Church basements

A few years ago I did a wedding at the church for a couple who were not official members of the congregation.  The first time I met with them for premarital counseling, one of them asked if they could check out the church basement.  Sure, I said, with a slight hesitation, as we had already determined that they would get ready elsewhere and would not need “the bride’s room” to get ready.   As it turns out, this bride was the granddaughter of a pastor and she had a particular fascination with churches.  When we got downstairs, she took a big sniff, and said, “This smells just like a church basement should.”

I wasn’t sure how to react.  We had just done some renovations that included new drainage that would prevent the plaster walls from seeping water, so I was hoping she was not smelling fresh mold.

I’ve served a lot of churches, most of them with musty old basements.  In my first call, the choir music was stored in the basement and got moldy, so we had a good old-fashioned “wipe all the music down with diluted bleach” party.  We also availed ourselves of the opportunity to throw away the life-sized nativity set, since Joseph’s head was bashed in and one of the wise men was missing a hand.  That was before we found fifteen bags of bulk mail that were never delivered as someone hid them in the bowels of the church basement.

More recently, I’ve begun to think of church basements as magical places because of the great changes that begin in them.  How many 12 Step groups meet in church basements, in uneven circles of beige folding chairs, where people admit so much truth in their lives and seek deep transformation?  Those groups don’t work for everyone, I know, but I also know people who know they would be dead in some gutter without them.

This week I attended a meeting in the basement room of another church.  It was as you would suppose – acoustic tile ceiling, fluorescent lights, that unique slight smell, beige metal folding chairs, long tables, pillars in the middle of the room holding up the sanctuary one floor up.

Forty of us gathered in that church basement to talk about poverty, and the new Poor People’s Campaign, about being civilly disobedient to let the powers that be know that we really are serious about our friends who live with so little while we live with so much.  We signed things, and talked about why we were there, and promised to do something.  I wonder what spell J.K. Rowling would write for that, ending poverty.  Luxurios totem, maybe, or abudentsia totalis.

It didn’t seem very magical, if you looked at any one part of it – a few church people, more non-church people, xeroxed paper, beige folding chairs.  People who care about rents, and immigrants, and housing.  People like me who may or may not be courageous enough to be disobedient, albeit civilly.  People who believe that change can happen.

Even change that begins in a church basement.

church basement

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The first year without

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Heart of Love and Sorrow I

Tomorrow is my dad’s birthday, and he would have been 87.  It is his first birthday that he’s not here for; the first birthday in which none of us will call and sing Happy Birthday to him, or be there with him while he blows out candles on the pie because he was a pie person and not a cake person.

My daughter asked what we would do to celebrate Papa’s birthday, and suggested we get a cake, but then I said no, a pie.  Then I remembered that she’ll be gone the night of his birthday and a pie for three is a bit much, especially when two of us have given up sweets for Lent.  But I thought Dad and Jesus would be okay with us celebrating his birthday a little, so we compromised with miniature lemon tarts in lieu of the whole lemon meringue shebang.

So far I’ve made it through my first Christmas without him.  It was okay.  It wasn’t terrible and it certainly wasn’t great.  It just was.  Slowly all of us who loved him are trudging through this new swamp of grief.  Some days we find a solid patch of dry land and we get through the day pretty well, and something we see might make us remember him and laugh.  Other days it’s all muck and quicksand and gnats in an existential stew of remembering he is not here and won’t ever be again.

I am grateful that I was able to be with him in his last few days, and especially grateful that I was able to look him in the eye, and tell him I loved him, and say goodbye, while he looked right back at me and told me he loved me and nodded his head in understanding.   As hard as that was, it was also a gift, a gift I would want for everyone.

I think about those people who have months or years to say goodbye to their beloveds as death takes its sweet and inevitable time with cancer or ALS or Alzheimer’s disease. More often, though, I think of those who have no opportunity to say goodbye, or thank you, or I love you. In this last week I’ve been thinking especially of the families and friends of those seventeen beloveds killed in Parkland, Florida. As if those deaths weren’t horrific enough, violent and sudden and meaningless, they left so much unsaid.  I hope all those people who were killed died knowing that they were deeply loved.  They are now deeply missed.

Grief can be an extraordinary motivator. We’re watching those grieving friends and parents put their grief into action, and it hurts when their grief is mocked or belittled.  If death doesn’t make us weep, we might as well turn in our humanity card.  I hope for these brave friends and parents that all they are doing and saying turns out to be healing for them, and for us.  We cannot stop death, but maybe we can stop it from coming too soon or too violently.

My personal grief over my father’s death is a smaller motivator, I suppose.  I am aware of making sure the people I adore know that I love them.  I’m working to say thank you more often.  I’m aware that there is an end to this life, that we don’t have unlimited time to love well and practice forgiveness and reconciliation often.  I am trying to keep my goodbyes current, as a chaplain friend once advised.

Big grief is a motivator too and every single morning since December 14, 2012, when my daughter goes off to school in the morning, I tell her I love her.  And I mean it more deeply than she can know.  I do not want to celebrate a single one of her birthdays without her here on this earth, or any Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or Easter.

My heart goes out to those families and friends who have begun their first year without.  May their words and deeds begin to drain the swamp, at least a little.

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Heart of Love and Sorrow II.  I made these collages from sympathy cards I received.

It wasn’t a wedding but maybe it was

All the family was there, and we all looked nice. Lifetime friends from all over the country came, and those who couldn’t sent wonderful cards. The church hosted a reception afterwards, and we schmoozed and hugged and told stories. When it was over, we were glad to get off our feet.

But instead of gifts from a registry, people sent flowers, and instead of a wedding, we had a memorial service.

It reminded me of our family’s weddings, and the camaraderie and deep emotion that flowed these past few days were reminiscent of other, happier gatherings.

I really wish someone had been getting married. I really wish Dad were still here, and I have moments of shock when I realize – in my gut and not my head – that he is gone.

Rumi once wrote, “Our death is our wedding with eternity.” Maybe that’s why things felt familiar. Maybe Dad isn’t gone, but has simply gone on. I like to think so.

In the days to come there will be notes to write, and things to put back in order, and grief that morphs into different grief. But I’m holding on to the the wedding image, too. I imagine Dad raising a glass to our successes. I imagine him finding Benny Goodman’s band and kicking up his heels. I imagine him waiting for my mom to make her entrance, and I hope that doesn’t happen for a good long while, at least in the way we count time.

Maybe life’s great events – birth, marriage, death – are really just variations on a theme: the theme of an unknowable adventure that lies ahead, an adventure that will be the best kind of adventure as long as love is present.

See you soon, Dad – but not just yet.

Egg Rolls at the spa

santa hatThis morning I indulged in a little self care (it’s been a rough week) and had a pedicure from my favorite, Tina.  She was dressed in festive red with a Santa hat, and as I got settled, she gave me a box of chocolates.  I gave her a Starbucks gift card, as Starbucks is next door and I often run into her there.

It was early, so the place wasn’t full yet.  Vee and Ken own the place, and Vee was there, and Ken rolled in about 9:45 with their darling daughter.  She was carrying a tinfoil tray and I said, “Oh! Did you bring cookies?”

Not cookies, but egg rolls.  Egg rolls! Ken and his daughter began handing them out.  Why not have an egg roll with my latte and pedicure?  And it occurred to me what a thoughtful thing that was to do, to bring the food of their culture to celebrate the holidays on Christmas Eve eve.  I’ve never had an egg roll at 9:45 in the morning, but it was delicious and I would do it again.

I’m hyper-aware of people’s thoughtfulness right now.  My dad died three days ago, and img_3003normal life gets absolutely pierced with grief at random moments and usually when someone says something really kind, like ‘what can I do for you’ or ‘I’m praying you and your family’ or ‘I remember at your wedding your dad told me Americans don’t drink enough champagne, so I’m working on that’.

He has been gone three days now, which in some strains of Jewish thought is the amount of time it takes for the soul to leave the body.  If that is the case, then he is really gone now and he will start hearing me talk to him, which I have been doing.  Mostly it’s to thank him, and tell him I miss him already, and to ask him please to give Mom a sign that everything will be okay.  And then, because I’m being rather theologically decadent, I tell myself that he is so busy being awestruck and greeting his parents and his sister and his in-laws and best friend that he hasn’t turned his attention back to us.

My dad had a pedicure at the spa once.  He and my mom were visiting, and their feet needed work.  He was charming the ladies and joking with them while Mom rolled her eyes.  He was delighted to get his toenails trimmed, and his callouses scrubbed.  What incarnate things we are; how little it takes to make us happy.

Had they been serving egg rolls on that day when he got a pedicure, I imagine he would have had one with his latte.  He was that kind of guy, generous and grateful for the generosity of others, whatever form that generosity took.

I will miss him more than I know, three days into this new reality.  His absence will not be filled, but it will be soothed by kindness, by thoughtfulness, and lattes, and champagne, and egg rolls.

Requiem in pacem.

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Advent Vigil

232_Barrick_Advent_Purple_72_dpiFor Jack, Annie, Tom, and Grace

This is not the Advent I anticipated,
The one with three purple candles and one pink
The one with meditating on the birth of the Christ child
and pondering the meaning of the Incarnation
It isn’t that Advent

It is an Advent
with picturing my mother holding Baby Jesus
the way she holds any baby she can
And delighting in Him
And having a moment of joy

It is an Advent with a flurry of bushtits landing in the small tree in the courtyard
Angels in disguise
Chirping some song I assume to be good news though I cannot understand it
But they seem to happy in their trilling, and good news is in short supply
They’re gone when the hummingbird finds the Mexican Sage,
the one thing around here observing the purple of the season

It is an Advent with stars leading the way to places unknown
To people who have Gone On
With wondering if he’ll join the meteor shower and fly through the night sky
Or catch the tail of the too-close comet
And leave us

It is a season of waiting
For a death and not a birth –
But not an Eliot death.*
No one is clutching the old dispensation here
No one is really clutching anything

We are, rather, letting go of someone we have loved
Of someone who has loved us in return

It is a holy season
But not the one I expected

mexican sage

* T. S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi, excerpted:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down

This:
Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

About that hope thing

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Those who dwelled in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us,
Authority rests upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

I was looking at these words earlier this week in preparing for one of the Christmas Eve services, and it stuck with me, the way Handel’s music does, the way a reading you’ve heard for forty-something years does.  I read it after a colleague commented in staff meeting that there seems to be an epidemic of hopelessness right now.  And then Isaiah’s words offered something I couldn’t name.

Today I heard an amazing person who works for the county in the Department of Human Services thank a bunch of us religious people because we offer hope.  She said that without hope, there can never be change.  And I realized that in the many trees of grief and pain and shock and despair, I had forgotten to take a step back and see the whole forest, whose canopy looks a bit like hope.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a story Jim Collins tells in Good to Great, a story about Admiral Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam for three years and survived.  Collins does better service to the story than this blog, but I wanted to share Stockdale’s words:  “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Hope.  Hope that brutality will not last forever.  Hope that grief will feel more like a dull ache than an icy, rough piercing.  Hope that things will get better, whatever those things might be.  And for me, as a Christian who really does believe all this Jesus stuff, and the miracles, and the promises, hope that God has not abandoned us to our worst selves, that God is moving in the midst of all that seems turbulent and immoral and wrong.

I also have hope in the resurrection but it’s sort of the wrong season for that.

So I’ll be seasonally correct.  I think Christmas is, more than anything else, about hope.  It’s the hope that God is still at work.  It’s the hope that the life of a baby will change the world.  It’s the hope that God makes promises and fulfills them and we are better for that.

So what do I hope for?  That we’ll figure out a way to prevent cancer and treat it more effectively.  That we’ll learn how to be there for each other, and that we’ll get better at all the mental illness stuff.  That we will never forget those who live in poverty, and that we will work tirelessly to make the deep changes necessary for poverty to be alleviated.  That humane and thoughtful people will make the rules, with a real sense of liberty and justice for all.

Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, it’s weird to talk about God and say you believe in Jesus.  The assumption is that you don’t go to church.  But I have this hope, at least for those of us who are hanging in there with church (or temple or mosque) that God will poke us this season, and remind us of the Great Love that is not letting this world go to hell in a handbasket.

Hope makes things bearable and beautiful.

I hope….

winter-solstice

 

 

Eager for joy

Today I had lunch with a friend I had not seen since we graduated from seminary almost twenty-five years ago.  It was a lovely time and it did my heart good to reconnect and fill in two and a half blank decades.

She arrived at our house after I learned of the suicide of someone I knew (not well), worked with from time to time, and enjoyed.  My friend has been a chaplain to children in hospice, so she knows her way around grief and shock.  Over lunch I said to her something along the lines that sometimes the sadness is too much.  She looked at me with empathy and knowing and agreed, yes.  Sometimes the sadness is too much.

But I have decided I will not let sadness win, or at least I will not let sadness be the only player in the game.  I will not pretend that things aren’t awful, like cancer or suicide or addiction or the threat of nuclear war, but I won’t let those things have the only word.

I’m looking for joy everywhere go, and now and then I see it.  It’s usually pretty small, almost undetectable, so I have to look hard.

Right now I’m finding joy in this playlist I made to provide music for Thanksgiving cooking.  It includes some big ol’ hymns sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with full orchestra, because I am a hymn nerd.  It also includes anthems our church choir sang for All Saints Day (No Time, Unclouded Day), songs sung at a recent wedding, a blessing in Maori, and bad pop music because if there’s something I love, it’s a one-hit wonder.  (Thanks, Donna Lewis and Walk the Moon!)

I find joy in my daughter and husband and our terrier mix.  I find joy in making art.  I find joy in seeing the huge amount of food donations brought to church, and joy in all those advocating for the poor, for things like living wages and health care for all and truly affordable housing.

It’s like there is a glass, and it has water in it, and some day it may be that all the water will be gone.  But it may be that some day someone will refill the glass. But for now, there is water to drink.

For now, joy is still competing with sadness and almost winning.

 

glas of water