My Favorite Sunday

ray of lightThe celebration of All Saints is, hands down, my favorite Sunday of the year.  Not the Sunday before Christmas, not Easter, not Epiphany or any other, but All Saints.  As the preacher of the day, I always want to capture this elusive feeling/image/sense I have of the day – something glowing, radiant; Ralph Vaughan Williams, gold and white, a packed house with nary a dry eye.  Rarely does it come together that way, but we can have our aspirations.

The church I grew up in didn’t celebrate All Saints; few Protestant churches did in the ’70s and ’80s.  My first experience of the holy day was at seminary, when in the chapel service a list of the dead was read and in the Latin American tradition, after each name was pronounced we all shouted, “Presente!”  They are present.  The saints have left, and haven’t.

This year, it’s a ten-day celebration of saints for me.  It began last Saturday with a memorial service-ish for someone I’d never met, a woman who was not particularly Christian any more, whose friends filled just about every nook and cranny in our sanctuary (which seats around 500.)  Last night, I led our evening worship service, borrowing elements from the Day of the Dead tradition.  People were invited to bring photos of their beloveds who had died, or to write their names on a card, and to take the photos and cards to the communion table and decorate them with flowers and candles and chocolate and other things.  Last night was no glowing, white and gold majestic thing.  It was colorful, vivid, as down-to-earth as you can be while singing accompanied by guitar and accordion.

This coming Saturday I’ll preside over another memorial service, for a young woman who was a member of our congregation whom I knew a little.  She was murdered a few weeks ago, having fallen in with the wrong sort.  Shot in the head after a night at a strip club, she died alone in the middle of the night.  I want to throw up, and scream, and go back in time to save her.  But I can’t.  What I can do is offer a place for her varied group of friends to come and remember her, to testify to the good and to the mess of her life, to build a community so that, at least for a few hours, some light will shine in the darkness that surrounds her death.

And then there’s this Sunday, my favorite, golden and gleaming (maybe).  Good hymns, good liturgy, the roll of the deceased read and the opportunity to name loved ones who are gone.  Communion, too.  I love it, and hope to do it justice but know that really, that’s not up to me but the Spirit who usually does show up when She’s invited, and often shows up when She’s not.

Why do I love it, this day that can be so sad?  I can’t get through “For All the Saints” when we sing that line, “through gates of pearl stream in the countless host.”  Why do I love it? I think because it’s a thin place, All Saints Day.  Earth and heaven breathe on each other like a mother and child snuggling at bedtime.  It’s a thin line between the living and the dying, because all of us who are alive still face the mystery of death, and because those who have died linger among us in their gifts and legacies, and their eerie presence that we still feel at unexpected times.

All Saints Sunday is coming, and I am glad for that.  In the meantime, there is a memorial service to plan and, I just learned, another one after that.  There are committee meetings to prep for, and a poetry class that starts this Sunday.  There’s a newsletter article to write, and one last pumpkin to carve at home.  I might even put up a few cobwebs for Halloween, and I still need to buy candy.

In the meantime, life happens as it happened for all the saints.  We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.  That’s what I’m counting on, when my meantime ends and that thin line is crossed.

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Pride and Humility, with maybe a bit of prejudice thrown in

But maybe it's humble pie...

But maybe it’s humble pie…

So I was pretty sure I was about to get my gluteus maximus handed to me on a platter.  Instead, I received a more gracious lesson in humilty than I could ever have imagined.

Someone else handed that part to me on a platter in a different matter, but that’s another story.

A friend of mine just posted “I’ve been learning a lot about humility lately” and I replied “me too.”  I have a new-found respect for the beatitude about the meek, because if they’re anything like the few meek people I knew, I do believe they deserve the inheritance of this beautiful earth.

Maybe like a lot of people, I have a lumpy ego – strong in some areas, wilted in others.  In my role as pastor, and particularly as female pastor, I’ve assumed a strong stance.  Just because I’m a lady minister does not mean that I am a pushover, so I will assert myself in meetings and sermons  and emails and all sorts of places.  And sometimes I really am working from a strong place; sometimes I’m just pretending and praying that no one will pull the curtain and discover that, in fact, I am not Great and Powerful but just pretending to be.

I want to be strong, smart, articulate, assertive, on top of things.  But I learned today that sometimes being those things is off-putting or discouraging to someone else.  There I was, talking to someone whom the world might disregard, overlook, or write off, for reasons of prejudice I won’t go into.  I was pretty sure this person was mad at me and was going to let me have it.  So I had girded my loins and prayed my version of the Sinner’s Prayer: “Dear sweet Jesus, please help me to keep my mouth shut and help me to channel just a little bit of your grace.  Amen.”

Well, Jesus didn’t need to help me keep my mouth shut because my Meek of the Earth person did.  In an elegant, direct, kind way, this person helped me understand that when I put forth my Miss Smartypants self, I can be intimitidating.  The wilted part of my ego finds it hilarious that I could intimidate anyone, but the reality check I had today confirmed it.  At some point during our conversation I had the big a-ha.  Oh, this is what Jesus means by the least of these.  These are the ones we are to care about and to care for.  I have gotten it wrong, wrong, wrong.  It really is so not about me.

Anyway, I’m humbled today, and that comes from a strong place, if you know what I mean.

The Great Hall Curtains

These aren't our curtains, but they could be.

These aren’t our curtains, but they could be.

Last weekend I was at church for a dinner which was held in our Great Hall, a space that’s known as the fellowship hall in other churches.  It’s a big room with a stage at one end and a kitchen at the other.  Pretty much everything happens there – coffee hour after worship, Christmas pageants, chorus rehearsals, Qi Gong, youth fellowship, congregational meetings, congregational dinners.  The whole schmear.

So I’m in the Great Hall, a place I’ve been hundreds of times, and once again I notice the curtains.  Dear Lord in Heaven, they are in terrible shape.  On some of them the rod is detaching from the wall, so they hang at a nice slant.  On others, the curtain pull mechanism is broken and they look a bit like wilted lettuce (if lettuce were beige, in which case I wouldn’t eat it.)  Most of them are stained, and a few have some holes in the lining.  So I’m sitting at this dinner and make some sort of remark of exasperation about the curtains.

Not five seconds later, I regret the remark.  I’m sitting next to a visiting Presbyterian minister who is one of our denomination’s missionaries working in Mexico along the Arizona border.  He has come to speak at the dinner, to teach a class about his ministry and about our relationship with Mexico, and to preach on World Communion Sunday.  I bet the last thing he noticed were the curtains.  And I wonder if he heard my comment and thought, “with all the need in the world, with all the need I see on a daily basis, with all the need even in your own backyard of Portland, you’re worried about the curtains?”

He didn’t say that, mind you.  He made a general comment about taking care of spaces and I, chagrined, quickly changed the subject.  I wrestle with it – how do we spend our resources?  On the one hand, I want to take pride in our facility, because it is used not only by the congregation but by a variety of groups in the community as well.  A few weeks ago we held a memorial service there because there was a wedding in the sanctuary.  Did the mourners notice the dilapidated state of things?  On the other hand, there are people going hungry; isn’t it better that they are fed than that the curtains look nice?

I suppose it’s good to struggle, but today, I wish for an easier answer.

The Kindness of Strangers

kindnessSo I’m at Target, because it’s my day off and one pair of jeans evidently isn’t sufficient for our second grader.  Because I have been very, very good at Target, and bought only two pairs of size 6 pants and one package of trouser socks (as opposed to $150 worth of stuff I don’t need) I treat myself to Starbucks which, quite conveniently, is right there in the Target.

The woman ahead of me in line is chatting up quite a storm and I keep telling myself “this extra minute she’s taking will not throw off your entire day’s schedule.”  I breathe in through my nose and breathe out through my  mouth.  I imagine I am one with the universe, but I know this is a lie, because really, all I want is my skinny latte, thank you very much.  There’s only one thing standing between me and my latte, and that is this chatty woman.

She finishes her order, then turns to me and says, “Would you mind signing a birthday card for a complete stranger?  My best friend is stuck in a hotel room all by herself on her birthday and she’s going through a nasty divorce and I thought this card signed by random people would cheer her up.”  I say yes, and get my comeuppance for my impatience.  The Universe is right more often than I am.  We meet at the pick-up counter, and I have plenty of time to sign the card, because her mocha latte with four pumps of peppermint is taking a long time.  While we wait, she asks another few folks to sign the card, and then leaves.

I’m still waiting for my drink, but I notice she is on her way out the door without her Minty Minty Special, so I go after her and ask if maybe she would like her drink.  She smiles, and makes that face I make at least three times a day – I believe we call that “chagrin” –  and I get my latte and go on my merry way.

That was a kind thing for her to do  – to picture her friend ordering room service in her jammies, all alone on her birthday in some generic hotel room and to want her not to feel sad.  She put herself out there, a little bit, risked some foolishness so she might cheer up her friend.  I’ve always appreciated the kindness of strangers; I haven’t depended on it, but I do appreciate it.

So I’ve been wondering how I can be kind to our congressmen and women right now.  Really, they are strangers to me.  Our congressman attends our Christmas Eve service, but other than a handshake, I don’t know him.  I don’t know any of these people duking it out at the capitol.  I know what I think of them, especially those on the other side of the aisle than mine.  But this little voice – maybe it’s Jesus – keeps tickling my brains saying, “You have to be kind to strangers.  And you have to love your enemies.”  Sigh.  Why does Jesus have to make everything so hard?

So I guess I have to pray for all those people, the red state people and the blue state people.  (Honestly, I can never remember which is which.)  I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to pray for God to change them, but I think I’m on the right track by asking God to help them.  I’ll pray for Pam, alone in a strange city in a Hyatt on her birthday.  I’ll pray for her friend, too, because she pretty much made my day.

Here’s to some kindness all around.

Auld_Lang_Syne