Monday, April 24, 2017

Communion (A Seminarian's Perspective)


During Seminary, another student and I, interned at a tiny, historic, Methodist church in New Jersey.  She was Methodist, I was not; but we were both welcomed into the fold in equal measure. 

The congregation was small and aged and the thing they appreciated most about the few sermons I gave was how well they could hear my voice and how clearly I enunciated.  The thing I appreciated most about preaching there was how the cleric’s robe covered me from head to toe, obscuring my feminine figure, rearranging me into a blank slate of black polyester.  Only my flat, tan shoes and the bottom of my dress pants showed and only then when I stepped out away from the pulpit, which was not often. 

My fellow intern, a heavyset single girl, shorter than me and rounder, also wore the robe while speaking.  On other Sundays, though, she dressed to the nines in strappy dresses with tight waists and full skirts like the ones housewives are pictured wearing in magazine ads from the 1950's.  She completed the look by pairing the dresses with impossibly high heeled shoes, the height and skinniness of which, caused her to teeter and totter precariously.

She didn’t seem at home in those dresses and matching shoes and I wondered why she wore them.  But I also probably didn’t seem at home in my drab business-casual attire that I’d purchased specially for the internship and possible future interviews.  Neither of us, I guess, were entirely at home in ourselves or our pastoral positions, which I suppose is the plight of many an intern.   

The small church was traditionally built, with old wooden pews and a long center aisle that led to a kneeling rail and altar.  Each service began with a processional from the narthex, down the center aisle, to the altar where candles were lit while the organist played. 

One of my most distinct memories of that church is of watching my fellow intern make her wobbly way down the carpeted center aisle with a plate of communion bread in hand.  The plate was wide, flat and loaded with bits of bread and she was so precariously perched in her heels that I felt for sure she was going to wipe out at any moment, scattering the body of Christ across the dense carpet.  I held my breath as she mounted the altar’s two steps and exhaled when she finally set the plate down. 

Having grown up Baptist and turned Anabaptist, the rituals of the Methodist church were foreign to me and struck me as overly formal.  I longed for something more personal, less prescribed.  I imagined with equal measures of horror and delight, what it would be like if she simply dropped the whole plate.  Some part of me longed for the broken body to spill, even just once; for us all to have to deal with the sudden beauty, the surprise of Christ spread among us in such an earthy, unscripted way.  

My colleague never dropped the host, but crumbs did often fall as we handed the bread to the congregants kneeling along the rail.  No matter how rigidly we try to contain him, Christ is always breaking through.  Mercy and grace scatter everywhere like crumbs, and who we are and who God is, is always being revealed.  Christ is always spreading out in our midst, disrupting our scripted ways, like the beige shoes and dress pants of a young woman sticking out beneath her robe, like a young woman in a flared out dress and heels making her wobbly way up the aisle, truth that cannot be hidden or disguised. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Communion (A Five-year-old's Perspective)


The Communion with God is simple, so we will not be dazzled; so we can eat and drink His love and still go about our lives; so our souls will burn slowly rather than blaze.  . . . the Last Supper did not take place on one night in one room, and to eat God's love, we do not have to even open our mouths; we can be walking, sorrowful and confused, with a friend; or working on whatever our boat is, fishing whatever it is we fish for; or we can be running naked, alone in the dark.  The Eucharist is with us, and it is ordinary.  To me, that is its essential beauty: we receive it with wandering minds, and distracted flesh, in the same way that we receive the sun and sky, the moon and earth, and breathing.  
                   - Andre Dubus in Meditations from a Movable Chair

Five-year-old Isaiah loves bread almost as much as he loves his Mama, which is to say, quite a lot.  He also loves juice.  When there's no Sunday school and he's forced to endure the long church service upstairs in the pews, communion - with its tempting combination of both bread and juice - offers a bright respite in the midst of the otherwise boring service. 

Seated during prayer at the service’s beginning on Easter Sunday, he bobs and weaves his head from side to side, searching out the low table at the front of the church.  Then, he exclaims, “I see bread and juice!”

