Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Simplest Things

Sometimes I still don't know what to say, even after all these years offering pastoral care in all kinds of situations.  I learned that the daughter of a member of my parish died suddenly this morning; no one knows yet why.  On the phone with him, I felt like a stumbling idiot, saying inane things.

Later on, I went to visit my dad in the nursing home where he lives.  All the roads were under construction, it seemed, and when I got to his area, I didn't find him right away.

He was sitting at a table in the corner, his head down, with a piece of cake and some lemonade in front of him.

I went over and sat across from him and held his hands.  "Hi Dad," I said in a loud voice.  No response.  "I'm here.  It's Diane.  How are you?"

No response.  I bent down and looked him in the eye.  I took both his hands, sang a chorus of 'You are my sunshine,' asked him, "What's black and white and red all over?"  I sang a few words of "Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day," and told everyone within earshot about how he used to sing his own version of 'The Sheik of Araby' to us when we were little.

The activity director came over and whispered in his ear.  She said he was really good yesterday; she wished someone had been there.  She gave him a little sip of lemonade.  "Sometimes that wakes him up," she said.  She said she thought maybe he was just tired.  "Are you tired, dad?" I asked.

He closed his eyes.

I sang a little more, though, of course, I don't know all of the words.  I asked him if he remembered helping me with my multiplication tables, or teaching me to drive.  I told him he was a good dad.

Then I thought about how the activity director had spoken right into his ear.  I leaned right into his ear and I said, "I love you."

He nodded.

I don't know why I hadn't thought of it before.  The simplest thing.

"I love you, dad," I said, and he nodded and I thought that somehow, when he looked at me, he saw me, and suddenly, he remembered everything.

"What's black and white and read all over?  Is it the newspaper?"

"Oh, yes," he said.

"Why did the chicken cross the road?  To get to the other side?"

Oh yes.

I sang a few words of "Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day" and he hummed along.  I told him that he was a good dad.  I was glad to be his daughter.  And it seemed like when he looked at me, for a little while, anyway, he remembered everything:  the prayers, the jokes, buttering our toast and riding in the car and going to get Christmas trees in December.

I said I had to leave but I would try to be back soon.

Then I said it again, the only thing I knew to say, right in his ear.

"I love you, dad."

"I love you too."

The simplest thing.

Why didn't I think of it before?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Of Making Many Books

Last week I stumbled into a very large used book sale.  It was set up at an old Border's bookshop, a huge building that has not yet found a new tenant.   For the past couple of weeks, this empty store has been filled with tables and and unimaginable number of cheap books.  Former bestsellers.  Novels.  Books on prayer (there was a very large religion section).  Cookbooks.  Self-help.  History.  You name it.  Most of the books were fairly recent titles, but there were a few of the older and most interesting vintage editions scattered about as well.

Once in awhile I will go into an antique store that has a large book section, and be overwhelmed with the number of old books, most of them old books that I have (often) never heard of before.  A few may have enjoyed a brief celebrity; most of them were deeply obscure to me.

There are so many books in the world.

I didn't grow up around a lot of books.  At least, there weren't a lot of books in our house.  There were a couple of Bibles, a couple of books of Fairy Tales, a few little golden books.  It's not that my parents didn't value reading:  we went to the library a lot; we just didn't own most of the books.

The library then was an amazing place to me.  There were so many books, so many stories, and I wanted to write them too.  I wanted to write stories like the ones about Betsy and Tacy, or the ones about Jo and Meg and Beth and Amy.  I wanted to write stories like the ones about Pippi and the Moffats and the Nancy Drew.

I always thought it was the stories, or the words, or the knowledge that attracted me.  That's why I liked books so much.  I liked the infinity of what you could discover inside a book.  I liked the worlds that opened when you opened the covers.  I liked the sentences that piled up, one after another.

But, as it turns out, it's more complicated than that.

I spent last Wednesday evening making books:  small books, it's true, but making small blank books out of paper and waxed thread.  I simply folded and poked holes and stitched together simple covers and pages.  I used simple tools:  an awl, a needle, a bone folder, and paper.  I learned that books had a head and a tail, a signature or a section, leaves and volumes. I learned a pamphlet stitch and a Japanese stitch.  

I loved making books.

I always thought it was the contents that I loved:  the stories, the sentences, the knowledge, the images. But I loved the covers and the spine, the stitches and the thread, the paper and the feel of everything in my hand.  I imagined how the structure of the book and the contents are inextricably connected.  For example, the simple folded book that folds out like an accordion:  that should be a story about a journey, perhaps, or a treasure map.

As it turns out, I love the whole book:  body, soul and spirit: the weight of it in my hand, the stitches, the paper, the words and sentences too.

