Handing over what is not mine, or, Learning to let go

I was up worrying the other night.  It happens.  Worry is a spiritual gift I received from my mother, and I have worked hard to perfect that which was passed on to me.  I also work not to pass it on to my daughter, but I worry that I am failing in that.

Anyway, I was worrying the other night when what I really wanted to be doing was falling asleep.  It was the end of a long day, the house was quiet, all other living creatures under our roof were asleep, and there I was, worrying.  Someone once defined worry as “misuse of the imagination.”  Yes, it is.  Finally my desire to sleep won over my need to worry, and I decided to hand it all over to Jesus.

Now I really don’t consider myself that kind of Jesus person.  I usually don’t hand it over to the Lord, nor do I think that he walks with me or talks with me in the “In the Garden” sort of way.  My prayers tend to be to God, not to Jesus.  I mean, I’m good with him, but I do like to keep my distance.  But that night I decided I really needed to hand it all over to him.  So I pictured what I was handing over, and it was a spherical-shaped thing, a tangle of worries that might best be represented by barbed wire, lima beans, the insoles of my daughter’s summer Keens, and all those random electronic cables you stick in a drawer because you have no idea what they’re for.  Roll all that up into a ball, and those were the worries I wanted to hand over to Jesus.  Lucky him.

So I did.  In my mind’s eye I pictured handing him this messy, sharp bundle, and I pictured him taking it.  And then a funny thing happened.  As soon as he took it, it turned into a beach ball- one of those big plastic, colors-in-pennant-shapes beach balls.  It was like he was taking all my worries so very lightly, like he was saying, “Hey, I know there’s stuff that’s getting you down but I think we should go play on the beach.”

What the hell, Jesus?

Okay, not really.

But somehow, it worked.  He took my ball of lima beans and barbed wire and turned it into a beach ball and I fell asleep.  Not only that, but that night I dreamed I was about to marry George Clooney.  (I did confess that to my husband the next day and assured him that George Clooney was no match for him.)

The next day I had coffee with a friend who is a 12-stepper.  I am remarkably proud of her, and often inspired by the rigorous and truthful way she looks at her own living.  We talked about whatever step it is where you let go and let God, and she talked about the deep meaning the serenity prayer has for her.  While I listened, I was having my own internal conversation about letting go and the whole Jesus-turned-my-worry-into-a-beach-ball thing.  Here’s where I ended up.

Sometimes, in order to sleep, in order to get the rest our bodies, minds, and souls need, we have to let it go.  (Apologies for cueing that particular song.)  It’s not always ours to keep, the things we worry about.  But sometimes, after that rest, we take some of it back.  Some of it is mine to carry, or to deal with, or to wrestle with.  But maybe when I take it back, there are fewer lima beans and more grains of sand.

a-beach-ball-ron-dahlquist

Confession of faith, sung

“O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be
Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal if for Thy courts above.”

The Sunday after Easter is such a relief.  I do love all the pageantry and crowds and flowers of Easter, but somehow the Sunday after Easter feels more real and more to the point.  There are no processions to organize, no flowers to maneuver around, fewer handshakes and smiles after the service, and no eggs to clean up.  It’s normal worship again – or as normal as worship ever gets – and the folks who are there are there because it’s their church and they come rain or shine, flowery holiday or regular holy day.

Which is not to say that things cannot be wonderful and gut-wrenching and good.

It was the offertory that got me.  Our choir (who did not take off the Sunday after Easter because they love singing in worship) sang a beautiful arrangement of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”  Now I love that hymn.  I love the poetry of the words and I am a complete sucker for any tune out of the Southern Harmony tradition.  So the choir starts in, the women first, and a little organ interlude, the men coming in on a new verse in a new key, a cappella.  And then it gets going with the culmination of that line “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be” and it hit me:

That is why I do all of this.

That was my first sense of call, my push toward ordination, the thing that motivates me week after week and year after year to be a part of the gorgeous flawed thing called church and to be a member of this hilarious and weird and flawed thing called the clergy.  It’s because I am indebted to the grace of God every single moment of my life, and in gratitude and penance and hope I do this Christianity thing and I do this ministry thing because grace has overpowered my will, my guilt, my ego, my sense of worthlessness, my sense of awesomeness, and all the misery the world can throw at me.  That is why I do all of this.

