Preaching resurrection in the middle of Lent

empty-tomb-and-three-crosses-colette-scharfI am a big fan of the liturgical calendar.

As someone who plans worship, knowing what season it is helps.  It helps us with the colors, the themes, the hymns, the scripture, the tone of worship.  That being said, I must also admit that the liturgical season is an entirely human construct.  We invented it to help us know God.  God did not invent it to help God know us.

Yet I find myself in a seasonal muddle this year.  In the past week I conducted two memorial services and they were not particularly Lent-y.  The opening hymn at the first was “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”  The choir sang Beethoven’s “Hallelujah” from The Mount of Olives at the second.  A few weeks ago, our retired soprano section leader, a helluva woman in her 80’s, sang an introit and a benediction response that were full of Alleluias.  My own husband, giving the benediction at the Ash Wednesday service, spoke out his usual “Hallelujah, hallelujah, Amen.”

What’s a liturgical-seasoned girl to do?

The funny thing about the liturgical calendar, and holidays/holy days, is that it’s all play-acting.  We’re pretending Jesus is born again; we’re pretending the Holy Spirit has lit a flame on the apostles’ heads; we’re pretending Jesus is walking toward his execution as if we have no idea what might happen next.  But we do know what happens next.  That’s why we’re in this story in the first place.

It’s always with a little guilt over my own pretense that I approach the Good Friday service.  We know what happens next, so if there is genuine sorrow, it is about the sorrow in life right now, in the world today.  Maybe.  I suppose we can – and do – feel sorrow for tragedy and suffering, whether it is the suffering we are going through right now or the suffering of innocent victims scattered among the pages of history.

Is my sorrow over Jesus’ death mediated by my belief that he rose?  Does the joy at the end of the story erase the pain near the end of the story?  What does it means to utter alleluias and preach resurrection in the middle of Lent?

Alleluia (1)

The second memorial service this past week was for a woman who had been a matriarch of the congregation.  She loved butterflies, and so in her memory we hung our Easter butterfly banners, and in my homily, I quoted “Life Lessons from a Butterfly” which had been among her keepsakes.  ““Let go of the past. Trust the future. Embrace change. Come out of the cocoon. Unfurl your wings. Dare to get off the ground. Ride on the breezes.  Savor all the flowers. Put on your brightest colors. Let your beauty show.”  The words might be a little twee for some,  but they reflect a sweeter approach to life held by more than one woman I’ve known in her 90’s.  They are Easter words – “come out of the cocoon, put on your brightest colors.”

But if we take the season of Lent seriously – if we take this time before Easter as a time for reflection, repentance, and change – maybe these are Lent words too.  Let go of the past (and stop doing things that hurt others because of hurt done to you in the past).  Embrace change (repent, turn around, choose love instead of hate, trust instead of fear).  Unfurl your wings (do not put your light under a bushel).  Dare to get off the ground (follow Me).

There is no Lent without resurrection; we invented Lent after the Easter event.  We might see the three crosses, but we see the tomb and the garden just beyond them.  Maybe, then, knowing the life after death awaits us gives us courage to face the hard pieces of our lives.  And maybe an ‘alleluia’ or two in the midst of repentance is not a bad thing.

He is risen!  Take up your cross and follow Him….

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Gratitude and poop, an Ash Wednesday meditation

ashesI recently began seeing a spiritual director, something I’d been thinking about and finally committed to after a colleague who reads my blog sent me the kindest message which read something like, “Honey, I just love reading your blog and I’m wondering if you would like a spiritual director.”   I could just hear that silent prayer “Bless her heart.”  One of our ordination vows is to be a friend to our colleagues in ministry and I’m grateful to this friend in particular.

So in our first meeting my spiritual director and I started talking about meditation.  I confess that I spend about as much time meditating as I do working on my core and learning Italian, which is to say, no time.  I think my spiritual director got my number pretty quickly and she suggested working meditation into something I do everyday, to be mindful as I go about that task, to breathe in gratitude and breathe out beauty or hope or something as I go about this daily thing.  Really, it’s multi-tasking, which I love.  I don’t know if it’s good for my spirit, but we’ll see.

