Help me, Baby Jesus- you’re my only hope!

stormtrooper-costumes-christmas-coupleA few recent conversations have gotten me to thinking about the large Load of Expectations people carry around with them this season. It’s a bit crazy making, really.  Here are a few:

That I will purchase The Perfect Gift for a someone in my life, and they will love it so much.

That our gathering (family or friends, co-workers, girlfriends, whomever) will be perfect, the stuff of catalog stock photos.  Everyone will say it was the best holiday party ever.

That I will preach the perfect Christmas Eve sermon -or- the church service I attend will renew my faith/inspire me to sell all my goods and give to the poor/make everything that is wrong in my life or the world right.

That the dinner I prepare will make the judges on Top Chef cry with jealousy.

You get the picture.  We need to tone it down because:

You probably cannot afford the perfect gift or there is no way you have time to find the perfect gift.  It is the giving that is important here, and if the recipient of your present doesn’t know that, it’s on them and not on you.

Your gathering will not perfect.  Your family will likely not all get along, and someone might be sullen and someone might drink too much and not in the good way and someone will be disappointed.  Your friends might cancel at the last moment because their kid is throwing up or because they can’t do one more thing.

Something will go wrong with your dinner – the turkey might be overcooked (which, admittedly, is better than being undercooked). The person in charge of the wine might bring something dreadful.  The souffle might fall.

So let me ask: why are we doing all of this?

If you are a religious person, particularly a religious person who identifies with the Jesus people, you are doing this for Jesus and not for anyone else.  So if you think Jesus will be disappointed with you because you did not give your father-in-law the matching tie and pocket square that he wanted, you are wrong.  Jesus does not care about the presents you give or receive.  The Wise Men thing?  About honoring a king, not about making Mary and Joseph happy that the neighbors did the right thing.

If you are not a religious person, there could be many reasons you are doing this.  I am a religious person and always have been, so I’m not entirely sure.  But you might be joining in on all the holiday stuff because the sun sets too early and rises too late in this season and you need to add a little cheer to the gray dreary days.  You may be doing the holiday thing because you have time off from work and everyone else is doing it.  You may be doing it because you think it adds some good to a world that’s hurting.

Here is what I know:

That some people will be disappointed no matter what.  They have unrealistic expectations of you, or of the church, or of this season.  You are not responsible for their disappointment.

And some people will be sad or depressed in this season no matter how much cheer and twinkly lights surround them.  They have good reason to be sad.  They’re not getting enough vitamin D this time of year.  This is their first Christmas without their beloved and frankly, it sucks.  They are staring down cancer or ALS and wondering if this December is their last.  Their family won’t fight because their family won’t be together, for whatever reason.

The world is a mess and our country is a mess and that’s always been the case.  There has never been a time when everything was okay.  Everything will not be okay this Christmas, and to expect that it will be is to set yourself up for disappointment.  But that doesn’t mean there can’t be some good in the midst of the sad.  That doesn’t mean there can’t be some hope in the midst of all that is dreary and awful.

For some of us, Baby Jesus is our only hope – the hope that God did not give up on the world when it was a mess but instead came to the world because it was a mess in order to start getting it cleaned up a little.  If you’re doing all this because you’re a religious person, you might want to keep that in mind.

I suppose others find hope in other place – in the potential of good in the human heart, in that long arc of history that bends every so slowly toward justice, hope that there have been cures and ceasefires and confessions and pardons and there will be again.

Maybe Leonard Cohen said it best:

Ring the bells that can still ring.SONY DSC

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

On poverty

Last week I went to the dentist to have a little problem fixed; my bill, after insurance was figured in, was $963.  I put it on my Discover card and consoled myself that at least I would get a little cashback bonus for my trouble.  And then I got to thinking: I have dental insurance and a credit card and a decent paying job, but $963 does make a dent.  What do people do who don’t have dental insurance, or credit cards, or decent paying jobs?

They don’t get their teeth fixed.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about poverty, the cousin of racism.  I know many people in my various circles of family, friends, and church who will not hear one more word about white privilege, racism, or any of it.  I don’t agree with their position, but I also know that however eloquently or loudly people proclaim their message, others simple will not hear it.

