More chocolate; thank you

The gifts of tulip and chocolate.

The gifts of tulip and chocolate.

It’s always a bit unsettling when things converge; it makes it all the more possible that there is a divine force guiding us – or so I choose to believe.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you’ll know that 1) I invited people to eat chocolate every day for Lent as a reminder of God’s sweetness to us, and 2) that an old friend of mine was killed suddenly.  To have put the invitation out on the first thing, and now to be wrestling with the second thing has made for an interesting juxtaposition for me.  How do I contemplate the sweetness of God in the midst of sorrow and grief?

Truth be told, because of the nature of this pastoring thing, I may be one half-inch further along on the whole theodicy thing (why a loving God allows suffering.) I don’t have any answers, but I am slightly less uncomfortable with the mystery of it all.  And so the story that follows is not an answer in any way, nor does ease the chafing of points 1 and 2, but it’s a story and it has helped me.

So, as I’ve written previously, my college friend Martha died last Friday.  We lived together in a suite of ten our sophomore year, and in the days that have followed since the news of her death, we ten have been trying to get in touch with each other.  On Monday I had a call from one of the other women from that suite, a friend who was an engineering major in college (I majored in art history), a friend who was a gifted athlete (it was all I could do to get the simple box step down in my forays into musical theatre.)  We lived together but lived very different lives.  We had not stayed in touch.  Until Monday.

Monday she calls me at the church; she lives in Portland, can she stop by for a visit?  It was fantastic, and again I was so thrilled to see how this friend from my early adulthood had grown into this fabulous, generous, beautiful woman who gave up engineering and runs a non-profit that gives books to children.

And here’s the thing: she brought me chocolate and tulips, because, as she said, that’s what Martha would have done.  This old friend who had become a stranger to me is a friend once more, and the angel bearing chocolate – a sweet salve for my achy heart.

May there be chocolate-bearing angels for you today.

Desperately Seeking Martha

No, not Stewart.

Today I learned that my friend Martha, one of my college roommates, died.  She was hit by a car in Brooklyn just yesterday, and I don’t know more than that and am not sure I will choose to find out more than that.  It is shocking, of course, when a friend from your youth dies.  She’s too young to go, and by that, I also mean that I’m too young to go.

We lived together in a suite of ten our sophomore year.  With Martha, hilarity ensued, and often.  We roomed together that one year, but not after that, and after college we lost touch.  We reconnected a few years ago at our 25th college reunion, and then on Facebook.  She blogged – “Desperately Seeking Jon Stewart” – and it was smart and funny, just like her.  She had written kind and encouraging things to me about this blog, which pales next to hers.  I was utterly delighted to discover how my college friend had grown into such a magnificent, talented, generous person.

So it’s death again, knocking at the door, IM’ing me at a most inconvenient moment.  Another untimely death at that, and the usual response: messages to other roommates around the country, missing the waste basket as I throw my soggy kleenex away, and  wishing I could take her family some tuna noodle casserole or a Hefty bag of tortilla chips to get them through when the shock wears off.  Grieving is such a patchwork – moments of utter loss, next to moments of the mundane.

I shared the news with my husband, and got about to the rest of the day.  Then dinner, then playing, then a family dance party.  Katy Perry’s “Firework” came on, and I was belted out with the divine Ms. P, and suddenly was so overwhelmed I just put my face in my hands and wept.  Yes, at Katy Perry.

I was taken back to our 15th college reunion, when two of our other roommates, Anne and Emily, and I stood out in the athletic fields watching this incredible firework show accompanied by a live band.  I remember standing there with my two dear friends, both of whom had married and had children, grateful for the blessing all these friends were to me.  As I watched the fireworks, I thought about friends who had died, their lights had burst and delighted and illumined, and then they were gone.  And now Martha is too.

We’ve started sharing memories, of course, to ward off the blow.  That might be the only good way to deal with grief – to tell the stories, the funny ones and the painful ones and the hilariously awkward ones.  For reasons I can’t remember, Martha was on crutches for a while our sophomore year, and one night sang out her lungs (for all her talents, singing was not one of them)  to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”  One Friday night, as we thoroughly disregarded the law about the drinking age, we were walking along Nassau Street when a case carrying a Resusci-Baby fell out of an ambulance. Let just say that what unfolded was like what would happen if Eloise (the city child who lives at the Plaza) grew up and went to Princeton and found a Resusci-baby after having drunk a bit.  (We did eventually return the baby, much worse for the wear, but I swear there was a smile on its face that hadn’t been there before.  Martha had that effect on people and inanimate objects.)

After college Martha was a producer for the PBS show “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”  None of us who knew Martha was surprised by that.  She won an Emmy for writing for the PBS show “WordWorld.”  We weren’t surprised by that, either.  She married, had kids, wrote, laughed, and made orange juice come out of our noses, we laughed so hard.

So in her memory, I’m turning up the Bonnie Tyler.  And I plan to do something hilarious and outlandish this week.  I’ll keep you posted on that.  I hope it will make someone laugh, if only myself, because a little too much has hit the fan this time.

(Turn around) every now and then I get a little bit lonely and you’re never coming round

(Turn around) every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears

(Turn around) every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by

(Turn around) every now and then I get a little bit terrified and then I see the look in your eyes

(Turn around, bright eyes) Every now and then I fall apart (Turn around, bright eyes)

Every now and then I fall apart And I need you now tonight

and I need you more than ever

And if you only hold me tight

We’ll be holding on forever

And we’ll only be making it right ’cause we’ll never be wrong

Together we can take it to the end of the line

Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time (all of the time)

I don’t know what to do and I’m always in the dark

We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks

I really need you tonight,

forever’s gonna start tonight

Forever’s gonna start tonight

Once upon a time I was falling in love, but now I’m only falling apart

There’s nothing I can do… a total eclipse of the heart

Rest in peace, dear friend.

Not Even the People App Is Safe

I have the app for People magazine. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I read it every day. I read it before the real news, just after I’ve checked my email and Facebook. What can I say? Life can be intense and People is like potato chips for the brain – pure junk, but so good. I will claim the higher ground that we don’t actually subscribe to People magazine – that would be a clear endorsement of the celebritainment industry. (We do, however, subscribe to Entertainment Weekly, as does my awesome, fully-tenured English professor sister who claims it helps her keep up with the cultural milieu of her students, or something like that.)

So I read the People app for pure escapism. I love the gossip. I love the dresses. I love the candid shots of beauties coming out of the grocery store with no makeup on looking better than I do at my most fancy. It takes my mind off things like how many Easter flowers we need to order this year, and what will that late-coming diagnosis for a dear parishioner reveal, and how late do we let the homeless guy sleep in the doorway.

And there I am, one afternoon, at home in the comfy chair in the fifteen minutes between coming home from work and leaving to pick up my child, scrolling through the People app. Aw, Ben Affleck says Jennifer Garner is the best wife ever. Man, that Beyonce can wear an outfit. Oh, and here’s a nice little tidbit about a Hollywood producer. Is he in trouble? Messing with his leading lady? Screaming at assistants? No, he’s saving the world.

That is just not okay. I do not read the People to be inspired by people changing their lives. I do not read the People app to be reminded that there is horrifying poverty in the world. I do not read it to have some beautiful Brazilian girl who lives in a garbage dump staring at me from some photograph. That is not part of the escapism.

So much for my reverie into the world of beauty and glamour. Back to suffering and pain and injustice. Because here’s this guy who was a successful Hollywood producer, who was on location somewhere and saw children living in garbage dumps. He gave up Hollywood and started a non-profit to help these people. I read the story, and do I give money to his non-profit? No. I just feel guilty.

