Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thin Places

I recently returned from a 9-day pilgrimage to England with a group of 16 teenagers from our church. Before I left, I wondered if I’d need a vacation after I got back – keeping 16 teenagers in line can be a daunting task, but these particular teenagers were wonderful traveling companions and exceeded all of my expectations. I had known most of these young people for at least two years, and lead their Sunday School class for that time, but I got the opportunity to learn much more about who each one of them is – and they’re all pretty amazing.

We were blessed to have a guide, Molly Wren, from a company called Wonder Voyage, who took care of all of the logistics of the trip, as well as much of the spiritual leadership. Having someone there who had taken care of where we’d stay, what and when we’d eat and where we’d go every day freed the leaders to not only focus on the kids, but also to have our own spiritual journeys. One of the many things I really like about Molly is that she speaks to God and about God in ways that the kids aren’t necessarily used to. We’re Episcopalians, after all, and sometimes I think we get bogged down in the “corporate” prayers and don’t focus on praying in our own way. She set a great example for them as well as me about how one might maintain a very personal relationship with God.  She’s also a massive prayer warrior, and if I ever needed someone to be on my side for a particular prayer need, she’s the first one I’d call on.

One evening, at our usual meeting with the kids about our day, Molly brought up the Celtic tradition of “thin places”, which are places “that give us an opening into the magnificence and wonder of [God’s] presence” (copied from an article on by Sylvia Maddox). While the entirety of the trip was magnificent, there are a few specific instances of “thin places” that keep coming back to mind.

We flew in overnight on Saturday night and spent a good portion of the day Sunday traveling to Canterbury and getting settled into the hostel. Monday morning, we walked to Canterbury Cathedral – the seat of the Anglican Church from which our church evolved – and attended a Eucharist service in the Crypt, which dates back to the 11th century and is the oldest existing part of the Cathedral. There were about 20 or so other people there, and many of them were seminary students from mostly Africa who had attended a conference at the Cathedral the previous weekend. The real goosebumps came when we were invited to recite the Lord’s Prayer, each in our own language. It’s so easy to forget that there is a vast world out there, but hearing the different tongues opened my mind to the wonderful fact that God is bigger than each of us would make Him. And hearing that familiar service spoken with a British accent was a delight that we experienced several times throughout the trip!

The next day we traveled to the White Cliffs of Dover and hiked to the lighthouse – about four miles round-trip. God blessed us with wonderful weather that day, and the exertion of the hike, the beauty of the surroundings and the individual and small-group conversations I got to have with many of the kids made the day for me. We sat in a field and ate our lunches and wrote in our journals, and took in the loveliness of creation. It was stunning and peaceful.

The last day was a Sunday, and we were in London by then. We attended mass at St. Martin in the Fields, London, which is a beautiful church with an awesome choir. On this particular day, many of the choir members were absent, but the remaining ones sounded amazing without them. As the choir was walking out and singing the final hymn at the end of the service, a bird fluttered in front of the massive glass window above the altar. I know it was probably a pigeon, but the shadow could just have easily been a dove sent from God, and the combination of the beautiful music and the bird gave me chills. I know a few of my travel companions saw it too, and they had the same reaction.

In the interest of time, I’ve only mentioned a few places that were “thin” for me. We visited Westminster Abbey and the British Museum, climbed about a billion steps to the very top of St. Paul's Cathedral, we saw a show, a 90 year-old friar and the Crown Jewels - it was a trip packed with once-in-a-lifetime experiences. These experiences, combimed with my time with the other leaders, Bill, Carrie, David and Molly, and with the kids on an individual and group basis made it the most fulfilling spiritual experience of my life.

Once home, I was filled with the notion that what I’m called to do is to continue working with young people, teens especially, and help find a way to open their eyes to God’s wonder and promise. To be a mentor , friend and teacher in whatever capacity I can be. As I explore this calling, I’d appreciate your prayers and encouragement. I don’t know where it will lead me, but I know that God does, and that’s enough for now.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Happy Birthday Phillip!

I was trying to decide what to write for my brother Phillip who is celebrating his birthday today. First, I thought I might talk about the time he and his friends were jumping off the hood of my father’s Valiant and I decided to jump off as well and landed on my face. But when I reminded Phillip of this story, he sheepishly said “Um…Maryann…I don’t think you jumped.” So that wouldn’t be a very nice story would it?

