Commencement Revisited

At commencement, my daughter Jessie’s classmates found many ways to incorporate her into their story. They dedicated their yearbook to her, in part. They wore paper cranes (the symbol of our family’s foundation: Bright Happy Power). And class valedictorian Lilly Kallman gave Jessie a “shout out” in her speech.

Her presence is woven into the stories of her friends. And their stories are connected to ours, as well.

We’re so proud of these graduates: the challenges they’ve overcome, the changes they’ve already wrought in the world. We recognize their resilience and creativity, their compassion and energy, their vulnerabilities and their strengths. Go Class of 2016!

Here’s a link to the commencement speech video by ICAM, our local cable news channel:



Today is graduation for both college and high school students. We attended a celebration last night, and will attend more tomorrow. Yet today, within our family, we acknowledge that the milestone of this day is what isn’t happening. We are not attending graduation.

The next such milestone in our immediate family will take place in a few years. Sarah enrolled in an extended, co-op based program at Northeastern, which takes longer than 4 years, especially when she spent a semester volunteering in one of the most impoverished cities in the USA (Camden, NJ). She won’t receive a Bachelor’s diploma this year, unlike many of her former high school classmates who attended a traditional 4-year program. Rather her degree is experiential, and lasts longer, weaving clinical time in the working world of nursing and medicine with classroom and lab time, leading to a longer enrollment in the undergraduate program, with more hands-on experience at the end of that time. She’s already worked in oncology at Mass General and will be working in the emergency department at Beth Israel next. Before we know it, in 2017, Sarah will earn her nursing pin, sit for exams, and graduate!

The only commencement that might have happened this spring, didn’t. Jessie’s classmates, who have achieved much in the past several years, are tossing their tassels from one side of the mortarboard to the other today. Go Tigers! We’ve been invited to several parties. And yet, Jessie isn’t physically among them. She didn’t live to savor this milestone.

We fill in the gaps with imagination. With conjecture. I can imagine Jessica in spiky high heels, two heads shorter than everyone else, a wicked peel of laughter, and some visibly defiant way of standing out among all the monochromatic gowns, grinning among friends, teasing her teachers, and looking forward to her plans for challenging and overturning institutions and systems.

I have to pretend, or fantasize, because I don’t know what she’d be like now. I can only guess. She’d probably surprise me, and be unlike anyone I expected.

And yet, Jessie moves among these graduating seniors. One of her friends, Heather, who is a year older, and graduated last year, got a tattoo of a paper crane to imprint their relationship permanently on her body. In other ways, I think Jessie has indelibly marked many of her peers, and our community, from the inside out. She’s present in spirit, if not in person: one of the many people who shaped their lives, who will be carried in living memories and choices and actions by this generation, out into the wider world.

imageIn fact, one classmate, Raina, made origami paper cranes (symbol of Jessie) that her classmates wore today!

Today is euphoric and alarming for most people: the ending of certain experiences, the beginning of others. Or rather, the launch of the liminal time between clear, absolute finishes and startups, when all things are possible, and the only sure thing is the uncertainty that comes during the transformational space of journeying between the point of departure and the place of arrival.

We have lived in a liminal space for a long time. In some ways, one of our daughters already graduated out of this mortal life. She is, I think, a being of light and energy, in a world I cannot fully imagine or comprehend, connected to Creator and Creation in ways that take her out of this realm and into the next life.

I have much to learn from each of my daughters. Commencement might summarize the lessons learned, the memories highlighted, the dreams and plans yet to unfold. I have been taking such inventories for a long time. I am grateful to have a living daughter who continues to show us what it means to walk honestly and fiercely through this world, this mortal life, claiming its blessings in both hands, planting her feet on the path and daring to be here with every heartbeat and breath. I am grateful for the daughter who traveled ahead of all us, and will someday guide us in that place where she now exists. I am amazed, over and over, at the capacity for humans, despite deep grief, to live and thrive, to find new joy, to make meaning, and to shape other milestones.

Last spring I was the graduate. This year, I’m the one who is uncertain about where my path is taking me or the physical and spiritual address of my destination. Yet I have been taught by two daughters how to stare into the possibilities of life, and reach for them, and expect them for myself, too.


Tea time

Do you find your heart and mind looping backward through time, so your body is here in the present, but your head is playing video vignettes from some past event?
imageToday I looked down at the cup of tea in front of me, and it was like opening a door. My senses reeled back through months and years.

I remember the first chai I ever tasted, at a rest stop off the highway, driving back late at night from a national trade conference in Manhattan. I’d left work to stay home with my young children, then gone back to work for a digital startup in the late 90s. One of my young hip coworkers, Camille, wanted caffeine to stay awake during the long trip home. We stopped, and she suggested I try the chai latte! I’ve never regretted that first sip.

Now I have favorite coffee-tea haunts in many north shore towns: ZUMIS in Ipswich, kaffmandu in danvers, and atomic cafe in Beverly.
But it’s not so much the beverages as the relationships flavored by each cup’s presence. With beloved friends and my own family, I’ve sat and played games, talked heart to heart, or walked countless steps, steaming frothy cup in hand.

I often tell hospital patients a piece of wisdoms that I was once told. “Trauma touches trauma.” When we experience an extreme event, it can trigger similar past events, so we have complicated reactions in the present, too, that involve reactions to our histories.

Why do I think of tea and trauma? I’ve often celebrated with tea. Yet tea also helped me cope with years of emergencies in our family, often life-and-death medical situations with our daughter.

Holding a warm cup in my hands makes me feel safe, but also sometimes sad. Sensory memories can be layered by emotional and psychological responses to scents and tastes and sights.

Today i feel the intimate presence of love in my life, warming my palms via a simple cup of tea. Some of the love is living and present. Some of it is here only in memory. Some of that love abides in an intangible existence to which I remain connected. Just as this cup of tea is more than the mere beverage and vessel in front of me, but the symbol of past sharing and connections, and hope of bonds that continue to grow and deepen.

Yes, trauma touches trauma. And love touches love.


Lent Day 39: PASSOVER

In anticipation of the coming Passion Week, which is the holiest week of Christianity between Palm Sunday and Easter, we are reminded that Jesus celebrated PASSOVER with his friends. It was a Jewish ritual.

This seder meal is an act of remembrance of the Jews suffering in Egypt, and God’s act of liberation: freeing the Jewish slaves in the time of Exodus. The great Hebrew narrative goes on to tell of Moses’ leadership through his people’s times of trial and being lost in the wilderness, and acknowledges their wandering and forgetting the covenant with God, and celebrates receiving the ten commandments, and coming to their promised land.

This seder meal continues to be celebrated by Jews each year. Over time and layered by Christian tradition, we now symbolically honor a form of the seder meal as communion: our Last Supper. And during Passion Week, our Maundy Thursday supper is often a seder meal, similar to what we understand was shared by Jesus and his followers.

Below is a diagram of the seder plate in traditional Jewish customs today:

Seder meal

The meal that we celebrate at communion holds echoes that reach back through millennia, into deep memory. Yet it also has meaning now.

People continue to suffer. To seek liberation. To desire their promised land, their home, their place and way of belonging. To need redemption.

I would argue that we share spiritual ancestors and relations. And these meal hold as much meaning now, as they did thousands of years ago. Our faith  ties us to our spiritual cousins: Jews and Muslims. We are all connected by our faithfulness to One God.

This PASSOVER meal, now transformed Maundy Thursday’s meal and communion, reminds us that inside Holy Week, Passion Week, which starts and ends  triumphantly, also contains the trial and execution of our Messiah. It holds its own time of suffering and loss, and three days of absence and separation. Like those who sat down to the seder meal, remembering their past, when we partake of communion, we also remember oppression and liberation. I don’t claim that it’s the same, but that we are bound together by this shared narrative.

Like the seder meal, the Christian communion also ends in hope. Yes, we look backward, rooting ourselves in time and place and history. And yet, we also look forward with hope, believing in the transforming grace and love of God to heal and restore all of us, and ultimately, this whole world. We hope in God’s capacity to bring all of us to a common table in a mutual home … someday.

Excerpts from today’s lectionary:

  • Leviticus 23:4-6 — These are the appointed festivals of the Lord, the holy convocations, which you shall celebrate at the time appointed for them. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord, and on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord.
  • 22 Luke 22:1 — Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near.
  • 22 Luke 22:7-8 — Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus[b] sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.”
  • 22 Luke 22:13 — So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

Lent Day 34: ANOINT

poured-outWow. Yesterday we read a scripture passage about a woman anointing Jesus. Today the texts are filled with anointings.

Anointings can be a revolutionary act. And it can be done by common people: you and me.

Anointing was first reported in Hebrew scriptures as an event that sets aside priests and prophets. That happens in today’s Exodus text. After the time of Samuel, anointing with oil acknowledges kings and judges, starting with David and Solomon.We see it here in Psalms, when a king raises up a song of victory and praise to God.

In later Christian traditions, oil anointingwas also applied sacramentally for healings. Or to bless the dying. It was often called extreme unction or last rites, but has since been called ‘sacrament of the sick.’

In the Gospel story, the woman’s act of anointing is personal. Yet it can also be heard as political and public, since she stands in the tradition of prophets who anoint kings. She marks Jesus as a leader. And as we know, his coming death on a cross was a political form of execution by the Roman empire.

Since this anointing is also done by a woman, in a patriarchal society, it’s even more unusual. Lots of layers of social and cultural and spiritual complexity!

m26-richardsonAnointing shows up in today’s texts in more traditional ways. Oil is used to mark something as holy. In Exodus, it is used to mark generations of priests descended from Moses’ brother Aaron. And it marks the tabernacle as holy. Plus anointing shows up in the song of the king.

