When chronos and kairos collide

“Chronos time is how we measure our days and our lives quantitatively. Kairos is the qualitative time of life.” (Josep F. Maria, SJ)

I’m thinking about Holy Week, and worship services for Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter. I’m thinking about palms and azaleas and stripping the church. I’m thinking about despair and hope, short-term and long-term wins, and whether or not to invite folks up to the sing the “Hallelujah” chorus this year. In other words, I’m a pastor three weeks out from Holy Week.

On Holy Saturday, our group of dedicated volunteers will decorate the sanctuary for Easter: butterfly banners, white paraments, real azaleas and fake lilies, as the organist and this pastor are allergic to the real ones. The problem is that the flowers get delivered on Good Friday, and must be hidden away lest one preparing for the solemnity and sadness of Good Friday be confronted with the hope and life of Easter.

It’s like chronos time – the delivery of Easter flowers on Good Friday – collides with kairos time – the holiness and presence of God in despair and in joy. Maybe that’s just what life is: flowers in the midst of mourning.

It’s like all the images of sunflowers in social media, signs of support for the people of Ukraine enduring the horrors of war. It’s like wee flowering weeds pushing up between cracks in the concrete. It’s like that grain of wheat which must fall and die in order to bear much fruit.

To be honest, it’s what coming out of this pandemic (please, God; fingers crossed) feels like. There’s the chronos of fewer and fewer requirements to wear masks, and the declining numbers of hospitalizations and death. There’s the wonder of seeing people’s smiles in real life, and sitting in a restaurant and catching up with a favorite waiter.

And there’s the kairos of our emotional and psychological landscape having been forever altered by the experiences of these past two years. We cannot get back the things that we missed. We cannot say goodbye to the people who died when hospital visits were prohibited and memorial services had to be livestreamed. I can count five people who were dying whom I said goodbye to on the phone. It was awful. The sadness, despair, and anger that hung over us and inside us during the pandemic is not something that can be measured, put on a calendar, given an end date. Those things exist in the kairos time.

Some years when Easter morning dawns, I am still in Good Friday. Sure, I’ve written a homily for the day but it feels as real to me as the fake lilies that don’t make me sneeze. And there have been Good Fridays when I’m just pretending to be sad and solemn but my heart and soul are already at the empty tomb. As much as I like things to be in order, I have finally accepted that I cannot plan out my feelings or schedule my soul. And that is good.

So maybe this year, as I walk by the Easter azaleas on my way to conduct the Good Friday service, I will let all of that be, knowing that while God’s time is not my time, nor our time, God is still present with us all the time.

Why Churches Should Continue Their Online Services

Yesterday morning, as I was drinking my coffee and going over my sermon, which would be delivered to an online-only congregation, I read a headline and immediately had some thoughts. As of Monday morning, only two parishioners have sent me a link to yesterday’s New York Times editorial by Tish Harrison Warren, “Why Churches Should Drop Their Online Services“.

In case there is a paywall and you can’t access the editorial, in a nutshell Ms. Warren makes the case for dropping online services (which would include livestreamed and prerecorded) and going back to in-person services only. Her theological point is valid: Christians are an incarnational people, and worship is best in person, when it is visceral, physical, when we get to experience the best and worst of being with other people. We can hear their voices and the cry of babies; we can smell our favorite person’s perfume or shampoo; we hear the whine of hearing aids being adjusted, and truly share from a common loaf and common cup. Some of those thoughts are my extrapolation of hers.

But. But but but but but. I fear that Ms. Warren has not taken in the fullness of the Body of Christ into her argument.

Last night, my favorite group of pastors weighed in on the article in a text chain. I trust these people with my faith and with my life, with laughter and with preferences in bourbon. They agreed with me (which is always nice) and here is what we would say in response to Ms. Warren and maybe anyone who believes that online worship should go the way of tokens for communion, male-only clergy, and a publication of what each family pledges to the church.

First: not everyone can manage the physicality of our worship spaces. The congregation I serve has worked hard to make our sanctuary accessible, and it is, but it’s a long walk or wheelchair ride from the accessible entrance (which is right next to the garbage bin enclosure) to the sanctuary. And frankly, for anyone with back problems, our pews are uncomfortable if not excruciating. Some have a hard time wearing a mask for an hour or so. And some can see and hear better online.

