Seventeen Minutes of Heartbreak and Gratitude

This past Wednesday, I woke at 7, still tired from a class that got out close to 10PM the night before. An hour or so later, I packed my bag for the day and walked to our campus coffee shop, the Flamingo, to fill my 16oz. tervis. Over the past six weeks my every-other-day latte treat has become daily morning coffee with almond milk, and sometimes a latte as well (I may have seriously underestimated the time commitment for a few of my classes this quarter…). Coffee in hand, I walked to the library to study for my liturgics midterm with a group of classmates. We were all very much looking forward to spring break which felt just out of reach on the other side of our Thursday exams.

A few minutes before 10, we walked together to the chapel, still discussing which aspects of ritual theory and sacramental theology might appear on the liturgy exam. From across the grove, we could see students, staff, faculty, spouses, and even a group of children from the childcare center on campus gathering outside the chapel. As we approached, the bell began to toll. It rang seventeen times. It rang once for each person killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida one month ago. And then we stood, still and silent, for seventeen minutes.

Across the circle from where I stood, a group of three year olds wiggled, all bundled up in hats, gloves, puffy coats, and scarves. I wondered if any of them would ever feel unsafe at school, or be at school during a shooting, or be shot at school. And my heart hurt. I thought of the seventeen people who died in Parkland, of those who loved them, and of the ripples of pain their deaths caused. And my heart hurt.

The seventeen minutes ticked by slowly. The wind whipped around us, making a whistling noise, fluttering scarves, and chilling our faces. The index temperature was twenty-eight degrees. The air felt thick with silent prayer and unshed tears. As the minutes passed, my mind wandered back to the scattered papers, white board drawings, and highlighted liturgy books we left in the library. For a moment I was drawn into recalling definitions that would surely appear on the exam, but then I realized that beyond definitions and specific historical texts, what we are learning in “Liturgy 501” has everything to do with standing in silence outside the chapel waiting for another seventeen bells to ring.

When we gather together for Christian worship, we participate in an ancient ritual that enacts how the world could be. We shake hands at the peace with those who do not share our political beliefs, we center our focus on Jesus, we give thanks for all that God has created, and we recall how we are called to live in this world. And yet, as we gaze into what the kingdom on earth might look like, we are fully aware of the world’s imperfections. The liturgy is both/and. In a world that pushes us into “either/or” thinking, into binary systems, the Christian faith hold space for things in tension. When we gather around the table on Sunday we can bring both the joy and the suffering of our lives, because church is a place where we recognize both the suffering of Christ on the cross and the joy of his resurrection. It is a place steeped in mystery and paradox. We believe in the divinity and humanity of Jesus. We believe that bread is holy because it is part of God’s creation and in the Eucharist bread becomes a symbol to point us towards God in a specific and unique way. It is both already holy and made holy through consecration.

Standing in the cold, listening to a second set of seventeen bells ring out across the campus, I found myself deeply grateful for our faith tradition. I live in a world that is filled with love, joy, and beauty as well as a world filled with fear, pain, and hate. I need a place that I can take lived experiences of both. Somewhere that can hold it all, where I don’t have to check part of myself at the door. I need a community that understands how seventeen minutes of cold silence in remembrance of a tragedy can be an experience of both heartbreak and gratitude.

When the reverberations of the seventeenth bell faded away, we returned to offices and classrooms, homes and library tables. As we drifted across the campus in various directions, no one spoke. We were all returning to our “daily lives” in a way that the families of the victims of the Parkland school shooting would not for some time. Maybe they never would. This is certainly not the world “as it could be.” But at least we have a place to name that, a place to take that, a place to remind us that we are not responsible for the work of redeeming the world. We live in the knowledge that God has redeemed all creation – and at the same time – we live in anticipation of the full redemption of the world which is yet to come.

Photo Credit: Shawn Evelyn


Running Time

In September, when Richard began radiation, he started going to the gym in the mornings to keep his energy up. I was silently resentful for a few days. This change in routine meant that I had to get up early to walk Grace each morning. I love my sleep. Getting up on time is NOT my strong suit. Eventually, I decided that if I had to get up early, I should make the most of the time. Grace and I began jogging. We started slowly – run one minute, walk two minutes, repeat. Well, I started slowly. Grace was ready for a six minute mile from day one. Yesterday, some three months later, we completed our fortieth run together and today I ran my second ever 5K. I am not a runner. But the crisp morning air has been good for me these last few months. As my feet pound and my legs ache, I give thanks for life and for the ability to run.

