Thursday, December 5, 2019

Comfort & Joy: Engaging Advent in the Christmas Rush

Wish you all Advent blessings as the season begins. May it be fill with peace & hope, comfort & joy. Hope you enjoy my latest article from Global Sisters Report

Months ago, my 7-year-old nephew told me what he wanted for Christmas. "Christmas is a long way off," I tried to explain, but to no avail. The prospect of gifts grabbed his imagination and took hold.

Advent hadn't even started, and it was hard for him to believe that it wasn't Christmas yet. I don't blame him. After all, over the last few weeks, I've seen pictures of friends beside their Christmas trees and been bombarded with advertisements that are clearly telling me I'm behind the curve on decorating.

My heart aches for the simple sound of "Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel" and yet "Do You Hear What I Hear?" echoes in my ears. Advent, it seems, has taken a backseat to the hubbub of Christmas.

Traditionally, Advent is the peaceful beginning to our year. It is a time of preparation. It is a season filled with hope and promise; a liturgical invitation to four weeks of joyful journeying in anticipation of Christ's coming into the world — past, present, and future.

Yet, over the last few years and decades, the expectation of the season seems to have been transformed from that of expectant waiting for Christ's coming to a frenzied flurry of preparations for a season of parties and holiday cheer. Advent has unceremoniously and inadvertently become a final countdown to December 25. Filled with Christmas carols that began playing long before our Advent wreaths were unboxed and lights that have been on houses since the end of October, Advent is a season in need of revival.

The expectation of what is to come is a gift. If we choose to engage this time of waiting, Advent has the power to deepen our celebration, enlivening the joy that makes itself manifest in myriad manner of decorations and celebrations these days. This joy is contagious. In the midst of dark days, physically and societally, people long to embrace and embody it. That desire is so deep that anything will do.

Recently, a friend lamented that all she wanted to do after a long day was go home, put on Christmas music, and maybe bake some cookies or watch a Hallmark movie. The shifting light of winter days, drastically emphasized by the end of Daylight Saving Time in our country, called for the spark of joy and creature comforts contained in those well-worn traditions.

"It's a great distraction" she said with a grin, "No news, no nonsense, just a chance to get lost for a little while … to escape from the worries of the world."

I can understand her sentiment. I think we all can. The impeachment hearings alone make me wonder where the closest cup of cocoa is.

The joy, however, that Advent brings isn't a cheap kind of escapism. Nor is it a distraction from the realities of the world. Rather, it is the joy that comes from encountering Goodness, the peace and respite found in attentively engaging our world as a gift from God, even in the midst of what is troubling and what demands us to be attentive with action.

We spend this season making space for joy — that is, the peaceful, triumphant birth of the Divine in our midst. The new space that we are making requires intention. It isn't meant to be filled with preparations that raise our anxiety and stress; it's about embodying all the graces that come from expectation. It is about making room for the simple joys, the graces of God. These are the true gifts of this season: hope at the fulfillment of God's faith-filled promises, joy at encountering Love in the people and circumstance of our lives, and comfort that comes from (and contributes to) the peace of God's presence and the faithful witnessing to and engagement in Jesus's coming, yesterday, today, and always.

The joy of this season also calls for serious action. As we engage the gifts that spark joy, we recognize the need to bring joy to our advocacy. Our preparations are not just for Christmas day but so that all might know and experience the grace of God and the coming of the Kingdom in the here and now. Just as John the Baptist heralded the coming of Christ, our living out of our faith should speak to the One we are preparing the way for. With joy we work these Advent days especially so that Jesus might find a place of welcome in our world as we welcome and care for our neighbors and all of creation.

While Christmas permeates the collective consciousness, it will do us good to pause for Advent moments along the way...Continue Reading

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Forging foundations without forgetting our founders

Seeking new life and reconciling new beginnings, long-held traditions, and foundations of all sorts... With all that I offer my latest from the Global Sisters Report:

I never signed up to teach English classes. Yet when a deficit of volunteers and a surplus of students at the neighborhood center where I minister necessitated a teacher for another class, I found myself stepping in as an instructor on the fly. As Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick said of our sisters in 1847 when we first came to Philadelphia from St. Louis, they are truly "ready for any good work."

This past week, it seemed like any and every good work that could demanded my time. In the midst of it all, our Founders' Day (Oct. 15) came to pass, and I found myself in class at the Sisters of St. Joseph Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey, rather than at our motherhouse, celebrating.

Disappointed, I came to class less than thrilled by the prospect of teaching. I would have much rather been celebrating with the larger community than looking over lesson plans and preparing for basic English class. My mind kept on wandering to the community gathered to mark the occasion. I wished I could be there with them, and yet I wasn't.

Taking a deep breath, I put those thoughts aside as the first students walked into class. The next hour and a half would be a whirlwind. By the time we emerged from our lesson, there were cheerful smiles and promises to be back for class later in the week.

After class, I sat with one of our volunteers, debriefing the night. An associate of our congregation, she had raised the issue of the conflict with Founders' Day at the teacher orientation meeting a month before.

