Advent Vigil

232_Barrick_Advent_Purple_72_dpiFor Jack, Annie, Tom, and Grace

This is not the Advent I anticipated,
The one with three purple candles and one pink
The one with meditating on the birth of the Christ child
and pondering the meaning of the Incarnation
It isn’t that Advent

It is an Advent
with picturing my mother holding Baby Jesus
the way she holds any baby she can
And delighting in Him
And having a moment of joy

It is an Advent with a flurry of bushtits landing in the small tree in the courtyard
Angels in disguise
Chirping some song I assume to be good news though I cannot understand it
But they seem to happy in their trilling, and good news is in short supply
They’re gone when the hummingbird finds the Mexican Sage,
the one thing around here observing the purple of the season

It is an Advent with stars leading the way to places unknown
To people who have Gone On
With wondering if he’ll join the meteor shower and fly through the night sky
Or catch the tail of the too-close comet
And leave us

It is a season of waiting
For a death and not a birth –
But not an Eliot death.*
No one is clutching the old dispensation here
No one is really clutching anything

We are, rather, letting go of someone we have loved
Of someone who has loved us in return

It is a holy season
But not the one I expected

mexican sage

* T. S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi, excerpted:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down

This:
Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

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About that hope thing

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Those who dwelled in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us,
Authority rests upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

I was looking at these words earlier this week in preparing for one of the Christmas Eve services, and it stuck with me, the way Handel’s music does, the way a reading you’ve heard for forty-something years does.  I read it after a colleague commented in staff meeting that there seems to be an epidemic of hopelessness right now.  And then Isaiah’s words offered something I couldn’t name.

Today I heard an amazing person who works for the county in the Department of Human Services thank a bunch of us religious people because we offer hope.  She said that without hope, there can never be change.  And I realized that in the many trees of grief and pain and shock and despair, I had forgotten to take a step back and see the whole forest, whose canopy looks a bit like hope.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a story Jim Collins tells in Good to Great, a story about Admiral Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam for three years and survived.  Collins does better service to the story than this blog, but I wanted to share Stockdale’s words:  “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Hope.  Hope that brutality will not last forever.  Hope that grief will feel more like a dull ache than an icy, rough piercing.  Hope that things will get better, whatever those things might be.  And for me, as a Christian who really does believe all this Jesus stuff, and the miracles, and the promises, hope that God has not abandoned us to our worst selves, that God is moving in the midst of all that seems turbulent and immoral and wrong.

I also have hope in the resurrection but it’s sort of the wrong season for that.

So I’ll be seasonally correct.  I think Christmas is, more than anything else, about hope.  It’s the hope that God is still at work.  It’s the hope that the life of a baby will change the world.  It’s the hope that God makes promises and fulfills them and we are better for that.

So what do I hope for?  That we’ll figure out a way to prevent cancer and treat it more effectively.  That we’ll learn how to be there for each other, and that we’ll get better at all the mental illness stuff.  That we will never forget those who live in poverty, and that we will work tirelessly to make the deep changes necessary for poverty to be alleviated.  That humane and thoughtful people will make the rules, with a real sense of liberty and justice for all.

Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, it’s weird to talk about God and say you believe in Jesus.  The assumption is that you don’t go to church.  But I have this hope, at least for those of us who are hanging in there with church (or temple or mosque) that God will poke us this season, and remind us of the Great Love that is not letting this world go to hell in a handbasket.

Hope makes things bearable and beautiful.

I hope….

winter-solstice

 

 

Eager for joy

Today I had lunch with a friend I had not seen since we graduated from seminary almost twenty-five years ago.  It was a lovely time and it did my heart good to reconnect and fill in two and a half blank decades.

She arrived at our house after I learned of the suicide of someone I knew (not well), worked with from time to time, and enjoyed.  My friend has been a chaplain to children in hospice, so she knows her way around grief and shock.  Over lunch I said to her something along the lines that sometimes the sadness is too much.  She looked at me with empathy and knowing and agreed, yes.  Sometimes the sadness is too much.

But I have decided I will not let sadness win, or at least I will not let sadness be the only player in the game.  I will not pretend that things aren’t awful, like cancer or suicide or addiction or the threat of nuclear war, but I won’t let those things have the only word.

I’m looking for joy everywhere go, and now and then I see it.  It’s usually pretty small, almost undetectable, so I have to look hard.

Right now I’m finding joy in this playlist I made to provide music for Thanksgiving cooking.  It includes some big ol’ hymns sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with full orchestra, because I am a hymn nerd.  It also includes anthems our church choir sang for All Saints Day (No Time, Unclouded Day), songs sung at a recent wedding, a blessing in Maori, and bad pop music because if there’s something I love, it’s a one-hit wonder.  (Thanks, Donna Lewis and Walk the Moon!)

I find joy in my daughter and husband and our terrier mix.  I find joy in making art.  I find joy in seeing the huge amount of food donations brought to church, and joy in all those advocating for the poor, for things like living wages and health care for all and truly affordable housing.

It’s like there is a glass, and it has water in it, and some day it may be that all the water will be gone.  But it may be that some day someone will refill the glass. But for now, there is water to drink.

For now, joy is still competing with sadness and almost winning.

