Getting lost with your husband (or some kind of significant other)

img_5309Having said goodbye to friends who had spent the week with us at our vacation place, my husband and I decided to go for a drive.  We knew which road to take, and which dirt road to take after that.  We had a number for the dirt road we wanted to follow, and a map, and a destination.

Ah, what fools these mortals be.

We had borrowed my parents’ pick-up truck for the drive, and my husband agreed to drive, so I had the dog on my lap.  I also had with me two bottles of water, two tangerines, a fourth of a bag of Juanita’s Tortilla Chips, Advil, and my hiking shoes in case we wanted to walk.  There were Kleenex, toilet paper, a flashlight, some rope, and jumper cables in the truck.  We were prepared.

img_2221So up a lovely forest service road we went, enjoying the beauty of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, waving to the occasional oncoming car.  Up up up we went, Mt. Rainier peeking through the tree line until at last, we rounded a bend, the trees cleared, and there was beautiful Tahoma.  The view stayed with us for a few more bends, until we were headed downhill and back in the forest.

Down we went, avoiding the potholes.  Down we went, approaching each intersection with some caution, consulting the map (the “map” would be a better description), looking to see if any road had a number on it.

Finally, having driven downhill for a while, we came to a stop sign in the middle of nowhere.  We found this hilarious, and I wish I’d taken a picture.   The road ended at a T, and we scrupulously consulted the map, looking anywhere for a T in the road.  Having found one (or so we thought) we realized (mistakenly) if we turned left, the road would end.  So we turned right.  And started going uphill.  At this point, a good hour into the drive, I started congratulating myself that I had brought not only water but also provisions.

It was about 6 in the evening, and the sun was getting lower, so we knew which way west was and we were pretty sure we wanted to be heading mostly north and a little east.  Happily, sometimes the road went that way.  Unhappily, sometimes it didn’t.  But a car would pass by now and then, so we knew we hadn’t completely left civilization.  Plus I had my dog and tortilla chips.

Then we saw a sign – in the middle of the forest at intersecting dirt roads – that gave us three options.  The town nearest to the house was a mere 26 miles away.  So we took the right and started making our way on a one lane gravel road in the middle of the forest.  We did cross a well-maintained bridge over a pretty little creek.  I saw a chipmunk.

And then we were heading up again.  Up.  Up.  Up.  Up the side of a mountain.  I HATE the sides of mountains – I must have died from falling off a ledge in a previous life.  We were going up a pothole-filled dirt and gravel one-lane road up a mountain and all I could do is tell you which direction is west and where the tortilla chips are.

“Should we turn around and go back?” I asked my husband.  I knew I could get us back – I just had no idea where forward would take us.  And we were on the side of a mountain, which I HATE.

“No, we’ll get there eventually.”

“Are you okay driving?”

“Oh sure, I’m fine.”

So up we continue.  We passed a few cars and a camping site, and some sort of encampment in the middle of nowhere which we landmarked as the meth-makers colony.  We continued going up and the road was narrow and bumpy and I was so sure we were either going to die, falling of the edge of the mountain, or the meth-makers were going to need to rescue us.  “They can have all my money and the chips, ” I said, “but they can’t have the dog.”

At least I still had my priorities straight.

Finally we reached the top of whatever Hell Mountain we were on, and there was an enormous puddle in front us, which I was sure was either a sinkhole or a ledge just waiting to break off.  “Do you want to walk up ahead and see how bad it is?” I asked my brave husband.  “Sure,” he said, calmly, as if he was enjoying himself.  Which he totally was.  Which both infuriated me and gave me courage.

I started reciting Psalm 121: I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  I felt better and in that moment, we did not die.

We went on.  We made it through the puddle.  We started going downhill.  The one-lane dirt road eventually becomes two lanes, and then a paved road, and then we saw it.  A bright yellow rectangle bearing the number 6: a beacon from heaven.  We knew where we were.  We had made it to the road that will take us to our driveway.  We will not die in the wilderness.

Over dinner that night I did thank the little Lord Baby Jesus for seeing us safely home, and I thanked my husband for being calm and keeping his sense of adventure. That night I started the new book I had downloaded on my Kindle: Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown.  I totally got the metaphor.

So here’s what I can appreciate, now that I am home-home, on flat ground with nary a mountain in sight: sometimes it’s really good to get mostly lost with someone you love. You have a deeper appreciation for their gifts and for yours and for the way you tolerate each other’s weakness.  You have to be in it together.  You have to have your priorities straight.  You have to be able to laugh and to pray.

Mostly, though, when you get lost with someone you love, you have to trust that you will get home again, with them, and that some day, you’ll be glad you had the adventure.

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Thanks, Mom, with love

I have always appreciated Mom – at least the way I remember it!  I’m sure there were a few adolescent years when the appreciation lay buried deep, but that same appreciation blossomed fully when I became a mother myself.  That’s when I realized that I grew up in a house with a superhero.

In the past few months, my appreciation and love for my mom has changed.  It’s as though it has been burnished by grief and devotion, with a rich patina that can come only from experiencing together sorrow and loss and a recognition of love.

At first Mom was surprised when we all came after we heard that Dad was dying.  We weren’t surprised to do that at all – that’s how we had been raised by the two of them.  You show up.  You wait for each other.  You leave pretense at the  door.

So we were all there, gathered at his bedside.  We four kids would go to our own rooms for the night, but Mom slept in Dad’s room, on the most uncomfortable cot in the world.  She didn’t complain.  She wanted to be there with him and for him, as she had been for 58 years.

And then – I can hardly write this – she stood with us as each of us had to say goodbye to Dad.  Three of us left before he died. I know how I felt when I left his room for the last time; leaving him was the hardest thing I have ever done.

But Mom was there for me, and for my brothers, as we each said goodbye and then cried and cried.  In her grief, in her exhaustion, she was still Mom.  She was still there for us, holding us, comforting us, being present with us in the rawness of grief.

So this year especially, I am grateful for my mother.  I am grateful for her humor and her wackiness, for her generosity and wisdom, and especially grateful for her devotion to Dad through it all, and for her presence with us in those bewildering days in December.

“Thank you” seems such an inadequate thing to say, and “I love you” does too.  The words are paltry, but all that is behind them is not.

Thank you, Mom.  I love you.

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Whose face do you see when you write the Easter sermon?

Well, it’s that time in Holy Week when I’m staring down the first draft of my Easter sermon, considering throwing the whole thing out, googling “great Easter sermon illustrations”, going back and reading awesome Easter sermons from the Great Masters and wishing I could be like them, and wondering if we could get away with a Lessons and Carols Easter.

No, too late for that.

So this is the point where I remember that I am called to serve a particular congregation, and while others whom I don’t know will show up, this is a Sunday for the congregation. And as I always do when I write a sermon, I picture these people in my mind’s eye.

I picture the family and friends of two members who died today, and wonder what on earth I could possibly say that could give them any measure of comfort, and remind myself that the best comfort comes not from words but from the community itself.

I picture my friend who comes to church on Christmas and Easter, and maybe once or twice in other times of the year, and wonder why she is there, and what she is looking for, and if any part of the service will find her.

I picture some folks who I think will worry that I’ll get political in the Easter sermon, because they brought their relatives who would disagree with anything I might say, making for an uncomfortable Easter brunch.

I picture those who don’t think a woman should ever be in the pulpit, and I don’t give them a second thought.

I picture my daughter, who has told me that our sermons lately have been downers and could I please say happy things this week since it’s Easter?

I picture the choir, sitting through the sermon twice, looking at my back for the whole of the sermon, and I say a prayer of gratitude for them, and for George Friedrich Handel, who wrote a pretty good piece called the Hallelujah Chorus.

I picture other members, getting on in years or fighting some crappy disease, knowing this may be their last Easter.

I picture the families, the parents who struggled to get their daughters into scratchy Easter dresses and their sons to wear clip-on ties because Grandma would like a cute picture, parents who worry about their kid acting up, or throwing a fit, and I want them to know that we understand kids get fussy and act out and we’re still so glad they are here.

I picture the staff and the volunteers who have worked so hard this week with extra services, doing so much to be hospitable and offer some spiritual depth.

I picture Jesus and Mary in the garden, and regret that that image is too informed by Warner Sallman and the pre-Raphaelites.

I picture the stranger who has come out of obligation.
I picture the friend who has come despite her grief.
I picture that faithful saint who has come because he believes all of this so deeply.

It’s a good audience, that crowd in my mind as I face down the lap top.

Who do you see when you write your Easter sermon?

 

Sunrise at the columbarium, with coffee

Two days after my father’s memorial service, my mother and sister and I had coffee at dawn at the columbarium where his ashes had been laid. It was a cool, dry morning, and while we did not see the sun, we did see the color of the sky change. We talked quietly, looked at the names next to the place where his name plate would eventually go, and sipped our coffee and blew our noses

This week as I think about Easter, I keep going back to that scene: three woman at the grave at dawn. Certainly we were still so very sad, and the worst of the grief had not yet set in. We were still together but later that day, after the sun had fully risen, I would make my way back to Oregon and my sister would go back to North Carolina. Our brothers would return home too, and Mom would return to her new life, life without Dad.

We left the columbarium so we could pack and head to the airport. Each goodbye weighed heavier than the last, though they were lightened by promises to see each other soon, to stay in touch, and we have, but still – there is nothing like being together in the flesh.

The Easter story tells of three women, or two disciples, or one woman and a gardener, all at the tomb. I know their grief, and I want to know their hope and surprise. This Holy Week in the thick of things, I do not know them. Not yet.

Sunday morning I will stand in the pulpit and read that magnificent story and I will bi-locate, and part of me will be at the columbarium with my mom and my sister, waiting for the sun to rise. One never really knows what will happen while preaching, if the Spirit will rush through me and I’ll know – know – that I’ll see Dad again; or if I’ll be totally disconnected from my words and putting on a good show; or if I’ll look out at the beloved congregation, so many of whom have walked through death and grief and hope, and who still show up in on Easter morning because there’s nothing like being together in the flesh, whether the news be bad or Good.

Church basements

A few years ago I did a wedding at the church for a couple who were not official members of the congregation.  The first time I met with them for premarital counseling, one of them asked if they could check out the church basement.  Sure, I said, with a slight hesitation, as we had already determined that they would get ready elsewhere and would not need “the bride’s room” to get ready.   As it turns out, this bride was the granddaughter of a pastor and she had a particular fascination with churches.  When we got downstairs, she took a big sniff, and said, “This smells just like a church basement should.”

I wasn’t sure how to react.  We had just done some renovations that included new drainage that would prevent the plaster walls from seeping water, so I was hoping she was not smelling fresh mold.

I’ve served a lot of churches, most of them with musty old basements.  In my first call, the choir music was stored in the basement and got moldy, so we had a good old-fashioned “wipe all the music down with diluted bleach” party.  We also availed ourselves of the opportunity to throw away the life-sized nativity set, since Joseph’s head was bashed in and one of the wise men was missing a hand.  That was before we found fifteen bags of bulk mail that were never delivered as someone hid them in the bowels of the church basement.

More recently, I’ve begun to think of church basements as magical places because of the great changes that begin in them.  How many 12 Step groups meet in church basements, in uneven circles of beige folding chairs, where people admit so much truth in their lives and seek deep transformation?  Those groups don’t work for everyone, I know, but I also know people who know they would be dead in some gutter without them.

This week I attended a meeting in the basement room of another church.  It was as you would suppose – acoustic tile ceiling, fluorescent lights, that unique slight smell, beige metal folding chairs, long tables, pillars in the middle of the room holding up the sanctuary one floor up.

Forty of us gathered in that church basement to talk about poverty, and the new Poor People’s Campaign, about being civilly disobedient to let the powers that be know that we really are serious about our friends who live with so little while we live with so much.  We signed things, and talked about why we were there, and promised to do something.  I wonder what spell J.K. Rowling would write for that, ending poverty.  Luxurios totem, maybe, or abudentsia totalis.

It didn’t seem very magical, if you looked at any one part of it – a few church people, more non-church people, xeroxed paper, beige folding chairs.  People who care about rents, and immigrants, and housing.  People like me who may or may not be courageous enough to be disobedient, albeit civilly.  People who believe that change can happen.

Even change that begins in a church basement.

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The first year without

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Heart of Love and Sorrow I

Tomorrow is my dad’s birthday, and he would have been 87.  It is his first birthday that he’s not here for; the first birthday in which none of us will call and sing Happy Birthday to him, or be there with him while he blows out candles on the pie because he was a pie person and not a cake person.

My daughter asked what we would do to celebrate Papa’s birthday, and suggested we get a cake, but then I said no, a pie.  Then I remembered that she’ll be gone the night of his birthday and a pie for three is a bit much, especially when two of us have given up sweets for Lent.  But I thought Dad and Jesus would be okay with us celebrating his birthday a little, so we compromised with miniature lemon tarts in lieu of the whole lemon meringue shebang.

So far I’ve made it through my first Christmas without him.  It was okay.  It wasn’t terrible and it certainly wasn’t great.  It just was.  Slowly all of us who loved him are trudging through this new swamp of grief.  Some days we find a solid patch of dry land and we get through the day pretty well, and something we see might make us remember him and laugh.  Other days it’s all muck and quicksand and gnats in an existential stew of remembering he is not here and won’t ever be again.

I am grateful that I was able to be with him in his last few days, and especially grateful that I was able to look him in the eye, and tell him I loved him, and say goodbye, while he looked right back at me and told me he loved me and nodded his head in understanding.   As hard as that was, it was also a gift, a gift I would want for everyone.

I think about those people who have months or years to say goodbye to their beloveds as death takes its sweet and inevitable time with cancer or ALS or Alzheimer’s disease. More often, though, I think of those who have no opportunity to say goodbye, or thank you, or I love you. In this last week I’ve been thinking especially of the families and friends of those seventeen beloveds killed in Parkland, Florida. As if those deaths weren’t horrific enough, violent and sudden and meaningless, they left so much unsaid.  I hope all those people who were killed died knowing that they were deeply loved.  They are now deeply missed.

Grief can be an extraordinary motivator. We’re watching those grieving friends and parents put their grief into action, and it hurts when their grief is mocked or belittled.  If death doesn’t make us weep, we might as well turn in our humanity card.  I hope for these brave friends and parents that all they are doing and saying turns out to be healing for them, and for us.  We cannot stop death, but maybe we can stop it from coming too soon or too violently.

My personal grief over my father’s death is a smaller motivator, I suppose.  I am aware of making sure the people I adore know that I love them.  I’m working to say thank you more often.  I’m aware that there is an end to this life, that we don’t have unlimited time to love well and practice forgiveness and reconciliation often.  I am trying to keep my goodbyes current, as a chaplain friend once advised.

Big grief is a motivator too and every single morning since December 14, 2012, when my daughter goes off to school in the morning, I tell her I love her.  And I mean it more deeply than she can know.  I do not want to celebrate a single one of her birthdays without her here on this earth, or any Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or Easter.

My heart goes out to those families and friends who have begun their first year without.  May their words and deeds begin to drain the swamp, at least a little.

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Heart of Love and Sorrow II.  I made these collages from sympathy cards I received.

It wasn’t a wedding but maybe it was

All the family was there, and we all looked nice. Lifetime friends from all over the country came, and those who couldn’t sent wonderful cards. The church hosted a reception afterwards, and we schmoozed and hugged and told stories. When it was over, we were glad to get off our feet.

But instead of gifts from a registry, people sent flowers, and instead of a wedding, we had a memorial service.

It reminded me of our family’s weddings, and the camaraderie and deep emotion that flowed these past few days were reminiscent of other, happier gatherings.

I really wish someone had been getting married. I really wish Dad were still here, and I have moments of shock when I realize – in my gut and not my head – that he is gone.

Rumi once wrote, “Our death is our wedding with eternity.” Maybe that’s why things felt familiar. Maybe Dad isn’t gone, but has simply gone on. I like to think so.

In the days to come there will be notes to write, and things to put back in order, and grief that morphs into different grief. But I’m holding on to the the wedding image, too. I imagine Dad raising a glass to our successes. I imagine him finding Benny Goodman’s band and kicking up his heels. I imagine him waiting for my mom to make her entrance, and I hope that doesn’t happen for a good long while, at least in the way we count time.

Maybe life’s great events – birth, marriage, death – are really just variations on a theme: the theme of an unknowable adventure that lies ahead, an adventure that will be the best kind of adventure as long as love is present.

See you soon, Dad – but not just yet.