Sometimes it’s the little rituals of our lives that hold us in place when we feel most ungrounded. And sometimes you have to be to be ready to modify those rituals, or make some new ones.

So, two old rituals yesterday, and one that’s fairly new for us.

Church in the morning, though we gather outside now. I miss the music, but I like hearing the birds. I even kinda sorta like the passing motorcycles, because this wouldn’t be New Hope without them.

Then home to a breakfast my father used to make: fried tomatoes, sprinkled lightly with brown sugar, with a pile of bacon on the side. Because my dad fried the green tomatoes that never got around to ripening in his garden, this was the only time of year he made that meal, and though I like to indulge myself with red ripe tomatoes, I only make it in September. Because.

Then, in the afternoon, we were off on what has become a new pandemic ritual for us: a long drive in the country. The object is to follow pretty backroads, preferably some you haven’t seen before, get to someplace nice where you can get out and stretch your legs, and get back home before you need a bathroom break. We headed out through Hunterdon and Mercer counties in New Jersey, stopping for a short walk at the Herrontown Woods Arboretum near Princeton, cursed the fact that we couldn’t stop on impulse at a favorite restaurant on the way home, and called it a day.

Sometimes the way ahead seems so unclear, and sometimes the sun comes right down out of heaven and traces the path for you.

But for some reason, we crossed the creek in the picture and turned right. It turned out fine. Next time, though, I’ll bring my boots and my walking stick.

Praying in sadness

These are some thoughts I’ve been pulling together for myself as I try to pray through the sadness I’ve felt since covid put an end to the life I’d been planning to lead in 2020. I offer them in case they help, though every pray-er is an individual and the issues for each one of us might be quite different.

First of all, the sadness is real and legitimate. There’s plenty to be sad about, even if there are also still reasons for gladness. Own it. Bring the sadness to prayer. Many are the voices who remind us that we begin where we are in prayer, and sometimes that is in sadness. God will meet you there.

If not knowing how to pray means not knowing how to begin, just say, “Here I am, I’m sad.” If it means not knowing what to say or ask for, don’t worry about that. Put the question to God – how would you have me pray? – and then listen and wait for what words might come. Remember the line from Romans: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Let that prayer that is already present in you be your own.

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In passing

So many losses, just so many. So much grief. We ourselves lost two beloved friends this past week, and we talked this morning about those losses and others who went before them over the past six months or so. That feeling of wanting them to be there, and knowing they aren’t and never will be again. Of course they’ll always be present in a way, as we carry them in memory, but we want to hear their laughter again, feel their embrace, be uplifted by their wise words and gentle spirits. And that won’t happen again in this world.

And so we cling more tightly to our memories, to each other, and to friends who are still with us. In each case the ones we’ve lost have taught me things about what it means to live a good and meaningful life: how to love, how to care, how to teach, how to be present in ways that break into the loneliness that’s there to some degree for all of us. Perhaps that’s the root of the phrase, “May her memory be for a blessing.” We re-create our late friends for ourselves by becoming a little more like them as we go on. 

One of the most frustrating things for me in these past difficult times is the feeling that my life has been put on hold, but of course life doesn’t stop for those of us who aren’t dead. The life we’re living now is our own real and true life, and as a dear friend now gone liked to say, quoting Paula D’Arcy, “God comes to you disguised as your life.”

And so we go on, rising on our good days to the challenge of living, really living. I’m in the process of preparing to facilitate a Zoom discussion that will include talking about Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited” – a book that impresses me more and more the longer I sit with it – and I came across this Thurman quote:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”


At rest

Solebury Friends Meeting

A wise photographer of my acquaintance once opined that it’s almost impossible to make a really good image of a cemetery, and I understood what he was saying, but it hasn’t stopped me from trying. I find such peace in this place. It happens to be where I expect to be buried myself, and when I walk there, I pass the graves of many people I’ve known and admired in this life. I miss them, but in some way knowing that they’ve gone this way ahead of me makes it easier to accept my own eventual demise. I love this little tool shed, and this big old tree, and I especially like the way the tree is swallowing up one of the headstones. Earth to earth, we are part of something larger than ourselves. I take that to mean one thing in death, where it’s about surrender, and something very different in life, where being part of a greater whole should mean caring about the well-being of Creation and all those with whom we share it.

Light ahead

I haven’t been going anywhere interesting lately so much of my photo work has been reworking old photos like this one, culling through the thousands of images I’ve collected over the years for the ones I never did much with but should have. For now I’m calling this one “Finding My Way.” I’ve driven across this bridge at times when the fog was so thick on the river you couldn’t see much in any direction, just a few feet ahead of you. But that’s really all you need. You just keep going forward, driving slowly, and eventually you come out of it. Which of course is a lot like the way everything feels right now. But as dim as it seems, there is light ahead, friends. There is light ahead.

Golden hour on the stairs

When I enter shows and have to write a little artist statement, I always try to include the line, “Light, like grace, changes everything.” And when I think of grace – which ranks in my mind with mercy as vital but so often overlooked in a time when we all seem to want to dwell more on retribution – I think of the way light falls where it will, brings out colors you wouldn’t otherwise notice, and makes ordinary things extraordinarily beautiful.

“The barn needs paint”
If you wonder why this photo goes with this post, it’s because I was thinking these thoughts while I biking on a road where I passed this barn.

I invite you, my friends, to join me as dialogue partners in considering this question: What do we need to live a good life? And what I mean by “goodness” here isn’t being morally righteous, but thriving, flourishing, living out the fullness of one’s humanity

  • I think of these as some of the ingredients:
  • Enough to eat. A place to live.
  • Opportunities to love and be loved in the fullest sense, which is so much more than the passion of romantic love or fondness for family and friends; “Justice is what love looks like in action,” as Cornel West once said, and there’s still more to the word than that.
  • Meaningful work.
  • A degree of autonomy, but also a place in community.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs might come to mind for any of you who have taken those classes, but I think I mean both more and less than the spectrum he laid out, and I’d prefer to converse in plain English, not the jargon of psychology.

What I’m putting on my list are ingredients, but I won’t try to write out a complete recipe. Perhaps in some cases a little more of this can make up for a little less than that; I don’t know.

I’ve been thinking about these things as I struggle to balance my own feelings of gratitude and loss in this time of pandemic. This is not the life I’d hoped to be living in retirement, either personally or vocationally. I can’t be with most of my family or my friends as I’d like. The pilgrimage to Assisi I’d so been looking forward to was canceled, with no other opportunities for travel anywhere in sight. I’d intended to continue to live my ordination even in retirement from parish ministry, but the possibilities for that have vanished. In a kind of symbolic moment, I had a supply gig I was eagerly looking forward to the first Sunday that all the churches shut down, and there that went.

Anyway, those losses really hurt. And yet there have been other opportunities: to go deeper in my photography, to work on writing poetry, to read, to ride my bike 5-6 miles every day, to cook, to spend a special kind of time with my family and especially my two little granddaughters.

This is definitely not the life I’d intended to be living right now. And yet.So what about you: are you thriving these days, and if not, what is it that you still need?

While I was sitting and thinking of nothing in particular this morning, I thought to share this photo from my files. It’s a work titled “When I Was Hungry and Thirsty,” by Timothy Schmalz, at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. I was fascinated by the urge some passersby felt to leave a few coins on his plate. Seriously, what were they thinking?It brought to mind a dream I had a week or so ago, in which I was listening to a sermon in which some colleagues and I were being exhorted to remember and live into our first ordination. The background you need, if you don’t know it already, is that we priests in the Episcopal Church are ordained twice, the first time as deacons, the second time as priests. That bothers some deacons, who see it as disrespecting their call, and I understand that, although I’ll say for myself that I’ve always understood my diaconal ordination as formative for understanding my own call.

But again I wonder, seriously, what would it mean for me now in retirement (and under quarantine) to live into that first ordination?

We’re grieving

It seems to me that many if not most of us are grieving these days. 

We mourn our dead, of course. Some of us have lost friends or family members to the virus. Others grieve the deaths of loved ones who can’t be honored at a proper memorial service because of restrictions on large gatherings. Without knowing their names, we mourn the 150,000 Americans who have died of covid-related causes.

But there’s more to it than that. We’ve all lost so much more: vacations we were looking forward to, family gatherings and celebrations that can’t happen, jobs. The virus has put limitations on the way we work and serve our communities; it’s restricted the freedom to go where we want to go and do what we want to do in ways most of us have never experienced before. We’re irritable and can’t concentrate and we don’t know why, not immediately recognizing what’s happening as grief.

I’ve been working my way through the book “Winter of the Heart” by Paul D’Arcy and finding it tremendously helpful. It’s oriented toward grieving the loss of people who were important to us, but most of the points it makes about grief are easily adaptable to these other losses.

The work of grief, D’Arcy says, is to gratefully let go of what is no more and reorient ourselves to the possibilities that lie hidden in what is, a transformation that requires letting love open our hearts to create “an open space through which the river of sorrow can flow.” Paraphrasing the late poet and priest  John O’Donohue, she says that there’s an invitation to be found in every moment of our lives, “even in the deepest heartache.”

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