At the time, we'd discussed the difficulty the scheduling conflict posed. On the one hand, we wanted to celebrate with the congregation at large; on the other hand, canceling class for the night only a few weeks into the semester would be disruptive to our students. Together, we agreed it was best to skip the celebration in favor of continuity.

Yet even though we'd agreed on this decision, the sacrifice still stung that night as we came to class rather than the communal celebration.

"I have to admit, I missed the celebration," I said with honest acceptance. My friend nodded in agreement.

Then I heard words come out of my mouth that I hadn't expected. "I'm glad I was here, though. This is where our founders would have wanted me to be ... working side-by-side with a mother of two struggling to master her numbers in English so that eventually, she can learn enough English to talk to her children's teachers at school."

The volunteer smiled warmly. "You bet. Those first women wouldn't have wanted us to be anywhere else. In fact, they probably would have been sitting right there beside us if they could."

That, after all, is what our founders, no matter the congregation, called for: a spirit ready for any good work — ready to serve, to love and to live the Gospel without boundaries.

Remembering that call is the first step in more fully living it out; the first step in fostering and furthering the mission we have committed ourselves to, to becoming founders for the future.

Such a call requires a remembering of the past, an engagement in the present, and a desire for the future. There is no clear road map for such living, but if my experience in the classroom is any indication, flexibility certainly stands as a paramount virtue of firm foundations for the future.

My life these days has become a crash course in flexible foundations. Only a few weeks into the semester and a few years into the process of establishing this new sponsored ministry, I can see the spirit of our founders at work and the lessons of foundation-building at work within me.

No matter my expectations (or lack thereof), there's always room for surprise. The ability to adjust to such uncertainty, to "go with the flow" and trust the Spirit, is key to success. It is an uneasy state of being. Rote answers and saccharine platitudes are contentious rather than comforting. The push within me is to seek solid ground, with the firmest foundations coming from the honest pursuit of mission in the everyday, lived reality of life.

The honesty of this pursuit of mission is that it is imperfect. That imperfection is humbling. To trust the Spirit is to quickly realize you aren't in control. As much as you might want a specific outcome or desire a certain course of events, no formulation is a failsafe path to your desired outcome. Formulaic foundations can come off as contrived and overbearing. Yes, we must plan for the future, but some of the greatest planning allows us to let reality, relationships and individuals breathe life into the structures set forth.

Thus, we lay groundwork on which something, perhaps unknown even to us, can be built. To do so, we must ask ourselves: "What is the goal of this undertaking?" "What is the foundation we hope to build on?" "What do we hope to embody in this endeavor?"

We must plan with an eye toward flexibility, doing the deep inner work of personal and communal reflection that allows a structure to flex rather than falter. This requires listening attentively — not only to the Spirit within me/us, but also to the Spirit among us, the Spirit that speaks in the voices of those with whom we journey.

When we were first beginning the SSJ Neighborhood Center, people in the neighborhood as well as our sisters wondered aloud what the center would be. The voices that stood out in these conversations were not those that gave pat answers or proposed old models; the outstanding voices were those who wanted to invest in a vision that, although uncertain at times, sought to do what our first sisters did: meet the needs most pressing in the community.

Each day, we encounter new neighbors who take the step of making such an investment. By sharing their lives, asking for help, naming desires and offering a friendly welcome, these neighbors enter into relationship and become co-founders of a place rooted in relationship. At times, this is an effortless act, like when a community member finds a prayerful place of sharing in which to speak his truth through stories from his childhood.

Other times, the hurdles of cultural differences and lingual divides can make the very act of communicating difficult. In this space, flexibility and humility are key. No one is better than the other; we are simply journeyers seeking understanding and trying to connect for a common good. 

Without a common language, you come to understand that compassion is a universal language. We need one another for this to work. As much as I can teach, I must also be willing and open to learn.
This brings us to one of the most vital lessons of laying foundations: Failure is always part of the option.

"What feels like failure in the moment is an opportunity for growth," I wrote earlier in the process of setting up this new ministry. "With any luck, as we free ourselves and our institutions to fail, we will discover a new form of success: success in faithfulness to the Spirit, that far exceeds anything we could ever accomplish on our own."

Like the students I teach, I recognize that faithfulness helps lay a firm foundation. We can't fear failure. Instead, we must embrace it as a step toward progress. Each step, no matter how big or small, is taken in vulnerability. We risk so that we can grow… Continue the piece here

Friday, September 6, 2019

Saying Yes to Forever

On Sunday, September 15th, I will make my final vows as a Sister of St. Joseph. These days of preparation leading up to perpetual profession are more graced than stressed (though I have my moments!)  In the midst of many things, I offer my latest column from the Global Sisters Report, a reflection on what it is I'm saying "yes" to and how that commitment speaks to me right now. Blessings, Colleen

A little over a week from now, I will make my final vows as a Sister of St. Joseph. With nearly a decade of formal formation behind me and many more years of informal discernment, it's hard to believe that I've come to this point in my journey as a religious sister. Yet, through joys and sufferings, laughter and tears, I now find myself on the cusp of final commitment.

