This mortal coil

I’ve been thinking about death this morning; doesn’t everyone this time of year?

It was three years ago today that my dad died. I was not with him, but my mom and sister, faithful women that they are, were there. I was at the pediatrician’s office with my daughter. While we were in the waiting room, my sister texted that the hospice nurse said it wouldn’t be long. After that, I turned off my phone until we got home. And there was the message: Dad died.

Three years out the pain is different – less acute, more wistful. I think about my dad, and so many others, who were so full of life and now… aren’t. I don’t mean that facetiously or sarcastically. It’s just that we live and then we all die and that is terrible and normal.

This time of year I think a lot about incarnation, too; doesn’t everyone?

I have those moments of wondering why in the world God would choose to become incarnate, to take on this mortal coil only to have to shuffle it off in a mere thirty-three years. I wonder why God would choose to take on frail flesh, with skin that gets cut, and bones that break, and heads that ache, and hearts that ache. Honestly, it makes no sense, but then again, very little about faith does make sense. That’s what makes it so interesting and fun.

I try to make friends with death, given its inevitability and omnipresence, but it’s hard. Maybe my real struggle is with incarnation. Why this form of creation? Why create stunning elm trees so vulnerable to fungus? Why polar bears that die out as earth warms? Why the engineering and biological marvel of the human body that only lasts four score or so years?

Honestly, I don’t know. It does seem to be a significant design flaw.

Or is it?

One of the things I loved about the ending of The Good Place (semi-spoiler alert here) is the realization that things are meaningful because they don’t last forever. Our finity defines us, and that is not a bad thing but may in fact be the best thing.

I don’t want Christmas to last forever. I don’t want this pandemic to, either. There are people who I hope to have around for a long time, and people who I wish had lived a few more years. But that isn’t up to me. (It’s not up to you, either….)

So then, what shall we say? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we perish? All we have is the present? Love them now, don’t wait till they’re gone away? Life is short, and we have but little time to gladden the hearts of those who sojourn with us? (Henri-Frederic Amiel)

All of the above.

Well, that’s probably enough melancholy musing for this day. Be well. Hug yourself. Call someone who needs to know that you love them. And indeed, be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. (Amiel again.)

Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.
Oh, who am I, that for my sake
My love should take frail flesh and die.

Tarnished Silver

What if every human being was born with a soul made of the purest silver?  And what if over time that silver became tarnished, as silver does?  

I have been trying to understand what is at the root of Wednesday’s atrocious attack at the Capitol building.  Hatred, fear, and grief come to mind, as does racism, anti-Semitism, and a desire to believe lies when they are way more convenient than the truth.  Also idolatry.  And manipulation of power.  And I am trying to understand all of this, rationally, intellectually, coolly, because when I go to the feelings place, I confront my own rage and grief and, yes I confess, hatred.

How did we get here?  I know that, intellectually.  I know that this was a long time coming and isn’t over yet.  But what happened to these people, to the guy who was wearing a Camp Auschwitz t-shirt, as if the murder of six million Jews was something to be silk-screened? Is his heart tarnished beyond all recognition?  What filled him with such hate and willful ignorance?

In this morning’s local paper I read an article about an incident of road rage in which a white woman pulled over a person of color, screamed racist epithets at him, and kicked his car because he was trying to merge lanes. What happened to her? I don’t think we can write this off and explain she was having a bad day. That hate has been building in her, nurtured, nourished, fed, stoked.

What is so terrifying about the color of a person’s skin?  What is so grievous about a person’s religion?  Why do some think that having a uterus makes half the world lesser?

And how will we ever restore the silver?  Can anything undo the tarnish that has built up over centuries of lies and whispers and sin?

Some of my faithful friends would say that only Jesus can restore us, and while I agree with that a little, I think saying that absolves us (or at least us Christians) of working on our own stuff.  Yes, Jesus saves, but as someone who tries to follow him, his teachings, his moral and ethical code, I must hold myself accountable and confess, repent, do penance even.  I do not equate following Jesus with aligning myself with any political leader.

Can any of our souls regain their luster?  Are some so tarnished that they have started to fail, erode?  I leave that up to God.  But I do wonder what might remove some of the grime.

For a while I’ve been toying with the idea that behind hate and fear lies grief.  After Wednesday, I’ve had to revisit that.  I do believe that behind some hate and fear lies grief – grief over the things that used to be, mostly, grief over a way of life that some think has been lost. But there is more going on here.

The hate and anger we saw on display Wednesday, the glee with which those domestic terrorists stormed that building, is fueled by more than grief.  It has been fueled by outright lies, by the allure of conspiracy, by whispers that we can make this nation great again if only we get rid of those people.  It has been nurtured online, in private chatrooms, on Twitter and Facebook.  It has been mispresented in the media.  It has been deliberate.  

