Posted by: Sue Spencer | December 3, 2008

Moving into Advent

I spent a lovely Thanksgiving with the Holy Cross brothers at their monastery in West Park on the Hudson. Arrived in time for dinner on Wednesday night and stayed till Saturday morning, when I had to return to Danbury for a late afternoon memorial service.

At Vespers Friday evening, it suddenly occurred to me: this was the Last Vespers of the liturgical year. Saturday evening would be First Vespers of Advent, which in the Christian calendar is the beginning of the new year. I was sorry not to be able to stay for First Vespers, and got in touch with feelings of missing the liturgical calendar.

This is the first Advent since 1998 that I’ve been removed from a liturgical setting. For seven years at First Parish Church, and then for two with CHS, the seasons of the church year were an integral part of our life together. At First Parish, in fact, I often preached on the First Sunday of Advent, since it usually coincided with the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a Sunday generally falling to the Associate Minister. I never minded preaching that Sunday – in fact it was a privilege – and it got me into a reflective spirit for the coming season. This past Sunday, in contrast, I took as a rare “Sunday off” – and it has left me feeling strangely ungrounded.

No doubt I’ll be able to catch up. I do have a tiny set of Advent candles in my prayer corner, and am reading daily from Sam Portaro’s book, Daysprings: Meditations for the Weekdays of Advent, Lent, and Easter. And in church this Sunday, I’m preaching on “The Demons of Advent” (a title borrowed from my friend Victor Carpenter) about the holiday blues, but also about the liturgical year. It hadn’t occurred to me to set up an Advent wreath in this UU congregation until our DRE asked me about it this week. With her encouragement, I’ll do it – reminding myself that there was always an Advent wreath at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, a non-Christian congregation.

Now there’s only one thing left to figure out: Advent is a time for looking inward, for repentance and reflection. In past years, I’ve welcomed the chance to do that this time of year. But after a year that’s been positively saturated in self-reflection and discernment, I hear an inner voice of resistance: “Please – no more of that for a while!” What will I do instead, to move into this season?

Posted by: Sue Spencer | October 17, 2008

Back to Blogging

Finally, I’m feeling settled enough to start blogging again! I forget, from year to year, just how long it takes to unpack after a move, and how UNsettled it feels during the process. Happily, I’m a bit ahead of schedule compared to other moves. It doesn’t hurt that my decision in 2006 to enter a religious community led to a significant paring down of books, clothes, files, etc. Two years later, that paring has enabled me to fit into a two-room condo, whereas before going to community I occupied a small parsonage.

The settling-in process got a boost, at least as far as blogging is concerned, when my attempts to get home Internet service finally bore fruit. I’m now sitting with my laptop in a big comfy chair, watching the sun pour through the red-tinged leaves in the woods behind my building (this has been a great year for foliage!), and figuring out what I want to write.

The main thing is that I’m truly grateful to be back in parish ministry! I did need a break from it, I realize now, and going to CHS gave me the chance for a sabbatical. What surprises me now is how little I miss CHS, though I hold many of the sisters in great affection. It’s as though my memory has put parentheses around the whole experience, making it a small blip on the scope of my life. When a memory does slip though, it tends to catch me up in wonderment: Did I really do that for two years?

Not that the experience hasn’t changed me. Something within those parentheses holds power! Although the extent of the changes remains to be seen, I can tell that an inner shift has taken place, a rearrangement of priorities. Some things that seemed incredibly important three years ago are insignificant now, while others things are coming to the fore. I suspect that unpacking all THAT will take longer than unpacking the boxes has done.

Posted by: Sue Spencer | July 28, 2008

The Lady Truck Driver

My life of leisure is drawing to a close. As of August 1, I am the Interim Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury, Connecticut, located just north of the city center. I’m feeling rested and excited to begin work!

By coincidence – if there is such thing as coincidence – my new post is only a few miles from the Melrose convent. I won’t be free to visit the sisters, but I have made other friends in the area and so won’t be starting from scratch in getting settled.

Two weeks ago, I rented one of those yellow Penske trucks, a 12-footer, paid a young man in the neighborhood to load it with my worldly goods (such as they are), and drove alone from the Cape to Danbury.  Since I’ve rarely driven anything bigger than a Toyota Camry, the thought of driving a truck made me a bit apprehensive, even resulting in middle-of-the-night wakeups (“I’m going to do WHAT??!!).  But I psyched myself for the trip, visualizing a smooth, incident-free ride, and it turned out to be fine – even fun!

