Friday, November 29, 2013

Giving Thanks

Lately, I am late.  That is to say, I haven't been timely.  I have thought about things to say about current events, but it seems these "things to say" occur to me after the moment of interest has passed.

So it is with Thanksgiving, which was yesterday.

It seems to me that thanksgiving is an art.  It is not as easy as it looks, and even harder to do well.  So, many of my friends have been posting one thing each day that they are grateful for, and others have not participated because they fear a sort of gluttony of gratitude, where the thanksgivings begin looking more and more like those Christmas letters you receive where it seems that the whole family, including the dog, has been airbrushed.  (There is an art to those yearly Christmas letters, as well, but, that's a topic for another day.)  None of the thanksgivings I have read this year sounded airbrushed to me.  One of my friends did make me laugh one day.  She was on her 44th day of thanksgiving (she took a slightly longer time frame than the rest of us), and she gave thanks that she had not been abducted by aliens during the past year.

Like I said, thanksgiving is an art.  It's not as easy as it looks.  It is even harder to do well, and keep doing, every single day.  Five things come to mind that help:

1.  Creativity.  It helps to have a skewed view of the world, where you can be grateful that you were not abducted by aliens, for example.  It helps to be able to stand on your head as well, sometimes, at least figuratively.  Yesterday at thanksgiving dinner there were a number of adults of all ages, but only one small child.  But she set a place for her imaginary friend, Dora.  So I give thanks for her, and her friend, and the small yellow plate at the end of the table.

2.  Mindfulness.  It helps to pay attention, although it is no mean feat in this busy and distracting world of ours.  Sometimes, though, the distractions that feed gratitude, as when a woman came into my office this morning in tears, asking me to pray for her and her family.  Then I was grateful that I was in the office, grateful for the gift of tears, even grateful for my own grieving that helped me to be present with her.

3.  Simplicity.  Rather than the big things, give thanks for little things, both seen and unseen:  a cup of tea, the color green, air, an old photograph.  Take time to taste, to smell, to see, to hear, to touch.  I sometimes realize that I eat without really tasting my food, after the first bite, much less taking time to give thanks for it.  It is sort of ironic given the fact that every meal begins with saying grace.

4.  Empathy. Can we give thanks in such a way that it doesn't sound like we are so grateful that we are not in someone else's shoes?  Be grateful for a home, and then work to end homelessness.  Be grateful for your thanksgiving table, and work to end hunger.  It also helps to widen our circles of relationships and hear stories from people we do not yet know.

5.  Honesty.  There are days when it is really hard to give thanks, days when you know you have let someone else down, or someone has let you down, when you are more aware of deficiencies than your gifts, when pain is raw and beauty is overcast with grief.  Thanksgiving that does not acknowledge all of our lives is not true, or really gracious.

Thanksgiving is an art.  I am not sure that I am very good at it.  But I will try to keep my eyes peeled, by ears and my heart open, my hands empty.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Christ the King

It sounds so regal, doesn't it?  So triumphant.  "Christ the King."  There is an unmistakable emphasis on power in this name, and I can't help thinking, at least sometimes -- shouldn't we have a good resurrection story today?  One where the tomb is empty and the angels are outside and they are frightening the women with their strange appearance and stranger words.  "Who are you looking for?  Whom are you seeking?"  And it is clear that Jesus is not in the tomb -- because he is risen.  Christ the king.  The power of his resurrection which brings all of us to life.

But the mysterious people who put together our lectionary -- that is the readings appointed for every weekend of the year -- they never do that.  Not even once.  They never give us a good resurrection story.  Instead, sometimes we hear the story about the King who divides the sheep and the goats, and who is found in the least and the little and the last.  Or sometimes we hear the story of Jesus before Pilate -- and Pilate is saying to Jesus "Don't you know that I have the power to crucify you or to let you go free?"  or sometimes we hear the story of Jesus on the cross, between two thieves.  Christ the King.

It is the end of the church year -- the beginning of another.  Next weekend it will be December and children will begin opening the doors on advent calendars and wondering what is inside each one.  We will begin lighting Advent wreaths and those of us who haven't already begun Christmas shopping -- well, we'll be acutely aware that we must begin NOW, or soon.   And "Christ is King."  That's what we say.  But what do we mean?

I can't help thinking that something is missing.  Maybe it's a good resurrection story.  Maybe that's what it is.  Maybe it's a story that makes us know, be certain, that everything will turn out all right.  Jesus has risen, and the dead will rise, and Christ is king.  Is that what is missing?  What do you think?

Instead, here is Jesus, on the cross.  Between two thieves.  There is nothing in this scene that would indicate that Jesus is a king -- nothing that would make us certain.  There are so many missing pieces.  And there are these two thieves.  One of them taunts Jesus, but the other one says, "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom."  And if you think about it -- why would he say this?  How would he ever think that this man hanging next to him has a kingdom?  What moment of insight did he have?  This conversation is such a mystery that people have written stories to try to explain it -- some that he and Jesus had known each other long ago, and the thief had gone on to a life of crime.  But Jesus went on to be a healer and a prophet.  Others speculate that this man had encountered Jesus somewhere in his ministry.  Whatever.  We want to fill in the missing pieces.

Something is missing, that is sure.  Whatever it is, the thief turns to Jesus and says, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom."  Somehow, whatever is missing, he knows -- that Jesus is a king, and that it is possible, perhaps, that he might even have a place there.

But that is our life, isn't it?  There are missing pieces, and there is missing peace.  It was true fifty years ago, when a nation grieved the violent death of its president.  And it is true today.  There are  missing pieces in our lives, some small and sharp, some deep and hollow.  There is something missing.

And into the middle of those pieces, we proclaim, we say that "Christ is king."  That the one on the cross, offering forgiveness to tormenters, offering paradise to thieves, is the one true ruler of the world.  Who knows how we know?

So on Christ the King Sunday, we share God's peace with one another, and we live with the pieces, sharing them too.  They are pieces of bread.  They are pieces of our lives.  They are pieces of our hopes.

And we follow the King, the one on the cross, the one who remembers us, the crucified one, who lives.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Apostles Creed, redux

After my father died, we were going through old photo albums and scrapbooks together, and I found the bulletin from my commissioning service, just before I was going to Japan to be a missionary.

As part of the service, I wrote my own "creed" and interspersed my own confessions between the community's recitation of the three articles.  I hadn't yet been to seminary, and only had a couple of College religion classes under my belt, so I don't know which of the major heresies I committed.  

Anyway, for your perusal:

All:  I believe in God, the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
Candidate:  I believe is he always before me.  He created me before my birth, giving me unfolding individuality.  He knew and nurtured my ideas and thoughts, plans and dreams.  He knows all of the impossible things I want to do in my life.  He clears the way ahead of me.  He makes the roads I travel upon; he is the creator of all of the tasks that I undertake.  I believe in God the Father Almighty.

All:  I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.  He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended into hell.  On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Candidate:  I believe he is always beside me.  We walk side by side in our Father's service, he, giving me strength, I, telling the story of his love.  He is the purpose behind all my plans; his story is theme behind all my life.  I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.

All:  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  Amen.
Candidate:  I believe he is always behind me.  He is the still small voice of God, who steers me along, whispering in my ears, telling me to have hope even when things look dark.  he calls me ahead daily into uncharted and unknown countries, while guarding me against too hasty retreats.  I believe in the Holy Spirit.

Friday, November 8, 2013

What Love Looks Like

My father died last week.  His funeral was Saturday morning, at my parents' church.

It was a beautiful, clear day.  Members of the Swedish men's chorus my dad had belonged to showed up.  They sang three songs.  My dad's two older sisters were there, my mom's older sister and younger brother, and a number of cousins, too.  There were friends of my parents there, some who had known them since they were first married well over fifty years ago.  I thought I was doing pretty well until one of my cousins came up to me, just before the service started, and said, with tears in her eyes, "I am going to miss your dad."

I sat between my mother and my sister.  She sang alto on all the hymns.  I tried to sing high tenor on a couple of them, but I don't reach the high notes like I used to.  Besides, I was crying.  My nephew, who leads a local rock band, played a portion of the song "Misty" as part of the remembrances.  He learned "Misty" just because his grandfather liked that song.

After the service and the luncheon, we all went home to rest for awhile.

Then, later in the evening, I drove up to my mom's house, where my sister was staying for the week.  The three of us drove from there to my brother's house.  Then my brother drove all four of us to a bar where my nephew's band was head-lining.  He was supposed to go on at 10:00 p.m.  A couple of my cousins joined us as well.

So there we were, at 10:00 p.m., sitting around a dark, smoky room, munching appetizers and drinking iced tea, listening to noisy and unknown (to us) bands, waiting for my nephew to appear.  One of my cousins was teasing my mom about whether she would be part of the "mosh pit" (terminology that I had just recently learned).  Later on, when my nephew started, we made our way up to the stage, where the beat of the drums and the bass made our hearts skip.  We watched my nephew as he took on his "rock star" personality.   At one point, my nephew used bad language.  One of my cousins reached out to cover my mom's ears.

All of us think my nephew is very talented.  We are all very proud of him.  But, to be honest, for at least some of us, this was not "our kind of music".  It also wasn't the kind of venue that we would probably think of attending on our own.  We weren't there because we were hard rock music fans.

We were there because of love.

Especially I think of my mom.  She's never been a big fan of bars.  In fact, until her grandson started playing music there, I'm not sure she ever set foot in one.  But there she was, until all hours of the night.  She wouldn't have been any other place.

When I think about the mission of the church, why it succeeds, why it fails, I don't think it has to do so much with strategy as it has to do with love.  It doesn't matter what kind of strategy you have, if you don't have love that will impel you to go places you would never otherwise go, and do things you would never otherwise do.  It's as simple, and as difficult, as that.

So, on Saturday, my mother went to church for a funeral for her husband.  And she went to a bar for a rock concert by her grandson.

That is what love looks like.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Celebration of Life

More and more, it seems, instead of funerals, there are these events called "A Celebration of Life."  We don't use this language at my congregation, but I see it everywhere.  And I know that this trend has been roundly criticized by most serious and pastoral theologians.  It is is part of the denial of death.  Someone dies.  Instead of grieving, we celebrate.  Funerals are depressing, after all.

I am not here to deny any of these realities.  It is true.  Our culture is deeply death-denying.  We're not all that fond of aging, either.  I, personally, have been putting a lot of lotion on my neck recently, even though I know it doesn't do any good.  Why do I do it?  I don't want to look too old. I don't want to think too hard about the fact that someone I loved has died, and that someday, I will die, too.

So, yes, I suppose that the motivation for a Celebration of Life is at least, in part, due to our deep desire to avoid anything unpleasant, or depressing.  But lately, I have been thinking that there might be something else going on as well.  We desire to have a Celebration of Life not just because we want to deny death, and deny grief, but for another reason as well.

Recently, my father died, after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease.  This time I was on the other side of the desk, with the mourners, the rememberers.  I was considering scripture and music and what we would say during the service.  I was with my family, going through pictures, sharing stories, trying to put together a collage of pictures that would say something about my father's ordinary, un-celebrated life.  Besides the pictures, we had mementos of his time singing with a Swedish Men's Choral Group, and a small collection of Mickey Mouse pictures and stuffed toys (my dad thought that he and Mickey Mouse shared a birthday).

My father was an ordinary person.  He sold and repaired radios and TVs, he raised a family, he sang, he told jokes.  He picked up stray dogs when he was little, but his parents never let him keep one.  Later on he learned to tinker with radios.  He was always amazed by the miracle of broadcasting.  He lived all of his life in Minneapolis, but after retirement, loved spending the winters in Arizona.  He was amazing with voices and accents, and until he lost his hearing, he had pretty good pitch.

 As I looked at the pictures and mementos, I realized that I wanted to celebrate my dad's life.  I was mourning as well, but I wanted to celebrate..  I wanted to try to gather as many memories as I could and sweep them into a container so that they could not be forgotten. I wanted to write down the memories while I can still tell them.

I just picked up a copy of a book called Ties that Bind, by Dave Isay, the founder of Storycorps.  It is a compilation of a few of the stories from the first ten years of that organization.  Storycorps mission is to record stories of ordinary people.

In the introduction to the book, Dave tells about a founding event, at Grand Central Terminal.  Studs Terkel is there, and he proudly announces, "Today we shall begin celebrating the lives of the uncelebrated!"

And there it was.

The legacy that most of us leave is small, and ordinary.  We are not celebrated.  Our obituaries in the newspaper are short.  And yet we are children of God, as promised and proclaimed.  And what is a funeral, after all?  It is a time to name death, to grieve, to proclaim hope.

But it is also a time to celebrate the lives of the un-celebrated.

Like my father.