Every morning I take our dog Max out for his morning constitutional.  Rain or shine or wind, light or dark, out we go.  We’re like the U.S. Postal Service.  Except for ice.  I always make an exception for ice.  Anyway, every morning I take Max out so that he can pee on every bush that all the other dogs have peed on and so that he can sniff All Things.  We make it over to school and he chews on some grass, and growls at the other dogs who have the temerity to pee on his bush.  We keep walking until he poops.  Then I pick it up, and we head home with less peeing and sniffing.

So I have incorporated mindful breathing and meditativeness into my morning walk.  I breathe in gratitude – gratitude for the abundance of sun we’ve had this winter (and as soon as that negative thought about ‘this means a dry summer’ pops into my  head I send it scurrying off); there’s gratitude for my sweet dog whom I love, for the crocuses and daffodils that are blooming so early, for my neighbors and neighborhood, for the gentleman down the street whose morning fire always smells so good, for the kid who was sent out to pick up the trash that didn’t stay in the garbage can, for the school full of amazing, crazy kids, for so much.  I am just bursting with all that gratitude I’ve breathed in, and pray that I’m breathing out all that hope and love and grace or whatever it is I’m supposed to be breathing out.

And then, the dog poops.

The whole point of the morning walk is to get the dog to poop so that he does not do that inside while we’re at work.  It is the culmination of the walk, the finale, the big finish.  It should be greeted with confetti and kazoos and huzzahs and treats.  But I greet it with a sigh and the compostable green plastic dog poop bag.  And we head home, the denouement of our time together.

But I must admit that picking up the poop grounds me – really – in the way that saying “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” grounds me.   There is an earthiness to life that we cannot avoid, and everybody and everything living thing poops, and everybody and every living thing will die.  To dust we will return.  And hopefully no one will pick up the dust that once was us into a little compostable plastic bag, a sad denouement of a life well-lived.

Obviously, I have some work to do with my spiritual director, but I think some how with all that breath going on, and little groundedness will help.  A good Ash Wednesday to you.

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p.s.  I will not be giving this meditation at our Ash Wednesday service, but if you’d like to see the liturgy I wrote, go to my Liturgy page and the sub page of “Random Liturgy.”

 

To the planter of trees

tree_lined_street_lgTwo of my frequent routes include an arcade of trees.  One is at an intersection I drive by every day, the other on 99E heading south towards Milwaukie.  Neither is very long – one just a block, the other maybe a quarter-mile.  But even in winter, when the branches are bare, the trees form this graceful archway that we drive through.

As I went though one the other day, I started wondering about the person or persons who planted those trees.  Were they young?  Did they see the fruits of their labor?  Did they measure carefully the space between the trees, imagining how far apart they needed to be so their branches could grow without touching?  Did they plant them hoping that in eighty years, one hundred years, the trees would still be alive, healthy, providing a bower for motorists?

It seems to me that planting trees is a pretty selfless act.  You may get to watch a sapling get strong, but you will likely not live to see it in its prime.  And planting trees is an act of hope, too – hope that someone else will take up the care of the tree, that in the future when the planter is gone someone will look at the tree and offer thanks.

We have two enormous oak trees on the west side of our house.  I imagine they were planted when the house was built in 1925.  They are now two and a half times as tall as our house, and they are beautiful, whether with bared branches or in the lush fullness of summer.  They are beautiful and more often than not I do not appreciate them.  February is the one time of the year when they aren’t dropping something.  Come spring, it will be helicopter seed pods, then green acorns in the summer.  In the fall the brown acorns drop, aided by feuding squirrels.  Once the acorns are done, the leaves turn brown and drift down; we are very generous and share our leaves with the neighborhood.  In the chill of winter things are still unless there’s a wind storm, in which case we have branches adorning our yard and roof.

laugh inI wish I appreciated our two oaks more than I do.  They provide habitat for squirrels, and I think the crows are doing their own version of Laugh In in them.  They shade half the house, a relief in the relentless sun of summer.  But they are messy and trimming them is not cheap.  Their root system means that we have a basement in only half the house.

Would I cut them down if I could? That’s the question, isn’t it.  It would make our lives and landscaping easier.  We wouldn’t have to wear our bike helmets when we dine al fresco.

Would I cut them down if I could? No.  No, I wouldn’t.  They are things of beauty, among the most grand in the neighborhood.  The crows make me laugh.  The squirrels drive the dog nuts and give him something to do when we’re gone for the day.  The shade is lovely.

