Monday, December 27, 2010

 New Mercies

We have reached the end of 2010. As do many, I both look back and look forward at the calendar change. I spend time cleaning out files, drawers, and closets in preparation for the new year. I try to catch up on people I’ve neglected. I also start a new folder on my computer, labeled with the year number. So folder “2011 files” has been created, and will soon fill with my writings, messages, articles I particularly like, spreadsheets, bank statements, worship notes, photos, correspondence, and other life markings.

That folder marks a fresh start with work. But there is a far greater fresh start before me. The turning of the calendar reminds me of one of my favorite scriptures, Lamentations 3:22-23, where I read that God’s mercies “are new every morning.” For me, the changing of the calendar says, “acknowledge those daily new mercies.”

I have identified six practices that block my awareness of God’s mercies. I’ve learned that when I pay attention to these things, I am far more able to see God’s daily given mercies, to enjoy a free and light soul, and, even more importantly, to pass them on to others. I offer these to you at this year end:

Number one: Lay down the idea that gifts always come with strings. Learn to receive the gifts given by God and others with thankfulness and without suspicion. Should there be a string attached, that is the giver’s problem, not mine. Receive simply and give simply.

Number two: Stop letting others make my important choices for me. Live with courage, integrity and out of a strongly formed character despite the actions and attitudes of others. When I use a phrase that sounds something like, “I can’t do that (be obedient to God, be truthful, live generously, say a strong “no” to injustice and so forth) because someone else will (not like it, get mad at me, not respond the way I want them to, etc.),” then I am permitting others to make my vital choices. That is a death decision. Choose life.

Number three: Relinquish any idea that security may be found in any human institution including church, family, economics and politics. It won’t happen. When the primary driver of my life is to be secure, I immediately move to the worship of money and things and become very resistant to God, to change and to the needs of others.

Number four: Quit insisting that I occupy the center of the universe and that God stands ready to do my bidding. I am not the center and God is not my celestial vending machine. Those attitudes are appropriate only for the tiniest of babies, not for mature adults.

Number five: Leave behind the fallacy that if I understand enough about why something happens, I can also find meaning in random events. This does not mean giving up intellectual curiosity or scientific endeavor. It does mean that I need to recognize that there will always be mystery beyond my understanding, and that mystery will always be much bigger than my ability to grasp it or make complete sense of it. Learn to appreciate the wildness of mystery rather than domesticate or tame it.

Number six: Acknowledge my fear of innocence and vulnerability to being hurt by others. Leave behind cynicism and seek to transform fear into trust that goodness does permeate a universe held together by a good God. While I say to grow up and stop insisting that I am the center of the universe, I also know that I must find again the child within that enjoys intrinsic trust in an ever-present God who does very much love me.

Thanks for reading what I write. Send me your comments and thoughts. And have a blessed 2011!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Afternoon

It is late Christmas afternoon.  I'm alone in the house, listening to classical Christmas music, and doing so with a growing awareness that I am not the only one with a tendency to the minor key or to the tinge of sadness experienced by many during this season.

We Christians properly celebrate the birth of Jesus now. Not that we know a date or time of year this child came into the world. Not that we really understand the how of it.  The idea of an Incarnation--of God becoming human--really is beyond our grasp and if accepted, must be accepted in faith.  Not that we've even got the facts straight about the Holy Night.  Everyone has a slightly different story or take on what happened.  Nonetheless, we Christians for the most part acknowledge that we need to stop the December craziness long enough to at least listen once more to the good news and to consider its implications for our lives.

As I listen to the music, I hear that many of the most glorious Christmas songs do much more than suggest we should be happy about the birth of Jesus.  They call us to worship; they call us to bow the knee and even fall on our faces in awe.  They insist we look as ourselves as ones needing this child to be born and show us the way, the truth and the life.  

I'm one who needs much solitude, perhaps much more than many others, so I have to be careful about putting too much emphasis on such alone times.  Even saying that, however, I do wonder how one can live intentional, self-aware lives without some time spent alone (even when others are around) pondering the nature of our own soul and our relationship to something holy and wholly beyond us.

I listen to this great music, and wonder how these composers came up with it.  Surely they gave themselves time and space to integrate their musical gifts with their spiritual lives.  Surely they were willing to be bored and lonely and fearful and even hungry and cold for the sake of something greater.  And all that brings me to the melancholy that permeates much of the greatest of real Christmas music, as opposed to the holiday overly sickly-sweet jingles that fill too much of the airtime.

Even the most joyous of this great music seems tinged with awareness that we humans are just getting a peek at something so far beyond us that we must recognize our frailty and finiteness in the light of unlimited eternity bursting into our limited world.

In my first paragraph, I wrote that I am alone in the house on Christmas.  I have a sense that many reading that will say, "Oh, how awful.  Poor thing."  This response paints solitariness in a "not quite good enough" category.  So why am I alone?  Is this a bad thing?  I just recently received a message from a good friend who noted that her extended family gathering was about to send her into the screaming-meemies. Could it be that being not alone may have its own down sides?

Anyway, first of all, I am alone because of the challenge of dealing with broken marriages over holidays.  Who spends time with whom when?  Sometimes, others need to get priority here.  This is a good thing.  Tug-of-wars here only harm, not help. 

Second, I am alone because death does not delay even for Christmas.  My husband, who often handles funerals for families who want a clergy person but who do not have a local one, received a call from a funeral home in Dallas needing him urgently to come and care for a family.  This is also a good thing.  He brings his healing gifts to the grieving.

Third, I am alone because, even though this is Christmas Day, it is also Saturday, and a Saturday after an unusually busy week, and things must be done in order to be prepared to offer to my congregation the very best I have on Sunday.  Therefore, it is a work day for me.

There will be few in worship tomorrow--the vast majority of my congregation have traveled away this weekend.  I particularly noticed that last night at our Christmas Eve service.  Even with a packed room, I knew only about 30% of the people there.  Most of mine were elsewhere--and those who are normally elsewhere, were with us.  But for those few who will attend in the morning, I have an obligation to offer all of my gifts as their pastor.  So, I must have time to prepare, to think and pray, and to organize my thoughts.  For me, this is best done alone, not interacting with others.

So I content myself here, surrounded by books, music, warmth, and a beautiful awareness of the holy presence of God.  This is indeed Christmas. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Weather and the Nature of God

It's Christmas Eve and it is cold and rainy outside.  Last Christmas Eve, we had a blizzard here in Krum.  Does God not want us to have Christmas Eve services?

I know that seems a silly question, but it is not one for those who think that God is in the business of making our lives easy and ensuring that houses of worship are full on special occasions.

Of course, we who live with sprinklers and sewers and water towers and all other conveniences of comfortable living occasionally forget that rain and any other moisture that falls from the skies, especially in a climate like ours in Texas, is very much a blessing.  

Rain means life.  Rain, slowly falling, deeply sinking rain, pumps up the drying, shriveling roots of our trees and shrubs.  It helps matter that has already died to decay further and turn to compost, thus enriching the next generation of plants.  It carries nutrients from the air into the ground.  Rain equals blessing.

I also know the temptation on a cold rainy night as this one promises to be is to just stay inside, hunker down, turn on the TV, brew a hot drink of some sort, and cocoon.  I simply ask that you consider the option of heading out anyway. Find that place of worship.  Join with a community of those who know that real riches come from intimacy with God, and that few of us can fully worship alone.  At our church, the chorale and musicians have been practicing for weeks to lead us in both a fun and powerfully meaningful time.  We'll consider together the state of our hearts and our readiness to receive the greatest gift of all.  

There's a part of me that wants to say, "Please come so the worship leaders won't be disappointed."  But I say to you, that is the wrong reason to attend worship.  The real reason: "O Come, Let Us Adore Him."  It is a good and right thing to give thanks to our Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, on this special night.

Maybe the rain, instead of being a hindrance to worship attendance, can serve as a reminder that God does not do our bidding, and that makes God worthy of worship.  We have been given the privilege of approaching this Holy One by the Son whose birth we celebrate this evening.  Let us handle that privilege with humility and responsibility.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Santa as God

Santa is "freaky."  That's the conclusion the youth I work with on Wednesday nights reached.

Last night, I had the youth compare two songs: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "O Holy Night."

When they actually looked carefully at the words of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" they immediately and as a group called out "freaky."  It really bothered them that Santa was watching them while they slept.  That he appeared to know everything about them.  That he had punitive and reward power in his hands.

Out of that song, they described Santa as male, fat, bearded, and red-cheeked and knowing way, way too much about them.

When we turned to "O Holy Night" and it's somewhat archaic words, we spent a lot of time just defining words.  Key for them:  What does "Divine" mean and far more, what does "Holy" mean?

As the lively and energetic discussion kept going, the question came up: "What is God really like?"  "Is God a man?"  "Does God have a beard?"

Suddenly, they all made the connection:  we have indeed turned Santa Claus, the one from the children's story written in 1862, into God.  After all, Santa does know when we've been bad or good.

