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.  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 removed 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.

Well.

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.