Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Rough Re-entries

Yesterday was a tough re-entry back to "regular life."  I always wonder if the tough re-entry is a sign that I'm living a less than integrated life.  Or would yesterday have been a rough day regardless?

The day began with a fraud alert from my credit card.  I am grateful that my credit card is so vigilant.  I spent time on the phone going over charges, realizing that someone had my credit card number and was using it to buy 99 dollars worth of something at gas stations.

If you're going to steal my credit card, do something fun--fly to Paris!  Have a great meal!

So now the card is canceled, with new ones arriving today.  Now for the fun of setting up recurring payments again.  Sigh.

At lunch time, I met my spouse at the car rental place to return the car, a fairly simple transaction.  But we discovered that the insurance company hadn't extended our lease last week, so we might have to cover the cost.  Later in the day, I spent more time on the phone, and happily, all is well.

From the car rental place, we went to the car buying place.  My spouse had done a lot of the work on Sunday, but there were some additional signatures needed.  It sounds like it would be quick, right?  Well it is a legal transaction and a transfer of valuable property, so no, it wasn't speedy, but it was as quick as it could be.

I stopped at Trader Joe's on the way back to the office, where it was more like Dec. 20 than Jan. 20.  I swallowed my irritation and kept on.

Swallowing my irritation--yes, that's a good way to sum up yesterday.  In a way, my swallowing began on Sunday night, when my spouse spilled a glass of wine which went into his laptop.  Yes, the laptop that we spent hundreds of dollars to fix just three weeks ago.  Grr.

But finally, it was evening, and we settled into our dinner of pasta after a ride in the new-to-us car.  It's a Nissan Rogue, a hybrid which will probably not get the kind of gas mileage that my spouse would like.  But it has lumbar support, a feature that's hard to find in cars that are in our price range and get good gas mileage.  It's a hybrid, so we hope that it's not as tough on the planet as some cars.  Still, we aren't living lightly on the planet, and I remain unsure of what to do about that.

As I moved through the day, I reminded myself to look for the blessings.  I have a job where I can get away, which most people don't have these days.  My re-entry wasn't as rough as it would have been if I didn't have a good team.  We have resources, so we can replace possessions like drowned cars and computers.  We have cooking skills, food, and a lovely front porch on which to enjoy the food.  My spouse and I are still together, even when life gets difficult.

Let me also remember the biggest blessing:  I had a great experience which makes it hard to come back.  I had time with old friends as I moved through last week, and that, too, makes it hard to be back.  I am lucky that I have so many friends, people whom I miss when we are apart.  Last week my soul was fed in so many ways, which makes my hunger this week even more acute.

Monday, January 20, 2020

One Last Look Back at Onground Intensive before Re-Entry to Regular Life

I've had a long car trip and several conversations with old friends, so let me process the experience I've just had in the certificate program for spiritual direction.  I'm back from the first onground intensive and can't wait until the second one in June. 

I don't know that I learned much that I hadn't already been exposed to before.  But as with many subjects, it's always good to be reminded.  And the subject matter was stuff I love, so I didn't mind when I was hearing familiar material.  And there were always new nuggets.

Each intensive will have a different instructional focus, and this time's focus kept circling back to mysticism, the through a Christian lens mysticism.  So we had a session on Thomas Merton and one on icons and one on Celtic Christianity.  We had worship services that incorporated Celtic elements, including a beautiful, candlelit Compline with elements straight from Iona. Ahhhh.

I enjoyed the chance to get to know lots of new people, most of whom were very interesting.  I had some great conversations with pastors and counselors.

I didn't expect to get insight on my seminary discernment process, but I did.  I've been thinking about online options and part-time options. It's becoming clearer to me that I can't really do a part-time seminary process.  It was hard enough getting away for these few days, and I was troubleshooting issues and assisting from a distance.  The online options I've seen have a 2 week intensive twice a year.  It's just not very realistic to hope I can get away for 2 weeks and not fair to those who will have to pick up the work in my absence.

I'm also realizing that my yearning for seminary may be a yearning for a kind of community that I don't have right now.  An online option won't give me that in the way that I want--at least, that's my thinking right now.

I'm very glad to be doing this certificate program.  In some ways, it makes me wonder about what I just wrote in the previous paragraph.  I do feel like we're forming a community, one that I'll feel sad about losing as people cycle in and out of the program.  It reminds me a bit of retreat communities.

I'm also a bit worried that the community that I assume would happen in seminary might not be there.  I was told that Southern has 70 students, 6 of whom are out on internship, but I didn't see many students.  A few days offered beautiful weather, but I didn't see people out and about.  There certainly weren't 70 students at the opening worship.  I only saw 3 students in the library.  Very puzzling.

