Sunday, November 28, 2010

Preaching, Napping, Shopping

I had the typical intern assignment (or so I hear) of preaching on the holiday weekend, but had a pretty full house! When I planned the service, I had no idea that it would be so pertinent to my life in the moment when I was standing up to preach it. It was on the darkness that some people face in this time of light and bustle of holiday time, and how we are called as people of faith to pay attention and be open to the needs of those around us, whether spoken or not. I'll post some of the readings at the end. The first reading I used mentions God several times - someone walked out during it, but whether it was in response to God, or a call to the restroom, I will never know, though that person didn't come back as far as I know.

I read through the service quite a bit yesterday, not sure if I could make it through it with my own grief so fresh and sharp, but once I got onto the stage, everything fell into place. One person told me today that I am perhaps an example of the "best kind of humanist," and I took that as a glowing compliment. Another told me that she couldn't say that she enjoyed the sermon, but it certainly gave her food for thought (I admit, there were dark parts to it, but life is not all goodness and light, now is it?).

I credit my success in large part to preparation, but also to the love and care of our music director, Glen, who was incredibly solicitous of me, empowered me to change the order of service as needed, and did a great job planning music while I was on personal leave. His quiet emanation of love and support from the piano was palpable to me as I led the service, and for the first time, I really felt like I owned it. It was mine. Start to finish, music, readings, my scarf falling off in the middle of my sermon, stumbling over a word here or was mine to own. I also had the most gorgeous decor behind me on the sacred shelf; I wish I had a photo of it to show you, because it was so creative and soft and touching!

In any event, it was a good way to get "back on the horse" after a week of grief and mourning. A dear congregant came up to me and told me that when her husband died, she got herself to sleep that first night, and woke up in the morning only to open her eyes and think: "GodDAMN, he's still dead!" It made me laugh, but it was also so true. I have received so many cards, calls and emails from the congregants at my teaching site and my home congregation that I am overwhelmed with the love of it all. I feel incredibly blessed to be going through this loss while in ministerial formation. There is no other time in one's life probably when I will again have this kind of daily support and love from such a wide and diverse group of colleagues, professors, friends, family and congregants.

I continue to grieve. The thought of my father's hands - large, confident, firm, but gentle. The idea that those hands have doppelgangers on the person of my uncle is a comfort. I feel my father's spirit strongly. I see it in my son, where I had not noticed it before, but he has my father's wave of curl on the back of his head, his outgoing and laughing personality, his ability to make friends instantly and everywhere. I have been arranging photos and wrestling with the complexities of his life and its impact on my extended family, many of whom are estranged or barely known to me, often for reasons that are barely known.

I feel love, anger, loss, pain. I want to bargain, though I am glad he is finally at peace. I said everything I needed to say to him back in July when I went home during CPE training to be with him during his TIA. But there is always one more affirmation of love we can give.

So I came home, I tried to nap. And failed. And took my oldest daughter - just her and I - to the outlets for a new winter coat for her. She looks dashing in a navy blue pea coat and a black autumn trench coat. We bought a few small gifts for her siblings, and had fun at the grocery store after. My children have been seeking me out for this one on one time. A private chat here, a movie there; someone sprawled across the foot of my bed, telling me their frustrations, hopes, dreams and successes.

Sundays are my favorite days. Church and family. Work and ministry. School, learning, love, life. It's all of a piece on Sunday.

I think I'm ready to re-enter the world tomorrow. The first Monday of a new life without George. But with his memory and his spirit at hand.


The holiday season is upon us, and as David Barry so sagely said, 

In the old days, it was not called the 

Holiday Season; the Christians called 

it 'Christmas' and went to church; the 

Jews called it 'Hanukka' and went to 

synagogue; the atheists went to 

parties and drank. People passing 

each other on the street would say 

'Merry Christmas!' or 'Happy 

Hanukka!' or (to the atheists) 'Look 

out for the wall!'

Rumi, the great Sufi mystic, says:
This being human is a guesthouse.

Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight . . .

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Living with Death

My father, George Spahr, Jr. died last Friday. When I woke up this morning, I found it difficult to believe that it will be a week tomorrow. It has all been a blur of phone calls, emails, arrangements, and a flood of feelings that would make Kubler-Ross proud.

