Tuesday, January 29, 2013

People Are Needy. People are Gifted.

One of the hazards of visiting people in the hospital, in nursing homes, and while they are grieving is coming to regard people as the sum total of their needs and deficiencies.

I visit people when they can't get out of bed.  I visit people when they are numb with grief.  I visit people when they have forgotten who they are, or when their hands tremble, or when all they can swallow is the tiniest bit of a wafer dipped in wine.  I visit people when they are helpless.  I hold the hands of people who are at the end of their rope, and sometimes it feels like it is my job to tie the knot that they can hang on to.  Or Something.

This is called Pastoral Care.  It is to go and pray for people, to say the words of hope, to give the bread and wine that feeds people, to listen and to keep saying the most important things, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever.  God is for you.  Nothing can separate you from God's love."

There's something humbling about this.  I remember going into a hospital room where a parish member really wanted a nurse to take her to the bathroom more than she wanted to talk to me -- at least at that moment.   Whatever it was I have to offer, it sometimes doesn't seem to be nearly enough.

But there's something else as well.  When I go to visit someone in the hospital, or a nursing home, or to plan a funeral, and I call that "pastoral care",  I'm tempted to see myself as the giver and the other person as the "needy person", and it's so much more complicated than that.

I also will go out to coffee with a church member, just to get to know them better, to hear some of their stories, to find out what they are passionate about, to learn about their family or their work.  I once got to hear a story from a woman who broke up a schoolyard fight when she was ten, and knew, right away, that this was her vocation.  Recently someone else called me and said she wanted to get together so she could figure out what she could offer to her church, now that she was retired.

I'm beginning to think that this is pastoral care too, and that pastoral care that focuses exclusively on people's neediness is not as helpful as it seems.  Instead of just praying for people, maybe good 'pastoral care' will pray with people;  instead of seeing myself as giver and the other as 'receiver', maybe good pastoral care will see us as partners, with gifts to offer each other, with ministry to do together, for the sake of the world.

Once I heard someone say the phrase "the less fortunate", as in "at Christmas-time, let's give to the 'less-fortunate.'"  Something about the phrase bothered me, the way it separated people into "them" and "us" -- as in *them* the needy ones, and *us* the  gifted ones, the fortunate, the givers.  But it's a lot more complicated than that, isn't it?  We're all needy, and we're all gifted.  Some wounds are on the outside.  Some gifts are hidden on the inside.

One of the hazards of visiting people in the hospital, in nursing homes, and while they are grieving is coming to regard people as the sum total of their needs and deficiencies.

The truth is, people (including me) are the sum total of their needs, their deficiencies, their stories, their gifts, their hopes, their fears, their strengths, their utter helplessness,  and, most of all, the indelible mark of God upon their lives, which expresses their incalculable worth.  "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever."

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Any Which Way You Can (A Post on Prayer)

I've been reading Anne Lamott's little book on prayer, "Help. Thanks. Wow:  Three Essential Prayers" lately, and considering my own prayer life, which has had its fits and starts over the years.

I don't consider myself the world's best pray-er.

I don't consider myself the world's worst pray-er either, though.

I have a decidedly eclectic approach to prayer, myself, though not exactly as irreverent as Anne Lamott.  For example, I don't think, like she does, that it doesn't really matter at all what we call God (she has a funny bit about someone who calls God "Harold," as in "Our Father in Heaven, Harold be thy name," though it's a well-known bit to many church-goers.)  I think there are many good names for God, and probably a few bad ones, too.  There *are* actually unhelpful ways to imagine God.  On the other hand, her utter honesty with regard to her own spiritual deficiencies is essential, and may be the one thing everyone needs to know about prayer.

This is an endorsement for the no-holds-barred, totally free-wheeling, honest prayer, just telling God whatever is on your mind.  I'm all for that. Be honest.  Don't try to be too pious.

We try to keep it simple in confirmation.  Like Anne Lamott, sometimes we just do one-word prayers.  We say thank you, and then simply tell God what we are thankful for.  A couple of weeks ago I asked them to just offer up a name of someone they wanted to pray for.  They've known each other for awhile now, and they all had a person they wanted to pray for.  That's all you have to do.

I'm all for keeping it simple, and honest, and saying what's on your mind.

But, I'm also for the by-the-book, beautiful, centuries-old prayers of the past.

Because sometimes, you know, Paul is right, and I really don't know how to pray as I ought.  Sometimes I'm being all "honest" and sounding all colloquial and one of my favorite prayers, something that another person thought of, before I did, will be the best prayer I could ever pray.

Yes.  It's sometimes like that.