Well, here we are, on a Monday when the rest of the nation may be observing an MLK day.  I don't have this day off, although many of our students do.  So I will go to pick up the day old bread and treats from Publix, go to spin class, and then go to work.  During my lunch hour, I'll help my spouse with returning the rental car and getting our replacement for the car that got totaled in the pre-Christmas flood.

Yes, it's time to return to regular life--may it be a gentle re-entry.  May I remember this piece of teaching about how to deal with people who may be feeling distress:  "Be the mirror, not the sponge."

Saturday, January 18, 2020

One Year, One Book

While I've been here at the onground intensive for the certificate in spiritual direction, I've come across many great ideas.  To be honest, most of them are not ideas that were completely new to me.  For example, I had a long conversation with a woman about not consuming news first thing in the morning.  I've thought of doing that before.  In fact, I came across an entry in my offline journal that talked about the possibility of doing sketching/journaling in the morning for 30 minutes before turning on the computer or the radio.

I do plan to go back to that plan.  But I've also decided to adopt a simpler approach to the morning.

Yesterday at the end of the morning worship service, the director of our program suggested that we take the next year and read one book of the Bible.  He talked about people who read the whole Bible in a year, but he says that we'll be much more enriched by focusing on just one book.  He suggested Psalms, John, or Philippians.  He suggested that we read straight through and when we get to the end, we start over.

Of all the ideas I've heard this week, this one jumped out at me, and I'm not sure why.  But time after time, our teachers this week have stressed that if something leaps out at us in this way, we should pay attention.

So this morning, I turned on the computer, the way I usually do.  But instead of going to the various NPR sites so that I could catch up on programming, I read the first chapter of the Gospel of John.  I've decided that I'll read one chapter each morning, that I'll read through the book chapter by chapter, one chapter each morning.  When I get to the end, I'll start the book again the next morning.

If I do nothing else, I'll do that.

I like this idea because of the time commitment.   It will take me a very short amount of time to read one chapter, so even on mornings when I'm pressed for time, I can do that.  If I want to read further, I can.  If I want to read the chapter in a variety of versions, I can, if I have a computer.  This morning, I began with The Message, then switched to NSRV and then New English--and just for fun, the Jubilee Bible, which I hadn't heard of before this morning.  As always, I am struck by what Eugene Peterson managed to do with his paraphrase/translation that he gave us in The Message.

I love the simplicity of this plan.  If the weather is bad, I can do it.  It won't require supplies, like a morning discipline of sketching would.  When I'm traveling, I can still read a chapter, and I won't have to bring an extra book along. 

The cool thing about this practice is that it doesn't preclude other practices. I can still pray the liturgy of the hours, which I try to do each weekday morning.  If I have time, I can still sketch or write in a journal or blog.  I can read other books.

Writing about this idea has also made me think in secular terms too.  Many of us have a book that formed us in our practice as artists.  For me, it was Julia Cameron's The Vein of Gold, which I discovered first, before any of her other books.  What would happen if I read a bit of this book each morning?

I've also thought of the value of choosing a classic, one that speaks to me, one that would support a really deep dive of a year of daily reading. 

I don't plan to adopt either of these secular approaches just yet--but they seemed valuable, so I wanted to record them before the idea slipped away.

I do plan to keep reading the book of John, chapter by chapter, over and over again through 2020.  I'm not sure what to expect, but I imagine it will be like keeping a gratitude journal:  at the end of a year, I'll be changed in ways I wouldn't have been without this practice.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Insight from the Second Day of the Onground Intensive

I have now sense a rhythm to the onground intensive for the certificate in spiritual direction.  It's an interesting mix of instructional time, worship time, small group time, and some alone time.  Each onground intensive has a focus on a particular praxis/practice; this time, it's solitude, and in June, it will be silence.

So far, I've been to 3 instructional sessions.  The first, for those of us here for the first time, focused on thinking about how spiritual direction is different from life coaching, therapy, pastoral care, or any of the other types of care.  One answer:  if the Holy Spirit isn't a 3rd partner, it may be valuable work, but it isn't spiritual direction.  One might wonder how this work would be different from pastoral care.  I would say that spiritual direction has both partners listening for God's direction during and between the sessions, while pastoral care could be something different than that, like helping a parishioner after a death in the family or connecting a parishioner to community resources.  There's significant overlap between the types of care, significant borrowing of best practices (that last part is mine, to remind me that it's OK to borrow best practices if one discerns that path).

The 2 instructional sessions yesterday focused on mysticism (primarily the type that comes to us by way of the ancient desert fathers and mothers and medieval mysticism) and icons (the Orthodox type).  While much of the information wasn't new to me, I loved the sessions.

Yesterday we had almost 3 hours that we were to spend in solitude, which meant not only minimal human contact, but no books, no Internet, nothing that took our attention away from this time with God.  We agreed that journaling was O.K.

So, I journaled, I walked around campus and took pictures, I journaled some more, I impatiently checked my watch to see if it was time for dinner . . .  .  Very interesting to realize that when I say I yearn for alone time, I'm likely to fill that time with reading or worse, with vapid Internet reading.  I finally sat down in the converted sunroom of the house where I'm staying and started to sketch:

I was intrigued by how much the sketching quieted my mind--not just focused, but quieted.

We bookended the day with worship.  In the morning, we walked the labyrinth, which is not an easy task in this labyrinth which is really not set up for a group to walk it--it's got very narrow paths:

In the evening, we had Compline, with a liturgy written by our director.  It was lovely, although a little too brightly lit.

I really like my small group, which is good, because I'll be spending a lot of time with them over the next 2 years.  I can't say much about them, because everything in small group is confidential.  But it's a relief to realize that this aspect will work for me--it isn't always the case.

As I've moved through my time here, I've thought about how this experience is like a retreat mixed with a conference mixed with some aspects of a college session.  If I had ever been part of a low residency MFA program, it might be a lot like that.

I've also been thinking about my yearning for seminary.  Being here makes me realize that I'm not sure the online type of approach to seminary is what I yearn for.  If I go to seminary, I think I want it to be the full, on campus experience.  I REALLY miss being on a campus.  I didn't realize how much I miss it.

Yes, in a way, I spend much of my waking hours on a campus.  But it's such a different kind of campus.

I think my seminary yearnings might be the same old yearnings to run away and start over, yearnings I've had since my teenage years.  That doesn't mean that those yearnings are frivolous or that those dreams are meaningless, but I want to recognize this insight.

One reason why I chose this certificate program is that I could do it without exploding all the other parts of my life.  And being here helps me realize how much of this material will be important as I move through the rest of my life.

Will it open new career doors?  I don't know.  But for me, that's not really the point.  I needed something that would help me feel better about the future.  This program does that, and thus, it's invaluable to me.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Onground Intensive: An Overview Based on the First Day

I am writing on a desk in a converted sunroom.  I'm in Columbia, South Carolina, on the campus of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary--Southern, for short.  I'm staying in an old house across from campus, the kind of house that's set up for short term visitors.  There are 4 bedrooms upstairs, each with 2 twin beds.  The downstairs rooms have an assortment of furniture:  2 dining areas, a kitchen, and a living room with furniture that has seen better days.  The floors are creaky wood, but charming.

I'm here for the first of 4 onground intensives as I work on a certificate in spiritual direction.  Yesterday was our first day together.

The group is larger than I expected--and more diverse.  We are mostly Lutheran, but we have a smattering of Methodists and Episcopalians, plus some non-affiliated and a Franciscan male in a brown habit.  We are mostly white, but there are some African-Americans.  I am surprised by how far away some of us live--more people from the middle of the country than I expected.  We are older, which makes sense.  Younger people likely can't get away for a Wed-Saturday intensive.  I had some trouble myself.  I used vacation time, but I've still had to log in to try to assist with issues.  There are more women than men.

We've had one instructional session, which was fascinating.  We've met several times in small group.  I like mine, which is fortunate, because they will be my small group for the next 18 months.

Yesterday, I went to two worship services.  I got to campus early, and as I walked around taking pictures, a man in the chapel told me they'd be having a service at 11:30 and invited me to come.  So I did.  The light streaming through the stained glass into the beaming white marble interior was stunning.  Here's a shot of the rear of the chapel, with the tall wall above the door to the vestibule:

Here's the front of the chapel:

Our evening service was more subdued in terms of color, but still moving.  It was created with a Celtic theme, so we sang "The Canticle of the Turning," (and others) and we had prayers based on the writings of St. Brigid, St. Patrick, and others.

I love being back on a traditional campus--LOVE it.  It reminds me of my undergraduate campus, Newberry College.  I could move into the library and never leave.  It has great spots to read, to write, and huge windows.  And what a great collection of books.  Of course, they're all categorized around religious themes, so if you wanted a research/university type library, you'd be disappointed.

It's very strange, too, to be on this campus.  I thought I had visited it back in the 80's, but maybe not--it doesn't feel familiar at all.  But many people I know have come to this school, as have some of my family members.  As I walked around campus yesterday in the hours before the intensive began, I felt almost breathless with the homecoming aspect of it all.

