Monday, November 17, 2008

Election Night Blues

I was listening to the election results, alone, my nest empty of both children, and my husband, presenting at a conference in San Francisco, an hour and a half from home. Obama was declared the President elect, and I was happy. I was a take the easy road supporter, made a few contributions on my Visa card and sported a bumper sticker on his behalf. Then McCain gave his gracious concession speech and I began to realize that this was a watershed––an or a (I heard both)––historic moment with regard to race in this country. I hadn’t given it too much thought. Race was never an issue for my family, native Californians in our Bay area melting pot.

I realized we elected a president, not a savior, but when Obama gave his speech, I was moved. I won’t say it was a victory speech. It was a hope speech, a Yes We Can speech. I believed, and felt deeply that we were, as Tom Brokaw said, entering a new era, one of possibilities. I thought about my nephew, an eighteen-year-old multi-racial child. He never knew his black father, has been ashamed of his white mother, dropped out of school. We don’t know where he’s living. I wondered if he had a T.V., and if so what difference it might make in his life to see this future president on stage, embracing the responsibility of leading America into the future.

Then the phone rang, and my seventeen-year-old daughter, a freshman at a university in Florida, called crying. At first her tears were those of joy and relief, “I can’t believe it, Obama won. For the first time in my life, I’m proud to be an American.” She talked about her trip to Europe last summer after graduation, how she felt all eyes glaring at her, the American. How she’d wished she had an accent from New Zealand that would’ve thrown them off. “But now,” she said, “I’m so proud of my country.” She sniffed. “Do you think it’s strange that I care so much and I can’t even vote? Nobody else around here seems happy.” “It’s not strange, it’s important,” I told her, “It’s your future that you care about.”

Too soon, her tears turned to those of outrage and grief. She told me about a young man watching election results in the dorm lounge. “He kept calling Obama the N word,” she said, “and then he said he hopes he’s assassinated.” During the incident she was shaking with such rage she was left mute. Her roommate confronted the young man, and my daughter spent the next two hours in her room shaking. I spent several hours on the phone with her that night. She’d never witnessed such outright racism. We live in liberal Santa Cruz County where there’s a high degree of tolerance. Her high school values and promotes diversity and has a zero tolerance policy for threats, violence and the like. We talked about prejudice and why it might exist, particularly since she was living in the South and how she might learn to stand up for her beliefs in a constructive manner. We talked about prayer, not that she does it much, but that she could pray for our president and for this young man and those like him, to be open to a new vision and way of thinking.

My daughter has landed in a harsh and alien world, and it’s a daily struggle for her to stay true to her ideals. Her passion is for a “green world” and she brought her environmental consciousness to Florida, teaching her roommates how to recycle, on a campus where recycling bins come and go, conserving water in a city with fountains and water parks galore. She’s been a voice crying for the wilderness.

I wished so much for a safe place for her. I wanted for her the companionship of peers regardless of who they voted for, who would support her in her recognition of injustice. I wanted a place where she could gather inner strength to navigate in a broken world where hatred and meanness exist, even though we wish it didn’t.

After we hung up, I realized that what I longed for her to have was a campus ministry like the Wesley Center at U.C. Berkeley. A place where young people can grow into the people they are called to be. A place where they are encouraged to be prophets, the way their minister, Rev. Tarah Trueblood, defines prophet—a person who speaks the truth about the present situation. I long for her to have a tribe to empower and sustain her in this hard work. I thank God for the gift of campus ministries, available to so many students through the United Methodist Church. We just never know how and when they’ll have an impact. After all, I never set out to raise a prophet. Do any of us?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Prayer for our Elected Leaders

Eternal and Expansive God,

Throughout history you have set apart your servants
calling them forth for such a time as this.

We lift to you today those who have been called by us
elected to represent the rich and poor, young and old,
citizens and residents, the rainbow of ethnicities
populating our cities and towns and all in between

We have chosen these men and women
to speak for us in our communities
in our states, in this nation
and in this one world we all call home

We pray that as these leaders pledge
to promote the greater good
that they will be guided in their public
and private lives by the teachings
of Jesus and his church that call
for right relationships between people
for stewardship of the Earth
and for justice that places in the forefront
the needs of the hungry, poor, sick and oppressed.

May our leaders be worthy
of the trust we have placed in their hands.
May you uphold them as they carry heavy
responsibilities and expectations
on their shoulders.
We pray for their families
that they will not be sacrificed
to the demands of public office
and that the spirit of love will reign
in their homes and hearts.

We give thanks for our government
for the peaceful transition of power
our founders sought, and yet we need
healing from the polarizing division
of political campaigns. We pray for those
who find both hope and fear at the
results of our votes.

We pray particularly for our President-Elect
Barack Obama and for the symbol he has become
for many, of possibility, for others a threat.
We pray for his physical safety in a nation
where racial hatred still festers in our
shameful wounds.

Gracious one, we recognize our dependence
on you and on one another. Keep us always
in prayer and in good will for those who
give their lives to service.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Writing Prompt 54

What role does or has music played in your life?
What could your theme song be?
Write about it.

What We Create Together

My church choir amazed the congregation yesterday. Five of us and our director pumped out the volume of thirty singers, blended into the voice of one, and saturated the sanctuary with the spirit of a thousand worshippers ecstatic for God. If we weren’t holding music, we would’ve lifted our hands as we sang, “and I lift my hands and pray, to be only yours I pray,” from Only Hope (Mandy Moore’s solo in the film A Walk to Remember). After our accompanist sounded her last melancholy note, there were Wows and a smattering of applause. We’re still waiting for a ruling on whether or not it’s kosher to clap after the choir sings––after all, we are definitely not performing.

I don’t intend to brag, but our choir routinely knocks the socks and support hose off the congregation. And to be truthful, we’re not that great. We’ll never cut an album. We do have some local talent–– you’ll find our choir director singing with The Dulcimer Girls; our tenor writes the occasional song and sings karaoke, as does our bass, son of a Methodist minister who grew up in a church band. One alto confesses, “I’m not very good” saying she has more enthusiasm than talent; the other sings mainly with her preschool class; I sang in school choir from fourth to eighth grade, but I never could read music. And, every now and then someone who likes to sing in the shower will join us for a few months. Put us together, and you’d expect to have an okay choir, a small group of middle-aged folks you’d smile at indulgently during worship, while you opened your Bible to prepare for the scripture readings, thinking They’re no Amy Grant and Vince Gil, but it’s sweet of them to try.

What we have instead is something radically unexpected. We amaze ourselves. Our choir director will get goose bumps, my scalp will tingle, I’ll feel lightheaded. Sure signs that The Spirit is present and has not only carried us away but has flowed through, magnified and united our breath and intention, creating an offering, an outpouring that not only blesses us in rehearsal and keeps us carving time in our busy schedules to scarf down a quick snack before Thursday night practice week after week, but blesses and refreshes the congregation during Sunday worship. Spirit drenched music pours into us, through us, fills the sanctuary and the people in the pews. God magnifies us, and in turn we magnify the Lord, as instructed by our ancient psalmists, who were, of course, song leaders.

The thing that transports and transforms our choir is more of that whenever-two-or-more-are-gathered miracle-working. It’s the leaven added to the loaf. It’s the sum being greater than the parts, which might be mathematical, rather than Biblical, but still true. It’s that Jesus, sneaking in unexpectedly, with answers to questions no one thought to ask, squeezing abundance from scratch when bread and fish were in short supply. My church choir is just one more invitation to the banquet. Take this bread and eat. I have a recording of yesterday’s Only Hope, of the soul sizzling beauty we created together with God. I can’t stop playing it. When we swell to double forte and my chest constricts as if Jesus is sitting on a ventricle, I ask myself––if our little choir can do that, is anything impossible with God?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I'm a Sticker

I have been doing a lot of reading for my graduate program, and I’m reading with various sets of eyes, as a reader, a writer, and a pastoral leader, thinking about what the words mean not only for me, and my craft, but also for my church community.

In an interview with The Writer’s Chronicle (Sep’t. 2008), author Scott Russell Sanders says, “No community can thrive without a substantial core of citizens who are committed to the long-term wellbeing of that place, nor can any business, church, school, or volunteer organization. Wallace Stegner observed that Americans tend to be divided between ‘boomers’ and ‘stickers’––the first kind ready to move on as soon as things get tough in one place…the second kind committed to making the situation they’re in…as good as it can be, or at least better than it was. Obviously a vibrant society needs both sorts of souls.”