But I wonder if these same people who will not hear one more word about racism will listen to a word about poverty.  I think the two are very much entwined, though poverty may cast a wider net.  I think as much as we have a problem with racism in this nation, we also have a problem dealing with the reality of poverty.  I am not an economist, a social scientist, or a psychiatrist, but I do read a little in these areas.  I am a pastor in a faith tradition that teaches that we must always have special consideration of the poor, who will always be with us and who will always rely on our goodness or guilt or generosity.  Some friends would say that Jesus has put this on my heart this season, and so I share my thinking with you.

Walmart-strikers-food-bin-return-e1416863017929I think about those Walmart workers who are not paid a living wage, who gave back the food donated to them at Thanksgiving saying they would rather have a raise than a turkey.  I think about the Walton family’s wealth.  I think about the discrepancy between what a CEO makes and what the janitor makes.  The figures don’t add up.

A recent study showed that there is a point at which more income does not equate to more happiness.  “Emotional well-being also rises with… income, but there is no further progress beyond an annual income of ~$75,000. Low income exacerbates the emotional pain associated with such misfortunes as divorce, ill health, and being alone. We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being.”  (http://www.pnas.org/content/107/38/16489.abstract)

I think about the cycle of poverty.  Brain research has shown how brains under stress get rewired.  Children who live under the stress of poverty, food insecurity, abuse, and other factors essentially run the risk of having their brains rewired.  They get stuck in the “fight or flight” response mode.  Toxic stress also cause long term physical damage as well.  Harvard University has done great work on the developing child, and I commend their research to you. (http://developingchild.harvard.edu/key_concepts/toxic_stress_response/)

I think about world poverty.  After the nation of Liberia ended a fourteen-year civil war, there were only five doctors there to care for four million people.  Ebola has ravaged parts of west Africa because the poverty there has insured inadequate medical care, sanitation, communication, and support systems.  What is fueling the so-called immigrant crisis on our U.S. southern borders?  Poverty, in part, in Central American countries.  Violence, corruption, and crime also play their part, but those might all be rooted in poverty.

Last week I attended a meeting of city officials, housing department staff, and religious leaders in my part of the city to talk about undoing and repairing the effects of gentrification in North and NE Portland.  Some of that is tied to Portland’s shameful history with regards to the African American community here, displaced three times in the twentieth century.  But some of it is tied to the gap between poverty and wealth in this community.

It’s no coincidence this is on my heart in December, this month when we spend so much money on things, and some money on organizations that help people.  It’s also a month when many non-profits received a good portion of their annual donations as people take advantage of the tax credit available through charitable giving.  In our little family, we spend more on ourselves than we do on others, but we do give some money – to our church’s Angel Tree project, to Habitat for Humanity, to Heifer International.  My parents asked that this year our present to them be a gift to their church’s school in Haiti.  They know they don’t need one more thing.

I am no communist.  I don’t think we should all throw all we have into a big pot and everyone gets an equal share.  (Sorry, disciples in Acts 2.)  But I do wonder how much is enough.  I wonder what would happen if some gave up a bit of their abundance – would that help another get out of some of their poverty?

Faces-Poverty

Putting the “vent” back in “Advent”

Advent is upon us, and I’m just not feeling it this year.  Granted, it is only the second day of Advent, it’s only December 1, but I’m not sure I can muster up all the mystery and purple and candles again this year.

Yesterday I heard myself say in my sermon something about making our hearts ready to receive the Christ Child this season.  I said it yesterday as I have said it every Advent for the last twenty-one years.  And tonight while I was doing the dishes I realized that I haven’t the foggiest idea what I mean by that.

Every liturgical season has its church-speak.  Some of my favorites: Transfiguration, when He was “changed from glory into glory.”  Easter as we leave the cross and face the beauty of the empty tomb.  Pentecost, when God set our hearts on fire.  Lent, as we make our way to Calvary/Golgotha/the cross.  And Advent, when we prepare our hearts to receive the Little Lord Jesus.

LittleLordSuit“Little Lord Jesus” makes me think of Little Lord Fauntleroy which I’m pretty sure is not an incarnation of anything divine; Jesus in satin knickers, a ruffly pirate blouse, and pilgrim shoes with buckles.  I do not want to make my heart ready for that.

NowI can be as awestruck as the next person by a baby.  I love to think deeply about the theology of the incarnation, the foolishness of God who chose to take on human flesh.  But making my heart ready for baby Jesus?  Or really, making my heart ready for anything?  What the hell does that mean?  It probably means I shouldn’t use the word “hell.”

