#Lent: With A Puff

#Lent: With A Puff

Ecclesiastes 12

Remember your Creator…

I’m trying to wrap my mind around creation.
I look at my babies for insight
not babies anymore
making worlds with their words
their words
with a logos-like ferocity and will
saying for Thomas the Train “puff puff puff”
and my mind turns to temporality and fragility
water sliding off my skin as I do dishes
looking out the window at the droplets of sun on this winter’s day
but no snow covers the ground
the dirt and dust are ever present with us to remind me
we will someday disappear with a puff,
and I remember my createdness, my creatureliness, my creator.

Practicing Our Faith: Dying Well and Lament

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It was coffee with a friend.

I could see she was on edge. She shared that the night before she had just learned the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer for a close friend. Their kids grew up together. They took family vacations together. His wife is one of her best friends. “I usually don’t want to go against God on most things but this time, I want to fight him,” she said.

My mind went back to my first encounter with cancer. It was a couple of months after I began serving at the church as a pastor for youth and children, and it was the mother of of two young girls – one in middle school and the other in elementary school. She came to my office with her husband asking for prayer and good thoughts because she planned on defeating it and surviving it. I hugged her and said I was here for them for anything.

Fast forward almost a year later, and she was at home on hospice. I hadn’t seen the two girls much – they were not plugged in to the youth group and busy with dance. I arrived at the door and the girls’ father opened the door with a gentle smile and hug welcomed me in and led me to her room. I went in and sat down.

And started bawling.

I had never seen cancer or imminent death. I had never been in the room with another human being whose body laid so wasted and ravaged that I nearly didn’t recognize her. I held her hand, surprisingly warm, but so small, like a little girl’s as she talked quietly to me with eyes closed but that fluttered open here and there. I prayed with her and for her girls. And after a blubbering few more minutes I kissed her cheek, squeezed her hand, and left the room. Out in the living room I hugged the younger daughter and husband and left quickly. I was so embarrassed by my lack of professionalism – I was supposed to be one of their pastors.

And I couldn’t hold it together. After she died, and I attended the viewing at the local funeral home, I hugged dad, girls again and sat in the car with face pressed against the wheel bawling once more. I couldn’t make sense of it. I couldn’t figure it out.

Lately, I’ve been attending an adult Sunday school class on the practices of our faith where we’ve read some of the Dorothy C. Bass book and talked through everyday spirituality. The topics of conversation have lately been around heaven and hell, death and dying, and I keep thinking about what it means to die well. To live well. And, how the line between the two is sort of fuzzy. And, about lament. My good friend, April recently lost her mother, and her blog is teaching me something new about that daily lament.

But we all suffer. For we all prize and love; and in this present existence of ours, prizing and loving yield suffering. Love in our world is suffering love. Some do not suffer much, though, for they do not love much. Suffering is for the loving. This, said Jesus, is the command of the Holy One: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.” ― Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

Is it possible that life is one big lament? If we are truly loving, loving deeply, loving vulnerably, loving with risk and abandonment, then suffering seems inevitable, and some kind of loss and death. And, so, yes, lament – the necessity of it permeates our lives. Lament, certainly in terms of a verbal wailing and crying-out as a response to death and dying, and loss, but also because “we value so highly God’s gift of earthly life,” (Amy Platinga Pauw). We lament over the physical permanence of death, and lament over the suffering of dying and losing, and we lament the daily dyings, the little deaths, the thousand deaths.

“Such utterance staggers and offends among the listeners. But it also opens vistas of possibility where we had not thought to go and where in fact, we are most reluctant to go.” ― Walter Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination

And lament is resistance, too. Because it’s rooted in the hope of God. Lament is prophetic because it speaks to realities that we are called to bring to bear in the here and now. It is kingdom-here. Lament is inconvenient because it makes us stop in the precipice between life and death where we see that it is a space that we all actually occupy simply by virtue of being human. Lament is business-NOT-as-usual, and it is stopping and blockading traffic, and it is hashtags and Twitter teach-ins because it leads us further up and further in.

