The table

I have a thing about tables – end tables, side table, telephone tables, coffee tables, dining room tables, drop leaf tables, round, square, triangular.  I have a thing about tables.  It might have to do something with an appreciation of horizontal surfaces on which to put stuff.

So when I had the opportunity to buy one of the communion tables built for the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) I jumped at the chance.  I gave my best doe-eyed look to my husband, and told him we really could use it in the back.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the doe-eyes that won him over, but now it sits in our backyard.

The table was made out of our Pacific Northwest native wood, the Douglas Fir, the Pseudotsuga menziesii .  Its scientific name is derived from the pseudo prefix because the Doug Fir isn’t really a fir tree; the menziesii come from the name Archibald Menzies, who classified the tree before David Douglas, who named the tree after himself.  So you could say the table isn’t what it seems.

I wrote the communion liturgy that was used for one of the services at the table during GA.  The preacher/presider that day chose not to say all the words I wrote; I believe they did not suit, theologically-speaking.  I was a little miffed, to be honest.  But then I remembered it is a table of grace.

The table was transported from the Oregon Convention Center to our home a few miles away because of the strength of many and the generosity of a friend, who provided both muscle and pick up truck.  It is a table of friendship, too.

Its debut at our home was for a potluck dinner for all of us who were on the steering committee that provided hospitality for the General Assembly, and on that beautiful Thursday night, it was laden with wine and lemonade and iced tea and brats and chicken and pork and watermelon and crudites, and laughter, and stories, and gratitude.  It is a table of abundance.

Our child protested the arrival of the table in our small backyard – it takes up space she plays in.  It is a table of inconvenience.

But I love it.  I love where it has been, and who has stood behind it and broken bread and poured the cup.  I love who has gathered around it, and who will gather around it.  It is the holy in the ordinary, and I am reminded that the holy calls me to gracious, and generous, to be a friend.  I am also reminded that, like the table, the holy can be inconvenient at times, nudging us to let go of grudges, to rely on loaves and fishes, to find a way to squeeze one more person in.

It needs another coat of lacquer, according to its builder Michael.  A little care must be given for it to survive the long haul, not unlike all of us.

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Confession of faith, sung

“O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be
Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal if for Thy courts above.”

The Sunday after Easter is such a relief.  I do love all the pageantry and crowds and flowers of Easter, but somehow the Sunday after Easter feels more real and more to the point.  There are no processions to organize, no flowers to maneuver around, fewer handshakes and smiles after the service, and no eggs to clean up.  It’s normal worship again – or as normal as worship ever gets – and the folks who are there are there because it’s their church and they come rain or shine, flowery holiday or regular holy day.

Which is not to say that things cannot be wonderful and gut-wrenching and good.

It was the offertory that got me.  Our choir (who did not take off the Sunday after Easter because they love singing in worship) sang a beautiful arrangement of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”  Now I love that hymn.  I love the poetry of the words and I am a complete sucker for any tune out of the Southern Harmony tradition.  So the choir starts in, the women first, and a little organ interlude, the men coming in on a new verse in a new key, a cappella.  And then it gets going with the culmination of that line “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be” and it hit me:

That is why I do all of this.

That was my first sense of call, my push toward ordination, the thing that motivates me week after week and year after year to be a part of the gorgeous flawed thing called church and to be a member of this hilarious and weird and flawed thing called the clergy.  It’s because I am indebted to the grace of God every single moment of my life, and in gratitude and penance and hope I do this Christianity thing and I do this ministry thing because grace has overpowered my will, my guilt, my ego, my sense of worthlessness, my sense of awesomeness, and all the misery the world can throw at me.  That is why I do all of this.

We have an ongoing conversation, the congregation and I, about the Apostles’ Creed.  Some aren’t happy we ever say it, some wish we said it more, and I insist on saying it when we have baptisms.  As I said, it’s an ongoing conversations and nobody’s really budging. But that’s okay.  Last year our choir sang Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass as the sermon one week, and the Credo in that is pretty much spectacular.  One of our folks, one of the ones who wishes we would never say the Apostles’ Creed again, did admit that if we could sing that Credo instead of saying the words, she’d be good.  But we don’t – not yet, anyway.

But what if our creed were those words Robert Roberston wrote in 1758?  What if our creed were the admittance of our utter reliance on the grace of God, and the hope that God would fetter us, and that all of this life is just part of sealing our hearts for something more?  What if those words were our confession of sin, and our profession of faith, and our proclamation of the good word, and our marching cry every week?  Would that my heart were tuned to sing that grace.

chains-of-love

Always the  minister, never the bride

Always the minister, never the bride

bouquetThat was going to be the opening line of my stand-up routine, but I got married and never actually tried doing stand-up comedy, so now this great line is reduced to a blog title.

When I was in my first year of professional ordained ministry, I was visiting a parishioner in the hospital.  He was an irascible guy, and he was dying of lung cancer. Once when I went to see him, he was on his balcony smoking.  In those days at that hospital, if your room had a balcony you were allowed to go have a smoke.  I was appalled, but because I was still so wet behind the ears ministerially speaking, I pretended like that was normal and I saw it all the time.

Anyway, during one of our visits I mentioned that I was meeting with a couple to do premarital counseling with them.  He asked how I could be qualified to do that since I had never been married.  I replied, with no paucity of pastoral insensitivity and a general lack of human compassion, that I had never died but I was still qualified to do funerals.  He was taken aback, as I should have been.

Truth be told, when I was single, I hated conducting weddings.  Hated it.  Once in a while I would find the groom attractive and I would convince myself that the bride wasn’t nearly good enough for him.  Sometimes I was so jealous that these people had found love; why hadn’t I?  And then there was the huge klieg light that shone on me at rehearsal dinners, where I was usually seated with the grandparents and the weird bachelor uncle, and receptions, when I would excuse myself to the ladies’ room when it was time for all the single ladies to fight over the lousy bridal bouquet.

I imagine conducting weddings is also difficult for pastors who have been widowed or divorced.  Baptisms are painful for pastors who struggle with fertility issues or who have lost a child.  I dread my first funeral after my parents die.   The intention of the happy couple, or the joyful parents, or the bereaved family is not to rub salt in a wound they likely know nothing about.  Because we are professionals, we set our own feelings aside and appreciate the joy that others are having.  Sometimes.

Of course, pastors are not the only ones who are required to do things that rub salt in a wound; I don’t mean to imply that we are.  But for all of us in whatever walk of life we walk: how do we manage to “put on our big girls pants” (as a friend would say), fall into professional mode, get through it – whatever that ‘it’ is –  without bursting into tears, or get through ‘it’ with grace or aplomb?

Some would say their faith gets them through; others would say it’s a strong sense of self.  Still others would shrug and say they didn’t know.  But I do wonder the toll it takes if we’re not careful or aware of what’s going on in our own broken hearts while we engage with the breaking and healing hearts of others.  Did I go home from more than one wedding reception to greet my friends Ben  & Jerry?  Yes I did.  Sugar is my drug of choice, but I know others who cope with their hidden heartbreak with booze or porn or really mean behavior to strangers or beloveds.

I never cried “uncle”.  I always steeled myself through the wedding or the baptism or the Mother’s Day litany, for better or worse.  Most of my pastor friends do.  We do because it’s part of our calling.  Most of my pastor friends join me in detesting that phrase “God never gives you more than you can handle”.  We don’t steel ourselves through it with neat little memes. While I can’t speak for all of my pastor friends, getting through those things almost always gave me a reminder of grace and of hope.  Grace to get through that ceremony or that reception to then go home, put on my jammies, and watch Pride and Prejudice again.  And hope that maybe someday I would be up there facing the pastor and not the congregation; I would be in white and not black; I would be taking a ring instead of handing them out.

There’s a great clip out there right now from an episode of Louis CK when Joan Rivers was on.  (http://youtu.be/BnAIX7fWsdU)   Joan and Louis are talking, and she says something along these lines.  “Listen. I wish I could tell you it gets better, but it doesn’t get better.  You get better.”  Maybe that’s it.  We don’t all get married.  We don’t all have kids.  We don’t all stay married.  The people we love don’t live forever.  That stuff doesn’t get better.  But maybe, by the grace of God or by sheer will, we get better.  Our hearts heal a little, and the scar tissue is a little bit thicker than what was there before.  Maybe that’s the hope – we get better.

Hard Work Does Not a Good Suit of Armor Make

suit of armorOften I am surprised that at the ripe old age of 49, I am still learning things about myself. As a younger version of myself might have said, “No duh.”

This week’s insight: I work hard so as to avoid criticism. Sometimes I enjoy working hard because I love whatever project I’m doing. Back in my single days, when I had more free time, I painted furniture. I could spend an entire Saturday painting squiggles and checkerboards on chairs and love every minute of it. Sometimes I enjoy working hard because of the intellectual challenge – writing a sermon or some liturgy, or preparing for a class I’ve never taught and have to create from scratch.

But the ugly truth is that much of the time I work hard so that others won’t criticize me. I look at my to-do list and sometimes prioritize based on how much flack I will get from a person or a committee if I don’t do that particular thing. I anticipate all the critiques that could come my way if I don’t do something, or don’t do something well, and I bust my proverbial butt to create something excellent – not because the thing deserves to be excellent, but because I don’t want people to complain if/when it isn’t excellent.

Here are the flaws in this plan:

1. Some people criticize no matter what.

2. Sometimes my best is not what someone else considers good.

3. If I keep this up, I will become cranky, feel put upon, and likely burn out.

I once worked with a pastor who was adamant about not being a people-pleaser, and let me tell you, he wasn’t. There was a big downside to that, because he wore his “I’m not a people pleaser” t-shirt with pride, to every worship service, to every session meeting, to every staff meeting. But there was an upside, too. He was not overwhelmed when he was criticized. He had really decent boundaries around work. And he made decisions and prioritized not to stave off the critics in the church, but because it was the right thing to do.

Of course I imagine more criticism than would actually come my way. I work in a place where people are rather kind, and thoughtful, and gentle with their criticism, which is usually valid. But my imagination has been working overtime lately, with a few big hard decisions that have been made, and with the start of the program year and a long to-do list. With my overactive imagination has come some edginess, and anxiousness, and definite thoughts of being put upon. And I have put them upon myself.

Last week, just before the benediction, I quoted a line from our closing hymn: “My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.” I really don’t believe God is in the criticism business, that God is in the grace business. So I’m working off taking off that suit of armor, and putting on my dance shoes, to work with grace.

“I know nothing, except what everyone knows –

if there when Grace dances, I should dance.”

W. H. Auden

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My husband and I dancing (sorry the video won’t play) at a concert in a park

The Great Pickle Fiasco, or How I Learned the Hard Way that I’m Not a Domestic Goddess

last year's pickles

last year’s pickles

Every year in the late summer I make pickles with my aunt.  She’s been making these pickles for years, and everyone in the family loves them, and as she is 82 and probably will die in about twenty years, I decided that I would like to learn how to make them to carry on this tradition.

My aunt is amazing.  At 82 she takes care of the old ladies at her church.  She goes non-stop, and is gracious all the while.  Very little bothers her, and she is generous.  For the last three years she has bought the cucumbers as my birthday present, and I drive out to her farm in the country and we sit and visit and scrub and cut cucumbers.  Then we mix water with lime and put the cucumbers in the plastic bucket (this keeps them crisp.)  Usually at this point I take my bucket home, let the cucumbers soak in the lime solution for a day, then rinse them and soak them in cold water for a day, then make the brine and cook them and jar them and voila, pickles.

But this year because of our two schedules, after we put the cucumbers in the lime solution I left them with her and went off to the beach for our annual church retreat.  She soaked them and she rinsed them and she brined them, and on my way back from the retreat, I picked up my bucket of brined cucumbers to take home, cook, and can.  Easy peasy, as my daughter would say.

