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Now that I know what I am

A couple of weeks ago, a longstanding member of our church passed away after a chronic illness. As arrangements were being made for her memorial, her husband called me up and said my name appeared on one of the cards she used to outline her final wishes. He said it must have something to do with the music but there was no other information and did I have any idea what she might have wanted. I didn’t. Well, would I mind co-ordinating the music for her memorial with the minister, the funeral director, and the choir director? No problem!

He sounded so relieved.

Little did I know how much work was going to have to be done in such a short amount of time, but I like this kind of organizational stuff, and I’m good at it. The memorial was lovely, and an eighteen member choir sang her home. Apparently, it’s a rare thing for a choir to sing at the funeral home, but then, we’re quite a rare choir. :-)

Only a few days later another longstanding member of our congregation passed and I received a call from a member of our Session asking if I would perform the service.

I gulped.

“I’ve never done a funeral,” I reminded her.

“Mm hm. But you’ve done lots of services for us. This is not so different. Our Interim Moderator can’t make it, and if we get a minister to take it, he won’t have known A. You did. I think the family would prefer someone who knew him take the service.”

“Well, if it’s OK with the family…alright.”

And I flew into organization mode once again. First, I needed an Order of Service. Our former pastor gave me an ancient Manual of Forms before he retired, which I liked for the language – all “thee’s” and “thou’s”. Surely I could find a good funeral service in its pages. Well, I found the funeral service alright, but… “Mortals born of woman are few of days and full of trouble.” And the final judgement. And sin. And more judgement. And on and on. Yeesh!

“How’s it going,” The Mister wanted to know.

“I need to find an Order of Service that doesn’t make me want to kill myself,” I replied.

“Don’t you have a minister friend in New York? Maybe she could help.”

“Yes! Yes! Yes! And just where were you two hours ago?” I asked, rushing past him to my computer.

“In the kitchen. We’re low on peanuts by the way.”

My minister friend recommended the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. I didn’t know Presbyterians had a Book of Common Worship, (sounded more like an Anglican thing to me) but just before I put a rush order on it, I checked the internet on the off-chance some good soul had put at least some parts of it online.

Praise be! They did! I flipped to the funeral service – eternal rest, angels surrounding, saints greeting, blessedness, homecoming, joy.

Now you’re talkin’ my language!” I wrote the Order of Service in one sitting, er, maybe two, and the sermon in a scant two days. (New personal record!) Then it was off to the funeral home for the visitation of another friend of ours, the fourth to pass in as many weeks. While I was there, I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask the director a few questions. She wasn’t available, but there were three women staff members, all of a certain age, whom I’m sure their coworkers must refer to as “the Aunties,” at least in secret if not to their faces. Gracious, kindly, and eager to help, I know they were biting their tongues not to call me “dear,” and “darling.” It was all I could do not to hug the stuffing out of them!

Before I left, one of them said, “Would you like to see A’s memorial card? I’ll get you his memorial card. Now wait right there! I’ll be back with his memorial card!”

I opened it and discovered they’d listed me as “Clergy.” But lest I’d become too puffed up over my sudden elevation in ecclesiastical status, I noticed they’d spelled my name wrong.

In two places.

Three, if you count the missing hyphen.

I folded my lips between my teeth to keep from smiling.

“Are you going to mention this tomorrow from the pulpit?” The Mister asked at breakfast the next morning.

“Yeah, I’d better. I don’t want to mislead. I won’t go into a lot of detail, I’ll just say that I’m a sometime guest preacher at St. Andrew’s…”

“No you’re not.”

“Beg pardon?”

“You’re not a guest preacher. That’s what we’ve got going now – a different face in the pulpit every week until we find a new pastor. These preachers don’t know us and won’t get to know us. You’re not a guest preacher. You’re a lay preacher and you minister at St. Andrew’s and have for years.”

I sat down slowly.

“A lay preacher,” I repeated. “I’ve never thought of myself that way. I just felt I had the words “In case of emergency,” stamped on my forehead and…”

“Oh, that’s still there. Sure, when there’s a crisis, people are more likely to call on you, but that doesn’t make you a guest in your own church. You’re a lay preacher.”

Huh. Fancy that.

For years I’ve struggled to define my role in the church. “No, I’m not clergy. Yes, I went to theological college but in a different, much different denomination. So just put me down as guest preacher.”

But now, clarity.

