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

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?

Alleluia (1)

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….

butterfly_cross_

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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Kindness/Despair

“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things.

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
* * * * *
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.”

excerpted from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye,
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (1995)

despair“Despair is strangely the last bastion of hope; the wish being that if we cannot be found in the old way we cannot ever be touched or hurt in that way again.  Despair is the sweet but illusory abstraction of leaving the body while still inhabiting it, so we can stop the body from feeling anymore.  Despair is the place that we go when we no longer want to make a home in the world and where we feel, with a beautifully cruel form of satisfaction, that we may never have deserved that home in the first place. Despair, strangely, has its own sense of achievement, and despair, even more strangely, needs despair to keep it alive.”
excerpted from “Despair” by David Whyte, from Consolations, 2015

Last fall my friend Lila killed herself.  She was a member of our congregation.  She lived a life I might have had: she was my age, never married, took care of her two beloved cats.  She probably heard that she had such a pretty face, if only she would lose some weight.  She was generous and kind and hilarious and lived with bi-polar disorder until she decided she didn’t want to live with bi-polar disorder anymore and she ended her life.

The other night my daughter and I were cuddled in the comfy chair and we started talking about people she knew who had died.  The list is short, and I am grateful for that.  But being the child of two pastors, my daughter hears about death more than the average eight year old.  She knows that sometimes we rush to the hospital, or are called away in the middle of the night.  She knows that sometimes she has an extended playdate on a Saturday because Mom and Dad are at church for a memorial service.

So we were talking about the people she knew who had died, and Lila was mentioned.  “Mom,” my daughter said, “how did Lila die?” We hadn’t told her.  Maybe at the time we were too bruised to try to explain to a child why someone so lovely would not want to live any more; maybe we didn’t have the courage or didn’t want to face the sadness.  But she asked, and I answered.  “Honey, I’m so sorry, but Lila killed herself.”

Sigh.

“Why?”  “Well, her brain didn’t always work just right, and sometimes her brain made her so wildly happy she couldn’t keep it to herself, and sometimes her brain made her so sad she didn’t think she would ever stop being sad.  I think one day she decided she didn’t want to be sad like that anymore.  I think it hurt so much and she didn’t want to hurt anymore.”  I did the best I could to explain despair to a child, all the while hoping and praying that my child will not ever know it.

This week two different friends on Facebook posted poems/essays, one “Kindness” and the other “Despair”.  They showed up in my news feed the same day, the day I would later have the conversation with my daughter.  I found deep wisdom in both and in a way, they were companions to each other, acknowledging the depth of these things, the paradox of them.  To understand kindness you must first understand sorrow.  Despair is the last bastion of hope.

I don’t want to diagram these words or exegete them but neither do I want to toss them away like last Sunday’s sermon.  They feel heaven-sent in a way, so thank you, Carol and Ken, for being angels in sharing them.

And I wish I knew what Lila would say about them.

“We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in our wish not to be here.  We let our bodies and we let our world breathe again.  In that place, strangely, despair cannot do anything but change into something else, into some other season, as it was meant to do from the beginning.”

“Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then it goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”

elephant mettha

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.

Dream/Reality

A-dreaming-person-008Last night I had a weird dream.  It wasn’t a nightmare, but it wasn’t a good dream either.  I dreamt that all the oxygen was running out, and soon everyone in the world would die.  Neither my husband nor my child was in the dream (thank goodness) but our dog was.  I remember wanting him to be near me when I died.  In the dream I was a little frantic and very, very sad, not only because I was going to die but because everyone was going to die.  And soon.

I woke up from the dream around 4am and was able to fall asleep again.  In that time between waking and falling back asleep, I started thinking about what I would do if the oxygen really was running out of the world.  Would I panic?  Would I break into a hospital or doctor’s office or scuba shop and steal oxygen?  Would I try to get on the good side of some conspiracy theorist who had a bunker stocked with oxygen just in case this scenario played out?  I went back to sleep and this time dreamt about being in NYC with college friends, so evidently my subconscious wasn’t too scarred by the oxygen deprivation.

The dream has stuck with me today.  Where did it come from?  We recently were watching some procedural crime show in which the victim died from asphyxiation, but that was over a week ago.  The dog was curled up at my feet, which is probably why he made it.  But someone once advised me to pay attention to the emotions that stay with me after a strong dream, so I’ve been thinking about low-level frantic-ness and deep sadness.  My best guess is that this dream was about the world running out of something.

Unless you’ve been off the grid with your head in the sand lately, it’s hard not to notice that there is a lot of bad stuff going on right now.  Those Nigerian schoolgirls are still missing, and since they’ve been gone, eleven of their parents have died.  Seven were killed in a Boko Haram attack; four died from health-related issues.  We lament the disappearance of these girls half way across the globe while we wring out hands over what to do with the refugee children flooding into Texas from Central America.  An airliner was shot down, killing hundreds of people, many of whom were involved in the vital work of AIDS research.  More planes have crashed.  ISIS is now requiring that all women and girls in Mosul undergo genital mutilation.

And I have no words about the violence in Israel and Palestine.

Maybe my dream was about the world’s loss of capacity to breathe in something – peace, maybe, or patience, or reason.  Or maybe I’m a little frantic and very, very sad because it feels right now, at both the conscious and subconscious level, as though we are running out of hope.  And we will all die without hope.

