Wednesday, August 1, 2012

More renewal leave reflections

Here's a portion of an email letter I sent to my congregation this morning, my first day back.

... As many of you know, I have for years met monthly with a spiritual director - someone who helps me to reflect on where and how the Spirit of God is speaking to my spirit. We met last week, and (as she often does) she gave an assignment - to reflect and write on the graces of this renewal leave. There have been many, many graces indeed during these last few months, and I thought I'd share a few of them with you as I re-enter life at Church Hill Church.
One of the primary graces has been time. I've had time do reading and significant self reflection. I have used the tools of the Enneagram, an ancient system for self understanding. I've journaled extensively and I have begun a practice of mindfulness meditation. There has been time to learn again to listen the inner voice of the Spirit. I've had time to read whatever I like. I have posted my renewal leave reading list on my blog here.
There has been time and space for creativity. I've written more about this in my blog. I've taken art classes, worked on "projects," talked about art and creativity with friends. I've visited museums and galleries to enjoy the creative expressions of others. Part of my self reflection has taken shape in collage and drawing and painting.

It has truly been a graceful gift to have time for people. Stewart and I spent two weeks in California, where our daughter Helen has settled. We met her friends, saw the places that are meaningful to her. We also reconnected with several old friends while we were there.

After more than 20 years in parish ministry, I had lost sight of how my unique schedule impacts relationships. With most of my family and friends working Monday - Friday while I work on the weekends, with only Friday off, I haven't had the time it takes to nurture relationships. It was a blessing to spend time with our daughters, to have evenings at home with Stewart. My sister, Beth, and I got together several times, including 4 days in Burlington, VT with our brother, Tom. I was able to go to a niece's housewarming, to help two good friends with the overwhelming task of moving house, and to reconnect with a number people who have been important support in the past. The renewing of relationships was perhaps one of the greatest graces of this renewal leave.
It also has been a grace to have these three months of time without hurrying. I didn't have to worry about leaving important items on my to-do list undone at the end of the day. I jokingly said that it took about the first four weeks of renewal leave before I felt like I'd taken my fingers out of the wall socket, and to feel truly relaxed. What a great blessing to refocus and re-calibrate and to listen for that "still, small voice" which is the Spirit of God and which almost always gets lost in busyness, hurry and stress.
So, friends, I thank you, for enabling me to have the grace of time. There's lots more to share, but mostly I look forward to learning what you have been doing, both individually and as a congregation. I look forward to the possibilities of the fall, and a new program year.


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

renewing Art, part 2

Visiting museums and galleries was a highlight of renewal leave. I can't capture it all, but here are some highlights.

The Danforth Museum (Framingham): Bob, our drawing teacher took us on a tour of the exhibits – primarily a juried show of local artists in many media. It is so inspiring to see where the creative spirit takes people.

The Decordova Museum and Sculpture Park: (Lincoln): this is one of my favorite local museums, and our drawing class enabled us to spend focused time over three visits with some of the outdoor sculptures. This was one of my favorite multi media, indoor installations.

The Fuller Craft Museum (Brockton): Since I love Contemporary American craft, this is my very favorite local museum. I visited twice during renewal leave, once on my own in May, and then again with 3 friends who came for a four day reunion in early July. Fuller currently has an exhibit of contemporary blacksmithing,

and an exhibit of the glass work of Dan Dailey has been there a while. His work is amazing, luminescent (he worked for a time with Dale Chihuly ) and has a sense of humor.

Fuller has a good outreach program with local schools, and on display is the result of a school’s work on quilting the theme of “America, the Beautiful.”

I’m surprised how many people in this area haven’t discovered the Fuller. It’s a hidden gem in Brockton. Go there.

The MFA (Boston): I spent most of a day at the MFA, primarily in the American wing and the contemporary wing. Even though I have been to these wings many times, there is always something new. Again, one highlight was student work. Under the guidance of artist Hannah Burr, students from eight after-school community organizations in the Boston area responded to works from the MFA’s collection, in very original ways. Though I don’t usually do it, this time I took a tour of the contemporary wing, which helped me to see some of the familiar work in new ways.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: I went with my sister, Beth, and a friend, Paulette, for my first time to see the new wing. It’s bright and beautiful, with an expanded restaurant, gift shop, a 300-seat performance hall with three balcony levels. I hadn’t read much about the wing, so I was a little surprised to find that it contains very little actual art. Since nothing can be moved from its original location, the art is still all in Gardner’s magnificent home. There is so much crowded into the galleries that I always find something surprising. I wish there were better access to the dozens and dozens of amazing sketches and drawing on the hinged panels in the Long Gallery.

The Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston) is another favorite – Stewart and I are members here as well as at the Fuller. I visited twice during my renewal leave. My favorite visit was with Jane, my “museum buddy.” Jane is an artist ( She and I love to talk about the works we see, and during our last visit, one of the staff engaged us in a discussion about a particularly obtuse (to us, at least) piece of work. There is great energy at the ICA. Since I do not know much about art, I’m always challenged by what I see there.

When we were visiting Helen, we visited the Berkeley Museum of Art and saw some very interesting photographic work by California artists. Helen and I went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (one of the places where Helen is doing installation work).

Katarina Wulff was their “new artist” – her paintings of figures and landscapes are strange and beautiful. I was overwhelmed with the work of a photographer whose name I can’t remember (argh, I hate that). I’ll have to ask Helen.

Renewing Art, part 1

One of the hopes that I had for my renewal leave was to spend time making/learning about/ seeing art.
I took a wonderful drawing workshop at the Danforth Museum in Framingham with Bob Collins, a local artist. I also took a series of classes on drawing with colored pencils at the Decordova Museum in Lincoln. What I'm enjoying most is a class I’m still taking in collage/mixed media with Gary Nisbet at the South Shore Arts Center. I’ve enjoyed doing collage for many years and I’m excited to be learning some new techniques.
I’ve also continue to work on my rug making – though at a slower pace. On the way home from my visit in Burlington, VT with my sister and brother, I took a detour. I stopped at a barn somewhere in mid state Vermont (forgot the town) where Amy Oxford, the grande-dame of punchneedle rug hooking, was having a barn sale of rug material and equipment.

And, this week, on our way home from Stewart’s bike/camping adventure, we stopped in Bath, ME at Halcyon Yarn, a major distributor for yarn and yarn craft materials. It was like walking into a rainbow – a converted old shipping warehouse, filled from wooden floor to high ceiling with wooden bins of yarn of every description – rooms of it. Stewart had a great conversation with the friendly clerk there about spinning. We’ll see if that becomes his new winter hobby. If he spins it, I will hook with it.

Renewal leave reading

As it turns out, I was not very disciplined about keeping my reading list updated during renewal leave. I did a lot of reflecting in my journal, but it didn't make it to this spot.
But I've kept a (mostly complete) list of the titles I have read. One indulgence I allowed myself is that I did not finish any books that I didn't like. If it didn't capture my imagination within 50 pages, it went into the library return slot unfinished. I recently came to the awareness that if I read 2 books a week, that's just over 100 books in a year. There are too many good books out there to get bogged down in those I don't like.
Here's my list for May - July, 2012.
Non fiction
The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Riso and Russ Hudson
Self Compassion by Kristin Neff
The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O’Connor by Angela A. O’Donnell
An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler
Practicing Resurrection by Nora Gallagher
What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell
Would it Kill You to Stop Doing That? By Henry Alford
Below Stairs by Margaret Powell
Lady Almina by Fiona Carnavon
God is not a Christian by Desmond Tutu
The Man who Loved Books Too Much by Alison Bartlett
God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet
Still Life with Chickens by Catherine Goldhammer
The House in France by Gully Wells
The Best American Travel Writing 2010
The Best American Spiritual Writing 2012


Best Love, Rosie by Nuala o’Faolain
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James
Gourmet Rhapsody and The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry
The Drop by Michael Connelly
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: my year of magical reading by Nina Sankovitch
Louise Penny: all seven of her mysteries set in Quebec
Jonathan Kellerman: 3 detective novels
Faye Kellerman: 2 detective novels
Clive Cussler: 2 thrillers
The Best American Short Stories 2010

