passed through the room snapping our new, slender, neat crayons in half and telling us to “be free!”  Well, it was 1970, after all.  In high school I eschewed art class for music class because, apparently, those who were college-bound had to make a choice between Art and Music in order to get all of those other important college-prep classes into our schedules like French and Chemistry and World History.  It seemed a shame.  But, Music it was (long live altos!) and so Art went out the door.

This is to say that I have no idea what I am doing when it comes to sculpture.

My birth-father - whose life and times are constructed in my mind by well-worn  stories handed down through the years (he died when I was a tot)- my daddy was a creative, funny, inventive, daring, handsome, crazy chap. (I know that this is a romanticized version of any human person, but it’s what I’ve got.)  My daddy was an artist.  He did old-tymey graphic arts (pre-computer days) for an advertising agency in NYC to feed his family, but he loved to sketch and do cartoons and paint and even whittle. For a long time I kept a miniature moose that he had made, about 2 “ tall and carved out of cedar.  When, in an accident, it fell off of my dresser and the delicate rack of horn was broken off, I went out and tossed it into the woods, I was so angry that I had broken it.  But that’s fodder for another, darker blog someday about the sorrow of this lost, primal relationship and how I’ve muddled through.   Anyway, my daddy was an artist.  And yet, it is not his artistic talent that I believe I have inherited as much as his inherent, crazy freedom to take on just about any new project with a certain amount of gusto, throwing caution to the wind. (My mother had her own spin on this, as you might imagine, including a hilarious story about the time that my daddy got her to lie on the kitchen floor, covered her face with Vaseline, shoved paper straws up her nostrils and layered plaster over her face in an effort to create a plaster mask for a masquerade party.  Apparently after each of them had modeled and painted each others’ likenesses in plaster, they went as each other to the masquerade party. Young, creative, tolerant, love.)

So, on Monday, my day off, I sat down at the kitchen table with a giant hunk of clay, a few stick-like tools, a sponge, a bowl of water and nothing but the sound of my husband, upstairs in his office, clicking on the keyboard of his computer, diligently doing his “work-from-home” thing.
To describe the next couple of hours in detail would, no doubt, be excruciatingly boring, but since you’ve managed to read along this far, let me describe some of the emotions and thoughts running though my head as my hands began to shape a likeness – my likeness- out of clay:

“This is harder than I thought.

This is the most self-absorbed, arrogant, egocentric thing that I’ve ever done.

I’m terrible at this.

The clay is soft, and lovely to move.

Is my head round… or oval?

Are my ears really that big?  Yes. (I had a mirror on the table to assist me.)

I like this. It’s fun.

I never noticed how tiny my mouth is. (I make a lot of noise with that tiny mouth)

I have a lot of wrinkles.”

And so it went, for a couple of hours- loving it, not loving it, learning about how much water on the end of a sponge can help to soften a big chunk of clay or wash away an entire ear or eyelid….  There was a certain power that I felt, anchored in the role of “creator:”  I could make this be anything that I wanted it to be… and  there was a certain frustration in trying to replicate what I saw in the mirror and, failing.

Without trying to be egotistical, let me say that there was, in this short exercise, a wonderful appreciation for parts of me that I don’t spend a lot of time noticing:  I had great fun sculpting my shoulders.  Who ever spends much time thinking about their shoulders, for Pete’s sake? And, in that, a groundswell of wonder and appreciation for the marvel of the human form and the Creator who made us.

Here’s the oddest thing, though.  I had some pretty profound sense-connections as I was working on this sculpture, to my children in their infancy.  The bust, as I mentioned, is half-size.  That’s not intentional; it’s more of a function of how much money I was willing to spend on a hunk of clay.  A 10-dollar, 10# box of clay was about all that I was willing to venture on this experiment.  And, as it turns out, a 10# box of clay makes a head about the size of a baby or toddler’s head.  And so, as I sat at the kitchen table on Monday afternoon, cradling a hunk of clay in my hands and working to shape it into a head, I had a flood of tactile reminiscences of my own babies’ heads- carrying them around the house, lifting them out of their cradles, pouring water over their little crowns and working up a lather of Johnson’s baby shampoo.  It was a strange and lovely sensation as I worked with my clay head, remembering their heads, and reflecting on how their heads- and selves- were another creation of mine- and Glenn’s- and God’s.  It was one of those meditative-contemplative-Spirit-filled musings that was just lovely.

Needless to say, I didn’t finish the sculpture in 2 hours’ time.

Right now, it looks like a gargoyle that should be cemented onto the side of a medieval cathedral.  The eyes are bulging, the ears askew, the forehead a bit too sloping and there’s a lot of work to do, yet, on softening the folds and wrinkles that I have modeled to an extreme, giving me a slightly disfigured look.  Okay, I know that I have wrinkles- I’m pushing 60- but not to the point of disfigurement.

So there will be no great “reveal,” here, yet.  I’m going to give it a few more sessions before I share the results.  I expect that, in the upcoming season of Lenten introspection and self-examination, that this might be a good project over which to linger.  In the back of my mind, I think that’s what the Holy Spirit had in mind in the first place.

And so- consider for yourself, as we edge closer to Lent, about how you will engage a season of self-examination.  I seem to have done this quite literally, and wonder how you, dear readers, will follow the Spirit to your own course of spiritual and holy work.