Sunday, December 31, 2006

Moose Breath

Sadie misses her hometown.

She lives 30 minutes away from Tickle Cove on a fairly busy road in Charleston. There are kids in the neighborhood, and some parents, but none she is as close to as her family.

In Newfoundland, even a half hour seems strangely far away. I think it might be a relic of outport life, when people were completely isolated from all but the nearest towns and villages and were accessible only when it was safe to sail because there were not any roads. As recently as 50 years ago, Sadie's hometown would have been the end of the world in winter. It sits on a peninsula, straddling a finger shaped inlet of water (called a tickle in Newfoundland dialect). On either side of the inlet, rugged cliffs rise towards the sky. Most of the town is snuggled between these two cliffs, which protect the houses from the full force of the wind.

For Sadie, marrying an Anglican and moving to his hometown a half hour away must have felt like leaving ones homeland for another country.

I sat in her kitchen and tried to carry on a conversation with constant interruption from her youngest daughter. We spoke of her aspirations to go back to college for a few courses, and her dream of getting a job once Anna starts school. We talked about how much she misses living in the rugged landscape of Tickle Cove, and how she doesn't get over there as often as she'd like.

When I first walked in the kitchen it smelled more like a Sunday dinner than a quick lunch with a friend. She made chicken fingers and smiley fries for the kids, but for us, she had made pot roasted moose and homemade mashed potatoes. These she served with pickled beets and a cup of hot tea. I had seconds.

I stayed for a couple of hours, realizing that I MUST be getting used to Newfoundland because I didn't try and clear my own plate and I could understand Sadie's accent much better than the first time I met her, 5 years ago.

In Newfoundland, it doesn't take long to become lifelong friends. This might very well be another artifact of outport life.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Letters from Newfoundland

Though we have only been here three times before, it is clear that we are part of the community. On Christmas Eve we went to church in Sweetbay and knew at least 4 or 5 folks in the congregation and were warmly welcomed by several more. Even the old priest seemed to recognize me from the mass for the dead held in the cemetary a year and a half ago.

So, when I heard that our friends, Kathy and Sam, had lost their 25 year old son unexpectedly in October, we sent a condolance card and our prayers. By return mail we received a mass card with his picture and a beautiful poem printed on the back. We stopped by Kathy and Sam's little store today when we were in Tickle Cove. After chatting in the store for a few minutes, Kathy invited us over to her house for tea. She pulled out cookies and cakes and candy for the children. From the refrigerator she retrieved a tray of sliced ham. She opened the oven door to reveal a shelf full of tinfoil wrapped parcels, one of which contained sliced turkey which she placed on the table with the ham. Meanwhile she heated up a brown sugar sauce into which we were to dip our ham.

She told us about her son's last day. She talked about the funeral. She laughed when she described the church at his mass. It was October 31st, and since one of his favorite days was Halloween, the priest let them give out their Halloween candy after the mass and decorate the church with pumpkins. Gregory was buried in the Catholic churchyard overlooking the bay on All Saints day. There is a decorated Christmas tree on his grave right now, as Christmas was his VERY favorite time of year.

Kathy and Sam have spent the last 25 years of their life caring for Gregory because he had autism and in Newfoundland, the nearest program for him was 3 1/2 hours away. They are having a hard time figuring out what to do with their time these days.

When I excused myself to use the bathroom, I noticed that there was no mirror on the wall.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

On the bedside table: Prayer: Living with God

I have been reading a book that Fr. P gave me:

Prayer: Living with God, by Simon Tugwell.

Actually, when he handed it to me, Fr. P said

"If you like it, I am giving it to you. If you don't like it, I am lending it."

I hate to tell you, Fr. P, but I hope you have another copy kicking around somewhere, because I am loving it.

Since I was still in the midst of the Imitation of Christ, I didnt' start it until last week, but now that I am into it, I am having a hard time putting it down. I am finding it rich enough that I need to put it down, though, so I can digest what I am reading.

Tugwell's book is about building a relationship with God. It is not a how-to manual, as the title implies, but more of a description of the action of God in our lives and the ways that we can open ourselves to that action. He talks about the pitfalls we sometimes experience when we 'Live with God', as well as ways to help avoid them.