Monday, June 4, 2012


I’m trying to keep track of what I am reading while on renewal leave. It is such an indulgence to have time to read – to just read whatever I want. I love having several books going at the same time – a couple of “serious” books here by my reading chair, and another couple of lighter works upstairs by the bed and next to the TV, one on my ipad and, of course, the recorded books in the car.
I’ve mentioned a couple of books in previous posts, so here are a few disconnected thoughts on some of the other books I’ve recently finished:
Just before we went to California, I hurriedly loaded Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James onto the ipad. James is one of my favorite authors, and I’ve read most of her other books over and over. Having read nothing about this new work, I assumed it to be another in the Adam Dalgleish series. As the plane took off and we reached the altitude where electronic devices are permitted, I opened the ipad and was astounded. James has written a follow up to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” (Pemberly, I had forgotten, is the estate in Derbyshire of Fitzwiliam Dacry, whom Elizabeth Bennet marries at the end of Austen’s novel). James does a wonderful job of recreating the setting and the ambiance and of bringing Austen’s characters once more to life. The mystery itself was not, for me, the highlight, but what a wonderful way to begin our trip.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: Barnes won the 2011 Booker Prize for this novel. To me, it’s a book about memory – the way our memories shape our current lives as well as the tricks our memories play on us. We tend to think of our memories as factual recordings of events as they happened, but that’s far from true. When my sister, Beth , and I get together, we enjoy comparing our memories of growing up – of events and people. Sometimes our memories coincide, sometimes we have different but complementary memories of the thing, and sometimes we can hardly believe we are talking about the same event. Barnes’ novel is short, but exquisite.
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon: I didn’t watch the PBS series, but I did enjoy the sort of voyeuristic glimpse into the life of the great house. In the United States, we take pride in our delusion of a classless society. This book is a trip back to a time and place where rigid class divisions were accepted without much question. I’m looking forward to reading another book or two about Downton Abbey written by people who are not so deeply invested in presenting a rosy, uncritical picture. To read this book, you would think that Lady Almina was practically a saint!
The Brutal Telling and A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny: delightfully traditional murder mysteries, set in the tiny Canadian village of Three Pines, somewhere outside of Quebec City. Chief Inspector Armande Gamache is all you could want in a fictional detective – insightful, compassionate, patient. I love to read these formulaic stories, I think because it is so reassuring to know it will all be tidied up by the end.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


In her book, “Practicing Resurrection,” Nora Gallagher writes about the death of her brother, her Episcopal church in Santa Barbara, her marriage, and most of all, about discernment. She senses God calling her to something and she thinks it might ordained ministry. Or then again, it might not be. This book is a story of her struggles, her waiting, her listening for something, anything that will clarify the “call.” It’s a story of people, some who go with her on the journey, some whom she encounters briefly along the way.
One of these people says to her about her sense of ‘call’: If you use supernatural language then you end up waiting for a lightning bolt, instead of sticking to your own life… ‘Call’ makes you think of a voice from outer space, which it is not. These voices are in us already. They are drowned out or muffled. Discernment is about cleaning up the clutter to find the thread.” (p. 17)
Cleaning up the clutter is harder than it sounds. The temptation (for me) is to replace one kind of clutter with another. What I really need is empty space.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Henry Alford’s “Would it Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners” is a witty look at the state of manners in the contemporary world. It’s not so much a prescription or even a lament as it is an observation. So many of the stories are (sometimes sadly) funny .

It did make me think a bit about state of manners in the church. I’m tempted to go on a long rant. Letting people stand or sit by themselves at fellowship time (all the while insisting that we are don’t do that). Telling a newcomer “you are sitting in our pew.” Witnessing someone saying to a newcomer “you are sitting in our pew” and not doing anything to mitigate it. Telling someone “you can’t do it that way” without first finding out the whole story. Talking in “code” that other people can’t understand, making them feel like outsiders.

OK, so I gave in to temptation and ranted (those are a few of the things I have observed or heard about in the past few months at my church).

But Alford’s book made me think that manners in the church are like manners anywhere else. Good manners mean making people feel recognized and welcome and included. Not embarrassing people. Thinking of things from the other person’s perspective. Recognizing that other people have different perspectives and life experiences just as valid as yours.

