“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” – Indiana Jones in The Raiders of the Lost Ark

 As long as I can remember I’ve been afraid of snakes in all sorts of totally rational and completely off the wall ways. It turns out there may be some good there, in the snakes, not the fear. Follow me now…

In the Spring of 1991, as a high school freshman, I was confirmed at Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church in Richardson, TX. Many of us were given a gift from our parents that day- most in a small gray box with a blue flannel pouch inside- from James Avery Jewelers.  I was going through what we affectionately refer to now as my “black phase”- meant to describe my clothing more than my mood. I wanted nothing to do with delicate, dainty religious jewelry. I chose this chunky silver fish ring as my gift. Image

I love it. When I find someone who has that same ring I feel an instant connection. I have worn that ring on my right hand ring finger almost exclusively for the past 21 years (wow- that’s a long time!). The fish is a simple symbol for Christ- with a great history of how it’s been used since the early church to identify those who follow Jesus Christ. I am sad to say how many times someone has asked me if I was a Pisces after seeing the ring.  At least it has been an opportunity to share some of my story when they ask.

While in Scotland this summer I wanted to get a piece of jewelry as a souvenir and a reminder of this year. I’ve been lightheartedly calling 2012 “The Year of Camille”- physically, spiritually, vocationally- I have been doing a lot of work on me. Spending time on the Isle of Iona in some ways felt like a celebration or confirmation of the work I’ve been doing. And not only did I want a souvenir, because I like that kind of stuff, but I also wanted a physical reminder of this work. I found a ring I loved made by the silversmiths of Aosdanna on Iona (www.aosdanaiona.com/aosdana_traditional_jewellery/). I was hesitant to get it because it would mean replacing my old confirmation fish ring. Some conversations with my fellow travelers showed me that this would be the perfect new confirmation symbol.  So I got the ring. And then I read the little informational card that came with it. I thought it was simply a delicate design of intertwining Celtic lines and curves. It turns out those lines are snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?

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One particular encounter with a snake will always stay with me and only recently has come to remind me of my strength in the face of my fears. In the Summer of 1995 I was a counselor at Grace Presbytery’s summer camp at Prairie Valley in Central Texas. One day I was leading a creek walk with a group of young campers. Our volunteer for the week was at the end of the line ensuring we didn’t lose anyone along the way. About a third of the way through our walk I announced that it was time to turn around and head back to the dining hall for the next activity. Michael, my colleague at the end of the pack, gave me a look like I was crazy- we had plenty of time. What no one else knew then was that I saw, about 4 feet in front of us, a water moccasin. We had been trained to distinguish between cotton mouths and just plain old black water snakes. I knew what I saw. In my book all snakes are bad and should be avoided, but these guys are especially bad. With a calm that I never would have guessed I had in me I quietly turned around and led the group back out of the creek and out of danger. There was a strength and peace there that I don’t always believe I have access to.  If I had been alone or with only peers I probably would have either been paralyzed with fear or run crying and screaming like a baby.

This story reminds me that in the face of my worst fears, real dangers, I can make good choices and fear doesn’t have to control me. I think the problem with the world today, and perhaps throughout human history, is that we are more often motivated by our fears than our hopes. 

So now I have this ring on my finger with snakes on it.  According to the card from the jewelry shop “In Celtic mythology the serpent symbolizes renewal of life, while the interlacement they form represents eternity.”  Who would have ever thought a snake would be a symbol for something good? Now I have a reminder not only of my time on Iona, but also of the possibility of renewed life. And I have a reminder that I don’t have to live motivated by my fears.  Like Indiana Jones, I still hate snakes. I’m still afraid of them, even pictures of them in books. But fear doesn’t get the last word. I now have, in sterling silver, a reminder of the hope, strength and peace within me, a reminder of who I am as a beloved child of God, a mother, a wife, a pastor, and a friend.

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A Guest Post

My friend Neely Stansell-Simpson is a writer with a beautiful and thoughtful blog called Glimpsing God. She is one of the folks who encouraged me to write this stuff down and share it.  My guest post on her site went up today. I was a little nervous about putting it out there, but so far so good.

