Bleak Midwinter

rainIt rains so much in the Pacific Northwest. Although our little family usually doesn’t put up any Christmas decorations until the first or second week in December, this year has been so rainy and so dark we decided to hang the outdoor lights on the day after Thanksgiving.

There are those years when “In the Bleak Midwinter” is my favorite Christmas carol, that or “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  This year the bleakness wins, and it’s not just the weather.

We’ve lost some dear saints in the congregation this year. I look out in the pews on Sunday morning and I see their spouses and their children and their friends sitting there without them, and melancholy descends.  It’s their first season without this person who brought light or warmth or laughter or kindness to their life.

Then there is the bruising left over from the election season, and the uptick in hate crimes since November 8.  There’s Syria, and refugees, and poverty that never, ever abates for some people.  There is the reality of aging parents.  On some days if feels as though Yeats was terribly prescient: the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy has been loosed upon the world.  I too am slouching towards Bethlehem.

If my sweet little family’s Christmastide celebrations began on December 24 and ended on the 26th, I would be happy.  But my daughter loves Christmas.  It’s her favorite holiday, and it has nothing to do with Santa or presents.  There’s nothing she really wants for Christmas – except to be with family, which is hard with two clergy parents.

When I ask her why she loves Christmas, this is what she says.  “Everyone is so joyful, and everything is so pretty and decorated.  There are so many lights, and people sing.”

I’m not sure where she picked this up as I’m usually a bit crabby during Christmas, failing miserably at being mom, spouse, and pastor all at once.  She sees through that, or around it or beyond it.  She sees the big picture: we celebrate Light coming into the world.

So perhaps this month, as the rains pour down and it’s hard to tell if the sun has risen yet; this month, as the news tells more terrible stories, and people tell stories of grief and fear; this month, as I once more fail at being a cheerful pastor/mom:

I will look to my daughter, so happy for this season.  I will look at her with hope for the joy she will carry into this month and the years that lie ahead.  I will look to her with a gratitude that goes beyond words, gratitude for her presence and her life.  I will look to her so that she can show me the way, even through the bleak midwinter.

For a little child shall lead them.

Bare branches reaching to the sky

img_9842The poplar at the end of the block – thought by some to be the tallest poplar in the state – has lost its leaves.  It’s an upward reaching tree, and it looks a bit forlorn, though that could be some transference on my part.

But there is beauty in those bare branches.  You can see the architecture of the tree, of all of the trees whose leaves have flown downward for the winter.  I find that reassuring, that I can see the structure of the tree, where the nests are, what dead branches haven’t fallen yet.

There is something plaintive about it; the trees look as though they’re beseeching their sky-god for help.  It looks like beseeching and not praising, but as I said, there could be some transference going on there.

On election night, as the map of the U.S. turned more red than blue, I said one of those beseeching Hail Mary (the basketball kind, not the rosary kind) prayers.  Oh God, please, change this, I yelled in my head. As it turns out, God is not some genie in a lamp whose belly I rub and my every wish and prayer are answered.

For me, for my political and ethical sensibilities, for my understanding of the call of the gospel, this election and its aftermath has been hard and wrong.  But it has revealed the architecture of some things: my own prejudice and assumptions, as well as my faithful and ethical grounding; it has revealed branches of my fellow citizens whose worlds and attitudes are completely unknown and foreign to me.  It has revealed nests of strength, of protest and compassion, that may have been hidden, and dead branches that need to come down, like racism and misogyny and xenophobia.

So I find myself confessing a lot more, and seeking humility.  I find myself trying to be more brave and trying to reach out to those so different from me.  I find myself weeping still at times, and getting worried and angry.  I am hopeful too. One day those leaves will grow back on the poplar, sometime this spring. Until then I will appreciate the branches.

More than that, I will appreciate the strange village that has emerged at the base of the trunk.  Some time this past spring, the people who live in the house by the tree put a little gnome and door and a little fence among the roots.  Then one by one, other things appeared. Another gnome.  A miniature rope ladder.  A swing, then two. A few dinosaurs.  A pterodactyl.  Frogs.  A fort.  Some cowboys.



As plaintive as the branches are, a mismatched village of the whimsical and strange stands at the base of those branches, a counterpoint to the narrative of barrenness and beseeching.

