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Birds of Paradise

The author and her binoculars

My husband John and I were on our honeymoon when I was first introduced to what has become my most beloved pastime. Relaxing in a mountain cabin at the end of the winter, we enjoyed our first week of our marriage by feeding and identifying birds. “There is something Eden-like about it,” my husband had remarked sometime after we had identified a flock of juncos (and before I dropped his binoculars into the creek, ruining them). The following Christmas, I bought him a pair of water-proof binoculars to replace the old ones. He had also unknowingly suggested that his parents buy me a pair. I found this out just in time to jot a note on my gift to him: “So that you and I might share a day in Eden.”

More than a decade into marriage, and longer than that in ministry, I doubt either of us would now assert that Eden is well-represented by vacation. Perhaps closer to the story of Eden would be the act of identification: identifying a bird and calling it by name, which was, after all, one of Adam’s first works in Eden.

The best hobbies and interests allow us to follow our curiosities endlessly, however, and over the years I’ve found even more enjoyment from studying bird behavior than from identification. You can know what a bird looks like, maybe what calls it makes, but there is so much more: how it behaves at the feeder or with its young, how it builds its nest, when and for what reasons it migrates, weird things it does (waxwings watching the sunset, for example), whether it forages alone, with a mate, or in a flock (or like juncos, who could do any of those), whether it flocks with a different type of bird (as white-breasted nuthatches and purple finches sometimes do). Where I live, I have also learned to predict snow with reasonable accuracy by the presence and behavior of white-crowned sparrows under my feeder. And always, there is more to learn. Were I to live several lifetimes, there would be more to learn about birds, their behavior, and their habitat, and it is the kind of knowledge that does the soul good. Read more

Monday in Beverly Hills

Blessing of the worms for All Saints’ compost bin

Blessing of the worms for All Saints’ compost bin

I had just arrived a block west of Rodeo Drive to the church I would serve in Beverly Hills. The rector told me not to bring my lunch, that it would be the church’s treat on my first day. I decided that morning that the lunch venue would offer me some clues about how to navigate my future ministry and the people I would serve. Where would we be eating lunch?

When I was a seminarian, part of the thrill of preparing for serving a church community for me was the thought of integrating into the community I served. My bishop told our ordination class, “Be prepared to go anywhere and serve anyone.”

Being a young woman from Central Indiana, ministering to people in just about any place other than the Crossroads of America felt like a great frontier. I read the experience of author Kathleen Norris, a Washington, D.C., native, who discovered a vocation to serve God and God’s people in the quiet monotony of the Great Plains. As she writes in her spiritual autobiography Dakota, “The fact that one people’s frontier is usually another’s homeland has been mostly overlooked.”

I had arrived at my very different frontier: amid selfie-taking tourists, harried traffic, and busy storefronts.

On my first office day at All Saints’, I met the people who called this place their spiritual homeland. And as the noon hour drew closer, it was time for lunch. Read more

Home

Houses aren’t meant to sit empty. It’s hard on them. They’re meant for occupying—pipes need water to move through them, not just to sit and corrode. Windows and doors need to be opened and closed, lest they get stuck in place, stifling the air inside. Roofs need someone to notice when they leak. Wires need to have a reason to connect, to come alive, to carry current. The walls and the beams need the warmth of occupation in the winter and the flow of breeze in the summer. Our houses—our homes—are creations of our own hands whose well being is directly linked to their connectedness with us.

This was the first thought that came to me when I opened my back door to my stifling house after it had been sitting vacant for a week. It looked like home, but it didn’t smell like home. It didn’t smell bad, just different—stale and empty and static. There were no lingering kitchen smells from a meal prepared, no pungent wafts of wet dog barging in through the door, no sweetness of beeswax candles burned or perfume of fresh farmer’s market flowers on the dining room table. I didn’t realize the rhythm of my life had a fragrance until it left my house with me.

I fiddled with the thermostat, dragged in my luggage, and began to unpack. I was completely and utterly exhausted from a red-eye flight and a week of people-ing in a time zone three hours different from my own. In the quiet of my solitude I felt every introverted cell in my body begin to relax, uncoil, and breathe. Yet the more I moved about, the more dust I kicked up, the more rooms I disturbed, the more I began to feel like I wasn’t actually all that alone. I was in the presence of Home, and that’s different than being by yourself.

It slowly dawned on me that this was the same feeling I’d felt a few nights before while I was in Vancouver for the YCWI conference. Read more

A New Home In A New Land

Immigrants on deck of steamer

Immigrants on deck of steamer

Fifty-one years ago my maternal grandmother was sitting on a suitcase in Grand Central Station, crowds pressing in, sounds swirling around, smells lingering. Her new husband had gone off in search of some food for the final leg of their journey to their new home in Holland, MI. My grandpa clutched their one lone American coin, a quarter, and selected large navel oranges and some dark chocolates to share with his new bride – luxuries they did not have the opportunity to possess in a post-war Germany with limited opportunity, limited promise, limited security.

My grandparents’ family could not understand why they would want to leave their home, why they would want to start over. Starting over as an immigrant is humbling. Grandpa headed off to a third shift job at Krampton’s Factory each day. His advanced degree in agriculture was not of much use without his own farm. Grandma went to work at Lemmon Fresh Dry Cleaner and spent her days listening to English on the radio and from the customers, as she steamed, pressed, and pleated clothing.  Her degree in home economics was not of much use without her own home.  Read more

My Elective in Musical Outreach

That was a Wednesday night in May 2000, and for the next two years I was a weekly fixture for karaoke unless I was out of town. Stomach bug? I’d take my saltines with me. Paper due at 8:00am the next morning? I’d get it done ahead of time. I joked that karaoke was my spiritual discipline. At the very least, it was a sacred ritual. At first glance, my devotion was out of character for me. For one, I never have been a partier. I am actually an extreme introvert. And I am not a singer, not in the car when others are with me, not even in a choir, where my flat voice would be drowned out by much more ear-pleasing ones. For goodness’ sake, as a child I lip synced for the elementary school talent show.

Yet the elbows of trusted friends convinced me to pick up the mic that first night, and I guess you could say I caught the fever (The Spirit blows where it wills…). After a few weeks the DJ started choosing songs for me, and I would occasionally get requests to sing someone’s favorite number. This was due to my willingness to put a little hip into the routine, not to a miraculous shoring up of my voice. I had a signature song and competed in monthly contests. I was part of a community of regulars who encouraged my dramatic side. I enjoyed a “Norm!” moment every week when I walked into that hallowed space. Read more

In it for the long haul

We’ve been in our home for a year now. In actuality, it’s been almost two years, but that first year, this didn’t feel like our home. We were renting. Now we own our home (or at least part of it), and I feel settled.

I am a nester. Not in the sense that I like to clean, but in the sense that I like to decorate and I don’t like to move. I love to hammer nails into the plaster. I am the one who buys the paint entitled “late tomato red.” In our last home, my husband and I embellished our upstairs with the designs of the Ndebele tribe of South Africa.

I am from the South. I feel artistically alive when I travel along Rainbow Row in Charleston, the French Quarter in New Orleans, and the Mexican color of East Austin, and I want my home to reflect that vibrancy. I despise the white walls and beige carpet of rental property (For this reason alone, I could never be Methodist. The denomination would surely defrock me after they saw what I had done to the parsonage).

Our house does, in fact, still have the walls of an institution, except for the kitchen, which is a magnificent pumpkin. I’ve picked out the colors for the rest of the house, which I plan to transform, bit by bit. I’ve got time. We’re not going anywhere soon; at least we’re not planning on it. I am an AP, and the average life span of Associates is only two to three years, but I hope to beat the odds because I love the church so much.

Ed White’s research demonstrates that long-term pastorates create healthier congregations. I would suggest that a pastor’s particular housing situation is a key factor in how long the pastor can stay. Read more