My daughter Hannah Rose turns 10 today, Sept. 15. Double digits. A whole decade under her belt. Some might think she’s got a flower in her name. But I see it more as a verb.

Hannah rose.

She’s named for Hannah, the mother of Samuel whose story launches the first chapter of the first book of Samuel in the Hebrew scriptures. Hannah is one of two wives. She is the favored one, because she is lovely. But she is also the childless one, a mark of shame in her day, shame of which the jealous second wife relentlessly reminds her.

Hannah’s deepest desire is to bear a son. That’s not surprising. In ancient Israel a barren woman had no future; with no sons and daughters to care for her in old age, she had no security, nothing lasting. Hannah was no vain fool; she knew that to have beauty brought favor only briefly. She knew what could happen when beauty faded or the husband died.

But to have a child, that’s another story.

Each year the family made a pilgrimage to Shiloh to offer sacrifices to God. On one such visit Hannah had had enough. So, “Hannah rose … and presented herself before the Lord” (Samuel 1: 9).

Hannah rose. And with that rising came tears of bitterness so deep that she made no sound. Eli the priest accused her of being drunk. When Hannah told him of her sorrow, he said he hoped God would grant what she had prayed for. Whatever it was. The priest didn’t ask.

Meanwhile, God didn’t have to ask. Because God knew Hannah’s prayer from the outset, and God answered it. Hannah went home, got pregnant and gave birth to the prophet Samuel. Which would be a great story right there, much like other stories of biblical women who miraculously conceived: Sarah, Rebecca, Elizabeth, Mary…

But it doesn’t end there. Hannah cared for her son until he was old enough to be weaned. Then she took Samuel to the house of Eli and presented him to the priest as one dedicated to God. Samuel lived with Eli and his sons from that time on until God called him to be a prophet in his own right, the one who anointed David the king, in fact.

Hannah marked her sacrifice with a song whose tone of triumph echoes in Mary’s Magnificat.

I find it unbelievable. Hannah received her deepest desire, cherished it and nurtured it for a few short years, and then she returned it to God. Not in the way that Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac, as a lamb to the slaughter. Rather Hannah sacrificed the right of a mother to be served by her children, so that her son could instead spend his life in service to God. Hannah’s gratitude was as bottomless as her despair had once been. And what of her security, her future, her purpose? She would bear five more children who would see to that; in the culture of the time that was blessing upon blessing.

Hannah’s story speaks to the power of a desire that is bone-deep and soul-deep. It suggests that Hannah’s determination was also God’s desire.

She may have been brought low by a call that seemed unreachable, but Hannah rose.

Hannah Rose. We chose the name because it has a lovely ring to it. But with it comes a hope that my daughter, too, will be a woman who rises – to embrace her dreams, to pour her desires and sorrows and joys out to God, to bring life and justice into the world, to serve, to lift others, to make a way.

She turns 10 on today, quickly rising from girlhood. She’s already shed her love of the color pink. Her American Girl dolls are in the closet.

It’s an appropriate time to record and post the song  I wrote when she was new, the one about Hannah from the bible. (listen to: Hannah Rose, by Barbara Ballenger, 2000)  My daughter knows the story pretty well, though the names and details have gotten fuzzy.

It’s time to remind her again that Hannah rose. As should we all.

I heard a segment on WNYC’s Radio Lab in March that was so striking,  I knew almost immediately it wanted to be a song.  In songwriting terms, this is like a gem cutter stumbling on a rough diamond – one precut by nature, requiring only a bit of polish and a setting. There are the verses; there is the chorus. It shyly suggests its own melody.

What catches my inner eye and ear at such times is the breathtaking truth of the thing. In this case, ironically, the story was about a lie.