Body soul and spirit, it is all art.  We are not containers; we are whole and holy, stitched together with care, every single last atom of us.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

On Father's Day: Lessons from My Dad

1.  Go to church.
There are probably many reasons I still go to church, not the least of them being that I am the pastor.  But one of the reasons I go is that my dad went to church.  Every Sunday.  Not only did my dad go to church, but he actually seemed to enjoy it.

Studies show that children whose father attend church are more likely to continue actively practicing their faith into adulthood.  I don't know why this is, but I am still grateful that my dad went to church.

2.  Sing.
My dad sang in church.  Sometimes in harmony.  He also sang in the car, in the shower, with my mom at the piano, and just about everywhere else.  It's true, he didn't always know all the words, but that didn't stop him.  He sang anyway.  Sometimes he made up his own lyrics.

At least in part because of my dad's influence, I too sing in church.  Sometimes in harmony.  And I sing other places too.  It's true, that singing by amateurs has become a rare phenomenon.  More and more we have learned to leave it to the professionals.  But my dad was a great amateur singer, and he gave me a lifelong love for singing and music, and a conviction that I didn't have to be that good at it to enjoy it.  Every time I stand up in church and chant the liturgy, I have my dad to thank.

3.  Use your imagination.
Here's something I remember:  when my dad used to get us out of the bathtub, he used to sing the song "The Sheik of Araby" to us while he was drying us off with the towel.  However, he used to make up his own words, while he would wrap the towel around us to pretend we were really arabian sheiks, or ghosts, or even Little Red Riding Hood.  He also would sometimes pretend he was Methuselah, the world's oldest man, when he came in to say our prayers with us in the evening.  He would tell us that he remembered all of the Bible characters as he sat on our beds.  He made evening prayer time fun.  He loved to pretend.  And I think that it was because of his imagination that he was also an incurable romantic.  He loved the movie "Pollyanna" and really thought that the world should be a kinder place than it really was.

I hope that I have gotten just a little of his imagination in my life.  Whether I have enjoyed a good pun, imagined a story or a poem, or just imagined the world in a different, better way, I have my dad to thank.

4.  Be there.
Woody Allen once said that half of life is just showing up.  My dad showed up.  I remember my dad sitting across the dining room table with me, helping me memorize my multiplication tables when I was in the 4th grade.  And I remember in high school, my dad sitting across the table from me again, helping me to learn how to do my taxes.  When I was in college one of my friends came to me to help her with her taxes, because I knew what to do.  Her dad always just did hers for her.  When I got my first apartment, my dad gave me my own set of tools.

My dad showed up.  He showed up and taught me how to do things.  He didn't just do things for me (except for the times he opened the lids on peanut butter jars for me.  Even then, he would make a big show of trying to open the jar.  Then he would say, "it's too hard for me.  You'll have to do it."  He gave it back to me and of course, then I could open the jar easily.)

Now, I want to be there for my stepsons, and for my nieces and nephew, not just to do things for them, but to help them to learn to do things for themselves.  I hope that I have given them just a few tools they can use in their lives.  I hope that I've "been there" as well.

5.  Talk to your children about your faith, and your questions.
When I was a teenager, Hal Lindsay's book, "The Late Great Planet Earth" was very popular.  Everybody was talking about the end of the world.  I was very worried about it.  I was only thirteen, and I didn't want the world to end any time soon.  My dad wasn't much of a reader, but he read that book, and I remember us talking about whether the world would end or not.  He took my questions seriously, and he had his own questions, too.  Somehow, knowing that just made me feel better.

6.  You don't have to be perfect.  Just be yourself.
When I was a little girl, my dad was my hero.  Now that I'm an adult, I know that he is a human being, with failings and flaws just like everyone else.  There were times when I really wanted him to be serious, and he really wanted to keep it light.  I know that it was hard for him when his business went bankrupt, but he never talked about it.  He didn't like to talk about things.  He didn't always say or do the right thing.  But he's still my hero.  He taught me how to sing and how to pray.  He gave me imagination and hope and shared his faith.  He was there when it counted.

He was pretty cute too.

What more could a girl want in a father?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

For the Fun of It

Tuesday night, I held the second of a short series of Lectio Divina meetings at church.  I pulled the chairs into a circle, put the small candle out and prepared for whoever might show up.

There were four of us in total, practicing silence and listening and imagination.  We read Sunday's gospel reading.

I knew I was the preacher on Sunday, and one thing I didn't want to do is use the time to do sermon preparation.  I wanted this to be listening for its own sake, not with an end in mind.

But it's harder than it looks.  It's hard to put down the schedule that says I need this many insights for my preaching on Sunday.  I caught myself arguing with myself, a little about a word or a phrase:  why are you listening to that? one of the voices in my ear said.  That's not what you are going to preach about on Sunday.

But I couldn't help it, I kept staring at the word 'love' in Jesus' question to Simon, about the creditor who forgave two of his debtors.  "Which of them will love him more?" Jesus asked.

And I thought:  "What's love got to do with it?  I don't associate the word 'love' with relationships that have to do with money and owing."  For the first time it struck me as an odd question.  "Which of them will love him more?"

You are not going to preach about that, the voice in my head told me.

I thought it was interesting anyway.  As we prayed and listened along, the images I saw were of oil, of an unwelcome guest crashing a party, a man with his arms crossed, his lips pursed.  And what's love got to do with it?  Even if our mortgage company tore up all of our bills, and declared us free and clear, I'm not sure what I would call what I would feel 'love.'

So the next morning I was doing some of my sermon preparation, re-reading the story, taking down notes, examining the scripture and myself.  And, I'll admit it:  I digressed.  It wasn't the direction I was heading for my sermon, but I just had to look up some words in my Greek New Testament.  First the word Love.  What kind of love was it, anyway?  I looked up the word love, and then, just for the fun of it, I looked up the word that meant the creditor 'forgave' or 'cancelled' the debts.  Because, as it turned out, it's a different word than the one normally used for forgiveness.  It has the word 'gift' in it.

Later on, I checked the end of the story, when Jesus said to the woman, "Your sins are forgiven", and discovered that we were back to the more common word for forgiveness, which has to do with release, being set free.  I didn't look it up because I needed to know for my sermon, but just for the fun of it.

For the fun of it.

It's a pragmatic world, and in that world, we think of Scripture often as a tool, a means to an end, whether the end is writing a sermon or 'help in living your life.'

But maybe we're not supposed to use the Holy Scripture so much as be in relationship:  argue, ask questions, wonder, imagine, dig in.

For the fun of it.

I realize that many people don't experience reading the Bible as in any way 'fun.'  Maybe it's all of those thin pages, big words, sort of disturbing stories, or proof texts.  Maybe the burden of understanding it, or even trying to make use of it, makes it even harder.  Maybe we need to invent better tools to get at the fun of it, or just to talk more about the fun of reading the scriptures 'just because.' For the joy of it.

For  the joy of discovering more about the uninvited guests who crash parties, the widows who weep after funeral biers, children who share loaves and fish, Pharisees who stand around with pursed lips and meet with Jesus in the dark.  For the fun of discovering more about the one who comes to parties at Pharisees' houses and lets fallen women blubber all over his feet, and says "Your sins are forgiven."

So no, none of this is getting into my sermon on Sunday, at least not on purpose.  Listening for its own sake:  not with an end in mind.  Like spending a lazy afternoon with my husband, or visiting my dad in the nursing home and singing songs with him, memorizing his face.

For the love of it.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What Does Evangelism Look Like?

Almost every Sunday after church, I stop at the grocery store.  I don't want to cook after a busy Sunday morning, but we do have to eat, so I peruse the deli selection and bring something home.  And I'm not necessarily proud to admit this, but a lot of the people who work at this particular grocery store know me now.  It's a grocery store where they still have baggers who will carry your groceries out to the car, in the event that you have bought more than a couple of sandwiches and some hot deli-made soup.

Sometimes I would do a little grocery shopping along with the deli-perusing, and I often have brief conversations on the way out to the car.  Some are teenagers, others not.

I remember having several conversations with one woman who worked almost every Sunday.  This particular job was not the only place she worked.  I got the impression that she did at least two things in order to make the month come out in the black.

Because I usually wear my clerical collar on Sundays, most of the people who work at the grocery store know I am a pastor.  So among other things, this woman would ask me questions about my church.  What kind of a church was it?  What did we do there?  They were basic questions.  It turned out that this woman did not have much experience in church-going.

I often invited her to come and visit us sometime.  She indicated interested, but would always say (of course) that she usually worked on Sundays.

Then there was on Sunday that she said she would be giving up her weekend work schedule.  I invited her again to come, and especially to try our summer outdoor worship, which had a sort of "come as you are" feeling and a lot less liturgy (though more old-fashioned hymns).  And she seemed really interested in coming.

"If I come, will you sit with me?" she asked.

Then I realized just how easy, and how hard, evangelism is.  It's as easy as inviting someone to church with you.  But here's what's hard:  it's hard to realize the distance other people might have to come, and the barriers they might have to overcome, to respond to your invitation.

I have spent my whole life in the church.  (except for a couple of years in college).  It's the air I breathe, the water I swim in.  And there are a lot of positive things about this.  But for many people, the church is a strange, a foreign and even intimidating place.  Every day I remind myself about this.

So evangelism is a lot of things.  It can be serving where people are hungry or homeless , having conversations with neighbors or family members, any way your share your faith.  It can be as simple as an invitation, except that, as it turns out, the invitation is never as simple as it seems.  Because the invitation will inevitably require us to see everything:  the church, the world, our faith, through another set of eyes.

"If I come, will you sit with me?"