And the youth asked, "If we stop believing in Santa Claus, do we stop believing in God as well?"

At this point, we began to discuss the nature of God and what in means to be "holy."  

And also at this point, something became more clear to me than it ever has before:  we do our children a huge disservice when we offer them a "Santa Claus" god.  Almost all young people will go through a period of questioning their faith as they go through high school and especially enter the more rigorous world of critical thought that the college and university years ideally bring.  Most of them rightly reject the god of their childhood because they are rejecting the "Santa Claus" model.  But we give them nothing to replace it with.

Why do they reject the Santa Claus model?  Because it suggests that they can control God's behavior by their own.  As long as they are good, Santa has to perform.

So it is Santa's (i.e. God's) job is to give them what is on their wish list.  When life's wish list is not honored, when unemployment strikes, when romantic attachments fail and disappoint, when friends are killed in car wrecks or destroy themselves with drugs or other bad choices, or sent off to fight foreign wars and are either killed or returned utterly traumatized and Santa doesn't come through to fix it and make it magically right, then Santa, i.e., God, gets tossed.

So, when they reject all they know about God, they are left with a void.  

They don't know what "holy" is.  They have no tools to begin to address the mystery of a God who uses these words as self-definition, "I AM."  

Confirming our youth at 12 or 13 or 14 does not solve the problem.  They are just beginning to understand the power of critical thinking.  I think the reason we lose most of them after Confirmation is that all we've done is give them a slightly gussied up version of Santa Claus and they know it doesn't really work.

What are we going to do?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Checklists and Holiness

Note:  the musings below will run in the local newspaper, The Krum Star, rather than the article I wrote which is posted above in order to lesson the possibility of some unnecessary conflict that could happen in this lovely and small town in which I live.  It is always a challenge to live both from compromising integrity and deep love for neighbor and it was my choice to write something a bit softer--but still to the point, I hope.  All comments are very much welcome!  Please feel free to email me, or post a comment below.

During this Advent season, the time Christians have used for ages to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Savior, I decided to do something I have not done before in worship.  I've been taking some of the well-loved but not necessarily religious Christmas and seasonal songs and using them as doorways to the hallways of grace.

I know that I personally have struggled for years with Christmas songs that seemed to me to have nothing to do with Christmas.  So this year, I sought to take a different view, and honor in a whole new way the fact that I really do believe that God is Lord over all, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not.

I started with "The Christmas Song" (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . .) and compared it to "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus" a classic and powerful hymn by Charles Wesley.  Both of these songs invite us to consider the importance of family connections, one for our earthly family, the other for the family of God.  They do not exclude one another; they connect us.

Then we looked at "Frosty the Snowman" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!" and made an move into acknowledging the mystery of the season.  I mentioned how very, very much all of us don't know about the workings of the universe and the workings of individual relationships and the workings of God.  Out of that huge field of "not-knowing" we are invited to consider a whole chorus of angels who periodically show up and remind us not to be afraid because God is getting ready to show up in a new way.  Frosty can be seen an a scaled down angel, giving us opportunity to enjoy the mystery of an unseen and animated world.

Last week, we enjoyed "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" and "O Little Town of Bethehem" as we thought together about hospitality.  Just as a hotel is a place of hospitality, inviting different people to come together and experience unusual moments together, the town of Bethlehem extended its hospitality to the young family of Joseph and Mary with the baby to come.  The biblical "inn" was really a private house where the guest room (the "inn") was already full of other extended family members who had come to register.  Joseph and Mary would have been brought in to what ever space was available, and then been surrounded by loved ones and and the larger family during this time of sojourn and birth.  Our fabulous chorale offered  their voices, singing "White Christmas" as a complement to the congregation singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem." This beautiful, haunting arrangement created by our worship director, Damon Downing, gave us all insight into wholeness of the good news of Jesus Christ.

This Sunday, I'm going to talk about Santa Claus and see how this funny little man can be for us a shadow that points into the presence of the Most Holy God.  Santa's "checklists" may be seen as a way to ask if we are really prepared to receive the Savior who shows up on that Holy Night.  As a congregation, we'll hear again the words to that most beautiful of songs, "O Holy Night."  Perhaps, by the grace of God and our own willingness to be repentant of our sin, we can use the Santa Claus myth to move to the reality of a God who loves without restraint.

Prepare your hearts, all.  The Savior is on the move!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Naughty or Nice List

I'm on a rant again--which I suppose is nothing new to those who know me.  But it's true:  I'm going to gag if I hear one more time, "We've got to put Christ back in Christmas." 

How ridiculous. The whole idea suggests that someone has the power to take Christ OUT of Christmas. Can't be done. Christmas IS the Christ Mass. The word itself stands as the acknowledgment of the Incarnation, the breaking into the confinement of time and space of the firstborn of all creation ultimately to die and then live again. Sure, there are lots of overlays on that, but for goodness sake, celebrating the Christ Mass on December 25th was itself an overlay on a pagan custom to have fun around the time of the winter solstice. 

So who has the power to take Christ out of Christmas? No one. And this is why I think I want to gag even more at the website set up by First Baptist Dallas announcing their judgment on those who don't acknowledge Christmas in the way they think it should be acknowledged. These deluded people have set themselves up as defenders of God and they are going to show the world what God is really like. Their site actually says, "Help us preserve Christ this Christmas."

Really? Is God so powerless that God needs us puny humans to muster a defensive army to preserve the Creator, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords?

I'm all for loving God and working out my salvation with fear and trembling. But defending God? This is the kind of stuff that leads to rampantly destructive religious wars and leave the landscape soaked in the blood of others who were also defending God but whose weapons were less advanced. 

But the powerful Jeffress and his minions use their billion dollar church base (OK, slight exaggeration) to shame businesses and civic organizations into saying exactly what these self-appointed "correct" ones have decided is the best way to offer greetings and display decoration this time of the year. "Happy Holidays" is out. "Season's Greetings" earns a spot in the fifth or sixth circle of hell.  Generic seasonal decorations without overtly Christian themes suffer major condemnation by these denizens of Christmas Correctness. 

Reality check:  Christmas is a minor church celebration with minimal biblical support that has been blown way out of proportion by the very ones who insist that people are taking Christ out of Christmas. In the life of the church, Easter and Pentecost are far, far more important.  They are just not nearly as much fun. After all, when is the time you decided to have a Pentecost Party, or the children of the church performed a "Pentecost Pageant" or you decorated your house with tongues of fire?

Furthermore, how many of those Christmas Correct folks are themselves guilty of misusing the season? Christmas trees have a pagan base. Wise men do NOT show up the night of the birth, and we don't know how many there were. Christmas programs highlighting a nasty inn-keeper who heartlessly sent the already laboring Mary and her bewildered husband to a lonely, dirty and cold stable do not reflect well what happened at that time. 

I need to stop my own "grinchness" here. Christmas has never been my favorite holiday. I think we kill ourselves during this time, as we run from our pain and our darkness with frantic activity and make ourselves miserable with forced merriness and unhealthy eating, sleeping, partying and spending patterns.  I wonder how many will say on Christmas Eve, "Nope, can't make it to church because it will interfere with the meal preparation or I still have to buy and wrap one more gift."

It's time to find peace. That's what the angels announced to those lowly and despised shepherds. Peace. This world sorely needs it. Peace. A time to reconcile with others and with God.  Peace. Peace, my friends.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Practice Abnormality

Guess what? Scholars have finally figured out that forgiving others is really good for you! An article in a publication that deals in the latest issues in higher education has confirmed this. Since these researchers agree, it must be right. Wow--what a piece of intriguing news--that this whole biblical idea that we really should set down those grudges and resentments might actually pay off! 

Forgive my sarcasm, but sometimes I wonder why something like this has to be quantified to be believed. This is not rocket science. Forgiveness and reconciliation are absolute basic necessities to forming human communities that actually work, and a huge key to physical, spiritual, social and emotional health.

Try this: this moment, think of someone who has grievously wronged you, or brought destruction on someone you love. I'm talking serious, long-term hurt here--those tough ones that all of us face.

Pay attention to what happens to your body when you bring the face of that person to mind. Do you feel your gut tighten? Your jaws clench? Your breath quicken? Your shoulder muscles contract? Your "fight or flight" mechanism activate? Your brain racing with ways to get revenge? Your hope that something bad might happen to that person? 

Every one of those responses is normal in the face of wrongdoing. But staying in the "normal" is a sure recipe for death. Clench those teeth and watch them be ruined by nighttime teeth-grinding. Tighten those shoulder muscles and eventually be unable to turn your head and see a wider world. Keep that gut tight and watch your digestion stay perpetually out of whack. Maintain the the perpetual "fight or flight" state and see your flooding stress hormones destroy nearly every system in your body. Seek revenge and watch your soul shrivel to nothingness. Hope for bad outcomes for others and see sourness infect every single relationship you have. 

Read history and see how many of the world's tragedies spring from the refusal to forgive and reconcile.  Yes, this is a complicated act, and does not mean giving into evil, unchecked power, or on-going abuse.  It does mean facing our own souls squarely and seeing how the normal act of non-forgiveness destroys hope and life.

This is the time of the year to make an intentional move from the normal to that which is most definitely not normal: the contemplation of God entering the restricted world of space and time and saying, "The normal is killing you. Try receiving and giving forgiveness instead."

When the angels announced Jesus' birth, they said, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." 

Peace, peace between God and humanity, peace between us and others. Peace permeates the abnormal act of forgiveness. Peace comes when we set down the need for revenge, when we wish good, not evil upon even the worst among us, when we unclench, relax, let go, and breathe the clean air of forgiveness. 

Paradoxically, it is often only in the doing of this abnormal act that we find our own minds receptive to the possibility of angelic presence and to their message.  When we insist on measurable proof for immeasurable and foundational spiritual truths, we often close our eyes to the possibility of the mysterious and lose much of the sweetness and serendipity of life. 

The seasonal holidays that are upon us, both religious and non-religious, bring families together in ways that sometime build tensions.  Long-held grudges simmer over; tiny slights or misunderstandings turn into wall-splintering fights; unrealistic expectations lead to bitter disappointments.  These times, then, give the best opportunity all year to practice the abnormal act of forgiveness.  Pay attention to the bodily signs of unforgiveness.  See if you can stop the cycle before it destroys. Seek to create openings for the angels to enter with their pronouncements of peace.  

Practice abnormality.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Urgency Hypnosis

Today, as I think everyone is the entire world must know, is called "Black Friday," as in the busiest shopping day of the year.  That's awful name for it--I saw somewhere that it should be named "Greed Friday" but that really doesn't make sense.  People are not being greedy today--they are actually being generous as most shop to purchase gifts for others.  Well, some of them are.  I just read that about 50% of what is bought today will be for the self, not someone else.

Anyway, I, with a real dislike of very crowded situations and with a growing dislike of having to get up particularly early, have not joined this madness since I was a teen and my mother, sister and I would head out.  Yes, Virginia, stores did exist back in the those ancient days--and cars filled the parking lots even then.  But what we didn't have then is electronic shopping, although print catalogs were great fun!

Yesterday, I found myself somewhat mesmerized by the deals periodically popping up on Amazon.  I managed to snag several toys for the grandchildren, but missed some real good deals.  By the time I got up this morning, I had already missed a few others that I would very much liked to have bought. So now, I've got my eye on something that will be available in about 38 minutes.  My timer is on, and I'm going to be ready to leap on it the moment it becomes available if the price is right.

I also know this is kind of silly.  It's not something I would have bought normally, and although I think it will make a nice gift, this is very much an impulse thing.  In other words, I've permitted myself to be nicely manipulated by the idea that I'm going to get a great bargain and simply MUST GET THIS or my life will be empty, formless and void. Hmmmm--if that is the case, perhaps God can get busy doing some re-creative activity in my life.

OK, 20 minutes now before my deal becomes live. My nervousness grows. Although some items have not sold out, others disappear in minutes.  I've put myself on the "waitlist" for a couple, but didn't make the cut.  In other words, scarcity is planned into this system.  Increase the urgency, decrease the thoughtfulness.  

That's the life most of us life. Filled with urgency, devoid of thoughtfulness. Get this done NOW!  Fix this system IMMEDIATELY!  Turn this gigantic, lumbering ship THIS VERY SECOND or off with your head!

Don't you feel it?  I see it with so much that I'm reading about the state of the church, especially what I'm reading about my own much loved denomination, The United Methodist Church.  We've got to make changes THIS INSTANT to keep from going under.  But we are dealing systems that have been in place for a long time, and we now face the repercussions of decisions made 50 or 100 or 200 years ago.  Life is just that way.  Quick decisions have long term consequences.  Thoughtful decisions do as well, and many of those consequences, however unintended, have devastating effects.  

Now, I'm down to twelve minutes.  I've got the window for amazon sitting open next to this doc window so I can leap as soon as the item becomes available.  A timer underneath it marks the passing of the seconds.  My breath quickens with anticipation . . . 

I tell myself, "As soon as I've snagged this one, I'll head to the garden for the post-freeze clean up."  But of course, I'll first check and see if something equally as tantalizing is going to show up in an another hour or so.  Just in case, just in case.

When hypnosis of urgency wins, the timeless quality of wisdom loses.

Ten minutes to go.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day Musings

I spent an hour in bed this morning, looking out the window from the bedroom, watching the trees and plants dance from the increasing north wind.  I also spent that hour thinking of my mother, on this her favorite of holidays, and on my first Thanksgiving without her.  I am thankful.  Thankful for the years, thankful for her being gone now, thankful for all that I am because of who she was.  No melancholy, just quietness.  A good time.

Because I wasn't sure just how this day would affect me, I chose to spend it quietly.  Keith is fixing us a lovely meal.  I brought in the plants that are not freeze tolerant and have placed them around the house for the winter months.  I do wonder how many of them have toads living in their dirt.  It wouldn't be the first time that one has popped out later.  Always a bit startling, but nothing I can't live with.

Keith and I had originally planned to spend the morning re-doing the vegetable beds in the back yard, but both independently decided a day spent in a warm house was preferable.  We are definitely getting older!

And I have now managed to do most of my Christmas shopping, a very unplanned event.  Checked email as usual, noticed that Amazon was doing some specials for the day, saw some toys on there that I think my grandchildren would like, and managed to get most of what I wanted.  These specials are good only for a short period of time--nice marketing technique to keep someone on their site. Also very nice for me since I really don't actually enjoy shopping but did want to get something for the grandchildren.

All this brings up the usual bemoaning of the church about the commercialization of the holidays.  I admit to being somewhat troubled by so many department stores opening either later today or very early tomorrow.  I'm not troubled by the chance to shop; I'm troubled by the fact that a lot of employees who might have enjoyed a few unhurried hours with family will now not be able to do so.  Of course, in this economy, it also means a larger paycheck, perhaps.  

I was thinking today about how many different types of people must work on these holidays.  Yesterday, I went to the hospital to visit one of my church members.  Parking lot was full--illness just doesn't take a vacation.  And although the grocery store, where I also made a stop, was packed yesterday, I know many if not all grocery stores are also open today just in case, although I think some will close for the evening.  Law enforcement, fire-fighters, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, gas stations--all these are staffed and open on this day and on other holidays that most get off. 

It's one of those days when I wonder if we wouldn't be better off to go back to "blue laws" not for the sake of the church, but for the sake of humanity.  It really wouldn't kill us not to be able to shop one day a week.  Really.  How many of us would actually go hungry if we had to each just what is in our pantries that one day?  What would it hurt just to be home or outside hanging out with neighbors for the day?  But even as I write this, I know I'm thinking primarily of middle-class America.  What about people who live in packed-out and run-down housing projects?  Forcing people to stay home is not a particularly good option.  It has never worked, as far as I can tell from history, to legislate social morality.  People will always look for, and always find, the loopholes.

There was a period of time when the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in the colonies.  People celebrated anyway.  Thank goodness. As far as I can find, it has never been celebrated exactly as the religious authorities think it should be.  I find that as I mellow a bit, I like that.  I'm not sure those of us who call ourselves "religious authorities" actually know all that much about the mind of God or know how exactly how we are supposed to acknowledge God's intervention in the world. Very much a mystery, and one worth exploring. But, having written then, I know that people who are sure they do know the mind of God will very much disagree with me and just write me off as the typical female, deceived heretic.  Oh well.  It's Thanksgiving, and I can give thanks for that.

Meal nearly ready.  Table set with the lovely stuff.  My stomach in growling in anticipation.  The temperature is still above freezing outside, but not by much.  The house is warm and comfortable.  I am extraordinarily grateful.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lessons from my Garden

1.  Six hours in the garden doesn't even begin to make up for three months of neglect.  Won't even touch what all has to be done.  Going to church twice a year probably is just about as effective.  We need a major tune-up here and regular attention.

2.  Flowers really want to reproduce.  Since I just let things go, all the annuals went to seed and I decided to save seed instead of buying it next spring for the simple flowers I plant.  Did you know that one marigold flower produces at least two hundred seeds?  That's one flower, not one plant.  If I were to harvest all the seeds off just one marigold plant, I'd probably have 10,000 seeds.  I think the church is supposed to operate the same way.

3.  Most of those seeds will not make new plants.  Some will blow away; some won't sprout; some will sprout and die; some will get eaten (I assume some bug just loves marigold seeds); some will just turn back to dirt.  But none ultimately disappear.  They are just transformed into something else.  Anyone besides me see some spiritual linking here?

4.  Bodies as old as mine should NOT spend six hours in the garden after three months of neglect and think I'll get off scott-free.  I can hardly move.

5.  Certified non-kink hoses still kink.  Sigh.

6.  Fire ants are still alive, hungry and love to bite even this late in the year.  Double sigh.

7.  Bermuda grass makes a wonderful lawn and is also the world worst weed.  Triple sigh.

Even so, what a wonderful day!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Vote God Out

If the kingdom of heaven were a democracy, and if, we those created in the Imago Dei, could have a vote about who is going to be in charge, would we indeed vote the God we read about in the Bible, that we observe in the cosmos, and that we experience, or think we experience, in daily life, in prayer and in pain, back into leadership again?

After all, how many of us are getting what we really think we deserve out of this God?  Prosperity?  Bah, humbug--prosperity lands upon only for the very few, and generally the very unethical few, i.e., the Bernie Madoff's and Jeffrey Skillings of the world, and occasionally on a "name it and claim it" preacher who almost always turns out to be a scoundrel and scalawag. Easy living?  You've got to be kidding--I don't know one person whose life is actually easy.  Good health?  Well, sit down and name your ailments for a few minutes.  Bet you've got several, especially if you are a trained athlete or have passed the age of 35.  

What about salvation?  In truth, none of us alive really know if we are going to get that or not--assuming it does mean eternal life in the presence of God.  As much as we want to know, we really cannot come back from the dead yet and tell for sure what it is like on the other side.  And as many great "near death" experiences people have had, there have also been a lot of awful "near death" experiences which most definitely don't get the press.

I honestly think that if we could, we'd vote God out and vote in Santa Claus.  Really.  Just makes more sense.  A once a year toy, the mysterious disappearance of the requisite milk and cookies, and no demands except trying to generally be nice.  No calls to extreme holiness, to laying down our lives for one another, no longsuffering and painful patience, no entrance into anguished suffering to see if we can make a difference.  Nope.  Just believe, write out our lists, leak the main items on our list to willing ears, and wait with anticipation for wish-fulfillment day.

Just makes more sense.  We need a sugar daddy to take over.

A Disconnect For Me

In a New York Times article today about the naming of new cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church, the author wrote: "Dressed in heavy golden vestments, Benedict called on the new cardinals to devote themselves entirely to humble service to the church, whose force, he said, is “not the logic of supremacy, of power according to human criteria, but the logic of bowing down to wash feet, the logic of service, the logic of the cross which is at the base of every exercise of power.”

Does anyone besides me see a disconnect here?

Here's the photo from that story:

Now, I'm in agreement with the words about devoting themselves humbly to the church.  I am just wondering about being dressed in enough gold to outclass any earthly king while making such a pronouncement.  

It is a day where I'm wrestling mightily with the nature of the church.  I'm working on my message for Christ the King Sunday tomorrow.  What kind of a king is Christ?  The human experience with "kings" is not particularly holy or helpful.  Many, if not all, appear to be deeply corrupt, enamored with power, surrounded by sycophants, and protected from the vicissitudes and challenges of normal life, of trying to keep a family fed and housed, of concerns about health care and retirement, of seeking to keep a healthy soul in the midst of soul-destroying poverty.

So in my wrestling, I struggle with the image of church that I project and that is seen as a whole.  I just keep thinking, "we are doing this all wrong."

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ready, Set, Go!!!!

It is now upon us.  The yearly craziness absorbs the nation.  We fight off the growing darkness of shorter days with glitter and lights and frenzied activity.  We shake off gloom with parties, food, drink.  Sated with sugar and calorie-laden eggnog, we lose control of spending and credit cards flame out with overuse.  

It really is a lot of fun.  Purchasing just the right gift, turning bland spaces into fantasies of light and music, sharing laughter and work in kitchens while cookies and breads send the best of all smells throughout the house.  Yes, we need this time.  

But before this all begins, even though TV and stores have, as usual, taken off before the signal is given, let's stop.  

For one day.  


Don't even walk up to the starting line yet.


Put aside the catalogues; let the ornaments gather attic dust for one more day.  


Say "thank you."

Make a list.  Not a shopping list.  Not a wish list.  Not a "letter to Santa" list.  Not even a to-do list.  Make a different kind of list.

A list of every single thing you can think of to be thankful for.

Little things.  Big things.  

Life. Breath. Skin. Hair. Fingernails. Farmers. Ranchers. Food processing plants. Flour already ground from wheat.  Manufacturers who create precision tools.  Electricity. Heat. Stoves. Natural gas. Engineers. Artists. Looms that create beautiful fabrics. Sweatshops that sew our clothes. Oceans. Tides. Fish. Eels. Stingrays. Stars. Comets. Space. Newspapers. Radios. Low energy light bulbs. Candles. Cars. Mechanics. Roads. Bridges. Governments. Police. Fire fighters. Social Service agencies. Volunteers. Flush toilets. Toilet paper. Children. Parents. Pregnancies. Diapers. Landfills. Trash collectors. Pets. Dust mites. Fleas. Mosquitos. Purple Martins. Bats. Robins. Earthworms. Friends. Hugs. Tears. Laughter. Fights. Sports. Teachers. Muscles. Fat. Romance. Heartbreak. Chairs. Warm blankets. Fuzzy socks. Washing machines. Fine china. Paper plates. Disposable napkins. Colors, especially the color green. Especially the color blue. Especially the color yellow. All colors. Hot tea. Freshly laid eggs. The smell of good dirt after a spring rain. Thermometers. Thermostats. Hospitals. Doctors. Nurses. Cleaners. Memories. Babies. Learning. Good hair products. Flat irons. Clotheslines. Computers. Text messages. The elderly. Nursing homes. Wheelchairs. Personal stationary. The US Postal Service. Airplanes. TIVO. Rebellious children. Good books. Bad books. Story time. Snow. Cold. Windows. Gloves and scarves. Space heaters. Friends. Enemies. Keyboards. Music. Oh yes, music. Organs. Guitars. Drums. Voices. Harmony. Symphony. Jazz. Piano. Nursery rhymes. Mouse: both alive and computer. Cockroaches. Concrete. Trees. Hammers. Nails. Lumber. Carpenters. People who know how to repair things. Disappointment. Challenge. Messy desks. Reams of fresh paper. Packages of pens and pencils. Crayons. Paint. Canvas. Wheels. Pulleys. Levers. Grass. Prairies. Forests. Snakes. Scorpions. Warm hands. Honest sweat. Skin creams. Itch remedies. Hay fever pills. Painkillers. Science. High-tech laboratories. Our Veterans. Ancestors. Letters. Books. Lampshades. Fresh tomatoes. Baked potatoes. Hot rolls. Creme Brulee. Chocolate. Hugs. Love. God.

It goes on and on and on.  Someone can begin the list and keep sending it around the room or table until it is pages and pages long.  I've only begun to list the things for which I am grateful. What about left-handed scissors and sharp knives? Indoor plants and freshly composted manure? Friends who tell me the truth and grandchildren who say, "I love you, Granny!" Soft beds and warm comforters? I've only just begun.

Say, "Thank You," to God.  Give thanks for being held together with the rest of the universe by that divine power that we can't even begin to penetrate with our limited understanding.  Give thanks that you can enter into the seasonal craziness in whatever way is right for you.  Give thanks for redemption.  The season of the Savior is upon us.  


Say, "Thank You."

Then . . . Ready, Set, Go!!!!!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Truth and Nothing But the Truth

In a recent online advice column, the questioner wrote, "I'm a habitual liar, and it's threatening to ruin my relationship with my husband." She goes on to say that she is newly pregnant and that for some reason, her husband is in doubt about the parentage of the child.

Let's re-word the question: "I'm a habitual liar and can't understand why my husband doesn't trust me."

So, can this marriage be saved?  (Oh ye women of a certain age--do you remember the Ladies Home Journal column of that name?)  

About the same time I read that column, I learned of yet another marital break up. The couple had been married only a few years, seemed highly compatible, had an absolutely beautiful wedding ceremony, and recently became parents of a gorgeous healthy baby boy.  As is often true, what we see on the surface hides dark secrets behind closed doors. 

They had known each other well before the wedding with joint schooling, work, and habitat. Their relational patterns had been established long before the wedding. The unsolvable problems had already surfaced. They disappointed each other from the beginning, and managed to miss each other in almost every way. When the agonized husband was asked why he went ahead with the wedding, he replied, "I thought she would change."

"I thought she (he) would change" stand as some of the saddest words in the world.  It is another type of lie--one we tell ourselves, not others. I wonder if the husband of the habitual liar above thought his wife would also change after the wedding.  That a marriage ceremony would fix long standing issues of character, habit and integrity.  It doesn't.  It never has.  It never will.

A question that philosophers have struggled with for years is the nature of being fully human. What is it that characterizes real humanness?  As a theologian, I always return to the idea of the Imago Dei, that of being created in the image of God. It means we, too, are capable of powerful love, joyful creativity, satisfying work, intimate relationship with others. It means the capacity to think, to bring order out of chaos, to extend ourselves in the redemption of the world.

Yes, we are privileged to carry it, but so often leave it behind.  I wonder sometimes if our propensity to lie to ourselves and to others represents one of the biggest ways we compromise our humanness.

Yet I know the "little white lie" often helps social interaction and smooths otherwise uncomfortable or even incendiary situations. 

"How are you?" someone asks.  "Fine, and you?" we respond even when we are anything but fine.  Or the dreaded, "does this dress make me look fat?"  "Why no, it looks fabulous on you!"

These are normal conversational conventions, not the kind of lies I write of here. Those lies that compromise our humanity say, "It is OK not to be a person of integrity as long as I don't get caught."  Or, "I hate this part of him or her but he or she will soon change in order to lessen my discomfort."  Or even greater, "I am more powerful than God.  I can and will violate all rules of holy living and I'll still come out just fine."  That last one calls God the liar. That last one eventually destroys the soul.

Again, as a theologian, I ponder the nature of eternity and final judgment.  I wrestle mightily with the possibility that no matter how gracious God may choose to be--and I hope God is mightily gracious--those who have spent their lives lying about the true state of their souls will no longer be able to state truth and say, while bowing before real glory, "My Lord and my God!"  I wonder if the ingrained habit will so overtake the moment that the possibility of speaking truth will no longer exist. I wonder if we will have consigned ourselves to the place where the poet John Milton puts these words in Lucifer's mouth, "I'd rather rule in hell than serve in heaven."  This is the ultimate lie.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Valet, Hide My Clothes!

My laughter spilled over when I read this quote while putting off the writing of this article by reading another article on the pervasiveness of the tendency to procrastinate: "Victor Hugo would write naked and tell his valet to hide his clothes so that he’d be unable to go outside when he was supposed to be writing."

Victor Hugo, a 19th century writer, penned one of the greatest pieces of literature ever: Les Miserables. Multiple film versions of that long and complex novel have been made. The musical created from the book is also the world's longest-running stage production. There have been over 10,000 performances in one London theater alone of this story of love, despair, and redemption. 

And the poor guy had to get someone to hide his clothes in order to keep himself at his desk so this thing would actually get written. 

Apparently even the most talented and accomplished have no immunity to the seduction of "I'll do it later."

Now, instead of having our valets, which unfortunately none of us have, hide our clothes, writers can turn to a program called "Dr Wicked." Signing on to it eliminates internet access and other distractions for a period of time and forces the writer to set a word goal to be done within a certain time frame or face consequences.  The consequences include the kamikaze--as in everything will be erased if the goal is not met.  Frankly, I'm terrified to try it.

I'm also glad I'm not alone in this tendency to put things off.  Misery most definitely loves company.  Misery doesn't lessen, but at least we know the rest of the world isn't deliriously happy while we pick our way through piles of guilt-producing undone tasks, neglected relationships and shriveling souls. 

The older I get, the greater my tendency to excuse my undone stacks with the "I'll get to them eventually" mantra.  The whole truth? There are some things I will never finish.  Why?  The practice of procrastination has taken on a life of its own.  I have so habitually looked at certain things and said, "tomorrow" that the present no longer touches their existence.

Another problem with putting it off until tomorrow is that there is always another tomorrow for added procrastination. At least we assume there will be another tomorrow.  In actuality, someday, those tomorrows run out for every one of us.  Some day, God will say, "This night, your soul is required of you."

Then what will be left of our lives? Acts of kindness, mercy and integrity. Children and grandchildren well-raised.  The giving and receiving of forgiveness so that society can actually continue.  Memories of pleasure, laughter and shared meals, touching conversations, games played, work well done, suffering relieved, and hope offered.

Perhaps when we have heavenly eyes we will be able to see that which is actually important.  We also might discover that moments of procrastination were on occasion holy moments, times of reflection and distraction that relieve pressure and free the soul.  The Gospels say that Jesus frequently went alone to pray.  I wonder how frustrated his followers were at those times.  "Lord, hey, there are people to heal here and hungry that need bread NOW!.  Your prayer life is getting in the way.  You are just putting off the inevitable.  C'mon, Jesus, get with the program."

When I started writing today, I thought about proposing a "no procrastination" day to see what would happen if we all quit procrastinating for one day.  But I've just talked myself into something totally different:  let us procrastinate on all our undone tasks until we are fully prayed up, rich in the presence of God, quiet in soul and peaceful in reconciliation.  I do believe this would be the better choice.  Then we can tell our valets to hide our clothes!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

What If You Had To Campaign To Get Into Heaven?

A great question just came my way:  "What if we had to campaign to get into heaven?" 

So, what would we have to do in order to win God's "yes" vote that would fling open the doors to the equivalent of God's oval office?

Let's start with a campaign manager. Someone to make us look good while seeing how awful we can make others look. This way by comparison God will have to vote for us, especially sense elected spots are limited.

To keep up the image of electability, we need a personal wardrobe manager, a private hairstylist and make-up artist, a speechwriter, and a photographer skilled at manipulation of digital photos to make sure that we are seen only at our best.  A spin artist to whitewash any possible embarrassments of our past lives would be helpful.  Actually, that last one would be absolutely necessary for just about anyone.  Let's face it, we've all got stuff we'd rather not 'fess up to.  Best to figure out a way to hide it, or make sure the blame lies on someone else and we look utterly innocent--even when we know we are not.  

All interviews with God's representatives need to be carefully staged, with all questions submitted ahead of time.  It is essential that there be no surprises here. A well-rehearsed, controlled and choreographed interview session will help our chances enormously.  

We probably should also hire groomers and keepers for our spouses, siblings, children and other relatives, just in case God sends a delegation to interview them about our private lives and interactions with them. There's no sense in those heavenly investigators knowing that we take out our frustrations on those closest to us.  That's private, after all.  As for those extramarital indiscretions and certain financial irregularities and those tiny little issues with illegal substances, well . . . let's just say we need a well-financed campaign to keep certain mouths forever sealed.  God really doesn't have to know everything! 

Whew--what a lot of work to get in shape for this election!  What have we forgotten?  Oh yes, we're supposed to be feeding the hungry and visiting the prisoner and clothing the naked and tending to the ill.  Well, any campaign manager worth his salt can set up some great photo ops with brief visits to those smelly and untouchable ones.  In fact, some of those photos would look great in that mansion we'll be living in when God votes us in!

OK, we're spiffed up, our portfolio of nicely documented good works in an elegant presentation folder ready to display, the preliminary interviews safely and successfully finished. The time has come to shake God's hand, answer a question or two and win that vote!

Now . . . do you think you could win this election? Are you adequately prepared?  How many good acts, staged or not, will it take to open that door?  What do we need to make sure is well hidden so it won't spoil our chances? 

Some of the most wonderful words in the Bible read this way: " But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." It's not what we've done, or left undone, or hidden or pretended we never did. It's not our good works or our boasts of good works. It is the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ that starts us on the path in this life to becoming like Jesus and then ends with that final reconciliation, our winning election, with a gracious God casting the only and the deciding vote.  

It's a gift, folks.  A gift.  A gift to be received, not earned.  A gift to open, touched, taken inside, and experienced in life transformation.  A gift.  No campaign managers required.  No whitewashing necessary.  A gift, the most expensive one of all, and free to you and to me.  You win--if you will receive it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Religion and Relationship Advice Column

Today, I offer you an advice column with a question coming from a friend in ministry in Southeast Asia.

Question: We have a great woman at our church but her husband, formerly a church leader, has turned away from God over a leadership concern. They have two kids and she is trying to teach them the ways of God but encounters resistance from her husband 24/7.

How can we help?

Answer:  He may have been wounded by church people. Whatever his part may have been in the break with the church and with God, he is now in a place of pain, anger, and possibly guilt and shame. That's a complicated emotional meal to swallow, and his wife keeps placing it before him by her work and support of the church.

The wife's challenge now: honor God AND honor her husband --who apparently doesn't want her to honor God in her accustomed ways.

She must not compromise her own faith. She must also not ask her husband to compromise his current stance. 

I've often wanted to walk away from the church because of the actions of those who call themselves Christian. But then I ask myself, "How many others have wanted to walk away because of ME?" I'm not immune from doing some pretty awful things in the name of Jesus.

Her husband speaks his truth: he can't do church and God now. Truth beats a lie, the pretense of being Christian. It is a good starting place. 

The wife will do best if she also speaks truth. Among other things, is she using her husband's disregard of God as an excuse to disregard her husband and his needs? I'm not saying she should leave her love for God behind. May it never be!!!! I'm saying that living out of the love of God in this situation may have to be done in a way that she has not yet considered.

The wife can live from her love for God by loving her husband fully. That means acknowledging that he is a person of value to God, even in this time of disbelief. 

Their children should see modeled loving patience, an ability to hear differing viewpoints, and gracious reception of them. This mean living the gospel without necessarily preaching it: the path of grace and invitation to the heavenly places. 

You want to comfort this woman. Be careful here--and I say this out of personal experience now. Often the person who looks the most righteous in a marital spat is the root cause of the problem--a deeper issue that surfaces as a disagreement over spiritual matters. 

In a situation like this, the wife may easily cast herself as the noble martyr with the unrighteous husband. But the kindest and most loving act she can do is encourage her husband to explore what it means for him to declare himself separated from God.  Ask him to define what that means for him personally, and what that means for them as a couple and as parents. What does he think is right for the children's Christian instruction? Is he willing  to let them hear Bible stories and learn to pray? If not, why not? If so, within what bounds? 

The wife needs to ask similar questions. What does it mean for her to continue to seek to be a woman of God, a disciple of Jesus Christ? How does that play out in the mundane tasks of caring for a household, rearing children, loving her husband, doing ministry with the church? Out of my experience, I have learned there is a fine line between living as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and being an arrogant and hypocritical prig, looking down my nose at others who do not believe as I think they should or act in the ways I want them to.

Wish there were an easier fix.  Discipleship is always messy.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Grandfather's Letters

Last week, as I was writing on my mother's letters, I noted that my grandfather, my dad's father, didn't ever seem to write any letters.  Most of the correspondence was between my mother and Kokomo, my dad's mother. 

Kokomo died in the summer of 1971. Mother, ever faithful in her letters, kept writing and this time addressed them to Grandfather and Elaine, Elaine being my father's invalid sister who had lived with her parents after some years in the mission field.

Then, Grandfather began to write.  I don't know why I was surprised to see how well he wrote.  Like Kokomo, his livelihood had been teaching school, and he was a literate man.  But I had only known him as retired, and as the most wonderful Grandfather who could fix anything.  We all eagerly awaited his often lengthy visits from Indiana to Texas when he would get to work and do a year's worth of maintenance projects on my parent's aging and often crumbling house. 

But he could write, and he did write of his heartbreak.  He had lost the love of his life. Grief simply swallowed him.  He traded life-long superb health for chest pains and recurring bouts of pneumonia. This independent, energetic man suddenly asked if my parents would permit him to move in with them, leaving his own home behind in Indiana where he had spent his entire life.  The answer was an immediate "Yes, we'd love to have you," but every time Grandfather would decide to buy a ticket and see how to make this work, the chest pains took over.

I read of his emotional devastation, and suddenly, after weeks of bleak grief of my own, my mind and heart lightened and cleared.  This is my family.  An ordinary, American family.  Better educated than some, perhaps, but that is about the only thing that stands out. Financially conservative, we pay our bills and live middle-class lives.  We have squabbles and differences.  Difficult children and challenging marriages litter the landscape, but no divorces until my own generation said a louder "no" to marital misery than the previous ones had been able to do. 

We live ordinary lives and we have been dying ordinary deaths as well.  Most of the grandparents and great-grandparents lived into their 80's.  They had the usual decline, and then death.  We have been doing what most American families do:  figuring out a way to cope with this, and wondering why it is so hard.

As I was writing this blog, especially as my mother's death came closer and closer, I became painfully aware that most people I know don't have any idea how to handle what is inevitable for all of us.  I see too many people agonizing over a parent's decline with no preparation in receiving death as both sorrow and as gift. 

People will whisper to me, "I just can't take this much longer."  That happens when the chore of caring for the dementia-ridden, lingering, overly-medicalized parent or spouse one ends up hurting the care-givers far more than it offers help to the one being cared for. I hear words of relief when it is over, often spoken in shame rather than recognizing the normality of such a response.  Relief and grief hold hands. They are intimate friends, not enemies to be forever separated.

We don't know what to do with our relief or our grief.  My grandfather, this so alive man, missed his wife with such intensity that when he died, a year and a half after her death, his doctor actually said, "He died of a broken heart."  I understand. I had times after my mother died that I wasn't sure I could keep going.  My depression was so deep that I wanted it to end with my own death.  Just too much pain.  I also knew enough to be aware that it would pass, given enough time and sleep and decent food and good friends to listen to me.  And it has now passed.  Something about reading Grandfather's ache freed my own.  I will always miss my mother, my father, my grandparents.  I miss friends that have already died.  The places reserved in my heart for loving them still exist.  But I am no longer disabled by this loss. 

I have also learned something:  we need to accept this inevitability.  We must learn to appreciate death as a part of life, and to prepare for our own end for the sake of those who love us.

We must first address the state of our souls.  This one thing I know for sure:  the personal characteristics that you practice the most will become powerfully evident at the end of life.  One who practices impatience will become a tyrant.  One who practices kindness will be the most loved patient in any setting.  It will be revealed.  Get those holy habits in place now.  There's no "later" here. It's time.

In addition, every adult, even with few assets,  needs to have a legal will, and this is absolutely vital if there are dependent children.  Each of us also needs to make decisions about the disposal of our bodies so these decisions are not left to those who have just lost someone and are themselves lost in grief.  These are acts of love.

Assuming that most of us will die with the usual process--the slow and often lengthy decline until things just start to snowball and finally cave in, each of us need to decide just how much medical intervention we want as that inevitable decline accelerates.  Why do we expect others to make those decisions for us?  How unfair!  And when we've made them, we need to make sure that others who may have to enforce the decisions know clearly and fully what is expected to be done and what must not be done.

There are books written on how we should live with grace and power. It's time to write some on how we shall die with grace and power. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Chaos of Life/church

I have been home sick for a couple of days and managed to get into the church office yesterday for what I had thought would be just a couple of hours--which of course turned into an all-day marathon.

But, more to the point, as I walked in, I was greeted with construction chaos.  Ladders in the hallway and storage room as electricians did some re-wiring.  More work on the new sound booth in the worship center.  The administrative office completely re-arranged.  A new and wonderful laminator has been delivered, purchased by the lengthy and laborious collection of food labels by church members under the leadership of Kristi Lounsbry, and it is HUGE and needs a place to live.

My desk sagged with work that I had hurriedly left on Tuesday thinking I'd be back on Wednesday to clear it out but became ill instead. Mail stacked high for me to look at, charge conference reports coming in and still needing to be finished, emails, people I needed to see.  The book I'm writing on my mother's death sits unfinished as I read her letters and pick out the very best for this. Yes, wonderful chaos.

I'm deep into the 1971 letters.  I can only read a few and then have to stop.  The complexity of this year for my family gets to me.  
  • My brother, graduating in 1970 from Rice University, had moved to Santa Barbara, California as a computer engineer. 
  • I graduated from Rice in May, 1971, and went to California in June to join Campus Crusade for Christ.  
  • My sister became engaged that summer; I broke off yet one more relationship that summer (I had ended an engagement the previous summer; this summer's young man was living with my parents at the time when I broke that one off!) 
  • My dad's mother, Kokomo, died on August 10.  I found the last letter she wrote to my mother on August 1.  From what I've can glean, she wrote nearly daily to my mother for 20 years.  And then she became ill from some sort of gastrointestinal situation (apparently of long standing), went into the hospital, slipped into a coma and died.  
  • I moved to Seattle, Washington; my brother got engaged to Nancy, from Dearborne, Michigan. and they started making their wedding plans for February, 1972; my sister and her fiance broke up and she did a tailspin into a terrible depression.  
  • I found Campus Crusade to be a very difficult environment theologically and personally (I've often said this was the first really bad decision I ever made), gained 25 pounds and watched with horror as my to-then perfect complexion turned into a mass of red welts.  
  • There had long been difficulties between my mother and my father--all three of us children figured they would split when we had all left home.  They didn't split formally; they just split emotionally. 
  • Money was still tight--the big delight was finding frozen dinners for $.33 apiece.  Fortunately, there was only Jill left in college, so that helped a great deal.  But still, I could see the financial pressures on all of us.

And mother just kept writing letters.  This may be the year of her highest achievement in writing.  I can almost see her trying so hard to hold everyone together as we are individually, especially me, my sister, and my grieving grandfather, disintegrating.  She wrote and she sewed frantically, as if making clothes for us (she had become quite skilled at making clothes for me, my sister and for herself as a way of saving money) would heal the wounds.  

So, on this rainy Saturday in October, 2010, five weeks after my mother's death, she is extraordinarily alive to me.  That caring heart, that need to control (that one was handed down to me in a BIG way), the hope that activity can smooth over turbulent emotions and unsettled relationships, the gift with words:  they are all here in these folders filled with onionskin copies and hard-to-decipher originals.  

It gives me hope in the midst of my own chaos. When I read my own letters written than year, I see the glimmers of an emerging maturity, even as I struggle with a deep depression and do my best to hide it and cover it up.  

All of us will always live in some kind of chaos--it is the nature of life.  And it is possible to find the holiness in the chaos, at least for me, as we're all trying to figure out our lives and how God does work in them.  It is not a neat and ordered process.  Right now, I simply feel extraordinarily lucky in the glue of my mother that sought to hold us together so tightly as our lives swirled, danced and got tangled up around us.  What a prize she was!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Souls Revealed in Our Letters

I've not written recently about my mother and my continuing grief process over losing her.  Mainly, I've not written because I just didn't want people to know how hard this is for me.  So I've shoved it inside and let it fester and now I'm sick.  Just a bad cold, but enough that I am not able to go to work right now. I know my illness and my unwillingness to write about my interior life have intertwined.  So, if I won't deal with my stuff one way, its going to come out another way.  As with all of us, my mind, soul, spirit and body together form me, and one part cannot be ignored or permitting to grow unhealthy without consequences.  

