Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The gift of hospitality

A beloved elder in my extended family died last month from a sudden and severe stroke.  It was with a mix of gratitude, sorrow, and honor that I attended his packed and beautiful funeral last weekend in Lincoln, Nebraska where he lived with his wife Bernice and many children and grandchildren for the past 55 years after immigrating from Nigeria.

What I will remember most about Obasi N. Onuoha, father of my brother-in-law and grandfather to four of my nieces and nephew, is his hospitality.  His kindness and genuine welcome  - as well as opportunity and perhaps fate! - compelled and allowed me to keep crossing paths with him over the years.  A year after we first met - at my sister and brother-in-law's wedding - he and his wife Bernice helped sponsor my year of service in Guandong Province, China.  And over the years since, I moved across the country multiple times: (1) from Chicago to Berkeley, CA in 2003 (2) from Bellingham, WA to Connecticut in 2011 and (3) from Connecticut to Colorado in 2016.  Each of those times, I made a stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Obasi and Bernice gave me a warm embrace, comfortable shelter, and always a hearty breakfast before I continued on my journey.  I recall that in my first trip when I was still a full-time student, I left their home with cash for gas and new towels for my dorm room.  In my most recent move, the Onuohas also graciously accommodated my signficant other and dog who traveled with me, with thanks to their daughter Sue.

An especially moving part of the funeral service on Saturday was when Obasi's grandchildren spoke about his influence on their lives.  Each of them shared a way they hoped to continue his legacy of service and commitment to education and family.  One way I would like to honor Obasi's life and impact is by extending hospitality to others in my work, home, and whole being.  I hope to reflect more on the blog what extending and embodying hospitality looks like and means for me.  Stay tuned!

You can read a little more about Obasi's remarkable life here:
Obasi's obituary

Friday, August 4, 2017

From Longing to Blessing

"Blessed be the longing that brought you here and quickens your soul with wonder." - John O'Donohue

I am living in a time of blessing.  The past year has been a whirlwind, so much so that regular writing was squeezed out of my schedule to make room for much change, new experiences, and a lot of hard work.  I spent the last year in a chaplain residency program at the University of Colorado Medical Center (Anschutz Campus) in Aurora.  I was assigned to be chaplain for pre-op and PACU, Surgical Trauma ICU, Surgical Specialties, Internal Medicine, and Transplant units.  In addition, I spent every sixth night at the hospital as the on-call chaplain, sleeping in an on-call room whose size and simplicity resembled a monk cell. On those nights, I was the only chaplain to serve, as need arose, the whole hospital of 600 beds plus the Emergency Department. I worked an average of 45-50 hours/week, and I was emotionally exhausted at the end of each week.  I accompanied people through death, life, and re-birth, and everything in between.  I did this with excellent supervision and accompaniment by the peers in my program.  There were seven of us CPE residents: one of whom exclusively served the addiction-rehab center connected to the hospital and one who was assigned to Palliative Care.

Earlier this summer, I began my first staff chaplain position at a small Catholic hospital in an equally small resort town in the Rocky Mountains.  I am six weeks into the new job, and I absolutely love it.  I work an average of 24-30 hours/week, and spend my additional on-call hours at home gardening, biking, walking my dog, playing tennis with the love of my life, and going on hikes. I am also in the middle of moving my home and belongings from Aurora to here.

All this brings me back to my first line: I am living in a time of blessing. I try to be aware of this blessedness and give thanks for it daily.  God knows I have lived in prior times that could not easily be called a time of blessing.  I have been through rough, heart-breaking experiences in which I did not feel at home or thriving in my relationships, work, or community. Perhaps I will write about those heart-breaking experiences one day.  But in this case and in this moment, I feel at home in all three respects: relationships, work, and community.  It is clear to me that all of this is God's gracious gift and an answer to prayer and deep longing.

It seems right that I should give thanks, and tell about it! I hope that my words and actions of love and service will themselves be an expression of my thanks and an extension of blessing to others.  As a patient recovering from a double knee-replacement said to me yesterday: "If we could all just leave the world a tiny bit better than we found it, our lives will have fulfilled our purpose."