A family member came up to me after the service, thanked me, and gave me an envelope. It was addressed, “Minister.” When no one was looking, I crossed that out and wrote, “Lay Preacher. St. Andrew’s Church. Penny-Anne Beaudoin.”

Mind the spelling.

And don’t forget the hyphen. :-)

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Writing poetry in the heart of hell

God speaks to me in a multitude of ways – synchronicities, dance (watching it, not doing it), the occasional license plate, the occasional sermon, dreams – but by far the most frequent avenue used by the Divine to get a word to me is books.

A little while ago, a dear FB friend, Reverend Lori Knight Whitehouse, sent me an anthology of poetry of eastern and western saints and sages. Daniel Ladinsky, the foremost translator of the works of Hafiz and Rumi, lent his considerable skills to translating the works of St. Francis of Assisi, Kabir, St. Teresa of Avila, Tukaram, St. Catherine of Siena, Mira, St. Thomas Aquinas, Rabia, Meister Eckhart, St. John of The Cross, as well as the aforementioned Hafiz and Rumi, and compiled them all in one volume, Love Poems from God. I haven’t finished the book, and it’s not just because I’m the slowest reader on the planet. I find I keep rereading the poems of certain luminaries…and marvelling.

For instance, I had no idea the poems of St. Teresa, the great reformer of the Carmelite Order, were so unabashedly erotic.

“No one can near God unless He has
prepared a bed for
you.”

And

“When He touches me I clutch the sky’s sheets
the way other
lovers
do…”

Well now!

But even more wondrous are the back stories of these saints, two in particular.

Rabia (717 – 801) was an Islamic saint who was kidnapped and sold to a brothel in her youth where she lived until she was nearly fifty. She perceived the work she was forced to do as a path to spiritual transformation that rendered her guiltless, even precious, in the eyes of Allah. And her poetry is full of light and humour. She gently chides God that he’d better be keeping track of all the bliss he owed her, and muses on how God will worship her in the next life.

But how can she say these things? How can she even think them? She admits her “body is covered with wounds this world made,” but there is no bitterness, no fury, no righteous, justifiable outrage. She sings to me of love and pain and deep happiness as if they were all the same thing, and slays me with quotes like this – “Dear sisters, all we do in this world, whatever happens, is bringing us closer to God.”

To which I say, “Not what you endured. Not that.”

To which she replies, “Yes, sister. Even that.”

To which I say, “Shut up! No more! I cannot bear your words.”

St. John of the Cross is the other poet whose life and work mystify me. Like St. Teresa (whom he met and from whom he derived great inspiration) he committed himself to reforming the male side of the Carmelite order. But like Rabia, he was kidnapped by his confreres on his way to begin his work and imprisoned in a monastery in Toledo, Spain. His brother priests confined him to a small closet in which there was not even enough room to stand up. For nine months he endured tortures and unspeakable debasement. Suffice it to say, the closet possessed no bathroom facilities. His brothers beat him regularly, leaving him permanently disabled. And during this hell, what did John ask for? Mercy? The deliverance of death?

No. A pen and some paper. He was having visions, you see, visitations from God and the Virgin Mother, and he wanted to give them expression through poetry. It was during his imprisonment he composed the first part of his famous Spiritual Canticle.

And if he were here with me today, I’d slap his face.

“What is wrong with you?!” I’d say. “How could you just let all that go?”

Neither in the writings of Rabia nor John is there any rancour expressed towards those who harmed them. On the contrary, they were God’s instruments bringing the saints closer to the Divine, one might say, intimately closer. But I don’t want to hear that. For crying out loud, why don’t they rail against what was done to them, forced on them, taken from them? Didn’t the silence of God devastate them? Even Christ screamed from the Cross, “My God, my God, why?!” Months of beatings, decades of turning tricks should have left them embittered, furious. There is a mystery here, something about the workings of grace, and for reasons I cannot name I don’t want anything to do with it. It’s too big, too much. It will ask too great a price of me. So I’ve stopped up the ears of my heart.

There. You can’t get through. I’m not listening.

And every night, I pick up the book, and read the poems again.

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The things we get passed, but not over

A dear FB friend noticed I hadn’t been posting much on social media, (always nice to be missed), and wondered if everything was copacetic. Indeed it is, and let me allay any other fears out there – I am doing quite well.