May we catch our breath soon.hopeless

Bring Them All Home

clasped handsFor about five weeks the song “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables has been going through my head, a kind of incessant prayer for the kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria.  Every time I think about them – which is often – I become almost paralyzed in my horror and grief.  And I don’t think I’m having that response because I’m a mother or a parent.  I think I’m horrified by this because I’m a decent human being who believes that children should not be the pawns in the deadly games that adults play.

When I was a teenager, my family was held up in our home.  For forty-five of the longest minutes of my life, my little brother, who was nine at the time, was taken hostage.  He’s fine now; we’re all fine now, after time and therapy and a lot of love.  But for forty-five minutes I sat in my neighbor’s house, paralyzed, and when I saw the police cars pull away and knew the situation had been resolved, I didn’t know if my next move would be to exhale or scream.  I exhaled, because the SWAT team was successful in their negotiations and my brother was okay.  I hope so much that the families of those girls are able to exhale soon; to exhale and run and embrace those children and watch them grow up and heal.

Sometimes I wish God would just smite dead people who abuse and terrify children.  I don’t believe in the death penalty, except when I do and that’s usually when something horrific has happened to a child.  I have to stop myself from thinking about what might be happening to these girls, isolated in the woods, or being smuggled out of the country to illegal human markets.

I feel so powerless about this, that there is nothing I can do other than pray.  So I pray.  I pray that these girls are allowed to be with each other, that leaders have risen among them who set a tone of comfort and hope.  I pray for their families.  I pray for those in positions of power and influence.  And because Jesus tells me I have to, I pray for the terrorists.  The prayer is pretty basic: God, I am praying for these terrorists.  I do not know what to ask for, but You know what to do, so do that.  Amen.

Then that little voice in my head gets going.  You know that voice – the one that tells you prayer is not enough. The one that reminds you that there are children right here who are in just as desperate a situation as those Nigerian girls.  The voice that does not let you off the hook for worrying about something on the other side of the world without worrying about things in your own back yard.

It’s not just me – maybe the media could cover some of our own domestic tragedies, especially those that involve children, especially children who live below the poverty line, children of color.  Maybe our own elected officials could look in their backyards in addition to looking across the globe.

Last year my daughter and I read Robert Coles’ book The Story of Ruby Bridges.  My daughter was amazed that a child was treated that way, and I was horrified by it, though I knew the story.  I think about her courage and her faith and her prayer for those who were doing such cruel things to her and shouting such hateful things at her.  And my wish that God would smite dead all those who abuse and terrify children comes back.  Because I really, really pray that adults will stop using children in their deadly games.

The Pitfalls of Mother’s Day

As I lay in bed snuggling my daughter tonight, I started thinking about people I know for whom tomorrow is going to be difficult – the mother whose daughter was just diagnosed with cancer.  The husband and two daughters whose wife/mother died suddenly earlier this year.  The friend whose relationship with his mother is strained because of deep-held and widely different understandings of what sin is.  The mother of a preschooler and an infant who posted one of those things on Facebook this week about the utter frustration about not being able to get it all done.  The mother who was first to find her daughter’s body.  The woman whose daughter has made bad choice after bad choice, who was treated savagely this last month.

But then there’s the first-time mom, a woman I knew in her twenties, who glows in every picture she posts.

Flowers, chocolates, and sweet cards can’t make up for all the fraught-ness of Mother’s Day.  I dread Mother’s Day in church, knowing that for some it’s right up there with Easter and Christmas and for others it’s a day to avoid the worship and sweetness and light.  Before I met my husband, when my own hope to become a mother was slipping away, silently and ashamedly, I was leading prayers one Mother’s Day.  At the first service, a well-intentioned person asked prayers for all those women who had hoped to become mothers who never did.  I felt as though he had shined a klieg light on all that I was trying to suppress that day.  I made it through that service, and then collapsed. My good colleagues covered for me, but it was excruciating and humiliating.

Why all the fraughtness? Why is Mother’s Day the be-all-end-all for some and the nadir of existence for others?  Does Father’s Day carry the same peculiar heft?  Maybe it goes way back to a time when a woman’s worth was measured by her ability to bear children, especially those of the male variety.  Maybe it has to do with the different emotionality of women (which, I suspect, isn’t really all that different from the emotionality of men.)

But maybe in the end it’s because Mother’s Day is really about life, but pinpointed and concentrated.  Mother’s Day reminds us of how we’ve been loved in this life.  Mother’s Day reminds us of hopes fulfilled and crushed.  Mother’s Day magnifies the grief and the joy, the disappointment and the exhaustion.

This morning my daughter and I painted the door to our garage.  I really wanted to do it by myself, so I could get it right; she really wanted to do it with me, because she loves me and loves to be with me.  Seven years into this mother-thing, I have figured that part out.  It’s not about being perfect; it’s not about the flowers and chocolate and matching apron and oven mitts that I know are waiting for me tomorrow.

It is about the moments, the little moments of squirting paint, and getting out splinters, and shouting and making up.  The grief and the disappointment and the frustration lurk around the corner.  But we got our door painted today, on Saturday, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ve already had a great Mother’s Day.

So raise a glass or a mug tomorrow to someone you love – someone who’s here, or someone who’s gone; someone who is your mom or someone who is your hero; someone who’s load is unbearable, or someone who radiates joy in every fiber of his being.  Raise a glass to the good, however it comes, and whoever it looks like for you.photo