There is always a counter narrative.  It may not get heard, it may not be remembered in history, but it is whispered among the powerless and the planning.  It is repeated by the protesters.  It is spelled out in the unfolding leaves of spring.

At least that is what I hope.

A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.  He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.


img_9701We were at the beach, and the clouds and sun were positioned in such a way, and I was positioned in such a way, that everyone I could see as I looked toward Haystack Rock was in silhouette. And I thought, isn’t that lovely – all I see are human shapes. I can’t tell if someone is young or old; I can’t tell what the color of their skin is, or what god they worship. We are simply human beings, our lowest common denominator.

That thought lasted all of three seconds, as sustaining as a truffle.

We are different. We are young and old; our skins are different colors. We worship different gods, or no God at all. And I think that is good. I do not simply want to be one of many silhouettes.  I do not want to live in Camazotz. (See A Wrinkle in Time)

I once heard an interesting interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel. The story in Genesis 11 tells of the people wanting to build a tower that would reach to the sky. God sees that activity and says, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let’s go down and mix up their language there so they won’t understand each other’s language.”  (Common English Bible). So God does that. The traditional interpretation of the story says that God punishes the people for their pride, scattering them and confusing their language.

But what if God was actually delighted by the humans and their ability to build a tower, the way a parent might be delighted by a fort of cushions and blankets or a sand castle that withstands the waves? What if the scattering of the people and the gift of languages was in fact a reward, an acknowledgement that human beings had evolved and matured enough to be able to live with difference?  What if God made difference as a challenge to be mastered or a reality to be embraced?

Maybe that is a good measure of our humanity –our ability to deal with our differences and delight in them. I believe we will be tested in that regard in the months and years that are coming. May we prove our worth.


I confess that I am heartbroken and stunned, that I’m fighting a migraine brought on by hot tears

I confess I found it hard to stay positive for my inconsolable child

I confess simple gladness at the sound of the dog’s toenails clicking on the floor as he made his way downstairs to find me

I confess I fell for the alchemy of Facebook’s algorithms, that I believed the bubble of like-minded people was bigger than it was

I confess Pantsuit Nation is so hard to read today

I confess short-changing the whole of America, forgetting that feelings are real to the person feeling them 

I confess the sin of judging others as ignorant, stupid, or of little account, or worst, not deserving the love of God

I confess relief that we are getting out of town and away from the internet for a few days 

I confess fear of those coming into power

I confess fear for those on the margins

I confess my weakness to respond in any effective way

I confess my pride which has indeed gone beforeth a fall

I confess despair 

I confess less than a mustard-seed of faith

I confess my failings

Kyrie eleison

Christe eleison

Kyrie eleison 

Morning Person

I wake before everyone else, and tiptoe around the squeaking floorboards, making my way downstairs to the kitchen. I try very hard not to wake the spouse, the child, or the dog. It’s my time, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have a half hour all to myself.

img_9652The first thing I do is make coffee. Nothing fancy, just my Cuisinart 4-cup drip and some French Roast, already ground, because there is a worse noise than a coffee grinder especially first thing in the morning when you’re trying not to wake anyone else up, unless it’s a leaf blower.

Some half and half and a favorite mug and then to the comfy chair to scan the headlines, check email, look at Facebook where I hope someone has shared a New York Times article because I’m too cheap to buy the app.

It’s morning.

I’m at my best in the morning, most clear, most fresh, most energetic. The rest of the family doesn’t really get it and I have to remember when I start sharing ideas or asking questions that they have not had the benefit of an hour of awakeness or caffeine. It’s a little dance and I am definitely leading. The others put up with me.

I don’t know why I love the morning so much. Getting up before dawn often reminds me of travels I have been on – a safari when we rose with the sun so we could catch the animals at the watering hole before it got hot; a study trip in Israel, Egypt, and Jordan when we woke at 3am so we could see the sun rise from the top of Mt. Sinai. Jet lag, too, makes for early mornings but you can catch a sunrise while others snore.

The beginning of the day has so much potential. Nothing much has happened yet, just coffee and a few headlines. What might unfold? What surprises await? Who will I see? What good news might break? Will the forecasters be wrong and we’ll have sunshine all day?

Easter is a morning holiday; Christmas is an evening one. “Early in the morning” all the Easter stories begin. So much potential that day, though no one imagined it. Just a morning routine, the women getting up early, preparing their spices, taking their sad walk as the sun rose. And then – so much unfolded, so many surprises, such good news.