He quotes Edmund Burke, an 18th century writer, who said that “manners are more important than laws.” Even the unspoken and unwritten “laws” in the church. Manners, I think, are about hospitality to everyone. And isn’t that what we should be about in Christ’s church?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Yesterday, I began to work in the flower beds in the back yard, ahead of the rain. I’m a bit delayed in starting this task, due to our early May trip to California, and the weeds have taken hold and the grass has inched back into the gardens. I worked for a couple of hours, then loaded up the wheel barrow with sticks and bits of rose canes. As I tipped them out into the brush pile, I made a discovery. The young men who mowed during our absence also raked the clippings – lots and lots of clippings – and put them in the brush pile. I was unreasonably excited – it felt like I had been given an unexpected gift. I gathered them up and heaped them onto the cleaned up beds. These relatively new beds, established in a yard created by fill, need all the organic help they can get. Heaps and piles of grass clippings – like a pile of gold.

The most fertile soil for plants to grow is compost: grass clippings, kitchen waste, plants from the garden that have died, dead leaves. What is leftover, discarded – garbage – created the most fertile soil.

Flannery O’Connor wrote that conversion is a lifelong process of turning away from one’s own egocentricity and seeing oneself in “a kind of blasting, annihilating light” that allows us to see ourselves realistically so that we can turn from our sin.

God gives hope and new life and possibility in the places where we least expect it: Pain. Garbage.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The prayer to St. Raphael, the “angel of happy meeting,” was Flannery O’Connor’s daily prayer and one that she also shared with friends. O’Connor suffered with an illness that limited her greatly and which she knew would be fatal. She was isolated and often lonely, living on the farm in Georgia. Still, she remained focused on “the province of joy,” a place without location in this world and a state in the life to come.

O Raphael, lead us towards those we are waiting for,
those who are waiting for us:
Raphael, Angel of happy meeting,
lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for.
May all our movements be guided by your Light
and transfigured with your joy.
Angel, guide of Tobias,
lay the request we now address to you at the feet of Him
on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze.
Lonely and tired, crushed by the separation and sorrows
of life, we feel the need of calling you and of pleading
for the protection of your wings,
so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy,
all ignorant of the concerns of our country.
Remember the weak, you who are strong.
you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder,
in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright
with the resplendent glory of God.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The renewing power of friendship

Friends. Day one of renewal leave concluded with a gathering of friends at the Billiards CafĂ© back in Ayer. It felt like being home. It’s hard to describe the renewing power of being with people with whom we have such a rich shared history: our 12 years in Lunenburg and 5 in Ayer: kids growing up together, the United Parish of Lunenburg, working together to create the Parker School and to expand Habitat for Humanity in Central Mass.

Friendships that have endured struggles and changes. Emily, our oldest daughter was there, too (as were two other offspring of friends) – these folks have known her since before she can remember . I am very thankful for these friendships, and when we are together, I realize how important they are.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Renewal leave, day 1

Today is the first day of a 3 month renewal leave. I’ve been straining towards this day for a while now, tired, discouraged, dulled. Sensing god’s presence, but without much energy to do anything about it. So, here I am, and it feels like a gift.
I have hopes and plans for this time. Traveling – to the Bay area to see our youngest daughter Helen, to Vermont to spend time with my sister and brother – to Maine with friends. I’ve been keeping a reading wish list for months and it’s 4 pages long. 2 introductory art classes will stretch me – for half a century I’ve lived with self applied label “not artistic”. I have several friends I want to reconnect with. There will be time to garden, to bike, to walk in the woods or on the beach with Tony the Wonderdog. There will be time to just hang out with Stewart, and with our other two daughters, Georgia and Emily - without feeling like I need to be doing something else.
It is an amazing privilege to feel called by God to serve in a local church. To share with people on a profound level, to speak for justice and compassion, to teach and preach, to baptize and bury, to help people prepare to marry and heal after divorce, to watch children grow, to walk with folks as they learn to listen to God speaking to them. It is a joy to work with colleagues who are dedicated, creative and inspiring and with lay people who are appreciative and insightful.
But, I find, it also takes a toll. I almost never have two whole days off in a row. Every time the phone rings, or the doorbell buzzes, it may be an emergency. So many evening meetings. Working weekends means not much time for friends and family. Living in a fishbowl (“Hey, I looked out the window during worship and saw a new lamp in your window!”) People who are difficult and unrelenting in their oppositional or judgmental behavior. This is the way it is and I knew it well when I answered the call. Most of the time things stay in balance.
Right now it’s time to hit the reset button. Starting today. It will take time to unwind. I think I’ll move a little book rack downstairs beside my chair. I have two new devotional books. I’m going to get some colored pencils. Tonight, Stewart and I will meet up with friends and family and hear some music.
I am thankful.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Maundy Thursday

