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.

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?

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