Ember Letters

Quarterly letters about my spiritual journey

Ember Letter - September 2017

To those who pray for me and those who offer me guidance and encouragement during this current phase of my journey, peace and love in our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is a tradition in parts of the Christian church for those seeking new ministries to write quarterly letters to those offering support and guidance, sometimes in formalized Ember Letters. It is within a broad interpretation of this tradition that I write this.

I will start with a comment from my previous letter, where I mentioned a friend who works for a local divinity school telling me that she did not believe I would be happy until I started seminary. I reached out to find a school that would fit my particular needs, especially around being able to work full-time and support my family while at the same time attending classes.

Church Divinity School of the Pacific accepted me into their online Certificate of Theological Studies program. The certificate requires eight elective courses and is, in a sense, a seminary postulancy. I am taking these courses as I seek a clearer sense of what God is calling me to, and whether I will continue on to an M.Div, and MTS, and MAR, or some other degree.

One of the things that I am excited about is CDSP’s participation in the Graduate Theological Union and the ability to take courses at various seminaries in the Bay area. One of the courses that caught my attention was News and Religion, offered by the Religious Freedom Center which is part of the Newseum in Washington, DC. I have applied and been accepted into their program as well.

So, this fall, I am taking News and Religion and Introduction to the Old Testament. I feel greatly blessed to have these opportunities and am enjoying myself greatly as I struggle to balance work, life, studies, church activities, and civic responsibilities.

During a recent mid-day Eucharist service, our discussion veered into what I was reading for seminary. One of the books on my list which is having a big impact on my thinking is “Radical Welcome” by the Rev. Stephanie Spellers. How do we radically welcome people into the Jesus Movement including at the diocesan level as well as the parish level? How do we radically welcome those called to various ministries?

I continue to work with the region leadership team in the South Central Region and spend a lot of time thinking about how we welcome people to activities of the region. As part of this, we are recognizing that not everyone has a specific parish that they associate with. I feel strong ties to a couple parishes. Others feel ties to no particular parish. What language do we use to welcome people with varying relationships to different churches? Does it welcome all people? At our next gathering, and we have been using the word gathering instead of convocation, since gathering feels more welcoming, will include an “unconference” which is another way to welcome everyone so that all may be heard.

As I discussed the ideas from Radical Welcome during mid-day Eucharist, a friend made a comment that my seminary reading list was not for me, but it was for all of us. It was a very powerful comment that I have been thinking a lot about. It seems as if we spend too much time thinking about where a process might be leading. We spend too much time preparing people for what they might be doing in three or five years, and not enough time on what they are doing right now.

Seminary is a wonderful experience for me and hopefully will shape who I am becoming, but it needs to be a wonderful experience through me to those around me right now as well.

This relates back to the underlying themes I’ve written about in the past. I continue to seek, using the language from a college experience, to live each moment more fully and more lovingly than the previous. I continue to seek, using the language of Brother Lawrence, to do all things for the love of God as I practice the presence of God. I continue to ask of God, in the language of St. Teresa of Avila, “God, What do you want of me?”

I continue to be reassured by the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “God alone is enough” and the words of St. Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing shall be well.”

Over the past few months, I have continued to lead a service at a local nursing home and talk with some of the folks there. I continue to work with the dinner ministry, and I continue to talk with my friends on the street.

In addition, during the time of transition at Grace and St. Peter’s, I have had a few opportunities to preach, both on Sunday mornings as well as the opportunity to deliver a homily at the memorial service for the daughter of a friend. I have also been assisting with selecting hymns for Sunday services and helping with services in any other ways that I can. These experiences, too, have been a blessing to me, and hopefully to those around me.

I thank each of you for your ongoing prayers and your words of guidance and encouragement. I continue to pray for each of you as well.

All glory to God,

Open Ember Letter, Pentecost 2017: Keep the Sabbath Holy, Trust the Process, Trust the Camino, Rebuild My Church

Keep the Sabbath Holy, Trust the Process, Trust the Camino, Rebuild My Church

There is a practice in the Christian tradition of seekers writing quarterly letters to their superiors about what has gone on in their journeys over the past few months. Writing such Ember Letters seems like a valuable practice and I have adopted it for my own journey. However, the events of the past few months have left me uncertain about whom to address this letter, so this time, I am posting it as an open letter, online, to whomever is called to read it and walk alongside me during this part of my journey, whether it be as guide, superior, or fellow seeker.

During the past few months, the priest in my local parish accepted a calling at a parish far away. A bishop in my local diocese made it fairly clear that they did not see a space for me to live into what I believe God is calling me to, within the local diocese. SoI have been thinking much more about what it means to be a pilgrim, a peregrino.

I love my local parish and my local diocese. They feel like the starting point of my current Camino, but that perhaps it is time to move on, to approach them like a beloved albergues on the camino, perhaps as the St. Jean Pied De Port of my current camino; a starting point, not a destination.

For the time being, I continue to worship at my local parish. I continue to be involved with my local diocese, but the journey has begun in earnest. My local parish, my local diocese has become just one more albergue on my Camino.

