Forgiveness is a Place

Yahweh's Other ShoeFunny how when you start to think about something, you suddenly see incarnations of it everywhere. There’s probably a good Yiddish word for that phenomenon. A couple of days ago, I wrote about Nelson Mandela’s smile and that same night, browsing the bookshelves here in Minnesota, I came across a book of poems by Brother Kilian McDonnell. He writes more eloquently than I ever could about Nelson Mandela :

For twenty-seven years he built a house

of freedom within the house of pain…

For twenty-seven years he drew no syllogistic

judgment of revenge—blood for blood, grave

for grave—no clichéd homilies of cheap grace.

He breaks open truth’s dungeon, uncages

robes of justice, erases the colored gavel,

unapartheiding tables and toilets, unscrambling

the syntax of despair, un-poisoning the chalice,

drinking from the cup with those who locked his cell.

This is freedom. Here all can breathe.

Forgiveness.  Maybe it’s not an act, but a place. A place we go to share the cup with people the world would excuse us for hating. A place where language does not intimidate because all are fluent in smiling. A place where the air is so Maine-morning fresh with freedom that all can breathe. I’m booking my ticket to that place today.

Smile Like Nelson Mandela

 

Nelson-MandelaIt is tempting to not turn on the news this week. Once again I am out in Minnesota, being splendidly taken care of by the good folks at The Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. I have my own lakefront apartment and last night they welcomed us with local beer and wild rice and maple brats. Under the spell of such extravagant welcome, it would be easy to let the world fall away.

But being something of a news junky (and since I am here for a residency on digital media), I couldn’t resist a little peek at CNN this morning. Where I learned Nelson Mandela is in the hospital again. He’s 94 now. One of these times, we are going to lose him. When we do, the world will lose one of its great, great smiles.

Some say it’s the eyes that tell, but for me, it’s the smile. I fall in love with smiles. It’s where a person’s character is revealed. Who in this world has a better smile than Nelson Mandela? All those years in prison, that extraordinary capacity for forgiveness, delight, wisdom–it’s all there in his smile. One of these days the world is going to lose that smile. And it will be up to us to fill that void with other smiles. So start now. Smile like Nelson Mandela.

The Gospel According to Betty Smith (as applied in Boston)

Betty Smith

It’s Saturday and once again, I am working on my sermon for tomorrow. It’s hard to believe that it has been only a week since the last one. A long week with lifelong repercussions for so many.


Last week my sermon text was from Psalm 30:
Weeping may linger in the night, but joy comes in the morning. One of my examples was from Betty Smith, best known for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but also the author of a novel called Joy in the Morning, a title straight out of  Psalm 30. Last Sunday I shared this quote from that novel: Look at everything as though you were seeing it either for the first or the last time.

I spent two days this week in and around Boston. You couldn’t help but be struck by the swift and extraordinary work being done by law enforcement and private citizens. As events unfolded, keen observation counted. Many poets and spiritual writers describe prayer as”paying attention.” Like so many others, I am grateful for those whose prayers this week took that form. Thank you for looking at everything as if you were seeing it for the first or last time.

We Pray For You, Boston

As a daughter of Massachusetts, I’ve always had a soft spot for the third Monday in April. When I was young, it meant a day off from school, sometimes a Red Sox game, always the Marathon. If the day had a soundtrack, it was a mix of spring birds chirping, crowds on Heartbreak Hill cheering and a little colonial fife and drum music playing in the background. When my son was born on Patriots’ Day, I remember being glad of that. It seemed like a good day, an auspicious day.

Patriots’ Day 2013 was not a good day. For those who love Boston, yesterday brought outrage. How dare you do this to our city, to one of our most hallowed traditions and most of all to our people–our children, our citizens, our guests.

Boston will carve meaning out of this.  The stories of heroism went into circulation quickly and they will multiply.  Both the designated first responders and yesterday’s accidental ones were, by all accounts, magnificent.

As it happened, I had dinner last night (a birthday dinner for the Patriots’ Day-born son) at mile 13 on the Marathon route. When I got there, the streets looked the way they always do post-race–rimmed with the discarded water bottles and paper cups that passing runners toss as they try to stay hydrated. After dinner, it took us longer than usual to reach the highway to head back home.

StreetsweeperIt was a slow ride because we got caught behind a street-sweeper. Normally this might have made me impatient, but there was comfort in watching a little bit of the clean-up last night. A solitary, methodical street-sweeper driver, quietly working late into the night. Not able to sweep away the day’s horror, but cleaning up and setting right the portion of road he could.

We pray for the dead and the injured and the anxious. We pray for those who witnessed the trauma. We pray for those now working on the investigation. We pray for all public servants. We give thanks for those who brought comfort and medical attention on the scene yesterday and for those, who in so many silent, tireless ways, are working to help a beloved city restore order and peace. We pray for you,  Boston.

 

Emergency Room Storytelling

Odd as this may sound, I love the storytelling that happens in the waiting rooms of hospital emergency rooms.  We tell a certain kind of story when we are trying to keep the dragons at bay. The story becomes the calming device—the grown-up’s pacifier or blanket.

Sometimes the stories are recitations of routine. We recount, often in mind-numbing detail, the most ordinary kinds of activities, the things we pray we will be returning to soon. We walk through the new recipe for zucchini pancakes we tried last night; we go over the highlights of a baby shower; we describe exactly where we parked and how much it cost on a recent trip down to Fenway.  It is the conversation of distraction, connecting us with the mundane. Made in the face of all that is dire, that connection has a surprising power to soothe.

The other stories we tell in hospital waiting rooms are stories of long ago. We transport ourselves back in time and put ourselves at farthest possible remove from the present emergency. This week, in the ER of our local hospital, one of my parishioners told me the story of how he learned to ski. George is in his late 80’s and we have talked about skiing before.  It is not easy for lifelong skiers to give up their sport, an experience kin to having to give up your driver’s license. Although I had heard the story of George’s final mountain runs, I had never heard how his life on skis began.

We make assumptions. I presumed that he learned to ski in NH or VT or possibly back in the the Swedish speaking part of Finland from which his family hales. Someplace scenic and pastoral.

I wasn’t even close. I think George may be the only skier I know who learned how to ski in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. As a boy, George lived in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. “It was no big deal,” he said as he described how he used to strap on curtain rods, then barrel staves, and finally a pair of wooden skis hand-carved by his father, and go flying down the hills of his Bronx neighborhood.

I’m glad I got to hear this story. And even happier that the emergency that took us to the hospital turned out to be relatively minor. I wish it could have been that way for those in the ER in Colorado. Our prayers are with the people of Aurora.

Life Among the Sages

A few years ago, the church I served in Manchester hosted the African Children’s Choir.  I loved the athleticism of their dance, the vibrancy of their costumes and the spiritual uplift of their singing. We housed them for a few days and were charmed by the children, but also by their chaperones, “aunties” who had once been choir members themselves.

These chaperones had traveled to America several times and were honing their reflections on American life. One of the things they found puzzling was why Americans were so quick to color their hair. “For us,” they said, “White hair is a sign that you are becoming wise. Why would you want to hide that?”

We look for other markers, other indicators of wisdom. I’ve been thinking about wisdom lately, as it seems to come in concentrated form in Hancock. I don’t know whether this place attracts it or if the pace of life here gives it time to grow, but truly, I go home after some conversations and visits knowing that I live among sages.

So what makes for wisdom? Martin Copenhaver, one of the writers I’ve been working with in Minnesota this week, offers some thoughts on wisdom in This Odd and Wondrous Calling, the book he co-authored with Lillian Daniel. He describes wisdom in terms of a cluster of attributes:

  • A clear-eyed view of human behavior coupled with keen self-understanding
  • A certain tolerance for ambiguity and what may be called the messiness of life
  • Emotional resiliency
  • An ability to think clearly in a circumstance of conflict or stress
  • A tendency to approach a crisis as an intriguing puzzle to be solved
  • An inclination to forgive and move on
  • Humility enough to know that it is not all about you
  • A gift for seeing how smaller facts fit in within the larger picture
  • A mix of empathy and detachment
  • A knack for learning from lifetime experiences
  • A way of suspending judgment long enough to achieve greater clarity
  • An ability to act coupled with a willingness to embrace judicious inaction

Martin, who is a United Church of Christ minister in Wellesley, MA, writes that wisdom “has been called the woolly mammoth of ideas—big, shaggy and elusive.”

Maybe big, maybe shaggy, but not so elusive here in Hancock.

Feeling Like An Imposter

Most Sunday mornings, I spend an hour or so in church sitting on an oversized chair, a chair upholstered in sage green velvet .

When I’m perched to preach on that pulpit chair, I’m usually thinking, often obsessing, about the text and the topic I’ve chosen for the morning. Will the sermon I’m about to deliver be worth the time of those who listen?

But yesterday I was not in Hancock. I was not even in church. I was sitting in a different sort of oversized chair. One upholstered in pleather in an express spa/nail salon at the Philadelphia airport. No lofty thoughts yesterday morning. Just a slight obsession about which nail polish to choose and whether Miami Beet will be the color I want to see when I look down at my feet.

I expect to be looking at my feet a lot this next week. Like many people, I study the ground when I feel intimidated.

What put me in the Philly airport on a Sunday morning was a long layover on my way to Minnesota. I am spending this week at the Collegeville Institute on the campus of St. John’s University, in a workshop that is part of the Ecclesial Literature Project.

I feel like an imposter. Don’t tell anyone here, but I don’t actually know what “ecclesial literature” is. Never mind being able to produce it. I have read the writing samples of the other 11 men and women selected to participate and I am certain that they let me in by mistake.  I feel the same way I did when I was a pre-teen and got my first phone call about a paying babysitting job. Thrilled to be asked, but terrified that when I showed up the couple would realize they had called the wrong girl and would decide not to go out after all.

So this is a week about moving out of my comfort zone. And going where God leads me. And knowing that even if my writing is ragged, my cuticles aren’t.

Spending Their Apron Money Well

I bought some vintage apron patterns at the yard sale we had in the Vestry last month. It’s not that I really plan to make any of these aprons. It was a pure nostalgia buy. My mother kept an apron drawer in her kitchen and she had a similar assortment of pretty, but largely useless aprons. Aprons that didn’t cover up the places you were most likely to spill or splatter on. Aprons that worked best as domestic costuming.

I have been thinking about aprons this week, because while looking for materials for an upcoming event we are hosting with the Hancock Historical Society and the New Hampshire Association for the Blind, I came across the minutes of the Ladies Sewing Circle from 1900-1913.

I’m a sucker for beautiful penmanship and find old minutes oddly compelling. What I learned is that the ladies of the Hancock Church made and sold aprons. Lots of aprons. A typical sale might bring in $45.00. Run that figure through an inflation calculator and in today’s currency that works out to be over a thousand dollars in apron proceeds. We may see that as a quaint accomplishment, but these were women who weren’t allowed to vote yet, women who had access only to whispered methods of contraception, and women who lived in a town with a population of about 600 . They must have have been marketing geniuses to raise that kind of money. Exclusively from aprons. Before Etsy.

But what got to me was not the apron entrepreneurs’ bottom line, but how they chose to spend some of the proceeds.

Minutes from March 20, 1913

Maybe you can make it out in the photo. If not, this is what it says:

Special committee reported the purchase of four dozen oranges and one dozen lemons for cases of sickness in town.

You’ve got to love a group of women who decide that what their town needs is a shared stash of lemons and oranges. What binds me to these women across the years is not apron patterns or hours spent in the same brick Vestry or a penchant for Vitamin C. What we share is a faith and a Gospel that makes it our obligation to do what we can for those who are without. In 1913, that meant stitching for citrus. Ladies, I’d say you spent your apron money well.

Anadama Bread for Communion? Really?

