Saturday, December 11, 2010

More About Dead People

I'm really not obsessing on death. It just so happened that I made a quick trip to Austin yesterday and I passed the cemetery where my parents are buried. It had been a while since I'd stopped in there and I had my camera along. It's the season of advent and so there's something about death and hope in these sorts of stops and, I guess, in wanting to take a picture of the headstones. Death and hope . . . are there really any other themes?

Anyway, so I have these few pictures of the headstones. Like my feelings about touching a dead body from my last post, I find cemetery visits to be somewhere akin to reminding myself that there is physical evidence of these people, of the memories I have of them. On top of that, most of the people I know or am around these days never had an opportunity to meet my parents. As silly as it sounds, these pictures are some sort of evidence that I am not the free-floating element that I may appear to be. I have antecedents.So the above is the headstone of my parents. And my shoe. I really was trying not to get my foot in the picture, but there it is anyway. Okay, evidence of me as well as my parents.

Above are closeups of Mama and Daddy's individual sides. It's a little shocking to see how long ago it was that they died. When I turned 40, I remember thinking what had happened in the last decade and I remembered I was 30 when Mama died and I couldn't quite make sense of the fact that she'd been dead for a quarter of my life. I'm now 47, so she's now been dead for over a third of my life. And Daddy died when I was 25. In 3 years, he'll have been dead for half my life. It's simple math and the passage of time, but it all seems unlikely that they would be absent for such large chunks of my life. I guess they really aren't. I dream about them regularly, even still.

The above picture is to give some idea (if the gate picture didn't) that this cemetery is out in the country. There's not a building in sight. This shot also gives my parent's wedding date. All Saints Day, 1939.

And if you still don't believe this is out in the country . . .

Those are a few head of cattle just on the other side of the cemetery fence. I find this exceedingly appropriate. We raised cattle on on our farm and I think Mama and Daddy both enjoyed them, but I think Mama especially loved her cows. When Daddy died, Mama sold all the cattle---a decision she and Daddy had made before he died, so she didn't have to fool with feeding cattle by herself. One of my brothers, Glen, bought most of the cattle and kept them on the farm, so Mama saw them all the time anyway. Glen came out to the farm to take care of them, but Mama was the one telling him which cow was about to calf and things like that. When Glen had calves old enough to sell, Mama bought some of them, so she could have her own cattle again. Glen was coming out to feed his, so he could help with hers, and she felt better knowing that some of the cattle she was watching were actually hers again. I sort of laughed at her and she laughed with me. But if you love cattle, what are you going to do?

None of this is particularly theological or religious. It's all rather sentimental, really. It makes little difference, theologically, if Mama is buried near where cattle graze (and if she were able to watch them, it would make her crazy that they weren't hers, so it's just as well that she can't) and having a gravestone to visit isn't any more certain hope of resurrection than ashes scattered on a lake. This is my experience, though, and even if some of my musings on it are fanciful . . . well, even religious/theological musings can be a little whimsical now and then.

Sometimes, I just like an excuse to talk about my parents.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Last night, poet Angela Alaimo O'Donnell posted a link to her facebook page to her essay about her mother's body and how important it was to Angela. The essay is posted online here, but a paid subscription is needed to see the whole thing. So if you subscribe to Commonweal, head on over there and take a look at it. It's good stuff.

It made me think of my own recent ruminations about death and the bodies it leaves inanimate. I don't think I'm ready to write a whole essay on this---although it has crossed my mind to do so---but in this season of preparation leading to the feast of the Incarnation, I think it's appropriate to stop and think about our bodies---animate and not.

It's been my custom for several years now, if I am able, to touch the body of someone who has passed away. I did it just recently, at the funeral of a church member, someone I didn't know all that well, but saw nearly every week. I was there to assist at his funeral service, but I paused by the open casket before the service and put my hand on his shoulder.

There have been people I've loved for whom I was not able to do that. I regret it. Their death remains somewhat unreal. It's as if they simply disappeared, moved without telling me where they were going. There is absence, but no confirmation of where they went.

But if I touch them, I can feel they are dead. It is real. The person is real, the death is real. None of it is imagined, none of it is mysterious. The absence makes sense.

I've learned that I'm unusual in this regard. Many people I run into do not want their bodies on view at all, much less touched. It seems many people I know are appalled at the idea of just seeing a body on display---however cleaned up by the funeral home---and would rather everyone were simply cremated. That way, all we'd have to look at is an urn or box of ashes.

I don't know what this says about our relationship to death. Maybe it simply says some neither need nor want to have the kind of physical closure I speak of above. I want to say there's a disconnect between us and the reality of death. I think there is evidence to confirm this idea.

I believe in the resurrection of the body. Even as I type the words, I don't know if I mean that literally or metaphorically, but I believe in the resurrection of the body. An inanimate body, without its spirit/breath, is real, the person is really dead. It's just a stage. I believe in the resurrection of the body.

So when I die, as I will, I hope some people will look at me, inanimate, without breath. I hope they will touch me. I hope they will realize, "This is Neil. He is real. He is really dead."

I hope they will believe in the resurrection of the body, in whatever way it makes sense of them, and that my death will make the hope of the resurrection just as real.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hoping Like a Fist on Your Sternum

It's sort of a joke. I like to play the curmudgeon because, well, I just think it's funny and fun. I've been called Eeyore and have the plush animal someone gave me to prove. My internal self-image, however, is really rather hopeful. Mostly.

2010 has not been kind to me, at least not emotionally. From a significant death early on to the impending loss of a job at the end of the year, with some heartbreak in between, it's fair to say that I earned my Eeyore plush and maybe more.

It all seems rather incongruous, really, when I look back over the year professionally. I've expanded my freelance writing from regional to national. I'm especially proud that I've landed bylines in both The Christian Century and The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, all in one calendar year. I've read both periodicals for years and some people I very much respect have appeared in both. It's kind of a thrill to see my name on the same contents page as Andrew Holleran.

Which all goes to show that accomplishments aren't necessarily the source of all joy. They're the source of some joy, but not all.

Some years ago, an image I used for hope, especially when you're feeling hopeless, is a hand reaching into your chest, grabbing hold of your sternum, and pulling you into the future. It's an image that has come back to me this year. Sometimes, to make it into the future, we need someone to be that forceful with us, that rough. When all you want to do is curl up and stay where you are, in the sad feelings (which do have, I admit, an addictive quality), making it to tomorrow can feel like a violent attack.

And praise be to God for it.

I've never been diagnosed for depression and after reading Kathleen Norris' Acedia and Me, I realized that I'm probably more guilty of the sin of acedia than a victim of depression. They are not mutually exclusive, of course, as Norris notes, but seeing as how I seem to be climbing out of the pit without use of prescription drugs suggests that I'm not depressed in the clinical sense.

So I'm being pulled into the future by a hand that has invaded my chest and grabbed my sternum. It's pulling me forward, out of a past that I can't have anymore, into a future I cannot see. Psalms help. Community helps. The small joys of accomplishment help. But they are all tools supplied by the owner of the hand.

Sometimes hope comes as a rainbow after a flood. Sometimes it's a little less pretty. But hope comes. Thanks be to God.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Nice, but not Necessary

For nearly two years, I've been facilitating a small book club at a retirement community near where I work. By "facilitating," I mean I mostly ask "what did you think of this month's book?" and let them go. It is almost always women, and there's really been two who are the core of the group. I've loved doing this and I love these women. They have become models of how to grow old. When I am in my 80s and 90s (should I live so long), I want to be like them, curious, involved, still engaged in what's new and now.