I started out about 6 a.m. The standard route to Danbury from the Cape involves several superhighways: I-495, the Mass Pike, and I-84. It’s fast, but not very direct. Only a few miles into it, I discovered that the truck tended to fishtail at 65 mph, so was happy to activate Plan B on slower roads. This involved taking U.S. 44 to Providence, then U.S. 6 to Manchester, CT – a pleasant and pretty drive – before picking up I-84 from Hartford to Danbury. Getting through Providence was a bit of a maze; it may be a blessing that I hit it during rush hour, since what would otherwise be split-second decisions could be made in slow motion.

My favorite moment of the trip came when I stopped for gas in Rhode Island, just short of the CT border. A pretty, middle-aged Hispanic woman was at the cash register. When I went to pay, and asked for Pump 3, her eyes widened: “With the truck?!?” Then, “Well, good for you! I like tough women – like me!!!”

Blessed in that way, I proceeded on, arriving at my new apartment at 12:30. I ate my picnic lunch on the lawn, and before long the congregation’s cheerful and capable Welcoming Team was there to help me unpack.

All in all, a good beginning!

Posted by: Sue Spencer | June 7, 2008

June ’68 to June ’08

Riding into Boston on Tuesday, it suddenly occurred to me that it was a significant anniversary. As the city’s tall buildings came into view from the Southeast Expressway, I realized it had been precisely forty years since I’d started my first full-time job ever – in Boston, on June 3, 1968. Since most of these buildings hadn’t even existed in 1968 – outside downtown, the Boston skyline had boasted only two skyscrapers back then – I’m not sure why they should have sparked this memory, but they did.

June 3, ’68 was a Monday. I had arrived in town two days before from Ann Arbor, Michigan – a new college grad with a B.A. in philosophy. It was a beautiful day as I recall, with the flowering trees in the Public Garden in full bloom. I walked down the hill from my tiny Myrtle Street apartment to begin work at the Beacon Street headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, where I would serve as secretary to two staff members: the director of U.S. programs, and the coordinator of conscientious objector placement. Eventually that job would kindle my feminist consciousness, but right then I was simply happy to have finished school and to have found work.

June 4 was the day of the California primaries. After work, I went over to Cambridge to visit my sister Betsy, who had a spiffy new apartment in Central Square. We had dinner – eggplant parmigiana, spaghetti, and a small bottle of Mateus rose, if memory serves me – and then watched TV as the primary results came in. It was pretty late when we learned of Bobby Kennedy’s victory; I remember listening to his victory speech and then falling asleep on the couch. I woke up the next morning to Betsy’s voice, announcing that Bobby had been shot. Looking back, it’s as though I’d gone to sleep in one kind of world – a world full of hope – and woken up in an entirely different one.

Interesting that 40 years later, I should be back in Cambridge for a few days. And even more interesting that this sad anniversary should coincide with Barack Obama’s clinching the Democratic nomination for president. When Obama gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, I was taken aback: “Wow – this is who should be running for president!” And now, incredibly, he’s the nominee.

With RFK’s assassination, a kind of magic seemed to go out of the political process. Now – although I’m no longer inclined to view presidential candidates as saviors – it seems to have come back in. Rationally or not, a bit of hope that I’d lost forty years ago has been rekindled.

Posted by: Sue Spencer | June 5, 2008

At the monastery

On Tuesday I came to Boston, taking a bus up from the Cape to South Station, and from there the Red Line to Harvard Square. From there it was only a short walk to the SSJE Monastery along the Charles, where I had booked a few days’ retreat. I’m ensconced in the guest house on the third floor, where it’s high enough both to afford a good view of the river, and also to provide a bit of distance from the cars whooshing along Memorial Drive.

It’s good to be back at the monastery, worshiping with the brothers. It’s been startling for me to realize that, in some ways at least, I still feel more at home there than I ever did at CHS. No doubt much of that is due to what’s been called “the Grubb theory of oscillation,” a term introduced to me at an Alban Institute workshop some years ago. According to this theory, human beings have needs both for work and for rest, for productivity and for nurturance, and that they need to oscillate between the two. For clergy, it can be summarized in the question “who ministers to the minister?”

