Breathing deep

img_0262I have, in my lifetime, experienced both panic attacks and anxiety attacks.  I’m not talking about nerves, the rumbly stomach before stepping on stage or into the pulpit, but the real thing: an impending sense of doom that is completely out of control.  A fear of nothing and everything.  A heart pounding so hard I think it might explode.  A sense that I might die.  It is excruciating.

The first happened while I was in seminary during a guided meditation, which you would think would be a pretty safe place to be. Not that day. Another happened a few months later while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, something I’d done dozens of times before. Bridges have been hard ever since.  The attacks are a rare occurrence nowadays, partly because of age and partly because of work I’ve done to manage them.

I find myself using those anxiety-managing techniques again these days.  I don’t experience that impending sense of doom from nowhere, but I do experience a high level of worry about many things.  I worry about funding for programs for people on the margins.  I worry about war.  I worry about economic collapse.  I worry about people never speaking to each other again.  I worry about the state of the world.

As a person of faith, I am well aware of the many, many things Jesus said about not worrying and right now I find them – and him – annoying.  I also know that constant worry is not good for me or the people around me.  I’m keeping an eye on my eating and my sleeping.  I’ve started coloring postcards, an activity I find relaxing.  I cut myself off after one too many articles from the New York Times, Washington Post, or the Atlantic.

I pray that God will lift my sagging spirit.  I pray more regularly.  I practice deep breathing.  I read daily things from Father Richard Rohr (you can sign up for them here – today’s was particularly helpful.)  I turn off the tv and computer. I look for the good, and hold fast to it.

raftEvery night before we go to sleep, my husband, our daughter, our dog, and I all sit on our bed reading (except the dog).  I tell them it feels like we’re on a life raft, this big bed of ours, all together, safe, for the time being amidst the chaotic currents of the day’s events.  They laugh at me, in the good way.  Still, they are my life raft. And that helps me to worry a little less.

Until the next day comes.

Heart’s Desire

A-hand-drawn-heartFor months, at the urging of my spiritual director, I have been praying to find my heart’s desire, to find that thing (not a person – I have those) that inspires me, energizes me; my flow.  But you pray for something long enough, and the prayer goes unanswered, and eventually you stop praying for the thing.

The last few months have found me in the doldrums. (Excellent word, by the way, with possible origin in the words dull and tantrum.)  Yes, you could say I’ve been having a dull tantrum for a season, the result of an unusually warm summer, a not-fun spring at church, and continued physical pain as my hip heals more slowly than I would like. Plus sometimes I’m just a big baby.

And then I got an idea.  I would write a book, a novel, about a church, because I am the First Pastor Ever to think about writing a novel about a church.  I thought about it all spring, and I thought about during our first week of vacation, and I thought about it some more the week our kid was at sleep away camp.  And then I went away for a week, to the lovely shores of Lake Tahoe with a plum assignment of leading worship once a day.

In my free time, I powered up the ol’ laptop and started writing.

I am having a ball.

Today when I met with my spiritual director I told her I had started writing my book and she commented that light was bouncing all around me.  She noted my energy and joy.  And then she said, “I think you found your heart’s desire.”  I will note that God took God’s sweet time answering my prayer, but a thousand years are but a day, etc. etc.

Here’s the thing: writing this puppy is cathartic, and in twenty years of ministry I have met amazing people who have done strange and wonderful things that inspire the characters.  There’s swearing and liturgy.  Twists and turns.  Recipes.  Lists.  Thwarted romance.  A Yorkie Poo.  It is so me.

Back in high school, I aspired to be a writer, but college and theatre and then seminary and ministry got in the way.  To be truthful, my daughter’s own love of writing has inspired me, and maybe some day we will write a book together.  (I can just hear her saying, in about eight years, “As if.”)

This book will never see binding or a spine or a listing on Amazon.   I’m pretty clear about that.  It might show up on this blog.  It might be a Christmas present to my friends and family. But maybe one’s heart’s desire doesn’t have to have a purpose or action plan.  Maybe one’s heart’s desire doesn’t have to lead to success, fame, or fortune.  Maybe one’s heart’s desire is simply the thing that leads out of dull tantrums to joy.

