Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Preaching of Trifolium

There must be a sermon in clover.
Interlocking roots proselytizing grass and garden,
Sheltering the lowest- spiders and earthworms,
Within the sweetness of ordinary time.

Evangelistic in children's bouquets-
Converting hard hearts with tiny flowers
Squeezed with dandelions in small hands.

The undulating blanket crusades a landscape
Bringing singular trinitarian understanding with
Fear and adoration.

Consumed as solid and liquid, both cud and tea
There is no negative theology in clover-
No understanding through absentia.
Lucky is not the same as necessary.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: The Long Goodbye

This month’s book review is of The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Megan O’Rourke. Amazon’s description of the book is here. Information on O’Rourke is here. Yes, this is another book by a person writing about a universal experience from their point-of-view. I find that while experiences are corporate, journeys are individual. In The Long Goodbye, in particular, we meet a young woman (early 30s) who wants to believe that her thinking isn’t magical, that the right combination of intellectual pursuits, physical stretching and emotional openness will bring her mother back to life. It doesn’t. Grab a Kleenex or two and a comforting beverage. O’Rourke’s grief landscape is austere and harsh, with emotion-whipped rocky outcroppings and deep caverns of despair.

I came to this book somewhat reluctantly. I read O’Rourke’s initial forays into discussing her grief on Slate magazine and, doing my own grieving at the time, I found them inaccessible and, seemingly, self-indulgent. I could not connect with her pain and found no anchor in her writing to process my own.

Some of that work was incorporated into the book, but I did not recognize it in the longer form. I also found the book to have a depth and breadth I didn’t remember from the articles. I suspect that, for me, this was a better time to read this work and, perhaps, for O’Rourke a bit of time made the difference as well.

O’Rourke is a poet and her writing is full of metaphor that is heart-wrenching and inspiring in its attempts to describe the realities of watching one’s mother die and living in a world without the vessel that brought you into being. She writes, “I also felt that if I told the story of her death, I could understand it better, make sense of it- perhaps even change it. What had happened still seemed implausible: A person was present your entire life, and then one day she disappeared and never came back. It resisted belief. Even when a death is foreseen, I was surprised to find, it still feels sudden- an instant that could have gone differently.” (p. 139)  

The first half of the book is O’Rourke’s memory of her mother’s diagnosis of colon cancer and her death. The second half is O’Rourke’s grief and attempt to gain a handle on her emotional reaction, which both challenges and baffles her. As she feels the role-reversal as a child caring for a parent’s intimate needs, O’Rourke notes that she needs a mother, her mother, to help her process the fact that her mother is dying. She wants the final weeks and days to be full of meaning and tinged with significance. Instead, she finds herself watching television with her mother, talking about Christmas decorations, feeling frustrated. “Time doesn’t obey our commands. You cannot make it holy just because it is disappearing.” (81)

O’Rourke comes from a family that has little connection to a religious community. Her mother has, in part, turned away from the Roman Catholicism of her youth and so O’Rourke describes in detail the family’s love of reading, their outdoor summers, their love of one another. These are the objects of her devotion, the things that define her faith. The depth of these experiences is vast, but their breadth cannot quite cover the shock of the loss of her mother. O’Rourke notes that her brothers and her father all grieve differently and differently still from her. They all have the same injury, she says, but each manifests different symptoms (104).

In the months after her mother’s death, O’Rourke finds herself skeptical about rituals and yet longing for markers to note her emotions, the truth of her experience and inexplicability of what has happened and what lies beyond. She writes of her envy of her Jewish friends who have the Kaddish, of the words and prayers that give one’s mourning some shape and recognition. She writes, “I longed for rituals not only to indicate I was still in mourning but also to have a nonpsychological way of commemorating and expressing my loss. Without ritual, the only way to share a loss was to talk about it… At times, though, this sharing felt invasive. I did not want to be pitied. In those moments, I wanted a way to show my grief rather than tell it.” (157)

There is truth in what she says about our culture’s inability to deal with death. In our fear of doing the wrong thing, we often do nothing. All but the most religious among us have no desire to think on the inevitability of death. All but those of the strongest faith cling to the life of which we know, still having a tiny amount of uncertainty about the life to come in which we believe. Furthermore, in this day and age, death is as prevalent as ever, but in our Western culture it remains distant for many people until it is actually personal. We can avoid wakes and funerals for a long time until death comes to our nearest and dearest.

I often hear people talk about the fact that they long for a way for people to understand that they are dealing with a death without them having to say so. Mourning clothes, wreathes, pins… all these things served as societal markers to remind us to be gentle with grieving persons. Now, in our rawness, we are expected to yield in traffic, to be pushed in the grocery store, to pay our bills on time, yet all the while wanting to scream, “But my BELOVED DIED. I cannot see them. They are not here. I don’t want to do this. NONE OF THIS MATTERS.”

One of the metaphors that captured O’Rourke’s imagination was from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (among the best, if not THE best, books about dealing with personal grief). Lewis writes that a loss, the death of a beloved, is a like an amputation. “If the blood doesn’t stop gushing soon after the operation, you will die. To survive means, by definition, that the blood has stopped. But the amputation is still there.” (279)

One of the things that I frequently encounter is people who are surprised at how long the intensity of grief goes on. If we use the image of amputation, it becomes somewhat easier to comprehend that a grieving person is learning a new way to live. You may remain in the same neighborhood, but your address has changed. You may now reside in the “House of Deceased Spouse” or “My Mother is Dead” or “My Child No Longer Lives”. The new residence resembles your old one, but the layout is different enough to trip you up a little bit for much longer than you expect. The familiar look seems sinister because you can’t comprehend how anything could remain the same or, worse, move forward when you desperately long for markers of the change and for a pause in the world.

I have not even begun to convey the beauty of much of the writing in this book. O’Rourke’s book is worth reading if you’re interested in reading another perspective on dealing with grief. It is beautifully written. It is not the kind of book that you give someone (most people) immediately following a death. They need space and the rawness of this book may not be helpful in the immediate aftermath following a death. I think O’Rourke also stirs up good discussion points for people of faith. What are our mourning markers beyond the funeral or memorial service? How do we help our friends and neighbors at anniversaries and in bleak nights? What kind of words can we use to discuss grief and our fears? What light of truth can we bring to the world about tenderness to the grieving? What can we offer to those who are tangentially connected to faith communities?

Fine print: I purchased a copy of this book for review. All thoughts are my own. I have not been compensated in any way for anything said in this review. All quotations come from:
O’Rourke, Meghan. The Long Goodbye: A Memoir. Riverhead Books, New York, NY. 2011.

Originally posted on 5/23/11 at RevGalBlogPals.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Alter Call

The Lutheran clergy (and a few friends) in my area recently embarked on a musical journey together. We decided to call attention to hunger issues in Alaska and around the world by staging a musical originally produced by Bread for the World. Lazarus: A Musical Call to End Hunger is based loosely on the biblical stories of Lazarus and the Rich Man. In the case of the musical, the Rich Man is offered a chance to change his ways and shares his vision of all eating and being satisfied.

The experience of singing with colleagues was both riotous in entertainment and frustration. We practiced throughout the Easter season when we were only slightly busy. (Ha!) Also, we're all used to being in charge, but when we're together, we eschew authority and, um, we don't always respect it. (Just ask our bishop.) One of our accompanist's noted, "I can't really believe pastors are like this." I said, "It's our off-time. We're like kindergartners who were taken to the zoo and then promised ice cream."

Anyway, we performed during our Synod Assembly in Ketchikan, AK and then last night at Central Lutheran in Anchorage. We sang for about forty minutes and then the executive director of Lutheran Social Services of Alaska spoke about the food needs in Alaska, specifically Anchorage. Another pastor spoke about how to contact our senators and Congressman (we only have 1). He specifically talked about the difference between charity and effective and efficient use of dollars and legislation to change situations.

I leaned over to another pastor and said, "This is practically a revival. We have a big crowd who got charged up by the singing and now they're hearing the preaching." She replied, "Yes, then we'll have an altar call."

I said, "No, this is the altar call. It's an alter call." The end result of revivals in the Baptist tradition is, usually, to see how many people will come to Christ or rededicate their lives. This is well and good, but the way that plays out isn't in what we say, but how we live.

In the end, faith-filled living either reflects Jesus' love for neighbors in ways large and small or it doesn't. Occasionally, we need revivals, mainly for the call to pay attention, to listen for God's voice, to participate in how God desires to use us.

Jesus' words that the poor are always among us aren't an assurance that we can care for them tomorrow. Those words are our "alter call".

Photo credits: Pastor Stan Berntson, MV Christian

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Litany for Mother's Day

A: Loving God, You are everywhere the Lord and Giver of life. We praise You for the gift of mothers through whom You give us life.

C: We thank You for their willingness to nurture life, for their trust in You to guide them through the labor of childbirth, the uncertainties of youth, the letting go of young adulthood.

A: We thank You for all those women, who did not give us birth, but through whom You give us abundant life:

C: We thank You for school teachers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters, pastors, elders, Sunday School teachers, supervisors, co-workers, neighbors and friends who share wisdom.

A: We ask Your tender mercies on all those whose mothers now sing with the heavenly chorus, especially for those whose tears are not yet dry.

C: Grant them Your peace, which passes all our understanding.

A: We ask Your comforting presence on those mothers who have buried sons and daughters.

C: Comfort them with the knowledge of their children in Your eternal care.

A: We pray for those who are alienated from their mothers by harsh words, distance, and misunderstanding.
C:  Grant both mothers and children the grace to forgive and to love again.

A: We pray for mothers whose children met a violent death.

C:   Deliver them from anguish.

A: We pray for mothers who work but cannot earn enough to feed and clothe and educate their children.

C: Wake us to our responsibility for common welfare.

A:  We pray for mothers who are sick or dying.

C: Raise up caregivers for their children, even from among us.

A: We pray for mothers who are guardians for grandchildren whose parents are unable or unwilling to care.

C:  Sustain them with the courage and strength and patience for the living of each day.

A:  We pray for mothers whose children face limitations of intelligence, emotional, or physical ability.

C: Deliver them from frustration and hopelessness. Grant them wisdom to encourage each child’s full potential with You.

A: We pray for mothers whose sons and daughters defend our way of life as firefighters, officers of the law, and in the military.

C:  Grant them confidence in Your presence with their children in life, in death, and in life beyond death.

A:  Compassionate God, be with all women on this day.

C:  Let Your light shine on them and be gracious to them. Bless them with peace and joy now and forever. Amen. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Starting Over (Sermon for Easter 2)

Easter 2
1 May 2011

John 20:19-31

When trying to get an infant to sleep, sometimes they’re almost there and then they wake themselves up or you sneeze or a cold breeze comes by. It can be a small thing and then they’re awake again and crying and tired. And you have to start all over again, trying to get them to calm down and go back to sleep.

Parenthood, I’m finding, is often a few steps forward and then one step back. Thinking you’ve moved into a new stage, but then finding vestiges or remnants of the one you left behind.

I’m telling [the parents of the baptized] this, along with the rest of you, because that’s partially where the disciples are in today’s gospel. They’ve already heard about the resurrection from Mary Magdalene and yet they remain locked in the upper room, afraid of people who might still be angry with Jesus or about his missing body (not realizing the truth of the resurrection).

They’re afraid and their fear has fenced them into a place where they cannot act. All of them, except for one. Thomas is somewhere else during the first part of today’s story. Hearing the news of the resurrection, he’s out and about. Now he could be out because he believes that Jesus has risen. Or he could be out because he thinks it’s all over and he has to move on with his life.

When we see Thomas earlier in the gospel, he leads the rest of disciples in following Jesus back into dangerous territory, back to where they know people are plotting to kill him. Thomas encourages the other disciples by saying, “Come, let us go and die with him.”

Thomas is both pessimist and man of action. He intends to go with Jesus wherever he goes, but now that Jesus is gone, he isn’t sure what to do. However, he knows hiding isn’t the answer.

Jesus appears, then, first to the disciples in hiding and then to all of them, including Thomas. We look at how Jesus treats both the hiding disciples and Thomas, noting that he does not condemn their fear or Thomas’s unbelieving, but gives them peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

He gives them a chance to start over. Neither their fear nor unbelief puts them out of the range of where Jesus can get to them. They get a chance to begin again, to live into what they know to be true- that death is defeated and that the resurrected Christ meets them where they are, walks with them, offers tactile opportunities, brings them peace.

They get a chance to start over. That’s why baptism is so central for us today. It gives us a starting point, a place to go back to when we are afraid, struggling in belief or in need of a restart. We can go back to the place where we received the name, “Child of God”, where we welcomed into the family of God, where we received the sign of the cross- that marks us forever.

This is the gift we will watch [the baptized] receive from God today and that we will promise to help him understand, the gift of a new beginning and a location for starting over at any point in his life.

This is why we are encouraged to remember our baptisms daily, each time we wash our hands, each time we make the sign of the cross. We are able to start over, again and again. Not to take advantage of grace, but to take part in grace. What we are offered through baptism is the same consolation and encouragement that Jesus gives to his disciples in that room, all of them including Thomas. We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and the understanding that there is nothing that we can do and nowhere we can go that can keep us from the love of God. With those gifts comes the peace that passes all understanding, the strength to forgive and accept forgiveness, the hope in the truth of the resurrection and God with us.

The font is our home base, the stump of our family tree, our orienting location. It gives us the coordinates for home, with water and God’s promise, a home to which we can always return. A place from which we can always, always start over.