Ode to the post-surgery days

Oh wondrous scar, bumpy and red and ugly, how you have ruined bikini season for me!
And yet therein lies an escape: I shall always have an excuse to cover up.

Oh, makers of cards and floral bouquets! How my friends have supported your bottom lines in this past fortnight!  My shelves are laden with colors and comments, wishes and prayers, sentiments heartfelt and appreciated.

Oh occupational therapists and your kind! How clever you are, inventing the grabber and the walker and the cane, and that most marvelous of inventions, the sock puller-upper!  But how dastardly are those white compression socks on the unshaved leg.  Begone, constrictor! Your blood clot prevention work is done!

Oh church ladies and the moms! How generous you are with your offers of food and rides!  Our freezer shelves overfloweth with your goodness and mercy and soup!

Oh mother and mother-in-law!  How dear are your phone calls and voicemails!  I am FINE! I know how deeply you both longed to be here, yet duties at your own homes beckoned.

Oh friend Alison! What would we have done without you? Your example of how to sleep well is a lesson we needed.  Your meals, and the notebook of recipes you left behind, have sated us body and soul.  You have achieved the Mary Poppins Pinnacle of Care award, and we are still trying to devise a plot to kidnap you in perpetuity.

Oh spouse and child! How patient you are! How well you clear the floors of tripping hazards and allow my drug-addled brain to be more random than usual!

Oh new hip! May I and thou bond now and forever.


After the flood

Soon enough, this election cycle will be over. We will have winners and we will have losers. Some in the country will be relieved; others will be angry or disappointed or elated or packing up their things for Canada. The ads and robo-calls will stop. And that will be good. 

But I wonder, with all the effort that has gone into the election, if we’ve thought about what we will do when it’s over?  How will we make peace with ourselves as a nation? Or does anyone care about peace anymore?

I find Old Testament narratives helpful in giving us an arc for our own stories. For a while, all Noah and his family could think about was the flood – warning people about it, building the ark, gathering the animals, gathering the food. For a while, all they could do was endure the rain and waves and the stench. 

Then one day, it stopped raining and the clouds parted. Then, at long last, the dove came back with the olive branch, and the rainbow appeared. 

Were they ready for dry land? When they stepped onto that mountain, did their gaits shift from side to side as if still riding the waves?  Had they made any plans for after the flood, or had they been so focused on surviving they forgot there would be new life ahead?

This election cycle has felt like the flood for me. I’m just trying to get through it. I’m not pretending there’s no stench anymore. It’s dreary, this rain of ugliness and hate. But it will be over.  Soon. 

Then what?  

New life awaits us and I hope deeply that there are some who are thinking beyond November 8, because we’ll wake up on Wednesday and while we were all glued to Her and Him, other things – maybe more important things – happened. 

Babies were born and old people died. Refugees still sought hope and safety. Haiti was demolished, again. Racism is ever-present. Children in this wealthy nation – this nation which just spent billions of dollars in the election cycle- children still went home from school on Friday with no certainty of a meal until Monday. 

So if, on November 9, we’re licking our wounds or fist-bumping in victory, can we maybe not do that? Can we maybe say, the rain has stopped and the sun has come out and it’s too hot and humid for some, and some can’t get rid of their sea legs, and for others it’s perfect, but for all of us, it’s time to start healing?

I think about that dove coming back with the olive branch. I think too about a small sentence at the end of Revelation, about the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. (22:2)

What branches, what leaves will heal us after this self-inflicted strife?  Listening, maybe. Compromise, maybe. Changing some things, maybe. Letting go, probably. 

We can’t go back to our ante-deluvian days, rosy as we imagine them to have been. That ark has sailed. The dove will land with the branch of hope. There will be a new day. 

How shall we spend it?

Be Ye Kind

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel


Last week I had surgery for a total hip replacement. That has been a long time coming and I can now tell I have parts that move the way they are supposed to.  It’s fantastic.

In these past few days I have been absolutely overwhelmed by kindness and care from so many. At the top of that list are my husband, my child, and my friend Alison, who flew across the country to take care of all of us. And then there is the congregation, and my family, and the school moms, and pastors I’ve never met who’ve held me in their prayers, and old friends around the country who have emailed and texted and messaged, who have baked muffins and sent cards and flowers and chocolate, because they know me well.

I am grateful, too, to the hospital staff.  There they were, taking my vitals, checking in on me, telling me it would be okay when my blood pressure plummeted, putting on the helpful/unsexy white support knee socks, encouraging me through all that initial discomfort  and pain, waking me up through the night as they did their job.

You could say that all those hospital people get paid to be kind and caring. That’s true. As a pastor I know that because, in a sense, we get paid to be kind. It’s a big part of our job.

But what if it were everyone’s job to be kind? What if kindness were the true measure of our worth, and not our social status or our bank account? Wouldn’t that be something?

Kindness is there but it’s usually so small that it gets overshadowed by all that’s loud and angry and grumpy. I’m not sure kindness really works on the grand scale but I know it does on the small scale: helping someone get dressed or making a cup of tea. Bringing a magazine with Benedict Cumberbatch on the cover, and another with the newest, best restaurants. Staying away can be kind; so can stopping by.

Once I’m up and around I’m going to spend more time on the small kindnesses. I can’t fix the world. Hell, I can’t walk without a walker and good meds at this point. But I can be kind, and I will.

And you?

Foul-weather friends

If we weren’t in the midst of a hellish travail, it would be interesting to pay attention to who shows up when we’re in some sort of a crisis.

For as long as I can remember I’ve known the phrase ‘fair-weather friend’ – the kind of person who’s there when life is sunny and you’re at the top of your game, the kind of person who can’t be around tears or silent grief, shame, or failure of any kind.

But I’ve known people who are foul-weather friends. I won’t hear from them for months or years, but if there’s a crisis, they are there with a phone call or email or casserole.  And somehow they know just what to do – how to be present without being pushy, just when to express the gallows humor, to bring the big box of kleenex and not the little travel-size pack.

The best sort of friend to be, I suppose, is the all-weather friend, the one who’s there in that wedding vow sort of way – in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want.

One of the worst moments of my life (so awful I will not recall it here) came when I was away from friends but there was a handful that knew I was facing a terrible difficulty.  They didn’t call me, but when I called them, they picked up.  When I whispered the plea ‘please pray for me’ I knew they would.  I got through it, in part because I was supported by these people invisibly tied to my heart in good times and bad.  They showed up again, months later, for one of the happiest moment of my life.

If it were one of those forced-choice quizzes, would I rather be a fair-weather friend or a foul-weather one?

Truth be told, a foul-weather one.  Friendship takes time and energy and if I’m going to spend some of that time or energy, I’d rather spend it with someone in a bind rather than sitting back and sipping mojitos on some exotic beach with a friend who just won the lottery.

But if I were standing in front of the pearly gates and St. Peter were checking my account, would I be found faithful in my friendship?  Would he say, “There is joy abundant and you missed out on that”?  Or would he say, “You showed up when it was hard and the dawn was far off”?

I’ve realized the gift of so many kinds of friendship lately, and I’ll take what I get, which is folks who show up in the rain, and folks who show up in the sunshine, and folks who bring umbrellas, and folks who bring casseroles.

May I do the same.


Leaving a garden

Every morning as I walk the dog I pass by my neighbors’ garden, which is beautiful.  I think it took them a long time to get it to the place it is today, filled with beauty and grace and some whimsy.  They’ve lived there over twenty years, and I imagine they’ve been working on the garden for that long.  It’s a gift to me, and to the neighborhood.

When I was young, my grandparents lived in Tacoma.  The railroad tracks ran a few blocks away from their back yard, and when we spent the night there, we heard the trains go by in the early hours of the morning.  They lived next door to a diner, and when we’d get off the plane and drive to their house, we’d stop for lunch there and get hamburgers and wild blackberry milkshakes.  It was heaven.

My grandparents had gardens there, too – my grandmother grew roses and my grandfather had a vegetable garden.  Tried as he did, he never could get me to like lima beans, but he’d delight us with funny-shaped carrots and new peas.  Standing in the garden you could see Mt. Rainier in the distance, haughty and majestic and cold, such a contradiction from my grandparents’ sweet, small plots.

My grandfather died in that house.  A few years later, as the neighborhood changed and the diner became a massage parlor, my grandmother left.  The gardens went fallow.  The house was sold and eventually some owner tore it down – it and the massage parlor – and now a strip mall occupies that space.

I miss the house, with the view from the upstairs window of the drive-in far away, and the llama rug my uncle brought back from Venezuela.  I miss the dog run and the old black Lab Lady who lived there.  I miss the shed attached to the garage, full of Grandma’s canning.  I miss her roses, and I even miss his lima beans.  I miss them more, of course, but it has been a long time since they died.

I think about what it must have been like for my grandmother to leave that place and that garden.  I think about all those people who spend decades planting seeds, and tending to the plants, pruning and weeding and sometimes throwing something out and sometimes starting all over again.  A garden is so personal, such an effort of labor and imagination and hope.  And patience.  I can’t imagine what it’s like to leave such a labor of love.

I wonder if God was sad when Adam and Eve left that garden, sad that there was no one there to tend it anymore, or simply to appreciate it.  It’s such a lovely founding myth, the Eden story.  We know how Adam and Eve fared; they made it out alive and started over, but life was different after they left the garden.

It always is.


Leaving the spiderwebs

My family has an ongoing internal disagreement about the spiderwebs on the back deck.  I leave them be.  My daughter and my husband like to take them down.  The argument goes something like this:

Me:  “But they’re so beautiful, and the spider worked so hard on it.”

My daughter:  “Yeah, but there’s still a spider.”

Me:  “But they catch the flies.”

My daughter: “I’ve never seen a single fly in one of them.”

Me:  “They’re not bothering us.”

My husband: [wise silence]

I really do think the spiderwebs are beautiful – amazing, even.  That some tiny creature can create, simply by dropping liquid silk into nothing but air and hope, a web of fragile beauty and functional design astounds me.  I can barely make a Zen doodle.  And then, if you catch a web at just the right time in the morning, when the slant light hits it and refracts on the pearls of dew?  Perfection.

Plus I like spiders.  Blame it on E.B. White, blame it on my dislike of other bugs.  I never kill a spider in the corner of a room or in the bathtub.  I’ll chase it away, but I never kill it.  They are artists who perform a necessary function.  Sure, some of them might bite you and a few could kill you, but I have this fantasy that because I don’t kill them or destroy their webs they know I’m on their side so they won’t hurt.

Ah, the webs of deceit we weave.

But maybe it’s all masking my desire that innocents not be hurt, and their labors not mocked.  When my child was in second grade, the teacher assigned the class a project of making a pig’s face out of a paper plate.  My daughter did.  But she was a chatty girl, and when she did not stop talking after being asked more than once, the teacher threw her pig in the trash as punishment.  I was appalled.  By all means, I told the teacher, have a consequence.  But asking my child to create something and then throwing it in the trash?  What kind of message are you sending?  My relationship with that teacher, who really was a good teacher in all other respects, was tense for the rest of the year.

I admire those who are called to protect the vulnerable.  It’s an endless task, as there are always those others who want to take advantage of the innocent or just be plain mean to them.  So I respond by leaving the webs be, and offering a word of thanks for that short-lived web.  Soon enough the wind will blow the web away and the spider will start all over again.

The vulnerable and fragile we will always have with us.


A necessary good

A few years ago an old friend of mine shared an article on Facebook, written by an atheist organization, which advocated for the removal of the tax exemption status that religious institutions enjoy.  I was a bit hurt that my friend did this, in part because she knows I am a pastor serving one of those tax-dodging religious institutions.  I commented on the article and said that if churches had to pay property taxes, most would close, and all those community groups that use our buildings for free or significantly reduced rents- 12 Step groups, non-profits, neighborhood associations, preschools – would have a hard time finding somewhere else to go.  She quickly apologized and said she was trying to make a different point.  It still stings a little.

In the last year I’ve had several experiences of people who identify as spiritual but not religious, or even just plain atheist, asking to use the church.  Some were services of some sort – a wedding, a memorial – actually, not a memorial; a celebration of life.  I’ve negotiated with families and couples in how many times we can say “God” and if we can refer to “Jesus” and whether or not there has to a reading from the Bible.

I’m just about done with the accommodating.  I don’t want to throw Jesus out with the  proverbial bathwater.

I think if you come to church for a wedding or a memorial, you should not be surprised if the pastor mentions God or Jesus.  That’s part of the deal.  I will no longer officiate at a non-religious wedding; a friend can get an online certificate or a justice of the peace can perform the ceremony.  I’ve got to have a little integrity about my call as a pastor.

I know that Christendom is in transition.  I know we must find new ways not only to tell the old story but more importantly to live out the old story.  I know many judge the church as outdated and irrelevant and self-absorbed, and that is often a fair critique.  But I also think that much of the judgment comes from ignorance, from people simply not taking the time to learn about what churches and people in churches do to contribute to a healthy neighborhood and society.

When did Jesus become the bad guy?  Maybe when the followers of Jesus strayed too far from his teachings.  Maybe when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the state.  Blame bad Christian music.  Blame really bad Christian art.  Blame us getting so caught up in the business of the church that we forgot about the call of the church.

Go.  Feed.  Pray.  Listen.  Study.  Hope.  Dream.  Risk.  Heal.  Lament.  Proclaim.  Share.  Believe.  Repent.  Forgive.  Teach.  Live.  Die.  Live again.