There are people who love the beach. There are people who love the mountains. I can absolutely appreciate the beauty and presence that captures the admiration of so many. It is awe-inspiring to sit on the beach, gazing out at the horizon past the crashing waves. It is breathtaking to experience the majesty of mountains drawing the eye to the thin place between the earth and sky.
Even so, I am a person who feels most enraptured by the beauty of the woods.
I didn’t live in the woods as a kid, but I had a view of a nice Midwestern woods, out past the farm field that bordered the backyard of my childhood home. My dad knew the farmer and had obtained permission for us to walk out in the field and woods, so sometimes we would try to go back and explore among the trees. It was pretty far to walk all the way back to the treeline, so we this wasn’t a frequent excursion, but I remember being drawn to what seemed like a wilderness and enchanted by the spongy moss that carpeted much of the earth around the trees when we did make the trek.
I also grew up camping for vacations–the only way we could really afford to do any travel–and these trips often included hiking forays in wooded areas. I have fond memories of these times, but it wasn’t until I was grown that I became consciously aware of the sense of home I experience among trees.
My husband and I started hiking together because we want to see as many National Parks as we can. Most of those public lands hold spectacular natural wonders. Yet I’ve realized over the years that I love simply being in a patch of trees and appreciating them, whether we are in majestic far-away places or simply the groves growing around the lake in our local state park.
We are fortunate to have woods that cross our property and I visit them as much as possible. I notice how they change over the seasons and try to embrace the changes as they come. There is a group of three large, old oak trees I visit regularly, greeting them with a “Hello, friends” each time I make it to where they live. There is one in particular I am drawn to. I think her name is Eve, even though I have no rational basis for thinking of her by this name.
When I’m visiting “our” woods, I often wonder about the people long ago who walked among the ancestors of the trees I see now, back when humans lived reciprocally with the land and no one thought they owned it. I pause and breathe deeply, trying to appreciate the way that I am breathing out what the trees need just like they are exhaling what I need.
I make an effort to stand still and listen to whatever birds may be sharing their song or to watch for whatever creature may venture into my line of sight if I am still long enough. I place my hand on Eve’s trunk and bless her, thinking of how she was here long before me and will still be here in some form after I’m gone, even if that form is giving back to some of the saplings I can see sprouting up in the distance as I lean against her.
Being in the woods helps me pay attention. They remind me that there is reciprocity and abundance inherent to the earth that it’s easy to lose sight of in our individualistic, market-driven culture. They remind me that there is something beautiful about every season. And they always have a welcome for any of us who are willing to wander in and see what they can teach us.
I was engaged in the formal process of discerning a call to ordination for over a year. I submitted writing to the commission on ministry, had regular sessions with a spiritual director, and met with generous people from the diocese who were tasked with vetting and supporting those of us in the various states of discernment. I asked friends and colleagues to write recommendations. I went before panels to answer questions. I talked with my family about how things would change and how we would all feel about it if this was my path.
When that phase of discernment concluded and I’d met with the commission for the final time, all that was left to do was wait for their decision.
I was expecting a “yes” or “no,” but instead received what could be described as a “perhaps at some point.” After their own prayer and discernment, they shared they could potentially see me on that path, but that I did not seem certain it was the path I wanted to take. They recommended that I continue discerning on my own, and if the time came that I was sure ordination was my calling, then I should re-engage in the formal process.
It took months for me to let that answer sink in. I felt that I had failed to convey to them how willing I was to follow a formal call to ministry. Did I not communicate effectively? Did they see something deficient in me along the way?
Slowly I began to realize that I had communicated exactly where I was and that their answer was a most insightful one. The truth was right there all along: I was so willing to uproot my life and head down that path, that my willingness was all any of us could see.
Wrestling with this outcome, I had the rather painful realization that I wasn’t able to understand or communicate what I truly wanted in many cases, and that I had gone into the process looking for a formal authority to tell me what to do with my desire to find a new path. From a young age I had been taught that as a woman, I must rely on external direction to tell me what I should want and do. I was taught that it was wrong, even sinful, to trust where my own desires and spirit might guide me.
While pursuing ordination within a church understandably requires the direction and approval of its leadership, the initiation of that path comes from the Spirit directing that person, in alignment with their own longings and gifts. It was upsetting for me to see that as much as I had worked to walk away from the harmful teachings I learned growing up, that I still had a blind spot when it came to truly listening to and acting on my own inner wisdom.
Several months after receiving the decision and working to unpack the subsequent realizations, I wrote the following in my journal:
….getting to what I want feels impossible because it was so deeply instilled in me that selfishness was at the root of such consideration. I learned that I should always be willing, always defer. I learned to try to push myself aside for what I thought God or other people wanted or needed, or what I was told or expected to do.