Maybe I’m a morning person because I’m an Easter person at my core, believing in new life that awaits us, life where there had been death, blades of grass poking their way through the concrete. I hope to be that, anyway; it’s better than the alternative.

I really hope and pray that today is a great day; it will be for some of us and not for all of us. But here’s to new life, and the ability to embrace it and make it happen.

A very good morning – or good afternoon or evening – to you all.



The church calls me to my best self, the Eden self, the person God created me to be.  In church I shed my old skin, shuffle off the hurtful and ugly like cicada husks hiding with the dust bunnies under the pews.

I wriggle off that judgment that doesn’t fit anymore, or that idea of God that ended up being way too small, and I’m given something else. A second chance.  Some grace which I may or may not find amazing at the time.  It’s like I take off the burlap sack and get to put on a cashmere robe.  And then someone hands me a cookie and a cup of fair trade coffee.

Church, and worship in particular, shapes me.  It forms the pattern of my days: quiet reflection, expressions of gratitude, responding to challenges and teachings, spontaneous song.  People in need and people in joy.

I haven’t been at church for a month but I have been with church and in church.  More cards than I can count.  More prayers than I know of.  Books and magazines.  Food, food, and more food.  People who take me out for a walk.  People who tell me not to worry about it.  People who say they miss me.

I miss them, and I miss worship, which for me is the core of church.  On a usual Sunday when it’s time I zip up my robe and adjust my stole and get the microphone clipped on.  We pastors say a prayer together, and I pick up my papers and we head down the stairs and make our way through the sanctuary to the back.

And then the acolytes’ wicks are lit, and we start down the aisle.  We sit down and while the prelude finishes, I look out at the congregation, at the church.  There they are, the saints and sinners, my sisters and brothers and friends.  There they are, the sick, the grieving, the joyous, the angry, the wondering, the frazzled, the bored.  There they are, the sinews and ligaments and bones and muscles and cells of the body of Christ.  There they are, the church, surrounded by stained glass and pews and unbelievable music all of which adorn the church but aren’t church.  The people are church.

In the next hour we sing and pray and listen and speak.  Hopefully we laugh.  Often at least one person cries.  And when we leave after the benediction and postlude, and make our way home after a cup of tea or a meeting or lunch with the usual crowd, we take church to the streets, to our homes and work places and schools and the neighborhood. We present the pattern to the world: reflection, gratitude, response, song; hope. Church doesn’t need a building, though that makes it convenient.  Church needs people who are willing to say something about God and something about living as human beings and then figuring out the rest together.

We the church don’t always get it right but when we do, it’s pretty incredible.  Life-giving and life-saving.  Amen and amen.


The place I call my church home




57 years and counting

According to, there is no traditional gift for celebrating the occasion of a 57th wedding anniversary, although one may give a glass object or a mirror. 

Those seem fitting gifts after spending two score and seventeen years together. After that much time, you know what is fragile about each other. You know how not to break things, hearts, dreams. You know that certain things need to be handled delicately and some things will leave a telltale fingerprint.

After 57 years, you may see parts of yourself in the other. There’s a shared kindness, a common sense of direction through paths traveled together, paths that have wound through children and mortgages and career disappointments. After 57 years you have the same worry lines in the forehead and the same laugh creases around the eyes.

I did not buy my parents a piece of glass art or a mirror when they celebrated their 57th anniversary earlier this year. I may have sent them a card, but I doubt it. I think I called them.

But what I would say to them (and do, since they read this blog), and to my in-laws whose 57th anniversary is coming up in a few weeks – and to anyone who makes it to 5+ decades – is this:



You deserve a standing ovation and some really comfortable slippers.

You have set a high bar for those who aspire not only to a long marriage but also a happy one.

The way you care for each other inspires me. My dad has needed a little more help than usual lately and my mom has been there, every moment, without  a complaint, without a sigh. My dad has never missed an opportunity to thank her or to remind my siblings and me how amazing she is.

None of us knows when we start a marriage where it will lead us, who we will be at the end of a year or a decade or five decades. None of us knows if we’ll recognize the face in the mirror as that long ago blushing bride or that fresh-faced groom. None of us knows what will get broken and if it will be reparable. None of us knows what heartache or disappointment will do to us.

But none of us knows what love and fidelity will do to us either.