What was the first sign that I should not have pickled today?  Obviously the universe was trying to tell me something, but I would not listen.  Things had been going so well. I ran into one of my favorite church members in the grocery store.  The hardware store stayed open an extra five minutes and I was able to buy my jars before they closed.

Perhaps the first sign was that I couldn’t find the pickle recipe.  Or that it took over two hours to get the brine and cucumbers to boil.  Or that if you set the dishwasher to the sanitizer cycle it takes about four hours.  But really, when  the first quart jar of hot brine and pickles broke, I should’ve stopped.  But no.  I persevered.  I had been in a bad mood all day, and I wasn’t going to let some broken freakin’ glass or sticky, sticky counter and floor stop me.

My husband had the good sense to round up the child and the  dog and watch tv.  I pickled.  I only came up with one good line in the whole process: “I like my men like my pickle brine: hot and sweet.”  Really, that should have been all that the universe needed to tell me.

The pickles are done.  Mostly.  I still have about a gallon left but I ran out of jars and trust me, I was not going to go hunt some down tonight.  The un-jarred pickles are waiting patiently in tupperware in the fridge till tomorrow when I might buy some more jars.  If I do, I will personally test those jars before I give them away.  With two quarts of vinegar and nine cups of sugar in the brine, I can’t imagine anything malign would survive, but you never know.

In the first church I served there is a beautiful Tiffany woman of the Ideal Woman described in Proverbs 31.  I hated that window. As a piece of art, it is gorgeous.  As an exemplar for womankind, it stinks.  It reminds me of this imaginary rival I have created in my mind, an amalgam of clergywomen I know and envy.  This woman I’ve created, we’ll call her Sophia, is like the 21st century version of Proverbs 31.  She is talented.  She runs 10ks for charity all the time.  She isn’t beautiful but she is striking, which is way better than being beautiful.  She is published.  Her husband has a fantastic job in the for-profit world so they can go on really lovely vacations and tithe the full 10%.   She not only pickles cucumbers, but she makes homemade bread for her kids’ sandwiches and whips up fresh mayonnaise to go on it (except she calls is aioli.)  She weaves.  She never, ever, ever wears clogs with jumpers and tights, or sweaters with birdhouses on them.  Her congregation adores her, as do her children and nieces and nephews.  She’s been through therapy so she’s very centered.  I desperately want to be her friend but I hate her so I can’t.

All I could think today, while trying not to get any broken glass in the pickles jars, was that I am so not Sophie and I should really give up trying to be.  I have no desire to run a 10k, or a 5k, or a block.   I cannot make pickles.  My dinner tonight consisted of almonds and red wine, with a few bites of the homemade granola I thought I should make while waiting for the brine to boil.  I begged off putting our daughter to bed so that I could clean the kitchen, but really, so that I could write this post.

One of my mentors used to ask after a fiasco, “What have we learned from this?”  She always elongated the verb – “what have we l – e – a – r – n – e – d ?”  Well, Margaret, this is what I have learned:

That red wine and almonds do not a good dinner make, nor are they sufficient nutrition for enduring pickling fiascos.

That sometimes the best course of action is to leave the kitchen and go watch tv.

That no one really cares if I make pickles or not, so this is all on me.

That this will make a great story starting about tomorrow, and that next year, my aunt I and will make pickles again.

And sometimes, that stained glass window you see is really just a stained glass window.

this is the window

this is the window

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

bagpipe darthI was talking with a church member yesterday, who told me the following story.  Over the weekend she and her family had gone down to the waterfront, where they encountered a person wearing a Darth Vader mask riding a unicycle while playing the bagpipes.  Let me repeat:  a person wearing a Darth Vader mask riding a unicycle playing the bagpipes.  Only in Portland.

All of which got me to thinking:  we really are fearfully and wonderfully made, and then we add to that.  Some add tattoos and piercings; some add pounds, stretch marks, cellulite.  Some add hair color, some shave their heads.  We add contact lenses and titanium hip joints and pig valves in the heart.  Our hearts add other stuff too: grief and joy, regret, disappointment that washes everything to a dull grey, hope for something better the next time around.

