The architecture of trees and other things

It’s the time of year when the falling leaves expose the beauty of the bare branch. As much as I love the new leaves of spring, and the lush leaves of summer, and the reds and golds at the height of fall, I really do enjoy seeing the leafless trees.

The branches are beautiful – elegant like a ballet dancer’s hands, or bumpy and bent like the hands of an old man who’s lived with arthritis far longer than he ever wanted.

I appreciate seeing the structure of the trees, their architecture, understanding a little about how the trees grow and support the weight of leaves and nests.

The devastation of the fires in California have revealed a different kind of architecture; you might call it the architecture of deconstruction. Among the ashes we see a chimney, a bathtub, a puddle of chrome where a fender used to be.

When the flames ravage, all that is left is that which seems incongruous and unnecessary. The flames mock the chimney and the bathtub. A cozy fire at night is magnified into something apocalyptic. The water in such a tub would do nothing more or less than boil in the midst of flames.

I wonder, too, what we are seeing in the architecture of our nation. Midterm elections laid bare the structure of our democracy. But is it the architecture of support, of the values of liberty and justice for all, constructive values? Or have we seen the deconstruction of our values, voter suppression and apathy about the political process? Does the harsh rhetoric of campaign ads and rallies undo us, consume all that is good so that all that is left is incongruous and unnecessary – red, white, and blue bunting crumpled up on the ground?

Well. I think about these things.

I worry about our national identity. So sometimes I take heart in the example of the seasons. Yes, the leaves fall and the trees are laid bare, but spring will come as sure as the sun will set tonight and rise again tomorrow. But sometimes my deep sorrow for all those affected by the fires reflects my sorrow for these United States. So much of what is beautiful and good – care for the stranger and the vulnerable, a willingness to tell the truth at the cost of losing power – has been burned away and what is left is useless.

Maybe when it comes to things political, we are not passive observers. We cannot change the course of the seasons. Very few of us can stop the devastation of these fires. But maybe we can do something to change the American conversation.

I hope we can.

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One Square Inch of Good

img_5908Often whatever art I’m working on in some way reflects my interior life.  Right now I’m making one inch squares of decorated paper, and I think I know why.

From a practical point of view, I’m able to use up some paper scraps from other projects.  And we’re having family for the holidays, and I’m pretty sure it’s bad hospitality to take up the dining room table with an art project.  Making one inch squares of paper doesn’t take much space, and it’s portable.  So there’s that.

But mostly I’ve been feeling as though, indeed, the world is too much with us, late and soon.  Despair like I have not ever known creeps in every morning as I read the news, and but for the many graces that surround me, I would give in.  So I’ve been reminding myself, and my family, and my congregation, that in spite of all that is hard and tragic and infuriating and frustrating and sinful, we still have good to do, and we still have to do good.

Maybe every day I can do something good that would fit in a one-inch square.  Maybe most of us can.  I’m not sure that we mere mortals have the capacity to do great good, but most of us can do a little good every day.  Be kind to the grocery store checker who is chatty but so slow and you’ve been waiting in line for forever.  When you see the guy on the street corner with the sign, look him in the eye, say hello, give him five bucks, and then donate twenty to the local homeless shelter.  Talk in person with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to your own, and don’t debate him, and don’t hate her.

Not hating is a good place to start doing one square inch of good.  Not putting others down is probably good, too.  Lamenting with those who lament, and marching with those who march, and calling out all forms and expressions of bigotry and prejudice work too.  Stepping away from the screen, from the newspaper, from the radio now and then going for a walk is good – one square inch of good for yourself.

Anne Lamott first suggested (to me) doing hard things in small pieces.  In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she says, “I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”

It works for joy, too.  I keep looking for great big huge joy to combat all the great big huge ugliness, but I need to put my readers on and look small.  One square inch – and there it is, meeting with the preschoolers who share the building with us; there it is – meeting the congregation’s newest baby; there it is – my daughter reciting Shakespeare for her upcoming performance in Hamlet.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my squares.  I’ve made about 120 so far, and I plan to make more with no particular end in mind.  Maybe a quilt-like thing.  Or maybe little boxes, following the words of the poet Rumi, who said that “joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box.”  Maybe I’ll give them away to people to remind them that good and joy can come in jumbo size, but if we all tried to just make one square inch of joy a day, that would be enough.

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Sunday Morning Starts on Saturday Night

Two and a half decades into this pastor gig, you would think that by now I would not start fretting on Saturday night about all the things for Sunday. You would think by now, I would know how to manage both the expected and the unexpected of Sunday morning, that I could go out, stay up late, be a regular human being on Saturday night and not a pastor starting to think ahead. Alas, that is not the case.

I’m not preaching this week, and this morning after coffee I told my husband (who is preaching and who does not fret about these things) that I was really looking forward to a Saturday off when I wouldn’t worry  and edit the sermon and make the list of all the things there are to put on a list on a Saturday when you’re a pastor. My husband looked at me and said, “You know, you don’t have to preach that often.” I hate it when he doesn’t say what I want him to say but instead says the thing I need to hear.

Perhaps it is my Enneagram 1 (the perfectionist) or my Myers-Brigg J (who loves structure and the ‘decided’ lifestyle) that starts up the worry wheel.  Perhaps it is my sinful nature, not allowing room for the Holy Spirit on Saturday night and Sunday morning, the sin of relying on myself and not on God.  Maybe its early-onset stage fright.  Maybe it’s that I’m 25 years older than I was when I started all of this and my energy is different.  Maybe it’s all of those things, or none of them.

*****

A member of the choir sent me a note recently, saying that she loved the nuance of hearing the pulpit light click on before the sermon and click off after the sermon.  I appreciate her noticing that, because clicking that little light feels enormous to me.  I click it on, and a week’s or month’s worth of thought, study and prayer comes to life.  I click it off, and for a day, I can rest and let go until it’s time to start again.

What I need to remember in all of this is that God is clicking on a different light.  I cannot separate the thought, the study, the prayer, all that goes into a sermon from God.  If my living is infused with the grace of Christ, the love of God, and the community of the Holy Spirit, then nothing that consciously or unconsciously goes into a sermon is apart from God.  Why, then, do I not trust that?

It may have something to do with this: when the congregation looks to the pulpit, they see me, not God.  They see me, with whom they have shared a cookie at coffee hour, with whom they have sat through meetings, whom they have seen at the grocery store in my grubbies.  They see me with all my faults and failings and they love me (most of them) anyway.  Why, then, do I not trust them?

I take preaching very seriously, and I work hard not to make it about me but about God and the call of Christ to be present in the world.  I take seriously that people have given an hour or two of their morning to come to worship and I respect the gift of their time.  I take seriously the privilege of speaking about God, and maybe even for God.

Perhaps, then, I need to take myself a little less seriously.  I aspire to do that.

But not on Saturday night.

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Making angel wings

Making angel wings

img_5597My latest art project is my most ambitious: a pair of angel wings, each wing on a 40″ x 60″ piece of foamcore.  The feathers will be made out of colorful paper.  My hope is that these will be displayed in different place where people can stand in front of them to have their own angel picture taken.  I’m borrowing from others’ ideas on this one; my twist is the collage of colored paper.

My friend who’s also a spiritual director and an artist is always encouraging me to consider what my current project is saying about me.  I’ve thought about that with the angel wings.  I’m just back to the church after a three month sabbatical, and I must confess there’s a part of me that would like to fly away back into the Land of Sabbatical Zen.  So there’s that.

I’ve started working on the wings during the week of the abysmal confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh.  I’ve wondered about the timing of that, too, and what – if anything – these wings are saying about the hearings.

{crickets}

Well, I imagine there have been plenty in that room who would wish they could just fly away.  Those wings could have given Dr. Ford an escape out of that apathetic place, a flight above the heads of politicians and reporters.  I’d like to add beauty in the midst of so much ugliness.  I’d like us to rely on the better angels of our natures.

I’m making these wings because I love beautiful paper and I like to make pretty things.  I’m also making them because I know so many people who are doing so much good in my community and the world, and I want them to know that I consider them to be angels, messengers of good news, of hope, of justice.

But then I thought (and yes, I do tend to overthink) what if someone poses with the wings who isn’t a good person?  Who ridicules them? Who pretends to be angelic when they are anything but?

demonIn Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel Childhood’s End, mysterious aliens who have been hovering in earth’s skies for fifty years finally reveal themselves.  These benevolent Overlords look like demons – horned, winged, hooved, and tailed.  People are shocked – how can these good creatures look like the epitome of evil?

What if an evil or just bad person poses with my angel wings?

This week, while prepping for the wings and avoiding broadcast news, I’ve also been working on a sermon which attempts a hint of a suggestion of how a divided people might move forward.  It’s iffy.  I’m not sure I want to move forward because I want the bad guys to lose.  I just do.  I want to make devil’s horns and a pitchfork and a barbed tail for them to stand in front of so everyone can see their true colors.

Jesus still has a lot of work to do with me.  Obviously.

What if we all have wings?  What if we are all in possession of something that allows us to fly away to escape, to fly away so we can run away?  What if we all have wings that when unfurled will push aside those who hinder us?  What if we all have wings that can embrace and comfort?  With our wings we can pester, too, or shoo away that which annoys us.

* * * * *

In order to make these wings, I first make feathers.  I take my stencil, and trace it out, and cut it out.  Then I fold the paper in half, and to make the barbs, cut slits in the paper, up and down.  It’s time consuming and the repetition is meditative.  Cutting those slits has felt like putting notches in a belt or scratches on the wall – a cut for every survivor of sexual assault who isn’t believed; for every survivor who is afraid to come forward; for every person of privilege who is afraid of losing their power; for every man who treats a woman as a second-class citizen.  So far I’ve make about 50 feathers, each one having about 100 slits.  That’s 5,000.  I have a lot more cuts to make to keep up with all the things I’m keeping track of.

If I ever finish these feathers, and if I ever finish these wings, and if they are ever on display and people pose with them, few will know everything that was going through my mind as I made them.  That’s okay.

But I hope if someone does pose with them, they will consider – at least for a moment – the deep responsibility of being an angel, of being a messenger.  And I wish that I could make magical wings that would fold up on the unworthy.  Perhaps with such a thought, I would be the first to be swallowed up by my own creation.

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Finished piece, “Better Angels”, 10/10/18

Missing the ones who are gone

It’s been 8 1/2 months since my dad died, and I’m walking this weird road of grief, more nuanced and shaded and blatant than I had ever expected.  Yesterday in church we were singing the closing hymn, and as I started to sing the first line of the last verse, my throat closed up and my eyes started to water and I was done: “That, when our life of faith is done, in realms of clearer light, may we behold You as You are, with full and endless sight.”

One of the blessings of having had this three month sabbatical is the spaciousness of time which has allowed me room for grief that I had not realized I needed.  If anything, I miss my dad more now than I did at first.  My first birthday without him was like a sword in my heart; my parents’ anniversary popped up in my digital calendar and I was shocked at the affront I felt that he wasn’t here to celebrate with Mom.

It helps so much that others grieve, though I do not wish grief on anyone.  Grief finds us all, I suppose; it’s the price of loving.  Today as I write, I think about my dear friend from college whose father died within days of my dad’s death.  I think about beloved church members whose names we will recite this year on All Saints Day and how awful that will be.  I think about my neighbor and his family living the last year with the diagnosis of a stage 4 glioblastoma.  John McCain’s death, and all that surrounded that, gave me such empathy for his family in their grief. I think about the family of Botham Jean, the man shot and killed in his own apartment by a police officer who thought he was in her own apartment, and their grief that is compounded by – well, everything.

My father’s death was not tragic nor was it the stuff of nightly news.  For that I am immensely grateful. But I miss him so much.  I miss skirting around politics and playing cribbage and losing to him at dominos.  I miss our inside joke about watching the cottonwood trees shimmer in the breeze.  I miss his common sense, and his unending curiosity about things.  I miss having a dad around, right there at the other end of the phone line.

Halloween decor is flooding the market place now, the next big holiday to sate our consumerist hungers.  I don’t much care for Halloween – I don’t like to be scared, and there’s a lot of free-floating sugar going around.  I’ve started wondering if on Halloween, on All Hallows Eve, my dad will come visit in some way.  Weird thinking, I know, but grief can do strange things to one’s belief system.

I hope he doesn’t come visit, because it is my deep hope that he is resting in peace, whatever that means.  It is my deep hope that all he needed to accomplish was done by the time he took his last breath, so that there is no reason for him to come back.  Maybe in the end, all of us whom he loved knew that he loved us: the great accomplishment, and maybe the only truly necessary one.

Saints, not ghosts.one-bird-flying-in-empty-sky-nature-background-with-wildlife_r09fknvge_thumbnail-full01

The wedding shoe

As we near the end of our delightful and refreshing three-month sabbatical, my husband/co-pastor and I are finally doing all those little house projects we’ve been meaning to get to.  Yesterday we moved things around in the basement, which serves as our den, laundry room, and second guest room, and in moving stuff, we cleared out the closet.  As we went through only two plastic bins there, I found my wedding shoes.

“It’s probably time to give these away,” I said.

“Probably,” my husband replied.

I LOVED my wedding shoes.  My dear friend Alison, my co-bride who like me was getting married for the first time in her early forties, whose wedding was three weeks before our own, agreed to go shoe shopping with me. We discovered a charming store in uptown Chicago that specialized in wedding shoes.  She found what she needed, and I found what I needed.  Off-white satin with pumps with an ankle strap and rhinestone buckle, with what I thought would be a very comfortable 2 inch heel.  Fifteen minutes into the reception, not so comfortable.  But no mind. I loved the shoes, which no one saw, and which I happily took off later in the evening.

When we returned from our honeymoon, I realized that I would rarely wear these beautiful off-white shoes again, so I had them dyed black.  I believe I wore them once after that, because a few months later I got pregnant, my feet swelled, and after the baby my feet were never quite the same.  So the shoes have been sitting in this bin for 13 1/2 years and I don’t need to be a KonMari practitioner to know that if you haven’t worn something for 13 1/2 years, it’s time to let it go.

We went to the Goodwill drop off this morning and the gentlemen took our things.  The bag holding everything broke so it was a bit of a mess, and as we drove away, I saw a lone, dyed-black wedding shoe lying there in the dust.

There are many things I would do differently if I were to marry Gregg again.  I would not make my bridesmaids wear matching periwinkle dresses.  (Thank you, thank you, AM & EF.)  I would get a different dress.  I might ditch the tiara that held my veil in place.

But there are so many things I would do exactly the same.  I would marry Gregg again.  I would have AM and EF stand up with me.  The wedding party would enter to everyone singing a hymn.  I would walk down the aisle with my dad, a memory that is so poignant now that he’s gone.  I would have all those beloved family and friends there.  I might not register for gifts, but I would eat cake and dance and take all that joy all over again.

Of course, a wedding is not a marriage, as I tell betrothed couples .  A wedding is a herald of what’s to come, but in the years that unfold, cake gives way to boxed mac ‘n’ cheese, and veils give way to hats that hide a bad hair day, and beautiful satin shoes sit in the closet while sneakers are laced up or clogs slide on and socks mysteriously lose their mates in the dryer.

As I mentioned, we’re near the end of our sabbatical, and I’m so grateful for this time away.  One of the things I have most strongly realized is that I really love my husband.  Perhaps this should be obvious, but when you work with your spouse, and when you share an office with your spouse, you can lose sight of all the reasons you married that person.  We’ve spent all but five days of this sabbatical together, but there has been space to breathe and see each other anew.

I have no idea if he would say the same thing about me.  Maybe, maybe not.  But I’m still so grateful for a fantastic wedding that heralded a marriage that would be filled with beloved family and friends, and dancing, and cake.  But we promised each other never to give shoes as a gift – maybe that’s the secret to it all.

Getting lost with your husband (or some kind of significant other)

img_5309Having said goodbye to friends who had spent the week with us at our vacation place, my husband and I decided to go for a drive.  We knew which road to take, and which dirt road to take after that.  We had a number for the dirt road we wanted to follow, and a map, and a destination.

Ah, what fools these mortals be.

We had borrowed my parents’ pick-up truck for the drive, and my husband agreed to drive, so I had the dog on my lap.  I also had with me two bottles of water, two tangerines, a fourth of a bag of Juanita’s Tortilla Chips, Advil, and my hiking shoes in case we wanted to walk.  There were Kleenex, toilet paper, a flashlight, some rope, and jumper cables in the truck.  We were prepared.

img_2221So up a lovely forest service road we went, enjoying the beauty of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, waving to the occasional oncoming car.  Up up up we went, Mt. Rainier peeking through the tree line until at last, we rounded a bend, the trees cleared, and there was beautiful Tahoma.  The view stayed with us for a few more bends, until we were headed downhill and back in the forest.

Down we went, avoiding the potholes.  Down we went, approaching each intersection with some caution, consulting the map (the “map” would be a better description), looking to see if any road had a number on it.

Finally, having driven downhill for a while, we came to a stop sign in the middle of nowhere.  We found this hilarious, and I wish I’d taken a picture.   The road ended at a T, and we scrupulously consulted the map, looking anywhere for a T in the road.  Having found one (or so we thought) we realized (mistakenly) if we turned left, the road would end.  So we turned right.  And started going uphill.  At this point, a good hour into the drive, I started congratulating myself that I had brought not only water but also provisions.

It was about 6 in the evening, and the sun was getting lower, so we knew which way west was and we were pretty sure we wanted to be heading mostly north and a little east.  Happily, sometimes the road went that way.  Unhappily, sometimes it didn’t.  But a car would pass by now and then, so we knew we hadn’t completely left civilization.  Plus I had my dog and tortilla chips.

Then we saw a sign – in the middle of the forest at intersecting dirt roads – that gave us three options.  The town nearest to the house was a mere 26 miles away.  So we took the right and started making our way on a one lane gravel road in the middle of the forest.  We did cross a well-maintained bridge over a pretty little creek.  I saw a chipmunk.

And then we were heading up again.  Up.  Up.  Up.  Up the side of a mountain.  I HATE the sides of mountains – I must have died from falling off a ledge in a previous life.  We were going up a pothole-filled dirt and gravel one-lane road up a mountain and all I could do is tell you which direction is west and where the tortilla chips are.

“Should we turn around and go back?” I asked my husband.  I knew I could get us back – I just had no idea where forward would take us.  And we were on the side of a mountain, which I HATE.

“No, we’ll get there eventually.”

“Are you okay driving?”

“Oh sure, I’m fine.”

So up we continue.  We passed a few cars and a camping site, and some sort of encampment in the middle of nowhere which we landmarked as the meth-makers colony.  We continued going up and the road was narrow and bumpy and I was so sure we were either going to die, falling of the edge of the mountain, or the meth-makers were going to need to rescue us.  “They can have all my money and the chips, ” I said, “but they can’t have the dog.”

At least I still had my priorities straight.

Finally we reached the top of whatever Hell Mountain we were on, and there was an enormous puddle in front us, which I was sure was either a sinkhole or a ledge just waiting to break off.  “Do you want to walk up ahead and see how bad it is?” I asked my brave husband.  “Sure,” he said, calmly, as if he was enjoying himself.  Which he totally was.  Which both infuriated me and gave me courage.

I started reciting Psalm 121: I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  I felt better and in that moment, we did not die.

We went on.  We made it through the puddle.  We started going downhill.  The one-lane dirt road eventually becomes two lanes, and then a paved road, and then we saw it.  A bright yellow rectangle bearing the number 6: a beacon from heaven.  We knew where we were.  We had made it to the road that will take us to our driveway.  We will not die in the wilderness.

Over dinner that night I did thank the little Lord Baby Jesus for seeing us safely home, and I thanked my husband for being calm and keeping his sense of adventure. That night I started the new book I had downloaded on my Kindle: Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown.  I totally got the metaphor.

So here’s what I can appreciate, now that I am home-home, on flat ground with nary a mountain in sight: sometimes it’s really good to get mostly lost with someone you love. You have a deeper appreciation for their gifts and for yours and for the way you tolerate each other’s weakness.  You have to be in it together.  You have to have your priorities straight.  You have to be able to laugh and to pray.

Mostly, though, when you get lost with someone you love, you have to trust that you will get home again, with them, and that some day, you’ll be glad you had the adventure.

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