 

glas of water

 

 

Kitchen Table Saints

So there we were, at the kitchen table, celebrating the sacrament of the Kleenex box.  It was one of those inelegant moments of smeared mascara and a dripping nose, but it was a real moment, one of many around that kitchen table.  We took a breath so as to go on, only to see a friend arrive.

And then another friend, and then another friend, and before you knew it, we were all sitting around the kitchen table.  If any of us had been in our right mind, we would have scrounged up some cookies and tea, or retrieved the previous night’s Halloween candy; but no, we were celebrating the sacrament of Kleenex and tears, and nothing else was needed at the table but us and our running noses.

The conversation was as ordinary as it could be.  We talked about little things, and huge things.  Where are you going this weekend, what does Thanksgiving look like, how’s your dad, how’s the move.  It wasn’t that we were avoiding the elephant in the room, but we weren’t dissecting and classifying it either.

Saints do that, I suppose.  They come into unholy situations and by their love and light, make it, if not holy, then at least bearable with armor that looks like a favorite scarf and weapons that look more like plowshares than swords.

Then I went to pray.  All of us did.  It was An Important Prayer, and I did so want to get it right.  Except our other saint decided to snore quite loudly and rudely through the whole thing.  I giggled and stammered as I invoked the Creator, Holy God, Potentate of Time, Ineffably Sublime.  “From the sublime to the ridiculous” best categorizes the prayer.  But it was real, as real as the wadded Kleenex and the kitchen table, as real as that friendship, as real as that love.

In the end, a hymn saved me.  “So we pray for strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”  And the saints said Amen.

May you find saints around your kitchen tables too.

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

To my friend who told me that sometimes this blog is what helps get through the day

compassionFirst, thank you – what a kind and generous thing to say.  I am grateful my words might help now and then, because so often words feel like the rustiest, most falling-apart thing in my toolbox of compassion.

And second, and more important, thank you for all that you’re doing.  Thank you for losing  sleep on account of this person you love so much.  Thank you for getting good and pissed off about the whole situation, and swearing sometimes, because (as I told you) I love to swear, and when done properly, swearing is better than a shot of tequila and almost as good as a good night’s sleep.

Thank you, too, for being honest about how hard this is.  It is hard.  It’s excruciating.  It’s hard for the rest of us to watch, and I can’t imagine how hard it is to be in the middle of it all, the uncertainty, the pain, the known and the unknown (which is worse?), the waiting, the running around here and there to see this person and that, to pick up this thing and that, all signs of normalcy gone.  Or this is a new normal, and it’s awful.

Thank you for your constancy. That’s one of my favorite words – constancy.  It means you don’t quit when things get contrary or hard.  It means not changing who you are or what matters to you most even it would be so much easier not to give a damn.  Constancy means showing up, all the time, whether you want to or not.  Constancy is a pretty good expression of love, if not grace. Thank you for your constancy.

Thank you for all you did decades ago, for the foundation you have built.  I hope it’s sustaining you now.  And I won’t thank you for what you will do in the future, because honestly, when this situation resolves itself – however that may be – you deserve a rest and a glass of Chardonnay, and a massage.  If I hear about some awesome Festival of Swearing, I will let you know immediately.  I might go with you.

And thank you for whatever you’re doing this moment, besides reading this post.  Thank you for getting dinner on the table, or ordering a pizza to be delivered.  Thank you for wiping down the bathroom.  Thank you for sitting in traffic, because you have to get to that place by that time.  Thank you for checking Facebook because it’s a moment of escape.  Thank you for taking that phone call, for making that phone call.  Thank you for lying down for a few minutes, not sleeping, but at least resting.

Thank you.  Please don’t forget that you are loved.

Sitting with despair

Eagle Creek fireI woke up at 4 this morning, with a telltale sinus headache, and never really went back to sleep.  The sky was a weird beige, punctuated by a deep orange sun, and as I opened the gate to take the dog for a walk, I noticed a thin layer of ash on all the horizontal surfaces.  My head does not do well in this hazy air; my heart is so full of worry and sadness that it’s not doing well either.

The fires in the Columbia Gorge, possibly started by some dumb-ass teenagers setting off fireworks.  The floods in Houston recede to the new reality of loss, mold, mildew, loss, cockroaches, mosquitos, loss, snakes, ants, loss.  Hurricane Irma is on the loose.  Hundreds of thousands of people in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh have their lives washed over by more horrific floods.  And the president seems to think that now is a good time to end DACA and send over 800,000 children to lands they have never called home.

I’m finding it hard to grab onto any hope today.  You?

But maybe it’s too soon for hope.  Maybe I am supposed to sit with this despair for a while, let it sink in deep, let it foment about in my gut for a while, create some more compassion, work up a little more urgency.

Hope is found in the tiny things, maybe, in those bits of ash that will be great fertilizer for the burned forests that will eventually regrow.  Hope is found in the tiny acts, maybe, the people who call their elected officials and make some signs and protest, or take in folks so they don’t have to leave.  Hope is found in big things, too, like people being generous with their clean up, fix up talents, or generous with their money.

But hope eludes me today, so I greet today’s companion, despair, and wait with it.