Thursday, December 27, 2007

Through the icon

(This was written for faculty devotions for the Lutheran school where I am the children’s choir director and revised for this post.)

Earlier this fall I attended Lectures in Church Music at Concordia University. The opening keynote address was titled “The Trinitarian theology as a source of inspiration for all who make music for God’s people.” The speaker was Calvin Witvliet from Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids.

He made the obligatory Calvin-Luther jokes. I looked at the hand-out. It was twenty pages long, with lots and lots of words. Not Power-Point slides, not bullet points, mostly hefty quotes from theologians and scholars: “I. The ‘relationality theme’: liturgy and koinonia and communion. A: Explication.”

I got out my knitting.

But letter B under each heavy theological theme was titled “Depiction.” Sprinkled throughout the handout were pictures of icons—old Russian and modern American, a 15th century painting, a contemporary stained glass window—art that depicted the Trinity.

Dr. Witvliet explained a few things about icons. The viewer is part of the icon. What you bring and how you respond are an integral part of what the icon is. He also told the story of an orthodox priest, who had watched and listened as yet another art history tour group came to view the icons in his sanctuary. “They look at the icons,” he said. “I wish they would look through them.”

When you look at the icon you see how it is made, the artist’s technique, the color, the culture’s influence on the representation of God. When you look through the icon, your imagination is engaged. God is moving and active, God gives and receives. God is omni-everything, but also working in you. The knowledge you gain is beyond words and specific symbols—kind of like the way talking to kindergartners can spin you off in a whole new theological direction.

It seems to me that our Children’s Christmas Eve service is a kind of icon. Lord knows, it’s revered like an icon, sometimes for worse, sometimes in better ways.

So it comes with the challenge to look through it, not just at it.

Now I suspect that teachers who are veterans of this Christmas Eve service know something about looking through it. If they didn’t, school would be a pretty Scrooge-y place during the last half of December. The image of God has a way of surprising us each Christmas in the children—clued-in and clueless—who sing songs, ring bells, and depict wise men and shepherds in sneakers and cotton robes worn over their jeans.

We are careful at Grace to speak of the Children’s Christmas Eve services as worship, not performance. Yet anytime you practice and practice and finally sing or ring or read or act like shepherds in front of hundreds of people, that’s a performance. It has all the urgencies of coming in on time, staying together, focusing and communicating. There is greater decorum because it’s worship. There’s no applause. And true to our Lutheran cultural heritage, we nip conceit and pride in the bud. Nevertheless, it’s not our reverence that makes those 70 minutes on Christmas Eve a worship service rather than a program. It is the presence of God that makes it worship.

The lecturer last October warned his audience of church musicians against what he called “a prevailing heresy in North American theology”—that worship is what we do for God. Our tit-for-tat minds sometimes reduce worship to something we do to earn God’s favor. When we emphasize to kids how important it is to do our very best on Christmas Eve, because this is Jesus’ birthday or because we are “singing for God,” we may be getting somewhere in range of this heresy.

I wrote down a phrase used by this lecturer to describe worship: “a whirlwind of divine activity.” Even actions that seem to originate with us—prayer, praise—are really divine actions, inspired by the Spirit, made acceptable to God by Christ’s sacrifice for us.

One of my predecessors speaks of “Christmas eyes,” a special spark of excitement and wonder in the faces of children during this traditional service. All the care in preparing this service frees them to experience it, to look through the icon and thrill to see God’s light entering every corner of earth’s darkness.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The bosom of God

Someone, someone should have told me that having children would mean having to live through all their pain, all their sorrows, all their disappointments.

Today I am feeling these acutely. There's no need to describe the details here. These are my children's problems, after all, not mine to blog about. And they're not huge, life-shattering issues--just life's ups and downs. But oh, my Lord, it hurts me to see them hurting.

I could take this issue to therapy and explore a) my own adolescent disappointments and b) the boundaries (or lack of same) between my children and myself. Why do I get so involved in what they are feeling--or what I imagine they are feeling? What haven't I resolved from my own past? Step back, get some perspective. The kids will turn out okay. Everybody has to experience life for themselves. You can't protect them from the real world. This is how they grow up.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

There's a line between understanding and sympathizing with another person's pain and being hurt by it yourself. As a parent, you walk very close to that line, and often you step over it. Before I had children, I read that mothers' selves merged with their infants. I did not understand how this could be so, could not imagine my way out of myself and into that truth. But within forty-eight hours of my first son's birth, he was me, every part of me. Twenty-one years later I have still not untangled that knot, not completely. A happy smile from one of my kids can kindle warm hearth fires around my heart, and their losses hurt me more than my own.

Is this why the image of God as parent is so powerful? It's not just the tender parental care--"Children of the heavenly father / safely in his bosom gather." It is the Creator at one with her creatures, a passionate mother or father whose heart grieves when we sin--not so much because justice is offended, but because of the pain we are in. That same God must also smile deeply when we act with love or receive love from others. That same God sent Jesus, the perfect son, to suffer with us.

Oh, to be as large as God! To be there in the sorrow, to inspire the love, to take it all in and be great and good! Maybe, gathered in God's bosom--and I'm thinking a nursing bosom, not a manly one--maybe in that bosom I too can be whole and great and good, in pain or happiness.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Singing for Gail's Funeral

I'm singing for a funeral today. This is the third time in the last week that I've been involved in the musical end of a funeral or memorial service. Once for a stranger, once for the 90-year-old father of a long acquaintance, today for a friend.

It is fourteen months since Lon died. Fourteen months since we gathered in church to give thanks to God for both his life and his death. He had suffered for many, many years with Alzheimer's and was ready to be called out of the fog and into his heavenly home. I have been to several funerals during those fourteen months, mostly of very old people. And at each one, I steel myself. If my eyes mist over, or there is a lump in my throat, I shake it off. I think about something else. I'm in the choir loft. There is singing to do. Tears will not help.

Detachment is my gift to the mourners. I explained this, kind of, to my children's choir last week, as they prepared to sing at the funeral of the 90-year-old grandpa. He was not their grandpa. They were not especially sad about his life coming to an end. And so they were able to sing for those who grieved, to give voice to the family's faith, and to the faith of the deceased. Most of all, their song spoke God's promises to the whole congregation, to those sitting downstairs in church, and even to each one of them. Though only ten or eleven or twelve years old, they have feelings about death. Fearful feelings.

Today it's "Amazing Grace," "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need," and "Lord, it belongs not to my care whether I die or live." This last one is a tough one. My friend Gail at the end did not care whether she lived. Beset with medical problems, feeling hopeless, she found, I hope, peace in hospice care. And surely God was there. Yes?

It is complicated. Life is complicated and messy and one does not always have the buoyancy to meet its challenges. I will feel sad today, but I can not dip too deeply into that sadness. When the fullness rises in my chest, some muscles relax too much and others tighten. There is no steady tall column of air to support the singing. The vocal cords move stiffly and the sounds that come out are not controlled, are not supple.

The problem is that floating above the sadness brings out the pissiness in me. My teeth are clenched against the feelings that rise from my gut, and like flint against steel, those clenched teeth strike sparks, shooting off every which way. I must guard what I say today because my own feelings about death and despair will make me sardonic, grim, sarcastic. I have feelings about death, too. But the anger will not help the singing. And grim determination is not the gift I wish to bring today.

