Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sketching My Way through a Week of Pandemic

In early March, when I first signed up for an online journaling class offered by Vonda Drees and the Grunewald Guild, I had no idea how much life would change in the next few weeks.  I had no idea how much I would need this class.

I knew it had the potential to be life changing.  I took a journaling class with Vonda at the end of 2018, and it was one of the highlights of my year, perhaps of the decade.

We are reading Cynthia Bourgeault's Mystical Hope:  Trusting in the Mercy of God.  We have 3 markers in shades of gray, and a marker color that brings us joy.  I chose lilac.  Here's the first sketch I made from a quote in the book that talks about life seeming to spiral downward--little did I know how quickly it would spiral downward during the week as pandemic cases spiraled out of control:

The next day, this quote from chapter 1 leapt out at me:  "Must we be whiplashed incessantly between joy and sorrow, expectation and disappointment?"  I have spent must of my life in this kind of whiplash.

As the past week has progressed, I have found it more and more difficult to sleep.  I fall asleep quickly, but my brain usually jolts me awake between 12:30 and 2:00 a.m., and most nights I don't fall back asleep.  I've taken to sketching as a way of leaving the various sites that bring me news and stress, as a way of attending to any activity that might bring me relief--or even joy.

In this quote, I tried to create a sketch that looked like weaving.  I was only partially successful:

On Friday, we had an online session where we talked about our favorite sketch.  I chose this one:

I talked about how I tried to sketch the fingers of God, but I thought they looked like odd fingers.  I liked the negative space, which looks like flames to me.  In the end, I loved the sketch.  I also realized how many of my concerns and anxieties take place in the near or far future, not the now.  I've known that before, but it's sobering to make a list and confront this truth again.

I wasn't as sure about Friday's sketch:

Saturday's sketch might be my favorite thus far.  I started it in the morning and finished it in the afternoon:

I love the mystical hope that swirls across and through the sketch.  I like the dots and dashes that I made with a variety of pens.

I plan to keep trying to sketch each day.  It's become a practice that's even more vitally important in these days of pandemic.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Spiritual Directing

This morning, I drive down to Miami to have my first real meeting with my spiritual director--our meeting in February was a getting to know you session, so we could both decide whether or not to enter into this spiritual partnership.

We've been in communication, as her county and mine have tightened down on shelter in place orders.  We've decided to go ahead with today's appointment.  We will sit six feet apart.  I'm sure she'll wipe down any surface that I touch once I leave.

Occasionally, I stop to think about how life has changed.  I have to remind myself that I'm still in this certificate program in spiritual direction.  I have the next book to read and report on.  I need to write an e-mail to my small group.

And I need to continue with spiritual direction as long as I can.  Even when we can't meet in person, we can still do spiritual direction by phone or video session.

Every so often, I think back to how excited I was when I got the official acceptance into this program.  I think about that time, a time that now seems like our last days of innocence, back in January when we met for our on-ground intensive.  Part of me wants to wail about all that we've lost.  Will our onground intensive for June be canceled?  Will life be back to normal by then?  Will we ever be back to normal?

No, we won't be back to the pre-pandemic normal.  I have no doubt about that.  We might like the new normal better.  Perhaps we will all care for each other in deeper ways.  Or maybe we will be more fearful, sanitizing every surface and staying 6 feet apart.

When this pandemic is over, perhaps we will see an increased desire for spiritual direction. Wouldn't it be a lovely surprise if I'm actually trained and ready for a career field that's opening up? That will be a first for me. I'm often training for career fields just as they enter the final death throes (of course, we only know that in retrospect).

Whatever the case, the program feeds me in other ways.  So let me eat some breakfast and get ready for my meeting.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Value of Repetition and Memorization

When I was a child, I hated the repetition in church services--everything was the same, week after week.  It was so boring.  Why couldn't we have a change?

My parents pointed out the value in repetition.  We would memorize songs and Bible verses, and therefore, they'd always be available to us.  We might not always have a book to consult (and this was WAY before the age of mobile devices).

I huffed and puffed my way through adolescence, shaking my head over all the lost opportunities.  But in the past week, I've been so grateful for all the various words and music that have lodged in my head and bubbled up when I most needed it.

I've been having some trouble sleeping.  I have trouble falling asleep, and then I have trouble staying asleep.  I've had the words and music of Compline drifting through my head.

If you want to have access to those words, here's a site that has the whole Compline service from the Book of Common Prayer.  I've been singing Compline off and on since my teenage years, but I most associate Compline service with Mepkin Abbey.  It's my favorite service. I love ending the day with the simple, dimly lit service, with the Abbot splashing us each with water from the baptismal font.

