Sunday, October 02, 2011

Let Us Sing To the Lord

I wrote this poem back in 2004 to honor the many wonderful musicians in my church, and read it again today to honor one of our accompanists who blessed us with her amazing skills for the past six and a half years.  It was a joy to work with Char.  She thought so carefully about the theme of the service and chose appropriate and beautiful music to offer to us.

This poem was published several years back in Alive Now.  You are welcome to use it worship services to honor the musicians in your midst, just please give me credit as the author.

Let us Sing to the Lord

To honor the musicians of Boulder Creek UMC, Feb. 1, 2004

In the ancient quiet of this world
one raised her voice and carried a note
she was joined by another
and melody began
harmony followed
spanning the distance between souls.

Song was born
and the drum followed
the rhythm of our hearts
beating outside our bodies
inviting our ancestors to dance

Arms were raised to the firmament
bodies began to sway
feet to jump

our first worship
our earliest praise

so it continues today
rising above our chaotic world
teeming with sound

Music draws us beyond the noise
carries us out of isolation, beyond confusion
satisfies the insistent cry of spirit

The instruments
of voice
of piano
of guitar, drum and flute

They are the instruments of God’s peace
Their notes restore our joy
Their prayers bind us together

We give thanks to you and for you
the ones who offer your voices in song
and make music with your hands
fingering melodies, drumming life
strumming praise, and piping divinity

A testimony that slides in our ears
and sets our spirits singing in return

©Cathy Warner 2004

Thursday, August 25, 2011

In The Emergency Room

I went to the E.R. prepared last night.  I brought a sweater, granola bar since I’d missed dinner, and a novel.  I brought my sister’s “barf bowl” and a box of Kleenex.  A parade of need hit the waiting room at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday night.  The boy who might’ve broken an arm at soccer practice escorted in by his mother, the husband experiencing chest pains wheeled in by his wife, they arrived after us and were seen before us.  Of necessity the broken, bleeding, life threatening takes priority over pain. 

We had a two and a half hour wait in the sea of noise and bright fluorescent lights.  I looked at my sister wearing her noise-cancelling headphones, the sash of her robe pressed over her eyes, flinching at the constant slamming of the outer doors as patients kept coming, and thought the E.R. was the wrong place to take someone with an excruciating migraine.  I should’ve taken her to a spa with dim lights, a  burbling fountain, warm blankets, where people would murmur in low voices, apply a cucumber eye mask and caress her with lavender lotion.  A spa where the aesthetician would insert a painless I.V. in the dark and administer narcotics along with hot stones.

The tattooed twenty-something who had fallen or been in a fight and was in so much pain he wanted to kill himself.  The heroin addict who’d tried to cut something out of her arm rolled up her sweatshirt sleeve to reveal an arm not round, but swollen square.  The alcoholic behind the curtain in the other half of our room (when my sister finally was seen) who’d burned herself cooking drunk was ready to go home.  She was freezing, threatening to rip-out her I.V. and belittling her husband when he asked her to calm down while they waited for a nurse.  The E.R. was the wrong place for them, too. 

Here they would be stitched and salved, patched, shot with antibiotics, and sent home with discharge instructions to get help for depression, addiction, alcohol abuse, which I thought they’d probably ignore.  They needed help, but as I’ve struggled with my own issues, I’ve come to believe no one can save anyone else from their brokenness, or themselves.  I wasn’t in the mood for compassion.  I’d missed dinner and the premiere of Top Chef Just Desserts.  I wanted to sit on the couch with my husband, a cat in my lap, drinking a cup of tea, watching a T.V. show where life’s biggest challenge would be who got sent home for poorly tempered chocolate, not immersed in this world of pain and suffering, a never-ending stream of people in and out of the automatic doors and an audible fire alert on top of all the beeping equipment.

Once her meds kicked in my sister dozed for a few minutes, and I took the headphones from her hands, placed them over my ears and tried to block out the alcoholic vitriol on the other side of the curtain.  I thought that working in the E.R. must be one of the most horrendous jobs around.  Helping people who weren’t going to help themselves.  I thought about rescue and saving and power and powerlessness while I read and re-read pages of my book, not really absorbing the words on the pages, or finding clarity in my swirl of thought. 

