Liminal time

img_0816They say this will all be over,
Sooner or later
That this won’t last forever
That this is a temporary, though difficult, time
A passing phase
A passing pandemic

But isnt’ all time temporary, passing phases,
Passing minutes, hours, days, seasons, years?
Isn’t time just a human construct
A way to measure – what?
Our productivity?  Our greatness? Our failures to act?

This is liminal time, time on the edge
Time of misstepping and falling off the cliff

My time is now unbound
I do not know what day it is, or what I’m supposed to be doing
A friend suggested waking up every day and while getting out of bed shouting the day and date, just to keep ourselves grounded

They say that to offset a panic attack you should be very present
Notice what you see, smell, hear, taste, feel
Ground yourself in the immediate now.

Isn’t that what we are supposed to do all the time anyway?
Be present?  Notice?

This is what it is, right now, in this moment
What it will be in the next moment, we cannot know

Look: the crocuses are up.
Smell: the neighbor is burning trash again.
Listen: that bird keeps singing the same song, over and over again.
Taste: coffee lingers on the tongue.
Feel: the skin on my wrists is so dry.

Breathe.
This too shall pass, as all things do.

I bought a rose plant

I bought a rose plant the other day while at the grocery store.  It seemed like a brave, hopeful act at the time – buying the plant, not going to the grocery store though that takes a certain kind of something right now.

I went my usual route through the store, only backwards, and the last place I walked by was the floral department.  Lots of flowers – lots and lots of flowers and especially the green variety in observance of an unobserved St. Patrick’s Day. I love cut flowers, the brighter, the better.  And there were a lot at the store; no toilet paper, no frozen peas, but roses and mums and tulips and hydrangea and daffodils and what have you.

So there, amid so many flowers just waiting to brighten someone’s day, was a sweet miniature rose plant, in dirt, complete with miniature trellis.  Both my grandmothers grew roses, as did my mom when she had a proper garden with proper sunshine.  I once grew roses in the southwest corner of my yard in Wisconsin and they did well.  When we moved a few miles away and I tried transplanting them, they died.

I aspire to grow roses but I don’t, but what with all the things happening, I thought I might start small.  I put that little rose in my cart and thought to myself, I hope when this pandemic is over it’s still alive.  I hope when this pandemic is over it’s grown a little.  I hope when this pandemic is over I can plant it in proper dirt.

So maybe the point of buying the little rose was not my agricultural aspirations, or my tie to my maternal roots, but the hope that this pandemic will be over, eventually, and we’ll all go outside and plant things, and we’ll go to the grocery and find what we need and be super sweet to the super clerks.

I don’t know when that will be.  But I know that it will be, and I want you to know that too.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

img_0596I ran home at lunch today to burn last year’s palm leaves.  It’s a funny smell and my neighbors might have wondered just what the minister next door was doing.  Nothing untoward, truly – unless you consider taking a symbol of honor and life (the palm) and burning it to ashes to remind people that they are oh, so mortal untoward.

Another Ash Wednesday is nigh upon us.  I think about my first Ash Wednesday as a pastor some twenty-five years ago.  Death seemed neither imminent nor scary, just a nice little comma in this journey with God.  But I stayed long enough in that first congregation to start loving those people, some of whom got sick, some of whom were dying as I drew a cross of ashes on their forehead.

Fast forward, as Ash Wednesday falls three days after what would have been my dad’s 89th birthday; as Ash Wednesday falls two days before my darling daughter’s 14th.  I fear death now.  I know the havoc it wreaks, the worry it brings, the dread not just of the slow march of dying but also the crushing emptiness of the one who is gone.

Yet here we are, making crosses out of ashes and saying to young and old, to hale and sick, to the faithful and doubting, mortals all, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  Stern stuff, these ashes.

Here’s a little spoiler alert because I’m going to mention the end of The Good Place so if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read any more, but happy Lent.

I thought that last episode was exquisite, with the prevailing realization that what made life so precious was the knowledge that it would end.  We would never know what would be our last sunrise to awaken to, what would be our last time to hear our favorite piece of music, what would be our last time to tell that old story and laugh and laugh.  I remember the last time I spoke with my dad – and I knew it was the last – and it’s still so hard to think about and to write about. I said goodbye, then joined my siblings where I sobbed and fell to the floor.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.  Ashes, ashes; we all fall down.  We fall down in grief, in wonder, in agony, in worship.  We fall down in disbelief, maybe, that all this will end, that to the dust we will return.

But unless the seed falls to the dust, to the dirt, and dies, no new life will come.  Fall down we must.  Rise, we will.

Muscle memory

img_0087I had the joy of spending a few days with old friends. Ten of them, in fact – ten old friends, which seems either a prodigal luxury or a deep blessing or both.

