At Two Years

(Written November 1, 2013)

For the last two years I have not preached on All Saints Sunday so being in the pulpit this coming Sunday feels like a big deal. Two years ago on All Saints my mother had just died – I was in Minnesota preparing for her funeral the next day. Then, last year at this time I took a trip to Nebraska to see friends because I knew I could not lead worship or preach on the first anniversary of her death. Instead, my friends and I stayed up late drinking wine and talking, we got some new tattoos, took the kiddos to a movie, bought shoes, and ate good food. That time together with them was good medicine for me.

And now, in just hours, it will be two whole years since mom died. Even now there is a part of me that would happily never talk or write about anything other than her and how bad I feel without her. No one tells you that grief makes you terribly boring and interested in little aside from what you have lost.

I suppose I am getting better. I imagine with every day that goes by I am still gaining some strength, some perspective. But there is a part of me that hates that. The feverish little mess I was in the first months after her death was my proof that no one else loved their mother as much as I loved mine! I was the winner in the loss category.

But the sun keeps rising and setting and rising again. I can either keep adding onto my monument of pain and loss or I can live. I’ve always known I would choose to live –and yet I have been surprised at how comfortable I have grown with grieving. The sorrow has very nearly become a pillow I rest on, a familiar place for my heart to go. I know what to expect there – a canvas painted with pictures of how she looked and the things that filled her last days and months: pale arms resting on a prayer shawl, a fingertip with a heart monitor clipped to it, a spider web of tubes connected to her veins, sad-blue hospital gowns, and her weary visage. She was so deeply and truly tired at the end. Her heart had been sliced open and stitched back together twice, her liver mostly useless – I shouldn’t have been surprised she could die and yet her death was the great surprise of my life.

I’ve written so much about her these last couple years. I’ve filled notebooks and journals, countless status updates on Facebook, church newsletter articles and sermons, I keep spewing out volumes about how I felt then and how I feel now and documenting every move we made in those final months – as if I think that if I write it all down clearly and with enough depth I might be able to rewrite how it ended. I keep lining up words, stacking sentences one on top of another thinking perhaps if there are enough of them I can fill in the empty part of my heart. But there just aren’t enough words. That is what I have found in two years of missing my mother. There will never be enough words to describe how it is.

I have lost her. Surely I will always have things that will connect me to her – her wedding ring I will never take off, her china closet filled with the cups and dishes she loved, even looking in the mirror I see a bit of her staring back at me. And my voice – the sound of her voice has always come out of my own throat, too.

But she is gone. And there are no words. It’s taken me two trips around the sun to realize it.

I write sermons a lot and a good rule of thumb in writing a sermon is that it needs to end with the gospel, not the law. Even if the rest of the sermon is entirely depressing with talk about our sinful natures and the multitude of ways we have failed in life – at the end, the Christian sermon always points back to what Jesus has done for us and that there is hope. It’s what Christians believe – the end of the story is always one of hope.

However, what my mother’s death has taught me is that even though I have great hope and joy in God’s promise that I will see her again someday, there is still a sorrow I’ll carry now as long as I live. Grief is not an event but a journey. It is exhausting and ongoing and travels a path that makes no sense whatsoever. It sucks.

And I’ve also learned I have a lot of company on this path. At my church, the cemetery is filled with stories of loss. I’ve presided at some of those funerals as we said “goodbye” to the parent, spouse, friend, sibling, or child. So many tears have soaked into that ground. Over the years my parishioners have stood together over the graves of the people they loved, over and over again. They have become well-seasoned at grieving and at helping one another to weather the seasons of loss. They help their pastor, too. When my voice cracks, when the tears well, even if I’m all the way up in the pulpit, they look at me only with compassion and understanding. They know this path I’m on, they have walked it, too – and now we’ll journey it together.

So, anyway. Two years. An eternity. A moment. She was pretty great. Her name was Betty and I will not forget her. She liked to sit outside and enjoy the quiet. She loved sweets. She kept a little notebook where she wrote down every penny she spent. She always wore a scarf (or “kerchief” as she called it) on her head when she left the house. She was tall, like me. She was kind and loved a good Hallmark channel movie or a game of Scrabble. She took care of my dad even when he became very sick and not very nice. She always had time to talk to me when I called. I think I miss that the most – just hearing her say “hello” when I dialed her number from wherever I was.

Blessed be the memory of all the saints in light.

Amen.

Longest Night

December 20, 2014

Tomorrow night is the longest night of the year. When I get to this point in the year, I can almost feel my bones beginning to ache for sunshine and warmth.