And there’s something plain wrong about cutting down a magnificent healthy tree – the inconvenience to us is far outweighed by the patience it took for that tree to go, the hearty conversations with neighbors in the fall when we’re all raking the leaves, the sheer beauty of something that towers over our man-made home.

So, to the planter of trees, our oaks, the trees that line the avenues: thank you.  Thank you for your foresight.  Thank you for your dream.  Thank you for your part in creating something beautiful that maybe you never saw.  Thank you for the trees.

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Kindness/Despair

“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things.

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
* * * * *
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.”

excerpted from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye,
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (1995)

despair“Despair is strangely the last bastion of hope; the wish being that if we cannot be found in the old way we cannot ever be touched or hurt in that way again.  Despair is the sweet but illusory abstraction of leaving the body while still inhabiting it, so we can stop the body from feeling anymore.  Despair is the place that we go when we no longer want to make a home in the world and where we feel, with a beautifully cruel form of satisfaction, that we may never have deserved that home in the first place. Despair, strangely, has its own sense of achievement, and despair, even more strangely, needs despair to keep it alive.”
excerpted from “Despair” by David Whyte, from Consolations, 2015

Last fall my friend Lila killed herself.  She was a member of our congregation.  She lived a life I might have had: she was my age, never married, took care of her two beloved cats.  She probably heard that she had such a pretty face, if only she would lose some weight.  She was generous and kind and hilarious and lived with bi-polar disorder until she decided she didn’t want to live with bi-polar disorder anymore and she ended her life.

The other night my daughter and I were cuddled in the comfy chair and we started talking about people she knew who had died.  The list is short, and I am grateful for that.  But being the child of two pastors, my daughter hears about death more than the average eight year old.  She knows that sometimes we rush to the hospital, or are called away in the middle of the night.  She knows that sometimes she has an extended playdate on a Saturday because Mom and Dad are at church for a memorial service.

So we were talking about the people she knew who had died, and Lila was mentioned.  “Mom,” my daughter said, “how did Lila die?” We hadn’t told her.  Maybe at the time we were too bruised to try to explain to a child why someone so lovely would not want to live any more; maybe we didn’t have the courage or didn’t want to face the sadness.  But she asked, and I answered.  “Honey, I’m so sorry, but Lila killed herself.”

Sigh.

“Why?”  “Well, her brain didn’t always work just right, and sometimes her brain made her so wildly happy she couldn’t keep it to herself, and sometimes her brain made her so sad she didn’t think she would ever stop being sad.  I think one day she decided she didn’t want to be sad like that anymore.  I think it hurt so much and she didn’t want to hurt anymore.”  I did the best I could to explain despair to a child, all the while hoping and praying that my child will not ever know it.

This week two different friends on Facebook posted poems/essays, one “Kindness” and the other “Despair”.  They showed up in my news feed the same day, the day I would later have the conversation with my daughter.  I found deep wisdom in both and in a way, they were companions to each other, acknowledging the depth of these things, the paradox of them.  To understand kindness you must first understand sorrow.  Despair is the last bastion of hope.

I don’t want to diagram these words or exegete them but neither do I want to toss them away like last Sunday’s sermon.  They feel heaven-sent in a way, so thank you, Carol and Ken, for being angels in sharing them.

And I wish I knew what Lila would say about them.

“We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in our wish not to be here.  We let our bodies and we let our world breathe again.  In that place, strangely, despair cannot do anything but change into something else, into some other season, as it was meant to do from the beginning.”

“Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then it goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”

elephant mettha

Flexibility and Strength, at the Gym and Church

stretchEvidently being able to bend over and touch the palms to the floor – the super-stretchy hamstring – isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And here I thought I had received high marks for my excellent flexibility.  Why did I not learn this until I was 50?  To make a long story short, here is my learning: flexibility is great, as long as it is matched by strength.  The opposite is true, too – strength is great as long as it is matched by flexibility.  So my witch-doctor-chiropracter tells me I’m not allowed to stretch anymore, not until I’ve built up some strength.

