Friday, December 26, 2014


"Do you want me to come right away?"

"Can you?"

I had a relaxing day after Christmas planned.  I had a couple of phone calls to make (one about a baptism), and I had to finish a Sunday-after-Christmas sermon.  That was all I had planned.

But then the call came in, about a man from our congregation.  One of his relatives called to let me know that he had just put himself in hospice care.  She thought he would like to have communion.

In my mind I thought that I could probably stop over the next morning, but when I called their apartment and spoke to his wife, she said that he was not eating anything, and that I should not bring communion.  It was then that I blurted out, "Do you want me to come right away?"

He was up in a chair when I arrived, looking pale but smiling warmly.  We started to catch up about his life and his illness, and how hospice was taking such good care of him.  When I mentioned how I had rushed out of church without my communion kit, he seemed disappointed, and his daughter (who was also visiting) said that she could probably find a little wine and some small pieces of cracker.

While communion preparation was underway in the kitchen, I visited with the man and his wife.  I asked him his favorite Bible verse; John 3:16 was what he said.  It was a verse he thought of when he spent two years as a Mission Builder.  He was proud of the work he had done helping build, or remodel three churches, one in Albuquerque, one in Nebraska, and one in Montana.  "We spent two years living in trailers," his wife said.

"What did you do?" I asked him.

"I was the foreman."

The bread and the wine were ready, so confessed our sins and began the communion service.

"What Scripture would you like me to read?  Would you like to hear the Christmas story?"

His daughter thought that was a fine idea.  She remembered how he read the Christmas story for the whole family, every year.  They read the Christmas story as the family grew, with children and grandchildren tumbling through their home.

So on the second day of Christmas, we read the Christmas story.  I asked them which was their favorite part of the story.  "I like the shepherds out in the field," he said.  "Of course, an old farmer," his daughter said.  "I like the angel," his wife said.  A long time ago, she got to be be the angel in a church pageant.  She got to stand in the pulpit, that holy place, and say the words, "Behold, I bring you good news of great joy!"  She has never forgotten it.  His daughter said she liked the angels singing.  His son-in-law said, "I like all of it."  Then we talked and we noticed the part about the manger, how Jesus was laid in a manger.  And he said,

"He had to be lowly.  He had to be the lowliest, to be one of the common, the ordinary.  He couldn't be born in a palace, in a rich place.  He had to be lowly, to be the lowliest, so that he could reach all of us."

Before we took communion, I asked if there was anything they wanted to pray for.

His daughter started to speak, but then closed her eyes and shook her head.  He said, "When I think about my life, my future, I would like to be able to share my faith with my children and grandchildren one more time."

We shared the wine, the bread, the benediction.

I did not finish my sermon.

But I have this:  Lowly.  He had to be lowly. He had to be the lowliest, to reach all of us.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Worship on the Streets

Last night my husband and I went out into the December night, headed down to a busy avenue in my city.  We parked on a dark street, walking past a church and a Mexican restaurant until we saw the bright lights of the theatre:  our destination.  We got got our tickets and waited in the lobby, munching cookies and listening to a small ensemble play some impromptu Christmas carols.  Then, finally, a voice called those with the "red tickets" and we were told to follow our guides back out into the street, to an "undisclosed location", which turned out to be a restaurant across the street, which also housed a small stage.

Walking by the window of the restaurant, we spied a few small girls dressed up in white dresses with wings attached to their backs.  They were getting ready for the play.

The first act:  the annunciation, preceded by songs.  Mary, surrounded by small angels, is approached by the angel Gabriel, who reminded of the Ghost of Christmas future:  wraithlike, tall, imposing, with a face like a crescent moon.  Mary bowed before Gabriel in obedient awe, and afterwards she and Elizabeth meet, and Mary gets a gift:  her mask.  There is an announcement of the census; everyone has to return to the place of their ancestors.  The procession begins.

The second act:  we exit the building and round the corner into another small building where there is a small puppet theatre and a few rows of wooden blocks.  There, Joseph dreams, and worries about Mary, and about whether he can care for her and for the baby.  He worries about the journey, and everything that will be required of him.  The angel Gabriel leaves him a message written on a scrap of paper:  "You Can Do it!"  the procession continues.

(while we are crossing the street, stopping traffic, one man shouts from his car that we are "ruining the environment", perhaps because his car is idling more than it should.  Are we disturbing the peace?)

Now we are at the theatre, where the shepherds are "watching" their sheep (i.e. in the midst of heavy snoring).  Small children enter, carrying stars.  They surround the sleeping shepherds while the angel choir/army gathers in the back of the theatre, ready to startle the shepherds awake.   After they sing their announcement and prepare to journey to Bethlehem, a great star appears, and three greater-than-life-size puppet Kings enter in search of a child.  They meet a sinister and worried Herod, who pretends that he too, wants to worship the child.

Now we are out on the street, with Mary and Joseph and the donkey, all following the star.  There is the sound of a chorus from the heavenly choir, a hum that rises and stays with us as we walk in the cold and dark night.  We see the bright lights at a neighborhood house and approach, but its occupant refuses to shelter us.

So we continue to walk and sing, following the Holy Family, following the lowly family seeking shelter.  We continue to walk until again we meet Herod, blocking our way, telling us we cannot come in, we are not welcome.  The hum goes up from the crowd again:  one note that we all sound together.  And then the banner:  "We come seeking shelter" which all of us shout.  Herod tells us that we are not welcome, that we should go home, that he will not let us pass.

We stand in the cold.  But the hum goes up.  "We come seeking shelter!" we shout.

Meanwhile, I see another banner approaching, from the other side of the blocked road.  The sign shouts "Bienvenido", and as it comes closes the blockade comes down and we are able to keep walking and singing in the darkness.  Someone gives me a cup with a small candle.  We all walk holding lighted candles.  When they go out, we scurry to re-light them.

We are on our way to the church, the sanctuary.

Inside, it is warm, and there is more singing.  The star and the lowly family enter, along with angels and shepherds, and stranger and wonderful animals.  There are bird puppets flying and a white dove flies and the child appears, and we are all invited to dance.  We are all invited to dance and sing and join the fiesta.

And what I remember is walking in the dark, and how the story unfolded, and the yearning and the joy in the songs.  What I remember is the darkness, and being out on the street, in the cold,  but walking together, shouting, "We come seeking shelter!"  What I remember is the lowliness of the holy family, how they processed slowly, how they were turned away.  And I wondered:  if we truly followed him, out on the street, where people can see, if we truly followed him, would we be turned away more often?

I am still not sure what I experienced last night.  Was it a worship service or a performance?  Or was it a demonstration?  We were out in public, walking the streets, shouting "We come seeking shelter!" just as surely as others, earlier in the day, had shouted, "No peace!  No Justice!"  For a little while we walked the streets, cold, homeless, seeking welcome, seeking shelter.

"Bienvenido!" was the sign.  It was a sign from God, the lowly God, the one who walks the streets, the homeless one who provides shelter, the disturber-of-the-peace who is our only peace.

Meanwhile, come Lord Jesus.  Give us courage to join the procession out on the streets, to be rejected and turned away, to be disciples of the lowly God, our only hope, our only peace, in the darkness.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

How I Spent My Advent

It is almost Christmas Eve, and I am thinking about my Advent practices this year, especially those that were unintentional, the ones that just came to me, and for which I am grateful.  I hope that God uses these, even more than whatever devotional practices I try, and at which I fail miserably.  I am not yet ready to Christmas, but I pray that God will make me ready, is preparing me.

1.  Babysitting.  
Babysitting was my first job, the one I thought would prepare me for the life I was told I would lead.  But my life went a different direction, and I haven't babysat for many years, not since my nieces and nephew were young.  But the newest member of our family is four years old, and one Sunday afternoon I had the great privilege of watching her.  I got out my ancient Barbie dolls, and we changed outfits again and again.  We had a tea party with apple juice served in tiny tea cups.  We played with the dog, petting her and brushing her (with a little hugging as well).  I put on the song "Let it Go", from the movie "Frozen", and she danced, and danced and danced.  At one point she said, "I need a cape!" and after a moment of wondering, I remembered an old towel I had, with pretty fringe.  I wrapped it around her shoulder and fastened it with a safety pin, so that she could be a princess.   I thought about how I always thought I would be a mother, and my heart hurt a little for what I missed.  But I also felt so happy to remember that an old towel can be a cape, that you can have a tea party with apple juice, that I could witness the dance, even just in a flash.  O God: at Christmas, give me a cape, and help me to dance again.

2.  Blessing Gifts.
One morning I walked into the church building and found a woman from my congregation sitting there.  She wasn't waiting for me, exactly.  She was waiting for whichever pastor would show up first, and that happened to be me.  She said that she had a gift that she was going to send to Mississippi, to a Sister she knew there, someone who changed the course of her life when she was a young woman.  She wanted to say thank you, to let this woman know what she had done, how her life had borne fruit.  Now the Sister was an old woman, still working in the mission, but she wanted to say "thank you; you saved my life."  She asked me to bless her gift.

Now I am not an expert about the blessing of objects, but I put my hands on her gift:  a beautiful tea set, engraved with dragonflies.  And we prayed that God would bless the gift, and its journey, that it would be a sign of love and a gift of love, and that it would bless both the giver and the receiver.  We prayed that it would be used for comfort and for hospitality.  And then we sent it off.  O God:  at Christmas, bless me and send me on a journey of blessing.

3.  Hearing Christmas songs at the Mall.
We were shopping at the large mall one morning, not really finding anything, wandering around, just looking.  It had not been such a productive morning, really, and we were thinking about going home, and doing something else, when we turned the corner and we heard them:  a choir from a local middle school, singing Christmas carols.  They were in the middle of "Deck the Halls" and we stood there listening.  Then they began singing "Joy to the World", and the tears formed in the corners of my eyes, right there in the mall.  I know they say that we should be singing Advent songs now, and I love them too.  But there is something about the Christmas songs, and I don't think it is just the accumulated memories of singing them, or the sentiment, but it is the yearning for the peace they promise.  It is the hope and the faith and the doubt all rolled up, and wanting to grasp something, in the middle of a world where some people can't even find it in their heart to pray for the family of Michael Brown, or dare to feel their pain.  O God:  at Christmas, soften my heart and help me to believe in your world, your peace, and the wonders of your love.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Don't Make the Gift Too Ethereal

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down for supper at the community meal hosted by our congregation.  At the table was a young family from our congregation and a woman from our neighborhood , a woman I didn't know.  We had a good time sharing small talk with one another, trying to convince the two young children that the turkey casserole was just as delicious as pizza, and sharing small bits of our lives.

After some time the children and their father left, the children off to choir practice, and I continued to talk with the woman for a little while.  I don't remember either of us saying anything very earth-shaking.  She praised the food and the company.  She said she really enjoyed coming here for supper and mentioned that she had attended funerals at our church, on occasion.  Then she looked around and said that she really liked the fact that there were all ages, including children, eating supper together.  "There aren't any children in my life right now," she said.

This past week I didn't see her at supper;  I had finished early so that I could prepare my short advent meditation for the worship that evening.  However, I saw her in passing right before worship and she mentioned that she had left a small gift in my mailbox.

The next day I discovered it:  a short note thanking me for our conversation the previous week, along with two bottles of Ensure and a "Bless Our Home" wall-hanging.  She said I should use those things however I saw fit.

A lot of people say they are praying for me, but I have to say that I was touched by this particular gift.  It was something simple and ordinary and real, and it was not ethereal at all.  It was not a symbol of Hope or World Peace, not a great grand gesture which is a symbol of Something Else Entirely.

It's been one of those Advents for me, when everything seems to be getting away from me.  I always have these great intentions of devotional discipline during Advent.  I will light candles.  I will write.  I will read.  I will pray.  I will move along the path toward enlightenment, and then I will share that enlightenment with my congregation.  But, to be honest, the enlightenment has mostly eluded me this year.  I keep saying that Advent is about waiting, about watching, about preparing.  But all of those things seem very ethereal to me right now, slipping through my fingers like a piece of thick fog.

But then there are two bottles of Ensure and a wall-hanging.  I can hold them in my hands.  They are a gift to use as I see fit.

I am thinking about laying off the deeper meanings of Advent for awhile, and just holding on to the ordinary things, the things I can touch:  a simple meal, a few words, a small gift to use as I see fit.  Instead of straining toward a far horizon, I will touch, and look at what is right in front of me.  And I will say that somehow, God is right here, at the table, in the simple mess, not ethereal at all.

Take and eat.
Taste and see.
The true meaning of Advent.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

You Say You Want To Be Inclusive

My church wants to be more inclusive.  We have been saying this for awhile now.  We have been saying it more and more, as we look around the neighborhood where we are located, and notice that more and more people who live here don't look like "us".  Some of our neighbors are immigrants, and speak other languages.  Some of our neighbors have less money than "us" or are from different ethnic groups than those traditionally associated with our denomination.

So, my church wants to be more inclusive.  We understand (or at least a substantial number of us do) that it is theologically right for us to want to be more inclusive.  We understand that the realm of God is much more diverse than our congregation.  We understand that when we gather at the river, by and by, when we look around at who is gathered with us, it will look a lot different than our congregation does now.  Our hearts are in the right place, as far as it goes.

But I suspect, deep down in my heart, that we have no idea how hard it will be, how hard it really is.  For one thing, we don't even know each other -- not really.  We don't know many of the daily experiences and stories of the people in the pew next to us.  We don't know that some of "us" have less than we think they do, struggle more than we think they do, feel differently than we think they do.  Sometimes I worry that we do not always want to know.  I also suspect that the very word, "inclusive" even has something to do with it.

In the aftermath of the deaths of two unarmed black men, and the grand juries' decisions not to indict the police officers responsible, the slogan #BlackLivesMatter has taken hold.  Though the experiences of people of color often teaches them a different reality, they want to take back the value of their lives.  #BlackLivesMatter, they tell us.  Can we say "Amen"?  Can we affirm that yes, black lives matter, even when so many of their daily experiences tell them otherwise?

But some people want to be more inclusive.

So there is an alternative meme going around:  #AllLivesMatter.  And, although I understand the sentiment, just like I understand the desire of my congregation to be more inclusive, I think it is fundamentally misguided.

We can talk about the value of human life, each life, all lives, in different ways.  We can talk about the realities experienced by people of color, by immigrants, by at-risk children, by the poor, by Alzheimers patients.  But as long as we continue to speak in generalities (We Welcome Everyone!), we are not really welcoming anyone.  As long as we don't listen to the realities of particular people, and particular communities, we won't know how to welcome anyone.  As long as we don't pay attention to the lives, the realities, the stories of those who feel left out, excluded, marginalized, un-welcome, we will not be able to include them.


It's a start.  If we really want to be inclusive.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Small, Important Thing

I had a funeral on Friday, a small funeral in our chapel for a retired teacher from our community.  She had just a few, particular requests for her funeral:  that we would read Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, that we would sing "Beautiful Savior", and that a woman from our congregation would sing.

She did not designate a particular song; she just wanted this woman to sing, an alto from our church's choir.  As it turned out, they had also sung together in a community choir.

I was happy to ask her to sing, and the woman was happy to accept the invitation.  She just had one question for me, "Will you sing with me?"

Back in the day, she and her husband were often asked to sing at funerals.  He had died a few years ago, but people still asked her to sing, on occasion.  So I didn't think she was asking because she didn't want to sing alone.  She was perfectly capable of singing by herself.  Actually, I didn't know why she asked me.

I said yes.

We decided on a song (Abide with Me) and divided up the parts and practiced a couple of times.  I sang soprano on one verse and tenor an octave higher on another verse.  I remembered how I used to sing with my sister, on occasion.  But that was many years ago.  The last time, we sang "Whispering Hope."  I remembered how it felt, singing harmony, singing the melody, hearing our voices blend, the pitches meet and separate.

Afterwards, she said, simply, "I have always wanted to sing with you.  So I thought this was the opportunity."

That's all it was.  It was a small thing.  But it was a gift.

And it is a kind of leadership, too:  to be able to do it alone, but to say:  I have always wanted to do it with you.  I have always wanted to sing with you.  I have always wanted to serve with you.  I have always wanted to teach with you.

It is the grace of leadership.  Or the leadership of grace.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Other Half of the Bible Verse

I worshipped in another church on Sunday, and heard another pastor's sermon.  It was an unusual worship service for me, and not just because I wasn't in charge.  I was also worshipping in a mega-church, with thousands of others (but who's counting), and listening to scripture readings different than the familiar first-Sunday-of-Advent ones.

The sermon that day was on a particular portion of the book of Daniel.  I knew the stories, but had never heard anyone preach on them before.  The stories were carefully set in the context of the Babylonian exile, and the problem of continuing to remember and to worship Israel's God when you are not in Israel anymore.  The stories were carefully set in the context, but the point was contemporary -- the point of the sermon was the pride that leads us to forget that it is really God who is in charge, God who both appoints and rejects rulers.  The ruler in question was, of course, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon:  his offending words are "Is this not a magnificent Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?"

The verse that the preacher wanted us to pay attention to is from Daniel 4:17, and it is, actually, just a part of the verse.  He had us repeat the verse with him, as it recurs several times in Nebuchadnezzar's morality tale.  Nebuchadnezzar is going down, says the prophet, until "all who live may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will."

The point?  Don't be proud.  How can you be proud?  If you have anything, it is not because you are so great, it is only because the Most High is sovereign; he gave it to you for his own purposes.  Also:  be a good steward.  Use what you have been given for God's purposes.  That's why you have it, anyway.

So, not bad, really, I thought.  Except that I couldn't get something out of my mind, which was the end of verse 17, which doesn't end with "he gives it to whom he will."

Actually, the complete verse ends, "he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings."

Somehow I kept thinking that this makes a difference; this changes things.  It's not just a stewardship sermon, not just a morality tale any more.  It's not about power, but inversion of power; it's not just about pride, but it's about looking at the world from upside down and inside out.  It makes me think:  if the idea of my life is to use what God gave me for God's purposes -- well, what are God's purposes, anyway?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to led the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

"He gives [the kingdom of mortals] to whom he will and he sets over it the lowliest of human beings."

This being advent and all, I couldn't help thinking about the lowliest of human beings, the one who came, the one we are waiting for, the one who is here, but incognito.  It's just this small fragment of a Bible verse, but for a moment I thought about the lowly one set over me, the one who guards my life, who has given me his, to use for his purposes.  I thought about the Lowly One set over the world, the prince of a different kind of peace, and what it would mean to live according to his purposes.

What are his purposes, anyway?  A world turned upside down.

It is what I am waiting for.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Incredibly Happy, Incredibly Sad

Today, on the first Sunday of Advent, I worshipped at a mega-church.

I have been with family in Another City for the Thanksgiving Holiday, getting acquainted and re-acquainted with new and old family, eating the familiar feast and giving thanks and having conversations, making sure to talk about some subjects and avoid other subjects.  We walked and shopped and ate and watched movies.

This morning we went to church together.

It was my first time at a real mega-church, although I have been at a few large church services in my day, and I even spent a couple of years among the Pentecostals.  But still, I am older now, and wiser, and it was the first Sunday of Advent, and I wondered what I would think, and how I would feel, standing in a row with some new family and some old family, and worshipping at a mega-church.  I wondered if they would have Advent candles, or if they would acknowledge the season at all, and if so, what difference it would make.

They didn't have candles.  They did say the word "Advent," though, as well as the word "Christmas", and they gave out advent calendars at the end of the service.  They had flashing lights, and a thumping bass rhythm, and songs that rocked.  At the beginning of the service, a piped in choir sang O Come O Come Emmanuel.  Then, we were welcomed, and encouraged to sing along as the band began playing a version of Joy to the World.  The lights went down.   The band played and sang.  We sang.  I sang.

And I felt a lump in my throat, and, I don't know why, a few tears sat in the corners of my eyes, and trickled down.  No one saw.  It was dark.  No one knew.  And I don't know why.  Somehow I was incredibly happy, and somehow I was incredibly sad.

There was a part of a verse when the band tried to drop out and encourage us to sing.  I sang so loud.  We knew the song.  And I think that a lot of us were singing our guts out.  But it hardly made a dent in the huge building, even though it was full of people.  Maybe that's why I felt so incredibly sad.  Here we were, all these people worshipping together, and the sound we made felt so small that morning, and it made me think of how much trouble there is, and how small the sound we make can be.  I thought back to the day before Thanksgiving, when I had a small prayer service in my church.  I encouraged those present to write down what they were thankful for.  And during the prayers I read all of the responses.

Someone wrote, "I am glad I live in a peaceful city, and state."

And that broke my heart, just a little, because I knew that this person was saying that they were thankful that they were not in Ferguson, Missouri.  

Maybe I was thinking about that, and all the other sadnesses, while I was singing and the tears were trickling down my cheeks.  Maybe I was thinking about all of the things that are not right, and how I can sing my heart out and sometimes it feels like no one can hear me.

But then again there were the words, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come."  And in that darkness I couldn't help but feel the joy in the words that I was singing.  They are advent words, by which I mean they are words not just about the coming of the baby, but about the coming of the King, the coming of the King not just of small hopes, but of large ones, the king who will raise up the lowly and feed the hungry and dry every tear.

We are given that song to sing, and it makes me incredibly happy to sing it, even in the darkness.

It is Advent.  The first day.

And I am incredibly happy.
And incredibly sad.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


I have only ever lived in a few places.  Well, four, actually.  Most of my life I have lived in the general vicinity of where I live right now.  The house I grew up in is only about a half hour from my house now.  In college, I lived in a town about an hour and a half away.  The other places I have lived were Kumamoto, Japan, for three years, Denver, Colorado, for one year, and Vienna, South Dakota, for four years.  Otherwise, it's been pretty much here, in this largish city known for its parks and lakes and cold winters, the place where my Scandinavian grandparents came, and stayed, many years ago.

I suppose this is my home.

I envy people who have lived many places.  I wonder what it feels like, sometimes, to have experienced many geographies, many terrains.  For myself, it is hard to imagine living anywhere else.  Then I stop and consider that I have lived other places, although briefly.

I don't know whether I ever considered those other places "home"; I somehow always thought that the compass would point me back here, eventually, that I would wander, but that I would return.

Even so, when I left those other places, I cried.  Every time.  When I left Japan after those three years, I wrote back to my Japanese friends, and said that I felt 'natsukashii' for Japan.  I thought that it meant 'nostalgic,' or that I was simply saying that I missed Japan.  But they told me that I couldn't miss Japan; I couldn't be 'natsukashii', because the word really meant 'homesick', and Japan was not my home.

I cried at the end of that year in Denver too.  All the way to Cheyenne, driving north, I cried.  And I cried when I left after those four years in the big parsonage in rural South Dakota.  Even though I was coming home.

What is home, exactly?  I am not sure.  Even though I call this city 'home', I feel like I have left a part of myself in Denver, South Dakota and Japan.  Each place feels a little bit like home to me, even though I may never see it again.

I think about pastors who have obeyed the Spirit's call to parishes in different parts of the country, or at least in different cities.  If God has called you to Nebraska and to North Dakota, and to Wisconsin, what is home?

Home is a place, but it's not a place, exactly.  Home is a starting point.  From home you know which way is north, even if later in your travels you get confused.  Home is where you are comfortable giving other people directions.  "Home" is a foundation, but it's a destination.  It's where we are from, but it's where we are headed.

 Home is where, finally, you know who you are.

Maybe that's why I cried, when I left those other places.  I knew something about myself when I lived in those places, something different than what I know right now.

I have only ever lived in a few places.  And all of them, and none of them, have been home.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Advent Resources

I don't know when I really started loving advent, but I have had this infatuation for a long time.  Maybe it was those four candles on the advent wreath in church.  Who doesn't like lighting candles? Maybe it was all of the verses of O Come O Come Emmanuel.  Maybe it was the Jesse tree.  We never had one, but I had heard of them, and thought they were fascinating.

Whatever it was, it got stronger when I was in college, and I got more pious.  I loved the idea of observing Advent.  I loved the Incarnation.  You can't just rush headlong into the Incarnation.  You need time.  I liked the idea of keeping Christmas at bay, simmering for 24 days or so, until it was ready, really ready.

Despite my love for Advent, though, I have not really been that successful at keeping it.  Although we have an advent wreath, I have not necessarily used it regularly.  I am spectacularly undisciplined, although I have high ideals, and therefore (having high ideals), I have had many many different kinds of advent disciplines and devotionals.  I have had many devotionals which I have mostly left unfinished or become bored with.  After awhile, I can't read the daily snippets any more.

Still, people ask me what I recommend.  Here is what I'll say:

These days my only go-to advent devotional (if you can call it that) is Christmastide, Phyllis Tickle's book of prayers for the Daily Hours.  I think I like it because it doesn't have that daily snippet that most devotional books do.  It just has scripture readings and prayers for different hours of the day.  I am not any more disciplined at doing all of the prayers at all of the hours, but I might hit one or two every day.

One year I used a book of daily essays called Watch for the Light.  I would recommend that one.  The essays are all by different people, with very different pieties and theological backgrounds.  Baptists, Catholics, Mennonites, writers from this century and the 4th century all have a voice.

I find Sybil MacBeth's new book The Season of the Nativity a little too basic in some ways, but very creative in other ways.   I am all for coloring as an Advent discipline.

I think Advent was made for art, so I also recommend Jan Richardson's book Night Visions.

I recommend reading children's books in Advent.  Right now, the one I am in love with is called The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston, and illustrated by Barbara Cooney.  It is set in Appalachia in 1918.  That is all I am going to say about it.

Other than that, here's what I am going to do during Advent this year:

1.  I am going to light candles.  I might be organized enough to get the wreath out, or I might not, but I will light candles.  I will try to light candles in different colors, at different times, and at different places.
2.  I will take walks in the dark with my dog.  I will think about the dark, and be glad that I have my dog with me.  I will look at the dark, I will notice it.  I will bundle up against the cold.
3.  I will be silent, sometimes.  When I am silent, I will try to remember that the silence is a space for someone else's wisdom, someone else's voice.  I will try to learn from people who are not me.
4.  I will speak, sometimes.  I will try to say things that are hard.  I will remember that the things I say can be short, only a few words.  It is advent, after all.
5.  I will read Luke chapter 1, and Jesus' genealogy in Matthew 1.  Those will be my devotional readings this year.

I might get an advent calendar.  I will let you know.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Memory Loss

Earlier this fall, I was invited to attend a workshop hosted by our local Council of Churches.  The subject was Alzheimers and other forms of dementia.  I wanted to go despite the fact that it's not easy to find time when juggling a busy pastoral schedule.  There are the workshops about Alzheimers and then there are people to visit who are struggling with their own, or their spouse's, or one of their parents'  memory loss.  When I think of the shut-ins in my one congregation, when I go down the list and name them and remember them, the number who are experiencing some form of memory loss startles me.  In funeral sermons, it often becomes a theme:  God remembers, even when we do not.  God has inscribed us on the palms of God's hands.  God keeps our days and our deeds in God's peace.

The workshop, however, was not so interested in the theological themes of my funeral sermons.  The workshop was interested in care and in advocacy.  The workshop was interested in early diagnosis, sanctuary, and care.  What makes a congregation a safe place for those experiencing memory loss?  Do we know our members well enough to know when they begin to lose their memory?

I was startled to learn that Alzheimers, as well as other forms of dementia, is considered a public health crisis.  It is a public health crisis, although I don't remember hearing anything about it before I went to this workshop.  Even afterwards, I listen for a mention on the news and don't hear anything.  There are plenty of stories about Ebola, but nothing about Alzheimers.   I am not good at statistics, but I remember at the workshop that they said it is a public health crisis now, and that it is going to get worse.  It is worse in communities of color.

The other thing I remember is this:  There are some forms of memory loss that are natural as we age.  But Alzheimers is not a part of the normal aging process.  It is a disease.

I remember back to the days when we were told that if we kept our minds active, doing crossword puzzles and reading and thinking, we could keep memory loss at bay.   There are things we could do to reduce our chances.  But when I look at my congregation, I know there are former avid readers and cross-word do-ers among those who are losing their memory.

There is one woman I visit who does not remember that her husband died thirty years ago.  She thinks he died last year.  Or last month.  However, every time I mention the name of our church, she beams.  "I go to that church," she tells me.  Another woman imagines herself a little girl again, playing with her dolls.  Sometimes she has long conversations with her husband, who has been dead for many years.  One man became violent and his daughter had to remove him from one nursing home to another.  But then, in the car, he suddenly said, 'I love you', something she had never heard him say.  She almost drove off the road.

I remember visiting a lovely retired couple in their home.  Every month I would bring them communion.  He had ALS; she was legally blind.  We had these wonderful conversations about music, art and travel until he became unable to speak; he could only blink his eyes yes, and no.  After he died, I continued to visit her for a time.  I remember how excited she was when she got one of those reading contraptions and she could suddenly read the Bible and her devotional books again for the first time.  She was an active participant in a Bible study, and loved it.

And then, suddenly, and very quickly, she lost her memory.  She became unable to care for herself, and finally, to speak.

At her funeral, I saw a picture of her in a nurse's uniform, during World War II, and realized how little I knew about her life.  How little we know about each other's lives.

I'm struggling with this:  that I do believe that it is our responsibility, part of the church's responsibility, to pay attention, to remember, to keep safe the vulnerable ones among us.

But how can we, if we are all losing our memory?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

the handwriting on the wall

I get up early most Wednesdays.  These days it is very dark when I get up early.  I walk the dog in the dark, grab a bowl of cereal, and set out for our congregation's morning Matins service.

We hold Matins in our small chapel, around the corner from the main sanctuary.  A small group of people, mostly retired, gather every Wednesday at 8:00 a.m. to sing and pray together.

This morning when I stood in front of them, I noticed that I had not taken down off of the walls last Wednesday's confirmation lesson.  There were some simplified scripture passages on the walls, all part of our lesson on Isaiah last week.  We heard the vision from Isaiah 2 of peace on God's holy mountain, of the nations streaming to Israel, turning their weapons into tools for farming.  We lit candles and listened and we also looked around at the walls.

In bright markers, some simple phrases were written:  "Death Will Be No More"  "God Will Wipe Away Every Tear From Our Eyes" "There Will Be No More War" "Pain Will Be No More."  "Weapons of War Will be Transformed into Farm Implements."

It was not great art.  Just butcher paper and masking tape and printed words.  Visions.  Some of the things we hope for.  Someday.

I had cleaned up the candles, but I had forgotten to take the papers off the walls.

I explained to the worshipers our lesson last week.  I said I would make sure to take the paper down soon.

"That's all right," they said, looking around.  "You can leave it up for awhile.

The home of God is among mortals.  The handwriting is on the wall.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Last "Everybody Loves Raymond"

We watch re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond, and The King of Queens around here.  We used to watch old movies too, but they keep moving our old movies channels to the premium packages.

I'm not proud of it, but I have not kept up with The Good Wife, Breaking Bad, Modern Family or Mad Men.  I know.  I should pick one.  I would have something to talk about, other than Armande Gamache, Billy Collins and Facebook.  (We do watch Downton Abbey, but that's only for a little while.)

I watched Everybody Loves Raymond when it was actually popular culture.  I will confess to having a sort of love/hate relationship with the show.  Some episodes have been painful.  Others have made me laugh so hard I cry.  (I especially like the one where Robert leaves home and goes to live with another couple -- who turn out to be exactly like his parents, Frank and Marie.)

Now we watch the re-runs.  We've been through a few revolutions of the entire series, which brings a certain perspective, especially when several episodes run in one evening.  One evening, we watched the final episode, immediately followed by the first episode.

Tonight the last episode of "Raymond" was on, again.  I think I know it by heart now.  It is all about how Raymond has to have adenoid surgery, but he is nervous about it.  He has always been a little bit of a hypochondriac.  However, in this episode, there is just the smallest tense moment at the end of the surgery.  Debra falls apart, briefly; Robert loses his "I hate my brother" facade long enough to volunteer to give blood.  Naturally, everything turns out all right.

It's a funny, but also sentimental episode; the brief brush with mortality reveals the love beneath the fighting, jokes and sarcasm.  Although everyone tries to keep Raymond from finding out about his brush with death, finally he finds out.  "You like me!" he accuses Debra.

Then the next morning, the whole big dysfunctional family ends up squeezed around the kitchen table, eating chocolate pancakes.  The very last scene of the very last episode of Everybody Loves Raymond takes place around the table.  There is no big moment, except that a couple of people are saying, "pass the syrup" and Raymond says they need to get a bigger table.

It is not a bad ending, if you ask me:  everybody sitting around the table, all crowded around, eating together, being a family.  It is not a bad ending, but maybe I just think that because that is how I imagine the end of our story:  all of us feasting together, not on chocolate pancakes (but why not?) but on rich food and well-aged wines, on the mountain of the Lord.

We will know, finally, that we are loved.  And there will be enough.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Of Rivers and Lakes

Here's an occupational hazard for pastors:  arguing with a preacher in your head while you are a guest in another congregation.

It happened to me last winter, while I was visiting family out of town and had the luxury to participate rather than lead worship for a change.  This should be a good thing, right?  It was a congregation of mostly young adults and young families.  The music was just a little edgy and well-done (although I may be just a tad biased; one of my own family is in the band).  I loved the play area for children in the back of the church, and the fact that after the first fifteen minutes of the service, there was a fellowship break with time for coffee before settling in for the sermon.

Then came the sermon, very long, and earnest, I remember, although, I will confess I don't remember much more about it any more.  I do remember, however, an illustration about the difference between rivers and lakes, and how, in God's way of thinking, it is much better for us (as individuals) to be like a river than it is to be like a lake.  Rivers are good; lakes are bad.  Why?  A river flows.  It is healthy; it has a source and a destination.  A lake just sits there.


In my mind I understood that this was a metaphor, and as a metaphor, I suppose it was just fine.  He was trying to say that we too need to know our source, and be flowing toward a destination, rather than just sitting there, keeping it all to ourselves.

And yet….

I kept thinking, he is being unfair to lakes.  Lakes don't just sit there.  If they are healthy, they also have an inlet and an outlet.  Just because they are (often) deep and you can't seem the bottom, and just because you can't see them flowing, doesn't mean that they are just sitting there.  Think about Lake Pepin, after all.  Lake Pepin is a lake inside a river.  The river flows into the lake and back out again.  Or, think about the chain of lakes in my own hometown.  There are four lakes that flow one from the other.  They are not stagnant, although it is true that they are not so healthy any more.  But that is not their fault.

I grew up loving lakes, although, like the young preacher, I didn't understand them.  I loved the lakes in my city, and up north, where we would go to camp, and swim, and fish, and play.  I didn't understand then where the water came from and where it went to.  I didn't know that there were consequences for the lakes that more and more homes and businesses came near.

This spring I picked up a book by a retired college professor and ecologist, Darby Nelson.  It is called For Love of Lakes.  The book is part memoir, part geology, as he writes lyrically of his boyhood love of lakes, and yet exposes how many of them have become degraded.  How can we say we love lakes, and let them fall to ruin?, he wonders.  Is it because we don't understand them?  In a lake, so much happens under the surface, where we cannot see.

Two paragraphs in his introduction struck me:

If I think of time as a river, I predispose myself to think linearly, to see events as unconnected, where a tree branch falling into the river at noon is swept away by current to remain eternally separated in time and space from the butterfly that falls in an hour later and thrashes about seeking floating refuge.

But if I think of time as a lake, I see ripples set in motion by one event touching an entire shore and then, when reflected back toward the middle, meeting ripples from other events, each changing the other in their passing.  I think of connectedness, of relationships, and interacting events that matter greatly to lakes.

I don't know why I was so obstinate in my mind about this young preacher's river and lake analogy, why I couldn't just go where he was trying to take me.  A lake is not a person, after all.  He was not engaged in some sort of "Lake Profiling", or "Lake Stereotyping".  I don't know if it was just that I am from a region famous for its lakes (although we have some awfully fine rivers too).  Was I, perhaps unconsciously, aligning myself with a different sort of spirituality, one more in tune with lakes than with rivers, more inter-connected and interacting?  Maybe I just worried that even a well-intentioned metaphor can contribute to misunderstanding, if it is not quite true.   Perhaps I just think that some things, like lakes and rivers, are not 'either/or', but 'both/and.'  Maybe I see a better, truer metaphor in the different kinds of waters.

Both lakes and rivers are good; they teach us different things.  A lake can teach us how much of life lies beneath the surface; like the Spirit, we do not always know where it comes from, and where it is going, at least from close up.  A river teaches us the movement, the dance that we can see, the journey.

I did not approach the pastor after the sermon to argue with his metaphor.  And even though I disagreed, I'll grant that he made me think:  there's something to be said for that.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Afternoon

Scout comes over to the bed where I am sitting, cross-legged, reading and typing, and hangs her snout over the edge and gazes up at me with her huge brown eyes. Her tail is thumping, and I say, "Do you want some LOVES?" and I scratch her head and her ears.

It is Sunday afternoon.

The Sunday services are ended.  Everyone has gone home.  I am home now too, sitting on the bed, writing on the computer, reading on line, and considering that this is my weekend, sort of.  

I was at the church before eight this morning to practice my sermon, do some copying for a possible Bible study, check in with the Children's Ministry Coordinator.  The woman who would be making coffee for fellowship was waiting in her car.  I let her in, too, for the front doors were still locked.

It was a worship service packed with music.  The children sang; our contemporary worship ensemble sang.  We closed the service with "Down By the Riverside."  I greeted two young families that I don't see very often.  I stood in the doorway and greeted people as they left.  It is the preacher's job to do this.  Most people just shook my hand and said, "Good morning," without making any remarks, but toward the end of the line, one man thanked me for my sermon, and a woman said she thought it was a good one, as if she meant it.  They are small things, these few words, but they gave me hope that the words sent out over the air had some Spirit in them, some grace in them, and that the work I do, that seems so ephemeral, really does mean something.

Now it is Sunday afternoon, time to think, or not think, to let go of the past week, and get ready to do it all again. Now it is Sunday afternoon, and I am sitting cross-legged on the bed, every once in awhile taking the opportunity to scratch my needy dog on the top of her head.

There are dishes in the sink that need to be washed (no, Virginia, we do not have a dishwasher).  There are clothes that need to be put away.  There are books on the floor.  There are shoes everywhere.  In a little while, I will attend to those things.  But for now, the task is to let go of the last week, the sermon I preached, the people I visited, the prayers I said, the lessons I planned, the meetings I attended.  Let go.  Open my hands and let go of everything that has been in my heart of the past week.  

The dog has gone back to her bed.  She is curled up in a ball and doesn't need my loves, at least right now.  But I need her.  I go over to where she is, not sleeping, just curled up, with her tail all the way up to her nose.  I scratch her head and her ears, and say she is my girl.  

It is Sunday afternoon.  
And I lay down my burden, just for a little while, before I take it up again.
For now.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Seeing God in a Man I Didn't Know

Not long ago a friend posed a question on Social Media:  How do we discover God's presence in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our cities and in our world?   Although I don't remember if there was any definitive answer, there was a lively conversation, with several ideas presented about how and where to see God's presence, and some side conversations on whether it is more faithful to get busy serving in God's name, or get less busy and find time to listen to neighbors and strangers.

In the meantime, I got a phone call from a woman I had just met a few times.  Her mother had joined the church later in her life.  She had come to our small chapel service on Saturday evenings.  Then, when her health began to fail, a couple from our congregation used to visit her on Sunday afternoons and bring her communion.  Last fall, she died, and so I met her daughter to plan her mother's funeral.

Last week, the daughter called again.  Her husband had died after a struggle with cancer, and she wondered whether we could do his funeral.  She thought we had done such a nice service and luncheon for her mother that she would like to have the service at our church, with me officiating.  Unfortunately, our schedule did not permit us to host the service, but I agreed to officiate, and to meet them at church to plan the service and luncheon.

Sitting in the room that afternoon were his wife, his daughter, his younger brother, and one of his nieces.  When I sat down, and they started talking, one of the first things the niece said was that she and her husband had decided that the day her uncle died, they would honor him by trying to be kind to one another for the whole day.  They didn't quite make it, she said, smiling, but they got close.

The conversation continued.  Kindness was a hallmark of this man's life.  The children remembered that he and his wife always spoke to one another with respect and politeness.  They remembered that their home was a refuge for the family, and for neighborhood children, who were given love and nurturing and fun.  They remembered his love for creation and for creatures.  They had taken in, at various times, various animals both ordinary and exotic, concluding a raccoon that had lived with them for many years.  They remembered his love and his gentleness.

They also spoke about his early life.  It had not been easy.  There was chaos and dysfunction in the family, they said.  But he broke the cycle that he had experienced and created an environment of love.

Later on, his daughter sent me a long email which had originally been written to her dad.  She had been a small child when this man had married her mother, and he had adopted her.  She always felt privileged that he chose her to be his daughter, and he made her feel special.  At the end of the email, she wrote, "My whole life with you has been a gift."

And it dawned on me:  As they were speaking, I sensed God's presence, in them and in their love for one another, and in this man I never really knew.  I saw God, just a glimpse, a crack of light through a door in their lives, left ajar for me.

He never seemed to have much use for church, this man I didn't know.  I think he had been baptized, and had attended as a boy, at least sometimes.

Somehow this made me sad, I confess.  I somehow wished that he had a church, perhaps ours.  Yes, I would have been honored if he had attended our church.  But it is not so much because I thought that he needed us.

No, it made me sad because I think we need him.  We need him to help us to discover God's presence.  We are not so good at seeing.

That is what I think, right now.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Grieving with Hope

On Monday evening, I met with a family to prepare for a funeral.  We got together to discuss music and scripture readings, to share stories from the life of their mother and grandmother.

When we talked about Scripture readings, they were certain about Psalm 23.  It was their mother's favorite psalm.  We should all read it together.  As for a Gospel reading, they would leave that up to me.  And the Holy Spirit.

Her son had brought along his own Bible. He opened it, and turned to 1st Thessalonians, chapter 4, verses 13 and 14.   He said that I didn't have to use it it in my sermon, but he had found great comfort in these verses, which he read to me.  "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died,  so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died."  These are verse that I have read often, and have often considered when preparing a funeral sermon.  Resurrection hope does not mean that we don't grieve.  We still grieve when we lose someone we love.

For some reason I have been thinking about these verses for the past couple of days.  Even though they are meant to apply specifically to those who have died, we grieve other losses too, and it occurred to me that perhaps the verses apply then as now.

Take Elections, for example.  I overheard a conversation on Facebook between some acquaintances, when the election didn't go their way in their particular area of the country.  Everyone was grieving, in a way, almost despairing about what it would be like to continue living here for the next two years.  A couple of people were suggesting other, better regions of the country where they could move.  It made me wonder if those of us who are passionate about politics and the relationship of our politics and our faith can grieve with hope, and what that would look like.  What would it look like to look into the heart of a political loss -- when a candidate you respect and admire does not win her case, when an issue you believe is crucial for creating justice and abundance goes down in flames -- and grieve with hope?  

I am also thinking about churches, and about the Church.  We are in decline, as everyone says.  We are post-Christian, so many people say.  The church is dying.  I don't doubt that this is true.  In my own community two churches have closed in the past two years.  My colleague went to a seminar last week and brought back this statistic:  75% of the churches in my denomination are in decline.  I don't know about you, but along with the rest of my work, I am also grieving.  I am not always sure what I am grieving, whether it is a loss of sense of community, or a loss of shared meaning, or simply the losses of the people I used to see at worship every week, who now come much less frequently, if at all. 

What would it mean to grieve with hope?

First I think it is to not be afraid to acknowledge our losses.  The church is dying.  The dreams I had for my community seem farther away instead of closer.  My father was 84 years old, but I still miss him.  I grieve.  

But to have hope means to hold fast to dreams, and not just hold fast to them, but to work for them.  To have hope means to keep on teaching children to read, and sharing bread, and standing up for those who have no voice.  To have hope means to return to worship again and again, standing up and singing and praying and serving and listening for the voice of God, raising you from the dead.

What does it mean to grieve with hope?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What I Did Today

I voted.  I wrote a funeral sermon.

All right, I did a few more things.  I took my computer to the computer doctor, and luckily, they were able to fix it quickly.  I wrote a funeral bulletin, and an annual report which had something to do with the church as a community, and I met with another family about a funeral, which will take place on Friday.

But in my mind, it comes down to this:  I voted.  I wrote a funeral sermon.

I don't know much (or anything) about the politics of the person at whose funeral I will preach tomorrow.  I know that she liked Ronald Reagan, because he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  She was a German immigrant, had lived through World War Ii, and was sponsored to come to the United States by a Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

What I know is that she taught her children to pray.  What I know is that she liked to sing, to swim, to bike, to garden.  What is know is that she is inscribed on the palms of God's hands.

While I was writing this evening, I had one ear on the election results.  We were trying to find out about a friend who was a candidate for state office in another state.  We heard that there was a barrage of negative ads in the final days of the campaign, accusing our friend of being self-serving.  (He had served long ago in another state legislature.)  We know our friend to be a person of integrity, the opposite of self-serving.  You might not agree with his politics, but he is NOT self-serving.  That is politics, I suppose.

Earlier today, I voted.  I voted because I do think it is important.  I want to create more equitable communities, healthier communities.  And, I'll confess, as much as I want my candidates to win, I am just as jazzed by the fact that my state consistently has the highest voter turnout in the nation.  I'm proud to see high school students working as election judges.  Still, I vote because I have hope:  hope that my community can become a better place, where justice and kindness will flourish.  When my candidate loses, my hopes are wounded.

Today, I voted.  But tonight I wrote a funeral sermon, and another kind of hope.  I wrote about the hope for the eternal city, where love has the last word, where death is no more.  I wrote about the hope for the crystal river, where the saints will gather, where we will meet again, singing.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Ordinary Miracles

This was the last part of my sermon this morning….

Here it is:  All Saints Sunday, and one of the things I love about this day is that it is all about ordinary miracles. 
            All Saints Day is not a day to remember and celebrate famous people who have done great things, but it is a day to remember and give thanks for the ordinary miracles – the ordinary saints – in our lives.   Some of them we will name here in a little while.  Some of them we will name in the silence of our hearts.  Some of them are well known to our whole congregation.  Some of them are only known to a few of us.  They are ordinary people, but they were washed in the waters of baptism, and the light shines of Christ shines in them.  Their names are Don and Jan, Jean and Jim, Grace and Herlanda, Ivar and Emil and Otto and Marian and Gisela.  Some of them sang in the choir, and some of them worked in the kitchen, and some of them fought in wars, and some of them took meals on wheels to shut ins.  Some of them were healers, and some of them were teachers, some of and some of them – like the little girl who told Naaman about the prophet Elisha – some of them have names known only to a few people, or only to God.  Some were important, like Naaman – but all of them are saints because this ordinary miracle happened to them – they were washed in the waters of baptism, they were cleansed from sin, they were named children of God, and the light of Jesus shines in them.  Today we remember them.  Ordinary saints.  Beloved by God. 

            Today I am thinking of so many saints, so many ordinary, holy people.   To be holy is to be set apart for a particular purpose.  I am thinking about saints and what I learned from them.  I am thinking about Harriet, who made it her simple practice to name ten blessings every day.  Ten blessings.  And who taught me to see blessings in unexpected places.  And people.  I am thinking about Jim, who considered going into the ministry.  He became a teacher.  And he DID go into the ministry.  He was set aside for this purpose.   I am thinking about Pearl, who reminded us that Jesus is in this place with us, even when we are fighting and arguing with each other.  I am thinking of Gil, who taught me that to be passionate about the gospel and to be passionate about social justice were the same thing, part of the same discipleship, sharing the love of God with the world.  And I am thinking about Jean  and Jan, who were healers by vocation, and who knew the difference between being healed and being cured,
who knew that even though they were not cured, they were healed, because the hope of Jesus living in them never died. 
            I am thinking of so many ordinary miracles.  Including you. 
            Each one of you.

            Someday we will all worship around the throne of the lamb in the place where there is no more death, and no more pain, where the lamb will be the light.
             In the meantime, each of us here is a miracle. 
            By some miracle, Jesus lives in us and Jesus shines through us. 
            Right here and now.  Alleluia.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Story of the Quilt

I met my mother for lunch on Wednesday.  It was the anniversary of my father's death, but that wasn't why we were having lunch together.  It just turned out that way.

While we were eating, my mother unfolded an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper and gave it to me.  She said there was something she never told me about the quilt that she had made and given to me a couple of years ago.

My mother has always been good at sewing.  She made most of our clothes, and even a spring jacket for my sister and me.  She made a pants outfit for me once, and matched the plaids so well that people commented on it.  But it is only recently that she had gotten interested in quilting.  It was my grandmother, my mother's mother, that was the quilter.  She was famous for her beautiful hand-stitched quilts.  Everyone tells me that she had an eye for putting together colors.  I have one of her quilts, but I don't remember ever seeing her put one together.  By the time I was born, it hurt her hands and her eyes too much to do the close work necessary.

Recently, though, my mother has begun quilting.  And two years ago she gave me this beautiful lap quilt.  I thought the colors were amazing.  It holds a place of honor in our living room.

But it turns out that I did not know everything about it.

On the piece of paper that my mother gave me, she told me that this quilt was a collaboration, in a way. After my grandmother died, my aunt discovered some pieces that my grandmother had cut out, and a pattern for a quilt square.  She took half of the pieces, and gave my mother the other half.  But neither of them knew what to do with them.  They had a pattern, but were not sure how to put it together.

One day, one of my mother's friends took a look at the pieces and the pattern, and she could figure it out.  Then my mother could begin to make the squares that would form the quilt.

It took a long time; in the process she decided to divide the pieces and make two quilts instead of one; my sister just received the other one.  Until Wednesday, though, I never knew that my grandmother had a hand in the quilt I received from my mother.

I see it differently now.  It is not just a quilt.  It is a story.  It was always a story, but until Wednesday I did not know the language that the quilt was speaking, even though I loved it.

My mother's quilt makes me think of the church these days, what has been passed down to us, what we value, what we know.  I know many of the older people in my congregation value and love liturgy.  They have been singing and praying in a particular way for many years, as it has been passed down to them.  They have learned some new rhythms along the way, it's true, but they still sing and pray the basic pattern, and they find it beautiful, and comforting, even, at times (although a seminarian friend recently scoffed at the idea of comforting religion).

And yet I wonder if we still remember the stories behind the rhythms and the words of liturgy, the ones that change it from a beautiful object into a story about us, about our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers.  I wonder if we still remember the stories that speak about love that pursues us through the ages, that pieces us together, that made us by hand.  I wonder if we still remember the stories of why we sing and say and pray the things we do, and if we are even curious.