As we gathered at Earl Huse’s graveside this past Wednesday, a cold rain was falling and we shivered as we prayed the familiar prayers and sang the songs he loved. His longtime friend, Pat Gorton, said the words, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and made the sign of the cross over his casket. It’s hard to grieve and to pronounce a blessing at the same time, but she did it.

And I guess this is what we do when we gather for the Blue Christmas service tomorrow night. Those who are sad or lonesome or sick or grieving or just feeling “blue” during this time of year – we all gather together to lift up those real and raw feelings to God, but also claim the promise of hope that is just as real: Emmanuel, “God with us.”

I believe that promise and I have seen it come true over and over in my life. Sometimes it has felt muted – during moments of great difficulty, or when praying the same prayers over and over and over again by a hospice bedside, or when the cancer is diagnosed and ravages mercilessly, or when a young life is snuffed out, or ____________________(insert any bad thing that could happen), but nothing can silence the song of God’s promise. Somehow it is able to sing to us even in the worst moments, the unimaginable moments. Still, even there, always – Emmanuel, “God With Us.”

I’ll share with you a poem from Jan Richardson:

Blessing for the Longest Night

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.
It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.
So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.
You will know
the moment of its
arriving
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.
This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.
So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.
This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

Blessings to you as this Advent season draws to a close.

Pastor Ruth

Blessed Imperfection

Advent Reflection – December 10, 2014

So far, what have I done that has made this Advent season different than any other? Let’s see, I have been slowly feeding my “piggy bank” for ELCA World Hunger. I found a five-dollar bill in the cemetery the other day and put it in the World Hunger piggy bank instead of using it to buy myself a latte – so that felt like a step in the right direction. However, we entirely forgot to light our home advent wreath this past Sunday. I’ve written some Advent devotions for this blog but I’ve also had just as many days that I ran out of time or energy or inspiration and called on other writers and blogs or just didn’t do anything. So far, Advent is looking a lot like every other church season – a season of stops and starts, a time of victories and failures. It turns out that I prepare about as well for the birth of Jesus as I prepare for anything – kind of last minute and haphazard – and please don’t look in my closet or under the beds because who knows the clutter and disarray you will find.

It is an imperfect Advent, an imperfect life. I can’t take comfort in that because I wish I could always fully complete all the grand plans and sacred endeavors I begin. If I could, I would weigh 125 lbs. and have written five books by now (all bestsellers). And yet, I do take comfort in this: there is some One greater at work in my life than me. There is a greater plan that has been devised than any I could dream. In some mystical and miraculous way, God has chosen me and you to participate in this plan, God’s plan. We won’t often understand how or why life unfolds as it does, and yet there are times we catch glimpses of the beauty and blessedness of it all. Maybe that will happen for you sometime this Advent season, maybe it won’t. Maybe Christmas morning will dawn with a fresh peace and renewed strength in your heart, or maybe you’ll wake up with the stomach flu and stay in bed all day. Either way, all is well, because this story we live is about more than you and me, what we do or don’t do, rather, it is about God’s story. We are part of it – and it is an immense gift. Our greatest task appears to be that we simply must open our eyes and see it.

Most afternoons these days I spend a little time sitting with one of our church members who is now on Hospice care at the Sunset Home. His remaining time on earth appears short. There is nothing fun about these days for him as his body and mind slowly fade. I don’t even know if he hears me when I read the scripture to him anymore – but I still read it and I pray out loud for him. It seems so stark and strange to walk past the festive lights and trees that are adorning the Sunset home these days and often the sound of cheerful carols coming from the chapel, to go into his quiet room where death is drawing near. Yet it strikes me that it is precisely in these moments of stark contrasts that we often sense the Spirit’s presence more closely than ever. Actually, I’ve come to realize that sitting in that room next to Earl and listening to him breathe with the sounds of the world going on outside has become what will set this Advent apart for me as blessed. It wasn’t the ritual I planned or expected, but in it, I have felt God’s presence. I’m so thankful for that.

Has God surprised you lately?

Jeremiah 29:11
11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Have a Little Faith

Today I am sharing an essay by the brilliant Anne Lamott. Enjoy!

HAVE A LITTLE FAITH

I was hanging out at the library with two old friends, comparing notes on our lives. All three of us had experienced the usual losses that time brings, yet all of us felt more blessed than we had when we first met. Yes, sometimes the safety-deposit drawers at the memory bank get jammed. Our backs ache, and nothing has become higher, or firmer, in the past few decades. But we were all so grateful for how our lives had turned out that we laughed until the cranky young librarian glared at us.

Age had deepened and widened our sense of faith—and by “faith,” I don’t necessarily mean religious conviction. I’m talking partly about belief in the existence of a divine intelligence but also about faith in goodness, in life, in things mostly working out. And let’s not forget faith in ourselves— the conviction that we are loved and chosen—which is such a component of the spiritual life.

The theologian Paul Tillich famously said that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. And I can vouch for that—I think. Getting older has given me more comfort in not knowing the answers. I throw up my hands more often now; I shake my head in wonder at how inscrutable life is. I have finally figured out that “Figure it out” is not a great slogan. My new slogan is “Who knows?”— which leads quite easily to “Who cares? But isn’t it something?” The God of the Old Testament says, “Be still, and know that I am God,” i.e., “Put a sock in it—you are in charge of very little. You could help the dogs at mealtime, as they have no opposable thumbs. But you’re going to have to trust me with the big things.”

Sometimes faith looks like myopia: I don’t see everyone’s faults so clearly as I used to, let alone my own. The God of my later years is not interested in my pores, or cellulite, and hopes that I will stop noticing yours. My vision has blessedly blurred. This is a great advantage when you’re trying to live more spiritually, more expansively, more like Zorba the Greek and less like the Church Lady. For instance, when I sit on my bed now writing on my iPad, the top roll of tummy sometimes creeps over onto the screen and starts typing away. In the old days, upon noticing this unsought collaboration, I would have decided to start a new diet, or to end it all. Now I think, “Who knows? Maybe it’s got something interesting to add.”

I finally have faith that no matter what happens to me, I will never be beyond help, because I have seen parents, friends and acquaintances live with catastrophe and illness. They were beautifully cared for by those who most loved them.

Twenty-nine years in a tiny church has proved to me that when two or more are gathered who believe in Goodness, they will take care of those in their community who are suffering, cared, lonely. So what are my closest people going to do when my time comes? Will they say, “Sorry. We draw the line at horrible Annie. She’s on her own”? No, they will show up, keep me clean, fed, calm, with reruns of The Good Wife, M&Ms, the latest copies of the New Yorker and People. They will help me come through to whatever awaits. I’ve learned that, unless we’re all swept away by hot lava, as my grandson frequently imagines, we can bank on this. Graciousness almost always bats last.

I thought when I was younger that faith was about the confidence to say the great Yes to my own deepest desires, and that is true, as far as it goes. But a deepening faith has also shown me that it’s OK to say No. It has alsO shown me that the word “No” is a complete sentence. This realization led to the single most important life lesson of all: No one over age 55 ever needs to help anyone move again if they don’t want to. Our job now is to help younger movers, with their strong backs and SUVs, by bringing over sandwiches and Cokes. Period.

One of the most important gifts of spiritual faith is forgiveness, and I have grudgingly tugged this gift open over many years, and many hurts, until empathy for the other person has become almost a reflex. I have also grown better at recognizing when I’m the one in need of forgiveness. Most surprisingly, though,
I have finally learned to forgive myself for most of my disappointing character traits and iffier decisions. I know now that I am never going to be a gym rat or an eater of cottage cheese. This side of the grave, I will be absentminded. I always was, and menopause did not bring with it enhanced acuity. Only a few weeks ago, a friend stopped by to borrow a jacket just as I’d started my car. So I ran into the house and got the jacket. Then she asked to use the bathroom. Of course! I thought about turning off the engine, but instead I started to pick up the living room. You know the rest. She came out, we said goodbye, and I went back to straightening up the coffee table. An hour later, the neighbor’s gardener knocked on the door to see if I knew my engine had been running all that time. You can’t really make that seem like something you meant to do. But God knows I tried. Laughter leads to more loving feelings. And as we age,we laugh at ourselves more sweetly.

Yesterday, for instance, my left eye suddenly began to hurt for no reason. I instantly assumed I had inherited my mother’s glaucoma, or ocular shingles, and that it most certainly would lead to a glass eye and a guide dog. And this was all in the 40 seconds before my eye just as suddenly stopped hurting. I sighed. Then I patted myself gently, as I would a friend, and said, “There, there,” and went to make myself a cup of tea.

Essayist Anne Lamott’s latest book is Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace.

Much to be done…

Advent 4 – December 3, 2014

Jeremiah 17:7-8: But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit.

The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word “advenire” meaning “to come to”. Everything about this season is pointing us toward what is ahead – like scanning the distance for a destination we know is out there, but we cannot yet see.

When I was growing up, we lived about three hours from my grandmother on my mom’s side but we would regularly take trips to see her. I knew the road to her house very well, the curve around the giant hill by Ashby, the crystal blue lake by Barrett, the vast stretch of plains between Morris and Appleton, and then finally I could start scanning the distance for the water tower of Madison, my grandma’s town. I knew how long the journey would take as I had traveled that road so many times, and I always felt joy as we neared her house because I knew the familiar and wonderful embrace of my Grandma would be there waiting for us.

Perhaps Advent can feel like that in the church. A simple time of waiting and journeying through our days with our eyes fixed solely on Christmas. We know the joy that is to come and we can’t wait to herald the birth of our King and Savior, Jesus the Christ, yet again.

However, this is not a passive time of waiting. It’s not like sitting in a car and watching the scenery going by. There is much to do, and as people of faith we strive to remember this season is about different ambitions than what we see in ad campaigns.

I’m a fan of the organization “Advent Conspiracy” that has been around for a few years now and their message bears repeating. They stress a simple message during this season:

Worship fully – because Christmas begins and ends with Jesus.

Spend less – and free your resources for things that truly matter.

Give more – of your presence: your hands, your works, your time, your heart.

Love all – the poor, the forgotten, the marginalized, the sick, in ways that make a difference.

If we focus on these things, we will truly have prepared well during this season of Advent and Christmas morning will dawn with more joy and hope than ever before.

Reflection: What is truly the best gift you have ever received? Why?

p.s. You can check out Advent Conspiracy at http://www.adventconspiracy.org or on Facebook.

Tipping Point

Advent Day 3, 2014

Joshua 24:14-16: 14″Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15″If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” 16The people answered and said, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods;…”

I often wonder what Jesus would think if he wandered into many of our modern-day churches. Would he be bewildered or pleased at all that has been built in his name? I have a deep love for churches and church life, but I wonder how Jesus would regard the beautiful stained glass, the carefully constructed liturgies, the long-held traditions and trinkets of our life together. Would he nod in appreciation at our steadfast devotion and all that the generations have tried to do in his name? Would he be aghast at how sidetracked we get and how much time and money and energy we spend on things that have little to do with sharing the Gospel?

During this season of Advent, there is much at stake. It’s not just another window of time, another color of church banners, rather, everything we believe and are and might yet become has reached its tipping point. Each of us must choose now whether we are people who will only rest in our faith, or if we will act in our faith. Each of us must choose today whether we just believe what Jesus said, or whether we will live what Jesus said.

With each choice we make, each interaction we have, and with each dollar we spend, we show what we really think of Jesus’ words to us, his life and his death. Today must be the day when we claim whose we are with all that we are. This is the day we must do it because yesterday has passed and tomorrow is only a possibility.

“Disturb us, O Lord, when we are too well-pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little, because we sailed too close to the shore. Disturb us, O Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the water of life, when, having fallen in love with time, we have ceased to dream of eternity and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim. Stir us, O Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture into wider sea where storms show Thy mastery, where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes and invited the brave to follow. Amen.” – Desmond Tutu

Prayer: Dear Lord, help us to fully live our lives for you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Reflection: What is something you can do today to boldly live your faith in Jesus Christ?

Steadfast

Lamentations 3:22-23
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;[a]
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Yesterday some children and adults from Our Savior’s gathered to make Advent wreaths. As we decorated the wreaths with baubles and ribbons and candles, we talked about how we mark time with the wreath, each week lighting more candles as we wait for the birth of the Light of the World, Jesus.

It’s a simple, steady tradition, but it helps us stay mindful that this is a time set apart. Like many of the customs we hold dear in the church, there’s no fancy laser lights involved or big screen or promise of excitement whatsoever, and I imagine this is why many grow restless with the church and our various traditions. And yet, I can’t count the number of times that a family whom I rarely see at church comes to me for a burial or a wedding, and then they want those same and steady traditions, the well-known scriptures, to taste of and find comfort in the same-ness of it all again.

I guess we all need to know that there is something that never changes. Some of us regularly take comfort in the steadfast love of God and the church rituals we hold dear. We would feel lost without Sunday morning worship, the rich purple banners on the church wall, the presence of font and altar rail and pulpit as the touchstone for our weeks. Others find less value in structure of church and liturgy yet still feel God’s presence near in other places no less holy – home, nature, a good cup of coffee and conversation with a friend.

Perhaps the greatest blessing is when we can learn to spot God’s fingerprints everywhere and learn how to thank God in everything. Whether we sense God’s steadfast love while gathered with others for worship or while sitting on a quiet porch alone in the moonlight, great is God’s faithfulness to us. Always. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Dear Lord, we pray that even as the days grow colder and darker, your love will always be the fire and light that warms us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Reflection: Where do you feel God’s presence nearest to you? Why?