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Lessons from my lab

I realize that even in sickness, Jack is teaching me important life lessons:
  -- Whining doesn't help healing come faster.  No whining from Jack in these 24 hours post-surgery or the month of lameness before surgery even while he was obviously in pain.
--   Slow and steady is the best approach.  This is not Jack's style when a squirrel or bicyclist whizzes by, but most of the time, he is pretty chill and low-key.  This quality is already helping in recovery.
--  The mere thought of meeting a new or old friend is enough reason to wag and smile.  For Jack, the encounter with another [person] means he will get to sniff someone up close, receive love and attention, or get a treat.  Therefore, he wags and smiles all the time.  I am more cynical, and certainly more shy, than my pooch.  But after such overwhelming community support, I too find myself wagging more and barking less these days when it comes to encountering the other.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Jack is a good dog

Jack is indeed a good dog; and my friends are generous people.

Last night, the good dog returned home from a two-day stay at the hospital where he had an operation for his torn ACL.  Surgery for a nearly 100-pound dog involves installing hardware into his femur and shaving his bones so that his leg can stabilize and he will - in due time - be able to walk again.

The surgery was intense as was the bill, to the tune of $5,174.  That is $174 more than the new-to-me Toyota Prius I bought in March and for which I continue to make monthly payments.

At the time I learned Jack would need surgery, I had $20 in my wallet and not a whole lot more in the bank.  Unlike hospital stays for people, the money would be due at the time of service.  As an eternal optimist who looks for opportunities within challenges, I brainstormed how I might raise funds for Jack's surgery.  I considered making cookies and mailing them around the country based on orders taken (with two nephews and a niece in college, I have mastered the art of cookie care-packages); or setting up an old-fashioned lemonade/mango lassi stand outside my house for the hundreds of cars that pass by at commuting hours.  But these things were labor-intensive for a small fundraising yield and no guaranteed takers.

I shared these thoughts with my mom.  She texted in response that I should start a "Go Fund Me" page; I received this suggestion while having lunch with my friend Kathy who said the same thing.  I took their shared wave-length as a sign.

The next day, I set up a fundraising account for Jack and posted it on facebook. Within three days, I had raised a $1000 and within 10 days, I raised a total of $1430 from 26 people.

I am so moved by this act of generosity from my far-flung community.  I have not been in touch with one donor since high school (over 20 years ago); another I met last year while kayaking for a week in Alaska; and one person I have not even met as he is the brother of a friend.  People from Washington, Colorado, Minnesota, Tennessee, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut (and perhaps more places?) contributed toward my dog's surgery.  Some of them have dogs, but not all.  None except my mom are related to me.

The thing that inspired them to do this is the GOODNESS of their hearts connecting with the GOODNESS of sweet Jack and his need for help.

Like Jesus who was amazed by the faith of the Roman Centurion who went to great lengths to receive healing for his beloved slave in yesterday's assigned Gospel reading  (Luke 7:1-10), I am AMAZED by the generosity of my community.  Not because I expect less from such wonderful people, but because I am humbled to be the recipient of such kindness.

My friends gave more than merely dollars; dozens of people offered words of support, encouragement and prayer.  More than anything, the community effort was a morale booster so that neither Jack nor I would feel alone going through this hard, scary thing.

Healing and wholeness come in a variety of forms.  I am thankful for the swell of love that has emerged from generous people reaching out in a time of need.  I hope I can return the kindness and pay it forward.  For now, I hold the goodness close and share it with my sweet pup as he heals.