It had been a while since I’d seen some of them and I wasn’t sure if time would prove to be our undoing. As it turns out, muscle memory in the heart has kept these old friendships true.

Maybe it has something to do with when we became friends: those tricky years when we stop being teenagers and became young professionals. Some of us lived together, sharing ugly couches whose comfort made up for the appearance. Some of us trod the boards together with shared memories that seem to be the stuff of sitcoms but really happened.

But this time around, the rooms we just shared were only for a few nights, and old jokes gave way to other things: talk of children and aging parents and careers that didn’t turn out as we’d planned and marriages that are lasting us into the future. We lied that none of us has aged and we planned our next gathering in hopeful terms.

It is good for my soul to have been with these friends, sisters and brothers of a sort who reminded me that who I was is really not that far from who I am. It is good to be loved and cherished by those who knew you when you were still rather unformed, lumpy in empathy and a bit much in certainty but nonetheless good of heart.

As the plane took off and I headed home, we flew through clouds and it felt a little as though these last few days were a dream. But really they were a dream come true, a marking of friendship, a look back at growing up, a reminder of deep ties.

So thank you, dear ones. You know who you are.

See you soon.

Et tu, NIMBY?


I think about homelessness every day. Living in a major metropolitan area on the West Coast, it comes with the territory, and I know that some of my neighbors, some of my fellow Portlanders, will sleep tonight under a tarp on a sidewalk, in the doorway of a business, under a bridge, on an acquaintance’s couch, in an emergency shelter.

I’m pretty furious about the whole thing, that somehow as a society we think it’s acceptable for people to live this way, that it’s okay for children and people who should be living off their Social Security to instead be utterly dependent on the kindness and generosity of strangers. It’s more complicated than that, I know, but at the heart of things, I think there’s a lack of compassion and an overabundance of greed and apathy.

So yesterday I had coffee with my friend who is a social worker who gives a lot of his time, in his work and as a volunteer, to work with people living on the streets. For the last six months, our congregation has hosted one family at a time living in their car in our parking lot. Catholic Charities provides a porta-potty. A nearby house offers their shower. We’ve helped with food and meals and bus fare and laundry.

My friend listened well to me as I struggled with trying to figure out what is the right thing to do, for our guests in the parking lot and for the general crisis of homelessness in our city. In the end, what I heard him say is something like, “You can’t help everyone. Not everyone wants help. But you can help some people. Set your boundaries, know your capabilities and your limits, and try.”
The program funding these porta-potties in parking lots is coming to an end – budget cuts. When I inquired why, the head of the agency providing the funding told me about the money part, and asked why more congregations hadn’t participated in the program. I told him I thought it was because of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and the power of neighborhood associations to put the kibosh on this sort of thing.  And of course it’s more complicated and nuanced than that.

Then last night a homeless couple started unloading their eight shopping cards on the parking strip at my neighbors’ house.

Sigh.

We had already planned a happy hour get together at these neighbors’, so of course What To Do about this couple became the main topic of conversation. Folks had noticed them earlier in the day. They were the people who had camped out by the library for two weeks. They said they just needed to get their car fixed. Ah, I thought – we can help with that.

So my husband and I went to talk with the woman. We introduced ourselves. I said I’d heard they needed help getting their car fixed. No, she said, getting her cart fixed. Oh, I said. Can we loan you some tools? No, she said. I noticed she was gathering trash, and I offered to put it in our trash can. Thanks, she said. And that was it.

Over the course of the next few hours many noticed this couple. One neighbor wanted to call 911 and throw them out. Another wanted to find shelter services. Others wanted to let them be.

This morning they moved down a house, to the parking strip of a house whose owners live elsewhere. One neighbor called non-emergency and was told that unless they were engaging in illegal activity, there was nothing the police could do. Yet another neighbor asked if we couldn’t engage with them. All agreed we wanted to help. All agreed we didn’t want them in our neighborhood.
And then my hypocrisy hit me.  Yes, I want to help them, but not in my own backyard.

I don’t know how this will resolve and I don’t know what to do. I know that all of us are beloved children of God, human beings who deserve respect and dignity. After that, we differ. Some of us have a lot – a home, a car, storage space, places to get clean, family, neighbors, jobs, community. Some of us none of those things.

“You can’t help everyone. Not everyone wants help. But you can help some people. Set your boundaries, know your capabilities and your limits, and try.”

Is that enough?