My dad had been in assisted living/senior apartments/nursing home dementia care for most of the last 20 years, and for more than 10 of those years, I was his guardian and power of attorney. The last five years, he was in a dementia unit, where he couldn't wander off and get hurt or lost, and yet, he was the most "with it" patient there, and spent a lot of time on the other floors, doing activities and entertaining the staff.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am incredibly grateful for the staff at Centre Crest, in Bellefonte, PA. The nurses and recreational therapists kept my father active, his brain stimulated, and appreciated (for the most part) his humor and flirting. I was so relieved to have him in a safe environment, where he was loved. The staff even took him home for holiday dinners, and helped him pick out small presents for my children and I each Christmas. The last two years have been increasingly difficult, as his mobility was more compromised, and I couldn't take him out as much, while trying to manage my two young children at the same time. I missed taking him to the People's Choice Festival, and to Memorial Day festivities in Boalsburg, PA, where I grew up.

I have so much gratitude and a pile of thank you notes to send out. I have dozens of notes and emails that I have filed in a folder to be answered when I am feeling ready; I have phone calls to return. I am blessed to have friends in my home town who hosted my family, provided a luncheon after the service (Thank you to Jane and Anne, and my mom), my uncle and aunt who drove from Brooklyn, NY to support me and honor my father's life, and my former minister, Rev. Mark Hayes from the UUFCC, who provided a lovely Celebration of Life.

The Heintzelman Funeral Home in State College was outstanding in their compassion, kindness and professionalism. I know it was a small service, but it meant the world to me, and they treated me with the same respect I believe they would have showed to the wealthiest family in town. Jan took care of every single detail, including getting my father's veteran's records, planning the eventual burial of my father's ashes in Manchester, PA, and handling everything with grace and delicacy. I cannot recommend them highly enough to anyone local to central PA. My husband has born the brunt of childcare and cooking for days now.  He gracefully took care of the children during the planning of, and the services themselves. He has been in the background of every moment, bringing me coffee and plates of food and letting me sleep when I can. He has respected my private grief, and I have watched his own on his tired and drawn face. He has been right there, as was my mother, my sister, my dearest friends. I may not have acknowledged them in the moment, but their love has allowed me to do what needed to be done, and it now allows me to take this quiet time before I must get back to course work, internship and parenting.

Rev. Hayes read something (I have the book somewhere around, as he kindly gave me a copy for my personal and ministerial use) about Why? That this is the unanswerable question of death. I have not been sleeping well, waking in the middle of the night for hours. My friend Jane counseled me to consider this time a gift - a time of quiet reflection away from the business of the day - and I've been trying to see it that way. These late night times have given me some space to grieve in the whirlwind of the last week. Our culture does not give us a lot of time, but I have had what I'm sure are the same feelings and thoughts of many people who have dealt with death and grief, as we all must.

This is getting long, so I will write more in another post - I process and learn through writing, and it's easier for me to deal with logistics and facts at first, and then make room for the feelings. I've had good advice from friends - make time to grieve now, while the world gives you space. Be prepared for it to be even worse in a year. One thing ministry has taught me is to take care of myself - all those people screaming self-care at me have been heard. I have turned off the phone, filed the notes and emails, and have gone into a private time.

I know my dad is gone, but I can't really believe it. I miss him.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


On Saturday, my second daughter will be 12. Hard to believe really. But she is, and she is wonderful, intelligent, creative, artistic, FUN!, loving, thoughtful, and absolutely unique!

Happy birthday Soren! I love you all the way to the stars and back!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

More on conflict resolution as a matter of faith

For my congregational studies class, we are conferencing this week on conflict. We are reading Congregational Life Dynamics and Conflict Management: An Application of Family Systems Theory.

One section stood out to me in particular; how does our faith form our approach to conflict management?

The following premises are distinctive to our faith, and they matter. We Unitarian
Universalists seek
· Not just to affirm and promote in the abstract, but to respect one another’s dignity actively, in all our encounters.
o Thus, to engage each other caringly and carefully, and not to behave in ways that are intentionally hurtful.
o To rely on persuasion rather than coercion.
· To accept one another as growing persons, neither perfect nor “jerks.”
o Thus, to avoid blaming one another for problems.
o To take care not to engage in mind reading or in attributing unsavory motives to others.
· To believe that each of us has some part of the truth and rarely, if ever, does any one of us have the whole or sole truth.
o Thus, to speak our truth.
o To listen to the truth of our companions.
o To welcome, not fear, our diversity.
· To believe that a congregation exists to serve a greater good.
o Thus, not to insist only on our own way (my self trumps all others).
o To appreciate that there are many pathways and manners of ethical
human expression.

I think that one of the hardest ones for me - and in my experience with others in intentional conflict management situations, is the desire to assign blame, or to "mind read." As much as I hate it when people do these things to me, it is easy to fall into these methods of trying to make sense of a situation, especially when it is not clear that the other party is not playing by these same rules!

As part of Clinical Pastoral Education this summer, we studied systems theory for many hours. I expanded some of my learnings into a homily for my learning convocation in September, and distilled down four important points:

1. Make lots of room. There is room for the other and for difference. Life is both...and, not either...or.

2. Be curious. Don't make assumptions and try to make connections.

3. Stay in the moment. Everything is happening in the present. Let the past and future fend for themselves in a conflict.

4. Our own emotions are a barometer for what is happening in the larger group or conflict.

Going back to these basic points of faith, and of the reality of how systems work can help one to stay grounded in the moment, to avoid assumptions of intent, to make room for differences, and to stay open to possible connections.

The document goes on to say, with simple profundity:

"For that matter, this may be the core issue of conflict management: working to create a desired change without trying to force it on others. Somehow, we need to come to a shared desire, mutually respectful of our
divergent needs and wants, if we are to change the balance of forces in the relational system.

Conflict management, then, may have something to do with managing one’s self rather than others. Systems theory argues that if I change me within our relationship, it will change you. So here’s the ultimate paradox: When I am feeling conflicted with you, I don’t need to do anything to you. I need only to work on me and my own functioning."

This is also at the core of Wellspring. Letting the shy soul peek out, letting our own inner voice come into sacred space, where it is respected and able to be heard. Now, if only all of life was run like a Circle of Trust!


Just like the past two years, Wellspring continues to be a source of spiritual deepening and a source for challenging me to think about how I live out my faith and my values. Today our topic was Our Question Mark faith, and we talked about theology, and the Seven Principles, and how our childhood experience of religion is something we carry with us, or discard, or change to meet our current needs.

The conversation with this group is amazing and insightful. I am continually awed at the power of circles, of listening with intentionality, and with no desire to fix or save, no setting each other straight, no advising. It's not easy to do - we are good people and we want to help. But the power that comes from being heard in a sacred and safe space - that is more important. 

I haven't written much lately. I've been wrestling with a bunch of things. Surgery on my wrist last week, frustrating situations in my personal life, and feeling hurt by actions beyond my control that affect my children's relationships and wellbeing. I have found it easier to retreat into silence, here and elsewhere. 

Recognizing others' inherent worth and dignity is not always an easy thing, and being in right relation with people who seem intent on doing hurtful things is definitely not easy. The balance between setting appropriate boundaries and having clear and positive communications is one I can't see my way through yet this week. That said, there is a time for advice, and I'm working on getting some, from a variety of sources, which will help me to move forward in accordance with my values I hope. 

There is a balance between doing what is right and necessary, and doing that which is retributive - especially when others are pursuing an agenda of retaliation. It's hard to take the high road all the time, especially as I move into later stages of formation and discernment, and the ethical stakes are raised. It's a huge responsibility. It seems that the words I've swallowed so many times have become lodged in my throat and are causing actual physical symptoms. 

Again, Wellspring encourages me to continue daily prayer and spiritual practice, to meet with a spiritual advisor, and to keep asking what my faith leads me to do in my life. These are good paths, and I feel blessed to be in good company. 

One way I'm practicing ministry these days is through the Church of the Larger Fellowship's Prison Letter Writing Ministry. I have been paired with a young man out west, who is in prison for a long time. We have exchanged one letter each, and I find him fascinating. It's a good way to understand more about oppression and cultural systems of legality, of family, of society. And I hope it will teach me more about being open to the inherent worth and dignity of every person, in every person that I come into relationship with.