Shiva, and other things

Below is the text of my homily from this morning’s Holy Saturday liturgy, with a video link at the bottom.

I love you all, still.

Shiva, and other things

Just hours before Joseph asked if he could take the body of Jesus, all of the disciples, the men whom he loved until the end, they left Jesus. His friends fled, and he was left with his mother and some other women to witness his death. It is interesting that a man who was a secret disciple of Jesus, possibly a stranger, would have his heart moved to take down that precious body. That somehow, with the help of Nicodemus, he was able to remove it from the wood that had soaked up Jesus’ blood.

Blessed Anne Catherine Emerich, a Roman Catholic mystic and Marian visionary who died in the 19th century, had a vision of the removal of Christ’s body from the cross. She wrote, This taking down of Jesus from the cross was inexpressibly touching. Everything was done with so much precaution, so much tenderness, as if fearing to cause the Lord pain. Those engaged in it were penetrated with all the love and reverence for the Sacred Body that they had felt for the Holy of Holies during his life…but no word was uttered. When the blows of the hammer by which the nails were driven out resounded, Mary Magdalene, as well as all that had been present at the crucifixion, were pierced with fresh grief, for the sound reminded them of the most cruel nailing of Jesus to the cross…As soon as the sacred body was taken down, the men wrapped it in linen from the knees to the waist, and laid it on a sheet in his mother’s arms, which, in her anguish and ardent longing, were stretched out to receive him.”

She goes on to describe in tender detail how the body of our Lord was washed by his mother as she held him, marking every wound, as Mary Magdalene wept and washed his feet one last time with her tears. At last they gave the body over to Joseph, the secret follower, the stranger, to place in the tomb.

John’s gospel says the body of Jesus was wrapped with spices and strips of linen, in accordance with Jewish burial customs.

Another Jewish custom, stemming from the story in Genesis of Joseph mourning the death of his father, Jacob, is the practice of sitting shiva. Joseph observed 7, or shiva, days of mourning for his father, and the custom of shiva is still practiced in the Jewish tradition today. As I contemplated this liturgy, I thought of shiva, of the days of mourning that are allowed to a family, of the great mitzvah, or good deed, of visiting a grieving family and sitting shiva with them.

In learning about the custom of shiva I learned that one isn’t supposed to initiate conversation with those in mourning when paying a shiva call. You must wait for the grieved to initiate conversation with you, if they choose, and if they choose not to you must simply sit and bear witness, sit and mourn, sit and pray.

I wonder if Mary sat shiva for Jesus, if she planned to observe those seven days of mourning as friends came and went providing the traditional meals of comfort, if she received the traditional blessings as her visitors departed: May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

I think we forget sometimes that Jesus was a person, that he had a mother, that his siblings are specifically referred to in the New Testament, though we don’t seem to know what happened to that brave carpenter who was his father. He was once a mewling infant sheltered in his mother’s arms as they fled to Egypt, a bandy legged toddler with only a few teeth, a growing boy who loved to run and shout and play. A teenager who probably felt awkward at times, and finally a man who was able to ask men to leave their nets and come with him. This was the man that Mary held in her arms in Blessed Anne Catherine’s vision, though bloodied and stabbed, flesh ripped and torn, this was her child. I cannot imagine her grief.

 

The Altar Guild stripped the altar last night of all ornamentation, leaving behind nothing but a wooden cross shrouded in black, like the mirrors in a home observing those seven days of mourning, a family sitting shiva. I watched from the very back of the nave, in a circle of black cassocks, with a cell phone flashlight to see our music as the choir sang.

I came in this morning for my hour of vigil and only traveled about half way down the aisle before the tears welling spilled over, to see the beautiful chancel stripped of ornament, as our Lord was stripped of his clothing and his dignity and nailed to a cross. The stark beauty cold and uncomforting, much like a tomb, there was nothing of us, nothing of our history, nothing of our community left.

And here we are, on the morning after the crucifixion of Jesus, like the women at the base of the cross, the women who washed that sacred body, who sat outside the tomb in the garden. And though our liturgy and tradition does not dictate that we mourn for seven days we are in mourning none the less, all of us the grieved friend, the grieved mother, the grieved sister. All of us feeling the despair and the anguish, as we commemorate the death of our Lord, and bewail and hide all at once our own manifold sins, our own old hurts, our own private sadness.

The stone has been levered in front of the door, and the scent of burial spices tickles our nostrils.

 

We are here together, even if, like Joseph and Nicodemus, we don’t know one another very well. We are sitting this abbreviated shiva, as the women and men who tended to the body of Jesus did, weeping tears that mingle together into the same human stories of shame and pain. Covering the mirrors, removing the beautiful things, respecting the need for silence.

The glimmer of new fire is rushing forward with the end of this day, the stone will begin to move and the sacred body to stir. But for now it is right and good to sit with this grief as the women who bathed his body sat. To feel our tears mingle with the water and spices that anoint him, to see once more the silhouette of Nicodemus against a darkening sky, on a ladder, carefully hammering backward the nails that held that precious body to the hard word of the cross. To feel again the coldness of the new tomb, to choose to mourn.

Amen.

Mapmaking

In this Lenten darkness there are cracks of light, splinters that break through now and again, like unexpected Northern Lights in the sky – beckoning us onward – those who have given up, those who are coasting through, those who mean it all and make it seem to meaningful, so insurmountable and perfect and holy.

As Advent and Christmastide crept up and swept by like a giant wave so has Lent separated around me, cold water flowing through my open fingers, shocking me as it hits the small of my back – but almost gone, nonetheless, before I even knew it was there.

I am working my own way through I think, doing what I am supposed to be doing (or so I tell myself), listening, discerning, taking this opportunity, this time, to build my own theology, to decide what I believe and then go forth and live that out. Going forth and living out are very serious charges, they are big and shining ideals – and so we must, I feel, be certain of the way we are traveling. Though I have a feeling that I will always need to keep the map close, that it will be at times difficult to stay the course.

We talked a lot about Theodicy this weekend, about why bad things happen and where God is in that. We talked about God either not caring, turning up the TV louder over there in that heavenly campground to drown out our pleas, or not all powerful. And I am not sure that these are the only options just as I am not sure what I believe yet.

We talked about the shadow side of God, just as one of my very astute students brought up today in an off track discussion in Confirmation class about inclusive language, he said, well God necessarily means that the flip side is goddess — so aren’t we still leaving someone out? Aren’t we still doing it wrong?

Crazy making as it is that shadow side is there, I think. There is a different side to everything that we think we know and can assume about God, about everything that we bring to the table for discussions about God, there are so many lenses, so many possible ways of coming at God. I wonder if we dare to know, I wonder if we can stand to know, that seems like rather liminal space, like a place where we might take one step too far and just sort of fall of the edge of the world, at the very least fall off the edge of all we think we know.

We were encouraged to be still and to ask God for an experience of God. And there I sat, clenched and ready to bolt, ready to shout, NO! Ready to open my mouth and warn these good church folk, these called to be leaders that when you ask God to show you himself you are wading into very dangerous territory. This is more than burning off  your eyebrows, more than an old man behind a curtain – asking God for an experience lands you sometimes in a places that are not very comfortable and where you feel most of the time like you are massively unprepared.

This weekend I had the chance to work with some beloved friends. We were sitting in a lounge that had the heat set permanently at like 80 degrees and outside the snow swirled down into the dark sky. I asked one friend to show me to how to set the table, this practice altar that we have that has linens and a chalice, we used a lid for a paten and she showed me how to do this holy work. And then another joined, adding his opinions, and another showed me by doing. And I stood there in the semi dark, in this too hot room with unseasonable snow outside and felt the tears stand in my eyes as I looked intently at each of them as they discussed the best way, the way they learned, and finally, what to teach me.

They will leave our little school soon, traveling out into the world and charged with ministering the word and sacraments in what will probably be many different settings and occasions – many ways of doing church. They are all called to be priests and they showed me, the deacon, how to do the work that I am called to do. They’ve shown me over and over again though, shown me through humor, through quiet and through just ridiculous, loud laughter. They’ve shown me that I belong to them, and that they understand this strange journey that we have been called to undertake, the odd magic that takes place when we step closer to knowing God.

They are God’s language, down here, they are the only way that God can be expressed in real time – and I realize as I write this that we all are called to that language, to that ministry of caring for each other. And I realize that God isn’t someone I can know, that as much as I want to turn him upside down, go through his pockets and sniff his clothing – I cannot know him.

I find it interesting that the same lenses we bring to our view of an unknowable God are also brought to our unknowable tribe – interesting how our history bubbles and steeps within us, how it seems to be carried down in our DNA like the color of our eyes or the shape of our fingernails.

Spring is coming, the cracks are growing larger around the rock that seals this tomb and more light is coming in.

The unknowable God is working his strange alchemy, he is making dust and dust come together to live,  to rise up and to go out – bearing his own holy language.

There has been a lot of Lenten grace – and maybe the realization of God’s language is just one more flicker of light, maybe all is not lost after all – or at least maybe I am not. Today there was a small chance to practice listening, to ask questions that encouraged a deeper answer. I held the eyes of a new friend and both our gazes were blurred with tears. I think she was afraid I would be angry with her, and I was anxious to tell her I am not. I think I understand that God is doing weird things to her heart, and I know how much that hurts, how it rips you open and leaves you bleeding and vulnerable.

And I think that becoming ordained is a lot like leaving home, that we will always be  different, we will never be lay people again – we will have extra promises to keep. And I think that nights like the one I had, learning to set a table with a chalice and the lid of a jar — I think those are places on the map that is written inside of me, the map that shows me where home is.

I meant for this to be concise and full of meaning and sense and I find that it is not and not. It is bright pinpoints of light, places for me to make notes and add strange asides. A document that I will come back to over and again to remind myself of who I am.  I see a strange jumble of thoughts and ideas, of theology that is not done baking and a person who is away from home and sending strange postcards back.

I am coming back for you. I will find the way.

I’ve written to you several times and I think you know by now what I am about, I think you know that you can believe me. I think  you know that I love you still.

 

I’d like to know, how difficult is it, to recreate established laws of physics? To dwell inside the confines of a minute, where everything just drones, null and void? And in that instant you are just white noise.

Hair Shirts & One Way Tickets

We’ve been learning, in school, about the difference between sanctification and justification. How we are justified by faith, but how being sanctified is an on going thing, a journey you set out on that is really a one way ticket. It’s made me think, in conjunction with this season of lent, and this mix CD I made for myself (because, see, I’m so old school I have to make myself mix tapes, the rest of the world has moved on from such things), it’s made me think about the one way ticket that we all have. About how there isn’t a return trip, about the absolute fact that no one gets out of here alive.

I don’t mean to be macabre, morbid, I promise you I am not wearing a hair shirt, but really, think about it. Think about this one way trip and what we spend our time doing. I think we spend a lot of our time tending graves, probably our own graves, worrying about all of the things that people will say about us someday, the legacy or wealth we believe we are leaving behind.

I think sometimes its easier for us to tend our graves and to pretend we are already dead. Because when we are dead we don’t have responsibility for the hurt and the broken people in this world, when we are dead we can really not care about what happens in the world as long as our tiny little plot of earth is well tended, our plastic wreaths taken down in the fall and the grass mowed.

There are lots of examples in the bible about life coming after death, there is the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel, where the prophet called those bones up and made them live again, there is Lazarus, be he friend or fiend, we shall never know, but his family had the pleasure of seeing him walk. The little girl Jesus rose in Matthew.

And I’ve had a hard time with the bible, and I’m still not sure where I stand. It’s hard to have this thing that you were taught to believe was magical and divinely inspired and so LITERAL that Eve really really did walk in the garden and eat the fruit — it’s hard to then stop seeing the bible that way, but to also somehow still see it as more than a collection of stories, more than letters to people who are long dead from people who didn’t even know this Jesus that we follow and pretend to know and be like. But the good old b-i-b-l-e tells of the women who go back to the grave of Jesus, and the resurrection they experience there in a stone rolled away, an angel and flowers dripping heavy with dew and bird song.. you get the idea.

So while I am telling you it is a one way ticket, this life, this one shot down here on a globe that spins through space, I am also saying that there is resurrection, that there cannot be life unless death came first.

I had the distinct pleasure of offering ashes to go this year. I stood on a busy corner in our small town in my choir surplice and cassock, with a heavy black sweater on and my hands froze and then my toes, one by one. I spoke Spanglish with Deacon John and we used the words “como dice” many times, trying to explain to each other how we felt, trying to talk about cars, trying to talk about his decades of amazing ministry.

We had a lot of people stop, one very old woman who said she was recovering from pneumonia and couldn’t go to church. She asked me, so sweetly, if it would hurt my feelings to have the priest impose her ashes instead. And it did, but only a little, because I too understand that priestly things seem to carry more weight, more oomph, like they are more and better medicine.

My favorite lady to stop got out of her car and came toward me, and I thought she too would ask for the priest. But she didn’t, and when we read the confession together I noticed that she was crying. And when I said the absolution for us both I noticed she was sobbing. She was wrapped into herself, arms crossed tight across her body, with her bare cheeks exposed to the frigid air in a parking lot at a strip mall, with her heart laid bare to me. I asked to go in peace, to pray for me, a sinner. And then I asked her if I could hug her. And she said yes.

And she reminded me of Ezekiel and his dry bones, his doubt that God through him could make those bones knit together, how they would grow sinew and muscle, how they would rise up again as a mighty army; because those ashes that I smudged on her forehead somehow made her alive again. Because she showed me that she was finally and truly alive with the liquid that ran down her cheeks and wet my sweater, with the arms that held me so tightly.

I think, friends, that contemplating death isn’t the worst thing we could do in these less than 40 days left to us. I think that contemplating how we tend our own graves, how we kill off and entomb parts of ourselves because they hurt too much – I think that is valuable work.

But it’s important that we walk away from our graves once in a while, important that we realize that the future isn’t about us. It’s about a greater reconciliation, a greater call to peace and to justice and to mercy and to what is right and fair for all of God’s people. It can’t be about you and me, because we aren’t going to make it, because we will reach the end of the line long before the world looks very different than it does today. But please don’t be discouraged, because if I don’t make it out of here I am raising up others to lead after me, others to love this world and to love God, and to do justice and love mercy and walk so humbly.

I know this is short.

I have a to do list a mile long, and a family waiting for me, with the TV paused on our favorite show just about six feet from where I sit. And I am no Ezekiel, but I am telling you that our prophetic voices and our faith are what will raise a great army. And that we will overthrow death and again and again. I am telling you that sometimes, even in knee deep in the dirt of the grave that we dug for ourselves something moves, and the light shines and we can see that there is life in this thing too. A one way ticket it may be, but it is a journey toward holiness, and journey where the things we leave behind us, protests and safety pins, hungry folk fed – those are the things that matter on this long trip toward the end of this life. I am telling you that even though it may not seem like, even though the shadow of the stone that stands in the doorway of your tomb may be so large – that there is resurrection.

A friend of mine is traveling with her husband down the hospice road. And the song below makes me think of her, as do the tulips that are even now pushing up out of the dark earth, through the dead leaves and in the shadow of a mighty tree. No matter what we do life will not be held down, there is only this one chance, be sanctified, work at it, I know that it is so hard.

I’m trying too.

I promise you this is true.

I love you, still.

You and me have seen everything to see, from Bangkok to Calgary, and the soles of your shoes are all worn down. The time to sleep is now, but it’s nothing to cry about, because we’ll hold each other soon.

A beating heart

I’ve spent the last several hours in my kitchen. I successfully connected my phone to Kaia’s speaker (this was a major win, by the way) and played some random Adele playlist and marveled at her low notes and her longing made bare, by notes on paper. I’ve made dozens of mini muffins for our annual meeting tomorrow, and I’d like you to believe, and I’d like to believe, that it was an entirely selfless pursuit, that something inside of me shines so brightly that it just needs to make muffins for a meeting. But the real truth is that I can hide in my kitchen, with Adele singing out through the speakers. The real truth is that this somewhat shabby room, with it’s old brown cupboards and scratched Formica and not matching appliances, its a sort of oasis for me.

The news is overwhelming. I can’t be the only person who wonders what to believe, who is almost suspending belief pending further evidence and fact checking. But then I wonder who is out there to do that fact checking and to gather that evidence, and I feel a slick and greasy ball in my stomach turn faster and faster, because I realize that I don’t know what is true any more, I don’t have a reliable source.

In times like these I have to finger the things that I know, I have to take them out and make them tangible in some way, even if that way is only a song in my head, words on my lips. I’ve chanted over and over to myself, what does the Lord require of me? The do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly — and I sort of get tripped up there, where I should say, walk humbly with my God. I’m not sure that I’m walking with God, not sure where he is, if he’s turned up the TV real loud in the caretakers lodge in the heavenly campground to drown out what is happening over here or what. I picture his wife, Wisdom, making him a patty melt in the kitchen, the way the grease pops when her tears strike, the way she knew and called out to us. The warnings she’s made known.

I’m left to walk humbly instead, and hoping to encounter God somewhere on the path.

Last weekend one of the three bishop’s of our state visited school, he shared with us the difference between awareness and action, the stopping place of discernment, of thinking about what we know, what we can see, what we can hear, and the pausing to listen before we act and go forward. He laughed ironically and said he could pick from his hand the small mistakes we will make because we did not discern, because maybe we didn’t even ask. He also read poetry to us, just enough to leave us feeling open and raw and then he let us go to lunch.

I wish I knew what the answers were to the absolute absence of sense, the spreading of rumors about our refugee vetting process, the folks who toss their two cents like stones into a conversation and say, well we have to do something. When we ARE doing something.

I read a story today about a family who was scheduled to arrive at O’Hare on Monday with their one year old daughter, how the vetting has been done, the paperwork completed and the things that occupied their place in a refugee camp packed up. I thought of the sense of anticipation I have about a trip to see my very own mother in 98 days and how excited the woman must be to lay eyes on her family, to show them their infant daughter, to be safe again.

But they are turned back.

They are left, at the eleventh hour, in a refugee camp, unpacking those bags through their tears, trying to communicate with family settled here last fall, trying to find the words to say, we can’t make it. We won’t be there. I’m sorry.

A friend of mine leaked tears all through our small group last weekend. And I told her that I looked at her, listened to her, that I had this image of the same desert she said she was walking through, a sandy and dry place with walls all about her. I saw how she longed for rest, how she longed for an oasis.

And so there she is, in the center of a pool in a place covered by the blue damask sky, pin points of light illuminating her as her tears drip endlessly down and fill the pool at her feet. And we come and we lap at her tears, taking small swallows of her sorrow in a lobby on a Friday night.

I’ve been saying for a while that a battle is coming. We’ve been on this road together, making camp at night and kicking dirt over the embers of our fires in the morning, setting out again. We’ve had hot days where all we could do was put one foot in front of another, and we’ve had fair days singing old Church of Christ rounds, Lord I lift your name on high, where we’ve fairly scampered down the path, rushing headlong toward what comes next.

Now we’ve reached a place where the doors and windows are covered, where the bodies are smoking in a mass grave and not a person remains. Now we’ve seen the pennants of the others unfurling in the wind and snapping to and fro. The easy thing now is to go back, to find another road. The easy way is to say we’re tired, we are so tired, of the fighting and the political posts and the arguments with people we don’t even know. The easy thing is to shrug and say, well, there isn’t anything I can do about this anyway.

But there has to be something we can do. Three million people marched with us last weekend. All of those people believing that their voices mattered. Our voices matter, what happens next is largely up to us.

 

As we wandered to lunch after the poems on Sunday I imagined myself in a wood carpeted with pine needles, in a white shift. It was foggy and cold, and I was hauling on the rope over a well, bringing up a bucket. I pulled and pulled, and the bucket surfaced finally, and in the bucket was my beating heart, blue and glistening in the misty light.

I wish that for you.

I wish you the sticky resin on your feet, the smell of pine in your nostrils, the goosebumps on your arms and the sick fear as you push forward through the fog. I wish that you would haul up your own beating heart, find a way to put it back inside of you.

Every heart will be needed, and soon the woods will fill with pilgrims in search of their own.

Because I’ve been saying that a battle is coming, the other camp is moving closer, but the example of one who wept at the grave of his friend, who forgave the people who hung him on a cross, who went down into hell and defeated it – we have that before us, our standard and our hope. This isn’t over. Please don’t give up. Rest when you must, nourish your body, I’ve a feeling this is only the first test, that this is only the beginning.

Go and find your heart, so that you can join our pilgrim band on the road. So that we can dream up ways of finding and animating with flesh the reconciling love we know is out there, the mercy we have experienced, the bravery that is down inside of us somewhere that needs only to be dusted off and shined up a bit.

Take heart.

I love you still.

 

I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.

THE AFTERLIFE

by Billy Collins

They’re moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
you go to the place you always thought you would go,
the place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.

Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors
into a zone of light, white as a January sun.
Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.

Some have already joined the celestial choir
and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
while the less inventive find themselves stuck
in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.

Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.

There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
of animals–eagles and leopards–and one trying on
the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,

while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.

There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.

The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
They wish they could wake in the morning like you
and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.

 

 

 

 

Trivia

I’ve been off work since last week and am thinking maybe I won’t go back. There is much to be said for staying up binge watching shows and sleeping late, our children are old enough to forage for food now, and to use the potty and turn on the TV all by themselves. I’ve read and colored too, and I’ve googled. My search history is strangely entertaining, how to counter the salt in ham soup, where is M1, how tall is Vince Vaughn…. fairy pools on the Isle of Skye, any new Doc Martin episodes?

I have another sort of trivia to contend with however, and of course I will go back to work– but not until Tuesday next.

I can’t figure out when Christmas lost it’s magic and became several days off work. I can’t figure out why I stopped looking to see how the lights shine through the stained glass onto the parking lot and the drifted snow, why the descant on the third verse of O come, all ye faithful didn’t make me cry this year. Why the image of a dark skinned and naked infant crying in a cattle shed didn’t really make me want to cry, why I have hardened my heart, again.

I stop, with my hands wrapped around a brick as the snow drifts down, catching in my eyelashes and settling like a crown on my hair,  and realize that I am rebuilding my wall.

It’s unsettling, to say the least, to have your wall come down, all in one go. It’s hard to sort through the rubble and to confront different versions of yourself shining back at you from the rubbish and the dust; harder still to decide which ones are real.

To have my wall come back up is not something I expected to happen. I thought I could live wide open and feeling everything so acutely, I thought I had expertly turned the knobs and tuned the dials to accept the pain a swallow, a sip at a time. And then to discover that my jaw was locked closed, my goodness. I remember countless Christmases, how they were another day, just like Sundays. And then all at once there was magic again, and now I seem to have dropped the jar and had the magic spill out, only I don’t remember it happening.

I can’t think what to do, I’ve been casting about for ideas, for ways to salvage the wonder, for ways to bare my own heart again, straining to hear on the winter wind the songs that make me want to sing.

I wonder at this late sadness, as all things have come round and settled. I wonder at my own contrary and grasping heart, at my lack of contentment in this small and warm and comfortable place. I am disappointed in my own self.

I wonder if the meaning is maybe revealed, if I have arched this way, traveled the path and not even realized the trajectory. Maybe this is an understanding that God incarnate is less about sparkling snow and stained glass and descants, and more about discontent, wondering and seeking, about holding on. Maybe Jesus wondered sometimes too, maybe he wondered if there was a point to all of it, if there was really a reason to keep going on the path that he could see, a destiny laid out for him like stars in a constellation over the Sea of Galilee.

The fairy pools of Skye offer glimmering hope, mist on the bens of Scotland, standing stones in a circle and the cobbled streets of Inverness call to me with the song of the North Sea and the echoing ruins of chantrys and abbeys.. The arms of my mother wait.

In the meantime, I read a prayer the other day and it made me think of all these things that I have laid out, spread out before you. It said, yet in all of the pain, and around it, there are crazy shimmerings of grace, tiny pin-points of hope that leave me breathless, guilty and skeptical, as I scramble to gather them up, unbelievingly holding them close to my heart.

Trivia.

The how and the why, the what it means, who it is for, what it foreshadows and what it sees. When it will come right again and how I can make it so.

I know that I can make it so.

I love you still. I hold you, unbelieving, guilty and skeptical, but close to my heart.

 

 

Stitches and Stage Craft

Tonight I wrestled with stage curtains that soar to the tops of the arch of the stage, not exactly a proscenium, but a definite top. It’s very high, forbiddingly high when you’re trying to hang a star and using an extension cord like a lasso. I sewed those curtains along with my friend Leslie. We rolled the fabric out in a huge woosh on the floor in the parish hall and we sort of measured it. We cut the fabric and bundled it into our cars. I don’t know where Leslie sewed her side, but I sewed mine in my bedroom, green fabric shot through with gold spread out across my bed, reaching from corner to corner of my not small bedroom.

I can really only sew things for the stage, so lacking in patience am I for the perfect. I am not particular and so crooked hems and ragged sides can be hidden from the front row, and are good enough for me. I love to watch the whirrr whirr of the needle piercing my fabric over and again, to see things that weren’t attached before become one; one large piece of something that is larger than the dream I had, larger than any other piece of cloth I have ever handled.

Tonight the needle whirred some more, but it whirred in the minds and the hearts of our children as they taught us another lesson; as they embodied what welcome for all looks like.

I know the way that I was raised, the things that I believed were true, and many of those things have been proved true again and again in the last several weeks. How home is always a place you can come to, how there is not anything you can do or say to make your family not want you anymore; how we close ranks for and protect our own – how our sins are covered in the soft blankets of home, be they old fleece blankets with teddy bears printed on them, or crocheted afgans that still smell like grandma’s house. No matter how far any of us has traveled the welcome of the prodigal child has been extended over and again. We’re not perfect, this family I belong to, but we do that one thing really well – we love each other.

My mind turns to a discussion on vestments held at a retreat last week, advent purple or blue, of the one priest whose mother found out he was discerning a call to the priest hood and immediately set to work making liturgical colored chausables and stoles. She sewed those things for him as she had stitched into the very fabric of his soul what sacramental love looks like.

What if our children are like fabric, and the needle that is their understanding of who they are and of their place in this world pierces them over and over again? What  if they, and the legacy we leave with them can be viewed like the largest piece of cloth we ever handled, like something that so exceeded the dream we had?

I toed a line in the pageant that I wrote, constantly erring on the side of safe, but really feeling a need to proclaim a message that maybe would be received from the mouths of our children rather than in screaming out in print in an opinion column in the newspaper. Maybe it would seem more believable to us if our children believed first, if they brought home tolerance like they bring home endless reams of paper littered with vocabulary words and math problems; like they bring home flu and lice, things that are insidious, things that somehow get inside of us and that we can’t seem to get rid of.

Some said, as we built the seeds of a Latino community at St. John’s, that they couldn’t make room for those people. And tonight all of the children donned costumes, they said lines they’ve learned and they moved on and off the stage; they high fived each other after and talked excitedly of a skating party a youth leader is planning. Our kids never said there wasn’t room, they never said they didn’t want to listen to someone worship God in another language, they never required that someone address them only in English. Instead they tried to understand the language spoken, and usually succeeded, because it was almost always a language of love. Anyone can understand what a kiss on both cheeks means, the way a face lights up as you come into a room.

Our kids are showing us, in the midst of all of our botched sewing, what it is to be welcoming. They are showing us what it is to live graciously, only with a desire to serve and to love, a desire to be loved. And so we often tell them to be quiet,  we decide that their message can’t possibly be worth hearing.