His brother, Levi, sees it too.  “Mom,” Levi says, like someone who’s just discovered cake and ice cream is on the menu for breakfast, “We’re dippin' bread!”

I turn to them, scandalized by their outdoor voices, and stretch my neck forward, my eyes wide, one finger pressed to my lips.  I silently tap my finger to my closed lips.

They settle back in the hard pew to wait.

My boys love communion and my hunch is it’s because they love to eat.  Sometimes this strikes me as sacrilegious, but, mostly, something in their enthusiasm - the way simple appetite and desire breed longing and consummation - also feels right to me.  They're happy to be part, to take part, and receive something good and nourishing.  

When the time comes, at last, I send Levi under his father’s guidance and push Isaiah along ahead of me.  I wonder again, as we exit the end of the pew, about the rightness of allowing children so young to participate in communion, but they’re so happy, so eager, I can’t see holding them back.  We move slowly toward the altar in two lines that bulge and clot the aisle as adults shepherd groups of children.  Seeing my older son behind me, I push him forward too, intending to lean over he and Isaiah both and orchestrate, regulate, their reception of grace.  

Isaiah reaches the half loaf of Italian bread first.  It sits on a plate outstretched in front of his face, level with his big brown eyes.  He reaches for it two-handed, manhandling the loaf which slides forward precariously the slanted plate and the server and I both lunge to stop the fall.  In my mind, Isaiah’s hands are everywhere (germs!) and I grab the loaf to steady it, tearing off a small piece of soft white dough while he wrestles with the dry, flaky crust.  He peels back a sturdy piece as big as his forearm and we turn to the dipping, then back to our seats.  

While the rest of us have quickly dipped and swallowed our own crumbs, he sits in the pew tearing off bite after bite of flaky crust.  When his twin brother asks about the size of his serving, Isaiah replies, with deep contentment, “I didn’t try to get it so big, but it came off, so I kept it.”  

Monday, April 10, 2017

To Experience Resurrection (a Poem for Holy Week)


You have to return to the tomb
to experience resurrection. 
Return to the place where once
you knew without doubt
all hope was gone, the last
dying gasp of breath expelled.
Then silence, stillness
and the great tearing open
of sky and earth. 

The first sign of spring
is the revelation of all
that’s died.  Snow’s clean
slate hides decay,
but when the sun’s warmth rises
its first disclosure is the depth
of loss – the grass,
brown and trampled, barren
broken limbs scattered, earth
exposed and the empty stretch
of field filled with brown stalks
of decomposition.

This is the time of waiting,
the time in which we grow
weary and lose heart. 

You have to watch the barren
earth, pull back brown leaves,
lean close scanning the hidden
places.  You have to stand beside
the stone, Martha would tell us,
your trembling hand pressed against       
its cold, hard surface.  You have to enter
the dark cave, Peter whispers, not knowing
what you’ll find. 

You have to sit through the long,
dark night to see the first light of morning,        
to feel the sharp intake of breath
as the sky’s closed eye, cold and gray,
cracks open slowly, then with growing
determination.  This is what you must do
to experience resurrection. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Twins, the Cross & Community


(A stomach bug arrived at our house last week and returned again today, wreaking havoc on my writing plans and life in general.  So, I thought it might be a good time to re-post this one from the archives, from back when the twins were just 18 months old and we lived, daily, in a sea of chaos both deep and wide.)  

Looking at Stars

The God of curved space, the dry
God, is not going to help us, but the son
whose blood splattered
the hem of his mother’s robe.

- Jane Kenyon


“You know you have blood on your shirt, right?” my husband asked.

I was getting ready to meet a friend at a restaurant after a long, exhausting day and my husband was concerned with the bloody stain on my shoulder. 
“No,” I said, “I already changed my shirt once.  Did you see his clothes?”  I led him over to the laundry basket and showed him our eighteen-month-old son’s clothes, streaked and stained with splotches of red.  It had been a bloody day. 
That morning I stood at the bathroom sink holding Levi who cut his finger on a can he looted from the recycling bin.  I turned his body out away from me, hoping to avoid staining my new shirt.  But while I rooted through the medicine cabinet, looking for a band aid, blood gushed out of the tiny cut. 

It ran in a bright red stream
     down the hand that held him,
          splashing onto my pants and shoes as he waved his little hand around.
It drop,
      drop,
          dropped
                    to the beat of his pulse, 
falling onto the white counter-top like so many crimson beads off of a broken necklace.  I felt it clinging to the hairs on the back of my hand and marveled at its rich scarlet hue. 
I called my four-year-old to fetch a washcloth while Levi's twin, Isaiah, wandered in anxious circles by my feet.  Finally, we all sat down at the dining room table and I doled out band aids with great liberality.  I put two or three on the finger that still gushed and two or three on other fingers and on his other hand in hopes of distracting him from pulling them off.  Then, of course, Isaiah needed some too and my assistant, the four-year-old, as well as the little girl I was babysitting. 
It wasn’t until later that I noticed Isaiah had blood on him too, places where it had splashed and splattered as he stood nearby watching me tend his brother. 

Looking at Isaiah’s splotched clothes, I thought, “When your brother bleeds, it gets on you.  This is what it means to be a brother.  This is what community really is.” 

*   *   *   *   *

Blood is messy and vital, rich, and yet we talk of it so complacently.   Somehow, in our dainty sipping of communion cups, we manage to miss the mess and I wonder if, in missing it, we don't also miss the communion.

Christ came and died on the cross, where blood drop,
                                                                                  drop,
                                                                                       dropped out,
splattering onto those who gathered near.  This is the community that Jesus establishes, a blood-splattered, blood-drinking communion of sinners turned saints.   

 *   *   *   *   *
The stomach bug hit later in the week.  It started with Levi in the middle of the night standing, crying in his crib and we went through layer after layer of sheets and pajamas, as my husband and I tag-teamed the dual tasks of comfort and cleaning.  Isaiah stood in his own crib, just a few feet away, looking-on, bleary-eyed and curious and each time we laid Levi back down to sleep and crept our way back out of the room, Isaiah laid down too. 
By the next day they were both down with the bug and I sat holding them on the couch while John took the older kids to the store to stock up on saltines and Pedialyte.  I sat in the corner of the couch with Levi in my left arm and he drifted into a deep sleep, exhausted and drained.  Isaiah fussed, tossing and turning in my right arm, slipping off, then turning and begging his way back up into my lap the second his feet hit the ground. 
Levi slept on through it all, so I didn’t dare move and just about the time I was getting frustrated with Isaiah he turned, suddenly, and threw-up all over me and his brother.  Levi woke, of course, as I grabbed a changing pad and laid it across my soaked chest.  But then, just like that, they both dropped off into a heavy sleep. 
When my husband came home some forty minutes later, we were sitting there still, the three of us covered in Isaiah’s vomit and I thought, again, “This is what community is.  When your brother, throws up, it gets on you.” 

*   *   *   *   *

I wonder sometimes about how we do community these days, all distance and convenience, all house-picked-up and table-manners-please.  Community, real community, is a cracking, bleeding thing.  It’s the voice that breaks into a sob on the phone without holding back and the “oh, thank God, you stopped by because I didn’t know how I was going to make it through this day.” 

Maybe we settle for something less because we’re afraid that, if anyone gets too close, we’ll vomit our messy lives all over them.  But isn't it possible, my friends, that this bloody, messy communion, this breaking open of our lives like so many loaves of of bread, is what it’s really all about?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Burp (verb) syn. bolt, rout, ruck


Burp verb
1. noisily release air from the stomach through the mouth; belch.
2. a noise made by air released from the stomach; a belch.

Synonyms: bolt, rout, ruck

Earliest known use: 1929

My eight-year-old son has discovered the art of burping.  I don’t know where he stores them in his wiry frame, but he’s mastered a long, loud release of wind that rumbles through the air like freight train rattling down the tracks.  I’m pretty sure he learned the skill – practices it, daily – with the other third grade boys in the back seats of the school bus. 

For the most part, I dismiss his frequent eruptions.  I figure, it’s part of having a boy and, while I don’t want to be talked at or hear the alphabet song sung in burp (a skill he’s also working on), I’ve decided to save my outrage for other more offensive aerial explosions that I’m sure are soon to become a hobby as well.   

The burps, though, light a fuse in my otherwise rarely lit husband.  He says the mere sound of it is like nails on a chalkboard.  I find this both surprising – he is a former boy, after all – and amusing.  My husband is so seldom angry while I’m so frequently irritated, it does my heart good to see him lose his parental cool from time to time. 

We both agree on one thing, though, no burping at the dinner table.  Otherwise, in the living room, the van, I tell my husband he’s just going to have to let it go.  He gives me a pained expression in reply. 

//

I have a habit, sometimes, of repeating things.   Every couple of months or so, I turn to my husband in the middle of the mundane and announce in a voice filled with surprise, “Apples make me burp.”  Usually, I say this after burping, as though I myself am just discovering the funny little quirk.
 
“I know,” he says, “you told me that.”

“Oh,” I say.

// 

One night, sitting on the couch watching TV, my husband burped.  “Ba-ba-ba-bup,” he said, opening and shutting his mouth as the air passed, breaking it into a multi syllabic expression. 

I looked at him.  “What was that?” I asked. 

“A burp,” he said.  “It’s what you do.”

“What?!  I don’t do that!” I said, incredulous.

“Yes, you do,” he said, surprised by my denial.  “You do it all the time.”  

“No, I don’t,” I replied, scrunching my forehead as though searching through a mental catalog of past burps.  “I never do that.”

He couldn’t believe my denial and I couldn’t believe his accusation, so we returned to watching TV as the long-married are want to do during an argument, especially if they want to stay long-married.  Later though, who could say how long – a day? a week? – I happened to burp with my husband nearby. 

“Ba-ba-ba-bup!” I said.  Shocked, I looked him in the eye and laughed.  “Oh, my gosh!  You’re right, I do do that!”

//

I’ll never forget learning to burp a baby, watching the lactation consultant sit my tiny, hours old daughter on her knee.  She cupped her hand just under the baby’s jaw bone, tilting her fragile body forward precariously, pounding with her other hand on the soft, rounded back.  Holding my daughter that way, whacking her back, felt completely counter intuitive, but I quickly learned that, aside from slinging her onto my shoulder with my bone pressed just so against her diaphragm, it was the best way to get a burp.  

There are few things as satisfying as mastering the art of burping a baby and knowing, with that hearty gush of air, that you’ve saved your baby pain and yourself hours of broken sleep.

//

I started out this morning wanting to write about fish burps.  Fish burps, I now know, are a common side effect of fish oil supplements.  Review after review on Amazon had customers who switched from one product to another explaining, “I couldn’t take the burps anymore!”  The highest complement for fish oil online seemed less to do with its effectiveness than with the consumer’s relief, “No fish burps!”

I don’t like fish and I was hoping maybe the general sense of alarm over fish burps was nothing more than hysteria.  But then I got my first fish burp last week.  It was round and full, a small explosion of fishiness that rolled up into my mouth, silently.  I was shocked, surprised.  I thought to myself, “Fish burp!”  Then I texted my husband, who loves fish and who I assumed would be more than a little envious.  

“I had my first fish burp,” I wrote. 

“How was it?” he replied.

“Fishy,” I wrote.

//

It occurs to me that, unlike the word ‘hiccup,’ which can be used to describe an unexpected interruption, the word ‘burp’ has no positive use aside from its frowned-upon bodily function.  This, I think, is too bad.  Is there no potential for positive association with the humble burp?  

Author Anne Lamott has a well-loved quote in which she describes laughter as "carbonated holiness."  It's a lovely idea, but we all know what carbonation leads to - an accumulation of air in the stomach that must somehow be released.  Maybe, then we could push Lamott's metaphor to the extreme and suggest that burps themselves are unexpected explosions of holiness.  Maybe.  

The truth is, I didn't know what to write about this morning, except I kept thinking about (and enjoying) those round, full fish burps and the thought of those burps - the thought of writing about them - felt like a lump of air building pressure right in the center of my writer's digestive system.  It soon became clear I wasn't going to have room to get much else done if I didn't make way, somehow, for that content to escape.  So, I wrote almost 1000 words on burps and found I had much more to say than I thought I did and perhaps this post itself is a bit of a 'noise made by air released.'  I suspect, like every good burp, it's hit you in one way or another - igniting offense, laughter or a simple reflective pause.  And, now that I think about it, that's what holy things always tend to do.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

But We Have This Treasure (What Happened At My House This Weekend)


But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7

A petite Episcopalian priest and a divorced mother of two share one couch.  A retired history professor and editor reclines in a corner chair.  Beside him, a pastor's wife, worship leader and self-described 'queen of part-time jobs' sits cross-legged in a stiff Ikea chair.  Next to her is another recent retiree, a musician and woodworker trying to get his legs back under him after a lifetime of work in the non-profit sector.  

Beside me is a Grandmother with rheumatoid arthritis who works full time in the field of medical writing.  My dog, Coco, sprawls sleepily on the couch between us, circuiting the room throughout the day to give and receive her fair share of attention.  

We get to know each other over the course of the morning, beginning deep and going deeper still, with each of us likely sharing more than we intended to when the day began and yet finding ourselves relieved and grateful for it.  By lunch time, there's a general sense of excitement and conversation flows freely.  

Then, in the afternoon, we share our gifts - by which I mean, the writing we've labored over and likely felt more than a little scared to bring to share.  One by one we pass white pages with black words printed on them, such deceptively simple dressing for expressions so near and dear to each writers' heart.  

This is when the amazement begins.  

The Episcopal priest, weighted down with the church's good work of Lent and impending Easter, labors daily on the creation of a science fiction novel.  More than twelve chapters in already, she shares hopes of adding a prequel and sequel.  As we read, a world unfolds (two planets to be exact), double-spaced across several pages and I'm amazed - not because it's either good or bad, but because it exists at all.  And when the time comes for questions and feedback, the woman's lovely face lights up at each comment and every critique is welcomed as an opportunity to improve, an invitation to communicate more clearly.

This is how it goes for more than two hours.  Pages passed around a circle and one by one the people in my living room are revealed to possess hidden treasure that shines and sparkles as they unveil a wide range of words.  One writes so eloquently about friendship and music transcending a racial divide, that several readers gasp and tears spring to more than one set of eyes.  Another writes a simple and sparse description of her fast from social media and we all find within her gentle words an invitation - what might we do with our hands and minds if we simply had more time?   

Each story leaves us, like treasure hunters having stumbled across a rare jewel, longing for more.  

"I should've brought all thirty pages," the retired professor says, obviously delighted by our genuine interest in his story.  

"I only just recently resurrected this novel," the single mother says, "I'm not sure when I can commit more time to work on it."  But we all, dazzled by the mystery woven in a few short pages, silently wish with baited breath and pleading eyes, for more. 

At the end of the day, there's a palpable sense of encouragement, as we circuit the room one last time sharing our goals and 'takeaways' from the day.  Although it's a writing retreat, it's been and always is, a spiritual experience for me.  I am left with a profound sense of honor and gratitude, not unlike that which I felt entering and leaving the hospital rooms as a chaplain.

Within the human soul is a world of depth, meaning, and wonder - a small glimpse of divinity mirrored in the human being fully alive. Not just some humans possess this gift, we all do.  I used to only see the great divide in that verse from Paul to the church of Corinth - the vast disparity between those earthen jars and God's extraordinary power.  But, to read it that way, is to miss the point, at least in part. 

Now I see it from another angle - God has placed treasure in these jars of clay and sometimes, on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of March, the moment will be just right for that glorious power to shine forth and it will be all you can do to keep from squinting at the glory revealed as sunlight dances across a room full of diamonds, a gathering of simple, human souls.   

This past weekend Andi Cumbo-Floyd and I hosted our annual central PA writers' retreat.  Sign up for my newsletter if you'd like to hear about future events and, if you're a writer, consider attending our next event June 23-5 on Andi's farm in Radiant, VA.  

Monday, March 13, 2017

Necessary (Required, Needed, Essential)



Necessary adjective

1. required to be done, achieved, or present; needed; essential.
synonyms: obligatory, requisite, required, 
imperative, needed

I ran outside Saturday morning with scissors in hand and cut the bright, yellow daffodils blooming at the South West corner of our house.  It’s one of the sunniest spots in our yard, a small strip of gravel and dirt squeezed between the basement’s exterior wall and a narrow sidewalk that leads from a side door to the front porch.  These flowers are nearly always the first to bloom on our property.

After a mild winter, we've plunged deep into a cold snap and snow is forecast for tonight.  Daffodils are hardier than I expect, but I feared the buttery bits of sunshine wouldn't survive the extended cold, so I broke my own rules and cut the flowers to bring them inside.  

In all honesty, I can’t say for sure what day I cut the flowers, but I’d like to believe it was Saturday.  Somehow, in the middle of managing one son’s sleepover, carting another to the pediatrician and pharmacy, and dropping my daughter off to peddle girl scout cookies at a local greenhouse, I made time for the flowers. 

I don’t remember whether it was Saturday specifically, but I do remember bending there at the corner of the house where the sun shown.  I remember how quickly my fingers froze clutching the green stems in the wind and how I pushed myself to cut one more and then another – not just the open flowers, but the buds just beginning to bloom.  Then, the cold in my fingers drove me inside and I rinsed the stems and stood them in a tall, turquoise vase on the kitchen windowsill.

I think it was Saturday because I knew my husband, who'd been working under his truck for 24 of the past 36 hours, wouldn’t notice them.  No matter whether I placed them prominently on the kitchen island or tucked them in along with the other bright trinkets on the wide windowsill, he wouldn’t notice them because all of his energy was absorbed in the the effort of trying to save his rattletrap, red pickup truck.  The necessary repairs were what left me to handle the rest of the weekend’s demands.    

When he stood in front of the kitchen sink that afternoon, with his back to the window, and told me, near despair, that he thought he’d ruined the truck’s engine, I told him – calmly and rationally, but not helpfully – that we couldn’t keep ‘doing this.’  By 'this,' I meant trying, through pure elbow grease and ingenuity to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.  All through that tense conversation, while we wrapped our minds and wallets around the possibility of needing to buy a new vehicle, the happy flowers stood calmly just over his shoulder in their tall blue vase.  

At least that’s the way I remember it. 

Later, it seemed the truck would be ok after all and it felt like an evening of letting down in front of the TV might be in order.  But, we went to bed at 8:30 anyway, because sometimes necessary can be exhausting and we were already losing an hour of sleep that night by springing forward.  

This was a weekend of necessary things.  Demands on my time, energy and focus hit, one after the other, in a steady stream.  I carefully plotted pick-ups and drop-offs with our one running vehicle.  I put one meal after another onto the table, like a magician pulling one rabbit after another out of a hat.  I even stayed home from church Sunday morning to run to the grocery store because we were out of all the necessary items.    

And still, this morning, dirty and clean laundry sits in piles awaiting my attention.  The chicken food purchased yesterday must be pulled out of the van, into the garage and distributed into the feeders.  Wood must be hauled before the big snow storm descends, the floors, covered in crumbs and dust from the wood stove must be swept.  

At times like this, it feels like the necessary things will never end, like they will squeeze and squeeze the breath out of each and every day until our breath is gone.  But somehow, today, I'll find time to pause and pet the dog where she sleeps curled beside me on the love seat.  I'll hug the cat, the kids, and tell them they are loved.  I'll run outside, once more, and cut what flowers still remain on the bright, sunny corner of the house.  And when the snow begins to fall tonight, those bright blossoms will still be blazing gently, quietly, in the kitchen whether we pause to notice them or not.