Last week, several kind souls helped me put all of my mother's saved letters (I've estimated about 8000 pages) into folders by year and also to make stacks of some personal keepsakes that I've salvaged from the piles and piles of papers I had to go through.  The first folder starts at 1949 and the last one this year, 2010.  Some are stuffed--and some years needed two folders.  Others represent lean years--primarily the early and the later years. As I think about it, the folders arrange themselves quite well into the bell curve--the outer edges barely registering on the graph, but the middle years rising sharply and hitting their peak when all three of us children were in college and starting our careers and families.

Yesterday afternoon, with a cup of hot tea and plenty of tissues to keep me company with this nasty cold, I began to read in earnest, starting with the oldest items. As I read, I am putting aside the very best letters Mother herself wrote that she kept copies of (this practice was sporadic until about 1966, unfortunately)--the ones I think most expresses mother's uniqueness.  But I'm also reading letters she decided to keep that were written to her.

We were a letter writing family.  No question about it.  Unfortunately, none of us had particularly legible handwriting.  Apparently, my dad's mother, known to all of us as "Kokomo," wrote nearly every day for quite a while, although it looks like most of those letters no longer exist.  Mostly just about routine stuff, daily happenings, family matters.  She also wrote one special letter to each of her grandchildren on their birthdays each year.  I have mine and I've seen the ones to my sister, but am not sure about the ones to my brother, but hope they are still here somewhere.  

In the oldest folders, I found letters from my aunt who was working as a nurse in a mission stations, first in Africa and then in India, and some snippets of correspondence between my mother and Kokomo.  Mother clearly did not find life easy when dealing with three small children (three of us in five years, a common pattern in our family and one that I also followed).

Personalities emerge in these letters. My brother and my dad wrote simple, factual letters, rarely expressing their emotional life and a bit shocking when they do (especially from my dad) Kokomo spoke for her husband ("Grandfather") and I don't think he ever wrote.  So far, (I'm up to 1971), I've not seen a bundle of letters from my sister, but I can hear her good voice in the ones I've read, her ability to analyze things and describe so well what what happening around her.

What has become exceptionally clear is that my grandmother, my mother and I most definitely all wrote in order to deal with our demons.  While we wrote about the everyday stuff, we wrote in order to make some sense of all that stuff and our lives in the midst of the daily challenges and chaos.  We wrote about our wishes and dreams, our financial and personal struggles, and, what I find particularly fascinating, the constant struggle for all of us to maintain decent, affordable and workable wardrobes to go with the daily demands on the lives of three very busy women.

We wrote about needing to see psychiatrists, and wrote so we could figure out how to manage our lives without actually getting professional mental health therapy.  

It looks like Mother kept most of the ones I wrote to her during my years at Rice University.  I'm loving the time-spaced dialogue that would take place between the two of us.  Questions asked in one letter found responses much later, and overlapped then with intervening questions and conversations.  

I've also become aware that I was a real twit especially during my first year at Rice.  Selfish, vain, and uncaring of others.  My social life was most definitely my number one priority.  While I managed not to flunk any of my courses my first semester there, it was a close call for me.  I had intentionally left my spiritual development behind and had no plans to ever darken the door of a church or Bible study again.  I starting thinking about the yearly birthday letters that Kokomo had written to me.  She clearly became more and more concerned about me as I grew up.  There was good reason for that concern.  What a mess I was.  

I trust that years, growing maturity, and a regaining of the willingness to be shaped by God has helped the situation.  But the more I read, the more convinced I am that Mother really was something of a saint, just for hanging in with me.  That is what mothers do, of course.  So perhaps all of us mothers are all saints in a way.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Harem by Any Other Name

I admit it: I've watched the TLC TV Show "Sister Wives" with a fascinated horror. Here's my take on the plot of this reality show: The alpha male, Koby, takes three blond look-alike wives when he is in his 20's. Eventually, they start having children, and by the time we meet the family, these three wives have given birth to 13 offspring between them. All three are attractive and personable but . . . that's a lot of pregnancies and they've lost their 20 year old skinniness and nymphet sexual appeal as a part of the normal aging process. So, the balding Koby gets a "testimony" (apparently this is fundamentalist religious-speak in the polygamous world in Utah for "I've got the hots for another woman") and starts dating the younger, skinny, brunette Robyn. 

Yes, he dates her. With his wives' approval. And marries her.  The wedding now over, new wife Robyn gets the privileges of the marital bed every fourth night. One big happy family. 

Apparently, however, he is legally married only to the first wife. The others are in some sort of promise relationship, since the institution of multiple wives has been outlawed for quite a while now. 

So, what he really has is a harem. One wife and three concubines. 

According to, a concubine is "a woman who lives with a man in a situation which is similar to marriage, although without all of the privileges of marriage.” 

Wisegeek also says, "Generally, only men of high social status have concubines. Additional wives require more wealth, especially since a well-outfitted concubine elevates a man's social status, while an obviously neglected concubine would reflect poorly upon him." 

At one point, First Wife does ask her husband something along the lines of "How would you feel if I brought another husband into the family?" Koby simply can't imagine the thought. While acknowledging that this is indeed a double standard where he, the important male, gets more privileges than the less important females, he shrugs this off as no big deal. After all, he did get his "testimony," so clearly God has ordained this. 

As I watch this, I sit amazed, and not so amazed, at our human ability to justify anything we want to do by our assurance that God has given the green light. I see this especially with sexual matters: the sex drive is so strong that the hormone-bathed brain misreads getting the hots for someone as a clear directive from God to go ahead and act on it. 

Now, for the record, I don't care if Koby has 30 concubines. It's a free country; I don't get to dictate the morality of others; and if those women aren't any smarter than to buy into this disempowering system, it's their problem. I also wonder about all the men who can't get wives because of the Koby's in the world who greedily grab more of a limited resource, but that's another issue.  

My real problem lies with the justification for his harem being anything other than his selfish ne to keep a bundle of adoring women around in order to keep his fragile ego intact and his status high in the eyes of others. I also have a really, really big problem with using the name of God to justify behavior and decisions that are anything but holy.

I will never understand a theology that says, “it's OK for me, and God wants me to do this because I'm a male (or more powerful or more privileged or more well-to-do) and therefore more important than you, but it is not OK for you because you are a (woman, minority, impoverished, without power, etc.) and therefore you are less valued in the eyes of God.” 

Either God is for all of us, or God is for none of us. There are no favorites in the kingdom of Heaven. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rusted Cans

Last week, I spent several hours sorting donated canned goods at the North Texas Food Bank.  During the days of the State Fair of Texas, people can get into the fair on Wednesdays at a greatly reduced price by donating three cans of food per person.  On Thursday, those thousands and thousands of cans must be sorted and boxed for distribution to various agencies around the Metroplex so the food can get to the hands of the hungry.

Instructions:  "Often, people will bring the dregs of their pantries in order to take advantage of the almost free entrance into the fair.  Some of the cans will be bulging, dented to the point of danger, or rusted.  You will need to look at every can, and toss the questionable ones."

We were also told not to worry about expiration dates.  The leader said, "It will paralyze you to find the dates.  Just look for the signs of damage."

So for the next several hours my group along with other volunteers from around Dallas grabbed armfulls of cans from big bins, inspected each one, tossed the bad ones and boxed the usable ones.

Most of the cans were in great shape.  However, a fair number did have to be discarded.  As I was sorting, tossing and boxing, I couldn't help but wonder about those who had intentionally donated such unusable items in order to get into the State Fair cheaply.  After wrinkling my nose at one severely rusted can, I thought, "Does the person who donated this item not care that it could easily make someone ill?  Is a person who needs to use a food bank for family provision of less worth than those who have the means to donate to a food bank?"

I just about always find it convenient to point the fingers of blame at others (as do most of us), so I decided I should look at myself. In what ways have I offered the dregs of my life, my heart, my talents, my closet, my pantry, to others and to God?  Where have I looked down my nose at those who need help?  It's easy to do, and is a particularly nasty form of snobbery. We all operate off a thin safety margin, even in the best of economic times.  Right now, things are unusually difficult for those on the financial edge.  The giver of today could very easily be the receiver of tomorrow.

I often see the human tendency to give from the leftovers, not from the best.  The Bible and other sacred scriptures speak clearly to this:  We are to give to God from the first fruits harvested, not the last ones dutifully gleaned after the good stuff is already picked. We are to give from the best of the harvest and the flock, not what is dented or lame or rotting or unusable.  We are to give from the top of the paycheck, not as an afterthought or because there just happens to be a little bit left after all other wants and needs have been satisfied.

Our world teaches "me first."  "God first" thinking means we turn our minds upside down and our souls inside out.  We acknowledge that we have a responsibility to handle with holiness the money, possessions and talents that come our way. We become stewards, not owners, knowing that God will someday call us to account for our choices. 

I want to hear, "Well done, Christy" at that time when God examines my life and choices. I'll hear those wonderful words when I, too, give from the precious and priceless top, not the worthless leftovers. I'll get that pat on the back when I quit thinking, "This is MINE!" and start thinking, "I've been entrusted with much.  Therefore, much is required of me."  What a privilege!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

And the Hurt Goes On

Yesterday, I emailed on a friend of mine whose mother had a stroke similar to my mother's and who is also in hospice care, being wonderfully watched over.  She wrote back with "and how are YOU doing?"

Not well.  As I write that, I'm not sure what "well" is.  Maybe I'm just fine, but my "fineness" means living deep in sadness, again unable to sleep, no appetite, but when I do eat, I choose foods that are not the most healthy for me.

Going back to work has helped some, although I feel ineffective.  I also have to face the huge backlog of undone work, including the reality that Charge Conference reports are due soon and I've not even started (only United Methodist clergy can understand the horror of that situation!).  

Mostly, I think, "she's gone."  

My dining room table and my spare bedroom are littered with copies of her letters which I am trying to get into chronological order.  In December, my brother will return with a very nice scanner and we will scan all this into electronic form, but they've got to be in order first or I'll never be able to sort them out.  More than that, I simply want to talk with her about what I am reading.  I want to go deeper and understand more.  Another friend reminded me of what a treasure I have with these letters--so many people do not leave behind such a record of their lives, thoughts and ideas.  It is a great gift, and one that both brings me joy and adds to my sadness.

I've also found letters from my aunt, a trained nurse, who served at some mission stations in Africa and India from 1949-1954.  Although typed, they are hard to decipher--these are probably the third carbon done on an unreliable manual typewriter.  Every inch of the lightweight onionskin paper is covered with typeface.  Several times she wrote, "I still have an inch left on the paper so I can write some more." Obviously, she did not waste paper the way I do--for her a piece of paper was a treasure to be well-used.  Just as clearly, the work to which God had called her was extraordinarily difficult and ultimately took her physical health from her.  I wish I knew more but there is no one left to ask and other letters are long gone.

I'm troubled that I'm so off-balance by this, knowing that there are huge tragedies taking place all over the world.  The death of an elderly parent who had lived her life well, and whose final illness was mercifully brief, is not a tragedy.  It is life, and a good part of life.  But I've talked with several others who have lost their elderly parents like this and discover that our responses are similar.  We wander in a mist, doing our work, living our lives, and wondering when this fog is going to lift.

Now I must leave.  My wonderfully efficient sister, the executor of Mother's will, has given me some things I need to do in order to help finish the settling of the estate.  Tomorrow, I head back to what we are now calling "The Manor," the house my mother designed and lived in so happily, to clean out yet more closets before the next recycling/trash pickup.  

And the hurt goes on . . . 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pieces of Her Life

I began going through my mother's correspondence yesterday: three crates full of copies of letters she had written and some that had been written to her.

It is dawning on me that my mother may have been what is called "hypergraphic."  It looks like she may have daily documented every detail of her life.  She handwrote pages and pages and pages each day and then transcribed much of this onto her trusty typewriter, and later to her computer.  I remember well her delight at the electric typewriter after years of typing and making carbons on her old manuel one.  Although she never learned the mystery of saving documents on the various computers we bought for her, she also loved the freedom of just printing out two copies of everything she wrote--one to send and one to file (or pile, actually).

Hundreds of the spiral notebooks that she always kept handy and in which she did most of her notetaking have already landed in the recycle bin.  I'm not a careful historian.  She was not some public figure whose and every word, jot and tittle will be memorialized in some public presidential library.  She was ordinary--in her unique and extraordinary way of being ordinary.  

I "googled" her yesterday: "Eileen H. Thomas."  The only places she turns up are in the obituaries that ran last week. Before Google, people used to employ clipping services.  Clipping service employees had the job of reading multiple newspapers and publications each day and cutting out all articles that mentioned a particular person.  The more clippings, the more public recognition. I found a folder of yellowed, but still preserved newspaper articles about her--one of her first jobs as a nurses aide, her honors as a beauty queen, her engagement, her wedding. Now, we just use the Google ranking system.  And she didn't make it.

I know now that I can't keep all these letters.  The organization alone of them will take days.  Ideally, then they would be scanned and electronically preserved.  And then the book written.  

It will not happen.  I am very much my mother's daughter.  This will quickly morph into one of the many projects she herself began and never finished. Then someone else will have to pick up my leavings, just as I am picking up hers. 

Ninety percent of what she wrote is already gone. Now, I'm going to have to get rid of at least 90% of what I held back.  And then maybe 90% of those leavings will still have to go.  

As I awoke this morning--which means I did at least sleep some last night--I meditated on the responsibility of being a steward of the life that God has granted me.  I am not my own--I have been bought with a price.  It then becomes my privilege to hand back this life to God as one well lived and increased in value, not decreased.

I found some release from my sadness in the thought of being a faithful steward of the time left to me in this physical body. Part of faithfulness is knowing what to keep and what to let go.  It means holding what I have with open hands, surrounding my decisions with prayer, and knowing that my life, too, will end someday.  I want to hear, "Well done, Christy!" when I come face to face with God.

Is my mother hearing those words?  It is a question to ponder.  As much as she wrote about her Bible and Sunday School lessons, I have not seen where she was able to articulate well her own theology and understanding of God.  I'm not sure that she ever really grasped grace, that gift of forgiveness and reconciliation, incarnated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, that is freely poured out upon us, should we choose to receive it.  Nonetheless, with all her eccentricities and idiosyncrasies (and I use those same terms to describe myself), with the fears that often bound her and the stubbornness that used to infuriate those around her, with her geniuses and her generosities, she lived loving God and her neighbor with as much of her self as she was able to access.  

I know that as I pick my way through her papers, and read yet another letter lovingly detailing pieces of my life that I had long forgotten, I say, "Well done, Mother!  You lived as a faithful steward of the gifts God gave you.  Thanks." 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is Ignorance Bliss?

Is it better just not to know?  To live in ignorance of basic facts?  To naively let others make decisions for you? 

As I continue to let the surprisingly paralyzing grief of my mother's death work its way through my soul, I sit and wait and read and think and pray. I also ponder the latest religious scandal to hit the news:  An Atlanta pastor who has given himself the title of Bishop, Eddie Long, has been accused of participating in the very acts he has frequently preached against, i.e., male-on-male sexual activity.  Four young men whom he had mentored have filed lawsuits against him now, claiming he engaged in such activities with them.  

This man has built a huge church.  He lives in significant luxury, driving a $350,000 car. He's invited into the highest places of political power. According to a National Public Radio article, Long preaches that Jesus was not poor, and that riches show God's blessing. He was quoted as saying this: 

"We're not just a church; we're an international corporation," he said. "We're not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can't talk and all we're doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair. I deal with presidents around the world. I pastor a multimillion-dollar congregation."

Yeah. Wow. The seduction of riches and power wins again. What an eloquent putdown of pastoral work!  In the act of baptizing a baby, we bumbling bunches of preachers, lacking Long's silver-plated tongue, stand before our often poverty-hit parishioners and remind them that God's covenant extends even to the most humble, helpless babies.  We speak of our commitment to each other to help raise those children in such a way that they grow up knowing they are surrounded by the love of God.  We make these promises so that when these children do grow up, they have the kingdom of God so integrated into their hearts and minds and habits and personalities that they will at some point be able to confirm for themselves the faith that had been handed down to them by their parents and their faith community.  

That's the work of the church.  The church is not called to be an "international corporation."  The church has one mission:  to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  A disciple is one who models his or her life on the the life of the Sent One, the one coming from God to show us the way.  And I dare you to show me anywhere in the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus that such a way is one of self-absorbed riches, comfort, political power, and disdain for the least, the littlest, the lost and the last.  

This is where I come back to the question of ignorance.  Without knowing the basics about the life and teachings of Jesus, people are easily seduced by the false promise of riches that power-hungry leaders offer.  So they pour money into the bloated pockets of predatory preachers in the vain hope that they themselves might get a share of the money train.  

Jesus was not rich.  He died in poverty.  He reminded people that foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but he himself didn't have a place to lay his head.  Knowing the trap of riches, he told a rich young man that he needed to sell everything he had in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.  And the life, death and resurrection of this obscure, poor itinerant preacher changed the world.  

You really want to follow Jesus?  Start reading the Bible for yourself.  Quit expecting some magical charismatic person to wave the magic wand and stuff your pockets with money so you can stuff your backside into a luxury car.  There are real, everlasting riches to be had:  riches of redeemed souls, being set free to live, forgiven by God, and forgiving of others.  That is wealth.