We have an ongoing conversation, the congregation and I, about the Apostles’ Creed.  Some aren’t happy we ever say it, some wish we said it more, and I insist on saying it when we have baptisms.  As I said, it’s an ongoing conversations and nobody’s really budging. But that’s okay.  Last year our choir sang Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass as the sermon one week, and the Credo in that is pretty much spectacular.  One of our folks, one of the ones who wishes we would never say the Apostles’ Creed again, did admit that if we could sing that Credo instead of saying the words, she’d be good.  But we don’t – not yet, anyway.

But what if our creed were those words Robert Roberston wrote in 1758?  What if our creed were the admittance of our utter reliance on the grace of God, and the hope that God would fetter us, and that all of this life is just part of sealing our hearts for something more?  What if those words were our confession of sin, and our profession of faith, and our proclamation of the good word, and our marching cry every week?  Would that my heart were tuned to sing that grace.

chains-of-love

The grace of the saints, and they didn’t even know it

easter.lily_Well, Easter is over; at least, Easter Day services are done and it’s “get a latte and put on comfly clothes and maybe take a nap” time.  For all of you who are church people, who in some way did something to help make this morning beautiful, thank you.  Thank you, flower arrangers and communion setters.  Thank you, sound system gal/guy, ushers, van drivers.  Thank you, coffee hour servers who had double duty today.  Thank you, bulletin stuffers and tenors, altos, basses, and sopranos, and organists, and choir directors, and custodians.  Oh, God bless all the custodians.  Thank you egg dyers, and banner makers, and families processing with azaleas and eggs.  Thank you, all you who showed up.  And thank you, all you who celebrated LIFE today.

I was a bit under the weather on Holy Saturday, and tentative about how I would be on Easter.  Admittedly, it was a slow start, but by the time the second service began, it was all good.  The sermon was early in the service, which meant that I got to worship without worrying for the last half.  My colleagues offered a beautiful invitation and beautiful communion prayer.  Our elders helped serve the bread and cup.  And then the saints showed up.

The woman I’ve never seen before carrying up her sleeping toddler.  The woman now using a cane, but by God she was here on Easter despite the recent stroke.  The man who’s mother is dying more quickly than any of us would like.  The person who is still a bit put out with me over a recent unpopular decision, who did not avoid my station but received the bread from me.  The teenager who was just confirmed a few minutes earlier.  The grandpa with his whole family in tow, even though they go to other churches they came with Dad today, because it’s Easter and because they miss their mom who died a few years ago.  Our administrative assistant who makes so much run so smoothly, bringing her mom.  The woman who prays without ceasing for all of us.  My daughter.  Her friend.  The strangers, the leaders, the wondering, the wandering, and the lost.  The saints showed up.

I had one critique after the service, from someone who doesn’t come that often.  She regretted that in my sermon I didn’t mention that Jesus had risen.  I thought I had, but perhaps too obliquely for her.  All the same, whether or not anyone there thought Jesus showed up this morning, spanking-fresh and resurrected, I will tell you this:  the saints showed up this morning.  Thank you all.

And for good measure:  He is risen!  He is risen indeed.

Gingham Shirts and Chunky Necklaces: Conference Fashion

So I went to a really great conference last week (Next Church, a Presbyterian-originated thing) in one of my most favorite cities on the planet (Chicago) and saw some of my favorite people ever.  So it was good.  I learned a lot, I was discomfited a little, I left with much to think about.

But I will admit I was completely distracted by two fashion trends.

gingham_shirts_bloomingdales_spring_2009Trend Number One: Men in Gingham Shirts
It’s high time someone other than Dorothy Gale claimed gingham!  And let me tell you, dozens of men were rocking this trend.  Big check, little checks, two-colored and multi-colored.  Spring sprung in Chicago!  A secondary fashion trend: cool pastors in untucked t-shirts – the bigger the church served, the more awesome the funky old t-shirt.  Some played it safe with the classic (but always appreciated) button down shirt, jeans, sportscoat.  Well done, men!

Trend Number Two: Women in Chunky Necklaceschunky necklace
The ladies were rockin’ it, too – big ol’ necklaces that said, “I don’t feel one bit bad about my neck, and I will wear this costume jewelry to prove it. (Because I’m a pastor and wearing real jade or turquoise is beyond my pay grade.”) I was noticing who was wearing these gorgeous things – gorgeous women, of course!  I did wonder if there was a secret club of The Chunky Necklace Clergywomen.  If there is, I think I would have to pass because I’ve got enough chunk going on without any extra jewelry and I might be getting a little concerned about my neck.

But I will say that the Chunky Necklace Trend is so preferable to the jumper/Dankso/cardigan with birdhouses trend.  I know we want to be comfortable.  I know there is nothing worse than ill-fitting, ill-constructed shoes.  I know that cardigan cost a pretty penny once upon a time.  But all at once?  Too much.  If you must wear the jumper, hip it up with some cowboy boots (and a chunky necklace!)  If you just can’t let go of that cardigan investment, wear it with a white t-shirt, skinny jeans, and some Converse All Stars.  And if those Danskos are the only thing that keep your feet happy, try the Pacific Northwest Look: Dansko clogs, black tights, black pencil skirt, and a badass sweater.  Top it all off with a jaunty cap, and you’d fit right in in Portland.

Me?  I played it safe, though the unseasonably warm weather on Monday threw me off.  Sunday was a travel day with jeans, slip on shoes, and my black damask Cut Loose top.  Monday that jean jacket came in handy, with the white T and black skirt (and my sadly unfashionable but really good for my bad hip shoes.)  I could’ve used a chunky necklace with that one.  Tuesday I can’t even remember.  It was St. Patrick’s Day and I might have worn green.  Wednesday was another travel day, so those jeans again and my favorite, black non-damask  Cut Loose top. The earrings might have saved me.

I did tell my friend, who won the Best Dressed Contest, that her sartorial choices were much appreciated, despite the lack of Chunky Necklaces.

And now if only someone would start making gingham stoles.  For now, we’ll have to settle for this:

gingham clerical

The Wound in His Shoulder

The Wound in His Shoulder

“It is related in the annals of Clairvaux that St. Bernard asked our Lord which was His greatest
unrecorded suffering, and Our Lord answered, ‘I had on My Shoulder, which I bore My Cross
on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound, which was more painful than the others,
and which is not recorded by men.  Honor this wound with thy devotion….'”

I have been thinking about the wounds people carry, those unbearable weights that take their toll on our bodies and hearts.  I think of the old but not elderly woman who complained for months to her doctor about a cough, and when he finally got around to taking her seriously, discovered that cancer had taken over.  She was told she has only weeks to live. It is a wound of not having been taken seriously, as if facing death were not wound enough.

I think of the acquaintance whose young nephew has leukemia, his wearing those large, dark-ringed eyes and bald head of children living with chemo and cancer, her bearing worry and hope at the same time, the soul-vertigo that causes.

I think of that parent in Nigeria, those last shards of hope disintegrating, living in fear of Boko Haram and knowing that rage will only cause more trouble.

I think about the invisible responsibilities people choose to bear – the responsibility of caring for a brother who is mentally ill and a hoarder, who could at any moment be thrown out into the streets.  The young mom, a professional in a high-profile position, diagnosed with breast cancer and having to be the gracious face of positivism and faith when maybe, inside, there is terror and an absence of God.  The many who have put their hope and trust in the church only to have that trust broken in ways they believe can never, ever be mended.

People carry so much.  It takes a toll.

There’s the other weight, too – the weight of not being able to do one damn thing about the suffering.  It’s a secondary weight that is as heavy as the primary one, maybe: the weight of being left behind, alone; the weight of being powerless, the weight of not having stopped some part of the tear in the fabric of the world.

Our Roman Catholic friends have a novena about the shoulder wound of Christ – the wound caused by the weight of the cross he was forced to carry.  My shoulders ache at the thought of that.

It’s where our tension finds a home – the shoulders, the neck, the hardening of the occipital ridge.  It’s the pinch between the shoulder blades where those invisible weights claw dully at us, reminding us of our responsibility, of our need to carry some of this, of our need to own some of this.

Where is the relief?  Surely letting go of the burden lessens it some, but there is perpetual tension in those muscles.  Massage, heat, stretching, meditation: a relief, yes.  But a cure?

Perhaps we are never truly unburdened, at least not on this side of the grave.

jesus carry cross

Grounded

feet groundIt’s rare that my chiropractor and my spiritual director offer me the same advice, but when they do, I think it’s a sign that I’m supposed to pay particular attention.

Early on, my chiropractor would harp on me about having my head in the clouds and disassociating physically, and she would tell me I needed to connect with the ground.  Literally.  Put my feet on the ground and feel them connect to the earth. Our bodies are built to be sustained that way, with large leg and hip bones and calves and quads and glutei maximi. It was only when she said this that I figured out I have spent so much of my recent years feeling  more like a marionette – being lifted up by the shoulders. Which, of course, doesn’t work at all.

When I begin my spiritual direction sessions, we always pray, and my director makes sure that my feet are on the ground. We’ve not talked about why we do that, but every spiritual director I’ve ever had does this, and they are all smarter than I, and it works. As I settle into prayer, my chiropractor’s voice echoes in  my head. So I’m working on being physically spiritual, or spiritually physical. One of those. I think.

A few years ago during some continuing education, I learned that the word in Genesis 2 for “earth” is best translated as the “topsoil of the fertile ground.” That’s the stuff the writer of Genesis says we’re made of – the topsoil. We come from the ground that is beneath our feet.

To pray with feet firmly planted is to reconnect with our best selves, the selves made at creation in the image of God. Maybe that’s the part of us that does the healing, too, when we are hurt. We are at our best and strongest when we are grounded.

The word “grounded” reminds me of liturgy, too, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday – “remember you are dust/earth/topsoil, and to dust/earth/topsoil you will return.” Most beautiful and true for me, though, is the funeral liturgy: “You are immortal, the Creator and Maker of all. We are mortal, formed of the dust, and to dust we shall return. All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

I am grounded. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Talking with my child about race

racismLast night my daughter and I attended a one-woman show that our church was sponsoring.  Damaris Webb, a native Portlander and actress, presented “The Box Marked Black: Tales from a Halfrican-American growing up Mulatto.  With sock puppets!”  If you live in the Portland area, I urge you to google Damaris Webb and see her next show.

On the way over to church, my daughter said, “Mom, I’m the only one in my class who doesn’t know what the N-word is.” On the one hand, it occurred to me we might be getting something right – she doesn’t know that word, and she’s never heard us say it.  On the other hand, I’d like for us to teach her about that word.  So I told her that she might hear it in the show, and we would talk about it on the way home.

And so we did.  She heard the word twice, but I’m not sure it registered with her as much as the scene with sock puppet Kizzy from “Roots” and sock puppet Laura from “Little House on the Prairie”.  (It made sense within the show, and was rather hilarious.)  We talked about the N-word, and how she was never allowed to say it.  The closest parallel I could make for her was that using the N-word is like Hermione Granger being called a Mudblood in the Harry Potter books.  I’m not sure she knows the B-word or the C-word, so I thought Harry Potter was a safer reference.

And then, because it came up in the show, we talked about the mini-series “Roots”.  She knows a little bit about slavery and the Civil War – she knows more about the Civil Rights Movement.  I said to her, “Do you know how people got slaves?  They were captured in Africa and crammed into ships and taken to the United States where they were sold.”

“That’s TERRIBLE,” she said.  “They are human beings!  They aren’t things.” Then we talked about the people who knew slavery was wrong and fought it for a long time, and we talked about the Civil War.  “Mom,” she said, “if we hadn’t won the Civil War and if the slaves weren’t freed, there would be so many people who wouldn’t be in my class.  There would be so many teachers who wouldn’t be at my school.”

When my daughter was a toddler, I read an article saying the right thing to do was not to teach your child to be color-blind.  Rather, allow your child to see the differences, and talk about them.  So that has been our approach in teaching our child about race.  Yes, people look different.  That doesn’t mean they should be treated differently.  But because some people look different, they are treated differently, that’s wrong.

I hope we have more of these conversations, and I hope I said the right things to a nine-year-old.  The conversation will be different when she is 12, or 16, or 21.  I hope she continues to feel the injustice of slavery, of racism, of prejudice.

But I think our upcoming conversation will be a little different: we passed a sign that read “Best Ass Contest”; she said, “Mom, that’s so funny but I don’t think it’s about donkeys.”  God, help us parents.