Friday, December 26, 2014

Maybe Life Really Is Just a Picnic

Tyler and I will not be seeing family until next week, so on Christmas Day we decided to go to the beach at Half Moon Bay and have a picnic.  As we walked down our usual trail to the beach, we quickly noticed that much had changed. The area above the beach was very lush with new green growth, and many spots were still muddy from the recent rains.  The surf was crashing spectacularly (a friend recently shared the knowledge that this is the season of what is known as the King Tides. Due to the position of earth, moon, and sun, the tides can be both very high as well as exceptionally low at this time of year).  The surf was so high that there was actually very little of the usual beach exposed.  Not many people were out, even fewer dogs, and no horseback riders.  The light was stunningly bright.  We could see a distant fog bank, but it was so far off shore that I felt we could be catching a glimpse of the Himalayas.  Above us there was not even a wisp of a cloud.     
We found a good spot to enjoy lunch (in other words, where we were somewhat certain that a rogue wave would not sweep us out to sea), and we simply watched and listened to the surf.  The only other life we saw were pelicans and other seabirds skimming the crashing waves.  All around us the erosion process had been escalated.  The already rutted trails going down to the beach were in places a little difficult to navigate because the ruts had been deepened by the running water from the recent rains.  Because of the high tides, the cliffs also showed signs of recent change, with some places looking quite unstable.  It was a vivid reminder that our coastline is constantly changing, and that erosion is ongoing. Sun, wind, and water will win.    
The ocean tells us, sometimes gently, sometimes more dramatically, that humans, despite all our exalted attempts to outwit God and nature, can never be the Alpha and the Omega.  As we picked up some of the plastic littering the beach, I again found refuge in that message.    
Such a beautiful way to spend Christmas Day: a picnic on the edge of eternity.  

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Naming Christmas

There is at least one Facebook conversation going on about what was it like to learn that Santa was not exactly a real person.  I do not have strong emotional memories about that bit of enlightenment that came to me via a grade school classmate.  I think that was partly due to the fact that my mother loved Christmas and everything about it, down to the last little bit of tinsel.  She would never let Christmas be anything less than a time of wonder and joy.     
The memory that was sparked for me, however, was when I learned that my maternal grandmother's name was not Wowa, as I had called her all my young life, but rather it was the very dignified name of Ora.  My cousin, always the bastion of common sense (which meant he was perpetually a source of irritation for me) was the one who informed me of my error.   We happened to be at her house, so we marched into the kitchen. This time, I knew my cousin was the one that was wrong. I even had cards and notes from her signed Wowa.  My grandmother simply responded that I was welcomed to continue to call her Wowa, but yes, her "real" name was Ora. However, by the time this conversation happened, I was old enough to actually pronounce her name correctly so there was no going back. I suspect we both lost a tiny bit that day.    

 I seldom wish people "Happy Holidays!" The trend started for me  one year when I walked into a tea shop a day or two before Christmas.   I overheard the owner wearily, but in a beautiful English accent, tell another customer that he simply could not abide one more person wishing him a happy holiday.   "It's Christmas," he moaned.  As I paid for my tea, I boldly wished him a merry Christmas.  We smiled at one another, and I think we both reclaimed a lost part of ourselves in that moment.      
So, dear friends, I do indeed wish you all a merry Christmas.  I know that not all of you are of the Christian faith, so please do not take this greeting as some nefarious move on my part.  I am simply wishing you much love and light.  I also pray that you always know that you are deeply and permanently connected to something more than your credit card.     
By the way, my grandmother's full name was Ora Naomi, a name she did not particularly care for, but as I learned to let go of Wowa, I came to love her name.  Her sister's name was Augusta Pearl, but as soon as she was old enough to do so, she had it legally changed to Virginia lest anyone dare to call her Gussie Pearl again.  My great uncle Sherod was blessed to have Semper Fidelis  as part of his name. I regret that I never talked to my great grandmother, known to us all as Gran, to find out how she came up with such large names for her tiny babies.   Perhaps like Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, or Simeon and Anna who recognized the baby Jesus as someone who would change the world, she held each child and simply knew they were more.   May such knowledge be yours this Christmas, and always.    
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, 
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
for the forgiveness of their sins. 
By the tender mercy of our God, 
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness 
and in the shadow of death, 
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:76-79  
May the world know peace.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


At the end of the hallway sat Johnnie in her wheelchair. Ont the wall behind her was posted a picture of a large cartoon snowman.  She looked part of a very festive picture.  She also looked quite happy to see us, and reached her arms out to give us big hugs.  I could not help silently reflecting on this miracle.  For years, she would often be in what she called "the dark place."  She then could barely greet us, if at all. 

 We went into the activity room together.  A young activity assistant whom I had not seen in a couple of months greeted me with, "Pastor Sue Ann! I passed my exams!  I am official!"  I was delighted to hear of his accomplishment, and we talked for a few minutes about his plans. Later, as I began to serve communion, one resident who has a serious repetitive motion behavior, seemed to really want communion. The assistant gave the okay (sometimes there are swallowing and choking issues).  I was surprised to see her take communion, close her eyes for a few moments, and then simply rest.  
After worship, I walked among the group as I always do.  Another assistant said, "Laurie wants to talk to you." It was the same resident.  Again, her constant motion paused, and she asked, with tears in her eyes, "Will I go to heaven?"  I assured her that she would most definitely go to heaven.  "Will I go in this body?"  Feeling pretty confident in my belief that her body causes her quite a bit of discomfort, I replied, "I think our bodies will wear out and there will come a time when we do not need them." 
"Will we be together?"  

Oh, yes, we will all be together. Along with everyone you have ever loved.  

  "And Jesus?"  

Oh, yes, and Jesus.  We will all be together.  
After we said our good-byes, the volunteers and I walked into the second home, and many of the older residents who love to sing with us were sitting in the lobby.  I asked the assistant if we were singing there.  

"I am sorry.  There is another caroling group coming.  There was a mistake with the schedule. Do you mind singing with those who can't easily get around?"  I assured we had no problem with that, and we walked into the activity room.  I was delighted to see Lilian. She loves to sing, but her crackly voice never gets above about basement level.  I love to sing with her because she is so happy to sing.  Do we sing in key?  Not even close.  Lillian and I don't get wrapped up in such details.  

Then, again in a day of miracles, something beautiful began to happen. As we sang, the room started to fill with those who had been moved to the lobby. You see, they wanted to sing with us, pray with us, and laugh with us as they do every month.  Fortunately, the other carolers were running late and all worked out.   
I think it is like that in heaven.  Some of will arrive a little later, and some of us will arrive a little earlier.  However, I think God has us all singing, praying, and laughing right on time.  Maybe even right on key.  

 Blessed be.  
When we all get to heaven, 
what a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus, 
we'll sing and shout the victory!
                                   - Eliza E. Hewitt, 1898


Thursday, December 11, 2014


This autumn I have been taking pictures of fallen leaves. The colors have been so beautiful, and the light sometimes gives a sense of a magic carpet that has been laid down for us.  Therefore, when I saw the leaves in the attached picture, my first thought was that they had fallen from a nearby tree.  I quickly learned my assumption was wrong.  The leaves were very much attached to stems, and the stems were very much rooted in the damp earth.  This is a picture of something vital, beautiful, and very much alive.  
Last week, I saw Rita.  I met her early in my ministry, and I have always enjoyed her company. She is from the south, and when she was healthier she was the epitome of a gracious southern belle:  beautifully coiffed, friendly, humorous, and more than a little bit flirty.   Her Alzheimer's even then was apparent, but for quite awhile she was able to work around it.  Of course, that strategy works only for so long.  Eventually, her family moved her from the community where I met her, and I lost track of her for some time.  
She has since surfaced in another community, one that I like very much.  However, her illness has progressed substantially, and most of the time she does not respond to my greetings.   Nonetheless, when the assistant brought her into the worship service, I was glad to see her, and went over to say hello.  Again, no visable response.  
This community loves Christmas carols, and we weave them into our services all year long.  On this day, just before communion, I asked the pianist to simply play one of the carols, and I encouraged us all just to sit and listen.  I can't even remember what carol he chose. However, as he played, I noticed that Rita was leaning forward with her head cocked to one side.  A beautiful smile was on her face.  I do not know if she was simply listening, or if she was seeing a moment from another time.  We do not know these things.  However, I am convinced that she was very much present in the moment, whatever moment she was experiencing, and that she was happy and at peace.  That is truly all I need to know.    
It is easy to simply dismiss those with advanced Alzheimer's as "out of it."  They may indeed be outside our understanding of the "it" we think of as the present.  However, we are all rooted and grounded in God's love, and those roots cannot be severed.  Memories may not be easy to access, but as long as we who can do so keep reaching out, offering the communion of music, touch, prayer, and love, memories and presence can surface. Often, they are beautiful; rich enough to even catch our attention, and our hearts.

I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, I ask that you will have the power to grasp love's width and length, height and depth, together with all believers.  I ask that you'll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God. 

Ephesians 3:17-19  



This Sunday,  many Christians will be lighting the Advent candle of joy.  Joy is beyond the celebration after a temporary gain.  Joy runs deeper than that.  It is surrendering to letting love bloom, even against the backdrop of apparent barreness, darkness, and chill. 
It is trusting that God is always with us, whatever we must go through.  If you are thinking that sounds very difficult, well, know you are not alone in that feeling.  That is the beauty of community.  Together, we can rekindle the light.  It is seldom a solitary effort.   Together, we accept God's love for all as our own.  

No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree, so will the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands.   Isaiah 65:22