Have barn, will put on show

Many years ago, I trod the boards.  I did theater, on stage and backstage, and not only that, I did musical theater.  I can still muster up a box step and a decent pair of jazz hands if necessary.  Those things aren’t usually needed for a worship service, but it’s good to be prepared.

On vacation this summer we had the opportunity to catch a bit of summer stock, a production of “Singin’ in the Rain” performed by the Playmill Theatre of West Yellowstone, Montana. To be truthful, I wasn’t expecting much.  It’s summer theater, and it’s in a remote corner of a lesser-populated state.  But I walked out of that theater delighted by so much, and reminded a bit of a life I once had.  Kudos, Playmill!

These kids – I think they were all young – had gumption and talent.  Before the show, the actors ushered the audience to their seats.  During intermission, those same actors (in character) sold fudge and ice cream and lemonade and popcorn to the audience.  I bought some fudge, and when the actor (who played the studio’s p.r. man) didn’t have the right bills, I told him to keep the change.  “Really?” he asked.  Could he maybe get me some water or something?  Sure, I said.  When he then tried to offer me change again, I told him not worry about it.  “Wow, thanks!” he said, not a trace of sarcasm or irony to be heard.  It was all of $5.00.

That cast could sing and dance with the best of them.  I doubt any of them will make it to Broadway, but I hope they have other aspirations.  They were gracious hosts and actors, and I could not ask for anything more.

Almost thirty years ago I was production stage manager for a summer theater in Princeton, New Jersey.  Among the cast and crew were some of the people most dear to me in all the world.  It was a lot of work, and there were the usual tensions, plus it was one of those summers when the 17-year cicadas were out.  It remains the funnest summer of my life.

My time in the theater trained me for ministry.  Sure, some people are trained in the mission field and some in the towers of academia, but doing shows gave me skills and insights I use every week in planning and leading worship, in working with a staff team, in providing hospitality and creating community.  The lights aren’t as strong, the dance rarely includes tap shoes, and the sermon is a bit long for a soliloquy, but it’s theater at its best.  Like all theater, it is good when it is most real and authentic.

Of course no one in the real world sings and taps during a rainstorm, or if they do, I’ve yet to see it.  But every time I step into the pulpit, I feel that excitement, the joy of saying something true and good and uplifiting.

Applause not necessary.

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With thanks to the theatre folk along the way: Tom and G’ann, Baranna, Virginia, Curt, Kirsten, Biz, Tom E, Amy, Louis, Kay, Carol, Annie, Ken, Emily, Linda, Amy, Miriam, Diana, Carol, Glen, Hans, Alan, Peter, David, Robert, Debbie, and so many others who I’m sure I’ve forgotten.  Break legs!

Summer Vacation: Instagramming the Gates of Hell

Beneath the wild beauty of Yellowstone National Park lives a supervolcano,  a cauldron of hellish gasses and liquid rock formed, in part, by the struggle between massive tectonic plates that vie for space under what we call Wyoming.  If that volcano were ever to blow – and it could – it would be the end of the world.  The volume of ash that would enter the atmosphere would cause climate change that would be catastrophic.

Now the odds of that supervolcano blowing in my lifetime or my child’s lifetime are pretty slim, but that gave little comfort to my daughter as we visited the park on our summer vacation.

“Mom, if the volcano blows, where is the safest place to be?”

“Well, honey, I think you’d want to be right in the middle, at the center of it, so you’d die quickly and not have to go through the onslaught of another ice age, panic, mayhem, and all of that.”

So there we were, on a beautiful August day, blithely taking pictures with our phones of the gorgeous canyon that belies the hell beneath it.  Later that day as I posted pictures on Instagram, I wondered about that – is it hubris to do something as mundance as taking a picture of a place that could cause the end of the world?  Do we realize how fleeting life is, and how powerless we are?

