Monday, March 31, 2014

Conversations of Home

Due to an event this past weekend, I was able to spend some extended time in one of the homes dedicated to the care of Alzheimer's patients. Mozelle was there, and at one point I went over to introduce a volunteer to her.  She took my hand and said, "I believe you have been blessed with health and beauty."  
"Mozelle, I am grateful that yes, I am healthy.  I am not too sure about the beauty part."  
"Yes, you are darling.  And you are coming into a lot of money.  About $25,000."   
"Why, that is good news!"  
"Yes, and you can come and stay with me in Bombay.   We have a beautiful home there and you can have your own apartment. Your friend can come too.  Bombay is a very peaceful city.  Nothing bad ever happens there.  We can play poker.  Not for a lot of money, just $10,000 or so."  
"Mozelle, I am not playing poker with you.  You will win all my money!"   
She laughed her wonderful laugh and replied, "You are wise, darling. Now, who is your beautiful friend?"     
Mozelle did grow up in what was then Bombay.  As I think about this conversation with her, I am grateful that she carries with her this image of a lovely home in a peaceful city.  In this home (the local one), I have also heard stories of Idaho, Alaska, Pennsylvania, 17 Mile Drive and a small church in the forest.  A volunteer asked me how do I know what is true.  That is easy. It is all true. About that time I heard a resident ask a staff member, "Where are we?"  I think that question can, at times, be a little more difficult.  However, the wise assistant kept that answer simple as well, and we all journeyed on.      

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my father's home are many dwelling places (John 14:1-2).     
Blessed be.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

Called to Serve

"Pastor Benjamin, you are looking well today!"  I said this with some relief, as last month, he was looking quite the opposite. The physical and mental illness that I had witnessed that day had taken an unusual toll on me, so seeing him in such good spirits was encouraging.     
"Yes, m'am.  This is my brother!"  The reason for Pastor Benjamin's upswing was sitting right next to him.  His brother has now moved into the community and both seemed very happy with the arrangement.   Pastor Benjamin then told me his wife had died about a year ago, and that he has no interest in living alone.  I was reminded yet again that even in a beautifully appointed assisted living community that offers a full slate of daily activities, loneliness can be assuaged only by relationships - the give and take of knowing and being known, and of being accepted just as we are.  This is one of the core values of SpiritCare, and one that is embraced for all who serve the ministry.  What continues to touch me is that most of the ministry, like all faith communities, is made up by volunteers, some who have served for almost as long as the ministry has been in existence - close to three decades now.        
Over the course of my time with SpiritCare, I have served two other pastors and I thought of them yesterday.  There was Pastor Carl, whose Alzheimer's advanced fairly quickly. However, I was able to enjoy his presence in worship for a few months before his passing.  He had a fine singing voice and one day I was especially grateful for his presence. "Pastor Carl, I am so glad you are here today.  Our pianist is sick and I need your help!"  He replied that he would be happy to serve.  He sang with much spirit that day.   The last time I saw him he was quite unwell, but he extended his hand and said, "Thank you for calling me pastor."  Pastor Ralph was very ill when I met him, but he was blessed to live in a community where one of the activity assistants attended his church.  She always tenderly spoke of him as "our pastor," and I believe she seldom saw his illness, but rather the man that she deeply respected.  What a blessing for them both.  
Yesterday, as I was leaving the home, I heard Pastor Benjamin say, "There goes a soldier for the Lord!"  I had to smile.  I do not think of my ministry in such terms, but I deeply appreciated his acknowledgement. The United Church of Christ has a what is now called, "The Christmas Fund,"* but it used to be referred to as the fund for "Veterans of the Cross."  While I think I understand the name change, I miss the former name.   Maybe we should think of all of those who are in their retirement or post-retirement years as veterans.  Whether people have dedicated their lives to serving the church, the nation, the hospital, the school, or the family, most have probably given much, and sacrificed more than we know.      
Thank you, Pastor Benjamin.  It is a blessing to serve. 
As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God's varied grace.
1 Peter 4:10

*The Christmas Fund works to bring some financial assistance to ministers and other church employees who do not have adequate pension funds or who may be facing a serious financial calamity.  Today, many pastors and ministers are serving in part-time positions, so I believe this fund will be needed even more in the next few decades. Most denominations probably have something similar.  Please give.      

Monday, March 24, 2014

In the Hands

Recently, I was listening to a beloved elder tell me about some of the travels she and her husband had taken in an r.v.  I learned that they had visited just about every state, including Alaska, and most of those trips were taken after they both had retired from long careers.   When I commented on the beauty of those memories, she responded, "Yes, the retirement years were wonderful."  The statement reminded me that she and her husband were indeed in their post-retirement years - that time of life when health concerns really start to dictate how life is to be wrapped up.  She lives with quite a bit of pain from arthritis; her husband has Alzheimer's.   They both are still able to live at home, but only with 24 hour care.   I am grateful that their caregivers are determined to see that these elders get to church at least a couple of times a month. Their presence in the small congregation is much celebrated. 

Last Sunday I served Bob communion, the first time in several months.  I was touched to see him reverently pull a piece of bread from the loaf, and dip it into the cup. He needed no encouragement or coaxing.  He placed the bread in his mouth, nodded his head and smiled.  However, as moving as all that was, what really touched me was watching his hands.  It dawned on me that those hands had been around a long time.  They had drafted plans, held children, embraced his wife, mowed the lawn, payed the bills, petted the cats, put up the Christmas trees, driven the r.v.  and a myriad of other tasks, long forgotten.   Olga, a wise elder mentioned in a previous post recently told me, "Plastic surgery can change a person's face, but the hands cannot be altered.  They will always tell the truth."  
 Our hands, our hearts, our minds may not be able to do what they used to, but regardless, when we are with those who know and love us, we will always be more than our weaknesses.  Even when we can't fully remember that, someone else can. Together, we become more.  We live into love.  That is what communion is about.  And why the repetition is so important. Otherwise, we all forget.      
May our hands be used for good today, so the stories they tell will be of love.  May we taste love today, and know we are fed.  Let us help one another remember.      

But God has so constructed the body as to give honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the other parts may have the same concern for one another.  If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. 

1 Corinthians 12:24-26   

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Daring to Dream

I do not know much of Pamela's story.  She may be younger than I, but that is a little difficult to judge as I believe she has had some bouts of homelessness. She is in a wheelchair.   She once told me that she was a veteran, but that conversation was interrupted and I have never gotten any more details.  She periodically weeps, but always seems happy to see the worship team, and always greets us with a wave or a hug.  She then reminds us that she wants to go to Hawaii, and she graciously invites us to join her.  The first time she told me about wanting to make that journey, I said, "I pray that dream comes true."   Her bright eyes darkened, and she quickly and adamantly responded, "This is no dream."  Perhaps there have been enough disappointments in her life that she is suspicious of anything called a dream.  I agree that they can certainly seem elusive.  However, I will keep my prayer.  I would love to see her dream come true.  Yet, I have learned to simply reply, "Pamela, I am so ready to go to Hawaii."  After all, there is some truth to that.   Yesterday she informed me that I would probably need some new clothes for the trip.  There is truth in that as well.      
Pamela has a boyfriend.  Every week, he brings her jewelry box to her, and helps her don a necklace or two, some bracelets, and her rings.  He also walks in with a vase of flowers (he tells me that Lucky's has really good prices). In order to do all of this, he must drive two hours each way.  I really love having them in worship, partly because they used to ignore the service completely, but now take part.  Mostly, however, I am grateful because they truly seem to care for one another.  It is nice to see two people who do not feel alone.  His dream is that he will someday be able to take Pamela home with him.  May that dream come true as well. 
Don't flowers put on their 
prettiness each spring and 
go to it with 
everything they've got?  Who 
would criticize the bed of 
yellow tulips or the blue 
So put a 
bracelet on your 
ankle with a 
bell on it and make a 
little music...
(from The Poet Comments on Yet Another Approaching Spring  by Mary Oliver)  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Psalm of Life

A couple of years ago, the administration of one of the really beautiful assisted living homes we visit decided to take their piano out of the activity room and put it in the dining room.   I did try to encourage them to not do that, but they were determined.  We tried moving our service to the dining room, but we were arriving at a time when the staff was setting up for lunch.  It simply did not work. We felt we were crowding God into a noisy corner.  Since a small group was gathering with us, we decided to simply come together to read scripture, and have some conversation, and prayer.  It has proven to be a very rich time for us all, including the pianist who at first expressed some discomfort at not having her usual role.  However, her faith runs deep, and she shares with us so much gentle wisdom that I cannot imagine her not being there.  At this point I do not think she can either.   

This week we began our monthly discussion by talking about Lent.  Olga spoke up and said she did not understand the statement about ashes to ashes and dust to dust.   As we talked about the impermanence of the body vs. the permanence of the soul, Olga gently said, "Oh, yes. Dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul."  To my surprised look she laughed and responded, "Longfellow.  I had to memorize Longfellow in school.  I know the poem is in a book in my book case.  I will be right back."  
To watch Olga move is to watch a body that looks like it could dramatically succumb to gravity at any moment.  She is not strong and her thin legs tend to move independently of the rest of her.  However, as she always does, she grabbed her walker, ratcheted her body into what was close to a standing position, and off she went in a sort of a slow lope.  The rest of us continued to talk.  In fairly short order, she returned with a well aged, but well cared for copy of 101 Best Loved Poems. In it she found what she was looking for:  A Psalm of Life.
Olga does not give up and seeing her determination to follow the thread of finding the poem gave me an insight to her longevity.   She is engaged with this life.  Her apartment is across the hall from the activity room and she and the assistant, who is now traveling in Mexico, have been practicing their Spanish together (Olga grew up in Chile).  "It is good for us both."  She always has a ready smile and I was surprised when she told me that was not always the case.  During her husband's illness and death, she said she expressed her extreme unhappiness at every available opportunity, and often quite sharply.  Finally, her caregiver gently spoke up.  Olga listened, and now it is her daily goal to always look for something positive.  She does not gloss over her struggles, but she does not forget to note the blessings either.  It makes a difference, not only in her life, but the lives of those around her.   
That day, we all read Longfellow's poem together, and we decided that, for the most part, there was much wisdom in the words.  While it is obvious that he was not yet old when he wrote the poem, the vitality that is expressed is one that the elders understood, perhaps especially because the poem ends with the word, "wait."  Yes, some of the language is quite dated - the poem was first published in 1839.  It is also the first poem I have ever read that includes the word bivouac.  Fortunately, Longfellow did not need to find something to rhyme with it.     
May your Lenten journey be filled with surprising conversations, a new old poem or two, and a sturdy bivouac in case of rain.   

A Psalm of Life
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait. 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Friday, March 7, 2014

Accept What Comes

A friend of mine introduced me to a newsletter entitled, Thin Places, published by Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.  It actually comes via regular mail which I find enormously satisfying.  The paper is easy on the eyes, and has a nice feel to it.  It is a pleasure to hold.  The current issue is only eight pages so it is quite inviting to pick up and begin reading. The only frustrating thing I have found so far is that in the current issue, there is listing for a "one time opportunity" for an hour long workshop on the Jesus Prayer. The gathering will be held at the Benedictine Center at St. Paul's Monastery in St. Paul on a Tuesday evening in April.  I would love to be there.  Alas, I do not think I can attend, for as you can see below, I am lodged on the west coast.  I shall need to be content with rereading The Way of a Pilgrim by Dennis J. Billy.  I have read this book every Lenten season for several years.     
The good news is that in this issue there is an excerpt from a Wendell Berry poem, "How To Be a Poet." This I can take part in. The excerpt is a beautiful instruction in how to begin Lent.  It also reminds me of my walk among the very frail elders.  Some of them seldom speak, whether due to lack of interest or illness.  I am grateful that my role is not to disturb (though I regret that here sometimes I do fail), but rather absorb the occasional nod, smile, or the uttered word or two.  I find I can have a very good conversation with those who seem to have used all the words they care to in this lifetime, and who often appear content to simply be.           
Accept what comes from silence. 
Make the best you can of it.  
Of the little words that come 
out of the silence, like prayers 
prayed back to the one who prays, 
make a poem that does not disturb    
the silence from which it came. 
Here is the poem in its entirety.   A wonderful reminder that we must seek, when we can, an unfiltered life.  Such experience is our divine inheritance.  Lent is about reclaiming that gift. 

Blessings on your journey.      

How To Be a Poet

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   


Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   


Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.
Source: Poetry (January 2001).
For as long as I have been reading The Way of a Pilgrim, I have been saying The Jesus Prayer.  It helps me to admit my numerous flaws, and forgive others and myself.   I have found that if one sincerely asks for mercy, it will show up, often in surprising ways. That gives me courage.  I am learning to look for it, and give thanks.       
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner.  

Thank you.