working out what life and call and prayer and silence are all about

Posts tagged ‘letting go’

Itineraries and Expectations OR “what I should have told my students before we left”

What do you do when things don’t go as planned? For most of us, it’s easy to take it in stride when a new recipe turns out less than delicious, or when the weather doesn’t cooperate with our outdoor activities. But what if you’ve just traveled thousands of miles, arriving at a Christian community that specializes in stirring worship services and inspiring action for justice and peace on a holy island known for its breathtaking views and spiritual experiences – and you’re not moved at all?

Going on a pilgrimage is an ancient spiritual discipline that many of us are undertaking in new ways. Traveling to Iona Abbey on my own 5 years ago, I learned first hand what it means to be a pilgrim. Making the long journey to a special place, and then living in intentional community for a week with strangers, taught me a great deal about myself and my faith and my sense of call. I was transformed by the land, by the people, by the worship. I was so moved that I returned the following year with a small group from my congregation. Sharing the pilgrimage with others deepened my experience, as we formed our own little community as we traveled, and made room for each other along the way.

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Carol and Marty at the William Wallace memorial

After completing my first year as campus pastor at TLU, I imagined the impact on students of a pilgrimage to Iona. I waded through piles of paperwork and mounds of requirements to put together a study abroad trip that would give young adults the opportunity to travel as pilgrims and open themselves to the transformation I had experienced. I shared with potential students my stories of meaningful relationships, beautiful music, and solitary walks along the rocks at the beach. I told them that the Isle of Iona has been considered a “thin place” for centuries – a place where the earth and the heavens meet and the holy is within arm’s reach. I encouraged them to apply if they were looking for a place to contemplate their life’s meaning, the bigger questions of faith and call and purpose.

After meeting every other week throughout spring term, talking about what to expect, what to bring, and what was required, we set off from the airport, ready for our spiritual adventure. The journey was long. And the jet lag was harsh. With just 7 hours of “night” on the plane ride across the Atlantic, we hit the ground in Scotland at a brisk stroll. Navigating the bus into the city and construction at the train station, we found the right track, and traveled several more hours to our overnight stop, where there was still much walking to do. The next day held two ferry rides and one harrowing bus ride with a very impatient driver, plus another long walk. By the time we were settled into our rooms at Iona, our group was exhausted.

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Iona Pilgrimage Study Abroad class, one ferry away from Iona!

And so the spiritual experience began. We were meeting new people: our roommates, our housework group-mates, and the volunteer staff who were there to support us. We were going to chapel two times a day, getting up early for the first, and staying up late for the second. We were hearing about the Iona Community’s work for justice and peace, and were encouraged to find ways to make a difference back home. We were exploring the island, finding paths that cut through fields of sheep, leading to sandy shores and craggy hills.

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rocky, mossy beach on Iona at sunset

As an experienced pilgrim, I could see that the place and the people were doing their work: planting seeds, offering new perspectives, blowing through with unexpected insights. But my group of new pilgrims, some of whom were first-time travelers, were frustrated by the end of the second day.

“I’m not feeling anything.” “I’m not meeting any new people.” “I don’t see the point of going back to worship today. I already went once.” “I came here to have this powerful experience of God and nothing’s happening – something’s wrong with me.”

What do you do when things don’t go as planned? Even as pilgrims, maybe especially as pilgrims, we experience disappointment. When you decide to set off on a pilgrimage, you have big expectations. You’re going to meet God in every flower and sunrise. Your whole approach to faith and life and spirituality is going to be transformed. Every day will be filled with happiness and light. Every conversation will be uplifting.

But then reality hits: pilgrimage is like real life. Sometimes you wake up tired and miss the sunrise. Some days you’re just going through the motions. And occasionally you encounter people you can’t connect with. Some days are just dark, even in a holy place.

What enables a pilgrimage to be transforming is letting go of expectations and allowing reality to do its work. What turns a dark day into something meaningful is allowing it to be dark, and gently examining where the darkness got its start. What turns a challenging conversation into an enlightening encounter is holding up a mirror to see the traits you despise in others staring right back at you. What changes a crappy travel day into a transformative pilgrimage day is attention: taking the time to pay attention to what’s right in front of you and what’s deep within you. We go on pilgrimage to give ourselves the time and space to pay attention to life – life that’s all around us. Expectations just get in the way.

As the experienced pilgrim, I was able to have some good conversations that week. I helped students name their expectations of what was supposed to happen so they could set them aside and focus on what was actually happening. I tried to point out the places where I saw God at work, in little and big ways. And I encouraged them to follow their hearts, take care of themselves, and recognize that transformation is deeply personal, physically draining work.