This morning, safe and quiet at home, I think about my lack of compassion, about the barriers I put up in the E.R. so I could separate myself from the patients.  Set apart I wouldn’t have to recognize our common humanity or remember Jesus’ words about the least of these.  Today I have no doubt that Jesus sat on the arm of every chair in the waiting room, at the foot of every bed, looking at his children, so fragile, vulnerable, broken by the world and their own perceptions.  He sat there, willing each one to recognize his presence, to view his or her life and one another through a lens of love and healing, to accept this gift in addition to the medical care they sought. 

It is only today that I know this.  Last night I was blind.

Monday, August 22, 2011

This Or Something Better

Dear Readers,
My life is changing and so is my blog.
I invite you to follow me at my new blog:  This Or Something Better.  Click on the title of this post, "This Or Something Better" to be redirected there.
You can sign-up to follow via email on the new blog.
Thanks for sharing the journey with me,

Watered By the Spirit

My graduating cohort from Seattle Pacific University has self-published an anthology, Archipelago.  One piece each from the dozen of us.  There is some great writing in here.  I hope you'll consider buying a copy.  Here is the opening to my essay Watered By the Spirit:

Jesus was thirty years old when he plunged.  He sought out his cousin, John, a desert dweller who ate locusts and honey and preached to a good-sized crowd to repent of their sins before he dunked the converts underwater.  An Armenian icon depicts Jesus’ baptism like this––Wearing nothing but a loincloth he stands waist deep in an oversized jar of water meant to be the Jordan River. Fish nip at his feet looking like swim fins at first glance.  The halo over his head is crowded with the hand of John the Baptist, the arms of his future cross, and a dove descending directly below a few fingers that point barely noticed from the top of the frame, as if God is directing the bird to the right man.  John, who is standing on dry land, rests his palm on Jesus’ forehead as if checking for a fever.  Two angels stand behind John, their enrobed arms extend toward Jesus as if ready to dry off the wet and shivering Beloved by embrace.   

Monday, July 11, 2011

Circling God

The spiral relationship
draws us toward God
nourishing our souls
filling our emptiness
that we might circle
out into the world
and not be shattered
by the brokenness
we encounter there

We can bear hope
riding the ridges
of the spirit’s back
the way may look closed
the lines impenetrable
but in truth
the space Gods needs
to slip into our lives
and the distance
we need to bridge
is thin as breath

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Waking to Words

T.V. would have me believe that families of my generation ate breakfast together, mother at the griddle and father behind the newspaper.  My father worked swing and graveyard shifts, my mother kept his hours.  I woke to an alarm, fixed my instant oatmeal and read the jokes on the empty packet while standing over the sink eating.  If my younger sister joined me, I don’t remember.  When I ate communal breakfasts it was with my best friend Katy who lived across the street.  We kept the cereal and milk on the table, reading the packaging, learning to pronounce words like thiamine and riboflavin.  She was an only child and could convince her mother to buy Lucky Charms and Pop Tarts and other breakfast treats my mother refused.  We were thrilled when her mother agreed to buy a box of Super Sugar Crisp––which we weren’t even sure we liked––on the condition that we ate all of it before we tore up the box.  Pressed into the paperboard was a real record, a 45-rpm of the Archie’s Sugar, Sugar with a circle of dotted lines just waiting for Katy’s scissors.  We read every inch of that box that weekend as we worked our way through the cereal.
I’ve eaten breakfast––and lunch since I left school and office for motherhood, pastoring, and writing––by myself most days of my life, but I haven’t been alone.  I’ve always had words in front of me.  Reading a book while eating requires using the edge of the plate and clean utensils as book weights, and I worry about a splat of yogurt or drip of orange juice staining a page, especially on a library book.  I’m not picky about content when it comes to read-eating, but I prefer magazines because they’re easy to keep flat on the tabletop, and smaller than a newspaper.  When I was young, I read what my parents left open, my father’s Herald Examiner, my mother Women’s Day and Family Circle, her copies of People when I was in college.  When I was a young mother the only books I could finish were children’s books I read to my babies, but I could work through an issue of Parenting and the Auto club magazine in a month.  Now I read the Sierra Club magazine, Real Simple, Sunset, Mental Floss, my husband’s Family Handyman, the free weekly paper, and two devotionals Alive Now and Weavings. 
When I became a Christian in my mid-20’s I thought I was supposed to wake at five each morning and read the Bible while the house was quiet and the world had yet to make its evil mark on me.  I was supposed to begin each day with ammunition for the battle, like the woman who wrote the book I borrowed from the library about being a Good Christian Wife.  But, I’m not a morning person, and the only dark force I was fighting was the alarm clock on a winter morning that was literally dark.  I couldn’t imagine read-eating the Bible.  It didn’t tuck well under the edge of a plate, the pages were so thin that a spill would saturate an entire Gospel, and it seemed sacrilegious to read scripture while eating toaster waffles.  Maybe if I’d been raised with the Bible on the table and learned words like Leviticus and Deuteronomy while eating Captain Crunch, my morning habit might be different.
I still wake up to Words and not The Word, and I’m not sure if I simply have a forty-five year habit or a spiritual discipline.  Either way, there is something that feeds my hunger when I read about wine tasting in Livermore, efforts to curb mountaintop removal coal mining, tips for repairing leaky gutters, and rhyming poems about Jesus while I eat peanut butter on gluten-free toast.  Wearing my bathrobe, I make tea, sit on a barstool, spread a magazine on the counter before me and connect with humanity.  Our pedestrian needs and desires––where to get a good pizza and how to patch a flat tire––mix with more profound––a dozen two paragraph reflections on the phrase Light of the World.  When I want humor, I read the poorly phrased police blotter in the local paper and allow my fork to hover over the print, daring my syrup to drip.  Sometimes, when I’m finished with breakfast, I push my plate aside and flip through the articles on makeup and fashion, which I have no real interest in, but will read about if I want to procrastinate.
Every morning I taste a variety of writers and styles and purposes while I sip my orange juice.  Every day I glimpse another worldview––the foodie, the carpenter, the conservationist, the fashionista––and enter it vicariously through print.  I could say my reading is educational, that it’s good for me, that there’s something holy about reading and connecting with the spectrum of the human family.  Actually, I am saying that.  But I’m also going to say something else about my read-eating and reading in general, something that the early morning Bible reader in all her stoicism doesn’t want to let on.  Maybe she doesn’t approve, but I don’t care––waking up to words is fun. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

Embodying the Body

I had minor surgery last week, an elective procedure to relieve excess and increasingly painful menstruation.  I had reached my limit in coping with this problem that plagued me for decades.  Thinking about what I’ve done afterward, I realize that for most of my life I’ve treated my body as a troublemaker, a problem causer.  I swallow handfuls of vitamins and herbs each day to stave off symptoms, to make up for deficiencies and lack, treating my body as something that has failed me. 

I had an expectation of perfection.  Not that I’d be thin and tan and blonde and wrinkle free forever, but that my kidneys, digestive and reproductive systems, my thyroid and adrenal glands and hormones would function with one hundred percent accuracy, doing all the things they’re supposed to do without error.  I expected my body to operate in textbook fashion.  When it didn’t I took up acupuncture and chiropractic, donned support hose, cooked vile tasting Chinese herbs and drank the brew, gave up wheat and gluten, eggs, soy, most dairy and half a dozen other foods, and added enzymes and herbal remedies to my diet. 

I have learned to accommodate and live with my chronic conditions, but I have not learned to accept and love them, just as I have not learned to accept and love all the aspects of my personality.  I judge my feelings and behaviors that are fearful, angry, clingy.  I view them as cause for shame instead of extending compassion.  In theory, I know that being human means making mistakes and built-in imperfection, but somehow I expect more of myself.  Struggling to be good enough/perfect, it’s not difficult to understand why I have viewed my body mainly as something to manage, if not control.  I want it to conform to my expectations.  Impossible expectations.

I’d like to be able to let go of perfection and appreciate my body for all the ways it contributes to my wellbeing.  I’d like to thank it for holding up for nearly fifty years, despite my neglect. I’d like to honor the ways my body communicates to me—warnings of danger, feelings of safety, the ways it tries to get my attention, and protect me—even if I don’t listen well, even when I pop ibuprofen and tell it to shut up.  I confess that I have been removed from my body’s messages and its wisdom.  I have not paid attention.  I have not acted with respect.

I’d like to repent and move toward an attitude of gratefulness and thanksgiving.  Without my body, there is no me.  My body is not inconvenient.  My body does not interfere with me carrying out my plans and intentions.  Exactly the opposite.  My body is the only vehicle and conduit my mind and spirit have for self-expression.  It is only through the body that I live.  The body makes me human.  Incarnate.  And like all humans, I am imperfect.  My body is imperfect.  I pray that I can learn to live differently––To accept my body and love it exactly the way it is.  In doing so my physical issues won’t magically disappear, but acceptance seems the next necessary step to continue my journey toward wholeness.  Toward God.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Showered with Blessing

At a baby shower earlier this Spring we played common party games––cutting yarn at absurd lengths we thought matched the mother-to-be’s belly circumference and surrendering diaper pins to the observant who caught us saying the forbidden word baby.  We oohed and aahed at the sweet onesies, snuggly pants and flowered socks the new baby girl would wear and practical necessities—blankets, stroller, bathtub, the new mother received.  At was all very nice, welcome and predictable.  But before the festivities ended, the mother-to-be’s mother, who was one of our hostesses, took the celebration in a different direction.  She asked the guests to gather in a circle surrounding the guest of honor and to offer her a blessing, a prayer for the upcoming birth, and the journey of becoming a family.  

We pulled our chairs around our pregnant friend on the floor and told her how much she meant to us.  Some of us, her mother’s age, told her it had been such a joy to watch her grow up, to celebrate the confident woman she had become—a labor and delivery nurse––and the gifts she was offering to the world.  Her peers laughed at the challenges they’d been through together and how they admired her determination.  One young mother, who left her children at home to attend the shower, told her to make time for herself and her marriage in all the demands that would soon fill her life.  Other mothers with grown children said that although some days with a baby seemed interminable, they looked back fondly on that special time with an infant, and wished her the ability to appreciate motherhood in the sleep-deprived moments.  Some spoke of quiet time nursing their babies in the middle of the night, how precious it was to hold the sweet and holy being entrusted to them, and of how sometimes, especially when there were older siblings, this was the only time they had alone with the new baby.  Many of us cried.  All of us were moved.  How often do we sit in a circle and tell someone what she means to us?  And how often do we reflect on what our lives as friends and mothers have meant to us and speak the truth of our hearts with no other agenda than to bless another?

 This kind of vulnerability and honesty could feel awkward, especially at a party, and being the center of such intense focus could be embarrassing.  The mother-to-be handled all this with such grace, and much of that comes from her mother, a single-mom for many years, with an incredible faith in God and reliance on the Holy Spirit for provision.  This mother had to be strong, and she had to be vulnerable, relying on God and allowing herself to ask for and receive help from those who held her and her children in their hearts.  She knows the power of blessing, and she called upon us to bestow that gift upon her daughter.

In that circle we offered our prayers for a safe labor and delivery.  But our offering and our tender words encompassed each woman in the room, no matter where she was on life’s journey, whether she was a mother or not.  We blessed the mother-to-be and we blessed one another with our honesty and our words of thanksgiving.    It was a moment of prayerful joy.  It was worship.  It was the best kind of party.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Squirrel Savior

Our cats were acting suspicious yesterday evening, sniffing around the trunk of a coast live oak in the backyard.  My husband heard what he thought was a blue jay.  I ran outside, shooed the cats away, circled the tree, and there on it’s back, paws frozen in air, looking dead was a small squirrel.  Thinking we would need to either bury it or put it in our trashcan, and remembering all the stern warnings I’d heard never to touch a wild animal, I sent my husband to the shed for a shovel.  He returned and as he lowered the shovel toward the ground the squirrel stirred and let out a pitiful squawk.  Kevin gently turned the squirrel upright, but it was too stunned to move.  I got the cat carrier from the garage and Kevin guided the little thing inside.