The Bread of Heaven, locally sourced. You may have to be from New England to know what Anadama Bread is.  My deacons get it at Fiddleheads or at the Hancock Farmers Market held in the horsesheds behind the church. (Caveat: we don’t used it every time we celebrate communion—sometimes the whole wheat looks better that day, sometimes it’s a pita party).

Anadama Bread is yeast bread made with cornmeal and molasses. When I was growing up, the real stuff was made in Rockport, MA. Recipes circulate throughout New England and apocryphal stories are told about this bread with the odd name. One version–a forgetful wife once left a pot of cornmeal mush on the stove and her husband exclaimed “Anna, damn her!” Depending on the rendition, that can be damn as in damn good or damn as in damn stupid.

But can you use Anadama Bread for communion? You bet. Especially if you are are on the low church end of the liturgical spectrum as we are in Hancock. There are high church options in neighboring Peterborough—places where the worship life is more heavily ritualized and ornamented and tends toward the Catholic–and they are indeed lovely places to worship. But as we make sense of the stories of Jesus, we see him as taking ordinary bread and sharing it with ordinary people. Ordinary bread for us? Local bread. Whatever our neighbor-bakers have made. Sometimes that’s Anadama.

One other Communion note—If you worship with us on a Communion Sunday (generally the first Sunday of the month), our deacons will serve you the bread and the wine or juice (you have a choice) right in your own pew. Sometimes I’m asked about this. Is it because Congregationalists are lazy? Or especially considerate towards those with mobility issues? Nope. There is a theological reason. In Reformed traditions like ours, the elements are brought out to congregation to symbolize that God meets us where we are. Not just at the high altar and when we’re moving forward, but also where we sit and sometimes get stuck.

Instagram’s Grandmother

Hancock Meetinghouse and Horsesheds from the Norway Plains Cemetery

One of the perks of my job is that I get to hear people talk about their families. Over time, you get to follow life as it is unfolding not just for your own parishioners, but also the people they care about. You hear a lot of stories about grandchildren.

One person who always had good grandchildren stories was . I’m thinking about Betty today on what would have been her 87th birthday. When I visited with Betty, she frequently would talk about her grandchildren. I saw pictures of their vacations on the Cape, drawings they made, presents they sent her. Sometimes she would mention a project that her grandson Kevin was working on at school.

As it turns out, Kevin’s “project” was Instagram. Yep, that Kevin (maybe you saw him in a commercial aired during the Superbowl?) and that Instagram . Let’s just call it an entrepreneurial fairy tale—invent something really cool, sell it for a ton of money, and do it while you are still in your twenties.

If you aren’t sure what Instagram is, it’s an application for iPhones and now Androids, where you can take a picture with your phone and then instantly try out a whole range of filters that will transform the look and feel of your photo. Even mediocre photos can be made to look pretty darned good. Then the application makes it easy to send, post and share your photos right from your phone.

Part of the charm of Instagram is that it uses a square format—just like an old Polaroid photo. And that’s where Instagram hooked me—even before I knew of the connection to Betty and her grandson.

Hancock Meetinghouse Steeple

Call me a member of the Polaroid Generation. My father loved his Polaroid camera and I still remember the smell of those little pink sponges of fixer he used to keep in his pocket. Both of my children were born in Norwich, Connecticut where one of the favorite sons (right up there along with Benedict Arnold) was Edwin H. Land, inventor of the Polaroid process. I admit I was a little sad when I drove by the old Polaroid building on Rte. 128 outside of Boston a few weeks ago and saw that it was being demolished.

All of which is to say that, going way back, I have a soft spot for all things Polaroid. I am grateful to Betty’s grandson for putting that retro-look, square photo format back in my hands.

Some people do amazing things with Instagram and have elevated it to a real art form. I just use it for fun with lesser results.  But in honor of Betty’s birthday, I’m posting are a few Instagrams of a place she loved, a place she served, and a place where she is remembered with deep fondness.

Hancock Church Vestry from the Bandstand