Sunday, December 22, 2013


The plan to post (almost) every day in December didn't get far. Eight posts and it's now December 22, and my last post was eight days ago.

There were Decembers many years ago when the ambition was to bake a batch of cookies almost every day, until there were nine or ten or twelve different kinds--enough for a morning cookie party with other moms, enough to make impressive platefuls for teachers and friends.

Perhaps I need recipes for blog posts.

Searched my computer for files with the word "write" in the file name. As in "ideas to write about," i.e., recipes for blog posts.

Yes, there is such a file. Here's an abridged version:

Dementia—what it takes away
The rabbit hole I live in (and I am Alice)
Crying in church
Yeast dough—simple, exotic, satisfying, contentment
Looking back at mothers with little babies and toddlers
Making a female God a habit of mind
Spirit, breath, and breathing
Spiritual dead times—surviving them
Christmas cookies—why I need to make 12 kinds.

So it's back to the cookies. Better go check how much butter is in the fridge.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

We are the Lord's

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
Romans 14:7-8
This came into my head today at a time when I was thinking that life is really hard--hard for all of us sometimes, and unbelievably hard for others too much of the time. Sometimes it's the external stuff that makes life hard, circumstances, misfortune, poor health. Sometimes it's our inner stuff that fails us, distracts us, so that we descend into despair.
And yet, even there, "we are the Lord's."

I am not talking about personal despair--no need to email me, worried that I'm heading for a crisis. But I am trying to tease out hope, invoke it, because I am hoping hard right now, hoping for someone else, beyond all the cliches of hope, beyond all the hackery of religious comfort, beyond God-talk, beyond logic, way past wishful thinking.

Where does God live? How far away in time and space and abstraction? We often try to make God immediate and like ourselves--father, friend, footsteps in the sand. A companion we speak to, an answer-book for what to do and how. But those images may not hold faith enough for strong hoping, not when self-loathing and other tortures separate people from God.

Though even then, "we are the Lord's."

For it is written,‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’  So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

With every knee bowing, every tongue praising, every one is in relation to this Lord, who is sovereign, everywhere greater than we are, from deepest space to the micro-spaces between the cells in our brains and bodies.

We are the Lord's in these places. So hope--come forth.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Birthday Girl

My second child was born on December 11. Every year I can't really focus on Christmas until we get past celebrating her birthday. And she likes to celebrate for as long as possible.

Eliza's official due date was Dec. 24. Lon and I decided if she was born on Christmas we would make her middle name Noel. We ended up liking the sound of "Eliza Noel" so much that we later decided her middle name would be Noel no matter when she decided to arrive. And she was smart--she came two weeks early, so there'd be plenty of time to celebrate her birthday without having to compete with Christmas.

Eliza will be 23 on Wednesday. Her birth story, if I were to tell it here, would include the part where we were told and struggled to comprehend that she has Down syndrome. That part of the story is much longer than the hours of labor, and sadly, I remember it better than the part where her dad's hands caught her as she slipped out into the world. I remember it better than when I first held her.

We had a long and noisy party yesterday for her birthday, with seventeen guests, a high-energy mix of family and young adult friends. I did not know in those first days of her life that the experience of raising a daughter with DS would lead to such noisy, fun birthday parties. But that's the way her parties have always been. She knows how to command the center of attention when issuing invitations, opening gifts or blowing out candles. And her friends, whatever their abilities and disabilities, are wonderfully gracious about crowding around her and sharing her joy and excitement.

A few years ago, Eliza's Best Buddy at the high school gave her a pink Miss-America style sash to wear on her birthday, with script-style letters that proclaim her the birthday girl. Eliza also a "Birthday Girl" tiara she wears for her parties. She looked great yesterday.

And I'm thinking about borrowing them for my birthday next summer.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Grief and rejoicing

Looked at my Facebook news feed first thing this morning and clicked through a friend's request for prayers to a story about a pastor in the south suburbs who killed himself with a gun, as his mother and son watched.

My friend's post asked for prayers. I'm asking for understanding.

I'm not sure how old this dead man was, but he was safely into mid-life. Before he shot himself he said he had been hearing his dead wife's footsteps and her voice and he couldn't stand it any more. His beautiful wife, radiant in the couple's photo posted on Facebook, died suddenly of an aneurysm a year ago. The first anniversary of her death was approaching. Friends said the man had been depressed. And then psychotic. People were shocked, grieving, could not find words.

An aneurysm--this made me think of the story of another pastor's wife that has been circulating among people I know in Lutheran circles. This woman, too, suffered a sudden aneurysm. They feared she would not live, or would not recover. Six months later, she's driving and nearly back to normal. People speak of a miracle, and tell the story with familiarity, pride and joy. Humbly they talk of how precious even the small things in life seem when they are nearly taken away.

And so the question: why did one woman live and the other die? Why was it granted to one husband to endure a near-tragedy and then to write about it in ways that inspire others? Why did the other lose his wife and then his very self?

Let the story be a warning to anyone who has ever said "God never gives you more than you can handle."

And let us rejoice with those who rejoice, even as we grieve with those who grieve.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Putting off Christmas

December 5 and the only evergreen branches visible in my living room, real or fake, are scraping against the window--from the outside.

I come from families of German heritage, where Christmas trees didn't go up until very, very close to Christmas. It wasn't quite the old-fashioned tradition of the tree being decorated behind closed parlor doors and revealed to the children of the family only on Christmas Eve. But the Christmas trees of my childhood were never up before December dates had reached the 20s. And this continues in my household (though not my sisters').

This feels so virtuous, so self-denying. Practice delayed gratification even in the celebration of holidays.