There are various recommendations offered to seekers along the way, Keep the Sabbath Holy, Trust the Process, Trust the Camino, and Rebuild my church. Each is valuable, yet each has a danger of being taken too literally.

I have been seeking to Keep the Sabbath Holy. A Facebook friend of mine has recently been on a kick about the importance of celebrating the Sabbath on Saturday, and of specific things that need to be done. As I read this, I keep coming back to Jesus saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” I am seeking to live into enjoying the loving gift of the Sabbath. A chance to rest knowing that Love who made us, showed us some of that love by inviting us to rest in Love.

I am finding this helpful as I think about Trusting the Process. Many of my friends talk about this in terms of the process of the organized, established church for selecting and forming those that the church will allow to celebrate sacraments. Many of these same people talk about how deeply flawed that process is and of people that have been severely wounded by this process. I now count myself among those with such wounds, and I am struggling to find how to Trust the Process. It now seems like this wounding by the process is an important part of the Process that Love has for me. It is part of what is shaping the next stage of my Camino.

I have known, since the start of my current stage of my Camino, that there is no way that I could complete the Camino on my own. Love must prepare the way. Love must lead me. I had hoped that my local diocese might help me find my current path on my Camino, but now, as I tend the wounds from the process, words from The Cloud of Unknowing come to me, and it seems that I must put even my local diocese below the cloud of forgetting.

In many ways, the real starting point of this current phase of my Camino was the first Bi-Annual Poetry Conference at Yale Divinity School. I had a deep experience of Love speaking to me of how Love is calling me to show Love to those around me. It set me up for me the past two years of struggling with the process.

During this time, I have read and thought and lived more as a pilgrim, a peregrino. I have met fellow travelers along the way. Recently, there was the second Bi-Annual Poetry Conference. It was another wonderful experience, but one of the most important parts for me was not at the conference itself, but talking with a friend at the Divinity School who made a comment that perhaps is my most importance guidance for the next part of this stage.

She noted that part of how you know your calling is that it isn’t something that goes away when you are rejected. She said she did not believe I would be happy until I started divinity school and even though I may not yet know where my Camino is leading, I need to start divinity school as soon as possible, if only as an Ignatian discipline. It was one of those moments when I knew that I had heard some of the Truth that Love has for me.

So, I am embracing these words and have started looking at divinity schools. There are many complications in my Camino. I don’t have a lot of money to spend on it. I need to continue to support my family as I walk my Camino. I don’t even have my Bachelor’s degree. Love must prepare the way. Love must lead me.

Over the past few weeks, I have reached out to find a divinity school where I might study in the fall. One particular school seems especially promising, and I am in the process of putting together my application for their Fall Term. The deadline is July 1st. There are some courses there that I am really interested in, and God willing, I will start classes in the fall.

A local bishop suggested that I explore religious orders along the lines of contemporary Third Orders. They had suggested a Franciscan Order. I am quite draw to certain Franciscan practices. I am also quite draw to certain Benedictine practices and am exploring other ancient orthodox and catholic practices, perhaps from the Eastern Orthodox or from the Celtic Church. I am not yet sure where this will lead. It feels like something I need to keep exploring, but it is not yet time to pursue this, nor at all clear what aspects would make sense pursuing.

In all of this, I find an important possible future stage in my Camino. Joining with St. Francis to rebuild the church, not just San Damiano, or my current local parish or diocese. Perhaps there is something about helping rebuild the church, a post-establishment church. Yet I have much to do and learn before I can help much with that.

At the poetry conference, I picked up Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer. I am reading about a Baptist poet’s trip to prayer and Eastern Orthodoxy. I am finding it very meaningful. Perhaps it provides the best post script to this letter.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Ember Letter - Lent 2017

The following is written in the tradition of an Ember letter, but without any specific audience in mind. I am sharing this in that it will help others in their own journeys as those walking with me in my journey.

Over the past few months, I continue to become more and more sure of God’s call to me, and less and less sure about the details of that call. I have spent time with my spiritual director, my priest, and other friends, both lay and clergy in discernment. This coming Sunday, I will say good bye to my priest as she heads off to a new ministry, and I will continue my search to better understand what God is calling me to and who should walk alongside me during this part of my journey.

I have taken a great course in English Spirituality and Mysticism, attended a conference on Pastoral Counseling: Moral Stress and Spiritual Struggles, and started an online course on discernment. I have been on silent retreat, explored new spiritual practices, and gone on a pilgrimage for one of the courses. I have participated in ecumenical and interfaith activities, including dinners, bible studies, worship services, and ministries. I have taken up, again for this year, a Lenten Discipline of writing a poem each day, and have spent much time in reading, prayer, and contemplation.

I recognize that all of this is written from my personal perspective, what I have been experiencing, what I have been doing. It is the only context I have; the only context any of us really have. It is how we understand and speak about our experiences of and relationship with God. Yet it is that relationship with God which is the true focus.

As I’ve written about in the past, this is more about a spiritual journey than it is about a career or ecclesiastical journey. I recognize that these different aspects of the journey overlap, but for now I am focusing on the spiritual side. Because of this, some of the more contemporary books on discernment that have been suggested to me feel like they don’t offer me much right now.

One of the first books I read, which I thinks provides a great starting point is Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God. A section from the second conversation particularly jumped out at me:

He was pleased when he could take up a straw from the ground for the love of God, seeking Him only, and nothing else, not even His gifts.

It seems like this is a great starting point a spiritual journey such as mine. I found this idea echoed in Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, “I am nothing, I have nothing; … I covet nothing, but one, and that is Jesus.”

This of course, leads to the question of what we are supposed to do in our love of God. This is the question I am grappling with. It is put nicely in the end of Teresa of Avlia’s poem, “In the Hands of God”,

Yours I am, for You I was born:
What do You want of me?

I continue to explore my desires. Are they good and from God? How do they relate to God’s desires for me?

When I’ve written about this in the past, I usually refer back to the Catechism in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer:

Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

I often think of this restoration with each other in Christ as being very social justice oriented, feeding the hungry, offering shelter to the homeless. At times, I think about it in terms of addressing the structural issues that lead to homelessness, hunger, and oppression. Yet as I read this in the context of my recent studies, I cannot help but relate the idea of unity with God with unitive life that the mystics write about. How much of the structural issues we face come from a lack of unitive experiences?

Recently, on Facebook I shared a link to an article, ”59 Percent of Millennials Raised in a Church Have Dropped Out—And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why”. It is a thought provoking article that we need to be reading and discussing in the church.

What was more thought provoking was the comments I received.

Though not quite a millennial, I was once a youth that wanted with all her heart to believe, and was completely disillusioned by Bible College. I equate my time at a church-centric institution as seeing the smoke and mirrors of a magic show -- and the glamour was forever lost. Christians are 100% the reason I don't believe in gods -- any of them….

Living a good life because it's the right thing to do does feel far more genuine than only behaving good for fear of hell or reward of heaven….

If houses of worship treated adherents like thinking beings seeking inspiration, solace and fellowship rather than as potential sources of income and political clout whose lot is to pray, pay and obey, they'd have fewer empty pews….

How do we embrace the spiritual experience, the relationship to a loving God that calls us to go out and show that love in a way that millennials can hear?

It seems like another one of the authors I’ve been reading may offer a clue. One of the texts for the Spirituality and Mysticism course I’ve been taking is Aelred of Riveaux’s “Spiritual Friendship”. How does the church encourage spiritual friendships, not only for the clergy, but the laity, no matter what their spiritual journey or level of engagement is? This feels like an important unanswered question for me right now.

Whatever the path ahead of me, another the quote from Julian of Norwich comes to mind. “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Ember Days

Four times throughout the year, the church celebrates Ember Days, the days when postulants to the priesthood write letters to their bishops talking about their journey. The latest ember days were last week. I am not a postulant and I am not writing this to my bishops, but instead I am writing about those parts of my journey that I can share publicly.

One thing I’ve been writing a bit about recently, is the idea of countering the negative messages online with something different, something positive. I’ve been trying to do this with poetry, and a few other people have been taking this up. I’ve been trying to do this with focusing on sharing God’s love with one another as opposed to the ever present advertising encouraging us to get more stuff. Perhaps I can get more people to write about their spiritual journeys, and not just their latest trip to some resort as well.

For me, the past three months have been all over the place. During Lent, my devotions were strong. During April, I managed to write a poem a day. Holy Week and Easter were very special times for me, and I strongly felt God’s love during the time of Easter, and gained a deeper sense of mystery as I visited a Greek Orthodox Church during their Holy Week.

My sense of mission and ministry has grown during the past three months as I went to the Missional Voices Conference in Virginia, and various events related to Ministry Networks and a Regional Convocation in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut.

Recently, however, things have gotten incredibly difficult. There have been several deaths recently; friends and parents of friends. There have been people in incredibly painful damaged relationships. The news seems to be all the more filled with victories of greed over compassion. Respecting people’s privacy, I won’t say any more than that.

There has been too much work to do and too little time to recuperate. As I think of songs and hymns, they aren’t songs of joy, they are songs of endurance. “Oh Love That Will Not Let Me Go”… “When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll”.

At other times, the songs that have played in song track of my mind have been joyful hymns of praise. It is easy to seek to serve God and love one’s neighbor during such times, but in the midst of pain and sadness I have serious doubts about my abilities.

As I think of the pains and sadness of those who wrote the hymns I mentioned, of people struggling to get by, homeless in America, refugees from Syria who no longer have a country to call home, to the sufferings of Christ on cross, I know that my own pains and sadness are small, but to me, they still hurt and feel large.

I’ve always loved the phrase, “Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread”. Yet at a recent event a priest made a comment about how Christ made himself known to his disciples by showing his wounds. My wounds do not heal, like the wounds of Christ. They don’t even compare. Yet the priest was suggesting it is showing vulnerability that is important, and I feel horribly vulnerable right now.

This isn’t a positive message countering negative messages. This is a painfully real message countering the unaware messages.

“As the deer pants for streams of water…”

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