Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Taste for More

I first met Manfred when he had just moved into the very nice assisted living home.  I asked him how he was settling in. He retorted in a slight German accent, "I certainly am not settling in.  They know nothing about strudel, not even sauerbraten.  I am starving."  I sympathized with him, but I also felt some sympathy for the home.  I am sure they are well meaning and trying to serve him a healthy diet.  But I also understand the longing for food that we know at a cellular level.  The food a loving parent or grandparent would cook and serve.  Even Olga, who is a tiny woman (Manfred is definitely not tiny), recently said she thought the staff was trying trying to do her in, one stalk of broccoli at a time.  Every month a particular resident of a skilled nursing home invites me to her home hat she remembers so well for a real Turkish coffee.  She always emphasizes the word real. "Not the stuff they serve here. We'll use good cups and have a nice conversation, just you and I." Food memories stay with us.  

I did not see Manfred for a few months, but lately he has been back in worship.  He is looking both healthier and happier, and I am discovering that he has a very good sense of humor.  The pianist speaks a little German, and they have a good time conversing. However, he is still not entirely pleased.  Communion is bland.  I can no longer drink the juice left in the cup, and often, the places I go do not have a sink that is readily accessible. Therefore, I have served plain water for over a year.  I figure Jesus changed water, not Welch's, into wine.  I must ask that he continue to do so.     

This week, Manfred handed me a $20 bill.   "Go get a nice bottle of communion wine."  I explained that it probably not a good idea for me to be drinking wine as I move through the day.  "Manfred, my services are loose enough, don't you think?"  He and the other residents laughed, including Betsy, who was feeling pretty miserable that day.  I tried to return the money, but he insisted I keep it.  I told him I would pass it on to the ministry. While not entirely satisfied, he seemed to feel good about making a contribution.  I have a couple of dollar bills that others have given me over the months, so I guess it is time to send a deposit in.  Many of the elders long to tithe, but often they have absolutely no money left over at the end of the month.  I treasure those dollar bills and the blessings that generally accompany them. I can assure Manfred that his donation is in good company.  I shall not tell him that water is good for us.  He knows that all too well. 
You bring bread from the earth,
and wine to gladden our hearts...(Psalm 104:14-15)  

Friday, June 13, 2014

This Spring

I have loved this spring.   I can not remember loving a spring as much as this one.  It is not that we have taken a vacation to a distant land.  Such travels may be over for us. We have not moved to a new house, nor have I become a better housekeeper.  We have not gotten an adorable new puppy.  In fact, at the age of fifteen plus years, Ms. Cleo is having some difficulties.  It is not that suddenly our financial situation has brightened.  In fact, we are living on less.  I have not learned the secret of growing a church of ten into a church of a thousand. It is not that the drought is over.  It is not that our communities, our nation, our world have become less violent and abuse is no more.  In some cases, quite the opposite is true.  I have not set a personal best for my running.  Well, maybe I have but I really don't pay much attention.  I have definitely not lost those last ten pounds.  I have not gone vegan, and probably never will. I reluctantly gave up my CSA subscription, which I do miss, but I am loving re-connecting with our local farmers' market on Wednesday evenings. We are enjoying some incredibly beautiful and delicious Mt. Rainier cherries, and have feasted on some deep red, sweet strawberries.  To come in from a run and taste a sweet peach is a gift that cannot be described.  Tyler and I just shared the first fig off the tree that hangs over our fence.  Delicious.  
The love of this season reflects this particular time of my life.  No, I certainly am not in the springtime of my existence.   There are more years in my past than in my future (at least in this body), and some of those past years were not exactly stellar.  However, at some point this spring, I took my phone out of my pocket and took a picture of a flower.  And then another.  And another.  And then one evening Tyler asked a simple question, "Have your tried the crop feature?"  and demonstrated the effect.  I was stunned. I saw God's universe open up for me in a way that it never had.  At that moment, flowers became more than flowers.  They became light, texture, and dance.   Now, running with Jack has become a biathlon event.  Our neighborhood is filled with gardens, and for some reason it has taken me over two decades to really start paying attention.  Jack would like me to pay a little less attention so we can move on up the road, but he is generally a good sport.  Ms. Cleo, on the other hand, appreciates the frequent pauses, but we do not go very far.  I may have to start driving her a few streets down before we begin her ten minute saunter.    

I do not know what impact this drought will have, but I know that this spring I have savored abundant life.  I have been gently reminded of the importance of learning to appreciate the life before me.  It is grace that can only be received.  I cannot create it or earn it.  I weep as I write this.  I do not know why.   
I leave you with three gifts.  One is a beautiful poem that a friend of mine recently sent me.   All of us will go back to sleep sooner or later, so let us really be awake in this time of our lives.  I have attached a picture of an iris from early this spring, and for those of you who, like me, did not grow up in a farming community, I have attached an un-cropped phototgraph of some corn silks.  I never knew they were so exuberantly beautiful.   
As are all of you.  Please savor today.  It is yours.  Tomorrow?  We do not yet know. Best stick with today for now.    
Anne Porter

Nobody in the hospital
Could tell the age
Of the old woman who
Was called Susanna

I knew she spoke some English
And that she was an immigrant
Out of a little country
Trampled by armies

Because she had no visitors
I would stop by to see her
But she was always sleeping

All I could do
Was to get out her comb
And carefully untangle
The tangles in her hair

One day I was beside her
When she woke up
Opening small dark eyes
Of a surprising clearness

