Unrevealed Until Its Season

It’s sunset in Clive, Iowa. My home office faces west, and I watch the brilliant red, orange, and yellow colors fade into darkness. I sing to myself:

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;

In cocoons a hidden promise; butterflies will soon be free.

In the cold and snow of winter, there’s a spring that waits to be,

Unrevealed until its season, something alone God can see.

“Hymn of Promise,” United Methodist Hymnal, #707

It is the season of winter, and I am deeply grateful that out of the isolation of life confined mostly to home, blessings still abound. Unrevealed until its season, Lent beckons us to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

In the midst of the fear of contracting COVID-19; depression because we can’t go anywhere; worry about elderly parents; anxiety about our children; grief because we cannot cuddle grandchildren on our lap; and sorrow that so many are suffering financially, emotionally, and relationally – there’s a spring that waits to be. God with us even – especially – in the dark places.

God of all seasons, in your pattern of things

there is a time for keeping and a time for losing,

a time for building up and a time for pulling down.

In this holy season of Lent, as we journey with our Lord to the cross,

Help us to discern in our lives

What we must lay down and what we must take up.

What we must end and what we must begin.

                                    (The Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland)

I recently discovered a diary that I kept from 1974-1975. It was my junior year in college, which I spent at the Berliner Kirchenmusikschule (Berlin Church Music School) in West Berlin, Germany. Growing up, I never adjusted well to new circumstances and always experienced homesickness when away from my family. Yet learning German at the Goethe Institute in West Berlin for two months and then fully immersing myself in studying organ, choir conducting, composition, and voice was exhilarating. In this highly intense and competitive music environment, I asked myself every day, “What am I doing here?” Still, I was able to bloom and grow. Unrevealed until its season.

Fortunately, my college roommate at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio happened to be studying in Basel, Switzerland at the same time as I was in West Berlin, so we decided to spend the Christmas break together. I took a train to Freiburg, Germany, where Jennifer was staying with her host family at their summer home in the Black Forest. We attended a packed Christmas Eve mass, which was totally foreign, fascinating, and deeply moving. A few days later, Jennifer and I boarded a train and headed off to Milan, where we would catch another train to Rome.

The scene remains vivid in my mind these many years later. I wrote in my diary, “It’s 1:15 a.m., and do I have a story to tell! My passport case was stolen an hour ago, as Jennifer and I were walking from car to car, trying to find seats on the standing room only train from Milan to Rome. I realized the inherent danger in the situation and was holding on to my passport case tightly.” Oh, well.

Once I realized it was gone, we quickly got off the train and were directed to the Polizei. I filled out all the necessary forms so that I could get a temporary passport the next day at the American Consulate in Milan. But the loss was so much greater than my passport. In the passport case was my International Student Identity Card, my Social Security card, an eight-day train ticket for Italy and return ticket to West Berlin, a credit card, police papers from Berlin, cash, and traveler’s checks.

There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody.

There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.

From the past will come the future, what it holds, a mystery,

Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Jennifer and I spent a sleepless night in the Milan train station, with numerous creepy men checking us out. We were cold, hungry, and bone-weary, yet we had to stay awake. After I was able to secure a temporary passport the next day, we decided to pack it in and return to Basel, Switzerland, where Jennifer was living with her host family. After a few days, I took the train back to Berlin and was ready to stay put for a while. Two months later, I received a letter from the American Consulate in Milan, returning a few of the stolen items that had been recovered, minus the money.

At our next school break, I planned to travel to Vienna to visit a high school friend who was studying there. The night train would take me from the West Berlin train station to an East Berlin train station, where I would transfer to another train that would overnight me to Vienna.

Unfortunately, I got off at the wrong station in East Berlin. After waiting for a little while, I became uncertain about the transfer and approached an East German guard. Yes, this was at the height of the Cold War, and I was terrified. After he told me it was too late to make connections to Vienna, I made my way back to West Berlin and tried again early the next morning. It ended up being a wonderful trip. Unrevealed until its season.

I was ultimately not called to be a professional church musician, although I still love music. From the past will come the future. It was music that led me to discover that my real call was pastoral ministry. And it was music that led me to The United Methodist Church, unrevealed until its season. While studying for a Master’s degree in organ performance at Yale, I not only met my husband, who was a United Methodist, but I also served as the director of music at a United Methodist Church in Connecticut for five years.

