Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Lost Costumes and Found Christmas

We looked everywhere.

In all the closets and nooks and crannies, and churches have many of all of those. We called and emailed members who might know where they were. We searched again. 

All to no avail.

Several of our Christmas Pageant costumes were gone. 

Some were there. The shepherds’ robes and some angel halos were where they were supposed to be. A few odds and ends remained that had once been clothing and accessories but were transformed with time and imagination into ancient Near Eastern everyday wear.

But the lamb ears and angel wings were gone. The box where they resided during the off-season was there, but mostly empty. One lone set of lamb ears remained under a child’s western hat. 

Maybe they’d been taken out and used for another church event and not replaced. Maybe they’d been placed in another storage box, and we’ll find them during a search for something else in August. Maybe someone decided they needed lamb ears and angel wings more than the children on Christmas Eve and absconded with them in the dark of night. Maybe gnomes took them.

Who knows.

But what we did know is on December 23rd at 2:00 pm, discovering an absence of pageant costumes is not a welcomed Christmas gift. 

I did know that asking, “Why?” wasn’t going to be all that helpful and replaced the question with, “What now?”

A Facebook post, a shopping trip to a local Halloween costume store, and a few phone calls later and we suddenly had more costumes than we started with. A church in a nearby town held their pageant earlier and sent us two boxes of amazing costumes. The Halloween costume store salesperson listened to my plea and helped me gather a menagerie of animal ears for children and gave me half off the price of everything. The store had no lamb ears, but giraffes, fox, zebras, puppy dogs, and some elephants made an appearance at the stable. 

A creative member spent the afternoon finding patterns on Pinterest and made several sets of lamb ears that were anything but Pinterest fails; they were, in fact, perfect for little ones to wear. A Facebook friend shared quick costume ideas, and offers of help overflowed.

And the night of the pageant? Joy and holy chaos reigned as children costumed themselves in a wide array of pageant finery. Parents laughed, children rejoiced, and the pageant debut of Butterfly the Pony and George the Donkey brought so much effervescent glee and tangible love into the space that it spilled out the doors of the church into the neighborhood around us. 

The pageant had gone from moments of distress to an embodiment of joy and generosity in a span of hours.

Love came down at Christmas to remind us of this truth. We make plans, we have ideas, and we depend on things. Plans go awry. Ideas are wrong. Things don’t always work out. Other things go missing or are lost. Sometimes they are stolen from us. And we wonder why and how.

And eventually, hopefully, we ask, “What now?” 

And God responds in the generosity, unselfishness, creativity, and love of others, often in unexpected ways. 

We’ve heard the Nativity story so many times we can forget it is filled with the unexpected, the unplanned, and the surprising. It's a narrative of how not to spend your last days of a pregnancy, where not to have a baby, and how not to welcome God Incarnate.

Except it is exactly how God chose to do all those things. In the midst of how we humans would rather not do things, Christ is born. 

In my final moments of Advent, worry and frustration gave way to love born - again - in an unexpected way. Watching the children laugh with glee at a LIVE PONY AND DONKEY, seeing the fox and giraffe welcome the Newborn King, and witnessing the fire marshal (one child wore his Halloween costume for the pageant) lead the singing of Joy to the World, I gave thanks for the God who removes things we think we need and gives us what our souls truly desire.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

In the Dark

Part of my Advent practice is Evening Prayer by the light of the candles of the Advent wreath. Sitting in more darkness than usual, I have a greater appreciation for those who lived by candlelight alone. And when I finish my prayers, I take my pencils and draw, usually something that has caught my attention from the readings or the psalms. An image, an idea, a moment that needs to be expressed in image and not word.

I draw in this state of mostly dark, too. The candles are lovely, but not all that helpful. So often, by the light of the day, I see the colors I selected and how they blended and worked together and am surprised. What I thought was a dark blue in the darkness is really a deep green. And I didn't think I'd used that much yellow, but it's pale and harder to see by candlelight.

Thankfully my drawings are my prayers to God alone and are not for public consumption, so how they look is not of particular consequence to anyone but me. Many times I like the look of what has been created, but sometimes I don't.

Advent is a time when we remember we walk in darkness. The shadows of life fall on our path, and our steps aren't easily seen as we take tentative step after tentative step. We make decisions in this place where our vision may not be a sharp as we hope.

Sometimes we are surprised at the way things work out. Even with our vision dimmed, we are amazed by the beauty that results in our stumbling forward. In our deep grief we may decide to step blindly forward to open ourselves to love again, and that love is good and life-giving. In our fear of change we may find the minuscule courage of faith that says, "Yes!" to try something new. In our discomfort of growth, we may feel the pull of God as our selves and souls expands to understand we can be more than our past pains and mistakes.

Yes, in the darkness, God moves and we respond to that movement. And many times that movement, change, and adjustment is a good and joyful thing.

But we are often troubled by these outcomes, as well. We humans make decisions with our sight blinded and our ears stopped. We think we see all the aspects and particulars and angles, but really we are stiff-necked and limited, silencing the voice of God and sticking to our self-imposed rigidity. In this place, we can find ourselves dictating how love should look, and when it doesn't look just that way, we storm out of the relationship, blaming the other. In our fear of the dark, we can refuse to move, crawling instead into the pain of our brokenness and staying there, a wounded creature unwilling to offer ourselves for healing or change.

In our false belief God is only present in the Light, we can skip over the power of walking by faith and not by sight, of sitting in the quietness, in the darkness, and in the silence.

Advent holds us in the darkness. Our liturgical wisdom asks us to slow down and sit for a while in the dark, in the silence, and in the presence of God and reflect.

Reflect upon the past year, the way love has been surprisingly present, the way love has changed us and birthed us into something new. Reflect on how God has changed and is still changing us. Reflect upon those we need to forgive, those we have wronged through thought, word, and deed. Reflect upon that which has been lost and grieve. Reflect upon that which has been born and celebrate.

Reflect on the images we have drawn this year and what they have expressed about ourselves. Be surprised, be startled, be sad, and be joyful.

Sit in the dark.

Be still.

And be.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Having Written

Many of you may know I signed a contract for my second book. The publishing company even asked for the right of first refusal for my third book, which is at the same exciting (Yay! A third book!) and horrifying (What?! A third book?). The working title of this book is Horses Speak of God, about the vocabulary of faith I've experienced in my years of riding horses and the particular way they've taught me about God.

Writing is a lonely business. Most writers I know sit for hours in front of a computer screen. Alone. And write. On some days the 2500 words I write will all be worth keeping.

On some very rare days.

Most days, of 2500 words, maybe half will become part of the final manuscript. Maybe.

The words I write plumb depths of my soul. My guess is most writers experience this. As we write and rewrite and rewrite, we shape our experiences so others can find meaning in what we lived through. We wonder if what we've brought up to the surface needs to be shared with anyone other that our therapists. Some does. Some doesn't. We put our selves and souls on the page in a particular way, and we are very thankful for editors.

I write in the genre of faith memoir, which seems like it's own strange 12 step meeting at times.

Hi, I'm Laurie, and let me tell you of my epic failures and how I experienced God through them.

Somewhere I stumbled across a quote. "I don't like writing; I like having written." That sums up many writers I know. The process is hard. It demands our attention and does not play well with others. When I'm in the midst of writing a book, my social life decreases greatly because time each day goes to words written for an audience I can only imagine. The rest of the time goes to the church where I'm the priest and to riding horses.

And to sleep.

So in case you're wondering where the blog posts are, they will be a bit less frequent for a few months, but still here. I'll probably repost a few favorite posts from years past. Soon there will be a brand new book, a part of my self and soul shared with (hopefully) many, many people. And even a book tour, which is where I get to reclaim the social life.

Now I am writing. Soon I will enjoy having written.

Soon Nina is sure she will be famous.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, September 26, 2016

I Heard You Died

Last week the rumor that Desmond Tutu had died flew over Facebook. A site with a name similar to a respected news source posted an article. A few people shared it, and hours later Desmond Tutu’s family had to release a statement. Tutu himself was in the hospital, but, as in the great quotes from Monty Python, declared he was not dead yet.

The whole incident reminded me how quickly incorrect information, speculation, and allusion can spread, particularly regarding someone’s health. Often, those who are sharing the information are well-meaning, but the result causes distress. The person and family and friends can be inundated with people calling with their incorrect information, and instead of spending their time and energy healing, they spend time and energy correcting inaccurate information. When we are going through stressful times, knowing people are discussing our distress is troubling. In some cases, the rumor is so hurtful, relationships are damaged. 

We in community can provide support for those among us who are going through stressful times. We can offer prayers, presence, and help, and often providing those things means we have information about the situation. How do we, as faithful members in communities, honor information about distressing situations of others, and what do we do with information we may have?

1.    Ask ourselves, "Is this my story to share?” Your story to share is yours. The state of your health, the state of your personal life, any distress you are experiencing, any joy you welcome - they directly happen to you and are yours. You are the one who gets to share the story, including as many or as few details as you choose to include. If the said incident did not happen to you, if you are not the one who is ill or in distress, it is not your story to share.

2.    If it is not my story to share, do I have have explicit permission to share the story?  When we have family members, close friends, coworkers, and even acquaintances, we inevitably have access to information about their health and well-being. Perhaps they have shared with us in a deeply sensitive conversation. Perhaps we have been the recipient of a group email. Perhaps we have come by this information through casual conversation. Regardless of how we have come by the information, before sharing it with anyone else, we have the responsibility to discern whether or not we have explicit permission to share this information. How do we do that? The conversation may look like this: “Thank you for sharing this information with me. If other mutual friends ask me about your situation, how would you like me to respond?” Unless you have permission from the person whose story it is, you hold the story in your heart.

3.    Do not share information gathered through third parties. If I had a quarter for each time a parishioner has come to me, saying, “I heard about Jane when I was talking to Mary, and Mary said Jane was (fill in the blank with incorrect information) because Sally told her,” I could retire. Information that has travelled through several people is almost always incorrect, and it is quite honestly gossip. One way to be kind and caring when someone shares information about another’s health with you is simply to ask, “Did the person give you explicit permission to share this information?” If the answer is, “No,” a reminder of #2 may be helpful.

4.    Ask yourself, “Does sharing this information help the person in distress?” I wonder if we share information about others because we sound like we are in the proverbial loop and not because it truly helps another. Sharing with our prayer group (because she has given us permission) Jane is sick and needs help with meals is useful information. Continuing the conversation about how someone other than Jane told you she is undergoing tests for cancer? Not so helpful and in fact, is likely hurtful. Talking about a person who is not present in the room should be a conversation held with honor and prayer, and words spoken cautiously so we don’t move from sharing helpful information to sharing incorrect and hurtful information that is not ours to share. 

5.    Recognize everyone who is undergoing a health or personal crisis has different comfort levels. Some people are comfortable with freedom of information; others are very private. When someone is in a time of distress, we honor their choices, including that of information sharing. That includes posting anything on social media about another’s health and well-being. 

6.    Realize clergy cannot freely share information.  I have a practice of asking the question regarding what information the person would like me to share, and that is exactly what I can share. I’m not keeping secrets; I’m honoring confidentiality. I do appreciate when members hear of someone’s illness come to me rather than engage in speculation, and I also appreciate when they realize I can only share information I’ve been given permission to share.

7.    Beware of narrative public prayers. This is a particular issue with me. Prayers that sound like this: God, we pray for Jane, that she be healed from her cancer, because we all know what a challenge her life has been and how her husband cheated on her with the UPS woman and how her children are not present for her in this time of need…” I wish I could say I’m exaggerating, but no. God knows our needs, and God does not need a list. Simply stating the person’s first name is adequate. Gossip in the name of God is still gossip. I think prayers of silence are most helpful, with a few words as possible. 

8.    Remember the power and grace of not knowing.  I often have this conversation:  “I saw Jane was on the prayer list. Why?” Instead of asking someone besides Jane, remember the grace of a direct, handwritten note to someone that says, “I noticed your name on the prayer list, and I am praying daily for you.” Our prayers are not more valid because we have information, and often, especially when someone is ill, not having to share more information is a gift of grace.