The campaign for Jack's surgery can be found here: Heal Jack Campaign

Thank you, wonderful community of folks and pups, for helping Jack to get back on his feet; by doing so, you are also helping heal me!
Jack at one of his favorite and most frequent stomping grounds: the ballfields behind the elementary school near our home.  This picture was taken just a few days before surgery.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Embracing the liberated life

St. Mark Lutheran Church, Nov. 1, 2015  (Preacher: Lydia Wittman)
All Saints Sunday sermon notes - John 11:32-44

Grace and peace to you, Saints – from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Other than getting eaten by a bear in Alaska, my greatest fear on taking a sabbatical was that someone from St. Mark would face sudden death while I was gone…since we all will eventually, though probably not by a bear.  My concern was that I would be half a world away, unable to bring comfort or hope to the situation.

I knew Pr. Kathleen and this community would provide wonderful support –it’s just I would have been sad to miss a major event – good or bad.  I had an anxiety dream at one point that Christa got married while I was gone. I had to send her a facebook message in the middle of my travels, making sure that I hadn’t missed this.

It’s hard to miss out on the major things – in family and church life.
But it’s a risk any care-giver takes when they go away to care for themselves.  It was a risk even for Jesus when he traveled - not for sabbatical purposes, but for ministry in other parts of Galilee; in his human form, he couldn’t be there for people at all times and in all places.

And when he was there, he offered more than a comforting presence.  He did the very miracle we all wish we could: he cured the sick and gave sight to the blind, and more!

Jesus cured the sick wherever he went, often when the sick were on their deathbeds. But there is at least one instance when he wasn’t around when his friends needed him most.
When he shows up to Bethany and Lazarus is already dead, Lazarus’s sister confronts him:


Mary wore her feelings on her sleeve.  And she is greatly distressed. So is Jesus…  To the point of weeping.

In some versions, this story contains the shortest verse in the Bible.  Two Words: Jesus Wept.     It’s a very short verse but  yet it’s theologically a very big deal.

The Savior of the World wept.  He was so moved, and his weeping led to action, a shocking miracle of bringing a decomposing four days old unrefrigerated body back to life.

It’s an amazing story that shows us no matter when we become aware of God being on the scene – it is never too late for God to bring us back to fullness of life in order to show God’s glory --- in God’s own way.  God works to bring about salvation and wholeness beyond our wildest dreams.

And yet God does this work, as Jesus did in Bethany, right in the midst of community, before our very eyes, using our very hands.

Three things worth our consideration in this story are:

It matters that Jesus wept.  He was in the moment - not beyond it.  He was fully present to the pain and despair in Mary, Martha and those grieving with them.
I’m encouraged to hear that St. Mark (congregation) has been taking time each week during the prayers of the people  to be attentive to the needs and burdens that our brothers and sisters carry.  Taking time to pray and listen helps us be present to those who are sick and suffering – and to celebrate with those experiencing joy.

The first take away is Jesus wept; he was present.

The second is that his weeping led to action.  He brought Lazarus back from the dead – but he did so in a way that involved the community.

Clearly, the power came from him.  It was all Jesus.  But it wasn’t a private miracle.  The witnesses played a part in it too.  Some moved the stone when Jesus gave the command.  Others unbound the linens that were wrapped around him…. As the passage ends with those powerful words: Unbind him and Let Him Go.

His weeping led to action – and his action was one that involved the people around him to help the brother in greatest need.

I wonder when in your life has awareness and attentiveness to pain and suffering led to action? When have your tears helped lead you into service?

That is the third point for us to consider:
We play a critical role in each other’s healing, renewal, and revival.

I could have taken a sabbatical into the watery and wilderness places all alone.  But if I did, I would have definitely gotten eaten by a bear.  And before that happened, I would have gotten very lonely.  I live alone- by choice though not by design.  So alone-time is not something I crave in my regular life.

What I cherished most in my time away wasn’t the gorgeous scenery or getting stamps in my passport (although both of those things thrilled me) --- it was quality time with people who mean the world to me but live multiple time zones away.  This includes my mother and friends  who knew and loved me before I was a pastor.  They helped me remember that I have a Lydia self apart from my professional role.  And that this Lydia-self is loved by God not for what I do or say or perform, but just because God loves me.  It is a liberating experience to remember this core truth.

Lazarus had a liberating experience when he was unbound and the grave-stone was moved away.  And his heart started beating and his muscles pulsated and his bones may have stiffened up due to lack of use and sudden awakening.

Jesus revived Lazarus - heart, body, and soul.  He did so by showing up – weeping, acting out of compassion, and involving the witnesses.

Though dramatic miracles like this are not happening in front of us today, Jesus still cares for us. He weeps with us.  He acts on our behalf to help us. He includes us in the ongoing revival of our lives and the lives of each other.

Again today, God calls each of us out from the dead.  Out from Zombie-land.  To step joyfully into the life of resurrection, a life where compassion not competition rules the day.
It is liberating but it is also scary because Status Quo is much more comfortable than revival.    
Staying the same and doing what everyone else is doing, however complacent and complicit, is easier than actively embracing God’s reign and living by God’s values - to care for the poor, neglected, and outcast.

To embrace and embody the liberated life, I need your help and I believe you need mine.
By the Spirit’s guidance and power of Jesus, let us unbind each other with the hope that revival may come to the land, beginning with our minds, hearts, bodies, and church.  Amen.

Home again

It may seem like I dropped off the planet, but actually all I did was return home.  Once I got back in my own country and in New England, I rediscovered traditional ways of communicating such as old-fashioned phone-calls (missed those!) and texting as well as the new fangled ways of social media: facebook, instagram, and twitter.  Admidst the other exciting means of communication, the blog lost seniority.

I keep telling people the same thing when they ask how I'm doing: I am SO glad to be home.  I had an incredible and joy-filled time during my travels.  Tonight will be the first time in three months that I spend over three consecutive nights sleeping in my own bed. It was an exciting lifestyle and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to pursue my dreams, but so much bopping around eventually gets tiresome.  I think my animals feel similarly.  My dog slept for three days straight after our reunion a couple weeks ago.  At first I was worried, but I think it took that long for him to recover from all the travel he did.

Soon after returning, I attended a Bishop's Convocation in West Hartford - an annual gathering of Lutheran clergy in New England for learning and faith-building.  I especially wanted to attend this year's convocation because the preacher at the opening worship and the speaker for one of the sessions was the presiding bishop of the ELCA, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton. An important point she made in her talk with us was to remind us that we were called to the preaching vocation AND that we did say Yes to the call.  Sometimes we (preachers, but I think this is true of other professions) tend to *blame* - and/or thank! - God or someone else for the fact that we are in the situation that we're in.  It's helpful to remember that we play a part in getting to where we are in life as well! Taking responsibility for our decisions is a healthy approach! After convocation, I spent several nights in Vermont and western Massachusetts, hiking more of the Appalachian Trail with Jack (dog) and friends Rafi and Rabia.  I also visited family in Boston before settling down in Connecticut to prepare for All Saints' Sunday at St. Mark.

It was so good to be back with my flock!  Things that greeted me upon my return - other than the smell of a dead mouse in the walls of my office - include a pile of half-size papers on my desk that contain the heading: "My dream for St. Mark this year" with a blank space after it and then a sub-heading: "I will help make that dream a reality by" followed by a blank space.  On each of these papers, people filled out their dream and how they will help.  What a delight to return to such dreaming.  Much nicer than returning to a pile of complaints! And then I saw on the church calendar that St. Mark will have a Revival in a couple weeks which was news to me.  That the core members are committed and bring energy to their leadership and service is what impressed me about St Mark to begin with; and that energy never seems to wane despite challenges with keeping up attendance in worship and Sunday School. The other thing that greeted me was wonderful singing.  The best singing I heard in three months came during worship in my own congregation.  Truly wonderful.

If I didn't make it clear already, it is good to be home. :)  I hope to continue to make post-sabbatical and ongoing faith related reflections on my blog. Thank you to those that have checked in throughout my journey!  And thanks be to God for bringing me home.
So happy to be re-united with my love!

Immediately upon return, Jack and I went hiking around our local parks as well as hitting trails in upper New England. This is from one of our favorite places to go for a morning walk: the Manchester reservoir about 10 minutes from my house.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

If you fall I will catch you

After many exciting traveling experiences under my belt, I arrived in Germany with perhaps a little less zeal than if this were my first or only destination. My cup of soul-enriching experiences was full and my mental stamina was moving toward low. I thought I had accomplished pretty much all my "water and wilderness" sabbatical goals.

Spent time in water, kayaking in Alaska? Check.
Renewed ordination vows? Check.
Spent a week in intentional prayer, writing an icon? Check.
Attended different kinds of churches? Check.
Read books? Check.  
Spent time in wilderness, camping in WA and VT? Check.
Spent quality time with friends and mentors? Check.
Studied at Iona? Check.

As I said, my cup was full. And in a sense, my expectations were low only in that I could not imagine what more I could fit into the blessing cup or my suitcase for that matter. 
The reason I included Germany on the itinerary was to visit important Reformation sites with the hope that I may return with my church in 2017 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. That is still my hope.  I knew it would be awesome; I just thought I had maxed out my "wow factor" quota. 

But no matter what experience preceded this trip, it is an empowering experience to walk the streets of Eisleben, Wittenberg, Leipzig, Erfurt, and Wartburg in the steps of Martin Luther the Reformer, especially for a Lutheran! 

The Lutheran faith and interpretation of the Gospel, particularly the understanding that our relationship to God is primarily about God's grace in Jesus, is formative to my identity as a Christian and person. 

It is both meaningful and renewing to be where the enormous shift in understanding happened - moving from works to grace.  It adds to the joy that this tour is led by servant-leaders who have both a great sense of humor and great musical talent. If you've been part of a Lutheran youth group in the last 40 years, you've probably heard of them. My tour guides are George Baum and Michael Bridges of the rock band Lost and Found along with other excellent Lutheran musicians: Tangled Blue (Joel and Aimee Pakan) and Rachel Kurtz.

My visit to the small town of Eisleben was a return trip for me, having visited with seminary roommate Jess in January 2004. 

It is the birth and death place of Luther which means it is where he preached his last sermons and was baptized. Especially because God's promises in baptism are pivotal to Luther's whole theological understanding, this is a stop not to be missed on a Reformation tour.

In the last 11 years, St. Peter and Paul Church has undergone major renovation; the 800 year old building was in disrepair and the government set aside large funds to repair and improve Reformation sites in preparation for 2017. I would not have recognized the church from inside based on my last visit. 

The new design is simple and gorgeous. The simplicity stands out in contrast to the ornate, gothic architecture I have seen in most churches I have visited on this tour. The most notable feature of St. Peter and Paul - not surprisingly given the Reformer and his followers - is the baptismal font. It takes the form of an enormous hole with an 8-foot diameter and is filled with water that is 5-feet deep. The font can accommodate full immersion baptism and even has heating capacity.

As soon as I laid eyes on it, I remembered the thing I had not yet done. And immediately I wanted to approach it and remember my baptism. I was supposed to do this with my mom in Scotland. And we sort of did ... We talked about our baptismal stories while we waded in the chilly waters of the North Sea. It was lovely.

But ritual also matters. It was quite moving and meaningful when Rev. Scott Moore - former pastor of St. Peter and Paul - invited all 93 of us tour participants to come forward during evening prayer and remember our baptism. Some folks prostrated near the hole in the ground and reached in to splash. Others queued up near the small, standing font which was actually the one in which Luther was baptized.

I chose the hole in the ground. And in it, like the others around the circle, I splashed. And rejoiced. I washed my tears. And I sang along with Tangled Blue: 

When you fall, I will catch you. I'll be waiting, time after time.

Apparently there was room in my blessing cup for another drop. It may be the most important one of all because this one is a keeper. Wherever there is a drop of water, there is a reminder of God's promise to be with me and with us all through water and the Word.

If you're lost you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you, I will be waiting
Time after time