The Odd Couple: Hallmark and Schopenhauer

card with Schopenhauer quote

I am in the process of downsizing. As I have told just about anyone who will listen (my attempt to build in accountability), I am in the process of divesting myself of much of the paper I have collected over the past five decades.

My personal goal is that when I leave this planet, I will not leave behind more than my body weight in paper. Of course, this measure does give me plenty of leeway and keeps the purge from being too traumatic.

Still, it is difficult. Especially when you work in a paper-driven profession and come from a family of savers. This personal trot through the boxes in my attic has revealed that even in high school, I was already packing away the paper.

I recently came across a cache of graduation cards from back in the day when greeting cards cost 25 cents. One of these cards, Hallmark circa 1975, bears a quote from Arthur Schopenhauer. Generally speaking, I do not associate the Hallmark brand with complicated 19th century German philosophers.

Snoopy maybe, but not Schopenhauer.

Although I am not a Schopenhauer fan (I know it’s not how you are supposed to read philosophy, but I can’t get past the things he has to say about women), I’m willing to suspend my general opinion for the benefit of the message I received all those years ago:  Each day is a little life.

I’ve lost touch with the classmate who sent me the card, but thank you, Allison Nichols, for that six word summation of what it has taken me another four decades and a serious illness to understand.

Each day IS a little life. Complete in itself. To be savored and treated as the sacred thing it is.

I wish you 365 of the best lives ever in 2017. Happy New Year!

We Are All Makers

I come from a family of “makers”—printers, knitters, woodworkers, calligraphers, photographers—some amateurs, some who have found ways to turn their pursuits into professions. But what many of us have twisted into our DNA is an inclination “to think with our hands. “ We communicate with the things we make and share.

DIY KitsWhich may be why we have always been big on DIY kits. For decades, they have been the go-to presents for the children in our lives. Over the years my sister (whose background is in the sciences) must have bought and bestowed half a dozen Smithsonian Crystal Growing Kits. My favorite gifts to give were always fiber related—knitting spools, weaving looms, felting kits. A few weeks ago I made stop at nearby Harrisville Designs and it was all I could do to restrain myself from buying a potholder loom and a bag of loops for my niece Mia. She is, of course, remarkably precocious, but at 6 months old, this is a gift that will have to wait.

In a sermon a few weeks ago, I talked about the ultimate DIY kit. The text was the story of the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, when he delivers the message that she will bear a son. Bucking long-held expectations about Israel’s Messiah, Gabriel makes the surprising announcement that help will arrive as a baby. A baby whom Mary will need to carry, nurture, feed and protect for a good number of years before he is ready to start teaching and healing. Jesus comes to us as a DIY kit. The materials God provides are the finest and the instructions foolproof, but Mary must partner with God and do some of the work herself.

vintage Christmas bookAnd so must we. Faith and the actions born of faith require some assembly. We are all meant to be building a better world. Some will do it with words, some with song, some with neighborliness, some with political activism. Some will perform the task quietly, in out-of-the way places amongst the forgotten. Others will build boldly, carrying out the work in the public sphere. But the Gospel is always in the process of being made and remade—it is the ultimate DIY project. Our calling is to be “makers” one and all—makers of a planet ruled by peace and goodwill.

Merry Christmas, fellow makers!

When Christmas Feels Tender and Raw

Model of Hancock Congregational ChurchI treasure this photo. It’s a model of our Meetinghouse made last year by Bob and Carrie Anderson. Bob is a tool and die maker and you can see that precision in his handiwork. I love its delicate coating of glitter. Not today’s garish, neon-colored glitter that screams for attention in so many Christmas decorations, but the gentler sparkle of yesterday. It’s the kind of glitter that dusted the German Advent calendars of my childhood. Of course, that was back when Advent Calendar doors hid Bible verses instead of chocolate and gin. Sadly, the gin option is for real. For $130, there’s a company that will ship you a “Ginvent Calendar” loaded up with 24 drams of gin.

But I digress. I also treasure this photo because Carrie is no longer with us. She lost a spirited fight with cancer last January. It’s always sobering for me to sit down in December and begin compiling my year-end report, a feature of which is a list of the people I have baptized, married and buried. This year is like others. I have buried people I knew and loved and prayed with, but also people I never met.

Whether I knew them or not, what every name on that somber list has in common is that the death it represents leaves a shadow across Christmas for loved ones left behind. At the very least, it makes for a tender Christmas, but more often a raw one.

Over the years, I have scoured scores of how-to articles about coping with grief around the holidays. I tend to agree with Jan Richardson that their focus on ”strategic approaches” and “grief management” may not always suffice. As Richardson writes, “Grief is a wild creature. Grief will resist every attempt to tame it, control it, or to keep it tidy and well-behaved.”

She knows whereof she speaks. Jan Richardson, a talented painter and writer, lost her husband unexpectedly at the beginning of Advent three years ago. One of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve ever read on the subject of grief at Christmas is This Luminous Darkness, a post that she shared on her blog last December. It’s worth a look even if you are not struck down by sadness yourself this Christmas; worth a share if you know someone who is.

Sometimes we just have to let our grief be and stop trying to stomp it out. It may not be possible to eradicate it—at least not this year. We have to trust that someday our emotions will not feel as fragile as tinsel. And that the merry of Christmas will return. When it does, we may even find that the grief has somehow enriched us—giving us a sense of ourselves as stronger than we thought, reminding us of the preciousness of life, prompting us to go after experiences we used to relegate to our “someday” lists.

But grief will not be rushed. I pray that if this is a season of sad and silent nights for you, that you may find in them yet a little of the promised calm and bright, and some of the peace that passes all understanding.

 

What You Can Learn From A Good Crook

We all negotiate at our own level. Some do it in the halls of power; for me the venue is the hall of the Church Vestry. The Vestry is a brick building built in the 1830s as a school and winter worship space. It’s a warm, homey place where our congregation and the wider community still gather for any number of activities. This month, the second floor was in heavy, messy use as the staging area for our Journey to Bethlehem, a town-wide, outdoor Christmas pageant.

Negotiations occur when something of value is at stake and the coveted object in this case was temporary custody of a shepherd’s crook. In our pageant, the plum role—if you’re a kid who likes animals– is to be a shepherd. My neighbor Kin walks her sheep down the hill and if you’re a shepherd, you get to spend the afternoon with Luna, Odie, WoolieWoolie, Cheerio, and Rosie. The other perk of being a shepherd is that you get access to the firepit in the shepherd’s encampment on the Meetinghouse lawn, a welcome bit of comfort on a cold December afternoon in New Hampshire.

What you may not get is one of “the good crooks.” There are three, maybe four of these special crooks and we always have more shepherds than that. I don’t know when they were made, but somewhere in the foggy recesses of Hancock pageant history, someone gave some steel tubing an exaggerated bend and made not exactly authentic, but really fine crooks for our young shepherds.

img_7503You can see from this photo (Charlie warming up with a bowl soup in the Vestry, but not letting his crook out of sight) that it would have been better if we had remembered to get new hockey tape and re-wrap the crooks, but that was a detail that got away from us this year. The tape grew more and more ragged as our after-school rehearsals went on, with new claim tags being affixed and removed and re-affixed as the shepherds vied for possession. My job was to mediate some of those negotiations. First choice of the faux animal skins from the costume box appeased one and another was persuaded with the logic that you couldn’t hold a crook AND be in charge of the animal crackers that the kids get to feed the sheep.

A shepherd’s crook has two ends. A curved end to pull the sheep back from danger and a straight end to prod them along in the right direction. As the year winds down and we begin to think about what 2017 holds in store, I’m going to keep that crook in mind. Chances are I’ll need a little protection, a little pulling back from some of my stupider ideas; but also a push, a little prodding to get on with one or two of the better ones. Stop and go. Good living requires both. Fortunately we don’t have to figure it out alone. There’s always that big shepherd and a full cast of assistant ones ready to help.

.

 

 

Welcoming the Dark and Celebrating Christmas Despite the Ruins

They got it right the second time. When they rolled it onto logs and moved our Meetinghouse back in 1851, some thirty-odd years after it had been built, they sited it perfectly. No matter what time of day, the light in this space is gorgeous. Inviting as glows on the Vestry side in the morning and equally enchanting as it takes leave over Norway Pond at the end of the day.

img_1999Of course, our forbearers didn’t move the Meetinghouse to enhance our aesthetic pleasure. They were practical men trying to correct their own poor planning. They wanted to bring the buildings along Main Street into alignment and make Hancock look like a proper town. I doubt the prophet Isaiah was their inspiration, but here in the New Hampshire wilderness, they were making straight the highway (Isaiah 40.3).

Still, it soothes the spirit to sit in this spare, minimally adorned space as darkness falls on these shortening days. Today the sun will set at 4:14 pm. Too early, we all complain. This year, I am trying to be pro-active about welcoming the dark. I’m finding it helps to queue up the Mary Chapin Carpenter song Come Darkness, Come Light. It’s a little trick I’m playing on myself. If I’m the one who invokes the darkness and invites it to come, then maybe my sense of hospitality will kick in. This winter I am trying not to recoil from the darkness, but to treat it as a guest to be welcomed.

I get a little help with this on Mondays during Advent. Last year, a group of us began to gather in the Meetinghouse as darkness fell and we doing it again this year. We like pausing together for a few minutes—setting aside our double-sided to-do lists, shutting off our phones, and reflecting on a topic that is somehow related to this season of hopeful expectation. I offer a little talk, play a piece of music, and sometimes do a little show-and-tell. This past Monday, I brought along a poster of Albrecht Altdorfer’s nativity, painted in the 1500’s. It’s an unusual rendering–one that shows Mary, Joseph, and Jesus hunkering down in the ruins of an old house. The canvas gives much more space to the architecture than to the Holy Family. It depicts a building in ruins–all rubble and falling brick, vegetation taking over what’s left of the roof, timbers and beams ripe for salvage.

albrecht_altdorfer_-_nativityI brought the Altdorfer nativity because it is referred to several times in a little book I’ve been reading–The Christmas Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Those of us in our 50s and 60s who grew up in mainline Protestant churches were reared on Bonhoeffer-fortified sermons. I don’t think he is cited as frequently anymore and there were several at our gathering this week who hadn’t heard of him or couldn’t quite place the 20th century theologian/pastor/Nazi-resister. I hope that’s not a sign that he is starting to fade out of popular consciousness. His witness is too important to lose. I’m always encouraged when I run into places where his memory seems alive and well—the NH coffee bar that bears his name or a rendition of the morning prayer he wrote while in Tegel prison, featuring the Nashville-based singer-songwriter Molly Parden.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for nearly two years before he was hanged by the Nazis in 1943, just months before the end of World War II. Advent was an especially poignant time for him when he was in prison; but even in his cell, he put up an Advent krantz (wreath), hummed the season’s hymns, and got through that lonely time by imaging how his friends and family were observing Advent back home. In a letter to his parents he wrote:

Although I am not at all clear about whether, or how, letters get to you, I want to write on this afternoon of Advent Sunday: Remember the Altdorfer Christmas scene, in which the Holy Family is depicted with the manger amidst the ruins of a broken down house—how could he, four hundred years ago, against all traditions of his time, show the scene like that? It is really contemporary. We can, and should also, celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us…I think of you as you now sit together with the children and with all of the Advent decorations—as in earlier years you did with us. We must do all this, even more intensively because we do not know how much longer we have.

Bonhoeffer reminds us that courage is embedded in the smallest of acts—acts like keeping Advent and celebrating Christmas despite whatever may be in ruins in our own lives and times.

A Second Look at Nostalgia

I live in a rural town where maple syrup production is a livelihood for some and a serious hobby for others. A highlight of town meeting every March is when one of our local producers stands up and reports on the sugar content of the current year’s run. But this is only November, and we have a long New Hampshire winter to see ourselves through before the sap begins to run again.

This time of year, it’s a different kind of sap that flows. The sap of nostalgia. Thanksgiving is the season opener and we will be sticky into it from now until Christmas. I don’t know how it went for your family yesterday, but ours was a Thanksgiving laced with nostalgia. Maybe eimg_7369ven more so than usual. We seemed, by instinct, to take extra pains with it this year. Perhaps it was the balm that made it possible for a politically divided family to gather in gratitude and peace. We shared a table with cousins we haven’t spent Thanksgiving with in many years. My sister found the red felt turkey head and pinned it to a pineapple, resurrecting a church fair-inspired centerpiece from our childhood. My mother came bearing her grandchildren’s favorite childhood sweets. She no longer drives, but has figured out how to order half-dipped mints and fruit slices on-line. She could probably find them in other venues, but we are charmed that she continues to get them from the seaside candy shop where she and her sisters purchased their own childhood treats in the 1930s.

But nostalgia does not always leverage the good and the sweet. The word itself was first coined in the 17th century to describe the debilitating homesickness of young Swiss mercenaries. Nostalgia can be tricky and take us to dangerous places. Sometimes it can paralyze us. In a recent blog post, one of my UCC colleagues described nostalgia as a response to “the narrative of decline.” Congregations and clergy alike can fall prey to a nostalgic and enervating sadness in the face of reminders of the more numerically robust days in our churches’ past.

But I’m not ready to give up on nostalgia altogether. Research coming out of the University of Southampton in the UK is illuminating. Although nostalgia is often triggered in times of sadness or loneliness, it can generate narratives of redemption. Constantine Sedikides and his colleagues are demonstrating that although regarded throughout centuries as a psychological ailment, nostalgia is now emerging as a fundamental human strength…It generates positive affect, elevates self-esteem, fosters social connectedness, and alleviates existential threat.

In difficult seasons in my own life, a dose of nostalgia has helped me find my footing again. During the ordeal of my stem cell transplant, I came into a cache of my father’s old Kodachrome slides. As I struggled to regain the strength to do even the most basic tasks of daily living, slides_013  I was surprised by how much encouragement I drew from the photographs my father had taken of me doing those tasks for the first time. I would look at a picture of that little girl drying dishes and tell myself to be that girl again, the one in scuffed saddle shoes so fiercely determined to do the job well. Nostalgia helped me recover a sense of the person I had been in a time when every accomplishment brought joy, even the simplest of victories, like learning to use a dishtowel. My father’s old slides and the wave of nostalgia they triggered helped me to rediscover that “I can do it myself” toddler within, a person I very much needed to connect with in order to recover.

Maybe it’s a good thing that we give the end of every calendar year over to a season of nostalgia. As Christmas arrives, the most memory-laden of our holidays, it is inevitable that some sadness will collect. There are people and things we miss and that we will always miss. But there is also strength and resilience in those memories.  My hope is that this seasonal flow of nostalgia will help us connect once again with our sweetest and strongest selves.

A Coffee Shop Surprise

brewbakersYesterday afternoon I was in a coffee shop in Keene, NH, doing a little reading before I met a friend for dinner. Coffee shops have always been good to me. Thirty-five years ago, my spot was The Pewter Pot in Harvard Square. The post-bicentennial-faux-Americana décor was awful, but the muffins were hot and the 50 cent coffee came with unlimited refills. I’m not sure I would have passed my comprehensive exams at Divinity School if it weren’t for the hours I logged at that circa pre-Starbucks coffee shop. I won’t say that Karl Barth and I fell in love there, but we did come to an understanding.

Yesterday’s stint at a coffee shop (one with a much cooler vibe) was also good to me. There, I checked my email and found a message from Krista Tippett’s senior producer Lily Percy. She apologized that Krista had not used my name on air, but indicated that Krista had quoted a post on this blog in an  “On Being” interview with Isabel Wilkerson. The email came out of the blue, but I took it as a word of encouragement, and yes, also as a nudge.

Some things you just have to take as a sign. I am taking yesterday’s email surprise as a sign that it’s time to revisit this blog. As many of you know, I had to let it go fallow when I got sick. It’s hard to believe, but two years ago, I was critically ill. Physically, I didn’t have the strength to hold a book for more than a few minutes and there was even a scary stretch when I couldn’t read. I don’t mean that I couldn’t read War and Peace or The New York Times. I mean I couldn’t read at all. My blood wasn’t carrying enough oxygen to my brain. Letters and words were all a jumble. One day I brushed my teeth with diaper rash cream, having studied the tube for several minutes, and determined that the letters  D-E-S-I-T-I-N spelled Colgate.

That was a low point. Needless to say, just surviving and getting from one oncology appointment to the next supplanted blogging and everything else on my To Do list. But then I got a little better. It became apparent that the drugs were working, that my blood chemistries were moving in the right direction, and that a stem cell transplant was going to be possible. As a way of staying in touch during that long spring and summer of treatment and isolation, I started to blog on a Caringbridge site. It was pretty much just medical updates, but I was writing my way back to life. One or two posts seemed to hit the mark and the last one I wrote on the gifts offered by stillness drew some notice.

“Cancer blogging” is a pretty specific genre and for me it came with an expiration date. When I started to feel better, I stopped wanting to write about being sick. I looked forward to blogging again at this site on a broader range of topics. But a year went by. During that time, I wrote sermons (and untold numbers of emails trying to straighten out the billing and insurance problems that still persist), but I didn’t start blogging again. I thought about it. I made notes. I played with a couple of ideas for a brand new blog and even made a pathetically lame “vision board.” But I didn’t write. I just couldn’t.

Up until now. So thank you, Krista and Lily. God knows how you found that old post of mine on this dormant and all-but-defunct blog, but the fact that you did seems like a sign. These last two years have been extraordinary, but now I’m ready to reclaim the ordinary. Faith in the Ordinary will be back soon.