Sometimes it seems like this is what we're celebrating in Advent--our ability to put off Christmas, to hold the world at bay while we reenact our Advent rituals. We follow the rules (mostly) and focus on the prophets and the Advent wreath. We deny ourselves now to increase the pleasure--oops, meaningfulness--of celebrating Christmas at the end of the month.

What does that do to Advent?

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


I'm on a post-every-day-in-December project. Or almost every day, since I already skipped yesterday.

It's a writing exercise--write every day is what you're supposed to do to build your writing muscles. Like work out every day, practice every day, eat five fruits and vegetables every day.

I don't do any of those things every day, or even more often than not. I do however, repent this every day. Or almost every day, but repentance does not easily turn into the discipline to exercise more and eat less.

What do I do every day or almost day? Read the New York Times online, help my daughter, talk to people, work, watch TV, knit. Not bad habits, but passive ones.

Luther would tell me (this blog does have Luther in its title) to make the sign of the cross daily, to confess my sins, to put away the old Adam (old Eve?--maybe that's tomorrow's post), and remember my baptism. Luther's catechism also reminds me that God richly and daily provides all I need.

Richly and daily--sounds like a mindfulness mantra. I'll try it out today.

Monday, December 02, 2013


The pre-Christmas diamond commercials have begun. I listened this evening as a deep-voiced narrator talked about the woman who gave so much to everyone in the family. I looked up at the television to see a  woman tossing her hair around, smiling into the camera, and finally gazing down in graceful surprise as self-assured masculine hands fastened a diamond pendant around her neck.

I was honestly surprised to see how beautiful she was. And then disappointed. Here we've got a narrative of a woman who has given freely of herself for the sake of others, and the years and the effort don't show. Yes, of course, it's a TV commercial and the woman on film is a model. But why does this story have to be told visually with an idealized woman, rather than a natural-looking one, with flesh on her neck, or  crow's feet, or chubby upper arms? What does love and devotion look like on real people?

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Awake and ready

I brought out the electric Christmas candles for the windows on Friday evening. My house has two old-fashioned bay windows, one in the living room next to the house's front entrance and one 'round the corner looking out on the cross-street from the dining room.

The candles in the dining room window are on a timer. They switch on in the late afternoon and turn off at midnight. The candles in the front windows have sensors that turn them on late in the afternoon and turn them off after sunrise.

The sun, I believe, is up, on this first Sunday in Advent, though I can't see it yet from my front window.  The houses across the street, and all of the houses east of them, block the horizon. But the sky is a bright and pale blue; the sun is in the sky and has wiped away the pink clouds of dawn.

The living room candles are still on--no, two have gone out. The other two will quit soon. Late last night when I went to bed, I thought about my eight lights--four on, four off. Not quite the ten bridesmaids of the parable in Matthew--but still, half were lit through the night, half not.

The analogy doesn't go very far. There's no failure of preparedness in the dining room. The electricity will flow all night. I could easily reset the timer to keep the lights on until dawn. Or I could replace those candles with ones with sensors and skip the timer altogether. I bought four photosensor candles on sale after Christmas last year, plus a dozen extra bulbs. I'm ready.

(What I didn't do was plug my laptop into the charger last night. It may make it to the end of this post, or it may not. )

But what am I ready for? I have to leave for church in twenty minutes. I'll come home afterward to say good-bye to the son who is going back to college later this morning. He's ready--we went to Trader Joe's late yesterday afternoon to buy him groceries. He's done his laundry. His mind is turning towards papers and studying for finals. After he leaves I'll go back to church and rehearse Christmas music with my tiny high school choir, get them ready to hear their "Awake, awake" anthem amplified by the resonance of the sanctuary.

And we'll see what comes next. Two candles in the front window are still on. Watchful even in the daylight.

Or maybe they just don't know when to let go.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Trick or treat

It's Halloween and the weather app on my phone says rain--rain all day. One hundred percent chance of rain all morning. Eighty percent during trick-or-treat hours this afternoon.

It's going to be a tough day to be a kid, or a parent. The hordes will still be out tonight, trekking down sidewalks, schlepping up stairs to gather candy. But there will be a lot of waiting for the rain to stop and a lot of let's go now, I don't care if I get wet.

Halloween comes but once a year, and even with parties at school and parties last weekend and costumes and decorations on display for weeks beforehand, none of that is quite like the day itself.

My youngest child went trick-or-treating for the first time when he was two. Dressed in a hand-me-down Batman cape, with me urging him on, he trotted up the first neighbor's sidewalk, climbed the stairs, and made the amazing discovery that if you rang the bell and waited, people would come out and give you candy. Not just once--at house after house.

His older sister, almost four, was with us, but she a) hated walking and b) didn't like sweets. Halloween was one more thing Mom was trying to get her to do that she didn't understand. She grumped and pouted and rode in the LIttle Tikes plastic wagon.

On most Halloween nights I get a two hundred or more trick-or-treaters at my door. Maybe two hundred. I buy big bags of cheap candy and figure on 300 pieces. How far it goes depends on me--one piece a bag, or two? How long do I want to do this? When the candy is gone I can turn out the porch light and retreat to the kitchen, where I can't hear the door bell.

The children, teens and young adults who descend on my neighborhood on Halloween night come from Chicago's west side. The border between city and suburbs is only a block from my house. My town is integrated, educated, prosperous, with good schools. Citizens' voices are raised and powerful at village board meetings. The city neighborhood to my east is almost entirely African-American. There are some grand old homes and plenty of what was once middle-class city housing. White flight and resegregation came in the 1960s. Property values are nowhere near what they are in my suburb. Schools, family structures, opportunities--all very different, though only a few blocks away.

My own children, as they got older, trick or treated with friends in the more upscale neighborhoods a mile west of our home, or even two miles to the west. where people in big homes and broad lawns give out full-size Snickers bars or dollar bills on Halloween night.

That would be a steep treat for me to finance--Snickers bars times two or three hundred. How much difference does one or another configuration of sugar and flavoring make? But I'll open my door this afternoon, with handfuls of Jawbreakers and Smarties. Because, amazingly, this is what happens on Halloween.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Not sleeping

Middle of the night. Not sleeping. Twisting in bed.
Checking the watch. Not-asleep time is piling up fast.
Should I get up?

Warm bed, cold house.The light will hurt my eyes.
And maybe sleep will come soon.
Or it won't. Likely it won't.

(Oh, the bed is warm and the house is not.)

Lavender lotion rubbed into my feet once put me to sleep.
Cheerios. Cocoa. Toast. Jam.

Should I get up?


Regret, I read recently, is a sign that something is wrong, not in the past, but now. Because, I guess, if you're basically content, or at least functioning in the present, you must be okay with the past, you've made your peace, voila! no regrets.

Regret is sticking hard to me. It's the big round decade-ending birthday looming ahead. I look back on all the things that never happened in my life, and aren't going to. I must be responsible, because it is my life.

Time bends backward twenty years, thirty years, and then springs forward and tears a big aching hole in the fabric of the present. Regret.

Thin fabric.

Monday, October 21, 2013

In the moment

Sometimes, said the preacher tonight, sometimes a word in a hymn you're singing catches you, or you catch it, and it's the word you need to hear, the promise you need from God in that moment.

The occasion was a festival of hymn concertatos by Walter Pelz, part of Concordia University Chicago's Lectures in Church Music. Remarkably, the preacher, or the speaker of the Meditations between hymns, was Dean Lueking, Pastor Emeritus of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest. If you're acquainted with the history of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod you'll understand the "remarkably." If not, let it go. "Remarkably" is not the word for the night.

In fact, I do not have a word, or a phrase, a hymn stanza, or even a melodic figure that captured me or spoke to me or mattered any more than the rest of the words spoken or sung this evening. It was a night for paying careful attention to mechanics: the conductor's beat, the notes on the page, the next entrance, the vocal technique. My own vocal technique is undergoing repair and restoration, and tonight's many descants, many trips above the staff, were a test of sorts. My voice was not in tatters at the end of the evening, so I'm giving myself a passing grade. A shot of Scotch or bourbon would be welcome at this point, however. I don't have any on hand. I'd make myself some tea, but once you've visualized the whiskey, what's the point of herbal tea?

Sometimes, said the preacher tonight, sometimes a word in a hymn you're singing catches you, or you catch it, and it's the word you need to hear, the promise you need from God in that moment. 

Perhaps the word to take with tonight was "sing." Pastor Lueking used it frequently and delivered the infinitive "to sing" into the acoustics of the sanctuary as someone who knows how to make those walls sing back. He sang a phrase from a hymn from the pulpit, and talked of thousands of Christian voices singing around the world. Even though there were trumpets, trombones, horns and timpani, and lots of flashy notes from the organ, singing was the focus. We sing together as Christians, and especially as Lutherans, and while four-part unaccompanied singing is lovely, there is nothing so thrilling as a big solid unison on one of the great hymns of the church. The organ introduction sets things up. Then the organist lifts his hands from the keys, so that the instrument breathes with the congregation, and we all come back in together, loudly certain of when to begin.

There is no Lutheran modesty when we all sing together.

Sometimes, said the preacher tonight, sometimes a word in a hymn you're singing catches you, or you catch it, and it's the word you need to hear, the promise you need from God in that moment. 

Sometimes the promise is in the sound and in the making of that sound. No words needed in that moment.

Friday, September 13, 2013

"Bless the Lord, O my soul."

My Joyful Voices singers are working on this anthem by Ruth Watson Henderson. Here's a performance by the Northfield, Minnesota, Youth Choir, Anima.

My girls--well, if I could clone the four of them several times over, they might sound something like this. They're good singers and they're growing up as artists and musicians.

The text is Psalm 103:
Bless the Lord, O my soul. All that is within me bless his holy name. The Lord is full of compassion and gracious. Long-suffering and of great goodness. He will not always be chiding, be chiding. . . 

To not always be chiding--that is indeed compassionate and wise. Constant scolding is tough on people, whether it's the "you did this wrong" variety or the "you still haven't done this, this, and this" variation. One's focused on the past, the other stresses over the future. Listen to that stuff all the time and it's pretty hard to bless the Lord in the present. There are studies that demonstrate this.

Of course the chiding that is going on in my head a lot lately is speaking in my own voice. The message is often attributed to others, but mostly the criticism is me on me. "Why don't you?" "Why can't you?""Why are you?"

There's a homemade wicker-weave basket sitting on the stack of books next to me on the table. This was only my second attempt at making this type of basket. The sides are woven in three-rod wale: three weavers, each in its turn going over two spokes and under one. Even if you don't understand what that means, your eyes would still see the regularity of the pattern. They would also notice the mistakes in my basket--places where the weavers went over three spokes, or just one. The glitches are all on one side--I was struggling to understand the "step-up," which is how you move from one row to the next without a break in the pattern. Breaks in the pattern stand out--like dissonance or syncopation in music. But these breaks in my basket were not planned--they stand out because I goofed.

The bottom of the basket has problems, too. The center is an eight-pointed star, with sides of the octagon made of four-piece bundles of reed. As the base gets bigger these groups of four swirl around, and weave over and under. Eventually they divide into groups of two which continue to weave and swirl. At some point, in the middle of a round, I lost track of which pairs had actually been woven into place and which ones had sprung into position--the wrong positions--on their own. After forty-five minutes of struggling to make sense of it all I decided to call it a learning experience and let it be--off-center and imperfect. I curved the spokes upward, wove the sides, and finished off the top.

Enough chiding for one basket. It's imperfect, and yet I keep it around. It's light and strong and the top border is pleasing. It can hold balls of yarn. I like to look at it. Even imperfectly, it blesses its maker.

Compassion and mercy--not just for baskets, thank God.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Monday, September 02, 2013


Sitting in the back yard, drinking beer. It's Island Wheat, in a blue can that says Capital Brewery and displays a golden map of the waters around Washington Island, Wisconsin.

I am not ready for summer to be over. I have to finish painting the garage. And I am not yet full up with the peace and quiet that comes from yard-sitting in the morning, in the evening, in the heat or in an early September chill.

Who am I? Who else could I be?

I looked last night at hundreds of pictures from my son and daughter-in-law's wedding. I'm in many of these, wearing as fancy a dress as I've had in decades, hair straight and smooth, make-up and bright lipstick sharpening my features. I know that's me. It was a very happy night. But outside-in looks different from how inside-to-out feels.

This afternoon I've been writing Bible stories for a project at my church. I am very conscious that the words I choose affect how people will understand these stories. One rewrites the words of the Bible with caution, but also with the awareness that the gospel writers themselves were interpreters of an oral tradition, that they, like me, tried to imagine what it was like to follow Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem. Even if they were working with sources or oral traditions that originated with Jesus disciples, people who were there, they still wrote from a specific theological point of view, to meet the needs of specific readers.

You write a face onto a story--the words on the page. If you're telling the story out loud, you add gestures, emotion, tempo, according to the reactions of your listeners. If you're writing it, you guess at these things. You use your skill to prepare for the big moments, for the surprises, for the touching of hearts. But others will read from outside in, what it is you put in from inside out.

Soon the maple over my head will turn gold. And then its leaves will fall and crumble and blow up against the fence. The tree will be faceless through the winter. What will it be thinking?

Thursday, August 01, 2013

For Kris and MIchelle

I was going to finish a quilt for you as a wedding present, or knit you an afghan. Or write a hymn text.

But none of those things were accomplished. And now it's two days before your wedding and I am still trying to create a gift. It will have to be made, not of fiber, but of words.

The thing is, I don't have wise words to share about marriage. There are lots of reasons for that. Mostly the experience is not fresh in my mind or imagination. Anything I would say would only echo the sentiments expressed in the greeting cards and good wishes coming at you from all directions--or be much too complicated.

But I have been thinking a lot about Life lately, and since you two will be going through Life together, I thought -- well, that's a good topic. Words I have lived by.

Process matters more than product. It's the doing of things that brings joy, much more than pointing to what has been done.

Patience is a process and not a commodity. Don't think about having enough or about using it up. Discover what you need to do to keep generating it.

Things look different to different people. You two probably agree on a lot of things, but you each also have your own assumptions and frames of reference. Try to look through the other's eyes and experiences.

Most of us act on our own inner logic. It may not be logical to someone else. It may not be good for us. We might not even understand it or recognize it, and it's hard to break away from.

Love encompasses both mercy and justice.

My dad told me this many years ago. Words you speak have three meanings: 1) what they mean to you, 2) what they might mean to an objective third-person observer, and 3) what they mean to the person you are talking to. Christian kindness consists in letting #3 influence what you say and how you say it.

People before things.

Love really is all you need.

Even in the worst of times, God is present.

And God is good. All the time.

I'm looking forward to watching your life together unfold. God bless you!

Monday, July 29, 2013


I've been reading articles about anxiety lately--nothing authoritative or definitive or diagnostic or anything like that. Just people writing for newspapers and the web about anxiety. It seems to be the affliction of the age.

What I remember from one article was someone saying that the cure for anxiety was realizing that you can handle all those things you think you can't. Not much comfort there, if that's the big secret. But it's probably the truth. You get to the actual thing, and whaddaya know, you handle it. Because there really aren't a lot of other choices. But I find I fret and funk over things that are on the horizon--things that I have no choice but to live through.

Long ago I was in a stage production of Edgar Lee Masters's "Spoon River Anthology"--lots of characters telling about their lives from the graveyard of a small town. I didn't perform "Lucinda Matlock," but it was one of the upbeat, inspiring poems that showed up toward the end of the show,and it was beautifullly spoken by an older actress (well, older than me) who radiated joy and gentleness and ferocity too. You can read the whole thing here. It tells the story of the woman's long life, full of happiness, troubles, and small pleasures. Lucinda ends with this:
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,  20
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

Those last two lines have stuck with me, as a challenge, but also as something I puzzle over. That  Life—what makes it deserving of a capital letter? It's kind of a cheap solution on the poet's part--capitalizing the word and creating a little aphorism, instead of thinking of something more original. Though perhaps that is how is the character of this hard-working woman would put it, to her grandchildren and neighbors and others who complained: "Ach! Life is too strong for you. You have to live your life in order to love it."

So maybe anxiety is the affliction of this age because we live so much of our life at a distance from what's real. Too much screen time, too much time alone in cars and at desks. Too much thinking about how cold the lake water is. Not enough time riding the waves.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Believing, behaving, belonging

This 19th century mission hymn followed the sermon yesterday at my church.

Hark, the voice of Jesus calling,"
Who will go and work today?
Fields are white and harvests waiting,
Who will bear the sheaves away?"
Loud and long the master calls you;
Rich reward he offers free.
Who will answer, gladly saying,
"Here am I. Send me, send me"?