As a pastor, I think a lot about the community of fearfully and wonderfully made people, and the “I” and “we” of that, and the tension of individual desires and needs and the common good of the community.  Even after twenty years in ordained ministry, I struggle with pastoring well to everyone, knowing that that is an impossible yet necessary (but maybe not necessary) goal.  Several years ago, Duke Divinity School professor Stanley Hauerwas observed that in the modern day, ministry had reduced to a pastor being “a quivering mass of availability.”  While that is the shortcut to burn out, there is something about the pastor being available, or present, or caring for, our fearfully and wonderfully made folk.

And we aren’t always.  Every time I drop the pastoral care ball, I lose sleep, and the Tums rest on the bedside table for a while.  I hate letting people down, and I do it, and so there’s some therapy in my future, I think.  And I wonder what role grace plays in all of that.

Do I have enough grace to rejoice that someone delights in riding the Darth Vader/Bagpiper unicycle?

Do I have enough grace with myself not to wallow in my regret and self-judgment?

Am I holding out grace as the tie that binds the fearfully and wonderfully made community together?  Do I teach that, and do I practice that?

It takes grace to ride a unicycle, and to play the bagpipe.  I’m not sure I would say that grace is needed to wear a Darth Vader mask in public – courage, maybe, or divine foolishness.  I think there was some grace involved in our creation, too – fearfully and wonderfully and gracefully made.  Amen to that.

Not an epic fail, but maybe a holy one

this pictures captures what the story was about

this pictures captures what the story was about

Yesterday in my sermon I committed the cardinal sin of pastor-parents: I told a story about my child without getting her permission.  Rookie mistake for this pastor of 20 years, but there you are.  It just fit so well into the sermon, and we had talked about it but in my mind we had not settled the matter.  But as it says in Galatians 6:7 (part of the passage I preached on) “you reap what you sow.”

So I’m in the first third of the sermon; my husband is sitting on the chancel near me and our daughter is sitting by herself in the front pew, as she usually does.  She hears me telling the story and she begins to cry, prostrating herself on the lovely needle-pointed pew cushion, weeping for not all but many to see and hear.  Crap.  Just the word the preacher wants to hear in her head while she is delivering the beautiful word of God.

I can handle a lot in worship.  I can handle crying babies, coughing parishioners, people who live on the streets wandering up and looking at the offering plates, fainters, barfers, organ ciphers, mangled liturgy, and laryngitis, but what absolutely does me in is when I have to be pastor and mom at the same time.  It doesn’t happen very often but when it does I become completely unglued – maybe because I suspect I’m not particularly good at either one, or maybe because it feels like both demand so much of my being.

So in the first third of my sermon, while my daughter is crying, I break the fourth wall of sorts, interrupt myself, and ask my husband to sit with her, which he does.  I then resume preaching, talking about accountability when we do something wrong, and being in community in our suffering, and reconciling with brother or sister before coming to the communion table.  And did I mention we celebrated communion yesterday?

At the end of the sermon, I issued this invitation to the congregation:

“I don’t know if gathered here this morning are people who are at odds with each other; sheer numbers would suggest that there are. I’m not going to ask  that we now pause for a minute for reconciliation – that would be putting all of us on the spot. But perhaps in the silence after the sermon, we might think of those we are at odds with. We might think about them, and about bearing their burden, about carrying our own load, about forgiveness and grace. We might imagine, as we all say the Lord’s Prayer during communion, sitting next to that person, and saying the prayer with them.”

It was so nice of the Holy Spirit to provide me with an opportunity to practice what I preach, and during the silence after the sermon I thought about how I could check in with my daughter before going to the table.  My husband/co-pastor came back up and said she was fine, mostly because one of her friends sweetly came up and sat with her and got her out of her funk.  During communion, my daughter passed by all the other celebrants to come receive the bread from me, and gave me a hug, and I told her I was sorry and I love her so much.

I thought it was a mediocre sermon that was made worse for the wear by my embarrassing my daughter.  As it turns out, what the congregation heard and saw were opportunities for grace, and realness, and empathy, and kindness, and grace again.

But if I ever tell a story about her again, I will get her permission in writing.