Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Jesus, Biscuits and Beans

On this morning's run, I started thinking about Jesus, biscuits, and beans.  No, not that Jesus.  The Jesus who periodically came to cook for the ranch where I grew up.  I do not remember much about Jesus (pronounced hey-soos) except that he was always smiling, and he made terrific biscuits.  He also knew how to operate a Bobcat, so I suspect his skills were much in demand on all the surrounding ranches.  A cook who can also operate heavy machinery must come in mighty handy.  
When he came to cook, he would cook in the bunkhouse.  I loved to have lunch there.  I loved the smell and the sounds. I loved the beat up long table that was covered with a plain white oil cloth, and the two benches were everyone sat together.    I loved the 50 pound burlap bags that were filled with onions, potatoes, and beans.   When Jesus cooked, I doubt if there was ever a lunch that came from that large cast iron stove that was not accompanied by beans and his incredibly light biscuits.   
When I make biscuits, I generally follow James Beard's recipe for cream biscuits that he claimed came to him through a family cook (Beard on Bread, 1973).  I doubt if the recipe Jesus followed was ever written down.  I am certain that one key ingredient was bleached flour. Dedicated Southern cooks still demand the ultra-soft White Lily Flour, but that flour was not available in West Texas.  However, Gold Medal All Purpose Bleached Flour certainly was, and in great abundance. Another ubiquitous ingredient was Crisco shortening, an ingredient I simply cannot use, regardless of how light the biscuits turn out.   However, this was the time when Crisco was practically hailed as a health food, and no West Texas kitchen would be without it.          
So, as I am running and pondering biscuits, my thoughts turn to beans.  I would be an adult before I knew there was any other variety of legume other than the pinto.  Yes, there was the black-eyed pea bean eaten every New Year's Day (for several days before Jan. 1, the adults in my life would great one another with "Hello! Got your black-eyed peas cooked?), but I don't remember their being served much the rest of the year.  The humble pinto ruled.   
As you can imagine, by the time I finished the run I was quite hungry.   I decided to make a small pot of beans.  I thought about pintos, but then I remembered I had sauteed chard in the refrigerator and I knew I had some dried white beans on hand.  I gave them a quick soak and they are now in the crock pot.   Since it is New Year's Eve, it is appropriate to have some beans cooking.  That is a long tradition that crosses many generations, cultures and lands. White beans and chard will make a fine dinner.  
Today as I think of Jesus, it is with gratitude. I wish I knew more of his story.  How a man who knew his way around a Bobcat also knew his way around a stove.   A man who generously shared his smile and his biscuits with a young girl. As much as I loved his biscuits, I think his welcome meant even more.   
A lesson that I think Jesus - yes, That Jesus - knew well.   

Sunday, December 29, 2013


This week I have had a few mornings off, and that means I have been in my kitchen early in the morning.  On Friday I baked two loaves of bread and one went into the freezer.  Today I filled the crock pot with apples and pears from my CSA box, and persimmons from the neighborhood.  I am hoping that after several hours of cooking they will become a nice topping for the ice cream that we will be serving friends tomorrow night after dinner.   Yesterday Tyler and I journeyed to Old Oakland and we bought some beautiful hand crafted sausages from a local purveyor.    This morning we had sauteed sausages, potatoes, and leeks for breakfast.  The leftovers have been combined with some chard.  After all had cooked together for a bit, I added a bit of cream and nutmeg.  This will be a good base for a pasta sauce, casserole, soup, or even a quiche.  This is the cooking my mother taught me.  The cooking I call, "one thing leads to another."  

It is not that my mother was frugal.  She was not.  However, we lived 60 miles from the grocery store.   There was no such thing as looking at a recipe, which we very much enjoyed doing together, and then running to the grocery store to buy the ingredients.   We made do with what we had or we cooked something else.   
Cooking in the morning gives me a profound sense of God.  We are given the gift of edible food from this earth, and from these individual elements, we can create something nourishing, or at least tasty, for our family, our friends, or even for a quiet meal alone.  One meal leads to another, and these meals connect us to those who have come before us: those who have taught us to cook, and those who have sat, or will sit, at our table.   As I write this, Tyler is in the kitchen tending to a pan of flour that he is browning for the beginning of a gumbo to be shared with friends tomorrow.  I hear his continually stirring and am amazed at his patience.  I am starting to smell the browning process, and it is beautiful; it simply smells warm. Tomorrow, we will splurge and go to the market to pick up a crab or maybe some shrimp.  I plan on making cornbread, but herbed biscuits sound good as well. This celebration has nothing to do with 2013 coming to a close. That means little to me.  We are celebrating connection.  That we have food to share and friends to share it with.  
Tyler pulls celery and bell pepper from the refrigerator and an onion from the basket on the counter. The stored homemade stock has been thawed and the roux is being created.  Blessed be.  
May you all feel deeply connected to those you love. May God's presence be known to you in your kitchen, or wherever you might be today.  May such love carry you into tomorrow, and every day thereafter.   May that love be shared, savored, and lived.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Long Thread

Yesterday I finished up my regular services for SpiritCare for the year.  Rodney was signing probably as loud as he could, and probably just about as off-key as he could.  In the middle of The First Noel he states, "Sue Ann, I  should have been a singer." 
"You are a singer.  Keep going."   He enthusiastically responds, "OK!"  That response reflects the depth of his faith.  He takes part, and he says yes.  

