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Posts Tagged ‘community’

Such as I pray

trail sunset summer sky

So, how do you pray? he’d asked her once.

She’d thought about it a long moment. She always listened, always took his questions seriously. Say what you believe, she said. Say what you’re thankful for. Say what you love.

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, I Shall Not Want

I don’t find myself doing a lot of praying these days.

For a person raised, as I was, in the Southern Baptist church, where we toss around phrases like a little talk with Jesus and you can ask God anything and prayer is a conversation, this is (nearly) tantamount to heresy.

I don’t know when it began to slow down, exactly: maybe somewhere between the heart-cracking headlines (which are still getting worse all the time) and the many smaller, quieter griefs of the last few years. I’d never really understood about prayer, anyway, never quite been sure what it did, what it was supposed to do. I was tired of asking and pleading, hearing only silence.

So I slowed down, until I almost stopped altogether.

It’s not that I have stopped believing, exactly. I can’t quite seem to quit God, even when I think life might be easier or at least make a little more sense if I could.

I have, however, stopped believing in many of the platitudes I used to hear about prayer, because who really knows how it works, anyway? Like most conversations, it does not have a guaranteed outcome. Like most things we do, it is not formulaic. Like most of our attempts to be honest and faithful, it does not always make a lot of sense.

I have (mostly) stopped saying I’m praying for you to people, because sometimes it is a lie anyway, and I also (see above) have lots of questions about what that means. I have (mostly) stopped asking my friends and family to pray for me, though I know and appreciate that some of them do. I have more faith in their prayers, sometimes, than my own.

The irony here is that I still, most Sundays, lead the public prayer at our tiny church, taking requests from the handful of souls in the pews and offering them up to God or whoever is listening. I am perhaps not the best person to do this, at the moment, but it is my job and I love this community, so I get up, pen and bulletin in hand, and stand in front of these faces, familiar and unknown.

I usually begin with a line borrowed from my friend Amy, who can often be found in the front pew with her husband and twelve-year-old twins: we are so grateful for all that we have been given. I continue with a paraphrase of an old song I sang as a child: we know that you see and love the whole world.

And then, usually when my voice starts to crack under the strain of it all, I invite everyone to join me in the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t have to think of the words for this part, and the community’s voices often help carry mine. Depending on the week, certain lines can make me break into tears: on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.

Such as I pray, then, it can look like that: coming together with my community to follow Clare Fergusson’s advice in the Spencer-Fleming quote above. We say what we believe, what we’re thankful for, what we love. And I suspect I have not stopped believing in prayer altogether, or those lines – from the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere – would not move me the way they sometimes do.

Such as I pray outside of church, though, it looks different.

It can look like texting a friend who lost a loved one recently, or checking in on another friend who’s going through a lot. It can look like sharing joys with loved ones, via text or in person, because prayer isn’t only sadness and asking; it is praise, too, or at least it can be.

It can look like the tasks I do around the house that ground me: folding piles of laundry, standing at the kitchen sink washing stacks of dishes. Sometimes, as I stand there scrubbing and rinsing, I end up humming one of the hymns that have lived in my bones since I was a little girl.

Sometimes I pray one of Anne Lamott’s few essential prayers: help or thanks or simply wow. Often I run right out of words altogether. I don’t know when they will come back. But then I remember Clare’s simple, solid advice, and I think: I can usually find something I love.

I don’t know if prayer moves the world, or even tilts it forward. I don’t know much about it at all, these days. But maybe it, too, is a form of love.

Maybe that’s all it needs to be.

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stronger together heart graffiti three lives

Today is just another Monday in many places. But here in my adopted city of Boston, it’s Marathon Monday.

It’s been five years since the bombing near the finish line that marked Boston, and the marathon, forever. We are a little wary these days, a little battle-weary, a little scarred. There is still joy in the marathon, but it’s layered with grief, and a fierce, stubborn gladness. This city, and the runners who descend on it every year, possess grit in spades. And they – we – are determined to keep going.

This year, as a novice runner, I understand the marathon in a new way. For the first time, I have a small sense of what it’s like to lace up your running shoes and get out there even when you don’t feel like it, even when the weather sucks, even when you’d rather stay inside.

I also have a small sense of the joy that comes from pushing yourself, from settling into the rhythm of a run, from sweating and moving and pounding the pavement (or in my case, the river trail). I am learning all the time about sore legs and stretching, about warming up and cooling down, about layers and sports bras and the importance of a good playlist. (It will surprise no one that I love to run to Hamilton.)

selfie gray hat river trail

I don’t pretend to know the particular challenges of being an elite runner or even a marathoner. The longest race I’ve ever (yet!) run is a 5K. But I’m prouder and more excited than ever for the marathon this year, because now I’m a runner. In a small way, I’m one of them.

I am cheering on every single person running today, from the leading elites to those who will limp across the finish line. (I am especially proud of my former colleague Jim Ryan, dean of Harvard’s Ed School.)

This is their race and this is our city. Together, we are Boston Strong. And if you’re running, we are all rooting for you.

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flowers lilies windowsill church tulips brookline easter 

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins…

Easter at Brookline: gold-foil-wrapped pots of flowers lining the deep windowsills, tulips and lilies and hyacinths, bright splashes of color against the white walls. When you pull back the glass-paned double doors at the rear of the church, the scent hits you like a wave. It smells like spring, like hope, like resurrection in the face of impossible odds.

We set up two long tables behind the back pews and pile them with food, a rough division of sweets and savories, plates of sandwiches and mini quiche and cookies galore. Sarah brings the traditional cake frosted to look like a lamb. Sierra makes her cherry-center cookies dusted with powdered sugar. Early on Easter morning, the hubs slices avocados in our kitchen, a sturdy apron tied over his pastel-striped church shirt. The guacamole is a reliable crowd pleaser, even if we eat a lot of it ourselves.

And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains…

I didn’t walk through Lent this year the way I sometimes do, with an urgent, pressing awareness of the story. After a blue-skied Ash Wednesday, which fell incongruously on Valentine’s Day, a thousand other things demanded my attention. Even Holy Week felt fragmented: we were on the West Coast seeing friends on Palm Sunday, then jet-lagged through the days leading up to Easter, busy with to-do lists and the demands of everyday life. I wasn’t quite able to quiet down and listen.

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power…

On Friday night, we pulled together the worship order for Sunday, sitting in our living room, discussing hymns and Scripture readings, updating the prayer list. J suggested we begin the service by singing an old hymn, just the two of us and his guitar. We sang and he strummed, and on Sunday morning, we stood up in front of the community we love, and did it for them.

Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more…

This was our eighth Easter in this place, with these people, and as I looked out over the pews, I saw faces I love deeply and faces I’d never seen before. I saw the couple with their toddler son in his seersucker blazer, who are days away from welcoming their second child. I saw our friends who moved up from Texas three summers ago, on little more than hope and a sense of adventure. I saw our church treasurer, Dale, with his tall Jewish wife and daughter, all of whom had prepared and hosted a Passover Seder for us at the church the night before. I saw the couple who moved here from California for a year back in 1967, who have never stopped serving this church.

I sang to all of them, for all of them, my voice rising over the lines I know so well, and I saw how so many of them smiled back at me, how they could not help but sing along.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day…

I’ve been humming this hymn on and off since I read the second Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mystery, which shares part of its title. In the book, Clare is unnerved by the song, but I’ve always loved it. It belongs to the canon of hymns we sang when I was a little girl, the ones that put the cross front and center, that remind us of the ways this story is visceral and real.

And there may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away…

You can’t have a resurrection without a physical death first; you can’t have a true redemption story without it getting very, very dark. A fountain filled with blood is a gruesome image, maybe, but in my mind it has always been linked to hope and grace.

E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply…

We listened, that morning, to Amy reading from the gospel of Mark, recounting how Mary Magdalene was first baffled, then afraid and – at last – amazed. We listened to Dasha, age 12, reading the words of Psalm 118: This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. We listened to Colette, nine months old, adding her voice to the congregation’s chorus as we sang the familiar hymns.

christ the lord easter hymn sheet music

We listened to Landon reminding us of the hope of the resurrection, the fierce gladness that has endured for all these years. And when I got up to speak over the communion table, I said: today we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, of life over death, and the certainty that we are loved beyond what we can imagine.

Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die…

Those are my favorite lines from this hymn. Those of us who have believed, who have made this story our own, are called to tell it, to keep singing this song for our whole lives. We have witnessed redemption and joy, light beyond the clouds of the darkest, most bitter night. We have been rescued from grief, from loneliness, from pain: we do not get to dodge it or avoid it, but we are assured that there is something beyond it, that God is making all things new. This story, which at times baffles and confuses and even breaks our hearts, is the story we will wrestle with forever, and the story we will tell until we die.

If you celebrated, I hope you had a wonderful Easter.

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sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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not afraid shirt ocean brave

It’s been a year, hasn’t it, friends?

These past months have been crowded and stressful, both in the world and in my own life. But they’ve also held beauty and laughter and joy. Here’s my annual (long but non-comprehensive) list of what has happened this year.

In 2017, I have:

darwins d2 start arrow

  • spent a long October weekend introducing my parents to New York City.
  • returned to PEI with the hubs for our third blissful stretch of days there.
  • spent a week wandering Oxford, city of my heart.
  • tried my first boot camp workout – a six-week series taught by my favorite yoga instructor – and loved it.
  • surprised myself by taking up running.
  • run my first 5K (in the snow!).
  • moved (again) and settled into our new apartment, a lovely third-floor eyrie in Dorchester.
  • fallen in love with the river trail near our house.

river trail asters

midtown nyc skyscrapers blue sky

  • gone on a few weekend escapes with the hubs: a Florida beach, a wee Connecticut town, the Maine woods.
  • spoken (once) and listened (on many days) at Morning Prayers at Memorial Church.
  • done a lot of church work, as ever: sending emails, organizing events, reading Scripture, washing dishes.
  • learned a thing or two about protesting.
  • marked nine years of marriage.
  • helped my best friends pack up their apartment, and sent them on their way to Idaho with many tears.
  • finished paying off our little silver car (we call her Adele).
  • celebrated my eighth (!) Turkeypalooza with church friends.
  • filled up half a dozen journals.

I’m looking forward to turning the calendar on 2018: I love the idea of a fresh start, but there’s also some good stuff I want to carry over from 2017. Wishing you a peaceful, hopeful start to the New Year.

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sumac river trail

December has arrived – suddenly, it seems. My neighbors are putting up twinkle lights, and the church sanctuary is full of pine garland, poinsettias and cyclamen. We began Advent on Sunday with the aching melody of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I’m slowly setting out the Christmas decorations and turning back to the words of hope in my Advent book.

Alongside all of that, it is dark. So dark.

Not only does the sun slip below the horizon as I’m finishing my workdays, but the news out of Washington and elsewhere is (still) so disheartening. I have friends who are grieving, weary, afraid. I am struggling with heartbreak, change, loss, fear. I know so many people who are waiting: for test results or resolution or even the tiniest scrap of good news.

In the midst of the darkness (literal and metaphorical), I know there are pinpricks of light, even when I can’t see them. In an effort to remind myself of this fact, I thought it was time for another list of what’s saving my life now:

  • Laurie Sheck’s poem “The Annunciation,” where I found the phrase “honest grace.” Kathleen Norris mentions it in her essay “Annunciation,” and I finally looked it up after meaning to do so for years.
  • Seeing birds’ nests in the bare trees and thinking of Lindsey.
  • Tulips for my desk and the weekly chat with my florist, who is the dearest man.
  • Bracing, practical, sarcastic advice from a writer colleague.
  • I say this every single day: Darwin’s. The ritual of walking down there; the delicious drinks and nourishing food; the familiar rhythm of the place; and most of all, the warmth from my café people.

chai darwins red bracelets

  • Laughter with my coworkers, whenever and however it comes.
  • Morning Prayers at Mem Church, which is wrapping up for the fall: thoughtful words, lovely music, the ritual of repeating the Lord’s Prayer and singing (often sight-reading) the daily hymns.
  • Texts from a few friends who are my lifelines.
  • The return of my winter uniform: striped dress + black leggings (fleece-lined when I need them) + ankle boots + scarf + magic green coat.
  • Weekly phone calls with my parents and looking forward to Christmas together.
  • Twinkle lights wrapped around anything.
  • Susannah Conway’s lovely December Reflections project on Instagram.
  • Walking and sometimes running on the river trail: on bold blue weekend afternoons or under dark weeknight skies after work.
  • In my ears on those walks and at other times: the Wailin’ Jennys and Hamilton. An odd mix, but it’s working for me.

sunrise early winter blue gold

  • Sunrises seen from the kitchen window: fiery orange over the treetops, or blue with silver-streaked clouds.
  • Yoga on my green mat at home (even 10 minutes can help) or at Healing Tree.
  • The boot camp I’m doing on Monday nights, taught by my favorite yoga instructor. So fun and empowering.
  • Slapdash huevos rancheros after said workout, every Monday night.
  • My morning routine: snooze button + hot shower + sunrise gazing + tea in a purple travel mug + scone eaten en route to the trolley stop.
  • Takeout from our favorite Indian place and a few hilarious episodes of Modern Family with the hubs.
  • Putting the world to rights over paella and wine with a girlfriend.
  • The words that have carried me over many months.