This past year has been one of intensive discernment of what it means to say yes to forever. My tertianship, the designation my congregation gives to the year before perpetual profession, has been one of remembering why I came to this life, refining my relationship with Jesus, and reconciling the imperfections of religious life with the deepest desires of my heart. Truly, the year has been a blessed moment of discernment.

Looking back, I see pathways that were forged in trust and companions who have inspired hope, offered wisdom and borne witness, time and again. Looking forward, I see a hopeful horizon and a promise of change that will actively engage every angle of my faith. And for all this looking back and forward, I find myself solidly planted in the present, ready to commit and consumed by the core truths of the religious life I am called to live.

In one of my first columns for Global Sisters Report, "Considering Commitment," I wrote, "When I return to the question of why — why I would choose to make a vowed commitment now — my heart cries out: Love! That is what I am committing myself to." Now, more than five years later, I know this sentiment to be all the more true. There are things I know now about what that Love demands that I couldn't have possibly known as a novice considering first vows, and I imagine, in time, my understanding and experience will only deepen more.

Love, it turns out, is a messy thing. It is holding those who mourn as they weep; it is naming hard truths for your own liberation and that of others. It is trusting the One who calls you, even when the path isn't clear and consolation doesn't come easily. Love is showing up, shutting up, and stepping up. Love is a God who knows me better than I know myself, who loves me more than I can comprehend, and who calls me to the truest version of my being. Love is a commitment, and as much as I am committed to Love, I've also come to know and believe that Love is committed to me.

Living forever in union with that Love is part of what drew me to religious life in the first place. Recently at the final vow celebration of a dear friend and fellow sister, I got into a conversation with a peer. "I can't live any other way." She said to me as we talked. "My love is too large." It's a love of God that is beyond and within all other relationships, that is part and parcel of this forever commitment. Neither of us denied that we had and could still fall in love with an individual. "That's only human," we agreed, "but our vows … our commitment is to live out a love, that's larger."

Sr. Colleen Gibson in the Chapel of Unity and Reconciliation at Christ Cathedral, Orange, California, dedicated to the Sisters of St. Joseph and inscribed with words from a foundational piece of the CSSJ charism and spirituality. (Provided photo)
The love we are called to is all inclusive and without distinction. It finds God in every neighbor; it longs for unity and bears all things for the sake of the Gospel truth. In theory, there's a beautiful aura around such love. When I first entered religious life, I imagined at its core this perfect love was what I would come to live out and which would, in turn, perfect me. I soon realized that reality is far from ideal.

The love I live out is, in fact, perfectly imperfect, just as my (and every other) religious congregation is. Recognizing and reconciling this fact comes only with time and commitment. Rather than the perfect love of perfect people bringing about perfection, it is instead the imperfect love of people trying their best that draws forth a more perfect union within us with God and one another. To this end, to say forever is to commit to a community, foibles and all, and to recognize that we are a part of the imperfection that we often rub up against. We are all human, and when we can embrace that fact, love can flourish.

Laying claim to our commitment and those we commit to is core to this step on the journey. I claim this congregation. I claim this vocation. I claim my faith and I proclaim God's claim on me. For all the steps ahead, I claim what is core to my being — Love through and through.

Each step I take now is one of trust. I trust in a God who loves me unmistakably and unreservedly. I trust in Jesus Christ and pray each day to imitate his compassion and to give my life to the Good News of the Gospel he proclaimed. I trust in the Spirit, whose promptings I hope always to be attentive to and who has guided me by grace thus far. I trust that God is working in and through the congregation I am committing to to create union in the world by the very grace and gift of our humanity and imperfection.

As I walk in trust, my sole desire has become union with God and a life dedicated to love of neighbor lived out in chastity, poverty and obedience... Finish the piece here

Friday, July 19, 2019

Small Steps & Giant Leaps

"Let me say, as I sit here before you today, having walked on the moon, that I am myself still awed by that miracle. That awe, in me and in each of us… must be the engine of future achievement, not a slow dimming light from a time once bright."
–Buzz Aldrin, astronaut on Apollo 11 reflecting back in May 1997 on its historic moon landing.

This week, in the midst of news filled with division and derision, I've found myself captivated by, what is by all accounts, old news. Amidst racially charged tweets, revisions to our country's asylum policies, and the ongoing crisis at our border, I find myself drawn to the news of 1969 and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Without losing sight of the current state of affairs in our country and our world, I'm intrigued by the lessons that the lunar landing offers to us today.

We choose to step out   

"We choose to go to the moon." President John F. Kennedy famously declared in September of 1962, nearly a year after he mandated to Congress that by decade's end the United States should put a person on the Moon. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." 

The Space Race that ensued brought with it all the twists and turns of a great story. It is a story of triumph in an age of disarray, a tale of perseverance and accomplishment that made history.  The choice to go to the moon was about more than doing the "hard" thing- it was about committing to principles and progress for all peoples.

Sure, it would be hard, but, as with many things in life, the commitment was for something greater, a challenge in the service of a greater good.

The choice to go to the moon wasn't a one-and-done decision.  There were a lot of other programs and projects that could have used the funds given to NASA. After President Kennedy was assassinated, President Lyndon B. Johnson could have easily eliminated funding for the space program; in fact, on many occasions, especially as it seemed time and again that the Soviet Union would win the race, politicians and officials suggested cutting the seemingly exorbitant program budget because to reach the moon by the end of the 1960s seemed impossible. Rational thinking seemed to say: this isn't a choice worth making — give it up!

Nevertheless, the choice was made. Despite obstacles and exhaustion, heated debate and other pressing matters, the ideals of the undertaking persevered. "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people." Kennedy remarked in 1962 when he spoke of the choice, "For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man."

The choices we make affect the impact of our ideals. In trying times, it can be easy to choose what is easier, perhaps when we look to the moon we'll remember that the choice for change is ours to act upon.

Every step contributes to the leap

One of the remarkable pieces of the story of the moon landing is the many hidden figures and small acts that contributed to this monumental project. It's hard to imagine the number of details that went into putting a human being on the moon. While the focus of history is so often on the astronauts who manned the missions in space, one can't help but note the droves of people pictured at mission control — the engineers, controllers, programmers — not to mention the manufacturers, technicians, physicians, and many more.

Listening to stories about the moon landing, I'm particularly struck by the small acts that amounted to the success of the missions. There were the seamstresses charged with stitching together the spacesuits for the mission; women on whose every stitch hung the balance of an astronaut's life and safety. The software engineers who wrote the code that drove the ships and managed myriad functions on miniscule amounts of memory (without the near disaster of overwhelming it).

It is the dedicated work of these people that shows that every act, no matter how small, contributes to the whole. Without one, what was thought impossible might indeed prove to be.  Each person has a part to play in the whole and we must trust that the work we do works toward the greater good we've committed ourselves to, whether or not it is readily apparent or seemingly achievable.     

Giant leaps defy gravity

Neil Armstrong's iconic words upon stepping out of the lunar capsule fifty years ago still resonate today: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." 

Truly, those steps on the moon were monumental, signaling the progress and potential of scientific inquiry in the modern age, and yet, beyond science, the expansive effect and lessons of the Apollo program fifty years on still reveal how far we have to go.

"I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed," said Michael Collins, who flew on Apollo 11 with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. "The all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment." 

From that height and distance, Collins argued, we could see that truly we are all one and that, indeed, this place and planet we call home is a finite and fragile place.  With that recognition, we might be able to work towards unity and we might be transformed by mystery.  Then, the giant leap we might take is not only towards greater discovery beyond our planet but also toward better care for our common home and relationships.

As Pope Paul VI poignantly declared in a speech given on the day of the moon landing, the day truly was "a sublime victory" and yet war and hunger still raged on in the world, causing him to ask "Where is real humanity? Where is brotherhood? Where is peace?" 

If these are the lessons, principles and ideals embodied in the moon landing, then we still have far to go... Continue reading here

Friday, June 7, 2019

Partnership Doesn't Require Replacement

Blessings as Pentecost fast approaches. Partnership is part of the future for religious life, but what nuances do we need to consider when we look to the future?  My latest Horizons column for the Global Sisters Report:

For the majority of my religious life, I have been told that the future will look different than the current reality. There is no doubt in my mind about this; in fact, there is no way that the future couldn't look different.

Yet, somewhere along the line, I realized this innocuous comment about the future meant different things to different people. For some, it was a simple fact: numbers, facilities, ministries — everything could and probably would change. For others, though, the change meant something else.

"Our future isn't our own," one sister said to me at a community meeting. She then went on to speak about transitioning our ministries to lay leadership, the importance of promoting our associates program, and interesting new programs developing involving young adults and spiritual "nones." I listened intently to her points, noting her energy around these issues. I also noticed something else: these plans didn't involve me, or any newer members for that matter.

Then, last week, a New York Times article about the Nuns & Nones movement showed up in my inbox. It wasn't the first I'd heard about the movement, having read about it (Global Sisters Report had a series on it) and heard about it from other sisters. The thing that stood out to me this time though was an ongoing narrative that even the sister who spoke of the future not our own seemed to have internalized: as diminishment accelerates, we must find someone to carry the charism.

The narrative of diminishment and replacement though isn't the whole story. Where, I wonder, is the future within religious life? What's a more accurate picture?

I've seen the future and it is partnership

A few years ago, I was missioned to a new neighborhood center being opened by my congregation. As we got the center up and running, the team of sisters charged with implementation began to realize we needed help. Putting out a call for volunteers, a number of our congregational associates joined us in mission.

One day a few months into the project, as we were working in the food pantry, one of the associates stopped me as we stacked canned goods. "When I became an associate twenty years ago, this is what I always dreamt of," she said looking intently in my eyes. "I always dreamt of working side by side with the sisters, serving together … and here I am, finally doing it."

I soaked up the depth of her sharing about the connection she felt. This.I thought to myself, This is the future.

Thinking about what the future could hold for religious life, I hold these two stories, one of realized relationship and another of a way of life in need of a lifeline.

Painting a portrait of replacement is simplistic. It assumes that the changes in religious life are something to be solved, that the decrease in numbers can easily be remedied, and that the disproportionate distribution of demographics requires a single solution. 

In reality, religious life is and always has been more complex than that. It is a system dependent on the Spirit. We trust that women and men will continue to be called to this way of life, a way of life that is indeed meant to be shared with the world. The call to religious life may manifest itself in many different ways and the manner in which the principles of religious life and commitment are lived out will vary from person to person, be they associates, partners in mission or vowed members. Charism can take form in and on many vocational paths, but to consider the future of religious life we must commit to the core from which that charism operates and emanates.

Vowed religious life is not just a way of living or a systematic approach to social change, it is a fundamental call to a life committed to the Gospel through a distinctive set of vows and particular (and, by most accounts, peculiar) means of communal living. To consider the future of religious life without making serious efforts to preserve and promulgate this form of membership is a dismissal of those committing themselves to vowed religious life today and in the future.

As I approach my own final vows, this point resonates with me in a particular way. Over the course of my formation, I have repeatedly heard that the future of religious life lies in the passing on of mission and charism to lay associates and partners. Many of my peers relay similar stories of community meetings in which other forms of congregational membership are pointed to as the hope for survival of religious life.

Imagine the effect of such statements on the mentality of newer members and the deeper sentiment they convey about congregational commitments to the future of vowed membership. Pointing to another group of partners as the inheritors of a charism to the exclusion of others on a path to vowed commitment devalues their commitment and creates unnecessary division.

When other forms of membership are raised up as ways to bolster congregational numbers and reach, energy often swarms around the idea. This energy, in my experience, indicates a hope that new partners will continue the good work of the congregation and/or that newcomers will be able to absorb the wisdom of our sisters and our structures. This energy, however, often overlooks current membership.

I have no doubt that the many forms of membership in our congregations will (and do) play a monumental part in the lives of religious congregations into the future. Yet, for all the hope these forms present, the cultivation and preservation of vowed membership must not be lost.

Rather than painting a picture of replacement when we consider those who might be in line with or might benefit from the lessons of religious life/our charisms, it would serve us well to consider the value and strength of partnership as a joint venture. Energy needs to be committed both to cultivating partnerships and to attracting new members. The countercultural nature of religious life and the vows will always be appealing to some segment of the population. Why not open the doors of consideration to all without excluding or replacing any one group? Together we can paint a picture much more vibrant and complete than we can without one another.

As I envision the future of my own life as a vowed religious, I see myriad opportunities for what such intentional cultivation could make possible. From housing and ministry to companionship and peer support, the possibilities are endless and exciting. As congregational numbers normalize, newer members are finding companionship in vowed members of other institutes who know the reality of what it means to be a vowed religious today; similar possibilities could lie in creating connections around mission and charism between peers both inside and outside of religious life. Such partnership honors both parties and, in relationship with one another, helps to strengthen each one's commitment to the vocation they are living.

Such communion upholds and strengthens the core of religious life. In recognizing that the driving force of religious life is not a series of best practices that can easily be co-opted or universally applied, but rather is a firm commitment to the call of faith lived out in the day-to-day, partnership points us toward a way forward... continue the piece here

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Not too tidy: joy and holiness

As Holy Week commences, I offer my latest column for the Global Sisters Report, a meditation on the sacred spaces of our lives and the way we carry sacred space within us.  As a dear friend once told me: "hold the sacred space and it will hold you."  I pray in these holy days that you may be blessed to encounter the Holy and to find shelter in the sacred spaces that emerge.

Besides a trailer for the Netflix series "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo," I haven't seen much of its content, yet the question central to Kondo's philosophy of decluttering has somehow made its way into my life. The past few weeks, as Lent has come to a close and Easter quickly approaches, a question has kept surfacing in real and surreal ways in my life: What sparks joy?

I happened upon the question quite by accident. At first, people would dramatically hold up objects in the midst of everyday situations and jokingly ask me, "Does this spark joy?" Then news articles began to surface in my social media feeds, followed by think pieces about why people were so captivated by Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizing consultant, author and, now, television personality. Soon, I began to look around me and echo the question central to her philosophy; somehow, even though I hadn't watched the show, it was having an influence on me.

As that question — Does it spark joy? — surfaced time and again, I began to look at what objects line my walls. Glancing around the spaces of my life — my bedroom, my office, my community — I recognized the glimmers of joy surrounding me. I saw the many markers of where I've been: objects that signify moments on my journey, totems of people and places that hold significance in my life, and souvenirs of lessons and ideals that have become part of the very marrow of my being.

There were crosses from my travels and homemade prints, family photos and gifts from friends. Joy is only part of why I keep these things around. I keep these items because they are place holders. They are reminders of the gifts of being alive, the lessons of experience, and the palpable presence of the sacred in very specific moments of my life.

We hold onto objects like this because in a way they hold sacred space for us. We need them because, beyond joy, they spark a remembrance in us of what is most holy and significant. There is no need to tidy up these moments. We hold them and they hold us and in moments when light seems dim, they spark something deep within, reminding us what the light is that we've experienced and we are meant to bear.