In the last forty-eight hours I’ve had many conversations about this.  My mom, hardly a bleeding-heart liberal, was so angry she couldn’t sleep on Wednesday night.  My daughter wasn’t surprised at all.  My congregants are all over the map.  My friends despair; one said it reminded her of 9/11.  One person, a friend who’s been politically active since the 60’s, said she couldn’t believe that this would be the state of things at this point in her life.

I am not hopeful.  And I tend to be a hopeful person.

So I go back to thinking about this.  What can restore the luster?  Acts of kindness.  Works of justice.  Unseating the powerful.  Listening.  Holding fast to the truth and calling out lies.  Suspending some Twitter accounts indefinitely.  For some of us, prayer.  For some of us, confession, penance, and repentance.  For some of us, arrest and jail.

Then again, to slightly twist Robert Frost, maybe nothing silver can stay.

A day full of everything

Gratitude, of course.
Loneliness, of course.

Guilt.
Excess.
Family.
Solitude.

Walks.
Talks.
Hawks, if you’re lucky. Just crows for me.

Love. Fear. Worry. Anger. Raging silence. Untold secrets.
Medications. Treatments. Rest. Work.

What a day this is, U.S. Thanksgiving, a day founded on a blatant myth that erased a shameful past. But I day I love because it centers on gratitude, and I have much to be grateful for.

I am grateful that more than one thing can be true at the same time – I am grateful for my life, and I know that many are suffering so many cruelties. The creation is stunning. The creation is in peril. The creation sustains us in more ways we know.

I do wonder how to hold on to so many things that seem to want to argue and fight with each other – my gratitude and guilt, the generosity of so many and the utter dependence of others on that same generosity. This fall our congregation has given hundreds of pounds of food to our local food banks, and that is fantastic. A friend who volunteers at one of those places told me that on Tuesday they served 470 families, and now they don’t have the time or volunteers or food to open on Saturday. So I say yes, let’s give food and money to soup kitchens and food banks and let’s spend just as much effort working to eradicate the need for those organizations.

See? How do we hold all those things at once?

I have no idea what your Thanksgiving is like this year. Mine is good. I’m zooming with my beloved family, stretched out across time zones and states. I’m cooking food for the people I love. I’m taking a walk and it doesn’t look like it will rain today. I’m resting. I’m reminding myself of all I’m grateful for. I’m taking my anti-depressants. I’m savoring my coffee. I’m thinking about raking the leaves. I’m taking the dog for his morning constitutional. I’m living.

If there is no joy or gratitude for you today, then I wish you peace and consolation. Please know that you are loved.

The grief, all of it

Earlier this week, I went to the cemetery to conduct a thirty-minute outdoor service for one of three church members who have died in the last month. It was as you might expect for death in the time of COVID. We all wore masks. I couldn’t hug the family. We were limited in our time and it was all sad and awful and not what any of us wanted as a way to say goodbye to this person.

On the drive to the pavilion where the service was conducted, I noticed a covered area with big piles of dirt under the roof. It occurred to me that that was the dirt from the graves that had been dug. Somehow in all these years it never occurred to me that there would be extra dirt that would need to go somewhere far from the manicured greenscapes of cemeteries. A hole was dug and something else was put in it. The dirt had no where to go, so they created a place for it.

It feels like grief has nowhere to go these days. Since all this began, my husband has lost an aunt and an uncle (not from COVID.) I have lost an aunt and an uncle (not from COVID.) Eight church members have died. (None from COVID.) Why do I need to say none of these died from COVID? Because it’s a reminder that in the midst of this time of isolation and fear and shouting voices that don’t allow us to hear science, other things are still happening – strokes and cancer and heart attacks and all of it.

And what do we do with the grief? We can’t gather in the sanctuary and tell stories about the dead person and sing the great hymns of faith and remind each other about All The Good Promises About What Happens After We Die. I’m learning that grief is palatable when it can be shared, when the community can lean on each other and right now, none of that is possible and grief has nowhere to go.

Grief just sits there. It doesn’t transform to a paler version of itself. It doesn’t shift into sadness. It doesn’t invite gratitude or perspective. It just sits there, like too much Thanksgiving dinner, like homemade bread whose yeast never activated. Grief just sits there, getting heavier and heavier and becoming insurmountable.

All Saints Day is coming up and worship for that day has been on my mind and my heart. The congregation I serve loves that All Saints service – it’s a time to remember who we are because of who has been with us. It’s a time to name the names of those we miss and grieve. It’s a time to break bread and share the feast and remind each other that the great cloud of witnesses is with us. But not this year.

I wonder if, when we gather properly for worship again, we will have several memorial services or one big one, or a festival of memorials, or some way to commemorate the dead and to have that communal gathering of grief and hope that we’re missing. Or maybe by then it will be too late, and we will have moved on, or we will have lost so many that sorrow will overwhelm.

I do not know. I say that a lot these days, I do not know. I do not know what they do with the dirt left over from the graves. I do not know when COVID will be over. I do not know who else will die in the coming months. I do not know how to mourn all by myself. I do know we were not meant to live this way, in isolation.

So I hold on to that, this new learning about the priceless value of community and seeing each other in real life. We might die alone, that is true. But let’s never give in to living alone.

Embodied

What will we embody?  Hate?  Hope?  Fear?  Love?

I.
For the past several years, our Saturdays mornings or afternoons were spent in north Portland, squeezing in a parking place among minivans, SUV’s, and the occasional Prius, unfolding the chairs and cheering on the girls’ soccer team.  Delta Park was filled with soccer parents and students and coaches, sometimes playing in the rain and sometimes playing in the glorious fall.

This past Saturday morning there were no soccer games; COVID-19 took care of that.  But the park was cordoned off with concrete barriers and police cars, waiting the arrival of the hate group, the Proud Boys.  To the best of my knowledge, they assembled and then left.  But I wonder what they embody.  I wonder if they sense they carry hate in their bodies.  I wonder if they sense they carry fear, too.

II.
On my walk this morning I was listening to Brene Brown’s podcast conversation with Sonya Renee Taylor, author of the book The Body Is Not an Apology.  (Listen to the podcast here.) I discovered the book last year while preparing for a retreat I was leading on women and their bodies and fell head over heels with Taylor’s message of radical self-love.  There’s too much in it to capture in a few sentences here, so go find yourself a copy and get ready to work and to love.

Anyway, Brene Brown discovered Sonya Renee Taylor when one of Taylor’s quotes exploded in social media and was misattributed to Brown.  Like so many others, I found the quote a sort of call to arms – calling our arms and all of our bodies to take seriously this time we are in, and to take seriously how we are being changed, body and soul, by this pandemic.

Here’s the quote: “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.” 

III.
Last week my friend Leslie died.  She was a quiet, warm, bright, compassionate, shy woman whose body grew cancer cells in her bladder.  I hate that she died; I hate that she died from cancer, and I hate that because of this damned virus I didn’t realize that the last time I saw her would be the last time I would ever see her.  She embodied an honest and lumpy faith, and a sensitivity and empathy borne from the things life throws at you.  I don’t know if she felt like her body betrayed her with those errant cells.  She embodied so many things that I cherish, and I feel that her body betrayed her.

IV.
In the early days of COVID-19, I too took up the call to bake away and, with hardly any effort at all, put on five pounds.  That was not good, especially when I learned that one of those mysterious “underlying factors” that make COVID so lethal is obesity.  So I’ve been working on the scale going the other way, and have lost thirty pounds.  I’m enjoying this rediscovery of my body and its shape.  Let’s be clear: I will never be a bikini model.  Scars from a C-section and a hip replacement ended that option.  In this time, I had a big a-ha, especially for someone who has probably lost over three hundred pounds in her life (not all at once – in my many attempts at weight loss.)

The a-ha: maybe walking every day and eating healthy things is pleasurable and not a drudge.  Seriously, you would think I’d’ve figured that out.  But no.  Reframing that has really improved my outlook and has been a good coping mechanism during pandemic and the surge in demand for racial justice and the political dumpster fire in which we find ourselves.

V.
What will we embody when this is all over, when there’s a vaccine, and an election, and (please, God) a peaceful transfer of power?  What are we embodying right now?  I know that I carry fear in my shoulders, and hate in my throat.  I also carry hope in my calves and love in my hands.

I think we have a choice about what we carry, and I’m not proud that I carry hate and fear, but to quote Michelle Obama quoting Mr. Trump, it is what it is.  To let go of those things, to choose not to carry them any more, would seem to be about letting go of control and power too.  I know I embody those things as well.

VI.
I’m one of those Christians who is irregular in her theological outlook.  I don’t read the Bible literally but I do believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus which prefigures the resurrection of human beings and the redemption/resurrection of the whole of creation.  I believe that God created the physical world and called it good and meant it.  I believe we were created to embody joy and care and wonder.  I believe the world would be a better place if we did embody joy and care and wonder.

Meantime, let’s stitch that new garment Ms. Taylor wrote about.  A dress of the softest, drapiest fabric that enhances all that we embody.  Sweatpants unseen in the Zoom meeting that ready our legs to go walk the walk.  A garment worthy of royalty for the likes of you and me.  Embodied and adorned – that’s what we are.  That’s what we will be.

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?