Love to the loveless shown

Well, our friend Aaron showed up in church this morning.  As is his custom, he made his way to the sacristy, exited into the choir loft, and came down the three stairs to the chancel where my husband/co-pastor Gregg met him and escorted him to the front pew.  He sat with Aaron for a minute, then came back to the chancel, but in his place, one of our deacons sat with him and got him a hymnal in case he wanted to join in on “My Song Is Love Unknown.”  As we sang those words “love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” I watched Gregg and then Gail sit with Aaron, and make him feel welcomed and maybe even loved.

Sometimes I think that maybe Jesus is showing up with us as Aaron.  Every now and then Aaron appears.  Sometimes he’s sober, sometimes he’s not.  Sometimes he asks for a little help and sometimes he just needs to be with our people.  It always feels like a test: will this be the week Aaron does something that simply is not acceptable and we have to ask him to come back when he can observe the community norms?  Will this be the week that someone who doesn’t know Aaron’s story with us is mean or harsh to him?  Will this be the week when he removes his disguise and we realize that Jesus was testing us with the “Love Your Neighbor/Do This To One of the Least of These” exam?

Two weeks ago I preached about hunger and feeding people as a means of reconciliation.  We were writing Bread for the World letters after worship that day, and it all seemed to fit.  The statistics about world hunger are pretty depressing, as much because we waste 1/3 of all food produced as because millions of children are nutritionally comprised.  Here in Portland, a third of all students in Portland Public Schools face food insecurity on a regular basis.  I shared all of that with my well-fed, food -secure congregation.

The next day I get a text from one of the members of the family who is living in their car in our parking lot (with the church and neighborhood’s permission.)  They haven’t eaten in two days – could we help out with a gift card to the grocery store?  I heard Jesus whispering in my ear, “I was hungry  – did you or did you not give me something to eat?”

I came home this afternoon to my lovely house and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I looked around at all our space, and up at the ceiling under the new roof we just got, having driven home with a car full of gas.  Who am I, to have so much when others have little or nothing?  Who am I to not face the demon of substance abuse or mental illness?  Who am I to not be confined by my bad choices?

I don’t know if it’s the luck of the draw, privilege, injustice, prejudice, will, disposition, but lately it feels like Jesus keeps showing up in the guise of those considered by some to be the least of these.  Do I greet him with love?  Do I offer him grace?  Do I ignore him because it’s messy and hard to engage?

I tell myself I do what I can.  We help our parking lot guests out with grocery gift cards.  We have meals with them, but not as often as I think we ought.  We do their laundry, and sometimes that feels like doing ministry more than anything else I do in the week.

They are lovely people, our parking lot guests and Aaron and all of them.  I fear they don’t know that about themselves, and I fear they don’t know that God sees them as lovely, if they even think there is a God.  What they know is that there is this church with people who treat them with kindness.  I hope.

But my relative privilege and my relative wealth – this brand new roof over my head, this ability to buy food whenever I want it – recall another line from the hymn:

“Oh, who am I, that for my sake, my Love should take frail flesh and die?”

Maybe this is really about love

“I wonder who he’ll go see first.  His sister, maybe, or his best friend.  His parents? Maybe.  Or his in-laws.  Or maybe he’ll look for one of his heroes.  But I think Dad will see his sister first.”

I indulge myself in those sorts of thoughts occasionally, setting aside everything I ever learned about theology and Biblical exegesis.  I miss him, so I allow myself to envision my dad wandering around the cloudy expanse of heaven, finding the people he missed so much, those whose deaths left a void in his life, a void that is now gone.

I think that for myself, too – whom would I seek out?  Dad, obviously.  And my aunts, grandparents.  A college roommate.  A woman named Joanna, from the first congregation I served, whose unexpected death after ten awful days of waiting still strikes me to the core.  My cat Bud who was as precious to me as any person.

I don’t know what heaven will be like, if there is a heaven and if I get there.  But I’m not ready to let go of these people, so I cling so tightly to this idea that there is more that awaits us beyond the grave.  Many people I know don’t agree with me on this point, and that’s okay.  I mostly believe in a physical afterlife, and many people I know who believe there is something beyond the grave don’t agree with me  on that point.  That’s okay, too.  None of us will know till we die.

A wise friend of mine, who’s kept track of my grieving, shared that she thinks the second year after losing someone is harder than the first.  I’m testing out her hypothesis.  It feels like Dad has been gone a long while.  The year of firsts is over, but now it’s the year of seconds – the second birthday without him, the second Christmas, the second anniversary.  And that will be followed by the third and fourth and tenth and twentieth. Each anniversary is just a reminder that he is gone, I’ve lost him, he’s not coming back.

So I let myself imagine I’ll see him again, and I imagine he’s having a great time, and he doesn’t miss us because time is different there in heaven, and he’s catching up.

Maybe this is about grief.

It is about grief.

But it’s about love, too – wanting good things in life and life beyond death for those we have loved.  So I hope he has reconnected with his sister and best friend and parents and everyone.

On my dresser I have a little shrine to Dad – a photo of him holding my daughter when she was a baby, at my brother’s wedding.  The frame is flanked by a bottle of Royall Lyme, his aftershave of choice, and a small carved UCLA Bruin.  In front of the frame is a little plastic tray he brought me from Bermuda, and it holds a pocketknife with the emblem of a bank he once worked for.

I say good morning and good night to Dad every day. He doesn’t say anything back.  But I like to think that some day I’ll see him again, face to face, and we’ll say good morning to each other, and this heart of mine which has been cracked up a bit will be all mended up.

Love and grief; what a strange dance they have this side of the door.

royal lyme

Thanks, Mom, with love

I have always appreciated Mom – at least the way I remember it!  I’m sure there were a few adolescent years when the appreciation lay buried deep, but that same appreciation blossomed fully when I became a mother myself.  That’s when I realized that I grew up in a house with a superhero.

In the past few months, my appreciation and love for my mom has changed.  It’s as though it has been burnished by grief and devotion, with a rich patina that can come only from experiencing together sorrow and loss and a recognition of love.

At first Mom was surprised when we all came after we heard that Dad was dying.  We weren’t surprised to do that at all – that’s how we had been raised by the two of them.  You show up.  You wait for each other.  You leave pretense at the  door.

So we were all there, gathered at his bedside.  We four kids would go to our own rooms for the night, but Mom slept in Dad’s room, on the most uncomfortable cot in the world.  She didn’t complain.  She wanted to be there with him and for him, as she had been for 58 years.

And then – I can hardly write this – she stood with us as each of us had to say goodbye to Dad.  Three of us left before he died. I know how I felt when I left his room for the last time; leaving him was the hardest thing I have ever done.

But Mom was there for me, and for my brothers, as we each said goodbye and then cried and cried.  In her grief, in her exhaustion, she was still Mom.  She was still there for us, holding us, comforting us, being present with us in the rawness of grief.

So this year especially, I am grateful for my mother.  I am grateful for her humor and her wackiness, for her generosity and wisdom, and especially grateful for her devotion to Dad through it all, and for her presence with us in those bewildering days in December.

“Thank you” seems such an inadequate thing to say, and “I love you” does too.  The words are paltry, but all that is behind them is not.

Thank you, Mom.  I love you.

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It wasn’t a wedding but maybe it was

All the family was there, and we all looked nice. Lifetime friends from all over the country came, and those who couldn’t sent wonderful cards. The church hosted a reception afterwards, and we schmoozed and hugged and told stories. When it was over, we were glad to get off our feet.

But instead of gifts from a registry, people sent flowers, and instead of a wedding, we had a memorial service.

It reminded me of our family’s weddings, and the camaraderie and deep emotion that flowed these past few days were reminiscent of other, happier gatherings.

I really wish someone had been getting married. I really wish Dad were still here, and I have moments of shock when I realize – in my gut and not my head – that he is gone.

Rumi once wrote, “Our death is our wedding with eternity.” Maybe that’s why things felt familiar. Maybe Dad isn’t gone, but has simply gone on. I like to think so.

In the days to come there will be notes to write, and things to put back in order, and grief that morphs into different grief. But I’m holding on to the the wedding image, too. I imagine Dad raising a glass to our successes. I imagine him finding Benny Goodman’s band and kicking up his heels. I imagine him waiting for my mom to make her entrance, and I hope that doesn’t happen for a good long while, at least in the way we count time.

Maybe life’s great events – birth, marriage, death – are really just variations on a theme: the theme of an unknowable adventure that lies ahead, an adventure that will be the best kind of adventure as long as love is present.

See you soon, Dad – but not just yet.

To my friend who told me that sometimes this blog is what helps get through the day

compassionFirst, thank you – what a kind and generous thing to say.  I am grateful my words might help now and then, because so often words feel like the rustiest, most falling-apart thing in my toolbox of compassion.

And second, and more important, thank you for all that you’re doing.  Thank you for losing  sleep on account of this person you love so much.  Thank you for getting good and pissed off about the whole situation, and swearing sometimes, because (as I told you) I love to swear, and when done properly, swearing is better than a shot of tequila and almost as good as a good night’s sleep.

Thank you, too, for being honest about how hard this is.  It is hard.  It’s excruciating.  It’s hard for the rest of us to watch, and I can’t imagine how hard it is to be in the middle of it all, the uncertainty, the pain, the known and the unknown (which is worse?), the waiting, the running around here and there to see this person and that, to pick up this thing and that, all signs of normalcy gone.  Or this is a new normal, and it’s awful.

Thank you for your constancy. That’s one of my favorite words – constancy.  It means you don’t quit when things get contrary or hard.  It means not changing who you are or what matters to you most even it would be so much easier not to give a damn.  Constancy means showing up, all the time, whether you want to or not.  Constancy is a pretty good expression of love, if not grace. Thank you for your constancy.

Thank you for all you did decades ago, for the foundation you have built.  I hope it’s sustaining you now.  And I won’t thank you for what you will do in the future, because honestly, when this situation resolves itself – however that may be – you deserve a rest and a glass of Chardonnay, and a massage.  If I hear about some awesome Festival of Swearing, I will let you know immediately.  I might go with you.

And thank you for whatever you’re doing this moment, besides reading this post.  Thank you for getting dinner on the table, or ordering a pizza to be delivered.  Thank you for wiping down the bathroom.  Thank you for sitting in traffic, because you have to get to that place by that time.  Thank you for checking Facebook because it’s a moment of escape.  Thank you for taking that phone call, for making that phone call.  Thank you for lying down for a few minutes, not sleeping, but at least resting.

Thank you.  Please don’t forget that you are loved.

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.

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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