Starting last September I became involved in some very intense advocacy work, which has since resolved, and it pushed everything else to the back burner – writing, blogging, and yes, I’m ashamed to admit, self-care. When tests revealed my stomach condition had not improved since last time, I gave my head a shake and resolved to find a way back. A series of dreams encouraged me and I made self-care, especially time for meditation, a priority. And I rediscovered EFT.

Emotional Freedom Technique involves tapping on various meridian lines at the brow line, the temple, under the eye, under the nose, on the chin, the collarbone, under the arms and on the head. It is a way of revisiting past unresolved trauma, honestly acknowledging our emotions, and releasing them. I used it in the past, but never really felt it did me any good. But a few months ago, when I was looking around for ways to manage my stress, EFT kept popping up everywhere I turned. What could it hurt to try it again?

I used it every day except Sunday since I figured that is a day filled with so much grace EFT would just be redundant. :-) I started tapping on small things – I’m nervous about this appointment coming up, I’m angry over this situation, I’m upset over that driver who cut me off and must have got his license out of a box of CrakerJacks! And it felt good to release these emotions instead of letting them fester.

But soon, old memories started to surface, things I thought I’d dealt with, grown out of, whatever. Someone said there are things in life you might get passed but you don’t get over. All that unaddressed baggage ended up back on my doorstep and I knew the choice was deal with it, or stay sick.

OK. The Big Stuff then. Things I said and did to others. Things said and done to me. Deeper and deeper inside. Get it all out. Lance the poison.

One day, I decided to tap on the bullying that followed me for years in elementary and highschool from teachers and classmates alike. To begin an EFT session, you say a set-up statement three times while tapping on the side of your hand. That day, I said something like, “Even though I’m still hurt and angry over the abuse I suffered in school, I deeply and completely accept myself.” That last bit, the “deeply and completely” part, is said in every set-up statement. You voice the problem, and then affirm your self-acceptance. Next I moved on to tap on the meridians.

Within seconds, and to my astonishment, great heaving sobs were wrenching from my throat. The memories came in a torrent – the teachers who terrorized me, the boys who punched me nearly every day. One memory in particular – one of my more frequent tormentors bet me he could pull out a hair and I wouldn’t even feel it. Uh, no thanks. No, really, you won’t even feel it. Painless, huh? Trust me. He gently took a strand of my hair between his forefinger and thumb, then brought his other fist crashing down on my head as he yanked it out.

Son of a bitch was right. I never felt the hair leave my scalp.

I laughed afterwards. Because I was a good sport, you see? I was a good sport. Which put my own name on the list of people I hated.

I roared out my indignation, my hatred, my self-disgust, my confusion. What did I ever do to you? How did I end up a target for your violence for so long? Why could I never tell anyone what was happening? I let it all out using words a lot of people would be surprised I even know. Nothing, NOTHING went unsaid. I called them names and cursed them. “Take a good look you bastards! This is the last time you’ll see me cry over the likes of you!” I wept and swore until I was done, (and tapping the whole time, mind you!)

Then I felt it. The Shift. I heard myself say, “How broken did you have to be to treat me like that?” I’d crossed over to a place where there was a little room between me and the storm of grief I’d just experienced. I caught my breath and told them I had carried them long enough and for the sake of my physical and emotional health I was ready to let them go. I made it clear that in no way did my forgiveness condone one particle of their actions. But I needed to free myself from their burden and this was the only way I knew. I cancelled the debt of each one in turn, wished them well (I have a little prayer for that) and then told them this is as far as you go with me. I’m going on into my future without you.

These memories (and others like them), that I used to quickly push away out of my consciousness, I can look at now without pain. They can’t hurt me any more. And it’s so good to be free of the chains of yesterday. I’m not using EFT as much now that some of the Big Stuff has been dealt with, and when I do it’s sometimes to acknowledge elation or positive emotions. And daily, well, six days a week, I check in with myself to see if there’s anything I need to tap on to make sure nothing’s building up.

If you’re interested in trying EFT, there’s lots of web sites and videos to get you started. And if you’re not, no problem. You’ll know if and when you’re ready.

My wish for you and everyone – peace.

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Sermon – When you come to pray

A couple of years ago, if someone had asked me, “What do you know about prayer?” I would have answered brightly, “Prayer is talking to God.” And if the person asking me was at all sarcastic, as I am, they might have replied with “Well kudos, Penny-Anne, for still being able to quote the catechism you learned when you were, what, six? But in the subsequent 50 plus years, what have you learned about prayer?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? You went to holy school for five years. Didn’t you learn anything about prayer in theological college?”