It is odd how the deepest gratitude and joy so often spring forth from the most terrifying and challenging situations. But then again, maybe that is just how life works. This semester followed on the heals of a rigorous school year fraught with anxiety and a summer heavy with fear and medical crisis. In the wake of such a year, the last few months have been the birth place of much gratitude, joy, and peace. Underneath the layers of everyday annoyances, tasks, and bustle, my soul is dancing. Some days it is a slow swaying within my core, but some days the energy is too much to be held inside. And so, I dance. I sing. I run.

In this season of joy and energy I have been leaning in. Leaning into my relationships, my classes, my internship work, and myself. I have enjoyed Wednesday coffee dates with a recent VTS graduate who is now working at a large parish in Alexandria. Together we dream about the Church that could be. I have looked forward to Tuesday dinners with our neighbors where we share simple food and the stories of our lives. I have relished time with Richard where we explore new restaurants and walk familiar paths with Grace. I have agonized over sermons and systematic theology papers in an effort to find just the right way to articulate my understanding of God. I have savored Monday night classes on the Gospel of Mark culminating in a two-hour performance last week. I have delighted in many hours on the floor with children sharing Bible stories and wondering together about what it all means. I have dug into numerous sessions of therapy and spiritual direction in order to uncover and bring forth the best version of myself. I have toasted at weddings, held new born babies, and taken food to those mourning the loss of a child.

Much has happened since the semester began in early September, even more since that hot day in July 2016 when we left Charlotte in the rearview. But as I slipped my final paper under the door of the Field Education office this week, it seemed like just yesterday that we were arriving on campus, cars pack to the roofs, to begin this journey. Today is the halfway mark: three semesters completed, three semesters to go. And time keeps running along.


Photo Credit: Richard Allred

The Uncomfortable Surrender of Discipleship

At the end of October, I will preach my very first sermon. I’ll preach first to a small group from my homiletics class and then in January I will preach at The Falls Church Episcopal where I am doing an internship. The text, Mark 1:14-20, is not a particularly difficult one in terms of “the preaching task.” It is a short, straightforward narrative and there are some clear implications for us as 21st century Christians. And yet. The implications of this passage are distinctly uncomfortable.

Just imagine the scene from this Gospel reading: a stranger sees two sets of brothers hard at work. He urgently calls them to leave their family business and follow him. And astonishingly, they do so. They leave fish still in the nets, their boats, their families, and their homes. They do not conduct a job search to fill the positions they are vacating, they do not fundraise for their new ministry, they do not pack a bag for the road. Immediately they leave everything and follow Jesus.

Even as someone who left a job and community to pursue a calling to theological education, this story makes me uncomfortable. Simon, Andrew, James, and John give up everything. They keep only their relationship with one brother. The rest of their life is utterly transformed. And Mark tells us nothing about this process. I am left with so many questions: Did they love their jobs as fishermen or hate them? Did they have spouses and children? Did they leave their families in economic distress? And most of all, do I have to leave everything, immediately, to follow Jesus?

I think we can discern one answer to this question by examining the first sentence of the passage. Mark 1:14-15 is significant for a number of reasons. First, these two verses situate the passage within the larger context of Mark. Jesus has just been baptized and been tempted in the desert for forty days. This story, the calling of the first disciples, marks the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ very first act of public ministry, before he has healed anyone or preformed a miracle, is gathering community. Simon, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee are not called into solitude, in fact they are called into community.

Second, these verses tell us that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Galilee was not a wealthy area. It was not a booming economic center. Galilee was filled with hardworking, oppressed, left out, and exploited people. Jesus did not begin ministry by calling the religious elite of the day, the chief priests, Pharisees, and scribes. The first disciples of our Lord, Jesus Christ were just regular people.