On this same vacation, we’ve been watching the Olympics at night.  Every one of those athletes is amazing, and the irony of snacking in a comfy chair while watching feats of strength, speed, and agility has not been lost on me.  It was last night as the women gymnasts competed on the vault and uneven bars, throwing their tiny, solid bodies into the air in crazy moves, that I thought of Instagramming the gates of hell.

Perhaps it is both hubris and courage that allows us to pull out our phones and take pictures of a volcano, and to train and work and compete as we push the limits of what the human body can do.  My family watched those gymnasts in awe – how can they do that?  Beyond the physicality of it, how do they summon the courage to bounce backward up onto a platform?

Vacation has been a time to marvel at the world in its creative, violent beauty; a time to marvel at those people who push the boundaries of human possibility.  So maybe, those two things will merge some day before the volcano blows: courage will meet catastrophe.  Who knows what will happen?

 

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Mortal, after all

Yesterday I led a memorial service, a celebration of life, for a two-day old.  It was excruciating, as you might imagine.  It was also stunning and beautiful, as you might not imagine.  Pain was real and evident, but more present was the love that surrounded these two parents and these three grandparents.

That service came on the tail of four other deaths in our congregation, all women in their 90’s.  Those deaths were sad, but not unexpected, and really, not tragic. My colleague’s husband finally succumbed to the cancer he fought bravely and vehemently.  That was awful, too.

A long-time friend of mine – would I call him a friend? – lost his battle to ALS.  We went to junior high and high school and college together, but we didn’t run in the same circles and we never really hung out, except for long drives across Texas to out-of-town debate tournaments.  Still, his death has hit me hard.  Maybe I’m facing my own mortality.  Maybe I’m owning up to the fact that we are mortal, after all.

Add to that the violent deaths in St. Paul and Baton Rouge and Dallas, and Baghdad and Nice; aging parents and more cancer and random car accidents and plane crashes: mortality is announcing itself, loudly and proudly, and I want none of it.

My daughter is fed up too, maybe not with death but with the professional call of her parents to deal with death and dying.  It feels like all the time to her.  Evidently there is some sound I make, some short expulsion of air, and a way I say “oh no” that makes her look up from her book or computer screen and ask me, “Who died this time?”

That’s a question I never asked my parents when I was ten.  My grandparents were alive and healthy, as were my friends and their parents.  No one I knew had cancer; no one I knew got shot.  A cousin I didn’t know died in a motorcycle accident, but that’s it.

Why do we have to die?  I know the answer to that, and I don’t know the answer to that.  I also know that getting each other through the grief of death while we’re still this side of the grave is one of the highest callings we have, which doesn’t mean that it’s all pretty and lovely and tied up neatly with a sweet little bow.  Grieving and sitting with the grieving is most often awkward and inconvenient, messy, full of swear words and uncomfortable silence and wadded-up tissues and casseroles that will be reheated for the week.

But then sometimes the light breaks in, through the stained glass window of a sanctuary, or across the row of crosses at a cemetery, or glistening on the water where ashes are scattered.  Sometimes laughter sneaks in, in gallows humor or a hilarious memory. Sometimes some a minuscule thing happens, and the grief is eased an iota, and the future shimmers for a moment with hope – a mirage in the desert of sadness while we wait for the real oasis.

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The table

I have a thing about tables – end tables, side table, telephone tables, coffee tables, dining room tables, drop leaf tables, round, square, triangular.  I have a thing about tables.  It might have to do something with an appreciation of horizontal surfaces on which to put stuff.

So when I had the opportunity to buy one of the communion tables built for the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) I jumped at the chance.  I gave my best doe-eyed look to my husband, and told him we really could use it in the back.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the doe-eyes that won him over, but now it sits in our backyard.

The table was made out of our Pacific Northwest native wood, the Douglas Fir, the Pseudotsuga menziesii .  Its scientific name is derived from the pseudo prefix because the Doug Fir isn’t really a fir tree; the menziesii come from the name Archibald Menzies, who classified the tree before David Douglas, who named the tree after himself.  So you could say the table isn’t what it seems.

I wrote the communion liturgy that was used for one of the services at the table during GA.  The preacher/presider that day chose not to say all the words I wrote; I believe they did not suit, theologically-speaking.  I was a little miffed, to be honest.  But then I remembered it is a table of grace.

The table was transported from the Oregon Convention Center to our home a few miles away because of the strength of many and the generosity of a friend, who provided both muscle and pick up truck.  It is a table of friendship, too.

Its debut at our home was for a potluck dinner for all of us who were on the steering committee that provided hospitality for the General Assembly, and on that beautiful Thursday night, it was laden with wine and lemonade and iced tea and brats and chicken and pork and watermelon and crudites, and laughter, and stories, and gratitude.  It is a table of abundance.

Our child protested the arrival of the table in our small backyard – it takes up space she plays in.  It is a table of inconvenience.

But I love it.  I love where it has been, and who has stood behind it and broken bread and poured the cup.  I love who has gathered around it, and who will gather around it.  It is the holy in the ordinary, and I am reminded that the holy calls me to gracious, and generous, to be a friend.  I am also reminded that, like the table, the holy can be inconvenient at times, nudging us to let go of grudges, to rely on loaves and fishes, to find a way to squeeze one more person in.

It needs another coat of lacquer, according to its builder Michael.  A little care must be given for it to survive the long haul, not unlike all of us.

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Living in the tension

“Mom, why do we have guns?” That’s the question my ten-year-old asked as we ran a few errands Sunday after church, when I had referred to the Orlando shooting in worship and she asked what had happened.

“Well, people used them to hunt so they could have food.” But that wasn’t quite right.  Not at all.  “People used them to kill each other in war.”

“Why do we have war?”

“Well, people see someone else as their enemy, as someone who wants to take what they have, as someone who is dangerous.  Or someone who has something they want.”

“Then why do we have enemies?”

Oh, child of mine, I didn’t ask those sorts of questions when I was ten.  The assassinations of the 60’s were not part of my childhood memory, nor was the Viet Nam war.  My first political awareness was Nixon’s resignation, and that didn’t involve guns at all.  My dad and brothers hunted; we had rifles and shotguns in the house that were always locked up and never loaded.  When we were held up at gunpoint at home when I was a teenager, no one thought about getting one of those guns and starting a shoot-out with our assailant.

Maybe the bigger question is why we have enemies.  That same Sunday, at the end of worship, two men experiencing homelessness came to the narthex seeking help.  That’s been happening a lot lately – there are so many people and not enough public bathrooms or soup kitchens or mental  health facilities or shelters.  There may not be enough time or kindness, either.

One of our deacons was talking with them very patiently and I interrupted the conversation.  I thought wearing the big black robe and the pretty green stole would give me some authority when I told them I was so sorry that we weren’t able to give them cash, but it didn’t. I listened.  We prayed.  I’ve remembered their names – A.J. and  Avery.  I’ve prayed for them all week.

Are A.J. and Avery my enemies?  Do I wish them harm? No.  Did I wish they’d go away so I could get off my feet and get a cookie and cup of coffee? Maybe; how horrible of me.  Do they wish they had guns so they could get what they need by force?  I doubt it.

It was an unsettled day, Sunday.  I was so aware of the tension of being safe because I’m a straight woman and the worry that someone might target our church because we have a rainbow on our sign.  I was aware of the tension that I’d had a nice shower in the morning, and put on clean clothes, and had breakfast and would have lunch as I talked with these men who hadn’t seen a shower or a full meal or a sober day in God knows how long.  I was aware of the tension in wanting my daughter to delight in the world while having to tell her the realities of the world.

The tension is still there, and my prayer is that nothing reaches the breaking point.  My prayer is that out of the tension comes something hopeful or healing, maybe even beautiful, the way a beautiful note is played over the taut violin string.

But maybe that isn’t up to me.  But maybe it is.

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We were visited

Aaron was in worship again on Sundayo.  I wasn’t surprised – I’d seen him around the building this week, and had commented on the nice green blazer he was wearing, to which he replied, “I’m a natty dresser.”

Aaron is a friend of our congregation, a man in maybe his 30’s who is experiencing addiction, homelessness, and lives with mental health issues.  He shows up for worship now and then; lately, on high holy days.  I’m beginning to wonder if he isn’t a messenger from God.

On Sunday the choir led most of worship.  We (I sang with them) presented portions of a rather extraordinary work entitled “Calling All Dawns” by Christopher Tin.  Twelve songs, incorporating sacred texts and poetry from many cultures, that describe the cycle of day, night, dawn; life, death, and rebirth. We sang seven of the songs, in Swahili, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Hebrew, Farsi, and Maori.

I gave a short reflection, and wrangled the doctrine of the Trinity with the Bantu word and African ideal of ubuntu – “I am because we are.”  I think it worked.  Maybe not.  But it was my hope to weave together the context of the music with Trinity Sunday with our call to be community to each other and the world.  Oh, how we preachers stretch sometimes!

So after the service there was much hugging and complimenting and the usual handshaking.  As things started to clear out, I saw Aaron sitting by himself in the back pew in the transept.  I sat with him for a minute or two.

His eyes were watery; he had alcohol on his breath.  I asked him how he was.  “Fine. I guess.”  I asked him where he was sleeping these days. He gave me a look as if I should know better than to ask.  Then he said “On the sidewalk.”  I asked him if he had a tarp or a sleeping bag.  No.  Then he said, “A buddy of mine let me sleep on the floor of his house last night.  This guy – I don’t what he’s been through.  But he’s still really kind, still sort of innocent.  You know, it’s like you said.  Community.  We all need it.”

In the last year I have learned that two things can ground the most ethereal, theological, grand worship: a bald child who is battling cancer and a homeless man who comes to worship because he craves community.

Maybe God sent Aaron to us this morning to remind us that as much as we sing about following the way and praising God and living out peace, we must never forget that it begins in the pews and on the sidewalks that surround the church.

I wish I knew how to help Aaron.  I know how to give him cash and food; I know how to pay for a motel room for him.  I also know he would probably not be accepted into a shelter because of his addictions, and I know shelter spaces are too few in our city.  I wish we had better mental health practioners who worked with the homeless; again, the few we have are overloaded.

So for now, I do what is inadequate: I welcome him in church.  I call him by name.  I recognize him not only as a child of God, but as a messenger of God.

And the message is that we have work to do.

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The grass withers, the liturgy fades

img_8041Does a prayer have staying power?  Does a litany change anything, or anyone?

There are prayers I treasure; I particularly love Cardinal Newman’s “O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen….”  When leading worship, I sometimes worry I will forget the Lord’s Prayer right in the middle.  I find comfort, before preaching, in saying the words out loud “may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts…”

Almost every week I write liturgy for the bulletin, usually a call to worship and a prayer of confession, maybe communion liturgy.  I spend a fair amount of time on it (and make it available elsewhere on this blog).  I enjoy the process; it adds the sense of poetry to my usual to-do list.  Some of the stuff I write isn’t half-bad, if I do say so myself.

But occasionally the thought comes: does this make a difference?  People get one shot at their part in the call to worship, and then we’re on to the opening hymn.  Did a word catch them?  Did a phrase redirect their thoughts?  Do the words of confession that I put together resonate at all with at least one person in the pews?

Lately I’ve decided that the liturgy – or at least the liturgy in our Presbyterian worship – is momentary.  The grass withers, and the liturgy fades, but the word of the Lord will stand forever.

And maybe that’s not bad.  A petite-four is a momentary thing; so is a sidewalk drawing.  Which is not to say those things aren’t beautiful, brief though they are.  If everything were eternal, we’d be overloaded.

Maybe liturgy is like KonMari for worship – something non-essential that is done with once uttered.  I think I’m okay with that.

But I’ll write on, not for eternity, but for the moment.