Monthly Archives: October 2010

June

Not sure why June was in my mind today—I wrote a draft of this many years ago and have updated it slightly here:

June (not her real name) was a member of a mid-morning bible study I used to teach twice a month. She’d be about 90 years old now, and was the second or third oldest member in the congregation at the time. I think it secretly irritated her that she wasn’t the oldest. She was a quiet leader in our church, a strong woman to be reckoned with. She could also be crotchety. I say that with love.

When I was newly ordained, I attended my first of these bible studies, my infant daughter in tow. It was my third day of work, and I had this crazy idea of getting to know this new church, and my days-old identity of pastor, while juggling my kid at the same time. It was an attempt to put off child care for as long as logistically possible. I am glad that Caroline didn’t have to start daycare until she was almost seven months old, but looking back it would have been easier just to be reverend for a while each day, then switch to mother, and so on, back and forth.

That day at the bible study I cradled Caroline in my weary arms for the duration of the two-hour meeting while the women went around and introduced themselves and shared some of their stories. They were mostly retired, a few were charter members of the church, and one was a classic Steel Magnolia, a feisty woman from Mississippi with hair of liquid silver.

When it was June’s turn, she sized me up through her huge eyeglasses and said:
“I’m June.
I’m 84 years old.
I have a granddaughter your age.
That’s all I have to say.”

Hey. You. Little girl, with the squirmy baby in your lap. You see that spot over there in the corner of the room? That’s Your Place, and I just put you there.

That fall we began a study of prayers in the Bible, and any interaction I had with June took place from the semi-seclusion of My Place. She didn’t acknowledge me very much, although over time I realized that she was not overly chatty with the others either; she chose her words carefully, spoke little, and emoted even less.

One day we studied the psalms of lament. Most Presbyterians I know are good stoic Calvinists who would never think to cry out to God. God’s got it covered, right? And yet, Uncle Walt trained me well on these psalms. That day I went on at great length and with all the zeal of a fresh seminary graduate who had discovered something important that simply must be shared—that lament is a powerful statement of faith, a sign that we are able to bring anything to God; that we have become too nice and genteel in our prayers; that laments are a great gift to us, a gift to be reclaimed and even celebrated.

June drew herself up in her chair, fixed her owlish gaze on me and said:
“Those psalms sound pretty sassy to me. If I were God I’d be tempted to smack someone who talked to me like that.”

From the shady corner of My Place, I had to chuckle. The woman had a point.

Several months later, it became clear to me that June could not see the Bible well enough to read along with us. June is a proud woman, so I mustered up my courage, crawled out from My Place and asked her, “June, I have a way to print out the bible passage very large on my computer. Would you like me to do that?”

She snapped back, “That would be nice. Thank you.”

Two weeks later, I brought in a sheaf of papers and placed them into her hands, which trembled ever so slightly. Hmm, maybe mine did too. She looked up, smiled, and her eyes twinkled: “You remembered.”

For the years following, I never forgot. What’s more, I received countless notes from her, scrawled in thick black pen, asking for additional verses. Psalm 23, Psalm 121, the Beatitudes. Her eyesight was going fast, and she wanted to commit as much to memory as she could before she was completely blind. Of all the things I did as leader of that bible study, I think perhaps that is the one thing that had lasting impact. The ministry of the 26-point font.

One day, while studying one of the passages that says that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” we found ourselves talking about death. The topic came up a lot, and I always let it. The thief image is troubling for many people, like God is lurking in the bushes, ready to pounce when we least expect it. But these women got it. It’s the surprise of it that’s the issue here, not whether God is good and trustworthy. God’s goodness goes without saying.

Yes, for these women who’d buried husbands and siblings and even children, who dealt with broken bodies and flagging energy and who strategized how best to get their yearly flu shots, who felt overwhelmed and disoriented by talk of stem cells and social networking, God’s goodness was the one thing that went without saying.

In the middle of this discussion June announced that she had something to say. I braced myself, but not as much as I used to, because I’d gotten used to June’s sometimes blunt zingers.

She turned to me and said, “I have this image in my head. One day, I will be walking down the street. And a stranger will come up to me and call me by name. And I will say, ‘Do you know me?’ And the person will say, ‘I am your God. Come with me. I have prepared a place for you.’ And I will go. And I am not afraid.”

She stopped, her eyes filled with tears.

I thanked her. She honored our group with the sharing of an image of her own death, a place beyond brassy words. She honored me. And in the telling, she put me in a new place. I was her pastor. And her friend.

June moved away from the church, and so did I. I’m not her pastor anymore.

But I hope it all happens for her just like that.

Recent Books

I have read a slew of books lately, for which I have Kindle to thank—it really is a convenient way to read, and I even had it read to me on my way back from Ocean City yesterday, where I was attending a presbytery training.

Here are a few books I’ve read or am reading. By the way, for a great blog full of excellent book recommendations and reviews, check out Ex Libris Fides on my sidebar.

The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life by Parker Palmer

I’m a big both/and person when it comes to theology, so I was drawn to this book, an early one by the impeccable Parker Palmer, author of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation and other excellent books. In this one he deals with topics like community, scarcity and abundance.

A favorite quote about the need for nuance: “Next to a Christian eclipsed by theological arrogance, an honest atheist shines like the sun.”

Another, on coming to a fuller understanding of the atonement: “I’m a father myself, and sure, in moments of hurt and rage, I’ve wanted to ‘kill’ my kids a time or two. But always for their sins, not yours. I don’t want a God to whom I can feel morally superior.”

And later: “For me, Jesus’ death is redemptive not because it fulfills the puppet master’s plan or works some kind of cosmic sleight of hand but because it represents God’s willingness to suffer with us in every moment of our lives, not least when we are willing to speak truth to power.”

Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity by Bruce Bawer

This was the inaugural book for our church’s book club, and it definitely got  This book is more than 10 years old and feels like ancient history in a way. Bawer does have an ax to grind, and who can blame him? As a gay person, he’s felt the brunt of the rhetoric from far-right Christians saying he is defective, an abomination, something to be “cured,” or what have you. Still, some folks in our group agreed with his message but felt that his tone was just as black-and-white condemnatory as the people he was arguing against. Others appreciated such a full-throated articulation of liberal Christianity.

I was struck by how many of the contemporary characters Bawer writes about are still around. Still, I think the boundaries are shifting, and former adversaries are coming together. Many evangelicals (if not true fundamentalists) are joining the mainline “liberal” denominations in caring about poverty and the environment, for example.

Oh God, Oh God, Oh God! Young Adults Speak Out about Sexuality and Christian Spirituality, edited by Heather Godsey and Lara Blackwood Pickrel

Can I say how cool Chalice Press is for their latest marketing approach? They will make books like this one available as a free Kindle download for a very limited time. Smart. People download it, read it, write about it on their blogs or talk about it with friends, and voila, a little bump of interest for a book that’s been out for a while.

The book itself is a series of essays and is worth reading, covering topics like pornography, the “true love waits” movements, hookup culture, and more. Each piece is very frank and real in its own way, though Mary Allison Cates’s essay on her IVF experience is at the top of the pack in terms of depth and beauty. (And I’m not just saying that because I know her…!) Many of the writers are in their 20s, and I wish I’d had their wisdom when I was that age. Still, the book made me long for a similar volume by folks slightly (or maybe much) older. What does one learn about sexuality after 20 years of marriage? What about folks who’ve been single that long? How about motherhood? (conspicuously absent from the collection) How have things changed? What about body image and aging? Etc.

The Night Men by Keith Snyder

Keith is one of those strange 21st-century creatures in my life—a friend, even maybe a good one, whom I’ve never met in person. Keith is an artist, musician and writer of several novels and stories, including this one, recently made available on Kindle. I read it during our Europe trip, and when I finished it I said to Robert, “Well that was well worth $2.99 on Kindle!” Robert said, “OK, but that doesn’t exactly come across as a ringing endorsement.” Oh, right. What I mean is, folks who don’t know Keith or his books should give him a try. Three bucks for a good yarn… since when have you gotten off so easy?