Years ago, after another funeral choir experience, I said to someone who had been downstairs in the pews during the funeral, "Yes, it's a good thing for Christians to gather and rejoice and sing in the face of death." To sing that old evil foe back into his proper place on earth. To loft our music into the air, because God will use those harmonies to open heaven and give us a blessed foretaste of his own feast.

My parrners today in singing are first and second graders from Grace School. I'm covering the hymns. They are singing of baptism and the saints worshiping before the throne of God. Awesome. And then they are leaving the balcony, quietly, to go have lunch and then recess.

My life, too, will go on. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


It's early, and it's dark. I got out of bed to drive my son to the high school, where he has pre-season basketball practice at 6:00 a.m. every day this week.

Along the way were houses decorated with Halloween lights, including one big ol' Prairie-style stucco with a front yard full of illuminated tombstones, gargoyles, jack o'lanterns, and skeletons. Odd that these things were still glowing at 5:45 in the morning. Christmas lights shining at dawn would inspire me.--something about light in darkness burning through the night, waiting and watching for morning. Halloween, on the other hand, is an invitation to play in the darkness, with whatever frightening spirits might live there. Can a gargoyle with a lightbulb inside give you goosebumps or raise the hair on the back of your neck?

One could rant about Halloween being commercialized, just like Christmas. Halloween has become the second-largest merchandising season in the United States. But it's hard to say exactly what "real meaning" was lost in the process. The Halloween of my childhood was Snickers bars. Butterfingers, and that peanut butter taffy that came in orange and black wrappers. The scare factor was just for fun. We had never heard of the Day of the Dead, and my church back then, All Saints' Day was conflated with Reformation. The origins of Halloween were too medieval for a twentieth century American child to take to heart.

I live just one block away from my suburb's border with Chicago's west side. If the weather is dry, we will see 250 to 300 trick-or-treaters at our door on Halloweeen, many of them from the city. There will be babies in strollers, toddlers who can't quite get up the porch steps, six-, seven- and eight-year-olds in costumes from Walmart, and hosts of teens and even young adults in masks and warm-up suits, or not costumed at all. Some will carry an extra trick-or-treat bag "for my sister who's sick" or "for the baby." Out on the sidewalk, the leaves crunch under the scuffling sneakers of every age group. Inside a nervous dog will be at my knee every time I open the door. Some children will be afraid of her--far more scared than they are of Halloween goblins and ghouls.

It's a holiday about cheap and abundant candy--rolls of Smarties at our house, not Snickers. In many houses on our block, no one will be home on Halloween, or they will not answer the door. Others--and it's the same people every year--choose to be hospitable.

Hospitable--like that illuminated gargoyle. There are enough real things to be frightened of in this world. Tonight we only play at fear.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Passing out

I gave blood yesterday. It's a boring thing to do, but after a while I started to feel woozy, blurry, nauseous, not good. I knew I was in trouble. As the beeper sounded to alert the technician that I had pumped out the full pint, I hollered, "I'm blacking out here." At least I think I said that. I'm not quite sure what was intention and what actually happened. I know I passed out for a few moments, because I have no memory of anyone rushing over and lowering the head of my chair, yet that is what happened. I woke up and one of the women asked me my name. I knew it. Good for me, I thought. I'm back.

In ordinary life, I am not a fainter, but I am mildly claustrophobic. I discovered this many years ago when I took a tour of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky with some friends. The guide opened a door into the ground, and we all walked down--what, maybe 200 stairs?--into the cave. As I walked, I turned around and couldn't see the top of the stairs or the sky. Looking ahead, I couldn't see the bottom of the stairs, just lots of people. I got shaky. My knees wobbled. When we fistood on the solid rock on the cave floor, we had to wait for the rest of the people to get down the stairs and into the cave. I was restless, looking for the way out. If we were going to tour this hole these rooms that were way, way underground, I needed to get moving. It took careful, concentrated rational thought to keep myself from finding the ranger and saying, "I need to get out of here. Now."

Lying in that lounge chair after giving blood, I felt better when I could ask for apple juice. I felt better when I decided not to eat the pretzels. (I didn't want to throw up.) In Mammoth Cave I felt better when the guide started talking and I could make quiet jokes with my friends. I was pretty annoying, actually, because it took more than a little joking around to manage my panic.

Another mind-altering experience: childbirth. Three times I went to that most powerful of feminine places, undrugged and noisy. You master labor--well, you get through it--by giving yourself over to what your body is trying to do. You think of dark, circular places, places that spiral and open. Of power, of force, of breath and depth and life force. A whole other way of being, away from the sheets you lie on, apart from the room you are in.

It's what I picture when I read the opening verse of Genesis. Without form and void, in the darkness and the deep. The Spirit of God is there, moving, blowing, sweeping as a wind over the waters. The Spirit creates, by speaking. breathing the words, "Let there be."

We come back from these shaky places by asserting our will. I say my name. I ask for juice. I make jokes. I listen to a guide talk about rock formations and rivers inside the earth. I speak the name of the newborn child in my arms. I'm back.

Back from the void of unconsciouness, from physiologic panic, from the waves of labor, breathing, speaking, saying words creates the world as I see it, the world that exists in the mind of God.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

My constant flame

Many of the most beloved of Lutheran hymns come from the pen of Paul Gerhardt. This year, 2007, marks the 400th anniversary of his birth. Gerhardt's biography is full of the tribulations brought upon ordinary people by the Thirty Years' War--disease, famine, destruction, death. His hymns radiate joy, confidence and peace rooted in the love of Christ. Here's a stanza:

Jesus, thy boundless love to me, No thought can reach, no tongue declare.
Unite my thankful heart to thee, And reign without a rival there!
Thine wholly, thine alone, I am; Be thou alone my constant flame.

Gerhardt's repeated declarations that Jesus' love overcomes death and gloom are hard for me to comprehend, and harder still when I try to think my way back to what it must have been like to live in Germany in a time when armies tramped back and forth across the land, leaving hunger and contagion behind them. This is the setting for Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage, and that post-World War II play inspires more cynicism than rejoicing.

Paul Gerhardt lived out the words of Paul the apostle: "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!" Paul wrote these words to the Phillipians from a jail cell, most likely in Rome. The entire letter to the Phillipians overflows with rejoicing, as if confinement and the threat of excution have pushed Paul into a higher level of consciousness, one where he can be content and rejoice with whatever he has. Was Gerhardt given the same gift? The same transforming faith in Christ?

Maybe it was that giant picture of the ascending Jesus that loomed over me in the church where I worshiped as a child. Maybe it's because the Jesus of the Bible lived far away and long ago in a culture I understand even less than that of 17th-century Germany. It's hard to admit this, as a committed Christian, but the thought of Jesus does not necessarily flood my heart with joy. Remembering that Jesus died for me does not make my head rest any easier on my pillow at night.

However, singing "Awake My Heart with Gladness," a Paul Gerhardt text, does make me glad (even if all those ascending melodic passages also make my voice tired). And not just glad, but hopeful, unafraid, certain of some kind of resurrection--many kinds of resurrection! "Now Rest Beneath Night's Shadow," with "Lord Jesus, since you love me" as the second stanza, calms my fears about my family and my future.

Gerhardt uses darkness and sunshine often as images in his hymns. The bright light comes from Jesus. Me--I don't see the sun rise very often. I start most days by cowering in bed until the clock says I absolutely must get up and then rushing around to pour cereal, make orange juice, pack lunches and drink coffee. The sun coming up every morning must have meant something different to people for whom it was pitch dark at night. Here I sit, working at the computer at 11:15 p.m., in flourescent light that is too bright, too tiring.

