Graduation: an end and a beginning

commence (kuh-mens): to initiate, launch, originate, open, arise

I am sitting here in my pajamas on graduation day. My family did not fly in, the stage is silent, the auditorium seats are vacant, no hats tossed in the air.

Even so, this week, I joined the Class of 2020.

This has been a week to remember, I celebrated my 35th wedding anniversary, my 59th birthday, and my Covid19 graduation from Portland Seminary. On Sunday, we will celebrate Mother's Day. Whoever thought it was a good idea to put all of that into one week had lost her mind.

You may have weeks like this in your life; a confluence of streams meeting in one rushing river. Such seasons create breathtaking waterfalls and this one is thrumming in my ears and cascading in my heart. I am still taking it all in, tumbling from the drop.

Back in January, I began with a strong sense of not wanting to finish seminary where I was studying for a Masters of Arts in Spiritual Formation with a track to becoming a Spiritual Director. I still have so much to learn, more than I even knew before I began two years ago. I have been immersed in the Scriptures, the life of the mystics, the facets of spiritual formation and all across denominations, cultures, ethnicities, and deep in the history of Christian spirituality. I had not been taught so much what to think, as how to listen better and ask deeper questions.

When I mentioned this aloud, one of favorite professors reminded me that the word commence means beginning, not ending. In truth, commencement is both the end of one thing and the beginning of another. I might be ending formal classroom work and beginning to practice spiritual direction all the while continuing to learn.

It helps me to list the things I will miss from seminary: hearty discussions, new friends from around the world, authors I have missed discovering on my own, paper deadlines that forced or accelerated learning. It also helps to list what lessons I take with me from this season.

Here are 4 ways attending seminary opened in me what I call a Van Gogh sky. The thing about a Van Gogh sky is the movement of many small, handmade strokes.

In seminary I learned how to:

  1. Walk around inside myself.

I learned that my feelings, while they are not the boss of me, can tell me important things about myself, the world around me, and the Artist God who made us both. Within me are corners that need light, cobwebs that need sweeping, windows that need to be thrown open for fresh air. Every Sunday when looking over my past week, it does not have to be done with harsh flashlight or the vloice of shame run amok. In the words of Richard Foster, I am looking together with my friend Jesus as "a scrutiny of love for my health, my happiness and my healing".

I am not saying I like everything I see within me, but I can say that Jesus and I are doing it together and his grace is both gentle with who I am at the moment and challenging me to live more fully into who he is calling me to becomein the world where he is king. And my becoming is for the flourishing of the whole world.

In the words of Micah 6:8-9,

"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what the LORD requires of you. To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God."

2. Stand tall, Wildflower.

Part of knowing myself is knowing the God who created me in love. I have a place in God's big beautiful story. The big story of the Gospel is not fall/redemption, but creation/fall/redemption. Once I can walk around inside myself without covering up my flaws, but wrapping myself in Christ, then I can walk around in the world with humility, confidence, and mercy.

Do you ever wonder at the rugged humility of our God who is so much higher than us yet willingly stooped so low to bring us home? Psalm 42:12 declares,

"You know me inside and out, you hold me together, you never fail to stand me tall in your presence so I can look you in the eye."

I wrote a six word story about this very thing,

3. Set my wild hope free.

Part of knowing what I am made of is noticing my subtle patterns inside and out inthe world, both those that ring true and those that seem to miss who God created me to be. I could tell you my hope was wild, but then I found myself tempering it to lessen my disappointment. Was I letting my big God be big? Was I hoping against hope? Was I using my Christian imagination to fly in God's kingdom? (Think Jesus' Beatitudes)

Once I realized I might be listening to the voice of shame or lowering my expectations in order not to be disappointed, I caught myself and re-wrote my hope. For example, after receiving a lesser grade than my efforts, I admitted to myself that I wanted more than good grades. I desired learning and living which might include disappointments and failures and that process could still be considered successful learning.

If I had a hope manifesto, it would be,

My hope is wild. I will not tame it just to keep it safe. I will let it roam, roar, and rise to new life in Jesus. My hope is rugged, alive among so many deaths, deep among so many shallows, soaring among so many valleys.

4. Give prayer a big sky.

When the kids were little, we taught them you can talk to God about anything, anytime, anywhere. Over the last several years, I noticed my own prayer life was much smaller than that. I was thirsty to hear what God was saying to me that I had given little space to hear. I realized I needed to add to my idea of prayer the truth that God can talk to me about anything, anytime, anywhere. He wants to and he does, often long before I realize it. The question is, am I listening?

With that lingering question, I broke open my concept of prayer, making room for listening as much or more than talking to God. You could do this in ten thousand ways and ten thousand places. I did it by doodling with watercolors, going on walks, reading poetry, reading the Psalms. I did it by sitting still in the presence of God for at least 15 minutes a day. It is a workout in surrender. It is amazing what small stirring you can feel when you still yourself, body and mind.

In the spirit of Psalm 121, I started going to bed asking the Spirit to talk to me in the night even as I slept. My body was made to rest and sleep is no barrier for God to speak. I went to bed listening and woke up still listening. I trusted whatever God decided, to wake me or not, he was moving all through the night.

Recently, I was wondering aloud to an artist friend of mine if we don't move too quickly past the Holy Spirit "hovering over the waters" as a creative process in the Creation story before God speaks. The Hebrew word "rachap" refers to a stirring up and mothering, in the way a bird cares for and protects of its young, nesting and spreading its wings over them. This brooding bird has notes of tender care, provision, and fierce protection.

I have seen that fierce care where Mike and I like to run along the Willamette River.  High and twiggy, over the nearby baseball field, there is an osprey nest. In the spring, we start our run by checking in on the hawk couple as they make ready for new life. We watch from far below as they soar and circle, carrying twigs and moss to stir up the nest for their eggs. By late April or early May, we observe one of the pair hunting fish along the river and the other one fluttering her wings over babies, crying out until her mate returns with a fish in his pinions.

When we envision our prayer life, I wonder if we can't give it the whole sky. Can we offer our whole life and not merely a list of prayers? In the Message, Psalm 42:8 says,

"Then God promises to love me all day, sings songs all through the night! My life is God's prayer."

Those are my graduation lessons. Maybe one or more of them can be yours. I realize I am not the only one who missed a graduation ceremony in 2020. There are people from preschool to doctoral programs and everyone in between who have not received the celebration they hoped for. Still, we have learned, we have lived and we go forth in the wide world to bless it with our engagement, generosity, and fierce love.

My family is planning a summer celebration and I plan to return to walk with the Class of 2021. In the meantime, let's begin whatever is next and let ourselves be beginners. Let's notice open doors and walk on through. Let's notice what is bubbling within us and rise to meet it.

I send you out in the world in love with my graduation prayer,  

May you go out into this wide world learning to walk around inside yourself, to stand tall, to hope wild hope, and to give your prayers a big sky to grow in for the flourishing of the world. Start today. Amen.

Current books on my bedside table.

This inspired me to read a Psalm each day.
This beautiful book strengthened my practice of Centering Prayer.
A poem a day chosen by a teacher with reason it inspires them to teach.

Purchase any of these books through my links and do good for yourself and me. Happy reading!