Anyway which way you can:  that's the way to pray.  Pray the prayers in the book, speak in tongues, say one word, write prayers in a journal, draw prayers in living color. Sing.  And any other way you can think of to pray.  And, oh yes, listen.  Silence is a good prayer.  It's a sort of expectancy, not-knowing-what-comes next, but thinking that something will.

I have three (at least) favorite written-out prayers.  One I learned from our Matins service.  I could say it all the time.  I'm not sure I would think of it on my own, but whenever I pray it, I think, "this is really what I need to ask for."

*O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.*

The second is in our hymnal as the "general intercession."  One summer I was printing a prayer, or a way to pray ever week in our bulletin.  One week I printed this prayer.  One of my parish members had the bulletin in her purse when she went to visit her mother, who was dying.  She pulled it out, and prayed it.  She told me this.

*Watch, dear Lord, those who wake or watch or weep, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, rest the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous.  In your love,  give us all this, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.*

The third one is the Old Sarum Prayer, "God, be in my head, and in my understanding....."  And I'll tell you why I like it.  One year, during Lent, we decided to teach a prayer to the congregation.  We had a signer and there were a couple of families who who had hearing loss issues.  So we learned this prayer, and said it, and signed it, every week.  The last week we did not say the prayer, but we only signed it, in silence together.

God be in my head, and in my understanding, God be in my eyes, and in my looking, God be on my lips, and in my speaking, God be in my heart, and in my thinking, God be at my end, and at my departing.

There are many ways to pray, for that I am grateful, because I am not the world's best, or world's worst pray-er.  I just flail about, any which way I can, and the Spirit helps me in my weakness, with a word, or a sigh or a song.  

God be at my end, and at my departing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On Sweaters and the Baptismal Life

This will possibly be printed in my church newsletter this month.

I’ve been working on knitting my first sweater for over two years now.  

I didn’t start out wanting to learn to knit sweaters.  I started out wanting to learn to knit socks.  But when I would go to the yarn store to buy yarn, or ask a question, or just knit together with other people, there would always be these beautiful sweaters hanging up all around the shop.  Many other people would be working on their sweaters, which gave me the impression that someday, I too, might be able to knit a sweater.  The store owner would also say to me, over and over, “I don’t understand why you aren’t knitting sweaters.”  Other people would say to me, “Your stitches are so even and pretty”, a form of flattery that often makes people decide to do something they were not going to do at first.

It was not long after I broke down and decided to knit a sweater that my colleague decided to retire.  Perhaps that is why it is taking me so long to finish the sweater.  Perhaps not.

So, I say that this is my "first sweater", but it may also be my last sweater.  I don't know what I will do after I finish it, if I finish it.  I'm not sure that I'm going to try another sweater.  Sometimes I think it is going to be quite beautiful, and other days I wonder if it will fit at all.

The sweater is going to be a pretty green tweed wool.  The yarn feels in my hands as if it would make a good sweater for a cold day like today.  I now have a back, two side panels, and two sleeves.  I am now learning how to sew seams in knitting, which is not as easy as it might sound. 

When I wonder if I will ever finish this sweater, I think two things:  I think of the beauty of the yarn, and I imagine what the sweater will look like when it is finished.  Sometimes that keeps me going.  Other times, it is the people at the yarn store who tell me they will not allow me to quit.  I don’t know what they plan on doing, actually.  I imagine them hunting me down where I am hiding with my miserable unfinished sweater, and threatening me with those shiny circular needles they like so well.

One thing is certain:  I didn’t know what I had gotten into when I bought those nine balls of yarn and began.  I didn’t know what I had gotten into, and if I had, perhaps I wouldn’t have begun at all. 

So it is often a grace that we don’t know what we are getting into when we begin.  No one asks us if we want to be born, and, in my tradition, at least, most of us don’t have the opportunity to be asked if we want to be baptized.  Our parents, for better or for worse, just bring us to the font – and there were are – smack dab in the middle of the mission of God.

Even those of us who get to answer the question, “Do you want to be baptized?”,  and answer “yes”  -- I’ll wager really don’t have any idea what they are getting into.  Do we really know what the baptismal life is all about?  It is a life where we reflect the glory of God, who knows how, a life where we sometimes walk on long and lonely roads, a life where we might be caught standing around in a circle saying prayers at a cemetery on the coldest day of the year.  Sometimes it’s hard.  Sometimes we might even be tempted to give up.

In those times, I imagine our brothers and sisters in Christ, saying to us, “We will not let you give up.  You can do this.  You reflect the glory of God in your life.  You do.  We can see it.”

So, I’ll let you know when I finish the sweater.  And you reflect the glory of God in your life.  Preach it to one another.  Your stitches are beautiful.  And we love you too much to let you give up.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

On How Going to Nursing Homes Skews my Perspective

I remember when I was a very little girl, that I used to go to visit my grandma Mary in the nursing home.  She was actually my great-grandmother, my mother's grandmother, but we called her "Grandma Mary."  I would visit her in her room, and she would always send me away with some little possession of hers.

My grandparents did not have a good opinion of nursing homes.  They didn't say much about them, but it was clear that they did not have a good opinion of them.  My grandfather said once that the nursing home is where you go to die.

Now I go to nursing homes with some regularity.  Sometimes I go to do a church service, to play the piano and read scripture and pray with the residents.  Sometimes I go to bring communion or visit.  Some of the people I visit are temporary residents, doing therapy, and others are there permanently.

Whenever I go, I always look around, to see what signs of home they have chosen to decorate their home.   I look at the pictures of children and grandchildren, the quilt folded on the edge of the bed, the needlepoints on the wall.  I visited one woman who had a big easy chair in the corner of her room, and a stack of daily papers neatly in one corner.  She still read the morning paper every day, and her little room was more like a studio apartment.

Except that it was a nursing home.

Another woman had a whole shelf of toys, most of them gifts that people would drop off for her.  It seemed to me that she had every single singing stuffed toy on the market, including a stuffed walleye that sang Doobie Brothers songs.  Everyone loved to stop by her room and play, except on the days when another of her roommates would get sick, and die.

Just before Christmas I visited another woman in her room.  Her wall was plastered with pictures of her children, as well as glittery Christmas decorations.  Another woman had a lot of her hand-made hardangar on the wall.  We always had good visits, once she remembered who I was.

My husband says this is not normal, but I will on occasion make a statement about my possessions, something on the order of "this is something I would probably take with me to 'the home'."  He says that I am far too young to be thinking about things like this.  I don't know why I do.  I think about what it will be like sometime, to live in a little room, to have a smaller life.  I think about what is most important now, what will be most important then.  Will it be reading the daily newspaper, or hearing music, or keeping a favorite picture?  Will I even be able to see the favorite picture?

I don't know why I think about it  My husband thinks it's unusual.  I have a skewed view.

Maybe it goes all the way back to when I was a little girl, and my great-grandmother gave away something every time I visited her.  She had just a few things left, but she was giving them away -- a handkerchief here, a stuffed toy there.

It was like she was giving away her life.

That's what it was:  odd but true.

Our lives are not ours to keep, only to give away.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


I've known the word "Epiphany" (Capital E) since I was a little kid; I was brought up in the proudly liturgical (but not too high-church) Swedish Lutheran tradition, and we had Sunday School books that actually taught not just Bible stories, but what every part of the liturgy meant.

Epiphany:  the end of Christmas, the coming of the Three Kings, the season between Christmas and Lent.  There is something to do with light here.

Then, on the first year of my senior year of High School, my English Literature teacher taught us the meaning of the word "epiphany" (small e).

She taught us by telling us a story.

She told us that when she first went to school, she did not learn to read.  She just did not "get" reading. She didn't understand the connection between all the marks in the books and the words she was hearing.  She actually memorized the lessons every night, with her mother reading to her, and her learning the pages, but not comprehending the connection.

Every day she would get up for her turn, and all she would do is recite.  She was not reading.

Then, suddenly, one day, she said, it all came together.  She was reciting in front of the class, the way she always did, when, instead, she was reading.  She didn't "figure it out".  She didn't logically work through the steps.  It just suddenly occurred to her.

That's an "epiphany", she said.  It's when suddenly, everything comes together, the lightbulb comes on in your head, and you say, "aha!  that's what it is.  that's what it means."

She said that the author James Joyce used the word "epiphany" in this way.

She said that she hoped we would all have plenty of "epiphanies" in her class.

I'm not sure that she meant to, but her class also changed the way I look at scripture, even the way I study scripture.  Reading scripture isn't just (or even primarily) about 'figuring out what it means'.  It's letting the words get down into the soul, the heart, the guts.  Sometimes, I'll be reading along, not even knowing how much I really don't know what I'm reading, or hearing, when a phrase I hear will suddenly shine a light into places I didn't know existed.


Old Simeon comes to the temple every day.  He reads the Bible, and he even thinks he knows what it means.  He is waiting for the Messiah.

Then one day a young couple walks in, carrying a child.  Suddenly he sees.  He doesn't figure it out.  He doesn't travel from A to B to C to D in his mind.

"My eyes have seen my salvation," he says, in a flash, in an instant, in an epiphany.

We hold a baby in our arms, or we catch the eye of the widower who sits alone in the back of the church, or we see a woman sit down on the bus, and not get up.  And there is this flash when we see:  the face of God, our mission in the world, the work of justice.

