The quick and the dead

Today I paid a visit at our local retirement high rise.  Here at church we refer to it as our south campus, what with a few dozen of our members living there.  In the past five years I’ve come to think of it as the place where people I love have died.  It’s a holy place, a sacred space.

It’s full of the quick and the dead, that place – our living saints (and a few curmudgeonly types) and ghosts, too, for me and I suspect for others.  I walk by an apartment that used to belong to someone else.  I take communion to folks on the nursing floor, and remember the overheated room where a saint experienced hospice care and left his earthly body.

I remember another saint whose husband died there, and her dismay when his body was taken out the back via the service elevator.  When she died, in the same building but a different room, the gurney holding her mortal remains was wheeled proudly through the lobby and out the front while her children sang “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”  I never hear that hymn without thinking of her.

My parents live in such a place in another state, and have long referred to it as “the last stop.”  I am glad they are there, taken care of by staff as needs arise, since none of us kids lives anywhere near them.  I remember when they first moved in how surprised they were that people kept dying.  I did remind them, gently (I hope), that it is the last stop.

In those places there is often a fine line between the quick and the dead.  Perhaps those places are thin, in the Celtic way, liminal places that contain both life and death.

I’m preaching this week about the story that took place on the road to Emmaus; that seven mile path was a thin place, liminal, a place of life and death.  The resurrected Jesus appears to be both quick and dead.  It’s a marvelous little story, and weird too, and there’s much to say about it and yet I find I want to say nothing about it, but simply to sit with it.  Maybe hovering between life and death and hanging out with the saints will do that to you.

Bright Monday: Dusting Day

Yesterday was Easter and it was good but I will happily admit I’m always glad when Easter Day is over.  There’s a lot of pressure, more from the inside than the outside.  As I get older, I’m learning to have fewer expectations of myself (perfect sermon! amazing attendance! delicious Easter dinner!  joyful and kind 24/7!)  The sermon was okay, not amazing, but done was good.  The scalloped potatoes were too soupy and not quite soft enough, but no one died after eating them.  The chocolate cake made up for the potatoes, as I knew it would, and we may have a new tradition of watching “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” on Easter evening.

But now that Easter Day is done, I am excited about two things: sweets (my Lenten deprivation) and cleaning my office.  Truth be told, I’m more excited about the cleaning.

Things piled up during Lent.  Ashes, palm leaves, candles, bulletin drafts, sermon drafts, emails, coffee cups, commentaries on the Gospel of John, paper clips.  Papers didn’t get filed, or recycled, or shredded, committee meeting agendas and financial statements in particular.  The plants got watered, but the leaves did not get vacuumed up.  Books and notebooks of preaching materials lay scattered about, like dead toy soldiers on the battlefield of my office.

It’s was mess, and I did not clean up for the Risen Lord on Sunday.  I think he’s okay with that.  He got lilies and the Hallelujah Chorus and the Widor Toccato.  And life. That should be enough.

But Bright Monday!  Last night I started singing “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dusting Day” with great excitement.  And so it began this morning.  Cups and glasses and fake red carnations taken back to the kitchen.  Pillar candles to the candle closet.  Stoles in purple and green folded up and put neatly away.  Papers filed, shredded, and recycled.  Books put back where they belong.  A new paper for my blotter.

And then the wild rumpus of the dusting began.  I am telling you, dusting is good for the soul.  It’s an almost instant gratification and you have to do just enough work to be able to tell yourself you really put something into it.  Now the wood of my desk and shelves looks like new, and it appears that an adult occupies the office.

While I am always relieved and happy when Easter Day is over, I am also always glad that Eastertide has begun.  I wish we in the church did more with Eastertide, made it the mirror of Lent.  Commit to adding something good in Eastertide, for yourself or the world.  Examine not your sin but your joy.  Eat sumptuously.  Laugh a lot.  That’s why I wish all those Easter worshipers would come back – they just get the beginning of the good stuff, the amuse bouche of the faith and not the main course.  Easter is the appetizer, not the dessert.

Oh well.  As I get older, I let go of that expectation too, that folks will come back in droves.  It’s enough for me that they were here, and that we’ll see them next year.

Today Eastertide began and I dusted.  Life is good; there is joy, and my soul feels as clean as my office.

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A dalliance of daffodils

A dalliance of daffodils –
they would, of course, dally, with that ruffled collar all set out
like some Elizabethan earl
happy to be out of the cold dark of the earth
happy to have burst the bonds of the bulb

Then there’s the intoxication of the daphne –
Thymelaeaceae her proper name
A rose by any other name could never smell this sweet, this heady,
this alluring, this…
She is joy touched with poignant lemon
sad perhaps that she cannot flower for very long
But she’ll be back next year

The trees are all budded
Like middle schoolers waiting for their first dance
A little embarrassed to be there at all, at the ends of the limb
But when they burst open the fun begins

Spring is not my favorite season, but maybe it should be
there’s so much LIFE everywhere
And relief that soon enough the rains will end
And the bees will come pay a visit to the raspberry blossoms
And the crows will start moving acorns to the car’s path, instant dinner
And whatever attention span the kids once had is now so very gone

No matter what,
No matter the plagues, the politicians, the ploys,
Spring arrives, like your favorite cousin visiting again
Keeping you up late in the moonlight
Inviting you to her own world
Promising so much
Never growing old
The season that never dies
Immortal yet fleeting, she is

And worth every minutenarcissus-pseudonarcissus-324110_960_720

When the women told the story

Stories in the Bible that feature women do show up now and then, not as often as many of us would like, and when they do show up, the women aren’t seen in as good a light as often as many of us would like. This week we get one of those stories: the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus.

I’ve been at a conference these past couple of days and the guiding story for our gathering has also been this story. It’s one I know well. I’ve studied it, written papers on it, created a retreat around it, and I’ve preached on it more than once. In some ways I feel as though I know it inside and out.

The first day of the conference we began with worship, fittingly enough since it was a church people conference. It was time to hear the scripture lesson. I settled back, waiting for someone to open a Bible, turn the page to John 4, and begin.

Instead, six women took the stage. Some I knew, some I knew of. They were different ages, different sizes and shapes, different colors; they are all powerful and faithful. And they started to tell the story of another woman, a different woman, a woman who was also powerful and faithful.

It’s hard to describe exactly what went through my head. It may have been something late like, “Oh my God – these women are going to tell the woman’s story.”  It may have been, “At last, women are going to tell this woman’s story.”  I’m really not sure what went through my mind because my heart was pierced as these six women were telling the testimony of one of their sisters.

I’ve never, ever, ever heard this story told in this way. It was riveting. They did not speak in one voice – you could tell as they told their part of the story that they had different takes on it. But through these women’s voices the story was reclaimed from thousands of years of interpretation by men who have seen this woman as a hussy, a prostitute or a slut, a woman who couldn’t keep a man satisfied or well fed, a woman who talked too much, a woman who had been shamed by her entire village.  Over the millennia she has been twisted into one more fallen woman who must be saved by a man.

But last Monday, this woman was reclaimed by her sisters (and by the two men and one woman who preached this text.) In their posture and their voice, in their inflection and pauses, they came around this woman and gathered with her at the well.

I so wish my daughter had been there to see it, to hear it, to witness it. I wish she had seen that group of women do what women have done between the lines of scripture for so many years: claim their own space in the sacred story.

 

Since originally posting this, the link to the video of the service has been posted.  If you’re interested, click on this link; go to Opening Worship.  The scripture begins around 19:15.

Feeling their oats

On a regular basis I get to be a part of the world of fifth grade girls, which is pretty terrific and always interesting.  Many of these girls I’ve known since kindergarten and it’s a joy to watch them grow up and grow into themselves, even as they reflect pieces of their parents.

I’ve noticed lately that many are beginning to feel their oats, to sashay about as they realize their powers and gifts.  Some are smart, some are athletic, some are quiet, some are thoughtful, some are goofy, some are kind.  Some are artists and some are writers and some are coders. Some see others as cute, and others see them as cute, in the I-want-to-go-out-with-you (but-I-don’t-know-what-that-means) sort of way.

Most of them still have one foot in childhood and one foot in adolescence  Some are further along that road than others, and feel that mortal peril of being the first one with unwanted pimples, hair that just shouldn’t be where it is, body odor, and the mother of all embarrassements, the dreaded period.

They’re figuring out what is injustice and what is simply carelessness. They’re learning about politics too – when I was in fifth grade, Nixon resigned. Now they watch and learn during the Trump administration.  They experience disappointment and happiness as they lose and they win.  They also face boredom, and the consequence of saying to a parent, “I’m bored.  There’s nothing to do.”

Like a Virginia Reel, they weave in and out of old and new friendships.  I’m never quite sure who is whose best friend at any given moment, and that does seem to change on a weekly basis.  They text now, and Skype, and email.  They never talk on the phone with each other, which was a hallmark of my early adolescence.  Nor do they carry tv show themed lunchboxes.  They’d rather die than do that.

I’m the mother of one of those girls, and most of the time I feel like my job is to encourage the good that is there and not to mess it up.  And as much as my daughter and her friends are learning what it is to grow up and to become tweens, I as a parent learn everyday too. When do I react to the drama and when do I let it be?  When do I console, and when do I offer another view?  The last thing I want to be is a helicopter parent, but oh, the temptation is there!

I think J. K. Rowling knew what she was doing when she had kids start Hogwarts at age 11.  Those kids were beginning to realize their magical powers, and needed guidance and education.  I feel that way about these girls because, yes, they are powerful.  They can’t even imagine yet what gifts they have.  They’re beginning to learn about the choice to use their power for good or for harm, not with wands, but with words and deeds.

I imagine sometimes what they’ll be like in high school or even in college, and I don’t get too far because nothing is set in stone yet.  Or ever, really.  Who they are becoming today may not be who they end up as.  But what a dance.  What a journey.  What precious, precocious, powerful human beings they are.

Rock on, girls.  You’ve got this.IMG_0487

 

Beauty > Sadness

Being a pastor, I am invited into the sadness of people’s lives, often.  As a pastor, I working on developing both empathy and boundaries; empathy, so that I can come alongside them and let them know they are not alone, and boundaries, so that I am not rendered undone by all of it.

But still.  Oh sometimes, I just want to stop everything, grab a box of Kleenex, get comfortable on the couch, and weep and weep and weep.  A parent with young children losing a battle with cancer.  A mother, on the verge of deportation, telling her children to be brave.  Estrangement for no good reason.  Violence for no good reason. Random accidents.  Mistakes.

The easiest boundary to create is shutting down, turning off the feelings, setting the empathy aside. Depending on what’s going on, I might find busy work for myself, or clean a drawer in the kitchen, or listen to the zippiest, happiest, most innocuous musical I have on my playlist. But that only works for so long.

When melancholy made its arrival yesterday, I began to think hard (another boundary – thinking instead of feeling.)  What dispels sadness, or at least alleviates it?  For this past day I’ve been wondering about that.

I know that for some, prayer alleviates the sadness, that somehow sharing the burden with the God who loves them lessens it all a bit.  I find prayer just makes me a little mad. Why isn’t God doing something about it?  Why can I not see or believe that God is doing something about it, that I have no idea how much worse it would be if God weren’t doing something about it?

I know for some distraction works, whatever the distraction – work or play, food or booze, sleep or medications.  They distract, but they don’t take away the sadness.  When the work is done or the play is over, when you’re full or hungover, when you wake up or the meds wear off, the sadness is still there.

In the brilliant movie Inside Out, Joy learns that she cannot be without Sadness.  The two need each other in order for their human to be whole.

I need sadness, then, I suppose.  Sadness doesn’t hurt, but it aches.  It’s like a constant sore muscle, or an inflamed gum, or arthritis.  It’s not a sharp pain but an unyielding soreness that acts as an incessant reminder that all is not well, that someone is going through something horrific and I am powerless to stop it.

And then I think about beauty, beauty as a counter to sadness, not as an eraser of it.  There is beauty all around, if only we have the eyes to see it.  Sometimes when I am sad I do some coloring, because the intentionality of choosing which pen to use where, and seeing all the colors together, makes me happy and for a moment creates some order in the midst of chaos.  Sometimes when I am sad I go back to a familiar book or poem.  Often A Wrinkle in Time will get me right again.  There is a beauty to the words that people put together in such a way that I am inspired and hopeful.  Music is the strongest of the beauties for me.  Barber’s Adagio for Strings feels like salt in the wound at first when I am sad, and then heals me in a way I cannot explain.  Appalachian Spring will do that too.  I love the beauty of a Chagall painting, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and the Grand Canyon at Yellowstone, and the shades of blue in my daughter’s eyes.

So I draw or read or listen and I am reminded that as thwarting as it is, sadness is not the strongest thing.  Beauty wins over sadness.  It does.  There is joy in beauty, and sadness too, I think, and perhaps in that which we find beautiful, we understand at a level way beyond our rational thinking that joy and sadness really do need each other.

marc-chagall

Breathing deep

img_0262I have, in my lifetime, experienced both panic attacks and anxiety attacks.  I’m not talking about nerves, the rumbly stomach before stepping on stage or into the pulpit, but the real thing: an impending sense of doom that is completely out of control.  A fear of nothing and everything.  A heart pounding so hard I think it might explode.  A sense that I might die.  It is excruciating.

The first happened while I was in seminary during a guided meditation, which you would think would be a pretty safe place to be. Not that day. Another happened a few months later while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, something I’d done dozens of times before. Bridges have been hard ever since.  The attacks are a rare occurrence nowadays, partly because of age and partly because of work I’ve done to manage them.

I find myself using those anxiety-managing techniques again these days.  I don’t experience that impending sense of doom from nowhere, but I do experience a high level of worry about many things.  I worry about funding for programs for people on the margins.  I worry about war.  I worry about economic collapse.  I worry about people never speaking to each other again.  I worry about the state of the world.

As a person of faith, I am well aware of the many, many things Jesus said about not worrying and right now I find them – and him – annoying.  I also know that constant worry is not good for me or the people around me.  I’m keeping an eye on my eating and my sleeping.  I’ve started coloring postcards, an activity I find relaxing.  I cut myself off after one too many articles from the New York Times, Washington Post, or the Atlantic.

I pray that God will lift my sagging spirit.  I pray more regularly.  I practice deep breathing.  I read daily things from Father Richard Rohr (you can sign up for them here – today’s was particularly helpful.)  I turn off the tv and computer. I look for the good, and hold fast to it.

raftEvery night before we go to sleep, my husband, our daughter, our dog, and I all sit on our bed reading (except the dog).  I tell them it feels like we’re on a life raft, this big bed of ours, all together, safe, for the time being amidst the chaotic currents of the day’s events.  They laugh at me, in the good way.  Still, they are my life raft. And that helps me to worry a little less.

Until the next day comes.