Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Years Eve 11:59:59 p.m.

I have a bumper sticker on my car that is the mission statement of my Christian denomination.  I grew up in and am now an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  It was an American frontier movement that got its start in the early 1800s.  The men we deem as the founders would have never intended us to become a whole new and separate denomination.  What they wanted was a religious movement to unite all Christians – differences and all – because our common denominator is God in Christ.  Do we really need to separate ourselves because we interpret Scripture differently and therefore do church differently?  Don’t answer that.

So, anyway, these are the roots of the denomination I call “home.” The bumper sticker on my back left car window reads:  “A movement for wholeness in a fragmented world…”  Ask the person standing in front of you at McDonalds if they know who the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is.  Odds are they don’t.  We aren’t a huge denomination, especially compared to the Episcopal church, the Presbyterians, the United Methodists, Baptists….I could go on.  Seriously, ask a friend, stranger, or family member to –in 10 seconds or less – spout off 5 Christian denominations in the U.S.  I will bet you $10 – yes, ten whole dollars – that the Disciples are not among that list.  And yes a lot of it depends on who you ask and where you live.  But - even here in Kentucky, the heartland of “Discipledom”, my college roommate my freshman year had no clue what I was talking about when I told her where I went to church.  “Christian-Church-Disciples-of-Christ – is that a cult?”  And, as an 18 year-old, I didn’t really know how else to explain the DOC other than, “well, we’re kinda like the Methodists?”  Colleagues, we need to educate our people.  That, and, I should have paid more attention in pastor’s class.  But, either way, you get my point.

I love the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I appreciate who we are and I am thankful for who we strive to be.  I love that we, as a whole, are not afraid to be honest and authentic about our identity as children of God – and what that means for our individual congregations and the way we live out our discipleship.  This is hard work, and we definitely aren’t perfect, but who is?  Anyhow, because of all of this, and because of that bumper sticker, I think a lot about wholeness and what that means.  What does it mean to claim wholeness over brokenness? 

Today is the last day of 2014.  We get to start a whole new year tomorrow.  It’s amazing how much emphasis, attention, and excuses to have a party we throw at this one second.  11:59:59 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.  One second holds in it a smorgasbord of emotions.  It holds our losses and regrets; our memories and stories of the past 365 days.  And at the very same time this tiny little second holds onto the dreams, hopes, and goals we have to make this next year the very best one ever.  That’s a whole lot of pressure for one night; one hour; one minute; one tiny little miniscule second.  And we do this same thing every…single…year. 

It’s hard not to think about this kind of stuff on New Year’s Eve.  It’s a very natural, common, and I would say healthy thing to reflect on life from one year to the next.  So I got to thinking about all that has happened in my life in 2014 – the good, the bad, the amazing new beginnings and the hard, painful endings that I’ve faced.   And it struck me – does finding wholeness sometimes mean that we have to let go of the still-very-present and unresolved brokenness even, after what we thought were enough attempts to make something whole again, were unsuccessful?  Can something be whole if the edgy pieces of what happened are still shattered and scattered on the floor?
I guess, perhaps, all of this may go back to the age old lessons of forgiveness.  Let’s do a Top Ten list of the hardest things to do at the end of any year and see how many times “forgiveness” makes it to #1.  And yet, forgiveness is one of those frustrating reoccurring stories that runs throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament scriptures.  Darn it! 

The older I get (and thanks to a dear old friend, I have updated my personal info page on this blog by adjusting the “20-something-year-old” to “30-something-year-old.”  Thanks, Mary. J ) the more I realize how important it is to be free.  In the most literal and metaphorical sense of the word.  I stumbled upon this amazing Advent/Christmas devotional this year, written by a UCC minister named Quinn Caldwell.  It’s called “All I Really Want:  Readings for a Modern Christmas.”  It’s so good that I would encourage you to stop reading this boring blog post now, get on Amazon and buy this book.  (I've even made it easier for you, scroll down now and click on the link.)  Read it now or save it for next year.  But seriously, get it.  If, that is, you want to be challenged.  Because – shoo-wee – it’s challenging. 

Today’s reading was not only challenging but also educational, for me anyway.  I probably didn’t pay enough attention in my 11th grade U.S. History class to know that on New Year’s Eve in 1862, hundreds of African Americans living in the United States spent the evening in churches across the land praying for the promised enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation to come in the New Year.  Can you imagine the anticipation; the fear; the excitement; the butterflied nerves that must have filled those churches?  That tiny little second sure did have its fair share of pressure on that night - and rightfully so.  I know there are some who can understand this kind of waiting a lot better than others.  I have no clue what it feels like to not be free in this most literal sense of the word. 

The devotion for today goes on to say more about the chains that we (or our culture) place upon others and ourselves today.  Think about it.  What are the chains that keep you locked up or locked down?  Addiction, fear, loss, severed relationships, poverty, work-related problems, regret, failure, low self-esteem, unrealistic expectations, unhealthy relationships, abuse, negativity, and the list goes on and on and on.  If you knew that those chains would be unlocked, released, or broken forever tomorrow – on the first day of the New Year – what would you do?  How would you spend your night?  How would you create your new life?

A movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  Because of my roots in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I think a lot about this statement and how the church (big C and little c) can live it out.  How can we be living examples of wholeness in a world that is so broken?  This is hard to answer.  And it can be even harder when, as I said before, those broken pieces don’t get swept up from the loss, or the regret, or the severed relationships, even though you really did try what you thought was your very best to clean up the mess.  I am starting to realize now that perhaps every part of our broken humanity may not become transformed into wholeness – and maybe it shouldn’t.  We should always try.  But on the occasions where our attempts were too humanly flawed to succeed (let’s face it, we’re not God – thank God), perhaps we should set the broken pieces aside in the corner and focus our energy and attention on making something else whole.  Those pieces may always be in the corner of our lives, catching our eye from time to time.  Turning our attention in a brief moment of regret for what once was and what could have been.  But it doesn’t have to own us anymore.  It doesn’t have to claim hold of our lives and it doesn’t have to steal our pursuit for a full, meaningful, and happy life.  Somewhere in that Bible of ours there’s a saying from Jesus about wanting us to have life and have it abundantly.  Abundant life doesn’t have room for the chains of regret. 

We must learn how to put forgiveness – of others and of self – back up on our New Year’s Resolution lists.  Nobody said it was fun and definitely nobody said it was easy.  But it is an important and crucial step in this whole “wholeness” business that we Disciples like to talk about; dream about; work for; and create bumper stickers so that maybe, just maybe, someone else might work for it, too.

Here's a link to the Advent Devotional I was talking about.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Why I sing "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" 2014 edition

O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.  Rejoice, rejoice!  Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

It’s Christmas Eve Eve.  I can’t believe it.  I still haven’t wrapped a single gift!  Well, I have stuck one or two in red & gold bags with wrinkled tissue paper bursting out of the top in an attempt to appear as though I’m good at making a Christmas gift bag look attractive.  But for the most part, I have a lot to do before the “big” day. 

This season of Advent has been pretty reflective and meaningful – as meaningful and reflective as I can make it given all the temptations to indulge and get wrapped up in the chaos of this time of year.   A lot has happened in my life in 2014.  Abbey was born.  I could end there and that would be plenty!  Jeff & I are learning the imperfect dance of parenthood; as well as figuring out how to do that dance on the balance beam of life in general - work, friends, and family.  It’s an adventure, that’s for sure! She is only 10 months old and she is already teaching me so much….so much about trust, about courage, about presence and wonder.  These are great lessons to learn at Advent!  There are some days when I cry just because I love her so much.  To be honest, it scares me.  I don’t want to be this out of control.  I don’t want to walk so blindly along this path of letting go.  But gosh, the joy and the happiness she brings.  I wouldn’t trade it for any amount of homemade bourbon balls or those delicious little dates-on-a-Ritz-cracker-with-cream-cheese-frosting cookies that are so sinfully yummy that I could definitely eat the whole bag I was given without thinking twice.  The utter joy that I get from her presence in our lives could fill up this entire blog.  And I intend to dedicate many blogs and entries especially to her – but for the sake of time, I’ll move on.