Reading this, I thought about the history of my church, dating back to 1874 and those pioneers of Boulder Creek who were committed to this community, who saw many people come and go, loggers, summerers, clergy, etc. They didn’t just go when things got tough, they went on to the next place God lead them. I thought about the people who have come and gone in the 20 years I’ve been here, and how sometimes, I want everyone I’ve ever loved, known and cared for to remain here with me. After growing up in an ever-changing familial landscape (four divorces and five marriages between my assorted parents by the time I was 16) I have become a “sticker.” You just can’t get rid of me! That’s a good thing for me, and after reading Sanders’ interview, I understand it’s a good thing for my church as well, providing stability and a foundation, a “home” in a constantly changing world. But, as Sanders says, our society and our church need “boomers” too. I’ve always been intimidated by these explorers, people willing to take risks, to not only move to new states and cities, but to venture into new jobs, ministries, life journeys. Sounds too scary to me.

Yet, all of us, in some ways are both—we’re stickaboomers! We commit to what is foundational in our particular lives: God, family, profession, or place, and move in and out of—communities, relationships, jobs, churches, as we attempt to live the fullness of life God promises us.

What a launching pad Boulder Creek United Methodist Church has been in its long life. It’s not about amassing members and keeping them forever. It’s about filling folks with God’s love, wherever they might go. We continue to be a small spiritually vibrant church, and it is a privilege to play a part in providing the stability that encourages people to dream of possibilities, listen to God’s leading, and go forth into their passions. May this always be a place to return, welcomed with open arms, to be refreshed, renewed and recharged to “boom” God’s love into the world.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Gallbladder of Christ

According to my docent at Bandelier National Monument, the kiva was “an important part of the ceremonial cycle and culture. It was a center of the community, not only for religious activities, but also for education and decision-making. Unlike our secular world, there was no separation of church and state in Ancestral Pueblo culture.”

I stood in the July sun, fanning my face with my hat, circling the rim of the kiva; a giant sunken bowl with rock lined walls, now roofless, and imagined what it would be like to live a life so closely connected to my neighbors. Everyone gathered in a seasonal rhythm, praying and giving thanks for plantings, rains, harvests. Everyone knew when and what to do and was constantly grounded in prayer, in communication with the Great Creator. The tribe operated as a living organism, a single body with a purpose that sublimated individual desire to a communal will.

Then I wondered about the tribal leader, did he (undoubtedly a he) ever wish he could sneak down to the Rio Grande, climb down a ladder into a neighboring kiva and take part in a ceremony that he was neither responsible for or called to lead? Meaning, I wondered if he ever felt like me.

The Apostle Paul in his lovely metaphor of the body tell us that each part has a necessary function, and there’s no more inherent worth in being the obvious coiffed big hair of Christ, than being the wrinkly kneecap. Those of us who serve as pastoral church leaders are the eyes and ears, the mouths, the hands, the feet, very noticeable, active responsible parts of the body. We are the tribal leaders, organizing and leading the worship, prayers and operational systems of our kivas. Where can we go to simply take part as part of the body, to perform a necessary function, but not be in charge? Where can we go to be the gallbladder or small intestine of Christ?

My answer is The Academy for Spiritual Formation. The Upper Room, which sponsors the Academy, describes it as, “a two-year journey into the heart, mind, soul and will of Christ. Participants meet in residence for five days each calendar quarter– a total of 40 days in retreat. Recognizing the power of the Holy Spirit to shape our lives, the daily schedule provides a balanced approach to spiritual formation with worship including Morning Prayer and Night Prayer, and Eucharistic celebrations, thoughtful faculty presentations, silence, spiritual community, small covenant groups, and a balanced approach for head and heart.”

For me, the Academy provided a structure and a tribe. Surrounded by people itching to venture into the unknown of God (unlike some of our parishioners who are stuck in place), all I had to do was show up, be fully present, and go with the flow. The two years were a time of learning about the larger Christian heritage we all can claim, developing new practices in my life, introspection and further development of my gifts and call, and forging relationships at a soul level which continue today.
For more information about the Academy in general, visit The Upper Room. For information about the Upcoming West Coast Academy see the previous entry on my blog.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

West Coast Academy for Spiritual Formation



“I found the two-year Academy at Mercy Center to be one of the most profound experiences of my life. It was a means of growth, healing, transformation and grace.
The relationships formed and the lessons learned will last a lifetime.”
––Sue Magrath, Academy #24 participant

The Academy for Spiritual Formation® is a two-year journey into the heart, mind, soul and will of Christ. Participants meet in residence for five days each calendar quarter– a total of 40 days in retreat. Recognizing the power of the Holy Spirit to shape our lives, the daily schedule provides a balanced approach to spiritual formation with worship including Morning Prayer and Night Prayer, and Eucharistic celebrations, thoughtful faculty presentations, silence, spiritual community, small covenant groups, and a balanced approach for head and heart.

Participation is open to laypersons and clergy from all denominations;
racial-ethnic persons are encouraged to apply.


Session 1 February 16-21, 2009

Session 2 April 28-May 3, 2009

Session 3 August 10-15, 2009

Session 4 October 13-18, 2009

Session 5 January 11-16, 2010

Session 6 April 13-18, 2010

Session 7 August 9-14, 2010

Session 8 November 1-7, 2010

Faculty for Academy #29 includes some of the best voices in the spiritual journey today: Elizabeth Canham, Loyd Allen, David Horowitz, Jane Vennard, Bruce Rigdon, Kathryn Damiano, Bishop Hee-soo Jung and others.

An outstanding leadership team of Suzanne Seaton, Bob Mitchell, Jan Sechrist, Jim Seaton and Ginger Howl are ready to welcome you.

All sessions are held at the Mercy Center ( in Burlingame, California, just minutes from the San Francisco airport. Room, board, and tuition are $5,500, payable over the two years. Partial scholarships are available. For more information and a twenty-page prospectus, visit, email, or call the Academy office toll-free at 1-877-899-2781, ext. 7233.

“Without Christian formation in spirituality, there can be no Christianity at all… The Academy offers a structured, supportive community in which Christians can learn Christian history and resource their own growth in the love of God and neighbor, take risks spiritually, and find courage to submit to God for healing the very parts of themselves they most would reject. I am committed to support it.”
––Roberta Bondi, author and Academy teacher

“The Academy fulfills a unique place in the lives of Christians reaching for deeper spiritual growth…I have never known a spiritual frontier which combines such a wide spectrum of Christian experience…Yes, it changes lives, including mine.”
––Flora Slosson Wuellner, author and retired Academy teacher

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Writing Prompt 53

What does "the body of Christ" look like to you? Draw it, write it, dance it, live it.

The Body of Christ

I was honored to read this poem at the opening of the California/Nevada Annual Conference Session of the United Methodist Church on Wednesday, June 18.

A special thank you to my fellow readers: Burt Yin, incoming Conference Co-Lay Leader; Judy Newton, retired missionary to Japan; Rosa Washington Olson, lay woman involved in all aspects of Conference life; Debbie Dillon, local pastor who is moving to a new appointment after serving at Cone Community UMC; and our percussionist, Tarah Trueblood, Executive Director and Campus Minister, Wesley Foundation, University of California, Berkeley. Thank you everyone.

The Body of Christ

You are the face of God
You are the wrinkle of age
You are the gap-toothed smile of youth
You are the cleft of chin
You are the hook of nose
You are the dimple of smile
You are rose of blush

You are the eye looking for justice
You are the ear listening for love
You are the head bowed in prayer
You are the mouth singing praise
You are the voice proclaiming new life

You are the arms raised in thanksgiving
You are the hands wiping a fevered brow
You are the grasp of a newborn
You are the fingers frail with dying
You are the palms cupped with living water

You are the legs skipping in play
You are the knees bent in worship
You are the feet marching for peace
You are the toes balanced on rock
You stand barefoot before the creator

You are the lungs, breath of the holy
You are the heart beating eternal rhythm
You are the belly brimming with laughter
You are the womb cradling hope

You are the hips carrying our future
You are the back refusing to be broken
You are the shoulders carrying your cross

You are the glorious body in motion
You are the passionate body overflowing with emotion
You are the ever-curious body nourishing the intellect
You are the everlasting body sustaining the soul
You are the sacred body, a temple for the Most High

And I am you
And you are me
And together we are one body
Bearing one another’s fragility
Promoting one another’s healing
Sharing one another’s purpose

You and you and you and you and me
Together we are called to be
One mind, one spirit, one body
Offering our lives to the one who redeemed us

How we love this broken body
transformed by the Lord of Love
How we love this wondrous body
Baptized in the River of Life
How we love this precious body
A testimony to the living God
How we love this immortal body
A witness to the Alpha and Omega

The hands
The feet
The face

I am
You are
We shall be
unto this world
The Body of Christ

Permission is granted to reprint this poem by crediting the author, Cathy Warner.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Writing Prompt 52

What direction are you headed this summer? Write about it.


I'm off in many directions this summer...physically it's all East of me...Sacramento, Orlando Fl, Visalia, Georgetown (CA), Santa Fe NM, Orlando again. I don't anticipate posting to my blog for the next month or more.

Enjoy this poem as we head toward the solstice and the long hot days (I wish mine were lazy) of summer.