Third, these first two verses define for us the “good news” that Jesus proclaimed throughout his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe.” Much could be said about this one sentence. But what I find significant for us as 21st century disciples I glean from a single word: repent. This word, repent, connotes so much more than the definition on Throughout the New Testament, to repent means to turn around. Repentance is the ongoing reorientation of ones life towards God. The continual surrender of self-centeredness in light of the Good News proclaimed through the life of Jesus.

So as Jesus traversed the sea shore in Galilee calling fishermen to follow him, his directive was repentance. His call was, “Surrender your self-centeredness. Surrender your grasp on worldly possessions. Surrender your life to God.”

After looking closely at this passage, I am no more comfortable than when I began. Discipleship is difficult. Discipleship comes at a cost. To surrender ones life to God may not look like literally, leaving everything, immediately, to follow Jesus. But our call is no less radical than that of Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Surrender, reorientation, transformation, change – are hard.

God calls all of us, regular people, to repent. To surrender everything we hold onto so tightly: our income, our relationships, our jobs, the success and material happiness we grapple for on a daily basis. In the midst of a culture that pressures us to produce more, buy more, spend more, and have more, Christians are called to surrender.

To surrender may not look like selling all you own, but it does mean holding what you have lightly. To surrender is to realize again and again that all we have belongs to God. To live generously. To give our whole-selves.

The good news in the midst of this uncomfortable passage is that we are not called alone. Like the first disciples we are called to this work as part of a Christian community. The call is urgent. The call is serious. The call is difficult. And we have the rest of our lives to practice. Amen.

Photo: An artistic representation of Mark 1:14-20 created for my Homiletics class. Photo Credit: Richard Allred

Everyday Sounds

Tuesday morning a week ago, Richard completed his final session of radiation. And that evening we found ourselves on the front stoop of our apartment building with a group of neighbors, a potluck taco bar, and cocktails made in our new (refurbished) Vitamix.

As we delighted together over the blending power of the Vitamix, our downstairs neighbor Elizabeth asked, “Have you been making a smoothie every morning?” “Yes, we have.” I answered, “You can’t hear it, can you??” “We can.” She said laughing, “I actually hear a whole parade in the morning.”

Elizabeth went on to describe the sounds she hears from her living room after getting up with James, her one-year-old, around 5:00AM. There are the sounds of apartment doors clunking shut and the clicking of the door to our building as it closes. Our across the hall neighbor, Buck, takes his puppy out around 5:30 and Richard leaves for the gym about 6:00. Then there is the jingle of dog tags as I come downstairs with Grace about 6:30 and Tim, who lives across the hall from Elizabeth, leaves to walk his dog. Around 7:15 the noise escalates as Buck’s wife, Elisabeth, shepherds their two boys out the door for school. About that same time, Richard and I are back home making our smoothie. By 7:45, doors are clunking and clicking one after the other as we seminarians leave for chapel.

As Elizabeth described these morning noises, we all jumped into apologize. But she waved us off with a laugh. That conversation has returned to me again and again over the past week. I began to hear things differently. The everyday sounds of my life became joyful noise. Sounds of comfort. Signals that in one small part of the world, all is well.

When I began to notice the everyday sounds, I discovered a cacophony. There is the sound of Grace sniffing my face a few minutes before my alarm. And the sound of my alarm going off. There is the sound of other dog walkers wishing me a “good morning” as I attempt to stave off conversation with my earbuds and hoodie. The musical intro of my favorite podcasts. The sounds of bells ten minutes before chapel. The voices intoning “Most merciful God, we confess…” in unison that signal morning prayer has started without me. There is the sound of coffee dripping and hot water being poured over tea bags in the Welcome Center. There is the loud chatter of the refrectory at lunch. The pleading, “excuse me,” of the Uber driver, pizza delivery person, or parent looking for Episcopal High School next door. There is the sound of children playing outside our apartment after school. And the noise of the espresso machine at the campus coffee shop as students gather to study in the evening. As night falls, crickets are audible through open windows. And right before I fall asleep, I hear Richard’s heavy breathing beside me.

These are my everyday sounds. The sounds that, when absorbed with gratitude, bring comfort. These sounds remind me to give thanks for the ordinary. These are the sounds of a thousand small miracles of health, safety, peace, and joy.

