Friday, November 30, 2012

Birthday poetry you won’t find on a Hallmark card

As a lover of poetry, I was delighted when several friends gifted me with poems on the occasion of my 60th birthday. My friend Sandy gave me a poem by Elioda Capuno. I keep coming back to it. Although it was not written for me in particular, it feels like it could have been. I’m blessed to have a friend who could see that. 

 A Poem for her 60th Birthday

she danced through life like a pro

undeterred by the thorns

neath her soles

she welcomed the pain

let it pierce and torment her

her steps are not perfect

she fumbled along the way

made mistakes and fell

but through each twist and turn

she gave her all

for a life that is not perfect

but worth it all

Then there was this Hafiz poem, given to me by Sandy’s husband, Philip. It’s very cool and is the best description of my relationship with God that I have ever read. Interestingly, it also uses the dancing metaphor for life.

The God Who Knows Only Four Words



Has known God,

Not the God of names,

Not the God of don’ts,

Not the God who ever does

Anything weird,

But the God who only knows four words

And keeps repeating them, saying:

“Come dance with Me.”



A couple weeks after my birthday I found these verses in my mailbox at church. Written by our resident poet at Holy Trinity, Dobbs, it is such a treasure to me.

Belated poem

for Nancy

As often as you are thought of

and have given

in music





and in silent attentiveness

or hot under the clerical collar righteous anger

but more than our shared portion of life

dipped in a poured confession

is your countering a profane mistake

by the five second rule

and laughter

It’s odd how Dobbs’ most vivid memory of me seems to be about something that I don’t recall. It doesn’t surprise me that I might do such a thing, so whether it happened or not, it’s true.

Poetry may be the best way to express the truth of our lives. Not the sort of thing that they’ll print in the local newspaper about you when you die, poetry runs deeper than the surface history of where you’ve been and what you’ve done. When I’m saying my final farewell to this earth, I think I might like to have a poem sum up the essence of my life instead of an obituary. Any one of these three would do nicely.





Monday, November 26, 2012

This Little Light of Mine: oblivious to the obvious

Nothing ruins a perfectly fine day like getting into my car and seeing one of those little lights appear on the dashboard. Particularly a little light I’ve never seen before. In my old VW Beetle they came on so often that I learned to ignore them. On the day my car finally died, my dashboard was lit up like a Christmas tree.

Yes, I realize that there may be a connection between my car's demise and its dashboard crying out to me in living color. So, this time around, with my new Honda Fit, I vowed to do better. Nonetheless, I’ve been driving around for a couple of months now with a (!) light telling me that one of my tires is low on air. I keep filling my tires, but can’t seem to get the (!) light to go away.
Well, last week a new light appeared. It said, “CRUISE MAIN.” I thought that was quite odd because it seemed like it must have something to do with my cruise control, but I don’t have cruise control on this car. I remember when they asked me if I wanted it, I said no. After driving from Charlotte to Cincinnati and back twice over the summer, I also remember regretting that decision. How could I have been so stupid?
Since this little light of mine couldn’t possibly have anything to do with my cruise control, I was baffled.

My friend Bruce is good with cars and often solves my car problems for me. So, he was sitting in the passenger seat when I noticed the “CRUISE MAIN” light was still on and I asked, “Do you have any idea what this means? Is it saying I need cruise maintenance? I don’t know why it would say that since I don’t have cruise control.”

Bruce reached in front of me and pressed a button in the center of my steering wheel. The light went out!
“How did you do that?” I asked.

“You had the cruise control on.”
“But I don’t have cruise control!”

Then I looked down at the steering wheel and there, as plain as day, was a button with the word “CRUISE” on it. Um. I guess I have cruise control.  
Now, I’ve had this car for almost a year. And in all that time, I never once noticed the buttons on my steering wheel. I had no idea they were there. Absolutely no idea.

Then there was the issue of adjusting the digital clock in my car when the time changed. I knew it had something to do with the radio and fiddled around with the buttons whenever I was stopped at a red light, trying every combination I could imagine. “It couldn’t possibly be this difficult,” I thought.
On Saturday I decided to break down and look it up in the instruction manual. It turns out there is supposed to be a button on the radio that has this word under it: “CLOCK.” Well, I looked at the radio, and, sure enough, there it was, C-L-O-C-K.  How had I missed it? Was it some kind of a trick the Japanese had invented to make us poor Americans think we’re going crazy? You know, like they hide the word “CLOCK” on the radio until someone turns to that page in the manual, and suddenly the word magically appears. Was it part of a Japanese conspiracy? 
I can tell you that every time I look at my steering wheel now, the cruise control buttons jump out at me, and when I look at the radio, all I can see is the word “CLOCK.” And it has got me to thinkin’ about how many other obvious things I may be oblivious to, things that are a lot more important than the buttons on my dashboard. Like, people who are hurting, or hungry, or desperate for a friend. I can look past them day after day; they are invisible to me. But then something happens to change that. I’ll have a conversation with them. I’ll read their story. Perhaps I’ll even experience some of their struggle in my own life. And all of a sudden, I see them so clearly that I wonder how I ever could have missed them.

These weeks before Christmas seem to do that for a lot of us, don’t they? We may be able to walk through the rest of the year with our compassion in check, but come December, our eyes are open to seeing the needs of others, really seeing them. 
It’s easy to focus on the commercialization of Christmas and expend our energy wringing our hands, whining, “Ain’t it awful.” There are examples-o-plenty in the world to provide us with ample material for holiday lyrics of lament. What we may miss are the acts of generosity and compassion going on around us, more than at any other time of the year. In fact, once you see it, the goodness of other people shows up in surprising places, over and over again.

Is there a connection between acts of generosity and compassion and the celebration of God’s incarnation on Earth? Certainly, you don’t have to be a Christian to be a loving person. But that’s not really the point, as I see it. It doesn’t have that much to do with who we are and what we do. It is about who God is and what God does. Through the lens of the incarnation, we see ourselves living in a world that God is a part of, a world that God loves. No amount of colored lights, Black Friday sales, or Christmas cheer can obscure it. When I’m no longer oblivious to this, it becomes so obvious to me that it’s all I can see.  


Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving with my mom

There was no Thanksgiving like a Thanksgiving at my mom’s house. We were planning to return to her place back in 1981 -- my husband Rich, daughter Gretchen, new baby Ben and me. It’s a long way from North Dakota to Ohio, so it wasn’t something we did every year. But it was our destination for that year. When November began, I was anxious for the days to pass quickly so that I would soon be home again. As it turned out, I ended up there much too soon.  

On November 7 I heard a voice on the other end of the telephone telling me that Mom had been taken to the hospital in the night and wasn’t doing well. So I hopped on the first plane with my two children. When both my brother and sister met me at the airport, I knew I was too late. So much for Thanksgiving.
That’s been a lot of Thanksgivings ago. And now, I have to say that every year on the fourth Thursday of November, no matter where I am, who I’m with, or what I’m doing, a big part of me is still back at 435 Edwards Avenue in Hamilton, Ohio.

I never realized how small the house was until I went away to college and came home again for the first time at Thanksgiving. As I stood in the foyer looking into the living room, I laughed aloud. What a teeny tiny little house! Just four rooms and a bath, with a converted attic upstairs. There was no dining room, although that never prevented us from having a huge Thanksgiving feast.
My mom had what was once a beautiful mahogany table with a stack of leafs we inserted for special occasions so that it stretched the entire length of the living room. It had endured a lot through the years; part of our holiday ritual was bringing the leafs out, which were in mint condition, and comparing them to the rest of the table, which looked like it had been used as a shield during the Revolutionary War.  Mom would always point this out to us. As I recall, she wasn’t complaining about it, just making an observation. In recent years, my sister Wendy has made that table her own and refinished it so that it is beautiful once again. I have had the honor of pulling my chair up under it again during Thanksgiving dinner at her home in Massachusetts, not far from the site of the original Thanksgiving feast.

My sister got the table. I got the platter. It’s a plain white platter that was only used at Thanksgiving to serve the turkey. Every time my mom pulled it out, she would say, “Be careful with this. It has been in my family for generations.” I’ve moved it from place to place for the past thirty years, and I’ve always been very careful with it. I have no idea how old it is, or if it’s worth more than a few dollars. But it is the one priceless item I own.
I know, in some families there is a kiddy table where all the little ones eat at Thanksgiving. Not so for us. We ALL sat at the table. There was usually a highchair or two, but we were all there. So, of course, a Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t complete without someone spilling a glass of something all over the table. And it was a table laden with food. My mom wouldn’t think of a serving buffet-style. The biggest challenge was passing the food from person to person. To this day, I can’t remember, is it left to right or right to left? Every year Mom had to give us directions.

There were always the usual Thanksgiving dishes: turkey, stuffing, giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, succotash, cranberry jelly, sweet potatoes, brown-and-serve rolls, and  pickles and olives that we pulled out of jars and carefully placed on a fancy plate only to return most of them to their jars after the meal. Then there was one other odd item that my mom insisted upon: mashed rutabaga. To my knowledge she was the only one in the family who ate it. Apparently it was something she grew up with and Thanksgiving wouldn’t have been Thanksgiving to her without it. Dessert had to be pumpkin pie with whipped topping in a spray can, of course. And all of this was served on her best dishes. 
Many of the serving dishes were silver and came from a time when my dad gave my mom a new one every year for their anniversary. I was the one who got to spread them with silver polish and clean them up. There was a silver pitcher, and a platter, and a gravy boat, and a bowl, and a big dish with a fancy lid. One year for Christmas Mom divvied them all up and gave them to us kids for Christmas as a memory of our father, who had died back in the 50s. I got the one with the fancy lid. Rarely do I use it; whenever I do, I have to get out the polish.

My family wasn’t much for drinking and I don’t ever recall having hard liquor in the house. But I do remember that on Thanksgiving we had wine with our meal. The kids had grape juice and the adults had near-grape juice from a guy named Mogen David. Somewhere in my mid teens I was allowed into the wine-drinking group on this once-a-year occasion. I remember thinking the stuff was god-awful and could hardly get it down. I still do, but for different reasons.
Throughout my sixty years of Thanksgivings, I have celebrated in a variety of settings: as a newlywed in Toronto, Canada, in my own home with husband and kids, with my in-laws eating from a T.V. table, at Denny’s because it was the only place we could find open after a football game in Detroit, in North Dakota at a church with other pastors from Ohio in exile, at my sister’s house, in a London pub with Gretchen and Ben, with my dear friends Donna and Jerry.  It’s all been good.  This year, I was completely alone on Thanksgiving. And I found myself going to the Thanksgivings I loved the most. There was no Thanksgiving like a Thanksgiving with my mom. I’m thankful for those memories.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wanna be happy?

Last night I watched the movie Happy. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Everyone who longs to live life in all its fullness needs to see this movie. It takes a look at people around the world who are happy, from a man who pulls a rickshaw in India to a former debutante in Texas, and identifies what it is about their lives that contributes to their happiness.

This is one of those movies that doesn’t really teach me anything I didn’t know before, but the fact that it reinforces what I already know simply underscores the truth it speaks. Of course, its message stands in stark contrast to the values of the culture around us. We’re immersed in a world that tries to convince us happiness can be achieved by amassing a bunch of stuff and proving our worth by leaving our competitors in the dust. But there is no evidence to prove that this is true. Instead, once people have enough to meet their basic needs, having more has no link to happiness. The path to happiness is found through relationships with other people, through community and cooperation. It’s by living authentically and freely, without conforming to what everyone else expects of you. And, most notably, happiness comes to those who cultivate compassion, giving their lives for the sake of others.

This is not a “Christian” movie. But, as a Christian, I couldn’t help noticing how compatible its message is with the message of Jesus. Maybe it’s not the message many Christians have pinned on Jesus in an effort to defend their own life choices, but it is the message Jesus clearly lived and taught. And that’s what makes Jesus “the way, the truth, and the life.” Not because no one else has the truth, but because his message is, at its core, a truth that transcends all truths. It's the Jesus Way. That’s not to say that it is a way of life only found among Jesus' followers. Although this movie was full of stories about people who live the Jesus Way, many of them probably don't know a thing about Jesus. Jesus was all about leading people to life, real life in all its fullness, what this movie calls happiness. You don't have to be a follower of Jesus to find that happiness, although it is the certainly where the Jesus Way leads.

I think about the rich guy who comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to eternal life. This is not just about how to get to heaven someday after he dies. This is a present-tense conversation; it’s about how to experience the abundant life here and now. And Jesus has an answer. He tells the rich guy to sell what he has and give the money to the poor. That is, stop living for yourself and discover the happiness the compassionate life can bring you. In so many ways, Jesus taught this truth to his followers. “Blessed are the poor…” “Anyone who wants to save their life must first lose it…” “If anyone asks for your coat, give them you cloak as well…” It’s the truth of a man who allowed others to put him to death for the sake of compassion.

The great lie of capitalism is that you will be able to buy happiness. If we all suddenly decided that we were quite content with what we had and didn’t need any more stuff to be happy, would the economy collapse? I don’t know. But that's why our American self-identification as a Christian nation seems so ironic to me. If following the Jesus Way is what it means to be a Christian, we are most assuredly not a Christian nation.

Happy left me wondering why this is so hard for us. We all want to be happy. And yet, we continue to resist what makes us truly happy. Why?