God you are North dancing in shadows
as Earth turns her face from sun to silence.
My arms reach toward you like oak’s prayers
naked branches stretching skyward.
I find you in wind’s snap across my soul
as I crunch through snow tracing footsteps
touching guideposts, marked by the cloud of witnesses
gone North across steppes and barrens before me.
Like them I discover your deepest treasures
preserved in winter’s solitude.

God you are East, your voice spring’s chorus,
tiny cheeps and pips of wrens and robins
nesting in their creation story.
Like ice-melt’s gurgle that births still waters
I find you reflected in the faces of those
traveling with me. We wash our hearts clean
and covenant alongside doves in your river.
God of East, you bathe us in the spring
of compassion and embrace us into your story.

God you are South, shining at the zenith
both sun and star that fix me in your history.
God of August heat and summer extremes
you are compass and map
your hand cool across my temple in mid-day.
Your words tap roots within me
pumping living water from history’s depths.
God of summer, God of South you shelter the weary.

God you are West, you are horizon’s shimmer
calling pioneers from their homes toward
the promised land. I surrender my heart
journey West to find you swirling
through fields, celebrating fall’s harvest.
What can I add to your bonfire O God
but my ancient ideas their brilliant reds, oranges
and golds now faded brown and crumpled?
They crackle in wisdom’s fire
and are transformed.
Fuel for the promise bursts into sunset.

God of all desires and directions
there is a season for every purpose under heaven.

Directions was originally written for Anne Dilenschneider who presented the concepts of Pastoral Leadership and Soul Care that inspired this poem, and for Patricia McCallister, Linda Kelly and the Conference Lay Ministry Training participants who journeyed with me in January 2001, Sacramento, California.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Writing Prompt 51

In his book, Thanks, Robert Emmon's recommends keeping a gratitude journal as one of the most important ways of living in gratitude.
Try adopting or adding to your journaling practice, writing what you are thankful for.
Mix it up a little. If you write "cat, job, apartment," every day for three weeks, you'll end up bored with those blessings.

Hodu Ladonai, Give Thanks to God

Did you know that living in a state of gratitude improves your health, happiness, job satisfaction, income level and lifespan? It's been scientifically proven in Robert Emmons' book: Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

I just finished the book and preached about it Sunday; the scientific findings were confirmed by members of the congregation as they shared stories of how much better we feel when grateful, not pollyanna-ish, gliding over illness, death and serious issues, but finding blessing and personal growth even in our trials.

Nearly everything in my life is about to change, or has already begun. My oldest daughter has changed cities and colleges, my youngest is graduating high school in two days, and heading cross country for college, my sister moved in with us two days ago, I've begun reading for my MFA program, and already know why I've never read the classics (without a dictionary in hand and unlimited hours at my disposal, I'm sunk).

And in this swirl, it is a right and good thing always and everywhere to give thanks to God. God may not need all the affirmations, but God was certainly on to something, commanding thanksgiving--it's good for us humans, body and soul.

Hodu Ladonai

Hodu Ladonai
Give thanks to God
Give thanks to God
for calling us to this
time and this place
to carry out
God’s purposes
as we discover
what they are for our
particular lives
and circumstances

Hodu Ladonai
for the gift
of each other
this community
to bear witness
to our journeys

Hodu Ladonai
Give thanks to God
for the covenant
that binds us
one to another
and to our creator

Hodu Ladonai

Rhythm & Fire

I am privileged to have two poems in Rhythm & Fire, newly published by the Upper Room. This anthology is written by Academy for Spiritual Formation faculty and participants. You'll recognize some big names, and I'm honored to be included alongside them.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Writing Prompt 50

Take a scary religious word or phrase, like born again, saved, end times and write about it in a way that makes sense to you.

Born Again

This writing was prompted by Kathleen Norris' book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, where she defines tricky theological words in accessible ways. Here's my take on the troublesome "Born Again."

Born Again

At your age, you are already counting lifetimes, like a cat. There have been changes and challenges that sent you tumbling out a second story window, twisting, arching, frantically clawing at air, as you made your way to a foot first landing, blinking at the impact, then trotting home.

How many times can one be born, again? How many times until you get it right, until you become the kitten that isn’t tossed into the river, or sent to live in the alley picking through trashcans? How many times until you become the kitten who is pulled out of the stream by the scruff, dried with a towel and placed against the chest of a person who is your Jesus, someone who will stroke you, pick off your fleas, and take you to the vet for shots and de-worming? How long until you find someone who will make room for a litter-box in their life, who will keep you even when you sharpen your claws on the carpet, will let you curl in their lap while they read the daily paper, will allow you to nestle at their feet on the quilt their grandmother pieced?

Do you count the lives in between your first birth and your new place, secure in the home of the someone who has taken you to heart? It’s up to you now. Stay out of the road, stay clear of traffic, keep your collar on, don’t wander up the hill where the coyote will devour you.

Do you know how much your Jesus loves you? If you disappear, they will put up signs, go door to door asking the neighbors if they’ve seen you, will search the roadside, comb the hillside, not wanting to give up hope that you are alive, believing you want to come home, but just aren’t able. They can’t search forever, but they will never forget you. They won’t know when or how to say goodbye, but they’ll try. Some days, the memory of your furry weight in their lap, the press of your cool and whiskery nose against their hand will flood through them, as you are born again, born anew into their hearts, love coexisting with pain, like a velvet curtain against a broken window pane.

All of it was worth it, then, being taken from your mother, tossed into a cardboard box, sold in front of the market for a dollar to a kid with gooey fingers. The hard work of finding your way since then, brushing against ankles for a bite of tuna, squirming out from hands so desperate for love, they squeezed the life out of you.
All of it was worth it, if in the end, or even somewhere in the middle, you are born again, into the heart and lap of someone who will love and remember you into eternity.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Writing Prompt 49

Write about your vision of heaven.

The Last Letter

It seems fitting to post this last letter from the dead in the midst of listening to Dante's Divine Comedy (Longfellow's translation)--I have completed the journey through hell--and on the heels of preparing a memorial service for my friend's 83 year old father. We prayed over his body a few hours after his death on Friday afternoon, and she has begun speaking of him in the past tense. Already, he lives on in the photos piled on the dining room table sparking memories.


They came in a dream, the angels, and invited me to go with them. Do you know what it is like to soar, rising from your old bones and labored breath? It is freedom. It is glorious and it set this tired old man to laughing. But then I see all the long faces, praying for me on the rosary. I want to reach down and wipe away all your tears. Eighty-seven years is enough on the earth. And I think you should be glad that I have gone. I think you should be dancing. Then I remember how scared to die we all are. Afraid that our mortal soul hangs in danger, and that words must save us.

It is with noble hearts that you pray, believing your prayers will twine themselves into a net to scoop me from the jaws of Satan and drop me at the feet of the Virgin. Rest assured I am not in hell and I am not in purgatory. It is possible that I am in heaven, although I have not seen the Virgin or her beloved son, Jesus, or your mother, Anna Maria, the love of my life. Wherever I am, I am free.

How I long for you to celebrate. Light the prayer candles and sing Alleluia. Pull apart the white carnation cross by my coffin and pin a flower in each lapel. Mija, I would like to tell you what it is like, this new life, this life after death. But I am at a loss, for there are no tastes and no sounds and no sights. Just this feeling.

I felt something like it once before, only much smaller, just inside my own heart, when you were born. The first time I held you and gazed into your dark eyes and touched the mat of black hair on top of your tiny head, I thought I would swell and explode with my love for you. Where I have gone it is like that, like love has exploded into a soup of stars and spirits.

Oh, my beautiful daughter, I wish you this peace.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Writing Prompt 48

In one of his Psalms, David wants to bash the enemies' babies against rocks.
Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. How do choose the path of restoration and forgiveness when the wrongs in society and our own lives our so grievous?
Write a letter, and/or a psalm. Struggle with your anger, your desire for retribution, your ability or inability to forgive. Don't censor your words, yet temper your actions.

The Letter that Forgives Evil and the Psalm that Cries for Vengeance

The Letter

To the little girl with the braids tied in pink ribbons,

I never knew your name. You’re grown up now. Maybe you got kids. Bet you never leave them with someone you don’t know. Then you were seven or eight, the daughter of a friend of the girlfriend I had that week and you came over while she went to court or something. You sat on the couch watching cartoons. You had a scab on your knee and flowered underpants. And your skin was so white and so quiet and I needed quiet.

Now I think I shouldn’t have touched you like that. Then I was stoned and everything makes sense when you’re stoned. There were other girls, but you were the first and the one I saw at night when I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and the traffic on the bridge took over my veins.

I couldn’t get quiet, couldn’t get it right, so I quit living. It’s not hard. And now, I know things. Like I screwed up your life bad. And that bites. You still got time, right? Maybe you’re one of the good ones who can forgive. I don’t deserve it.

