This mortal coil

I’ve been thinking about death this morning; doesn’t everyone this time of year?

It was three years ago today that my dad died. I was not with him, but my mom and sister, faithful women that they are, were there. I was at the pediatrician’s office with my daughter. While we were in the waiting room, my sister texted that the hospice nurse said it wouldn’t be long. After that, I turned off my phone until we got home. And there was the message: Dad died.

Three years out the pain is different – less acute, more wistful. I think about my dad, and so many others, who were so full of life and now… aren’t. I don’t mean that facetiously or sarcastically. It’s just that we live and then we all die and that is terrible and normal.

This time of year I think a lot about incarnation, too; doesn’t everyone?

I have those moments of wondering why in the world God would choose to become incarnate, to take on this mortal coil only to have to shuffle it off in a mere thirty-three years. I wonder why God would choose to take on frail flesh, with skin that gets cut, and bones that break, and heads that ache, and hearts that ache. Honestly, it makes no sense, but then again, very little about faith does make sense. That’s what makes it so interesting and fun.

I try to make friends with death, given its inevitability and omnipresence, but it’s hard. Maybe my real struggle is with incarnation. Why this form of creation? Why create stunning elm trees so vulnerable to fungus? Why polar bears that die out as earth warms? Why the engineering and biological marvel of the human body that only lasts four score or so years?

Honestly, I don’t know. It does seem to be a significant design flaw.

Or is it?

One of the things I loved about the ending of The Good Place (semi-spoiler alert here) is the realization that things are meaningful because they don’t last forever. Our finity defines us, and that is not a bad thing but may in fact be the best thing.

I don’t want Christmas to last forever. I don’t want this pandemic to, either. There are people who I hope to have around for a long time, and people who I wish had lived a few more years. But that isn’t up to me. (It’s not up to you, either….)

So then, what shall we say? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we perish? All we have is the present? Love them now, don’t wait till they’re gone away? Life is short, and we have but little time to gladden the hearts of those who sojourn with us? (Henri-Frederic Amiel)

All of the above.

Well, that’s probably enough melancholy musing for this day. Be well. Hug yourself. Call someone who needs to know that you love them. And indeed, be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. (Amiel again.)

Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.
Oh, who am I, that for my sake
My love should take frail flesh and die.

The architecture of trees and other things

It’s the time of year when the falling leaves expose the beauty of the bare branch. As much as I love the new leaves of spring, and the lush leaves of summer, and the reds and golds at the height of fall, I really do enjoy seeing the leafless trees.

The branches are beautiful – elegant like a ballet dancer’s hands, or bumpy and bent like the hands of an old man who’s lived with arthritis far longer than he ever wanted.

I appreciate seeing the structure of the trees, their architecture, understanding a little about how the trees grow and support the weight of leaves and nests.

The devastation of the fires in California have revealed a different kind of architecture; you might call it the architecture of deconstruction. Among the ashes we see a chimney, a bathtub, a puddle of chrome where a fender used to be.

When the flames ravage, all that is left is that which seems incongruous and unnecessary. The flames mock the chimney and the bathtub. A cozy fire at night is magnified into something apocalyptic. The water in such a tub would do nothing more or less than boil in the midst of flames.

I wonder, too, what we are seeing in the architecture of our nation. Midterm elections laid bare the structure of our democracy. But is it the architecture of support, of the values of liberty and justice for all, constructive values? Or have we seen the deconstruction of our values, voter suppression and apathy about the political process? Does the harsh rhetoric of campaign ads and rallies undo us, consume all that is good so that all that is left is incongruous and unnecessary – red, white, and blue bunting crumpled up on the ground?

Well. I think about these things.

I worry about our national identity. So sometimes I take heart in the example of the seasons. Yes, the leaves fall and the trees are laid bare, but spring will come as sure as the sun will set tonight and rise again tomorrow. But sometimes my deep sorrow for all those affected by the fires reflects my sorrow for these United States. So much of what is beautiful and good – care for the stranger and the vulnerable, a willingness to tell the truth at the cost of losing power – has been burned away and what is left is useless.

Maybe when it comes to things political, we are not passive observers. We cannot change the course of the seasons. Very few of us can stop the devastation of these fires. But maybe we can do something to change the American conversation.

I hope we can.

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.

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

 

 

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.

Bleak Midwinter

rainIt rains so much in the Pacific Northwest. Although our little family usually doesn’t put up any Christmas decorations until the first or second week in December, this year has been so rainy and so dark we decided to hang the outdoor lights on the day after Thanksgiving.

There are those years when “In the Bleak Midwinter” is my favorite Christmas carol, that or “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  This year the bleakness wins, and it’s not just the weather.

We’ve lost some dear saints in the congregation this year. I look out in the pews on Sunday morning and I see their spouses and their children and their friends sitting there without them, and melancholy descends.  It’s their first season without this person who brought light or warmth or laughter or kindness to their life.

Then there is the bruising left over from the election season, and the uptick in hate crimes since November 8.  There’s Syria, and refugees, and poverty that never, ever abates for some people.  There is the reality of aging parents.  On some days if feels as though Yeats was terribly prescient: the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy has been loosed upon the world.  I too am slouching towards Bethlehem.

If my sweet little family’s Christmastide celebrations began on December 24 and ended on the 26th, I would be happy.  But my daughter loves Christmas.  It’s her favorite holiday, and it has nothing to do with Santa or presents.  There’s nothing she really wants for Christmas – except to be with family, which is hard with two clergy parents.

When I ask her why she loves Christmas, this is what she says.  “Everyone is so joyful, and everything is so pretty and decorated.  There are so many lights, and people sing.”

I’m not sure where she picked this up as I’m usually a bit crabby during Christmas, failing miserably at being mom, spouse, and pastor all at once.  She sees through that, or around it or beyond it.  She sees the big picture: we celebrate Light coming into the world.

So perhaps this month, as the rains pour down and it’s hard to tell if the sun has risen yet; this month, as the news tells more terrible stories, and people tell stories of grief and fear; this month, as I once more fail at being a cheerful pastor/mom:

I will look to my daughter, so happy for this season.  I will look at her with hope for the joy she will carry into this month and the years that lie ahead.  I will look to her with a gratitude that goes beyond words, gratitude for her presence and her life.  I will look to her so that she can show me the way, even through the bleak midwinter.

For a little child shall lead them.

Morning Person

I wake before everyone else, and tiptoe around the squeaking floorboards, making my way downstairs to the kitchen. I try very hard not to wake the spouse, the child, or the dog. It’s my time, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have a half hour all to myself.

img_9652The first thing I do is make coffee. Nothing fancy, just my Cuisinart 4-cup drip and some French Roast, already ground, because there is a worse noise than a coffee grinder especially first thing in the morning when you’re trying not to wake anyone else up, unless it’s a leaf blower.

Some half and half and a favorite mug and then to the comfy chair to scan the headlines, check email, look at Facebook where I hope someone has shared a New York Times article because I’m too cheap to buy the app.

It’s morning.

I’m at my best in the morning, most clear, most fresh, most energetic. The rest of the family doesn’t really get it and I have to remember when I start sharing ideas or asking questions that they have not had the benefit of an hour of awakeness or caffeine. It’s a little dance and I am definitely leading. The others put up with me.

I don’t know why I love the morning so much. Getting up before dawn often reminds me of travels I have been on – a safari when we rose with the sun so we could catch the animals at the watering hole before it got hot; a study trip in Israel, Egypt, and Jordan when we woke at 3am so we could see the sun rise from the top of Mt. Sinai. Jet lag, too, makes for early mornings but you can catch a sunrise while others snore.

The beginning of the day has so much potential. Nothing much has happened yet, just coffee and a few headlines. What might unfold? What surprises await? Who will I see? What good news might break? Will the forecasters be wrong and we’ll have sunshine all day?

Easter is a morning holiday; Christmas is an evening one. “Early in the morning” all the Easter stories begin. So much potential that day, though no one imagined it. Just a morning routine, the women getting up early, preparing their spices, taking their sad walk as the sun rose. And then – so much unfolded, so many surprises, such good news.

Maybe I’m a morning person because I’m an Easter person at my core, believing in new life that awaits us, life where there had been death, blades of grass poking their way through the concrete. I hope to be that, anyway; it’s better than the alternative.

I really hope and pray that today is a great day; it will be for some of us and not for all of us. But here’s to new life, and the ability to embrace it and make it happen.

A very good morning – or good afternoon or evening – to you all.

img_4607

Living in the tension

“Mom, why do we have guns?” That’s the question my ten-year-old asked as we ran a few errands Sunday after church, when I had referred to the Orlando shooting in worship and she asked what had happened.