So where do I see Jesus? While singing "Jesus, thy boundless love to me" at this afternoon's Gerhardt festival at my church I thought of the ladies who cared for my husband, Lon, in the nursing home in the months before he died, and who were with him as he departed finally to be with God. This nursing home was full of African-American women who radiated faith in Jesus. There was a receptionist who listened and gave me a hug on a day when I was frazzled and needing to be anywhere but there. There was the director of the Alzheimer's floor who emphatically supported my decision to put Lon into hospice care. And there were these women who were with Lon when he died, and who told Lon's mother and me about it later. Oh, my Savior--yes, there in them.

Jesus surely lives in life's lesser moments, too, transforming anger into mercy, or frustration into patience. Jesus is there when Christians gather and sing, when they eat together, talk and lift one another up in prayer and celebration.

I must remember to name Christ in these moments.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Tristram Shandy

I started to read Tristram Shandy last week. It was written in 1749 by Laurence Sterne. It's a novel, I think. Or will be eventually. So far, it's seventy pages of digression, which is mostly entertaining, but hard to follow late at night. The principal punctuation mark is the dash, and at many of those dashes my mind wanders off on its own.

I'm mostly rehashing the day's conversations--things I wish I'd said, things I should say tomorrow, and things I'm not sure I should have said at all. How much simpler life would be, and how much reading I could get done, if I would just not talk at all.

But spew I do. Everything depends on language. Human society was built on our ability to tell one another how to use tools. (I read that in an article on baboons' understanding of social status.) I've had enough missteps with language and symbols today that I'm not convinced language is the key to understanding how to use tools they way the other guy does. Twice in the last 24 hours I've told knitting friends to think less about all the words in the directions and think more about what the work looks like. At other times, I've issued directions that were less and less clear the more you thought about them. Most verbal directions could be replaced by intelligent graphic design.

Language is really for play--serious play sometimes, but play nevertheless. You can't tell about anything without spinning it. What could be more unexciting than ordering a new garage door? But I can buff up that tale, put a little foreshadowing into the repairman's early speeches, and round up a few dollars here, round down a few over there to make the need for a door more compelling. Serious stories sometimes need to come out of people, and you can hear them spin as they spew, alliterate as they exaggerate.

Why am I reading Tristram Shandy? Because of Thomas Jefferson, who greatly enjoyed it. He is not someone you picture reading fiction. I was curious about what entertained him. Most definitely it was language, story play, spinning and spewing.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Just listening is hard.

In choir last week, the director played a recording of the Bach cantata chorus we were working on and asked the choir to listen. By the middle of the movement, just about everyone was singing along. Sotto voce, yes, but concentrating on the notes in their own part, not on the big picture--the sweep of the music, the back-and-forth of the counterpoint, the conversation between orchestra and chorus.

Singing along is fine. In this situation, it was an opportunity to experience the tempo we are trying to achieve, somewhere between a lively allegro and zoom! there it goes. But singing along is not listening.

In kindergarten music the other day, I said listen, I have a story to sing for you. Listen. "Over in the meadow in the sand in the sun, lived an old mother turtle and her little turtle one." Most of them listened. (We were having a surprisingly good day in kindergarten.) But all the way through ten verses--little foxes two, little birdies three, little bunnies ten--one little girl persisted in trying to sing along. She didn't know the tune. She didn't know the words. She didn't pick up on the repetition from verse to verse and at least get those parts right. She just made a low, untuneful, unmusical quiet sound, even after I had reminded the class that their job was to listen. I don't think she knew she was singing along.

In church on Sunday mornings, as the lessons are read, most worshipers look down, following the text in their bulletin. Sometimes it's hard to hear or understand the reader. Ours is an acoustically lively sanctuary, friendly to music, less friendly to the spoken word. But I think we follow along with eyes as well ears mainly to keep our minds from straying, or to avoid looking directly at reader.

I went to church twice yesterday, so I heard the sermon twice. As I sat in the pew for the second time around, I tried to remember from the first service how it all came out. It was hard--something about righteousness? Had I listened all the way to the end in the first service?

Even in conversations with friends, my mind jumps off track and goes to work on what I an going to say next rather than on what is being said to me.

Listening means taking in someone else's thoughts, words, song, experience. Being aware of the bird in the tree outside. Letting someone else make the music. Letting someone else make the argument.

Hard to do.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


It's a beautiful September day. There's a clear blue sky and it's 53 degrees outside--a little cool for September, but a chance to wear a favorite sweater and look forward to fall. I'm wearing the cotton and silk cardigan that I knit and sewed together over the summer. As long as I'm wearing it, I may have to go visit the yarn store this afternoon and show it off.

My son and I made a quick visit to the farmer's market this morning. We were too late for the donuts he was craving--donuts made on the spot, in the church basement, and rolled in large dishpans of cinnamon sugar. Eat one, and you can actually feel the jolt when the sugar hits your brain. A half dozen is plenty for this household. One is plenty for me.

There were people everywhere as we drove from the farmer's market to the bread store where Kurt got honey wheat bread as a substitute for the donuts. At the stop light, I waited and waited to turn right. Waited for parents with small children to cross in front of my car. For couples and singles with bags of produce and armloads of gladiolas from the market. For a whole field hockey team, walking towards the high school where there's a big tournament this weekend. They were tall and strong and far more attractive than any teenage girl pop star.

The maple tree by the garage is starting to change from green to gold. I woke for the first time this morning at 6:30, when the sun was still low in the sky. The leaves that fill the view from my bedroom window were a dull green. But at 8:00, with the sun on them, the maple leaves were that glorious subtle mixture of green and gold that can only be seen in September.

I want so much not to waste days like this. I think to myself, we should be off camping. We should be outdoors enjoying ths best of all possible months with every inhalation. Energized by the clear air, I should be upstairs cleaning out the attic, or in the yard, pulling weeds to make way for chrysanthemums and daffodil bulbs.

Why does September perfection prompt so many "shoulds"? Today is a blessing, a gift from God's grace. Whatever I do this afternnon--and I probably won't clean the attic or clean up the yard--whatever I do with this sweet day, the warm sunshine, the quietly dancing leaves, the snap in the air, the energy all around--God made them to give me joy.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mostly questions

An email from a friend arrives. It has been sent to many people at once. The greeting begins "Dear family and friends," and the writer asks for prayers. Her sister-in-law, 47 years old, has suffered a massive stroke. She is in a coma. The family is making funeral plans. The dying woman has children--a daughter who is only 11, a son who is 20.

What do you say in reply? You say you will pray. You say I am thinking about you. You speak of faith, hope, comfort.

But what do you say to God during the rest of the day, as you move about the house, doing laundry, washing floors, cleaning up the kitchen? I hear very formal words in my mind, the words we would pray in church. Be with them, Lord. Comfort and uphold those who mourn. Receive her into your everlasting care. Your will be done.

Wait. Was this God's will? What is God's will when awful things happen? Just what is the theology of what God wills for me? What clever things have I heard or read for getting around the idea that everything that happens is God's will? Did God will this to happen? And are we talking about a grand and general will of God, or the will of a personal God for every breath, every step, every circumstance of his creatures' lives?

How do you answer such questions? How do you piece together the puzzle of anyone's life and ultimate purpose? These things are so hard to know, so hard to feel certain of. It's impossible, really.