Second: some people cannot come to worship. Some live far away. Some are sick. Some are unable to leave their home. Some live with chronic anxiety and public gatherings are terrifying. Some have a napping baby. There might be a winter storm with icy streets. Offering online worship provides a way to get that weekly dose of Jesus that might not otherwise be possible.

Third: computers are not going away. Online events are not going away. Using technology is not going away. We wonder how many of our committees will choose to continue to meet on Zoom, rather than drive to church on a dark and rainy night, going straight from work to a meeting without getting any dinner. Rather than shun the opportunity that online worship offers, we should embrace it.

There are probably more reasons but three seems a good number. Let me add that last night we made the decision to go back to in-person worship and I could not be happier about that.

And as for me and my house, we will continue to offer both in-person and online worship, to the glory of God.

Photo taken by a parishioner worshipping only. She and her husband are unable to attend in person because of health concerns.

Coming Back, a sermon on January 2, 2022

Isaiah 60:1-6

          What is our prayer for this new year?

          Right off the bat, I can think of about a hundred things I would like God to take care of this year. The Coronavirus, obviously.  Climate change.  Poverty. Cancer, Alzheimers, ALS.  Gerrymandering that benefits whatever political party.  Depression and anxiety.  Catalytic converter theft.  I could go on, and so could you.

          Today’s scripture from Isaiah is a kind of prayer for the people of ancient Israel.  You might remember the general arc of the book of Isaiah.  The first part, more or less, is the prophet warning the people of Israel that they have been unfaithful to God and there are about to be some bad consequences.  The second part, more or less, is the prophet comforting the people living in exile that God is not done with them yet.  The third part, more or less, is the prophet speaking to the people after they have returned to their homeland and left their exile. 

          While scholars don’t necessarily agree on this, let’s think of this passage as being addressed to the people who have returned to their homeland only to find that it’s not flowing with milk and honey but a pile of ruins.  Rebuilding awaits them.  But, Isaiah promises, God will be with them in the rebuilding.

They had come through a terrible, devastating time. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way. “What you need to know is that Isaiah 60 is a very old poem recited to Jews in Jerusalem about 580 b.c.e. These Jews had been sent away from Jerusalem in exile in Iraq for a couple generations.  They came back to the bombed out city of Jerusalem, and they found it in shambles without a viable economy and without much ground for new possibility.  They were disappointed and ready to despair, for who wants to live in a city where the towers are torn down and the economy has failed and nobody can think what to do about it. 

          “In the middle of that mess in Jerusalem about 580 b.c.e, there was this amazing poet who invited his depressed, discouraged, contemporaries to look up and hope and expect newness in the city that God would give again. He promised that everything would change in Jerusalem because God is about to do good….”  (Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.  P. 129.)

          I must tell you that when I read what Dr. Brueggemann wrote – “who wants to live in a city where the towers are torn down and the economy has failed and nobody can think what to do about it” – I thought of our Portland. 

          A few weeks ago I was at the Walmart in North Portland trying to take care of the Angel Tree gift cards, and as I went to my next errand I drove through the Delta Park area.  Have you been there lately?  I saw tent after tent after tent, pile of stuff after pile of stuff, burned out cars, and a few of the people who live there.

          My reaction was at it always is, when I see this at Delta Park or downtown or wherever: both deep sadness that people live this way and anger that people live this way.  What have we come to when we think it’s okay for people to live in this filth, without heat or running water?  And why don’t these people want better for themselves? 

          And so we have news article and editorials and tv segments about all of this.  Is Portland over?  Will we ever get tourists back?  Will businesses flee from downtown?  Can we build temporary shelters, transitional housing, affordable housing?  Will we prosper or will we perish?

          I know that the situation is complicated. 

Sometimes people lose their housing because they do not have enough money to rent a place, much less buy one and that involves not making a living wage and the high cost of living here. 

Sometimes people live without shelter because they have an addiction and have lost all their chances to be a part of mainstream society. 

Sometimes people live without shelter because they live with a mental illness that makes navigating the systems for help difficult or frightening.

          The economics of it are also complicated and I’m not sure that capitalism has an answer.  There are plenty of people in our city who make plenty of money, however you define “plenty” of money.  Some are very generous with non-profit causes.  And some ask the question, “Why should I give away my hard-earned money to those people?”  The system itself is stacked against those without resources, especially if they are people of color.  We live with the legacy of Portland’s history of redlining, not allowing people of color to buy property in certain neighborhoods. 

          To the people of Isaiah’s time, coming back to their devastated homeland, the prophet offers a vision of prosperity.  “the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,

   the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

A multitude of camels shall cover you,

   the young camels of Midian and Ephah;

   all those from Sheba shall come.

They shall bring gold and frankincense,

   and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

          As Brueggemann says, “This is a great cause for celebration, because God, in this poem, has promised to make the great city of Jerusalem work effectively in peace and prosperity.  The poem contradicts the present dysfunction of the city.  This is a promise from God, thus very sure.” (p. 130) He goes on to describe this text as the description of a way that will allow the people of Israel to return to normalcy. 

          Isn’t that what we are longing for – a return to normalcy? Prosperity for our city?  Restoration? 

          I think it is, but I also think we must be careful and thoughtful and compassionate as we move in that direction.  What will ‘normal’ look like after this pandemic?  What will prosperity look like in Portland?  What will restoration look like for any of us and for all of us?

          As we think about these things, maybe we start with our values, hoping that those shape the answers to these challenges.  As people who follow Jesus, we place the highest value on love and grace, which might look like compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and mercy.

          As people who follow the God of Isaiah and all the prophet, we place a high value on justice, which means, as we read the scripture, making sure that the most vulnerable among us are provided for in whatever plans we make.  As people of faith, we value hope – hope that God is not finished with us, with our city, or with our world, that God desires goodness for all of us, even more than we desired it for ourselves.

          And so a cleaned-up Delta Park or a bustling downtown must include, using the values of our faith, a plan for shelter, for addiction treatment, for physical and mental health care.  It’s not enough that the soccer pitches are clean and safe; it’s not enough to move the unsheltered to a different place.  We must also provide for them, those who live on the margins.

          And oh my goodness, that takes so much work.  And patience.  And hope.  It may be true that some who live in dire situations do not want help.  That saddens me, because I make the assumption that they do not think enough of themselves to want better, and I have a hunch my assumption may be totally off.

          So what do we do?  How do recast Isaiah’s vision for our city?

          First we look at what is already being done.  The city is looking into creating three villages with very modest, temporary cabin-like structures where the unsheltered can live.  Other non-profits, including Westminster and a consortium of faith-based communities, are in the process of building affordable housing.  That is an exciting expression of faith.

          For those living with addiction – what do we do?  I imagine every one of us knows someone who is addicted to alcohol, painkillers, or some other substance that tears apart the body and soul.  We might examine our own tendencies toward addiction, to develop our empathy.  We might learn about the neuroscience of addiction.  We might press our elected officials to offer better services.  And we might have to accept that some people will never escape their addiction, and might die from it, and know that they too deserve our love and compassion.

          For those roaming our streets who live with untreated mental illness – that is a hard one.  We have all sort of medications and therapies that help those who live with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or other illnesses, but – compliance in taking the meds, and access to the meds are stumbling blocks.  We simply need more services to help with mental illness – Unity Center for Behavioral Health is utterly overwhelmed. 

          Over all of that is our understanding of what prosperity means for Portland.  Does it mean business having record earnings, and stocks increasing in value?  Does it mean big bonuses for executives?  I hope not.  I hope prosperity means that everyone lives with the basics – shelter, food, clothing.  I hope it means that everyone has access to medical care for body and mind.  I hope prosperity means that people find community, maybe a church community, maybe a 12 Step group, maybe tiny village of temporary cabins.

          What is our prayer for this new year?  We always pray for those on the margins, and pray for God to show us our role in their prospering.  We always pray for strength and courage to face whatever comes our way.  But in 2022, I think we add prayers to move with openness into whatever our new normal is. 

          As we transition from the old year to the new, and as we move from Christmas to Epiphany, let us remember these words, this prayer, from Howard Thurman.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

To the glory of God.

The Reverend Beth Neel

Westminster Presbyterian Church

January 2, 2022

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.

Tarnished Silver

What if every human being was born with a soul made of the purest silver?  And what if over time that silver became tarnished, as silver does?  

I have been trying to understand what is at the root of Wednesday’s atrocious attack at the Capitol building.  Hatred, fear, and grief come to mind, as does racism, anti-Semitism, and a desire to believe lies when they are way more convenient than the truth.  Also idolatry.  And manipulation of power.  And I am trying to understand all of this, rationally, intellectually, coolly, because when I go to the feelings place, I confront my own rage and grief and, yes I confess, hatred.

How did we get here?  I know that, intellectually.  I know that this was a long time coming and isn’t over yet.  But what happened to these people, to the guy who was wearing a Camp Auschwitz t-shirt, as if the murder of six million Jews was something to be silk-screened? Is his heart tarnished beyond all recognition?  What filled him with such hate and willful ignorance?

In this morning’s local paper I read an article about an incident of road rage in which a white woman pulled over a person of color, screamed racist epithets at him, and kicked his car because he was trying to merge lanes. What happened to her? I don’t think we can write this off and explain she was having a bad day. That hate has been building in her, nurtured, nourished, fed, stoked.

What is so terrifying about the color of a person’s skin?  What is so grievous about a person’s religion?  Why do some think that having a uterus makes half the world lesser?

And how will we ever restore the silver?  Can anything undo the tarnish that has built up over centuries of lies and whispers and sin?

Some of my faithful friends would say that only Jesus can restore us, and while I agree with that a little, I think saying that absolves us (or at least us Christians) of working on our own stuff.  Yes, Jesus saves, but as someone who tries to follow him, his teachings, his moral and ethical code, I must hold myself accountable and confess, repent, do penance even.  I do not equate following Jesus with aligning myself with any political leader.

Can any of our souls regain their luster?  Are some so tarnished that they have started to fail, erode?  I leave that up to God.  But I do wonder what might remove some of the grime.

For a while I’ve been toying with the idea that behind hate and fear lies grief.  After Wednesday, I’ve had to revisit that.  I do believe that behind some hate and fear lies grief – grief over the things that used to be, mostly, grief over a way of life that some think has been lost. But there is more going on here.

The hate and anger we saw on display Wednesday, the glee with which those domestic terrorists stormed that building, is fueled by more than grief.  It has been fueled by outright lies, by the allure of conspiracy, by whispers that we can make this nation great again if only we get rid of those people.  It has been nurtured online, in private chatrooms, on Twitter and Facebook.  It has been mispresented in the media.  It has been deliberate.  

In the last forty-eight hours I’ve had many conversations about this.  My mom, hardly a bleeding-heart liberal, was so angry she couldn’t sleep on Wednesday night.  My daughter wasn’t surprised at all.  My congregants are all over the map.  My friends despair; one said it reminded her of 9/11.  One person, a friend who’s been politically active since the 60’s, said she couldn’t believe that this would be the state of things at this point in her life.

I am not hopeful.  And I tend to be a hopeful person.

So I go back to thinking about this.  What can restore the luster?  Acts of kindness.  Works of justice.  Unseating the powerful.  Listening.  Holding fast to the truth and calling out lies.  Suspending some Twitter accounts indefinitely.  For some of us, prayer.  For some of us, confession, penance, and repentance.  For some of us, arrest and jail.

Then again, to slightly twist Robert Frost, maybe nothing silver can stay.

A day full of everything

Gratitude, of course.
Loneliness, of course.

Guilt.
Excess.
Family.
Solitude.

Walks.
Talks.
Hawks, if you’re lucky. Just crows for me.

Love. Fear. Worry. Anger. Raging silence. Untold secrets.
Medications. Treatments. Rest. Work.

What a day this is, U.S. Thanksgiving, a day founded on a blatant myth that erased a shameful past. But I day I love because it centers on gratitude, and I have much to be grateful for.

I am grateful that more than one thing can be true at the same time – I am grateful for my life, and I know that many are suffering so many cruelties. The creation is stunning. The creation is in peril. The creation sustains us in more ways we know.

I do wonder how to hold on to so many things that seem to want to argue and fight with each other – my gratitude and guilt, the generosity of so many and the utter dependence of others on that same generosity. This fall our congregation has given hundreds of pounds of food to our local food banks, and that is fantastic. A friend who volunteers at one of those places told me that on Tuesday they served 470 families, and now they don’t have the time or volunteers or food to open on Saturday. So I say yes, let’s give food and money to soup kitchens and food banks and let’s spend just as much effort working to eradicate the need for those organizations.

See? How do we hold all those things at once?