Love to the loveless shown

Well, our friend Aaron showed up in church this morning.  As is his custom, he made his way to the sacristy, exited into the choir loft, and came down the three stairs to the chancel where my husband/co-pastor Gregg met him and escorted him to the front pew.  He sat with Aaron for a minute, then came back to the chancel, but in his place, one of our deacons sat with him and got him a hymnal in case he wanted to join in on “My Song Is Love Unknown.”  As we sang those words “love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” I watched Gregg and then Gail sit with Aaron, and make him feel welcomed and maybe even loved.

Sometimes I think that maybe Jesus is showing up with us as Aaron.  Every now and then Aaron appears.  Sometimes he’s sober, sometimes he’s not.  Sometimes he asks for a little help and sometimes he just needs to be with our people.  It always feels like a test: will this be the week Aaron does something that simply is not acceptable and we have to ask him to come back when he can observe the community norms?  Will this be the week that someone who doesn’t know Aaron’s story with us is mean or harsh to him?  Will this be the week when he removes his disguise and we realize that Jesus was testing us with the “Love Your Neighbor/Do This To One of the Least of These” exam?

Two weeks ago I preached about hunger and feeding people as a means of reconciliation.  We were writing Bread for the World letters after worship that day, and it all seemed to fit.  The statistics about world hunger are pretty depressing, as much because we waste 1/3 of all food produced as because millions of children are nutritionally comprised.  Here in Portland, a third of all students in Portland Public Schools face food insecurity on a regular basis.  I shared all of that with my well-fed, food -secure congregation.

The next day I get a text from one of the members of the family who is living in their car in our parking lot (with the church and neighborhood’s permission.)  They haven’t eaten in two days – could we help out with a gift card to the grocery store?  I heard Jesus whispering in my ear, “I was hungry  – did you or did you not give me something to eat?”

I came home this afternoon to my lovely house and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I looked around at all our space, and up at the ceiling under the new roof we just got, having driven home with a car full of gas.  Who am I, to have so much when others have little or nothing?  Who am I to not face the demon of substance abuse or mental illness?  Who am I to not be confined by my bad choices?

I don’t know if it’s the luck of the draw, privilege, injustice, prejudice, will, disposition, but lately it feels like Jesus keeps showing up in the guise of those considered by some to be the least of these.  Do I greet him with love?  Do I offer him grace?  Do I ignore him because it’s messy and hard to engage?

I tell myself I do what I can.  We help our parking lot guests out with grocery gift cards.  We have meals with them, but not as often as I think we ought.  We do their laundry, and sometimes that feels like doing ministry more than anything else I do in the week.

They are lovely people, our parking lot guests and Aaron and all of them.  I fear they don’t know that about themselves, and I fear they don’t know that God sees them as lovely, if they even think there is a God.  What they know is that there is this church with people who treat them with kindness.  I hope.

But my relative privilege and my relative wealth – this brand new roof over my head, this ability to buy food whenever I want it – recall another line from the hymn:

“Oh, who am I, that for my sake, my Love should take frail flesh and die?”

Ashy Heart

We had unicorns at last night’s Ash Wednesday service, and by that I mean two young families with young children who had not been to our church before.

I wondered why they were there. Renegade Methodists? New to the neighborhood? Curious about what goes on inside this big stone fortress of the church? They left before I had the opportunity to introduce myself. But still, I wondered.

It was, I suppose, a rather typical Ash Wednesday service. We went out into the courtyard as the service started to burn last year’s palms, and as the flames danced a bit in the damp evening, the acrid and distinct smell of burnt palms may have made the neighbors wonder exactly what was going on.

The liturgy was straight out of the Book of Common Worship, as I wasn’t feeling too inspired to write anything of my own. Good stuff there. I am grateful.

So we burn the palms and sing and pray and confess and have communion and do the ashes. These families come up for the ashes. The first family comes up with a wee girl who’s maybe three or four, looking at me with wide eyes, innocence and trust.

I cannot tell her she is dust.

I want to tell her she is light and joy, she is wonder and curiosity, she is neutrons and cells and mitochondria and if she has to be dust, she shares that dust with stars. So I bend down and look her in the eyes and ask her if it’s okay if I put something on her forehead. She nods yes. I make a heart of ashes on her sweet skin, and tell her she is so loved. Then I straighten up, look her mother straight in the eyes, make an ashy cross, and tell her – this complete stranger – that she is dust and to dust she will return.

I’m so tired of death I just didn’t have it in me today to say those words to a child. When I started in ministry I was more hardcore. Everyone got ashes – the matriarch with dementia, the dad with cancer, the baby.

Now I want people to live and live fully. I want children to grow without fear of getting killed at school or nuked at home. I don’t want them to have to know about death for a few years. Maybe when their goldfish dies, or when their teacher’s mom dies, maybe then, but not this year on Ash Wednesday.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to think that life just goes on and in and in, and all the people you love stay around?

It would be quite lovely.