Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Dead Rise Up

Death dances through this last week of Lent like a devil in a red dress crooking a jeweled finger in our direction. Tempting us somewhere we want to believe only the wicked go. If we have to walk with death we want winged creatures and white lights by our bedsides. But death was fashioned by the one who made us, sewn with care by the hands of an infinite one who tears temple curtains in two. Are we foolish to believe death is permanent?

Easter will arrive soon, fragrant with hope like the first signs of spring after the black of winter––crocuses emerging from snow, blossoms on trees that days before looked like skeletons, naked bony arms raised in supplication. It’s always the same story, the world opening to bloom after a season of sleep. How we long to remain awake, sun beating on our faces, wind whipping in our midst like spirit-flames. How we fear that long descent into darkness away from everything we do, the decline that returns us to being, where we have only our bodies, broken down at that, to commend us.

Perhaps we are not dead but gone under, like Persephone to an underworld. How many times have you been raised back to life without even dying? What of the thousand daily deaths that make us scratch resurrection from the dirt, clawing with our fingernails until we’re coated with the musky grit of it? All that we’d once given up for dead served to us again, life round and red like a pomegranate.

Easter will dawn soon, rolling around again like a stone pushed away from a tomb. And there we’ll stand confronted by the gaping expanse of nothingness. The tomb empty where there should be a body––a body to rub with aloe and myrrh, a body to wrap tight in burial clothes. A body to tether us to the expected, to bind us to convention.

You think by now, we’d notice, we’d understand––the dead rise up every day.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Not What I Expected

I don't know of anything more earthbound and more spiritual than motherhood. Being a mother has taken every ounce of stamina, creativity, and self-control that I have. Mothering has been the most challenging and rewarding path of self-development I could've imagined. It has taught me to love and driven me to prayer––praise and supplication––more deeply than I ever could have imagined.

I am pleased to have a short story I Knew All Along included in this new anthology:

Not What I Expected:
The Unpredictable Road from Womanhood to Motherhood
Edited by Donya Currie Arias and Hildie S. Block

The newest publication for the 30-year-old Paycock Press brings together 80+ writers and artists who give you the road to motherhood, the one not expected — full of bumps, infertility, pregnancy loss and at the end of it all, perhaps, parenthood.

Not What I Expected features poetry, fiction, essays and artwork by a wide range of authors from first time in print to multi book award winners. Their work divides into chapters titled: Pregnant, Birth, Infertility in Progress, Becoming Mom, Lost Children, A Mother's Needs, Worry, After, and Lessons.

My story, I Knew All Along, appears in the Pregnant chapter. Here is a short excerpt:

I knew all along, but not really, that this baby I was carrying, this child growing large within me, kicking my ribs, shrinking my bladder, straining my back, wasn’t really mine. But I didn’t want to think about that because I was already so completely, thoroughly in love with this person who was coming.

I changed for this baby. Before I even met him, or her. I swallowed vitamins the size of dachshunds and drank three glasses of milk––which I hate––every day. I gave up champagne at wedding receptions, and all my friends were getting married. I gave up morning coffee, which wasn’t a pretty sight. I gave up my afternoon Diet Coke, anything with caffeine, even chocolate. Chinese food too, after the kid spent a night doing MSG induced in-utero flips.

The only thing I gave up for Jeff when we got married was my apartment, half a block from the railroad tracks plagued by shrieking trains, vomit colored shag carpet and too little closet space. This was way different. I didn’t want to think about how this kid wasn’t really mine.

Sure it was mine to incubate, birth, breastfeed, diaper, drive to soccer practice, swim lessons and the orthodontist. Mine to rock during months of colic. Mine to teach about popping weasels and teapots stout. Mine to explain about the birds, the bees, the poison oak, nocturnal emissions, manual transmissions, and college admissions. Okay, well, I’d let Jeff handle some of that. Mine to pay for school pictures, summer camp, prom wear and tuition. But not mine to keep.

And I didn’t want to know this. Because I knew it would stab my heart and make me want to squeeze the baby, once it was born, against my chest so tightly that neither one of us could breathe.
This is how it happened. And I suppose you could say that because I was eight and a half months pregnant, it was simply a case of raging hormones. You could say that, and under other circumstances, I’d be the first to agree.

I hope you'll take a look at Not What I Expected.

You can "Search Inside" at Amazon
orders are being taken
there and at the publisher (spend a few extra $'s to support the small press if you can)
Paycock Books

Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times said, "A collection that is by turns heartening and harrowing, insightful and irreverent but, page after page, always honest. ... The best thing you can say about book on birth? It delivers. And this one does."

Grace Cavalieri of Poet and Poem called it a "MASTERWORK"

Jeanne Marie Laskas of the Washington Post said it's "GORGEOUS"

What will you say?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Perfect Pair of Jeans

I’m on a search for the perfect pair of jeans. I had the perfect pair. Never mind that I was in eighth grade then. Never mind that it was before I gained and lost weight with pregnancy, mono, pneumonia, breastfeeding, driving everywhere. Hope springs eternal.

It’s not that I don’t own jeans, I do, but they’re all lacking some important feature. Every six months or so, I submit myself to the torture of mall dressing rooms or a box of mail orders that I inevitably return.

I’ll know the perfect pair. Not dark, just faded enough, but not acid washed or worn looking, or worse yet, with pre-made holes. Not so short that my calf shows when I sit down, but not too long, I could hem them, but home hemmed jeans lack aesthetics. Enough room that the thighs don’t fit like an ace bandage when I sit down, but not so loose that another thigh could fit it. Snug at the waist, but not so tight that I have to unzip after dinner. No 360-degree elastic waist, that’s for old ladies, and I can’t be one yet. Not side-elastic, because you have to wear a belt, or look dorky, and I’m vain. No high waists with pleats that balloon up when I sit down, no low rises, because they gap out, exposing my back. Denim heavy enough that I don’t have to wear thermals in winter, but not so heavy that I have to wash them 100 times before the cardboard feel disappears. Soft, but not so thin that wind comes through.

Shopping with this kind of criteria is exhausting and disappointing. But I do it because I believe the jeans I’m looking for exist somewhere.

I thank God that when looking for a church, my requirements were fewer––the church had to care about social issues. I found a good “fit” with United Methodists right from the start. I never went anywhere else. I can’t imagine what’d it be like to go “church shopping,” trying churches on for size, deciding whether I liked the pastor’s sermons, the music, the pews, the views of parishioners, the way the scripture was presented, the church school curriculum, the bathrooms.

It would be hard to pick one, invest for a few months, even years, only to find the church lacked some essential component. I’d be forced to return home to try another activity, like aerobics.

The perfect church fit, may be like my perfect jeans, a desire based on memory or fantasy. Come to think of it, I had to pin the zipper up with a safety pin on a favorite pair of jeans. My pair wasn’t so perfect after all, but I accepted the flaw.

Churches are flawed too. Churches are composed of humans, and humans are far from perfect. We are frail, we fail, we have limitations and passions; we get excited about the new big thing we’re going to do, but forget to follow through. We can be perfect angels one day and miserable sinners the next. No single church and no single person can fill all our God requirements.

So why bother? Because we need something to wrap up in, we need clothes for our faith the same way we need clothes for our bodies. Okay, I know there are some people who get along without clothing just fine, but they don’t live in a redwood forest like me.

Church, like jeans, imparts a layer of protection around our fragile selves. It protects us from being too thin-skinned and sensitive to the wounds of the world. And although the perfect church, and perhaps the perfect jeans are unattainable, there are churches and jeans that are better than good enough. Pleasing to the touch, sturdy and useful in many situations, we feel at home in them. With those requirements met, we are free to encounter God, dream big and impact the world.

Some shopping strategies apply to church and jeans alike. Decide what you want. It is not a one-size fits-all world––from extra small to extra large, there’s choice in pants and church size. Consider fashion––the latest designer jeans or hippest worship music or faded Levi’s and tradition. What about function? Where are you in your life cycle and in your faith cycle? Do you need something that will fit young children, young adults, or seniors? Shop online. A good website will narrow the choices. Ask a salesclerk, clergy person or office staff for help. They’ll help you determine a good fit. Then, by all means, try it on, wear it around, return it if you need to.

Don’t worry if the search takes awhile. The results will be worth it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Why on Earth Would Anyone Go to Church?

Why on earth would anyone who has never been to church, or hasn’t been since childhood, possibly go to church?

Why would anyone disrupt their Sunday schedule, add another activity to an already over busy weekend filled with soccer matches and children’s birthday parties? Why would anyone sacrifice their one day to sleep in, to linger over a fat Sunday paper with a cat on their lap and a mocha, and replace it with a Sunday morning sitting with strangers in a drafty old building singing, or trying to, two and three hundred year old songs, and reciting prayers older than that?

I never had any intention of being a churchgoer. I’d been a “visitor” to guitar mass with my best friend in elementary school, to a service or two in the Methodist church as a teenager, and then to a few weddings in college. All of which convinced me that church was an “insider activity,” incredibly boring and unappealing to an outsider.

Then, God entered my life, poured onto me in the shower, and as if God had left a shiny business card in my towel when I went to dry off, I felt compelled to discover more about this mysterious visitor. Church seemed like the logical place.

I did learn about God there, but first I had to learn the church culture. It took some getting used to, years actually. I had never read a Bible, never “passed the peace,” never prayed out loud, even following a printed program. I had never opened a hymnal, never sung any songs by memory older than The Star Spangled Banner.

It was like visiting Oz. Strange, yet intriguing, so I stuck with it. Gradually I got the routine of worship, caught onto the lingo of Christianity, familiarized myself with Bible stories, mostly by teaching Sunday school to first and second graders, and learned what it meant to be part of a community, a community of faith.

For the first several months, I snuck out the doors as soon as church was over. I was too shy and too frightened to talk to the “Real Christians” whom I assumed lived perfect lives. I was sure they didn’t listen to Madonna albums or patronize R rated movies, both of which I did, and which proved I wasn’t Christian material. After a while, listening to the prayer requests the “Real Christians” offered during church, and seeing some of them at the movies, I realized they weren’t perfect, just human. They were allowed to laugh, and to hear profanity, maybe even use it! They struggled with unemployment, cancer, old age, and out of control kids. They worried about the homeless in the town and weren’t sure how to help.

One Sunday when the service was over, I was brave enough to go through a different door, toward a coffee pot, a plate of cookies and the congregation, holding Styrofoam cups and chatting. I didn’t have much to say. I could talk about the weather, but not about God. I lacked the vocabulary and the experience. Even so, I became part of the community. They didn’t care about my college degree, my activist credentials, my lack of church experience, my employment status, my income or what part of town––the wrong part––I lived in. I was welcome because I showed up, that was all that mattered.

I came to church because something had been missing in my life; something that I suppose was God. I didn’t just attend worship, expecting to be entertained by a good story and some peppy song by the choir. I didn’t come to church to feel good, or to feel like I’d done my duty, so that I could go off and do whatever I wanted until the next Sunday rolled around.

For me, church has been about finding God and finding myself. It’s been about committing myself to people as well as to God. Through church I met with women for prayer and sharing often during the challenges of raising young children. I learned what it meant to sit with someone in pain, not be able to solve her problems, and be okay with that. Faith grew in me and I trusted God to go where I couldn’t.

Over the years I learned to teach, to lead, to pray, to study, to preach, to work through conflict, to grieve loss, to rejoice at birth, to sit with death, to accept change, even to welcome it. I learned to talk and write about God and share that with others.

I can’t imagine my life without church––the place where I’m growing into the person I was meant to become. That’s why on earth I go to church. Why would you?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

God––Just Like a Cat Lady?

You know the kind of cat lady I'm talking about. The SPCA calls her to rescue the unadoptables. She bottlefeeds orphaned kittens the size of mice, eyes glued shut. Friends by her 20 pound bags of Purina cat chow. She is passionate, devoted, never turns away a stray in need of a home.

Today, I feel as if God is just like her. All I have to do is deliver myself to God's doorstep, no matter how miserable my condition, no matter how unloveable and messed up I am, there's a place for me. My prayer for those I know, and those I don't who seem lost in the trash heaps, scrounging and miserable, is to find their way to such care.

My praise, being a former stray myself is this:

The Praise of Strays

I was a wreck the day I showed up on your doorstep
escaped from a cardboard box on the back of a bicycle
fur matted, splattered with grease, scrawny and orphaned
Not the type anyone would want
and besides you already had a cat
lots of them in fact, stretched out
in windowsills behind your opened shades
But you opened the door as though
you’d been expecting me
couldn’t believe I’d finally arrived
You ushered me in and after Friskies
and milk and a wet soaping off
that I didn’t even complain about
you held me in your lap and picked
off my fleas one at a time
ruffling through my fur as if hunting
for gold then you ran your finger under my chin
nuzzled me with your nose and told me
the truth about yourself—
I will never abandon you

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Work Is a Prayer

I spent three hours ridding our church kitchen of ants Tuesday afternoon. I hope "Thou Shalt Not Kill" does not apply to the thousands of ants the rain brought inside, who made a superhighway to the Friday Night AA's Fig Newtons. Those ants are sneaky. I found them congregating in the strangest places. I mopped and mopped, wiped and rinsed, rifled through all the cupboards, looked in every drawer, tossed open boxes of cookies, tea, sugar. I stuck all the unopened ant-free food in the refrigerator, which meant I had to clean that out first, and boy was there a lot of expired moldy junk in that frige. Finally, I set out the bait traps and left the church exhausted, but pleased by my thoroughness.

This isn't the first ant invasion. And I admit I haven't been back to the kitchen since, afraid of what I might find. Last summer there were different ants, smaller ones who made their way from everywhere in the kitchen to our couches and chairs, finding plenty of crumbs to feast on. I vacuumed the cushions and couch and crannies for hours. Twice.

When I got home Tuesday night, exhausted, back aching, my husband asked why I didn't find someone else to do the job, it's not really part of my pastor job description. But, really, who can I call to clean up ants? I doubt there's anyone at church, or even our paid custodian ready to leap at this form of Christian service. And even if someone agreed, s/he might just point a can of Raid along the trail and be done, leaving many more stealthy ants in their hiding places waiting to mount another invasion.

So, I groaned and moaned when I heard about the ant problem and I put off going over to clean a few hours longer than I should have. But, the truth is that I enjoyed it in some strange way. I thought of it as a gift to the church that most of the congregation will never be aware of, but they'd certainly notice if I didn't don my gloves, ply my mop, rinse my sponge. I did my best.

One person's ants are another person's preaching. A nightmare, or an opportunity. Willing service or performance under duress. Prayer or penance. It's all about the attitude we bring to it.

The Work is a Prayer

The usher, her work is a prayer
greeting the visitor with a bulletin, a smile and the seat next to hers.
The custodian, his work is a prayer
Windexing the stained glass until Jesus’ feet gleam
The preschool teacher, her work is a prayer
smoothing felt sheep onto a flannel board
while telling the children that with God, we are never lost.
The little boy, his work is a prayer
coloring Jesus’ robe blue and his beard red with stubby crayons.
The pianist, her work is a prayer
singing loud How Great Thou Art
while she hammers out the melody for the congregation.
The liturgist, his work is a prayer
reading from the prophets, the Gospel and Paul
words for a particular time and a particular place with meaning for us today.
The communion steward, her work is a prayer
holding the loaf while hand after hand reaches for a piece of new life.
The friendly visitor, his work is a prayer
bringing the juice and the bread to Alma Louise at Driftwood House every
Communion Sunday.
The treasurer, her work is a prayer
counting the offering, and writing checks for mission giving and disaster relief.
The youth leader with the bad back, his work is a prayer
camping on the fellowship floor of a Sierra church during the annual ski trip.
The pastor, her work is a prayer
holding hands with Enrique, who is dying of cancer and leaving two children behind.
The seminary intern, his work is a prayer
leading a Bible study on the book of Judges using new methods he learned in grad school.
The youth group president, her work is a prayer
emptying her savings for a ticket to Angola to build a school with volunteers in mission.
The prayer chain coordinator, his work is a prayer
dialing again and again for Susan, whose mother had a stroke.
The hospitality circle, their work is a prayer
brewing coffee and lining Oreos on a plastic tray for the conversations after service.
The man in the pew, who has been coming for a month, his work is a prayer
inviting an old drinking buddy to the AA group that meets in his church.
The lay speaker, her work is a prayer
preaching the message of hope alongside the clergy.
The casserole committee, their work is a prayer
bringing pans of lasagna and tuna surprise to the new parents of twins.
The shelter volunteers, their work is a prayer
ladling soup and handing out sandwiches to the homeless in their town.

Her work is a prayer and his work is a prayer and their work is a prayer.
Your work is a prayer and my work is a prayer and our work is a prayer.

We bow our heads. We kneel at Jesus’ feet
and utter the prayers we carry in our hearts.
Then we roll up our sleeves, pull on our boots,
join the many who are one,
and set our hands and feet to the work of prayer.

Poem originally written for the CA/NV Board of Laity Partnership in Ministry Training, Oct. 2, 2004