Saints and poets maybe

“EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”
STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

– Thornton Wilder, “Our Town”

laddersThe first time I ever saw “Our Town” was in 1988, a Broadway production starring Penelope Ann Miller as Emily and Eric Stoltz as George.  I started crying during that speech of Emily’s when she comes back for a day, and I was still crying after the curtain call when the house lights came up.  It has stayed a favorite ever since.

Maybe it’s those words about realizing life, every every minute, that grow more poignant as I get older.  Maybe it’s the dawning understanding that this person will not always be a part of your life.  She might move away, or you might.  You might have a falling out, or simply grow apart.  He might turn weird.  They might die, quickly or awfully.

It’s the acknowledgement that these bones and ligaments and cells break down after a while, that they’re not made of diamonds or titanium, impenetrable and durable for eternity.

It’s the awareness that the house you grew up in feels a lot smaller if you ever go back and visit; schools do too, and churches maybe, or any place that lodged in your heart but is better served by an imperfect memory than an actual, contemporary experience.

It has taken me a while to cultivate the practice of realizing life.  I’ve never been the kind who stops and smells the roses, but I’m beginning to do just that, which is funny because ever since I turned fifty, I’ve been more and more aware of the finity of years I have left.  I hope for several decades more, but still, my days will come to an end, later rather than sooner. Yet I don’t want to rush and cram as much in as I can.  As life shortens, I slow down.

So I watch my daughter when she’s not looking.  I watch her mouth an imagined conversation and I eavesdrop on her singing in the shower.  I watch my husband, too, with his imagined conversations.  I watch his patience with children and marvel at what an amazing special ed teacher he must have been in his previous career.  I watch him preach, and I look out at the congregation and their complete engagement with him, even as he conjures up a word now and then, or makes illegal grammatical turns.

I wonder at the perfect circle the dog makes when he curls up, and the asymmetry of the spider webs that decorated the yard naturally  – artisanally and organically – for Halloween.  I marvel at how hard it is to photograph a spider web or a rainbow or a sunset, and maybe it’s better that way.

I pay attention to the color of the sky on any given day, and the color of the leaves, and whether or not they’re still a part of the branch or part of the lawn.

I look at the small things, and watch the slow things, and I seek out the big arcs too.  I wonder at the ever-so-slight curve toward justice that history is taking. Looking at yesterday, the arc seems flat. Sometimes I have to look far back, decades or centuries back, to see that curve but it is there.

I rejoice when someone gets ordained after waiting thirty years to be able to do so.  I am humbled by those who protested apartheid and eventually brought it down, all that pride falling down like some fragile Humpty Dumpty. I applaud my friends who have more stamina than I when it comes to fighting for justice every single day. I tear up reading all the Facebook posts after the Cubs win.  108 years.  That’s a long arc toward victory.

I look for what is good; I try to hold fast to what is good because that is the glue of life, the stuff that holds us together even while the tragic and oppressive might make us stronger or at least more determined.  That’s realizing life, too: realizing that not everyone has a fair shot and it may well be our jobs to change that.

But mostly I look for the poets and the saints, few of whom are published, few of whom have been martyred or accomplished miracles.

I look to Gwendolyn Brooks and Bruce Springsteen and Brian Doyle and Naomi Shihab Nye and Denise Levertov,  and the psalmist and once in a while St. Paul.  I look to memes that take my breath away.  I seek people like Nancy, a woman in my parents’ church, who weekly collected outdated food from the local grocery stores and took it out to the fields to the migrant workers, enlisting the aid of people of all ideologies and politics to help her.  I am grateful for the Tamale Ladies, those women who sit wisely and patiently outside of Whole Foods with their coolers on wheels, micro-industrialists all of them, a community of women who feed their families and ours.

Saints who dress up as teachers, and CNAs, and guys who punch a clock, all of whom realize that life is found in the small moments and not the big ones: a C instead of a D; being able to walk to the bathroom instead of using the bedpan; a whistle blown which means the shift is over and you can go back home to the people who love you.