I am so glad I decided to do this, even though it's not easy to get away.  But it's never easy to get away--there would never be the perfect time.  I'm glad to have this opportunity and grateful for those holding down the fort (the fort at the office, the fort at home, so many forts which need holding down) in my absence.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


Yesterday, I was up and on the road by 4, and I arrived at my friend's house at 1:45.  Even with some stop and go, rush hour traffic around Jacksonville, it was a delightfully easy trip.  It is very strange to travel north in January and to get out of the car to discover that the weather is just as balmy in South Carolina as it was when I left South Florida.  I saw red bud trees along the way that are already starting to flower, and it's much too early.

Or maybe it's not.  Maybe this weather is the new normal.  Or maybe the trees have adapted to the fact that we can't trust past weather to predict the weather now.

As I drove, I was intrigued to watch my thoughts.  You would think I'd be having contemplative thoughts as I drove to the first of my onground intensives for my certificate program in spiritual direction.  Perhaps you imagine hour after hour of prayer.

Alas, no.  For much of the trip, I found my thoughts circling back to work.  I thought about creating some sort of poem that linked runaway slaves to how hard it is to get away from modern work, but I'm not sure I can pull that off.  I always have the history of the nation on my mind as I drive through the U.S. South, especially during foggy mornings like yesterday.

I listened to the radio for much of the trip.  When John Cougar Mellancamp's "Jack and Diane" came on, I thought of Sandy Longhorn's recent pair of poems that imagines both Diane and Beth (of the KISS song) grown up.

I also thought about the decisions we make in late adolescence and how they feel so fraught--one wrong move, and we're doomed.  Date the wrong person, have unprotected sex which immediately leads to pregnancy, choose the wrong college, take the wrong high school classes--those are my memories of high school conversations in the 1980's. 

When do we get to a point where our choices don't seem so fraught?  I feel like I'm having similarly weighted conversations today:  will this job last me until retirement?  At what point should I sell the house?  Is it too late to have the kind of life I've always wanted?

Of course, maybe it's just me feeling the weight of my decisions throughout my life trajectory.  I imagine me 20 years from now, in an older and wiser place, seeing that all my decisions weren't so weighty, that all along I was moving towards where I needed to be, even if I couldn't see it at the time.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Day Before Travel to the Spiritual Direction Certificate Program

Today is the day before I leave to go to my first onground intensive for the certificate program in spiritual direction.  Yesterday at end of the church service, my pastor invited me to the front, told the congregation of my plans, said a prayer of blessing, and then anointed me with water that he brought back from his Holy Land trip.  I felt surrounded by love and support from my congregation.

It was the Sunday that we celebrate the baptism of Jesus before his ministry began in earnest, so much of the service felt meaningful, from the music about listening for God's call and wading in the water, to the reading/sermon to the ways that the sanctuary has changed (last week we still had the Christmas trees up).

I am headed to Columbia, South Carolina, to the seminary where my grandfather went 90-ish years ago; he was significantly younger when he went there than I am.  I am headed to seminary, the way my mom did when she was my age; like me, she was going to seminary for a non-ordination track.  Unlike me, she got a chunk of time off from the church where she worked, and they continued to pay her.  It was a different time, and we have very different employers.

I feel a bit anxious about leaving my school for 4 days at the beginning of the term.  But to be honest, I always feel that anxiety, except for when I leave between Christmas and the New Year holidays, the one week when nothing is likely to happen.  Outside of that week, there's never a good time to leave; various situations can unravel very rapidly.  I remind myself that even if I was on site, situations could unravel. 

This morning I realized that I don't really know what kind of housing I'm headed to when I stay in seminary housing.  Will it be like a dorm where we have some communal spaces?  I'm sharing a room with a pastor friend that I met through the Create in Me retreat.  Future scholars take note:  the Create in Me retreat has done more to change my life than anything outside of my experiences in school.

I will take a towel and washcloths, just in case. I also wrote my pastor friend--maybe I don't need to bring linens with me.  But I am in a car, so I am happy to be able to travel with excess.

Yesterday I was wishing that I had time to create a mix tape of sending music--what do we call mix tapes these days?  In old days, I had the music in my collection, so it was easy to make a mix tape.  These days, I would have to buy some music.  I'd like "Maybe God Is Trying to Tell You Something," that wonderful song from The Color Purple.  I'd like "Children Go Where I Send You," from the Peter, Paul, and Mary Christmas album.

But I am running out of time, so I'll just sing those songs as I drive up I 95 tomorrow.  I'm looking forward to time away, to immersing myself in this new program, this new seminary setting, and hopefully a new approach to discernment.