By acknowledging that significance, we can identify that light (and bear it to the world). And when we do that, we don't need any objects. Instead, we become the sacred spaces — living, moving, and breathing — that once captivated us.

The sacred spaces of our lives, after all, are spaces that have always just been waiting for us to enter. It is not our presence that sanctifies them. Each moment is holy. Our recognition of the Sacred in our midst, though, opens up a space to receive the sacred deep within us. This openness makes us a vessel, a means of carrying the holy far beyond a singular moment. If we are aware enough, that is to say attentive enough to grace, we can engrain the sacred moments and spaces of our lives into our very beings, revealing them in who we are and how we are in the world, becoming purveyors of sacred space in our everyday lives, peddling God's grace in the many spaces we are blessed to inhabit.

As L. William Countryman writes in his book Living on the Border of the Holy:

It can be helpful to imagine our human encounter with the Holy as life in a border country. It is a country in which, at privileged moments of access, we find ourselves looking over from the everyday world into another, into a world that undergirds the everyday world, limits it, defines it, gives it coherence and meaning, drives it. Yet this hidden world is not another world, but the familiar world discovered afresh.

The world we live in is filled with holiness. The discovery of the sacred in the mundane fills us with amazement, and as Countryman continues, "In the long run we find that the border country is in fact the place we have always lived, but it is seen in a new and clearer light."

Our call is to dare to cross that border and establish connection not only for our life, but for the life of the world. More often than not, this requires our branching out beyond our own boundaries, our sharing of the sacred by revealing the stories of the objects we carry with us and also being willing to hear the stories others have to offer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks directly to this point. "The first service one owes to others in a community involves listening to them," he declares. "Just as our love for God begins with listening to God's Word, the beginning of love for others is learning to listen to them. God's love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives God's Word but also lends us God's ear."

With God's ears we learn to listen in a new way; we develop a manner of listening to and from the heart. The to and fro of this listening is a bridge that connects us, a pathway for the Sacred to make connection and to take up residence in yet another personified place. I can only imagine the joy such connection sparks in the heart of God.

With such joy comes the invitation to not just hold on to what has been but to once again encounter the Holy in the here and now. Holding firm to such experiences and the receptivity they nurture in us, we are able to both hold sacred space for others and be held in the sacred space God calls us to dwell in.

As Lent comes to a close and Easter approaches, we bear witness to the hopeful work of this season, work of renewing and refining our lives enough to better hold the Holy. We can tidy all we want but...Continue the piece here

Friday, March 1, 2019

A season of renewal, recovery, discovery

Lent presents us with an opportunity to undertake a journey of discovery and renewal. Below is my latest column from Global Sisters Report exploring the invitation of the season and all it has to offer us. Blessings on these Lenten days!

February snow has not kept the signs of spring from coming. The daffodils are slowly pushing up through the hard ground outside my windows, glimmers of green despite cold winds and streaks of snow. It's hard to believe it's time for flowers, Ash Wednesday is around the corner and the dreariness of winter still seems to be holding court. This year, Lent is late — a conundrum of the calendar, perfectly suited to the times we're living in.

Seeming streams of scandal both in the church and the world desensitize our spirits. Like a long winter, days like these create grounds for despair and fodder for desolation. It would seem that the deep purple tones of the Lenten season, with its themes of repentance, abstinence and humility, would be the last thing we need right now. It would be easier to skim the surface or avoid it all together. So, why go deeper?

We go deeper because we must. This season is as much about repentance as it is about renewal. In fact, maybe Lent is more about light than darkness, about lightening our load and reprioritizing our lives. Lent is about being real. And perhaps, that is exactly where we need to be.

The seasons are changing; the days are getting longer. Light is returning. And in the midst of painful revelations in the church and ongoing scandal in the world, Lent invites us into a time of discovery and recovery. This is a time for renewal of faith.

These forty days of wandering, of being proved, of finding strength, and of bolstering faith are exactly what we need right now. From ashes and fasting to almsgiving and prayer, the spiritual deepening and awareness offered by the Lenten season invite us to a place of renewal, a place that, if we are honest, it wouldn't hurt to spend some time in, individually and collectively these days.

You are Dust.

The words we hear as we begin the season of Lent might easily be taken as a signal of the bleak landscape that awaits us: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."

We are dust. We were born and we will die. The life we live in between these two moments is God's gift to us. Recognizing our humble beginnings and our mortality is part of embracing the Lenten call to renewal.

When we remember that we are beloved creations of God, we can embrace ourselves, others and all of creation with the wonder that befits such divine design. The same dust we are made of makes up the ones we look down upon, those we judge, and those who frustrate us, as well as those who bring us joy. We are united in our creation. Seeing the world this way, how could we ever tolerate or turn a blind eye to injustice? You are dust and I am dust and we are dust together.

From such dust comes new life. Like fields that lie fallow, the dust of our being is never wasted. The seeds of faith are planted in the dust of our humanity. Lent invites us to acknowledge our humanity, where we've fallen short and how reliant we are on God. When we can do this, faith has space to grow and blossom. By honestly embracing our humanity and using the days of Lent to recommit to following Christ, we are renewed, becoming ever more mindful of how God is working in our lives and calling us to repent and live lives that reflect a belief in the Good News.

