Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Cheers!

When my dad was dying, he missed going to church, even though it was dreadful to be told how awful he looked by well-meaning fellow church-goers.

My farmer dad had always cleaned up nicely and in record time, whistling through his bathroom routine, hair grooming and wardrobe selection. He could go from kicking off his dirty boots by the back steps to backing out of the garage in less than ten minutes - from manure to aftershave. That summer he went from dapper to dying, also in record time.

His few remaining Sundays passed far too quickly. Unfortunately, he felt as awful as he looked which made attending worship unworkable. Between pastors at their beloved church, no one came calling on Mom and Dad, which made dying lonelier than it might have been.

"Mom, I could give Dad communion," I offered, not sure I actually could. Or should. I didn't have my home communion kit with me that trip, but we could improvise.

Two of my aunts stopped by that day - my mom's sisters, both nurses. Uncle Steve, too, nursing his own chronic aches and pains. A sacramental party quickly began to take shape. Mom pulled out the good wine glasses, once reserved for extended family gatherings at the dining room table, and filled them with wine and juice -- not just a sip, but all the way. My daughter fished hotdog buns from the freezer and left them on a plate to defrost. In lieu of a stole, Mom draped an embroidered table runner around my shoulders. My aunt plucked out almost-familiar hymn tunes on my lap harp. I solemnly offered the pastor-y part, impossible to separate from the daughter-whose-dad-is-dying part. Once everyone had received the body and blood of Christ, we clinked our still-full glasses, nibbled at the remaining hot dog buns, prayed and sang robustly and we laughed until we cried, celebrating life and cursing cancer. While our hearts were breaking, God was picking up the pieces and putting them back together again. And again.

My dad loved seeing us laugh.

There had been and would be time for weeping. But as we shared that holy meal, we laughed, loosening death's fearful grip on us. Bread and wine, life and death, song and curse, laughing and weeping, mourning and dancing. Yes. To all of it. Yes.





Wednesday, December 9, 2015

What puts the "ape" in apricot?*

My internship supervisor had an enormous bundle of keys. To narrow the choices, his office key was identified with a yellow cover - easy to find in a hurry. While he worked and sometimes long after he'd left the building, the entire jumble was often left hanging from the doorknob, suspended by that single, dingy yellow one.

He once explained that the key wasn't yellow to make it easier to identify. For him, yellow was the color of courage. Each day and every time he used that key, he was reminded to act courageously.

I learned so much from this mentor who was brave in ways that I am not, speaking boldly and publicly and politically and prophetically - even when it is hard or unpopular or inconvenient.

The Gospel is a bugger that way - jolting us out of our complacency for the sake of justice for our neighbor. Even when we are afraid. And maybe especially then.

In the most recent swirl of fear, violence and hateful rhetoric here and abroad, I've needed a yellow key -- a reminder to be courageous and hopeful.

  • When talking to my teenagers about terrorism. 
  • When eating lunch at the local elementary school. 
  • When I'm wrong or oh-so-right-eous. 
  • When confronted by pesky biblical texts that call for loving the unlovable. 
  • When remaining silent is so much easier. 
  • When I am afraid. 
  • When my courage must be borrowed from a mentor or shared with another. 

Yellow is my favorite color.

"Do not fear, I am with you, do not fear for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right arm." Isaiah 41:10

*"Courage!" (a quote from the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Here, kitty, kitty!

This is an excerpt from a sermon I wrote for a pet blessing service after my dear dad died three summers ago. 

Growing up on a busy cattle farm, animals fell into several different categories. There were animals we raised to make a living and for food – cattle and pigs. There were the animals we loved – the cats and dogs. And the ones that were a nuisance – the mice in the walls of our old farm house, raccoons that ate the sweet corn before it ripened, the moles that created lumpy paths through my mom’s garden, coyotes that howled at night, an unwelcome romantic tomcat wandering through, and for a short time a horse named Ginger that would intentionally saunter under the apple tree to casually knock off anyone brave enough to hop onto her saddle.

Today we remember and bless the animals we love. Each year on the farm, it was fun to discover and tame the litters of kittens that were born– some in the barn, some in the shed, once in a bucket of nails in my dad’s shop. Farm life could get boring and lonely and those cats provided us with hours of fun and companionship. As my own children and their cousins have grown, they have also enjoyed finding, taming and naming each one. They never met a kitten they couldn’t love. Though there were often several that looked so alike I had trouble telling them apart, the kids knew without a doubt which one was Mittens and which one was Scruffy, which one was Midnight and which one was Hombre. 

There weren’t many kittens this year at the farm and some were too wild to catch. And it also appears the gene pool has been totally depleted. Every single kitten was gray. No pretty calico kitties, no sleek black ones, no classic brown striped cats. They were all gray. 

In June, as my dad was growing sicker and the doctors narrowed down a diagnosis for him, there was one friendly gray kitten abandoned near the house. It hid in the downspout by the garage. He ran along the length of the porch and tried to get in the house whenever the door opened. My nieces made a special concoction of yogurt and milk that its small tummy could tolerate and they were determined to keep that kitten alive. About the same time, up in the barn was another gray kitten whose mother went missing. This one had long, fluffy hair and was so frightened, he hid behind whatever he could find and had to be coaxed out. My nieces brought both kittens down to dad’s shop, found a litter box they vowed to empty every day, and promised it would only be for a little while until they were big enough to fend for themselves outside with the rest of the cats. 

My dad had good days and bad days, nearly all of them filled with naseau and pain. Those two kittens became his companions. Very early one morning, I went down to have coffee with him in his shop and found one kitten playing with the pencils on his desk in the office while the other one hid behind a file cabinet. “I was never going to have cats in my shop,” he lamented. “Never.” 

On the farm, pets belonged outside – not in the house, not in dad’s shop. But here were these two kittens, wrestling at his feet. The more aggressive kitten pounced on the other and they rolled across the floor and dad laughed at their antics. “Is this on your list of things that don’t matter anymore?” I asked him. He was dying. “Yes it is,” he said as he coaxed the fluffy kitten out from behind the cabinet and onto his lap. 

As the summer progressed, they hid in the drawers of his work bench, jumping out to surprise him. They stretched out onto his lap while he did his breathing treatments and poked their heads into his coffee cup. On the days that nausea won and he didn’t want any company, he could still tolerate those kittens. 

One hot afternoon, I stopped down to check on him and one kitten was sprawled on his lap, chewing on his shirt. “Look,” Dad said, “He thinks I’m his mother.” This became a weird, wonderful pattern – dad would sit in his usual spot to use the nebulizer or drink his coffee and the cat would hop out from one of his drawers to chew on his shirt. The dog, Kate, never straying too far from her place by dad’s feet.

An old dog and two playful kittens. This probably was not exactly what the psalmist had in mind when he said that God places all things under our feet. A dog and two kittens – this also wasn’t exactly the medicine the doctors prescribed when dad decided not to seek treatment for his cancer. But they were as effective as any comfort measures the doctor recommended. 

Today as we talk about blessing animals, we also share our stories about how God can use animals and all of creation to bless us. Regardless of your relationships with these creatures - and I plan to keep my distance from that lizard over there - I hope that we can all find a place in our hearts to recognize and celebrate the blessings that pets can bring into our lives and the lives of those around us. We give thanks to God for all the ways that love, companionship, and grace enter into our lives. 

Psalm 8:3-9

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Did you know...?

At a popular restaurant on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, the young man who normally operates the cash register always has an interesting or fun fact to share as he hands back my bank card.

"A baby octopus is the size of a flea at birth."

"Did you know sea otters can live their whole lives without ever leaving the water?"

One day, as I waited in line, I used my phone to search for an interesting fact. When I got to the cash register with my sandwich, I cleared my throat and blurted out, "Did you know sunflowers can be used to clean up radioactive waste by pulling radioactive contaminants out of the soil?"

He froze for a long moment, the hand holding my receipt suspended between us. And then he reached over the counter to give me a giant high-five and a "YES!"

"What do you know today?" I asked.

Handing over my food, he said, "Elephants are the only animals besides humans that have chins."

Last time, my daughter, Sarah, and I had to chase him down to where he was clearing tables to share an interesting tidbit about scorpion venom, the most valuable liquid on earth. He offered his all-time favorite fact about the vastness of the universe. Sarah was both mortified and delighted, uncertain why these fun facts had become an expected exchange between this stranger and us.

Imagine a lunch shift filled with thirty second encounters, one after another. Thirty seconds to change the course of someone's day. To share curiosity and wonder. When I despair about the brokenness of the world and the complexity of our many problems, I remember this young man and the simple, delightful way he takes a small corner of the world and shines light.


 "Cows have best friends."

"An elephant can smell water from 12 miles away."

"One person’s happiness triggers a chain reaction that benefits not only their friends, but their friends’ friends, and beyond. The effect lasts for up to one year."


Monday, May 18, 2015

I love you, teachers.

Our daughter, a high school freshman, had an end-of-year Spanish project due today. Each of the students was given a tale from a book of stories and asked to prepare a lesson for the class. Sarah was assigned an odd story about a dog who liked to collect rocks and then spent several days practicing and honing her lesson plan. She was ready.

After school, under my careful interrogation, she admitted that the lesson went "fine" and then hit the couch with her phone, a snack and the remote. Apparently, all is well.

I was reminded of her first attempts at Spanish years ago. Señor Rios had placed twelve pictures on the wall, one for each of their vocabulary words. As luck would have it, Sarah was the first to be handed a pointer and instructed to identify each picture, standing in front of the whole class. As we climbed into the car to go home that afternoon, I asked, worried, "How was that for you?" Our painfully-shy-in-public first grader said, "I got 13 out of 12. There are two words for ink pen."

"Wow," I replied quietly, wondering how she had managed that challenge, "What did Señor Rios say?"

"I can't tell you," she said and clammed up completely.

All the way home, her older brother and I offered up possibilities, hoping to solve the mystery:

"Good job?"
"Bravo?"
"Well done?"
"¡Prima!"
"Awesome!"
"¡Muy bien!"
"¡Excellente!?"
"Way to go!"

Baffled, we must have guessed more than a hundred times, but she rejected each one. Though we begged, she refused to elaborate.

Not long after we arrived home, Sarah silently handed me a small slip of paper folded in half, then skedaddled to her room and closed the door. When I unfolded the paper, reading the three words she had written, I immediately understood why she had been too embarrassed to tell us what the teacher had exclaimed in front of the class.

"I love you."

In a moment of exuberance for a job well done, those powerful words from a teacher might have been just the wrong thing to say to the wrong student. Or just the right thing to say to the right student. From Sarah's reaction, it was hard to tell.

By the age of six or seven, she had heard the words "I love you" countless times, primarily from adoring extended family and protective parents. But as they grow into adolescence, healthy children need three or four or more non-parent role models and mentors and others to hold them accountable, to encourage, to teach, to discipline, to know and yes, even to love them.

Near the end of another school year, I'm so grateful for teachers and for the important part they play in helping our children discover and use their gifts, make and learn from mistakes, take turns and share, listen and speak and dream. ¡Gracias!





Saturday, May 2, 2015

Help is on the way.


When the kids were small, we lived on the south side of Milwaukee just a couple of blocks from the church where my husband, Paul, served as pastor. Near the church was a fire station that was home to both a fire engine and an ambulance. We visited there so often, the firefighters and paramedics invited our son, David, to eat supper with them on his fourth birthday, even stretching their limited food budget to bake a cake. Between calls, the firefighters and paramedics welcomed our company, sliding down the fire pole to impress David, patiently opening and closing the various compartments on the engine as he accurately predicted what was in each one. This oft-repeated memory game once revealed an empty space where an oxygen tank should be, sending an embarrassed and chastised rookie scrambling.


For many fun years, we were connected to that firehouse and its revolving residents by frequent visits, cookie-filled care packages, turns behind the wheel with the thrill of lights and sirens, surprise encounters as our paths crossed at the local grocery store. We offered listening ears when their demanding jobs took a terrible toll on them.

Years passed, the kids grew. Once upon a time, we would stop what we were doing to follow a firetruck, hoping to watch from a safe distance as the heavy hoses were pulled from the rig. At the sound of sirens, wherever we were, we'd pause to say something like this simple prayer:
Dear God, please may everyone be okay.
Be with the people who need help. Be with the firefighters and paramedics and police officers who are there to help. Amen.
Eventually, David stopped looking up from whatever book he was reading, no longer curious about the source of the sirens. Visits to the firehouse became less frequent - sometimes I went bearing cookies alone. And I forgot about the prayer.

But lately, as I watch and listen to the news and experience the brokenness of our world, I feel we need that prayer more than ever. For me, sirens no longer signal harmless adventure. I realize now they never did. Let us pray:

When there is trouble.
When helpers respond.
When help is too slow to come.
When our brothers and sisters cry out in despair.
When our eyes and ears are opened.
When hearts are hardened and backs are turned.
When the trouble comes from within me.
When I am afraid to speak or act, fearing mistakes.
When my words and actions are false.

Now that our kids are teenagers, they understand that prayer alone is not always enough. Each one of us helps to shape the world we live in. Investing in relationships with our neighbors and paying attention to what's going on in our communities make a real difference. Though we are not all firefighters or police officers, we can certainly be among those who show up to help in the midst of trouble - praying, listening, speaking and working for justice. For all.
Dear God, please may everyone be okay. Be with those who need help. Be with the helpers. Number me among them both - in need of help and a helper. Amen. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Boxed in

A new refrigerator was being delivered to a home near church this morning as I drove by. I tapped the brakes, thinking I might ask for the box. Deciding that was a little too weird, even for me, I drove on. But I've regretted it all afternoon - a clean, uncut refrigerator box is a rare find these days.

And once, a box just like that saved my life. sanity.

Many summers ago, I worked as a nanny for a family in a suburb of New York City. One perk of the job was a week of vacation with them to Cape Cod - my first glimpse of the ocean! Sadly, it rained the entire time. While the parents took what I was certain were thrilling day trips, I was left in the gloomy, rented vacation house with the two kids from my family, two kids from another and their cranky sitter.

Luckily, the homeowners had left an empty refrigerator box in the garage. When I dragged it into the living room that first rainy morning, our vacation was (almost) completely redeemed. It was a firetruck, rocket ship, submarine, house, jail, home base for games of hide and seek, a place to read books and to nap. We colored the inside and then the outside. As the week wore on, we used a pocket knife to carve windows and doors. It became a theater for puppet shows, an ice cream stand, a ticket booth at a carnival, a library, a Flintstone-style vehicle. And more - it was a long week.

Years later, when my own son was small, an elaborate refrigerator-box firetruck made its home in our living room for more than two years until, after much debate and a few tears (mostly mine), it was left behind in our move to Minnesota.

More recently, I've been known to raid the dumpster behind a local appliance store - because by Tuesday, the cardboard has been recycled. A collection of refrigerator boxes makes a great maze to crawl through, perfect for church Halloween parties. An ark filled with animals. A fishing boat for the disciples. A camel. A makeshift table for the Last Supper. A robot.

Next time, I'll stop.