A Prayer for Tomorrow

A work in progress . . .  after a day like this, I would usually re-write the entire service.  But the congregation I have been serving this summer has just learned that its pastor’s medical leave has been extended indefinitely, and he is going to speak with them tomorrow ~ his last opportunity to preach and share with them.  So I have been working on the Prayers of the People off and on all day . . .  it may look completely different sixteen hours from now . . .

God of All Peoples,

When you came among us as Spirit Wind, you did not come to a small group of like-minded people who knew what to expect.  You came as a surprise of power and a mystery of awakening to people of all sorts from all places in the world as they knew it ~ people who came by different routes, people who looked different from one another,  people who spoke different languages from one another.

You called us, this conglomeration of all peoples, to gather as your church.

You called us to follow the way of your Son, who was never intimidated by illness or disarray, and to align ourselves with your healing presence.

You called us to follow the way of the prophets, who again and again called your people to the justice which is care and provision for all peoples, to the kindness which embraces all peoples, and to the humility required for ourselves to become instruments of the way you set for us.

And so we pray for Pastor — and for his family, that they may recognize and deeply know the community, the hope, and the healing, whatever those things may look like, that come across the winds and the waves of life with your Son.

We pray for the people of Charlottesville and of our nation, for the killed, the injured, and the heartbroken, that they may know the determination of a nation set on hope and justice grounded in the abundant love and care of God..

We pray for our leaders, that they may find the patience and wisdom and courage to guide us toward peace at home and abroad.

Grant us the patience to gather in community and to seek and offer healing, even and especially where healing does not look like that which we ourselves seek and prefer.

Grant us the strength and confidence to condemn racism and violence wherever we encounter them.

Grant us the courage to pursue justice and peace, in our community, in our nation, and in our world.

Help us to become the people you want us to become ~ people who follow the One who rose victorious over death and who reigns over the new creation of heaven and earth into which we are all called.

 

Why Gannets? (La Gaspésie ~ 3)

Why gannets?  I don’t know.  But I love them.

There’s a great image of gannets here.  (Unfortunately, the only close-up photograph I have taken is of the one whose body washed up on the beach at St. Augustine last spring.  She — for so I decided that she was — made for a good opportunity for up-close study over the week we were there, but her soaring days were over.)

It was at St. Augustine that I discovered gannets.  Many, many years ago, sitting on the beach with my binoculars, I suddenly realized that the birds I was watching far out to sea were not pelicans.  I had been taking in their acrobatic dives, but saw that their coloring ~ their white torpedo bodies flanked by jet-black wingtips ~ was completely off.  With a little research, I discovered that northern gannets, birds of the ocean off Canada and Scotland, winter as far south as St. Augustine, and occasionally can be seen from the beaches, when storms drive them shoreward.

Some years I see them, some years I don’t.  Once, out in a motorboat preparatory to a parasailing adventure, I saw one resting on the waves.  “A gannet!” I was excited!  Our guide was surprised.  “I thought they were just gulls,” he said.

Gannets nest in huge colonies, thousands of large and loud birds in close quarters raising fluffy young to become pirates of the sea.  And they soar and dive ~ if you search for them on google and youtube, you will find astounding gannet feats recorded in photographs and films.  Elegant, exquisitely colored, fearless acrobats ~ who wouldn’t want to return someday as a gannet?

Back when people hid behind pseudonyms online, I chose “oceanmrc” ~ ocean + my initials ~ as my first, and Gannet Girl as my second.  Gannet Girl’s first blog was entitled Search the Sea.  Due to the vagaries of life, my blog writing has undergone many reincarnations of its own over the past fourteen years, but I am feeling the pull of that old title these days.

I had no idea that l’Île Bonaventure (click through the dots ~ lots of pictures), just off the coast of the Gaspésie Peninsula, was home to a major colony of nesting gannets, not until I began to research the adventure that Judi and I are planning.  I am going to a gannet colony.  When I say that I may never return, I mean it.

I think that Judi is a little concerned.  But I am excited for all that we are going to see on Gaspésie ~ whales, kittiwakes (those are birds, too), forests, waters ~ and to get to meet the people and learn something about their lives, out on the edge of the sea in the north.

But I am just a little bit obsessed with les fous de bassan.  My best bird friends.

 

500 Words on Lament

The Bible is filled with words written, spoken, and sung in response to life’s catastrophes.  We can be forgiven for not knowing this ~ even regular churchgoers are primarily exposed only to proclamations of joy (one reason I stayed out of church for months after my son died, even though I was a seminary student), and to a general cultural assumption that Christians are happy-clappy people with neither experience of the darkness nor willingness to go there.  And the sad truth is that many pastors are ill-equipped for that work.

(My brother, several years ago, decided to experiment with a church connection.  How do I get to know the pastor? he wondered?  Go to lunch, I said.  I can do that? he asked. Pastors eat lunch, I said.  What do we talk about? he wondered.  He’ll know, I responded.  He’s used to it.  At the ensuing lunch,  my brother wondered aloud about faith in the context of a mother and brother dead when he was four,  a stepmother ten years later, a nephew dead of suicide only recently.  Wow, you get right to the point, said the pastor.  It turned out he had no idea what to say.)

In fact, volumes, libraries, have been filled with writing about the Bible’s words on grief.  I have allotted myself 500 words as a starter, so that I don’t ramble on indefinitely.  And I’ve already used 227 of them!  Herewith, an introduction:

The Book of Psalms, the prayerbook and songbook of the Jewish people, Jesus’ people, is filled with psalms of lament.  (Google: psalms of lament.)  Many of them are what are called communal psalms, psalms written out of a community’s misfortunes and disasters.  The language is equally applicable to each of us in our individual misery. No glossing over or mincing of words:

Psalm 142: Give heed to my cry,  for I am brought very low.

Psalm 44:23-24: Rouse yourself!  Why do you sleep, O Lord? . . .  Why do you hide your face?

Nearly every psalm of lament follows the same pattern: an expression of horror and sadness followed by an expression of confidence in God.  My favorite is the exception to the rule, Psalm 88, an unremitting cry of anguish.  I wrote a lengthy academic paper about it in seminary, but you don’t need to know Hebrew or history or expository techniques to get it:

Psalm 88:15: Wretched and close to death . . . I am desperate.

There’s an entire little book in the Bible called Lamentations.  There’s the story of Ruth — another book — in which a woman loses husband and sons, and her daughters-in-law their husbands.  I’ve done a study/support group on that one; it’s a moving source for considering the hidden losses which accompany the obvious ones, and the ways in which life goes on and new life can be found  (and especially for coming to terms with the unexpected resources of women who go beyond the usual boundaries of “acceptable” behavior – nevertheless, they persisted).

Bad things happen to lots of good people in the Bible.  Most famously, to Job — his name the title of another book.  People often speak of “the patience of Job” — I don’t know where they get that.  I preached a sermon series on Job once, after which one of my parishioners said, “We all learned that we are never supposed to get angry at God.”

That is NOT what I said.

The Book of Job, in a nutshell:  A good guy, a successful guy.  God gets into a dispute with Satan and terrible, terrible things happen.  Job’s wife says, Curse God, and die. (A good line, that.)  Job has some really bad news friends who come around and ask, What did you do, that all this happened to you? (We all know who they are.)  Job never gives up expressing his rage and his grief to God (Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? ~ Job 3:11) , who finally responds, in a wild and turbulent two chapters of question cascading upon question, by asking, Do you understand who I am?”

It’s not exactly a satisfying answer, which is perhaps the point: to our understanding, there is no satisfying answer.  (I might add that the ending of Job, in which he gets back a perfect life, is fairly useless ~ even in the era in which Job was finally written down, people were looking for Hollywood endings, so skip that part.)

I’m way over my 500 words.  My suggestion? Read, pray, very slowly, through the Book of Psalms, one or part of one a day.  And/or a chapter of Job a day.

They will not bring anyone back.  But you will discover a treasure of words written down by people who have experienced, one way or another, what you have.

 

 

 


Written for my friend Brigitte, who has lost son and, now, husband.

Nine

Some days, I try to figure out which is worse.  Is it that he is not here, living his life to the fullest, that life in which we had invested every square inch of our own beings, everything we had to offer?  Not enjoying a family, not succeeding in his work, not taking photographs or making pottery?

Or is it that he is not in this world, sharing his multitude of gifts?  At only twenty-four, he was fluent in French, a comfortable world traveler, a gifted writer, knowledgeable about history and science and literature.  I glance at an article about desperate need in French-speaking Africa and wonder why he is not here, lending his talents and expertise to creating solutions.   I see a new architectural design and imagine that he might have participated in its development.

Or is it that he is not here with us?  Not here to add his considerable wit to the political predicament in which we find ourselves?  Not here to share his young adulthood with his twin brother and their little sister?  Not here to help us as we age, become less able, falter, and die?

Sometimes, in the course of my ministry, I meet elderly men and women who tell me how close they are to the brother or sister with whom they have shared eight, once even nine, decades.  I smile and say something encouraging.  I want to hollow out the landscape with my cry into the nothingness that is left.

***

I remember little of the first years.  Some things.  The suffocating, nauseating guilt.  The icy rejection which slammed me against a brick wall.  The feeling of falling, falling, falling . . .  of stepping across shards of glass. The way my joints, and back, and head, and gut, and everything, hurt.  The way I went to classes and wrote papers and looked at the grades . . .  always good grades, always gracious comments, always such a disciplined and even sometimes insightful student . . . with no recollection whatever of having written those pages.  The way I walked, and walked, and walked, wondering if I might simply walk right into the stratosphere.  The questions people asked me . . .  isn’t it time to focus on life? don’t you feel wiser, more compassionate?  don’t you find comfort in your faith?  . . .  causing me to understand that I had moved to Jupiter, or perhaps little Pluto, not even an official planet anymore.  Pluto. That sounds about right.

***

It takes a long time.  A recently widowed parishioner wrote me a note this past week, mentioning that she believes that the American tolerance for grief lasts about three months.  I can understand how it is that no one knows about this.  I look at my friends, reeling from the deaths of children six, seven, eight, nine, ten years and more ago, and I see how productive and engaged and filled with joy we all are . . . and yes, we are, filled with costly and hard-won joy, for we know, if we did not before (and I, actually, did . . .  I’ve known since I was seven . . . ) that it can all be erased in a second . . .  but I also see the things which are not so visible.  The shadow which crosses a face standing in the crowd at a wedding.   The smile and slight shake of the head when a baby is offered as a gift from a beaming mother.  The step out the door and onto the porch when the laughter over the antics of small children echoes throughout the house.

***

The last couple of years have been much easier.  I don’t know why.  I suppose the wavelengths of grief stretch and become more flexible, given enough time and practice.  That did not stop me from twice bursting into tears at my desk during the most recent Christmas season, grateful to be the only one in the building when an unexpected letter arrived from a high school classmate, last heard from 45 years earlier, who has lost one of her own sons, and when a FB message appeared from one of my son’s roommates, silent since the shocked condolence letter written years ago, and now a husband and father in his home country, France.

***

Who, I wonder would he have become?  Would he have continued with his corporate career; would we have returned to Chicago for a B-school graduation?  (Unlikely.)  Would he have left that life behind and begun to nourish the artistic gifts he resisted, begun to write and travel, relaxed into the world that beckoned him to so much? (More probable, given enough time.)   Would he have become a husband and father?  That woman, or another?  Would he have been tormented by episodes of depression, or would he have found hope and possibility where it one night seemed that none existed?   Would he be up in Canada right now, or out on a soccer field, introducing a small son or daughter to the world?

***

I live my life.  I do good work, important work.  I extend myself for my family.  I do love this world.

***

And there is not a day on which I do not breathe, Come back. Come back to me. Come back.

 


Our son Josh died by suicide on September 2, 2008.

 

 

 

 

Barkskins: Book Review (La Gaspésie — 2)

barkskins

  • A generational saga ~ the four hundred years’ narrative of two families, one First Nations from what the area known today as Quebec and the Maritimes, and one European, specifically French, eventually reaching Chicago and western North America;
  • The story of the destruction of the North American forests, a devastating attack which takes entrepreneurs to China and spreads as far as New Zealand;
  • The harrowing details of the devastation which white settlers, trappers, missionaries, and purveyors of commerce visited upon those whose fished and hunted and understood as sacred the lands of North America, and the beginnings of the conservation movement, wholly inadequate to address the losses which will take a millennium from which to recover;
  • A female anti-heroine, oddly compelling in her single-minded pursuit of trees and money:

Barkskins is a riveting, albeit loooong novel.  At one point, unable to keep track of the multitude of characters and their relationships (unfortunately, the illuminating family trees are located in the back of the book, and I did not discover them until I was finished), I put it aside, but several days later found myself drawn back, and finished every page.

North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth century was a brutal place, one in which violence was common and in which people lived and worked in the midst of constant danger.  Annie Proulx does not mince details; pages and scenes in Barkskins require a strong stomach.

It was also a place of a seemingly endless supply of natural resources, and the greed carelessness with which the Europeans destroyed them ~ birds, mammals, waters, forests ~ is well known, but documented with  harrowing precision in this novel.  The term “barkskins” refers to the woodsmen who logged and transformed the forest into ships, houses, and furniture, swiftly and remorselessly.)

It’s a difficult read, made more so by the speed with which some of the characters are dismissed within a short space of having been introduced.  (And the ironic twist by which the families, unknown to themselves, become re-connected in the twentieth century, is rendered nearly invisible, and those back pages are required to clarify it.) But it’s also a fascinating read, in its attention to period detail and its sweep across human emotion and entanglement.

I did not choose this book with my upcoming trip to Gaspésie in mind; I chose it because I admire and enjoy Annie Proulx’s writing.  However, as I paused every few pages to google yet another reference ~ tribes, families, places, historical events ~ I discovered that much of it is set in eastern Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and Maine, and so it took on added meaning for me.  The friend with whom I am travelling and I had been focused on the Gaspésie coastline for our travels, but I am now trying to ensure that we at least dip into the interior of the peninsula, so that we can see something of the forests that once dominated this continent.

**********

“You do not understand the saying ‘tian ren he yi.’ It refers to a state of harmony between people and nature.  You do not feel this.  No European does.  I cannot explain it to you.  It is a kind of personal philosophy for each person, yet it is everything.” (Hong merchant Wiqua to French trader Charles Duquet in Barkskins.)

 

 

 

 

When I’m 64 ~ 3

64th

On the plus side: I had a great birthday!  My family arrived and, picnic gear assembled, we headed to our city’s outdoor ampitheatre for dinner on the lawn and an Apollo’s Fire concert of music by Vivaldi.  Apollo’s Fire plays baroque music using period instruments, and Vivaldi is often my favorite composer, so it was a wonderful evening for me.  The last time I heard The Four Seasons performed live,  we were in St. Chappelle in Paris on a simmering summer evening; Saturday evening was as delightful, and a good deal more pleasant insofar as temperatures were concerned.

On the downside, no sooner I had resolved, as I described in my last post, that the future would hold more time for family and friends than . . . it didn’t.  As I opened gifts on Saturday evening before our picnic, I learned that my daughter had spent the previous several days organizing a surprise birthday party for me for the night before!  A party that had been cancelled because I was conducting a funeral that evening. I was crushed when the surprise was inadvertently revealed by my son (who assumed that I must have known by then) ~ I had had NO idea and have always wished that someone would plan a surprise party for me!  Well, as a friend pointed out, I did get my wish  . . .  someone did plan a party.

A few nights later, I missed my book club, a bi-monthly gathering of women friends, because I was en route home from an out-of-state training event.  I am so often flummoxed in my efforts to spend more time on my own relationships, and so disappointed when my work intervenes; I am beginning to see retirement as a necessity more for creating time with those I love than for anything else!

 

When I’m Sixty-Four . . . 2

pmc

. . . tomorrow!  Four things to which I am looking forward, to accompany yesterday’s six for which I am grateful:

  1. A better balance in life, meaning more time with friends, more time getting to know people new in my life, more time outdoors, more time for photography.  That’s a lot of more, which means that there also has to be some less.  It’s so easy, in a life of ministry, to allow the demands of the work to consume all waking hours and then some, which is not healthy for any of us.
  2. Changes in physical space.  I know, I know, I’ve been talking about downsizing for years, but really . . . all this stuff has got to go!  Our kitchen is an antique and I’d really like to remodel that, enjoy the house for a few more years, and then move to our retirement bungalow.  (Or perhaps sell the house as is and move for a new adventure?)
  3. Better health.  I am indeed grateful for what I have, but there is plenty of room for improvement.  It’s all a crapshoot, but if I’m still around at 74, I’d like to be facing the following decade with less weight and more strength and more flexibility (that means any) than I have now.
  4. And, of course, travel.  Last night at a party, a few of us talked about our bucket lists.  Mine increasingly include a desire to spend a substantial amount of time in a few places and get to know them a little, including Alaska, Vancouver and BC, Quebec and the Maritimes, the Cinque Terre, more Utah, more PNW, more Paris, more Scotland.  My grandmother and I spent my 13th birthday in Copenhagen and my 15th in Florence ~ maybe I should be working on future birthday plans!

When I’m Sixty-Four . . . 1

When_I'm_Sixty-Four_-_The_Beatles.jpeg.jpeg

. . . which I will be in two days, I am hoping to look back and forward with gratitude and hope.  So, today, six things for which I am grateful and, tomorrow, four to which I look forward!

  1. 1. My parents.  I barely remember my mother, but those moments etched into the grooves of my mind confirm that she was a woman open to all, unfailingly generous, and patient with her ever inquisitive and persistent firstborn child.  I’ve recorded this before, but one of my favorite memories is one in which I was waiting for her to get off the telephone in the kitchen one afternoon, so that I could ask about a new word I had just overheard. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, what does ‘dammit’ mean?”  Definition: “That’s not a word for little girls.”  My father, on the other hand, lived until almost his 85th birthday last year.  As I prepared for his memorial, I realized that despite his lifetime of disappointments (three wives, one son, one stepson, and one grandson all died before he did) and his rejection of any traditional faith as a possible source of solace (a response I find completely understandable), he was a deeply spiritual man in his passions for nature, canoeing into the back country, and music.
  2. My education.  Each stage offered different gifts, some of them intellectual, but many much broader.  A small, rural elementary school. (Cows on the other side of the playground fence). A Catholic convent boarding school. (Vatican II).  A demanding New England boarding school. New England colleges.  Law school in Cleveland.  Jesuit training in spiritual direction.  A seminary education in Pittsburgh.  If I were younger (and richer), I’d go back for a D.Min.
  3. My family.  A long marriage.  Three beautiful, funny, inventive children.  Today, the prospect of a daughter-in-law and grandson.  More sorrow than anyone should have to swallow, but I guess I learned a few things (all of which I would trade in a nanosecond, along with everything else in my life excepting my surviving children, for one more day with my son).
  4. Good work to do.  It has been my privilege to accompany people through some of the roughest moments in their lives as they have negotiated divorces and custody decisions, to teach students of all ages, to do volunteer work that has mattered ~ in nature and in suicide prevention,and to serve God and, a little bit, the world, through ordained ministry.  (I also happen to know how to make GI Joe flashlights on an assembly line, how to serve endless rounds of hamburgers and beer, how to whip a hotel room into shape while watching soap operas (do the bathrooms during the commercials), and how to order and display drugstore cosmetics.)  The best thing about every job I have ever held has been the people ~ the ladies in the Hasbro factory, the folks who taught me about birds and about photography, the clients who shared their deepest fears and frustrations with me, the students who taught me about Orthodox Judaism,  the parishoners who have welcomed me on even my worst days, and the people who push for health, especially mental health, care, education, legislation, and funding.
  5. Some reasonable good health.  I have been careless and lazy and had some major stumbles along the way (and now, oh, those knees!), but I am grateful for a body which  has recovered again and again.   On the whole, I can walk a long way, paddle a canoe, and get through the day ~ no small things.
  6. Nature.  The skies and all that swirls through them, the mountains and beaches and lakes and rivers and canyons I’ve seen and those I haven’t, the hikes and paddles I’ve made, the animals and birds (including the ones who’ve lived in my house) who ignore us but make this world so much more than it would be were we here alone.  Most especially the owls and the hawks and the gannets.  If I have a theme poem, it’s Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese.  “The world offers itself to your imagination.”

It turns out that 64 means a lot of life. Not yet “Yours sincerely, wasting away!”

 

Family

Casha and AlyasaI puzzle over questions of race and religion and nationality as I try to figure out where my piece is and how it interlocks with the others.  I preach and teach about diversity and global community, even as I know that those matters are more complex than I want to admit, because my deepest gut desire is for people to love and enjoy and celebrate one another.  But the truth is that I mostly hang out with white Protestant Americans who are about my age and live in the suburbs as I do.  I didn’t do much to make that happen, and I haven’t done much to change it.

And so the world has come to me, and my incoming family members have brought their own identities and histories right into my living room and said, “Here we are, full of love and peace and joy and hope!”

 

 

 

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