Today I wrote this to my congregation:
I’ve been turning over and over in my mind the events of the Maundy Thursday service last night. It’s a highly symbolic and participatory service – from the footwashing to standing together at the communion rail, to watching as one by one, people rise from their seats to remove items from the chancel. It’s very different from other worship services.
Many times during our Lenten journey through the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life, I’ve reminded myself – any you- that it my job not to get in the way of your discomfort. For it’s at that point of discomfort that faith grows deeper.
So, every week I invited you, as uncomfortable as it may have been, to find yourself in the story.
To see yourself with the disciples at the last supper, so concerned with what others thought of them, so concerned to be acknowledged for all that they had done to serve Jesus. And then to see yourself with them, nodding off in Gethsemane, intentions so good, but unable to go the distance.
To see yourself as a member of the Sanhedrin, that religious body so concerned with maintaining the status quo that they missed the heart of Jesus’ message. Or in Pilate, knowing what is right, but giving into pressure.
Did you see yourself in the crowd or even in the soldiers who mistreated Jesus? Did you dare to ask yourself in what ways large or small, you sometimes bully or make fun of another?

It’s been an uncomfortable journey, hasn’t it?

And last night, we washed each others' feet. Now, that’s something uncomfortable in so many ways. The sheer physicality of the act – we may be so accustomed to faith as a matter of the intellect, that engaging our bodies in an act of devotion seems strange. It is an intimate act, as well, to take off one’s shoes and to touch the feet of another, to allow one’s own feet to be touched. It’s a shedding of control – for once you sit in that chair, you have no control over who will come and kneel before you and pour warm water over your feet and dry them with a towel. And it is spiritually uncomfortable, too. For I suspect that many of us are uncomfortable with the image of Jesus kneeling at our feet, serving us.
We serve him – that’s the way it should be. But footwashing reminds us that Jesus came to serve us, and only when we let him serve us do we truly dwell in his presence.

I found the experience uncomfortable myself. First, it’s uncomfortable to be the one asking you to do this! But I sat in the chair and Dan McAllister came and knelt and washed my feet. As he did, I remembered that when I asked Dan to take part in the service by reading, I invited him to be a part of the footwashing only if he was comfortable with it. But he acknowledged his discomfort and said,” If I’m in, I’m in all the way.” I thought, “what would it mean to say that to Jesus: if I’m in, I’m in all the way.”

And then I washed Deb Bailey’s feet. As I held her bare feet, I thought about how many times those feet had stood at the counter peeling potatoes or chopping onions, preparing a meal to take to Father Bill’s shelter. I thought about how her feet are feet that serve, and as I dried them I prayed that my feet might serve as hers have.

And then we came and stood, side by side, and ate the bread and shared the cup of the one who washes our feet. Some smiled. Some wept. We sang “my Lord, my Love, is crucified.” And we watched as the Lenten symbols were removed from the chancel and the cross draped in black. And then we left, in silence.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When the roses speak

In Mary Oliver's poem, the roses say to her:
" the heart shackles are not, as you think,
death, illness, pain,
unrequited hope, not loneliness, but
lassitude, rue, vainglory, fear, anxiety,

May I pay attention to the roses, whose task Oliver says, is to be extravagant.
Isaiah says: "then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf be cleared." The roses and I long for that day.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

unseen critics

After being away from this blog for so long, I’m more than a little reluctant to come back. If I post something here today, does that imply a commitment to post something tomorrow or later this week, or later this month? I’m afraid I’ve let this blog become another pressure to “perform” – to produce something witty or insightful or lovely. Or at least to produce something more often then once every few months. Also, I confess: I read other blogs and compare. The comparison is not life-giving or inspiring. This blog becomes a reproach. How opposite that is to my original intent to find a place for expression and connection.
God of light, the unseen critics stand on my shoulder. They lean on my back; they are heavy, they are strong. They squeeze my head until it hurts. They shake a finger in my face. They clutch at my ankles so that every step forward is an effort. They crowd my brain until the river of creativity slows to a trickle and threatens to dry up altogether. God of acceptance and power, remove the unseen critics. Only you have the power to displace these long established residents. But I believe that if you make me free, I will be free indeed. Amen.