Does it mean I’m supposed to be nicer to people this season?  Does it mean I’m supposed to be very generous?  Does it mean I should confess all my sins?  (As if there were time for that in this busy season.)  Does it mean I rid myself of impure thoughts?  Does it mean I wake at 4 every morning to meditate on Christ?  Does it mean I look for ways to tell people about the Good News?

The problem is that my heart is unreachable.  It’s not that I don’t feel; it’s not that I don’t respond emotionally to the sorrows of the world.  It’s not some things don’t hit me in the gut because they do.  It’s that the heart as a metaphor isn’t working for me right now.  Maybe it’s cardiac overload.  Maybe it was the cheesy Christmas carols I heard while in the dentist chair today having my teeth cleaned.

I know how to get my house ready for Christmas: move the desk, put up the tree and lights, figure out where to put the Christmas and holiday cards that come in.  I know how to get the church ready for Advent: know who is leading worship when and figure out the logistics of the candles lighting and blanket brigade.  Write the candle liturgy.  Thank the volunteers.  Pick the right balance of Advent and Christmas hymns.  Be sensitive to those who are having a hard time because it’s Christmas.  Wear purple on Sunday, red for parties.

But I don’t know how to get my heart ready for Jesus.  So I’m not going to worry about it anymore.

olyhInstead, this year, I think I’ll make my hands ready for Incarnation.  They will be ready to type words that are as true as I can make them, about God and this weird life we’re called to.  They will be ready to hold the hand of the woman whose Christmas is her first as a widow.  They will be ready to wrap presents for the family whose name we pick in our giving program. They will be ready to chop and dice and stir the soup I’ll make fpr the volunteer thank-you lunch.  They will take up the green pen to address the Christmas cards, and they will wrap about my sweet girl on Christmas morning when she gets up early, excited because it’s Christmas, excited because it’s a day we have together as a family and no one has to be at work.

You get your hearts ready, and I’ll get my hands ready, and if we don’t, Jesus will come anyway.

Whatever that means….

 

Verklempt at the airport

Departures-and-Arrivals-BoardLast week I was meeting my mom at the airport, and I was sitting in this nice little waiting area just outside security.  I was a tad early, but I’d forgotten my readers, so since I couldn’t check up on my email and Facebook while waiting, I people-watched instead.  It didn’t take long to be mesmerized by a dad holding his young baby boy.  The child was maybe two months old, dressed in a darling little outfit that only a two-month-old can really pull off.  The dad was very sweet, and stood at the front of the waiting space, tender and eager.

I imagined who it was that he waited for.  Had mom gone away on a business trip, her first time away from her baby?  Did Dad know how anxious she would be to see her sweet child?  Or maybe Grandma and Grandpa were coming for Thanksgiving, and were meeting their grandson for the first time.  I did hope that the child’s awaited beloved would show up before my mom did, because I really wanted to see how the vignette would end.  (Although I could have easily convinced my infant-loving mother to stay and watch with me.)

And then the infant’s beloved showed up – a guy about the same age as the dad, bald in the cool-white-dude sort of way.  I don’t think he was the baby’s other dad, because it was clearly the first time the infant and adult had met.  I didn’t notice a resemblance between the two men, so I don’t think he was the uncle. The bald dude said hi to the dad and then went straight to the baby.  He held him and cradled him and rubbed his twin bald head and was so very, very delighted to meet this new little creature.  I could have stood there and watched them all day, the pure joy of the scene.

Fortunately – I guess  – I noticed that my mom was walking by looking for me, so I left my sweet scene and had my own little reunion.  It was not our first meeting, the first time a fifty-something and a seventy-something gazed into each others eyes.  A quick hug and kiss on the cheek was our version of the cradling and the rubbing of the head.

If airport walls could talk….  If a physical structure can hold the emotions of millions, imagine the feelings ingrained in the drywall.  All those goodbyes, some forever.  All those trips to go to a bedside, or a funeral, or a wedding, or a birth, or a courtroom, or a commencement.  All those reunions of lovers, of families, of old friends, of college roommates, of BFFs.  Fear, too, in those walls, and excitement.  It’s a wonder rebar and steel beams can bear the weight.

The holiday season will add to the airport walls, travelers heading out or coming home or getting away.  If I were among them this year (though I am not) I might leave my readers at home so I have nothing to do but watch the people, and get choked up, and be grateful.

Traveling mercies.

The Kindness Place

acts_of_kindness_--necklace_7eb95eceA few weeks ago a child at church came into worship near tears.  Her feelings had been hurt because she perceived that a couple of other kids had purposely excluded her from something.  Normally I would probably not have been aware of any of this but the sad child was my own.  She sat down in the front pew and curled herself up into a little ball.  It was one of those moments when I decided to be mom and not pastor.  I sat with her and cuddled her and tried very hard not to give the other children the stink-eye.  By the time the first hymn started she was okay and life went on.

Kids will be kids and I know that when two kids are gathered, fun ensues, and when three kids are gathered, one of them usually ends up feeling left out.  I harbor no resentment to the other two – it happens, and some day it might be my kid that does the leaving out, because kids will be kids.  But if and when that does happen, I might be in a slight pickle, because I hold fast to the notion that church is a place where you can count on everyone being kind to each other.  I want my child to know that and I want every person in every church to know that.

But it might take me a while.

I grew up in a church where I was very involved as a teenager, and church was, for me, a place where I belonged and was welcomed and where everyone was kind – to me, at least; it was in stark contrast to what I often felt in school.  My adolescent church experience is part of what led me to ordained ministry and it’s definitely shaped my sense of church being The Kindness Place.

Too many people can tell stories of church being anything but The Kindness Place.  People get the stink-eye when they sit in “someone else’s” pew.  A couple is divorced and one of the parties is told to leave.  Someone spills their coffee during fellowship hour and are yelled at rather than helped.  An LGBTQ person shows up and, while not overtly told they aren’t welcome, receive enough cold shoulders that they decide never to darken those particular church doorways again.

It’s not like kindness is difficult.  It’s not as though it takes a great deal of effort to sit in a different pew for a week, or for always.  Kindness is not a finite resource that when it’s gone, it’s gone.  It is possible to disagree with someone or even to dislike someone and still show that person kindness.

Is kindness the antidote to judgmentalness?  Are we unkind because we lack empathy or are generally clueless?  Maybe acting in an unkind manner makes us feel powerful.  A few weeks ago I snapped at a parishioner (and immediately regretted it) because I was feeling inadequate, which had not been the other’s intention at all.  I’ve known a few curmudgeons who are actually quite kind and considerate so I don’t think it’s a matter of one’s personality.

There’s a lot of pain out there that is utterly beyond our ability to erase.  I am numbed by the news of yet another ISIS beheading.  I still ache for those Nigerian schoolgirls to get home.  I was unexpectedly attacked by grief the other day by something that reminded me of my friend who committed suicide in September.  Kindness cannot fix any of those things, but it can be a balm that alleviates some of their deadening force.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”  Maybe I’m just getting old, but I like to think I’m just getting started.

May you experience some kindness today, and may you create some as well.

Busy, or full?

cup runnethWhen someone inquires how I am, I often reply, “Good.  Life is full.”  I say that intentionally because I have grown weary of the excuse of being too busy.  There’s an implication that in my busyness I have shut out people I love.  My mom will call in the middle of the week and say,  “Oh, honey, I just hate to bother you; I know how busy you are.”  Even harder is when parishioners say, “Oh, I know you’re so busy, I didn’t want to add one more thing to your plate.”

So I’m working on the discipline of considering my life full rather than considering myself busy.  To say that life is full is to acknowledge abundance – an abundance of opportunitities to engage in work that I find meaningful and interesting; an abundance of ways for my child to discover the world with friends and to energize body, heart, and soul; an abundance of riches because we have a home and friends and family and neighbors and community.

To say that I am busy puts the focus on just me.  I am busy with administrivia and details because no one else can pay attention to them quite the way I can (which is untrue).  To say that I am busy makes me feel worthy, because busy people must be important people must be powerful people, right?  To say that I am busy implies that every moment is crammed with doing things that must matter a great deal, because why would I cram one more thing into my life if it weren’t deeply important?

I am not busy; my life is full, and I carry with me that beautiful image in Psalm 23: “thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

Yesterday was a full Sunday, though a little less full than usual because we had a guest preacher.  There were details to attend to before the service, details that I consider part of hospitality.  Worship was full, because the choir was enormous and sang the Beethoven “Hallelujah” from Mt. of Olives,  and the preacher made us think about important things, and it took the kids a while to warm up during the chidren’s message, and there were lots and lots of joys and concerns in our prayer time.  We sang and we laughed and we listened and none of us was too busy to worship, and our cups ranneth over.  As did the service.  Oh well.

After worship we took the guest preacher to lunch.  And then, because his plane wasn’t till evening and because he had no other appointments, he came to our house and we lit the first fire of the season in the fireplace and for two hours we just sat and talked.  No phones, no agendas, no excuse of busyness.  Just conversation, and that was full too.  There was a sense of the blessings of space, of room, of hours that were not filled to the brim with stuff.  Yes, the house did not get clean and yes, we had cheese and crackers for dinner.

Sometimes when someone asks how I am doing I will say, “Not so good.  Life is full.”  Because sometimes life is full of the hard and sad things: another cancer diagnosis, or a divorce; disappointment, grief, fear.  Sometimes life is full of the stuff that makes being human difficult and I find myself wanting to declutter a closet or two to give the illusion of spaciousness in the midst of that difficult fullness.  But later, when the crisis has past, when I’ve gained perspective, I am grateful for the fullness.  I am grateful that both joy and pain make me feel alive, full of life.

May your cups runneth over.

A time to keep and a time to throw away

bubble wrapI have moved a lot, and by move, I mean pack up all my belongings and take them out of one dwelling and unpack them in another dwelling.  I, with or without my family, moved in 1966, 1968, 1972, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2008, and 2011.  That’s a lot of cardboard and bubblewrap.

Each time I have moved as an adult, I have purged before and after the  move.  I am so happy for those who love garage sales, but I’m not one of you, so the Goodwill and Salvation Army have benefitted well from my peripatetic life.  Each time I have moved I have looked forward to the new thing and at the same time mourned all that is left behind.  During the crunch time of moving, I’ve have lived in two places at once, said hello while saying goodbye, closed things up and opened new things.

Serving as a pastor in a mainline church in the 21st century feels like being in the throes of moving.  I am in two worlds at once.  I am in the world for which I was trained in seminary, serving a church with the physical plant and administration of yesteryear.  I am in my old house, and while it does creak, I know which floorboards creak.  It is a comfortable place.  And God is calling me – and us – to move.

Not only do I feel completely unprepared to be a post-modern pastor of a church in the 21st century, I am living in two places at once.  I am still pastoring in 20th century mode, supporting our work done in the 20th century, leading worship in the style of the old way.  I am trying to learn about the new ways, too, and find it getting hard to be holding on to the old stuff while making room for the new stuff.  A good purge is needed.

photoWe once lived in a house that was taken by eminent domain and torn down.  The evening after the wrecking ball finished its work, I drove by the old place, saw the pile of rubble that had been the home we brought our baby daughter to, and sobbed.  Some folks had lined up across the street to watch the destruction, but I couldn’t do it.  It felt violent, somehow.  Now there’s a brand new fire station there, one that the city needed.  Intellectually it all makes sense.  Emotionally, it still hurts to look at pictures of the rubble that had been our home.

I’m not suggesting we tear the old church down with a wrecking ball.  My friend Christine Chakoian wrote a great piece called “Sifting Our Inheritance: What to Keep and What to Let Go” in churchleadership.com.  She rightly points out that we do keep some things.  But we also let some things go.

Do we let go of the organ?  If we did that at my congregation, that would getting rid of something that many of our folk consider a prime marker of our identity.  Do we get rid of committees?  I would love to, and I would love to think creatively about how we would get our work done.  I don’t think anyone would mind having one less meeting to go to, but there would be anxiety in the in-between time.  Do we let go of paid clergy?  Shouldn’t all of us pastor types be working ourselves out of a job?  That’s a terrifying thought.

When we made our last move, my husband, daughter and I loaded up our Honda Civic and spend four nights and five days driving from Wisconsin to Oregon.  It was a great transition time.  It was just the three of us and the clothes we needed for the trip and the things they wouldn’t take on the moving van.  We promised our daughter we would stay in motels that had pools so that she could go swimming every day.  We visited the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore.  We marveled at the open skies of the west.  We listened to the Wicked soundtrack, over and over and over again.  We were cocooned and in each other’s company with no distractions.  We needed that, after the hubbub of packing up and saying goodbye, and before the stress of starting anew and unpacking.

Maybe the church needs a cocooned, communal transition time, when we take with us only what we need for a short journey.  We could do a little sight seeing, and we could sing, and we could find ways to refresh each day. Because there is a new home that awaits with all its own quirks.  There will be boxes to unpack and recycle.  There will be grief over what is no longer, and joy at what is.

But I really don’t want to move again.

ADDENDUM: There are no physical moves or job changes in our near future!