Kitchen Table Saints

So there we were, at the kitchen table, celebrating the sacrament of the Kleenex box.  It was one of those inelegant moments of smeared mascara and a dripping nose, but it was a real moment, one of many around that kitchen table.  We took a breath so as to go on, only to see a friend arrive.

And then another friend, and then another friend, and before you knew it, we were all sitting around the kitchen table.  If any of us had been in our right mind, we would have scrounged up some cookies and tea, or retrieved the previous night’s Halloween candy; but no, we were celebrating the sacrament of Kleenex and tears, and nothing else was needed at the table but us and our running noses.

The conversation was as ordinary as it could be.  We talked about little things, and huge things.  Where are you going this weekend, what does Thanksgiving look like, how’s your dad, how’s the move.  It wasn’t that we were avoiding the elephant in the room, but we weren’t dissecting and classifying it either.

Saints do that, I suppose.  They come into unholy situations and by their love and light, make it, if not holy, then at least bearable with armor that looks like a favorite scarf and weapons that look more like plowshares than swords.

Then I went to pray.  All of us did.  It was An Important Prayer, and I did so want to get it right.  Except our other saint decided to snore quite loudly and rudely through the whole thing.  I giggled and stammered as I invoked the Creator, Holy God, Potentate of Time, Ineffably Sublime.  “From the sublime to the ridiculous” best categorizes the prayer.  But it was real, as real as the wadded Kleenex and the kitchen table, as real as that friendship, as real as that love.

In the end, a hymn saved me.  “So we pray for strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”  And the saints said Amen.

May you find saints around your kitchen tables too.

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Some questions about biblical womanhood, because I’m not clear

jaelSo.  The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood just came out with a statement, which I have questions about, but before I get to those, I have some questions about biblical womanhood, because I’m not clear which woman/women of the Bible I am supposed to be like.  I say that as someone who’s been a church goer and Christian for 45 years.  I’ve studied the Bible probably more than some, and I have some questions.

I could ask the five women on the council what they think, although none claims to be a Biblical scholar, so maybe I should ask the men.  At any rate, here is what I’m wondering about.

Should my biblical role model be Eve, the first woman to disobey God?

Should my biblical role model be Noah’s wife, who evidently did so little during the flood that she didn’t even merit a name?

Should my biblical role model be Sarah, who finished late in the game and had only one son, who pretended to be her husband’s sister, who laughed at God, who banished her slave and the mother of her husband’s other son to the desert?

Should my biblical role model be Dinah, horrifically raped, whose violation led to the circumcision and then murder of her assailants?

Should my biblical role model be Puah and Shiphrah, Hebrew midwives who risked Pharoah’s wrath and punishment by pulling a child from the river?

Should my biblical role model be Miriam, who, among other things, danced?

Should my biblical role model be Deborah, the Sandra Day O’Conner of her day?

Should my biblical role model be Jael, who killed the leader of her enemy by driving a tent pole through his head while he slept?

Should my biblical role model be the wife in Proverbs 31, the Enjoli woman of her time, who did everything except sleep?

Or should I look to the Christian scripture?  Should my biblical role Mary, who sang about toppling kings from their thrones and cradled the body of her dead son?

Should my role model be Mary Magdalene, who (as you know if you read the Bible) was not a prostitute, but the first female apostle, who (as far as we know) never married or had children?

Should my role model be Lydia, the real housewife of Thytira, who ran with the big dogs and made a lot of money and then opened her household to complete strangers who were in need?

Should my role model be Joanna, Phoebe, Prisca, and Aquila, deaconesses who took care of people?

Should my role model be the thousands of unnamed women in the Bible who made fabric and clothing, tended the fields, kept the fires burning, birthed baby after baby after baby, raised children, and endured second-class citizenship but kept the faith throughout?

I’m so not clear here.  But here’s what I think.  That if I’m to model the biblical womanhood of any of these women, I should be reaching out the vulnerable, pulling strangers out of the flood, breaking rules that make no sense and are not just, feeding people, and taking strangers into my home.  I should be singing and dancing and taking leadership roles.

But as far as I know, if I am to follow the example of biblical womanhood as set forth in this scripture that I love and wrestle with, then I don’t need to be writing statements about sexual morality and who is and isn’t a sinner.   None of them did that.

Thank God.

Thinking small

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baby Jesus in a locket

I’ve been distracted from writing these past few months because I’ve taken up paper mosaics, which involves cutting up previously used paper and using it to create something else.

I blame the coloring books I had dallied with earlier in the year, and the move from there to some very amateur illustrations for early reader books my friends are making for children in Ethiopia.

And then – oh, and then!  I decided to make a mosaic out of all my old to-do lists, and behold – the Flower of Accomplishment!

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this is not the finished product, but you get the idea

Then our children’s ministry director was recycling all the old Sunday School lithographs – the ones with the white, Van Dyke-bearded Jesus, teaching the well-behaved and well-dresssed children, so I took a bunch of those and cut them up and made an icon of a saint I wish existed: Martha (as in Luke 10), Patron Saint of Clergywomen.

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Yes, she is holding a baby and a plunger and if you have ever been a clergywoman (or a director of Christian Education) you will understand why.

Then I thought that Martha looked a little formal and prim, and I remembered my dear mentor friends Lucy and Carol, and am finishing up the icon of another saint I wish existed: Sarah (as in Genesis), Patron Saint of the Old Broads of the Church.

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Sarah likes breaking the rules, ditching the collar and the dyed hair, without the sedate dark blue background but with a scandalous red one

She has eschewed the clerical collar, but is holding the ubiquitous cup of coffee and making a peace sign.  She also keeps Jesus close to her heart.  I’m not happy with her face yet, and I did some old school cutting and pasting to straighten her out, but she’s almost there.  I think I have one more Patron Saint icon in me, but I’m not sure yet who she is.  Jael, Patron Saint of the Mansplained?  Eve, Patron Saint of the Rule Breakers?

Another favorite Old Broad of the Church, Margaret, would ask then ask me, “What have you learned from this?”

I have learned that when you take something very big and make it very small, you have a new appreciation for its beauty and character.  Those old Sunday School lithographs were beautiful, and there are some beautiful pieces of quarter-inch squares in these pieces.  And I have learned that when you take something very big and make it very small and then combine all that smallness to make something big again, you make a brand new thing that still has characteristics of the old thing.  I think family systems theory would support that.

I have also learned that I am developing my patience muscles, which is a good thing, and that somehow these mosaics have to do with call and story telling.  Martha and Sarah, like all the saints, are shaped by the stories that are in their DNA.  Maybe we are too, shaped by the stories that get cut up and reorganized and glued down in different ways.

I got to hold a day-old baby yesterday.  He is a tiny thing, made up of cells and molecules and atoms and genetic pieces of his mom and dad.  His story has just begun, but he is already shaped the stories that surround his family and their friends.  What a miraculous thing this is, this life, these tiny things that turn out, in the end, to be enormous.

Home

This morning as I made my morning coffee, I looked outside and saw someone whom I assume to be without a home right now doing something on the corner.  It appeared that their stuff had fallen off their bike, and they were rearranging and organizing and restrapping things.  All this was right in front of my poetry post, which currently offers these words from Brian Doyle: “We are only here for a minute, we are here for a little window, and to use that time to catch and share shards of light and laughter and grace seems to me the great story.”

So I wondered what the story of that person was, what had happened that they needed to recombobulate on my front yard, why they didn’t have a place to live.

We don’t see many people experiencing homelessness in our neighborhood, but we do see many of them around the church.  There’s been someone staying in our parking lot for the last few weeks.  His cart and tarp are a familiar sight, and we have let him be.  This morning, though, I noticed he was out and all his stuff was scattered about.  I wondered what was going on.  My co-pastor husband went to talk with him.

He learned his name and heard a shard of his story.  He learned that someone had robbed him this morning.  Our friend left at 3:45am to go collect bottles and in that time, someone came and stole his clothes and his phone.  My husband also learned that a few weeks ago, some people threw shit on him while he slept.  This man talked about how very tired he was.  He’s been in the lot for a few weeks and never once asked us for help, for a bathroom, for anything.  He wants to be off the grid, unseen, and safe.  He feels less that way now.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the idea of home, because I realized that we have now lived in Portland longer than we lived in Wisconsin, where we lived before; yet Portland doesn’t feel like home yet.  If pressed, I would say that home is where my two most beloved people are.  But it is also a place, a physical place where you have roots.  I’m not sure where that is for me.  It might be the extended family place near Mt. Rainier, but it also might be New Jersey.  Go figure.  And yet every night I sleep on a bed with a roof over my head, and I wake up and make coffee, and no one has robbed me or harassed me.

I’ve been thinking about home on the heels of World Refugee Day, and how horrific it must be to have to leave one’s home and never go back, to be homeless even while living in a refugee settlement or in a country where you don’t speak the language or know the customs or worship the right god.  The stories of refugees should shame us all into so much action and generosity.

I’ve been thinking about home this week as the city published the recent survey of the number of people sleeping outside, and the number is up 10% from where it was last year.  At a meeting I attended a few months ago, the person who heads the city-county joint effort on reducing homelessness talked about the struggles to find people temporary and permanent shelter, and the larger problem of the availability of affordable housing.  The numbers were depressing.  I asked him how he got up every morning, and he said he looked at the number of people who did move off the streets and into shelter, or out of shelter into more permanent housing, and that gave him hope. I suppose there are shard of light there, but still.

I wonder if, as a society or as a nation, we have lost our sense of home.  I would say that when people throw shit on another person, we’ve lost our sense of home.  Maybe home is a moral compass.  Maybe home is the place where, as Robert Frost once wrote, when you go there they have to take you in.  Maybe home is the place where we feel safe, or the people we feel safe with.

I dream of converting our two-car garage into an apartment that we could rent out at a truly affordable rate.  We don’t have the money to do that right now, but I haven’t let go of the dream.  In the meantime, I learn.  I advocate.  I go to meetings.  I talk to people living on the streets or in our parking lot.  But it never feels like enough.

What is home to you?

How do we make home for all?

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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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