We tried to contact Native Animal Rescue, which was closed, so we did what we do best.  Internet research.  We switched out the towels in the carrier for t-shirts so the squirrel wouldn’t catch a toenail and risk further injury, and got close enough to see his face was bleeding and he was infested with fleas.  We put a towel over the crate, a heating pad underneath, shut the door to my office and let the squirrel rest in the warm room until my husband finished our taxes.  Before we went to bed we mixed up a rehydration solution and my husband administered it through a dropper while I held the squirrel in the bundled t-shirt.  The little thing didn’t move, but did drink some and his mouth was bloody. 

I fretted all evening about the squirrel.  I wanted to save him, but despite reading rescue instructions we didn’t know how to assess the squirrel’s injuries or conduct the skin pinch test to see if he was dehydrated.  We thought his mother was still in the oak tree and wondered if we could get all the cats indoors, put him under the tree and stand guard until she carried him to safety.  Instead, we left him inside, safe, but unsure if we were doing the right thing. 

The squirrel was still alive at six a.m. when my husband woke up and attempted to give it more fluids.  The squirrel was also quite vocal, that blue-jay squawk again, he wanted something—his mother, the outdoors, away from these invasive humans.  I began making phone calls at 8 a.m. when Native Animal Rescue reopened, and after an hour and a half, calls with three different women, and answering their questions to determine what was best for the little squirrel, found one willing to assess him and keep him until the baby squirrel specialist got home from work this afternoon.

When I delivered the squirrel to Vicki’s home, she reached in the cat carrier, scruffed him with one hand and scooped him into her palm in a fluid motion.  She looked at his wounds and said they weren’t from my cats (quite a relief) but associated with the fall.  This squirrel is about five weeks old.  His body is quite small, but baby squirrels are top heavy and often land on their heads.  Bleeding from the ears, nose and mouth is common.  She said he looked quite dehydrated—and most likely something had happened to his mother.  When their mothers disappear, the squirrels sometimes leave the nest looking for food and fall.  I spotted the nest this morning, a good twenty-feet up, and I saw another squirrel out on a branch and watched it return to the nest.  Most likely it’s a sibling.  I don’t know how many other babies are in the nest.  If their mother doesn’t return, I may find more on the ground (dead or alive) or they will die in the tree.

I think about Annie Dillard who wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book I read for my MFA program and one of our Art & Faith studies.  I think about Annie stalking muskrats and insects and watching decay and reporting on death, and I wonder what would’ve happened if her tomcat had brought in a half-dead mouse and left it in her bed one night.  Would she have sat there, notebook in hand, recording its blood loss, and labored breathing and timing how long it took to die?  Or, would she have stepped back from her observer status and done something?  Try to save it, or even try to kill it—quickly, “humanely”?

It’s not lost on me that my squirrel rescue project began on Palm Sunday.  I retired from pastoral ministry at the end of June and bowed to the recognition around Christmas that my spiritual journey has lead me out of my local church and familiar context.  In the past four months I’ve been waiting for what is supposed to come next.  It hasn’t arrived yet.  But the squirrel did and I recognize my desire to save, to do something.  I see how too often in the course of my personal life and ministry I have wanted to save those I care for from pain. 

I’ve wanted to do it, whatever it is, right, and right away.  I couldn’t bear to think of this squirrel suffering, and it seems proper and reasonable to seek the help of people with experience and training.  I don’t think they or I are in danger of fostering codependent squirrels, of doing for them what they and God need to do.  But when it comes to humans, the situations are much more complicated.  I think, that like this wounded squirrel, there are times when each of us needs intervention and saving.  And, I’m also becoming aware that sometimes that saving really does need to come from God alone, and not from humans acting on God’s behalf. 

