Like Moses, Saying Yes to Our Sacred Tasks

The Altar

The Altar

Last September, Emily said, “Tracey, we’re staying in Cleveland for the long haul, because that’s where our friends are.”  She was right. This past Friday, one day before we left for a 24-hour preaching trip to NYC, our tribe brought their vans, trailers, SUVs, hybrid vehicles and spare blankets, moving all of our most prized and valuable possessions —  art, light, music, and plant life — into our new home. It took them 60 minutes.

With grateful hearts and tired bodies, Emily and I took an early morning flight to New York, ate lunch, checked into the hotel, sat down to catch our breath, and then promptly fell asleep for 3 hours.

In the span of one weekend, all of the spiritual milestones in my life had converged. While moving into a home with dementia-friendly retirement potential, I was scheduled to preach in the city and cathedral where I was ordained. The same day, back in Cleveland, my successor, Bernard J. Owens, was being installed as the twelfth Dean of Trinity Cathedral — a new beginning for the church community where Emily and I met, fell in love, and served with joy for nearly two decades.

It seems fitting that the lectionary for my sermon that Sunday was the story of Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, aptly described in David Whyte’s poem “The Opening of Eyes,” below.  

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.
It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.
It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground

— David Whyte from Songs for Coming Home
 ©1984 Many Rivers Press

The Moses story – a profound epic tale –  is about being interrupted by God: encountering the Holy, called by name, given a sacred task, feeling unsure and unworthy, receiving reassurance, and in the end, saying yes.

Moses’ story features all the elements of adventure: exile and exodus; challenge and resistance; excitement and boredom; mistakes and missteps; punishment and reward; courage and fear; anger and compassion; frustration and laughter; atonement, forgiveness, and, ultimately, salvation.

What happened to Moses can happen to each of us – if we are willing, we can find ourselves astonished and opened by the mystery of the divine, as we discover and fall in love with the ground of our being.

Yes, each person’s story is different.  Everyone’s call is unique. But, when God interrupts our lives, we stand on holy ground, sometimes (and sometimes not) aware of the angels all around.

God has profoundly interrupted my life twice.  

The first time was when I met God in a McDonald’s on the corner of 42nd and Madison Avenue in New York City.  It happened 35 years ago, and yet I can remember that moment like it was yesterday.  The Spirit of God gently tapped me on the shoulder, as with the flat of a sword, and claimed me as a beloved child of God.  

This divine voice called me by name, confronted me with my own issues and private wounds, contradicted my dearly held theological beliefs, answered my questions, challenged me to claim my vocation, and reassured me when I protested.  Like Moses, I said yes. I accepted the divine invitation I had received, and I ran with the dream of God for my life through some three decades of parochial and cathedral ministry.

The second interruption occurred on Election Day 2016, when Emily and I sat in a doctor’s office and heard the words: “Tracey, you have early stage dementia, probably caused by Frontotemporal Degeneration.”  

Life, as I knew it, imploded in that doctor’s office. My diagnosis ripped apart the fabric of our lives, disrupted the core of my vocation, and confronted the essence of my identity.  It then drove us into the wilderness of dementia, disability, and discernment. Like many who receive a devastating diagnosis, we sequenced for many months through the Kubler Ross stages of grief - over and over again - like a washing machine cycle - until eventually, I realized that the diagnosis of FTD granted me what the poet Denise Levertov describes as an “honor and a task.”  

In what felt like an eternity to me, but a millisecond to God, “I saw beneath the dark clouds [of my diagnosis] the passing light over the water, and I heard the voice of the world speak out...”  It was calling me to find the meaning, grace, gifts, and wisdom from a life impacted by dementia, to speak about it from the inside out, to become, in the words of my fellow pilgrim Greg O’Brien, “a torchbearer to curse the darkness of dementia and shine a light on its path.”

Like David Whyte,

“I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart…speaking out loud in the clear air.”

I have no doubt that I am losing the life I’ve always known, but I’m also certain that I am finding a new one.  

Dante opens The Divine Comedy with these words: “In the middle of the journey of my life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, wherein the direct way was lost.  It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear.  It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.”  

He then takes us on an excruciating tour of the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. In his final vision, Dante sees “the beam of the highest light.”  He emerges from “the dark wood, wherein the direct way was lost” to the dazzling light of supreme love and truth, a burning bush that was not consumed.

When I deny the reality of the disease, grieve the lost aspects of my old identity, and resist the emerging aspects of the new me, I get tied up in knots; but when I accept what has died, let go of what has been lost, and celebrate what is being reborn, when I try to love and care for the person who is emerging, I start discovering surprising gifts and strengths, a different kind of balance and a new way of living in the world.  

— Tracey

[1]Holy Ground – transcript from the eCourse, “Gratefulness: Life as a Wholehearted Journey, with David Whyte & Br. David Steindl-Rast” – Session Five.