Whose face do you see when you write the Easter sermon?

Well, it’s that time in Holy Week when I’m staring down the first draft of my Easter sermon, considering throwing the whole thing out, googling “great Easter sermon illustrations”, going back and reading awesome Easter sermons from the Great Masters and wishing I could be like them, and wondering if we could get away with a Lessons and Carols Easter.

No, too late for that.

So this is the point where I remember that I am called to serve a particular congregation, and while others whom I don’t know will show up, this is a Sunday for the congregation. And as I always do when I write a sermon, I picture these people in my mind’s eye.

I picture the family and friends of two members who died today, and wonder what on earth I could possibly say that could give them any measure of comfort, and remind myself that the best comfort comes not from words but from the community itself.

I picture my friend who comes to church on Christmas and Easter, and maybe once or twice in other times of the year, and wonder why she is there, and what she is looking for, and if any part of the service will find her.

I picture some folks who I think will worry that I’ll get political in the Easter sermon, because they brought their relatives who would disagree with anything I might say, making for an uncomfortable Easter brunch.

I picture those who don’t think a woman should ever be in the pulpit, and I don’t give them a second thought.

I picture my daughter, who has told me that our sermons lately have been downers and could I please say happy things this week since it’s Easter?

I picture the choir, sitting through the sermon twice, looking at my back for the whole of the sermon, and I say a prayer of gratitude for them, and for George Friedrich Handel, who wrote a pretty good piece called the Hallelujah Chorus.

I picture other members, getting on in years or fighting some crappy disease, knowing this may be their last Easter.

I picture the families, the parents who struggled to get their daughters into scratchy Easter dresses and their sons to wear clip-on ties because Grandma would like a cute picture, parents who worry about their kid acting up, or throwing a fit, and I want them to know that we understand kids get fussy and act out and we’re still so glad they are here.

I picture the staff and the volunteers who have worked so hard this week with extra services, doing so much to be hospitable and offer some spiritual depth.

I picture Jesus and Mary in the garden, and regret that that image is too informed by Warner Sallman and the pre-Raphaelites.

I picture the stranger who has come out of obligation.
I picture the friend who has come despite her grief.
I picture that faithful saint who has come because he believes all of this so deeply.

It’s a good audience, that crowd in my mind as I face down the lap top.

Who do you see when you write your Easter sermon?

 

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Sunrise at the columbarium, with coffee

Two days after my father’s memorial service, my mother and sister and I had coffee at dawn at the columbarium where his ashes had been laid. It was a cool, dry morning, and while we did not see the sun, we did see the color of the sky change. We talked quietly, looked at the names next to the place where his name plate would eventually go, and sipped our coffee and blew our noses

This week as I think about Easter, I keep going back to that scene: three woman at the grave at dawn. Certainly we were still so very sad, and the worst of the grief had not yet set in. We were still together but later that day, after the sun had fully risen, I would make my way back to Oregon and my sister would go back to North Carolina. Our brothers would return home too, and Mom would return to her new life, life without Dad.

We left the columbarium so we could pack and head to the airport. Each goodbye weighed heavier than the last, though they were lightened by promises to see each other soon, to stay in touch, and we have, but still – there is nothing like being together in the flesh.

The Easter story tells of three women, or two disciples, or one woman and a gardener, all at the tomb. I know their grief, and I want to know their hope and surprise. This Holy Week in the thick of things, I do not know them. Not yet.

Sunday morning I will stand in the pulpit and read that magnificent story and I will bi-locate, and part of me will be at the columbarium with my mom and my sister, waiting for the sun to rise. One never really knows what will happen while preaching, if the Spirit will rush through me and I’ll know – know – that I’ll see Dad again; or if I’ll be totally disconnected from my words and putting on a good show; or if I’ll look out at the beloved congregation, so many of whom have walked through death and grief and hope, and who still show up in on Easter morning because there’s nothing like being together in the flesh, whether the news be bad or Good.

Church basements

A few years ago I did a wedding at the church for a couple who were not official members of the congregation.  The first time I met with them for premarital counseling, one of them asked if they could check out the church basement.  Sure, I said, with a slight hesitation, as we had already determined that they would get ready elsewhere and would not need “the bride’s room” to get ready.   As it turns out, this bride was the granddaughter of a pastor and she had a particular fascination with churches.  When we got downstairs, she took a big sniff, and said, “This smells just like a church basement should.”

I wasn’t sure how to react.  We had just done some renovations that included new drainage that would prevent the plaster walls from seeping water, so I was hoping she was not smelling fresh mold.

