Ah, September

I had forgotten so much about September in these past few years.

I had forgotten that those who can flee for beaches and mountains and just plain other places over Labor Day weekend, squeezing in one last breath of summer like pause. I forgot how quiet the block is, how fewer people show up for church.

I had forgotten the absolutely delightful sound of children screaming in fun on the nearby school playground; the posting of all the first-day-of-school pictures on social media; the sight of parent holding their kindergartner’s hand as they head to school for the first time.

I had forgotten the nostalgia and melancholy that whisper to me as the days are now visibly shorter, as the occasional cool night remind me of what is coming. I had forgotten that long-planted desire to buy a plaid skirt and mary janes.

I had forgotten how busy things get again for people, for families with kids in school, at church when all the programming starts up again and there are room schedules to juggle, and information to get out, and more demands on my time. I forgot how very extroverted I get in the fall.

Two years of a pandemic changed what I remember. In the midst of this weekend’s fire warnings across the state, I remember two years ago when the air quality index was literally off the charts bad. I remember the depressing silence of the nearby playground. I remember meeting everyone’s dogs, and then meeting those dogs’ people. I remember preaching to the tiny camera on my computer. I remember sleeping well and worrying a lot.

This September I am restless. I know I’m forgetting things despite my well cultivated to-do lists. I am restless for any weather other than skies that smell of smoke and have no color and host a pink sun. I am anxious to know if the families at church discovered other ways to spend their time on Sunday morning. At the end of summer, I long for a vacation.

So many September songs – I am not the only one who finds this a provoking month. “Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh, so mellow.” “Do you remember the twenty-first night of September?” “Wake me up, when September ends.”

Well, it is a transitional month and we are in a liminal time, so perhaps restless or nostalgic or sad, or excited, or eager, are all valid.

Maybe I’ll go buy some back to school shoes.

When chronos and kairos collide

“Chronos time is how we measure our days and our lives quantitatively. Kairos is the qualitative time of life.” (Josep F. Maria, SJ)

I’m thinking about Holy Week, and worship services for Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter. I’m thinking about palms and azaleas and stripping the church. I’m thinking about despair and hope, short-term and long-term wins, and whether or not to invite folks up to the sing the “Hallelujah” chorus this year. In other words, I’m a pastor three weeks out from Holy Week.

On Holy Saturday, our group of dedicated volunteers will decorate the sanctuary for Easter: butterfly banners, white paraments, real azaleas and fake lilies, as the organist and this pastor are allergic to the real ones. The problem is that the flowers get delivered on Good Friday, and must be hidden away lest one preparing for the solemnity and sadness of Good Friday be confronted with the hope and life of Easter.

It’s like chronos time – the delivery of Easter flowers on Good Friday – collides with kairos time – the holiness and presence of God in despair and in joy. Maybe that’s just what life is: flowers in the midst of mourning.

It’s like all the images of sunflowers in social media, signs of support for the people of Ukraine enduring the horrors of war. It’s like wee flowering weeds pushing up between cracks in the concrete. It’s like that grain of wheat which must fall and die in order to bear much fruit.

To be honest, it’s what coming out of this pandemic (please, God; fingers crossed) feels like. There’s the chronos of fewer and fewer requirements to wear masks, and the declining numbers of hospitalizations and death. There’s the wonder of seeing people’s smiles in real life, and sitting in a restaurant and catching up with a favorite waiter.

And there’s the kairos of our emotional and psychological landscape having been forever altered by the experiences of these past two years. We cannot get back the things that we missed. We cannot say goodbye to the people who died when hospital visits were prohibited and memorial services had to be livestreamed. I can count five people who were dying whom I said goodbye to on the phone. It was awful. The sadness, despair, and anger that hung over us and inside us during the pandemic is not something that can be measured, put on a calendar, given an end date. Those things exist in the kairos time.

Some years when Easter morning dawns, I am still in Good Friday. Sure, I’ve written a homily for the day but it feels as real to me as the fake lilies that don’t make me sneeze. And there have been Good Fridays when I’m just pretending to be sad and solemn but my heart and soul are already at the empty tomb. As much as I like things to be in order, I have finally accepted that I cannot plan out my feelings or schedule my soul. And that is good.

So maybe this year, as I walk by the Easter azaleas on my way to conduct the Good Friday service, I will let all of that be, knowing that while God’s time is not my time, nor our time, God is still present with us all the time.

Why Churches Should Continue Their Online Services

Yesterday morning, as I was drinking my coffee and going over my sermon, which would be delivered to an online-only congregation, I read a headline and immediately had some thoughts. As of Monday morning, only two parishioners have sent me a link to yesterday’s New York Times editorial by Tish Harrison Warren, “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services“.

In case there is a paywall and you can’t access the editorial, in a nutshell Ms. Warren makes the case for dropping online services (which would include livestreamed and prerecorded) and going back to in-person services only. Her theological point is valid: Christians are an incarnational people, and worship is best in person, when it is visceral, physical, when we get to experience the best and worst of being with other people. We can hear their voices and the cry of babies; we can smell our favorite person’s perfume or shampoo; we hear the whine of hearing aids being adjusted, and truly share from a common loaf and common cup. Some of those thoughts are my extrapolation of hers.

But. But but but but but. I fear that Ms. Warren has not taken in the fullness of the Body of Christ into her argument.

Last night, my favorite group of pastors weighed in on the article in a text chain. I trust these people with my faith and with my life, with laughter and with preferences in bourbon. They agreed with me (which is always nice) and here is what we would say in response to Ms. Warren and maybe anyone who believes that online worship should go the way of tokens for communion, male-only clergy, and a publication of what each family pledges to the church.

First: not everyone can manage the physicality of our worship spaces. The congregation I serve has worked hard to make our sanctuary accessible, and it is, but it’s a long walk or wheelchair ride from the accessible entrance (which is right next to the garbage bin enclosure) to the sanctuary. And frankly, for anyone with back problems, our pews are uncomfortable if not excruciating. Some have a hard time wearing a mask for an hour or so. And some can see and hear better online.

Second: some people cannot come to worship. Some live far away. Some are sick. Some are unable to leave their home. Some live with chronic anxiety and public gatherings are terrifying. Some have a napping baby. There might be a winter storm with icy streets. Offering online worship provides a way to get that weekly dose of Jesus that might not otherwise be possible.

Third: computers are not going away. Online events are not going away. Using technology is not going away. We wonder how many of our committees will choose to continue to meet on Zoom, rather than drive to church on a dark and rainy night, going straight from work to a meeting without getting any dinner. Rather than shun the opportunity that online worship offers, we should embrace it.

There are probably more reasons but three seems a good number. Let me add that last night we made the decision to go back to in-person worship and I could not be happier about that.

And as for me and my house, we will continue to offer both in-person and online worship, to the glory of God.

Photo taken by a parishioner worshipping only. She and her husband are unable to attend in person because of health concerns.

One Miracle

Clouds Miracle Beautiful - Free photo on Pixabay

What if, in our lifetimes, we had the ability to perform one miracle?

That thought came to mind as I was walking the dog the other morning, when I often get my best thoughts. We were walking by my neighbors’ house, and I was wishing I could make his cancer disappear. That would be a miracle, because it’s the kind of cancer that cannot be cured.

What if we all got one miracle?

Years ago, a parishioner who was very dear to me experienced a cataclysmic medical event, went into a coma on life support for two weeks, and then, after the family decision to remove the life support, died. She was fifty years old, good, kind, funny, healthy, and beloved. When I went to see her in the hospital, unresponsive, machines helping her breathe, feeding her, helping her eliminate – that sound of those machines has never left me. I prayed so hard for a miracle. “Save her,” I prayed, again and again, knowing in my soul that only God could save her, that her recovering would be a miracle.

But it didn’t happen.

As I walked the dog, I entertained the idea. If I had one miracle, would I use it at the first opportunity and then be done? And if I did that, would I regret it later on? Or would I save it, thinking that if my child ever needed it, it would be there for her? And if she never needed it and I never used it, would it become a wasted miracle? Or would I save it for myself? Or would I use it for peace in places of war, or water in places of drought, or a contraption that would prevent catalytic converter theft?

