Love to the loveless shown

Well, our friend Aaron showed up in church this morning.  As is his custom, he made his way to the sacristy, exited into the choir loft, and came down the three stairs to the chancel where my husband/co-pastor Gregg met him and escorted him to the front pew.  He sat with Aaron for a minute, then came back to the chancel, but in his place, one of our deacons sat with him and got him a hymnal in case he wanted to join in on “My Song Is Love Unknown.”  As we sang those words “love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” I watched Gregg and then Gail sit with Aaron, and make him feel welcomed and maybe even loved.

Sometimes I think that maybe Jesus is showing up with us as Aaron.  Every now and then Aaron appears.  Sometimes he’s sober, sometimes he’s not.  Sometimes he asks for a little help and sometimes he just needs to be with our people.  It always feels like a test: will this be the week Aaron does something that simply is not acceptable and we have to ask him to come back when he can observe the community norms?  Will this be the week that someone who doesn’t know Aaron’s story with us is mean or harsh to him?  Will this be the week when he removes his disguise and we realize that Jesus was testing us with the “Love Your Neighbor/Do This To One of the Least of These” exam?

Two weeks ago I preached about hunger and feeding people as a means of reconciliation.  We were writing Bread for the World letters after worship that day, and it all seemed to fit.  The statistics about world hunger are pretty depressing, as much because we waste 1/3 of all food produced as because millions of children are nutritionally comprised.  Here in Portland, a third of all students in Portland Public Schools face food insecurity on a regular basis.  I shared all of that with my well-fed, food -secure congregation.

The next day I get a text from one of the members of the family who is living in their car in our parking lot (with the church and neighborhood’s permission.)  They haven’t eaten in two days – could we help out with a gift card to the grocery store?  I heard Jesus whispering in my ear, “I was hungry  – did you or did you not give me something to eat?”

I came home this afternoon to my lovely house and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I looked around at all our space, and up at the ceiling under the new roof we just got, having driven home with a car full of gas.  Who am I, to have so much when others have little or nothing?  Who am I to not face the demon of substance abuse or mental illness?  Who am I to not be confined by my bad choices?

I don’t know if it’s the luck of the draw, privilege, injustice, prejudice, will, disposition, but lately it feels like Jesus keeps showing up in the guise of those considered by some to be the least of these.  Do I greet him with love?  Do I offer him grace?  Do I ignore him because it’s messy and hard to engage?

I tell myself I do what I can.  We help our parking lot guests out with grocery gift cards.  We have meals with them, but not as often as I think we ought.  We do their laundry, and sometimes that feels like doing ministry more than anything else I do in the week.

They are lovely people, our parking lot guests and Aaron and all of them.  I fear they don’t know that about themselves, and I fear they don’t know that God sees them as lovely, if they even think there is a God.  What they know is that there is this church with people who treat them with kindness.  I hope.

But my relative privilege and my relative wealth – this brand new roof over my head, this ability to buy food whenever I want it – recall another line from the hymn:

“Oh, who am I, that for my sake, my Love should take frail flesh and die?”

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Maybe this is really about love

“I wonder who he’ll go see first.  His sister, maybe, or his best friend.  His parents? Maybe.  Or his in-laws.  Or maybe he’ll look for one of his heroes.  But I think Dad will see his sister first.”

I indulge myself in those sorts of thoughts occasionally, setting aside everything I ever learned about theology and Biblical exegesis.  I miss him, so I allow myself to envision my dad wandering around the cloudy expanse of heaven, finding the people he missed so much, those whose deaths left a void in his life, a void that is now gone.

I think that for myself, too – whom would I seek out?  Dad, obviously.  And my aunts, grandparents.  A college roommate.  A woman named Joanna, from the first congregation I served, whose unexpected death after ten awful days of waiting still strikes me to the core.  My cat Bud who was as precious to me as any person.

I don’t know what heaven will be like, if there is a heaven and if I get there.  But I’m not ready to let go of these people, so I cling so tightly to this idea that there is more that awaits us beyond the grave.  Many people I know don’t agree with me on this point, and that’s okay.  I mostly believe in a physical afterlife, and many people I know who believe there is something beyond the grave don’t agree with me  on that point.  That’s okay, too.  None of us will know till we die.

A wise friend of mine, who’s kept track of my grieving, shared that she thinks the second year after losing someone is harder than the first.  I’m testing out her hypothesis.  It feels like Dad has been gone a long while.  The year of firsts is over, but now it’s the year of seconds – the second birthday without him, the second Christmas, the second anniversary.  And that will be followed by the third and fourth and tenth and twentieth. Each anniversary is just a reminder that he is gone, I’ve lost him, he’s not coming back.

So I let myself imagine I’ll see him again, and I imagine he’s having a great time, and he doesn’t miss us because time is different there in heaven, and he’s catching up.

Maybe this is about grief.

It is about grief.

But it’s about love, too – wanting good things in life and life beyond death for those we have loved.  So I hope he has reconnected with his sister and best friend and parents and everyone.

On my dresser I have a little shrine to Dad – a photo of him holding my daughter when she was a baby, at my brother’s wedding.  The frame is flanked by a bottle of Royall Lyme, his aftershave of choice, and a small carved UCLA Bruin.  In front of the frame is a little plastic tray he brought me from Bermuda, and it holds a pocketknife with the emblem of a bank he once worked for.

I say good morning and good night to Dad every day. He doesn’t say anything back.  But I like to think that some day I’ll see him again, face to face, and we’ll say good morning to each other, and this heart of mine which has been cracked up a bit will be all mended up.

Love and grief; what a strange dance they have this side of the door.

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Piercing the darkness

(This is a sermon, not really a blog post.  Merry Christmas, readers!)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him
was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

candle-in-the-window-candle-in-the-window-meaning-candle-in-the-window-golden-glowing-candle-flickers-in-front-of-candle-in-the-window-candle-window-lightsIf the only gospel we had was the fourth one, the Gospel According to John, things might look a lot different today. We might not be celebrating the birth of Jesus; we would have no crèche adorning the chancel, no star-banners twinkling above us, no carols about babies sleeping in hay amid lowing cattle and bleating sheep.

If all we knew of Jesus’ origins were these words at the beginning of John’s gospel, we might celebrate his life differently. Perhaps we would be more mystical; perhaps we would pay different attention to words about The Word.

Ted Wardlaw, President of Austin Theological Seminary, says this about John’s prologue. “This text plays a trick on us. When we begin reading it, it suggests as a backdrop an infinity the size of all creation – earth and sky and solar system and planets and stars. The language is grand, otherworldly…. Think the opening credits to a Star Wars movie. Think comets and black holes and the spaciousness of the cosmos. It is the world’s largest show and we are the spectators.

“Then comes the trick: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us.’ We’re led by this text to expect something ethereal and otherworldly; and then suddenly the cosmic becomes intensely personal.” (“Unwrapping Advent: Questions and Answers for Contemplation at Advent and Christmas”; the 2018 Advent Devotional, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary)

Isn’t that a lovely thought – that the cosmic becomes intensely personal? And if that is true – and I like to think that it is – how does that happen, or what does that look like? Perhaps we find the answer in the text itself. The cosmic becoming personal looks like light shining in the darkness.

Of course, when we look at the night sky and see the stars twinkling (a rare occurrence in the rainy winters of the Pacific Northwest) the stars are remote and cold, and the light we see is hundreds of years old. There’s nothing personal in that.

But there is something deeply personal about a candle glowing in a window, or a campfire in the remote wilderness. There is something personal and reassuring about leaving the light on over the stove at night in case anyone gets up in the wee small hours. I’m so grateful to all those who put lights on trees and houses in the dark, rainy nights of the season.

Light shining in the darkness works as a metaphor too, when we consider the good in the world piercing all that is wrong and unjust.

-The ceasefire in Yemen is a spark of hope for a nation that has experienced so much suffering in the past few months.
-In 2018, there were only 28 cases of polio around the globe; like smallpox, it is a disease that will soon be eradicated. (worldvision.org/christian-faith-news-stories/reasons-hope-2019)
-In The Hague, Bethel Church is nearing their 60th day of a worship service in order to protect a refugee family seeking asylum in The Netherlands; the family cannot be removed during worship, so pastors from all over, and members of the church, and neighbors near and far have stayed in continual worship for over 1400 hours, all to protect one family. (theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/21/dutch-round-the-clock-church-service-keeps-hopes-alive-for-asylum-family)

There are these and so many other stories of light shining in the world. And as we know, light both illumines and warms. It illumines so we are able to see, to see the good, and to see what is broken so we will know what needs attention. It warms so that we are not shivering in the cold, or freezing to death.

You and I can be light in the darkness, and we are. Every time we stand up for what is just; every time we help one another; every time we offer grace instead of condemnation; every time we choose love over hate, love over apathy, we are shining light.

As theologian Karl Rahner has said, “The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves: it is because his manifestation in the world must be through us. Every Christian is, as it were, part of the dust-laden air which shall radiate the glowing Epiphany of God, catch and reflect [God’s] golden light. Ye are the light of the world – but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the one Light of the world. And being kindled, we have got to get on with it, be useful.”

Christ is our light, and by that I mean that in hearing his teaching and in following his ways, the path of our days is illumined. We see differently in His light. It is as C.S. Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Because of the illumination of Christ, we do not say, “This is a waste of a human life under that tarp, in that tent, pushing that shopping cart.” No! Instead we say, “This is a beloved child of God. This is my neighbor, whom I am called to love and serve.”

Because Christ is the light of the world, we do not say, “The toils on the other side of the globe are not my problem. I share nothing in common with those people – not a nation, not a language, not a faith.” No! Instead we say “my brothers and sisters, these people who live on the same earth that I live on – this earth created by God and given to us all – they are suffering and I cannot live fully in joy until that suffering is alleviated. I share in their pain until God makes all things right.”

Because what has come into being through him is life, the life that is the light of all people, we do not say, “Everything is meaningless. We live and then we die and nothing matters.” No! Instead we say, “This life, this span of years or decades that we have, is a gift to be opened and shared, an opportunity to gather in grief and celebration, an invitation to tell the truth about love and fear and failure and hope.”

In an Advent devotional I used this year, I read the most amazing sentence. “Remember that no matter how far you stray, God leaves a light on in the window to welcome you home.” (Krin Van Tothenhove, Presbyterians Today 2018 Advent Devotional, “God Lifts the Lowly”)

If God is our home, we know that we wander away. Sometimes, like the younger son of the parable, we wander far away, to get out from what we perceive to be our parents’ tyranny, to live the way we want, even if it brings us ruin.

Sometimes we wander from home because we weren’t paying attention and suddenly we’re lost. We weren’t paying attention to wrong turns that led to dead ends, to friendships that hurt rather than encouraged, to choices that took us to dark corners that hid danger and disease.

And sometimes we wander from home because we have intentionally set out into the darkness in search of something or more likely in search of someone. We go to those places that frighten us, those places where we ourselves are in danger because someone we love is there, and if they won’t come home to us, then we will go sit with them in the darkness.

And when we do that, we have confidence that whenever we are ready to turn around, and make our way through the darkness again, and start that journey home – we have confidence that Someone is expecting us, waiting for us, leaving that light on so we can find them again.

A few months ago Gregg and I were going up to our family place near Mt. Rainier. We had a commitment at church that afternoon, and we weren’t able to head up till early evening. When we set out, it was dusk, the sky was cloudy but it was dry. As we left the highway onto the state road, unlit, night had fallen and the heavens had opened. It was pouring. Were it not for the reflectors in the middle of the road, we would not have known where to drive.

Finally, after two tense hours of gripping the steering wheel and peering into the darkness, we turned into the driveway. The caretaker of the property knew we were coming, and he had unlocked the gate and opened it, turned on the lights at the front door, and turned up the heat. We were so grateful to come home to that welcome. The caretaker had been expecting us.

God is expecting us, too. This God who created the infinity of the universe and those cold, distant stars; this God who existed before time and history; this God is the one who makes that immense journey from the cosmic to the intensely personal. And we know that because we have deep faith that God is expecting us to come home. God is leaving the light on. And that light is Christ.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overwhelm it.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Dear Messrs. Scrooge and Grinch

Dear Sirs,

It has come to my attention that perhaps you had it right all along, that is, before your impressive conversions.  Perhaps this joy we have manufactured for the Christmas holiday is just that – manufactured, like some piece of plastic that Airbrush Barbie will scoot around town in, like some small, flat rectangular thing, embossed with our name, that will drive up our debt load.

You see, I’m not feeling it all that much this year, and as I recall Mr. Grinch’s stealing of Christmas paraphernalia, I’m sensing a comrade.  As I picture Mr. Scrooge’s cold, dark mansion void of any glitter, tinsel, or bulb, a twinge of envy grows within me.

I believe we have confused things.  As I stood in line at the Dollar Tree, buying large gift bags to hold my purchases for the church’s Angel Tree, and as I heard the melodic voice of Gene Autry encourage us to “give thanks to the lord above, ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight”, I realized that I was done.

Which is to say, I am done with Santapalooza as a stand-in for Christmas.

On the one hand, Santapalooza is an opportunity to give something to someone as a token of appreciation or even love.  But on the other hand, those tokens become expressions of obligation and duty.  Santapalooza props up the disparities rampant in our capitalism-on-steroids.  We give charitably, thinking that a day’s moment of generosity makes up for systems of injustice that perpetuate racism and poverty.

Who’s the mean one now, Mr. Grinch?  Bah.  Humbug.

Christmas, though….  I’ll keep that, if we can strip away the wrapping paper and the stockings and wire-edged bows and all the sugar; if we can do away with presents that have no meaning; if we can spend just one day in celebration, or if that is too scant, spend twelve days that begin on the 25th and end, as they once did, on Epiphany, the season of light.  I’ll take the Christ Mass, the acknowledgement of the mystery of the Incarnation, the awe of light and love.  I’ll take the Word, full of grace and truth.  I’ll even take Baby Jesus, lying in the middle of the animal’s part of the home, carefully laid in a feeding trough, worried over by his father and mother, who soon will flee for their lives as refugees in Egpyt.

Mr. Grinch, I believe my own heart could grown three sizes too big if we could just separate these conjoined twins of Santapalooza and Christmas.  Mr. Scrooge, were that to happen, I would echo those true words of Tiny Tim, and with all my heart, ask God to bless us, every one.

But I will say in hope, and in confidence that all things are possible through Him who loves us, please God, bless us –

all those people standing in line at the Dollar Tree;
all those parents worrying that there won’t be enough for their kids under the tree;
all those people relying on the charity of others to get through the holiday;
all those people who don’t understand;
all those people who have lost their faith;
all the grieving, all the hopeless, all the sick, all the homeless;
all the rich, all the poor, all the waiting, all the wondering:

God bless us, every one.

 

Giving up Facebook for Advent

I know, I know – Lent is the season when we’re supposed to give things up to help us understand the nature of sacrifice and self-denial, so we forego chocolate or swearing and feel that much more holy for forty days.  Advent is the time when we are supposed to prepare our hearts to receive the Christ child once again. It is a time for contemplation, reflection, but not sacrifice or self-denial.

Pish-posh, I say.

Allow me to explain.

At the congregation I serve we have chosen “Joy” as our theme for Advent.  Yes, I know that joy is supposed to be the theme of one of the Sundays of Advent (the Sunday with the pink candle), but as our Director of Music reminded us, there is a palpable lack of joy in the world right now.  I confess that as I start to think about my sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, to preach on joy feels a bit callous.  How can we talk about joy when we spray tear gas on children whose parents are seeking asylum in  the U.S.?  How unfeeling is it to talk about joy when hundreds of people are still unaccounted for in the remains of the Camp Fire? I could go on. You could too.

But since, as Teilhard de Chardin once said, “Joy is the surest sign of the presence of God”, and since Advent is the season in which we prepare to receive the gift of the Incarnation, God-with-us, then joy will have its way this Advent.  And that has led me to giving up Facebook.

I don’t know if you do Facebook; chances are if you’re reading this blog, you may have found it because I posted it on Facebook.  So there’s that – if I’m off Facebook, you won’t know if I’ve written a few hundred words about my musings.  If I’m off Facebook, I will need to let my pastor colleagues know, because I do learn about pastoral care needs on social media.

But if I’m to be about joy this Advent, then I will give up Facebook because Facebook does not bring me joy.  It entertains, it infuriates, it updates, but it does not bring me joy.  I relish the number of comments I get; I envy friends and acquaintances whose lives are so much more beautiful than my own; I long to live closer to family and old friends.

Facebook is the emblem for a deeper dis-ease.  I fear my world is starting to revolve around “likes” and “views”, around how many hearts I receive on an Instagram posts, around the approval I receive when I post something.  That is not life.  Those things do not bring joy.  Having a popular brand will not make my life complete.

Nothing will make my life complete this side of the grave, but many things will bring joy.  My beloved husband and daughter are the source of much joy in my life. Having work that is meaningful and fulfilling, work that I think adds some good to the world brings me joy.  An email or a phone call or an in-person visit from an old friend brings me far more joy than any pithy Facebook post ever could.

In the conversations around the spiritual practice of giving up something for Lent, some have suggested that rather than give something up, one should take up a practice that is sustainable for only about forty days.  So I wonder what I will take up for these twenty-four days of Advent – in giving up Facebook, is there something that I can take up, some way to spend that now free time, something that might bring me or the world some joy?

According to my phone, I spent four hours and forty-five minutes this past week looking at Facebook.  Perhaps I will use that time to pray.  I could write an actual letter to an old friend.  I could call my siblings.  I could write some liturgy. I could make some art.  I could make a meal for this family I love so much.  I could meditate.  I could do so many things that would lead me down the path to joy, and in knowing joy, I might deepen my appreciation of God and the Incarnate Christ Child.

I’ll let you know – but not till after December 25.

A joyful Advent to you.

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Making art brings me joy

 

The architecture of trees and other things

It’s the time of year when the falling leaves expose the beauty of the bare branch. As much as I love the new leaves of spring, and the lush leaves of summer, and the reds and golds at the height of fall, I really do enjoy seeing the leafless trees.

The branches are beautiful – elegant like a ballet dancer’s hands, or bumpy and bent like the hands of an old man who’s lived with arthritis far longer than he ever wanted.

I appreciate seeing the structure of the trees, their architecture, understanding a little about how the trees grow and support the weight of leaves and nests.

The devastation of the fires in California have revealed a different kind of architecture; you might call it the architecture of deconstruction. Among the ashes we see a chimney, a bathtub, a puddle of chrome where a fender used to be.

When the flames ravage, all that is left is that which seems incongruous and unnecessary. The flames mock the chimney and the bathtub. A cozy fire at night is magnified into something apocalyptic. The water in such a tub would do nothing more or less than boil in the midst of flames.

I wonder, too, what we are seeing in the architecture of our nation. Midterm elections laid bare the structure of our democracy. But is it the architecture of support, of the values of liberty and justice for all, constructive values? Or have we seen the deconstruction of our values, voter suppression and apathy about the political process? Does the harsh rhetoric of campaign ads and rallies undo us, consume all that is good so that all that is left is incongruous and unnecessary – red, white, and blue bunting crumpled up on the ground?

Well. I think about these things.

I worry about our national identity. So sometimes I take heart in the example of the seasons. Yes, the leaves fall and the trees are laid bare, but spring will come as sure as the sun will set tonight and rise again tomorrow. But sometimes my deep sorrow for all those affected by the fires reflects my sorrow for these United States. So much of what is beautiful and good – care for the stranger and the vulnerable, a willingness to tell the truth at the cost of losing power – has been burned away and what is left is useless.

Maybe when it comes to things political, we are not passive observers. We cannot change the course of the seasons. Very few of us can stop the devastation of these fires. But maybe we can do something to change the American conversation.

I hope we can.

One Square Inch of Good

img_5908Often whatever art I’m working on in some way reflects my interior life.  Right now I’m making one inch squares of decorated paper, and I think I know why.

From a practical point of view, I’m able to use up some paper scraps from other projects.  And we’re having family for the holidays, and I’m pretty sure it’s bad hospitality to take up the dining room table with an art project.  Making one inch squares of paper doesn’t take much space, and it’s portable.  So there’s that.

But mostly I’ve been feeling as though, indeed, the world is too much with us, late and soon.  Despair like I have not ever known creeps in every morning as I read the news, and but for the many graces that surround me, I would give in.  So I’ve been reminding myself, and my family, and my congregation, that in spite of all that is hard and tragic and infuriating and frustrating and sinful, we still have good to do, and we still have to do good.

Maybe every day I can do something good that would fit in a one-inch square.  Maybe most of us can.  I’m not sure that we mere mortals have the capacity to do great good, but most of us can do a little good every day.  Be kind to the grocery store checker who is chatty but so slow and you’ve been waiting in line for forever.  When you see the guy on the street corner with the sign, look him in the eye, say hello, give him five bucks, and then donate twenty to the local homeless shelter.  Talk in person with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to your own, and don’t debate him, and don’t hate her.

Not hating is a good place to start doing one square inch of good.  Not putting others down is probably good, too.  Lamenting with those who lament, and marching with those who march, and calling out all forms and expressions of bigotry and prejudice work too.  Stepping away from the screen, from the newspaper, from the radio now and then going for a walk is good – one square inch of good for yourself.

Anne Lamott first suggested (to me) doing hard things in small pieces.  In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she says, “I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”

It works for joy, too.  I keep looking for great big huge joy to combat all the great big huge ugliness, but I need to put my readers on and look small.  One square inch – and there it is, meeting with the preschoolers who share the building with us; there it is – meeting the congregation’s newest baby; there it is – my daughter reciting Shakespeare for her upcoming performance in Hamlet.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my squares.  I’ve made about 120 so far, and I plan to make more with no particular end in mind.  Maybe a quilt-like thing.  Or maybe little boxes, following the words of the poet Rumi, who said that “joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box.”  Maybe I’ll give them away to people to remind them that good and joy can come in jumbo size, but if we all tried to just make one square inch of joy a day, that would be enough.

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