Full engagement in the renewal Lent calls forth is about examining and recommitting to the practices that ground our faith and remind us who we are and who we're called to be. Traditionally, this has led people to focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving in an intentional way during Lent. Most often this entails giving something up or taking on a practice in each realm. This year, though, I wonder if we might not be better served by considering how these practices can not only focus us but can transform us if we lean into the truth that underpins our practice.

Our prayer, for instance, is an opportunity to grow closer to God; we might choose to prayerfully consider our shortcomings, to look at our role in racial inequality, or to share with God the wounds of our hearts. Wherever our prayer leads us and whatever we reflect on, we must remember the essential aim of our prayer: our relationship with God incarnate in Jesus Christ.

This is the God we journey with this season, the one who suffers with us, and ultimately, the one who we long to know (and who longs to know us) more deeply as we travel the way towards the cross.

In the words of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson in Creation and the Cross:

"To those who believe, the call from the depths of their relationship with God is to bend every effort to stand with God in solidarity with those who suffer; to right wrongs, counter injustice, relieve the pain, and create situations where life can flourish."

Indeed, it is our practice and our deepening relationship with God, especially during Lent, that directs us to such renewal in our lives and for the life of the world.

Bending our every effort, through practices such as fasting, we recognize our dependence on God. By going without, we discover the truth of where/who our strength comes from. We also come to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who have no choice but to live simply. Our fasting is voluntary, theirs is not. By recognizing that, we are renewed in our sense of mission to be one with all people and to work so all are provided for.

This renewed sense of unity and call to action is reflected in the giving called forth in us during Lent. We give freely and fully, modeling our sharing and sacrifice on Jesus' own. Doing this intentionally during Lent bolsters our relationship with God and neighbor far beyond this one season.

In giving with intention, we renew and revitalize our call to compassion. Our giving may include material goods, but to deepen our sense of renewal this season it might serve us well to give of time and presence — to hear someone else's hurt, to relate deeply with another's confusion, or to provide loving presence that moves our giving beyond charity to true relationship. 

When we're able to do this, Johnson points out, "Then a resurrecting word can gain a foothold in this fractured world."

The active choice to seek renewal in Lent is a choice to embrace the Good News of Christ and all that comes with it. As theologian David Tracy writes, "Cross and resurrection live together or not at all." The connection between these two is part of our journey to renewal in Lent. We know that the Lenten journey will lead us to the cross, and we are so compelled by the God who calls us to stand for the Good News that we can't avoid it. But the journey doesn't end at the cross. We must never forget that the cross is inextricably linked with the resurrection. This is the promise of faith, the promise of new life in and with God. On dark days, this is a good reminder.

The work of renewal is deeply personal and profoundly prophetic. New life is brimming but we must create conditions for it to spring forth. That process looks a lot like dying — to self, to shortcomings, to misguided intentions and to sinful institutional action.

By renewing our commitment to Christ this Lenten season, we offer ourselves to the mercy of the journey...Continue the piece here

Friday, January 11, 2019

Poem: The Promise of Darkening Dust

The Promise of Darkening Dust

The journey we walk is long
but we must keep on walking
One foot in front of the other
From one passing moment to the next
Until we feel the dust rise
and settle on our skin
Grime that gives us a signal of movement
A hint of grace
And has us ask
What settles on our soul
when we won’t settle for less,
when we pursue truth
and stir up the well worn paths,
What rises then is what we’re meant to carry
With each new step a discovery
a gift
a movement that connects what was
to what will be
and begs for us to feel our souls
on the road
and to just keep going
no matter the dust or deterrents
to a place and a moment
full of promised hope
and enlightened love.

— Colleen Gibson

Far From Fleeting

Each New Year's, I offer a guided retreat as part of a wonderful team at Genesis Spiritual Life Center in Westfield, MA. This year, we focused on the need for light in the darkness as we enter into this new year. I adapted a portion of my talk for Global Sisters Report. Here's my latest Horizons column, "Far from Fleeting: Finding in Darkness":

In early November, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, I went to visit my grandmother. Driving up her street, I stopped a few houses down from hers, put my car in park, and turned off my headlights. I gazed out my window at the most unusual sight.

The houses lining the street were illuminated — not only from within but by thousands of tiny lights outside. The whole street was glowing. Trees and bushes; front doors and gutters. I basked in the glow on a dark autumn night; my eyes transfixed by the light.

"It's too early for Christmas lights," I thought to myself. Too early, yet most welcome. After months of darkness and an unusually rainy fall, any light, especially the inexplicable, would do.

Like shepherds stunned in the field or a young Mary stopped suddenly in the everyday, I basked in the glow. God has curious means of communication.

After months of waiting on officials to grant permits for a ministry project and accompanying months of frustrated wondering why — Why here? Why now? Why me? — a moment had come on that dark street … an invitation by an unexpected route … a moment without an actual answer and yet filled with reassurance that somewhere, somehow darkness could also hold light.