It's got a singable tune in a good key that clips along at a steady pace, with the occasional dah-de-dah dotted rhythm to keep it interesting. I remember I enjoyed singing this as a child.

But to me it fell short as a response to the gospel lesson and the sermon preached on the sending of the seventy (Luke 10:1–11, 16–20):
Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” . . .  Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”
I stopped singing for a stanza to figure out what I didn't like about this hymn. What made it seem so 19th century imperialist? I looked through the text to see if it said anything about the voice of Jesus calling folks to cure the sick or start hospitals, or about the fields being in poverty. Nope, it didn't. All people need, it seems, is someone to preach at them, or "tell the love of Jesus."

Words. They're important. But they're not much without a Word incarnate.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Fourth

I love fireworks. I don't ooh and ahh with the crowd. I just grin at the sky.  What a good way to use gunpowder.

In the grocery store line this morning I checked in with my RSS feed and saw this in Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish:
If we feel pride, it should be in the accomplishments of our fellow citizens and in any contributions we ourselves have made toward making our country and community a better place, however small and local. Pride of simply being born American leads to hubris, which leads to bigotry and belligerence. For pride to be authentic, it must be something we feel we have earned.
I saw accomplishments to be proud of this morning--the Oak Park parade this morning was made up of civic groups, with modest signs and colorful t-shirts. There was a gay pride marching band (who says the fun has to end when you leave school?), the Oak Park Art League, therapy dogs, baseball teams for kids, the high school football team--tall and gangly, the West Suburban Special Recreation Association bus, the Friends of the Library, the Democratic Party of Oak Park, dancers, even acrobats--pleasant, marching, waving, happy to be part of something celebrating life in America.

Tonight's fireworks were at the high school. A peaceful assembly of good citizens filled the grandstand on one side and the tennis courts and streets on the other. Kids with glow sticks, folding chairs, the noise of conversation. Sparks blew our way and a few came all the way to the ground. Just the setting--the sports fields with the school looming in the background are signs of community pride and investment in the future.

It all sounds so upstanding. And it is.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Still moon

Is it possible that I can see the moon moving in the sky? It seems like it, and no, I'm not driving in the car and claiming that the moon is following me. Which is an interesting, spooky feeling, but not what I'm talking about.

During the time I've been sitting in my backyard, the moon has traveled from behind my house to eleven o'clock in the sky. It has certainly moved. The sense that I am seeing it move comes, I think, from looking past and through grapevine leaves that are tumbling off their support and bouncing gently in the breeze. My brain thinks the leaves are still or stable and attributes their motion, in one plane anyway, to the moon.

I see the moon, the moon sees me.
God bless the moon, and God bless me.

Because the truth is, I am moving, too, on this rotating earth. Though I seem still.

The moon and I, moving through this universe.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Work them out in me

This is embarrassing to admit, but the big question I've been asking myself lately is, what is life for? Embarrassing because, well, at my age, you'd think I'd either a) know; or b) have made up a pretty good answer for myself. But honestly, this is the question rattling through my brain: why?

And while it seems I'm asking in a general sense--like, is there a purpose to the whole planet--I'm also asking in a personal sense: what is my life for? I don't think I'd be asking about the larger purpose if I felt I had a personal answer.

So yes, it really is all about me.

The thing I liked about having small children is that I always knew what to do and why it was important. The kids were important. Letting them know that they could trust me was important. As they grew, it was important that they knew they were loved and that they loved in return. It was important that they knew themselves and came to understand that the world is complicated and interesting.

I worked at all of these things, reflecting back to them a world that made sense, a world that cared for them and that was a place where their actions made a difference.

Funny how when it's just about me, I find it harder to keep batting that balloon up in the air, hard to think that life is anything but a cycle of "getting and spending" or of failing to control the weeds in the garden or the clutter on my desk. Hard to know just what I'm supposed to do.

So yeah, keywords for indexing this blog post would include "empty nest syndrome."

The world goes on--a fact which contributes significantly to my struggle. My husband and I had sex and had babies so that the babies could grow up and have sex and more babies. And yes, this next generation has some different ideas and believes that it's all happening to them afresh, but it's pretty much nothing more than the world going around. Things don't move toward an end of history, or toward "happily ever after" and if they did, you'd still have to explain what's happening in the "after."

So is it just genes struggling to will out because that's what DNA makes them do?

Gosh, in the words of my heroine, Nellie Forbush, "I just can't work myself up to getting that low." (South Pacific, Act 1, Scene 1.)

And because I can't--because I'm sitting on the couch writing about what's the reason for it all--I'm noticing God in the room. Because it seems just asking if there is a reason for life invokes God's presence.

If I were a decided atheist I might not be calling that presence God. It might be reason or purpose or just the awesomeness of living. And while I do call it God, I also call it a working out of purpose, of love, of compassion--things that happen in relationships.

Work them out in me, O Lord.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Pretending together

Knee, shoulder, hip--I awoke with aches and pains this morning after sitting through two performances of our lower-grade musical yesterday, on the floor stage right. The kids pretty much knew what to do when they got onstage but many had trouble listening for when to do it. I hissed "go, go now" and "leave, leave, get off the stage." Supported success.

But with the awkwardness of scooting around on the floor also comes the fun of hanging out with kids while we all pretend something together. That's what I love about theater--the fact that we all somehow agree to pretend together. With a paper horizon hung on the wall behind the platform stage, with costumes pulled from closets at home or made from baseball caps, yarn, fleece and other stuff from the aisles at Hobby Lobby, we had a ranch onstage, a thunderstorm, a stampede, a couple of square dances, horses, longhorns, cowboys, and a prairie full of four-year-old prairie dogs with little feet kicking in the air.