What is coming to light for me is that willingness and deferring are hollow offerings. They lack life, generosity, and vulnerability. The life-giving, generous way of being is a beautiful offering of myself. It is me, showing up, wanting to be where I am, to give, engage, and create. As someone recently pointed out to me, “‘What do I want?’ is actually a profoundly spiritual question.” I sense this is true, and I want to live into where the answers take me, even as I am still trying to untangle from all the old ways of thinking and responding. December 2018
That was over a year ago and I’m still in the midst of this reckoning. There are many layers to the subconscious patterns that keep me stuck in diminishing mindsets and habits. I still find myself sometimes saying a half-hearted yes to things out of a willingness to do them, rather than taking the time to discern where I can best show up with my whole-heart. There are times I don’t act or speak up, even when I know exactly what I want to do or say, due to the old thoughts that creep in to tell me that I should defer. However, I want to be intentional in my choices and pursuits, so I keep doing the work to untangle from these patterns.
I don’t know if this will take me back around to more discernment toward ordination, but I’ll always be grateful for what I learned in that time and how it has helped me grow in understanding myself. What I do know is that I am unwilling to remain in those old ways of being when there are so many more beautiful, spacious, truthful ways to live into who I’m meant to be.
As a young parent, I was told that I had to be strict with my kids, that I couldn’t let them manipulate me, that I had to establish my authority with them from a young age, otherwise I would lose total control of my household–and worse, the souls of my children. This called for inflexible rules, a firm voice, and spanking for any act of defiance, disobedience, or disrespect.
And I tried. I hate to admit that I parented this way for several years, but it was the way I was parented and any doubts I expressed were met swiftly with directives that I must stay the course or risk wayward children. So in those years when my tender little ones were learning and growing and trying to figure out this great big world and their people in it, I was struggling to control them using force and punishment.
But….. It.Did.Not.Work. My heart was broken. My spirit ached. I was acutely aware of the hypocrisy of trying to teach my kids to be kind and gentle when many times I was the opposite of that. Their “bad” behavior rarely changed, or it only changed when I was threatening punishment.
Then one day I was reading the daily office and in two different readings were references to love being kind (Psalm 69 and 1 Corinthians 13). And all I could think of was that if love is kind and I am not being kind to my children, then I am not showing them love. And I decided I had a lot of work to do and that I could not possibly spank them or harshly punish them going forward.
This was a wonderful revelation, but also created a vacuum in my parenting resources, as I had no reference for where to go next. If kindness was my goal, how does that translate into maintaining one’s footing in the family? Was anarchy the only alternative?
Thankfully, I discovered L.R. Knost, whose posts on social media provided wisdom and guidance. It turns out, there is an entire movement of Gentle/Peaceful/Respectful parents who believe that rather than control, the goal of parenting is to help our children grow into the wonderful humans they were born to be, cultivating a willingness to grow alongside them. Rather than starting from a place of assuming the worst and taking every behavior and reaction as defiance or disrespect, they offer resources to help you look behind the behavior for opportunities to nurture compassion, kindness, and respect.
Ms. Knost reminds us that children are hard-wired to connect with those who care for them and that rather than betraying that connection with punishment, shame, and harm, we can always find ways to respond with love and empathy to strengthen the bond and encourage growth.
One of the best things about the content L.R. Knost creates for her pages is that you don’t have to be a parent to appreciate and learn from it. You can be someone in the process of healing from wounds you carry from your own childhood. You can be a person who spends time with other people’s children. You can be that person who doesn’t even especially like kids and who judges parents of rowdy kids in the supermarket. All of us can take something away from the wisdom she shares because she reminds us that the deepest truth about our humanity is that all of us flourish when we are embodying compassion, empathy, kindness, and care.
I’m so grateful not only for finding a new way to parent, but also for finding L.R.’s work and all that I have learned from it. For someone I have never met, she has contributed greatly to the transformation of my parenting and my life. She is my Friday Favorite this week and I encourage you to check her out.
There was a time in my life when I thought my path was shaping up like the picture above: onward to a destination forged by others, with (I hoped) something beautiful on the other side. My decision to explore that path seems like a suitable place to go from my first post, as it took place during part of the transitional, unraveling time in my life.
In 2016 I embarked on a discernment process to explore a possible call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal church. As part of that process, I had to write a faith story, with set criteria, to explain how faith had shaped my life and what brought me to the exploration. I’m sharing it in part below, As it gives a good background for where I am now.
Faith Story – Written January, 2017
The small Church of Christ up the street from where I lived with my parents and two younger sisters was central to our life during my childhood. Faith was lived mainly though our membership and participation with that congregation. My early years were filled with Sunday school, potluck dinners, Vacation Bible School, and other gatherings inside that small-town church. I don’t recall giving much thought to the broader church outside those walls, but I remember that place as a family community I am blessed to have roots in.
We left the Church of Christ in my early teens for a non-denominational church in a nearby town. While my early years revolved around a church family, my teenage years were steeped in the culture wars. I was taught to work hard at being more spiritual, more pure, and a better witness in order to gain approval from the congregation and from God. The faith I learned was one of rules and dogma, not only for me to follow, but to worry about how well other people were following. I realize that perhaps this isn’t how faith was understood by others in that community, but this is how I grew to understand it.
In the years that followed my graduation from college and marriage, I became disillusioned with church and eventually stopped attending. I experienced a painful time of deep doubt and searching, trying to sort out my beliefs. I wondered if I would lose my faith altogether and what would be there to catch me if I did. I thought that church wasn’t the place for me and that I’d end up leaving it behind for good.
Instead, people and wisdom came into my life that helped me reimagine not only my faith, but also my ideas about church. I established a practice of centering prayer and reading the Daily Office each morning, began spending more time in nature, and found friendships and spiritual writing that opened my eyes to a variety of perspectives and possibilities. I now see this was a process of letting go of my ideas about God in order to be open to new practices and new understandings of who God is.
A book by Thomas Keating on liturgy by prompted me to find a liturgical church to visit, which led me to a local Episcopal church. My first Sunday there, the words we read from The Book of Common Prayer moved me with how they connected those of us present in that sanctuary with people all over the world and across time. In many ways I felt like I was both being welcomed home and shown an entirely different way of understanding church as the body of Christ.
Some faith transformations are exciting and dramatic. Mine happens to be one of moving through a rigid understanding of God, faith, and church into one that continues to amaze me with its “holy spaciousness,” to borrow a phrase from Gerald May. I understand now that my faith is a continually unfolding grace that opens my mind and heart to God and to others. I see that the Church is a community where we help each other remember that as the Body of Christ we are always in the process of death and rebirth, letting go and finding anew, and learning to live deeper in self-giving love.
In all these changes, I’ve experienced how spiritual practices and participation in the church open us more fully to the work of the Spirit in our lives. I grew up memorizing scripture, but when I began reading the Daily Office, practicing contemplative prayer, and spending time with other believers learning from its wisdom, the Bible became so much more than words and rules to me… Over and over, I’ve experienced what the Spirit can do when I open to new understandings of scripture and give myself over to its life-altering truth.
In a talk I heard by John O’ Donohue, he closed by telling the audience that he prayed his words would be seeds planted in their lives to provide shelter when they need it. This has been helpful to me as I’ve explored the possibility of pursuing seminary and ordination. I realize that in following such a path it may be difficult for others to understand what I’m doing, either because due to my gender it doesn’t align with their understanding of the Christian faith or because religious faith is not a part of their lives. So I’ve made it a prayer of my own that regardless of how others feel about me, my faith, or my vocation, my interactions with them would plant seeds that could grow to shelter them, whatever their own experience and regardless of their beliefs.
I’ve also wondered about applying this to a way of being for the church. We live in a world that is starving for things the church has to offer. Not just the physical day-to-day necessities that sustain life, but also things that have become scarce in most of our homes, workplaces, and public spaces: life-giving community, a sense of reverence for the mysteries of life and this world, experiences of stillness and silence, a place to be vulnerable, an appreciation for things that have no monetary value, and traditions that remind us of our connectedness and our mortality. I wonder about ways we can offer these as seeds to our entire communities – those in the church and those not – so they can turn to them for shelter.
All these experiences have brought me to this point. I realize now that I’ve been praying about vocation for even longer than I knew what it was. I’ve considered that perhaps all I am called to do is to live my faith with my family, parish, neighbors, and co-workers, without any additional formal training or change of career. I realize that is a possibility, yet I continue to feel drawn to seminary and the changes that path could open. The advice I have received from Jackie (my priest) is to keep taking each step, to stay open to whatever possibility may come from that, and then to prayerfully and willingly take the next step.
I admit there is a part of me that wonders what I am doing. Most of those I’ve spoken with who are connected with Episcopal dioceses make it clear that we don’t know what the Episcopal Church, let alone the priesthood, will look like in the next 10 to 30 years. There is doubt that sustaining a full-time parish priest will be an option for the majority of congregations. Considering this, I can’t help but think there is a chance that even if I complete seminary and become ordained, I may still end up working an eight-to-five desk job as I do now, leaving many (including me) wondering what it was all for. Yet I find that I am compelled to continue exploring the possibility of ordination, even with these uncertainties.
I’m trying keep in mind what Parker Palmer writes in his book on vocation, that “there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does.” This journey of discerning vocation has been a beautiful and life-giving challenge, one that I will continue to walk whether or not ordination is the path for me. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned and pray to stay willing and open to wherever God leads from here.
When I decided to start a new blog, I knew that in addition to my own story I wanted to share some of what has buoyed my spirits, challenged me, and supported me along the way. Here is the first of what I hope will be many Friday Favorites where I will share books, sites, articles, and more that I hope others will appreciate as much as I do.
I am fortunate to have encountered a vast array of wisdom as I’ve worked to navigate the past few years. I have people in my life who are voracious learners, who are generous in sharing new knowledge and books and insights they encounter. I’m also the kind of person who, when I read a quote in another work or hear something mentioned that stands out to me, will look up the source to see if there is more I can learn.
My priest recently mentioned this book, Sacred Instructions, in a conversation about the imbalance of masculine and feminine in our culture. I was intrigued, as this is a theme I’ve been encountering from a variety of sources over the past few months. Always fascinated by synchronicity, and finding there was an audio version available so I could listen on my commute, I purchased a copy and dove in.
You know that feeling when you hear or read something that takes scattered thoughts and half-formed ideas that have been surfacing in your mind for a long time and presents them to you in a way that makes them coherent and demanding of your attention? And how this humbles you with the gap between where you are with those musings and the incredible genius of the work someone else has already done to make it all so clear?
That is what this book has done for me.
I have listened with a mixture of awe, rage, despair, wonder, and hope. Awe at the mind, words, presence, and wisdom of the author. Rage over the stark truths she presents. Despair that we have allowed desecration of people and the earth to occur and continue for generations. Wonder at the beauty of her native culture, the sacred customs of her people, and their willingness to share them with the rest of us for the betterment of all and the salvation of Mother Earth. And, gratefully, with hope that there could be a path forward if we are willing to listen and learn.
Sacred Instructions is a clear-eyed look at our culture’s paradigms and a guide for what we must do to change them, heal, and make life sustainable on this planet again. In a disarmingly gentle, yet direct way, Ms. Mitchell dismantles the lies that prop up the dominant narratives that have led to such widespread oppression, injustice, and exploitation. She does not flinch or look away from how her people have borne the most heinous outcomes of these these narratives, yet she uses these examples to show how we are all suffering as a result.
She outlines the ways we have become separated from each other and our true nature and reminds us that our survival as a species is bound inextricably with doing the work to heal ourselves and reconnect with one another. She gives practical steps we can take to join together and chart a path away from the one we’re currently on that leads to our collective destruction.
This book is beautifully written, accessibly concise, and a vital call to action, but is not for the faint of heart. It will require you to examine yourself and the status quo, and, if you’re anything like me, it will make you deeply uncomfortable. But these are times that call for us to wake up and see clearly so we can stop causing harm to ourselves, other people, and creation. Sherri Mitchell has given us a starting place to help us do just that. I would love for more people to read it and begin taking action, so I am making Sacred Instructions my first Friday Favorite. I hope you’ll let me know what you think if you read it and what steps you will start with in your own life.
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
Welcome to my new start. Some time ago I regularly posted my thoughts and process on another blog. I found sharing in that way to be a wonderful creative outlet, as well as a good way to connect with others.
In a period of life transitions and personal unraveling, I turned inward. I occasionally wrote in journals, but I stopped sharing my writing. My interactions on social media dwindled. I was unable to keep up the regular correspondence that had supported several meaningful friendships, leaving me feeling disconnected and guilty that I didn’t seem to have the energy to continue cultivating those connections.
Perhaps this was my way of dealing with my own shortcomings and evolving understanding of who I am. Perhaps it was a need to reconnect to myself without internalizing the thoughts and feelings of others. Perhaps I didn’t have the tools I needed to set the appropriate internal boundaries and still maintain an outward focus. Maybe I didn’t trust myself to know what I should or shouldn’t share. Or maybe I just went through a more inward season and I’m being too hard on myself.
Of course, it was a combination of all of the above. Letting my creativity atrophy and connections go dormant were merely symptoms of overwhelm stemming from trying to process so many things without the understanding I needed to do so in a self-supporting way. I try to be mindful that the entirety of my story is not just the obvious failings, but also all the underlying wounds and strengths and needs and gifts. It all has something to teach me if I pay attention.
I’ve done a lot of work over the past couple of years—alone and with a counselor—to gain a sense of knowing and belonging to myself. I’m working on healthy boundaries and finding new ways of understanding my relationships with others. I’m cultivating practices to rekindle my creative spark.
Starting over with a new blog is mainly a promise to myself that I can begin anew. It’s a promise that I will intentionally make time for my writing because through it I see more clearly how the individual threads that weave through my life fit into the totality of who I am becoming. It’s also a hope that I can live into a place of more openness than the withdrawn way I’ve been living, while continuing to honor how I’ve learned to belong to myself in my time away.
And it would be wonderful if anything I share could encourage someone else in their own journey.
So here’s to practicing seeing the whole picture, to looking close-up as well as taking the long view. Thank you for reading.