Earlier this Fall, Jeff’s 10-year-old cat, Argos, was put down.  For those who know me well (embarrassingly well), you know that if I were to say I am sad about Argos being gone, well….it would be a slight diversion of the truth.  Does that make me sound like a horrible human being?  Yes.  Yes, I’m afraid it does.  But I can’t lie to you.  I feel like Claire from Modern Family when that old man next door who was friends with their son died.  She couldn’t help smiling every time she shared the news with others that he was dead.  (Okay – making that comparison does not help my case one bit.) I am being brutally honest and it will probably come back to bite me in the butt.  Oh well – I’m in too deep now.  Might as well keep going….I’m not sad about Argos the cat no longer being alive.  I’m not sad that he doesn’t track dirty paws all over my kitchen floors and counters.  I’m not sad that he’s not there for me to find him (once again) curled up in our kitchen or bathroom sink waiting for someone to turn on the faucet so that he can drink from it.  Ew.   I’m not sad that I no longer have to chase him away from uncovered food sitting out because we just pulled leftovers from the fridge and turned away for 10 seconds only to discover that while we went to grab a fork from the drawer, his cat nose was in the leftover casserole container gobbling up my dinner.  I’m not sad about any of that.  But I will say this:  he was Jeff’s first companion.  Jeff adopted Argos from the Lexington animal shelter when he was in college and living in an off campus apartment with his buddies.  From there the Fat Cat (as I liked to call him) saw Jeff through those difficult but formative seminary years; he reluctantly put up with Jeff adopting another cat, Skeeter; he traveled halfway across the country with Jeff to live in Fort Worth because of that one girl Jeff was engaged to; he reluctantly put up with our adoption of Patch, a shelter dog, who loved to chase Argos around the house and to whom Argos “loved” to hiss and growl; Argos put up with me moving in once Jeff & I got married; he traveled with Jeff back to Kentucky when we got the call to be ministers in Glasgow; and Argos reluctantly put up with the adoption of our second dog, Pepper.  That’s a lot of trauma for a cat who would have rather had the house to himself.  And so, to sum it up: Jeff loved Argos.  Argos loved Jeff.  And on his last night on earth (though, even though we knew he was sick, we didn’t know it was going to be his last night), I reluctantly let Argos curl up in the kitchen sink because it really was one of the few things I think that made him happy.  See – I do have a heart.  When Jeff put Argos down that next September day, it was the third time I have seen him break down in tears.  And when he told me that, in those last moments, he held Argos close and whispered a prayer of blessing for his life, I cried too. 

Less than a month after Argos died, as we were preparing to take a family vacation to Florida with my mom & dad, Katherine, Chris & Ella - Jeff & I were so ready and excited to take Abbey on her first trip to the beach - I received a phone call at 6:30 one Monday morning from my mom.  Granddaddy had been in the hospital following surgery on his broken leg.  In the dark hours of the morning of September 29th, the most interesting person on the planet, D.D. Cayce, III, finally gave in to his failing body and breathed his last breath.  This was a difficult loss for us all.  Granddaddy was one month shy of his 90th birthday.  Obviously we are thankful for many, many years spent with him.  So many families don’t get a fraction of that time with their loved ones.  But as odd as this sounds, it still felt too soon.  It still stung sharper than we wanted it to.  Sitting in my office now is Granddaddy’s brown leather recliner chair.  It smells like him and the seat cushion sinks down on one side, I guess from how he sat in it.  It looks a little odd to be the main chair in my small office.  It looks big and out of place.  A little awkward probably.  But that is exactly how I want it.  Granddaddy was odd; he was a big man; and he was more than a little socially awkward.  And, as I said before, he was the most interesting person on the planet.  He knew more random information about, well about pretty much anything, than anyone I’ve ever known.  He was a historian of his hometown of Hopkinsville, Kentucky.  Not to mention he was treated as royalty by the followers of the sleeping prophet, Edgar Cayce, for whom we are related to and for whom Granddaddy was on the History Channel one time helping to tell the amazing story.  He knew the names of people who died years ago whose memory was lost in the space of time and ordinariness.  He cared about life – from the smallest seed to its infinite Creator.  He was faithful.  He was committed.  He was one of a kind; you never knew what he was going to say next, or what would end up on his shirt from lunch.  I’ve told myself that every time I sit in his chair and then get out I need to exclaim “Oh Mercy Maude!”  I can still hear him say it.

In so many ways, from personal life to world happenings, this year has been joyous beyond belief and heartbreaking beyond repair.  All at once.