Over the past week, I’ve been holding these everyday sounds closely. They are a gift. When I awake up to a dog in my face, I know I have lived through another night. When I hear my neighbors children shouting, I know they are home safely from school.

May I never forget the gift of a normal day. May the everyday sounds of traffic and bustle, children and barking dogs give me cause for joy instead of frustration. May I draw closer to God and those I love with everyday and every sound. Amen.

Layers of Memory

I’m sitting cross legged on a love seat in Plano, Illinois listening to the sound of crickets float through an open window and watching my husband and middle brother shoot basketball in the driveway. I have finally brought Richard to the place where my mother and my grandmother grew up. The rooms in this house and trails through these woods are layered with memories. Turning into the driveway reminds me of the nights I would fall asleep in the car on the way home after a long day playing in the woods. Pulling up to the house reminds me of learning to drive my grandfather’s old John Deer. And stepping into the kitchen I remember laughing with my cousins as we washed Thanksgiving dishes by hand. This remarkable property holds the memories of four generations of my family.

I can easily bring to mind many of these memories from the comfort of my couch at home. But being physically present where these memories took place is so powerful. Standing in the living room, where I celebrated many Christmases, brings back not just images from the past but smells, sensations, tastes, and emotions. The memory of drinking pineapple juice on the couch while the adults drank pre-dinner gin and tonics was so strong that I went out and bought a few cans this morning.

The next few days, which Richard and I will be spending here at Plano with my parents, my brother Alex, my aunt Judy, my aunt Nancy, and my cousin Chris, are my last days of summer. In less than a week I will start my second year at Virginia Theological Seminary. It has been nearly four months since I sat in a classroom, ate in the dining hall, studied in the library, or worshiped in the chapel. As I wander around Plano bathing in a lifetime of memories, I cannot help but wonder what memories will wash over me as I return to class, lunch, chapel and homework. And furthermore, what memories will be created in the coming months to layer upon those of last year?

Most of the memories I’ve had this week at Plano have warmed my heart. I have excitedly blurted out, “Oh Alex! Do you remember… ,” dozens of times. But when I think about our time in Alexandria over the past thirteen months, it is quite a mixed bag. There are many memories that make me smile, but just as many I don’t wish to claim. I don’t want to claim the fear, the anxiety, the over-functioning or the hours of counseling. But then I remember Brené Brown who says, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.

And so, in hopes of a brave new ending: I claim those memories. Last year was hard. I was so anxious that I was often unable to be present to those around me. I sometimes felt my school work and even myself were not good enough. I compared myself to my classmates. I cared more about grades then about learning. I often did not tend my own soul.

That is how the story began. I cannot erase those memories. But I can layer them. I can layer them with experiences of VTS as an institution striving towards the Kingdom of God. I can layer them with memories of spending time with the incredible people I have met at seminary. I can layer them with practices of healthy eating, meditation, prayer, exercise, play, and rest. I can layer them with experiences of deep learning and new realizations. And when all is said and done, it is not that first layer that counts. It is the brave new ending.

Photo Credit: Richard Allred, “Trotter Bowl and Aspinwall,” Virginia Theological Seminary

Dust Is In The Air.

April was filled with final projects, papers, and exams. I breathed deeply through that last quarter of my first year of seminary – finally giving up the fight for perfection and allowing “done” to be enough. I completed those last four classes (Old Testament, Church History, Introduction to Practical Theology, and Music, Icons, and the Contemplative Life) in triumph. Not because of the satisfactory marks I received, but the sheer realization that a full year of graduate theological studies was complete!

As the school year ended I thought I would write another blog post after commencement, “when the dust settled.” But just as my academic work began to wrap up, health issues that Richard started experiencing in February became more serious. My focus shifted to doctors appointments and then Richard’s recovery from surgery to remove a mass in his right parotid gland (details available on his Caring Bridge). As we waited for the final pathology on the mass, I thought I would write another post after his full recovery, “when the dust settled.” But then Richard was diagnosed with low grade lymphoma.