I don’t know what to do about the crushing poverty in the world (some of which is in the U.S.) I am familiar with the story of the starfish washing up on the beach, and the man throwing them back one by one, and the observer telling him he can’t save them all and what difference does it make, and the man responding that it makes a difference to this one. Every time I hear that story (sadly, more than should be in sermons and children’s messages in worship) I want to shout, “But who’s figuring out why all the starfish are washing up on the shore in the first place?”

There’s charity and there’s justice, and we need both. And maybe , with all my first-world problems, I need more justice and a little less escapism. But the app was free, so I’m not going to give it up. Not just yet.

My Head, the Barometer

I am one of the thousands and thousands of people on this planet who suffers from migraines.  I know my triggers (sinus stuff, red wine + chocolate, not enough sleep) and I have a lovely prescription for generic Imitrex that usually takes care of the little buggers.  But now and then I get a migraine because of changes in the atmospheric pressure.  THE ATMOSPHERIC PRESSURE, for Heaven’s sake.  There is absolutely nothing I can do about it but hope I took the pill in time, and if not, crawl into bed and enjoy twenty-four hours in the cold, dark basement guest room and the porcelein god to whom I will be making my offering.

But usually it’s not that bad.

It does get me to thinking about people with chronic migraines, or people with chronic illnesses or pain, or those who contract incurable diseases (or were born with them).  As a pastor who also did her duty for a year as a hospital chaplain intern, I’ve seen some of those.  As a human being on the planet, I’ve known and loved people with ALS and cancer, women carrying babies with wonky 13th chromosomes – all of it, or at least enough of it to make me sad every single day.

My forty-year-old friend who died of breast cancer, leaving a bereft husband and six-year-old son behind.  That was a crappy one.  (And made worse by the horrific praise music sung at her funeral which made me so mad I didn’t think to cry.)  The physician who had ALS and knew exactly what was happening to him each day.  The twenty-year-old kid in the ICU whose life was finally ending after years of cystic fibrosis, surrounded by stuffed animals and family and the ICU nurses who had come to say goodbye, and me, the wet-behind-the-ears chaplain intern, unable to do anything of any help but say, “there, there” and pray my shift would be over soon.

My migraines are like little gnats in comparison- annoying but not life altering.  I don’t know how people endure all of that.  Some of them don’t, of course.  Some of them rage against the dying of the light in ways that make us breathless.  Some are so ugly about their pain and demise, a Quentin Tarentino sort of patient who vows to drag everyone down with him.  Some are beatific about it all – gracious and longsuffering and still giving of themselves even as their bodies give out.  It kills me.  It just kills me.

I guess it all comes down to our being fearfully and wonderfully made, as the psalmist says (#139, if you’re counting).  Fearful in our fragility, in these bodies with bones that can break and blood that can get cancer and these double-helixes, so elegant and mystical but also susceptible to flaws.  Wonderful, too, our bodies: these things that can dance and sing and draw and embrace and fall apart so that someone else gets to hold us together.  And really, isn’t it a fearful and wonderful thing that my head can tell the weather?  It is, unless I’m throwing up at the moment.

After we got married, my husband and I met with a fertility specialist, and got the 400-level course on the birds and the bees.  It was unbelievable, all the things and synapses that have to click in order for that little egg to get fertilized by that little sperm and for that little zygot to grow into a fetus.  Unbelievable, but it happens every day.  Unbelievable, and so much can, and sometimes does, go wrong.

As a parent, I go between fear and wonder all the time, watching my daughter grow and dance, get colds, give hugs.  I pray for her and all the children, that they won’t have to suffer.  But of course they will; we all do.  That’s the fearful part.  But I pray even more that they’ll have the joy, too.  And there’s the wonder of it all.

Chocolate and Ashes

choc 1On the table at our Ash Wednesday service tonight, we will have both chocolate and ashes, which may well seem like competing images. One suggests indulgence; the other, death – not things we tend to put together. But there is a purpose in having these objects on our table and they come, in part, from the images in Isaiah 25:6-10.   That scripture combines the image of feast and death, a reminder that God promises us an incredible feast even as God destroys the shroud of death that hangs over us all. That might be a theme for this Lent: the promise of God to provide, and to heal even death itself.

Here we are, at the beginning of Lent. For as long as I can remember, I have heard that it is a good spiritual discipline to give something up for Lent. As a teenager trying to manage her weight, I usually gave up chocolate, and delved into that Cadbury Crème Egg first thing on Easter morning. As I got older, the object to be given up changed. One year I gave up television; one year I gave up swearing. (I have since gone back to both.)

And then at some point I started hearing that it is good to add something, to do something, as a spiritual discipline during Lent. So I read a daily devotion; I prayed for someone I didn’t like (and realized that I had enough people to cover the whole of Lent.)

But for me, whether giving up something or adding something, I was always thinking about myself, and not about God or Christ. I would think about how hungry I was, or how noble I was in my sacrifice. It was about me, not about God, not about Jesus (who really knew hunger and really knew sacrifice.) So this year, for a lot of different reasons, I’m going to try a different kind of Lenten discipline, represented by the chocolate.   What if this Lent,the discipline was each day to consider the sweetness of God. That could mean taking time to meditate each day on all that I’m grateful for; it might mean reading a psalm or something else from scripture that tells of God’s goodness to humanity. It could look like looking for signs of God at work in the world today, or plunging the depths of the morning paper for good news.

What if the Lenten discipline were to have one piece of chocolate – good chocolate – or one sweet thing a day. Limiting it to one piece a day can be hard. Then again, having one good piece of chocolate a day might seem too indulgent for this austere season of Lent. But what if, mid-afternoon or after dinner, I had one piece of chocolate, and really savored it, took time with it, tasted it freshly, noticed the hint of salt or chili or cinnamon that lies beneath. And what if, as I savor this chocolate, I remind myself of God’s good intention for my life and for the world? What if a piece of chocolate a day was my Lenten fast, my Lenten feast?

Because the ashes will always be there. There will always be reminders of death and decay. We are confronted with our mortality all the time, as our bodies grow weary, as we lose people, as violence pervades the world. The ashes are there, and we can’t run away from them, nor should we (if you’ll allow me a ‘should’.) We can’t deny them. But we don’t have to give them the only word, or the ultimate word.

So that’s why we have chocolate and ashes on the table tonight. To remember that even our mortality is surrounded by the love of God.

100 Pillows and a Prius

The clown car is an object I often use as a metaphor.  A few months ago, my child had a horrific cold.  She blew her nose and blew her nose and blew her nose.  Empty boxes lay strewn about the house, victims of stealth sinusitis.  I said to my husband, “It’s like the clown car of mucus in there – how can so much snot lie beneath such a little face?”

Last Sunday, our choir processed up to the chancel during the opening hymn, as is their habit.  They kept coming and coming – basses, tenors, altos, mezzos, sopranos.  It’s very odd to hear a snippet of a part as each one would walk by – the bass line here, the descant there.  Our choir director brought up the rear, and as she passed, I commented, “It’s like the clown car of singers.”

But the last clown car really is much more like a clown car.  Some folks at church volunteer at a local warming center/shelter for families.  The shelter was in need of pillows, and this couple made dozens of calls to hotels and motels to see if they had any to donate.  No, no, no, no, no, till finally yes.  Someone – I think it was a Hampton Inn (to give credit where credit is due) – said they had pillows for the taking.  The couple drove their Prius over to get them. Indeed, the pillows were theirs for the taking – all one hundred of them.

I love the image.  I love the image of this generous, kind couple shoving pillows into their Prius.  I imagined pillows everywhere, sticking out of windows,  under the spare tire, tied to the top.  In reality, the couple made more than one trip to get all the pillows, but you get the idea.