I don’t deserve shit. But that’s the weird thing, if you can forgive me, you get better, but it don’t change me a bit. You might even get a life that works okay. That’d be cool. Man, I never wanted no power like I had, messing with your mind, fuckin’ up your life. Maybe you already worked it out. Maybe all I am to you now is a shiver that pulls on your gut.

Death don’t change the past. It just makes you a little smart. Now I get that there were choices. I hope you pick the right thing, the good thing.

From the man you always hoped was dead and finally is

The Ranting Psalm

O God they say we are all your children
They say we are all created in your image
They say we are born again into your eternal love

And I say to you what about those who abuse your children
What about those fathers who come into their daughters’
Bedrooms at night, who pull back their covers
And force their sour breath upon their innocent skin
Would it not be better if you smote them
Destroyed with your own hand those who would destroy a childhood

Why are you silent why do you allow the shattered
To suffer in silence and shame
Surely God you should exercise justice they say vengeance is yours

And I want to know if you’re ever going to use it
Reach down your hand and press it against the throats of the transgressors
Until they can whisper no more until the sounds of don’t tell anyone
Are drowned in the gurgle of their spit
Silenced in their dying breaths

Stop granting second chances stop looking the other way
Stop pretending time heals all wounds
Stop killing hope and innocence and childhood
Too many of your children have suffered
At the hands of those who say they love them

I want what is right God I want what is just
I want you to restore what has been stolen
From your daughters and from your sons

Like King David I plead with you
Get off your throne get your head out of the clouds
You’ve done it before you can do it again

They say that you are love they say that you love us
So what about bringing wholeness what about saving souls

You will of course in time eventually
But why must the suffering last so long

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Writing Prompt 47

What's your cancer story? How has your life been impacted by your experience?
Write a letter to someone who needs to know--spouse, children, God...

The Cancer Letter

Is there anyone who doesn't have cancer? Right now, a husband and wife in my church both diagnosed (early thankfully) at the same time. A choir member whose husband died a few weeks ago of renal cell cancer. My brother-in-law fighting multiple myeloma. An older man at church getting skin cancer removed, all sorts of relatives of church members undergoing treatment for one variety or another. How do we survive it--those who recover, and those who mourn those who succumbed? Without God, where do we find hope?

Another Letter from the Dead

Darling Kathleen,

You amaze me, the way you held up through it all. Still are. Driving the children to school, making beds and lunches, folding laundry. Where do you find it, that inner strength? Or is it simply numbness. Changing the phone number was a bit much, but if that’s what it took to stop your mother from calling every day, why not?

I heard her, the old biddy, and your aunts, reciting their platitudes. “He’s out of his misery.” “He’s gone to a better place.” “He’s with the Lord, now.” Fuck you. That’s what I’d want to say, if I were alive. Sometimes I forget it’s not about me any more. It’s about you. It’s about you because you sat by my bed for months and washed my scalp with a washcloth and clipped my goddamn toenails. You saw the worst happen and now you have to pick up the pieces and reassemble the mess I made of our lives.

Burning the sympathy cards, I liked that. Enough with the Hallmark crap.

There are so many things I am sorry for. I am sorry that the cancer ate away not only at my body, but at your hope, at our dignity, at the security of our children. I wish now that I had been brave enough to leave before everything was depleted. Somewhere, beneath the morphine and oxygen and the fading in and out of consciousness, I couldn’t bear to leave you alone with the children and no job and no money. I was afraid; afraid you’d fall apart after I was gone. I thought the lingering would make it easier.

You must feel so cheated. It was all for worse, with no better. It was all in sickness, with no health. And now all you have is death do us part. I’m sorry for the fear, how it held me back. I wish I could appear like a fairy godmother with a magic wand and wave it over you and Brittany and Josh. Cast a magic spell and you’ll live happily ever after. But there’s nothing I can do.

What can I say? Let it out. Scream and yell; cry all you want. Cry until your pillowcase is soaked. Swear at me; I won’t be offended. Swear at God; God can take it.

When people ask, tell them I was a selfish bastard and you’re glad I’m gone, wish I’d died ten years sooner. Or tell them I left a pit in the center of your life and the only thing that keeps you from jumping in after me, is the rope the kids have tied to your waist. Remember that oncologist at Stanford, the one who went to med school after her baby died of leukemia? We raised our eyebrows when she told us. And when she left the room you said, “If it were me, I’d get as far away from cancer as possible.”

Now it is you. I won’t tell you everything is going to be okay, because I don’t know. Maybe life is terrible. The only thing I can tell you, the only thing I know to be true is this: You are not alone. Even when you wake up terrified in the middle of the night, aching for me, aching for someone to hold you and smooth your hair and kiss your forehead, and find no one there, no one at all. Even then, you are not alone. Maybe that’s eternity. We are threads in a web, invisible, but real nonetheless.

I remain yours,


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Writing Prompt 46

Think of an ex--yours, your parent's, your child's. What needs to be said from this side of the grave, or the other. Write the letter. Then what? Rip it up? Burn it? Post it to your blog?

The Letter From the Dead Ex-Wife

What is the protocol for attending the funeral of your ex? I don't have an ex, but I have multiple parents. I just don't imagine them showing up for the occasion. The divorce was over 35 years ago. They're strangers. Any bitterness long gone. Not so in this letter.


So nice of you to leave the office for an hour. Yes, shake hands with my parents, nice touch. But then they always liked you, even when I got the lecture about living up to obligations. I suppose my clients will be delighted you’re representing them now. That ought to make you happy. Never thought I’d die from the impact of slamming my head on the glass ceiling, but that’s what it boiled down to. Hah.

Sorry to disappoint if you were expecting something more exotic like Lotus flowers, incense and the Buddha. There’s nothing special about Korean Methodists. If we’d had a church wedding, you’d know that. I don’t know most of these people to tell the truth. The two rows of ladies at the back of the church are in the women’s circle. They made the refreshments, be sure to try a pecan crescent. I’d say they’re to die for, but no cookie is that great.

You’re uncomfortable. I can tell by the way you’re picking lint from your cuff. Look around the room, lots and lots of gray. You should be safe for another twenty years, at least. But it does make you wonder about your mortality. What if you are next? Tomorrow morning you could be reading the paper at the breakfast table while your new wife grades papers before class. They next thing you know, you’re road pizza. The last thing on your mind is Linda; how you didn’t say I love you when you left the house. When she gets a phone call from the Highway Patrol, you want to think that her wails will be as loud as the sirens.

Should I say fat chance? Do I sound bitter? I don’t mean to be. Divorce happens. We were doomed from the start and I won’t pretend otherwise. But let me give you some advice. Don’t let Linda end up loving the dead you more than the live one. After all, the dead you will always be around. Go home after my memorial. Take the afternoon off work, unheard of, I know. And when Linda arrives, tell her something she can’t forget.

Susanna Yoon

Sunday, May 04, 2008

I’m In!

Some of you know that I’ve been accepted into Seattle Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. I have been accepted in the “Creative Nonfiction” genre, which means I will be writing memoir and essays.

This writing program is four years old (I heard about it in its planning stages and have been waiting to apply) and is the only one in the country that includes a foundation in Christian spirituality and literature.

SPU’s website says, “What distinguishes our program from other MFA programs, then, is its focus on the relationship between literature and faith, its integration of the spiritual disciplines, and the reading of literary classics of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the curriculum.” You can read more about their philosophy.

The program is low-residency; most of my work will be through correspondence with a professor who is an accomplished writer in the field. Twice a year, I will travel to a ten-day residency where I will take intensive classes with everyone else in the program. It is small and highly selective, so I’ve been told being chosen is a testament to my writing ability. I begin with a 10- day residency in Santa Fe, New Mexico this summer at St. John’s College. Seattle Pacific is the home of Image Journal, which sponsors the annual Glen Workshop at St. John’s. Those of us in the MFA program will have the opportunity to take advantage of the wide array of Christian writers, musicians and visual artists who will be at The Glen.

Our winter residencies will be on Whidbey Island, so I’ll enjoy some lovely scenery but never actually set foot on campus! If I stay on track, I will graduate in the summer of 2010 and will have written a book length work, as well as having commented on sixty books by others––I think “annotated” is the term, and I have no idea what that means, so I better learn fast! My exposure to literature in college was narrow and specialized (i.e. books about the Viet Nam War and Feminist movement), and I’m ready to explore The Canon. My first reading assignment includes Confessions by St. Augustine, and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I know that God continues to call me to use my gift of writing in the world. I spent last fall discerning whether this was the time in my life to say “Yes” to God once again and begin such a big undertaking––20 to 30 hours of work each week. With my “baby” heading out-of-state to college, my husband traveling internationally frequently, stable clergy leadership to assist me in ministry, and a growing number of leaders in my congregation, I felt that it was. I figured if I didn’t get accepted, then God would let me know I should wait. The opposite happened. I received amazing letters of recommendation, wonderful critique of my writing sample from my writer’s group, encouragement from my family, spiritual direction group and prayer partner.

Now all I have to do is the work!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Writing Prompt 45

Try writing from a voice completely out of your realm of experience.
Be as outrageous and authentically foulmouthed (think Billy Elliott) as your dare.

The Letter that Got Me Blacklisted

Warning this post is rated R for language. Yes, you've heard it at the mall, on campus, in countless movies, but the sensitive among you, be forewarned.

A few years ago I decided to enroll at a well known Christian Writer's Conference, conveniently located near my home. I signed up for a fiction workshop where we emailed our work out in advance. I sent my Letters From the Dead (which I've been posting here individually), thinking that I'd get some good feedback from people of faith. I was writing, after all, about theology--life, death, regrets.

Shortly after sending my letters, I received an email from the instructor. She'd received complaints about my use of language. One of my characters, an inner city teen was killed in a drive by shooting, and she said tasteless things like, "Fuck" and "shit." The instructor said she understood why my character might swear, but this was a Christian writers' conference and perhaps I'd like to send a different story. I was willing to give it a chance, until I received the other writers work.

One man wrote a "thriller?" about a self-proclaimed vigilante who picked people off with great glee and the latest weaponry in order to save the United States from the new godless regime. It was okay to litter the pages with dead bodies because at times of extreme emotion, he said, "Darn."

A woman wrote about an abused wife who killed her husband by driving him off the edge of a cliff. She jumped from the vehicle just in time, and it was all good. She did what God wanted without once swearing.

In writing, we often talk about the inner critic, or the inner censor, to try to ignore her, and write what's deeply felt. I didn't want to censor the other writers imaginations or writing (as they did mine) but I was as offended by their "Christian" writing as the other writers were about my "inappropriate language." I wanted to ask where in their writing were the What Would Jesus Do messages? Non-violent protests, community organizing, caring law enforcement officials arresting batterers, safe houses, women's shelters? I couldn't in good conscience offer any positive comments on the writing, but then, I've never read any "Christian genre fiction," so what do I know? I withdrew from the workshop and got my money back.

Here's the letter that made me the bad girl of the Christian writer's workshop:

Yo Peanut,

‘Sup girlfriend? Did I pick the wrong time to go to LaSondra’s to borrow her rhinestone jeans or what? I’m like just opening the gate and that Taco Bell dog of hers is yapping and jumping on the chain link and I’m all, down you little shit and I hear it all before I see it. Tires squealing and the gag me stink of burning rubber and the Camaro engine roaring like a fucking 747 landing on the house and shouting something something motherfucker. Then DeWayne comes bombing down the street and then bullets like rocks on fire go slamming in his back and he crashes onto me like a two hundred pound balloon. Pop! Next thing I know everything’s like totally hot and white and my brain feels like fried egg on the sidewalk in that stupid commercial and everything is noise, volume all the way up, ear bleeding noise. And I’m all wet and slippery like a fish on land. Then bam. End of that shit.

So like I don’t know and I shouldn’t be telling you this shit. You’ll have nightmares and pee the bed and Mom will spank you and it’ll be my fault, but sorry I just have to tell someone, and no way can I tell Mom. At first I was like where the hell am I and where’s DeWayne and he better get his ass here quick and tell me what the fuck’s going on, since he’s like the reason I’m in this mess. Thanks to him, I missed Halloween 4 with Tyrone Friday and that was the night we were gonna do it finally. Yeah, well, like they say, Denial ain’t no river in fucking Africa. DeWayne wouldn’t believe we was dead or some crap. It’s like, man, I was so not ready for this. But here it is.

Now no way mom’s ever gonna let you out of the house. But this time it totally wasn’t my fault, I think. Okay, so don’t be like me. Have some goals and shit. It’ll make mom happy and maybe that way you could like keep part of me alive or some weird-ass thing like that.

Don’t forget about me, okay? ‘Cuz even though you are––I guess I’m supposed to say were––a royal pain most of the time, you’re bad for a six year old plus you got the great hair and I have to admit, I was jealous but not anymore. You are my one and only baby sis. So chill in the crib and step light in the hood. Wish I could come home.



Thursday, April 24, 2008

Writing Prompt 44

Think of a long term marriage or partnership--yours, your parents, grandparents, that couple at church. What would one partner write to the other after death? What could be written in advance? Would it make any difference?

The Second Letter from the Dead

Introducing my first letter from the dead, I said it came out of a frustrating funeral experience. It was the "letter" from a dead husband to his wife, possibly something published in a Dear Abby or Ann Landers column that did me in. The message was Don't worry, be happy. I'm in heaven, everything's cool. That fact alone was supposed to cancel any agony the widow would experience. Her circumstances were irrelevant. Arghh.

I've always felt that memorial services were for the living; to provide us with sacred time and space to remember and honor the life of the one we lost, and to give us courage to shoulder on without him/her. I never thought that anything we did or said would make a difference to the dead, or insure them a slot in a specific beyond this realm venue. In that, I agree with Thomas Lynch who says about funerals, "the dead don't care."

My letter to a widower:

Dear Ira,

After today, take the suit to the Salvation Army. It’s seen too many buried. First your mother, then my brother, then our Samuel. Not Samuel. We needed Samuel. God forbid our child, we’d said. But God didn’t forbid. And how we tried to change God’s mind. Bring him back, God. Bring him back or give us another child. We’ll do anything. Go back to synagogue; invite Rabbi Kamenstein to dinner. Bargaining is for the living, Ira, and we both know it doesn’t work.

In this heat, your jacket will be off at graveside, so starch your shirt, there’s a can of Niagara in the back closet, top shelf. Turn the iron to cotton. Let it heat for five minutes, then spray like you’re doing my hair. Grief is for the living, Ira. I wish I’d known that. I wish I had allowed myself to wail, instead of drowning in the sherry. I know I wasn’t easy with the drinking, the nagging, cheating at Bridge. I had to win, had to have everything my way. You just let it roll like water off a duck. So Ira, do what you need to do. If you don’t want to be alone, I’ll understand. Everyone will understand. I tried to take care of you. I loved you. Maybe I never said it right.

Wear the red tie, you know it was my favorite, and take it to the cleaners, see if they can’t get the gravy stain out. Oh, and put a rose, just one on my coffin. I always liked that. What else? Make sure Ben at John’s Food King de-bones the chicken.

Things will be different, Ira. If it feels like too much, just breathe. Breathe and go through the motions and one day you might find something that makes you want to trim your beard, put on your blue cashmere vest and leave the house.

And Ira, if that something happens to be Doris Katz, you have my blessing.

Your Miriam

Thursday, April 17, 2008


I thought the price on Dr. D’s Weed Death sounded too good to be true, but at Customer Warehouse, once you throw in a couple cases of Coors and Marlboros along with those mountain climber bars and diet iced teas, the bargains get fuzzy.

To read the rest of this short story, visit Verdad Magazine.

Writing Prompt 43

Try writing a letter from a soldier (dead or alive) to someone back home.

The First Letter from the Dead

A number of years ago I went to a funeral and left furious with the platitudes the pastor preached. My frustration gave way to a written rant which, after much revising, found form in a series of seven fictional letters written by my imagined dead to those they've left behind. The letters were accepted into an anthology that never materialized. I think about them every now and then, and last week I was at another funeral, one where I felt inclined to slap the perky pastor across the face. That, and the fact I'm reading The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch, has planted death in the center of my awareness. I return to my letters, whatever they might lack, as a point to begin again a dialogue about grief and living in the shadow of death.

This week, the first letter.

Hey Mom and Dad,

I know. We all knew I took a risk. But friendly fire, who would’ve thought? Gee whiz. Is that what they call irony? Dad, please don’t keep the flag all folded up in a case on the mantle. Give it to the Eagle Scouts or Union High, someone that’ll fly it.

I finally get the thousand points of light. Kaboom! I’m a thousand points of light. In a weird way, I was ready. Not that I had a death wish or anything, but you’re packing up your gear the night before and you can’t sleep and think, what if this is it? You didn’t think I understood, thought I was too young and immature, but I did. So don’t guilt yourself. And, you’ve got to stop thinking you could’ve stopped me from enlisting, that you shouldn’t have been so do the right thing all my life. I didn’t join just for the college or because of some God Bless America recruiting booth at the fairgrounds on Fourth of July. It was something else, something I don’t have words for, I was just supposed to.

Mom, now the freezer’s full of Tupperware casseroles. You’ll be eating leftovers for a year, sorry. Maybe you could defrost them all at once, have a big old potluck in the basement at Presbyterian First. Kenny and Richie could tell stories on me, like the time we took the Civic while you were at the bowling tournament, and set out for Mustang Ranch. That would loosen everyone up; maybe they’d stop acting like I was so perfect. I don’t want a halo.