In our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity;

In our doubt there is believing, in our life, eternity.

In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,

Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

During this season of Lent, what endings, some yet unrevealed, will lead to new beginnings for us as individuals, as United Methodists, and as a world? How will COVID-19 continue to teach us that we are one global family and that the choices we make have a ripple effect that affects all of us? How will the anti-racism movement change us? How will our local churches innovate, grow, and flourish because of the challenges we have faced? How can we love and care for one another even when we disagree on important issues? To what do we need to die as individuals and as a denomination in order to walk boldly into a future with hope that is unrevealed until its season? Once again, in our end is our beginning.

The Way

It’s the journey that counts, not the destination. Growing up, my father used to say to us kids when we were traveling, “Look out the window. Pay attention to everything you see. Don’t be so eager to get to your destination that you can’t relish the beauty all around you.”

As our annual Lenten journey begins this week on Ash Wednesday, I decided to prepare my heart, mind, and spirit by reading Jane Leach’s book, Walking the Story; In the Steps of Saints and Pilgrims. Dr. Leach is a British pastor and theologian who is Principal of Wesley House, a Methodist theological college in Cambridge, England. She also introduced leaders in the Iowa Annual Conference to the practice of reflective supervision last year.

Walking the Story is a theological recounting of Leach’s 2005 pilgrimage on the five-hundred-mile El Camino pilgrimage trail from Pied-de-Port in southern France, across the Pyrenees, and stretching across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Since Gary and I walked the Camino in 2019, I felt a nudging to use her book as part of my own Lenten journey this year.

The image I often use for Lent is that of “the Way,” which, as every Camino pilgrim discovers, is a journey that mirrors the life of Christ. The night before Jesus was crucified, he instructed his disciples in John 14:1-6. “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.” Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

During Lent, we have an opportunity to walk with Jesus on the Way to Jerusalem and the cross. There are three parts to this journey along the Way. First, the Lenten journey always begins with letting go. On the Camino, the letting go starts before the first step is even taken and lasts for the entire journey. In order to walk with Jesus along the Way, we let go of family, work commitments, and ego. We let go of our cell phone and laptop and commit ourselves wholeheartedly to following Jesus on the Way. We let go of pride, as the Way challenges mind, body, and spirit. And we discover in those first few days that if we do not release some of the cherished possessions in our pack, the physical weight that we carry on our backs will not be sustainable over five hundred miles.

The tangible expression of letting go occurs on Ash Wednesday as we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads with ashes, along with these words from Genesis 3:19, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” As pilgrims walk step after step after step and day after day after day, we sense that we are breathed into life by the Spirit of God at the same time as we belong to the dust of the earth. The term “humility” comes from the Latin word humilis, which can be translated as “humble”, “grounded”, or “from the earth” (humus). Knowing that we belong to the earth, pilgrims embrace their weakness, humanity, and humility as gifts. The essence of Ash Wednesday is found in the “humus” (soil) of the earth as well as in the ashes of repentance. We are breathed into life by the Spirit of God, yet we also belong to the earth. Too often, however, we are weighed down by our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual baggage. I feel the humility in my body as I walk the Way and yearn to let go.

Second, our Lenten journey along the Way includes an acute awareness that we walk with the whole human race. When we engage with Christ, the Pilgrim, the one who had no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20), our focus extends beyond our own humanity to the spiritual needs of our neighbors who also walk on the Way. In fact, in many parts of our world, walking is the only form of transportation. Dr. Leach writes, “Mission becomes our continued pilgrimage with others into the living heart of God who has made all of humanity his Home.”[i]

As we physically walk, mile by mile, day by day through Lent, we become more and more aware that our minds, bodies, and spirits have become one. Dr. Leach cites James Nelson, who said, “If we do not know the gospel in our body, we do not know the gospel. We either experience God’s presence in our bodies or not at all.”[ii]

As every pilgrim will attest, we become community on the Camino, and strangers soon become friends. Everyday walkers encounter people who are suffering from blisters, hunger, and all kinds of aches and pains, and they are always ready to help. At the same time, we wrestle with our own private demons that threaten our faith by saying, “You are not worthy. You are not able. Why did you ever think you could do this?”

Those who travel the Camino give up whatever status, education, or power they may have in order to journey the Way together and show hospitality to one another. At the end of the first and most difficult day of hiking, pilgrims cross over the Pyrenees Mountains from France to Spain and spend the night in Roncesvalles, whose monastery demonstrates centuries of unbroken hospitality. What a blessing to see a statue of a weary pilgrim with this 13th-century poem:

The gate is open to everyone: To the sick and to the well,

Not only to Catholics But also to unbelievers,

To Jews, heretics And vagabonds as well.[iii]

Third, when Camino walkers arrive at the Church of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, where pilgrim masses are held twice a day, we discover that the end of the 500-mile Lenten journey is also a new beginning. Seeing the gigantic swinging botafumeiro send incense across the cathedral and embracing the centuries-old tradition of hugging the statue of St. James remind us that the journey is not over. Rather, the pilgrimage is meant to open doors to new life in Christ. Having been strangers ourselves on the Way, we vow to embody our life’s journey with new commitments to care for the least, the last, and the lost.

Our world desperately needs pilgrims whose primary focus is embodying the grace of Jesus Christ. Our world needs those who journey by taking up their cross, following Jesus, and inviting others to follow. And our world needs those who see our common humanity rather than our differences and respond with compassion and grace.

How will you be spiritually formed during this season of Lent? What disciplines will you practice along the Way? Fasting? Seeking reconciliation with someone who has harmed you? Intentional Scripture reading? Tithing? Reaching out to one of your elderly neighbors? Leading a small group for Lent? However you do so, you walk along the Way of Christ.

Lord Jesus Christ, you called your first disciples to follow you, and they left their father and their nets in the boat and went after you. Whether we are called to set out in faith or practice a deeper faithfulness at home, give us grace to leave behind what we do not need, courage to persevere when the way is tough and unrewarding, and find us faithful companions along the way. Amen.[iv]

 

[i] Walking the Story; In the Steps of Saints and Pilgrims, Jane Leach, Inspire, Peterborough, England, 2007, p. 65.

[ii] Ibid, p. 36.

[iii] Ibid, p. 82.

[iv] Ibid, p. 19.

 

 

 

 

Unfinished

Her words were riveting, as twenty-two-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman read her poem at President Biden’s inauguration.

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.

What if you and I, too, are not broken, but simply unfinished? I definitely classify myself as unfinished. I certainly am compared to previous generations when young women of means would attend a “finishing school” where they learned the social graces and etiquette of the upper class.

I had a conversation last week with several leaders and colleagues about how difficult and “unfinished” this time is. Our clergy are tired, stressed, and worried for many reasons: COVID-19; racism; the upcoming General Conference, with votes around human sexuality; how to reinvent themselves in worship and ministry; the inability to do face-to-face pastoral care; financial stress in our congregations; anxiety and depression; a contentious presidential election; and the January 6 attack on the Capitol. How can we gain our bearings? What will center us? I’ve often felt like Jacob, limping away from Peniel. Certainly, we’re unfinished. We have a long way to go.

The reality of my unfinished nature sank in a few years ago when I woke up early one summer Sunday morning, ready to preach, having arrived at Lakeside (Ohio) Chautauqua the afternoon before. I went out for a run and took a shower. Then chaos ensued. My brush wasn’t in my purse where it always is. I’ll adjust, I said to myself. I put on my suit, only to discover that the skirt was missing. I’d had the skirt dry-cleaned and didn’t put it back with the blouse and jacket. Okay, I’ll wear the other suit. Then I realized that there was no hairdryer in the cottage where I was staying. Oh well, nothing I can do about it now. Finally, I put on my hose, only to find a run in a very prominent place. Fortunately, I always travel with an extra pair.

I don’t know if other clergy are like me, but Sunday morning is the absolute worst time of the week for things to go wrong! All of my problems could have easily been fixed had I been at home, but when you are on the road, you have to improvise. As I ate breakfast, deciding whether to laugh or cry, I noticed an envelope in my briefcase labeled “Wabi-sabi Project.” It had been there for a year, but I’d forgotten all about it.

I opened the envelope and there were four small seashells glued to the top of a matchbox, each shell slightly imperfect. I laughed out loud, realizing that the friends who unknowingly put the envelope in my briefcase for such a time as this was saying to me gently but firmly, “Laurie, you are God’s wabi-sabi project. Forget about perfection. You are unfinished. You’ll never look perfect anyway, so just get on with worship.” Which I did.

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese word that describes the art of discovering beauty in what is imperfect and incomplete. It was fourteen years ago that I found the word I was seeking to describe the reality of my life. Wabi sabi: broken, scarred, messy, unfinished. In the fall of 2001, I was on a three-month renewal leave. Actually, it was more like a glorified time-out. After twenty years of ministry, I finally realized that perfection and ministry don’t mix well.

Unfortunately, it’s in my DNA to try to do everything well. Half-hearted is not in my vocabulary. I never wake up in the morning deciding to be mediocre that day. No one forces me to be a perfectionist. I just am. When skills don’t come naturally, I work harder. I am probably the only person ever to go through eight years of college and graduate school without ever going to a party! I was either in the library or the practice room.

As an adult entering the professional ministry as well as parenthood, I gave up perfection in some areas in order to pursue it in others. With three children close in age, I decided that my house was always going to look “lived in” and didn’t bother cleaning up every day. Gourmet meals (never my strength!) went out the door, replaced by macaroni and cheese and spaghetti. I gave up soccer mom gold status and let the other mothers sew homemade Halloween costumes and lead the PTA.

Meanwhile, I was attempting to raise reasonably normal children with the crazy hours of a local church pastor married to another local church pastor. The result? Failure around every corner. Susanna’s name slipped my mind, and she wasn’t happy when I called her Karen. I missed Joe’s surgery, and he wasn’t pleased. I forgot to show up to say a prayer at a banquet and was never invited back. I had what I thought was a grace-filled come-to-Jesus-meeting with a staff member, and he was mad. I couldn’t make it to one of our children’s Honor Society induction because I was at an out-of-state conference. I rushed to an evening meeting in mismatched shoes. Thank God for God’s saving grace! I am grateful for the churches I served that thrived and grew, but it was by no means perfect. I certainly wasn’t!

Over the years, wabi-sabi has taught me to recognize the unfinished beauty of my life and of all creation: the half-burned candle; a mishmash of rocks in a cairn; the knotty pine chair; Jacob’s limp; the wounded healer; a starfish with one arm broken off; the wooden table with one short leg; the pottery jar with a crack; a dying tree; the apostle Paul’s brashness; a struggling local church that nevertheless reaches the poor in a way no other church in the community can. Authentic faith embodies wabi-sabi. Despite my earnest efforts, I am still unfinished. As the saying goes, I’m not perfect, but I’m forgiven.

Can perfection actually be harmful, then? Can our insistence on doing everything “just right” get in the way of enjoying our life with God? Perhaps there is a deeper issue here than mere perfectionism.

I’ve been thinking lately about a quote from the author E. B. White, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, it would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

E.B. White gets to the heart of our dilemma as Christ-followers. When Jesus becomes a part of our everyday life, we exude passion: a call to save the world in whatever way God asks us, whether as clergy or lay persons. But because there is so much to be saved, we are never done. We often put off savoring the world and doing the things that give us joy so that we can devote all our energy to saving the world. Which can then lead to over-functioning, compassion fatigue, lack of balance, and brokenness.

I yearn for a faith that releases others to both save and savor. I believe in tending our own souls as well as others’ souls. I want to be part of a church that does not make people feel guilty for stepping away from ministries for a time in order to regain balance. I want to honor the paradox of personal and social holiness, faith, and works. And I want to celebrate my most spectacular failures not as brokenness but as simply part of my unfinished nature. Could it be that wabi-sabi is a prerequisite to deep, mature spiritual growth?

I am probably never going to awake in the morning deciding to be mediocre. But I’d rather be authentic and whole than perfect. Just as our church, nation, and world are unfinished, so, too, am I. How about you?

Finish then Thy new creation, Pure and spotless let us be
Let us see Thy great salvation, Perfectly restored in Thee

Changed from glory into glory, ‘Til in Heaven we take our place
‘Til we cast our crowns before Thee, Lost in wonder, love and praise.

Charles Wesley: Love Divine All Loves Excelling