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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Abstraction White Rose Number 3, by Georgia O’Keeffe

Preaching resurrection in the middle of Lent

empty-tomb-and-three-crosses-colette-scharfI am a big fan of the liturgical calendar.

As someone who plans worship, knowing what season it is helps.  It helps us with the colors, the themes, the hymns, the scripture, the tone of worship.  That being said, I must also admit that the liturgical season is an entirely human construct.  We invented it to help us know God.  God did not invent it to help God know us.

Yet I find myself in a seasonal muddle this year.  In the past week I conducted two memorial services and they were not particularly Lent-y.  The opening hymn at the first was “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”  The choir sang Beethoven’s “Hallelujah” from The Mount of Olives at the second.  A few weeks ago, our retired soprano section leader, a helluva woman in her 80’s, sang an introit and a benediction response that were full of Alleluias.  My own husband, giving the benediction at the Ash Wednesday service, spoke out his usual “Hallelujah, hallelujah, Amen.”

What’s a liturgical-seasoned girl to do?

The funny thing about the liturgical calendar, and holidays/holy days, is that it’s all play-acting.  We’re pretending Jesus is born again; we’re pretending the Holy Spirit has lit a flame on the apostles’ heads; we’re pretending Jesus is walking toward his execution as if we have no idea what might happen next.  But we do know what happens next.  That’s why we’re in this story in the first place.

It’s always with a little guilt over my own pretense that I approach the Good Friday service.  We know what happens next, so if there is genuine sorrow, it is about the sorrow in life right now, in the world today.  Maybe.  I suppose we can – and do – feel sorrow for tragedy and suffering, whether it is the suffering we are going through right now or the suffering of innocent victims scattered among the pages of history.

Is my sorrow over Jesus’ death mediated by my belief that he rose?  Does the joy at the end of the story erase the pain near the end of the story?  What does it means to utter alleluias and preach resurrection in the middle of Lent?

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The second memorial service this past week was for a woman who had been a matriarch of the congregation.  She loved butterflies, and so in her memory we hung our Easter butterfly banners, and in my homily, I quoted “Life Lessons from a Butterfly” which had been among her keepsakes.  ““Let go of the past. Trust the future. Embrace change. Come out of the cocoon. Unfurl your wings. Dare to get off the ground. Ride on the breezes.  Savor all the flowers. Put on your brightest colors. Let your beauty show.”  The words might be a little twee for some,  but they reflect a sweeter approach to life held by more than one woman I’ve known in her 90’s.  They are Easter words – “come out of the cocoon, put on your brightest colors.”

But if we take the season of Lent seriously – if we take this time before Easter as a time for reflection, repentance, and change – maybe these are Lent words too.  Let go of the past (and stop doing things that hurt others because of hurt done to you in the past).  Embrace change (repent, turn around, choose love instead of hate, trust instead of fear).  Unfurl your wings (do not put your light under a bushel).  Dare to get off the ground (follow Me).

There is no Lent without resurrection; we invented Lent after the Easter event.  We might see the three crosses, but we see the tomb and the garden just beyond them.  Maybe, then, knowing the life after death awaits us gives us courage to face the hard pieces of our lives.  And maybe an ‘alleluia’ or two in the midst of repentance is not a bad thing.

He is risen!  Take up your cross and follow Him….

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To the planter of trees

tree_lined_street_lgTwo of my frequent routes include an arcade of trees.  One is at an intersection I drive by every day, the other on 99E heading south towards Milwaukie.  Neither is very long – one just a block, the other maybe a quarter-mile.  But even in winter, when the branches are bare, the trees form this graceful archway that we drive through.

As I went though one the other day, I started wondering about the person or persons who planted those trees.  Were they young?  Did they see the fruits of their labor?  Did they measure carefully the space between the trees, imagining how far apart they needed to be so their branches could grow without touching?  Did they plant them hoping that in eighty years, one hundred years, the trees would still be alive, healthy, providing a bower for motorists?

It seems to me that planting trees is a pretty selfless act.  You may get to watch a sapling get strong, but you will likely not live to see it in its prime.  And planting trees is an act of hope, too – hope that someone else will take up the care of the tree, that in the future when the planter is gone someone will look at the tree and offer thanks.

We have two enormous oak trees on the west side of our house.  I imagine they were planted when the house was built in 1925.  They are now two and a half times as tall as our house, and they are beautiful, whether with bared branches or in the lush fullness of summer.  They are beautiful and more often than not I do not appreciate them.  February is the one time of the year when they aren’t dropping something.  Come spring, it will be helicopter seed pods, then green acorns in the summer.  In the fall the brown acorns drop, aided by feuding squirrels.  Once the acorns are done, the leaves turn brown and drift down; we are very generous and share our leaves with the neighborhood.  In the chill of winter things are still unless there’s a wind storm, in which case we have branches adorning our yard and roof.

laugh inI wish I appreciated our two oaks more than I do.  They provide habitat for squirrels, and I think the crows are doing their own version of Laugh In in them.  They shade half the house, a relief in the relentless sun of summer.  But they are messy and trimming them is not cheap.  Their root system means that we have a basement in only half the house.

Would I cut them down if I could? That’s the question, isn’t it.  It would make our lives and landscaping easier.  We wouldn’t have to wear our bike helmets when we dine al fresco.

Would I cut them down if I could? No.  No, I wouldn’t.  They are things of beauty, among the most grand in the neighborhood.  The crows make me laugh.  The squirrels drive the dog nuts and give him something to do when we’re gone for the day.  The shade is lovely.

And there’s something plain wrong about cutting down a magnificent healthy tree – the inconvenience to us is far outweighed by the patience it took for that tree to go, the hearty conversations with neighbors in the fall when we’re all raking the leaves, the sheer beauty of something that towers over our man-made home.

So, to the planter of trees, our oaks, the trees that line the avenues: thank you.  Thank you for your foresight.  Thank you for your dream.  Thank you for your part in creating something beautiful that maybe you never saw.  Thank you for the trees.

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