It’s not Heart Surgery

Last-minute preparations: stop the newspaper, clean the cat litter box, pay bills in advance, finalize lawn-mowing arrangements, fill the bird feeder. Everyday living has lots of details to it that have to be handed off or sloughed off during an absence from home. I told my husband, whom I am joining in Europe, that I feel more like I am going to prison than going to Spain.

I have been paying more attention to little things I enjoy: the flash of the red cardinal in the yard. Cats snoozing in sunny spots in the house. Will those peonies open before I leave, and will they still be in bloom when I return? (The latter is very likely.) Morning sun through the windows. These are good things, being traded in for the unknown rain of Spain, which looks as miserable as rain anywhere else if you have to walk in it. Walking pilgrims have no choice.

The pilgrimage may be in Spain, but it’s not Club Med. It’s Club Camino, for walkers along the Camino de Santiago staying in inexpensive albergues where it is possible to encounter bedbugs, though Bill has made no such discoveries.

I don’t know what I’ll discover, besides how quickly I will adapt. This pilgrimage right now strikes me as extreme retreat, with lots of walking meditation required. I am discovering a combination of travel anxiety + pilgrimage anxiety + being away from home anxiety. On the other hand, it’s not open heart surgery, which I had last summer. There’s perspective. There’s anxiety.

I know what I will miss here. I think of the prophets called by God in the Hebrew Bible, and a number of them said: Why me? This is not a calling by any means, but I can relate to the foot-dragging reluctance before a new vista opens up. FullSizeRenderI don’t have to; I get to.

Shifting to gratitude and prayer always works. Bill was fortunate to get a blessing for his journey from a chaplain colleague at his hospital. I worked last night, and my duties included blessing of the hands of nurses, a sweet ritual that many really appreciate. At the end of my shift the two chaplains who came on blessed me for the road, including my reluctant pilgrim feet.

What I Learned in Seminary (the short version)

I had two goals in coming to seminary: I was planning to become a chaplain and I wanted my Bible back from narrow-minded fundamentalists.

I can check both boxes. I now work part-time as a pastoral care associate at a large Chicago suburban hospital, and in September I will start a one-year paid residency at that hospital that will give me additional training that couldn’t be crammed into one clinical pastoral education unit and will also pay me to learn. (Unlike seminary.)

As to the Bible, I now generally know which part of the book to open when I am looking for something in it. It was actually fun to read the two-volume commentary on the Gospel of John by Craig Keener that was assigned by the instructor –six years in seminary have changed my idea of what is fun – and it was even more fun to read trashy novels about Jesus in the Reimagining the Gospels course and be able to spot the scriptural errors. I have learned enough about the Bible to not take it in vain or hit people over the head with it.

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Here are some of the other things I learned.

  1. How to use soteriology correctly in a sentence: By contrast, post-scholastic theologians have shifted focus within Christology toward soteriology – doctrines of the work of Christ and, specifically, how salvation has been accomplished, a theological discussion that has animated post-Anselm Christology and especially post-Calvinist Christology. I wrote that sentence in 2011 in my introductory theology course. (Bonus point for using Christology correctly.)
  2. How to drive 85 miles an hour, which I did when my first residential intensive in spiritual formation in 2012 was disrupted by my husband’s having a car accident and I had to return home to Chicago. I did not miss a class because the instructor kindly worked out a Skype connection. An update: today my husband is hiking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain, where I will join him next month.
  3. How rich education can be when you do it later in life when everyone in the classroom is highly motivated and brings a lifetime of experience into the room, making for deeply satisfying and stimulating discussions. I often describe the Earlham School of Religion to people who don’t know it as a place where you can learn as much from your fellow students as you can from the instructor, and I did.
  4. How to make spiritual friends. This has been precious and sustaining to me.
  5. How to be still and know God.

And finally. How to discern and enjoy the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I do wish the apostle Paul had added gratitude – a lot of us wish Paul had said a few things differently – and as a trained exegete I am prepared to argue that’s surely what he meant.

Thanks to you all, faculty, staff, fellow students.

 

On hospitality

My seminary classmates and I recently concluded a two-week in-depth introduction to the Quran. These classes are called intensives for a reason; all one really has time for after class is reading, writing, eating, and sleeping. (OK, I did some laundry and got some exercise, too.) We closed our discussion with reflections about the experience of being a guest in someone else’s religious home.

The metaphor is rich. Depending on whom I am visiting, I might take off my shoes. I say thank you. I’m not rude. I don’t say the food is awful or the décor is ugly. I don’t offer alternative recipes that I find superior or suggest the place would be improved if they only hung different things on the wall. I find things to admire and enjoy. I offer compliments and curiosity: how did you do that? Can I get the recipe?

My host has welcomed me and graciously shared something of value. I recall a time of literally being a guest in another culture, when strangers in Castaner, Puerto Rico, opened their home and shared a meal. We spoke two different languages but connected through a translator and through hospitality. Hospitality is what opens doors for strangers and prompts hosts to give. Generosity is a matter of course and a matter of kindness.

1910_558109703_1149054_mughal_ewer_41  Hospitality is about turning those who aren’t known, and might be potential threats, into those who are known, thereby establishing rights and relationship. It’s the opposite of closing doors. Hospitality in the ancient Middle East was a matter of life and death. As America now attempts to close its doors to perceived threats from the Middle East, it is acting inhospitably.

I did not set out to critique when I first began to reflect on the subject, only to explore a practice and situation that is easy to relate to. In the abstract, hospitality is about a set of rules for getting along: respect for and gratitude to a host, sustenance for a guest. It’s a mutual relationship that leaves both better off, and dials down the threat level as well.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unaware.” The Bible, which originated in the ancient Middle East, is replete with stories of hospitality (as well as its violation). The Quran is also aware of these ancient rules for obtaining sustenance and establishing safety. Hospitality establishes safe zones, it would seem.

There is a way forward in times larded with suspicion. Can I get the recipe?

Melanie and Atticus

A number of animal residents of Richmond, Ind., have brightened my days when I am required to be here for residential study at the Earlham School of Religion. Two of them have been Melanie and Atticus, a pair of dogs whom I met a few years ago on their regular walk down the alley that adjoins my guesthouse. Their human companion is Neville (another story). Last night I met Neville walking only Atticus. Melanie is gone; Neville explained that she was 13 and had begun to experience health problems. Atticus is a robust 3-year-old, Labrador-sized (I don’t know his breed, since I am a cat person), whose disposition is visibly sweeter now that Melanie, the more sociable of the pair, is gone. Atticus nosed around patiently as Neville filled me in on the dogs.

dog-breeds

Though I rarely see these dogs, I was stricken by a pang of sadness. A dog’s, or any pet’s, death gives us humans an inkling of the big snooze that awaits us. I am picturing Melanie in the Elysian Fields, happily sniffing around, attracting friendly attention from many souls. The Gospel of John, which has my attention during my study here, contains the immortal image of the good shepherd. Dogs are used to help with shepherding. Some would say Melanie has been promoted to a happier neighborhood, where she doesn’t have to wait for Neville to walk her, I expect. For some sentient beings, heaven is a dog park. Here on earth, Atticus continues dog duties and doings, which include nosy visiting with strangers who may become friends.

Prayer of gratitude to celebrate and mourn Phyllis Tickle, publishing visionary

I owe my professional livelihood to Phyllis Tickle. Had she not established the religion department of Publishers Weekly, I would not have had a dozen years of supporting myself through writing about the publishing of religion books. Phyllis’ comprehensive vision accommodated not just a segment of the publishing industry, but a team of professional observers, of which I was privileged to be a member.

More personally, she wrote the introduction to my first book, The God of Second Chances. In it she called me an investigator of hope. I would like that on my tombstone. Phyllis treated words like gems — precious, beautiful, and precisely faceted. She also had an admirable and large collection of them, so that she had just the right words always at the ready. She generously wrote introductions and endorsements for dozens of grateful colleagues. This, in addition to having the discipline of a writing machine, turning out her own provocative and far-sighted work that was especially visionary in the later part of her amazingly productive career.

Now she goes before us, to a place where all the books are about heaven. After she and Sam catch up, she may turn her energy to forming a Divine Words imprint. Here on earth she has sown a bountiful crop in the field of publishing. We benefit from the harvest. May we honor her memory and remember her well-chosen words and broad insight. Hard as it is to imagine her not writing, may she rest in peace.

Amen.

Meditation: Lobstah Land

To my prairie-formed Midwestern eyes, Maine looks like nothing else I’ve seen: big water and hard granite. I come from the land of lake and limestone, where one watches for deer darting across the road, not massive moose that will best your car in a collision. The water around the island of Vinalhaven, where I am visiting, is dotted by colorful, bobbing buoys that mark the location of lobster traps. It’s lobster (or lobstah, as Mainahs call it) roll time and the season for summer people, down east and midcoast or wherever it is I am, not at home but visiting someone at her home.

My friend’s family is as native to Vinalhaven as its granite. Her great-grandfather polished the granite columns on the library; she points them out to me, and later shows me the farm her grandfather sold during the Depression. It’s now owned by summer people from Boston. Some people have been here a long time; her family name helps her fit in to the community of year-round residents, which is smaller by a few thousand than the summer population. Everybody wants to be in Maine in summertime, especially those who live the rest of the year in hot cities elsewhere.

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It’s not easy to get there; you need to know the ferry schedule. And the weather might mean the ferry won’t run, so you need to be ready with a plan B. Your car might not fit on the boat, which is OK because there’s no place you need to drive. The commercial strip is a few blocks long, and then it’s trees and rocks and houses sprinkled in outlying areas.

Besides granite, water, and lobsters, it’s all neighbors. My friend knows the vendors at the farmers market; one apologizes for not recognizing her. Stops to chat with people she knows are frequent. It’s a small place: small means everybody is up in your business, but pretty discreetly so. They give you your space. They’re Yankees: self-reliant and industrious, respecters of privacy, but there if you need ’em.

The Harbor Gawker restaurant, celebrating 40 years, is for sale. It’s called that because as it was originally sited, before the street was re-engineered, customers could sit and gawk at the harbor. The tablecloths are red and white checkered oilcloth. The menu is neatly printed on chalkboard after chalkboard after chalkboard, listing a dizzying variety of ways to serve fish and shellfish and, of course, lobster. It’s known for generous servings. My lobster roll is so stuffed with hunks of mayonnaised crustacean that I eat it with gusto and deliberation, so none of it ends up in my lap.

Place: what you see, what you hear, what you eat, how people live. Foreign or familiar, offering roots yet changing. Work, food, ancestors, neighbors, weather, the horizon of history and rock and big water. Millions of permutations of home.