As I think about it, maybe the clown car is not a bad metaphor for abundance.  After all, walking around with a theology or philosophy of abundance is a bit comical, if not ridiculous.  Just yesterday I had a coffee with a friend, and was reminded of things I really want to get done that aren’t done, and I heard my little inner Critic saying, “There’s not enough time.  There’s not enough money.  There’ s not enough sumatriptan for the headache all of this is bringing on.”  Believing we live in an abundant world is a choice.  Choosing to see clown cars everywhere is a choice.  A ridiculous choice at that, but a choice nonetheless.

But I’m trying.  It’s sort of like this blog’s title: Hold fast to what is good, because you never know what’s going to hit the fan.  I strain my eyes to see every bit of hope and beauty and goodness and abundance in the world, because every single day there is some crap coming our way that wants to prove all the good stuff is a lie.  But I don’t choose to fall for that.  I think abundance is the norm, and supply-and-demand is the lie.

And I’ve run out of time at this point.  I’m having lunch with my daughter today, to experience the abundant noise and hilarity of first graders in the school cafeteria.  And look – there’s another clown car – all of them wanting to sit next to me!  Tag, you’re it.  I guess I’m the clown car today.  I’ll hold fast to that.

Word Nerd at Prayer

I am the first to admit that I am not great at prayer, which might not be a problem for you, except that I am the pastor of a congregation, and with that comes a certain expectation that I will also be a good pray-er, that I will be devoted to my inner spiritual well-being, that I have set aside time each day to bask in the presence of God.

I intend to, I do.  But….

So the other night I was in bed, lights were out, and I was trying to fall asleep but couldn’t, so I decided to pray (since, frankly, prayer often does put me to sleep.) I am still ruminating on the murders at Newtown, and as the mother of a six-year-old, I’m having trouble letting it all go. So I’m praying for my daughter, and I ask God to protect her and guide her and to help me keep her-

Then I derail. “No,” I’m thinking to myself, “Keep isn’t the right word. It’s not a good word to use before God. ‘Keep’ suggests control, and I don’t want to control her; what’s the right verb?” And off I go into my little cranial thesaurus, all thoughts of God swept to the wayside.

It’s a privilege to love words and the Word. I love that my calling lets me use words all the time – words for prayer and for sermons, words for classes, even knowing when no word is appropriate. Maybe that’s a gift from God, and maybe God understands if my prayer gets derailed by my verbal crisis. After all, as the poet of Genesis 1 says, God used words to make the world.

Or I could be completely wrong about all of this, have ticked God off by my inattentiveness, and await the word of condemnation from on high.


Um, Like, Wow

I’ve been thinking about the word ‘wow’ lately, for two reasons. Steve Jobs’ sister said that his dying words were “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.” And I just finished Anne Lamott’s little book Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers. All of which has got me to thinking – When was the last time I said ‘wow’? When was the last time something took my breath away, knocked me flat on my bum, made me realize (in that split second that it takes to say ‘wow’) that as much as I pretend to be Empress of All That Is, there are amazing things out there that are simply beyond my ken?

We say ‘wow’ when Bear has a particularly good round of Uno, but we don’t necessarily mean it the way a beach sunset is wow. What made Steve Jobs say what he did – was a look back or a look forward? What took his breath away as his breath ebbed away? Why the wow?

Maybe it’s not coincidence that WOW spelled upside down is MOM. My life is full of details and to-do lists and pragmatics. I am always planning something, carrying out the plan, or post-morteming the past plan. Something always has to get done – hair deloused, hutch dusted, a Sunday bulletin proofed, dinner made, toilet paper rolls recycled. But for me, the planning has edged out the wow. There is just no room for amazement in my well-planned life. Plans resist spontaneity. Wow takes too much mindfulness, too much time.

But what kind of mom am I if I don’t show my child the Wow? What if she never learns anything about amazement from me? What if fireworks never knock her on her bum, or a kiss, or a Bernini sculpture? What if all she wants to be when she grows up the next Empress of All That Is?

Wow. That would not be good.

P.S. A few days after I wrote this, I picked my daughter up from an after-school activities. The clouds were forming what would be a gorgeous sunset. She looked up and said, “Wow.” And so did I.

afternoon sky