By the time I was home and taking the dog’s leash off, I decided I would not want the responsibility and burden of having a miracle at my disposal. Too hard to make that decision, too much of a temptation to be selfish or selfless, to have that sort of power.

We don’t get miracles, but we do get other things, like patience and prayer, like hope and grace. We get doctors and scientists and pharmacists. We get casseroles and Postmates gift cards. We get friends who drop everything at moment’s notice. We get hospital chaplains and Kleenex and gallows humor. In the end, maybe all those are better than a miracle.

But if I did have a miracle….

Coming Back, a sermon on January 2, 2022

Isaiah 60:1-6

          What is our prayer for this new year?

          Right off the bat, I can think of about a hundred things I would like God to take care of this year. The Coronavirus, obviously.  Climate change.  Poverty. Cancer, Alzheimers, ALS.  Gerrymandering that benefits whatever political party.  Depression and anxiety.  Catalytic converter theft.  I could go on, and so could you.

          Today’s scripture from Isaiah is a kind of prayer for the people of ancient Israel.  You might remember the general arc of the book of Isaiah.  The first part, more or less, is the prophet warning the people of Israel that they have been unfaithful to God and there are about to be some bad consequences.  The second part, more or less, is the prophet comforting the people living in exile that God is not done with them yet.  The third part, more or less, is the prophet speaking to the people after they have returned to their homeland and left their exile. 

          While scholars don’t necessarily agree on this, let’s think of this passage as being addressed to the people who have returned to their homeland only to find that it’s not flowing with milk and honey but a pile of ruins.  Rebuilding awaits them.  But, Isaiah promises, God will be with them in the rebuilding.

They had come through a terrible, devastating time. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way. “What you need to know is that Isaiah 60 is a very old poem recited to Jews in Jerusalem about 580 b.c.e. These Jews had been sent away from Jerusalem in exile in Iraq for a couple generations.  They came back to the bombed out city of Jerusalem, and they found it in shambles without a viable economy and without much ground for new possibility.  They were disappointed and ready to despair, for who wants to live in a city where the towers are torn down and the economy has failed and nobody can think what to do about it. 

          “In the middle of that mess in Jerusalem about 580 b.c.e, there was this amazing poet who invited his depressed, discouraged, contemporaries to look up and hope and expect newness in the city that God would give again. He promised that everything would change in Jerusalem because God is about to do good….”  (Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.  P. 129.)

          I must tell you that when I read what Dr. Brueggemann wrote – “who wants to live in a city where the towers are torn down and the economy has failed and nobody can think what to do about it” – I thought of our Portland. 

          A few weeks ago I was at the Walmart in North Portland trying to take care of the Angel Tree gift cards, and as I went to my next errand I drove through the Delta Park area.  Have you been there lately?  I saw tent after tent after tent, pile of stuff after pile of stuff, burned out cars, and a few of the people who live there.

          My reaction was at it always is, when I see this at Delta Park or downtown or wherever: both deep sadness that people live this way and anger that people live this way.  What have we come to when we think it’s okay for people to live in this filth, without heat or running water?  And why don’t these people want better for themselves? 

          And so we have news article and editorials and tv segments about all of this.  Is Portland over?  Will we ever get tourists back?  Will businesses flee from downtown?  Can we build temporary shelters, transitional housing, affordable housing?  Will we prosper or will we perish?

          I know that the situation is complicated. 

Sometimes people lose their housing because they do not have enough money to rent a place, much less buy one and that involves not making a living wage and the high cost of living here. 

Sometimes people live without shelter because they have an addiction and have lost all their chances to be a part of mainstream society. 

Sometimes people live without shelter because they live with a mental illness that makes navigating the systems for help difficult or frightening.

          The economics of it are also complicated and I’m not sure that capitalism has an answer.  There are plenty of people in our city who make plenty of money, however you define “plenty” of money.  Some are very generous with non-profit causes.  And some ask the question, “Why should I give away my hard-earned money to those people?”  The system itself is stacked against those without resources, especially if they are people of color.  We live with the legacy of Portland’s history of redlining, not allowing people of color to buy property in certain neighborhoods. 

          To the people of Isaiah’s time, coming back to their devastated homeland, the prophet offers a vision of prosperity.  “the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,

   the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

A multitude of camels shall cover you,

   the young camels of Midian and Ephah;

   all those from Sheba shall come.

They shall bring gold and frankincense,

   and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

          As Brueggemann says, “This is a great cause for celebration, because God, in this poem, has promised to make the great city of Jerusalem work effectively in peace and prosperity.  The poem contradicts the present dysfunction of the city.  This is a promise from God, thus very sure.” (p. 130) He goes on to describe this text as the description of a way that will allow the people of Israel to return to normalcy. 

          Isn’t that what we are longing for – a return to normalcy? Prosperity for our city?  Restoration? 

          I think it is, but I also think we must be careful and thoughtful and compassionate as we move in that direction.  What will ‘normal’ look like after this pandemic?  What will prosperity look like in Portland?  What will restoration look like for any of us and for all of us?

          As we think about these things, maybe we start with our values, hoping that those shape the answers to these challenges.  As people who follow Jesus, we place the highest value on love and grace, which might look like compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and mercy.

          As people who follow the God of Isaiah and all the prophet, we place a high value on justice, which means, as we read the scripture, making sure that the most vulnerable among us are provided for in whatever plans we make.  As people of faith, we value hope – hope that God is not finished with us, with our city, or with our world, that God desires goodness for all of us, even more than we desired it for ourselves.

          And so a cleaned-up Delta Park or a bustling downtown must include, using the values of our faith, a plan for shelter, for addiction treatment, for physical and mental health care.  It’s not enough that the soccer pitches are clean and safe; it’s not enough to move the unsheltered to a different place.  We must also provide for them, those who live on the margins.

          And oh my goodness, that takes so much work.  And patience.  And hope.  It may be true that some who live in dire situations do not want help.  That saddens me, because I make the assumption that they do not think enough of themselves to want better, and I have a hunch my assumption may be totally off.

          So what do we do?  How do recast Isaiah’s vision for our city?

          First we look at what is already being done.  The city is looking into creating three villages with very modest, temporary cabin-like structures where the unsheltered can live.  Other non-profits, including Westminster and a consortium of faith-based communities, are in the process of building affordable housing.  That is an exciting expression of faith.

          For those living with addiction – what do we do?  I imagine every one of us knows someone who is addicted to alcohol, painkillers, or some other substance that tears apart the body and soul.  We might examine our own tendencies toward addiction, to develop our empathy.  We might learn about the neuroscience of addiction.  We might press our elected officials to offer better services.  And we might have to accept that some people will never escape their addiction, and might die from it, and know that they too deserve our love and compassion.

          For those roaming our streets who live with untreated mental illness – that is a hard one.  We have all sort of medications and therapies that help those who live with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or other illnesses, but – compliance in taking the meds, and access to the meds are stumbling blocks.  We simply need more services to help with mental illness – Unity Center for Behavioral Health is utterly overwhelmed. 

          Over all of that is our understanding of what prosperity means for Portland.  Does it mean business having record earnings, and stocks increasing in value?  Does it mean big bonuses for executives?  I hope not.  I hope prosperity means that everyone lives with the basics – shelter, food, clothing.  I hope it means that everyone has access to medical care for body and mind.  I hope prosperity means that people find community, maybe a church community, maybe a 12 Step group, maybe tiny village of temporary cabins.

          What is our prayer for this new year?  We always pray for those on the margins, and pray for God to show us our role in their prospering.  We always pray for strength and courage to face whatever comes our way.  But in 2022, I think we add prayers to move with openness into whatever our new normal is. 

          As we transition from the old year to the new, and as we move from Christmas to Epiphany, let us remember these words, this prayer, from Howard Thurman.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

To the glory of God.

The Reverend Beth Neel

Westminster Presbyterian Church

January 2, 2022

Where things connect

Extending the Life of Your Artificial Hip - Advanced Orthopedics and Sports  Medicine Institute, PC.

Every since I got my hip replaced five years ago, I’ve been more aware of the delicate nature of where things connect – joints in the human body. Ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, wrists, elbows, for Pete’s sake – they are things made to move and bend and connect but when something goes wrong, it goes wrong big time.

I’m thinking the same is true about humans. The places we most clash are those places we come together. Isolation has its advantages – all alone, no one can irk you, bump into, challenge you. And yet, and yet, we were not made to live in isolation. The last nineteen months of the pandemic have taught us that.

Still, coming together – or coming back together – has its challenges. We gather for whatever and we realize the things we didn’t miss, like someone unwrapping a peppermint during the oboe solo, or that person down the pew who cannot stay on pitch while singing the Doxology. Like our joints, when we humans connect with each other, we are meant to move and bend but I wonder if we’ve forgotten that in the last year.

Could I be more tired of COVID-19? No, I could not. And I am glad to begin to reconnect with people especially at church. I’ve also noticed that we’re all a bit more fractious, less patient with the little things, more demanding of what we want because we’ve been without it for so long. Then we bump into each other and maybe the joint will hold and maybe it will get, well, out of joint and maybe the whole thing will break.

Before and after my hip replacement surgery, I was given physical therapy exercises to do. They weren’t particularly difficult – raise the leg while lying on my back. They didn’t require particular strength or flexibility or skill. What was required was a regular dedication to doing them.

So I wonder, as we connect again, if there are small exercises we can do to keep our connections healthy and sound. Maybe we take a deep breath or two when someone starts to rub us the wrong way. Maybe we regard old friends and acquaintances with new curiosity. Maybe, even as we connect, we give each other space, let each other be wrong, or off-key, or annoying.

It’s been a while since I posted; my creative juices have been flowing in other areas, but I keep getting ideas for things I want to write about, so maybe you’ll see me here a little more. If not, let’s find another way to connect.

In a healthy or sound way, of course.

Peace to you all.

Lent Prayers

As part of my Lenten discipline, I’m writing prayers every day and posting them to the church’s Instagram and Facebook accounts. But I thought I’d add them here, too. After this post, you can find them here, under the Liturgy tab, under Lent. But here’s the first week’s worth. Enjoy – ? -!

Prayer for the Seventh Day of Lent
Well, Lord, could we talk about disappointment today? Because to be very honest, it’s been a disappointing year. And You haven’t fixed things for us. Can we say we’re disappointed in You? Can we say that You have let us down? Is that allowed? Or would You respond and tell us that You are disappointed in us, too? It feels like there’s no room for grace in disappointment. So help us today to acknowledge our unmet expectations, our hurt feelings, our sadnesses, and our disappointment. And then shower us with grace, because we really need it. Thank You. Amen.

Prayer for the Sixth Day of Lent
“Pray for your enemies,” Jesus taught. “Love your enemies,” he said. Okay, so first I must admit I have enemies. And that means admitting that there are people I hate or fear. And than means admitting there is hate and fear in my heart. And that means admitting I’m falling a bit short of the mark. Before I pray for my enemies, I must ask forgiveness for letting hate and fear settle in my heart, for letting hate and fear clothe a person or a people. I must confess to reducing one of your children to a symbol or a cartoon. I confess my sin. And now, Holy One, on to my enemies. I call them many things – evil, selfish, murderous, wrong, stupid. And I close the door to any inkling of hope for reconciliation. Help me to see their humanity. Help me to understand their hearts. Help me to work on forgiving them, just as I have been forgiven. Amen.

Prayer for the First Sunday in Lent
Creator God, thank you for the daphne pontica, the sweestest of flowers that remind us spring is not too far away. Perhaps this is the scent of costly nard, the expensive oil used to anoint Jesus before his death. Perhaps this is the scent of devotion and love. Help us to remember that acts of devotion are priceless: the act of showing love, the act of serving another, the act of taking risks, the act of being present. And so help us to be devoted to You and one another. Amen.

Prayer for the Fourth Day of Lent
Most Blessed, Most Glorious, Ancient of Days, God: I just spend half an hour scrolling through my phone, when there are more holy and faithful things I might have done. I might have been on my knees as I confessed my sin. I might have been lifting my hands in praise. I might have studied scripture, or prayed a psalm. But no. I sat in my chair and looked down at a tiny screen for thirty minutes of this day. Still, I must admit that sometimes I see You there, on my tiny screen – in the headlines, in a friend’s comment, in a Facebook post, in the beauty of a photograph, in pain I read between the lines, in hope I read between the lines. So I think today I ask for Your blessing as I scroll through my phone, that I will recognize what is holy even there. Amen.

Prayer for the Third Day of Lent
God of justice and mercy, we know that to fast is to be able to fast, that we get to choose to give up food, or screens, or the daily latte. We also know that right now, so many of our neighbors and so many of Your children in the world fast without choice. Your children, our neighbors, are without food. Your children, our neighbors, are without access to clean water. Your children, our neighbors, are without power. Your children, our neighbors, are without hope. We want to ask You to fix it, all the while knowing that Your response would ask us how we plan to partner with You in that. We know that You call us to bring compassion, justice, kindness, compassion, justice, wisdom, imagination, and love to that. So we pray for them and we pray to You and we pray for ourselves in all of this. Amen.

Prayer for the Second Day of Lent
Well, God of the journey, there’s no going back to ordinary time; the trek has begun. There’s no going back to “normal”, whatever normal was: we have been forever changed by all that has happened in the past twelve months – a racial reckoning that we ignore to the peril of both black bodies and white bodies; a pandemic that has brought the world to its knees in fear and desperation; the mass consumption of lies that are way more convenient to believe than truth. There’s no going back to ordinary liturgical time either. We have the trek to the cross and empty tomb, a season where death precedes life, a season where grief must come before any inkling of joy. As You were with Moses in the desert, as You were with Jesus in the wilderness, be with us on the journey. When we cannot take one more step, give us rest. When our neighbor has fallen, let us give them a hand. When it all gets to be too much – be with us. Amen.

Prayer for Ash Wednesday
Creator of all that is, for us mortals it is a wonderment that death ended up being part of Your design. True, it might have been of our own making, but then again, maybe You knew something we didn’t or couldn’t. But here we are, on that day when we say to each other, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” We dare to say to each other, “Remember, you will die some day.” To tell our beloveds that, to tell our children that: it is awful. On this day, help us to remember that in life and in death, all of us belong to You. Help us remember that death is not an end, but a beginning. Help us to live well and in faith, knowing that we will die some day. Amen.

I miss Brian Doyle

At our Worship committee meeting yesterday, someone commented that they wished Brian Doyle was still alive, so we could read his thoughts on how life has changed in the last year. To that, I decided to write a few prayers in that style of his. Enjoy. Or don’t judge me for being inferior to that beautiful and deeply missed master.

PRAYER WHEN YOU SCREEN FREEZES DURING A ZOOM MEETING
Dear Lord, I know that I am talking and that no one can hear me, so I suppose I understand a little bit what it has been like to be You. So in this pause, which is not of my own making but of the little hamsters who run in the wheel that powers the internet as they need a rest because their tiny legs are so tired, let me pray for the people on my screen. For Nancy, known to this Zoom community as IPad, I ask you to give her a deeper sense of identity. For John, whose face is frozen in what can only be described as mid-yawn scrunched eyes and gaping mouth that exposes a little of his lunch sandwich caught between his teeth, I pray for humility and good humor. For Pat, who is trying to run this damn meeting to the best of their ability while admonishing all of us to mute when not speaking so as not to be interrupted by, say, my dog who is alerting me that evidently Timmy has fallen down the well AGAIN, and to then unmute ourselves when we do have something to say, which might only be, could you please repeat that as I couldn’t hear over the dog’s barking; for all these, I ask a good measure of patience and the reminder that what may be most important is not what is said, but being able to see each other’s faces, so please, Lord, get Nancy to turn her camera on. And so: Amen.

PRAYER FOR WHOEVER INVENTED THOSE LITTLE ALL-IN-ONE COMMUNION CUPS THAT LOOK LIKE JELLY YOU GET AT A DINER
Dear Lord, this is a marvelous little invention for us Protestants who admit so a little lower standard for our bread and wine. And here it is – the body and blood of Christ neatly glued together in what might be mistaken for a half-and-half container. For those whose arthritic fingers cannot peal of the miraculous slive of plastic hold the cardboardesque wafer in place, we pray for agility. For those who accidently drink the grape juice first, we pray forgiveness. For the inventor of such a thing, and the tireless workers at the Amazon warehouses whose labor ensures that pastors who left planning the reorder to a rather late hour are not caught short at Sunday’s communion in the parking lot, we pray your blessing. For parking lots that have turned into sanctuaries, we give you thanks. And for congregations that are muddling through with substitutes that are no where near good but have to be good enough for now, we ask for your love. And so: Amen.

PRAYER FOR ALL PREACHERS WHO ARE SHARING THE WORD OF GOD WITH A TINY LITTLE CAMERA IN THE CORNER OF THEIR MOBILE PHONE
Dear Lord, please help us first to find the right pair of glasses so that we might both locate the 1/4″ circle into which we must pour all the Good News you would have us share while still being able to see the notes to remind us of what we are to say because our brains are overtired and we really can’t remember things or recall words unless they are printed in an 18 point font right in front of us, so if we need bi-focals, please allow us to find the right mask to use to make it to the optician so that both they and we are safe from this vile plague. And let us not confuse our preaching to a camera with the hope that said camera might be saved and need baptism for we know, that while you made all living things, this camera is but a tool for ministry and not a target for conversion though maybe a target for upgrade. And for the preachers, who so dearly wish that their view was of real, live, wonderful, imperfect people, give them a heaping of imagination to see contained in that tiny camera lens a whole congregation, not unlike the way a tiny feeding trough contained the entirety of salvation. And so: Amen.

PRAYER FOR ALL THE DOGS IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD WHO HAVE BEEN KIND ENOUGH TO INTRODUCE ME TO THEIR PEOPLE
Dear Lord, it is not uncoincidental that God spelled backwards is dog, and heaps of gratitude on you for the gift of the canine species, for the mutts and the doodles and wiener dogs with their collapsing hips, for compostable poop bags and extendable leashes and school playgrounds that are vacant and so become a heaven and a haven for dogs and their slimy tennis balls and their humans with those plastic ball-thrower things that are another invention for which to give thanks. Thank you for Kona and Birdie and Mindy and Jack, for Rosie and Tiger and Bean and Emmy; thank you for Chimi and Dora and Archie and Tulip and all those sweet pups who were rescued from overcrowding and death and came to run and play in my neighborhood. Thank you for those who see unclaimed poop and take care of it. Thank you for coats with pockets, laden with said compostable bags, a reminder that unconditional love awaits us at home. Thank you for the constancy of neighbors who are out rain or shine, day or night, so that their dogs can check their p-mail and respond. And thank you for my daughter who still laughs at that term “pee-mail” which she coined when she was but a fourth grader. May our hearts be as big as our dogs’. And so: Amen.

PRAYER FOR ALL THE KIDS WHO NEVER DREAMED THEY WOULD ACTUALLY MISS GOING TO SCHOOL
Dear Lord, this is a hard one, and humor is hard found when kindergartners are clinically depressed. The choice of which risk to take feels pretty cruel, I must admit, and so I ask, in addition to that vaccine being made and distributed and shot as quickly as possibly, that you wrap all of our young people up in your sweet, strong arms that I think would smell like Ivory soap; that you would wrap these children and teenagers up and say, in ways that they will hear, that is is okay to be sad; that is okay to not want to get out of bed; it is okay to be angry that you have to live in such a time as this; that there are grown ups who have let you down. Whisper to them too that there are teachers who think about them every day, even when they’re not on Zoom; there are teachers and school custodians and lunch ladies and principals and staff like Miss Lori at Sabin who would never let a child go hungry during the day who always has a smile and would protect that place and those people with her life. Seriously, God, if you loved us at all you would end this merciless pandemic and let us get back to being with each other because, if my exegesis of Genesis is right and I’m pretty sure it is, you intended us to be together in the first place. Also, please get all those imbalanced chemicals that lead to depression and thoughts of suicide out of the systems of our beloved, precious, irreplaceable children. And so: Amen.

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.

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.