“Not really. I don’t remember taking any courses in it. But even if they had offered some, I doubt I would have taken them. I mean, a course in prayer sounds kinda boring. And maybe they thought we knew all about prayer before we registered. If they did, they were wrong.”

My prayer life truly did not advance much beyond what I learned as a child. Oh, I was good with praise. I think the human race is hard-wired to praise a Power greater than itself. People write poems and great musical compositions to praise God – the Hallelujah Chorus for instance. And the same thing with gratitude. I find myself giving God thanks all through the day, especially if I try something new on the computer, and it actually works! “Oh thank You, thank You, thank You!”

But petitioning, asking God for stuff, I was still at the level of ‘God bless Mommy; God bless Daddy. God bless this one; God bless that one.’ Like God doesn’t know who needs blessings without me pointing them out? And it got to be stale and dry and it felt like an enormous waste of time. But I didn’t know how to pray any other way.

I also believed that the chances of my prayers being answered were directly proportional to the number of times I said please. “Please grant me this, O Lord, I humbly pray. Oh please, please, please, please, PUH-LEEEEEZE! Amen.” There’s a story in Scripture of a widow who demanded a judge give her her rights. She was so persistent, she wore him down and eventually he gave her what she wanted. I figured, it worked for her… Maybe I too could wear God down by sheer persistence.

Finally, one day, that still small voice in the back of my head, that we all have, said, “Do you know how it makes me feel when you beg?”

“Never thought about it. Not good?”

“No, not good! It’s like I’m some kind of tyrant and you have to come cringing before me and beg me to give you what you need, what’s good for you. Penny-Anne, you don’t trust me.”

And in a rare moment of personal honesty I said, “No. I don’t trust You.” And I want you to understand this was just a couple years ago. So if you have any illusions about how “spiritchul” I am, get rid of them. I have struggled with my faith all my adult life. And I envy, in the sinful sense of the word, those who have that simple childlike faith in God. Because I don’t have it. Faith is something I push against. I doubt. I question. And I talk back to God. I am nobody’s role model.

“No, I don’t trust you,” I said. “You have not proven yourself worthy of my trust. You don’t answer my prayers for myself or my family or friends. You don’t spare us catastrophes. I feel like You won’t listen unless I beg You, and sometimes, many times, not even then! So, prove You’re not a tyrant, and not capricious about answering prayer.”

Whenever I sincerely challenge God like that, there’s always an answer forthcoming, particularly when it’s about something important like my image of God as tyrant, or my ignorance regarding prayer. And very often, because I’m always reading, God’s response will come to me in the form of a book.

I follow the blog of a Doctor Lissa Rankin. She’s a medical doctor who is on an incredible spiritual journey and I find what she has to say is often very helpful in my own spiritual quest. One day, she was recommending a book by Tosha Silver called Outrageous Openness. And there was a representation on the cover of the Divine Feminine – so right there she’s speaking my language. And if that wasn’t enough, the figure was winking at me. How could I resist? I ordered the book right away.

When it arrived, I turned to the back leaf of the dust jacket where the author’s picture is and the little blurb about what she does, and that’s where I learned that Tosha is an astrologer! An astrologer! And a word flashed through my mind – flake! Followed quickly by two more words – total flake! And I thought well there’s seventeen dollars I’ll never get back. And again, that little voice at the back of my head, that we all have, piped up and said, “Are you that arrogant? So arrogant that you think because you’re down on astrologers I must be too? So arrogant that you can’t believe that I could use anyone, ANYONE, to get a message through to your precious little self? Are you really that arrogant?”

Clearly, I’m exactly that arrogant. But I’m not stupid. And I come from good Scottish stock and I’m not spending seventeen bucks on a book I never read. That’s just crazy talk, that is!

In my 61 years on the planet, I’ve read a lot of books. Some were dreadful. Most were pretty good. A few were exceptional. And a handful were life-changing. Outrageous Openness is in that last category. Because of that book, after six decades of life and I don’t know how many years of religious education, I finally learned how to pray.

My fundamental problem with prayer, specifically asking God for stuff, was I didn’t think God was inclined to give it to me without a certain degree of cajoling. And even then I might not get what I wanted because God seemed erratic, and not particularly enamoured of me.