Then I thought I might tell the story of the day he trashed Carole’s room and I got in trouble for it. He didn’t admit this until about 15 years ago, but telling that story would sort of sound like sour grapes, wouldn’t it?

Phillip and I fought like cats and dogs all through our childhood. Carole tells the story of the three of us in the back of our Volkswagon van – Carole in between Phillip and me – and the two of us shooting birds at each other. Two handed birds, I might mention – we really meant it!

Then Phillip left for college. I cried like a baby. And he’s been pretty much my favorite person ever since.

My favorite memory of my teen-age years was the summer Phillip and I drove together up to Nags Head, NC for a family reunion. We listened to music all the way up there, and talked, and when we got close to the conference center, we thought we were lost. We stopped at a phone booth and called, and it turned out that we were right across the street from where we were supposed to be. We could see everyone waving at us (and laughing probably). It was probably the first time we had spent an extended amount of time together without fighting, and it was delightful.

These days, Phillip is living in Knoxville, and I don’t get to see him nearly enough. He has three amazing daughters, who I love very much, and a wonderful wife who I love as well. Phillip’s probably the smartest person I know, and probably also the funniest person I know. Here’s wishing him the best birthday ever.

I love you Phillip – you’re the best big brother anyone could ever ask for – in spite of the plastic ants on top of my jello salad!

I’m a big fan of Facebook. Like many people of my generation, Facebook has allowed me to reconnect with many people from my childhood – my very best friend from elementary school as well as people that I went to high school with. I’m always delighted when I get a friend request from someone I haven’t heard from in a while.

Recently I got a friend request from someone whose name sounded familiar, so I accepted it. When I went to her info, I realized that I have no idea who she is. She’s originally from North Dakota – I do know three people from North Dakota, which I think is some kind of record – but not her. She lives in Seaford, Delaware now, and of course we know people from Delaware (Rick hails from there), but as far as I know, she’s not on the list. Be that as it may, she sent me a message a few days ago asking me to take a look at a note she posted in response to someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of God.

In her defense of the existence of God, she says that the evidence is overwhelming and goes on to say that the heavens declare the glory of God, that the person’s very existence is evidence of God. As I was reading this, it struck me that if I were the person who doubted, this argument would not have convinced me. If I don’t believe in God, the beauty of life – flowers that bloom in glorious colors, the wondrous stars that shine in the sky, the amazing miracle of birth – is just a beautiful coincidence.

A few years ago, I read A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Mr. Bryson wrote this wonderful book in an effort to understand the questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves, from the Big Bang theory to the rise of civilization and pretty much everything in between. The website says “Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us.” He has sections about Geology, Archeology, Botany, Astronomy – all the sciences that provide information and theories about how life started and how it has changed. Some people might take this scientific information as proof that God does not exist. I, on the other hand, continued to be amazed at God’s creation as I read.

It is difficult for me to believe that something so ordered and exact could be a happy fluke. Take the creation of a baby, for example. That a wiggly tadpole-looking thing knows to swim to the right place and knows what to do when it gets there pretty fascinating. But the explosion that happens when it meets its mark is nothing short of amazing. And that that explosion ends up looking like a little human is a wonder. And that that little body, which has owed its existence up to birth to a cord tied to its mommy, knows to open up its mouth and take a breath – well that’s just a miracle, and evidence to me of God’s great creation. It’s too intentional to be a fluke – at least to my mind.

And let’s talk about the ties that the oceans have to the moon. In simplistic terms (by way of Google), the moon and the earth are attracted to each other just like magnets. The moon tries to move the stuff on the earth closer to it, but the earth can hold onto everything except the water, because the water is always moving. There are two low tides and two high tides in most places every day. In my mind, this process is too orderly to be a coincidence – I see God’s hand here, creating the gravitational pull between the two masses, moving His arms like a conductor as He moves the seas to and away from the earth.

As a final thought, I’ll put some lyrics from one of my favorite songs, “Poetry” by Pat Green. This sums up my feelings. And I don’t kid myself that my musings here would turn someone’s doubts to belief, but maybe it would give cause for pause?

“Now, somebody made everything
From the soul inside out to Saturn's rings
How my baby smiles and how Ray Charles sings
Of course we were created.
The clouds make rain, the ocean makes sand
The earth breathes fire, and lava makes land
Now that took a mighty hand
And a wild imagination”

Of course we were created!