Today, we were choosing our next book, which takes place in the WWII siege o Leningrad. This led one woman, a doctor, to tell the story of hosting a Russian woman doctor some decades go. The Russian had survived Leningrad, and was bewildered by American abundance. In the American's home, the Russian would point at something and ask what something was, what it was for, many of them appliances that we take for granted. Like an oven. The American would explain what it was and how it was used. The Russian would, more often than not, reply, "That's nice, but not necessary."

This came to me like a word from the Lord. As I begin looking for work in anticipation of losing my current job at the end of January, it was somewhat ironic that I would hear the difference between "nice" and "necessary" in a retirement community located in the Galleria area of Houston. This is the nice place to retire, in some prime real estate. People who have to make regular distinctions between "nice" and "necessary" don't get to retire here. But then, God has demonstrated throughout history a keen sense of irony.

But I digress. We had a fun conversation about what was necessary, most of them telling stories of lean years---they couldn't always afford to retire in the Galleria neighborhood---and the importance of remembering that there is a distinction. The extremes of the Russian woman, who found an oven and a knife rack unnecessary, were acknowledged as, indeed, accurate. So much that we take for granted is not necessary.

When the Russian was leaving the States, she told the American doctor that when she got home, she would talk about her trip like going to see exotic animals in Africa and that her friends would not believe her.

I will never know what it was like to be in Leningrad in WWII. Still, the first thing I thought of as we talked was the difference between what I grew up with in rural Texas and what I can walk past in the Galleria. A single blouse on a clearance rack can cost more than all the clothes I'm wearing at any given time. I watch people in the Galleria wandering around, looking for something "nice," not because they need it but because they can. Surely a $500 handbag is never necessary. It may even stretch the definition of "nice."

And as I wander around the Galleria, marveling at these things, it occurs to me that our entire economy is built around people buying "nice." If not the entire economy, a huge honking part of it. We're constantly hearing how the government is trying to figure out how to get us into the stores and spend and get the economy moving again.

But if we're not spending, perhaps it's a clue that we don't need as much as we think we do. Doesn't it?

Of course, there are people going without essentials. The worst crime in this country is that there are hungry people in all our abundance. But still, what we really need to get this economy going again is to get more people into the mall, not because they need anything, but because they'll browse and find something nice to buy.

Surely basing a national economy on this sort of casual display of disposable income is a justice issue.

But again, I digress. Or maybe not. All I know is that as I look at unemployment or underemployment, I'm going to be looking even closer at what is "nice but not necessary." I, who own no car or working television and therefore already live out of step with the larger culture, may have to realize that I still live in opulence compared to some places in the world, even some places in this city.

Certainly compared to a survivor of the siege at Leningrad. And I give thanks for the witness of the woman who, across decades, brought me this prophetic word: that's nice, but not necessary.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Change is Bad. Or At Least Difficult

In the year 1985, the prophet Joni Mitchell brought us a word from the Lord:

Sometimes change comes at you
like a broadside accident
There is chaos to the order
Random things you can't prevent

This is 2010 for me. It started with my friend's recurrence of cancer and her eventual death and will end with the day job I've had for 7 years ending. Some other, more personal things, which I won't discuss publicly, happened in between that have made me less than happy, maybe even a little depressed.

It's just been a bit of a crappy year.

Except I believe in redemption.

Change is very hard, adds unreasonable stress, creates grief. Especially the unplanned kind, like the death and job things. I mean, I have some changes in mind that I want to make in the next year or so, but on my timetable, please. Well, maybe all these other crappy changes will speed up those wanted changes. Or delay them. Hard to say. I keep saying security is a false idol, so I guess this is the proof and I get to figure out where my God really is in all this.

And God is in the redemption.

In the middle of the awful, hard, grieving things of this year, I've also had some wonderful things happen. For example, I've expanded my freelancing into places that I'm very excited about. Those are opening other doors to more work. I'm also finding people to help me with a performance piece that has been percolating for some time (see my other blog, neoNuma Arts, where I'm relating some rather euphoric forward movement). And even if God isn't in these things, God peeks out at me around corners, whispers from dark corners, gives small signs and wonders. I have to remember to remain thankful, rejoice in all things.

Funny, isn't it, that I feel the need to relate in my art-creating blog my euphoria and in my God blog my disappointments and grief. Well, both are true. In some manic-depressive way, I'm tired, a little depressed, hurting and I've got some really good things going on that give me hope for months ahead.

After all, the prophet Joni's next two lines in the above referenced song are:

There could be trouble around the corner
There could be beauty down the street

Security is an idol. Trouble and beauty, God comes along for the ride.

On my best days, I hope God is the driver.

(Joni Mitchell lyrics from "Good Friends" on her album Dog Eat Dog.)

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Kind of People Who Follow Jesus

Sara Miles' book, Jesus Freak, has had me reflecting on my own reticence to engage with homeless and/or mentally ill people. I've had homeless people approach me and I've talked with a few. One or two have even thanked me for responding, because most people won't.

Let's just say I'm far from consistent in this behavior. I can ignore voices and avoid eye contact with the best of them.

And Sara has me asking myself, why is this?

Here's my answer: I'm afraid they'll start approaching me all the time. I'm afraid they'll follow me around and want more from me, if all they want is to talk. I even have a term for people like that---emotional black holes. I'm afraid of getting caught in the gravitational pull of whatever put them on the streets (or mental hospital) and no light will escape. I'm afraid that everything that enters that gravitational field will simply be crushed.

Some Sundays ago, I don't remember the exact context, a reference was made to the crowds that followed Jesus. Now, I don't know about everyone else, I admit that I've generally pictured these crowds as being fairly ordinary, middle class, sane people. Sure, I know there were some oddballs in the group. Prostitutes, demoniacs, whatever. I guess I pictured a sort of Hollywood hooker with a heart of gold. And the demoniacs were healed, so they became nice people, pillars of their communities, people who knew how to act in public and only answered voices everyone else could hear (and politely at that---no screeching or yelling).

Reflecting on my own fear of "emotional black holes" and hearing of the crowds following Jesus, I suddenly realized that nice, middle-class, comfortable, polite, sane people don't go around following a preacher and his band of merry men. (For one thing, they're all busy with their nice, polite, middle class, sane, careers.)

What if those crowds, the same people Jesus kept telling "the Reign of God is among you," were those people I avoid because I'm afraid they'll suck me into their black hole? Even worse, what if the crowds who followed Jesus and wouldn't leave him alone looking nothing like me and the congregation I worship with every Sunday morning?

And what if we're called to risk that gravitational pull to help find a light that resists the black hole? More than resist, but turns the black hole inside out, so that it no longer pulls in and crushes, but reaches out and heals?

That's the miracle of Sara Miles' stories. The ones I'd call black holes are moved to serve. Miles doesn't whitewash the burnout and frustration of working with the people who come to St. Gregory's food pantry, but she testifies to changed and changing lives.

I'm not sure what to do with this new point of view, this new vision of the crowds following Jesus. My escape route is to rationalize that not everyone is called to Jesus' type of ministry---or even to Sara Miles'. At this moment, I'm sitting with this, recognizing the risk involved in maneuvering crushing gravitational forces, keeping in mind Sara's testimony that in serving there is healing and resurrection, not only for the one being served, but maybe also for the server.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fault Blame Responsibility Etc.