The Mepkin service uses part of Psalm 91, and some of those words have been percolating during the past week.  That psalm has lots of language about all that might be stalking us, but as you can imagine, it's the imagery of plague and pestilence that I return to.  Verses 5 and 6 seem particularly relevant this week:  "5 You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, 6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday."

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 29, 2020

First Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 130

Second Reading: Romans 8:6-11

Gospel: John 11:1-45

What a strange picture of Jesus in this Gospel. Remember the Jesus of several miracles ago? The one who instructed people to go and tell no one?

Here we see a Jesus who seems overly aware of the impact of his actions. It's as if we're seeing a man who is aware of his legacy and how he'll be seen--a man who is trying to control the story. And of course, we see foreshadowing in this story, foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Christ, which we'll be celebrating in two weeks.

Notice that Jesus waits until Lazarus is good and dead before he appears to comfort the sisters and perform a miracle. It's as if he wants no dispute about the miracle. Unlike the past few miracles when Jesus raised people who had only been dead for a few hours, here he waits 4 days. There's no doubt about what he's done once he's raised Lazarus from the dead. We can't easily imagine that Lazarus has been faking his death for 4 days. Even if Lazarus wanted to help Jesus fake a miracle and put on a good show, it's hard to imagine that he'd willingly submit to being sealed in a tomb for 4 days.

As we watch the world around us gear up for Easter, we'll see a certain number of Jesus detractors. We'll see people who want to explain away the resurrection. The liturgical calendar gives us this story of Lazarus to return us to one of the main themes of our religion--we believe in (and are called to practice) resurrection.

And why is the idea of resurrection so hard in our fallen world? Do we not know enough people who have turned their lives around? Think of all the people who have risen again out of the ashes of drug addiction, madness, or domestic turmoil. Why are we so hesitant to believe in miracles?

Although writing about a different miracle, Wendell Berry has said expressed my idea more eloquently than I can today. In his essay, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," he says, "Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine--which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes" (this wonderful essay appears in his wonderful book Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community).

The world has far too many cynics. Christians are called to be different. Choose your favorite metaphor: we're to be leaven in the loaf, the light of the world, the city on a hill, the salt (or other seasoning) that provides flavor, the seed that pushes against the dirt. 

Each day, practice hope. Each day, practice resurrection.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Feast Day of the Annunciation

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the feast day which celebrates the appearance of the angel Gabriel, who tells Mary of her opportunity to be part of God's mission of redemption. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says, in the older wording that I still like best, "Hail, oh blessed one! The Lord is with you!" Mary asks some questions, and Gabriel says, "For nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1: 37). And Mary says, ". . . let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1: 38).

That means only 9 months until Christmas. If I wrote a different kind of blog, I'd fill the rest of this post with witty ways to make your shopping easier. But instead of spending the next nine months strategically getting our gifts bought, maybe we should think about the next nine months in terms of waiting for God, watching for God, incubating the Divine.

I find Mary an interesting model for modern spirituality. Notice what is required of Mary. She must wait.

Mary is not required to enter into a spiritual boot camp to get herself ready for this great honor. No, she must be present to God and be willing to have a daily relationship, an intimacy that most of us would never make time for. She doesn't have to travel or make a pilgrimage to a different land. She doesn't have to go to school to work on a Ph.D. She isn't even required to go to the Temple any extra amount. She must simply slow down and be present. And of course, she must be willing to be pregnant, which requires more of her than most of us will offer up to God. And there's the later part of the story, where she must watch her son die an agonizing death.

But before she is called upon to these greater tasks, first she must slow down enough to hear God. I've often thought that if the angel Gabriel came looking for any one of us, we'd be difficult to find. Gabriel would need to make an appointment months in advance!

In our society, it's interesting to me to wonder what God would have to do to get our attention. I once wrote these lines in a poem:

I don’t want God to have to fling
frogs at me to get my attention. I want
to be so in touch that I hear the still,
small voice crying in this wilderness of American life.
I don’t want God to set fire to the shrubbery to get my notice.

We might think about how we can listen for God's call. Most of us live noisy lives: we're always on our cell phones, we've often got several televisions blaring in the house at once, we're surrounded by traffic (and their loud stereos), we've got people who want to talk, talk, talk. Maybe today would be a good day to take a vow of silence, inasmuch as we can, to listen for God.

If we can't take a vow of silence, we could look for ways to have some silence in our days. We could start with five minutes and build up from there.

Maybe we can't be silent, but there are other ways to tune in to God. Maybe we want to keep a dream journal to see if God tries to break through to us in that way. Maybe we want to keep a prayer journal, so that we have a record of our prayer life--and maybe we want to revisit that journal periodically to see how God answers our prayers.

Let us celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation by thinking about our own lives. What does God call us to do? How will we answer that call?

Tuesday, March 24, 2020


--Yesterday was a stranger day than usual at work.  I had to go to the Ft. Lauderdale campus for training on our online platform, even though I've taught with that platform before.  When I got there, a member of the Corporate team told me that every campus would close at 5 pm, and we wouldn't be allowed to return.  I sat there for the morning of the training trying not to throb with anxiety.

As the day progressed, the guidance about whether or not we would be vacating the campus changed.  This morning I'll go into the office, but there will be fewer people there.  Admissions is working remotely, and students are not allowed.

In my life in academia, it feels so strange to write "students are not allowed."  Similarly, last week, I wrote an e-mail that concluded this way:  

"Since we are almost done with these documents, S___ wanted us to finish those off so that we could send them to you today, in case we can’t get back to campus. I am not expecting a complete quarantine on Monday, but he’s less sure.

I am now going to take a moment to be astonished at that last sentence that I wrote. Never in all my apocalyptic visions of the future did I think that I would send a work e-mail that would talk about quarantine."

--I am taking the situation much more seriously than our U.S. president.  As I drove home yesterday, he was about to have a press conference to announce what sounds like a reversal of earlier policies which called for social distancing.  Of course, that decision may have changed again.

--No wonder I'm feeling a bit whiplashed.

--Last night, my spouse held a virtual Philosophy class during the time he would have been teaching, had the semester gone on as usual.  He told the class he would be available, if any of them wanted to talk in person using the virtual meeting technology.  He halfway expected that he'd be sitting alone, waiting to be needed.  But about 3/4 of the class showed up, and they talked for hours.

In a way, I was thrilled.  How wonderful that some students want to talk Philosophy.  But I had to keep remembering that he was on the clock; I kept quiet, of course, but as I got tired, I wasn't sure what to do.  Our bed is in view of his broadcasting area; if I went to bed, his students might wonder what was happening in the background.

We can fix this in the future by pinning a curtain to obscure the view of the bed.  But I didn't want to interrupt his class last night.

--Did I sketch last night?  No.  So I decided that I must sketch this morning.  I am part of an online journaling class that's exploring Cynthia Bourgeault's Mystical Hope.  I wanted to hear Pachelbel's Canon in D, the first piece of classical music that I really loved.  I found the first version of it that I loved, the one by George Winston.

--What moved my brain to John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery"?   I don't know, but I did a Google search: "make me an angel that flies from Montgomery." I wanted to see who had covered that John Prine song. I was not surprised by all the versions. I was surprised that this search would yield some porn. I suppose that every search does these days. 

--I found a friend's Facebook response to her friend that said she would always be Gen X in her soul.  I made this comment:  "If I wrote songs, I'd write one called Gen X in your soul. It would be a wistful, John Prine kind of song, and it would make an oblique reference to angels that fly from Montgomery."

--I did find it soothing to take a break, to read something that wasn't disease related, to sketch.  Here's what I created this morning:

Here's the quote, in case you can't read it:  "Must we be whiplashed incessantly between joy and sorrow, expectation and disappointment?" (p. 2-3).  The book is a sustained answer to that question.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Live Streaming Church

My church did live streaming a bit differently yesterday.  We usually live stream via Facebook, but we're usually broadcasting the church service that we're having as a congregation.  Yesterday, most of the congregation watched/participated from a distance.

It wasn't as stark as some of the services I've seen, the types where one pastor stands in an empty sanctuary.  In addition to our pastor, we had our organist and 5 choir members.  I was there to operate the camera by way of an iPad.

We didn't do virtual communion, but other than that, the service wasn't vastly different from what we usually do.  Our choir did some gathering music and a hymn, then we had some readings from the Bible, a kyrie along the way, a sermon, some more music, and then some prayers.  We ended with a benediction and a sending.

As we did virtual church, we heard from many people about how much it meant to them.  Hurrah!  We has 177 views, which may not tell us as much as the fact that we had 70+ comments.

We also heard about glitchiness.  It's an interesting problem:  what happens when a nation of churches all go online to stream a worship service on a Sunday morning?  We're also in an older building with lots of concrete to block wireless Internet signals.

My pastor is already thinking of creative ways to use this new-to-us approach in innovative ways.  It's great to simply duplicate what we would ordinarily do in person.  But what if this technology could let us do more?

I know that it can, but I don't know what it will look like. It will probably look like thousands of different approaches, some of which will be adaptable to other churches, some of which will only work with the local congregation.

I'm glad to see all the interesting experiments.  I know we didn't have much choice, but I'm glad so many of us are embracing the opportunities.