And in the midst of guiding them, I relearned some things myself. My expectations of myself as a perfect leader get in the way of opportunities to be an authentic leader. My need to follow an itinerary can be stifling to the winds of the Spirit, who blows me in new directions when I finally let go. And my job as pilgrim leader is not to remake everyone’s experience in the image of my own. My job as pilgrim leader is to stand beside and walk with other pilgrims and enjoy the wild diversity of my companions. Who knows where the Holy One will lead us next? I have no expectations. Only hope.

 

 

living day – to – day

I don’t know about where you are, but around here, we’re all exhausted.

It’s the end of the first week of classes at TLU, and everyone is frazzled. This makes me happy. Why? Because I don’t feel so bad about being frazzled myself. Everything is new for me – the names of the buildings, the code names for the groups on campus, the names and faces of students, faculty, and staff, and this week, especially, the pace of life on campus. And taking in all this newness is wearing me out. It’s been all I can do to show up to events on time, in the right place, and with whatever presentation or sermon already thought out.

It’s not like I’m some incredibly prepared person on a regular basis. Since becoming a mom, and a single mom at that, I regularly find myself in procrastination mode, throwing events together at the last minute, finishing a sermon just before putting on my alb to lead worship. And as a former perfectionist, I’ve come to terms with that reality. But the last couple of weeks have been worse than usual. Each morning I wake up and check the calendar: what am I supposed to lead today? And each night I fall into bed thinking “I hope there’s not something huge happening tomorrow morning that I should have planned for.” All I can do is whatever I’m supposed to do today. Like Scarlett O’Hara, I can’t think about all I’ll have to do later on. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.

But in the midst of my panicky planning for the presentation I’m giving in 1 hour, a beautiful thing has happened: I’ve been living in the moment. Everything I’ve been doing is for right now. All of my conversations are about what’s going on today, what’s happening next. And in focusing my attention and heart and brain power on what’s right in front of me, my anxiety level has dropped. I’ve realized that all I can do is what I’m doing, and so my focus has been extra-sharp. I’ve eased up on trying to make everything spectacular, and so my fear of failure has been replaced with joy in the moment. I’ve been dependent on others to accomplish each project, and so I’m filled with gratitude for the student leaders and faculty and staff who are helping me along.

Being present in the moment wasn’t my goal. Getting through a crazy schedule of events was my goal. But instead of trying to seize control of every detail and manipulate every outcome, I just let go and trusted that the Spirit would work through whatever effort I had to give. And that letting go and being present has made all the difference.

rainbow in New Braunfels, TX

rainbow in New Braunfels, TX

Driving to yet another campus event last night, I pulled out of my driveway only to discover a beautiful rainbow in front of me. I could have missed it if my mind had been working out curriculum for next Wednesday’s Grace Place Bible study or my next sermon for Sunday night worship. But I wasn’t. I was there, enjoying a moment in the car with my son, and noticing a small rainbow in the sky. I’m glad I didn’t miss it, because rainbows are one more reminder that God is ever present in our world, in each and every moment.

Praying for all of us, that we can live in the present moment, and participate in God’s gracious action in the world.

 

abundant life starts with release

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Last night in worship, we used sand to represent our confession. Bins of sand lined the walls of the sanctuary with signs describing character traits and experiences that get in the way of our relationship with God: selfishness, despair, greed, self-doubt. As we added sand to our personal bags of life, the heaviness was obvious: we carry around a lot of baggage. After hearing words of forgiveness, the people were invited to come forward to receive the ashes on their forehead, acknowledging their humanity. Afterward, they could take their bag of sand and pour it out at the foot of the large standing cross erected for the season of Lent.

And so I stood at the altar, dipping my thumb into the black, messy ashes, and carefully marking a cross on each person’s forehead. I looked into their eyes, connecting with their stories and our shared history, and together we acknowledged that life is short, and that we will one day become ashes ourselves. The moments were precious enough in themselves, each person receiving the experience in their own way. But in the background, there was something more. There was a sound, and a movement stirring. As people began to pour out their sand, there was a whoosh. The sound of the sand leaving the paper bags accompanied the ashes as one by one, people continued to come with their baggage in hand. And the sound was the sound of release, of letting go, of loosening our grip on old resentments and fears for the future. The whoosh was the sound of the Holy Spirit blowing through us, emptying us, and filling us all at once.

The sound of the sand pouring out was the sound of abundant life. We begin to live when we let go of all that binds us, that holds us back, that keeps us preoccupied. Christ calls us to receive new life, but how can we accept this great gift when our hands are already full of heartbreak and anxiety and envy? It is in the release that we are filled. It is in letting go that we are able to grasp real love, real life. Abundant life begins with the whoosh of pouring out ourselves and trusting that Christ will fill us with all good things.

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