Things will quiet down eventually. My newspaper obit will come off the bulletin boards to make way for the track team’s championship photo, the memorial scholarship fund will run out of money, some of the kids won’t even know who I was. You can even decide it’s okay not to be sad anymore, at least not all the time. It’s okay with me. We had our fights and stuff, but you were the best parents.

And when people shake their heads and say, “What a waste,” tell them they’re wrong.



Saturday, April 12, 2008

Writing Prompt 42

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles repenting.”

-Mary Oliver

Let Oliver's words inspire yours.

You Do Not Have to Be Good

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles repenting.”

-Mary Oliver

I was given this writing prompt during my AWA training last summer. Oliver's quote is merciful, much as I imagine God. I also thought of the Psalmists, raging against their enemies, and that primal urge I have had to face and quell, to make someone who has hurt me suffer before I will offer forgiveness. So here is the shadow side given voice:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles repenting.”

But that’s what I want you to do.
I want you to be sorry, so so sorry.
I want you to crawl to my door, fall at my feet
your knees bloody, your lips cracked.
I want you to beg for mercy, beg for forgiveness.
Prove to me, every day in every action for the rest of your life
that you are agonizingly sorry––
that you are miserable, screwed down by my gaze,
aware of exactly what you did, every detail, to betray me.

You have committed the unpardonable sin, the one thing I will not forgive.
You can try though, to eek it from me,
the forgiveness that will wet your parched mouth.
I will stand and wait, a cool glass of water in my grasp.
I will stand at my door, shading my eyes with my hand.
I will watch you crawl toward me, waiting for your arrival.
You, hungering for benediction, thirsting for a blessing––
you will walk on your knees toward me, repentant for a lifetime.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Writing Prompt 41

"Bodies carry our immediate history and our heritage; they too are made of stories."
-Elizabeth J. Andrew, Writing the Sacred Journey

Write about your bodily inheritance.

Our Inheritance

“You inherited the Preimsberger butt,” my mother said to my sister and me, two girls thin as two-by-fours, flat from head to foot, except for the butt, protruding from our backsides like cantaloupe halves. She was not a Preimsberger and therefore not a contributor to our malady. The butt came from our father, and to him and his three thin sisters from his mother, who by the time she was our grandma, had enough padding to camouflage the butt. Technically she was a Tholen; a Preimsberger only by marriage, but we were never a technical family.

When I was born my father nicknamed me P.B. It was supposed to stand for Preimsberger’s Baby, but my friends determined it meant Preimsberger Butt, loudly reminding me of my ancestry every time I walked away. My sister was spared such a nickname.

Then there was the nose. The butt was nothing compared to the cursed nose, a huge eagle-y beak long as a ski slope, that made many a Preimsberger look mean: Grandpa Dick, Uncle Reiny, our father, and even Aunt Jayne who made up bedtime stories just for me about kids who could dispense buttermilk from their noses via straws. Thinking back, Aunt Jayne's stories were most likely a product of hours spent in front of the mirror theorizing that a facial feature that large should have a spectacular function.

Our father’s Preimsberger proboscis had also been broken, twice, as a teenager and reset itself with an extra lump on the ridge. For a long time I worried that I had the nose since mine was always a bit too big for my face, and because people seemed to be able to recognize from great distances that I was my father’s daughter. Somewhere during high school though, I began to worry about my oversized butt and undersized breasts more frequently than my nose, which seemed to have mutated just a bit.

The full brunt of the beak fell to my little sister, who on her thirteenth birthday set aside the ten-dollar bills in the cards from both sets of grandparents for a nose job.

Our father is six foot two inches tall; his sisters hover near five feet ten. These great heights weren’t shared with us. Instead, our mother, five foot two, and her mother, five foot three, set the tone for my sister’s and my height. A few weeks after her thirteenth birthday, my sister, determined to break five foot four used her nose job fund to buy a pair of four-inch platform sandals with cork soles.

Interestingly, she said her nose felt smaller, almost invisible when she could look down at her friends from her new height, rather than up at them across the long slope of her schnozz.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Writing Prompt 41

"Tell me everything you know about Jell-O."

-Natalie Goldberg Old Friend From Far Away

What I Know About Jell-O

When I was young and had the stomach flu, my mother made red Jell-O, strawberry or cherry in her metal mixing bowl and shoved it in the refrigerator to cool. When I was too restless to stay in bed, she helped me to the couch in the sewing room, tucked my favorite patchwork blanket around me and popped a thermometer in my mouth. While I clamped it between my teeth, she dashed to the kitchen and spooned a blob of slippery Jell-O into my plastic All-Gone bowl, the words printed inside the dish along with a clown. She set it on a TV tray next to me, along with a glass of warm flat Bubble-up, and an empty mixing bowl, in case I needed to throw up before I could make it to the bathroom. My mother turned on our black and white set to Captain Kangaroo and Sheriff John and Hobo Kelly and sat at her sewing machine a few short feet away, whipping up matching dresses for my sister and me. Every now and then she’d turn around and look at me, ask how I was and bring me more of whatever I needed, even her hand on my forehead.

In fifth grade, Kendis Lescher and I bought strawberry Lady Lee gelatin dessert, a Jell-O knock-off, as an alternative to Pixie Sticks, colored paper straws that you sucked flavored sugar from. We ripped open the paper packets of our generic Jell-O, and when Miss Coppack wasn’t looking, we licked our index fingers, cracked the lids of our desks open an inch, and navigated our fingers into the powder, popped our fingers in our mouths and sucked the flavored sugar off. I spent most of that year with a red dye #5 fingertip.

I didn’t think much about Jell-O for the next twenty years, until I was seven months pregnant with my second child. Peter Rivero died and the United Methodist Women called on me to bring a Jell-O salad to the reception after his funeral. I didn’t know Peter, who was Catholic, but I knew his wife, Jean. We served on the worship committee together, and she’d held my baby, watched her grow into an inquisitive toddler, and had given her car keys to play with. So I said yes.

Of course I’d eaten Jell-O salad, at Thanksgiving dinners and church potlucks, but I only knew how to make plain Jell-O; Jell-O for the sick. I didn’t know what sort of Jell-O salad was appropriate for the dead, or rather, those who mourn them. I hadn’t been to a funeral since junior high school. Our neighbor, Bob, had been killed in a car accident on his way home from work, leaving behind his wife, and two children, about my age. Everyone was grief-stricken. There was no food afterward. But this was different. Peter was an old man, seventy or so, an acceptable age to die, so people would talk about him while spooning Jell-O salad into their mouths.

I needed help. My mother was at work and as inexperienced with death as I was, so I called my mother-in-law, a widow who’d lost her parents long ago. She served Jell-O salads at Thanksgiving and Christmas in cut crystal serving bowls. I copied down her instructions. The night before the funeral I boiled water, poured it over emerald green powder, stirred with a wooden spoon, watching the powder dissolve. I added cold water, stirred more, then dropped in chopped canned pears and dollops of cottage cheese. I didn’t own crystal, or a serving bowl, so into a Pyrex baking dish it went to cool in the refrigerator.

I didn’t attend the funeral the next morning. I wasn’t ready to face death. I watched Sesame Street with my almost three year-old, felt the daughter I was going to have kick me under the ribs. I spread Saran Wrap over my Jell-O dish, buckled my daughter into her car seat and drove to my church.

I climbed the stone steps from the street to the sidewalk, unable to see my feet over my baby-belly, one hand in my daughter’s, the other balancing my lime, pear and cottage cheese Jell-O concoction, as it jiggled under plastic warp. So this is how it was going to be with me and death––a little wobbly, a little vulnerable. I walked into the social hall, bustling with women, many of them widows, setting out trays of coffee cups, cookies, and pies. “There you are,” one woman said, and swept my Jell-O into her capable arms. “You are going to stay.” She set me to work wrapping napkins around forks. My daughter helped stack them in a basket.

Soon Jean, the new widow, arrived with those who’d attended the funeral. Some of them wore black, some had puffy red eyes, but most were talking, some even laughing. I hadn’t known that was allowed. Gratefully, they received everything set before them like an offering––cups of coffee, oatmeal cookies and small plates of my Jell-O salad.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Writing Prompt 40

Imagine yourself in the scene on "Good Friday." What would you have named that day?

Good Friday

I never understood why they called it Good. Nothing that happened that day was good. A gruesome death and I was there, weeping on the hillside, powerless to help my son. And it appeared, at the time, that my son was powerless too, despite his confidence, despite his faithfulness to his call, his clear mission, his understanding of what his spiritual parent desired for him, and for the society around him.

Good. No. I can never call that Friday good. Necessary, maybe, but I wonder. Perhaps I’ll always see my son’s life differently from everyone else. He wasn’t born to die. That much I’m sure of. I cradled my newborn infant in my arms, gazed into his intense brown eyes, those eyes that saw only me. His tiny fingers clutched mine, holding on for dear life.

