Lent Prayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I miss Brian Doyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

The grief, all of it

Earlier this week, I went to the cemetery to conduct a thirty-minute outdoor service for one of three church members who have died in the last month. It was as you might expect for death in the time of COVID. We all wore masks. I couldn’t hug the family. We were limited in our time and it was all sad and awful and not what any of us wanted as a way to say goodbye to this person.

On the drive to the pavilion where the service was conducted, I noticed a covered area with big piles of dirt under the roof. It occurred to me that that was the dirt from the graves that had been dug. Somehow in all these years it never occurred to me that there would be extra dirt that would need to go somewhere far from the manicured greenscapes of cemeteries. A hole was dug and something else was put in it. The dirt had no where to go, so they created a place for it.

It feels like grief has nowhere to go these days. Since all this began, my husband has lost an aunt and an uncle (not from COVID.) I have lost an aunt and an uncle (not from COVID.) Eight church members have died. (None from COVID.) Why do I need to say none of these died from COVID? Because it’s a reminder that in the midst of this time of isolation and fear and shouting voices that don’t allow us to hear science, other things are still happening – strokes and cancer and heart attacks and all of it.

And what do we do with the grief? We can’t gather in the sanctuary and tell stories about the dead person and sing the great hymns of faith and remind each other about All The Good Promises About What Happens After We Die. I’m learning that grief is palatable when it can be shared, when the community can lean on each other and right now, none of that is possible and grief has nowhere to go.

Grief just sits there. It doesn’t transform to a paler version of itself. It doesn’t shift into sadness. It doesn’t invite gratitude or perspective. It just sits there, like too much Thanksgiving dinner, like homemade bread whose yeast never activated. Grief just sits there, getting heavier and heavier and becoming insurmountable.

All Saints Day is coming up and worship for that day has been on my mind and my heart. The congregation I serve loves that All Saints service – it’s a time to remember who we are because of who has been with us. It’s a time to name the names of those we miss and grieve. It’s a time to break bread and share the feast and remind each other that the great cloud of witnesses is with us. But not this year.

I wonder if, when we gather properly for worship again, we will have several memorial services or one big one, or a festival of memorials, or some way to commemorate the dead and to have that communal gathering of grief and hope that we’re missing. Or maybe by then it will be too late, and we will have moved on, or we will have lost so many that sorrow will overwhelm.

I do not know. I say that a lot these days, I do not know. I do not know what they do with the dirt left over from the graves. I do not know when COVID will be over. I do not know who else will die in the coming months. I do not know how to mourn all by myself. I do know we were not meant to live this way, in isolation.

So I hold on to that, this new learning about the priceless value of community and seeing each other in real life. We might die alone, that is true. But let’s never give in to living alone.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

img_0596I ran home at lunch today to burn last year’s palm leaves.  It’s a funny smell and my neighbors might have wondered just what the minister next door was doing.  Nothing untoward, truly – unless you consider taking a symbol of honor and life (the palm) and burning it to ashes to remind people that they are oh, so mortal untoward.

Another Ash Wednesday is nigh upon us.  I think about my first Ash Wednesday as a pastor some twenty-five years ago.  Death seemed neither imminent nor scary, just a nice little comma in this journey with God.  But I stayed long enough in that first congregation to start loving those people, some of whom got sick, some of whom were dying as I drew a cross of ashes on their forehead.

Fast forward, as Ash Wednesday falls three days after what would have been my dad’s 89th birthday; as Ash Wednesday falls two days before my darling daughter’s 14th.  I fear death now.  I know the havoc it wreaks, the worry it brings, the dread not just of the slow march of dying but also the crushing emptiness of the one who is gone.

Yet here we are, making crosses out of ashes and saying to young and old, to hale and sick, to the faithful and doubting, mortals all, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  Stern stuff, these ashes.

Here’s a little spoiler alert because I’m going to mention the end of The Good Place so if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t read any more, but happy Lent.

I thought that last episode was exquisite, with the prevailing realization that what made life so precious was the knowledge that it would end.  We would never know what would be our last sunrise to awaken to, what would be our last time to hear our favorite piece of music, what would be our last time to tell that old story and laugh and laugh.  I remember the last time I spoke with my dad – and I knew it was the last – and it’s still so hard to think about and to write about. I said goodbye, then joined my siblings where I sobbed and fell to the floor.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.  Ashes, ashes; we all fall down.  We fall down in grief, in wonder, in agony, in worship.  We fall down in disbelief, maybe, that all this will end, that to the dust we will return.

But unless the seed falls to the dust, to the dirt, and dies, no new life will come.  Fall down we must.  Rise, we will.

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?”

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.

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

 

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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Sunday Morning Starts on Saturday Night

Two and a half decades into this pastor gig, you would think that by now I would not start fretting on Saturday night about all the things for Sunday. You would think by now, I would know how to manage both the expected and the unexpected of Sunday morning, that I could go out, stay up late, be a regular human being on Saturday night and not a pastor starting to think ahead. Alas, that is not the case.

I’m not preaching this week, and this morning after coffee I told my husband (who is preaching and who does not fret about these things) that I was really looking forward to a Saturday off when I wouldn’t worry  and edit the sermon and make the list of all the things there are to put on a list on a Saturday when you’re a pastor. My husband looked at me and said, “You know, you don’t have to preach that often.” I hate it when he doesn’t say what I want him to say but instead says the thing I need to hear.

Perhaps it is my Enneagram 1 (the perfectionist) or my Myers-Brigg J (who loves structure and the ‘decided’ lifestyle) that starts up the worry wheel.  Perhaps it is my sinful nature, not allowing room for the Holy Spirit on Saturday night and Sunday morning, the sin of relying on myself and not on God.  Maybe its early-onset stage fright.  Maybe it’s that I’m 25 years older than I was when I started all of this and my energy is different.  Maybe it’s all of those things, or none of them.

*****

A member of the choir sent me a note recently, saying that she loved the nuance of hearing the pulpit light click on before the sermon and click off after the sermon.  I appreciate her noticing that, because clicking that little light feels enormous to me.  I click it on, and a week’s or month’s worth of thought, study and prayer comes to life.  I click it off, and for a day, I can rest and let go until it’s time to start again.

What I need to remember in all of this is that God is clicking on a different light.  I cannot separate the thought, the study, the prayer, all that goes into a sermon from God.  If my living is infused with the grace of Christ, the love of God, and the community of the Holy Spirit, then nothing that consciously or unconsciously goes into a sermon is apart from God.  Why, then, do I not trust that?

It may have something to do with this: when the congregation looks to the pulpit, they see me, not God.  They see me, with whom they have shared a cookie at coffee hour, with whom they have sat through meetings, whom they have seen at the grocery store in my grubbies.  They see me with all my faults and failings and they love me (most of them) anyway.  Why, then, do I not trust them?

I take preaching very seriously, and I work hard not to make it about me but about God and the call of Christ to be present in the world.  I take seriously that people have given an hour or two of their morning to come to worship and I respect the gift of their time.  I take seriously the privilege of speaking about God, and maybe even for God.

Perhaps, then, I need to take myself a little less seriously.  I aspire to do that.

But not on Saturday night.

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The wedding shoe

As we near the end of our delightful and refreshing three-month sabbatical, my husband/co-pastor and I are finally doing all those little house projects we’ve been meaning to get to.  Yesterday we moved things around in the basement, which serves as our den, laundry room, and second guest room, and in moving stuff, we cleared out the closet.  As we went through only two plastic bins there, I found my wedding shoes.

“It’s probably time to give these away,” I said.

“Probably,” my husband replied.

I LOVED my wedding shoes.  My dear friend Alison, my co-bride who like me was getting married for the first time in her early forties, whose wedding was three weeks before our own, agreed to go shoe shopping with me. We discovered a charming store in uptown Chicago that specialized in wedding shoes.  She found what she needed, and I found what I needed.  Off-white satin with pumps with an ankle strap and rhinestone buckle, with what I thought would be a very comfortable 2 inch heel.  Fifteen minutes into the reception, not so comfortable.  But no mind. I loved the shoes, which no one saw, and which I happily took off later in the evening.

When we returned from our honeymoon, I realized that I would rarely wear these beautiful off-white shoes again, so I had them dyed black.  I believe I wore them once after that, because a few months later I got pregnant, my feet swelled, and after the baby my feet were never quite the same.  So the shoes have been sitting in this bin for 13 1/2 years and I don’t need to be a KonMari practitioner to know that if you haven’t worn something for 13 1/2 years, it’s time to let it go.

We went to the Goodwill drop off this morning and the gentlemen took our things.  The bag holding everything broke so it was a bit of a mess, and as we drove away, I saw a lone, dyed-black wedding shoe lying there in the dust.

There are many things I would do differently if I were to marry Gregg again.  I would not make my bridesmaids wear matching periwinkle dresses.  (Thank you, thank you, AM & EF.)  I would get a different dress.  I might ditch the tiara that held my veil in place.

But there are so many things I would do exactly the same.  I would marry Gregg again.  I would have AM and EF stand up with me.  The wedding party would enter to everyone singing a hymn.  I would walk down the aisle with my dad, a memory that is so poignant now that he’s gone.  I would have all those beloved family and friends there.  I might not register for gifts, but I would eat cake and dance and take all that joy all over again.

Of course, a wedding is not a marriage, as I tell betrothed couples .  A wedding is a herald of what’s to come, but in the years that unfold, cake gives way to boxed mac ‘n’ cheese, and veils give way to hats that hide a bad hair day, and beautiful satin shoes sit in the closet while sneakers are laced up or clogs slide on and socks mysteriously lose their mates in the dryer.

As I mentioned, we’re near the end of our sabbatical, and I’m so grateful for this time away.  One of the things I have most strongly realized is that I really love my husband.  Perhaps this should be obvious, but when you work with your spouse, and when you share an office with your spouse, you can lose sight of all the reasons you married that person.  We’ve spent all but five days of this sabbatical together, but there has been space to breathe and see each other anew.

I have no idea if he would say the same thing about me.  Maybe, maybe not.  But I’m still so grateful for a fantastic wedding that heralded a marriage that would be filled with beloved family and friends, and dancing, and cake.  But we promised each other never to give shoes as a gift – maybe that’s the secret to it all.