On the one hand, you cannot know what learning a loved one has cancer will be like until it happens. But on the other, it’s pretty much exactly what you would imagine. Shock. Fear. A boatload of shameless prayer. And a scramble for more information, immediate appointments, and any possible comfort. I thought to myself, “if I can just figure out how to do ‘cancer spouse’ right – this will all work out. Everything will be ok.” Then I thought, “this is going to require a lot more coffee.”

We anxiously set up oncology appointments, contacted family and friends, put all future plans on hold, read about lymphoma, and waited. Cancer requires a lot of waiting. Waiting for appointments. Waiting for test results. Rooms upon rooms dedicated to just filling out paperwork and waiting.

Despite many cups of coffee, a lot of internet research, and numerous conversations with wise friends/family – I did not figure out “how to do cancer right.” Of course, it does not exist. It is simply the fantasy of an anxious overfunctioner. And so is the idea that one day “the dust will settle,” and our lives will suddenly be neatly organized and easily manageable. There is dust in the air. That is life. When it rains hard enough to clear the dust, then you are dealing with a flood. All plans, all of life is contingent. Our reality can change as quickly as the word cancer slips from the mouth of a doctor on the other end of the phone. What we have is the present moment.

So I am writing from the dust cloud. Richard’s PET Scan showed that he is cancer free. The mass that was already removed left behind such a small amount of cancer it is undetectable on a scan. This is great news! And now we are WAITING to meet with a radiologist to see if he will need precautionary radiation or not.

In the present moment we are drinking cardamon vanilla lattes at Rare Bird Coffee Roasters. Mine is hot, his is iced. We will probably get groceries later, sit on the porch with our amazing neighbors, and walk the dog. But who knows – dust is in the air. And sipping coffee across the table from this incredible man is certainly enough for this moment in life.

The Night Heralds the Dawn

It’s a warm Saturday morning here in Alexandria. I’m sitting at a high table in a local coffee shop enjoying the warm morning light, the laughter from the tables around me, a gluten-free breakfast sandwich, and an almond milk latte.

I am soaked in gratitude, warmer than the morning light, for a day set aside for sabbath. A day free of classes, homework, appointments, dishes, laundry, scholarship applications, and email. While third quarter certainly did not warrant my level of pre-quarter panic, the work load was formidable and I am breathing easier on the other side. As I invite gratitude to soak through to the depths of my soul, it is the moments of grace over the past eight weeks that come to mind rather than the moments of anxiety, fear, panic, sickness, and failure.

I think of the first really warm day of the spring when I took a folding chair and some homework onto the front stoop to enjoy the late afternoon sunshine. One of my neighbors soon joined me and before long a group of eight or more of us had gathered with a dozen children playing in the courtyard behind us. As we chatted and laughed, I remember looking around the circle and wishing the moment did not have to end.

I think of the evening spent planning a group project at our campus bar, 1823. The meeting was filled with laughter and shared confusion over the projects instructions. And when I left someone called out, “Bye Sarah,” as the door closed behind me.

I think of the day that Richard and I decided to adopt the dog we have been talking about for months. Richard took one look around and picked out Grace right away. She was so excited when we brought her home and walked her around campus for the first time. I’ve grown to love the sound of her running from the back office to the front door to greet me, tail wagging, when I come home from class.

I think of the tearful laughter during the moving homily celebrating the life of my beloved aunt, Mary Ann, plucked from earthly life too soon by pancreatic cancer. The familiar words of The Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer connected Mary Ann with all the saints who have gone before her and those of us celebrating her life with all those who mourn and commend the lives of loved ones to God.

In the throws of overwhelming panic, fear, anxiety, and grief these moments are nearly impossible to recall, nearly impossible to count on. And yet I cannot come up with a single situation in my lifetime entirely devoid of kernels of God’s grace. We live in a broken world. Pain and suffering reach to the far corners of the earth and hit close to home. It is truly a labor of love to seek out the kernels of love, grace, hope, and faith in this world.

As I continue to work on living into enough and letting go of anxiety, I took up a Lenten practice of Night Prayer from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer. One prayer in particular has brought me great hope, comfort, and strength over the last few weeks:

it is night.

The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.

It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.

The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.

The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.

The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
new joys,
new possibilities.

In your name we pray.

From Night Prayer, the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, page 184

Photo Credit: “Stooping It” by Richard Allred