It seems like every year – when we get to the week of Christmas – I would give anything just to add in a few more days.  A few more days of Advent, of Christmas carols; of Home Alone and Christmas Vacation; of lights around town; of a spirit that – even as commercialized as it is – can be so beautiful and kind sometimes.  Some times.  But as it is…. everything will stop, turn off, shut up, and go back to “normal” on the 26th.  Even though we don’t have to play the game of “Consumer Christmas”, it’s everywhere else and too many of us seem to be playing.  Too many of us try to win – to see who can turn off Christmas the quickest.

And now, a few days shy of my 31st birthday, each year I seem to want a little more…no not gifts (although I’d take them of course…).  A little more time – to wait, to wonder, to pray, to sit in the glow of the Christmas lights as the blue light of a December day dawns.  And I don’t want this just for me, but for you too.  For all of us.  For the world.  We all get so anxious these days.  We are anxious to be busy, and if we aren’t busy then we’re anxious about not being busy enough.  We are anxious to be finished with whatever it is that is stressing us out.  Anxious to the point of exhaustion…and loss.  We lose ourselves, and the art of living, because of this game of anxiety (which gets even more intense and competitive when we play it alongside the game of “Consumer Christmas”). 

I think our need to stay busy, the high we get when we go-go-go and get things done, and the inner voice that tells us that we are lazy, unproductive, and worthless if we stop for a moment, or an afternoon, or God-forbid a day - I think this need and this anxiousness to be busy has a lot to do with the pain and suffering of our world.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t work; I’m not saying we don’t need to be productive or driven or motivated.  I’m not saying any of that.  But I am saying that there is a difference between being busy and needing to be busy.  There’s a difference between having a lot to do and thinking that it is the best way or the only way to be.  There’s a difference between living a busy life and living a busy life until you become anxious and numb, with your steering wheel stuck to cruise control.  And that is when suffering and pain and hurt can happen.  When we forget to look inward; when we refuse to stop; when we put off rest for another day and then another day and then another day.  That’s when, I believe, we lost sight of who we are…and we lose sight of God.  All that happens next is the fall-out. 

I get it that there is a lot to be anxious about in this season – the most “wonderful” time of the year.  I get it that there is a lot to cry about.  I get it, I really do.  I see it every day.  I live it too.  And, at the same time, at the very same time – there’s a lot to be thankful for.  There is a lot to celebrate.  And that is worth the wait.  That is worth the rest, and the prayer, and the thoughtful work of Advent.  It is why – to the disappointment of my inner 8 year-old self – I need a few more days before Christmas.  Not because I want to prolong the pain and suffering of a broken world.  Not because I like being off work, or just want to live life in my pajamas all the time (even though lots of days this sounds like a wonderful idea).  But because it is in this kind of waiting…this kind of Advent waiting…. that we can see the glow of the star.  We can hear the song of the angels.  We listen for the cry of new life.  We can cry for the loss of what once was.  We can pay attention to the kindness of strangers and we can allow ourselves to receive and give love just for the heck of it.  This is the kind of Advent waiting that can really change the world.  I believe that.  I really, really do.  Just some days more than others.  And that’s why I need a few more days before tomorrow.

That’s why I sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” 

“O Come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.  Rejoice, rejoice!  Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Saturday, December 13, 2014

When Christmas Hurts

It's embarrassing to think how long I've waited since I last blogged.  I blame it on the slobbery, teething, crawling, munchkin (or munch-quito, as Jeff likes to call her - a combination between "burrito" and "munchkin".  Yes he's weird.  And yes, I admit I love it when he calls her that) that has invaded our house and our lives since February.  I think that's a good enough reason as any to take a break from writing.  That and I'd rather play peek-a-boo, or sleep in my spare time…or wash bottles…or change diapers…or chop up bananas into really tiny pieces....but I'm not complaining at all.  What an amazing year this has been.  The most challenging time in my life, becoming a mom.  And now a working mom.  But I couldn't be more thankful for this beautiful, sweet, wonderful child - and the family of 3 (plus 2 dogs & 1 cat) that we have become.