That’s all for now – chapter nineteen awaits.writing

Skipping church

It’s Sunday morning and I am home and we’re not going to church today.  We are on vacation, enjoying one of our six Sundays a year not in church, but I’m feeling a little naughty and a little guilty about the whole thing.  The truth is, we could go to church – if not the church we serve, then another church.  A church of another denomination, in our neighborhood, whose pastor we admire.  A church served by one of our Presbyterian colleagues whom we never get to hear preach.  The hipster church down the road which brings in millenials in droves, for reasons we simply cannot fathom.

But no, we’re staying home this morning.  We might go to brunch – isn’t that what people who don’t go to church do on Sunday mornings? We could drink coffee and read the Sunday paper, but I’m the only one who drinks coffee and we cancelled the paper until tomorrow, thinking our vacation would last one more day than it actually did.  Instead, I was up at six (why?????) and the others are sleeping in.

Here’s the thing: pastors (and other church professionals) need a break from church and from Sunday morning worship.  If I were to go to my own congregation this morning, and sit somewhere in the sanctuary, it would be hard for me to let go and just worship.  If there were a mistake in the bulletin, I would see it.  If the sound system was wonky, I would notice it.  I would have to work hard to worship and not to critique, and that’s not fair to those who are leading worship today, or to myself.

And for me, it is hard to do a one-off at another congregation.  It’s hard to go to a brand new church whose traditions are not your own.  Did I sit in “someone’s” pew?  Do we kneel, come forward, stand up, sit down, fight fight fight?  If I sing the alto line to the hymn, will I get funny looks?  Will my child be bored to tears, or invited to leave to go God knows where for a Bible lesson, juice, and animal crackers?  Will the sermon move me or annoy me, or worse, bore me?  Will I be welcomed or ignored?

In the twenty-two years since I’ve been ordained, the most I have not gone to church is three weeks in a row, and that was when my daughter was first born.  Did I miss it?  I was so overwhelmed by my newborn, and breast feeding, and exhaustion, and healing from a C-section, that worship was the last thing on my mind.  But that fourth week, I couldn’t wait to take our daughter to church for the first time.  She was cooed over and held and I was loved and cared for.  We were home.

This morning we are home at our home.  The spouse and the kid are still asleep, and the dog just woke up and is sitting on my lap.  The morning coffee has been consumed.  I might make scones.  I might read.  I might do laundry.  I won’t go outside, because the smoke from the fires east of us is looming over all the city and it’s nothing short of gross outside.

I won’t go to church today; I’ll take the rare sabbath a pastor gets.  I’ll remember that I am not in charge of worship, nor solely responsible for it, nor the only one who does it right.  I will say a prayer – for my colleague who is on her own this morning; for the firefighters who are so brave and tireless; for those whose health and homes are affected by this fire.  I’ll say a prayer of thanks for this morning off, for vacation, for my family and my dog.

And then I’ll go make scones.morning-coffee

Grounded

feet groundIt’s rare that my chiropractor and my spiritual director offer me the same advice, but when they do, I think it’s a sign that I’m supposed to pay particular attention.

Early on, my chiropractor would harp on me about having my head in the clouds and disassociating physically, and she would tell me I needed to connect with the ground.  Literally.  Put my feet on the ground and feel them connect to the earth. Our bodies are built to be sustained that way, with large leg and hip bones and calves and quads and glutei maximi. It was only when she said this that I figured out I have spent so much of my recent years feeling  more like a marionette – being lifted up by the shoulders. Which, of course, doesn’t work at all.

When I begin my spiritual direction sessions, we always pray, and my director makes sure that my feet are on the ground. We’ve not talked about why we do that, but every spiritual director I’ve ever had does this, and they are all smarter than I, and it works. As I settle into prayer, my chiropractor’s voice echoes in  my head. So I’m working on being physically spiritual, or spiritually physical. One of those. I think.

A few years ago during some continuing education, I learned that the word in Genesis 2 for “earth” is best translated as the “topsoil of the fertile ground.” That’s the stuff the writer of Genesis says we’re made of – the topsoil. We come from the ground that is beneath our feet.

To pray with feet firmly planted is to reconnect with our best selves, the selves made at creation in the image of God. Maybe that’s the part of us that does the healing, too, when we are hurt. We are at our best and strongest when we are grounded.

The word “grounded” reminds me of liturgy, too, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday – “remember you are dust/earth/topsoil, and to dust/earth/topsoil you will return.” Most beautiful and true for me, though, is the funeral liturgy: “You are immortal, the Creator and Maker of all. We are mortal, formed of the dust, and to dust we shall return. All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

I am grounded. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Bring Them All Home

clasped handsFor about five weeks the song “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables has been going through my head, a kind of incessant prayer for the kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria.  Every time I think about them – which is often – I become almost paralyzed in my horror and grief.  And I don’t think I’m having that response because I’m a mother or a parent.  I think I’m horrified by this because I’m a decent human being who believes that children should not be the pawns in the deadly games that adults play.

When I was a teenager, my family was held up in our home.  For forty-five of the longest minutes of my life, my little brother, who was nine at the time, was taken hostage.  He’s fine now; we’re all fine now, after time and therapy and a lot of love.  But for forty-five minutes I sat in my neighbor’s house, paralyzed, and when I saw the police cars pull away and knew the situation had been resolved, I didn’t know if my next move would be to exhale or scream.  I exhaled, because the SWAT team was successful in their negotiations and my brother was okay.  I hope so much that the families of those girls are able to exhale soon; to exhale and run and embrace those children and watch them grow up and heal.

Sometimes I wish God would just smite dead people who abuse and terrify children.  I don’t believe in the death penalty, except when I do and that’s usually when something horrific has happened to a child.  I have to stop myself from thinking about what might be happening to these girls, isolated in the woods, or being smuggled out of the country to illegal human markets.

I feel so powerless about this, that there is nothing I can do other than pray.  So I pray.  I pray that these girls are allowed to be with each other, that leaders have risen among them who set a tone of comfort and hope.  I pray for their families.  I pray for those in positions of power and influence.  And because Jesus tells me I have to, I pray for the terrorists.  The prayer is pretty basic: God, I am praying for these terrorists.  I do not know what to ask for, but You know what to do, so do that.  Amen.

Then that little voice in my head gets going.  You know that voice – the one that tells you prayer is not enough. The one that reminds you that there are children right here who are in just as desperate a situation as those Nigerian girls.  The voice that does not let you off the hook for worrying about something on the other side of the world without worrying about things in your own back yard.

It’s not just me – maybe the media could cover some of our own domestic tragedies, especially those that involve children, especially children who live below the poverty line, children of color.  Maybe our own elected officials could look in their backyards in addition to looking across the globe.

Last year my daughter and I read Robert Coles’ book The Story of Ruby Bridges.  My daughter was amazed that a child was treated that way, and I was horrified by it, though I knew the story.  I think about her courage and her faith and her prayer for those who were doing such cruel things to her and shouting such hateful things at her.  And my wish that God would smite dead all those who abuse and terrify children comes back.  Because I really, really pray that adults will stop using children in their deadly games.

The Kindness of Strangers

kindnessSo I’m at Target, because it’s my day off and one pair of jeans evidently isn’t sufficient for our second grader.  Because I have been very, very good at Target, and bought only two pairs of size 6 pants and one package of trouser socks (as opposed to $150 worth of stuff I don’t need) I treat myself to Starbucks which, quite conveniently, is right there in the Target.

The woman ahead of me in line is chatting up quite a storm and I keep telling myself “this extra minute she’s taking will not throw off your entire day’s schedule.”  I breathe in through my nose and breathe out through my  mouth.  I imagine I am one with the universe, but I know this is a lie, because really, all I want is my skinny latte, thank you very much.  There’s only one thing standing between me and my latte, and that is this chatty woman.

She finishes her order, then turns to me and says, “Would you mind signing a birthday card for a complete stranger?  My best friend is stuck in a hotel room all by herself on her birthday and she’s going through a nasty divorce and I thought this card signed by random people would cheer her up.”  I say yes, and get my comeuppance for my impatience.  The Universe is right more often than I am.  We meet at the pick-up counter, and I have plenty of time to sign the card, because her mocha latte with four pumps of peppermint is taking a long time.  While we wait, she asks another few folks to sign the card, and then leaves.

I’m still waiting for my drink, but I notice she is on her way out the door without her Minty Minty Special, so I go after her and ask if maybe she would like her drink.  She smiles, and makes that face I make at least three times a day – I believe we call that “chagrin” –  and I get my latte and go on my merry way.

That was a kind thing for her to do  – to picture her friend ordering room service in her jammies, all alone on her birthday in some generic hotel room and to want her not to feel sad.  She put herself out there, a little bit, risked some foolishness so she might cheer up her friend.  I’ve always appreciated the kindness of strangers; I haven’t depended on it, but I do appreciate it.

So I’ve been wondering how I can be kind to our congressmen and women right now.  Really, they are strangers to me.  Our congressman attends our Christmas Eve service, but other than a handshake, I don’t know him.  I don’t know any of these people duking it out at the capitol.  I know what I think of them, especially those on the other side of the aisle than mine.  But this little voice – maybe it’s Jesus – keeps tickling my brains saying, “You have to be kind to strangers.  And you have to love your enemies.”  Sigh.  Why does Jesus have to make everything so hard?

So I guess I have to pray for all those people, the red state people and the blue state people.  (Honestly, I can never remember which is which.)  I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to pray for God to change them, but I think I’m on the right track by asking God to help them.  I’ll pray for Pam, alone in a strange city in a Hyatt on her birthday.  I’ll pray for her friend, too, because she pretty much made my day.

Here’s to some kindness all around.

Auld_Lang_Syne

Praying for a miracle

candleOnce a month our congregation offers an evening service of healing and wholeness in the Taize style of worship.  I attended the service for the first time last night – for the first time, not because I don’t have those to pray for who are seeking healing and wholeness, but because, really, my colleague is beautifully suited to lead that service and usually at 5:30 on a Saturday night I don’t want to be in church.

But I went last night, in part so that I could experience it but also because a few of us were staying afterwards to decorate for the Pentecost service today.  It was a lovely service and I’m glad I was there as it feels that there is a lot to pray about right now .

So the choir is leading some of the Taize songs, and my mind wanders in a good way.  I start thinking about a friend of mine who has been diagnosed with cancer, and the prognosis is so-so.  I start thinking that I would like a miracle for this friend, which gets me thinking about miracles in general.

Once in my life I prayed for a miracle.  A very dear parishioner in the first congregation I served was in a coma.  It was a cardiac thing, an utter surprise for this healthy, relatively young, fabulous, beautiful, kind woman. She lay in a coma and I stood by her bedside and prayed for a miracle, that she would come out of the coma, that they would shrink her enlarged heart, that her husband and sons would enjoy decades more with her.  But the miracle didn’t happen, and eventually she died and it was awful.

I haven’t prayed for a miracle since, but last night as I was thinking about my cancer-diagnosed friend, I thought about miracles again. What if there was some rule that you could only get one miracle granted in the course of your lifetime?  Would I hoard it for myself or my child or my husband, save it for a rainy day? Or would I be burdened by the miracle and offer it up the first ripe opportunity, and not be weighed down by the decision of when to use it?  Would I not pray for the miracle and then regret it the rest of my life?

I know people who have experienced miracles.  I know people who have experienced answers to prayer that they would call miraculous.  I’ve only prayed for a miracle once, and it didn’t happen.  And I know that should not be proof that God doesn’t grant miracles (or perform them?  I’m not sure what verb to use.)  But it’s hard to ask for something and get a ‘no’ and then be willing to ask again; harder to do that again and again and again.  It leads to a world of disappointment and not a little bit of doubt about the good intentions of the Divine Creator.

Meanwhile the choir finished their Taize song and we had moved on to other prayers.  I didn’t pray for a miracle last night.  Instead, I went to light a candle, for my friend, and for a few others.    I added a little light in the darkness, and in that moment, that felt better than a miracle.