Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Upon returning to my old college campus

The title sounds like something out of 19th century romantic poetry. A paean to bygone days, to a younger self, and a place that remains the same even though it's changed.

But it was like that.

I hadn't been back to Augustana College since 13 months after I graduated, but I returned there yesterday, on a Spring Preview Day for college-bound high school juniors. I am the mother of a high school junior who is bound for a liberal arts college. It's his spring break, so we went.

I admit I was looking forward to going, but that's because I seldom go anywhere. Who would have thought I could get so excited about driving past Old Main? About crossing Seventh Avenue on foot, stopping traffic, and trudging uphill towards the Union and the dorms? It felt like I had just climbed the stairs from the practice rooms in Bergendorf, after an hour and a half of wrestling with Beethoven and Bach, or just finished up my work in my theater office, the one with the space heater that glowed very hot and the IBM Selectric type-like typewriter that took me months to master.

I feel so much younger today. Which is odd, because I'm a long way from twenty.

What didn't I know back then? I knew about music and dramatic theory and literature and how to unravel the meaning buried in the writer's work. I didn't know much about the doing of these things, the making of art, or that even the most subtle and vivid piece of writing or composition is a long way from both the banality of real life and its glory.

What else didn't I know? I knew that I could pretty much get an A in anything I wanted to (as well as in classes I didn't care about). I did know there was a downside to being the smartest one in the room. I didn't know that I'd cease to care about that (though I would learn something about when to shut up).

I didn't know that I would reckon the years passing in my life by the losses and the ongoing challenges, not by the accomplishments.

I didn't know that I would be as lonely in middle age as I was during my junior year.

I didn't know that one day I'd sit on a bench by the slough with my daughter and talk nonsense about a duck. I didn't know how much that would lessen the loneliness.

I knew a lot about Brecht, whom I liked, and Tennessee Williams, whom I don't. The years have not changed those opinions. I didn't know then, though teachers tried to tell me, that I could trust my musical instincts--they were better than most people's.

My wardrobe isn't all that different from what it was in college, but my shoes and my bags are more comfortable. I tried knitting while reading for the first time while I was in college, because that theater history textbook was so dull. I've since discovered that knitting at the same time also helps me read complex material.

Back in college, I was an optimist, though an optimist with a cynical streak. Yesterday I felt that was still true, though the cynicism is less deep. It's been replaced by doubt and worry.

All the things I was then, what I worried about, what I thought about, what I obsessed about--those all happened in real places, and I saw those places yesterday, and it's almost as if I didn't know how things turned out for that girl.

I may have to visit some other places.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday of Holy Week, John 12:1-11

A few weeks ago, in a Wednesday morning chapel service, Mr. Brooks told us about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. He told how happy and excited everyone was—Lazarus, his sisters, Mary and Martha, the disciples and all the people who believed in Jesus after this. Here’s someone who has power even over death, they thought. He must be the Son of God!

And then—this part isn’t in the Bible, but it must have happened this way--Lazarus turned to Jesus and said, “We want to invite you over for dinner. Will you come for dinner? With your disciples? To celebrate. We want to thank you. What’s a good night for you?”

Now Jesus and his disciples were planning to go away for a while, because they knew that the news about Lazarus was going to get back to the chief priests and Pharisees—the guys in Jerusalem who didn’t like Jesus, didn’t like what he was preaching, and didn’t like the fact that people were saying he was the Son of God. So they were going to lay low for a few days.

But Jesus was planning on celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem, and Bethany, Mary and Martha and Lazarus’s home town, was just two miles from Jerusalem. So they agreed that Jesus and the disciples would come for dinner on the next Saturday night, on their way back to Jerusalem.

Martha cooked a good dinner. Everyone sat around the table talking, telling stories, listening to Jesus. Mary disappeared for a few minutes and she came back carrying a special jar. When she took the lid off, a wonderful fragrance spread through the house. It was a jar of very expensive oil. It came from far away. It was worth lots of money—as much money as someone could earn in a whole year. She went over to Jesus and poured this oil on his feet. The fragrance filled the room. And then she took off the covering that she usually wore on her head, and wiped the extra oil off Jesus’s feet with her hair.

You can imagine how quiet everyone got, watching her. Everyone could see how much Mary loved Jesus.

But then Judas started to grumble. “What a waste,” he said. “This oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor.”

You can imagine the hurt look on Mary’s face. You can imagine how everyone else felt. “Way to go, Judas! Way to ruin the evening!” And they looked to Jesus. What would he say? They had heard him before tell people to sell all they had and give the money to the poor. What would he say about Mary’s gift to him?

“Leave her alone,” he said. “Leave her alone.” And he must have smiled at Mary, to reassure her. Everyone was relieved—but only for a moment. Because then Jesus said, “She bought it that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

His burial? Yes, people used expensive oil like that to cover up the bad smell of dead bodies before they were buried. But who said anything about Jesus dying? Here they were, celebrating life, celebrating how Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, and Jesus is talking like he’s going to die. Soon. Was this the Son of God they all believed in?

All of us are going to die. We don’t like to think about it, and we probably shouldn’t think about it constantly. A couple weeks ago—I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about—but I said to one of the junior high students, “You’re going to die someday, we’re all going to die.” And she said, “Yeah, I know. But you’re bringing me down, Ms. Gotsch, you’re bringing me down.”

We began the season of Lent with ashes on our foreheads and the pastors reminding us that we are dust, and to dust we will return—reminding us that we will die. This is one of the things that you have to put up with if you go to a Christian school—teachers and pastors remind you that you’re going to die.

Do we talk about death because we want to scare you? Or because we want to bring you down?

No. We talk about death because there is a connection between your death and Jesus dying. And it’s good news. Less than a week after the dinner at Bethany, Jesus the Son of God was crucified, died and was buried. But on the third day he rose again. From his death came new life. New life for us after we die, when we go to heaven to be with Jesus. New life right now. Because Jesus died for us, we can die every day to sin and rise again forgiven to live a new life, a life that is full of love for others, like Mary’s love for Jesus. Like Jesus’ love at the Last Supper before his death when he washed his disciples’ feet.

We’ll be back here in church every day this week, remembering Jesus’ death on the cross for us, talking about our own sinfulness and death. But don’t let that bring you down. The disciples at the dinner in Bethany didn’t know it yet—but you do: Dying is how Jesus brings you to new life.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sunday evening post

The pasta is baking in a 400-degree oven--hot enough to send a slightly smoky smell through the house, thanks to the grease that is burning away, grease left behind by a chicken recently roasted at that high temperature.

What else is burning away?

We celebrated the Annunciation in today's Bach Cantata Vespers. Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgenstern--beautiful Jesus imagery, with horns and oboes. And "The Canticle of the Turning," a metered paraphrase of the Magnificat. And a sermon that left me a little confused about whether I should "be not afraid" when God's angels show up, or be very afraid because God is doing things all the time because that's what God-- who has nothing else to do--does.

Sometime this week or next I'll take the battery out of the smoke alarm, lock the oven and set it to clean itself. I'll run the fan in the stove hood, so that the smoke mostly goes outside. I'll do this when no children are home to complain.

That roast chicken was really good. Three or four cloves of garlic, chopped up small. Rosemary--the dry, sharp needle-y kind. Mash and crush it all together with some salt. Add some pepper, loosen the skin of the chicken, and rub the salt mixture underneath. Then roast the chicken at 400 degrees until it's done. Make a mental note to clean the oven later.

God however is in continuous-cleaning mode. Scraping, burning, making all things new. Bringing that new kingdom into being. Oh, the tension between God's world and our crummy, greasy smoky one.