So, that's a brief way to say:  It's been a while, blog.  I consider this post to be cheating a little bit.  Today I'm sharing a poem I wrote for our Advent Shadows worship service at church last week.  This particular worship is for people who struggle this time of year.  For those who have lost loved ones, or are in the midst of major life transitions, or who just generally have a hard time smiling when the rest of the town is hustling and bustling.  I love this worship, not because people are hurting, but because it gives those who hurt a safe place to share that pain.  To me, it's what the Gospel is all about:  Not ignoring our pain with painted smiles and a "too-busy" attitude.  Nope.  It's about recognizing, honoring, and allowing ourselves to really feel our pain.  To take 30 minutes for one evening this whole season and say to God:  "you know what, this sucks."  And realize that God's answer to that is:  "I know it does, and I love you."  When we can be honest with ourselves and with our faith community about our struggles and hardships, then perhaps that is the first piece in the long healing process.

When I was putting together this worship service, I sat down and wrote - what I guess could be called a poem?  I'm no poet, but here's my best attempt.  And somehow, the words flowed from the depths of my spirit, especially when I thought about the people I love who really are having a hard time being happy this season.

A word of explanation if you find yourself wondering about the first part.  A few weeks ago, I was holding Abbey in front of the mantel so she could see our stockings.  She reached out to the dog's stocking and grabbed the bells.  It was precious.  And I must have turned away for a split second before I stepped back, because as I did, I didn't realize that she was still hanging on to those bells….that were attached to the stocking…that was hanging on the mantel from a metal snowflake stocking hanger.  And that metal snowflake stocking hanger fell.  Right on my foot.  And it hurt.  Really, really bad.  So that silly, ordinary story is the inspiration for a poem that, I hope, can speak some words of comfort to many of us this time of year.

“When Christmas Hurts”
She reached out.
I stepped forward.
Her tiny hand clenched
White-knuckle-tight to the bells of the stocking.

She held on.
I stepped back.
The pointy, blue snowflake fell
From atop the mantel
It fell
Much heavier than real snow.
And it did not melt as it hit my foot.

That tiny space where the metatarsal bone meets the big toe
The snowflake landed.
Like a rock.
A pointy rock.
The point of the snowflake.

How could something so lovely
Be the source of intense
Amounts of pain?
How could a moment so innocent
Cause me to cry out
And bite my tongue
So that I did not say the words I really wanted to say.
Or perhaps I did –
(Give thanks that she doesn’t yet know what I’m saying.)

In this moment
I realized
That sometimes
And Christmas

How, you ask?
How can something so lovely
Be the source of intense amounts
Of pain?
How could moments so beautiful
Cause us to cry out
In longing

It can.
And it does.
We cannot
And should not
Ignore it
When Christmas

When Christmas
When we shed more tears
Than we force smiles,
God cries too.
When we would rather
Listen to sad songs
Or angry heavy-metal music
(Depending on your mood)
God will not care if
We just can’t
“Joy to the World.”
In fact, God will sit down
Right next to us
And listen to the music
That speaks to our heart
At that time
In that moment
When Christmas

When Christmas
Because we have lost
Someone we always wondered how
We could ever live without.
And it hurts to sit
Around a table
When that empty chair
Speaks louder
Than the conversation of our loved ones
About the news
Or sports
Or what is waiting for them
Under the tree.
When it hurts
This bad
God takes the broken pieces
Of our hearts
And holds them together
In those Holy Hands
Of Peace.
As long as we need
To be held.
And God
Does not let go
Until we can sing
"Joy to the World"
And mean it again,
Until we can smile
Without pretending we mean it.

When Christmas
Because the world
Is still broken,
And People still struggle,
Children starve,
And Animals abused,
And Justice forgotten.
When Christmas
Because we
Are searching
For something
A friend.
Hurts, too.
And God
Reminds us
That it is okay
To hurt
At Christmastime.
God longs
To hear the prayers
Of our hearts.
That is why
Jesus was born
At all.

So when the snowflake
If it doesn’t melt
But hurts
Know this:
And God
For you.
God listens
To the prayers
Of your heart.
Especially when
It feels as though
No one is listening
At all.

It is okay
To hurt
At Christmastime.
When moments that are supposed
To be beautiful
God longs
For our hearts.
That we can say
To God
Everything we need
To say
We can be
Whatever we need
To be.
Especially when
Christmas hurts.
God is there.

That is why
Jesus was born

At all.