A month of convalescence has been a gift and an invitation to realize life.  It’s also invited a discipline to focus on healing and positive input so most days I have to set the election aside.  It’s been an opportunity to acknowledge that I am loved and liked and cared for, which isn’t always easy but has proven to be wonderful and humbling.

Because “it goes so fast.  We don’t have time to look at one another” – unless we make time.

May a saint or poet cross your path today.

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Heart’s Desire

A-hand-drawn-heartFor months, at the urging of my spiritual director, I have been praying to find my heart’s desire, to find that thing (not a person – I have those) that inspires me, energizes me; my flow.  But you pray for something long enough, and the prayer goes unanswered, and eventually you stop praying for the thing.

The last few months have found me in the doldrums. (Excellent word, by the way, with possible origin in the words dull and tantrum.)  Yes, you could say I’ve been having a dull tantrum for a season, the result of an unusually warm summer, a not-fun spring at church, and continued physical pain as my hip heals more slowly than I would like. Plus sometimes I’m just a big baby.

And then I got an idea.  I would write a book, a novel, about a church, because I am the First Pastor Ever to think about writing a novel about a church.  I thought about it all spring, and I thought about during our first week of vacation, and I thought about it some more the week our kid was at sleep away camp.  And then I went away for a week, to the lovely shores of Lake Tahoe with a plum assignment of leading worship once a day.

In my free time, I powered up the ol’ laptop and started writing.

I am having a ball.

Today when I met with my spiritual director I told her I had started writing my book and she commented that light was bouncing all around me.  She noted my energy and joy.  And then she said, “I think you found your heart’s desire.”  I will note that God took God’s sweet time answering my prayer, but a thousand years are but a day, etc. etc.

Here’s the thing: writing this puppy is cathartic, and in twenty years of ministry I have met amazing people who have done strange and wonderful things that inspire the characters.  There’s swearing and liturgy.  Twists and turns.  Recipes.  Lists.  Thwarted romance.  A Yorkie Poo.  It is so me.

Back in high school, I aspired to be a writer, but college and theatre and then seminary and ministry got in the way.  To be truthful, my daughter’s own love of writing has inspired me, and maybe some day we will write a book together.  (I can just hear her saying, in about eight years, “As if.”)

This book will never see binding or a spine or a listing on Amazon.   I’m pretty clear about that.  It might show up on this blog.  It might be a Christmas present to my friends and family. But maybe one’s heart’s desire doesn’t have to have a purpose or action plan.  Maybe one’s heart’s desire doesn’t have to lead to success, fame, or fortune.  Maybe one’s heart’s desire is simply the thing that leads out of dull tantrums to joy.

That’s all for now – chapter nineteen awaits.writing

“May I come speak with you about a religious matter?”

I was expecting a call like this, on a Monday after the Supreme Court’s decision about marriage.  Our office manager buzzed me.  “There’s someone on the phone who would like to speak with a pastor about a religious matter.”  Sigh.  “I’ll take it.”

“This is Reverend Beth Neel.  How may I help you?”  I usually don’t refer to myself as Reverend Beth Neel, but when strangers call and want to talk about a religious matter, I do like to be clear about my role and authority.

“I’d like to come speak with you about a religious matter.”  We agreed on  the time of 11:30.

Here’s what I assumed: that this woman, who self-identified as Presbyterian, wanted to talk with me about either the SCOTUS ruling or about what had happened in Charleston.  I confess that normally I try to pass this sort of thing along to one of my colleagues, but it was just me in the office today.

At 10:15 I ran downstairs to look at something in the building, and when I came back up to my office, she was waiting for me, 45 minutes early.  I took one look at her, wearing her down coat on a day when it was supposed to get up to 90, carrying two laden shopping bags, smelling a bit of stale cigarette smoke, and I knew that the SCOTUS ruling was probably the last thing on her mind.

She did mention it, sort of.  She said when she got off the bus in Portland and saw two men holding hands, if her mother had been with her and had seen that, she would’ve had a fit.  So much for hearing a proof-text about the sin of gay marriage.

We talked for an hour.  She poured out her life story without any self-pity, talking about her family, her mom and dad who married and divorced three times.  Her sister, who married the wrong guy.  A Mexican restaurant in the Memorial area of Houston; did I know it?  Her work at a car dealership.  Her time in Oklahoma, in Nebraska, in Seattle.  When she worked at a hotel run by East Indians, and their conversations about the Gideons Bibles and why her boss would need to talk to Jesus if he wanted her to work on Sundays.

After an hour, I asked her what her religious question was.  “Religious?  I don’t believe in God anymore.  I’m so tired I just can’t believe in anything.  I don’t know if I can go on.”  Turns out she had no where to stretch out and sleep; at her age, sleeping under the bridges wasn’t an option.  She tried to sneak in naps at Denny’s or Shari’s, but that’s no rest at all.

“Can we provide a motel room for you for a couple of nights?”  Sure.  We did, and gave her something for some food.  Should I have done more – connect her with social services, give her a ride to the motel?  Should I have done less – tell her we couldn’t help but that I’d pray for her?”  She was grateful for what we offered, said yes with dignity; she didn’t ask for anything more and I sensed (rightly or wrongly) that she really wasn’t looking for anything else.

Her name was Joy, and I don’t know if there was a higher purpose to Joy showing up in my office this morning.  Was it to challenge my assumptions that gay marriage is on everyone’s mind?  Was it to remind me that a big part of my calling as a pastor is not time efficiency but kindness?

Maybe there was no higher purpose.  Maybe there was just a child of God who needed a little help today.  And so Joy came in.  And so Joy left.

leaving

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_

A Perfect Moment

asteriskThis morning I was sitting in the sanctuary about half an hour before the service started.  I came down from the office because the choir was rehearsing one of my favorite anthems – John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth –  and hearing just once in the service wasn’t going to cut if for me.  I sat down in one of the transept pews, next to a dear, long-time member of the church who comes early, I think, so she can hear the choir rehearse.

As the choir was making their way through the song, one of my other pastor colleagues came in with a family whose infant son was to be baptized.  The parents joined the church at Easter, when the dad was baptized, so there was something lovely about he and his wife bringing their baby to be baptized.  The child was as bald as a peeled peach, with a sweet sweet round face.  Just enough drool to make him adorable hung on his chin, and he smiled at me while I made silly faces at him.

My colleague was showing the parents the baptism choreography, and as he took the baby, so tenderly, and kissed his little forehead, the choir was singing, “For the joy of human love/Brother, sister, parent child,” I thought: that’s perfect.  Everyone is up there practicing for the real thing, and the community isn’t gathered yet to witness it, but I was able to witness this moment when song and delight and love came together just right.

That would have been enough for me, that experience of the holy, twenty minutes before the service started.  But the choir finished and need to trot downstairs to put their robes on, and the family need to do one last diaper change before the service.  I had gone to the trouble to write a sermon, so I figured I might as well preach.

Those perfect moments are rare, especially when you’re in the business of church and you have a fair amount of responsibility for all the details that go into that one hour a week.  Rarely do we conduct perfect worship, nor does God want perfection.  I think God would much rather have something flawed and authentic than perfect and over-rehearsed.  But those rare perfect moments are like little asterisks at the end of the sentence of a hard week, a reminder that the crap gets meliorated by a gracious, patient God who isn’t too high and mighty to show up for rehearsals.

It was good worship today – not perfect, but good – and as one parishioner noted, it thundered during the baptism, which was cool of the Holy Spirit.  It’s so good in the fall to have everyone back together, the fullness of worship and hymns and prayers and rambunctious kids in the children’s moment and all that.

But truth be told, when the service started, I had already done my worship for the day.

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