It took me a while to find the person I wanted to marry and it’s doubtful we’ll have fifty-seven years together.  Possible, but doubtful.  But my parents and my husband’s parents would be the first to say that the years are just a number; it’s what fills those years that matters.

May those years be filled with trust and laughter, honesty, argument, and some good old fashioned lust now and then; may they be filled with friendship, and sorrow that abates over time, and whispers and music and dancing, even if your song is “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.”  May they be filled with the light of early morning and the shine of a new spring moon.  May they be filled with wonder and familiarity, with respect, with a sense of what is precious.  May they be filled with the usual things: love, forgiveness, grace, and gratitude.

Fifty-seven years.  Wow.


August 29, 1959



Saints and poets maybe

“EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”
STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

– Thornton Wilder, “Our Town”

laddersThe first time I ever saw “Our Town” was in 1988, a Broadway production starring Penelope Ann Miller as Emily and Eric Stoltz as George.  I started crying during that speech of Emily’s when she comes back for a day, and I was still crying after the curtain call when the house lights came up.  It has stayed a favorite ever since.

Maybe it’s those words about realizing life, every every minute, that grow more poignant as I get older.  Maybe it’s the dawning understanding that this person will not always be a part of your life.  She might move away, or you might.  You might have a falling out, or simply grow apart.  He might turn weird.  They might die, quickly or awfully.

It’s the acknowledgement that these bones and ligaments and cells break down after a while, that they’re not made of diamonds or titanium, impenetrable and durable for eternity.

It’s the awareness that the house you grew up in feels a lot smaller if you ever go back and visit; schools do too, and churches maybe, or any place that lodged in your heart but is better served by an imperfect memory than an actual, contemporary experience.

It has taken me a while to cultivate the practice of realizing life.  I’ve never been the kind who stops and smells the roses, but I’m beginning to do just that, which is funny because ever since I turned fifty, I’ve been more and more aware of the finity of years I have left.  I hope for several decades more, but still, my days will come to an end, later rather than sooner. Yet I don’t want to rush and cram as much in as I can.  As life shortens, I slow down.

So I watch my daughter when she’s not looking.  I watch her mouth an imagined conversation and I eavesdrop on her singing in the shower.  I watch my husband, too, with his imagined conversations.  I watch his patience with children and marvel at what an amazing special ed teacher he must have been in his previous career.  I watch him preach, and I look out at the congregation and their complete engagement with him, even as he conjures up a word now and then, or makes illegal grammatical turns.

I wonder at the perfect circle the dog makes when he curls up, and the asymmetry of the spider webs that decorated the yard naturally  – artisanally and organically – for Halloween.  I marvel at how hard it is to photograph a spider web or a rainbow or a sunset, and maybe it’s better that way.

I pay attention to the color of the sky on any given day, and the color of the leaves, and whether or not they’re still a part of the branch or part of the lawn.

I look at the small things, and watch the slow things, and I seek out the big arcs too.  I wonder at the ever-so-slight curve toward justice that history is taking. Looking at yesterday, the arc seems flat. Sometimes I have to look far back, decades or centuries back, to see that curve but it is there.

I rejoice when someone gets ordained after waiting thirty years to be able to do so.  I am humbled by those who protested apartheid and eventually brought it down, all that pride falling down like some fragile Humpty Dumpty. I applaud my friends who have more stamina than I when it comes to fighting for justice every single day. I tear up reading all the Facebook posts after the Cubs win.  108 years.  That’s a long arc toward victory.

I look for what is good; I try to hold fast to what is good because that is the glue of life, the stuff that holds us together even while the tragic and oppressive might make us stronger or at least more determined.  That’s realizing life, too: realizing that not everyone has a fair shot and it may well be our jobs to change that.

But mostly I look for the poets and the saints, few of whom are published, few of whom have been martyred or accomplished miracles.

I look to Gwendolyn Brooks and Bruce Springsteen and Brian Doyle and Naomi Shihab Nye and Denise Levertov,  and the psalmist and once in a while St. Paul.  I look to memes that take my breath away.  I seek people like Nancy, a woman in my parents’ church, who weekly collected outdated food from the local grocery stores and took it out to the fields to the migrant workers, enlisting the aid of people of all ideologies and politics to help her.  I am grateful for the Tamale Ladies, those women who sit wisely and patiently outside of Whole Foods with their coolers on wheels, micro-industrialists all of them, a community of women who feed their families and ours.

Saints who dress up as teachers, and CNAs, and guys who punch a clock, all of whom realize that life is found in the small moments and not the big ones: a C instead of a D; being able to walk to the bathroom instead of using the bedpan; a whistle blown which means the shift is over and you can go back home to the people who love you.

A month of convalescence has been a gift and an invitation to realize life.  It’s also invited a discipline to focus on healing and positive input so most days I have to set the election aside.  It’s been an opportunity to acknowledge that I am loved and liked and cared for, which isn’t always easy but has proven to be wonderful and humbling.

Because “it goes so fast.  We don’t have time to look at one another” – unless we make time.

May a saint or poet cross your path today.


For my girl

june-032You were who you were from the beginning
Tickling me in the womb,
Reluctant about change when it was time to be born.

But there you were.  Pink and whole and glorious and terrifying.

Now I think of you in blues and browns
And gray, your favorite color
(which I hope does not mean you’re depressed, merely independent)

Ten is turning out to be a delightful age, and I thank you for
those conversations we have as you learn to hold your own with your rather verbal parents;
for those questions you ask, like do I remember the places I was when really sad things happened like 9/11 and Sandy Hook

Watching you navigate the undulating landscape of approaching tweendom
(God help us all, literally)
And seriously, your vocabulary.  When did you learn all those words?

Your kindness to younger children
Your age-appropriate demand for fairness
Your unselfconscious beauty

Your sweetness and your sass
Your bad moods and the eye rolls you seem to have perfected
Your yearning that all your family lived nearby

Your wish that we could go away for Christmas
And that your parents had weekends off like normal parents

We’re doing all we can to help you dig those roots and sprout those wings
And as it turns out, all we really need to do is stand out of the way.

Go! Stay! Fly! Dig deep!

Words are so inadequate for love.



Grandma Sweet Love

Sweet Love.

How my 13-year-old self rolled my eyes and huffed out a sigh whenever Grandma Merrill would call me that. Now I find myself saying those very words to my daughter.  How did I not see how much my grandma loved me?


Grandma with her father and some of her siblings.  She’s the girl standing up.

Grandma Merrill – Ann Clark Merrill – was born in January of 1900, so it was always easy to remember how old she was. She was the 11th of 12 children, the second to last daughter who remembered traveling from Utah to California by covered wagon when she was ten.

When she was born, no one owned a car. Women were not allowed to vote.  She and Grandpa raised their family in Anaheim when Disneyland was nothing more than orange groves.  She lived through World War 1, the Great Depression, World War 11, Korea and Viet Nam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the moon landing, Watergate. She witnessed her husband’s death as he fell from a ladder, victim of a heart attack, while picking peaches.  She outlived her daughter, my aunt who died too soon. She was always cold, and even when she’d visit us in Houston in August, she would wear her cardigan.

Though never much more than five feet tall, she was a woman of no small opinions. She carried the stereotypes of her day, pronouncing them loudly in public places. She was convinced that Michael Landon utterly ruined the majesty of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. She had an expectation of how we were to behave, and let us know with a certain look or purse of the lips if we had not held up our end of things.

Two stories capture her for me. She often apologized to my sister and me for having passed on to us what she called “the Clark fanny.”  We were all round in that posterior area and she taught us exercises to reduce the spread. One consisted of sitting on the floor, legs straight out, scooching forward across the room. The other began in the same position. One would then raise one’s fanny of the floor (arms locked at the side with palms on the floor for support) then smash said fanny into the floor. I suppose there was a hope that all that slamming would blast the fat to bits.  It didn’t. It’s no wonder she had both hips replaced. Perhaps no wonder that I just had one replaced as well.

When I was a young adult I lived in New York and my parents were in New Jersey. Grandma came for Christmas one year, and we rented a van and went into the city for a fancy dinner. Grandma had her usual Manhattan before dinner and loved the meal. As we were finishing dessert, she caught the waiter’s attention. “Young man, do you think you might get me a cigarette?” She smoked with elan, in her orthopedic shoes, all 4’11” of her.

Pretty brazen for a woman who never learned how to drive, who did not know how to write a check when suddenly widowed in her mid -60’s.

But that was Grandma. The minute you thought you’d figured her out, the minute you thought she would scold you, out would come “sweet love.” And she meant it.

I do too.