I have no idea what your Thanksgiving is like this year. Mine is good. I’m zooming with my beloved family, stretched out across time zones and states. I’m cooking food for the people I love. I’m taking a walk and it doesn’t look like it will rain today. I’m resting. I’m reminding myself of all I’m grateful for. I’m taking my anti-depressants. I’m savoring my coffee. I’m thinking about raking the leaves. I’m taking the dog for his morning constitutional. I’m living.

If there is no joy or gratitude for you today, then I wish you peace and consolation. Please know that you are loved.

Liminal time

img_0816They say this will all be over,
Sooner or later
That this won’t last forever
That this is a temporary, though difficult, time
A passing phase
A passing pandemic

But isnt’ all time temporary, passing phases,
Passing minutes, hours, days, seasons, years?
Isn’t time just a human construct
A way to measure – what?
Our productivity?  Our greatness? Our failures to act?

This is liminal time, time on the edge
Time of misstepping and falling off the cliff

My time is now unbound
I do not know what day it is, or what I’m supposed to be doing
A friend suggested waking up every day and while getting out of bed shouting the day and date, just to keep ourselves grounded

They say that to offset a panic attack you should be very present
Notice what you see, smell, hear, taste, feel
Ground yourself in the immediate now.

Isn’t that what we are supposed to do all the time anyway?
Be present?  Notice?

This is what it is, right now, in this moment
What it will be in the next moment, we cannot know

Look: the crocuses are up.
Smell: the neighbor is burning trash again.
Listen: that bird keeps singing the same song, over and over again.
Taste: coffee lingers on the tongue.
Feel: the skin on my wrists is so dry.

Breathe.
This too shall pass, as all things do.

I bought a rose plant

I bought a rose plant the other day while at the grocery store.  It seemed like a brave, hopeful act at the time – buying the plant, not going to the grocery store though that takes a certain kind of something right now.

I went my usual route through the store, only backwards, and the last place I walked by was the floral department.  Lots of flowers – lots and lots of flowers and especially the green variety in observance of an unobserved St. Patrick’s Day. I love cut flowers, the brighter, the better.  And there were a lot at the store; no toilet paper, no frozen peas, but roses and mums and tulips and hydrangea and daffodils and what have you.

So there, amid so many flowers just waiting to brighten someone’s day, was a sweet miniature rose plant, in dirt, complete with miniature trellis.  Both my grandmothers grew roses, as did my mom when she had a proper garden with proper sunshine.  I once grew roses in the southwest corner of my yard in Wisconsin and they did well.  When we moved a few miles away and I tried transplanting them, they died.

I aspire to grow roses but I don’t, but what with all the things happening, I thought I might start small.  I put that little rose in my cart and thought to myself, I hope when this pandemic is over it’s still alive.  I hope when this pandemic is over it’s grown a little.  I hope when this pandemic is over I can plant it in proper dirt.

So maybe the point of buying the little rose was not my agricultural aspirations, or my tie to my maternal roots, but the hope that this pandemic will be over, eventually, and we’ll all go outside and plant things, and we’ll go to the grocery and find what we need and be super sweet to the super clerks.

I don’t know when that will be.  But I know that it will be, and I want you to know that too.

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.

Muscle memory

img_0087I had the joy of spending a few days with old friends. Ten of them, in fact – ten old friends, which seems either a prodigal luxury or a deep blessing or both.

It had been a while since I’d seen some of them and I wasn’t sure if time would prove to be our undoing. As it turns out, muscle memory in the heart has kept these old friendships true.

Maybe it has something to do with when we became friends: those tricky years when we stop being teenagers and became young professionals. Some of us lived together, sharing ugly couches whose comfort made up for the appearance. Some of us trod the boards together with shared memories that seem to be the stuff of sitcoms but really happened.

But this time around, the rooms we just shared were only for a few nights, and old jokes gave way to other things: talk of children and aging parents and careers that didn’t turn out as we’d planned and marriages that are lasting us into the future. We lied that none of us has aged and we planned our next gathering in hopeful terms.

It is good for my soul to have been with these friends, sisters and brothers of a sort who reminded me that who I was is really not that far from who I am. It is good to be loved and cherished by those who knew you when you were still rather unformed, lumpy in empathy and a bit much in certainty but nonetheless good of heart.

As the plane took off and I headed home, we flew through clouds and it felt a little as though these last few days were a dream. But really they were a dream come true, a marking of friendship, a look back at growing up, a reminder of deep ties.

So thank you, dear ones. You know who you are.

See you soon.