We look to what we do know and have experienced of God: small things--hopeful presence, love shown to us through creation and creatures, God's constancy. Still, these sound like tired cliches from a white-bread, Hallmark-card generic religion. How can a few pretty words stand against sudden and premature death? How can they fill in for a mother, a friend, a real person who is no longer?

Where there is terrible, awful loss, there is also awesome power--divine power. I am convinced of this, just like Paul, who was convinced that even life's most extreme situations will not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God is present in great majesty in our suffering, just as in the suffering of Christ on the cross. It is hard to comprehend, hard to recognize while we are wrapped up in fear. Yet in death, in grief, and in going on we can be certain of God's presence and God's good will for us.

Monday, July 16, 2007


I was going to take my coffee and my book outside, because it's summer. It's a cloudy day. I saw a few raindrops about a half hour ago, but they're gone now. The air is soft and even my weedy backyard seems like it could stand in for the lawn at my favorite vacation spot.

However, in front of the house, the street is lined with utility trucks. The workers from the gas company are using a jackhammer to break through the pavement. The noise puts a hard edge on everything. My skin enjoys the cool breeze coming through the open window here by the computer, but the pounding in my ears is putting an edge on this drawn-out summer aftrenoon.

Meanwhile, the coffee is putting an edge on me, or so I hope. I wouldn't be writing this without that caffeine boost. I didn't sleep well last night, so this afternoon was devoted to foggy napping--the kind where you fall asleep and then the phone rings. You answer it, wake up enough to converse, then try to nap some more. From then on, you're never sure if you're awake or asleep.

I read when I'm trying to fall asleep, and sometimes the book merges with the dreams. Sometimes it becomes part of the sleeplessness. Last night, as I was trying to lead my mind away from the personal anxieties that were keeping me awake, I was reading Taylor Branch's At Canaan's Edge. It's the third volume in a detailed history of the civil rights movement. It is packed with short, sharp sentences, every single one of which seems to have involved a different source, a different avenue of research.How did he put this all these details together?

It is difficult to keep track of all the names in this history. The book is like a complicated tapestry. You can follow the threads, but you have to look closely. Most nights, my brain gives up on such intense mental activity and I don't read more than a page or two before falling asleep. Last night, my prickly, worried mind found itself right at home in the violence-spiked story of Martin Luther King's 1966 campaign for fair housing in Chicago. It took a long time to make it over the bump between drowsiness and sound sleep. Rocks were everywhere--hurled at African-American marchers in Marquette Park, lining my path of worries into the future.

The jackhammer sound outside continues, though it has moved to the next block, It seems they're going to have to look down several deep holes in order to fix the problem with the gas pipes under the street.

Would drilling holes into my head fix the mess in there? What is leaking? Caffeine, at least, has brought me back into contact with the life around me. Our black dog sits under my chair, doing her summertime pant, exuding that summer dog smell. The frozen pizza is in the oven for the supper; I will share it with the only child who is home this evening. I have to go rehearse Oklahoma! tonight, and make a list of all the things I need to take care of tomorrow, because I didn't do them today.

Called back to life? Assault the mind with challenges--caffeine-induced jumpiness, the banging of a jackhammer--and it comes out fighting. Perhaps I am not made for languid summer afternoons. Struggling seems more like real life.

Let us run with perseverance the race this is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Twice now, the monitor has put itself to sleep before I have managed to put anythng onscreen for a post. I've made great headway into the bag of potato chips and downed a Moosehead beer, but I haven't thought of anything to write about.

Perhaps you should stop reading right here. Apparently I've got nothing to say. This may be messy.

There is plenty I could sputter about tonight. I could list the ways in which the world would be better if A) people made an effort to understand one another's needs and feelings; B) everyone had access to affordable health care; and C) the U. S. could just get out of Iraq and have that whole mess turn out okay. All three of those topics have plenty of assumptions to question, plenty of twists for an ending.

For the record, my position on C is stop playing politics domestically and get going with diplomacy. On B, I'm for a single-payer system. I've had much less trouble with Medicare than with my HMO.

I don't have a remedy for A, though I like to think acting classes for children and teeens might help. Of course, even when people are pretending to be someone else, they still need imagination and critical thinking to discover that other people's thoughts and feelings may take different turns than their own. Plenty of performances are spoiled by selfishness.

This morning's Gospel lesson was the story of the Good Samaritan. Our pastor's sermon opened with an invitation to envison an imaginary easel, paper and magic marker on which to list the things that are not the way they should be in the world. That could take a good long time. Jesus' story of the Samaritan who cared for the man beaten and robbed on the road after other, more religious men had passed by, announces a new way of doing things in the world. We as Christians, all of us children of God, are called to seek and do good for everyone, even those beyond our own tribal group.

Evolutionary psychologists, behavioral anthropologists, or whatever mixed-discipline scholars study the origins of human behavior have put forth different theories to explain the evolution of altruism. There's the idea that an adult will risk his life to save a daughter or a nephew because that ensures that the family gene pool will continue. Members of a tribe fall into dominant and subservient roles, because social cooperation makes them better able to hunt, gather and fight together. Neither one of these explains the actions of the Samaritan.

Plenty of studies show that humans are naturally mean to outsiders. Of course, that's hardly news. I have observed this behavior in myself. It's everybody else causing my problems. And they're stupid, or less evolved than I am. Sometimes this is my self-centered point of view talking. Sometimes this is objectively true. In the first case, I had better take a deep breath, get over myself, and try to be more generous. In the second case, well, I still need that deep breath and a more generous outlook.

The process of seeing the same dimensions in others that are we know in ourselves requires love and trust. Who loved that Samaritan and nurtured his generous spirit? Christ himself told the story, created the character, and then in giving himself for the sins of the whole world, moved way beyond tribalism and ins and outs. Christ goes before, and we follow.

Our evolutionary competitiveness and our innate tendency to separate insiders from outsiders make this mighty difficult. Other organizing principles make more practical sense--enlightened self-interest, the free market, democracy. Fundamentalist jihad (and not just the Islamic variety) appeals strongly to our need to be right.

Or we can take it on ourselves to care about and minister to those messes by the side of the road.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Oh, freedom

I went to the White Sox game last night with my sons and my sister. The Sox lost to the Baltimore Orioles, 9-6, but that didn’t matter to me. I was there for the fireworks.

Wouldn’t it be cool to be a fireworks designer? To choreograph the explosions with the music? The fireworks I saw last night were beautiful in form, shape, variety and timing. But the music behind them was so much less imaginative. Third-rate lyrics proclaimed freedom this, liberty that, and the determination to “fight for the right to be free.” The only song in the extravaganza that had any sense of history behind it was Neal Diamond’s "America" which celebrates the struggle of immigrants. Yet the irony of playing this just a week after the defeat of immigration reform was, I’m sure, unintended.

My expectations were not high—this was a 21st century ballpark, a place where even pitching changes have commercial sponsors. But I expect more than mindless nationalism from Fourth of July celebrations. The lyrics of one song played during the fireworks talked about “the flag that makes us free.” I wanted to yell, “No, it’s the Constitution that makes you free! Laws and process, not symbols!”

My kids were also disappointed in the music. They wanted to hear Bruce Springsteen’s "Born in the U. S. A." Fat chance. That tune’s lyrics are critical of class in America and of American imperialism. Not the right sentiments for a baseball game that began with a “Support the Troops” parade of military veterans and active duty sailors.

