For my girl

june-032You were who you were from the beginning
Tickling me in the womb,
Reluctant about change when it was time to be born.

But there you were.  Pink and whole and glorious and terrifying.

Now I think of you in blues and browns
And gray, your favorite color
(which I hope does not mean you’re depressed, merely independent)

Ten is turning out to be a delightful age, and I thank you for
those conversations we have as you learn to hold your own with your rather verbal parents;
for those questions you ask, like do I remember the places I was when really sad things happened like 9/11 and Sandy Hook

Watching you navigate the undulating landscape of approaching tweendom
(God help us all, literally)
And seriously, your vocabulary.  When did you learn all those words?

Your kindness to younger children
Your age-appropriate demand for fairness
Your unselfconscious beauty

Your sweetness and your sass
Your bad moods and the eye rolls you seem to have perfected
Your yearning that all your family lived nearby

Your wish that we could go away for Christmas
And that your parents had weekends off like normal parents

We’re doing all we can to help you dig those roots and sprout those wings
And as it turns out, all we really need to do is stand out of the way.

Go! Stay! Fly! Dig deep!

Words are so inadequate for love.

img_9626

 

Foul-weather friends

If we weren’t in the midst of a hellish travail, it would be interesting to pay attention to who shows up when we’re in some sort of a crisis.

For as long as I can remember I’ve known the phrase ‘fair-weather friend’ – the kind of person who’s there when life is sunny and you’re at the top of your game, the kind of person who can’t be around tears or silent grief, shame, or failure of any kind.

But I’ve known people who are foul-weather friends. I won’t hear from them for months or years, but if there’s a crisis, they are there with a phone call or email or casserole.  And somehow they know just what to do – how to be present without being pushy, just when to express the gallows humor, to bring the big box of kleenex and not the little travel-size pack.

The best sort of friend to be, I suppose, is the all-weather friend, the one who’s there in that wedding vow sort of way – in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want.

One of the worst moments of my life (so awful I will not recall it here) came when I was away from friends but there was a handful that knew I was facing a terrible difficulty.  They didn’t call me, but when I called them, they picked up.  When I whispered the plea ‘please pray for me’ I knew they would.  I got through it, in part because I was supported by these people invisibly tied to my heart in good times and bad.  They showed up again, months later, for one of the happiest moment of my life.

If it were one of those forced-choice quizzes, would I rather be a fair-weather friend or a foul-weather one?

Truth be told, a foul-weather one.  Friendship takes time and energy and if I’m going to spend some of that time or energy, I’d rather spend it with someone in a bind rather than sitting back and sipping mojitos on some exotic beach with a friend who just won the lottery.

But if I were standing in front of the pearly gates and St. Peter were checking my account, would I be found faithful in my friendship?  Would he say, “There is joy abundant and you missed out on that”?  Or would he say, “You showed up when it was hard and the dawn was far off”?

I’ve realized the gift of so many kinds of friendship lately, and I’ll take what I get, which is folks who show up in the rain, and folks who show up in the sunshine, and folks who bring umbrellas, and folks who bring casseroles.

May I do the same.

foul-weather

At the Center

(this is revised from a sermon I preached in 2011 on Romans 8:26-39; I recently reread, and thought it might be  helpful to someone today)

It’s such an elusive question: what is love? Hollywood gets it wrong more often than not; poets tend to get it right. The rest of us muddle through, experiencing those shining moments when we know we are in the midst of love, only for that moment to end and leave us wanting more.
I am drawn to what Jean Vanier said about love. “To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude, ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.”
Love is revealing to another his beauty, her value. Love as revelation from one to another, revelation that opens up vistas rather than shading them over.
So what happens if we make that our working definition of love and stick it onto Paul’s gorgeous words from Romans 8? It might mean that nothing can impede God in Christ from revealing to all of us our beauty and value.
But it doesn’t feel that way most of the time, does it? It feels as though the world is telling us, over and over and over again, that the creation is ugly, that people are ugly, that there is no value or meaning in anything other than acquisition and might and trendiness. The powers, as Paul calls them, strip away all sense of holy beauty and value. The powers tempt us every day, and we don’t have to look far to see them.
The powers tell us that we are conquerors, and we believe them. We have conquered discomfort, and if we don’t feel well we pop a pill, if we’re hot we turn on the air conditioning, if we’re in a hurry we buy a Big Mac at the drive through and eat in the car. And so we wonder why there is addiction, and a hole in the ozone, and obesity and litter and pollution.

The powers tell us we are conquerors. We have conquered weakness. If the enemy strikes, build a bigger weapon and strike back harder. If you don’t have enough room, take someone else’s space, their land, their country. If the battle isn’t going your way, use civilians as decoys, shields, and hostages. And still we are aghast about war, horrified by violence, and despair over endless cycles of retaliation.
The powers tell us we are conquerors. We have conquered the personal demons of loneliness. There’s a great commercial running on TV right now for Toyota, in which an adult child talks about her parents’ boring life while she has 763 friends on Facebook; meanwhile her parents are out in their Forerunner joining a big group of friends for a bonfire and cookout. The internet provides community for some, but not physical presence. And still we shake our heads as we gaze at the dining room table, covered with mail and books instead of placemats and silverware and meals shared by friends.
The powers are those forces that tell us we can rely on ourselves and don’t need anyone else, that we don’t have to wait to get what we want, and that we can use whatever force necessary to make our individual lives better. The powers are so seductive and offer us lives exactly as we want them.
And then I am reminded of something Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his journal. “You shall have joy, or you shall have power, said God. You shall not have both.” I wonder if Emerson had been reading Paul the day he wrote that. You shall have joy or you shall have power. Presented on paper, the choice seems easy. Or does it?
How do we choose – how do we make any of those crucial life decisions? What do we do when we come to one of those big crossroads, and we have to choose between power and joy? Are we ready, prepared, to make that decision? Or do we find ourselves flailing?
It may depend on whether or not one has a sense of what is at the center of life. What is at the center of your life, in the middle of your heart of hearts? What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? What enables you to risk ridicule or ostracism, to stand up for something you believe in? What encourages you to put one foot forward when you are dog-tired and weary beyond all reckoning and utterly drained? What is at the center of your very soul?
It’s clear what was at the center of Paul’s soul: the love of God in Christ Jesus. Paul wrote a lot, and he wrote a lot of things that I disagree with or struggle with, but I have to give him this: he knew God’s love. He knew that God loved him, that God saw the beauty and value in him that had nothing to do with credentials or success. He knew that God trusted him. And so when he was stoned by enemies in one town, or shipwrecked, or thrown into jail, he knew he had the love of God deep in his heart. I imagine that as he went to his death, he knew that love of God.
How many of us can say the same thing for ourselves? How certain are you, on any given day, of God’s unconditional love for you? How certain am I, on any given day, that God sees my beauty and value? Most of us have that sense – until we start listening to the powers, to the culture, to the media, to those voices that tell us other things. But the truth is that we are all in the same boat, this boat that sometimes sails smoothly with deep confidence in love, and sometimes is tossed about by doubt and temptation.
I love the way poet Gwendolyn Brooks describes this in her poem “Infirm”.

Everbody here
is infirm.
Everybody here is infirm.
Oh. Mend me. Mend me. Lord.
Today I
say to them
say to them
say to them, Lord:
look! I am beautiful, beautiful with
my wing that is wounded
my eye that is bonded
or my ear not funded
or my walk all a-wobble.
I’m enough to be beautiful.
You are
beautiful too.

How was it possible, almost two thousand years ago, for Paul to write words that have such resonance today? We feebly struggle, and the Spirit shares our sighs and enables us to form those struggles into prayer. We hope that God is working in the good and the bad, in the beautiful and ugly, making all those things work together for some holy purpose. We pin our hope on God, who knows what sacrificial love is. We see our hope in Jesus Christ, who strides through all our hardship and danger and threat, through all those things to you and to me.
The world would have us be conquerors, but Paul tells us we are more than conquerors. We are more than conquerors. We are more than consumers. We are more than victors. We are more than victims. We are more than taxpayers. We are more than young, old, saggy, taut, smart, thick, Republican, Democrat, straight, queer, right, wrong, strong, weak. We are more than all those things. We are more than conquerors, because we are the Beloved.
We are the Beloved, and as Paul tells us, there is not one thing in the whole of creation that can change that. A child might ask a parent “will you ever stop loving me” and the parent says, no. So we might ask God “will you ever stop loving us?” And the resounding answer: No. Will you ever find us ugly? No. Will you ever find us worthless? No.
Paul tells us that God’s love is at the center, at the center of creation, at the center of the universe, at the center of each day we live our lives. God’s love is at the center. Every day God reveals our beauty and worth to us, and that impacts how we live with each other.
Every congregation has God’s love at its center. Some churches act like they don’t know that, or like they’ve forgotten it, but still, God’s love is the center, the anchor, the cornerstone of every congregation. So if we still use Jean Vanier’s words about love, we could say that at the center of every congregation is the revelation of the beauty and value of the people within and beyond the walls.
It’s easy to reveal beauty and value of another when we are all in one accord. It get tricky when we disagree, and when we disagree for noble reasons, and when we disagree with passion. I say this not because this is a congregation in terrible conflict; it is not. But we do face some interesting, God-given challenges, and how we work together and face those challenges is crucial.
In our decisions, will we choose power or joy? How will we hold in tension our very human disagreements and this divine call to love, to reveal beauty and value to and with each other?
The guy who rolls his eyes every time we sing your favorite hymn? He is beautiful.
The visitors who dare to sit in your pew? They are beautiful.
The woman whose car bumper sticker express everything you don’t believe in? She is beautiful.
Those kids who squirm and crawl under the pews and wave to their parents during the moments with children? They are beautiful.
The dear friend whose aging has taken a toll on mind and body and spirit? He is beautiful.
The acquaintance whose off-hand remark struck you at your very core? She is beautiful.

They are all enough to be beautiful.
You are beautiful too.
You are priceless.
You are more than conquerors.
You are the beloved. Thanks be to God.

Clang, clang, clang…

trolley song“Went the trolley.”  You knew that.

I think my favorite role of Judy Garland’s was as Esther Smith in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”  The Gibson-Girl look suited her well, and she was so young and vibrant and in such good voice. There is nothing quite like the joy of “The Trolley Song”.  Ah, love.

I recently had dinner with two of my friends who have fallen in love, and hearing their story of getting to know each other and realizing, pretty early on, that there was something very good there made my heart go zing.  At one point during the conversation, one of them turned to me and said, “Could your smile get any bigger?”

No, it couldn’t, because I love these two people and they suit each other so well, and finding that Someone is one of life’s grandest joys.  Hearing their story took me back to my own story of falling in love with the man who would eventually become my husband – pretty much once that train left the station, it was never going back.  We thought we had been quite clever keeping our relationship secret, but once we started telling people, they all had a “No duh” kind of reaction, which was a little anti-climactic, but I was in love so I didn’t care.

“Meet in St. Louis” ends with the family and love interests gazing at the lagoon at the World’s Fair.  All is well, all crises averted or resolved, all unrequited loves requited.

Life isn’t like that.  People don’t spontaneously burst into song and dance, and happy endings are never perfect.  Some love goes unrequited; some relationships don’t last.  Judy Garland lost that voice and that vivacity, but she never really lost her presence.

My friends who have fallen in love know that, because they’ve endured their fair share of disappointment and sorrow.  That does not erase the elation they now know.  And if this relationship moves to something deeper, that elation will get burnished and shine differently.  I hope that for them.

When I was growing up, my parent had this funny whiskey decanter set that was a trolley car.  The center held two different cut glass decanters, and at each end of the car, roped off with a little chain, were two shot glasses.  When you lifted one of the decanters, a music box started playing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

I supposed we all leave our hearts somewhere.  Perhaps it’s best to leave our hearts with someone.

Clang, clang, clang.

 

heart

And then we built a life together

IMG_5708Two friends of mine are courting in a way that reminds me of the courtship my husband and I had.  We had been friends for a few years before we started dating, and when we did start dating, we tried to keep it under wraps for a while.  We had a lot of friends in common, friends who had been wanting for a long time to see each of us meet that someone, friends who would jump up and down that we had in fact met that someone, and it was us.