Tosha on the other hand, has this idea, to quote her, that God is an “ardent…suitor who writes us love letters every day that often go unopened.” Not only is God crazy about us, but God is our Source – for everything! So if God loves us and is our Source, is all this love and goodness going to be measured out to us with an eyedropper? No! Like any ardent suitor, God wants to shower us with gifts and good things every day.

So why didn’t that happen more often?

Why did my prayers so frequently go unanswered?

Turns out, it wasn’t God.

It was mah prayers!

Here’s how I used to do it:

Step 1 – Tell God what I need. I need a promotion.

Step 2 – Give God all kinds of suggestions as to how to accomplish this task for me. If you could just make So-and-So retire…If You could make the Department Head recognize my superior abilities…If You could help me make a connection with someone in HR who could help move me up the ladder…

Step 3 – Beg. Oh please, please, please, please, PUH-LEEEEZE!

Step 4 – Repeat Steps 1 through 3 until something happens, and hope it’s something good.

Turns out, I got the first step right.

Step 1 – Tell God what you need. OK. Promotion.

Step 2 – Admit that you don’t always know what’s best for you.

I don’t? Well no, I guess I don’t always. So OK, I want a promotion, but I don’t always know what’s best for me. Now what?

Step 3 – Make an act of trust that God knows what’s best for you, and loves you, and wants your highest good always.

Alrighty. I want a promotion, but I don’t always know what’s best for me. But You, God, You do know what’s best for me, and You love me, and You want my highest good always. That it?

No, one more. Step 4 – Leave the situation in God’s hands and disengage from the outcome.

Whoa! You just lost me there, sister! I don’t want to disengage from the outcome. I want to control the outcome.

Really? You just admitted you don’t always know what’s good for you, but God does. God, the Almighty, All Wise, Creator of the Universe loves you and has your best interests at heart, but no, you want to control the outcome. You, who can’t even control how many potato chips you eat in one sitting, you want to be in charge of how things work out. Is that about right?

Well, put it like that, you make it sound stupid. :-) So what am I supposed to do instead?

Give thanks. Give thanks in advance for however the situation is going to turn out, because whatever happens, you have put yourself in alignment with the will of the God who loves you, so you know, whatever happens, it will be alright.

You might remember a while back a movie called Shakespeare in Love. And there was a running gag in the picture where one character says, “All is lost!” And a second character says, “It will be alright.” And the first character says, “How shall it?!” And the second character says, “I don’t know.” I love that because it shows such great faith! We don’t need to give God suggestions. We don’t need to know the how’s of the circumstances. That’s God’s job.

When we put the situation in God’s hands, when we resist the temptation to force an outcome, to manipulate or control things even with our prayers, when we can give thanks in advance for whatever the outcome will be, we can stop worrying, stop begging, and be at peace. When God is given a free hand to work in our lives, the result is always our highest good.

Even when the outcome is not at all what we wanted, even the opposite of what we wanted.

Do I believe that? Do I believe what I just said? Almost. I’m not there yet, but I’m starting to believe that even if the news is dire, if the outcome looks like a complete disaster, I will be alright. Here’s two examples of why I’m starting to believe this. Just lately I was watching a video of Dr. Christiane Northrup, in which she said that some of her patients actually told her, “I’m glad I had cancer. It saved my life.” Glad you had cancer? What an extraordinary thing to say! I have no doubt they were telling the truth. I just don’t understand how they could say such a thing. It has something to do with faith and trust. But I don’t understand it yet.

And another woman, Carol Bryan, had cosmetic treatments of filler injections in her face that went terribly, terribly wrong. The stuff got into her optic nerve and left her blind in one eye. And she was horribly disfigured. If you’ve ever seen pictures of The Elephant Man, that’s who she reminded me of. The flesh of her forehead started to slip down over her eyes, and she had to tape it back, just so she could see. She endured many excruciating surgeries, one of them seventeen hours long, just to obtain a normal face. She’s advocating now for stricter regulations on cosmetic procedures and she’s encouraging other women considering these treatments, particularly young women, not to let society dictate how they should feel about their looks. In an interview, she said, if she could, she would not change what happened to her. In her own words, “Because regardless of how much I suffered…it gave me a new and worthy calling.”

She wouldn’t change it if she could? That’s the kind of faith I want, to be able to believe so much in the love of God that even in the direst circumstances I would know God is working for my highest good; that even if I must suffer, even if I must walk through hell on earth, I will be alright.

How shall I?

I don’t know.

But God does.

And someday, when I can trust that, it will be enough.

Let’s bow in prayer…

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