In the darkness, the light shines.  In a flash, for an instant, but again and again.

And I am so grateful that this is so.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Accidentally and On Purpose

We're on vacation right now, for just a little while longer, anyway.   And I brought a little prayer book, and I brought a little New Testament, but I haven't spent a lot of time (truthfully) doing the daily prayers and reading the daily readings.

But I have been walking, sightseeing, planning and discovering.  And I think those are spiritual practices too.

We took a planned tour the other day, which turned out to be a good idea, since it was sort of a drizzly, cold morning.  We had a wonderful guide and got oriented to the city.  Then we got off the bus and walked, which was part of the plan, but turned out to be a bad idea, mostly.  It got colder and more than drizzly and the buses seemed to disappear.  I sort of got disoriented and started walking the wrong way a couple of times, which turned out to be because I was reading the map upside down.

But then, at one point, we just walked into this funky old locksmith store.   I saw a newspaper article near the entrance.  It turns out that the owner of this store saved the stools from the lunch counter where civil rights activists sat during the 60s, protesting Jim Crow there.  They were just sitting there, in all their shining silver and orange-seated glory.

Yesterday was sunny and beautiful.  We decided to walk.  And we had a list of things we wanted to make sure to see, too.  The Owens-Thomas House, an old bookstore, a couple of other things, a civil rights museum.  But the museum was closed, and as we were walking and looking for something else, we just happened to be standing by Temple Mickve Israel, the third oldest synagogue in the United States.

We actually got to see a Torah Scroll which was brought over to America in 1733.  We toured the sanctuary, with its beautiful stained-glass windows and gothic architecture.

I think it's a good thing to have a list and check things off, sort of like saying your prayers from the book, and on purpose.  But it's also a good thing to find yourself in a holy place, not by plan but by accident, and realize that God was in this place, too, and you did not know it.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Dog and God

I've been reading a book called The Divinity of Dogs lately.  It was a Christmas present from one of my stepsons, an astute giver.  The book is full of stories about dogs, dogs who have known what to do and what to give in moments of crisis, dogs who were patient and loved without limits, dogs who have sacrificed to make a connection with us humans.

In one story, a dog befriended a young boy with a terminal illness.  At the hospital, the dog was allowed into the room and leapt up on the bed just before the boy experienced his first seizure.  In another story, a dog became the confidante of a young autistic boy who was being bullied, and helped him to know he had a friend in the world.

Reading this book, I couldn't help thinking about our own beloved dog, Scout, she of the one ear that flops and the other that doesn't.  I couldn't help thinking of her serious brown eyes and how she stares at us, sometimes, in the morning, and how, when I call her to come in from the back yard, she often stares at me, and doesn't come in.  I couldn't help thinking about her and how recently, when I called her to come in and have her dinner, she was trying to squeeze her head under the fence back yard.

That's right.

It was just before Christmas on a Friday night when my husband called and told me that he had let our Scout out in the backyard, but she seemed to have found a method of escape.  He couldn't find out where.  He said I would have to find her when I got home, as he had to practice for a piece in a Christmas concert.

I drove home in a dark and sort of desperate mood.  Scout is light-colored and hard to find in the winter when it has snowed.  I worried that she might be hit by a car.  When I rounded the corner to our house, I saw her right away.  She was walking down the middle of the street, possibly sauntering, even.  I could tell she recognized my car, so I stopped in the street and rolled down the window.

She jumped up on the window and I grabbed her collar and held on.  Now I had her, and I didn't know what to do with her.  I tried to unlock the door and unfortunately made the window start rolling up again.  Also I realized that I would have to disentangle myself from my seatbelt.

Now Scout was whining, a little, but I knew that if I let go she'd be running down the street, and would not come to me if I called.  So I kept working until I could hold her collar with my other hand, and open the door enough to slide out.

That's our divine dog, if dogs are divine.  Are dogs divine?

It depends on what you mean.

When I read the stories of the comfort dogs who visited Newtown, Connecticut, I know that dogs are divine, in some way or another, that they carry a presence within them, that somehow they are able to be ministers of divine love.  I know I don't think that "Dogs are God", any more than I am, but I do know that dogs have a place in God's world.

The thing is, even though I have no stories about how Scout rescued me, and many stories about how she has been a sort-of pain in the neck sometimes, I still believe that Scout is a creature of God, and that she somehow is a minister of divine love.  Despite her quirks, despite her "failings" (if you can call them that), she does good.

And I too, despite my failings, despite the fact that I don't always come when called, do good.  I am an instrument of God's peace.  I don't always believe this, but I look at my dog, and I know that it's true, and it can be true, too.