I’ve told you before about our grandma, how she seems to have gone backward. Sharp childhood and adolescent hurts are what she will talk about, her husband is now her dad, but she remembers nursery songs and will sing along gladly. Another grandma played with dolls and suddenly abandoned her cane and walker – and another woman I know has begun to suffer something called sundowners. As the light leaves the sky and the shadows grow she becomes afraid – because I think we arch backward toward childhood, because maybe reality becomes thin again as it was when we were children.

Maybe what happens is that we talk ourselves out of those thin spaces, we discipline our minds to not see what is there so that we will not be overwhelmed and afraid – maybe what happens is that we talk ourselves out of our initial love for people, especially the ones who squatted down and smiled at us, even the ones who didn’t look like us or speak our language. Maybe what we forget is that we belong to each other, so gunked up and screwed over do we become as adults.

I’d like to tell you that the season of advent is a time to un-gunk. It is a time to clean and to polish all of the things in ourselves that are good and welcoming and childlike, it is a time to allow ourselves, inside the daily and oppressive and heartbreaking misery of our world, to hope. A time to light candles against the gathering night and to see in the flicker of that flame a hope mirrored back in our own souls.

We are not Americans before we are anything else, because frankly, America hasn’t been around as long as the flesh from which you were descended, not long enough to wipe out the code of your DNA. We are people first and the whirring of our sewing machines as we sew into our children what life is and what love looks like, that noise reached tonight a level that is terrifying and so loud.

What are we sewing? Are we sewing selfless love, servant-hood, respect for dignity?

Or are we sewing cheap threads that don’t build self worth or love for other because they are based in our own need to have enough, to finally feel like we are enough, like we’ve made it somewhere and now aren’t going to let any of that go? Are we really sewing an US first mentality? Sewing only things that matter when viewed from a distance, but not are not real? What are we afraid of if we aren’t first?

Can we come at this thing with the same idea of abundance that makes us chide toddlers to share their toys?

The tree glows with bulbs that are colored and old fashioned and actually become hot to the touch, and the advent candles are lit, small and defiant lights arranged in a circle against the night. We are camped on the hill outside the promised land, and so divided suddenly over who can come in, over who is worthy of life and liberty and happiness.

I sang to my people tonight, just one verse and a short one, with a voice that shook because I was so scared. I sang that love is our token, love for God and all man, love for plea and gift and sign. I wanted to end on that dramaculous note, I wanted those who came to see their costumed children in a short pageant also to hear that I backed those kids up; and Luis too, that the message was real; we are one family, all are welcome here.

I will leave you here, in the gymnasium of your youth, under a huge rainbow colored parachute that you stretched way out, and then lifted high, and then ran under, shrieking and laughing as it descended upon you. Did you leave anyone out then?

Then why would you do it now?

I love you still.

And thank you to my last minute cookie bakers, fudge bringers, voice overs and singers. You are loved too.

 

 Yea, her sins our God will pardon,
Blotting out each dark misdeed;
All that well deserved His anger
He no more will see or heed.
She hath suffered many a day,
Now her griefs have passed away;
God will change her pining sadness
Into ever-springing gladness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blessings on the Road – The Red Tent, Again

I am not much of a doomsday-prepper. I’d like to be, I watch shows like the Walking Dead and am able to picture myself in a similar situation, in a place where nothing looked the way it did yesterday. I am able to prioritize and to plan, but I’m disorganized in that way, I can hardly keep milk in the fridge,  much less hoard empty milk jugs of water in my basement. I am not a great planner.

I see glimpses though, probably you do too, be they via media, or be they real life, signs and whispers on the breeze that speak of change, imminent change. I can prepare myself, prepare my heart, plan just a little, in that gray space where I am in my comfortable bed and the coffee pot is ready for the alarm to ring – I can plan for a minute – because that is usually about all I can take.

Tonight the tent fell again. I felt it start to shake itself free, the hair on the back of my neck, those curls that won’t be contained under a baseball cap, they shivered in the breeze. I felt at home again, not doing a job, not showing up. I was immersed in this business of grilled cheese and tomato soup, laughing with other women and with my own daughters, this work that is (for all the feminist in me fights against it) women’s work. The magical thing that happens when kindred female souls gather in a kitchen and prepare food happened, and its something that I hadn’t realized I’d even missed.

I realized tonight, with folks from another church background and one who didn’t say what her background was, with a woman who came to visit family from Chicago and heard about our kitchen and wanted to help; who brought hand knitted mittens as gifts – I realized that this is what the church is.

Church is a 12 year old who finishes the last load of dishes five minutes before the kitchen closes. It is a man who says, we thought about doing this at our church, and we thought, why not help at St. John’s since they are already set up? A man who said, you can count on us to volunteer. Church is the way the lights in the nave light only the altar and the woman there who sets the table, changing the linens to Advent colors, under the watchful eye of her husband – standing guard in a dark church as the hands of his wife handle these precious things, readying this space for the meal we will all share in just a few days.

Church is an 8 year old who says, give me a job. And then doesn’t want the job she is offered. (Because we adults do that too, don’t we?)

It seems that we struggle and fight against the exodus of folks we perceive as leaving the church. We make phone calls and set up lunches, we market ourselves and we try to attract new people, new families, when maybe all along the people who are leaving aren’t actually leaving. Maybe they just figured it out before we did.

Hang on here, I will try to make sense of this.

Two summers ago my church went camping. They set up tents and some had campers and some rented small cabins in a campground not far from home. On Sunday, as I was at a retreat for deacon school, they had Eucharist in the campground, and I had Eucharist in a conference room. They set up on a picnic table with simple things, necessary things. They sat in camp chairs around the smoldering remains of campfires and there were dogs on leashes and kids being kids, but they were having church. I left fed from a conference room Eucharist with then strangers in the same way that this extended family of mine left fed, still in their pajamas, packing up their tents and their chairs.

I just am saying that we are the church, we the people, are the church. It isn’t the building.

Make no mistake. I have a deep love affair, you could almost call it a torrid love affair, this feeling that comes over me when I enter an old and lovely church, when I gaze at the altar and the brass candlesticks – – But. There is more than that. Isn’t there more than that?

I’ve a feeling that our world is changing friends, spinning backward along the long arc of history. I’ve a feeling that in not too many more decades our world will not be recognizable to those of us who do church now, in our robes, with our fonts and our candles, like the way the world we live in now was not conceivable to those who lived just a century before.

My message to you then, on this Thanksgiving Eve, is that one constant has never changed and that constant is our humanity.

I imagine over and over the way that Moses felt, on that plain, surrounded by the susurations of his people as they set up camp, tended kids and animals, set up tents and started fires, just outside what was their Promised Land. I imagine the way the wind rippled the surface of the water in the cooking pots, the despair of knowing that he could not come too. Do not misunderstand me, there is despair at the thought of what is to come – but there is hope too, because our humanity is not lost.Our humanity still largely involves women basting turkeys and girls setting tables, the satisfaction of another meal served, of the shining eyes of loved ones around a table.

But I am standing here with you, I am hearing the last reverberation of the organ’s Agnus Dei and I am grieving because I know that I cannot go with you. I can help lead you out, but I will die on this plain, surrounded by your still warm fires, in arms reach of the place I have longed for.

God let it be so.

Our humanity still largely involves the shining eyes of loved ones around a table, be it a picnic table or an altar from the early 1900s or a table shrouded in a pressed white cloth in a conference room somewhere in mid-Michigan.

My message to you is that when bread is broken and shared we are church. Be it communion bread or those icky wafers, maybe God can even come among us in the form of a grilled cheese – cooked by a 12 year old, served with tomato soup. The essential elements of a sacrament are there, and so maybe our historic churches and our traditions matter less in the face of that. Maybe, when we look at who we are called to be we see that nowhere are we required to go to an actual church. Maybe this supposed exodus is yet another sign, another lamp post lighting our way in the darkening world around us.

There are people who care. There are people who see what they are called to, who will respect the dignity of every person with their dying breaths. They are at Standing Rock, they are with you in the pews of your churches, in the kitchens where you serve the hungry, most especially in the hungry who gather, seeking the food that is offered at our communal table.

Letting go is hard, I’m not very good at it myself. I say things I don’t mean, I react with anger and sarcasm as I scramble to clench my fists closed — but the same waters that baptized me dribbles out through my fingers and puddles on the floor. I cannot be contained and refuse to be, apparently.

I read a book last night, (I promise to wrap it up here), it was a play called the Soul of the World. And in the book Simeon is questioned on his prophecy, on being a prophet. He said, My mind is full of mist and broken sound. It is not I who speak.

My own mind is full of mist and broken sound, it truly is not I who speaks.

Un-clench your fist. Open your hands. Realize that you cannot contain this magic any more than I can, that the story of humankind is steeped in sacrificial love. Contemplate what it is you are called to give up, and when your heart shies away, when your mind closes its doors – there!

That is the thing.

We are pilgrims together on this road, and I will not pretend for you that any of this easy. I cannot say that I have the answers.

I love you still.

 

This fire won’t go out, though just a flicker it may be. Shifting through the shadows to a vision we can’t see. Hold fast to one another… we will stand, stranger to brother. 

I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept.. and I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful, at midnight, to receive you. 

Pack your things, leave somehow. Blackbird song is over now.