“Well, people used them to hunt so they could have food.” But that wasn’t quite right.  Not at all.  “People used them to kill each other in war.”

“Why do we have war?”

“Well, people see someone else as their enemy, as someone who wants to take what they have, as someone who is dangerous.  Or someone who has something they want.”

“Then why do we have enemies?”

Oh, child of mine, I didn’t ask those sorts of questions when I was ten.  The assassinations of the 60’s were not part of my childhood memory, nor was the Viet Nam war.  My first political awareness was Nixon’s resignation, and that didn’t involve guns at all.  My dad and brothers hunted; we had rifles and shotguns in the house that were always locked up and never loaded.  When we were held up at gunpoint at home when I was a teenager, no one thought about getting one of those guns and starting a shoot-out with our assailant.

Maybe the bigger question is why we have enemies.  That same Sunday, at the end of worship, two men experiencing homelessness came to the narthex seeking help.  That’s been happening a lot lately – there are so many people and not enough public bathrooms or soup kitchens or mental  health facilities or shelters.  There may not be enough time or kindness, either.

One of our deacons was talking with them very patiently and I interrupted the conversation.  I thought wearing the big black robe and the pretty green stole would give me some authority when I told them I was so sorry that we weren’t able to give them cash, but it didn’t. I listened.  We prayed.  I’ve remembered their names – A.J. and  Avery.  I’ve prayed for them all week.

Are A.J. and Avery my enemies?  Do I wish them harm? No.  Did I wish they’d go away so I could get off my feet and get a cookie and cup of coffee? Maybe; how horrible of me.  Do they wish they had guns so they could get what they need by force?  I doubt it.

It was an unsettled day, Sunday.  I was so aware of the tension of being safe because I’m a straight woman and the worry that someone might target our church because we have a rainbow on our sign.  I was aware of the tension that I’d had a nice shower in the morning, and put on clean clothes, and had breakfast and would have lunch as I talked with these men who hadn’t seen a shower or a full meal or a sober day in God knows how long.  I was aware of the tension in wanting my daughter to delight in the world while having to tell her the realities of the world.

The tension is still there, and my prayer is that nothing reaches the breaking point.  My prayer is that out of the tension comes something hopeful or healing, maybe even beautiful, the way a beautiful note is played over the taut violin string.

But maybe that isn’t up to me.  But maybe it is.

violin

Trump as Lenten Discipline

In my Ash Wednesday meditation, I admitted that I wasn’t all that good at spiritual discipline, or even following through on a particular Lenten practice, but my hope this Lent was to do two things: to be more kind to my family, and to learn more about the people who support Donald Trump is his campaign for the presidency.

As I understand it, one option for a Lenten practice is to do something that is not sustainable for the long haul.  I do hope that I will carry on a greater effort at kindness for my family; so far, it has been delightful and not too trying.

And learning more about the supporters of Donald Trump has been interesting and thought provoking.  And a little depressing.  Here’s what I have gleaned: that his supporters tend to be white, male, and blue collar workers with not much education past high school, if that.  There is nothing wrong with being a white male, or a blue collar worker, or having ended formal education at high school.  Some of the people I love most dearly in the world fit in those categories.

What is hard about all of this is realizing that I don’t know most of these people, that I don’t run in any of the same circles that they do, therefore I have little chance of changing their minds.  Because I would really like to change their minds.  I have this romantic little fantasy that if we could just sit down and talk and have a rational conversation, I could show them that Donald Trump will not bring back what they have lost, or what they think they have lost.

Yet reason will not prevail, I fear.  My hunch is that their support of Mr. Trump comes from a deep place of anger and loss that may have begun when Barack Obama was elected president but probably began decades before that.

Still, Jesus calls me to reach out to those on the margins, and I think the supporters of Donald Trump feel that they have been on the margins of the American Dream for too long.  I would argue with that, but am I called to argue or to listen?

In the end, I am comforted that Donald Trump only has one vote, and I only have one vote, and I know I will not use it for him.  Lent will end soon, but I suspect I will continue to read about this presidential race and the candidates and their supporters.  I suspect, too, that I will not find much hope in any of that.

I find my hope elsewhere.  I am ready for Lent to be done and for Easter to arrive.

abstraction white rose number 3

Abstraction White Rose Number 3, by Georgia O’Keeffe