Arriving at my grandmother's house, I wondered aloud with more gratitude now than grievance at the displays, "Why all the Christmas lights?"

My grandmother smiled, as grandmothers do with love and deep knowing, and responded, "It's Diwali!"

Now if you're a little sketchy in your recollection of Hindu holidays, here's a quick synopsis: Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights. Simply put, it symbolizes the spiritual "victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance."

The story varies based on where one comes, from but it has come to signify new beginnings and a welcoming of wealth and prosperity, when families use lights to drive out the darkness and open their homes to let in good fortune and new beginnings.

On my way home that night, all I could see was the beautiful glow of the lights, myself in the darkness of the night in my car. My heart's interest was piqued by the description of this time as a celebration of light overcoming darkness, good triumphing over evil, and knowledge usurping ignorance.

And now as this new year begins, I can't help but again envision that darkness and light, forces tenderly and tenuously balanced at this time of year: a darkness never dark enough to overtake the light, but also a light that is beyond our knowing.

This is a light beyond our recollection at times, the One who dwells among us — not beyond us — to whom darkness is not dark, and through whom light shines in new and wondrous ways.

Sitting in the still, silent, darkness of my car, I could see the light. From outside, we can bask in its glow and appreciate its being, whereas from within those houses what is without is lost. And thinking of this moment in our world and the darkness that returns, I recall of the words of Rilke, whose poetry returns over and over to the life that can be found in the darkness.

In his Book of Hours, Rilke proclaims the gift of the darkness, recognizing that far more is covered by darkness than light. "The dark embraces everything: shapes and shadows, creatures and me … just as they are," he writes, "It lets me imagine a great presence stirring beside me."

Darkness is a welcome companion if we greet it as such. This nighttime is not too dark if we sit with it, letting our eyes adjust and discover the outlines of grace around us. In this stillness of time, the night embraces everything; its darkness holds tight to all that we are and asks us to notice all that is and was, and to try to perceive, if we can, what could be.

In the darkness, God works. Like the Spirit over the waters of creation or the Israelites crossing the sea to freedom, the Christ child comes in the night. What stands out to me this year more than others is all those who wait in the darkness.

These are the ancillary characters of the Christmas story; those who if you asked them would tell their story with themselves at the center but who, as we read it, are the ones who point us towards the great light.

It is because they are there waiting and attentive that they are able and available to follow the light. It is the shepherds who work through the night, who cower in fear at the sight of angels calling them forth.
It is the wise men, who in order to answer the call — to do their part — must journey by starlight, must be attentive to the darkness. They must choose to feel in their souls the call of unexpected routes. They must acquiesce to the Spirit and open themselves to the promise of the unknown … a promise that is full of hope but requires great faith and will entail whatever life brings.

It is these figures who give us guidance for welcoming Christ into our lives and moving our way into the new year.

Their journeys are not without questioning — What child is this? Or without fear and trembling or threat to life and liberty. Yet they follow faithfully, they trust and put one foot in front of the other, believing that the light they've seen in darkness is a promise of more. Their waiting is not for naught; their endurance is not an exercise in futility.

They must trust the moments of light, just as we are called to do.

Bishop Mariann Budde, diocesan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., reflected in her Christmas Eve sermon this year on how God's love and light are revealed in small things and fleeting moments, the things easily missed if we aren't paying attention.

"Our God works quietly, in and through human beings, in those amazing moments when an ordinary life shines with extraordinary brightness, when our hearts are warmed by gentle gifts of forgiveness and peace," she reflected in the sermon heard at the National Cathedral by, among many others, President Donald Trump.

"This gift from God, by design, is a fleeting experience. It gives us a moment, not a lifetime, of clarity; a moment, not a lifetime, of joy or the capacity to bring joy to another. … Christ comes to change us, slowly, over time, so that we might live according to the glimpses of love we have known. The gift is no less real for its fleeting beauty, although we do have the perfect of alibi of deniability if we don't want to acknowledge the gift for what it is."

The fleeting moments of light matter as they give light and direction to our lives. Yet these moments are easily lost. Squeezed out by the crunch of time or dismissed in the shadow of doubt or inconvenience, these moments beckon us to hold tight to the truth that underlies them.

For a split second, heaven touches earth. Clarity is amplified, and in the very next moment a question arises: Will we carry that momentarily timeless light into the expansive darkness that surrounds us? Will we live as if we've basked in the Christ-light, or not?

That it seems is the question we bear as take stock of the epiphany moments of our lives.

It's those moments that shine light into the darkness. And it is the people and situations in our lives that offer the such light — fleeting though it may be — who light the pathway before us.

We reflect the light of those who have shown us the way. And it is by their example and sheer grace that we walk in faith through the darkness, bearers of the light in unbearable times as poet Jan Richardson writes.

That is the moment we find ourselves in now. Now more than ever, we must cherish and lift up the moments that direct us for miles beyond their shining. We must fortify the space within where we hold their truth so that no amount of fear, doubt or complacency can dull their memory or potency... Continue reading here