I think this might be true for church, too.  I read a lot of blog posts and articles about the 21st century church – that we need to go beyond our walls; that we  need to be authentic to reach the millenials; that there is nothing we in the church can do about the Nones and the Dones; that we must hold on to worship as the expression of our core identity; that we must be about outreach/mission/social justice.  That the bigger church is better.  That the smaller church is better.  That the full-time pastor is optimal.  That the tent-making pastor can best handle the paradigm shift we’re in.  That we’re not in a paradigm shift at all.

You get the point.  Really, with regards to church work or anything, you can always find someone who’s written something to support your position.

With two colleagues, I pastor a great congregation in the Pacific Northwest, an area that has experienced the Nones for a while now.  We have around 700 members on the roles, maybe 350-400 truly active members.  It’s big enough to have critical mass and small enough that we pastors can know almost everyone.  Every year our membership gain is greater than our loss, but not by much, a dozen or so.  So we’re not bursting at the seams.

We’re comfortable.  Our finances are good. Our programs are good.  The members of the congregation are not mean to each other or to the staff; in fact, they are rather lovely.  The annual meeting of the congregation was filled with laughter and applause.  We’re good, and we can continue to do this for a while.

My spouse/co-pastor and I have been talking for the last year or so about our need to change some stuff, to try some new stuff, to let go of some old stuff (which, in and of itself is nothing new).  We’ve talked and preached and written about how the 21st century church is different, that if we don’t start doing some new things, if we don’t try some ministry or mission that stretches us and get us out of our comfort zones, then fifty years from now there won’t be a congregation at the corner of 16th and Hancock.

Recently, one of our members said, “What do you mean by that?  You keep telling us that, but I don’t know what you mean by it.”  And here’s the truth: I don’t know.  Today, all I know is what I learned at the gym: we have to be flexible enough to stretch ourselves for the future, and strong enough to hold onto those things that are authentic and central to us in this place.

If asked to what flexibility + strength looks like, I would answer “a ballerina.”  Their bodies are marvels of muscles and stretch, and when they move we don’t necessarily see those things.  What we see is grace.  Maybe there’s a word in that for the church, too.

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My circus, my monkeys

circus monkeysAn old Polish proverb is  making a comeback these days: “not my circus, not my monkeys”. In essence, it means that whatever is going on is not my problem.  It also suggests that whatever craziness one is experiencing, whatever whirls of discontent, dysfunction, or badness are flying around, it’s not of my doing and it’s not my responsibility.  The proverb indicates good boundaries: that is crazy but I am not.  But I wonder, too, if the proverb does not also suggest some leave taking of responsibility.

In many ways, the denomination of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is my home.  Since I started attending church in third grade, I have been a part of a Presbyterian church.  It’s what I know and yes, at times, it is my circus.  And lately my circus has had some tent poles crashing down within it.

There’s an ongoing investigation into the misuse of funds in the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative.  Some folks started a 501(c)(3) without the correct approval, and an appointed attorney is looking into it, and four people in the national office have been put on administrative leave.

More recent is a misguided marketing campaign for one of our longtime annual offerings, the One Great Hour of Sharing.  The campaign featured photographs of youngish people, all of whom were people of color, with an attention-grabbing line.  One said, “Needs help with a drinking problem” implying that this young Hispanic girl/woman was an alcoholic.  In smaller font were the words “She can’t find water.”  Many leaders throughout the denomination many people of color raised an appropriate uproar and the campaign has been pulled.  When our materials arrived at the church office last week, we put them in the recycling bin and confirmed that new materials would be sent out shortly.

In other words, the national office has experienced two very big and very public mistakes in the past few months.  Leadership has been applauded by some for their honesty in owning up to the errors, and scourged by others for lack of transparency, top-down decisions, and general ineptitude.  My husband’s take is that ever since so many of the conservatives have left, we have no one to fight with so we fight with ourselves.  Isn’t that sad, if it’s true.

But here’s the thing: this is my circus, and these are my monkeys.  We Presbyterians hold fast to the idea that we are a connectional church, which means we are connected when we get it right and we are connected when we get it wrong.

Many years ago a friend of mine was the moderator of her presbytery.  She served at a time when the pastor of a very big church had been found guilty of sexual misconduct with a member of the congregation.  The church court voted to have him reprimanded on the floor of presbytery.  There is a script for these things, and the time came for the reprimand.  The moderator asked the pastor to stand, and as he did, about fifty members of his congregation, who could not fathom that their pastor was guilty of such a thing, stood with him.  My friend quickly got the lay of the land, and in a stroke of brilliance, said something along the lines of “when one member of the body sins, all sin, so let us all stand with our brother.”  I’m still awed by her quick thinking and deep theology.