He also talks quite a bit about God's nature as it is revealed in scripture, especially as it relates to man's spiritual development. For example, in talking about God's mercy with regard to our fallen state, Tugwell believes that God's act of kicking Adam and Eve out of the Garden was an act of mercy and love. What would be worse than eating of the tree of eternal life after they had already experienced spiritual death? By sending them out, God offers the possibility of redemption. It was an act of mercy. This particular passage caught my attention because I had come to that very conclusion a couple of years ago when reading Genesis with my bible study group. (This, of course, convinces me that Tugwell is a genius! LOL)

I haven't finished the book yet, but can say that it is one that I will go back to again and again. It is great Advent reading.

Thanks, Fr. P!

What's on your bedside table these days?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

It sneaks up on you

Early Advent is such a bleak, empty, place. Even with a confession and a wreath on the table, church activities and general cheer and goodwill, there is a distinct sense of darkness in the time before the light.

For me, it seems that Rose Sunday is the turning point. I begin to hear the lyrics of the Messiah differently. I begin to understand the daily psalms more clearly. I find connections in the books I read and the sermons I hear. Where before was blank, now my soul is beginning to feel filled with love.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

In praise of mangers

I often hear about what a mean place our Lord was born in. People emphasize his humble beginnings by talking about the stink and cold of a manger in the middle of winter.

It wasn't the Taj Mahal, to be sure, but I can tell you from personal experience that a barn is a lovely place to be at any time of year. And having had two children in a hospital, I can say with all honesty that I wouldn't have minded birthing in a barn at all.

Barns are warm. The animals keep them that way. In fact, if there are a few sheep around, you can lie among them and they don't seem to mind a bit. And contrary to most reports, I have found that barns smell wonderful. They are earthy and sweet with hay and sweat and animal shit, which, unless you are dealing with pigs, doesn't tend to smell bad at all. (I am pretty sure the 1st century Jews were not keeping pigs.) As a child I grew up on a farm and spent quite a lot of time hanging out in the barns with the sheep and goats and cows and grew to love the sounds and smells of the animals. The cozy feel of the hay when I would lie down in it. The warmth of a sheep's breath in my face as she investigated this strange interloper. It is a peaceful place. A quiet place.

The perfect place.


Here's the game: A friend assigns a letter and you have to come up with ten things you are grateful for that begin with that letter. If you would like to play, let me know and I'll send you a letter! This game has a faintly Kabbalistic element to it. The ancient Hebrews believed that God imbued each letter with a nature of it's own... and that words that began or contained that letter were, by nature, connected.

Antony assigned me the letter "D" for Dunk, of course!

In doing this exercise, I found D a difficult and demanding letter. It can be somewhat dour by nature, but also disciplined and dedicated. Things I can use more of in my spiritual life. I am delighted to bring you: The letter D.

1. The Dunk. This was obvious, but truly I haven't been more grateful for anything in my life. The day I walked into that pond and got submerged was the day that God entered my heart and set up shop. So much has happened since then, I almost can't remember what life was like before. The biggest gift God gave me that day was to introduce me to his son, Jesus.

2. Dancing. I just love to feel music in my body. A couple months ago we went to a French Farmer's Market, complete with an Acadian band from Maine. They were singing in French and playing fiddles and concertinas and tapping shoes and I was all alone in front of their little stage, dancing away.

When Noah was younger, he used to dance all the time. Even now he moves so beautifully to music.

And today, Emmett went to see The Nutcracker Ballet and couldn't stop dancing this afternoon.

3. Daybreak. I am not normally an early riser, but dawn is a time of extraordinary beauty. When I lived in Hawaii, I woke up very early one morning and watched the purple clouds over the mountain, turn pink, then orange, then finally, white, as the sun rose. I'll never forget it.

4. Dwelling- I am grateful for my little, 1920's Dutch Colonial Revival with the terrible plumbing and abused wood floors, leaky French doors and decrepit cedar shingles. It is the home we have lived in for 12 years now. We were a young, childless couple here. We had babies here. Now we are raising two beautiful boys and a naughty rabbit here. My only regret is that we can't have a chicken (zoning laws) but that is a small thing compared to the delight I feel living in this great neighborhood with my lovely family.

5. Daily Office- I don't do the whole thing, but every day I read the evening psalms from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and follow it with a sort of a prayer meme: Sins I have committed or things I must apologize for, Praise and Thanks to God, Intercessions for others (this is where many of you wind up!) and finally, prayers for myself, which often revolve around not repeating what was in the first part....

6. Divina, Lectio- (snuck that one in!) A small group of us meet each week at Grace, for about 50 minutes, and read the gospel lesson and meditate on what God is saying to us through the reading. It is an ancient practice made fresh every week by the real engagement of everyone who attends. I am so grateful for this addition to my spiritual life. We are learning about each other and praying for each other and God is at the center of it all. How often does that happen on a regular basis in real life, I ask?

7. Depth- In water, prayer, relationships, self awareness, relationship with God. I am grateful for the ability to swim at the deep end of the spiritual pool and be fearless even when I am in over my head. God buoys me up when I am feeling afraid. He urges me back to the shallow end when I need comforting.

8. Doing- It is my nature to know things. I read books about stuff. I join online lists about things as varied as electric kitchen mixers and (in a past life) the history of tarot cards. I become an expert. But it is all too easy to be an egghead and never actually do anything. I am at a stage in my life, both with my family and with God, where the doing is everything. I can't be an expert at parenting. I can't be the smartest, most well read Christian. What I can do is do it, imperfectly, everyday. I can play with my kids. I can walk up to the altar and take communion. I can lay hands on a sick person and let the spirit of God rush through me. And I can cook and do dishes and grocery shop and make a comfortable and loving place for friends and family to gather.

9. Death- Not necessarily the physical kind. I am human enough to feel great pain at the death of a friend or relative. But spiritual death has been a blessing for me. A relationship with God invites us to die to our old selves. We let go of what we used to believe and think and do. We see everything in terms of our relationship with him. It becomes the compass point by which we navigate our lives. 'He shall break you like a potter's vessel' used to be such a terrifying concept. Now I joyfully offer myself to be broken, so that God can put me back together again as he sees fit.

10. Disciple- Oh God, For this I can never thank you enough. You have graciously accepted me as your disciple. You are my teacher and friend. You are my Beloved. You are my God. Grant that I may be a worthy disciple to you, always.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Grist for the mill

I am still a member of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship email list. Admittedly, I'm mostly a lurker these days, but I stay on because I have met many of these people in person and am interested in their faith journeys.

Last week, there was a discussion about prayer and worship in UU churches... and how those things tend to be de-emphasized, or renamed, so that people who have been wounded by their past religious experiences will have a safe haven.

As I read the discussion, I found myself getting upset about the whole idea of tossing out prayer and worship because it might make someone uncomfortable. I believe a religious life is meant to challenge and make us uncomfortable. That is part of what stretches us. Religion is not a club. It isn't just about coffee hour and social outreach. It is a process of transformation (or even sanctification). How can transformation happen when there is no challenge to your current status quo?

The fact is, no church can be everything to everyone. But I honestly believe that spiritual growth requires personal growth. We must be stretched... sometimes far beyond what we think we can handle... in order to grow closer to God. I also believe that God must be at the center of any church in order for it to flourish. When God goes missing, the church is in deep trouble. Nothing man made can hold it together.

'If it wasn't screwed on' department...

For the past two months we have been planning to go to Newfoundland for Christmas.

When are you leaving? Folks would ask.

We are heading out the Thursday before Christmas and coming back the Thursday after Christmas, I'd reply.

Except we aren't.

I finally printed down our itinerary this morning and realized that we are, in fact, scheduled to fly out on Friday. In a minor panic, I called my step mother to let her know that I was off by a day.

I knew that, she said.

So how did I mess it up, I wonder? I joke about early onset dementia, but really, I have found that I am much more flaky lately than I used to be. Is it age? Or am I just in la la land all the time? I have a calendar, and actually write things in it. But somehow that doesn't seem to help me to register that I have committed to be somewhere or do something.

Luckily for me, I caught this in time and we had a great chuckle about it. But I can tell you right now, if we had showed up at Logan Airport a day early... well, let's just say I don't think Nguyen and the kids would have found the humor in it.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Friday Five

For this mid-December Friday Five, let's explore some Yuletide favorites.

1) It's a Wonderful Life--Is it? Do you remember seeing it for the first time?

Here's the thing: I don't believe I have ever watched the thing all the way through. Even though I am a vintage movie fan, and LOVE Jimmy Stewart, I have never warmed up to this movie. Sacrilege, I know. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, by the way, is another thing entirely.

2) Miracle on 34th Street--old version or new? Haven't seen the new, liked the old.

3) Do you have a favorite incarnation of Mr. Scrooge? My former step father played him at Trinity Rep here in RI. I loved his version because, well, I recognized it, LOL!

4) Why should it be a problem for an elf to be a dentist? I've been watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for years now, and I still don't get it.

Because Santa is a fascist?

5) Who's the scariest character in Christmas specials/movies?

I love the Bumble. But my favorite scary character happens to be in my favorite Christmas movie, which, oddly, wasn't mentioned in this Friday Five:

Scut Farcus in "A Christmas Story" is the scariest of all characters.

Confession v 2.0

No one said I had to. Not my spiritual director, or my parish priest. Not my mother or father or friends. Not my UU minister or my husband.

But God did. God planted the idea of confession inside me and let it sit in the dry soil of my heart until baptism must have watered it enough to grow.

This time it wasn't as scary. I had my list scratched out in a little notebook (an oddly whimsical one I bought for the first confession last summer.) My biggest fear was that I didn't have enough stuff to confess. I was concerned about whether I was diligent enough in my preparation.

The smell of old incense hung in the air of the Lady Chapel. The chairs squeaked as I knelt to pray.

"Open my heart, oh Lord. Let me be fearless and humble. Let me be truthful and complete. Create in me a clean heart, oh Lord."

We used the Anglican version of the prayerbook, which is unabashedly traditional in it's language. "Forgive me Father, for I have sinned." I hadn't noticed before that the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer leaves 'Father' out. With apologies to all the women priests out there, I must confess that I like saying that line. "Father" in this case, means both my confessor, and God. If I ever confess to a woman, I might have to say "Forgive me, mother and Father..."

I had a harder time identifying sins this time around. It is a subtle thing, teasing apart what is sin versus temptation. And when does temptation give way to sin? There were a few things I was certain of, mostly because I got a sick little feeling inside when I thought of them. But some were subtle, so at the end of the confession, Fr. P spoke about how to understand what a sin actually is. The questions he asked while I confessed also offered clues for next time.

It is not surprising, I suppose, that the motherload of my sins have to do with the way I treat my husband and children. In the future, whenever I commit the sin of spiritual pride, I need only reflect on breakfast this morning, or getting ready for church last week, to be quickly brought back to my senses. Now that I have gone to confession a couple of times, my husband jokes when I act badly: "Better write that one down for the next confession!" Brat.

We used a different confessional box than last time, but the step was just as hard on my knees. I could barely walk afterwards. This time there was a crucifix attached right to the screen separating me from Fr. P. As my pain geared up, I leaned my head against the wood and reached up to touch the figure of Christ. It is like that in life, too, isn't it? That in the midst of pain, we reach for him who holds all of our pain within Himself.

So it was that a couple of days before the beginning of Advent, I spoke my sins. I felt safe. And was relieved when Fr. P pronounced it a humble offering. In the years or decades to come, he said, you may come to understand the nature of sin more clearly.

After absolution, I went back to the pews to say a psalm of thanksgiving. Then I left the church and walked down the street towards my car a few blocks away, weeping for joy.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Where did this kid come from?

Emmett might be the only kid in the world who is actually disappointed when he has to stay home from school. This morning, as we were about to leave, I felt his head and he definitely had a fever, so instead of walking them, I dropped off Noah and buzzed straight to the pharmacy for some cough medicine and children's chewable tylenol. Emmett was crushed to miss pizza lunch day and his wonderful first grade class.

Emmett takes after Nguyen in terms of coping with discomfort. He almost never complains. It isn't a matter of stoicism. More that he is just too busy with other things to be bothered with a little cough or headache.

Noah is more like me: a complete whinypants. I feel outraged when I am sick. I tell everyone. I mope and pout. I even cry sometimes. That is basically how Noah handles illness too.

I can relate to Noah. I aspire to act like Emmett.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Howling Wilderness

We are going to Newfoundland for Christmas. I admit I am a little intimidated about the traveling. I don't think I have ever traveled for Christmas before, and it seems unnatural to be worrying about packing gifts in a suitcase. Suddenly weight and volume and breakability seem important.

Plus, we are woefully unprepared for real cold. Our fall has been so very warm we have yet to get the boys new boots or gloves or hats or snow pants. So I made a big trip to Walmart today for all those things, plus boots for Nguyen and gloves and hats for both of us. It is going to take a whole suitcase just to pack all THAT stuff.

In the midst of all this, I wonder about Christmas services. Will we find an Anglican church nearby? Will they have a midnight mass? (Or even a 10pm one, LOL!) Will my parents join us? (I suspect not...)

I am so grateful for Thomas a Kempis right now. Reading the Imitation is the one thing that is keeping me grounded in the Holiness of this season.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Morning pillow talk...

'The thing about having God in my life is that I have come to face the fact that I am a screw up. I have come to accept that I am not the person I dreamed of being. But I have such a sense that God loves me anyway, unconditionally, that I can forgive myself and accept myself and even love myself and stop judging myself. It is a joyful way to live. What is ironic is that when I stop pretending to be something I am not, I come closer to being the something I dream of being.'

Monday, December 11, 2006

A quiet afternoon

I had planned to go to the grocery store today. Really.

But at noon I decided to lay down for a little while. It has been a pretty hectic couple of weeks and this is the first day I have actually had some quiet time.

By the time I woke up, it was almost 2. No time to get to the store before picking the kids up at school.

So in the gloom of the winter afternoon, I lay in bed and drifted in and out, thinking of God and the people I love.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Second Sunday in Advent

Part 1.

I am not sure whether our visitor was on drugs, or if he was mentally ill, but something wasn't quite right with the young man who found his way to our Lectio Divina group this morning. He looked a lot like my friends from high school did. He was dressed in a kind of artsy way, with black leather pants, a pair of combat boots held together with duct tape, a purple plaid skirt and a green baseball shirt. And black knit hat with the top cut off. It wasn't the clothes that led me to believe that something was off with him. It was that he would laugh at totally inappropriate moments, almost continuously, like it was a tick, or like something was going on inside his head that the rest of us weren't privy to.

We were reading about John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord. (A passage I can never read without hearing the score to the Messiah in my head.) Our guest laughed while we read, one after another, and while we shared our feelings about the passage and what we thought God was telling us through it. He laughed when he read, when he shared, and when he listened. His prayer for his neighbor was so disjointed I found myself praying silently for her, because I know she needs it.

Later, in the nave, he was asleep in the last pew during the service.

He is in my prayers this week.

Part 2.

Behind the altar, on the East wall, there is a huge stained glass window of the crucifixion. It is divided into many panels, some with angels, some with onlookers gazing up at Christ on the cross. Above the scene, God hovers above, looking down at all that is happening.

This morning was a spectacularly clear day. In the winter light the sun is at a different angle than it is at any other time of the year, so the window was in deep shadow, save for a brilliant ray of light illuminating the panel of God. Christ was in darkness, along with all mourners and soldiers and townspeople and angels.

But as the service wore on, the sun was rising, and little by little, the images on the window came to life. First Christ. Then the Angels. And finally, the people below.

In that order.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Holy Spirit has entered the building

For the second time in a week, an atheist loved one of mine has mentioned the possibility of God's existence.

This time it was my husband, who late last night followed me upstairs and sat outside the bathroom as I was doing my, uh, business.

"You know" he said, "I don't believe in the Holy Trinity or anything, but maybe there IS something bigger than us out there..."

I asked if we could discuss this after I got out of the bathroom.

Now, I must admit that one of the most painful things about being a Christian is the fact that people you love in the world sometimes aren't. It is very very difficult to see the people you love suffering. And life without God, in my mind, is the worst kind of suffering. So even at midnight last night, as my husband spoke these words, my reaction was to want to gush all over him and jump up and down and shout 'alleluia' and 'amen' loud enough for my neighbors to hear.

But I am learning to keep my mouth shut and just ask a couple of questions to allow for further discussion. Tell me more... I said. What does God mean to you? If you think you might be ready to turn stuff over to God, what does that look like? Etc. etc.

He certainly wasn't ready to fall to his knees and recite the sinner's prayer. But he acknowledged, again, his realization that the people in the world he most admires have all been people of great faith.


I pray for all those who have not yet come to know you. I pray that they learn to trust you. I pray that they open their hearts so that you may fill them with love. I pray that they will find the joy that is only truly possible through you.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


My life feels chaotic these days. I am overextended in all kinds of ways. Work has been slamming. Church is in high gear. My brother is in the midst of a big move. The kids are busy. Nguyen is busy at work. (Thanks God.)

It's all hustle and bustle and very little time for quiet contemplation.

So, in the middle of all this madness, I decided I needed to take a moment and acknowledge that Christ really is at the center of it all. That I adore him. And that I am grateful that he came into the world to bring light to the darkness and healing to the broken.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Advent Gifts

Today I am grateful for my brother's life.

My brother just bought a house last week and I am spending a lot of time helping him with the move. We are having a lovely time together, packing and cleaning. On Sunday I spent the afternoon alone in the new place, washing and scrubbing and polishing and mopping. I bought a ton of cleaning stuff, including a string mop, two buckets, yellow latex gloves and a big bottle of Mister Clean. The old owners had an unfortunate potpourri addiction, so part of my mission was to try and get some of the lingering smell out of the air.

Yesterday, I spent the day in Jake's old apartment helping him pack. We blasted the music (From Carly Simon to AC/DC) and got a TON done. I have the packing mojo... so Jake was barely able to keep up with the box manufacturing as I was filling them so fast.

The moving truck came today, but I was busy with other stuff so I couldn't help with that part.

I called Jake this afternoon to check in on his moving progress and he told me that he had a narrow escape this morning. He was moving some tall shelves, which he thought were empty, when suddenly he realized that something was falling past him. It was a pair of very heavy, metal speakers that had been at the back of the top shelf. They fell so close to his head he could feel them going by.

Jake said to me

"I am beginning to believe that God of yours actually might exist. Tell him thanks. Even if I had lived, I would have ended up in the hospital, which would have sucked."

Tell him yourself, I laughed.

But I'll add my gratitude too:

Thank you, Beloved, for sparing my brother's life today.

And thank you for all the gifts of grace in the midst of our busy lives.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Friday Five: Advent

We are talkin' Advent at RevGalBlogPals this week... so here we go!

1) Do you observe Advent in your church?
Yes, we are doing Advent Lessons and Carols this Sunday evening... and have a HUGE Advent wreath that sits down center all throughout December. Tomorrow we are all meeting at a farm in the area to collect balsam greens to adorn the church with. This will be our first time participating in that.

2) How about at home?
I have been doing the Advent wreath for three years now. The first year, it was just 4 candles grouped in the center of the dining room table. This year, I bought one of those 'brasslike' candle holder doohickies that goes with a wreath. And an official set of candles from the Religious Supplies place. (My new favorite store, by the way...)

I also do bible readings at the dinner table, which usually just confuses the kids. But that in itself can be funny.

3) Do you have a favorite Advent text or hymn?
I love O Come O Come Emmanuel. Last year I tried to learn to play it on the piano in time for Christmas, but was using a 1930s hymnal and it was really hard, LOL. I am also a big fan of 'In the Bleak Midwinter'. Which of course makes no sense at all because I don't think there is usually snow in the Middle East, but heck, I am a sap for these things.

4) Why is one of the candles in the Advent wreath pink? (You may tell the truth, but I'll like your answer better if it's funny.)
Actually, they were all pink until Tinky Winky got hold of them....

5) What's the funniest/kitschiest Advent calendar you've ever seen?
Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be available here in the US... but Lego makes an Advent Calendar. Who knew?