So I’ve been thinking about our courtship then and our life now almost twelve years later.  That fall when we were falling in love, it was as though everything smelled like honey coming from bees wax, and dating on the sly (or so we thought) added an element of intrigue, and when I would get to see him it felt like it was sunny and 70 or a full moon with a light breeze for those days we did get to spend together.

Now we’ve been married for ten years, and we’ve moved a few times.  We were thrilled to have one child, and disappointed at times and crushed at other times not to have another.  We work together now, too, and in so many ways the bloom is off the rose.

But the bloom never stays on the rose; what fun would that be?  We’re more tired than we were when we were courting.  We have more gray hairs.  We don’t dance nearly as often as we used to.  But we still have this sense that we are in this together, and when it’s good that’s a good thing, and when it’s not good it can feel like a bit of a millstone.  But we’re lucky, I guess, because the times when it’s not good are few and far between.

It is hard to work together when we’re both under stress and under the same stress – we have nowhere to escape to, really, and the person I would normally turn to wants to turn to me and then we get in this self-perpetuating cycle of angst, so he goes to watch a rerun of “Friends” and I bury myself in a crossword puzzle until we’re settled enough to come out of our respective corners and put down our dukes and figure out what to do next.

Yes, after ten years of marriage, the bloom is off the rose, or better, the hydrangea is starting to fade.  We have a bright blue hydrangea in our yard, and I love it when it belts out this cobalt blue that seems somehow Mermanesque.  But the blue only lasts for so long.  And then the really interesting thing starts to happen.  The blue fades to purple, and then to an oxblood sort of red, and then green comes in, so that when I finally cut it, it’s these subtle shades that emerged almost impossibly from the cobalt of those first blossoms.

Our marriage is like that – the usual and unique experience of our first love burst out one day when we were ready to tell our friends.  And then we married, and moved, and changed jobs, and had a kid, and didn’t have another kid, and moved, and changed jobs.  We’re not starry-eyed anymore; rarely does everything smell like honey.  There’s more silence, sometimes full and beautiful and sometimes tense and wary.

But it’s interesting, this marriage.  And still beautiful, in its own way.  The colors have changed, but there are colors still.

IMG_6083

For Pauly G.

Many waters cannot quench love

A few days ago I asked my Facebook world what they were hankering to read a blog about; the answers were few.  But two friends both said they wanted to read something about love.  One of them, a former college professor of mine and a drama queen in the absolute best sense of the term, said this:  “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.”  I don’t think my former professor is a religious sort of person, but her suggestion immediately took me to the Song of Songs.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.

Death has been around more than usual of late, and I find little mysterious about the deaths nearest me.  A member of my extended family died after a long illness, and there may have been some small mercy that he died before the disease took a more humiliating and painful toll.  A young child in our congregation’s circle had a brain tumor removed and the family faces a very different future than the one they imagined for her; their original dreams have died.  Little disappointments add up to small deaths.  And all this in the midst of Eastertide.

Death has not felt mysterious lately, but I know that it does feel that way sometimes.  To be with someone in his last hours; to sit with a family as tears pour out when their 102-year-old aunt steps through the veil, tears of gratitude and relief; to walk a cemetery like a tourist, an unintentional voyeur of another’s grief: there is mystery in death.  It’s not the mystery of why lungs stop inflating and deflating or why a heart stops beating.  It’s the mystery of the silence after, the vacancy of a life.  It’s the void that some of us fill with hope that there is more.  It’s the moment after the conductor picks up the baton, before the music begins.

Love usually feels mysterious.  On any given day I would be hard-pressed to say why I love my spouse and child.  I could tell you what I love about them, but if you asked my why I love them, I’d likely stammer out, “Because I do.”  It’s a privilege to love others in the cloud of mystery – some bosom friends, a parent or two.  Some loves defy explanation.  I will not name their names in order to protect the innocent, but I have two relatives, married to each other, and for the life of me and everyone else in the family, we cannot figure out what ever got them together, but fifty years later, there they are, tending to each other and bickering and getting creaky together.

Maybe love is more of a mystery because unlike death, we cannot always point to its work.  We see the still, yellowing body and we know that death has come; mystery solved.  But we see a garden, or a child, or we stand in a field in the middle of nowhere and look up at the shimmery night sky, and wonder if love made those things come to be.  We watch the protests, and volunteers going through the rubble, and watch the watchers of the Supreme Court, and wonder if love is the force that weaves them together.

Would I say love is stronger than death? I would. I believe I have evidence to support the claim.  But I would rather join Oscar Wilde in saying that the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.  It is in the mystery where we find ourselves without answers or solutions or our usual bag of tricks. It is in the mystery where we have only ourselves, and those few friends who will stay with us in the uncertainty, and for some of us, the Divine.

It is the mystery of love where I find my greatest hope, because if I cannot explain it, then it must be true.

http://www.forestwander.com

For Jim and Zinnia, with love

Holding fast to the good: Christmas Eve

Haring-Life-of-Christ-Altarpiece-500One of the readers of this blog recently commented that a few of my recent posts have been a bit on the down side, and as I looked over them, I realized she was right.  I have been in a bit of a professional funk, which happens.  I tend to be a glass-half-full kind of person, evidenced by the title of this blog.  The funk needs some personal reflection and you all don’t need to be a part of that.  But I have encouraged myself not only to hold fast to what is good, but to look for what is good, and to share some stories of good news.  So here’s one of those stories.  (And those in it gave me their permission to tell it.)

Our later Christmas Eve service is a beautiful thing.  Our choir sings like the angels.  Our deacons are on it, hospitable with first-timers, alert when all the candles are lit, staying late to clean up afterwards.  The worship committee has worked hard on decorations and details.  But the management of all that falls on me as the pastor for worship.  Do the pastors and ushers have their big candles?  Will the lights go out in the right order at the right time?  Did we print enough bulletins? Did our communion team put the elements in the loft for the choir? Did I remember to remind our congressman that the service starts an hour earlier than it used to, so he won’t show up an hour late?  All of which is to say that sometimes it’s hard to get in the mood for worship when all those details are swirling around in my head.

But I do try to set those details aside; at some point what will happen will happen because of or in spite of all our planning.  And Christmas Eve is so beautiful in the necessary sort of way, even magical for some.  And I love Incarnation maybe more than I love Resurrection.  So here’s a bit of Incarnation reality on Christmas Eve.

Like almost every other church, we light Advent candles for the weeks leading up to Christmas, and on Christmas Eve we light the three purples, the pink, and the big white Christ candle.  We usually ask our new members, folks who have joined in the last year, to light the candles as a way to include them and introduce them.  This Christmas Eve two of our new members were the lighter/readers.  One a soprano from the choir, and one a transgender woman who came to know us because of a tragedy – the murder of a friend of hers who was a member of our church.  They carried out their roles with aplomb and grace and poise.

We pastors processed in during the prelude, and as I settled in and tried to rid my brain of the detaily things and the gnats of minutia, I watched the people come in.  Some I knew; many I didn’t, but there is a joy to watching people come in because it’s Christmas Eve and they want to be in church.  Arriving just a minute or so late were some other new members: a lovely woman and her son who is physically disabled and in a large motorized wheelchair, her best friend, her sister-in-law, and his nurse.  We don’t have a good space for folks in wheelchairs, so they came up and sat in the front row.

As I watched them settle in, I realized that because we were having communion by intinction, everyone who came up would pass by this family as they returned to their pews.  I wondered if it would be hard for some to see this young man in his wheelchair, if for some there is an expectation that everything is pretty and “normal” on Christmas Eve, if the sight of this man would be jarring.  I hoped not, because I know him a little, and because I know that the sight of him in his chair doesn’t begin to capture his personality or his mind, or the love this family has for each other.

Three weeks later, as I think about Christmas Eve and those who were a part of the service, I think we got something right.  Maybe the lights didn’t go out quite right, maybe my meditation was a little more depressing than I had intended, but we got at least one thing right: people who in the past would have been shunned at church were not only welcomed, they were front and center, a part of things.  Because if there is one thing to take away from that stable in Bethlehem, it is that everyone has a place there.  And I will hold fast to that.

“Remembering the stable where for once in our lives

Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

(W.H. Auden, For the Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio)