Thursday, March 31, 2016

Easter 5 Exult


Word Origin and History for exult
v. 1560s, "to leap up;" 1590s, "to rejoice, triumph," from Middle French exulter, from Latin exultare/exsultare "leap about, leap for joy," frequentative of exsilire "to leap up," from ex- "out" (see ex- ) + salire "to leap" (see salient (adj.)). The notion is of leaping or dancing for joy.

I was surprised to see this. 

Of course, I love the physicality of it. 

Easter is full of physicality. 

Resurrection life might lead to exultation. 

Go ahead. Try out a little leaping dance. Or a dancing leap. 

Do it for the joy of it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Easter 4 Awe

I was chatting with my friend, Misha, today and she mentioned the previous blog post, said she felt similarly about the shades of difference between joy and delight. She dropped this in one of her replies:

Joy, I think, is perhaps something more akin to the Buddhist practice of "Joyfully participating in the sorrows of the world." Joy isn't happiness. That's the feeling I get. Delight and happiness feel related. Joy feels like a state of being: stable, long term, wise. Maybe Joy and Awe are more on the same spectrum...

Little did she know that "awe" was on my radar (more literally, my spreadsheet where I've made a list of words to get me through the 50 days) for an Easter blog post. I immediately said I might be quoting her, and so I have.  

What I wouldn't have said on my own are her descriptors, "stable, long term, wise." Yes to those. 

Misha and I often talk about the need for awe in our lives, how we don't now how to live without cultivating that relationship with the world around us. What's more, it feels like the sort of thing that most anyone, of any religion or none, might be able to experience. 

A thunderstorm. A clear, star-filled night in a place without light pollution. Pretty much any living, growing thing. So many things are too big to understand, even if our science books can explain them. 

In fact, I hope you can can read a science book and feel awe at what surrounds us. Last I checked, science still didn't have a real good explanation for why life happens, why particular combinations of chemicals and light and minerals spark into living things---much less sentient things! Science can talk about life as something that exists and here's what we know about what sustains it, what kills it, and how it reproduces---but not why life happens at all.

How awesome is that?

I particularly love that Misha uses the word "wise." I think she is right that there is wisdom in awe. Holy Wisdom draws our attention to the amazing things that are too much to comprehend. Confronted with things we don't understand, we are wise to step back in wonder. 

For some, that step back leads to worship, songs of praise, ecstatic dances, quiet rapture. 

Easter is, if nothing else, a time for awe. The powers of the world do not have final say over our being. Suffering is not the whole of our existence. Love is stronger than death. 

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, amen.

Easter 3 Delight

Delight is a synonym for joy and vice versa, and yet I find a difference between them. Joy, it seems to me, is the more sustaining thing, the pleasure that can hum below the surface of many circumstances, good and bad. Delight is in the moment, in the particular.

I delight in cats.

I delight in a surprising moment in a dance.

I delight in discovering flowers in a ditch.

I delight in moments of creativity, cleverness, invention---others' and my own.

I said on day one of this season that joy is hard for me. That sustaining hum, as I called it above, escapes me regularly.

But daily, I must confess to moments---sometimes brief, as when I notice a brightly green and defiant weed growing in a crack in pavement, and sometimes a bit longer, as when I get to watch sparrows and their inscrutable bird society for any amount of time---but moments that bring me delight, particular, momentary bursts of pleasure in the world around me.

These are the moments I have called and will again call the stuff of an abundant life.

Alleluias made manifest into things I can see, even sometimes touch.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter 2 Festivity

Easter traditions not my own but full of color and delighted children

Colorful confetti from colorful eggs, cascarones, a word that was not in my own childhood

A ten-year-old who, for the first time, voiced that "Uncle Neil" was not a blood relative but related by friendship

The alleluias of the morning service taking on flesh

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Easter 1 Joy

Joy does not come easily for me. There's a reason friends have given me plush Eeyore toys.

