I get in the car on Sunday, June 27 and head off to Conception Abbey in Missouri with a little anxiety. Remembering my last blog post before my time away, I pray, “God, I do not know how you are going to speak to me over the next eight weeks, but I give myself to you without reserve. I want to learn how to fly again and live a balanced life as my true, authentic self. Do with me what you will.” At Compline (Night Prayer) that evening, the Benedictine monks sing,
We praise you Father, for your gifts of dusk and nightfall over earth,
Foreshadowing the Mystery of death that leads to endless day.
Within your hands we rest secure; in quiet sleep our strength renew.
Yet give your people hearts that wake in love to you, unsleeping Lord.
Your glory may we ever seek in rest as in activity,
Until its fullness is revealed; O Source of life, O Trinity.
I am using Reuben Job’s A Guide to Retreat for All God’s Shepherds as a spiritual focus, as I have during two other leaves. Never could I have imagined then that I would one day follow in Bishop Job’s footsteps as an episcopal leader in the Iowa Annual Conference. Bishop Job served the Iowa Conference from 1992 to 2000. In the Introduction, Job says, “You join a multitude of persons who have discovered that a time of retreat is often the setting in which God brings new strength for ministry and new clarity, courage, and direction to life’s journey.”[i]
I write in my journal, “I am here to hear your voice, O God. Whatever you have for me, I will listen and be attentive to. When I come away, I realize how empty I am. There is nothing to mask the silence, the despair, the loneliness. Yet I can hear you very clearly, God, and I know that you are near. I know that you love me and that I am enveloped in your grace. I seek to rediscover the power of your witness. I am totally dependent upon you.”
On the second full day, remembering my vow to learn to fly again, I sing a favorite Sunday school song from the very first church I served.
Some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away.
To that home on God’s celestial shore. I’ll fly away.
I’ll fly away, oh glory. I’ll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.
I attend Matins with the monks and then go for a run. The day before, I discovered a trail through the Missouri prairie on the abbey property, so I lace up my running shoes and prepare for an adventure. About a mile away from the retreat center, enjoying a gorgeous summer day, I go down. It’s that quick. The grass on the trail is high, and I trip over something I cannot see. I fall hard on my left arm and know immediately that something is very wrong.
I turn around and run back to the abbey where I seek the help of Karen, an angel who is the Assistant Director of the Abbey Guest Center. She helps me change out of my running clothes and drives me to the nearest hospital a half hour away. The diagnosis: a broken wrist on my dominant left hand. Well, now that I have a broken wing, I guess I really am going to have to learn to fly again!
After the shock wears off, I realize that I will have to wear a splint or cast on my left arm for most of the summer. It becomes clear that some of my plans for July and August might have to change. How will I write? How will I type? How will I change my clothes? How will I hold a trekking pole and hike? All of life is risk, and I’m not one to play it safe. The darkness dares to descend, and I feel broken, humbled, and empty.
I remember how the apostle Paul describes Jesus, “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” (Philippians 2:6-7a). Jesus, my savior, a suffering servant taking on the pain of the world, humbling himself to the point of death – death on a cross.
How interesting that my devotional reading that morning from Bishop Job’s A Guide to Retreat includes the words of Macrina Wiederkehr from her book, A Tree Full of Angels. Wiederkehr shares an anonymous quote found in the home of David Larson, M.D., “When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take that step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen…there will be something solid for us to stand on, or we will be taught to fly.” In the midst of the sudden darkness of uncertainty about the rest of my time away, will I be given solid ground or wings to fly again?[ii]
As I sit in the darkness with the monks at night, I know that I have no control and can only rely on the mystery of the movement of the Holy Spirit. Learning to fly again has its frustrating moments. I’ve discovered, however, that the kindness of friends and strangers around the world in helping me navigate when it was a challenge was an incredible blessing and example.
My spiritual life was deepened as, wherever I traveled, I sought out those who were in need or were also learning to fly again and prayed for them. When I was not off the grid, I also prayed for whatever situations in our world were critical.
I prayed for all those affected by the tornadoes and severe weather in Iowa in July. I prayed for Molly Tibbetts and her family, from her disappearance on July 18 after she had gone for a run in Brooklyn, Iowa, to August 21, when her body was found. I wept for her family and friends and also for so many other women in our world who have been victims of violence.
I prayed for Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, when news became public that she was in Hospice care. I gave thanks for the incredible depth of faith that played a role in her music and for her church home, New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. I prayed for John McCain and celebrated the heroic life he lived, having served as a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton” in Vietnam for five years. McCain not only became a US Senator who was instrumental in restoring relations between Vietnam and the US, but he was a person of great personal integrity who was able to bridge the divide between people and political parties.
I prayed for all those affected by a shocking revelation in my home state of Pennsylvania and five other states. Over a period of seventy years, more than a thousand children were molested by more than three hundred Catholic priests. The lack of response, transparency, and accountability by the Catholic hierarchy seemed unfathomable. I also prayed for our beloved United Methodist Church and the path that is leading toward the special session of General Conference in February of 2019.
As I return to work, I realize anew that the way of faith, by its very nature, is obscure. You and I grope in the dark, searching for a foothold, a glimmer of light, a sign of hope. The vision is not always clear, yet our faith has deep and abiding roots. May the amazing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the unconditional love of God for each person in this world, and the sweetness and power of the Holy Spirit, guide us into such a future that the world will look at us and say, “Those United Methodists! O how they love Jesus! And, can you imagine? They learned how to fly again!”
[i]Reuben P. Job, A Guide to Retreat for All God’s Shepherds, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994.
[ii]Job, p. 34.