In a brief podcast,  Radio Lab producer Lulu Miller interviewed staff from a nursing home in Düsseldorf, Germany, about a strategy they developed to help residents navigate their confusion about who they are, where they are, or when they are.  Convinced they are children who must get home to waiting parents, or mothers whose children need them, or workers late for their jobs, they urgently try to get where they believe they must go.  And that often means they head out the door and down the street, hoping to catch a bus or train.

So in response, the center built a bus stop right in front of the facility.  The neighbors have been alerted that it’s not a spot to catch public transportation. Rather it’s a place for confused residents to catch up with themselves. As they wait for a bus that never comes, their disorientation gradually passes. They forget why they wanted to leave, and a staff member can gently bring them back inside.

It is a lie, Miller acknowledges.  When staff members suggest to agitated residents that they wait together for the bus, they are misleading them. But they are also participating in a very important truth — the residents’ own unique reality. The bus stop is a very real way station between the worlds that people with dementia traverse. It is an extraordinary act of humility for those who navigate the present so well to acknowledge the dignity of those who aren’t so tightly anchored here.

My father did not have Alzheimer’s Disease, but he did have a massive brain tumor which dramatically changed his sense of reality, and which ultimately took his life at the age of 65.  I was 20 at the time. And I remember so vividly that the prevailing question for me in the year of his decline was how to best interact with, relate to and love the person at hand. For the next 20 years, I would mourn the dad I lost. But in those days that we were together, I found myself wanting to hold on to the man that was there.

And that has been a precious lesson.  To be able to be with someone who doesn’t exactly share your reality may be a skill essential to loving, human relationships. Because if you think about it, none of us really shares the same world. While our sense of what is real, what is true, and what is happening does greatly overlap, it’s also very, very unique, tied to pasts that we do not share and futures that will not be congruent.  Perhaps one of the great skills that emerge from sitting at the bus stop with people with dementia or mental illness, or even people of different cultures, nationalities or physical abilities, is the ability to be comfortable in the presence of other worlds, unfamiliar realities. It is the ability to be at home with mystery, and quite possibly with God.

I wonder, too, if this ability might help us to navigate the great world shift that occurs when someone dies.  At the heart of my faith in the mystery of life, is the conviction that life goes on and on, that realities change dramatically at death, but they do not end.  And yet, in my preoccupation with my own “real” world, so anchored in what I can see and touch and sense, I rarely make an effort to be present to those who have died, who I believe are occupying a reality just on the other side of mine.

But sometimes I do. Last Sunday, for example, I imagined my dad standing next to me in the pew at the new church I’m attending, singing with that robust voice of his, sharing with me an experience that otherwise might be quite lonely. And something in me eased.

Because imagination is not a lie.

Even at its most concrete, our reality is infused with it, decorated with artful props and creative efforts that allow us to make meaning out of what we think we know.   That bus stop built in front of the nursing home in Düsseldorf is just such a leap of imagination and faith.  And I would like to think that it is not just a way to return to “reality,” but might work in both directions.

In fact, I think I would like to sit there awhile. And maybe I might catch up with my father there, if I can wait long enough for my own reality to settle.

Listen to Barb’s song, “The Bus Stop in Front of the Home.”

Listen to the Radio Lab podcast “The Bus Stop.”

June 22 is the feast of Saint Mary of Magdala. Honoring her memory with prayer services and talks and rituals has become a way for many Christians — especially Catholic women — to set her record straight. For centuries her biblical story was misread; she was conflated with Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman who anointed Jesus with costly nard. From there she was misrepresented in sermon and art as a prostitute forgiven by Jesus.

In fact, scripture tells us only a few things:

  • Healed by Jesus, she was among a company of women who supported him and his disciples out of their means. Luke 8:1-3
  • She was among those who witnessed the crucifixion. Mark 15:40, John 19:25
  • She was a witness to Jesus’ resurrection and reported the news to his male followers. John 20:1, Mark 16:9, John 20:18, Luke 24

For this the early church recognized her as the “apostle to the apostles.”

For me she is the patron saint of women wounded by the church, of all who are maligned in order to silence the gospel. And of late she is an apt role model.

Monday my own faith community celebrated Mary of Magdala’s feast day a bit early with prayer, ritual and reflection on her friendship with Jesus. We followed their relationship in terms of the year’s seasons: the springtime of their friendship with its healing and new life; the summertime of their friendship with its heady ministry; the autumn of their friendship as Jesus died on the cross, and the winter of their friendship as Jesus lay in the tomb. I wrote “Magdalena’s Song,” which accompanies this posting, to reflect that symbolism.

Friendship passes through such life cycles — whether it be our friendship with other people, our friendship with Jesus or our friendship with the church. Friendships live and they die, and the best of them, though not all of them, rise again.

Many of us Catholics — those who stay, those who struggle with staying, and those like myself who are leaving sadly — find our own friendship with the church to be stuck in late and bitter autumn right now, even as the summer heat suggests our souls are a bit out of season.

The latest blow is the Vatican’s recent revision of its list of the most grievous sins against the church, its delicta graviora, which now includes both priest pedophilia and the attempted ordination of women, listed in close proximity to one another.

This is familiar territory for those of us who have been longing for women’s ordination, and those of us who are called to the priesthood. For Rome to call us sinners whose transgression is as serious as pedophilia is not new and it’s not surprising. But like the repeated taunting of a playground bully, it wounds. And it pushes people who are holding on to their Catholicism by a thread to loosen their grasp on the fraying string.

Saint Mary of Magdala pray for us.

And what would you pray, Mary, in these trying times?  Perhaps something like this:

“Sweet Jesus! Your body is a wreck! What have they been feeding you? Its members are at war with each other. Some are wounded deeply and need your healing. There are demons that need casting out!

“Bring a little sense to the senseless and ease to those who cling fearfully to convenient myths. Remind them to read their Scriptures and to check their facts. Help them use their heads, and more importantly their hearts.

“Cast the mighty from their thrones, or at least teach them a little humility. Forgive them on the days when they don’t know what they are doing. And flip over some tables on the days they do. Give them the grace to forgive one another. So your Kingdom will come. Because it’s taking it’s own sweet time, if you know what I mean.

I’m telling you this as a friend…. Amen.”

(For more information on how people of faith are honoring Mary of Magdala this week, visit the website of Future Church, an organization that “seeks changes that will provide all Roman Catholics the opportunity to participate fully in Church life and leadership.”)

How is it that my first decade on the planet contains the years I remember most vividly?

I’ve forgotten the names of many of the people I’ve met since,  but I can still remember the phone numbers of the neighborhood girls that I grew up with.  I have a really bad memory for directions in cities I lived in just a few years ago, but I can recall so distinctly the patterns of wallpaper  and the smells of kitchens in our suburban Ohio neighborhood three decades before.  Even in this summer heat, I can summon up the sensation of the thin plastic toboggan beneath me as it shot down the small snowy hill between our houses and dropped onto my driveway. Kick ball games … spanking machines … a crazy fashion show where my friends and I invited the neighbors and modeled each other’s clothes in my backyard — it’s all there in every detail.

Those were superlative years, which we measured in inches (who was tallest) and  in ages (who was oldest).  And they were fueled by firsts — the first to get a Barbie (not to mention a Ken), the first to have a sleepover, the first to own Pong, the first to make it to eighth grade at our Catholic school.

Then almost as suddenly as it began, it ended. We launched ourselves from those houses, while our parents maintained them like beacons awaiting our sporadic returns. Occasionally  we would realign briefly, finding ourselves home over the same holiday. We’d catch up in the yard, add a few more grand kids to the pack, show a few more pictures around. Then go.

“We’re old!” my friend Peg announced as I hugged her before her dad’s memorial service last month. My two sisters and I grew up next door to the Palmers, whose four kids shared the same 10 year spread we did. Now their kids milled throughout the church hall, boys and girls who looked like their parents did back when I remember them most clearly. And we looked like … our parents.