This is an strange season – I keep thinking about vulnerability, suffering, dying and living well. It’s the thread of lament that compels me to see that the struggle is alive and real. For so many of us. And I wonder what it would be like to shape my ministry around spaces for this lament to happen in healing, transforming ways for individuals and the wider community.

#BeyondSundayMorning: Be the Sign

#BeyondSundayMorning: Be the Sign

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These are the days.

Natalie Merchant came on over the radio as we sat and sipped wine in the brightly lit kitchen that first night. Ministers gone wild is what Jim, one of our hosts, would call the weekend as his wife, Heidi filled up our glasses. Conversations about raising kids and remembering the first week in the church and then lamenting at the exhaustion and hearing how that does change a little when the kids go to school.

When they go to college?!?!? I shrieked, thinking, there’s no way I’m going to make it.

No, no, no, when they go to kindergarten, Heidi laughed. Oh. Thank God.

They talked more about their days, how these days go by so unbelievably fast, and stories of struggle and uncertainty, so human and thankfully real, and that made me think, I’m living those days right now. Truly, these are the days. These are the moments.

***

O God, the insolent rise up against me;
a band of ruffians seeks my life,
and they do not set you before them.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the child of your serving-maid.
Show me a sign of your favour,
so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame,
because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.
-Psalm 86

There are days though that I long for a sign of God’s favor, whatever that might mean right now. I’m not in need of anything dramatic like something thundering from the skies or flaming trees, maybe just a whisper, an inkling, even a peripheral ghosting of that divine and human. Something that makes me breathe and remember and see in new ways, and point me in the right direction.

“But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.” -Aslan in The Silver Chair

Thankful for these words – and thankful for the reminder from the preacher that maybe I’m the sign. Maybe the people gathered together are the sign. Maybe the candles we light together and bread and cup we share together are the signs.

***

I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. -Ezekiel 34

Promises. They’re signs, too. When I feel like perhaps we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere it’s the promises of God’s presence and provision that helps me to see the road marked out in front of me. Even if the road is through valleys, even if the path looks like it’s going straight into an ocean, even if the road is covered in brambles and thorns. The promises are glimpses of that future utopia – a word that I take from Jose Estaban Munoz – an approach to hope as a critical methodology that can best be described as a backward glance that enacts a future vision (from his introduction in Cruising Utopia). To embody hope as perspective, posture, and pursuit – to embody the reign of Christ – to perform it, to enact and live it out – and I’m brought again to the church. How we are called out to do hope – it’s who we are as we have scriptures and stories rooted in resistance. Hope is the stuff of resistance. And so, we gather together weekly, and in gathering together around Word and words, sacrament and song, prayers and peace-passing, we resist the darkness. We receive God’s salvation.

And I will light candles tonight. For Marissa Alexander. For Michael Brown. For John Crawford. For Tamir Rice. For Akai Gurley. For Trayvon Martin. For countless others. For Emmett Till.

We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple. By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas. Psalm 64
#ThrowbackThursday: Accept No Substitutes

#ThrowbackThursday: Accept No Substitutes

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Reblogged from 2012.

I didn’t make it to church this morning. I had every good intention last night, and planned out the morning as I lay in bed so I could squeeze in a shower and smell nice, the babies would eat breakfast and take a nap beforehand.

I know, I know, the road to hell…anyways. The babies went down for their nap, and so did I.

But I continue to mull over what Christine had sent me a while ago – a blog post called “The Desert Mothers Didn’t Change Diapers. But Maybe They Should Have,” written by Penny Carothers, a guest writer on Don Miller’s blog Don Miller Is. She articulates exactly what I have been feeling for a while in terms of thinking that my spirituality, my faith life, my devotional life, my connection to God needed to be a certain way. But, she challenges that obligation, and offers the possibility of “the sanctification of the ordinary” in these words:

[It] has got me thinking: what if there really is a different way? What if God intended the hug of a child to mirror the numinous moment others achieve through meditation? What if attending to the needs and the play of children – really attending, not reading the news on my phone or folding laundry while I listen with half an ear – was a window into the spiritual? What if all I really needed to do was simply be present? After all, God calls himself a lover and a parent, and perhaps there is something to learn in embracing my life rather than trying to escape it so I can have real communion with God.

It’s still a little shocking, but perhaps the most spiritual thing I can do may be to embrace my life as a mother. Not a spiritual, metaphorical mother, but a snot-wiping, baby-chasing, diaper bag-toting mother. Because sometimes it’s not the bible stories or the lectio divina, but the Help! and thank you that a relationship is built on.

So, I put on some classical music for a little bit. The babies and I listened to their Pap’s sermon from last Sunday on my Iphone. We played with rattles and cars. I sang “Spirit of the Living God,”to them. We played with kitchen paraphernalia. I threw them up in the air a few times just to hear them squeal and laugh. I played some more hymns and worship-y songs on the piano. We ate lunch.

It wasn’t church, and I really believe there is no substitute for the communion of saints each Sunday, but I was still blessed by it. I believe I can still worship through attending to these moments, and of course, there’s always next Sunday.

When to Just Go with It or a Casual (First) Communion

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We were singing the second verse of the hymn in preparation for communion. My mind wandered as I thought about the rest of the day – laundry, dinner, camping later in the week when I felt something push against my leg. I glanced down. It was Desmond – an expectant grin, one full of mischief and pure joy like he’s saying, “Surprise!” It’s his usual smile. I looked up and watched the childcare volunteers come in with Anna and Ozzie. It dawned on me that, oh, right, the childcare providers usually come up during communion…which means, the kids come up, too. 

Oh. The kids are going to be here during this time. For communion. Wait a minute. They’ve never done communion. We’ve never talked about it with them. Wait a minute. What do I do???

As the pastor went through the great prayer of thanksgiving and the words of institution I panicked about them being there. They were fidgety, as would be expected, I mean, when are they NOT fidgeting or squirming or flailing or swinging their legs or in general, quiet? Silence has become a stranger to our home since the arrival of the babies. I shuushed and covered Desmond’s mouth with my hand, which of course, made him louder, because apparently that signals “speak up,” rather than “be quiet,” to him. I squeezed him closer to me as he twisted in my lap. Oz sat on the volunteer’s lap playing with two plastic chickens. Two plastic chickens locked in some epic battle over God-knows-what but the conflict was urgent and again, loud. Anna crouched next to me periodically beaming that gorgeous and irresistible smile at me. And incessantly whispering, “Mom, I have a question for you.” But there were hardly ever any questions. Only statements. Observations. Or gibberish.

“For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go. As we stumble through the crazily altered landscape of our lives, we find that God is enjoying our attention as never before. ” -Kathleen Norris

All of a sudden the ushers were there next to us with the plate. And the hesitation melted away as I decided, “oh the hell with it,” just go with it, I nodded, as they looked at me with questioning eyes, “Do we serve the children?” I whispered firmly, “Desmond, Anna, Ozzie, take one piece of bread. This is Christ’s body broken for you.” Desmond declares, “I’m hunky,” (hungry), and Anna says, “I want a snack.” They immediately pop it into their mouths before I can say, “Wait, let’s eat it together with everyone.” Desmond chomps dramatically. Anna smiles even bigger.

I try to say something serious about communion but…I’m at a loss for words. I thought I should at least get them to say the word communion. “Anna, can you say the word ‘communion’? That’s what we are doing right now. Communion. Say ‘communion,'” and all I get in response is: “Mooooo-oooom I want another one.” I see Oz, and the volunteer puts the little square into his mouth, like I would at home if I was trying to get him to eat something but had to do it without disturbing his focus. Because there was no way Oz was going to put down those chickens. As I suspected he didn’t pause even for a moment in his play as he chewed on that piece of bread.

Did I just fail as a parent – a parent who should know how to teach their children about the Christian faith? As someone who wants their children to have meaningful experiences of God and church? Did I fail as a pastor? When I was serving as a minister to youth and children we had workshops for the sacraments. We talked about baptism and communion, and we talked about worship, and all the symbols on the chancel, you know, to explain why we do what we do on Sunday mornings. But I didn’t even have a chance to think about this possibility with the kids before this day. I mean, Andy wasn’t even here. For their first communion.

