Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Update... better late than never

I have not, as it may have appeared from my lack of communication in recent months, fallen off the face of the earth. I have simply been consumed by my work here in seminary and without words or the energy to write more than the required papers and reflections. After a lovely but all too short visit with my husband and my parents for Christmas I am back at it again.

Last semester was a more difficult one than I anticipated, with classes in Field Education, Constructive Theology, Ethics, and a Special Reading Course to study the theological and ritual/liturgical responses to Suicide. Immersing myself into my classes is not new, but certainly can be draining when one is also trying to balance it with outside activities and a social life!

I am truly grateful to be in a fabulous Field Education parish: Holy Cross. They view themselves as a teaching parish, and have welcomed me with open arms. I gave the homily at the Blessing of the Animals in October, as well as participating in several small groups – my primary involvement is with the Healing Team – serving on the altar, and most recently, participating in the annual Women’s Retreat. I have also spent the third Sunday of each month, as much as possible, at the local military Chapel. This is giving me a lot of insight into the experiences of a Reservist as well as keeping me connected with my Army community.

Ethics was probably the next easiest, if you could call it that.  The professor has a way of teaching that makes almost anything interesting and brings out the best in his students. I was both challenged and strengthened in my understanding of the ethical formation I received within my own development, although I had not realized that I was being formed in such a way. We focused on the Anglican traditions, mostly because they are the most helpful in understanding how our Church has come to believe and act as it does today. To wrestle with my classmates with current issues and see them from various perspectives throughout history was truly informative and I have to say that I have a much deeper appreciation of where we are now and how we have come to take the stands that we have.

I must admit that Constructive Theology is not my strong point, although the class was full of people who bring up the most amazing discussion points out of the readings which provides a rich feast of new ideas and points of view that I suspect I would not have found on my own. The professor  gives us readings that challenge as well as teach us, and has high expectations of our writings and engagement with the class material. I often felt as if I were falling short of those expectations but did well enough in the class that clearly something was sinking in!

The class that challenged me the most, however, was my Special Reading Course on Suicide. I worked with my advisor as I researched and formulated the beginnings of a theological response to suicide within the framework of the Episcopal Church. There is not much out there, and in my research I discovered more rabbit-trails to follow that draw me in and inform my ministry. One such area is the development of liturgical/ritual material such as a small Office for use while keeping vigil with someone who is suicidal; there is so much rich imagery to hold onto and pray with in the midst of crisis. I have also become deeply interested in pursuing research into Moral Injury, a concept that is finally being recognized as a possible trigger for suicides among combat veterans.

In November, I planned a Community Night Eucharist that was followed by a forum to honor Veteran’s Day. I was pleasantly surprised by the support I received from the community around this, from the participation in the Eucharist to the discussion and questions that were brought up during the forum. I invited two Chaplains, both Army Reservists, as well as having my husband and one of my classmates and her family; her husband recently retired from a career in the Coast Guard and their children offered their perspectives as well. I am still hearing people’s reactions and so am hoping to plan another one for next year.

During January, I participated in an Intersession course that took us into the inner city of East Oakland and San Francisco. The course was taught by the founder of City of Refuge UCC Church. We met those who minister to and work with populations I probably would never have met, as well as spending time with some of the people who are served by those ministries. These included a Transgender support group, a food pantry, a hot meal program, and a women’s shelter; we also met with the staff or ministers of programs such as transition housing for those who are in recovery and living with HIV/AIDS, and a transitional support program for young offenders leaving Juvenile Hall and returning to their families.

In the coming semester I am taking the second parts of both Field Education and Constructive Theology as well as Homiletics and a class on the Theology and practical responses to Trauma. Both of my Field Ed placements are anxious to have me preach again, and I look forward to the unique challenges that each presents.

I truly hope that each of you continues to be well. You remain in my prayers always and I am grateful for your prayerful support of this work that I am doing.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Saint Francis and the Animals

On Sunday evening I was the preacher for our outdoor service for blessing animals. Being an outdoor service with a collection of pets who couldn't care less about what I said, I went for short and sweet. I actually loved the challenge of preaching with the cars whizzing by on one side and a trio of French Bulldogs wheezing away on the other, looking out over a collection of dogs, a cat, and a rat.

Here is the manuscript, although as with all of my preaching and talks there was plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to take over and edit on the fly!

It is big. Shaggy. Scary. Many of you have seen it, lurking in the shadows waiting to attack. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve heard the stories. The howls, the attacks. No fear, you friends tell you. It isn’t afraid of anything. Even the town dogs can’t defend anyone or anything from it. Some of them have even been eaten. It won’t stay in the hills, and it isn’t satisfied with attacking the flocks. Rumors say it even attacks people. The Wolf.

But most people are distracted. They aren’t here for the wolf. They are here for a more interesting reason. Your Italian city of Gubbio is the temporary home for the renowned preacher, Francis. He isn’t much to look at, in his patched and rough brown wool garment, barefoot, tonsured. But he draws people in to listen to him. He has that charisma, that genuine caring about every living creature that gets close to him.

He preaches about the gospel, how the kingdom of God is drawing near. Rumor says that he heard the Gospel say to sell everything and give alms; to not worry about anything but to trust God to provide for every need. If God cares for the every sparrow, how much more will God care for His faithful children? Francis teaches people to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and unlike the priests, he is out among the ordinary people. Like us. He doesn’t live in a fancy palace or wear expensive clothes. Yours are probably worth more than his.

One day, while Francis is teaching about all of creation being his brothers and sisters, someone in the back of the crowd whispers a remark about the wolf. It was meant as a whispered comment to his neighbor, but someone overheard it and it shot through the crowd. He stopped, and someone explained to him that your town is under attack from this terrible creature. He goes on teaching, but when he is done and the crowd begins to disperse you notice that he is whispering to his followers. They gather themselves together and head out of town, up into the hills.

Soon his followers come straggling back, a look of fear on their faces as each passes back into town. Then, Francis comes back. But he most certainly isn’t alone. Pacing alongside him is the wolf. It certainly looks fierce, the way the whispered stories describe it. Francis enters the marketplace where everyone is gathering, and when he reaches the center he stops. The wolf quietly sits beside him. All eyes are turned to this unlikely pair. Francis explains to you that the wolf is hungry, and looking for food. If we, as a town, agree to feed him, the wolf will no longer attack our animals or people. You hear the quiet roar as the people around you talk to their neighbors about this turn of events. Eventually, one of your leaders calls out your assent.

We will feed the wolf. But how do we know that the wolf will keep his end of the bargain?

Francis ignores that question for a moment as he turns to speak to the pack of dogs in one of the alleyways. He tells them that if they will not bother the wolf, the wolf will leave them alone. Someone in the crowd snickers, and it echoes over the quiet heads of the people who are watching and waiting to see what this crazy holy man will do next.

He turns to the wolf, reaches out a hand, and blesses him.

This is the sign to assure us that the wolf will keep its end of the bargain?

A blessing, indeed.

Of course, this is all based on legends about a real man. A real saint. Francis of Assisi. He really did exist, and he really did talk about all of creation being his family. One of the more famous poems or prayers that he wrote is called Canticle of the Sun, or Praise of Creation. He talks about Brother Sun and Sister Moon; Lady Poverty and Sister Death. It really is no wonder that he has become the patron saint of the environment (and animals)! But it is for stories like this about the wolf of Gubbio and his preaching to the birds that we most strongly associate Francis with blessing animals.

For many of us, our animals are indeed our family, certainly they are our close companions and friends. In Francis we find someone who is not afraid to agree with us, who is not afraid to say that as part of creation, these creatures deserve the blessings of God just as much as humans do.

And so, around the feast of Saint Francis we gather together to celebrate, bless, and remember our companions of the not so human variety. We bring them, or the memories of those who have gone ahead of us, to the arms of God and we bless them. Because even though Jesus was undoubtedly human, none of us can say for sure that God doesn’t come into our lives through the love of our pets.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Poem

This poem appeared in my life when I needed a reminder to look to one of my favorite teachers. Some spiritualities might say that the Oak is my totem or spirit tree. I just know that oaks are an important part of my life story, and they give me strength and peace.

"The Oak Tree"

A mighty wind blew night and day.
It stole the oak tree's leaves away,
Then snapped its boughs and pulled its bark
Until the oak was tired and stark.
But still the oak tree held its ground
While other trees fell all around.
The weary wind gave up and spoke,
"How can you still be standing, Oak?"
The oak tree said, "I know that you
Can break each branch of mine in two.
Carry every leaf away,
Shake my limbs, and make me sway.
But I have roots stretched in the earth,
Growing stronger since my birth.
You'll never touch them, for you see,
They are the deepest part of me.
Until today, I wasn't sure
Of just how much I could endure.
But now I've found, with thanks to you,
I'm stronger than I ever knew."

 - Anonymous

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Health in School

The beginning of this semester has been full of wonderful conversations with my classmates around keeping healthy while we are all in seminary. There have been many truisms that sound like platitudes: this is the time to learn how to take care of yourself before you have a parish to take care of; how can you model health if you do not have it yourself; and my personal favorite - this is not the time to get sick (!). Many of my classmates and I heard these throughout our first year together, and then again as the newest class began to join us, and we wondered what this meant for us and how to live it out faithfully and honestly.

I will admit that last year was all about the academics. And this year looks like it will be more of the same, with a healthy dash of hands-on field experience. But nowhere was there really room to make my health a priority. I am focused on preparing for the ministry God is calling me into, but ironically the physical readiness part of that has been left completely out of the picture.

This semester is going to be a difficult one. I have four classes that are challenging me in ways I never dreamed I would be stretched. I have, essentially, a part time job as a seminarian in my field education parish. But my "fifth class" - the one I would have audited - is one that I have to take as seriously as the others. Personal health and wellness. How do I not let me spiritual life get trampled in the crush of school and parish work? What about physical health - eating well and moving my body? How do I nourish myself so that I am giving generously out of an abundance of energy and love and not giving grudgingly out of a well run so dry that I can no longer function?

Perhaps it is this lesson in caring for myself in every way that is the foundation for all of what my classes will be teaching me. It is certainly an important lesson to learn.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Patriot's Day

Today is a rather poignant day. It isn't just another day, and as I have just completed some reflection papers that are introductions to various classes and am looking at resources for a class on Death and Dying with a special focus on Suicide, Violent and/or Sudden Death I am reminded of just how much my outlook on this day has changed in the last 11 years.

When the attacks first happened, I was more worried about how to get my mom (who was traveling and scheduled to fly) home than I was about any other immediate impact. It wasn't until days later that it truly sank in to me just how horrific this was. I was in Boston on the first anniversary of the attacks, and I appreciated just how much more deeply the Eastern region of our country was affected than the West Coast had been. Then I married a former soldier, and I began to have a glimmer of how it affected all of the veterans in our country to have seen us under attack, and to see how the gradual forgetting that we still have soldiers in the theater of war nagged at them in ways unsuspected by the general public. Then my husband returned to the Army and I began my journey toward Army Chaplaincy, and in a place where my very presence as a connection to the military can be awkward and upsetting I am now finding myself pondering the deeper effects of those attacks.

I find myself wondering how I can find time today to travel to a nearby military installation, to avoid the inevitable small conflicts that arise when I wear my identity as an Army Wife and Future Chaplain openly here in this place. My emotions are closer to the surface today, and I just want to be with others who share at least a little of my understanding of how these attacks are still fresh in so many ways in the spirits of those who serve in uniform. I want to be in a place where I am not made hyper-aware of how I am a target for those who are seeking to vent their frustrations with our government and its policies now and in the past just because I am called to serve those who serve. I am aware that today in particular I may be inviting more than the usual engagement with this community, and that I myself am unusually aware of the uniqueness of my presence and call in this setting.

Yet I am consciously and carefully dressed in a shirt and sweatshirt that proudly say United States Army. I hold my head high as I walk down the street and across campus. Today most especially. I am proud of our armed forces, and I am humbled that God is calling me to serve these heroes in whatever small way that I can.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

It has been a while...

... since I have written. I know. Whatever happened to my discipline and keeping up the regular updates over the summer? For that matter, what happened to the summer?

Actually, this summer was quite unsettling for a person who likes to feel as if her roots are steady and solid. I actually had to print out a schedule months in advance to know where I was going to be, when I was going to be there. I think two or three weeks was the longest I ever managed to stay in one place at a time! I am grateful for the opportunities to spend a few days at a time with my husband and parents, to visit my home parish, and to move forward in the ordination/discernment process. I also spent 10 days in Indianapolis, representing my school at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and a week immersing myself in the experience that is Vacation Bible School at my Field Education parish.

I have been busy with hospitality for new residents and students who are going through Orientation this week, and then I dive into my classes on Tuesday. My schedule sounds straightforward, but there is a lot of reading and research involved in my classes. I am taking Christian Ethics in Anglican Tradition, Theology I: Introducing Practice, Introduction to Theological Field Education, and a Special Reading course examining the theology of suicide and sudden or violent death along with pastoral/ritual responses to such deaths and the threat of dying suddenly or violently. Looks easy, right?

I am truly looking forward to this semester, with only four classes plus my field education and extracurricular activities it should be quite busy and full. It feels good to be back in this community and in this place, though it also feels as if pieces are missing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Working Vacation

I am back home in the cottage after a lovely extended visit with my husband. Unfortunately, since I left immediately after the end of the school year, I am facing the aftermath of the last month or so of school when it seemed like all I did was eat, sleep, and work on papers or study for tests. Of course, that was on top of the mess left when my husband moved to his new Duty Station. So it is one crazy mess here in this cozy little cottage, and I am taking one day at a time to work on it slowly. Finding places to put things that makes sense when I am busy and don't want to take a lot of time to pick up all the time.

I am realizing just how much being a bi-locational couple has turned my world upside-down. It isn't that we weren't prepared. It is simply that as much as we talked about the possibility that we would be geographically separated at least once in both of our careers nothing can prepare you for the reality of what it is like. The sense of dislocation and emptiness after a visit together. The strangeness of rearranging your apartment to fit your "alone" life instead of the way it fits when there are two of you. Even having your "alone" life and your "together" life - having to have those different parts at all.

During the school year it was easy to focus on my ministry. In this pause I am facing the reality of the Army Wife side of myself. Learning this aspect of my walk that much more clearly. I had hoped it would be all about the Future Soldier side of me; that this Summer break would be about exercise and eating well. And in some ways it is. But it is far more about learning to be a soldier's wife who is also a future soldier and not a future soldier who happens to be a soldier's wife. Funny how there is such a distinction there. It looks like a matter of word order, but it is much deeper than that.

I will always be a soldier's wife. Soon I will be soldier, and lose the "future" in front of it. Therein lies the difference. Even when I am a seasoned Chaplain ministering in the Army many years from now I will still be a soldier's wife. That is a part of my self now, a part that influences how I read the news, how I prepare for my own life as a soldier, how I pray, how I engage with community and friends.

I hadn't realized the difference it made until we had to learn to live as a geographically separated couple. I look around me and I see couples happily all over each other and I swallow a stab of jealousy that I didn't even know existed. I see them everywhere. Couples walking hand in hand through the streets, sitting together in church, filling the restaurants and coffee shops I walk past in my neighborhood. Sometimes I just want to scream. I see them talking together and I think about how I have to wait until we can find a time when we both can be on the phone if I want to have even a simple conversation with my husband. I think about the letters I write when he is out it the field and there is no contact for days and weeks at a time. The text messages that can make my heart flutter just because they are a moment of connection for us - even the ones that just say Hello.

At school I know I am not the only one who is geographically separated from their spouse/partner/spartner/significant other/whatever you choose to call your other half. We can talk about it and encourage each other through the difficult days. I know that I am lucky to have a community that is understanding and supportive through this experience. It still hurts sometimes.

There are good sides to this aspect of our life together. I am forced to be fully independent. I have to squish my own spiders, change my own light bulbs, make sure the car is maintained, do everything to make sure that life continues to run smoothly. I have to think for myself and not always talk it over with my husband before making a decision. I am learning to accept the support of the community around me and to love that community as a family in a way that I had not understood before.

When Fr. Mike pointed out that I am on a Trinitarian Path, I agreed but didn't see that all three strands of my path were equal. I thought the Army Wife path was just a thread along the side of my Army Chaplain path. It certainly wasn't much in comparison to my Seminarian path. How wrong I was. It is just as important for me to be learning and experiencing as the other two.