Yet in yesterday’s story, a woman anointed Jesus. A regular person, a householder, sees the holy identity of God walking among us, and lavishly pours herself and her resources into naming and claiming that One with expensive oil.

Note to self: We tried anointing each other in church yesterday, and I learned not to use tea tree oil again; it’s very pungent. Try olive oil, right? We didn’t have access to nard …

Others in the house, in the Gospel story, protest the expense and waste of pouring so much oil on Jesus. She uses the equivalent of a year’s salary in this act!

Jesus defends her. He says her act shall be remembered, and that she’s preparing him for burial. He foreshadows the events of the Passion Week.

Jesus’ language of remembrance recalls the sacramental language of the Last Supper. “When you do this, remember me.” And in the versions of the story wherein she pours oil on his feet and washes his feet with her hair, it also recalls the foot-washing by Jesus for his disciples after the Last Supper.

spirit-of-creation-colleen-kwong-milwaukee-wi-5640This story shows up in all 4 Gospels, and in two versions, the woman who anoints Jesus is unnamed, in one she’s called a sinner, and in one she’s named as Mary of Bethany. So over the course of history this woman’s identity has often been collapsed into that of Mary Magdalene, and she has been labeled as a sinner, ie prostitute, which makes the scene seem even more sensuous and outrageous. Scholars and church authorities now admit that Mary Magdalene wasn’t aligned with the woman called ‘sinner’ in some texts, so that complexity has been lifted, although its hard to rid ourselves of hundreds of years of storytelling.

Anyway, it’s a sensuous, fleshy story. It’s a bodily sign-act.

Such perfume – nard — is often used to tend to the feet of a corpse. And in one version of this story, Mary and Jesus are indeed in the home of a former corpse, Lazarus, who was raised by Jesus from the dead. More allusions to death and resurrection.

On Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent, we anointed each other in church. We claimed the same role as the woman in the story. We put oil on each other, and gave each other blessings. Because in the UCC tradition, we are all empowered to do so. We are all ministers. We are all followers and servants and doers.

We are — each and all — allowed to receive such a blessing. And we are invited to offer it! Not just kings and prophets and priests. Regular people. Common folk. Householders. Women. Lepers. People brought back from death, or the edge of death.

When you think about it, the woman in the story lavished such oil on the body of Christ. And who is now the body of Christ? Us … you and me.

Selections from today’s lectionary:

  • Psalm 20: 6 — I know that the Lord will help his anointed;
    he will answer him from his holy heaven
  • Exodus 40:9 — Then you shall take the anointing oil, and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it shall become holy.
  • Exodus 40:15 — And anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may serve me as priests: and their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout all generations to come.
  • Hebrews 10:22 — Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Day 4 of Lent: TIME

Today’s scripture readings lend themselves to an awareness of TIME.

For people in a society always on the go, perhaps this 40 days of focus also allows us to be present right now. Mostly, our days are framed by business to do, plans to implement, goals to achieve. This season offers us a chance to be more present to ourselves, others, and God.

As the writer says, there is “A time for every season and purpose under heaven.” This doesn’t mean we should dismiss our capacity to remember and to anticipate. Culturally, we’re often good at these skills. And we need these competencies. We need the long view, the big dream, as well as the short-term to-do list. And we need to remember our history. We can plan and prepare. We can remember and learn.

Too often, though, by planning and preparing, by recalling and reminiscing, we may miss the chance to savor our current surroundings, relationships, and experiences. Being present to the more immediate moment is a feb13-lent4C_timedifferent experience, and also essential to our wellbeing. What does it mean to be aware of and present to ourselves, other people, our world and our God, right now? Part of the value of time set apart, such as Lent, is to be aware of this hour and this day.

For instance, you can follow your breath in and out, in and out. Use your five senses to ground yourself in here and now (this is particularly helpful if you are distressed, anxious or distracted and need to calm and center yourself). Count backwards using your senses, as below:

  • 5 Things I See: “What can I see all around me?” Study your surroundings, and name five things you see. Consider their colors, textures, and details.
  • 4 Things I Hear: “What can I hear?” Name four things you hear. How close or distant are the sounds? From what direction do they come? Loud or soft? Familiar or unidentified?
  • 3 Things I Feel: “What am I feeling?” Name three things you feel bodily, by paying attention to inward and outward sensations, such as the touch of something on your skin, or the relaxation or pull of your body’s muscles.
  • 2 Things I Smell: “What can I smell?” Name two things you can smell (or whose odors you like). Scents trigger our minds with memory and evoke moods. Name four odors.
  • 1 Thing I Taste (Breathe): “What do I taste?” Name one residual flavor in your mouth. Breathe across your tongue and activate that sense. Then draw in a long, slow, deep breath. And exhale. Repeat the breath.

Excerpts from today’s lectionary:

  • Psalm 91:15-16 When they call to me, I will answer them;  I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. 16 With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
  • Ecclesiatses 3: 1 —  For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
  • John 12:27 — “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.
  • John 12: 36 —  While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”