But here we are at Eastertide, the 50 days of celebration. If the 40 days of lent has been a look at our mortality and fragility, I've decided that I would approach this Easter season with a discipline of joy, of finding pieces of life that lift us up, that bring us to new life.

This takes imagination. I believe forming our lives, not just our individual lives, but our lives together takes imagination. We have to imagine that we can live together. We have endless examples of this sort of imagining in our lives everyday. A stop sign isn't a law of nature, but someone imagined to give life on our roads some structure and safety.

Saturday afternoon, I saw the new movie, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. It's a violent piece of work, set in a world where there are terrible things lurking everywhere and brute force is the best way to respond. It's not a film without hope, but it's such a grim look at our world and heroism, you have to really search for it. It's easy to miss it.

Then Saturday evening, I attended the Easter Vigil at my church, where we heard several stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, stories of escape from captivity, of dry bones living again, of Creation and God calling it all good. There's violence in these stories, too ("horse and rider thrown into the sea") but the overall message in these stories is that God is for us, God will bring breath into dry bones, God created us GOOD. And there is a midrash that has God weeping for the Egyptians even as the Hebrews sing their joy of triumph and  escape.

I come from a tradition that that doesn't take these stories as fact, history, or science, but we take them seriously. We take seriously the imagining that God is with us, for us, involved in our salvation, deliverance, redemption.


And so I plan on spending the next 50 days in that realm of imagination, a discipline of imagining the joy of the Easter season, a joy that doesn't ignore the history or current troubles in the world, but, with enough of us imagining it, a joy that can transform the troubles of the world.

Christ is arisen! Alleluia!

Holy 2016

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. [I Corinthians 15:26]

In my creative writing, my fiction, the recurring theme is death. There is seldom any violence in my writing, but there's almost always someone dead or dying.  I'm not interested, it seems, in pitting humans against humans. I'm endlessly interested, apparently, about how people approach death, how death affects them, how we look at loss of a deep, personal, permanent kind.

With Paul, I see death as an enemy, full of potential for conflict in the quiet stories I tell.

And somewhere, sometimes overtly, sometimes undercover, Jesus is lurking in that death. In grace, in grief, in hope, Jesus is in all these deaths of my imagination.

This is the day that we commemorate the time Jesus spent in the grave. Fully human, fully dead, deeply in a tomb.

Today, Jesus meets the final enemy. Today, we keep vigil, watching in grace, grieving, hoping . . .

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good 2016

This is not a guilt trip. Things happen and we're guilty, yes, but this is not a guilt trip.

We like to place blame and really, there's plenty to go around. But the point isn't to make us feel bad or shameful.

We're doing the best we can, right? Everyone is doing what we think is best. And we think all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons and some of those reasons are misguided at best. Some are, in retrospect, somewhere on a scale of regrettable to evil. But hindsight is 20/20, right? In the moment, we are doing what we can. For whatever reason. We're responsible, but that isn't really the point.

And, well, things get out of hand, you know? We thought this was a good idea and by the time we realize it's not, it's rolling downhill with a lot of weight and crushing people and . . . it just gets away from us.

So we're guilty and responsible and full of bad ideas, but this isn't a guilt trip. A guilt trip would miss the point.

What's the point?

We don't know what we're doing.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Maundy 2016

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’[John 13:34-35]

Here we are again. Jesus will wash our feet, modeling servanthood. Jesus will bless wine and bread and become those very things and ask us to eat and drink in remembrance of him. And then there's also this commandment. Like the Ten that Moses retrieved from Mt Sinai, it is not a suggestion or a nice idea to think about. It's a command. Love one another.

Can I just confess that there are a lot of people royally pissing me off right now? And that sort of diminishes how I feel. I'm angry at a lot of people, some of them also say, like me, "I am a Christian." I'm not feeling particularly loving.

It is, after all, a presidential election year here in the USA.

Of course, this works both ways. I'm sure I'm making my share of people angry. I'm sure there are people who are not feeling particularly loving toward me. 

I have my fallback rationales, things like, "disagreeing doesn't mean we hate each other, argument doesn't mean we're enemies." Can I truly say it feels that way? No, I can't.

I don't have any platitudes to offer, or any warm, sweet things to say about this. If anyone is to know we're disciples of Jesus, we are to love one another.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised that this brings to mind a saying of a Desert Father:

Abba Zeno said, "If [someone] wants God to hear [their] prayer quickly, then before [they] pray for anything else, even [their] own soul, when [they] stand and stretch out [their] hands towards God, [they] must pray with all [their] heart for [their] enemies. Through this action God will hear everything that [they] ask."

Serious words from both, Jesus and Zeno.

May we live into these words. Seriously try them on. I'm not pretending it's easy.

On this, have nothing more to say this year.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Remembering Death 11 That Tolling Bell

In the ten entries where I've remembered people in my life who have died, I've only scratched the surface. There are friends I didn't write about and the big ones (Mama and Daddy) felt larger than this blog at this time. And then there's my own death.

As I write this, it is the evening of the Monday of Holy Week, 2016. Today, I had funny reminder of my own mortality. Seriously, I laughed. Here's a picture:

What we have here is a cashier at a neighborhood eatery assuming I should have a senior discount. Normally, in these places, I don't even look at my receipt, so maybe I've gotten it before. I couldn't help but chuckle while eating.

Sure, it comes a bit as a minor shock. All my life, I've been told, "You don't look that old!" When I was 40, I had to show my driver's license more than once to people who wouldn't believe it. This continued on for most of that decade.

But I also know the last three years have aged me. I see it in the mirror. A major surgery, diabetes, a few other worries---it all adds up. So it's not that big of a shock.

This isn't the first sign that I no longer pass for thirty-something. On crowded buses, younger riders have started offering me their seat, insisting on it.

So, yes, I get it. And it's okay. I'm 52 and  hopeful for quite a few more years, no matter how I look.

Still, it is a reminder that there are fewer years ahead than behind. Everyone dies. This incident seems appropriate to the beginning of Holy Week. The reminder of Ash Wednesday feels distant. Today, I saved seventy-eight cents on the way to the cross. The Holy Spirit has a sense of humor, as should we all in the face of death.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palms and Rumors

This Jesus guy comes into town and he has all these people who are into him, following him around, waving palms at him and stuff. He's talking about some reign that's coming and it's getting the people worked up with his pie in the sky promises and nonsense.

The powers that be don't like it. They worry about what sort of trouble this Jesus and his followers could stir up, what kind of change to the status quo they might bring. When the status quo benefits you, this kind of stuff can be upsetting.

Now Jesus and his folk, maybe they did make demands. There was that incident with the merchants' tables. Jesus kind of got carried way, turned over some stuff, chased the merchants around the holy places, telling them they had no place there. But in general, Jesus and his folk, they weren't, like, punching people in the head or anything. Mostly, he preached.

But one incident is all the powers that be needs to paint someone a violent revolutionary. Jesus and his crew? They were stirring things up. So what if they were exaggerating the charges? Making up other charges out of whole clothe? It's for the protection of the status quo. In fact, there may be some restoration to an earlier status quo that's in order. Whatever. They make some charges, take him to Pilate.

Now Pilate, he had his gig, wasn't worried that much about the rabble rousing unless it directly affected his cush job. He listened to the rumors these lower bureaucrats brought to him, but Pilate could Google, Pilate knew Snopes and while maybe Jesus got a little cocky in his answers now and then, Pilate couldn't find anything solid to hang on him.

But these lower authorities, they were tenacious with their lies and rumors and insinuations. They said the Google skewed results, that Snopes was in on the conspiracy and soon Pilate, despite knowing better, began to feel like his gig, his cush job could be compromised. The thing that was actual didn't matter so much as the appearance of the thing. Those lower authorities? They were good with the appearances.

In the end, Pilate had to preserve his own authority and if some random wandering preacher got crushed, so what. Pilate had to preserve his power so he could take care of bigger things, preserve the status quo in a broader way, make sure that the nation kept running as smoothly as possible.

And so it goes.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Remembering Death 10 - AIDS Patient

(I've found it would behoove me to state up front that this "Remembering Death" series is my lenten blogging, taking my cue from the Ash Wednesday admonition to "remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return." I'm remembering people who have died in my life.)

In my (and many) Christian tradition, those studying in seminary will have to complete a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (or CPE). Basically, it's time as a chaplain and might be in a number of settings. Mine was on the cancer floor of a hospital.

I visited more than one person who died before my unit was up. Occasionally, I was in the room with the family keeping vigil as their loved one took their final breaths. It's an incredibly holy and mysterious thing.

The patient I'm thinking of tonight was something of a problem case. He was a man, maybe a couple of years older than me, and he was dying of AIDS. I had more than one AIDS patients and some also had cancer (which was common). I don't remember if this fellow actually had cancer, too, but the cancer floor was where AIDS patients ended up, regardless. This would have been the summer of 1993, past the peak of the AIDS crisis, but still a few years before people were consistently living long lives with an HIV diagnosis.

I received a call from a nurse on my floor, asking if I could come right away. They had a patient that was being uncooperative and a little verbally abusive to the nurses who were trying to help him.

What I found was a very thin man who you could tell had been really quite good looking before the virus wasted him. He was, in a word, terrified. He was acting out of terror. Chaplains sometimes got called to help with this sort of situation.

I was wearing a clergy collar that day and I experienced the power of that symbol in his room. He calmed down almost immediately. (It's also possible that my being male had something to do with it, as all the nurses were women. I also learned the way that maleness can be privileged in these situations, too.) I talked to him a while, asked him what was going on with him, asked him to not give the nurses such a hard time. He promised me that he would try, but asked me to come back. Of course I said I would. We prayed together and I left.

Over the next week, I visited him daily, or at least the days I was in the hospital. He never got explicit, but he was clearly scared of dying for the "things" he'd done. I can only assume that he was referring to some fairly wild sex. He alluded to it, but the collar also makes people become less explicit (sometimes, not always). I talked about God's love, read to him from Romans, chapter 8, and he seemed somewhat reassured. As reassured, I guess, as you can be when you're convinced you're being punished, dying, for "things" you've done. Realize, at that time, I had not yet come out, was still not so sure about how my suppressed sexuality squared with God myself. Still, I was a Lutheran seminarian. I did and do believe in a grace that goes far past our understanding of right and wrong. I did my best to convey this saving grace to him.

A complication with him was that he didn't want anyone to know he had AIDS. It was such a stigmatized diagnosis at that time. All of us on the hospital staff were sworn to patient privacy, of course, but one of the toughest visits I had was the day his mother was there. At one point, she and I left the room and visited a while in the common area of the floor. She was so confused. He didn't want her to know he had AIDS, I couldn't tell her, and so I sat with her, listening to her bewilderment at what was happening to her son. "Heartbreaking" doesn't begin to cover it.

One night, I went to visit him. A nurse warned me that he was talking out of his head, a sign that his end was near. I entered his room and he recognized me and asked me to come sit with him and hold his hand. What I soon discovered was that, while most of us would have looked in that room and seen only a patient and a chaplain, my patient saw a room full of people.

I talked with him, I don't recall about what now, but our conversation was sometimes interrupted because he had to tell the other people in the room to quiet down, he was trying to talk to the chaplain. At one point, he yelled toward the built in dresser, "Get out of those drawers!" I squeezed his hand and said, "I think it's okay. I don't think there's anything in there they can hurt."

Apparently, the people I couldn't see were a rowdy bunch.

When it came time for me to take my leave, I asked him if he wanted me to pray with him. He did, and he again shouted, generally to the whole room, "Y'all hush up now, we're going to pray!"

I looked around the room, held out my hands in invitation and said, "Let us pray."

I've always contended that just because I couldn't see them myself didn't mean they weren't there. I'm fairly certain everyone in the room prayed with me.

The next night, I went to see him and he was unresponsive. He was in the last stages of dying. I held his hand one last time and said a prayer with him.

The next day, I went to his room and it was empty. I asked the nurse where he was. "He died this morning," she said. I asked why I wasn't called, I was in the hospital. "None of his family was here so we didn't feel a need for a chaplain."

I felt unreasonably cheated that I wasn't called, but the nurse was right. My duties were to the living in the hospital. I was not needed for the dead. Not in this context.

I always remember him for the pain in the ass he was. He really was. I said he was good looking---he was also probably insufferably vain at the height of his beauty. I could tell that we was probably a tireless flirt. To an extent, his grasp on religion made me off limits to his flirting, but I recall certain looks and gestures that were unmistakably flirtatious. It was habitual, I figure.

When I think about him, I remember how an unmistakable pain in the ass can teach a chaplain about grace. In that short week that I visited him, calmed him, prayed with him, I certainly loved him. I learned how a pain in the ass could be loved. I'm certain it was not me who loved him, but I was a conduit. I can't say I did "everything right" with him. No doubt he read my lack of patience at times, too, certainly that first night when he was a wild, terrified child of God, lashing out at the nurses. Really, what happened between us that week is full of mystery. Or maybe that should be Mystery, with the capital M.

I remember him as a pain and with thanksgiving.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Remembering Death 9 Patricia Blaze Clark

Pat, as I think everyone who knew her called her, was a fast friend when I entered seminary in 1991. She was Episcopalian and I was Lutheran, but we were related by something thicker than blood or denomination.

I may have told this story before but I don't care.

My first concrete memory of her was at the retreat that served as a sort of new student orientation. It took place in a convent and we had, as I recall, several en masse meetings in a room with many chairs set up in a circle. At one our first meetings, I ended up next to Pat and I leaned over to her and said quietly, "What if we removed a chair or two in between meetings?"

Pat had these wonderfully large and expressive eyes and at any given moment, they had a spark, but at my suggestion, they went supernova with the notion. She answered, "Like musical chairs!" We went on to note that there were already some of us sitting on the floor, so we wondered how long it would take before anyone noticed, but waiting until someone did somehow fueled our glee at the plan.

We didn't do it, of course. We were both too much "the good kids" to carry through, but nothing creates an unbreakable bond quite like mischief, even if it was only imaginary.

Another early memory: We were sitting in the seminary library and just talking, getting to know each other. She was telling me how she had felt the call to the priesthood as a young Roman Catholic girl, but all her church had to offer her was "nun." So she became a nun for a time, without ever finding that a fit. She eventually left the order, married, and joined the Episcopal Church, where she found she could be a priest after all. After listening to her story, I replied, "That's funny because I've always wondered about becoming a monk, but all my church has to offer me is 'pastor.'" This was another bonding moment, one that took on more meaning as neither of us became ordained and I never became a monk (officially!).

As time went on, after graduation, we drifted some, but when we reconnected---a coffee date at Austin's Flightpath Coffee House---it was a reminder that some friendships may not have constant contact but that any contact is as if we'd never been separated. We got together a few times after than, sharing our circuitous lives of faith, creativity, doubt, frustrations.

Pat had a few problems with health, chief among them being lupus. It was lupus that kept her out of the priesthood, ultimately. She couldn't find a bishop to ordain someone with such fluctuating health.

So instead, she became a hymn-text writer, gaining some recognition in that particular field. She had hymn texts published in a few hymnal supplements and had a collection of her texts, The Still Small Voice, published by Selah. She also had a collection of new hymns with music by Kathleen Thomerson (perhaps best known for her hymn, "I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light"). That collection was called A Taste of Heaven's Joys and published by MorningStar. Search the web and you can find other texts used for choral arrangements, like this one by our seminary choirmaster, Russel Shulz.

Another health problem was a cancer that the lupus wouldn't let them cure. The attempt with chemotherapy nearly killed Pat, and so they decided not to pursue that route. They did learn that radiation at the right dosage seemed to make the cancer dormant for a while, so every once in a while, Pat had a radiation treatment. This worked for 2 or 3 years. She managed to stay upbeat, productive and lively through all of that.

Eventually, the radiation stopped putting the cancer to sleep, and when it woke up, it was aggressive and quick. I can't say enough bad things about cancer.

But as the stories above might suggest, what remembering Pat reminds me is that I tend to remember more about the life in a person than how they died. She was a few years older than me, but probably always had double my energy---despite the lupus!. She was an amazing and gifted friend. Lupus stole a priest from the church, cancer stole a hymn-text writer from the church, but I will always have my friend Pat, her life making me smile as I write this.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Remembering Death 8 - Meg

I wrote in this blog a bit about Meg when she died 6 years ago. Tonight, what's on my mind about Meg is something fairly specific.

Meg was the choir director at the church where I was a member at the time. She was the first person I really connected to there and when, early in my time there, she was diagnosed with a type of lung cancer, it was a blow. I think I may have started singing in her choir more out of a desire to do something for her when I was feeling powerless to do anything. (Choral singing isn't, generally, one of my passions.)

After the usual harshness of chemo, she rallied a bit for a few years. She and I talked about doing something collaboratively, with my background in theater.

But as Roseanne Roseannadanna taught us 40 years ago, it's always something. If it wasn't her health, it was her husband's, and if it wasn't that, I was busy with one project or another of my own. The only joint project that ever had the very earliest of beginnings was a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, an opera she'd loved and we had a teenager in the congregation who could have played the title character. She was hoping to enlist my directing skills in helping her stage it---a task I was more than  little bit interested in. She got as far as ordering music scores, even distributed a couple of copies (I got one, at least).

And then she had a recurrence of the cancer. She fought it but then there were other complications that compromised her health and, obviously, she died.

This is one of the ways that death is a thief. Hopes and plans are irrevocably crushed by death. Grief of a friend includes so many layers and with Meg, one of those layers is the creativity we never had a chance to explore together.

Part of living an abundant life is that there are always more possibilities, more ways to engage creatively with the world, but I contend that loss of an opportunity is still a real loss and worthy of mourning. There will always be grief around what Meg and I never got to accomplish.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Remembering Death 7 - Another Anonymous

"You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better." [Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life]

I just deleted a long entry that I'd spent a while writing and then realized I couldn't write it in full honesty without unleashing some anger at people who don't really deserve it. At least not all of them. 

I thought I could write around it, the ways that I felt my attempts to grieve a particular person were stymied and disallowed. I thought I could write around the ways I felt the people who should have been grieving with me moved on without further mention of the deceased. I thought I had let go of the ways that I felt like someone I loved had been erased. 

I guess I was wrong. 

And despite the oft-quoted bit from Anne Lamott above, I'm not quite at the place where I can write about hurts that will, ultimately, only spread the hurt. 

So I remember this unnamed friend and the hurt I still feel about how the ways I wanted to honor her were blocked. I remember her and know that others remember her and warmly and that's good and holy. I remember her and am reminded, as I have throughout this series, that not everyone is loved equally and so is not remembered and grieved equally. Maybe one thing I'm learning as I write this series is the importance of finding the people who are grieving like you, who are allowing the naming of the deceased, and are willing to find ways to honor the memory in satisfying, hopeful, resurrection ways. 

And the people who blocked and silenced my grief can be thankful I don't follow Anne Lamott's advice.