Elusive Joy

Truth be told, I would rather conduct a memorial service than a wedding (but for those of you whose weddings I officiated, you were the exception!)  I also find planning the Good Friday service much more interesting, fun, and worthwhile than planning the Easter service.

This is not new information to me. I have been ruminating on it for a while, as this year’s Good Friday service flowed out of me so easily and elegantly, while getting Easter off the ground felt like wading through lime jello dotted with shredded carrots and crushed pineapple – colorful, but not so good.  I think it may have to do with joy and grief, with the elusive nature of joy in this life, and the immediacy and intimacy of grief in this life.

Grief bombards us all the time – grief in death, grief in horrible diagnoses, grief in all the tiny losses that add up, grief that is the constant companion of change.  Joy seems more sparing.  Every since I became a mother, which is one of the greatest joys of my life, I’ve been aware that joy, at least for me, is always tinged with fear: there is this person I love with the depth of my being and to lose her might kill me.  It is the fear of joy being taken away, or the crush of joy evaporating. Grief being taken away is a good thing, a sign of healing, a reprieve from that emotional pain.  Grief evaporating is something wished for, but not always attained.

The shared joy at a wedding is tinged with what might happen as the years unfurl: a fight, a divorce, job frustrations, children frustrations.  But I think my hesitation about weddings is about something else: they can become productions, and petri dishes of family systems theory, and studies in excess.  The true joy that is there can be overshadowed by all the stuff.

Then again, memorial services have as much joy as they do grief – joy for a life well lived, for love that was poured out, joy for having known this person.

And Good Friday and Easter – what about those?

Good Friday pierces me, in the way that it gets to the reality of injustice then and now; violence then and now; anguish then and now.  We have Good Friday experiences all the time, whether we want to or not.  We don’t have Easter experiences very often, or at least I don’t.  The small resurrections we know – remission, healing, reconciliation –  they are good and great, but still tinged with impermanence.

And really, the Easter service can be a bit of a production too.  There are a lot of moving parts: eggs, flowers, trumpets, Handel’s messiah, banners, extra bulletins, extra people, and hats.

This side of the door (to borrow C.S. Lewis’ image) maybe impermanent joy is all we get, joy that is elusive and fleeting.  I suppose fleeting joy is better than no joy at all.  But I do wonder what joy is like on the other side of the threshold.  Tangible and permanent, maybe.

Hopefully.

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The quick and the dead

Today I paid a visit at our local retirement high rise.  Here at church we refer to it as our south campus, what with a few dozen of our members living there.  In the past five years I’ve come to think of it as the place where people I love have died.  It’s a holy place, a sacred space.

It’s full of the quick and the dead, that place – our living saints (and a few curmudgeonly types) and ghosts, too, for me and I suspect for others.  I walk by an apartment that used to belong to someone else.  I take communion to folks on the nursing floor, and remember the overheated room where a saint experienced hospice care and left his earthly body.

I remember another saint whose husband died there, and her dismay when his body was taken out the back via the service elevator.  When she died, in the same building but a different room, the gurney holding her mortal remains was wheeled proudly through the lobby and out the front while her children sang “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”  I never hear that hymn without thinking of her.

My parents live in such a place in another state, and have long referred to it as “the last stop.”  I am glad they are there, taken care of by staff as needs arise, since none of us kids lives anywhere near them.  I remember when they first moved in how surprised they were that people kept dying.  I did remind them, gently (I hope), that it is the last stop.

In those places there is often a fine line between the quick and the dead.  Perhaps those places are thin, in the Celtic way, liminal places that contain both life and death.

I’m preaching this week about the story that took place on the road to Emmaus; that seven mile path was a thin place, liminal, a place of life and death.  The resurrected Jesus appears to be both quick and dead.  It’s a marvelous little story, and weird too, and there’s much to say about it and yet I find I want to say nothing about it, but simply to sit with it.  Maybe hovering between life and death and hanging out with the saints will do that to you.

Bright Monday: Dusting Day

Yesterday was Easter and it was good but I will happily admit I’m always glad when Easter Day is over.  There’s a lot of pressure, more from the inside than the outside.  As I get older, I’m learning to have fewer expectations of myself (perfect sermon! amazing attendance! delicious Easter dinner!  joyful and kind 24/7!)  The sermon was okay, not amazing, but done was good.  The scalloped potatoes were too soupy and not quite soft enough, but no one died after eating them.  The chocolate cake made up for the potatoes, as I knew it would, and we may have a new tradition of watching “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” on Easter evening.

But now that Easter Day is done, I am excited about two things: sweets (my Lenten deprivation) and cleaning my office.  Truth be told, I’m more excited about the cleaning.

Things piled up during Lent.  Ashes, palm leaves, candles, bulletin drafts, sermon drafts, emails, coffee cups, commentaries on the Gospel of John, paper clips.  Papers didn’t get filed, or recycled, or shredded, committee meeting agendas and financial statements in particular.  The plants got watered, but the leaves did not get vacuumed up.  Books and notebooks of preaching materials lay scattered about, like dead toy soldiers on the battlefield of my office.

It’s was mess, and I did not clean up for the Risen Lord on Sunday.  I think he’s okay with that.  He got lilies and the Hallelujah Chorus and the Widor Toccato.  And life. That should be enough.

But Bright Monday!  Last night I started singing “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dusting Day” with great excitement.  And so it began this morning.  Cups and glasses and fake red carnations taken back to the kitchen.  Pillar candles to the candle closet.  Stoles in purple and green folded up and put neatly away.  Papers filed, shredded, and recycled.  Books put back where they belong.  A new paper for my blotter.

And then the wild rumpus of the dusting began.  I am telling you, dusting is good for the soul.  It’s an almost instant gratification and you have to do just enough work to be able to tell yourself you really put something into it.  Now the wood of my desk and shelves looks like new, and it appears that an adult occupies the office.

While I am always relieved and happy when Easter Day is over, I am also always glad that Eastertide has begun.  I wish we in the church did more with Eastertide, made it the mirror of Lent.  Commit to adding something good in Eastertide, for yourself or the world.  Examine not your sin but your joy.  Eat sumptuously.  Laugh a lot.  That’s why I wish all those Easter worshipers would come back – they just get the beginning of the good stuff, the amuse bouche of the faith and not the main course.  Easter is the appetizer, not the dessert.

Oh well.  As I get older, I let go of that expectation too, that folks will come back in droves.  It’s enough for me that they were here, and that we’ll see them next year.

Today Eastertide began and I dusted.  Life is good; there is joy, and my soul feels as clean as my office.

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Beauty > Sadness

Being a pastor, I am invited into the sadness of people’s lives, often.  As a pastor, I working on developing both empathy and boundaries; empathy, so that I can come alongside them and let them know they are not alone, and boundaries, so that I am not rendered undone by all of it.

But still.  Oh sometimes, I just want to stop everything, grab a box of Kleenex, get comfortable on the couch, and weep and weep and weep.  A parent with young children losing a battle with cancer.  A mother, on the verge of deportation, telling her children to be brave.  Estrangement for no good reason.  Violence for no good reason. Random accidents.  Mistakes.

The easiest boundary to create is shutting down, turning off the feelings, setting the empathy aside. Depending on what’s going on, I might find busy work for myself, or clean a drawer in the kitchen, or listen to the zippiest, happiest, most innocuous musical I have on my playlist. But that only works for so long.

When melancholy made its arrival yesterday, I began to think hard (another boundary – thinking instead of feeling.)  What dispels sadness, or at least alleviates it?  For this past day I’ve been wondering about that.

I know that for some, prayer alleviates the sadness, that somehow sharing the burden with the God who loves them lessens it all a bit.  I find prayer just makes me a little mad. Why isn’t God doing something about it?  Why can I not see or believe that God is doing something about it, that I have no idea how much worse it would be if God weren’t doing something about it?

I know for some distraction works, whatever the distraction – work or play, food or booze, sleep or medications.  They distract, but they don’t take away the sadness.  When the work is done or the play is over, when you’re full or hungover, when you wake up or the meds wear off, the sadness is still there.

In the brilliant movie Inside Out, Joy learns that she cannot be without Sadness.  The two need each other in order for their human to be whole.

I need sadness, then, I suppose.  Sadness doesn’t hurt, but it aches.  It’s like a constant sore muscle, or an inflamed gum, or arthritis.  It’s not a sharp pain but an unyielding soreness that acts as an incessant reminder that all is not well, that someone is going through something horrific and I am powerless to stop it.

And then I think about beauty, beauty as a counter to sadness, not as an eraser of it.  There is beauty all around, if only we have the eyes to see it.  Sometimes when I am sad I do some coloring, because the intentionality of choosing which pen to use where, and seeing all the colors together, makes me happy and for a moment creates some order in the midst of chaos.  Sometimes when I am sad I go back to a familiar book or poem.  Often A Wrinkle in Time will get me right again.  There is a beauty to the words that people put together in such a way that I am inspired and hopeful.  Music is the strongest of the beauties for me.  Barber’s Adagio for Strings feels like salt in the wound at first when I am sad, and then heals me in a way I cannot explain.  Appalachian Spring will do that too.  I love the beauty of a Chagall painting, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and the Grand Canyon at Yellowstone, and the shades of blue in my daughter’s eyes.

So I draw or read or listen and I am reminded that as thwarting as it is, sadness is not the strongest thing.  Beauty wins over sadness.  It does.  There is joy in beauty, and sadness too, I think, and perhaps in that which we find beautiful, we understand at a level way beyond our rational thinking that joy and sadness really do need each other.

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Breathing deep

img_0262I have, in my lifetime, experienced both panic attacks and anxiety attacks.  I’m not talking about nerves, the rumbly stomach before stepping on stage or into the pulpit, but the real thing: an impending sense of doom that is completely out of control.  A fear of nothing and everything.  A heart pounding so hard I think it might explode.  A sense that I might die.  It is excruciating.

The first happened while I was in seminary during a guided meditation, which you would think would be a pretty safe place to be. Not that day. Another happened a few months later while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, something I’d done dozens of times before. Bridges have been hard ever since.  The attacks are a rare occurrence nowadays, partly because of age and partly because of work I’ve done to manage them.

I find myself using those anxiety-managing techniques again these days.  I don’t experience that impending sense of doom from nowhere, but I do experience a high level of worry about many things.  I worry about funding for programs for people on the margins.  I worry about war.  I worry about economic collapse.  I worry about people never speaking to each other again.  I worry about the state of the world.

As a person of faith, I am well aware of the many, many things Jesus said about not worrying and right now I find them – and him – annoying.  I also know that constant worry is not good for me or the people around me.  I’m keeping an eye on my eating and my sleeping.  I’ve started coloring postcards, an activity I find relaxing.  I cut myself off after one too many articles from the New York Times, Washington Post, or the Atlantic.

I pray that God will lift my sagging spirit.  I pray more regularly.  I practice deep breathing.  I read daily things from Father Richard Rohr (you can sign up for them here – today’s was particularly helpful.)  I turn off the tv and computer. I look for the good, and hold fast to it.

raftEvery night before we go to sleep, my husband, our daughter, our dog, and I all sit on our bed reading (except the dog).  I tell them it feels like we’re on a life raft, this big bed of ours, all together, safe, for the time being amidst the chaotic currents of the day’s events.  They laugh at me, in the good way.  Still, they are my life raft. And that helps me to worry a little less.

Until the next day comes.

Giving Voice

(Below is the text of the sermon I preached this morning, which I am posting because a few folks have asked for it.  The title of the sermon that appeared in the bulletin was for the first sermon I wrote; this one is still untitled.  But the blog post is called “Giving Voice” because, as  my husband commented, the sermon gave voice to the thoughts and feeling many have been having.)

Texts: Micah 6:6-8, Matthew 5:1-12

If you’ve ever had a guest in your home who stayed for a while, you know what a challenge that can be. In the summer of 2015, a friend of mine from high school – with whom I’d not been in touch since high school – stayed with us for ten days. She was moving to Portland, I had learned on Facebook, and I offered our house as a home base while she looked for a place to live.

She was a perfectly polite guest, but it’s hard to have someone else around, especially when you only have 1.5 bathrooms. Your guest’s schedule may differ from your own; they may eat different food, watch different tv shows, wear patchouli and you can’t stand patchouli (my friend did not wear patchouli). Your guest may start to grate on your nerves; you may start to grate on their nerves, despite all your generous hospitality.

My friend developed a terrible cold while staying with us. During her ten days with us she went to the beach for a day and a half and miraculously the cold went away, only to return when she came back to us. She thought she might be allergic to something. She thought we might have mold in our basement, where our guest room was. She was right.

So a year later, with a generous loan from the bank, we have gotten rid of the mold from our basement, and fixed the leaking pipes, and the crack in the foundation, and the drainage system. My friend’s visit proved to be expensive for us. It also proved to be quite beneficial to us in the long run.

My friend, with whom I had not spoken for thirty years, was a bit of a stranger to me. And I will be the first to admit that welcoming the stranger is hard. Welcoming the stranger is also a moral imperative, a constant thread throughout our holy scripture. Welcoming the stranger is the basis not only for our faithful understanding of hospitality, but also the way in which we live out what the prophet Micah commanded: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

There is injustice in the world. There has always been injustice in the world. This week the world observed Holocaust Remembrance Day and I could not hear the news without getting teary, listening to the survivors of concentration camps tell their stories. Part of the story of the Holocaust, the story of Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jewish people, is the anti-Semitism that pervaded the world, including the United States.

Let us not forgot our own role in that. “In June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami, forcing the ship to return to Europe; more than a quarter died in the Holocaust.”

Then, “in the summer of 1942, the SS Drottningholm set sail carrying hundreds of… Jewish refugees, en route to New York City from Sweden. Among them was Herbert Karl Friedrich Bahr, a 28-year-old from Germany, who was also seeking entry to the United States. When he arrived, he told the same story as his fellow passengers: As a victim of persecution, he wanted asylum from Nazi violence.

“But during [the] interview process… [his] story began to unravel.” Through a long investigation and trial, he was found guilty of being a spy for the Gestapo. Then “his story would be used as an excuse to deny visas to thousands of Jews fleeing the horrors of the Nazi regime.

“Government officials from the State Department to the FBI to President Franklin Roosevelt himself argued that refugees posed a serious threat to national security. Yet today, historians believe that Bahr’s case was practically unique—and the concern about refugee spies was blown far out of proportion.”

There was justice for Bahr, who was found guilty of his crime. But where was the justice for the Jews trying to save their lives and the lives of their children?

Earlier this week I attended a gathering of folks from the faith community, from the Muslim community, from APANO (the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon), IRCO (the International Refugee Center of Oregon). We were there for a press conference which did not happen that day, but as we waited to see what would unfold, we introduced ourselves.

This is what I heard: people are angry and afraid. People who came to this country as immigrants and refugees are afraid. People whose skin is not pale like mine are afraid. Person after person who spoke – Portlanders who are contributing to the good of our community – spoke through tears and strained voices.

I believe many of us who are majority people – we who are white Christian Americans – have forgotten how to do justice, how to love kindness, how to walk humbly with God.

I live a comfortable life. I have a home with a room set aside just for guests. I have a job I love. My child goes to a fantastic public school. There is no good reason why I should have to worry myself about the plight of people across the world. I’m good. I have everything I need. I can just stay in my little bubble.

Except for this: I believe in God and I love Jesus and everything he taught about how to be human. And try as I might, I cannot turn away from the 3000 year old teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. I cannot turn away from the tug in my heart. I cannot turn away from that voice that whispers into the depth of my soul, “Do you not see My children who are suffering?”

The words of Matthew 25 haunt not only my dreams but also my waking thoughts.
“…I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,
naked and you did not give me clothing,
sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
“… ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I don’t know if I believe in eternal punishment. Most days I believe that at the end we will be called to account for how we lived. I will admit I could be wrong about that. I don’t know if I believe in Hell. But I do believe there are people who live Hell on earth, in part because comfortable people like me do nothing about working for justice for them, offering kindness to them, or walking humbly with God.

So let me say, quite plainly, something about Friday’s executive order – to suspend the entry of refugees into the United States for 120 days; to stop receiving refugees from Syria indefinitely; and to bar from entering the United States for 90 days refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.  I think this executive order is immoral and stinks of fear and hatred. I am not alone. Just ask the Pope or Dick Cheney.

As the primary preacher here, I am aware of the one-sided voice of the pulpit. I know there are some who would love to hear political sermons every week, and some who never, ever want to hear a political sermon. Because I believe so deeply in welcoming the stranger, every time I write a sermon that veers into the political, I picture the faces of those I know in the congregation whose politics, I imagine, are different from mine. Because I think we come to worship for a variety of reasons, and because I know that we need to be encouraged as much as we need to be challenged, I will not preach a political sermon every week.

But this week I have felt compelled to because politics has collided head-on into faith. This executive order shows no justice, no kindness, and no humility. It flies in the face of the imperative to welcome the stranger, to remember that the Israelites were refugees, and Jesus was a refugee. And I don’t know what to do, because I am powerless to undo that action.

But I – and you – can continue to welcome the stranger into our midst. It is hard, uncomfortable even, like having a house guest who wears patchouli for ten days.

I think about the courage and humility it takes to be the stranger, too. I think about the first two women to be ordained as elders here at Westminster, and how strange or uncomfortable it must have been for all those men on session to have women in their midst.

I think about the courage it took for the first people of color and the first bi-racial couple to come to Westminster, the courage of their presence where they did not look like others around them.

I think about the courage it took for those first gay and lesbian and transgender folks to say who they are, how brave it was for them to come to church when all the big C church had ever done was tell them they were, in the core of their being, wrong.

We who are comfortable may feel uncomfortable. That’s okay. Discomfort won’t kill us. It may make us grow, though. Doing justice may make us uncomfortable too. It’s still the right thing to do. Loving kindness and walking humbly with God are blessings, they are cups that runneth over, they are the reward we get for following this God who calls us to great and challenging and world-changing things. Blessed are the kind and humble, indeed.

I want to leave you with a story that may help. It may not. But it’s a good story, and I give the last word to a man named Darren O’Conner.

“My dad and I, him a Trump supporter, me, Green Party supporter. He believes we went into Iraq (twice) for good reasons, I believe it was for oil and power…. Both of us speak out for the poor, both of us have spent much of our lives being poor, both of us advocate for unhoused people, both of us bring them into our homes. My dad, however, does so for months to years at a time.

“A couple of years ago, he brought a man into his home who had pancreatic cancer, an extremely lethal disease, expecting the man had weeks to live. He lived much longer, and my dad and his wife walked his path with him, providing shelter. Despite our political differences, we don’t differ on this: every person has value, everyone deserves love, and every time we step in to help, we are the ones who come out enriched….

“… I love him, and sometimes I just can’t talk about things we disagree on. So we don’t.

“My dad now has pancreatic cancer himself, and his life is in God’s hands. I pray often that God will continue letting him do his work…. In my prayers, I accept that God will do what God wills, it’s not for me to demand anything. But I hope and pray for more years of being able to agree and disagree about most anything and to still share love with [my father] John Malcolm O’Connor, blood of my blood, bone of my bones. I wouldn’t be who I am without him.

“This life is temporary y’all. Our walk here is not meant to be about what we can accumulate, unless those things are friendship, love, friendship, justice, friendship, helping others, friendship, common ground.”

Amen.

 

Grief

You wake up and for a second don’t remember.  Then you blink your eyes once, and it all comes back.  The grief, the loss, the heaviness behind the eyes that feels three feet deep, the bags under the eyes that feel full of lead.

But still you get up, and make your coffee, and put out your kid’s vitamins.  Comfort in the quotidian, I suppose.  The dog comes bounding down, bringing the first smile of the day.  You get dressed, even though your heart is still in bed under every blanket in the house.  You find the leash and the bag and the treat, and the delighting dog comes bounding over.

You feel like crying or keening, but instead the morning chill braces you and you notice the oblivious hummingbird, the obnoxious crow, the neighbor’s new poem, the few remaining patches of snow that have miraculously stayed white.  You smile and nod at other people who are not crying, whose faces are not puffy with evidence of recent tears.

You do everything you can to avoid that chasm of emptiness where joy and light and gratitude once lived.  You eat, knowing you really can’t afford to put on one more pound; you watch reruns of The Golden Girls; you make lists and lists of Things To Do, to occupy the void without filling it.

And maybe at some point in the day you stop and sit and look outside the window and wail. But you’re afraid that if you do that, you’ll never stop, and you can’t get anything done if you grieve.  The solitary hours are the hardest.

You make a plan which you know is ridiculous.  You call a friend which you know is a lifeline.  You stay upbeat for appearances’ sake which you know is fraudulent.

And you remember you are not alone, that all of us lose someone or something that we can never get back.  You remember that other people and other things will come that bring joy and love and delight.

You remember that waiting is terrible, even more terrible than grief.