A couple hundred adults went along with all of this. They weren't pulled in and transported to another time and place the way they would have been in a movie theatre. They were well aware of gym lights overhead, babies in the audience, and the many leaps of belief required of them to follow the story of "The Cowboy and the Black-Eyed Pea." But even so, you lay the logic of the story out there and people follow. They go along with all the "what ifs."

I staged my first play at the age of ten. It was a historical epic in four scenes (actually four pieces of notebook paper) with five characters and two romantic sub-plots. I rehearsed it with four friends, invited to be in the cast, and the single rehearsal didn't go all that well. It devolved into the two boys climbing on chairs and throwing bits of paper at each other. But we had a performance in front of the whole class one afternoon. It fell short of what I had visualized in my head, but adults were impressed. And I was marked as way more serious about practically everything than my classmates. I went on to direct a version of "Peter Pan" in sixth grade in lessons led by a student teacher. That met with more success probably because the crowd control issue went much better. And when Peter came to the rescue and jumped onto the piano bench to confront Captain Hook, it was truly thrilling.

At least I think so. Maybe I'm so wrapped up in believing in what I create that I don't notice that others are observers more than believers. It's possible. That would be a dangerous way to live real life--though plenty of people do that. But it's a great way to escape for a while.

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Before this afternoon's St. Matthew Passion rehearsal began, my friend Laura, the orchestra I organist, said "I have something to show you." She reached into her tote bag and pulled out a small green book with "J. S. Bach/St. Matthew Passion" on the cover. She opened it and showed me my father's name, Herbert Gotsch, on the flyleaf, in the unmistakeable large-and-small cap style he used to write his name on books and music. My brand-new blue Bärenreiter Urtext has my name, G. Gotsch, on the cover in a similar large-and-small-caps style. It is a conscious imitation.

The small green book is a miniature score, with a German introduction dated 1929. There are no notes in the score, nothing that tells me how he came to have this or what he may have done with it. Laura found it at Concordia where she works; when Daddy died in 1984, we gave much of his library to the music department there, where he had taught organ for 35 years and had conducted Bach's St. John Passion on a Palm Sunday long ago, when I was in second grade. I remember discovering as I sat through the performance that recitatives were short but arias went on forever. I also remember the fun of sitting on my parents' bed watching Daddy put on tails and all the studs and buttons and suspenders that went with them.

Laura said she would give me the book after tomorrow's performance. She treasured it because my dad was her organ teacher and dear to her, but as she said, he was even more dear to me. As things turned out, she gave it to me after today's rehearsal. She had thought she would use it to follow along on the movements where she wasn't playing, but she decided instead to just listen--and rest.

Somewhere on the shelf in my living room, or perhaps in the sheet music cabinet that was my Grandma Gotsch's and then my father's, is a choral score for the St. Matthew Passion, with my grandfather's name, also Herbert Gotsch, written on the cover. It is a distinctive signature, with a consistent slant and carefully spaced letters. My father's signature looks much like it. The application of the same handwriting method taught in Lutheran parochial schools from one generation to the next? Or another conscious imitation?

Grandpa Gotsch would have sung the St. Matthew Passion with "the old Chicago Bach choir," as my dad always called it. I am singing it with it the Bach Cantata Vespers choir at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest tomorrow afternoon at 4:00. Laura is the orchestra I continuo organ. Steve Wente, another  student of my father's is at the part II organ. Up in the balcony, playing organ with the soprano choir singing "O Lamm Gottes," the chorale tune in the first movement, is Dennis Zimmer, yet another former student of my dad's.

I'm sure there are many other interwoven stories that could be told about the singers and orchestral musicians in this performance, as we take our place in a tradition extending back through the centuries to Mendelssohn and ultimately to Leipzig.

The Matthew Passion is a very emotional piece of music. This became especially clear to me when I watched a DVD of the Berlin Philharmonic performing the St. Matthew Passion "ritualized" by Peter Sellars. Sellars is an opera stage director and the video recording of the performance is deeply moving. The physical movement of the chorus and the soloists reveals much about Bach's poetic structure. Their faces reveal the emotion.

There is lots of suffering in this Passion. Jesus' suffering, yes, of course--but the words of Jesus are limited to the actual gospel text. It's the arias that intensify the sense of suffering--the expressions of the believer's grief at Jesus' suffering. And the arias go on forever, just as they did when I was a child. They are, however, tender; Jesus suffering invokes compassion as much or more than guilt in believers.

For a while at this afternoon's rehearsal, I was thinking about why this piece seems to be so focused on suffering--not on theologies of redemption or justification related to the cross, not on heaven or life eternal. Duples and appoggiaturas, oboes d'amore, violins, and especially the alto solosist say over and over again, "my beloved Jesus, it's unfair that you suffer," and "I will care for you and suffer with you." And to what end: ultimately in the last bass aria, "Make my soul pure in you."

Suffering was surely a more obvious, unavoidable part of life in the 18th century. People were much more likely to die before reaching old age. Women died in childbirth. Children died. Death happened in homes, not hospitals. People died or were horribly injured in accidents and in war. So many things that science and medicine fix now could not be alleviated then. So people needed a Jesus who suffered with them, and people accepted a Jesus who suffered and lost his life.

In our time, we hide suffering, and we hide from it. There's a chorus setting of Matthew's report that people mocked Jesus by saying "If he's the king, why doesn't he come down from the cross? And then we'd believe in him." I think there's a modern version of this false belief. It's the one that goes "I can't believe in a God who allows children to suffer. If God is so powerful, why doesn't he do something about that?"

Bach shows us a God who suffers, and who suffers and dies with us, and in whom our sin and suffering is transformed into faith and righteousness. As I sang the stanza of "O Sacred Head" this afternoon whose text prays for Christ's presence at our death, I thought of people I know who are facing suffering in the weeks and months ahead, and painfully, of my own children and the hard times inevitable in their futures. Tomorrow I'll carry my dad's miniature score with me and think of how cancer weakened him and robbed him of his life. I'll think of my grandfather's dementia, and my husband's. And maybe even of my own death--sure to come someday.

And I'll bless a God who in Jesus is present in all of that anguish, and who transforms it to peace.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Three things

For today, three things I know to be true:

A bright blue sky on a winter day makes even concrete buildings look beautiful.

A dad can be more delighted and fascinated by his son than by his business.

People are not alike, not at all.

And one more for tomorrow, Transfiguration:

Even down from the mountaintop the veil can be lifted
if human breath, human hearts pause to let in the divine.

Call this chapter "The Perverse Lutheran Goes to the ALDE Conference."

ALDE stands for Association of Lutheran Development Executives, and there are a lot of them here. I spent the last hour and half reading through the program booklet, browsing speakers' bios, and flipping through the list of conference attendees, and there are Concordias and Luthers and Lutheran acronyms aplenty. It's another world of Lutheranism, beyond pastors, teachers and church musicians. Given the way institutions are shifting and small congregations are closing, this development world is a big part of the future of ministry.

We're in Indianapolis, so the conference has a Speedway theme--harmless for the most part, except for the session descriptions written in a speedway metaphor. Who knows what those speakers will talk about after the smoke clears from the starting gun.

A conference is what you learn, but it's also the experience of going away. Staying in a hotel room where the hot water in the shower is endless. Walking fast through skywalks and convention halls. Getting a little lost. Going to a Welcome Event in an old and pretty nifty ballroom. Staying up late alone in a quiet room but hearing voices outside.

On the ride down here I listened to all kinds of music--Sinatra, Bach, Van Morrison, Dawn Upshaw. Practiced breathing in silently, lowering the larynx, raising the palate, the air moving along the roof of my mouth and falling to the bottom of my lungs. This is my singing project--trying to become a better singer, with a voice that will subtly do all that I want it to do, and raising the palate is the specific assignment  that followed me out of a voice lesson earlier this week.

But how shall I sing my high C's this weekend? In the hotel room early in the morning? Everywhere I look there are things that absorb sound rather than amplify it. Upholstered chairs, carpet, acoustical ceiling tile, bedspreads, drapes. No singing in "Speedway" sessions on direct mail and graphic design. Not even in sessions on getting your message out there.

So there's a challenge here--something about being an artist and having a day job. I plug away at web sites and press releases and newsletter, at the best and most concise way to say something, at the hook that will get readers' attention, but God for me is in the high C's and the writing that is trying to communicate something deeper than a meeting time or even the mission of a ministry.

Here's another c-word: cardinal. I saw two males sitting side by side on the bare branches of the forsythia bush as I went out the back door this morning. Bright red, feathers puffed out, so much color in a mere bird.

I try to end posts with some kind of connection. I'm a Lutheran, therefore I ask, catechetically, "What does this mean?' I dunno, but I think I'll wear the red turtleneck tomorrow.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Monday morning hits

Up early on a Monday morning and frittered away the time online. Which leaves me starting the week already convinced that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, to use a phrase I once explored in this blog. (And yes, a good blogger would link to it, but I'd have to find it. Didn't put keyword: handbasket in the info on the post.)

Here's Ezra Klein in the Washington Post summing up the NFL's dilemma and wholly inadequate response to the issue of hard hits in football and how the head trauma sets up the slow destruction of player's brains via CTE (chronic traumatice encephalopathy). I have come to believe that CTE was the source of my husband, Lon's Alzheimer's-like dementia, which took away his life and left him depressed and messed-up long before it caused his death in 2006. The manly violence of football and professional wrestling were very much involved.

Needless to say, I didn't watch the Super Bowl yesterday.

More craziness: my daughter, Eliza, announced on Facebook last night that she is making plans to move out. It's a little surprising to me--usually these kinds of declarations are symptomatic of a good fight with her mom, part of the none-too-subtle negotiating process we're going through as she, a 22-year-old young woman with Down syndrome, becomes an independent young adult--but one who still needs daily guidance, and a home provided for her. Given that we spent much of yesterday at home together, in separate rooms, each on her own in odd worlds of solitude, I do wonder if we're both going to end up completely demented in another decade or so.

But probably not. Monday is here, with routines, lists, tasks, activities. A couple ibuprofen to clear the headache I have because of forgetting to refill my allergy medicine and I'm good for a new week.

Love endures all things. Love endures. Something like that was the take-with from yesterday's worship. And "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you," says God. And loved you. Tenderly, knowing what craziness life held--even modern life.


Sunday, January 27, 2013


The cantata at today's Bach Cantata Vespers was "Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir (Lord, as you will, so let it be done with me, BWV 73)." The cantata text was heavy on acceptance. The homilist talked about trust. I didn't hear it all; at these services, the middle of the choir is not the best place for hearing what is said in the pulpit. But the sermon opening had a lot about the importance of trust in human relationships at a macro level (politicians and voters) and the micro (families, spouses).

I listened to the preacher's list of examples and my thoughts wandered off into my own life. I thought of the many ways in which people have broken trust with me, and I with them. And I looked at the people around me wondering how many had been unfaithful to a spouse--in a Lutheran church choir, maybe not so many. But how many had broken a confidence, had responded with rage when someone needed mercy? How many hurts have I inflicted on others without knowing, or knowing and not caring?

These are not happy thoughts. Trust breaking all around you is like a jackhammer breaking up the ground beneath your feet.

Infants come out of the womb ready to trust the arms that hold them and don't let them fall. We respond to their needs and teach them to trust us so they learn what it feels like to be safe and calm. Can we trust God this way? My spirit, sorely sagging on this icy Sunday, longs for infantile comfort. But my many pictures of who God is get in the way. Omnipotent, the one who wills all things. The one who controls what happens to me. The one who chides and chastens and challenges. The one I seem to fight and wrestle with, who won't let me have I want. Why would I trust this God, the God of everything is "for your own good"?

I think I've given God too many jobs. I think I've also confused God with notions of fate or fatalism, confused "Whatever God ordains" (from the Lutheran chorale title) with whatever--whatever happens.

I didn't hear the homilist well enough this afternoon--well, I'll be honest, didn't listen hard enough to know exactly where he ended up, but I think I remember hearing the words "God is faithful." And faith is trust, and I don't know, maybe there's some kind of complete circle there. The God I trust in is the one who holds me like an infant, who, unlike an unfaithful spouse or a fair weather friend, does not break trust with my need to be loved, whose love for me is a light that brightens all things.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Perfect? Free?

This may turn out to be a self-pitying, whining blog post. That's actually what I'm going for, on this cranky Friday evening, though every parent voice in my brain will try to turn me away from that goal, because it's bad to whine and complain.

By parent voice, I mean the voice of parental authority--not the one I try to use on my kids from time to time, but the parent voices that were used on me and that live on inside my head. The ones that said try hard, do your best, things come easy to you so you have a responsibility to be even better. And don't complain. Mundane, boring tasks are part of life. You're no better than anyone else, just do them. In fact, doing them (without complaining) is ennobling.

All of that--that is so ingrained in me that it's a credo, the creed of where and how I am supposed to live in the world.

I guess it's useful. Keep pushing to do better. Rewrite. Tinker. Keep learning. Work hard. Vocalize. Exercise. Plan. Proofread.

But it's all such hard work. (Whine, feel sorry for self here--but who wants to read that?)

Last weekend I ripped the finished front band from my purple-sweater-in-process so I could fix the way it puckered. This meant picking up 375 evenly spaced stitches from the front edge all over again. Respacing buttonholes. And reknitting six rows times 375 stitches in a 1x1 twisted rib. The result, after about six hours of knitting, will be a front band that will lie flat, plain, and unremarkable across my upper chest. I hope.

So many things to try to do perfectly. I heard someone pronounce something "perfect" today, something I thought was not at all perfect. I don't believe in using that word lightly. I'd rather pound myself with it. I've torn up and rewritten things many times over, though still not to my satisfaction. I've grown frustrated and unhappy with my singing. I've been short and snappish, insincerely outgoing and charming, and spittingly angry, toxic to others--or at least I think so. I've beaten myself up in the late hours of the afternoon and the early hours of the evening and before I even get out of bed in the morning. You'll not hear a chirpy, irony-free pronouncement of "perfect" from me.

The problem is, this is all very tiring. Doing stuff isn't much fun. And the word freedom keeps popping up in my mind.

In my Bible study group we are reading Galatians these days: Paul and the freedom of the gospel, based in faith, not works. Before Christmas we read James: "faith without works is dead." I think the way to reconcile the two is by trying to imagine the faith experience of both writers, or of Paul and of the Christian community led by James. In James it's a faith experience that makes suffering and hardship a joy, since God can be trusted. In Paul it's an experience of Christ that completely changes his life. But in both places a life of faith goes well beyond what you do and how well you do it. It's living by inner light that has its source in God's redeeming love. And letting go of that nagging, shaming parent voice.

Parent voice, lighten up. Heart center, light up. Have a little compassion on the whiner. And let there be peace and joy in the weekend and in the reknitting.

Thursday, January 03, 2013


Yesterday I read about a journalism teacher whose "signature assignment" is the "humiliation essay": write three pages about your most humiliating secret. "It encourages students to shed vanity and pretension and relive an embarrassing moment that makes them look silly, fearful, fragile or naked."

I won't be doing that here.

I am considering possibilities though. Here's one: the college-era performance of Beethoven's Ninth during which I could not stop crying because the choral director had made fun of my name. I don't remember what he said, but I know the room was lemon yellow and it was April and it was hot. We in the chorus were smashed together on the stage and had to stand through the whole damn symphony, including the first three movements when we didn't sing. I couldn't see. If there were risers I wasn't anywhere near them. I was claustrophobic. I had cramps and a headache, an uncomfortable dress and a desire to be anywhere but there. The notes were high. And I cried and cried. The director, with some compassion, appeared at my elbow to apologize, which didn't stop the tears. It only made them more embarrassing.

This choir director bullied and teased all the time. He was a smart-ass who picked out easy targets--the really odd people on campus. A smart, handsome man, making fun of the lowly, for cheap laughs. And all those adoring singers in his choirs laughed. It made me angry, but apparently it was funny to make fun of the notorious psych student for example who was six-fee-somethingt tall, had pink eyes and scars on his forearms and wore a white wool overcoat that reached to his ankles and made him look like the Easter bunny.

I did not want to be counted in the same group as him. The flash I felt of that is what started the crying. The humiliation kept it going.

I don't have three heads or three breasts or three of anything that I should have two or ten of. But all my life I've just wanted to be normal. Telling humiliating stories does not seem to be the way to get there.

When I started this blog and named it "The Perverse Lutheran," I hoped to be witty and clever, to charm, to turn beliefs over in the light to discover little-seen facets. I planned to be the Perverse Lutheran by being one-up on much of what has been handed down to me.

And yet the path into a story is always through the heart, through the heart's humiliation.

There's something about incarnation there . . .