Giving up Facebook for Advent

I know, I know – Lent is the season when we’re supposed to give things up to help us understand the nature of sacrifice and self-denial, so we forego chocolate or swearing and feel that much more holy for forty days.  Advent is the time when we are supposed to prepare our hearts to receive the Christ child once again. It is a time for contemplation, reflection, but not sacrifice or self-denial.

Pish-posh, I say.

Allow me to explain.

At the congregation I serve we have chosen “Joy” as our theme for Advent.  Yes, I know that joy is supposed to be the theme of one of the Sundays of Advent (the Sunday with the pink candle), but as our Director of Music reminded us, there is a palpable lack of joy in the world right now.  I confess that as I start to think about my sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, to preach on joy feels a bit callous.  How can we talk about joy when we spray tear gas on children whose parents are seeking asylum in  the U.S.?  How unfeeling is it to talk about joy when hundreds of people are still unaccounted for in the remains of the Camp Fire? I could go on. You could too.

But since, as Teilhard de Chardin once said, “Joy is the surest sign of the presence of God”, and since Advent is the season in which we prepare to receive the gift of the Incarnation, God-with-us, then joy will have its way this Advent.  And that has led me to giving up Facebook.

I don’t know if you do Facebook; chances are if you’re reading this blog, you may have found it because I posted it on Facebook.  So there’s that – if I’m off Facebook, you won’t know if I’ve written a few hundred words about my musings.  If I’m off Facebook, I will need to let my pastor colleagues know, because I do learn about pastoral care needs on social media.

But if I’m to be about joy this Advent, then I will give up Facebook because Facebook does not bring me joy.  It entertains, it infuriates, it updates, but it does not bring me joy.  I relish the number of comments I get; I envy friends and acquaintances whose lives are so much more beautiful than my own; I long to live closer to family and old friends.

Facebook is the emblem for a deeper dis-ease.  I fear my world is starting to revolve around “likes” and “views”, around how many hearts I receive on an Instagram posts, around the approval I receive when I post something.  That is not life.  Those things do not bring joy.  Having a popular brand will not make my life complete.

Nothing will make my life complete this side of the grave, but many things will bring joy.  My beloved husband and daughter are the source of much joy in my life. Having work that is meaningful and fulfilling, work that I think adds some good to the world brings me joy.  An email or a phone call or an in-person visit from an old friend brings me far more joy than any pithy Facebook post ever could.

In the conversations around the spiritual practice of giving up something for Lent, some have suggested that rather than give something up, one should take up a practice that is sustainable for only about forty days.  So I wonder what I will take up for these twenty-four days of Advent – in giving up Facebook, is there something that I can take up, some way to spend that now free time, something that might bring me or the world some joy?

According to my phone, I spent four hours and forty-five minutes this past week looking at Facebook.  Perhaps I will use that time to pray.  I could write an actual letter to an old friend.  I could call my siblings.  I could write some liturgy. I could make some art.  I could make a meal for this family I love so much.  I could meditate.  I could do so many things that would lead me down the path to joy, and in knowing joy, I might deepen my appreciation of God and the Incarnate Christ Child.

I’ll let you know – but not till after December 25.

A joyful Advent to you.

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Making art brings me joy

 

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One Square Inch of Good

img_5908Often whatever art I’m working on in some way reflects my interior life.  Right now I’m making one inch squares of decorated paper, and I think I know why.

From a practical point of view, I’m able to use up some paper scraps from other projects.  And we’re having family for the holidays, and I’m pretty sure it’s bad hospitality to take up the dining room table with an art project.  Making one inch squares of paper doesn’t take much space, and it’s portable.  So there’s that.

But mostly I’ve been feeling as though, indeed, the world is too much with us, late and soon.  Despair like I have not ever known creeps in every morning as I read the news, and but for the many graces that surround me, I would give in.  So I’ve been reminding myself, and my family, and my congregation, that in spite of all that is hard and tragic and infuriating and frustrating and sinful, we still have good to do, and we still have to do good.

Maybe every day I can do something good that would fit in a one-inch square.  Maybe most of us can.  I’m not sure that we mere mortals have the capacity to do great good, but most of us can do a little good every day.  Be kind to the grocery store checker who is chatty but so slow and you’ve been waiting in line for forever.  When you see the guy on the street corner with the sign, look him in the eye, say hello, give him five bucks, and then donate twenty to the local homeless shelter.  Talk in person with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to your own, and don’t debate him, and don’t hate her.

Not hating is a good place to start doing one square inch of good.  Not putting others down is probably good, too.  Lamenting with those who lament, and marching with those who march, and calling out all forms and expressions of bigotry and prejudice work too.  Stepping away from the screen, from the newspaper, from the radio now and then going for a walk is good – one square inch of good for yourself.

Anne Lamott first suggested (to me) doing hard things in small pieces.  In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she says, “I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”

It works for joy, too.  I keep looking for great big huge joy to combat all the great big huge ugliness, but I need to put my readers on and look small.  One square inch – and there it is, meeting with the preschoolers who share the building with us; there it is – meeting the congregation’s newest baby; there it is – my daughter reciting Shakespeare for her upcoming performance in Hamlet.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my squares.  I’ve made about 120 so far, and I plan to make more with no particular end in mind.  Maybe a quilt-like thing.  Or maybe little boxes, following the words of the poet Rumi, who said that “joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box.”  Maybe I’ll give them away to people to remind them that good and joy can come in jumbo size, but if we all tried to just make one square inch of joy a day, that would be enough.

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The wedding shoe

As we near the end of our delightful and refreshing three-month sabbatical, my husband/co-pastor and I are finally doing all those little house projects we’ve been meaning to get to.  Yesterday we moved things around in the basement, which serves as our den, laundry room, and second guest room, and in moving stuff, we cleared out the closet.  As we went through only two plastic bins there, I found my wedding shoes.

“It’s probably time to give these away,” I said.

“Probably,” my husband replied.

I LOVED my wedding shoes.  My dear friend Alison, my co-bride who like me was getting married for the first time in her early forties, whose wedding was three weeks before our own, agreed to go shoe shopping with me. We discovered a charming store in uptown Chicago that specialized in wedding shoes.  She found what she needed, and I found what I needed.  Off-white satin with pumps with an ankle strap and rhinestone buckle, with what I thought would be a very comfortable 2 inch heel.  Fifteen minutes into the reception, not so comfortable.  But no mind. I loved the shoes, which no one saw, and which I happily took off later in the evening.

When we returned from our honeymoon, I realized that I would rarely wear these beautiful off-white shoes again, so I had them dyed black.  I believe I wore them once after that, because a few months later I got pregnant, my feet swelled, and after the baby my feet were never quite the same.  So the shoes have been sitting in this bin for 13 1/2 years and I don’t need to be a KonMari practitioner to know that if you haven’t worn something for 13 1/2 years, it’s time to let it go.

We went to the Goodwill drop off this morning and the gentlemen took our things.  The bag holding everything broke so it was a bit of a mess, and as we drove away, I saw a lone, dyed-black wedding shoe lying there in the dust.

There are many things I would do differently if I were to marry Gregg again.  I would not make my bridesmaids wear matching periwinkle dresses.  (Thank you, thank you, AM & EF.)  I would get a different dress.  I might ditch the tiara that held my veil in place.

But there are so many things I would do exactly the same.  I would marry Gregg again.  I would have AM and EF stand up with me.  The wedding party would enter to everyone singing a hymn.  I would walk down the aisle with my dad, a memory that is so poignant now that he’s gone.  I would have all those beloved family and friends there.  I might not register for gifts, but I would eat cake and dance and take all that joy all over again.

Of course, a wedding is not a marriage, as I tell betrothed couples .  A wedding is a herald of what’s to come, but in the years that unfold, cake gives way to boxed mac ‘n’ cheese, and veils give way to hats that hide a bad hair day, and beautiful satin shoes sit in the closet while sneakers are laced up or clogs slide on and socks mysteriously lose their mates in the dryer.

As I mentioned, we’re near the end of our sabbatical, and I’m so grateful for this time away.  One of the things I have most strongly realized is that I really love my husband.  Perhaps this should be obvious, but when you work with your spouse, and when you share an office with your spouse, you can lose sight of all the reasons you married that person.  We’ve spent all but five days of this sabbatical together, but there has been space to breathe and see each other anew.

I have no idea if he would say the same thing about me.  Maybe, maybe not.  But I’m still so grateful for a fantastic wedding that heralded a marriage that would be filled with beloved family and friends, and dancing, and cake.  But we promised each other never to give shoes as a gift – maybe that’s the secret to it all.

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.

 

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Elusive Joy

Truth be told, I would rather conduct a memorial service than a wedding (but for those of you whose weddings I officiated, you were the exception!)  I also find planning the Good Friday service much more interesting, fun, and worthwhile than planning the Easter service.

This is not new information to me. I have been ruminating on it for a while, as this year’s Good Friday service flowed out of me so easily and elegantly, while getting Easter off the ground felt like wading through lime jello dotted with shredded carrots and crushed pineapple – colorful, but not so good.  I think it may have to do with joy and grief, with the elusive nature of joy in this life, and the immediacy and intimacy of grief in this life.

Grief bombards us all the time – grief in death, grief in horrible diagnoses, grief in all the tiny losses that add up, grief that is the constant companion of change.  Joy seems more sparing.  Every since I became a mother, which is one of the greatest joys of my life, I’ve been aware that joy, at least for me, is always tinged with fear: there is this person I love with the depth of my being and to lose her might kill me.  It is the fear of joy being taken away, or the crush of joy evaporating. Grief being taken away is a good thing, a sign of healing, a reprieve from that emotional pain.  Grief evaporating is something wished for, but not always attained.

The shared joy at a wedding is tinged with what might happen as the years unfurl: a fight, a divorce, job frustrations, children frustrations.  But I think my hesitation about weddings is about something else: they can become productions, and petri dishes of family systems theory, and studies in excess.  The true joy that is there can be overshadowed by all the stuff.

Then again, memorial services have as much joy as they do grief – joy for a life well lived, for love that was poured out, joy for having known this person.

And Good Friday and Easter – what about those?

Good Friday pierces me, in the way that it gets to the reality of injustice then and now; violence then and now; anguish then and now.  We have Good Friday experiences all the time, whether we want to or not.  We don’t have Easter experiences very often, or at least I don’t.  The small resurrections we know – remission, healing, reconciliation –  they are good and great, but still tinged with impermanence.

And really, the Easter service can be a bit of a production too.  There are a lot of moving parts: eggs, flowers, trumpets, Handel’s messiah, banners, extra bulletins, extra people, and hats.

This side of the door (to borrow C.S. Lewis’ image) maybe impermanent joy is all we get, joy that is elusive and fleeting.  I suppose fleeting joy is better than no joy at all.  But I do wonder what joy is like on the other side of the threshold.  Tangible and permanent, maybe.

Hopefully.

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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