I did get a lump in my throat as those scrubbed and white-suited young men and women walked around the field, but I wasn’t thinking of the flag. I was thinking of the mothers of those kids, and of all the parents and families who have given up their young men (and women) to the cause of American freedom. The guys, forever young, who didn’t come back from World War II and Viet Nam. The adventuring young men who left home to join Washington’s army and died of disease and starvation at Valley Forge. The husbands and fathers who return from Iraq physically in one piece, but who will struggle with PTSD for years to come.

The top eight feet of bookshelves above my desk hold the American story--from "Pilgrims at Plymouth" to "All the President's Men." There are biographies of the founders: the evasive Thomas Jefferson; John and Abigail Adams, critical and articulate; the ambitious and iconic George Washington; Benjamin Franklin, scientist, businessman, slippery diplomat. Then there’s "America's Jubilee," which describes the United States fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, when the Marquis de Lafayette toured the country and Adams and Jefferson died within hours of each other, forever consecrating the sacred Fourth.

There's a long stretch of books on the Civil War, chronicles of the carnage. There’s a skinny one by James McPherson called "Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution." What was revolutionary about Lincoln? He reached back and reinterpreted Jefferson's statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" and are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" to include everyone (males, anyway), and said that each man had the right to eat the bread produced by the sweat of his own brow. Seems self-evident, doesn’t it?

Beyond Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction,” the shelf holds Stephen Ambrose's book on the transcontinental railroad ("Nothing Like It in the World"), David McCullough's "The Great Bridge" (a great read), and Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” There are Roosevelt books, books on the Depression and World War II, and "The Fifties" from David Halberstam. Ahead of that is Stanley Karnow's Vietnam, which I will read someday. And there are two of the three Taylor Branch books on the civil rights movement. Later this summer I hope to finish reading the third.

I have been reading American history books since I was seven years old. The heroes of ’76 filled me with pride and curiosity. What would it have been like to be alive then? Would I have sided with the patriots, made bold by what Thomas Paine called the “Common Sense” of the issue? Or would that have seemed too radical, dangerous even? You like to think you’re on the right side of history, the side that is making the world a better place, but it’s important to remember that hindsight is much clearer than the vision of the moment. Power and idealism are uneasy bedfellows. Freedom means freedom for others, not just the people celebrating their own right to be free.

Fireworks displays are not meant to be a forum for ideas. Of course not. Light, dark, color and big booms invite visceral reactions. In our household, the creature most affected by last night’s fireworks was our dog. She was a nervous, clingy wreck.

But still—all those colors, firing off every which way. Sizzle, whistle, zoom and zowie. Big bangs, showers of sparks, soaring colors, and something new to look at every few seconds. Fireworks are powerful, dangerous, beautiful. Like this free country.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Encountered a new word yesterday: ensoul.

I was reading an article on the New York Times Science page, under the headline "Science of the Soul? ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Is Losing Force." As neuroscientists learn more and more about how the brain works, philosophers and theologians must adapt--unless they're the kind of theologians who choose to deny evolution and cling to the six-day creation. The duality of body and soul, deeply embedded in western thought, doesn't jive with the scientific evidence that emotional reactions, moral reasoning, even the illusion of free will are the result of physical processes. There's no more "mind over matter." Mind is matter. And nothing more than matter.

Mind, soul, consciousness--don't ask me about the metaphysical distinctions--whatever you want to call this thing that we believe makes us uniquely human can be explained away as a function of neurons and neurotransmitters. Human emotion and human thought begin as physical reactions. The nervous system sends impulses to the brain, chemicals are released, and other brain centers are activated. The experience, the recognition of the experience, and its effect on future experience can all be explained by brain structures and processes. What human thinkers identify as a rational thought, a sense of control, or a spiritual encounter can be viewed with an MRI. And pictures of a chimpanzee's brain, or a pig's, are not all that different from pictures of human thought.

What part of my brain is lighting up now, as I think about "what does this mean?" When I was a child, lying in bed at night and not sleeping, I would wonder if I was really alive, or if I was just an elaborate robot that my sisters, parents, and schoolmates only thought was real (though a bit odd). Maybe the real part was hidden deep within me, and just the exterior was the robot. Were other people real, that is, really alive, possessors of souls, life force, unpredictability? Or were we all just machines, and nothing meant much of anything? This dark-of-the-night path scared me almost as much as contemplating eternity. It led to the same kind of tossing and turning now caused by a) financial matters and b) teenage offspring

How did my brain at the age of seven or nine have this capacity to reflect on itself? Did something going on at home or school make me want to disassociate myself from me? Did other children share my awareness? I remember being aware of God's presence as this debate raged in my mind. God lived in the dark and under the covers, or hovered in the air, just beyond the words of my prayers. God was there to snatch my soul away (if I had one) were I to die before I waked.

That soul would leave behind a body that was curled under the pink-striped sheets and the chenille bedspread.
The body was clay, dust, corruptible--and not me. The soul was me, the mysterious image of God bestowed on Adam at creation. It made him different from the beasts of the field and the fish of the air, over which he had dominion.

But now, neuroscientists see the same patterns in the brains of mice as in the brains of men. Cats and cat people are not that different. Lions and tigers and bears--oh my!--may have interior lives like we do.

Neuroscience is the new epistemology (how do we know what we know?), and theology and philosophy must catch up. One of the experts interviewed for the New York Times article, philosopher Nancey Murphy of Fuller Theological Seminary, compared the dilemma created by brain science to the earth being knocked out of the center of the universe by Copernican theories of the solar system. She and theologian John F. Haught, also interviewed for this article, agreed that if humans have souls, whatever it is that souls may be, animals must be similarly ensouled.

And there's my new word: ensouled, or, endowed with a soul.

What would a God-denying scientific materialist have to say about this solution? That religion just gets crazier and crazier? Or would he turn to experiments and experimental designs for studying consciousness in people, plants, and animals? Cruising the internet yesterday, I read a long article about studying consciousness. (Typical summer vacation reading for someone who used to lie in bed wondering if she was a robot.) The author meandered through mainstream and fringe consciousness research, with side trips into the history of brain science, quantum mechanics, meditation, spiritual oneness, and near death experiences. He was not going to yield to anyone who says the brain is it, all of it, and the body is the boundary.

God? Always beyond our knowing, yet known through the matter that is mind. The image of God become flesh.

My brain is too tired to go any further.

Friday, June 22, 2007

You got to have friends

Yesterday, while looking for an old insurance quote, I found a birthday card sent to me several years ago by a good friend. In the black-and-white photo on the front there are two older ladies, seated on the ground, dressed in fashions from the 1940s. The heavier one holds her purse in her lap. Her legs are crossed at the ankles. The skinny one has her knees pulled up to her chest and clasps her hands around her shins. Both have pulled their skirts over their knees, as a matter of decorum. They don't want anyone to be offended by an accidental glimpse of the undergarments that cover their nether regions.

Why are they sitting on the ground? There are no sandwiches and deviled eggs spread around them, no picnic blanket underneath them. The grass is ragged and the ground rather lumpy. It's not a comfortable spot, but these two ladies are deep in conversation. They sit side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, but they lean in toward each other, each intent on the other. The brims of their bell-shaped hats almost touch. They are saying things meant only for each other. The more ample woman touches her chin with the knuckle of her forefinger, intensifying her air of concern.

These women remind me of my grandmother and my Great Aunt Clara, sisters who battled each other, cared for each other, stood by one another. They were always old ladies to me, though in just a few years I will be as old as my grandmother was when I was born. I'm sure that my friend who sent me the card saw the two of us in that picture. I'm the well-padded woman. She's the one with the skinny bosom, the crepey neck and the sensible shoes.

I tacked the card on the bulletin board behind the phone. On the shelf next to it sits a snapshot of me and another friend, grinning because we so rarely have our pictures taken together. It is encased in a ghastly purple and pink "Friends Forever" frame bequeathed to me by my daughter.

That daughter loves her own friends dearly, during peaceful times and conflict. Eliza also has imaginary friends, who live in her bedroom and lead lives that parallel hers, albeit much more eventful. There are weddings, showers, funerals and birthday parties every weekend in her room. It is a strange phenomenon. She is sixteen, well past the age of such overt pretending. But she and her real-life friends are all young women with developmental delays, mainly due to Down syndrome. They don't have the language skills needed for first-rate gossip or detailed accounts of their own feelings. But when they are together, they magnify each others' joy, excitement, anger and misery. Eliza feels more alive around her friends, so she makes sure there are plenty of them, even if she has to make them up.

Many of my friends are out of town this week. Perhaps I need an imaginary friend. I bet those two ladies sitting in the grass on that birthday care would understand.

Monday, June 18, 2007


If you want to move bookcases, you have to empty them. And when the painting and the sanding of floors is finished, you have to put the bookcases back in the living room and put the books back on the shelves. Somewhere in this process, a wise woman makes no-nonsese decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of.

We moved the bookshelves back into their corners two months ago, but the restoration of order among the shelves' occupants is a summer-long project. Currently, the books in the tall bookcases from my husband's bachelor apartment are organized strictly on the "get them to fit" principle. Kurt Vonnegut novels and Jane Eyre are stacked horizontally next to The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder. Two small books by the Yarn Harlot balance on top of a coffee-table volume of Clint Eastwood photos. The read and the unread, the worthy and the trashy, sit side-by-side. Some titles I can't find at all, and others completely surprise me. Who brought home the book about elephants?

I want to get rid of some of these books. I don't mind the living room bookcases being jammed with handsome hardcovers and ragged paperbacks. And the books on the forty feet of shelves over and around the computer desk are the most interesting part of the room. But what about the books in my bedroom and the books in the kitchen, the books that used to be on the stairway landing, and the books that were stacked at the top of the stairs? What about the books in the attic?

It's a two-person, four-decade book collection. It's been weeded out from time to time. The growth rate has slowed. But I'm sure there are well over a thousand books under this roof. And it's not the kind of house where books can be confined to a wood-panelled library.

Practical people say "Get rid of the books you've never opened, and the ones you'll never open again." They're just clutter. They collect dust. My sister says, "Why would you keep a book you've already read?" My brother-in-law says, "Just get rid of them." The article in Woman's Day magazine on reorganizing your home lists books among the worst clutter offenders.

But hey--does anyone ever tell you to throw away your old photographs? To send those boxes of snapshots to the thrift shop, or put them out at a garage sale for 50 cents or a dollar?

The books on my shelves hold memories more vivid than those in any photo album. Memories of reading Anna Karenina during spring break of my sophomore year in high school (and not really getting it). Plowing through Shelby Foote's three-volume history of the Civil War when my kids were small. (Didn't get anywhere close to Appomatox until everyone slept through the night.) Real Boys, by William Pollack, has helped me keep faith with my sons and their buddies as they pound and punch each other. Spitta's Bach is a legacy from my father. All those novels by Larry McMurtry, Elmore Leonard, and John D. MacDonald keep Lon's presence alive in this house. And Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is just waiting to be enjoyed by another crop of tow-headed, truck-loving boys.

Yes, there are books I will give away. Not every book is packed with associations from my past, or hopes for the future. I don't need to keep two copies of Organizing for the Creative Person on the shelf. Some books that end up in the pile going to the library's used book sale will be there because the things they represent are not so important to me any more. I'm not ever going to teach myself Quark Express 4. I really hated The Prince of Tides when I read it twenty-odd years ago. It may be time to let it go.

I'm almost afraid to find the box that holds the Harry Potter books, lest I be tempted to reread volume six--or all six volumes--to get ready for the July 21 debut of volume seven. That Jane Austen biography on the high shelf--I need to take another look at that. I've got friends who'll enjoy the Nick Hornby novels. And maybe someday I'll read the Dostoevsky biography that Lon brought home from the freebie table at the newspaper. It was headed for the discard pile the other night, but then I opened it, and it was interesting, in a weird Russian, Siberia-and-back-again kind of way.

Time to get to work on those boxes in my bedroom. Sort, organize, and wander off into all the worlds contained in those books.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

So Many Questions

My fourteen-year-old son renewed his baptismal vows this morning in the rite of confirmation. At our church, confirmands write a witness statement, about their faith. Here is Kurt's. I am very proud of him.

by Kurt Grahnke

Everyone has asked themselves why God would allow some bad things to happen to them--death, illness, or just bad luck. I was told that it was all part of God’s plan for me.

I’ve asked these “why” questions more than ever over the last year. Why did my dad get Alzheimer’s disease, which led to his death last September? Is there a line between God and science?

A lot of my questions have been about what I can do in my future. A lot of teens, myself included, do not know what it is that they do best. God gave me the abilities to play basketball and volleyball very well, but I can’t rely on those things. He gave me intelligence, but I am not sure of which ways my brain operates the best. I would like to become a journalist, but I would also like to explore science and psychology.

We ask God to lead us in these confusing years. Most of us cannot find him immediately. So we start to ask questions about God and our faith. We are told to read scripture and pray to communicate with God, but with two basketball teams, school, and a girlfriend I have kinda left these things out of the picture at times.

I have witnessed falling short several times in my life. For instance, this year I was on the volleyball team and the basketball team. On both teams I helped lead my team to the State Tournament. I knew we were the most talented team there both times, and there was no doubt in my mind that we could win both tournaments. Well, in volleyball, we ended up losing a semi-final game that we had nearly won. In basketball, a smaller, less talented team crept up on us towards the end and beat us by two points.

I kept thinking to myself, why does it seem that I always fall short? Then I asked the question, “What is God trying to tell me?”

My bible verse, Hebrews 12:1 reads:

Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

What is the race set before me and how will this race end? Well, I don’t know that now. There are so many questions yet to be answered, and some of my questions may never be answered.

I look at my dad. He lived a confusing life. He questioned lots of things, including God, when he was a teenager. As he developed his dementia, he seemed to find joy in coming to church and found comfort in the hymns. A person looks at his life and would think that he “fell short” and was unable to finish his race, because he had to stop working and stop doing other things he cared about. But when I think about this I think maybe he did not fall short -– maybe he did fill out God’s plan for him, even if that was not what he planned for himself.

My dad is a messenger and an inspiration to me. My mother sees a resemblance between me and my dad. We enjoy the same music and we both have this strong will about us.

So I use that will to run this race that is set before me. There are problems in my way, the “weight and sin that clings so closely.” But I am surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses that God has given me, so great a line of people willing to help me run the race. So let me lay aside the weight, the sin, and run the race.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Virginia Tech

I'm sure I was not the only parent in America who listened to the reports from Virginia Tech on Monday afternoon and felt compelled to phone a son or daughter away at school. I got my son's voice mail shortly before three o'clock, and wasn't sure what message to leave. "I know you're alright, but I just had to call," I said. And more stuff, less coherent, with the "love you" closing.

