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.

Ashy Heart

We had unicorns at last night’s Ash Wednesday service, and by that I mean two young families with young children who had not been to our church before.

I wondered why they were there. Renegade Methodists? New to the neighborhood? Curious about what goes on inside this big stone fortress of the church? They left before I had the opportunity to introduce myself. But still, I wondered.

It was, I suppose, a rather typical Ash Wednesday service. We went out into the courtyard as the service started to burn last year’s palms, and as the flames danced a bit in the damp evening, the acrid and distinct smell of burnt palms may have made the neighbors wonder exactly what was going on.

The liturgy was straight out of the Book of Common Worship, as I wasn’t feeling too inspired to write anything of my own. Good stuff there. I am grateful.

So we burn the palms and sing and pray and confess and have communion and do the ashes. These families come up for the ashes. The first family comes up with a wee girl who’s maybe three or four, looking at me with wide eyes, innocence and trust.

I cannot tell her she is dust.

I want to tell her she is light and joy, she is wonder and curiosity, she is neutrons and cells and mitochondria and if she has to be dust, she shares that dust with stars. So I bend down and look her in the eyes and ask her if it’s okay if I put something on her forehead. She nods yes. I make a heart of ashes on her sweet skin, and tell her she is so loved. Then I straighten up, look her mother straight in the eyes, make an ashy cross, and tell her – this complete stranger – that she is dust and to dust she will return.

I’m so tired of death I just didn’t have it in me today to say those words to a child. When I started in ministry I was more hardcore. Everyone got ashes – the matriarch with dementia, the dad with cancer, the baby.

Now I want people to live and live fully. I want children to grow without fear of getting killed at school or nuked at home. I don’t want them to have to know about death for a few years. Maybe when their goldfish dies, or when their teacher’s mom dies, maybe then, but not this year on Ash Wednesday.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to think that life just goes on and in and in, and all the people you love stay around?

It would be quite lovely.

Lovely Human Beings

Do you know some lovely human beings? I hope you do, because I just spent a few days with a dozen or so of them, and they are restorative and inspiring.

I go back a few years with this group, and the thing about staying with folks for a decade or more is that you begin to see the facets of their loveliness, and how it deepens over time.

I have a friend who is a lovely human being whose thin layer of snark has melted over the years and now all your see is holy contentment and gratitude. Another friend, also a lovely human being, has persisted over the years despite some wrenching slings and arrows and has emerged not victorious, but even more kind and gracious. One such lovely is going through an unasked-for and undeserved hard time and it flattened me to see the care that surrounded her in the midst of all of it.

“Loveliness” is akin to “loveable” but they are not synonymous. It’s a noun of the adjective lovely, which might mean pleasing to the senses in some way; lovely human beings are pleasing to the senses. We like to see the way their eyes crinkle when you know they’re thinking of something hilarious but don’t want to say what it is. We like to hear the sound of their laugh; to feel their embrace, to remember their brand of soap or hairspray.

But their loveliness goes beyond the senses and into the heart and maybe even the gut. When you are with lovely people, you feel safe. You know they will respect your pain, and make light of your failures, and rejoice with you as the situation calls for.

So I hope you have at least a few but better, many lovely human beings in your life, and more than that, I hope you get to be with them occasionally.

And if so, remember that one of the things that makes them lovely is your love.

Some lovely human beings I was with this week

Sitting with despair, again

I went to bed with a headache

I woke up with a headache

I awoke to heartbreak.

O dear God, I am tired; aren’t you?

Aren’t you sick and tired of seeing the morning news about death, destruction, and violence? About human indecency and cruelty and depravity? About inaction and apathy and resignation?

As a person of faith, I’m a bit beyond prayers, and scripture citings, but I think it’s good that churches are opening up their doors so people can sit in consolation, light a candle, say something or say nothing or cry or be numb.

Holy Christ.
Holy Christ.
Holy
Christ.

Every so often I go back and read the marvelous Earthsea series by Ursula LeGuin. In one of the books, spells have lost their power, and words have lost their meaning.  There is a hole between life and death that must be filled in order for the power and the meaning to come back.

We live with a gaping hole somewhere.  A tear in the fabric of kindness.  A split seam that held together differing opinions.  A rock was thrown through the evidently flimsy wall that kept us from acting on our basest instincts.

Holy Christ.
Holy Christ.
Holy Christ.

I have no hallelujahs left to give right now, no glories, no praise.  Just numbed tears.

What will tomorrow bring?

angelo_del_dolore

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.