She looked at me and said
You want to know the truth?
I answered Yes

She said it's something that
My mother told me

There's not a single inch
Of our whole body
That the Lord does not love

She then went back to sleep.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Awake My Soul and Sing

When I arrived at the skilled nursing community, the new receptionist, sitting at the decades old tiny metal desk, asked me if I was the one who was coming to lead worship.  Upon hearing my yes she asked me to enter the activity room by another door.  As I walked in, the regular afternoon karaoke was going on, and Bob was singing along with "Pretty Woman."  As I usually do, I sang along for a minute or two as I settled in and passed out song sheets.   After the song was over, I thanked Bob for greeting me in such a nice way. He is a shy, gentle man who blushes easily, and today was no different.  However, he soon joined in the good natured laughter and greetings. 
This is an interesting group, and several of them are probably not much older than I.  Many have been living in this home longer than I have been in the ministry (almost seven years). It is a stark place, but I am always touched and enlivened by their capacity for lively worship, and usually about sixty of us fill the large activity room.   On this day, however, a partition was up, so we really had only about half our usual space.  The assistant told me that there was a meeting going on. The piano was stranded on the other side of the partition.
I suggested, since we would be singing a capella, that we just try one verse of the first hymn, "Crown Him with Many Crowns."  The voices were so surprisingly strong I suggested we forge ahead and sing the second verse.  It was a glorious, wildly imperfect chorus, enough so that the soft spoken activity assistant suggested that perhaps we could sing a little more softly for the sake of the meeting next door.  That milestone delighted me, and I confess I kept the request to myself. I want these good folks to sing.  I did, however, soften my voice for the sake of respectful  compliance.  It didn't seem to be much needed anyway; the momentum was gathering, and many even prayed the The Lord's Prayer in full voice.  I smiled all through the service.  Only a few were too frail to take communion, and as I wound my way through the rather tightly packed wheelchairs, I noticed that people were also waiting patiently in the hall.  All wanted communion as well.    
Afterwards, I thanked everyone for their wonderful singing.  Mary, who is quite bright, rolled her eyes and said in her very croaky voice, "We sing all the time."  There doesn't seem to be much of an activity budget here, and I think they sing a lot of karaoke.  I have never been a fan of it, but it seems to serve a vital function here.  It is too easy for the frail and the elderly to stop using their voices, and once that happens, the quality of life can diminish quickly and substantially.   At another small skilled nursing home, a woman joins us who seems to not be able to use her voice at all.  However, when I am singing, she moves her lips and she has the engaged, happy look of someone who is singing a beloved hymn at the top of her voice.  We often "sing" together after the service because the pianist continues to play hymns afterwards, and I can generally remember enough words to keep us going.  I would love to hear her break free.      
Truthfully, I can never think of Jesus in heaven sitting on a throne with a crown on his head.   If for a moment I thought that Jesus was not in the various homes and hospitals we serve, my heart would falter and my voice would also grow faint.  Fortunately, I do not believe that.  I am convinced that when we lift these hymns of love and praise they are accepted and celebrated as the gifts they are:  pearls of great price set in glittering crowns of love.    
Crown Him with many crowns, 
The Lamb upon His throne, 
Hark! How the heavenly anthem drowns
All music but its own.  
Awake my soul and sing 
of Him who died for thee;
And hail Him as thy matchless King 
Through all eternity.
                                           - Matthew Bridges, Godfrey Thring 
"Teacher, rebuke your disciples." He said in reply, "I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out."                                                                 Luke 19:39-40                                                                                                                                                                             

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Point of the Seemingly Pointless

This morning, before my worship service, I started a stock made from the carcass of a roasted chicken, some mushroom stems, the trimmings from some leeks, salt, and some fresh thyme.  That is all.  No garlic, no carrot, no peppercorns, no coriander or allspice seeds,no ginger, no parsley.   No celery.  The chosen ingredients are now at a slow simmer in the crock pot.   This stock is somewhat of an experiment, and as I was adding the ingredients into the pot, I did entertain the notion of adding one celery stalk.  I decided against it as I could not figure out what it might add.  

I have now returned home for lunch, and as Tyler is out, I decide to take my sandwich outside and read a bit more in the wonderful book, Cooked, A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan. I just read this passage in a chapter about onions, about four hours into my stock making process: 

"As for the seemingly pointless celery, it too, may contribute umami to a pot dish, and not just by supplying lots of carbohydrate-stiffened cell walls and water to a mirepoix.  My Web surfing eventually delivered me to an article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry written by a team of Japanese food scientists and titled, fetchingly, 'Flavor Enhancement of Chicken Broth from Boiled Celery Constituents.' These chemists reported that a group of of volatile compounds found in celery called phthalides, though completely tasteless by themselves, nevertheless enhanced the perception of both sweetness and umami when they were added to a chicken broth.  Way to go celery."   
You now know what will be in the next chicken stock, even if there is no carrot, parsley, garlic, ginger, peppercorns, allspice or coriander (Sooner or later all of those will make their way back in the pot. They always do).  And I just realized that I am sitting here sending this post with my apron on.  Yes, the book is that good.  Hopefully, my celery-less stock will be as well. If not, you know why.   Most of us can cook our whole lives and not know about phthalides.   However, we very much need the reminder that real food always has a place in the pot, and on the table.  Really, read the book, cook some food, and share what you can.  Reverse the order; that might be even better.  Few people will complain even if you do leave the celery out.  They will be too busy being grateful for your love. 
I know I am.   
Blessed be.  The way to go.