So after weeks and weeks of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, we have a pause. We have cautious optimism. There are still things that could go wrong, but we have progress and hope that the worst is behind us.


Has anyone else been looking at what they use everyday? I don't own a car, but I take the bus which uses petroleum products. Plastics come from petroleum products. Does that include the plastic in the pens I use daily? The disposable drink cups at coffee shops and fast food joints? The many disposable containers that bring food into my home, from produce bags to peanut butter jars? What about all that shrink wrap on everything from books and CDs to new furniture? What about all the plastic on this computer I'm using right this minute? Are these seemingly innocuous things part of our "addiction to oil?" (I'm actually asking. I don't know what other sources produce plastics. Are there other sources? I know, I know, I live in the age of Google, I should be able to find this out. My first attempt, though, confirmed the "plastics from petroleum" thing, but then got technical rather quickly. I'm totally a fine arts/liberal arts guy. Technical stuff loses me very quickly.)

A few weeks back, there was a rather silly video with kittens "acting" out the attitudes of oil executives. It wasn't all that profound, but it's final statement haunts me: "Because you're not mad enough to stop driving your car."

I spent about 15 seconds feeling smug about not owning a car, but then started looking at everything I have and use and dispose of daily that are made of plastic. I've tried to think about how I would go about not using plastic. Talk about a lifestyle change! Is it possible to get any foodstuff into our homes without using plastics? Short of hunting and foraging for our every need and storing leftovers in containers made of stoneware or metal, it appears impractical to try. The ubiquitous convenience of oil and it's byproducts so saturate our lives we practically need new lives to do without it.

And that's the thing. Convenience. It's easier to complain about BP and it's carelessness while sipping on our plastic straws from our plastic cups than it is to give up the lifestyle of consuming BP's product. All these plastics are convenient. To try to live around and without plastics would be hugely disruptive to any life in these United States.

In thinking about all these things, a slight theological leap occurred within my pea brain. Over the centuries since Jesus walked the earth, there have been attempts to blame someone for killing Christ, most famously the antisemitism that wants to blame the Jews---and not just the Jews of 2,000 years ago, but contemporary Jews as well. Of course not everyone believes that and there are arguments that lay the execution of Jesus at the feet of the Romans. But either way, or some third or fourth way, we are left with the fact that someone went about preaching the Reign of God and healing and feeding and raising the dead and other crazy things and some powerful people found all this rather disruptive to their way of life. And rather than let their lives be disrupted with Good News, they chose to kill the central disruptive figure. And while this makes people angry, that someone would unwittingly kill the Messiah, I have to say: few are angry enough to follow Jesus in feeding and healing people. We're just going to keep on going our way, never realizing that we can keep Jesus alive, piously condemning someone else for killing Christ.

We're basically a lazy species. We so easily give into routine, inertia, and pointing out who is to blame, who is at fault, who is responsible. It's just plain inconvenient to change our ways. Call it human nature, call it sinful nature, but the truth of the matter is that the ones responsible for killing Christ and the ones responsible for the risks taken on Deepwater Horizon are the same people.

As Pogo Possum famously said: We have met the enemy and he is us.

Friday, June 18, 2010

In the Middle of a Beautiful Mess

I'm a bit of a mess these days. I mean, a bit more than usual.

If you've read the last few entries, you know from this blog that 2010 has had its hard knocks for me. A little grave illness here, a funeral or two there. It begins to wear on a person.

And that's not all that's going on to put me in this messy state. But that's enough for public consumption.

Suffice to say, it's not the best of times. To trip up some Dickens, it's not the worst of times, either. But it's a time of some messiness.

In my heart, I am a nomad, no matter how long I may stay in one place (so far, Houston is creeping up on a record---this address has already set a record at 6.5 years). I'm never quite settled. For a while, I felt like I was at least on the right track and now even that is fuzzy. Somewhere, I've been derailed.

An abba in the desert once said, "sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything." So I suspect my current restlessness has some lesson in it. At the very least, I try to practice a "running to" rather than a "running from." During my 20s, I spent a lot of time running from. With the abba's words in mind, I've spent the last decade or more trying to make a point of not running from, but looking out for a reason to run to. The best example is that back in the late 1990s, I was anxious to leave a job I didn't much like, but rather than leave it because I didn't like it I stayed until I had somewhere to go, in that case, grad school.

Still, I feel change in the air. Or maybe just restlessness. Hard to tell, isn't it? I've even had dreams that, after some research (and by "research," I mean I googled "dream dictionary"), seem to suggest that I am contemplating or expecting change. Since my Lutheran congregation is reading through Genesis right now (in our expression of the ELCA's Book of Faith initiative), and at this moment reading the Joseph story, dreaming wants to take on more significance than it might usually have for me.

But I'm no Joseph. Are you? Not that I much care for all of Joseph's interpretations any more than the chief baker did, but some clarity would be nice. And maybe I'll get the chief cupbearer's kind of interpretation . . .

I'm rambling, aren't I?

The point being, here in this public blog, I confess that I'm a bit more of a mess than usual. I'm finding it difficult to make plans. I see doors I wish to go through, but they don't appear open at this time. I try to convince myself that where I'm at isn't all that bad, that I do actually experience forward movement in some portions of my life.

But I feel a mess.

Maybe it's just grief, maybe it's just a tantrum that some things haven't turned out as I wished. So I'll sit in my cell, waiting to learn the lesson this cell has to teach me. God is here, and where God is, there is hope and beauty. I'll try to trust God is trying to tell me something or will lead me somewhere or else will use me to help someone else learn something. (I have to remind myself it's not all about me, which I hate, but there it is.)

As I said, it's not the worst of times. Some actually wonderful things are happening in the middle of this mess. So I'll call it a beautiful mess and hope it ends up more beautiful than messy.

When the time comes to move, my nomad heart will be ready. In the meantime, I'll try to listen to this cell, what lessons it holds.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Come Holy Advocate, Our Defender and Hope

This morning, Pentecost, I listened to the Gospel lesson (John 14:8-17, 25-27) and was reminded once again of the legal terms in our faith. An "Advocate" is the lawyer who defends the accused before the judge. ("Counselor" is another word that comes up in regard to the Holy Spirit---another term associated with lawyers.) Jesus promises that while he'll be leaving the disciples, he will not leave them alone but will send the Advocate to be with them always.

The word "satan" is also a legal term, translatable as "adversary." This is the lawyer that brings the accusation before the judge. It is Satan who accuses Job of not being such a faithful person, who makes a case against Job that Job is faithful only because he has an easy life.

These were my musings even as I listened to my pastor rightly discuss the ongoing movement and transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. My mind kept going back to the law and the grace that protects us from it's condemnation.

So, nothing new or profound here. Just a quiet reflection on all the ways I do not live up to the new commandment Jesus gave us just a few chapters earlier in John's gospel (chapter 13 for those checking). On Maundy Thursday, I heard the new commandment: Love one another. Despite the resurrection power of Easter, I remain woefully inadequate to fulfill this commandment. But it is God's kindness and goodness that leads us to repentance and, look, Jesus promises the goodness of an advocate who, despite all evidence, will argue for our innocence.

And so I'm compelled to pray:

Come Holy Advocate, our defender and hope. You show us such mercy and goodness, give us such hope of acceptance, that we fall down in worship and praise. Now, help us rise up and turn around. By your kindness and mercy, lead us in this new discipline of loving one another. Come Holy Advocate, and renew us once again.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ritual and Grieving and Renewed Hope on the Bus

This evening, I attended the memorial service for Dr. Margaret Flowers, who we all called Meg.

Meg was the music director at the congregation where I belong. She ended her ten year service there this past January, when she resigned to fight a recurrence of cancer. I'll admit I've been a bit heartbroken over her resignation. It's been a hard 2010 without her. It's simplest to say I loved her.

She's also the reason I'm in this congregation. I landed there at the end of 2003 when I first moved to Houston. I didn't church shop, I just landed there because it was in a convenient place. After a year there, I wasn't quite sure it was the place for me. I didn't feel connected to anyone there, and I wondered if I might fit better somewhere else.

Except I connected to Meg. I don't know why, don't really remember how. She was the arts person in the congregation, so I guess I naturally gravitated toward her. I didn't sing in the choir, at least not much that first year. Maybe not at all. I honestly don't remember. I just remember loving Meg.

Then she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Even though I was ready to leave this congregation and, hence, Meg at that time, I decided I couldn't possibly do it while she was going through chemotherapy. I decided to stay and see her through treatment.

She was remarkable. She continued with her music director duties while doing chemo. She had some rough days, to be sure, but with a little help from her friends, she didn't miss much time. We talked about how much cancer treatment had changed since I watched my mother go through it ten year earlier. They have much better meds for the nausea now. She lost her hair, but kept her appetite for the most part.

Then a remarkable thing happened to me. I started feeling connected to other people in this congregation. While I watched Meg battle cancer, I also began to love other people. By the time Meg completed her treatments and was declared in remission, the taproot had started to take hold in this congregation. I have a church home because of Meg.

During the four years when we were hoping she'd beaten her cancer, she continued her worship and musical leadership in our congregation. She had a definite idea about what a church choir was and was not. She spoke to us about being worship leaders, not performers. We led the congregation in hymn singing and we sang anthems to draw worshipers more deeply into the season or message of the Sunday.

She also kept vigilant over the designs of our new nave. The architect understood in no uncertain terms that, whatever else we decided about the design of the worship space, it had to have good acoustics for music. Since the nave was completed nearly two years ago, nearly every musician who has come into that space and remarked on the acoustics. Of course, there was a whole building committee there to affirm and back Meg up with the architect, but without her vigilance, it's quite possible compromises could have been made. One of her legacies to our congregation is this worship space that is great for singing.

She was one year away from that magical five year anniversary, when she would have been considered cured, when she started getting intense, debilitating headaches. For six months she went in for test after test, every scan known to modern medicine (and in Houston, that's saying something), and they could not figure out why she was having these headaches. At first, they ruled out cancer. They couldn't find it. Then, after at least two spinal taps, they recognized cancer cells in her spinal fluid.

I'll say no more about the diagnosis and treatment from there. I don't want to tell lies and I'm not clear on all the details. What matters is treatment was very hard on her this time (despite keeping most of her hair). She resigned as music director. She started getting confused, not being able to find the right word she wanted to say. Today was her memorial service.

If you click on her name above, you'll see her obituary. She had quite a career in church music, so of course many of her colleagues came to sing and remember her today. The music couldn't help but be glorious. It was a fitting way to commend her to God's care and eternity.

She was very dear to me. I'm going to be sad for a while. Even though she's been out of the position as music director for a few months already, we're only starting to find our new normal in our congregation. I'm not nimbly leaping into the changes her absence brings. I'm a little angry. And sad.

After the service, another member of our congregation, another friend, Akiko, asked me if I was okay. She knows I loved Meg. She did, too. I shrugged in my cavalier way and said, "yeah, I'm fine. It's only grief." I was being flip and everyone knew it, but in a way, I'm being genuine. It is only grief. It is something I've felt before, multiple times, and I suspect I'll feel it again. It is serious pain with serious tears. I'll acknowledge it's presence, acknowledge it's impact, but it won't rule me, not for long. I read some singer (I don't remember who---a gospel singer) once quoted to say that when his father died, the remarkable thing he learned was that the healing started almost immediately. The pain and anguish was real and present, and then something would happen to make the family laugh. He remarked how merciful God was, that we weren't left in our grief for too long, that the healing begins right away.

Case in point:

Coming home from Meg's memorial service, there was a man on the bus with an iPod and he occasionally bobbed his head and raised his arms in graceful, rhythmic patterns. Though he was sitting, I guessed that he was tall. He was definitely thin. He had large, strong hands, the kind of hands Michelangelo sculpted. His head was shaved and he was dressed all in black, shirt tales untucked. His skin was dark, a shade lighter than the darkest skin I've ever seen. His eyelids were heavy, his mouth full and serious.

He was beautiful, but his beauty was beside the point. He danced while sitting on a bus. On a day of grief, he gave me joy and made manifest what I already knew: I won't always feel this way.

He got off the bus suddenly, too quickly for me to tell him that he was a sign and a gift from God.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Vigil of Easter 2010

Just got in a while ago from keeping vigil with my congregation.

Let me say, having first experienced Easter vigil years ago (1990-ish), as an adult, it has become The Service for me out of all the year. As we were getting ready for it before hand, I began to feel giddy, sort of like how I remember getting excited about Christmas circa 1970. The anticipation drives me a little bonkers. I love the fire outside, the candles, the long chant telling us over and over "This is the night!" I love all the readings, reminding us of God's mighty acts throughout scripture, all in a dark church. And when the lights come up . . .

Stop. Let me back up. For those not familiar with Vigil, let me say that it is not a self-contained service. It is, in fact, a continuation of the services from the two previous days, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Maundy Thursday, the altar and pulpit and any other so draped pieces of furniture are stripped of their paraments, as we chant the 22nd Psalm. When I first experienced this ritual, I found it very moving. We've heard the story of the last supper, of the betrayal, of the new commandment, "love one another." We strip the the nave bare, as Jesus was stripped of his humanity by an inhumane system. It seems ridiculous to connect the two outside of the context, but the stripping of the altar never fails to move me. It seems unbearably sad to remove all sign of festival, leave the nave unadorned.

And it stays that way for Good Friday, as we hear again the way Love is treated in this world. Love is beaten, condemned, hung out to die. We remember our own part in killing Love. We leave the stripped nave in darkness.

But after long chants and readings, after many prayers, the lights come up in the nave during the Vigil and the tomb is declared empty. The bare altar is dressed again, before our eyes, in the golden paraments of Easter. Alleluias are sung. Lilies are set about the nave. Love does not remain dead. Love always rises.

So, for me, the full cycle, the stripping of the alter to the dressing of the altar, is cathartic for me. Vigil ended about two hours ago, and I'm still giddy.

Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

Now. I've had a hard spring, my whole congregation has. This giddiness will fade and the reality of grave illness and death will still be facing us. That doesn't mean tonight's celebration was for nothing. It means that in the middle of grave illness and death, we are always reminded that Love always rises. All of this is being redeemed, somehow. We may not see it with our eyes. Indeed, my pastor said tonight that God works in darkness much of the time, from the creation of the world, which started in darkness, to the Exodus from Egypt, following a pillar of fire by night, to the resurrection of Jesus, which happened while everyone slept. We don't see God working. It's often too dark to see God working.

But then the lights come up---Let there be light!---and there are lilies and golden paraments and a choir singing.

I doubt many things, but I trust in resurrection.

Christ is Risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Humility of Dirty Feet

We, as a culture, don't practice foot washing, not as first century Palestinians did. We don't travel by foot, wearing sandals. We do not enter another's home with dusty feet. We do not greet our dusty-footed guests with a water basin and towel.

So this practice comes down to us only as a ritual, disconnected to its cultural moorings. Is a ritual so disconnected still meaningful? I've been a part of discussions that have wondered what a 21st Century sign of welcome might be, that we might substitute for a Maundy Thursday ritual. We always come up empty. I don't know if that means we no longer practice hospitality or if our hospitality rituals are simply not so obvious. They're certainly not so intimate.

People have issues with feet. Feet are disgusting. Or a fetish. Or ticklish. I suppose for Jesus and his contemporaries, feet weren't hidden so much, and probably didn't stink so much. They simply got dirty. They were just a part of the body that was seen all the time. They were probably more calloused than ours. And I imagine there were some disgusting, fetishized, and ticklish feet in Jesus' time, too.

But still, it was good manners to greet a traveler with water basin and towel.

Some churches practice foot washing this day. Most do so with some hesitancy, some sensitivity to others' feelings about feet. There is an enormous opt out clause, in neon letters.

I'm going to go out on a limb. In our American society, the ritual of washing feet isn't about having the humility to serve another by washing his/her feet, although that's still there. I propose the model for us isn't Jesus in the gospel story. It's Peter.

Whether Peter was ashamed or too proud, I suppose we can open that up to discussion. Shame, pride, I believe them to be two sides of the same coin. Either way, Peter doesn't want to let Jesus wash his feet. Peter isn't good enough to have his feet washed by his teacher. While we would do well to pay attention to Jesus's humility in bending to wash his student's feet, we should more, nowadays, pay attention to Peter's ability to set aside his pride (or shame) and let Jesus serve him, touch his feet, have that physical intimacy once practiced between a guest and the host.

Is this ritual, separated from its cultural practice, still meaningful?

Speaking only for myself, I'll answer sideways: I seldom have wine or bread with a meal anymore, but the most meaningful meal of my week consists of only wine and bread.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hosanna! Save Us!

The blogging discipline didn't go so well this year. I'm not feeling too badly about it, either.

I was just talking to a friend who I hadn't seen in a while and gave her the laundry list of grave illnesses and death close to me the last few months. What's sort of sad is that I remembered a couple more that I didn't think to tell her about.

Let's just say, all these things have me a bit blue. And blogging hasn't been the priority I meant to make it this lent.

And today, we start Holy Week. This morning, we sang "hosannas" and waved palms. We read the Passion story, and some of us made plans for the many things we're doing for the rest of the week, in connection with the many services at the end of the week. That last bit sort of takes me out of the "now" of the hosannas and palms. I think I would benefit from spending some time with the hosannas and the palms.

"Hosanna" is one of those mysterious words in the Bible. It's not easy to translate, apparently, and has levels of meaning. It has an element of praise. It has an element of supplication. I suppose the people laying down their cloaks under the donkey were expecting a certain kind of deliverance from this humble king, and many (most? all?) were disappointed.

Still, we sing "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!" Help! You can help! Please help!

The deliverance that will come will not be everything I hope for, but I believe deliverance is coming. I believe I might even be blessed to recognize it when it comes, but that isn't where my hope lies. Redemption is at work. I must work with it. And the betrayals I'll perform before Thursday . . . well, let's not think about that just now. Right now, I and a lot of people around me need a savior.

Here's another cloak on the road.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Commending Spirit

One of the abbas from the 4th century desert once advised: If you do not keep death ever before you, you will lose courage.

I've thought about that a lot, lately, naturally enough. I thought about it tonight, at our Wednesday evening lenten service. We're using the compline service out of Evangelical Lutheran Worship. There is a chanted responsorial in it (light print for the leader, bold print for the congregation):

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.
Into your hands, I commend my spirit.
You have redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.
Into your hands, I commend my spirit.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
Into your hands, I commend my spirit.

I was taken, tonight, with the source of the repeated responses. This isn't just simply saying "My life is in your hands," this is quoting Jesus on the cross as he dies. Are we praying, in this response, "I'm ready to die now"?

If we do not keep death ever before us, we lose courage. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

The psalm for the evening was part of Psalm 136, the one that has the refrain, "for God's mercy endures forever" (your translation may vary).

I'm ready to die now, for God's mercy endures forever.

It works for me.

In that I'm-not-really-ready-to-die-now, kind of way. But whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. And if we don't keep death ever before us, we lose courage.

There is much need for courage these days. The member of my congregation who had the massive heart attack on Sunday has been non-responsive since Sunday afternoon. He has swelling and bleeding in his brain. Things don't look good for him. So it is not my death, but his that is before me at this moment. But as John Donne would have it, there is no difference.

So in my prayers for healing, I hear the refrain, into your hands, I commend my spirit. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. For God's mercy endures forever.

Amen and please. Please and amen.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


I've not counted the days, but we're here, somewhere near the middle of the season of lent. This season of renewed discipline, rededication to almsgiving, of prayer is a solemn, serious time. I fail at all these. Discipline, almsgiving, prayer, solemnity.

Repentance is another word associated with lent. So as I fail, I stop, turn around, try again, try another way, try to do better, getting better at failing all the time. This isn't me beating myself up, this is me trying to take stock as I look around me, trying to gather some courage and find some action to take during this season I'm in, this season of cancer and heart disease. Friends and acquaintances in dire straits and here I sit, sadly lacking in skills for oncology and cardiology.

I read once, long ago, that "lent" comes from an old English word related to "lengthen," as we in the northern hemisphere experience a lengthening of daylight during this season. Maybe that's what I'm looking for. More daylight. More illumination.

Well, who isn't? Who is seeking to sit in darkness?

One of my favorite prayers is comes from our Vespers service:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p.317)

Long nights give way to long days, and we cannot possibly know what the light will reveal. We think we know some things, but if we're lucky, the Spirit will remind us of how little that is and that we walk by faith, even in these lengthening days. Give us faith to go out with good courage.

I don't know what to do. So I do what is in front of me, the work that has come my way, whether it's my days in retail, my nights with freelance writing, my time with my congregation, but trying to be present, trying to pick up what is there that needs picking up. It won't be enough. I will fail and I will try again. Exercises in humility, putting aside the idol of success and trusting that trying will accomplish some small part, trusting in the hand that is leading, in the love that is supporting.

The Reign of God comes in small pieces, broken but glorious.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Reminisce Interrupted

Well, my lenten plan to remember God-incidents hasn't gone so well lately. I'm finding myself quite distracted these days.

In my head, I've started calling this "a season of cancer." Starting in October with the death of my friend Pat Clark, who I wrote about for All Saints Day, I've since assisted at a funeral of another friend at my home congregation, which was the week before Christmas. Then, in January (I think) a dear friend was diagnosed with cancer. And now, last week, another friend. Terribly scary time for people I care about.

Then, yesterday, between services, a member collapsed with a massive heart attack. He's in the hospital in critical condition. So, this season of cancer is expanded to heart disease. (Forgive me if I make this about me for just a moment, but I do pause to point out that the heart attack victim is exactly my age---and I've already had one heart event in 2006. Hard to ignore these things.) I might add, it is a sobering thing when you see a defibrillator used on someone you actually know.

I'll get back to my "Memories of God" series and will likely do them occasionally after Easter has come and gone.

In the meantime, I'll stop with the gloomy news and note that there are other things going quite well for me. As I told someone on Facebook the other night, my prayers lately are something along the lines of: "thank you. what? wow. oh no. squee! stop it! really? please." with varying inflection and order.

When things are swirling around as crazily as they are right now for me, I have to guess there is some kind of Breath moving. I'm reminded of (of all things) an Amy Grant song with the line: "The same wind that knocks us down, if we lean into it, will drive our fears away."

Leaning. Leaning.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Journal as Reminder and Clarifier

Memories of God #10

I was just reading my journal from my last year of college. That was the '86-'87 academic year.

Wow. I was in a lot of pain. I was regretting a lot. I was graduating with a degree in theater and wishing I'd been a commercial art major. I was in something like love, but feeling shameful and damned about it. I came across an entry where I wished I weren't alive. I said I didn't want to commit suicide, but it would be okay if I just ceased to exist, that it would save everyone a lot of trouble.

During this period, I tried to keep a journal as if I were writing to God. It was a short-lived experiment. I found writing to an omniscient being to be redundant, and so many of my entries are full of "O Father, you heard that conversation." Which, of course, means little to me more than two decades later. Thankfully, I let that experiment go pretty quickly.

But there's the thing. In the middle of regret and not a little despair, I was still talking to God, looking so hard for God's leading. True, it was that early-twenties angst-ridden sort of searching, the kind that immobilizes and becomes addictive for it's sweet agony, but it was still an earnest seeking.

I thought I would put in a few paragraphs from that time, but they're complicated, too complicated for the time I have to explicate. There are also names and places that are not entirely mine to publish on the web.

But, well, take for instance this Lutheran Student Movement regional retreat I attended. There was someone there doing guided meditations. I had a powerful experience with one of the exercises, one that pulled me back, if only a little, from the brink. Pulled back just a little is enough to save a life.

I'm being vague tonight. That's sometimes required to protect people who didn't sign up to be written about, and to obscure some of my own embarrassment about those years. I write tonight to remember that God was there, in this time that I felt like I was taking up more than my share of space on the planet, when I wanted to disappear. At a retreat, God sent some people who were God's hands and voice to pull me back from an edge. How will I ever be grateful enough?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Experience as Idol

Memories of God #9

I don't remember how or when I came to this conclusion, but it's maybe worth noting as I reminisce about God.

There was a period of fairly intense experiences of what I would call God. This was late college years and a few years following. I've mentioned or otherwise alluded to a couple of them.

Then somewhere, those experiences stopped. Not entirely, but the intensity of them did. I wanted those spiritual highs all the time, why were they suddenly absent?

And I realized that the highs were becoming my god, not the God I met in the experiences. Subtle difference, I suppose, but it's a bit like a love relationship. You can only have so many orgasms until someone has to get up and go to work. There are other things to do besides making love---which is how many mystics allude to their experiences.

So as I spend some time these lenten days, reflecting on my memories of God, I feel it's important to pause and remember: sometimes there are no fireworks. Sometimes you go through days hardly noticing or acknowledging one another. These are the days of ordinary time, days of contentment, days of discontent, but days that make up our ordinary lives.

They are days of choosing faithfulness in the boredom. They are days of knowing God by not feeling a tap on the shoulder.

It's knowing God by remembering, holding God in our memory even as God remembers us.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Everyone Dies (part one)

Memories of God #8

Our pastoral care professor in seminary would say that being present as someone dies is one of the few "supernatural" occurrences we modern people may still see---and we're hiding it away more and more. His main point was that our scientific age, for good and ill, has taken away much mystery in our lives. The sound we hear in the dark is easily enough dispelled with the flick of the switch, whereas there was time when one had to light a fire to explain the noise. And lighting a fire wasn't always as easy as striking a match.

I've been present at the deaths of a handful of people, maybe 4 or 5. Most were unknown patients when I was a chaplain in a hospital one summer. One was my mother. We all die and it is a terrible, mysterious event, but it can be full of revelation as well.

A very few years after seminary, I had a friend who was dying. He was coughing to death, having lived into his late 30s with cystic fibrosis. His name was Bill. Simultaneously, a seminary friend had a friend, also named Bill, who was dying from brain cancer. She asked me to pray for a miraculous healing, for her Bill to be fully cleared of cancer. I said I would, of course, and asked her to pray for my Bill. But then I asked a terrible question, one full of theodicy.

Why do we pray for a cancer patient to be fully healed while another has a congenital disease that we simply accept will kill him? We might reasonably expect a cancer patient to be healed---there are treatments and sometimes they work. But there are no treatments for a cystic fibrosis patient, except maybe a lung transplant, and then that's only temporary. Eventually, s/he will cough to death. She saw my point, but promised to pray for my Bill all the same.

Which brings me to this particular experience of God, one that troubles me less than it once did, but may be troubling for others. Praying for my her Bill, I had a very distinct feeling that there was nothing to be done. I felt that the answer to the prayer was, "everyone dies and this is how her Bill dies." That seems like a terribly rotten answer from an all powerful God. But I suspect even God might feel badly about that.

Is God all-powerful? If so he is cruel to let us die in these terrible ways. If God is not all-powerful, what do we make of the power God does have? This is not an answer to be received in a blog post, after libraries of books have been written on these questions.

What I do believe is this: We are mortal. For whatever reason, we're designed with this flaw of fragility. And all the terrible ways we die---disease, violence, disaster, alone---are but opportunities for God to work some sort of redemption out of it. Stated more plainly, while I don't believe that God sends disease, I do believe that God goes about the business of redeeming the event of the disease. More scientific data is gathered to prevent further suffering. A family or separated friends are reunited. Comfort comes from unexpected places and the Reign of God breaks into the horrors of our lives.

My friend's Bill died and so did my Bill. I know less about the aftermath of her Bill's death, and I know only some about the aftermath of my Bill's death. I do know that my Bill's death has found some redemption, from writing he left behind, from achievements his wife has made that would have been impossible while she was caring for him.

I don't know that I'm expressing what's on my mind about this very well, and there's always the question, "but why did they get sick in the first place?" hanging in the air. No one has been able to answer it. I only know that redemption comes for those willing to work with God, watch for God's movement. I trust when my time comes to die, someone's grief will be blessed by God's redemption, too.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Fingers Around My Sternum, Pulling Me Foward

Memories of God #7

Ambiguous story tonight. Few details because they're hard to report.

In the final years of being in college, I was appalled by the fact that I was in a relationship with a man. To call it a "relationship" is to define it broadly. It involved some strong emotions, most of them involving me in a puddle of tears telling God I'm sorry and I wouldn't do it again.

It was not a healthy time.

There are . . . events? That suggests definite occurrences. There were ongoing tugs. If you're praying an awful lot, you might expect God to answer, I suppose. There were no answers that I wanted at the time, none that seem to address the immediate situation.

But--and I may have mentioned this before somewhere, as it's a favorite illustration--a dearly departed friend once described God as a triage doctor. God looks at the wounds and decides which are the most life-threatening and gets to work on that. My being gay was not the biggest threat to me just then.

I hesitate to talk about this time because I know how fortunate I am. Any number of people in similar situations have not received this answer and have perished. Not everyone escapes the whirlpool. Still, this is my story . . .

As I felt the pull of an undertow, I felt some sort of tug into the future. This is how I've described it before and it still seems the best description: It was as if the fingers of a hand were plunged into my chest, between my ribs, and grabbed hold of my sternum, like that was the best handhold to pull me up. It is one of my images of hope. When the whirlpool looked like it might win, this painful grip got hold of me and pulled me into the future, out of the sadness and despair. A painful but insistent hope.

I can't explain it. Maybe shouldn't try. Here I am and it hurt to get past those years, but I've had some amazing joy along the way, too. No regrets. Happy to have felt the grip of God on my bones to bring me to this place.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Memories of God #6

Back in 2006, early fall, I started feeling what I've come to call "nudges" from God. A nagging feeling. (Yes, I worship a God who sometimes nags.) I remember praying one night, "Okay, I hear you whispering, but I'm too dense to get it. I'm afraid I'm going to need something more dramatic than the 'still-small-voice' thing."

At the end of November, I found myself spending 6 nights in the hospital due to a clogged artery on my heart. (At first, no one was calling it a heart attack, but since then most visits to doctors have included a discussion about my heart attack, so maybe I had a heart attack. Or the difference between what I had and an heart attack is too slim to matter.) I remember sitting in my hospital gown and saying, "Okay, this is dramatic. But---WHAT?"

(I pause to note that I'm not entirely sure that God sent me a heart attack to get my attention. At the same time, I've suffered so little for this heart disease, that I recognize an awful lot of grace in it and therefore can't help but look for God in it. But maybe that's another discussion about God sending good and/or evil and probably not well suited to a blog post.)

The "WHAT?" is still unfolding, still an ongoing journey, even now, 3 years later.

But as I pondered my life and its hazards in the hospital, I realized that two separate friends had recently defined me as a gay, Christian artist/writer. Not precisely in those words, but it became clear that is how they see me. I pouted over that, as I really just want to be a writer or an aritst, sans labels. I pout that only straight white men get to be writers or artists. Everyone else gets adjectives: woman writer, black artist, gay author, Christian musician. Etc.

Around the same time, I received page proofs for two different stories that had been accepted for publication. One story was a sort of a fictional memoir, with me as the first-person narrator (it is based upon dreams I have of my parents visiting me in my present circumstances, even though both are dead). It was accepted by Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature. The other, a short-short story about a man who reframes some family history into "just so" myths. It was accepted for an anthology called Charmed Lives: Gay Spirit in Storytelling. I couldn't help but notice a trend.

So over the last 3 years, I've made some effort to own my adjectives. Gay and Christian. I believe being more "out" as both has led me to some interesting places. Whether or not God is directly involved in these things, from heart attack to finding reward in being open about the two biggest adjectives in my life, I am thankful for the journey. In all things, give thanks, St. Paul said. It's hard to give thanks for a heart attack, but I'm thankful for the redemption for it. I always find God working hard at redeeming these awful things.

There's much mystery involved with where God is leading me, but I believe God to be active. I'm in a cloudy time right now, as if God is nudging me again. I'm hopeful I can discern some direction without another hospital stay. I'm trying to pay closer attention.

At the very least, I'm no longer asking for something dramatic to get my attention.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Sustaining Abundance

Memories of God #5

I work retail and live in a neighborhood that is not so posh. There are times of stretching to make ends meet. Some of this is a chosen lifestyle, some is just how my particular cookie crumbles.

In my neighborhood, there are deep ditches along the back streets, places for the occasional torrential rain Houston gets to run and not flood. Water often stands in these ditches, but there are also drier seasons, when there is no water in them.

It may be my farm boy early life, where I had acres and acres to explore, but sometimes I have to get down in the ditches and see what's in them. There are wildflowers of various sorts that I can't name, and they give me endless delight. These are not big-blooming, call-attention-to-themselves flowers, but small, easily overlooked blooms.

For example, there is some plant in those ditches that grows very close to the ground. It blooms in small clusters, about the size of a winter coat button. The individual flowers in these clusters are tiny. They are a classic 5-petal arrangement, like we learned to draw in grade school, but they are about the size of a large pin head. I cannot imagine how little nectar or pollen a flower of that size produces, what part it might play in a ecosystem, but then beauty is its own purpose.

I first noticed this flower during a particularly hard stretch a couple of years ago. In the middle of some economic hardship, I spontaneously thought, "What abundance!"

That tiny, tiny flower brought to mind that I live in a world of tiny beauties that add up to something overwhelmingly spectacular. This came to me in a ditch, beside tin warehouses in a not-so-posh neighborhood.

It is not abundance that pays the rent, but it is abundance that sustains me more than the easy payment of utilities. It is abundant life.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Gracious Love

Memories of God #4

"Merciful Father, we offer with joy and thanksgiving what you have first given us - our selves, our time, and our possessions, signs of your gracious love. Receive them for the sake of him who offered himself for us, Jesus Christ our Lord."

The above prayer will be familiar to Lutherans who used the Lutheran Book of Worship every Sunday for 30 years. It is the "offertory prayer," or the prayer after the offering. I don't know if it's in the new Evangelical Lutheran Worship or not and I'm not taking the time just now to look. I just know my congregation hasn't used this prayer since we got the ELW.

In the spring of 1995, I was finishing up my seminary career. My mother had died the spring before, I was making my first steps out of the closet, I was completing a Master of Divinity degree that I wasn't planning on using---in short, the future was looming with lots of "new normals" to be discovered. In short, I was a mess.

Well, I'm often a mess. If there is one recurring issue in my life, a "besetting sin" (as some might call it), it's that I just can't imagine that I have anything of real value to offer the world. Forget the world---to offer much of anyone. I hate putting that out there. It sounds so remarkably whiny and not a little self-absorbed. Okay, add that to my list of besetting sins. I'm sure I'm not the only one who can make a list of them.

But the 1995 version of the mess that is me: I was all kinds of heartbroken, grieving, uncertain about my future. One day, that spring, we were in chapel and we prayed the above prayer, as I'd been doing since 1978. This time, though, there was a (non-literal) tap on my shoulder and a (non-literal) finger pointing to the one line: "
our selves, our time, and our possessions, signs of your gracious love." I heard a (non-literal) voice say to me, "See? You are a sign of my gracious love."

I burst into tears and didn't really stop crying for the rest of the chapel service. I'm sure people around me were concerned I'd finally cracked. Maybe I had. It wasn't something I could explain right away. I can't explain it now.

Part of the problem is I don't really believe it. Maybe that's just as well. Maybe it's something for others to believe, although I'm sure I can produce witness who would gladly plant a seed of doubt against that (non-literal) voice. At the very least, if I ever live up to the (non-literal) voice's word to me, it is sporadic and often despite my intentions.

The more important thing is that the prayer speaks in plurals. If my sorry self can be a sign of God's gracious love, then others are the same. It forces me to look at other people, the "our selves" around me, and see the Imago Dei in them, the sign of God's gracious love that they are to the world, too.

In general, I have a fairly low opinion of our race. I'm not proud of that, but that's my knee jerk reaction. People suck and it's a terminal condition. Except all "those people" (and I am one of "those people") are children of God, heirs of the "Merciful Father," who loves us despite our terminal suckiness.

We are the beloved of God. Let us be reminded of that and live according, as signs of God's gracious love.

Friday, February 19, 2010

God in a (Mail) Box

Memories of God #3

Growing up on the farm was a great, great childhood, but it was occasionally isolating. We lived a half-mile off the highway and no neighbor within shouting distance, so during the summers, when we maybe went into town twice a week (once for church, once for groceries and/or other business), the only contact with the outside world was the mail box a half-mile away. (I should also say we didn't have a phone in those days. Sounds so primitive, doesn't it? Just my version of normal.)

So everyday, I would ride my bike (or walk, but once we got bikes, why walk?) down the gravel road to get the mail. Thursdays brought the weekly local paper, but other days were unpredictable. I would save cereal box tops and send off for stuff, join record or book clubs, subscribe to comic books, anything to generate mail. It happened so seldom, but the greatest excitement on some days was to get a piece of mail that was addressed to me, with my name on it. It's nice to get affirmation of one's existence and I guess I'll take it where I can.

There was this one time---and I wish I could remember how old I was, but late elementary, early junior high I'm guessing---when I was wondering about atheism. I don't think I was ever going to really commit to the idea, but it sort of intrigued me that some people just didn't belive in God. Taking this question and using it to put God to the test seemed like a reasonable thing to do---and maybe use it to generate mail with my name on it (because I really did believe God existed and figured God probably wanted me to keep believing).

So I prayed something like: "Dear God, If you are real, there will be something in the mail today with my name on it." Ridiculous, I know. Sometimes I think it is my ridiculousness that keeps God from striking me down, even today.

It came to ride down to get the mail, which was about 9:20 a.m. as I recall. I pedal on down, pull up to the mail box and open it with anticipation. A post card! It's addressed to me! There is a God!

I turn it over. It's from my dentist. It's time for my check up.

I laughed. Not only did I learn there was, indeed, a God (and would play along now and then with being put to the test), but I also learned God has a sense of humor (hence my faith that being ridiculous entertains God and keeps the smiting away).

* * *

In seminary, I told this story during a sermon. Afterward, another seminarian came up to me a little indignant about the whole thing. "You know that was just a coincidence, right? What if there hadn't been anything in the mailbox?"

I just shrugged and said, "Then that would have been a different story."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Godspell Spirit

Memories of God #2

I'll say this with some uncertainty, but I believe it was the 1983 Lutheran Student Movement National Assembly in Bozeman, MT. If it wasn't, it was the assembly in '84, in Missouri.

One night at the assembly, we saw the film version of Godspell. I don't remember a great deal about the film itself, but I do remember being moved by it. (I've never seen it since and I've read that it's not a very good film---but that matters little.)

Either later that night or later that week, there was a worship service that used music from the musical. At the passing of the peace, we sang "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," over and over and over. There was a band playing and the entire assembly---I don't remember how many that would be, maybe something like 300-500 college students? maybe more?---wouldn't stop. We were caught up in the moment and there was a euphoria in that place as we went throughout this university hall, hugging one another, encouraging one another to make the crooked paths straight (not that those were in the lyrics, but they are in the Isaiah passage that John the Baptist is quoting in the song). In retrospect, it is a good song for preparing for the Eucharist.

Anyway, we're singing, the one line over and over, and it got away from the worship leaders. We were all laughing and crying and singing and hugging. I remember saying to my friend, Shari, "I don't even know why I'm crying!" She said, "I don't either!" But we kept on crying and singing and hugging.

I don't know if this is really a memory of God or not. It may simply be a memory of mass hysteria. I do know what it's like to get caught up in the enthusiasm of a crowd, how it can take over, how good it can feel.

I was in love that night with several hundred strangers. I didn't want it to end. Movement of the Spirit or just the madness of a crowd, I'm thankful to have experienced it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lying in the Grass, Looking Up

Memories of God #1

Sometime in my preschool years (before we transferred from the country church to the town church), a Sunday school teacher commented that God was not an old man with a big gray beard, but was a spirit that was everyone all at once. Seems like a heavy idea to be laying on preschoolers, but this comment stayed with me.

Sometime later (that week? that month? I don't remember), I was in our backyard, lying in the grass and watching clouds. I was thinking about what that Sunday school teacher said. I don't know that it's fair to say a preschooler was "meditating" but I was definitely trying to wrap my young mind around that idea.

Then, at once, I was aware that God was in the grass under me, in the pecan tree a few yards from me, in the crepe myrtle next to me, in the clouds way above me, all around me. God was in the air that moved about me.

It would be 20 years or more before I knew that this was called a "mystical experience."

But it remains foundational in my faith. In my life. The world is shoot through with God.

This is one way I understand the Reign of God is at hand.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Controversies and Voices

I'm doing it again. I'm engaging in internet debate. It's a practice I swear off now and then, but my recidivism rate is alarming.

What set me off this time was a claim that there is no biblical explanation for the ELCA's actions at last August's Churchwide Assembly (check out posts from last August to learn more, if you don't know what that's about). These claims came from two individuals who have had explanations given to them over and over, biblical and beyond. The problem is they simply reject the interpretation.

Which is really okay. I reject their interpretation of the Bible passages in question. Bible interpretations vary widely on any number of issues and have been used to justify building hospitals and torture devices. I believe the rigorous discussion of interpretation is essential to avoiding abuses and outright horror. Obviously, the church has not always been so good at such rigorous discussion.

The thing about the whole GLBT debate is that it really is about whether or not people can be comfortable with the idea of two men or two women living together in emotional, spiritual and sexual relationship, because the issue of things in the Bible that refer to heterosexual sin can't get a good discussion going. I've repeatedly brought up the ELCA's allowance of divorced and remarried pastors to serve, despite very clear words from Jesus himself that such a relationship is adultery. The only answer I get is "that's too complex to go into here."

Which I read to mean, "heterosexual sex just doesn't bother me so much and I can overlook that problem." Or else, "there is s double standard for people who are heterosexually oriented and those who are homosexually oriented---one may sin and continue in their sinful relationship, but the other may not."

I'm not sure how else to read their comments.

What annoys me most of all, however, is the abdicating from the conversation. Almost always we get to this point and the anti-GLBT ordination person will cry foul, say there is clearly no room for a conservative voice in the ELCA, and leave the conversation.


Asking questions you don't want to answer is denying you your voice?

I'm at a loss. And I'm leaving the conversation, too, because I have too many other things to attend to.

But here is my wish, and it may need another post, but I'll end with this wish:

I wish we could put aside terms like "liberal" and "conservative." I feel certain that they get in our way. Somewhere along the way, we decide, "well, yes, I want to be a conservative" and then we go looking for what conservatives think and believe and teach. Same with liberals. I swear, I've known people from both sides who, if told by the right person (Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, for example) that the liberal/conservative thing to do is to paint your houses canary yellow with hot pink trim, there would be canary yellow houses with hot pink trim. And there would be arguments about how it's important to uphold the conservative/liberal value of canary yellow houses with hot pink trim.

But this conversation is held among Christians, where we allegedly claim Jesus is Lord. We do not claim conservative values are lord, we do not claim liberal values are lord, but Jesus is Lord. From day one, 2000-and some-odd years ago, there have been arguments about what that means and how we live under that Lordship, but that doesn't mean we can't look to that as the guiding principle.

Can we come together, in the love of God, and discuss, ARGUE, even, about things without claiming a liberal or conservative silencing or bias? Maybe not. But we're also supposed to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, who, scripture might lead us to believe, is always doing something new, even some shocking things. I'm willing to bet that if we could somehow learn to pay attention to the leading of the Holy Spirit, people who claim both liberal and conservative labels will be blown away by the surprising newness of what's in store, and all camps would all be brought to the ground, their faces in the dirt, in worship and awe of how the Spirit breaks our preconceptions and shows us the crazy wild beautiful Reign of God.