And so I am changing my usual patterns.  I am praying for my long-time church and its members from a distance instead of wrapped in its midst.  Coming from a home that broke and broke again, I’ve been desperate for belonging and terrified of being alone most of my life, and would gladly bear anyone’s pain just to stay in relationship.  I’m learning to trust that healing is possible, and experiencing in my own life something I preached often––that God can work in and through you and me without any conditions, restrictions or requirements.  Giving my life to a church isn’t the same as giving myself to God, and Jesus will drive that message home each day on this journey through Holy Week.

I can’t save a squirrel or myself no matter how carefully I follow website instructions or church doctrine. I can stand on that dusty road waving palms expecting Jesus to do everything I want and end up disappointed.

I desire the squirrel’s healing and also recognize its future is out of my control.  I pray for myself, and this wounded world in need of healing salve, in need of saving that we can’t make happen, that is only given us through grace.  I walk through this week, already knowing the outcome, and waiting to live it out.  

Monday, February 28, 2011

A Good Mother

My husband and I laid our dog to rest in the little pet cemetery behind our house on February 12th.  Sterling takes his place next to an assortment of rats and mice, three cats––two who were taken by coyotes––and one tiny fish.  Small piles of rocks and crosses made from sticks and wooden stakes mark the other graves.  We placed a poly-resin statue of an angel on Sterling’s grave.  The statue was a gift from a parishioner, out of place in my home with its somber colors.   For years, I thought of her as the angel of death and that she belonged outdoors.  Now she stands underneath leafless oak trees and atop mossy rocks, the angel after death.  Witness and guardian––honoring the life of my dog. 

In his absence, I’ve been stunned at how much my daily routine has been altered.  Sterling was as needy, difficult, enthusiastic and loveable as any child.  With his passing, my nest is truly empty and I have yet to fully understand the implications for my life.  True, I have two cats (aged 9 and 15), but their claim on me is less consuming, if not less insistent than my children’s or my dog’s.

I agonized over Sterling’s decline and suffering in his last days, worrying and wondering if and when I should put him to sleep, overwhelmed by the enormity of the responsibility I had been given over this sweet and fragile soul.  I was faced with the limits of my humanity––there was nothing I could do to save him from death.  The mother in me ached at my powerlessness.  And I was Sterling’s mother.  God knows why this abandoned dog came into my life with all his insecurities and need for constant assurance.  We both needed to know this––I love you and I will not leave you––something essential I missed as a child and he missed as a puppy. 

I was too unsure of myself when my children were young to ever think of myself as a good mother.  I wasn’t sure I could trust my instincts. I was often overwhelmed, and the only guide I had was what not to do––repeat my past. 

As I was sobbing my heart out trying to make “the right decision” for my dog, my husband told me something I hadn’t noticed.  “You’ve hardly left his side since we came home from Christmas vacation.”  Once he spoke, I saw that my days were ordered around this furry being, and that even though I was keeping up with my writing, the scope of my life had become very small.  Could he stand on his own today?  How much was he drinking? Eating?  In what manner could I administer his antacids to keep the pain of the toxins the kidneys no longer processed to a minimum after meals?  I didn’t regret my choices, as unconscious and natural as they had been, for a moment.  These are the ways we live out love and walk with our dying beloved, a willing embrace, a pinpoint focus.

I finally understood that there was no right answer, no way to avoid the outcome.  I gave myself permission to trust myself, and that my agony meant it was time to end his pain.  My dog Sterling taught me that I am a good mother.  I might not know what to do.  I might make mistakes.  But I am all in.  One hundred percent committed.  I will not leave you, nor abandon you.  I will be with you, to hold and stroke you, to offer words of comfort and love, until the end, and longer.

If I, in all my imperfection, can love like this, imagine how well God can love me, can love all of us.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A Long Goodbye

A Long Goodbye

This afternoon my dog is sitting next to my computer, his usual place.  His breathing is shallow and too rapid.  I’m awaiting the latest test results from my veterinarian.  Sterling is fifteen and a half, ninety in human years.  His spleen is enlarged.  He’s on steroids for kidney disease and atrophied leg muscles, and is prone to debilitating diarrhea.  He almost died when I was vacationing at Christmas.  So I wait for the phone to ring as if knowing his kidney values and red blood count can prepare my heart for the fact that he is dying.  Not today, not tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe…the truth is I don’t know when.  And the not knowing has me wrapped in worry, running like a hamster in an exercise ball, spinning pointless circles, crashing into walls, completely without direction.  I’d like to find the right direction.  Any direction, for that matter, that can bring me into the present. 
Even though it won’t add a day to my life, and even though Jesus promises that like the lilies of the field, I will have everything I need, I spend a lot of time worrying about the future.  Planning for the future.  I have airline tickets purchased for travel through August and events on the calendar in October.  I like to know what’s going to happen and when.  On the up side, to the world, I appear highly organized.  On the inside, I fear that my incessant planning and future orientation is nothing more than an attempt to buy insurance against repeating a past where chaos felt palpable and imminent.  When I was a child I couldn’t control the big things, like whether or not my parents were going to stay married.  And I couldn’t stop either my stepmother or stepfather from running away without saying goodbye to me.  I exercised the little power I had over the small things.  I finished my homework, folded my laundry, and packed tuna sandwiches for lunch.
So now, I return to the small things.  I boil pork and potatoes for my dog, who after a lifetime of kibble has said, No More.  If one of the few pleasures in his life is eating, I’ll gladly feed him something that doesn’t smell like stale bread and look like dirt clods.  I cook.  I wash urine-soiled towels, the result of his new incontinence. And I vacuum, taking great satisfaction in sucking wads of fluffy white fur into the machine.  Dishes, towels, floors are clean.  There is order and control, and my mind is less easily cast into the future when I’m scrubbing my pressure cooker, than when I’m not occupied with concrete tasks.
Night falls; Sterling’s breathing becomes more labored, his pain and fatigue evident.  The veterinarian gave me bad news this evening.  Kidney failure, worse than we thought.  I ask how long, and she is noncommittal.  She is not God, but gives me advice reminiscent of Jesus’ words; No one knows the hour or the day and a twelve-step bumper sticker, One day at a time.  “When Sterling’s bad days outnumber the good,” she says, not finishing the sentence.  I call my daughters, away at college, ask if they’d like to come home this weekend to say goodbye. 
I can’t sleep these days, anxious about my dog.  I’m afraid to leave him.  He’s always been nervous, and his separation anxiety has been manifesting in physical symptoms (loss of appetite and bloody diarrhea) that at this stage could kill him.  It’s not that I need to be with him every moment, or that I feel obligated to orchestrate the moment of his demise so that I am there.  He could slip away while I’m at the grocery store or the chiropractor and I wouldn’t hold myself responsible.  But weeks of out of state travel loom large beginning the end of this month.  I have made commitments, paid fees.  I’m supposed to follow the plan.  This is why I’m fretful.  I am torn.  The part of me who plans against bad things happening, is afraid I can’t cancel, that to be responsible I need to show up and do what I’ve said, or I’ll disappoint people, perhaps alienate them.  But much more of me has a different need.  I want to be present for this daily long goodbye.  I don’t want to board a plane and let someone else, even someone I trust, shepherd my dog through his last days. Some people might say he’s just a dog.  They’re right.  He is simply a dog.  My dog.  For thirteen years he’s been part of my life, and it hasn’t been an easy road.  His nervous anxiety, stroke, rattlesnake bite, have challenged and shaken me.  His sweet nature, exuberance, genuine affection and smile—really he smiles—have filled our home with love. 
I toss and turn until I allow love to rule.  I will choose being with him over any other commitment.  Finally, I can rest.  I close my eyes, and I focus my thoughts on Sterling lying on the floor at the foot of the bed.  With each breath I wish him love and light. My he be bathed and swaddled in light and love.  I relax and drift to sleep knowing it is my great privilege to take this journey with him.

Friday, January 28, 2011

What it Means to Pray

A third excerpt from a longer essay:

It’s been more than fifteen years, less than twenty since I’ve had a prayer partner.  We began a bit tentatively and I felt awkward at first sitting on my friend’s couch, holding hands and praying.  I was used to praying in a church building.  It seemed very public and a little unnerving praying together in our homes with all their signs of daily life.  Cats jumped in our laps.  The phone rang.  Someone would knock at the door.  We stoked the fire and spread a blanket over our laps in the winter.  In good weather, we sat outdoors listening to wind chimes, blue jays and motorcycles in the background of our prayer.  We talked about our lives and our children, our husbands, our parents and siblings, and our church, all the things we cared for most deeply.  We voiced our fears, our struggles, and our inadequacies.
Together, she and I wrestled with what it meant to pray.  Should we offer each other advice?  We did, but our advice was infrequent and gentle.  We never expected each other to follow it, but to find our own paths.  Did we ask God for exactly what we thought we wanted?  To heal my father from cancer?  Yes.  But we also recognized that our will and our desires weren’t really the point of prayer.  This was especially true when we prayed for our children.  We wanted them to become the people God had created them to be, not the people who would be easiest for us to nurture. 
Over time I began to embrace our prayer time because it allowed me to let go, if only for a few hours, of the burdens I carried worrying about my extended family and struggling folks at church.  I began to ask less for solutions.  Less of, “Please let my sister find a home.”  And more of, “Please help my sister to find you, God.” 
I began to notice how much lighter I felt after we prayed, and as the years progressed, how much joy I felt in the act of praying.  What had once been awkward became something I craved.  When we were done talking, we held hands, closed our eyes, and I felt myself both sink and float.  I breathed deeply and felt myself settle, my body became heavy, I relaxed as if I might fall asleep.  Another part of me floated and I bobbed in a rhythm, connecting to a presence outside myself.  Basking in God, wrapped in love.  In silence we each absorbed into Spirit, and we would’ve kept that dream state for hours if our schedules had allowed it.  Instead, one of us eventually broke the silence, always with thanksgiving for the opportunity to pray together and for this holy time set apart.  Often times we cried, releasing our hold on one another to reach for Kleenex, blew our noses, and continued.  We learned to speak through tears and to be glad for rather than embarrassed by them.  Some days we set a timer to call us out of prayer.  The ding jolted us back into our clock driven days, and reluctantly we left our reverie in the manner we always used to end our prayers, The Lord’s Prayer.  We prayed it together listening to and relishing every word.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I'll Pray For You

Another excerpt from that longer essay on prayer:

“I’ll pray for you.”
I can’t count how many times I said those words during the seven years I served as pastor of a church.  Usually my offer came after a conversation where parishioners confided in me their suffering––cancer, a strained marriage, job loss, depression.  I knew I didn’t have the power to fix their situations, and even if I could provide something practical––a referral to a doctor or counselor––my help was never enough for their need.  I offered the one response I felt equipped for.  Prayer.

Sometimes I forget that not everyone has had the privilege of travelling deep into prayer with a soul friend, as I've had for the past fifteen years.  I was startled when in my pastoral role I asked, “Would you like to pray about that?” and the answer was a frightened, “Now?” or an uncomfortable, “That’s okay.  It’s not urgent.”  I would prefer to pray with them, right there on the spot, to invoke God’s presence and place the burden in the Holy One’s lap of love and compassion.  But then I remembered the days when I felt awkward and too vulnerable to ask for prayer, let alone join my pastor in it. 
My path has led me to realize that prayer is not a magical power invested in ordained and qualified parties.  And there are no particular or right words to invoke.  I shed my early expectations that prayer (and my own prayer specifically) should impact outcomes.  God does not respond to my requests as if he works in a worldwide order fulfillment center.  Instead, prayer realigns my priorities.
When I say, “I’ll pray for you,” I imagine holding the person in need––and aren’t we all in need?––up to the light of an amorphous and loving God.  For me, prayer is about coming consciously into the presence of the great power for good that is everywhere and ever-present.  It is a place I never want to leave. I have my prayer partner to thank for that.