She had a point.  When people talk about “them” – the presbytery, the national  office – I always want to jump in and say “there is no ‘they’ – we are the presbytery!”  “We are the PC(USA)!”  And we are the national office, too, in the sense that we’re all Presbyterians and we are all connected and we are all in the same beautiful and broken three-ring circus.

I pray for the national staff because it must be pretty rough right now.  Everyone who works in the center can be lumped together – those who made the awful decisions and those who had no part in their making.  And I pray for the people of color in our denomination who have long felt that their voices have been neither heard nor heeded.  It’s all my circus.

I’m just glad I’m not the person in the middle in the top hat.

 

Holding fast to the good: Christmas Eve

Haring-Life-of-Christ-Altarpiece-500One of the readers of this blog recently commented that a few of my recent posts have been a bit on the down side, and as I looked over them, I realized she was right.  I have been in a bit of a professional funk, which happens.  I tend to be a glass-half-full kind of person, evidenced by the title of this blog.  The funk needs some personal reflection and you all don’t need to be a part of that.  But I have encouraged myself not only to hold fast to what is good, but to look for what is good, and to share some stories of good news.  So here’s one of those stories.  (And those in it gave me their permission to tell it.)

Our later Christmas Eve service is a beautiful thing.  Our choir sings like the angels.  Our deacons are on it, hospitable with first-timers, alert when all the candles are lit, staying late to clean up afterwards.  The worship committee has worked hard on decorations and details.  But the management of all that falls on me as the pastor for worship.  Do the pastors and ushers have their big candles?  Will the lights go out in the right order at the right time?  Did we print enough bulletins? Did our communion team put the elements in the loft for the choir? Did I remember to remind our congressman that the service starts an hour earlier than it used to, so he won’t show up an hour late?  All of which is to say that sometimes it’s hard to get in the mood for worship when all those details are swirling around in my head.

But I do try to set those details aside; at some point what will happen will happen because of or in spite of all our planning.  And Christmas Eve is so beautiful in the necessary sort of way, even magical for some.  And I love Incarnation maybe more than I love Resurrection.  So here’s a bit of Incarnation reality on Christmas Eve.

Like almost every other church, we light Advent candles for the weeks leading up to Christmas, and on Christmas Eve we light the three purples, the pink, and the big white Christ candle.  We usually ask our new members, folks who have joined in the last year, to light the candles as a way to include them and introduce them.  This Christmas Eve two of our new members were the lighter/readers.  One a soprano from the choir, and one a transgender woman who came to know us because of a tragedy – the murder of a friend of hers who was a member of our church.  They carried out their roles with aplomb and grace and poise.

We pastors processed in during the prelude, and as I settled in and tried to rid my brain of the detaily things and the gnats of minutia, I watched the people come in.  Some I knew; many I didn’t, but there is a joy to watching people come in because it’s Christmas Eve and they want to be in church.  Arriving just a minute or so late were some other new members: a lovely woman and her son who is physically disabled and in a large motorized wheelchair, her best friend, her sister-in-law, and his nurse.  We don’t have a good space for folks in wheelchairs, so they came up and sat in the front row.

As I watched them settle in, I realized that because we were having communion by intinction, everyone who came up would pass by this family as they returned to their pews.  I wondered if it would be hard for some to see this young man in his wheelchair, if for some there is an expectation that everything is pretty and “normal” on Christmas Eve, if the sight of this man would be jarring.  I hoped not, because I know him a little, and because I know that the sight of him in his chair doesn’t begin to capture his personality or his mind, or the love this family has for each other.

Three weeks later, as I think about Christmas Eve and those who were a part of the service, I think we got something right.  Maybe the lights didn’t go out quite right, maybe my meditation was a little more depressing than I had intended, but we got at least one thing right: people who in the past would have been shunned at church were not only welcomed, they were front and center, a part of things.  Because if there is one thing to take away from that stable in Bethlehem, it is that everyone has a place there.  And I will hold fast to that.

“Remembering the stable where for once in our lives

Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

(W.H. Auden, For the Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio)