I’ve been keeping journals since I was in second grade – back when my handwriting was barely legible. For me, a great day consists of a cup of coffee, a good pen, and blank pages. Thus, it’s only natural that over time I felt the desire to create some beautiful journals to share with others who also enjoy the joy and therapeutic properties of writing. “A Month of Hymns: A Journal for Prayer and Reflection” uses hymn lyrics as prompts for each day. Read the classic lyrics, reflect on your own life and the leading of the spirit, and write. There’s room to draw as well on the 8X10 pages. Order today at:
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Twenty years ago today I was ordained. So, I was inspired to take a couple minutes and write a thing:
It still fits
This robe, this stole
Twenty years today
Since the day I said, “I will, and I ask the Lord to help and guide me.”
Of looking for the right scripture
Of sleepless Saturday nights
And Sunday afternoon naps
Of preparing the Table
Smoothing the fine linen
Updating the church records
Standing by the graveside with the wind whipping my hair
Wondering if the pages of my sermon will fly away
Of little hands giving me pictures they colored during worship
Of seeing the dairy farmer dozing during my sermon
Of making sure the lights are all turned off before I lock up the church door.
Of strange tasks that were never on the letter of call
But Here I am, Send me
To pick up the sticks in the cemetery after the windstorm
To find someone to remove the dead deer from the church ditch
To decide if twenty below zero is too cold to have worship or not
How do you measure so much joy (and not a small amount of pain)?
How do you measure a life like this?
What is there to say
Except, I’m thankful.
I’m thankful it still fits.
What is that dim red light shining through the window of that country church? Is it an exit sign? Did someone leave a light on? More likely than not, it is the eternal flame.
The eternal flame (also known as sanctuary lamp, altar lamp, everlasting flame, or chancel lamp) is a candle or lamp, usually enclosed in red glass, that is left lighted in the sanctuary of a church at all times. In Protestant churches, this always-present flame and light signifies the constant presence of Christ.
This practice of a sacred, eternal fire is found in many religions and cultures. For the Christian church, we lean into our Jewish roots for this practice as we read in the Old Testament (Exodus 27:20-21) that God told Moses a lamp should permanently burn in the Tabernacle.
Some congregations have the practice of extinguishing the eternal flame only when the altar is stripped on Maundy Thursday or as part of the Tenebrae service on Good Friday while others do not. This is left to local context and understanding.
What is your church’s practice surrounding the eternal flame? Does your church have an eternal flame? Is it attached to a wall or hanging from the ceiling?
A sacristy, also known as a vestry, is the room where vestments, paraments, and other items used for worship are kept. Oftentimes, the sacristy is right off the sanctuary or it can be in another part of the church. At times, the sacristy is where pastors will keep their albs and chasubles and prepare for worship. A small sink, called a piscina, is sometimes located in the sacristy. The piscina has a drain called a sacrarium which empties directly into the ground. This sink is a place to wash sacred vessels and to pour out baptismal waters and leftover communion wine so they go back into the earth and not into the sewer system. A sacristan is someone who has been given the duties of watching over and caring for items in the sacristy.
The sacristy is the room where I’ve disappeared to have a panic attack between services, the place where congregants have tracked me down to commend or scold me for sermons, and where I’ve stood to look in the mirror before church during a difficult season of ministry and thought, “is this it? Is this my life?” It’s where I’ve felt the hum of excitement as we prepared for a particularly big service, waited for the strains of the processional music to begin, and at times, wished I could be anywhere else. The sacristy is where we keep the stuff of worship – and at times it has felt like it is where I am kept, too. It’s where people can make sense of me – there with my alb and my proper stole for the church season. People know me there. They may not recognize me immediately at the grocery store or the movie theater or the swimming pool – but at the sacristy, robed and microphoned, I am in my place and easily classified.
Lately I have been thinking about the “stuff” of church and how it can both bring us closer to God and farther away – sometimes at the same time. For some people, being in the presence of a sanctuary with the stained glass, the pulpit, the altar, and paraments can be comforting and help one focus on celestial matters. For another, that atmosphere can feel rigid and oppressive.
As a pastor, I have sometimes felt that same push and pull in people’s interactions with me. I recall a particular wedding I was invited to preside at for parishioners with whom I had become close. The wedding was in the yard of a home in the country and I was at the house with the families and friends a bit before the wedding began. The place was buzzing with activity and nerves were frayed. Every few minutes it seemed someone would zip past me with a broken shoelace or looking for a lost bouquet or coming from a interaction with someone else and cussing up a storm. Then, they would see me, pause, and say, “Sorry, pastor.” Then they’d move along.
We were friends but we weren’t. Their interactions with me were just like with anyone else – and yet not. I was there to celebrate the joy of that wedding like everyone else, and yet I was also set apart somehow. And while part of me wanted everyone to just be themselves around me, a smallest fragment of my mind liked that I was somehow noticed because of my role. I liked that I had a particular role to play there.
I’ve always loved being a pastor – but the perceptions put upon me by others because of that role are not always predictable. Just like being around a church building can bring out the best or the worst in people, so can being around a pastor. However, I imagine it’s true that many people experience being treated in particular ways personally because of who they are professionally – the doctor who gets asked medical advice when she’s out trying to have supper with her family; the attorney who gets asked legal advice on the golf course; the baker whom everyone expects will contribute the cake to the family get-together. None of us can extract our professional lives from our personal lives entirely – not that we would want to. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown more comfortable knowing that to the vast majority of people in my life, I am their pastor first. Perhaps that is why it has made my closest friendships, my husband, my children, even more precious to me – because to them, I’m just Ruth. Just mom.
Thank God for the work we all are called to do in this life. Thank God that we are all more than the work we do in this life.
Remember the old joke about the psychiatrist who asked her patient if he has trouble making decisions? The patient said, “yes and no.”
I was visiting with a wise person and I asked her, “What is the secret of your success?” She said, “Two words: right decisions.”
So I said, “how do you make the right decisions?” She said, “one word: experience.”
I said, “And how do you get experience?” She said, “Two Words: wrong decisions.”
Our culture loves choices. This idea became crystallized for me one day a couple decades ago when I was in a grocery store and witnessed a man having a fit because that store didn’t carry the brand of cheese he was looking for. They had 50 other brands and types of cheese, but not the one he was looking for. I remember thinking he was being a little ridiculous – but I catch myself pulling similar stunts often: I know that if I want to have a glass of wine, I like pinot noir and I feel a slight sense of disappointment if I’m at a restaurant that has other reds but no pinot noir. I feel like Amazon has truly let me down if they don’t have the exact book I’m looking for – and of course, available in hard cover, paperback, kindle, and audiobook formats.
We are part of a culture that expects, even demands choices and selection. However, studies have shown that our brains easily get overstimulated and tired when we have too many choices. The more choices you make, the harder it becomes for your brain to make more because it gets tired.
And your brain makes impulse decisions when it’s tired.
It’s similar to how your muscles get tired at the end of a workout, the strength of your willpower fades as you make more decisions.
That’s why it can be helpful to make certain things into habits rather than choices – it saves your willpower for other choices if you have made it a habit to just exercise at a certain time each day – it’s not a choice anymore, it’s a habit. I’ve heard stories about some people who have five different shirts of the same style and color and five different pants of the same style and color – and that’s just what they wear for work. They have taken the decision-making about wardrobe completely out of their morning routine to save some of that mental energy for other tasks that are more important.
So, there are these thousands of little choices we make every day which can be tiring enough – but then there are the hard decisions that need to be made. How do we approach those and be sure we are making the right choices in life?
Our scripture for today has one of the most famous verses from the Old Testament. Joshua says to the gathered people of Israel, “Choose today whom you will serve. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
The Israelites have been traveling for forty years and are now in the Promised Land. They have endured much and are a vastly different group of people now than the group that left Egypt forty years before. We heard in the text as Joshua reminded them how God had been present with them through all the generations – through Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses. Joshua reminds them how God led them through the Red Sea to safety and a new land and blessed them with cities and vineyards and olive groves.
And now a moment has come – and they need to choose – do they want to choose to serve the old gods of their ancestors? Or do they want to choose the God of Israel who has guided them to where they are now?
There’s no more sitting on the fence. There’s no time for being wishy-washy. They must choose.
I wonder if it was a hard decision for any of them? I remember the first time I was in Norway asking someone why the old stave churches, which were Christian churches, had many symbols from the Viking era – carvings depicting Norwegian mythology, gods and goddesses. She said that although they were built as Christian churches, people still held those old stories of their ancestors very close and they mattered to them. Although they were Christians now, they didn’t let go of their old traditions overnight.
And I’m sure it might have been that way for the Israelites now as they were faced with whether or not to claim the God of Israel as their one and only God.
What’s the most difficult choice you have ever had to make? In Bible study this week we talked a bit about hard choices. Some talked about what it was like when deciding whether or not to have a pet put to sleep. Others mentioned trying to decide whether or not to move or if it was time to discontinue a treatment. We face difficult choices our whole life long – just as our ancestors have, and just as our descendants will.
So what are some key things to remember when making difficult choices? You can find good advice for that all over the place. We watched a TedTalk earlier this week and the presenter emphasized the importance of remembering that oftentimes there is no best choice – you are simply choosing the kind of person you want to become. It’s not necessarily better to choose one career over another or one place to live over another or one food over another – but you are deciding with each of those choices who you are becoming. A person who values city living or countryliving? A person who works with animals or works with numbers? A person who eats meat or not? Day by day our choices mold us.
What else to do when making a hard choice?
You could make the ever-popular lists of pros and cons. Just draw a line down a piece of paper and write down everything you can think of in favor of each item in the equation.
You could talk it out with someone – oftentimes just speaking out loud about what you are wrestling with can help a lot.
There are some important questions to wrestle with in a big decision: like asking yourself if you will regret if you don’t take that chance or make that leap; or ask yourself why you are hesitating – is it fear? Or who are you doing this for? And can you deal with any fallout afterward? Which decision feels most life-giving? Take time to live with those questions.
But you know, the interesting thing about this text is that it doesn’t end with that perfect cookie-cutter phrase that Joshua makes. “Choose today whom you will serve – as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”
No, it continues on – the people say they will follow God, they choose God – but then Joshua tells them they can’t do it. “You can’t do it!” The people double down and say again, ‘yes, we will serve the Lord – we choose to serve the Lord.”
But Joshua was right. They couldn’t do it – and we can’t do it. At least not on our own. The lesson from Joshua isn’t about how we as human beings need to just buck up and learn how to make good and sound decisions, become expert choice-makers. There’s something far greater going on here.
There’s lots of talk in the church about choosing God and deciding to follow Jesus – but our fits and starts of following God aren’t by any strength of our own. It’s God who gives us the courage and the desire to make that choice. Remember what Martin Luther wrote in the small catechism for the meaning of the third article of the apostles’ creed?
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
Yes, it is important to commit each day to following God – do our best to let God guide our actions day by day, to make good choices, but lean into God’s strength to do that. Our own strength isn’t enough – and God has promised to be with us. God is with us. Just as God was with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and Joshua and all the children of Israel and loved them. Loved them and led them as they complained in the desert and reveled in their new life in the promised land, God is with us, loving us and leading us toward home. Thanks be to God.
As you wrestle with the hard decisions you face, remember you are not alone. Call on God to help you and guide you and give you wisdom day by day. Lean into God’s strength, God’s grace, God’s wisdom. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Rob Bell, a well-known pastor, author, and speaker tells a story about a time he was sitting in a meeting at the church where he was a pastor. It was a huge church and this was the meeting where the various leaders of the different departments of the church came together to discuss the running of the church. Important stuff. But it was a very large staff, and so at one of their meetings, a couple of the people said that after those meetings they have to go back and tell everyone else about what happened in the meeting and so it might be good to invite more of the staff to come to the meeting so they could get the information first-hand. This was discussed for a long time and nothing was resolved, so they spent much of the next meeting talking about this, too. And Rob said that his heart began to sink because he realized now they were mostly just having meetings about meetings. So, he went to the person who was in charge of the meeting to talk to him and he said, “You know, I’ve noticed that we’re spending an awful lot of our meeting time lately just talking about the meeting,” and then he said he stopped because he realized with horror that in that moment he was having a meeting about a meeting about a meeting.
He talks about how in the course of all of it, he felt a whispering in his mind saying, “What am I doing here?” He said it was a feeling deep in his bones – that although figuring out all the meeting stuff was important and there were other people who may have been really into that and whom God put on earth to organize and attend meetings about meetings about meetings, he knew that was not his work to do. He had other work that needed to be done, other work that God had given him to do, work that energized him and gave him life and was hard in its own right, and it wasn’t to sit in meetings about meetings about meetings.
As we continue going through Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul is talking a lot about humility and service. He says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”
This is the kind of verse that is so contrary to our culture today. Most everything in our culture is hyper-focused on developing the self and looking out for number one. In fact, this culture elevates a positive self-image to such a degree that we run the risk of becoming our own false gods. Having a positive self-image is important, but it seems like it can run off the rails pretty quickly, too. For example, during a confirmation class some years ago, I asked a teenage girl to name someone she admired the most and she said herself.
Herself? Is that the message our kids are getting? That they should love themselves so much that they refuse to open their eyes and admire all the varied gifts and beauty of the people around them? To think so much of themselves that they have unwavering certainty that their way of seeing the world, their story, their little plot of land on which they live, their past and their future, is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end? I inwardly did the hugest eye-roll possible and then calmly asked her, “how about someone aside from yourself?”
Oh, trust me, Saint Paul would have done an eye-roll, too. As he sits in jail, writing letters of encouragement to his co-workers in Christ, urging them to put others first, think more highly of everyone before themselves, so much so that they consider themselves slaves to others.
These words about selflessness are powerful – and they can conjure up visions for us – maybe we think of Mother Teresa, serving the poorest of the poor in India. Maybe we think of our mothers, sacrificing their time, their energy, their own interests for the sake of our growth and security. Maybe we think of teachers, who so selflessly give of their energy and love and wisdom to teach our kids.
And probably, if you are at all like me, you feel a little guilty. Because it can feel like there’s no way to measure up to what Paul is asking of us here. The truth is that we don’t want to always think of others first – sometimes we want and need to look out for ourselves. We are fine with thinking highly of others, but we need to value who we are, too, and what we have to contribute to the world. And as far as being a slave to others? It’s just hard to get behind that one at all.
But it’s good to remember here that the word slave is from the greek word ‘doulos’ – which means slave or servant – and usually by one’s own free will. One has chosen to serve, chosen to give one’s life over in this way. And that makes all the difference, along with something Paul says a bit later in this same letter, “Rejoice in the Lord.”
Yes, this giving over of ourselves, this putting others first, this thinking more highly of others than ourselves, it’s important to who we are as followers of Jesus, but the key is to find a way of doing that that brings us joy, and brings joy to the world through us. Joy matters.
There was a fellow I knew at seminary who, like me, was studying to be a pastor. He was a very good student, he always knew the right answers in class and everybody liked him. We graduated at the same time and lost touch, but years later he found me on Facebook and I was interested to notice he wasn’t a pastor anymore. He was a full-time traveling musician now and leads song-writing conferences and retreats. I asked him a little about his work and he told me a bit about his journey – how he had gone to seminary because his parents wanted him to and because it seemed like the right thing to do. He wanted to serve God. It seemed like a good thing to do, even though he wasn’t ever very excited about it. “Seminary was fine,” he said – “I liked the classwork and our friends and the variety – but once I got into a church it got harder. I felt claustrophobic and like I was playing a part that wasn’t me. I stayed for many years, partly because I had invested so much money in the education and partly because I felt like maybe I was just supposed to suck it up and try harder.” He talked about how the church he grew up in had stressed that you had to think about others first and die to yourself and so he wondered if maybe he was supposed to be miserable. Maybe that was part of learning how to really follow Christ. After all, he thought about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other martyrs who had suffered and died for the faith – surely he could withstand a bit of unhappiness for the sake of his love of the Lord, right?
He began to get chronic backaches and headaches, various other aches and pains – but figured he was just getting older and that happens. He got used to a low level of despair hanging over him and took comfort that his work may not make him happy, but at least he could be useful.
The only time he felt really joyful in his work was when he was leading music – which he would do often at church or for other events that needed a musician. He wrote music and recorded some songs, always thinking of it as a hobby but nothing more. It wasn’t until one day a woman in his congregation stopped him after church and told him about how she appreciated his ministry of music. He thanked her – others had kindly said this to him before. But then she added, “I wish you could only do that. I mean, it seems like that is when you are happiest.” And something deep within him said, “Yes.”
Those few words she said shifted something for him that day and he knew what he had to do. He set for himself the goal that within a year he would find a way to let music be his full-time ministry. He said it wasn’t easy, there was no direct route to follow to do what he does now, it took longer than he planned, but he loves his work now because he’s using his best, most life-giving gifts, and he’s joyfully serving God and others. The backaches and headaches went away.
Joy matters. My prayer for all of us is that we find ways to put others first, to serve often and well, but to find ways to do that with joy. Rejoice in the Lord! If you consistently have a slow sense of dread on your way to do something, even if you are good at it, listen to what that dread is telling you. Is it time to find another way to use your gifts or perhaps change up the way you are doing the same old task? Is it time for that season to end so another can begin? Listen not just to all the needs of the world and the advice of those around you, but listen to yourself and the Spirit of God at work within you. Or as the author and theologian Howard Thurman said it, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
If there is anything better than a walk in the quiet woods on a warm spring morning, the scent of apple blossoms in the air, and listening to The Samples on my headphones, I do not know what that would be.
I haven’t listened to The Samples for a while – but since about 1991 they have never been far from me. In the mountains of Montana, I fell in love for the first time, and “Feel Us Shaking” was part of the soundtrack of that summer. When I was in West Africa, “Little Silver Ring” and “Everytime” played constantly – as I went running, as I journaled, as I daydreamed. The semester I studied in China during seminary I listened to their live album as I walked from the seminary up on the hill down to the city below. Something about their songs has always filled me full with the perfect amount of longing and hope at the same time.
Today, I was stopped dead in the middle of my walk when “Here and Somewhere Else” by the Samples was playing. It was partly the song itself, but also how it slammed me back in time to when I was listening to that song the most.
I traveled for a couple years with a band. During those two years, I started dating a fellow who I met along the way and we began a long-distance relationship as I kept traveling. I saw him whenever we were in the area where he lived, but mostly I was on the road. He was funny, sweet, and cute. I loved him. Sort of.
Also during that time, I began to spend more time with one of the guys in the band. It started very innocently – talking for hours about music and life. He had a girlfriend, I had a boyfriend. I began to realize over time that I was falling for him, but I never dreamed he would be interested in me. I kept writing my long letters to my boyfriend back home and telling myself I was happy.
Until the night the boy in the band kissed me…and the truth of what I really felt came spilling out and I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I never wanted him to stop kissing me. I closed my eyes and I didn’t care if I ever saw my boyfriend again. I felt like a terrible person, but sometimes there is just no going back when you realize what you truly want.
Oh, I tried. See, the boy in the band didn’t want a relationship with me. I realized that even as he was kissing me – so after what amounted to a weekend of making out with the boy in the band, I tried to go back to “normal” and force myself back into contentment with my boyfriend. I told myself it would be better once we were living in the same city. I told myself that my boyfriend was cute and funny and sweet and what more do I want? But my heart was off somewhere else – nowhere near my boyfriend. I could feel it in my bones. I didn’t want it to be true, but it was. I went for long walks asking myself “why why why!?” Why couldn’t I just be happy with the cute, funny, sweet boyfriend anymore? The only answer that came to me was the unsettling truth that if I had to choose between the two years I had spent in a real relationship with my boyfriend and that one weekend of kissing the boy in the band, I would take the weekend. No question.
But I never did break up with that boyfriend. I was sure that it wouldn’t be smart to do that. He was sweet and funny and cute, remember? What more did I want? It was silly, it was foolish to want more.
But I did want more.
In retrospect, while I couldn’t bring myself to break up with him, my behavior seemed to show I was trying to get him to break up with me. I told him about making out with the boy in the band. I got super drunk at his brother’s wedding. I moped around depressed and crying – morose about being off the road and away from my band. Within two months of my moving back to the city where he lived, he broke up with me.
And I was sad…but mostly indignant. I remember thinking, “You are breaking up with me? I was never even sure I wanted to be with you and you have the nerve to break up with me? I just spent the last many months trying to talk myself into staying with you, reminding myself over and over that you are sweet and funny and cute and telling myself to ignore the voice in my head telling me that it isn’t enough to just think someone is sweet and funny and cute…and now YOU are breaking up with ME?”
But thank God he did, because I could have spent who knows how long continuing to try to convince myself it was right, it was fine, it was a good enough relationship – even though deep in my heart, I knew I would trade every second with him for the few moments of real passion and head-over-heels joy I felt with that long-lost boy in the band.
I’ve been thinking about how often we settle. In some ways, my Christian upbringing is at the core of it. I was taught to not be too big for my britches, to be thankful for what I’ve got, to look for the good in everything. I knew my boyfriend was a good person, but what I couldn’t admit was that he wasn’t good for me.
It takes real strength to figure that stuff out. It can be so hard to let go of what is good and hold out for what is great, to believe we deserve the things that really bring us joy and light us up inside. And it can feel positively scandalous to see this quest as a holy task, but it is! Because it would have been terrible for me to end up with that boyfriend for the long run – he is a great guy and he deserved to be with someone who was thrilled about him all the time, not someone who was spending her life talking herself into being with him.
For months, I ignored the voice in my heart telling me the relationship wasn’t right, that I had to let him go. I treated that still, small voice in my heart like she didn’t really know what she was talking about, what she wanted.
I’ve learned over time, over many years, that when I don’t listen to that voice in my heart, I forsake my deepest self. I forsake what is truest and most holy within me if I don’t pay attention to what my own life is trying to tell me. I spent decades listening first to the advice of others, the best practices of professionals, tradition, mentors, but a while ago I made an important promise – a promise to myself that for the rest of the years I have left, I will listen to me and my heart and wisdom first. I will listen to the way the Holy Spirit is singing in my own life first. I won’t treat myself and the Spirit’s motion as if they don’t matter, or as though they are merely some lesser voices to be crammed in the crevices of bigger, more scheduled, more sensible plans.
No, my Spirit-filled self first. She matters to me.
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” – Frederick Buechner
It’s a lovely time of year to live in Minnesota. The weather is finally warm enough to be outside, the leaves are coming back on the trees, the school year is winding down and all the activity of summer is dawning. The fields that stretch behind my house are free of snow and the corn is not yet growing high, so I can go walking there – a nice change from jogging miles on my treadmill every morning.
Yesterday as I walked, I listened to Rob Bell’s podcast, the “Robcast.” I’ve listened to this podcast off and on since he started it because I’ve always enjoyed his books and other projects but lately, I’ve been mainlining these podcasts, one after another.
I love how he is making these podcasts exactly what he wants them to be – sometimes they are a sermon – which is very natural for him since he is a pastor, but sometimes he interviews people, on other occasions, they are just his thoughts which sound more like a motivational speech than anything. He creates for the sake of creating what he feels led to create and does his best to detach himself from whether or not the outcome will be a “success” – and encourages others to do the same. His words, his way of sharing them, his outlook – and all of it is serving as good medicine for my spirit.
And yesterday, he was talking a bit about prayer. He said, “Prayer is the practice of ruthless honesty of all that is going on inside you.” He referenced a text from Jeremiah when Jeremiah was pouring out his frustration, anger, and praise all in the same prayer…but the prayer didn’t end with praise, it ended with asking God why he had even been born. (Jeremiah 20:7-18)
It reminded me of my dad’s notebooks I have been going through as I’ve been trying to get rid of things. Whether he saw them that way or not, they were prayers. From the sad poems, to the angry, ranting letters to local politicians, to the unpublished memoirs, even the unsent letters he wrote to faceless, nameless women he found in Enquirer personal ads. All of those words he wrote were him pouring out what was going on inside of him. The notebooks were the place he felt he could be honest. They were his prayers.
All of us need a place we can be honest and real about what troubles and excites us, what brings us hope, what we long for. We need to be able to pour out and acknowledge all that collects inside us – to remember that it, and we, matter.
It seems in modern Christianity we think we need to sanitize our prayers. In fact, long ago in confirmation class I used to teach the kids a tidy little acronym to help them remember what a ‘perfect’ prayer looks like: ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. All those parts are good and important, but prayer can’t be reduced to an acronym. When it is treated that way, we start to think there is a wrong and a right way to pray, that God can only handle some of our words and some of our thoughts presented in only certain ways.
But God can handle our messiness. God can handle our prayers that are all over the place – angry and thankful and pissed off and hopeful all at the same time. We are never ‘too much’ for God. Our emotions, our lives, our mistakes, our longings, our desires, our despair – none of it is too much for God.
“Prayer is the practice of ruthless honesty of all that is going on inside you.” – Rob Bell
Last night, at the end of a long day, I went downstairs to confront the sorting of piles once again. In the traditional Christian story of the Creation, God separated the light from the dark to create day and night. In my current story, I separate pictures from the letters from the notebooks from the concert stubs, from the family history records to create piles upon piles.
I grabbed another notebook of dad’s to look through and decide if there was anything in there I wanted to keep. The one I grabbed was not his usual ranting, sad poetry, or angry letters to be sent later. This one was nearly full of letters he wrote to women in response to classified ads they placed in magazines like The Enquirer. I don’t know if magazines still have these kinds of ads – perhaps it is the early equivalent to Ashley Madison or other dating sites. Anyway, this notebook was plum full of letters my dad wrote. “Dear Ms, I am a divorced, 5’9, 190 lb man living in Minnesota,” (he was none of those things…except living in Minnesota) each of these letters would begin – and then he went on to share his version of woo-ing the intended recipient. Some of it was sharing his dreams of moving south, some of it was piling flattery on some details she may have shared in her description, “you love to cook? That is perfect, because I love to eat!” In some of his letters, he spoke about how his “ex” wife didn’t understand him, didn’t meet his needs, didn’t live up to her “wifely duties.” He ended each letter with expressing how he couldn’t wait to meet and giving our home address and phone number.
These letters were mostly dated around the year I was 16. He would have been 52. ‘
I can’t say the letters upset me all that much. It’s not like I have any illusions he was a perfect man or that his marriage with my mom was without difficulty. I’ve been married long enough to know that sometimes things can happen that drive you bat-crap crazy. Maybe mom and dad had been fighting and one of the ways that he got through it was imagining a different life for a while. I don’t know if he ever sent one of those letters but I do know he never met one of these women. He was a hermit – he never left the house. In fact, he could barely walk down the driveway so he most likely would have had to ask mom to mail those letters.
No, I think these letters were a gasp at life and freedom and excitement for my dad whose real life had already become so severely limited by physical and mental ailments that he was desperate. “Is this all there is? Is that great opportunity never coming to find me up here on this hill where I hide? I’m scared shitless of this gray hair, these wrinkles, this expanding midsection, this unending sickness of spirit and body.”
Was this my dad’s version of a mid-life crisis? Writing letters to imaginary women in the far-off warmer climates where he always wanted to live? Dreaming of himself as taller, thinner, free-er, healthier, just different than he was?
No, these letters don’t upset me. What upsets me is knowing he felt trapped by circumstances – ones that were both within his control and beyond his control. He had all sorts of longings – like all of us do – but he felt powerless to change. He was so infinitely afraid…and unfaced fear eventually turns to anger.
The anger was what we got to see. He may have had all sorts of complex emotions roiling underneath, but what we saw and how we remember him is by the anger.
I tossed the notebook in the garbage.