What is saving your life these days? Please share, if you like.

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turkeypalooza 2017 friends

It began as it always does: with a look at the calendar in early November and a collective how is it time to think about that already? It continued with a sign-up sheet online and a swirl of hurried conferences after church services to make sure we’d have all the essential Thanksgiving dishes.

The list (of food and attendees) started small, then grew in size as it does every year: from a dozen or so people to around 20 adults, five kids and two babies. From turkey and sweet potatoes and cranberry relish to Korean fried chicken, baked ziti, a tempting tower of salted caramel apple cupcakes.

The emails and texts flew back and forth in the week preceding the day. Amy picked me up from work on Wednesday in the pouring rain, and we drove to the church to set out plates and goblets and turkey napkins, and hang half a dozen strands of twinkle lights.

On a bright blue Thursday afternoon, we feasted. And gave thanks.

turkeypalooza plate food thanksgiving

I woke up on Thanksgiving morning humming Nichole Nordeman’s “Gratitude,” a song that perfectly captures the day for me. Listening to it earlier that week, I choked up on a line I’d never really noticed before: Surely you can see that we are thirsty and afraid.

The song explores our constant need for reassurance and blessing, the asking we do over and over again, even as we rely on the gifts that come down to us from a place beyond ourselves. As I stood in my kitchen on Thursday morning, listening again, another line leaped out: We are blessed beyond what we could ever dream, in abundance or in need.

It has been a difficult year in many respects: for me, for many of the people I love, for my country and the world at large. I’ve written about how gratitude feels complicated, how joy seems sometimes out of reach. I have often focused on the need – my own and other people’s – instead of the abundance. But the latter narrative is also true: we have so many reasons to give thanks.

On Thursday, we had abundance of all kinds, beginning that morning when some friends came over to watch the Macy’s parade and a couple of Friends Thanksgiving episodes. We ate scrambled eggs and scones, and cracked up at Joey getting Monica’s turkey stuck on his head. Then we drove to the church, where abundance was definitely the word of the day: three long tables set end to end, goblets sparkling next to every plate, tea lights and pine cones and autumn leaves making the place feel festive.

As the afternoon went on, the basement grew crowded with friends old and new.

kids table turkeypalooza thanksgiving

We had so much food, as I had hoped: mashed and sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, baked ham, homemade crescent rolls. We had cupcakes and cookies and four kinds of pie. Before the meal, we gathered to sing “Give Thanks,” as is tradition. I looked around at this group of people, all of us transplants from far-flung places, all of us finding a home here in some way, with each other. Then I led the prayer and borrowed a line from Amy: we are so grateful for all that we have been given.

This was the 11th annual Turkeypalooza, our name for the potluck, everyone-is-welcome feast that means Thanksgiving to our church community. This was my eighth Turkeypalooza, and I am deeply grateful: for its existence, for the slightly wacky name, for the hard and loving work that went into every bit of it, for every face around the table that day.

turkeypalooza foam turkey

I am grateful for all the details: for the kids filling glasses with ice cubes before the meal; for Sierra’s meticulously labeled cherry-pie cookies; for the foam turkey Eaoin made at school and brought to share with us. I’m grateful for Charles making multiple trips back and forth to coax a recalcitrant turkey into doneness, for Nik running to CVS for coffee creamer, for little Adam running around telling everyone, “I’m going to be five tomorrow!”

For the caught moments standing in the kitchen, chatting with whoever happened to be in there. For Matt, quietly scraping plates and expertly loading the dishwasher. For the babies, Colette and Abraham, who happily submitted to being passed around all afternoon. For bear hugs from a dozen or more people, for the voices raised in song and then in laughter. For the sunshine slanting through the windows, and for the many willing hands that helped cook and then clean up.

I’m still humming Nordeman’s song this week, and realizing its truth again: the blessings we have may not be what we expect, but they often outshine our wildest dreams. I could never have dreamed up Turkeypalooza if I’d tried. But it surprises and delights me every year.

If you celebrated, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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