Jill has been in pain for some months now.  She is blind and quite hard of hearing.  As I serve her communion, she whispers, "Christ," in such a loving way, that I almost look up to see if Jesus was standing behind me.  However, I have so often seen Jesus among the wheel chairs, and have heard Jesus in the laughter, I simply kiss her on the forehead and give her a blessing.  I also give thanks for the caregiver who gets this tiny woman up and dressed, does her hair, and puts on her makeup with a beautiful light touch.  Only love can do that.  Yes, Jesus is here. 
Hanna struggles to stand for communion, enough so that I become concerned. I try to tell her she can remain seated. She gives me a withering glance, and she slowly stands.  I am certain that sometime next year she will not be able to. However, today, that bridge does not have to be crossed. She stands, takes communion, and says "Thank you." Not so much to me, but to the Lord she so respectfully loves. 
Rodger, too, grows more frail, but the grip of his depression seems to be lessening, and lately he seems a little more at peace.  He no longer tells me that he is unworthy.  At times he may be tempted to still believe that, but he knows I do not. Today, he takes my hand and tells me, "I think of you as a friend."  I thank him for that blessing.  Several people have recently claimed me as a friend. I believe much of this is rooted in our keeping our promise of coming at least once a month.  I think many of them are just now beginning to trust that when I leave, I have every intention of returning.  In just about all the communities I serve, people who have refused communion for as long as five or six years are now celebrating communion with us.  Mary, who resides in a really lovely home, told me just this month, "I finally understand. This is now my church. I believe it is time for me to take communion."    That is why 99% of the time I always gently ask, because I sense God patiently waiting, patiently continuing to speak to all of our hearts. I attempt to do the same.  It is a simple path that I try to walk.   
In every community I have gone into this month, I have concluded the service with a personal thank you to the volunteers, residents and staff members for a truly wonderful year of worship services. I also give thanks for the support of the board of SpiritCare. My life has been blessed so deeply by the long thread of our ongoing services. Dear friends, your presence and willingness to listen to this ministry is also a lifeline for me.  Your grace filled notes have touched and encouraged me, and your willingness to "hear" this ministry has helped me stay alert.  I thank you.  I pray you find meaning in all of your celebrations, and that God's love is always known to you, in both your struggles and your joys.   

God weaves us all together with a beautiful thread made of faith and friendship. This thread is stronger than we realize.  Blessed be. 
Sue Ann   
For God is good: God's steadfast love endures forever, and God's faithfulness to all generations.
Psalm 100:5, New Century Psalter 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Gift

When I am an old woman,
and I suspect I am about 
to die,  
I want to give away a shawl.    
Not a brand new one, 
but one that has been  
to the grocery store 
and to the post office 
and all the other ordinary places 
where I daily go.       
It won't be tattered and discarded, 
or one that just never felt quite right. 
Those can be given at any time.  
But one you wear, that 
is something else again.  
I think that is what Jesus knew.    
I have such a shawl now, 
given to me by a friend 
who has now passed.  
It is large and drapes abundantly,
and can cover my head 
in a damp mist,
like a good shawl should.      
So, as I prepare to walk out the door, 
and my hands reach out 
and I touch this shawl once more,  
I think of her  
and I give thanks  
and I pray  
that one day 
I will know 
that the time has come   
to pass it on.     

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

It Is Here

This afternoon, as I was finishing up serving communion to about 50 residents in a low-income skilled nursing community, a young Hispanic caregiver walked into the activity room.  I greeted her and asked if she would like communion.  She looked down and replied that since she did not live with her husband, some have said that she should not take communion.   I thought, "Here she is - a beautiful young woman working in this very difficult minimum wage job.  She is probably raising her children on this salary, and maybe some income from a second or third job, and someone has told her that she should not take communion?"   I assured her of her worthiness.  She smiled and gave me a very warm hug.  She was not ready to take the elements, but it was too late.  Communion had already happened.  And truthfully, she served it to me.   

I often hear the comment, "I am unworthy."  If we waited until this mythical state of worthiness appeared, none of us would ever get to take communion.  Communion is not a merit badge.  It is strength for the journey.  It is the table that is always set and where no one is never turned away.   It is not our table.  It belongs solely to God.  I serve and I clean up.   I have said before that I really should be wearing an apron.     

In this community, I do not even think there is a budget for activities.   Even I can hear that the piano is out of tune.  Some of its parts are held together by duct tape.  However, it is here, where I have learned that Alzheimer's is certainly not the only serious disease that can befall a human,  that I hear the most alleluias.  It is here that most eyes are focused on me as I read and talk about God.  It is here that some will question what I am saying.  It is here that a weary assistant will humbly take communion and then quietly return to shifting wheel chairs, pouring juice, finding napkins, and all the other tasks that it takes to support the living every day.  It is here where Laurie, whose hands are completely stiffened and turned inward, will give me a crooked thumbs up and a funny smile when I ask how she is doing.   It is here where Robert refused communion for a year, but now accepts and takes my hand and whispers thank you.  He has stopped crying.    
It is here where I fall in love with Jesus once again.      

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Tuesday morning I was up and on my way to a hospital in the wine country.  My journey there was relatively uneventful, but my visit was serious enough that I felt the need to don a collar. I also felt some time pressure, as I wanted to make certain I would be on time to meet with the medical staff and the family.   As I drove, I knew I was in the wine country, and it was fall, but that was about the extent of my celebration of the season.  My mind and heart were preoccupied.  

As the doctor addressed concerns and answered our questions, I had to give thanks for the medical team.  They had stabilized the heart, made a passage for the breathing, and stopped an infection.  Nonetheless, the prognosis was not good.  Yet, the family is not ready to give up.  After the meeting we went back into ICU and I was quite moved by how tenderly the wife talked to her husband who had not spoken a word in three weeks.  How she stroked his face, and offered encouragement.  Even as she left, she assured him she would return the next day.   