I’ve served a lot of churches, most of them with musty old basements.  In my first call, the choir music was stored in the basement and got moldy, so we had a good old-fashioned “wipe all the music down with diluted bleach” party.  We also availed ourselves of the opportunity to throw away the life-sized nativity set, since Joseph’s head was bashed in and one of the wise men was missing a hand.  That was before we found fifteen bags of bulk mail that were never delivered as someone hid them in the bowels of the church basement.

More recently, I’ve begun to think of church basements as magical places because of the great changes that begin in them.  How many 12 Step groups meet in church basements, in uneven circles of beige folding chairs, where people admit so much truth in their lives and seek deep transformation?  Those groups don’t work for everyone, I know, but I also know people who know they would be dead in some gutter without them.

This week I attended a meeting in the basement room of another church.  It was as you would suppose – acoustic tile ceiling, fluorescent lights, that unique slight smell, beige metal folding chairs, long tables, pillars in the middle of the room holding up the sanctuary one floor up.

Forty of us gathered in that church basement to talk about poverty, and the new Poor People’s Campaign, about being civilly disobedient to let the powers that be know that we really are serious about our friends who live with so little while we live with so much.  We signed things, and talked about why we were there, and promised to do something.  I wonder what spell J.K. Rowling would write for that, ending poverty.  Luxurios totem, maybe, or abudentsia totalis.

It didn’t seem very magical, if you looked at any one part of it – a few church people, more non-church people, xeroxed paper, beige folding chairs.  People who care about rents, and immigrants, and housing.  People like me who may or may not be courageous enough to be disobedient, albeit civilly.  People who believe that change can happen.

Even change that begins in a church basement.

church basement

The first year without

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Heart of Love and Sorrow I

Tomorrow is my dad’s birthday, and he would have been 87.  It is his first birthday that he’s not here for; the first birthday in which none of us will call and sing Happy Birthday to him, or be there with him while he blows out candles on the pie because he was a pie person and not a cake person.

My daughter asked what we would do to celebrate Papa’s birthday, and suggested we get a cake, but then I said no, a pie.  Then I remembered that she’ll be gone the night of his birthday and a pie for three is a bit much, especially when two of us have given up sweets for Lent.  But I thought Dad and Jesus would be okay with us celebrating his birthday a little, so we compromised with miniature lemon tarts in lieu of the whole lemon meringue shebang.

So far I’ve made it through my first Christmas without him.  It was okay.  It wasn’t terrible and it certainly wasn’t great.  It just was.  Slowly all of us who loved him are trudging through this new swamp of grief.  Some days we find a solid patch of dry land and we get through the day pretty well, and something we see might make us remember him and laugh.  Other days it’s all muck and quicksand and gnats in an existential stew of remembering he is not here and won’t ever be again.

I am grateful that I was able to be with him in his last few days, and especially grateful that I was able to look him in the eye, and tell him I loved him, and say goodbye, while he looked right back at me and told me he loved me and nodded his head in understanding.   As hard as that was, it was also a gift, a gift I would want for everyone.

I think about those people who have months or years to say goodbye to their beloveds as death takes its sweet and inevitable time with cancer or ALS or Alzheimer’s disease. More often, though, I think of those who have no opportunity to say goodbye, or thank you, or I love you. In this last week I’ve been thinking especially of the families and friends of those seventeen beloveds killed in Parkland, Florida. As if those deaths weren’t horrific enough, violent and sudden and meaningless, they left so much unsaid.  I hope all those people who were killed died knowing that they were deeply loved.  They are now deeply missed.

Grief can be an extraordinary motivator. We’re watching those grieving friends and parents put their grief into action, and it hurts when their grief is mocked or belittled.  If death doesn’t make us weep, we might as well turn in our humanity card.  I hope for these brave friends and parents that all they are doing and saying turns out to be healing for them, and for us.  We cannot stop death, but maybe we can stop it from coming too soon or too violently.

My personal grief over my father’s death is a smaller motivator, I suppose.  I am aware of making sure the people I adore know that I love them.  I’m working to say thank you more often.  I’m aware that there is an end to this life, that we don’t have unlimited time to love well and practice forgiveness and reconciliation often.  I am trying to keep my goodbyes current, as a chaplain friend once advised.

Big grief is a motivator too and every single morning since December 14, 2012, when my daughter goes off to school in the morning, I tell her I love her.  And I mean it more deeply than she can know.  I do not want to celebrate a single one of her birthdays without her here on this earth, or any Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or Easter.

My heart goes out to those families and friends who have begun their first year without.  May their words and deeds begin to drain the swamp, at least a little.

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Heart of Love and Sorrow II.  I made these collages from sympathy cards I received.

It wasn’t a wedding but maybe it was

All the family was there, and we all looked nice. Lifetime friends from all over the country came, and those who couldn’t sent wonderful cards. The church hosted a reception afterwards, and we schmoozed and hugged and told stories. When it was over, we were glad to get off our feet.

But instead of gifts from a registry, people sent flowers, and instead of a wedding, we had a memorial service.

It reminded me of our family’s weddings, and the camaraderie and deep emotion that flowed these past few days were reminiscent of other, happier gatherings.

I really wish someone had been getting married. I really wish Dad were still here, and I have moments of shock when I realize – in my gut and not my head – that he is gone.

Rumi once wrote, “Our death is our wedding with eternity.” Maybe that’s why things felt familiar. Maybe Dad isn’t gone, but has simply gone on. I like to think so.

In the days to come there will be notes to write, and things to put back in order, and grief that morphs into different grief. But I’m holding on to the the wedding image, too. I imagine Dad raising a glass to our successes. I imagine him finding Benny Goodman’s band and kicking up his heels. I imagine him waiting for my mom to make her entrance, and I hope that doesn’t happen for a good long while, at least in the way we count time.

Maybe life’s great events – birth, marriage, death – are really just variations on a theme: the theme of an unknowable adventure that lies ahead, an adventure that will be the best kind of adventure as long as love is present.

See you soon, Dad – but not just yet.

Egg Rolls at the spa

santa hatThis morning I indulged in a little self care (it’s been a rough week) and had a pedicure from my favorite, Tina.  She was dressed in festive red with a Santa hat, and as I got settled, she gave me a box of chocolates.  I gave her a Starbucks gift card, as Starbucks is next door and I often run into her there.

It was early, so the place wasn’t full yet.  Vee and Ken own the place, and Vee was there, and Ken rolled in about 9:45 with their darling daughter.  She was carrying a tinfoil tray and I said, “Oh! Did you bring cookies?”

Not cookies, but egg rolls.  Egg rolls! Ken and his daughter began handing them out.  Why not have an egg roll with my latte and pedicure?  And it occurred to me what a thoughtful thing that was to do, to bring the food of their culture to celebrate the holidays on Christmas Eve eve.  I’ve never had an egg roll at 9:45 in the morning, but it was delicious and I would do it again.

I’m hyper-aware of people’s thoughtfulness right now.  My dad died three days ago, and img_3003normal life gets absolutely pierced with grief at random moments and usually when someone says something really kind, like ‘what can I do for you’ or ‘I’m praying you and your family’ or ‘I remember at your wedding your dad told me Americans don’t drink enough champagne, so I’m working on that’.

He has been gone three days now, which in some strains of Jewish thought is the amount of time it takes for the soul to leave the body.  If that is the case, then he is really gone now and he will start hearing me talk to him, which I have been doing.  Mostly it’s to thank him, and tell him I miss him already, and to ask him please to give Mom a sign that everything will be okay.  And then, because I’m being rather theologically decadent, I tell myself that he is so busy being awestruck and greeting his parents and his sister and his in-laws and best friend that he hasn’t turned his attention back to us.

My dad had a pedicure at the spa once.  He and my mom were visiting, and their feet needed work.  He was charming the ladies and joking with them while Mom rolled her eyes.  He was delighted to get his toenails trimmed, and his callouses scrubbed.  What incarnate things we are; how little it takes to make us happy.

Had they been serving egg rolls on that day when he got a pedicure, I imagine he would have had one with his latte.  He was that kind of guy, generous and grateful for the generosity of others, whatever form that generosity took.

I will miss him more than I know, three days into this new reality.  His absence will not be filled, but it will be soothed by kindness, by thoughtfulness, and lattes, and champagne, and egg rolls.

Requiem in pacem.

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Advent Vigil

232_Barrick_Advent_Purple_72_dpiFor Jack, Annie, Tom, and Grace

This is not the Advent I anticipated,
The one with three purple candles and one pink
The one with meditating on the birth of the Christ child
and pondering the meaning of the Incarnation
It isn’t that Advent

It is an Advent
with picturing my mother holding Baby Jesus
the way she holds any baby she can
And delighting in Him
And having a moment of joy

It is an Advent with a flurry of bushtits landing in the small tree in the courtyard
Angels in disguise
Chirping some song I assume to be good news though I cannot understand it
But they seem to happy in their trilling, and good news is in short supply
They’re gone when the hummingbird finds the Mexican Sage,
the one thing around here observing the purple of the season

It is an Advent with stars leading the way to places unknown
To people who have Gone On
With wondering if he’ll join the meteor shower and fly through the night sky
Or catch the tail of the too-close comet
And leave us

It is a season of waiting
For a death and not a birth –
But not an Eliot death.*
No one is clutching the old dispensation here
No one is really clutching anything

We are, rather, letting go of someone we have loved
Of someone who has loved us in return

It is a holy season
But not the one I expected

mexican sage

* T. S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi, excerpted:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down

This:
Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.