Here’s the link to my post over there (does this turn it into one of the Escher-like never-ending blogs?)

http://glimpsinggod.com/2012/09/06/glimpsing-god-in-community-holy-and-one/

I highly recommend reading Neely’s posts too while you are over there. I dare you not to laugh or cry as you read her words.

A Report on the Iona Wild Goose Worship Week

A Letter to the Congregation After My Trip to Scotland

Dear Friends,

I have just returned from an amazing trip to Scotland and I’d like to share a bit of a report and some reflections on my time away. When I first heard about the Iona Community over 15 years ago I knew I wanted to go there someday and I finally got my chance. My best friend, Liz, is also a Presbyterian pastor, serving in New Jersey with her husband, Scott.  Since Scott is a native of Glasgow and a member of the Iona Community I asked them if I could join them if they ever took a group over there and this was the year. I met up with them, 6 members of their congregation, and 2 other pastors in Newark and we journeyed together for a few days in Glasgow and a week at the Iona Abbey.

The Isle of Iona is a small island off the west coast of Scotland, where in 563 Columba founded a Celtic monastery that was very influential in its own times. In the middle ages it was the site of a Benedictine abbey and over the centuries has attracted many thousands of people on their own pilgrim journeys. The Iona Community, founded in 1938 by the Rev George MacLeod, then a parish minister in Glasgow is an ecumenical Christian community that is committed to seeking new ways of living the Gospel in today’s world.

I was privileged to be able to participate in an event led by the Wild Goose Resource Group and invited experts in “participative liturgical renovation”. Through plenary sessions, Bible study and workshops we looked at how the places where we worship contribute to the worship experience. We explored creative ways to use space, art, music, participation and liturgy to help people worship God in new, faithful, meaningful and appropriate ways. One of the most significant and moving aspects of my time there was getting to join in singing led by John Bell. Having experienced him in other conference settings it was real gift to sit in a room with him and about 40 others as he led us in simple harmonies and melodies that touched the heart.  Then, when the congregation filled the Abbey each morning and evening for worship the words spoken and sung were stirring.

Part of living in the Abbey is committing to be a part of the community while you are there. Together with the 50 others staying in the Abbey from the US, the UK and Europe, we ate meals around table and shared in the tasks of daily living. I was surprised by the joy I found in joining in that work. We were divided into teams responsible for setting up, serving, and cleaning up meals. We were also all assigned a particular chore to do each morning after worship, such as chopping vegetables, scrubbing toilets or mopping floors. The work contributed to the feeling of connection and community and carried through to our worship and our learning.

Each week volunteers a the Abbey lead a 7 mile pilgrimage on the island. This pilgrimage took us through muddy bogs, up rocky hills, down into a marble quarry, onto the beach of Columba Bay, and even through a golf course unlike any I’ve seen before (imagine cows and sheep grazing on the greens). At each of the eleven stops along the way we read scripture, heard reflections, and joined in prayer. Daniel, the leader of our group, liked to sing so at several points our stops also including singing. When we reached the highest point of our journey we joined in “Over My Head (I Hear Music In the Air)” and when we ended our journey in St. Oran’s chapel at the Abbey we all sang a beautiful chorus of “Alleluia!”

George MacLeod described Iona as a “thin place” – only a tissue paper separating the material from the spiritual. To spend some time in such a historic, beautiful and inspiring setting is to be open to challenge and the exploration of new horizons. That was certainly my experience and now I know why so many people return to Iona again and again.

Now I will try to recover from jetlag and a long, crazy travel day as I sort through the notes, books, songs and thoughts I’ve brought back with me.  I am grateful that this congregation gives me the time and some funds to be able to take this kind of trip. Thank you for that. I am also grateful beyond measure to serve in a congregation that already is open to thoughtful, faithful, diverse ways of worshipping God in both contemporary and more traditional settings. As I was reminded by some of the other participants that week, that is not always the case.  I look forward to sharing more of what I learned and experienced with you all.

Peace,

Camille