I left the hospital, thinking of the balance between medicine and love.  Hospitals can do much, but often it is the extra touch of love that coaxes a human back to life.  Not always, of course.  But enough that we all find courage. 
As I drove down the hill, prepared to take the same way back home, I spotted a sign:  "Heirloom Tomatoes."  I pulled into the dirt parking lot where pumpkins of all sizes were placed.   I felt oddly drawn to a large pumpkin, not bright orange, but of various hues of pale orange, grayish, blueish green, and yellowish white.  It was then I begin to notice the fall colors all around me and how fresh the air was. I asked where the tomatoes were grown, and was directed to the back of the stand, where there was at least an acre,maybe more, of shaggy tomato plants still bearing fruit.  I paid for my very fine pumpkin and dark red and green tomatoes, and decided that rather than take the same road back, I would turn left.

The countryside was magnificent - golds, greens, and reds glittered in the sun.   I drove in silence, and memories of other visits to the wine country came to mind.   I delighted in remembering incredible meals, and the taste of one particular Alsatian style wine that caused me to exclaim, "I am drinking flowers!".  I smiled as I heard again the laughter of friends as we shared a bottle of champagne on a terrace overlooking a vineyard and celebrated a weekend off. I felt no need to stop, but rather to simply drive and savor the beauty of the day, the beauty of the past and present coming together.     
God beckons us ever on, and this encouragement we can trust.  Let us breathe deeply, and live.  

Friday, October 25, 2013


Last week, I had the good pleasure of spending days in good conversation with friends.  Our ages vary  from late 50s to mid seventies.  We spoke at length of the various comings and goings in our lives. Some of the changes were troubling, of course, but many were quite positive: letting go of old fears, taking on new opportunities, and experiencing profound gratitude, among others.  Every once in awhile, someone would say, "I wonder why this did not happen earlier in my life."    
I thought of those conversations yesterday when I received an email that closed with the opening lines of this poem.  Yes, life will unfold when and as it will.  I give thanks that it does not unfold all at once, for in the rush and frustrations of my younger years, I am not certain I would have been grateful enough, or even open enough to celebrate the wonder of it all.  Before, I have tried to pry open too many doors.  I stand at the threshold and open more gently now.     
Wishing you all the gift of time today.  It is there for us all.  Blessed be.     
Late Ripeness
by Czeslaw Milosz
English version by Robert Hass
Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.
One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.
And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.
I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget — I kept saying — that we are all children of the King.
For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.
We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.
Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago -
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef — they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.   

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Wind Still Blows

I woke this morning while it was still dark and the wind was blowing.  It was not our usual wind blowing from the sea, but was coming over the east bay hills.   Inland winds are mysterious, gusting and swirling from who knows where.   I am sure my just planted tarragon, thyme, and lemon grass are wondering what strange force plucked them up from the safety of the nursery and my window sill and dropped them to a bed in my front yard where they have been subjected to rummaging racoons, and now this gusting dry wind.  Perhaps if I were an intuitive farmer, I would have sensed some change, and waited to plant, rather than making use of a few free hours on a Tuesday afternoon.    
That particular morning found me perusing the newspaper and grousing about the government.  I know just about everyone is grousing about the government for one reason or another, but on the first day of the shutdown, my grouse factor was heightened.  I knew that the volunteer whom I would be picking up in a short while would be grousing as well, and she certainly was.  When she was a young woman, she had to flee a violent and corrupt regime, so she is particularly wary of governments who do not tend to their people. We gave our grousing free reign for a few minutes, and then I gently reminded both of us that we were on our way to worship, and the gentle folks we would be worshiping with did not need to experience our unhappiness about the government, but rather our happiness in friendship and faith. She agreed, and accepted the change of direction (not always easy for her). She replied with stoic resolution, “Yes, we must be in a good mood.”    We had made a pact and our course was set.  
Yet, as I pulled into the parking lot, a vision came to me.  That vision was my folder of music lying, not in the trunk of my car, but on my dining room table.    I explained my dilemma to the volunteer.  Her newly found resolve of good cheerwavered a bit (she takes her role as song sheet distributor quite seriously), but I assured her that in my trunk I could find something.   The pickings were a bit thin, as I had been cleaning my trunk out the day before, which is how my folder came to rest on the dining room table.  However, I found song sheets and three of the four sheets of accompanying music.  I figured that we could sing the last hymn a capella.  We walked in and quickly explained the change of plans to the pianist.  She laughed heartily and looked through her binder.   I had no idea that she keeps her binder organized, not alphabetically, but by the month and year we sing them.  “Ah, yes.  These hymns are from July of this year.”  She had the fourth hymn so we were set.   It was then that I realized we would be singing patriotic hymns.  
Consequently, in just over an hour I was moved from grumbling over the newspaper to singing about the beauty of this land of spacious skies, amber waves, and fruited plains.  Our complaints and laments were turned into sung prayers that communally asked that our flaws be mended and that freedom would ring from every mountainside.  I felt God’s healing touch, and I was grateful.   Afterwards, the pianist said, “I believe we have done our duty today.”
The Spirit picks us up and moves us about in surprising ways.   Blessed be.