I went into it expecting a traditional mystery (whatever that is) and the book turned out to be more of a coming-of-age story. The book’s Amazon page has as good a summary as any: “The friendships forged in the fires of youth are often strongest, and those formed by Jason and Roberto and Martin, three California boys, have survived into adulthood. A call from a gay friend whose newly opened Brooklyn music store has been vandalized spurs Jason to action. And the likelihood that it was a hate crime calls to mind the events that caused three very different high schoolers to bond years ago.”

It’s smartly written with some very endearing characters. Just get it and read it. It’s a page turner clicker.

Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers

I’m still in this one, but it’s been a good read. Powers argues that shifts in technology have always required us to reconfigure our lives. In that sense, our digital age is nothing new. He studies some of these periods in history and explores what they might have to teach us. I think where he’s headed— his basic recommendation is that we find spaces and times to unplug—is pretty obvious, but how he gets there is interesting and fun.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

I really love Fadiman. Several of you recommended this one after I reviewed The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. This one is also still in progress—I’m only a few essays into it—but the story about merging her library with her husbands was funny and touching. I’d say this book is aspirational for me; I don’t feel nearly erudite enough to relate to her, but it’s an amusing, educational ride.

Image: “The Man in the Books” by Andre Martins de Barro

Adding to the Stephen Fry Love

It’s been a very busy week. I’ll get back to blogging more regularly soon, but in the meantime, I love this and couldn’t agree more:

 

I’m new to the Stephen Fry fanclub, but he seems to be everywhere right now, eh?

On our last night in Paris, Robert and I stayed in a hotel near the airport, so we could catch our early-ish flight the next day. Weary from ten days of hearing French and Czech, we were doing some channel surfing. We caught a French reality show that involved people doing various magic/stupid human tricks, a laugh track, and a host that looked like a cross between Penn Gillette and Carrot Top. Then we caught an episode of QI on the BBC. Of course the language itself was a balm, but what a smart, funny show.

The contrast was striking between QI and the French show. But that’s not really fair, is it, making Carrot Top the apex of French TV and Stephen Fry the British counterpart? Still, there was something so deliciously comforting about Mr. Fry’s show.

Hat tip: Keith Snyder

The Book I’m Writing

Inhale… exhale…

FB friends know that I got word last week that a publisher [breathing] wants to offer me a contract [breathing again] to write a book I proposed to them earlier this year. I haven’t gotten the official contract but it’s in the mail.

I don’t want to go into it too much, but it’s basically about the practice of Sabbath-keeping and how that works in a family with two careers and young children. It will combine elements of memoir and personal reflection with more traditional non-fiction elements—research, maybe some interviews.

As part of my research, I ask you, loyal readers and random Internet wanderers: what comes to mind when you hear that word, Sabbath? Positive or negative connotations? Your own experience, or lack thereof? What, if anything, are you curious about?

Image: ‘Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. You shall do no work that day, neither your son nor your daughter, nor your slaves, men or women, nor your animals. Anyone who works on the Sabbath day must be put to death.’ The Brick Testament

Christmas and Simplicity

Robert and I had our monthly calendar/planning conversation on Tuesday… ok, we only manage to do it every three months or so, but hey, gotta start somewhere! During these conversations we sit with a couple of glasses of wine, reflect on the previous month (or three), and decide what our priorities will be for the next month (or three). We dipped briefly into Advent and Christmas, and I realized that it’s not too soon to set some intentions for that busy time. Especially with kids, and especially as a pastor, you blink and it’s over.

We’re planning to do the Advent Conspiracy as a study at church, and in its wisdom, the session decided to start the study a week before Advent actually begins. ‘Cause if you’re going to talk about spending less and giving more gifts of service and time, it’s too late to start that discussion on November 28. The wheels are in motion by then.

I struggle with Christmas every year, and have written a lot about that in various places. Our house is not overloaded with toys, and we don’t buy them at random times during the year. So Christmas is a time when we replenish our supplies, along with birthdays, which are all within a couple months of Christmas.

But I’m not completely comfortable with that.

According to the Advent Conspiracy folks, Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas each year. By contrast, it would take $10 billion to ensure that everyone in the world has access to clean drinking water (which is the AC movement’s mission of choice). Those figures could be wildly exaggerated on either end and it would still be a sobering statistic.

We did The Hundred Dollar Holiday for several years, until time became more scarce than money. But we still try to be intentional and thoughtful about the gifts we give, and we do alternative gifts, donations to charity, etc. We don’t give just for the sake of giving, though we have some family members who are notoriously hard to buy for. My personal theology is that it all works out. Some years, we might find the perfect object that would bring joy, other years not; and in those cases, an alternative gift would be given.

That’s what I believe… but I’m not there in practice.

I’ve been enjoying Rowdy Kittens, a blog about about “social change through simple living.” A recent post talked about how the author keeps Christmas. She is not religious, but she does observe the holiday as a sort of feast day/celebration with family.

A couple of things struck me. The first is a discussion in the comments about how to handle loved ones who do give a lot of gifts, when you don’t. One person said he gave away the gifts he received and eventually people got the message that he didn’t want to receive gifts. This got me thinking about the spirit in which we receive gifts. What does it mean to receive something graciously, even if it’s something you don’t want or need? I have no doubt that our loved ones will get a message if we consistently give their gifts away, but what message is it? That we didn’t want gifts, or that tangible expressions of the giver’s love and affection were not welcome? (Standard disclaimer that I do not know the people involved. I am only musing here.)

The other thing that struck me is the author’s recommendation to contribute to a child’s college fund or charity in lieu of gifts because “with children, they likely won’t remember a single toy you give them.” I have to say, that is just not true in my experience. Kids remember gifts. Maybe not every single one, but sure, big or unusual ones, definitely.

Here is one of the inconvenient truths of the simplicity movement.

There is magic in the new bike under the tree with the pink streamers and strawberry pattern on the seat. There is magic in that first brand-new stereo. There is even magic in the first 15 Sweet Valley High books! These are all things that I received as a kid, remember vividly, and was wildly happy with. And I don’t consider myself particularly materialistic. Receiving gifts is not one of my primary love languages (though I do enjoy them).

I’m not saying you can’t experience the spirit of Christmas in other ways—sure you can, and that can be a fun challenge—but people often remember what they’re given. I even write down the gifts we receive each year, along with things we did, what we had for Christmas dinner, etc.—and those lists are capable of transporting me to a particular time and place.

That’s because we are embodied beings, beings who collect stuff. Yes, most of us have too much stuff. Yes, our acquisitiveness is destroying the planet and can destroy us spiritually. Yes, I’m tired of plasticrap toys from China. But I’m with Michael Lindvall, who wrote recently in the Christian Century that the problem isn’t that we’re too materialistic, but that we’re not materialistic enough. Our stuff is cheap and disposable, when it should be precious and infused with meaning. “God,” Robert Farrar Capon once quipped, “is the biggest materialist there is. He invented stuff. . . . He likes it even better than we do.”

Lindvall:

We acquire things, but then quickly tire of the things that seemed so important when first obtained. We replace rather than repair because we have such fickle and passing romances with our things. The real soul danger is not exactly in liking things too much, nor in owning them, nor in caring for them well. In fact, there can be great virtue in such a caring relationship with physical things.

The soul danger lies in the insatiable longing to acquire new things one after another, more and more things, as if the getting of them somehow proves our worth in comparison with others, as if the having of them can fill the emptiness. It’s this insatiable drive to acquire stuff rather than the stuff itself that’s the problem.

Amen.

So what do we do about Christmas?