Friday, September 23, 2011

Looking Back; Carried On

I have not yet read Walking Home by Margaret Guenther, so I am grateful to the Shalem Institute for sending the following excerpt.   I am reminded of Grandmother Donaldson, my paternal grandmother.  Despite my never really knowing her, I have always had a strong sense of her in my ministry.  Part of the reason is probably because in SpiritCare we focus on singing the traditional hymns that she no doubt loved to sing as well.  I know she was a dedicated and determined Southern Baptist, and went to church whenever possible.  I am sorry I never got to sit in a pew with her.  She evidently wrote religious poetry, but alas, no family member has been able to find any of her poems.  She was a sharecropper, and paper was scarce. These poems were written on the backs of envelopes and other slips of paper; I fear they may have been unceremoniously thrown away after she passed.                   

Guenther's piece is not exactly about singing or writing, but rather the art of looking back while looking forward - and this is the frontier where I and my grandmother stand and greet the elders I serve.  They have made a long journey, and many pause for just a moment before moving further on.  At this place, burdens and worn out baggage can, and should be dropped; they are no longer needed.  This is the territory of the mystics; only God's love can carry us further on. 

Looking Back
by Margaret Guenther
Pictures of my parents and grandparents look down on me from the top shelf of my computer desk. My father looks very much as I remember him:  gentle, benevolent, and wise, with just a hint of a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. My German grandparents are upright, stoic, no-nonsense folks; I suspect that the ordeal of being photographed frightened and oppressed them.  My mother looks a lot like me, with her head tilted slightly to the side; my friends tell me it is my own look when I am paying attention.  My grandmother, whom I knew only as an old woman, is beautiful and my Scottish grandfather, whom I knew only as a very old bald man, is a gorgeous blond.  As they look back at me wordlessly, they remind me where I have come from, they remind me that I am part of the long family walk that my children and grandchildren will continue when I have gone far enough.  They remind me to keep looking back as I continue to look forward, a feat that my ophthalmologist would judge impossible if I tried to accomplish it literally.
Surely there is a lesson here.  There are different ways of looking back.  Like the child at the Seder, we can yearn to know who we are and where are our roots.  When we look back on our own little lives, if we can manage such retrospection honestly, we can rejoice in what we have been given.  We can trace the path winding away behind us and chart the bumps in the road, the times when darkness fell before we had reached the day's stopping place, the times when we ploughed through snowdrifts, the times when we fell either painfully or with a total loss of dignity on the ice.  We can see all the places where we took a wrong turn, all the places where we received generous and unexpected hospitality.  We can see how the walk strengthened us even if, when we reached the end, we were worn out and quite ready to cross the second great threshold.  We can see ourselves clearly, maybe for the first time.

Excerpt from Walking Home: From Eden to Emmaus.  New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2011.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gratitude on a Sunday Morning

In addition to hardware stores, I also like post offices.  Maybe not the mega-postal centers, but the older, smaller post offices.  I like going in and picking out stamps, or deciding what might be the best way to send a particular package.  I also like our mail box here at the house, with its kind of silly plastic red flag that can be raised and lowered.   In short, I like mail.   
A few days ago a friend sent me a birthday card.  I immediately recognized her large, flowing handwriting.  I knew there would be a very upbeat note inside,and I smiled.  However, I did not immediately open the card, but rather tucked it in my purse.  For a couple of days I simply savored the anticipation. 
This morning, after lighting my candles and pouring my tea, I opened the card and read that cheery note.  I then spent some time in gratitude for life and friendship.  Grateful that there are simple rituals and things we can hold in our hands - thrift store tea cups, birthday cards, and even a dog's curly head.   Even with all the greeting, preaching, and singing, so much of ministry is about touch - the gentle taking of a hand or touching a shoulder.  Then, quietly letting God do the rest.    
That which was from the beginning, 
which we have heard, 
which we have seen with our eyes, 
which we have looked at 
and our hands have touched - 
this we proclaim concerning 
the Word of life.     
                                   - 1 John:1  

Monday, September 12, 2011

Blessings in a Teapot

I love hardware stores.  Last month, when I was looking for a particular type of butter dish, I visited one of my favorites.  The store did carry several types of butter dishes, but not the type I wanted.  Yet, what I did spot was  a ceramic tea kettle.  The tag that was attached assured me that it was safe to use on the stove, and that the tea could be brewed right in the pot.   The label advised that the kettle is such a good inductor of heat, that the water would continue to boil for about twenty seconds after the burner was turned off.  I tried to put the pot down.  The purchase seemed so impractical, but I loved the way it felt.  The kettle came home with me, and I have used it just about every day since then.  
The kettle brought to mind a history program I saw quite some time ago.  I remember very little about it, except for the comments of a reserved English gentleman who declared that the decline of the Western world could probably be traced directly to the invention of the tea bag.  While still needing that butter dish, I splurged again and bought a tin of whole leaf tea - a second flush Darjeeling.  I believe the gentleman may have a point.  I love measuring the tea into the still rolling water, and catching a glimpse of the leaves beginning to unfurl before the lid is replaced.  I then wait four minutes, and strain the tea into a rather plain maroon teapot that I inherited from my mother.   When cool enough to handle, the tea leaves go into the compost.  The cool damp brown and bronze leaves are quite beautiful.  The kettle is rinsed, and that water, with whatever leaves were left behind, goes to the ferns growing beneath the dining room windows.  They seem to love a spot of tea.   The kettle is ivory in color, so its color is already deepening.  I wonder what it will look like in a few years.       
In a society where we often sip (or gulp) our coffee and tea from a paper cup, the simple process of brewing the morning tea seems almost revolutionary.  It starts a chain reaction - and that reaction is one of calmness. Of appreciation.  Of connection.  Of gratitude. Of remembering my mother who did not drink tea, but somehow ended up with a teapot that I have always loved.  
I am grateful.    

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Finding the Calm

Charlie has been struggling with illness all of his life, and the difficulties of keeping his medications in balance is taking a toll.  When I saw him this last week, he was in bed with a migraine.   We talked for a few minutes, and I said a prayer. He then said, "When illness finally takes hold, there is actually some relief, even in the pain.  A sort of innocence." 
"God?," I asked. 
He then surprised me.  "I would like to sing."  I have had migraines, but never one that inspired singing.  He continued as if he heard my surprise, "Yes, just a verse or two of How Great Thou Art, you know, the one written by Martin Luther.  I smiled. Lately, Charlie has been attributing more and more hymns to Martin Luther. 
"Charlie, are you Lutheran?" 
"Oh, yes." And so we sang.     
I think of that God filled place of innocence as I think of Heidi Skidmore, a friend who passed last night.  I shall miss her exuberant faith and encouraging notes and comments about my writing.  Her laughter and her tears blessed me in seminary.  Thank you, Heidi, for being, for singing, for crying, and for laughing - for making room for a friend through it all. 
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation 
and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Then I shall bow in humble adoration, 
and there proclaim, my God, how great thou art.   
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
how great thou art, how great thou art!
- written by Stuart K. Hine, who was inspired by a poem by Carl Gustav Boberg that was written during a thunderstorm.  Perhaps with a helping hand from Luther.  Who knows? I am learning to dismiss very little these days.