When I worshipped at CHS, it was part of our work, and there was a strong emphasis on learning to “do it right.” At the monastery, in contrast, I’m there to be fed, and mistakes are easily forgiven, if they’re noticed at all. At CHS I always felt somewhat hyper-vigilant during the offices, while at SSJE I can let myself sink into them, and feel the love of God sink into me.

This is a good reminder to myself: It will be important, once I’m back working in the parish, to find another place like the monastery. I’ll need a place where I can worship without having it be my work, where I can be fed so that I can feed others – indeed, where I can be a layperson. Cambridge will be too far away for me to worship at SSJE on a regular basis, but I’m sure another place will present itself, just as it always has.

Posted by: Sue Spencer | May 30, 2008

Regaining my “freedom”?

A woman younger than I, who for a few years has been struggling to discern her call to religious life, told me once that she had a hard time with the thought of losing her freedom. That probably would have been one of my issues a couple of decades ago, but I’m discovering that my perspective has shifted.

Theoretically, I have a lot of “freedom” while I’m on this three-month vacation. I can go where I please, or not go anywhere. I can do as I please, or do nothing at all. I get to choose what books I read, and what movies I watch. I can choose when I get up, and when I go to bed – and in fact I’m grateful for this temporary respite from the alarm clock. But am I more “free” than I was in community? I don’t think so.

To me, freedom is no longer about the absence of restraints. Rather, it’s about pursuing our true calling, to be what we were created to be. One of my divinity school professors, Sharon Parks, used to talk about following our own deepest “I must.” And of course there’s that wonderful phrase in one of the Anglican collects, addressing God as the One “whose service is perfect freedom.”

I do think I was called for a time to be in community – and then I was called out again. In both cases, there was freedom – certainly not perfect freedom, but what I needed at the time.

What I have this summer isn’t freedom, so much as it is a chance to regroup. It’s been a while since I read William Bridges’ Transitions, but I would guess he would say I’m in the “neutral zone” right now. I’m catching up on rest, and especially on alone time (something in short supply in the religious life – a paradox, since so many introverts are drawn to it). The neutral zone is a good and even necessary place for me to be right now – and in that sense it is freeing – but I don’t expect to be any less free in August, when I start back to work, than I am now.

Posted by: Sue Spencer | May 27, 2008

From my perch at the library

It was a long drive to the Cape, with stops along the way, but I arrived at my father’s house at quarter past eleven, a week ago Monday. Since then, I’ve been settling in – unpacking, finding stores, getting a new driver’s license, that sort of thing.

Most important for this blog, I’ve discovered that the very nice local library has free WiFi. Dad’s dial-up is serviceable for e-mail, but too agonizingly slow for much else. So here I sit, in a nice perch on the library’s mezzanine, at a corner table with a pleasant view. Thus far, it’s been available each time I’ve come; we’ll see how it holds up during the summer months when the Cape is a bit more crowded. For now, it feels like the perfect place to sit and reflect on what it means to re-enter what some people (not I, though) have called “the real world.”

Posted by: Sue Spencer | May 19, 2008

Going Home

The last two months have been something of a whirlwind, what with leaving the Community, entering the ministerial search process, and traveling.

I left Melrose at the beginning of May, visited the City Sisters for a few days, and then went out west for a week. Visited some old, good friends in Albuquerque, and then helped the congregation I had served in Salt Lake City celebrate its 25th anniversary. The trip was wonderful, and the Salt Lake celebration was a great way to mark my re-entry into parish ministry.

I’ve spent the last week visiting my sister Mary in the Poconos. Today I drive to my father’s house on Cape Cod, which will be home base until early August. I have an interim ministry position lined up for fall, which I’m very excited about! It will be great to be back in the parish again – after a good summer’s rest.

I do intend to keep this blog going – eventually under a different heading, no doubt. But I’ll have time to sort that out over the summer – once I find myself a good WiFi connection!

Posted by: Sue Spencer | March 27, 2008

Clarity Comes

This blog has been quiet for a while, mainly because I didn’t feel free until recently to “go public” with the turn my discernment has taken. Now that it has crystallized into a decision, and I’ve told the Community about it, I’m free to share.

Someone has defined discernment as “turning down the volume on some voices so that you can hear others.” Our Lenten quiet time proved very deep here. A few weeks into it, a voice within me started coming to the fore, and it seemed to be pointing me back toward parish ministry. One Saturday morning in late February, for example, my first thought upon waking was, “You know, my REAL passion is congregations.” I noted it with interest, but at that point it was only one thought among many.

Over the ensuing weeks, though, the voice became clearer and more insistent. It seemed confirmed by some vivid dreams, such as missing a bus full of women clergy and being very agitated about it. I came to realize how deeply I missed preaching, and congregational life in general. Thoughts like these had come up before, but somehow this time they seemed to carry a different weight – more authority and less emotion.

In March I spoke at length with my spiritual director, and found myself very much at peace with the idea that it was time to move on. Nevertheless, I decided to sit with it through Lent, and not make any irrevocable decisions until after Easter Sunday. We had a wonderful Holy Week and Easter here – I’ll write about it later – but somehow I knew that they would be my last with the community.

Tuesday morning, I met with my mentor, Sr. Catherine Grace, and told her of my decision. She was very supportive, and not entirely surprised. Our thoughts at this point, subject to the community council’s approval, are that I will stay here through April, visit the city sisters in early May, and then take my leave of the community. I have a trip planned to the southwest during the first part of May, and then expect to be back in Massachusetts the middle of that month.

For a long time I’ve been intrigued by the possibilities of doing interim ministry with congregations, and this seems an ideal time to pursue that option. I’m in the midst now of writing essays for my on-line ministerial record, and hope to know by early to mid-summer where I’ll be in September.

I have no regrets whatsoever about my decision to come to community. The last year and a half has been a great experience, and has taught me many things. The work the sisters are doing here at Melrose is brilliant, in my opinion, and I hope to stay in touch after I leave.

Similarly, in no way do I feel that I have “failed” in leaving the religious life. Rather, the discernment process has “succeeded” for me, helping me to come to deeper clarity about my vocation, and to discover that my original call to ministry still seems to be alive and well.

I’ll keep you posted as things develop.

Posted by: Sue Spencer | March 1, 2008

From Sap to Syrup

So! What happens once we’ve collected all that sap? Yesterday I had my first opportunity to see the process all the way through, so let me tell you about it.

Sap is quite perishable, so it’s important to get to work quickly. After harvest, we carry the buckets to the makeshift sugar house on our porch, and pour them through a filter to strain out any debris. From there it goes either into the evaporator, or, if there’s overflow, into a storage barrel. The evaporator is a rectangular, stainless steel tank, approximately four feet long, with a spigot near the bottom. It’s heated from underneath by two propane burners.

Once the sap comes to a boil, it gives off a lovely wall of steam. As it condenses, we add more from the overflow barrels. It’s crucial to monitor the level of liquid, lest we have hard candy in the bottom of the pan. This means that if we start the evaporator late in the day, someone is going to be getting up in the middle of the night to check it.

At some point, after many hours, the concentrated sap is deemed ready to come inside for finishing. We mobilize a bucket brigade (or rather, a soup pot brigade!) to transfer the liquid (which is first put through another set of filters) from porch to kitchen. The stainless steel pots are emptied into the finishing pan, a square, stainless steel pan large enough to cover four burners on the stove. We fire up the burners, and the second evaporation begins. By now, the sap has started to take on the color of syrup.

We monitor the level once in a while, skimming the surface with a small piece of wire screen, and adding any overflow sap to the pan as room becomes available. After a few hours, the liquid lets us know that it’s time to watch more carefully. The signal is a layer of small bubbles on the surface, which tends to start in one corner of the finishing pan, then spread to the other three corners. When we see these, we know that we shouldn’t stray far from the stove.

Gradually the layer of small bubbles spreads. We keep skimming, watching for the moment when they completely cover the surface of the pan. When the surface is entirely covered, the bubbles start to rise dramatically. That’s the signal to count slowly to five, and turn the burners off. The syrup is done!

One person fills the pint jugs, sitting on a small stool by the stove, and pouring from the spigot at the bottom of the finishing pan. Another quickly presses a plastic cap down on each, ensuring a good seal, and lines the finished jugs up to cool. Eventually, we will put tags on the jugs, proclaiming that the syrup contains nothing but “sap, fire, and love.”

Sap, fire, and love, yes – and maybe a bit of patience, as well. All in all, I must say, it’s a deeply satisfying endeavor.

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