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“I am the living water…” – Jesus in the Gospel of John

As I was mulling over these thoughts the servers were coming back around this time with the trays of grape juice. I told the children very loudly in my best mom-voice this time to each take one, hold the cup, and not drink it until I said so, mixed in with a speedy, “This is Christ’s blood poured out for you.” We sat there waiting for what felt like an eternity (Desmond spilled half of it on me), and then finally, finally, the pastor said those blessed words, “The blood of Christ,” and we all tipped our little cups into our mouths. Anna chugged loudly. Desmond sipped daintily. I watched Oz drink from his cup and then smack his lips a few times.

I broke inside. How many times do I tell parents, adults, teachers that it’s okay if they don’t totally “get” it – how many of us grownups can articulate with total certainty that we understand the depth and mystery of God’s love for us in this moment? And here I was watching and feeling it all for the first time as a miserably hopeless failure of a parent in need of God’s grace as much as these babies in front of me. They weren’t dressed up in fancy new clothes and I didn’t do any Pinterest-worthy activities to prepare them for this moment, and they certainly had little idea what made this meal sacred and special. It was no different from them sitting in their carseats and me throwing goldfish crackers at them in the car from the driver’s seat because I forgot their snack traps again.

And, it was really, truly okay. I was so happy for a moment that I clutched Desmond a little too hard and he squealed like one of their bath toys being stepped on. Everyone’s heads swiveled towards me as I looked toward the ceiling pretending not to notice. I know I was being judged and questioned, and now more eyes looked my way, but who cares? I watched the way they ate and drank, and I loved that they had no idea what we were doing right then and there, why or what it was called anyway. It was a gift. They were there. And they ate. And…that fed me. It filled me. It led me to Jesus’ table in a new way. Because I imagined what it would have been like for children to have been at that last supper with Jesus. I’m sure they would have been loud and disruptive, but then periodically solemn and watching everything like Desmond and Anna. Maybe some of them would have been coloring or playing quietly with toys and would be handfed by caretakers, too, like Oz. I thought that Jesus would have been more than okay with children being at that meal. In fact, in so many ways it would make sense that it wouldn’t have just been the male disciples, but whole families, men, women, and even children all gathered together, for Passover, for communion.

“I wonder if children don’t begin to reject both poetry and religion for similar reasons, because the way both are taught takes the life out of them.” – Kathleen Norris

I remembered then how we take ourselves out of the story sometimes. And, many times those in power take over the narrative, and they take the least of these out of the story, too. Then everyone misses out, misses something, we all lose out, we then make it rote and routine, mindless, because it’s bland and homogeneous, we aren’t on the edge of our seats, we’re sitting back, eyes glazed over, but in these odd and ordinary moments – these moments when we have to pay attention in another way, when we have to make a decision about who should be there, then we listen to the words, and taste the dry crumbs from a carefully slice loaf of bread, remembering that these moments together, even in the casual, even in the unplanned, unexpected, and uncertain, these are moments of resistance. Our words, our prayers, our songs, our sipping lightly from plastic cups that will later be tossed in the recycling bin – in fresh ways, in uncomfortable ways, these are acts of resistance, our protest against the darkness, against hopelessness, against the normative, against all who would say, “No. You shouldn’t eat at the table because you don’t understand it, you don’t deserve it, you don’t look or sound like us.”

As Nadia says, “Jesus still calls the tax collectors and prostitutes and housewives and social workers and Pharisees into the very heart of God. So come and join me at his table, at this holy of holies, not because you have made it past the velvet ropes, but because the ground at the foot of the cross is level and there is room for all of us.” There’s so much that can gather us around God’s table, but these days, what feels provocative and compelling, what feels like living and life is the struggle – it’s the struggle that binds us together, the struggle and angst, the drama and grief, and the clinging to utopia, that makes me keep going back to that table. Even when I don’t feel like it. When I don’t feel it. And even as we sit at the table, squiriming, flailing, playing with our damn plastic chickens, what matters is that we are there, and we receive, and that’s all we need to do in the end, is just receive and eat – who cares if we know what it’s called – just open our mouths, and chomp and chug like it’s the best snack in the world.

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