And what a life. He took such joy in the simple things. The moon appearing in broad daylight, like a slice of melon in a blue sea. The intricate grain of olivewood sanded smooth. He was curious, so eager, into everything, so full of questions. I told him everything I knew, and he pulled from my mind and imaginings, teachings and tales I thought I’d long forgotten. He came with me to the well and the river. We trudged with our water jars and pile of soiled garments. We talked of justice, the law, the words of the prophets. He knew my every thought, and I knew his. He didn’t know at ten, chasing chickens in the courtyard that he was going to change the course of history. He didn’t know at thirty-three, hands strapped to a wooden cross, what would occur after his death.

He did know he was going to die. I knew it too. He made enemies each time he spoke, challenging the law, accusing the powerful of failing to live by the spirit of the law. As his name and influence spread, the religious authorities grew afraid and began plotting. You should have seen the energy around him. That’s what kept us going, kept us believing. We saw the healing that took place wherever he went. Illness evaporated, demons fled. He brought peace to the troubled, health to the sick. Crowds gathered everywhere he went, hungry for the taste of his words. We’d hear them later, walking back to their villages, beginning to question the old assumptions, ready to embrace this new law of radical love.

Word of him spread like wildfire. I didn’t ask my son or his friends to keep quiet, to keep silent to save his life. He said it himself, “Even if we said nothing, the stones would cry out.” Did he have to die? Did God require it? I can’t believe that. I know it came to that, but I always hoped there could have been another possibility, the path not taken.

In my deepest prayers, I envisioned that road. I closed my eyes, emptied my heart and saw a vision of the world Jesus said was possible. Pharisees and Sadducees and Scribes who put away their pride, who let go of their power over others long enough to listen, listen with all their hearts and souls and minds, to the words of my son and the testimony of his life. I saw them kneeling side by side with tax collectors and carpenters and Samaritans in the synagogues and temples, praying for signs of understanding. I prayed for them too, for openness, forgiveness, and mercy. I believed there could have been conversion and reform and hearts turned anew toward God who made us. The promise of a changed world that wouldn’t need death as its catalyst. I glimpsed a world that could embrace the possibilities for life that my son offered.

If it were up to me, what would I call it? Evil Friday? Lost Friday? Brokenhearted Friday? I don’t know. But I do know that the Great One took the events of that terrible day, took the death of my son, the death of hope, and fashioned something new and beautiful from the remnants.

Mary and I found the tomb empty. The smell of embalming spices clung to our hands as we wept into them, finding no body to prepare. My son had vanished. I didn’t know where or why or how. I can’t say that I understood the meaning and impact of that morning we now call Easter. Even after all this time, so much remains unclear in my mind, a mystery.

This is what I do know. The power of love always proves stronger than the power of death. The journey into the abyss can lead us into the light. Grief can lead to rejoicing. Somehow, my son lives on. The message he had for the world is still being spoken. Ordinary people like you and like me have been changed; we have been given hope, not only for ourselves, but for this world, through the life of Jesus. God has carved an eternal place for him in the heart.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Writing Prompt 39

What does "Take up your cross" mean to you?

Take Up Your Cross

We carry our crosses
hung from our necks
lashed round our shoulders
nailed to our feet

No wonder we smack into doorframes
knock over our neighbors
slam face down in the street

All that dead wood
weighing us down

If only we dared look up
we might see him this Christ
head wreathed in thorns
nail studded palms
inclined toward us

What if we each rose
took up our splintery cross
and bore it in our arms
like a broken gift

What if we each rose
took up our cross
and followed the one
who forms hope from dust

©Cathy Warner

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Writing Prompt 38

Write about the last meal you had with someone you loved. Did you know it would be the last? Do you remember the menu, the table settings? Were you able to eat much? What do you say or not say?

That Last Supper

March is here and so are my thoughts already about Holy Week and those pivotal events during the last week of Jesus' life brought to us in so much detail in the gospels. It does seem that we remember the events before everything changed much more than we remember the content of living out each day, even when we're using our gifts and heeding our call.

Here are some thoughts about the Passover meal Jesus shared with his friends:

Jesus knew that things were heating up; that the Passover meal was the last one he would spend with his disciples, his beloved community. Never again would they gather in this same manner, a teacher and guide not simply with his followers, but with the people who were closest to his heart, who had shared intimately in his ministry, who had journeyed with him, who had tried to make his vision their own.

By the time they gathered for dinner, Jesus knew that a crisis in his ministry, in his life, was unavoidable. He knew that he would have to endure death to remain faithful to his call. He tried to explain this to his disciples, but they couldn’t fathom it. They weren’t ready to understand or comprehend the way Jesus’ death would tear apart their lives. There was no way for them to predict the Resurrection.

Imagine how it must have felt for Jesus. His closest friends incapable of understanding what he’d said to them, what his ministry was truly about. It must have been heartbreaking, yet he trusted God’s power to transform lives, even beyond death. Jesus took common items from an everyday meal, bread and wine, and offered them to his dear ones as a way to remember his life and God’s promises.

How powerfully this symbol lives on. Proclaiming the mystery God worked through Jesus, bringing healing and new life out of brokenness and death. Throughout time and throughout the world, the mystery continues, and we gather around a table, like the disciples, to eat the bread and drink from the cup. Through this act, we are brought into community. We are held in relationship with each other and with God.

We share the grain of the fields, the fruit of the vine, and we are offered the chance to be recreated and transformed. When we, like the disciples, say yes to the gift without having to understand it, we demonstrate our faith. We proclaim our willingness to follow Jesus into the broken places in this world and in our hearts, and we offer ourselves to the holy, to be God’s instruments of healing. Through the ordinary, we encounter the profound.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Writing Prompt 37

What does living water mean to you? Where do you find it? How do you immerse in it? Use your senses to describe it.

Surfing in Living Water

I'm thinking about living water this week. Jesus offers it to the Samaritan woman at the well in this Sunday's lectionary reading from John's gospel. Water was my first experience of God and body surfing a formative experience as I grew up in Seal Beach. This is one of my earliest poems, not my best writing, but even coming back to it after almost ten years, I still find Jesus in the water.

Church of Living Water

"You're abandoning God," your mother
proclaimed on Sunday mornings
and drove her station wagon to a stagnant building
where the fear-broken tried to cast out damnation

With your back to sunrise
you walked barefoot across town
shifting the board in your grasp
and slipped under the surf

You paddled through years of blue-green mornings
salt-wind washing your bruised feet
and recovered from countless sand drills
when the sea spat you ashore

You outlasted the cool crowd
and the bronzed beach babes,
who drifted to another fad

The currents haven't changed
you remain faithful
in the quiet when even gulls are silent
waiting for the mother of waves

When she arrives, you embrace the swollen water
The force of moon-pull suspends you
alongside ocean's eternal walls

You slice through gravity
Jesus walks the infinite wave with you
aligned in uncontrollable rightness
before you plunge into living water

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Writing Prompt 36

Write about temptation in your life...minor all things chocolate or major really, all things chocolate depending on how deep you feel like digging. If you dig deep, what nuggets of gold will you find in the pile?

The Upside of Temptation

Today is the first Sunday of Lent and the themes of temptation present themselves. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus heads into the wilderness after his baptism to wrestle with his call. Satan appears offering Jesus’ several opportunities almost too good to pass up––

1. Turn these stones into bread. Wouldn’t he crave fresh bread steaming from the oven, some comfort food after 40 days of locusts and honey, or the wilderness roughage diet? I see this as the temptation of More. Satisfying my every desire will bring happiness. I know it won’t, and I just put myself on the waiting list for a Kindle, so perhaps it’s hypocritical for me to blog about resisting temptation.

2. Throw yourself off the temple spire. Cause a scene, grab some attention, force God to swoop to the rescue. I call this the temptation of Rescue. I throw myself into a precarious situation either, or I’m not paying attention and I fall, or am pushed, and instead of taking care of my mess, doing my healing work, I yell, “Hey God!” (Feel free to substitute your chosen savior or enabler for God, e.g. spouse, parent), “Save me!” usually from my actions and myself.

3. Choose the easy path and you’ll get fame, glory and political power. Head rush galore. I name this the temptation of Influence, or It’s all about me! Secretly, or not so secretly, I want to be worshipped and adored. I want everyone to agree with me, and the world to cooperate and operate according to my agenda.

Jesus doesn’t cave to temptation the way I do frequently. He remains firm in his discernment of God’s desires for his life work. He’s famished but he’s not starving to death, he doesn’t need to use his power to satisfy a whim, he values relationship with God more. And, he won’t hesitate later, though to feed the crowds when they’re hungry. Think a few loaves, a handful of fish, thousands of people, a real need for food. Jesus won’t jump into folly, off the temple or any place else, he’s going to look before he leaps, and leap into something meaningful and deep (let’s hope a body of water, hah!). He’s not going to pursue worship and adoration through power, political or economic. He’s going to do his job, which requires every once of his life force, but he’s doing it for the greater good, not personal gain.

It all happens so fast on paper, but the way I think, temptation isn’t temptation, unless the opportunities and things dangled before you are something you really want––food after a fast, someone to rescue you from your reckless behavior––or provide an out to avoid your biggest fears or terrifyingly hard work. In my experience temptation isn’t a “no thanks” you give to a telemarketer, hang up and go about your day. Temptation rears it’s wooly head when I’m most vulnerable—emotionally, physically, spiritually. Sometimes I can keep my perspective and ask myself, will I be able to live with the consequences if I give into this temptation? No. Will my actions harm other people? Yes. When that happens, I can muster up the strength to say, “Away with you Satan.” But other times I act on impulse and have to muck through the consequences.

In temptation we run smack into the full extent of our humanity. Jesus was successful in his desert dance with the devil. Many of us are not. Although Jesus’ life doesn’t show us an example of temptation as a catalyst to turn our lives around, we can see it in the stories of some of the people he healed, “Go and sin no more,” and transformation is all around us. In my valley a former drug addict and self-described gang banger, met Jesus in jail and now ministers to troubled youth, helping them get off meth and out of gangs. My story is less dramatic, a mid-life crisis, “Who am I apart from my roles and wife and mother,” led to following God’s call to write.

The upside of temptation? Opportunities to examine our motives, our resolve, our deepest selves and our relationship with God and those close to us. Tests, that we can take again and again, unlimited chances to improve our grades. I always liked school, even tests; especially blue book essays…Get out the pen and write.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Writing Prompt 36

Have you experienced an Ash Wednesday service? Do you remember what it felt like to have ashes imposed on your head for the first time? Write about it. Include all your senses.

Or--Think about ashes--from a fireplace, a campfire, a house fire, a person you loved. Write that story.

Ash Wednesday

Soon I will be marked
smudge of ashes
across my forehead
gritty remains of fire
smeared on my skin
a small grating

I don’t absorb them
the soot the meaning
of the moment
as deeply as I desire
What more do I expect
long for as Lent
lengthens before me

Seraphim and the bite
of coal against my lips
the taste of fire
lighting my tongue
searing me into

I am God’s
God is mine
revealed in Jesus
I will never comprehend it

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Writing Workshop March 8

Holy Ink: Telling Our Stories
Writing Workshop
in the Santa Cruz Mountains
Sat. March 8; 9:30 am to 4 pm
Led by Cathy Warner

Explore your life, unearth your memories, name what you know, find the words, tell your story!

Join in a day of writing. We will focus on personal and family stories, life journeys, and spiritual experiences. Sharing is optional and conducted in a supportive environment.

$25 registration includes morning continental breakfast, beverages, snacks and materials.
Bring: lunch (or visit local market/restaurants), journal or notebook & pen, or laptop computer. Held at Cathy’s home in Boulder Creek, Santa Cruz mountains. Lunchtime recreation includes use of hot tub, relaxing in gardens and scenic walks, weather permitting.

United Methodist Advanced Lay speaking credit available on request. “Lay Speakers Tell Stories” text (purchased separately) includes section on writing as ministry.

To pre-register or for more info, email:
Registration Deadline: March 3, 2008. Address & directions will be sent upon registration.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Writing Prompt 35

What do the words from Spirit of the Living God "Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me" conjure up for you?

Forging Ahead

We’re all being hammered down
smashed flat, quivering red and molten
like silver in refiner’s fire

We’re all being punched and pushed
squashed, spun, dizzy and thrown
like clay on potter’s wheel

Maybe we should’ve kept our mouths shut
kept our noses in our books
kept our hands in the dishwater
kept our feet on the gas pedal
kept our lives settled, stable
and possibly, doubtfully, content

But we had to do it, look up from
our circumscribed lives
remove our rose colored glasses
pry our fingers from their death grip
around familiar’s throat
and belt out those words

Melt me, Mold me

Who would’ve known asking for God
would be this messy, this ugly
leaving us purple and bruised
dumped into the unknown
Who would’ve known we’re not in control

Whether we like it or not
whether we admit it or not
God always had hands all over us
fingers poking and prodding
hot breath in our faces
whispering, shouting
when we lost attention

You’re Mine

So there we were and here we are
forging ahead sharpening our trust
kneading our faith

How else are we going to become silver forks
spearing meaty portions of justice for the poor
How else are we going to become clay cooking pots
steaming with hope to feed the hungry

How else are we going to rise up and follow
telling our stories of transformation
from mound of slimy clay to communion cup
from chunk of ore to steeple bell

How else are we going to stare straight
into the world’s face
shift our weight in the Creator’s palms
and cry out

Fill me, Use me

and really mean it

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Writing Prompt 34

Write about rain. Allow the images to soak through you and onto the page.

Praying for Rain, Spiritual and Otherwise

Despite a storm that dumped eleven inches of rain in the San Lorenzo Valley recently, we're still in the midst of a drought. I'm longing for rain, not one big deluge, but days of steady drops that will soak into the ground, fill our streams and reservoirs and nurture our land and spirits back to life.


Once you were a nomad
parched dry, sunburned and chap-lipped
limping through the Mojave
with a broken compass
and a bag of gorp.

Then something, you don’t want to call it God
rained on you and in you
drenching the bone dry well of you
with something that hydrated
from the inside out.
You’ve heard it called living water.
Whether or not that’s true
you were never thirsty
in the same way, after that.

When your mother died
you worried that you’d dehydrate
were afraid to watch yourself shrivel.
But there was enough water.
Enough for the tears you needed to cry
and enough to keep you afloat.

You always knew you were grateful
but it seemed a private matter
one that lacked image or words
until the hundred-degree day your children
begged to run through the hose.

You turned the faucet and stood barefoot on the front lawn
thumb arcing the water into a bracing rainbow
and they raced back and forth through the spray
arms held to the sky, a squealing trinity
blades of wet grass plastered to their ankles.

It was then that you stepped away from yourself
one step closer to the flood.
You turned up your face and felt drops baptize your forehead.
Thank you you said to the force in the universe
and knew it was well pleased.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Writing Prompt 33

How does it feel to know you are God's beloved? Write about a time you experienced that love, or of your search for it.

Come to the Jordan

Come with me to the Jordan River, full of the repentant, wet to their chests in the cold muddy water. Today Jesus is here, wading into it all, eager to immerse himself. Over the riverside commotion, I heard him say that it is love, not law, that rules. That got everyone’s attention. There will be questions, debates, accusations. Soon Jesus will be struggling time and again, talking in parables, riddles, words that won’t always make sense; using all his creativity to explain God’s desire. His friends, his followers, his critics, his enemies, the curious, me; we just won’t get it. This Jesus, he’s going to walk where no one has walked before. He’s going to walk on water and people will follow. We’ll follow because he’s not afraid. His confidence will never fade, even at his death. His faith clings to him like skin; there is no division between them. This fearless faith calls us to follow.

We will leave the familiar and open our lives, our minds, our bodies and souls to experience God anew. Now God sends a dove, a sign, and speaks in Jesus’ ear. If you listen closely, you can hear it too. “This is my child,” God says. “This is my child, my beloved.” We are silent, breath held, and the air crackles with affirmation. “This is my child, my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Now Jesus knows, once and for eternity, his ministry, his mission. I see the emotions play across his face. He is relieved and energized and filled with joy and swept away with feeling so deep and wordless that he weeps. The crowd, we kneel in the water with Jesus, waiting for God to pour over us, cleansing that same deep place. We make no effort to wipe away the tears streaming into the Jordan, his, mine, ours.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Writing Prompt 32

Meditate on Psalm 46:1

Be still and know that I am God.

Meditate, with a pen or keyboard, focusing on each word in the sentence separately and writing a brief response.

Or meditate by removing the last word from the line, until you have reached Be.

Be Still and Know

I'm tempted in the new year to make resolution upon resolution--exercise more, write more, read more, especially the Bible and devotionals, pray more and better, follow through on all the half finished projects from last year, cook from scratch more often, keep the house cleaner. The list can be endless, and my ability to fail to maintain the busy-ness guaranteed.

Instead of more, perhaps what I need is less. To be still. My meditation on this line from the Psalms:

Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46:1

Be still and know that I am…
The one who claimed you, taking you to my heart so that you might have hope.

Be still and know that I…
Have plans that will fuel your dreams and bring you always ever closer to me.

Be still and know that…
You will discover your place in and ministry to this beautiful and brittle world.

Be still and know…
That I’m a commando of love. Be amazed at where and how I will reveal myself.

Be still and…
Sit down and shut up, sometimes. I want your attention. I want your intention.

Be still…
You are a thing of beauty and I have given you seasons. A time to bloom, a time to fade, a time to wither and be pruned, a time to be small and turned in upon yourself, and a time for rebirth.

Just be.