As we reminisced, I was struck by the erratic way time passes and the strange marks it leaves. A decade’s worth of memories are captured in amber, while 30 years vanish in an instant. I couldn’t believe that it had been 15  since Peg’s mom died.  At her funeral I had sung “Even Silence”,  which I had written to describe those experiences so rich that their silence has a melody all its own : talking with a friend through the night, being in love, keeping vigil at a death.  I sang it again for their father’s memorial  in June. Songs, too, move strangely through time.

Driving back to Pennsylvania, my mind swimming with memorials and memories, I wrote “Made it to the River”, capturing in a bit of musical amber that 40-something realization that “our kids are wearing our faces, and our mothers’ hands are coming out our sleeves.”

Maybe the secret is that time slows down for us when we honor it with our closest attention. It flows thick and lazy  when, as kids, we hunker down to give it a good, hard look. Then it shoots past the moment we get distracted. And it leaves responsibilities in its wake. We may think we have grown into disconnected individuals, separated by space and time, no longer allied. But we hold essential parts of one another in our photo albums and our family stories. It’s our lot as friends and neighbors to carry those missing pieces so that we can one day be re-membered, in letters or Facebook posts or funeral lunches.

At those memory-making times, I always forget my camera. But luckily songs make pretty good placeholders, as well as people holders. I hope these will suffice.

When something strikes me as undeniably true, it inevitably becomes a song. Little phrases that suddenly resonate with bits of my life become choruses. Stories that lend themselves to rhythm and rhyme become ballads. And longings that want to be acknowledged  weave their way in and out of verses. This is how I make sense of my struggles, how I understand my own soul better.

So it has been with my call to the priesthood.

Roman Catholic women are not supposed to receive the call.  We should know this, those of us formed by Catholic schools, and years of faithful practice, those of us that profess a deep love of Church and work in her ministries. But more often than not, the education and the practice and the love open windows just above the locked doors.  We are formed to be receptive and attentive and sensitive. And so we hear things. Like God calling.

Who can say when the seed of my desire for ordination was first planted?  I just know it pushed its little shoot up through the ground in 1995 right about the time when the Vatican insisted that its ban on women’s ordination was definitive. End of discussion. That’s when I realized I really wanted to talk about it. And as the consequences for talking got quite serious – women in ministry often lost their jobs for discussing it too publicly – I found myself singing about it.

The song “Deep and Wide”, which I wrote in 1998, began as a reflection on biblical women whose relationships with Jesus transformed not only them, but the Lord himself. I had three good verses: Mary of Magdala’s deliverance from her demons, the Syrophoenician woman’s insistence that gentiles too deserved Jesus’ healing, and the daring banter of the woman at the well.  The song wanted one more verse. It took a little while for me to admit that I was the fourth woman, longing to answer a call whose impossibility and insistence mirrored that of those first century women.

Twelve years later, I’ve finally given in to the deep and the wide.  I made the decision to pursue the call to ordination last year during a Sunday liturgy that was resonant with themes of apostolic call and leave taking.  Since then I’ve been quietly studying the Episcopal faith, while preparing to leave my work in Catholic pastoral ministry and more painfully, the Church that I still love deep and wide. A month ago I gave notice. It’s now public. I call myself a Pre-piscopalian.

And that has given birth to several new songs, all in a tumble after a somewhat dry period.  Of these, “The Fine Line tries hardest to explain, both to myself and others, what lies beneath the move. I’m a bit surprised to find I’m not bitter or angry with the Catholic Church right now – despite its flaws and its current controversies. But I am deeply, deeply sad to go.  And I’m also immensely humbled by the words of blessing and support that so many members of my worshiping community have extended to me. Perhaps my longing isn’t mine alone. They have made me feel more sent to than sent away.  And that has affirmed over and over again the truth in what I’m trying to do.

Which of course, means more songs to come.