I still think of my twenty-year-old, college sophomore son as one of my three teenagers. Yet he is the age of those college kids in the videos, the Virginia Tech students being interviewed, the roommates of the killer, the friends of the dead. They don't seem as young to me anymore. They have earned the right to be called adults. So many, so suddenly must no longer feel safe in the world. This is life-changing knowledge, the kind you wish they could absorb slowly, in small sips. Drinking such icy water all at once and way too fast can cause paralyzing brain-freeze, even life-freeze.

As they seek healing, the Virginia Tech students gather in community. One young woman on the radio, when asked if she wanted to go back home to her family, said, No, I need to be with my friends and share this with them.

Oh, the Facebook and My Space pages as twenty-year olds mourn other twenty-year-olds.

How can such violence be redeemed? Better "gun-safety" laws? Better counseling centers on campus? Discard civil liberties and lock up potential madmen? So that these dead shall not have died in vain? You don't have to be a cynic, just a realist, to feel that not much will change in the long run.

But today's college students will carry this week and its sad, horrific news in their hearts for a long time. To honor the dead, some may try a little harder to give their own lives meaning, to enjoy the sunshine and love and appreciate family and friends. Some will struggle with fear and uncertainty, trying to keep their balance inside a world where you can't always protect yourself from serious harm. Some day, there will be another shooting, some other terrible news, and they will be shaken by memories of April 2007.

Young adults this age go to war. They are kidnapped in Iraq. They are the brutalizers and the victims in parts of Africa and Asia, and in the cities of North America and Europe. But yet a steady, hopeful light burns in them, shining out
from their youth, from the way they do not shirk from bullies and danger, from the way they stand by their friends..

Dear Lord, watch with all who grieve and protect them with your everlasting love. .

Saturday, April 14, 2007


In the past few weeks, my house has gained a new bathroom, new paint, and most recently, refinished hardwood floors.

All this change is making me anxious.

Yes, it's change for the good. No, it's not the lead-up to selling the house and moving somewhere new, though I do have those thoughts and I do sometimes voice them as a threat inside this brick English bungalow, a great starter home in always-desirable Oak Park.

Living here is like wearing new clothes--the sort of new clothes you purchase for an interview or speech. Who am I, I wonder when I am all dressed up. Who is the person who lives within these new yellow walls, with the refinished hardwood floors and the blue bathroom? What's with the pretty surroundings?

The old and comfy mess of our house is in retreat. The kids' bedrooms still have dirty walls and worn floors. The back room, the one with the desks and computer, is full of the usual paper and books, plus stuff from the front rooms that has been stashed there, out of the way of the painters and floor sanders. The pictures will eventually go back on the walls. The stacks of music and magazines--well, I guess now is when we find out what we really need and what we can get rid of.

Did I mention that the piano is in the kitchen? And the kitchen may be slated for an overhaul?

Transformation is hard, whether it's home or self. It's not like St. Paul in I Corinthians saying that we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. That is then--on the day when the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible. Now we have to put on Christ anew each day, over and over again, like donning a new wardrobe or learning to live in a new environment. It's uncomfortable at times. How off-balance did those disciples feel after their encounters with the risen Christ? Probably a lot worse than I do when stepping around the piano to get to the dishwasher.

Christ's resurrected body could pass through locked doors. Yet Thomas could touch the wounds in his hands. What possibilities await us?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Happy Good Friday

My daughter just woke up. On her way back from the bathroom, she said, "Happy Good Friday, Mom."

Eliza has Down syndrome. I've always hated the upbeat generalizations people often make about individuals with Down syndrome: "They are such happy children" or "They love music." But I have to admit--heck, I'd even brag--that Eliza's intellectual disability makes her remarkably clear-sighted at times. Today is an occasion, and Eliza loves occasions: happy birthday, happy anniversary, happy Good Friday.

So far, it has been a happy Good Friday. It started early in my household. I drove my fourteen-year-old son to church at 6:15 this morning. The Youth Director challenges the teens to show up for the 6:30 a.m. worship service on Good Friday. Then he takes them to the Original House of Pancakes for breakfast. Kurt donned a dark suit, a black shirt and tie, and extremely cool sunglasses for the occasion. He was dressing up because at noon, he will part of a choir of adults singing Richard Hillert's setting of the St. John Passion. It's a good thing it was not fully light when we left the house, because I was fighting back a smile as I looked at this kid in his aviator sunglasses. Being fourteen, he would not have appreciated my grin.

I came back home, read the New York Times online, and mixed and kneaded the dough for cinnamon rolls, which will make me a hero to college-age son, home for the weekend. He will probably wake up around noon, when those rolls come out of the oven.

Happy Good Friday.

"It was nine o'clock in the morning when they crucified him." (Mark 15:25) That would be right about now, when the sun is climbing in the sky, and a busy day is going into full swing. What did those citizens of Jerusalem, up and about and doing their pre-Sabbath errands, think of this Galilean dragging a cross through the streets? They joined the soldiers in charge as they mocked and derided Jesus. Probably it was all in a day's life on the streets in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Whatever the people may have heard of this man, Jesus--miracles, preaching--was now just another tale come to naught. Who could have known that this crucifixion would immortalize the cross as a symbol of God's compassion for his wayward creatures?

Darkness came over the land at noon, and lasted until three o'clock. Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and then breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two, a curious detail reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John doesn't say anything about the temple, but the pierced side detail comes from John, with blood and water flowing from the dead body of our Savior.

We relive Jesus' suffering and death in worship services, devotions, private thoughts, but at the same time we bake the coffee cake, order the lily, iron the outfit, and rehearse the music in preparation for Easter. Meaningless rituals? Remnants of pagan celebrations of spring? Or something about life and death and God's power over all things?

The day before yesterday--Wednesday--I went to two funerals. Actually, a funeral, and a memorial service held almost three weeks after the death of my sister-in-law. For me, it was a day to be gotten through, to be polite, to serve and to be served. Thinking too much brought grief and questions, and this was a day for self-control.

The funeral was a hymn-filled 11:00 a.m. church service, thanking God for the life of a ninety-year-old woman, who a few days earlier, after a life filled with Christian service, had chosen hospice and the end of dialysis, looking forward to Christ welcoming her into heaven. We sang her casket down the aisle and off to the cemetery with the final stanza of "O Day Full of Grace," the one that begins "When we on that final journey go." The funeral luncheon was ham and cornflake-topped potatoes, three-bean salad, fruit, and pink lemonade. A foretaste of Easter and a celebration of old-fasioned church hospitality.

The memorial service was much sadder. My sister-in-law died of cervical cancer, two weeks after diagnosis. Her husband held her until the crash cart came into the room and the medical personnel asked him to leave. Her last words to him were "I'm scared." I am not close to my brother-in-law (my husband's brother) and barely knew my sister-in-law. Yet this is a loss that is hard to comprehend. At the memorial service, my brother-in-law played a video of snapshots of his wife, with Kris Kristofferson on the soundtrack singing "Look at that old photograph, is it really you?" My job at the service was to speak grace and comfort, singing "Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me home."

We commend the spirits of our dead to a God who died. We prepare for the new life of Easter.

Happy Good Friday.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Fiery Furnace

Daniel 3:1-29

During the midweek Lenten services at my church, we have listened to the Old Testament lessons from the Easter Vigil service. These are the lessons that are read in darkness during the first part of that service, with only the Christ candle for light.

Easter Vigil is an ancient liturgy, and the Old Testament stories we hear that night are even older. In many and various ways, they tell the same story: how God, time and again, rescues his people.

Ancient philosophers believed that everything in the world was formed of only four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. You find all four of these elements in the Easter Vigil lessons, and in the liturgy of Easter Vigil as well. Think of God gathering the waters together in one place and creating dry land. Think of the wind—air--that God made blow over the earth to dry up the waters of the flood. Think of the waters of the Red Sea that parted for the children of Israel, and the earth in the field of dry bones. In the liturgy itself, there is the water of baptism. And on that Saturday night, the air in the sanctuary hangs heavy with the scent of Easter, the hyacinths and lilies that wait in pots of damp earth behind the communion rails in the chancel.

Earth, air, water—and fire. Somewhere back in grade school you probably learned that fire is both friend and foe. And so it is at Easter Vigil. We keep watch on that night by the light of the Christ Candle, lit from a modest bonfire in the Grace courtyard. The fire shows us the light of Christ, his presence among us. But the fire of the fiery furnace, in the passage from the book of Daniel that was read a few moments ago—that fire is dangerous.

Veteran Easter Vigil lectors might tell you that the story of The Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace is the best of the Easter Vigil lessons. It is certainly the one that is the most fun to read aloud. After the majesty of the Creation story, the rainbow ending to the Flood, the drama of the Exodus, and the poetic promises of Ezekiel, we get, what Stephen Sondheim would call, “Comedy tonight!

"So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up."

Could there be a more effective way to ridicule Babylon’s courtiers and the meaningless rigamarole of bowing down to a statue this is nothing more than the king’s alter ego?

Of course, in the feature-film version of this story, any actor worth his salt is going to want to play Nebuchadnezzar—not Shadrach, Meshach or Abednego. Nebuchadnezzar is a man full of contradictions. He mistakes elaborate ceremonies and golden statues for true religion, but he is also open-minded enough to give important jobs to young Jewish captives, guys like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (and Daniel, too). But then he gets tripped up by his own laws, when conniving, jealous court officials report that the young Jews are disobeying their king. He confronts them, gets really angry and orders the fire made even hotter. And then his own men are killed when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown, bound, into the fire.

Nebuchadnezzar's foil is the Most High God. When he looks into the furnace he sees four men, unbound, walking around, unhurt. He recognizes power greater than his own. He tells the men to come out, and it is he who proclaims the Easter message in this text:

"Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him."

Ah, but. It is not Easter yet, at least not in this church year. It is Lent, and metaphorically speaking, we’re still in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

Now we may be accustomed to thinking of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as Bible heroes, as examples of unshakeable faith. But the speech in which they defy the king’s orders, comes up a little short, if you’re looking for firm conviction. Here’s what they say:

"If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up."

If God saves us, fine. If not, well, so it goes.

So it goes. Martyrdom by fire is rare these days, but baptism by fire—ordeals of suffering, of being challenged by pain or grief, depression, addiction, alienation--these things do happen to us as human beings. And when we’re in those fiery furnaces, we don’t know if we’re going to come out with the hair on our head un-singed, our clothes not even smelling of smoke. We may get hurt. Burns can leave terrible scars.

There was a fourth person in the furnace, someone with the appearance of a god. God himself? God’s angel? Either way, it is God becoming part of human pain, human anger, human suffering. The God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is not just a God who rescues his people. This is a God who suffers with his people.

Some words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

It is good to learn early on that suffering and God
are no contradiction,
but much more a necessary unity:
for me the idea that God himself suffered
was always one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity.
I think that God is closer to suffering than to happiness,
and to find God in this manner gives peace and rest,
and a strong and courageous heart.

I said earlier that some people—well, that would be me—regard this lesson from Daniel as the best one to get to read at Easter Vigil. Frankly, I think part of the attraction is that it’s the last lesson. Anticipation is in the air. Soon we will stand up and walk. Soon we will assemble around the font and be reminded that baptism joins us to the death and resurrection of Christ. Soon we will follow the fire of the Christ candle into church. Soon the lights will come on, the flowers will come out. Soon it will be Easter.

But tonight, our anticipation is focused on Holy Week, and the events that lead up to the death of God—the death that makes our ultimate victory possible. This God who died for us stands beside us in the furnace of our mortal lives and with his presence fuses his suffering and ours with the resurrection.

In the fire of the furnace, there is the light of Christ.

Friday, March 02, 2007

March madness--win or lose

I prefer endings--happy or tragic--that are scripted, or scored. I mean a musical score, not "scored at the buzzer."

This weekend, however, is the Lutheran School State Basketball Tournament here in Illinois, and my son, the eighth-grade basketball star, is putting his dream on the line. He and his teammates are playing hard. They have their eye on the championship.

I get scared even typing that word, for fear I jinx something. The team won this afternoon. There is more basketball tomorrow morning, tomorrow afternoon, Sunday. If they keep on winning, the next game is harder. If they lose, it's harder still.

I am a pre-Title IX girl. Didn't play sports in high school. Wasn't much good in grade school volleyball. Can't imagine throwing myself into win-or-lose jeopardy in front of bleachers filled with fans.

Why? Because I hate to lose. Which, of course, is why I should have played sports--to learn that I could lose and survive, because tomorrow is another day.

Winning is fleeting, too. How long does the glow last? After a while, the trophy gets shoved to the back of the shelf. The grade school champions, and the members of all the other teams, will have to finish their homework, turn in their uniforms, and start all over again in high school.

Yet remarkable moments live on. Think of those passages in life when everything suddenly comes together. The baby is born and in your arms. The words flow from your fingertips onto the paper or the screen. The music is in tune, in tempo, and filled with whole ideas and emotion. The angel has stirred the waters. Her presence stops clocks, or slows them. The air is clear and the mind grasps all 360 degrees and the infinite depth of reality.

I have known these moments in scripted and scored performances, in labor before a birth and in labor at the keyboard. My son knows them on the basketball court. He sees the openings, he sees the ball, his timing in those moments is perfect.

The afterglow of such success warms your spirit for days. You can feel the magic, feel the rhythm even years later.

Losing makes me want to hide in the back of a deep, deep closet, behind the scratchy woolen coats, among the dust bunnies and the odd shoes. I do not want to do homework, or housework. I do not see how to return to the land of the living, having learned the rough and tough truth that many, many things do not turn out happily.

Mountaintop experiences and time spent in the bitter pit can both lead to disorientation and listlessness. Returning to plain living is hard. Next week there will be a letdown in our household after the many weeks of basketball practice and many hours of staying cool, calm, and focused (mostly).

Two of the boys on our team came to today's game from their grandfather's funeral. (One of these kids is a starter--his presence is critical.) Funerals, it seems to me, are mountaintop moments, even though they are about the hard, tough truth that we all must die. Heaven opens when we gather to look death in the face, and God's mansions seem very close to earth. The angels gather, and the Spirit hovers above those whose grief overflows. We see, as St. Paul says, through a mirror dimly, but in such moments, we do see the blurry substance of God's immortal, substantial promises.

God protect the winners and the losers, the joyful as well as the disappointed.

Go Vikings! Go Grace!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Immortal? Impossible?

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes
Most blessed, most glorious
The Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting and silent as light . . .

The hymn goes on. I can recite much of it from memory, but I had to look it up in the hymnbook to punctuate it. The syllables waltz around so delightfully that just the sound of the words is reason enough to keep singing. The tune is more folk waltz than "Blue Danube," which is just as well. The sing-song-y tune keeps those words flying by, words by which we try to understand what God is.

And that's impossible. Though, as the hymn says at the end, "'Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee."

It's all good.