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.   John 3:8

The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning to its course. 
Ecclesiastes 1:6   

Friday, September 6, 2013

Safety in Visions

I have written about Jill before because she has been worshiping with us since I began with SpiritCare.  She now grows more frail.  Her hearing continues to deteriorate, and she has been blind since she was a young girl.  She has always blessed us with a beautiful laugh, but we hear it less now as her physical struggles increase.  While I am not certain how much of the service she hears, she enthusiastically answers yes when I yell in her ear, "Would you like to take communion?"  After the service yesterday she asked me, as she periodically does, if I believe in the Holy Mother.  "Of course," I always yell. She told me again of the vision of the Holy Mother that she had while visiting Lourdes as a child.  If I am remembering correctly, the Holy Mother was sitting on a fence. Jill went to Her and asked if She could help her vision (at that time it was poor, but Jill could still see).  The response was a gentle, "No, I cannot.  You will be blind."   There may have been more to the conversation, but Jill has never mentioned it.  But she passionately loves the Holy Mother, and that one vision has been enough to sustain her for a lifetime.  
After my conversation with Jill, I saw a caregiver bring Roger into the activity room.  He has no mobility in his lower limbs and must rely completely on the care of the attendants. Just as I began to walk towards him, he raised his hand and asked me,  "Ma'am, please excuse me, but is Sue Ann still here?"  I touched him on the shoulder and replied, "Hi, Roger, I am here. Is your vision giving you trouble?"   Yes.  The vision in one eye is completely gone and the other eye grows more blurry.  Yet still he said, "Oh, it is so good to see you."  
These people love me.  I believe them when they tell me that.  I love them and I believe most of them know it.   And there, of course, lies great peril. Whom am I serving?
Fairly early in my ministry I was blessed to read Christine D. Pohl's very good book, Making Room, Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition.  In it, she quotes Dorothy Day, and this passage (found on pages 185-186) often comes to my mind when I become flush with the emotions of the work:
I have had to stop myself sometimes. I have found myself rushing from one person to another - soup bowls and more soup bowls, plates of bread and more plates of bread, with the gratitude of the hungry becoming a loud din in my ears.  The hunger can be as severe as someone else's stomach hunger: the joy of hearing those expressions of gratitude. I remember a nun who came to visit us. We and sat and drank coffee after she had helped us work. She was a fast one. She went from table to table, arranging chairs and helping some of the men who really needed help. she was tactful and modest, and, of course, they took to her. She knew who could fend for himself and who needed a little boost from her. As we sat and talked she said to me in whisper, '"This is dangerous work....It is a grave temptation to want to help people."  
I know no of not other way to serve these elders but in love, despite the dangers of being tempted to always listen for the gratitude.  I can change very little in their lives.  I am grateful that Jill continues to share with me her vision of Mary simply sitting on the fence.  It reminds me of the strength that presence has to offer.  When I first moved my own mother into skilled nursing, I had such an immediate and profound sense of Jesus' presence that I kept expecting to see him leaning against a wall, in a sort of James Dean pose (this was West Texas, after all).  That sense has never left me.  I am beginning to think that I am a sort of well-meaning but slightly bumbling tour guide in this journey in, through, and to the kingdom.  Fortunately, Jesus and Mary serve as gracious sign posts to keep us from losing our way.  I surely could not do it alone.   
Blessed assurance in these dangerous times. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Lesson in Attendance

I seem to be at the age where spiritual legacies are on my mind and heart.  I am not referring to the act of physically sitting and writing out what we believe our legacy to be, although that exercise can be very helpful.  However, ultimately that may not the legacy that counts.  What really matters is our legacy that others experience, and how they live out that legacy - or perhaps avoid it at all cost.  
 I recently was reminded of this when I attended the memorial service of a long-time neighbor, educator, and life-long Christian.  Sally was in her late 80s and had been ill for awhile. As I sat and listened to the testimonies of adult grandchildren and others who loved her deeply, I felt gratitude for this elder who obviously lived her life and faith in such a way that it influenced, and will continue to influence generations.  While we saw many pictures of Sally and her family on the large screen front of the chapel, the focus of the memorial was really not so much on her, but rather her deep abiding love of Christ.  The church she attended is large (the main sanctuary holds between 1200 to 1500 people), so we gathered in and filled their chapel that probably holds about 200.  The family and many of the friends who attended the service also attend that church, so there was very much a sense of a congregation who comes together regularly to listen, to pray, and to take the teachings to heart. They seemed to listen in and with one body.  Very moving and very tangible.  For the first time in a long while, I felt the poorer for not having grown up in a church.    
Too often when I attend memorial services, I hear the deceased described as "a person of faith," and  then we listen to a reading of Psalm 23  (sometimes sung) because just about everyone likes it and nobody actually knew what the favorite scripture was of the one who passed. Somehow, in the busyness of life, those deeper discussions never happened.  The legacies we are left with are thin and weak - not much substance for the long road ahead.   
On the day of Sally's passing, one of the daughters told me that several of her family members were at her bedside singing her favorite hymns. While she had spent most of the last several months living with a daughter, her last day was spent in her home.   I also understand that for several days before she passed, she had private conversations with each family member.   

Several times in the service  I heard a phrase I was unfamiliar with: "winsome (perhaps win some?) for the gospel."   I think in Sally's life, the legacy of the joy of the gospel did indeed win.  We were not treated to a reading of Psalm 23, but rather one from Isaiah 40.  Her pastor laughed and said that the last time he saw Sally, she requested that he read to her from that text.  He asked, "Which verse?"  She replied, "All of it."    
Attending to our legacies is really not all that difficult, but it does require living life intentionally and lovingly.  It requires the courage to talk of God, of life, and death.  Of joys and blessings.  Of mistakes made and lessons learned.  What we might do differently, and what we can accept as finished.  Yes, all of that, and probably more.   Let's make it a little easier and start now.      
May your legacy be rich, and may all reap the rewards of  really knowing you.         
God gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD
shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
                                                  Isaiah 40:29-31 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Prayer! Faith! God! Love!

We have started most our worship services this month by singing, "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus."  After we sing the hymn, I have been asking, "How do we do that?  How do we turn our eyes to Jesus?"  Usually I am the one giving the response, but today in a convalescent hospital, I immediately heard these answers: "Prayer! Faith! God! Love!"   I am not making this up.  I told them they were ready to preach.  Truthfully, they have been all along. 
I then asked them, "Do you know how I turn my eyes upon Jesus?"  The room grew quiet.  I said, "I come and worship with you."  I meant that quite seriously.   I have been worshiping in this hospital for close to six years, and the people who gather with me, often 40 or 50 in number, still amaze me.  They sing. They laugh at my jokes.  They are gracious enough to nod their heads as I speak.  Almost everyone takes communion.   Yes, some are quite ill, and most spend their waking hours in wheel chairs and gurneys.  Today I noticed the arms of one gurney had been repaired with duct tape.  The piano is a mess, and I have learned the art of not losing my train of thought as I pause while announcements are being made over the intercom (I am kind of proud of this skill).         
On my way home, I found myself wondering why I was tired.  I realized  I had finished my day with arriving at the hospital a little early.  The residents were singing karaoke so I joined them.  We then had worship.  Afterwards, the pianist led us in a lively hymn sing.    
It is not easy trying to keep up with Jesus. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Down (and maybe across) to Heaven

Mother Teresa once said that if she ever was made a saint she probably would not stay in heaven very long - the temptation to keep returning to help the poor would just be too great. I have always thought that about Jesus as well.  I really cannot comprehend a Jesus who sits on a throne in heaven while the white horse and the cloud stand by, ready to whisk Jesus in at the final judgement.  No, Jesus is right here today.   And I have no doubt that each of us has been Jesus at least once for someone else.  Yes, that is strong love.  Such potency is exactly what God created us for.      
Last year a good friend introduced me to this poem entitled The Truelove by David Whyte.  I love the image of the old man saying his prayer to the turbulent Jesus hidden in the water.  I am reminded of an old woman Tyler and I met years ago in Mendocino.  We passed her as she was making her way to the cliffs overlooking the ocean.  She was quite bent, and as she passed I noticed that the back of her much worn lime green jacket was so bleached by wind and sun that was almost the color of dried bones.  I believe the elements had been having their way with her for some time, but she seemed quite content with that. While I know that the temptation to romanticize the sea, Jesus, and old age is great, today they seem one in the same to me.   
This poem is long, so you may not have time to read it at this very moment, but I encourage you to do so when you can. In the meantime, I pray that each of you knows that you belong and that if times are turbulent, you will take a look to see who might be waiting for you in the midst of it all.    
The Truelove

There is a faith in loving fiercely 
the one who is rightfully yours, 
especially if you have 
waited years and especially 
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this 
loved and beckoning hand 
held out to you this way. 
I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are 
worthy of in this world.  
Years ago in the Hebrides
I remember an old man 
who walked every morning 
on the grey stones
to the shore of the baying seals,
who would press his hat 
to his chest in the blustering 
salt wind and say his prayer 
to the turbulent Jesus 
hidden in the water, 
and I think of the story 
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing 
the distant 
yet familiar figure 
far across the water 
calling to them, 
and how we are all 
preparing for that 
abrupt waking, 
and that calling, 
and that moment 
we have to say yes, 
except it will 
not come so grandly, 
so Biblically, 
but more subtly 
and intimately in the face
of the one you know 
you have to love, 
so that when we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find 
everything holds 
us, and confirms
our courage, and if you wanted 
to drown you could, 
but you don't 
because finally 
after all the struggle 
and all the years, 
you don't want to any more, 
you've simply had enough
of drowning 
and you want to live and you 
want to love and you will 
walk across any territory 
and any darkness, 
however fluid and however 
dangerous, to take the 
one hand you know 
belongs in yours.    

Monday, July 22, 2013


I am blessed to lead worship in a retirement home two Sundays a month. Three other pastors regularly take the rest of the Sundays, and a much loved volunteer pianist plays every week. Consequently, over the past few years a wonderful sense of community has taken root.  

Yesterday, as usual, I arrived very much in the mood for worship.  I knew there was a bus trip scheduled right after worship, and as always, on the third Sunday we celebrate Communion. Therefore, I knew things did need to move along.  As I was finishing up my short homily, I noticed a younger woman come into the room and take a seat in the back.  I waved in acknowledgement, and planned to go to her after I finished talking, to at least offer her a song sheet.  

However, she raised her hand, and I paused.
"My mother died to today.  Would you say a prayer?"  I asked her mother's name, and we did pray.  The next hymn, "Jesus, I Come," we dedicated to Freida.  The daughter then left as quietly as she entered (I was able to talk with her on the patio afterwards). 
As I broke the bread, the surrender of the body and love seemed particularly moving to me.  Afterwards, I asked those present if they wanted to share some of their thoughts and feelings about Freida. I learned she was much loved, and as I listened, my heart filled with joy, even though I was surrounded by a tangible grief.  Marge, who is in a wheelchair, said, "When I first moved here, I was really angry and I refused even to eat with other people.  However, Freida gently got me involved."  Others echoed much the same sentiment. It seems she was always a welcoming,encouraging voice.

My joy comes from not the fact that an elder passed, but rather that she passed from this life loved.  She left a spiritual legacy of care and friendship.  She touched lives, even when she was ill and in her last days.  I never had heard of her until Sunday, but I was moved to celebrate her life and give thanks for her presence.  As we concluded our time with singing "Blessed Assurance," I was amazed how beautifully the hymns fit into our service, and I was also amazed at the strong sense I had of Jesus being present.  I think Freida brought us all closer to Jesus and to one another. Her passing also reminded me of the stoicism of the group, and that I need to look for signs of sorrow that can happen between 1:15 and 2:00 p.m. on just about any day of the week, but maybe particularly on Sunday.  

Thank you, Freida for all you brought to us.  Blessings on your journey.     

Out of my bondage, sorrow, and night, 
Jesus, I come, Jesus I come. 
Into Thy freedom, gladness, and light, 
Jesus I come to Thee. 
Out of my sickness into Thy health, 
Out of my want and into Thy wealth, 
Out of my sin and into Thyself, 
Jesus, I come to Thee.  

William T. Sleeper, 1887 

Monday, July 15, 2013


Several of you have asked what was most memorable for me during my time in Indiana. I probably have given each of you a different response, not from disrespect, but rather because so much of it was memorable, and as you can see, I am still processing my experiences.  I took my laptop with me, but I found the experience so intense that I really could not write about anything other than the  occasional Facebook posting about fireflies, lightening, wind and rain, and one fox sighting.   Those experiences were quite beautiful and I hold the memories dear, but such sightseeing was not the purpose of my time there.  

After dinner on the first night, we were told to pick one of twelve identical folders.  We knew that these folders contained very brief biographies of the elders we would be visiting for the rest of the week. I decided to pick a folder that was upside down, and that is how I came to know Jean.  It was her folder that was upside down.    

If I am remembering correctly, these short informational sheets were all submitted by daughters of the elders. 
What struck me, even after our first visit, is that these biographies were of limited assistance.  Much of what we were told that the elder valued simply did not spark conversation or memories.  Not favorite foods, or careers (Jean was not interested in talking about her work as a nurse), or even names of close and living family. Not that family members were no longer valued. Jean seemed to feel no need to speak of her immediate family, but I witnessed her obvious excitement when her daughter and granddaughter happened to come for a visit when I was with her.  However, the overall experience reminded me that too often, we want the elder to remember what we want them to, rather than to meet them where they are.  Yes, that meeting can be difficult because their "there" may not be visible to us.  We have to learn to imagine it.  We must learn to see with what the Apostle Paul called "the eyes of the heart."   Sometimes, we must learn to grow comfortable with the discomfort of not completely knowing the terrain in which we have found ourselves - the same challenge that faces many of our elders.   
Today, however, I was reminded that work experiences can have deep, defining roots.  I walked into the communal dining room to be warmly greeted by an elder dressed in what I thought might be a lovely dress from Thailand.  I complimented her attire, and she smiled and said, "Singapore Airlines."   Years ago Tyler and I flew on Singapore Airlines and it was a beautiful, gracious experience.  I told her that and she gave me a warm hug and said, "Thank you for flying Singapore Airlines."  Neither of us may fly that airline again, but for a brief moment, we were lifted onto that tarmac known as common ground.  A destination definitely worth searching for.     
By the end of the week in Indiana, all the biographies had long been set aside.  Many of those who were invited to attend the training had director level jobs, and often do not get the opportunity to simply sit with an elder living in their community.  Meetings, phone calls,consultations, and appointments just take up too much time.  Ministry is not immune to such time pressures.  The chance to just sit and talk with an elder was a luxury that I think each of us will long savor.  I guess I am trying to get that into my biography now. That, and I really did love the fireflies, the lightening, wind, and rain, and seeing the fox on an early morning slow run.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Changing Gears

While we laughed much during the week-long training with Memory Bridge, some of the discussions were quite serious.  Probably the most sobering discussion for me concerned repetitive motions and jumbled speech. The presenter, Naomi Feil, encouraged us to see repetitive motions and speech patterns as a sort of last ditch effort at communication.  That is not the cheeriest of ideas to ponder, but it does remind me that we humans just seem built for communication.  We sing.  We dance.  We share ideas.   We play instruments when words seem inadequate or beyond our grasp. We laugh and cry.   Therefore, even when a brain is severely  impaired, it makes sense that a person will continue to try express something from deep within.  Consequently, even when we can do little else to communicate with an elder (or anyone else), we can at least mirror the motion or the speech.  I have done this with speech and have actually been able to decipher a few words.  However, I had never thought about mirroring repetitive motions. Naomi urged us to believe that even when clarity does not surface for us, the elder might have a sense of being heard, of being in communication, of maybe even being in relationship. Definitely worth trying.   
I thought of these discussions yesterday as I was driving south on 280 on my way to a home dedicated to the care of the memory impaired.  Despite the transportation woes that many are experiencing because of the BART strike, the traffic on 280 was light.  I had my Sam Cooke Pandora station on, and as I drove and sang right out loud, I felt happiness.  I also felt a desire to be driving a manual transmission.  The urge surprised me.  I could not remember driving a manual transmission for many years.  
Yet, later in the day, I remembered a very fun car that I drove for a couple of years - a 1970 Datsun 510 that I purchased for $675.  I named it Mad Max because it had the look of a worn survivor, if for no other reason than the body of the car was faded green, and the hood was gray and slightly battered. However, the car never failed as it zipped around corners and in and out of traffic and parking spaces.  And yes, it had a manual transmission.  When I drove it on the freeway, the need for a fifth gear was always apparent because the car whined when the breathtaking speed of 65 miles an hour was reached.  Even so,  I don't ever remember wishing the car had an automatic transmission.  I loved to drive it just the way it was, even with only four gears.   Do I want to return to driving a manual transmission everyday?  No, but the memory of that car makes me smile.   
Certainly, this memory resides in my brain, but it was first experienced by me in my body, stimulated by a desire to shift gears.  This was a response to a good driving day and fun music.   I am blessed to be out in the world, responding to a wide variety of sights, sounds, conversations, and memories.  However, this is not true for many of our frail elders whose sense of isolation can cause them to withdraw further and further within.  Communication takes effort and energy.  It also takes people who care enough to reach out in a supportive and loving way.  Otherwise, the frail among us are at a very real risk of languishing in increasing darkness.  If we can help keep the lamps burning and in sight, we just might be able to find our way into relationship.  Love can be kindled at any age, and really, the more light the better.  
Blessed be.   

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Fire and Wind

Bless the Lord, O my soul, 
O LORD my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
you set the bearms of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chairot,
you ride on the wings of the wind, 
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.  
                                                      Psalm 104:1-4   
When I flew into Indianapolis for my Memory Bridge training last week, I was first greeted by heavy rain, hail, thunder and lightening.  As I sat waiting for the shuttle that would take me into Bloomington, I was less than enthralled by such majesty.  However, I was shortly joined by an engaging young woman who was blind, and had been since birth.  She was being dropped off by a man who was concerned about leaving her there.  As I helped her settle into her chair, his anxiety lessened and he announced that she would be in good hands with me.  I wondered about this conclusion, but she was just so darn cheery that the hour passed quickly.  We rode together on the shuttle (another hour's journey) and we talked of many things:  her work at the university, her family, her two cats, her belief that life is very much worth living.  I had no doubt that I was in her good hands, not the other way around.      
Fortunately, there were several more of these summer storms, and my sense of awe returned as the sky filled with enormous clouds and the air filled with booming thunder and heavy rain.  A friend commented that now that I have experienced these storms, the bay area weather will seem rather bland.   I fear he may be right, but I have this day off, so Tyler and I are going to take the dogs to the beach. My week in Bloomington left me with much to think about, but for now, I will simply celebrate the gift of being in awe: of thunder and lightening, of meeting people gifted and engaged in their work, of stories of what it was like to grow up on an Indiana farm (definitely not always idyllic), and how people learn to maneuver their way through the haze of Alzheimer's, even when those caring for them often misinterpret, disregard, and dismiss their valiant attempts to live and communicate.  
Jean, a beautiful elder who was one of 16 children who grew up on a large farm, told me that she was ready to go home.  I asked her to tell me about home.  "It's the farm. The pond where we used to swim and fish.  My brothers and sisters.  My mother and her canned green beans and bright red tomatoes." 
I am in awe of heaven and its beauty makes me weep.          

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Walk

I walked into the skilled nursing community just as one of the volunteers was arriving as well.  As we greeted one another, I noticed Marie sitting in the hall by the window.  Her presence there was a bit unusual, as she is always in the activity room when we arrive.  We went over and said hello and I told her we would be starting worship in just a few minutes.  We then went on to the activity room where everyone was gathered, including another volunteer and the activity assistant.  Again greetings were exchanged, and I asked if Marie could be brought in.  The assistant, a lovely enthusiastic Evangelical, grew somber and said, "Her family has asked that she not take part in any worship services - not even mass."  The two volunteers and I gasped at the same time. 

If Marie was Dutch, she could have easily been someone that Van Gogh would have painted. She is a quiet woman, very compact, and views the world through one eye.  She always has on a black sweater that  looks like it just might have been around in Van Gogh's time.  While she is Catholic, she always seems happy to be in our services.  One of the foundations of our ministry is to bring worship to those who want to take part but who, due to health concerns,  may not be able to get to their own faith communities.  Therefore, to not include someone who seems to want to be included is not easy for us.  The temptation to ignore the family request was strong, but of course, we cannot do that.  The assistant said that all he staff was struggling with the request as well.  We opened our worship service with prayer asking for understanding, and continued on.  When we left, Marie was in the same spot, so we wished her well and I snuck in a quiet blessing.  As we always have done, I kissed her on the forehead and she kissed my hand.  I told her we would see her next month.  

This experience has reminded me of a conversation I had a few months ago.  One morning I was setting out the elements for communion in a home dedicated to the care of Alzheimer's.  I had just met the daughter of a resident, and I was so happy to have done so.  She was in the process of taking her mother out the room so I invited them both to stay for worship.  The daughter replied, "We cannot.  We are Jewish."  Again, I extended the invitation, saying that all faiths are welcome to celebrate God's presence with us.  She kept moving and said, "I do not want my mother to hear about Jesus."

Consequently, these two situations were weighing on my mind as I started out with our elder dog, Ms. Cleo, for our morning stroll.  I passed the house on the corner that had recently burned and saw again the old orange tree by the front door. The tree was heavily scorched in the fire, and I thought it did not make it.  However, today I noticed all sorts of new tender sprouts and leaves.  I said a prayer for the young family who were in the midst of remodeling the house when the fire started.  May they also be experiencing the stirrings of new growth as the old house is prepared for demolition, and a new home is being planned. 
We walked a few more blocks, and I was stunned at the sight of some very tall, bright red and yellow gladiolas blooming in a neighbor's front yard.  We then walked past a house that has been vacant for awhile, and now has a for sale sign.  I noticed a man in the back doing some work, and I asked him about the elder gentleman who lived there.  As I suspected, the man was his son, and he told me his father had passed.  I was not surprised.  He used to raise squash in his front yard.  One day I walked by and the plants were gone, and I never saw the elder again.  I still miss his presence.  He had some health concerns, but everyday he would walk and tend to his squash.  I can still see his wave, and I can still hear his quiet sing-song "Good morning," that always ended on a up note.   
 I expressed my condolences to the son, and walked on.  I felt some sadness, but as I turned the corner, I saw that the front porch light was on.  I thought of new life that seems so improbable, of flowers and and their outrageous blooms that are destined to not last, and I thought of light that is always burning.   I said right out loud, "I worry too much."  

I heard Jesus laugh, and I joined in.    

Monday, April 29, 2013


Dear Friends, 
I have been both quite touched and quite intrigued by your responses to my last post.  First of all, please excuse any confusion, but I will reiterate that I am not retiring right now.  I believe the ministries that I am involved with are still bearing good fruit, and of course, there is still 15 years left on the mortgage!  
However, the statement, "I am going to retire," was made in all seriousness.  I really believe that my journey to seminary and then into ministry began with a part-time job with Senior Services here in San Leandro.  It was a pleasant job at the community center that was under the umbrella of Parks and Recreation.  We were charged with creating events, newsletters, activities, and services for our older population.  Some of those we served were fully retired; some worked part-time or did volunteer work  Some were in excellent health financially and physically ; others struggled.  Again, the work was quite pleasant, but something felt a bit amiss to me.  I felt that surely there is more to being an elder than just going down to the senior center to check out what was going on that day.   

Honestly, I do not yet have an answer, except perhaps that there is no one answer.  Much of my ministry with SpiritCare is a walk among frail elders, and as you know, I find that walk profound.   However, somewhere, between the community center and the long term care home, many elders reside, and this is the land to where I am bound, even if I never retire.  Regardless, I know I am in the last third of my life.  
One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the tale of the death of Moses.  Moses, at the age of 120, still with good vision and strength,  climbs up from the plains of Moab to the top of Mount Nebo.  There, God shows him the whole land, the deserts, the basins, a city or two, and the Mediterranean Sea.  And as Moses casts his eye as far as he can see, God says, "This is the land I promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I told them, 'I'll give it to your descendants.' I've let you see it, even though you won't be going into it (Deuteronomy 34:1-4)."    I think the last third of this life is much like that.  A looking forward, a looking back, and learning just to be.  We can't do it all; we can't have it all.  But we will have enough
because it is God that leads us ever on.  
Let us continue this journey together.   I find much assurance in your presence.   
Sue Ann  

Friday, April 26, 2013

Deciding to Decide

I have decided to retire.   No, not right away, but I feel the need to get that phrase out in public. There are several reasons.  Tyler and I just signed papers to refinance the last fifteen years of our mortgage.  This occurred just as I was recovering from a staph infection that was successfully treated with an antibiotic.  However, that successful treatment ultimately left me feeling awful.  And that awfulness stayed with me for awhile.  I feel fine now, but I was reminded that I do not get over these things quite as quickly as I once did.  I also am aware that someday, driving up and down Interstate 880 and winding my way across bridges may not be what I should be doing, and I certainly do not want to figure this this out after a colossal lapse of memory or attention.   I also know that someday there will be someone who will more ably and more energetically do the ministry I am doing.  There is no need for me to hang on until my last breath.  Even Jesus told his disciples that he knew he needed to get out of the way.       
I think what really encourages me to boldly state this is that I have just listened to a compelling 4 cd audio book entitled, All Is Grace by Brennan  Manning.  I first learned of Brennan Manning in a recent Facebook post by Dianna Butler Bass that mentioned his passing.  I had never heard of him or his writings.  I am not even sure why I decided to start with his memoir.    

 The book has stayed with me for days now, and I feel I need to pick up a paperback copy as well as read more of his work.  The writing is honest and deeply touching.  His life was far from idyllic, and bouts with alcoholism contributed to serious health concerns in his later life.  Yet, his writing of his elder years (a very small section of the book) is I think what I find most riveting.  Even when writing of his last speaking engagement when he finds himself standing in front of an audience with no memory of what he came to say, his absolute conviction that the God he called Abba never once stopped loving him does not fail him.  Yes, he experienced considerable shortfalls, backsliding, and plain old mistakes.  Yes, in his last years he needed help with just about every task, however simple.  Yet, always, his Abba was there offering more than enough grace and mercy to get him through the days and nights with love.      
I often witness this sort of deep, almost unbelievable faith in my ministry among those in long-term care communities, and I am convinced that neither illness nor poverty nor drastic errors can keep us from God's love.  So, I want at least 15 minutes of retirement before I need to go into long term care.  I have no illusions about retiring to play golf or tennis.  I don't do those things now, so I suspect they will not have much appeal to me then.    Perhaps like Brennan Manning, I simply want to take the time to reflect on this life that often is less than stellar, but one dedicated to expressing the love that I know is real.   
I cannot conclude with a quote from the book, but quotes are easy enough to find in a Google search.  I leave you with this one for now.  It is time to do some laundry. I may have decided to retire, but there are still about 15 or so years left to go. I might as well try to look like I am paying attention.  Dear Mozelle reminded me of this yesterday.  She had just come from the hair dresser, and looked beautiful. When I mentioned that to her, she replied, "Oh, thank you, darling. Yes, they try to keep me clean here.  That really is quite important." 
 I'll try.  
“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” 
― Brennan ManningAbba's Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging