Saturday, February 28, 2009

I have knit you together on my Ektorp Couch...

Many of you know I've taken up knitting. It started back in the fall when we moved our armchair into the living room, and created a cozy little nook next to the picture window. We haven't used this chair regularly since our first year of marriage when we had approximately 6.5 pieces of furniture (counting all four chairs at the kitchen table). Back then, as a newlywed, knitting seemed like the thing to do with my evenings. And, it was way better than studying. For the record - I also made my own pasta sauce from scratch back then.

But, now, with the knitting... I'm for serious, yo.

I encountered a bunch of lovely women recently who have been knitting for years. I'm a fairly crafty person, so it appeals to me on a number of levels. I thought that maybe it was time to take this hobby up again, but this time with some sense of maturity and purpose.

Recently, I've completed a few simple projects. I've done hats (see: Maisy and now, Cooper), scarves, and now have ventured into the scary world of: SOCKS.

I love these. I love them. They're crazy and bizarre, and scream "SOMEONE MADE THESE" because, really, who would buy such things?!

Matt suggests that it looks something like a medieval torture device right now, what with all the tiny, poky needles sticking out everywhere, but one day, these are going to be soft, cozy, and loud.

Watch for them in my Clark's mary janes sometime soon...

Friday, February 27, 2009

Dust to Dust...

My friend, Bob, passed away tonight. His son was present as his spirit gently left. We'll celebrate his life together next Saturday.

And may the peace of Christ, that passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds...

You'll be missed, Bob.

For I am persuaded, that neither life nor death nor angels, nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord. - Romans 8:38-39

Bob's obituary is here...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ashes to Ashes...

On Sunday, we sang our final "Hallelujahs!" until Easter, and on Monday we prepared for Shrove Tuesday where we ate our pancakes and jars of lard and prepared for the dreaded Ash Wednesday, when we have to stop doing something we enjoy, like eating chocolate, drinking coffee, or screaming at drivers who don't realize that their cars came equipped with free turn signals (DUDE! It's right there on the steering wheel!).

We Christians are a strange breed, aren't we? We engage in some supremely bizarre stuff to show our devotion to a God who is simultaneously evasive and available. We gather to meet at strange times (11:00 p.m on Christmas Eve?! 5:45 a.m. on Easter?!), and we do crazy stuff together when we meet. We sing strange songs about strange things and proclaim to possess a faith and conviction of things not seen, and yet choose to believe anyway.

Yup. We're nutso.

The services around Ash Wednesday are among the most bizarre. We take ashes, which are the burned remains of the palm branches that we waved on the previous year's Palm Sunday, and we mix them with anointing oil. We smear this gooey, smelly, charred mess on our foreheads and walk around the rest of the day like nothing is different.

There is a theory that the sayings of Jesus that actually got recorded in the Bible were those sayings that couldn't be attributed to anyone else. So, if it was weird ("Turn the other cheek!" "Love your enemies!"), then it most certainly had to have come straight from the mouth of Jesus. I disagree wildly with the methodology of the Jesus Seminar folks, but I do think that they're on to something by, at least, naming how bizarre these mandates are. We have a tradition that calls us to act in the precise opposite way we would incline. The season of Lent is no exception.

In my household this week, J came down with a healthy dose of conjunctivitis. His head swelled up on Tuesday morning, like he was savoring the last bits of mucus before oozing it out of every orifice, thus giving up congestion for Lent. (Really - this description is *less* gross than the reality.) I thought at first it was just a rockin' allergic reaction to the newly-formed pollen. My theory was proved wrong when, about midway through the day, his eyes became as rivers of pale yellow goo. His once-a-year nap left him with lids glued shut and purple undereye swelling that stood in sharp contrast to his fair skin and dark lashes. He looked awful. He looked sick. He looked mortal.

I, like most folks, do not enjoy being reminded that we are mortal. Back in July, when I first started this blog, I wrote about my friend, Fred, who had been battling cancer. When I met him, I met his mortality. My friend, Bob, is barely among the land of the living these days because of his losing battle with the pancreatic tumors. I have read about friends of friends who have lost babies that were born too early, or who were too fragile to make it. Ash Wednesday calls us to be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

But, I watch my normally vital and healthy child defy this description most days.

"He is not dust!,"I want to yell back at the liturgy.
"He is beautiful, golden, spirited, alive, breathy, solid, whole and light!" I retort.

His fragility and mortality are not common descriptors. He is the least dust-y person I know, in fact. Dust to dust? Not my boy.

We got Jackson the proper eye drops on Tuesday night, and by Wednesday morning, he was doing much better. I left early in the morning to hear from my preaching students, who did not disappoint. I left my class and went to visit my friend, Bob. He has been moved to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where he lies in his bed, covered in dozens of blankets and wearing a ski hat. I haven't seen Bob in about 2 weeks, and when we last met, he got the diagnosis that the tumor was back and there was nothing more the doctors could do. Then, he was still able to walk, talk, eat, drink.

Yesterday, I walked into Bob's room and was greeted by the sight of an emaciated man, whose mouth was agape as he slept. Bob was alone, and it gave me some time to take it in. The cancer has acted quickly. His energy has been drained, his facilities are gone, his words are muted, his spirit is weak.

I am able to visit such places only when armed with my liturgical kit of "things to do." I'd asked Jimmy for some ashes to bring, that I might impose them on Bob's forehead. As Bob slept, I mixed the ashes with oil on a small plate. I touched his arm, and prayed a prayer.

To this man who wears his mortality as his mantle, I muttered, "Bob, Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I lifted his ski cap, and marked his damp forehead with the sign of the cross. It was sobering and awful. Though he lay sleeping, I was the one who was marked.

Later that evening, our congregation gathered to worship on this unusual day. Jimmy, Phillip and I stood at the front of the sanctuary and marked each congregant's forehead with the sign of the cross. Later on, someone noted that he could see a change in people as they received their ashes. He said it was as if they had crossed a threshold, and after walking through it, they were heavier, more aware of their being. Those waiting in line possessed a lightness that was extinguished as soon as they heard the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

As the service concluded, I looked out at the gathered many, who now sat with a smudgy cross staring back at me. It was as if each person had been touched by the same black spirit, that caused us all to wear Death on our foreheads. Mortality became our prominent feature, our first attribute, our most notable aspect. All else faded away - our names, our clothes, our stature, our mood - all were muted by the shout of Death that spoke louder than any of our attempts to feign life.

This sobering service and this unusual marking set us on a journey, which we know ends, not at the foot of the cross, but in the garden where we are met with life and resurrection. It's good that we have this hope and promise of eternal life, because yesterday, Death spoke louder than our mortal life, and it feels as though that spirit given us its final message:

Dust to dust.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sermon: The Sacred in our Midst

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
St. Mark United Methodist Church
February 22, 2009

The Sacred in our Midst
2 Kings 2:1-12 – Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the Lord live, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets, who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, "Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?" And he said, "Yes, I know. Keep silent."

Elijah said to him, "Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho." But he said, "As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, "Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?" And he answered, "Yes, I know; be silent."

Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here, for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan." But he said, "As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah too his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted to you; if not, it will not." As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, "Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

(13) He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water saying, "Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?" When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, "The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha." They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.

Leader: The Word of God for the People of God.

People: Thanks be to God.

Our text today begins with a spoiler about the best part of the story. The author of 2 Kings really tries to take some of the punch out of the story, by letting you know how the budget for special effects was blown even before telling you why. It's an odd way to begin, but it's certainly no stranger than the story's conclusion, where a fiery chariot from heaven swings down and whisks Elijah away in a whirlwind. But since we know the end of the story, we should spend some time with what happens before that. Maybe the author of 2 Kings is trying to tell us something. Maybe the story itself is even better than the ending.

Following Elijah's most recent prophecy both he and his devoted mentee, Elisha, know that the end of his prophetic ministry is coming. Elijah instructs Elisha to stay put, for he was on his way to Bethel. Elisha pulls a great Biblical one-liner, and offers, "As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." And they go together to Bethel. There, all of the prophets came to greet them, and take Elisha aside to warn him that Elijah is about to be taken away. But, Elisha already knows; he is a prophet, after all.

This exact scene is repeated as Elijah tells his progeny: "Stay here, for the Lord has sent me to Jericho." Again, Elisha repeats his refrain, "As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." The company of prophets in Jericho welcomes them, warns Elisha, and he silences them, saying, "Yes, I know. Keep silent."

Because all good stories, it seems, include a repetition of an event three times over, it happens again as Elijah tells Elisha: "Stay here, for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan." Elisha gives his now-standard response: "As the Lord lives and you yourself live, I will not leave you," and they start out toward the Jordan. This time, however, 50 men of the company of prophets join them, standing at a distance. They become a great cloud of witnesses who see the events of Elijah's whirlwind absence with Elisha.

As the men approach the water, Elijah took his mantle – his robe – and rolled it up, and struck the water. In standard, Old Testament story fashion, the water obeys by parting to the left and to the right, until the two of them crossed onto the other bank. This action evokes Moses, and – maybe you'll remember – Joshua, who did the same thing before Elijah. They parted the waters for the sake of the Israelites, and passed through to safety.

But this journey evokes more than just Moses and Joshua, its patterns are more than just familiar lilts of a Bible story. This story takes both Elisha and us on a journey though familiar places. These are not cities that our tongues fumble over in our reading. These are places we know – Gilgal, which was established by the prophet Joshua (Josh. 3-4) when he and twelve leaders, one from each of the tribes of Israel, carried the Ark of the Covenant on dry ground through the Jordan. Gilgal means the "circle of stones," and was founded by God's command in memory of the tribes of Israel, so that all the people of earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty. It is in Gilgal that Joshua receives Moses' blessing to continue on the prophecy after Moses' death. And, it is in Gilgal, the most select of memorials, that Elijah begins his last tour. There, with Elisha, he meets with the company of prophets, who are coming to send their blessings. In Gilgal, there is a circle of stones that is drawn with a narrow radius, indicating that God's chosen people are few and that those represented are singular and select.

Elijah and Elisha travel from Gilgal to Bethel , which literally means "The House of God." Jacob named this place after his dream about the ladder leading to heaven in Genesis 28. In the dream, the Lord appears to him and says, "Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go." Jacob awakes, places a stone in this place and promises to be faithful to God who has already promised to be faithful to him. Later – this site would be home to the Temple, where all Israelites could come and worship. Jacob was sent back to Bethel by God (Ch. 35), and instructed to build an altar there to the God "who has been with me wherever I have gone." In this place, God spoke to Jacob, comforted and affirmed him, and covenanted with Jacob that from him, many generations would follow. Jacob's name was changed from one to another, and he was known from then on as Israel (v. 10), and he became the father of the 12 tribes. It was here, in Bethel, the House of God, that God promised to be both found and remembered there, but also to go where Israel would go. This sacred place was a living memorial to God Almighty, who is unbound, and yet still faithful.

In Bethel, Elijah and Elisha encounter the prophets, and bid them farewell. Bethel, the House of God, is just the first of many places where they hear God's voice. They are sent from there to Jericho, the place where the Israelites had settled after their exile. But, it was in Jericho that the Israelites found another kind of exile, and God commanded Joshua to lead the priests to march around the city, blow their trumpets and watch the walls come crumbling down. Joshua cursed this city, and the next king who tried to inhabit it lost his children as a result. Later, Jericho was where Jesus healed the blind and saved the tax collector, Zacchaeus. In Luke, Jesus tells a story about a man who was traveling to Jericho, and he fell into the hands of robbers, and found mercy in the hands of a foreigner – one on the outside of the chosen people. Jericho was no bucolic setting. This was a place of tumult and unrest. God's presence in this place was mighty, and terrible. Elijah and Elisha pass through, giving their greetings and accepting their warnings from the belabored prophets in Jericho. God's presence was not bound by the walls of a temple, or a city. Here, God was working in mysterious and difficult ways to continually remind all who had ears to hear that the Lord Almighty is not to be contained or shut away.

The final destination for the pair of prophets is the Jordan. They are accompanied on their journey by 50 of the prophets from Jericho, who had witnessed God's power and presence outside the Chosen people. On the banks of the Jordan, the prophets gathered to watch Elijah part the waters, while they remembered Joshua crossing through with the Israelites and one man from each tribe carrying the ark of the covenant. The prophets watched as Elisha received a double portion of Elijah's spirit, as the elder prophet was taken up to heaven by the Chariots of Israel and its Horsemen. In the Jordan, Elisha told Naaman to wash and be free from leprosy. And it was in the Jordan where John baptized Jesus and the promise of God to God's chosen people was given not only to the Israelites, but to all who would come to know the Son of God.

Standing at the Jordan, it is clear that this is not Elisha's story alone. His ministry is not just the culmination of Elijah's prophetic work. This is the story of Moses, who passed his mantle to Joshua, who founded the "Circle of Stones" at Gilgal, and led the Israelites out of exile into the "City of Palms" at Jericho. This is the story of all who came to the banks of the Jordan, and witnessed a repetition of God's promise being enacted: That God is with us, and will never leave us. The waters part, and the image of waters crashing at creation and nurturing life in the womb are brought together by the Spirit of God, which uses this single element to enact, cultivate and restore life.

This is not Elisha's story. It's Joshua's. And Moses'. And Jacob's. It is the continuation of the lineage that began when God's spirit swept over the face of the water, when deep called to deep at the thunder of God's cataracts, and the Word was spoken and called into being. And that Word was Life, and that Life is the Light of the world, which shone as the stars and moon and sun were formed.

This is not a story of transfiguration alone – it is not simply about being changed from one into another. It is a recounting of the Creation in the beginning of our time, when in the beginning all that existed was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It is a story about Life coming into being, and the life was the light of all people. John, who baptized in the River Jordan, came to testify to this light, which is the true light that enlightens everyone. The chariots came for Elijah, but Elisha was forever changed by this witness.

In this story, Elijah is not taking a memory tour around good hang-outs and checking in with friends. Elijah is walking Elisha through the entire story of the people of Israel, and at each stop, is making the past events present and alive again. It is a story of promise and fulfillment, and this fulfillment is complete in Christ Jesus, who, in his coming, collapses all of time into a single moment where past, present and future collide in the one moment of God’s eternal covenant with all of creation.

This is truly a story of eschatological hope – that is, what comes at last is not death and destruction, but final victory and feasting at the heavenly banquet! No, this isn't just good news for the prophets, but this is our story – that was witnessed by Prophets (Joshua) and Law-givers (Moses), tax collectors and prostitutes, those inside the temple and outside the camp, men and women, slaves and free, Jews and Greeks, me and you. Our lives do not end when we die the little death of loss in jobs, news of an illness, brokenness of relationships. Our lives begin again with the possibility of hope that is promised to us when we say, "As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you" to those who have changed us so completely.

This is not some displaced, odd story that has little relevance for us or anyone other than the prophets experiencing this moment with those being transfigured. Elisha was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, who watched as Elijah was taken up into heaven in a Chariot of Fire. Jesus' face and garments were turned into Clorox-y white as the voice of God thundered down the answer to say, "This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!" The transfiguration from darkness to light is not just for the witnesses of the events. This marks the 40 days after Epiphany – when the world "got it" that this baby Jesus was really something. This marks nearly 40 days until Easter, when death is destroyed by life in Christ. This moment that happens in between the seasons is not just something to break the monotony – it is a full in-breaking of the Holy that is meant to grab the attention of all who will take notice and say, "This is what it's all about!"

This is not just about light or prophecy – it's about baptism and the life of the church. We, here, are doing something different. We, here, are opening ourselves up to the possibility that the story of God is our story to share and live out. We have marked ourselves with the sign of the cross, remembered our own baptisms, which began in the river Jordan, and are celebrated at this font. If you think this story isn't for you, then you're wrong, because the opening lines of our very lives were uttered at the moment God said, "Let there be light," and our stories have been precluded by all the prophets who have come before, so that we may say in response: "Hallelujah! God is Here and Now and With us and For us! Hallelujah!"


Mark 9:2-13
– Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Response to the Word:

"Glory Bound" – The Wailin' Jennys
When I hear that trumpet sound
I will lay my burdens down
I will lay them deep into the ground
Then I'll know that I am glory bound
I'll be travelling far from home
But I won't be looking for to roam
I'll be crossing o'er the great divide
In a better home soon I will reside
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah!
When I'm in my resting place
I'll look on my mother's face
Never more will I have to know
All the loneliness that plagues me so
So I'm waiting for that train to come
And I know where she's coming from
Listen can you hear her on the track
When I board I won't be looking back
Hallelujah, Hallelujah!
Hallelujah, Hallelujah! (x3, last time a cappella)
Performed by Greg Earnest (banjo), Leah Calvert (fiddle), Mandy Flemming (guitar)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Reflection: The Worshiping Body

I'm hoping to begin a new tradition here by taking some cozy time on Sunday evenings to reflect on the day. Sundays, as you know, are particularly full in the Reverend Mama house. I left this morning before any of the boys awoke, and got to church before any of the congregants arrived. My coffee and I shared a quiet morning in the hush of anticipation of Sunday worship as the faithful began to gather. A guest musician was warming up for the bass guitar part in the "Credo" of the Gospel Mass by Robert Ray. Acolytes and stewards appointed the altar table and polished the offering plates. The choir rehearsed, the ministers prayed, the people arrived. This silent, reverent space became abuzz with excitement and anticipation. Rev. Jackie was out sick today, and I had the joy of offering the Children's Sermon on Mark 1:40-45, which is tough since the topic was leprosy. We worked our way into it, and in the 11:15 service, I asked the children what usually happens when Jesus shows up stories like these. A child, wise beyond her years, timidly offered: "Everything gets better?"

Indeed, young one. Indeed.

And it was clear that Jesus showed up today, because everything was a little better. Folks were happier to see each other, braver to confess sins and wounds, open to where the Spirit led. It was a good day to be at St. Mark. There were a few months last year where it seemed like the Spirit got a little distracted at the Starbucks on Peachtree and 7th, and only made it to the last hymn or maybe just Sunday School. I was about to send the Spirit a copy of Leaving Church when Advent arrived, and suddenly the third person of the Trinity remembered how important worshiping with this community of believers is, and has since joined a bunch of committees and has recommitted to a life of full participation in the life of the church. The Spirit has also signed up to host the New Member dinner at the end of the spring, and I hear we're in for some delightful baklava. Reservations can be made by calling the church office.

On Friday, I had the great pleasure of taking full advantage of my husband's killer new job by crashing a lunch he was having with an incredibly gifted and talented colleague, Kim Long. She's fantastic, and I hope to be a lot like her when I grow up. We talked parenting, parenting boys, parenting grown up boys, parenting boys in church, parenting boys in church when you have a spouse that travels, and her two books that are coming out this year. (Can you pinpoint the exact moment that I stopped hijacking the conversation?) We talked about our backgrounds, which both originated in the music world, and our ministry lives that both began in Princeton. She mentioned, in the course of conversation, that one of her books is about the Worshiping Body, and walked through how each part of us praises God in a particular way in the course of Sunday worship. I will not do her creative and interesting work justice here, so you should wait and pre-order the book from Wesminster John Knox when it comes out in the fall.

But, our conversation did raise some thoughts for me as I gathered with my Worshiping Body today. Today was a day of cohesion and unity, where we opened our lips and declared God's praise in unity and harmony. We Marched to Zion together with even steps, and accepted our comission to serve the world as we exited the door. As I exited, I felt like it was possible that my ministry has finally taken shape. I'm not sure if its credibility or authority or acceptance or just a lot of new people who don't know any better, but I feel a little more sure of myself and a little less like I'm walking into a job that I can't possibly do. This is a sure sign that I'm overlooking something epic, like WRITING A SERMON FOR NEXT SUNDAY, but all things in due time.

This afternoon, I had the supreme pleasure of being present for the baptism of baby Joy, who is the daughter of two Methodist Clergy friends of mine. Since they both serve churches in the Atlanta area, they wisely decided to do the baptism at Cannon Chapel at Candler School of Theology. This place holds special significance for them since, not only did they both go to school there, but they were also married there. Friends, family, congregants, and more Methodist ministers than you could shake a Bible at were present to support this family as we all promised to raise this baby girl up in the ways of Christ. Rev. Jim Cantrell, who is one of God's finest people, preached and pointed out that one day, as she grew older and began to go to school, make friends, want to sleep over, and (Heaven help us all) begin to date, that her parents would look back on this day when we affirmed that in her baptism, she is never alone. As he spoke, you could see the reflection of his own daughter, now a young woman, present in his eyes. I knew her as a young girl, and it was as if Jim was remembering his own daughter's baptism and reconnecting to the power and promise available in the mystery of this sacrament.

As he preached, a peer of baby Joy's shrieked with delight as punctuation to his proclamation. He cooed and whooped with the enthusiasm of a Pentecostal, reminding us all why we simultaneously love having babies around and also relish the convenience of nursery care. We lifted our voices and sang about the promise that God offers in our baptism, and affirmed that we are all God's children. Baby Joy's grandfather performed the baptism, and his voice cracked as he poured the water on her head and whispered, "Joy, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." All of us choked back tears of reverence and awe as we watched these generations of faithful people do what faithful people have been doing for generations.

After the baptism, I met my family at Winnona Park just in time for the 4:00 neighborhood pick up soccer game. Dozens of people, ages 4-64 gathered to play for the better part of two hours. I think each team had 30 people on it, and most of the time they all ran in the same direction. It was remarkable. Cooper, being a tad on the young side, ran around the sidelines, kicking a deflated soccer ball with noticeable skill and agility. It piqued the attention of another mom, who is now a new friend. Other families and children gathered to play on the playground, and Jackson and I invented a game called "Camera Tag," which may be my best idea to date. It involved Jackson running, hiding, and then being caught by the camera. Not only did it save me from having to run around, but I also got some great pictures of him in the midst of afternoon exuberance. To sum it up, the day looked like this:

Today was a day where the body worshiped in its fullness. Bodies met, engaged in proclamation and praise, lifting voices and wrestling out theological specifics of what it means to be a member of this faithful community. Arms embraced one another in care and compassion, and hands lifted up a young one as she was marked with the sign of the cross and blessed by water and the spirit. Feet trod onto streets and into the world, and ran on soft grass and hard earth, carrying the message of the beloved Son wherever we may go.

In all of this, may God be praised.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An Open Letter to Cancer

Dear Cancer:

You suck.

I want you to know how much I hate you. I know that this won't exactly get you on board at the get-go, but I've got some things to say to you, and you're going to listen.

Cancer, I'm young, but already I can name dozens of people whom I know who have fought you courageously. You make me fire-spitting angry at your arbitrary choices of victims, and your impossibility of prevention. This Summer, I looked you in the face for the first time, and I saw the depths of evil in your eyes. There is no good that comes from you, and I watched as you ate my friend alive.

When I met Fred, he was walking with Death as his shadow. He wore his glasses askew on his slender face, since your tumorous figure pushed on his ear. Fred was a good man. A kind man. A funny man. A brave man. He was a man of faith, despite all odds. He was a newscaster, and you got him right where it hurt the most: his face. You swallowed up his eye, and then you went for his brain. We watched as the chemotherapy designed to save his life weakened him so much that the rest of his body shut down.

You are clever, indeed, Cancer. In the end, you couldn't be blamed for his death. You shoved responsibility off on his failing liver and you shrank into subtlety in your dark corner. When I saw Fred for the last time, you had taken all of his weight away, and stripped him down to his bones. His youthful handsomeness had given way to your vengeance and he looked like a man 30 years older than his age. His mouth was agape. His heart had stopped. Your tumor had shrank. We cursed your name, and blessed the Lord who took him away from this suffering you caused and gave him new life. We anointed his head with oil, and his cup overflowed with our tears and the water that will never run dry. We bade farewell to his broken body, and burned your remains along with his.

Monday, I went with a friend to hear the news that you had returned in his pancreas. This is not surprising - when you want to make a point and do it quickly, you know right where to put yourself. He beat you once. A few months ago, he was free of you. A walking miracle.

You are clever, indeed, Cancer.

You returned just as his strength was rising, his appetite increasing, his independence mounting. He drove himself to church on Sundays and Wednesdays. He ate with friends, and visited with neighbors. His caretakers exhaled. Then, you came back. You bullied his liver into some kind of melt-down, and the rising ammonia levels caused him confusion and forgetfulness. You sucked away his appetite as you took the place of empty space in his abdomen. His navel protrudes. His body is withering. You hide, undetected, in his pancreas, knowing that he's too weak for a CAT scan, too vulnerable for a biopsy, too fragile for chemotherapy, unable to have radiation. His head bows in fatigue and hopelessness. You applaud yourself for taking one of the strong ones - one whom you had allowed to believe had defeated you for good.

He seeks only palliative care today. His only medications are those that bring him comfort. He will go to Hospice care soon, and we will wait and watch and comfort him as he screams at God for letting this happen to him.

But I know it's not God. It's you, Cancer.

As we waited at the cancer specialist yesterday, other patients milled around. Your victims. Breast cancer. Lung cancer. A melanoma or two, just for kicks. Then in walked a young mother and her daughter, not even two years old yet. Which one of them is it, Cancer? Which one are you trying to steal? Who's heart will you break forever, and why the hell do you think you can do this to them?

To us?

I'm tired of it. I've watched friends fight you and win, but lose all of their weight and hair and appetite and spirit in the process. They've regained all of those things, but they are forever marred by the scars you've put upon their bodies and souls. You make their family mistrustful. "Sure - it's gone now... but when will it come back?" You make their friends awkward, embarrassed and unequipped to stare you in the eye. Where there was once life, now you and Death stand lurking in the shadows.

What gives you the right?

I need you to know that I'm aware of your power. I know that any of my family members - husband, children, parents - could fall victim to you. I can't stop it. I can't predict it. I can't do anything but wait and see, and in the meantime, I'll get the call from someone saying that you've stopped there for a visit. I'm ready for that call, Cancer. Because I know something you don't know.

You may bring Death, but Death has already died. Where you sow darkness, light will shine. You do not have the final answer on these bodies or spirits. No matter how fast or rampant or sneakily you come, you do not define the lives that were led by your victims. You are merely a disease. A horrible, evil disease. But you do not have claim on these people, who are loved and nursed by others. Life has claimed them long before you have. So, you can pretend to show mercy, but you do not know what mercy is. You can pretend to be valiant, but there is nothing valiant in your character. Try as you might to destroy life, you will fail, because our spirits were claimed by One who brought light and life eternal. You are the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but we will fear no evil, for God is with us.

Thanks be to God.


In honor and memory of Fred, Bob, Louise, Linda, Dot, Susan, Karen, Linda, Darrell...

If you would like to sign this open letter, I invite you to do in the comments section.
Those you name will be remembered and honored in their dignity and struggle.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Mississippi's Mighty and it Starts in Minnesota...

The tiny folks and I have returned from Minnesota, and I now sit in my Atlanta living room with a blanket and a laptop to warm my lower half, despite the fact that it was 67 degrees today. This is where I am supposed to complain about Minnesota's subfreezing temperatures and the bizarre way that my nostrils froze when loading the car in -13 weather, but ... I'm not going to do that. It wouldn't be right. Or accurate. Truth be told - and I want to get this over with at the start of this post - the weather was not only bearable, it was actually lovely.

Granted, there was a 50 degree temperature difference from one day to the next, but that just meant we could stay out for longer than 20 minutes. So, Minnesotans? I'm on to you. You get to make snowmen and go ice fishing, and turn your baseball fields into skating rinks and go sledding and snowmobiling. You *enjoy* winter. Actually, you enjoy all four seasons, and when spring comes, you rejoice, just like the rest of us. So, take your mittens, wool socks and down vests and your quiet understanding that you've kind of got it made and leave the rest of us two-and-a-half seasons, unprepared for anything other than the heat of summer folks alone. We'll just keep on thinking that you're crazy to live in a place that's as dry as the Sahara and as cold as Siberia. You can Minnesota-nice us into thinking we're right - or, at very least - not wrong. But I'll know.

I'll know.

The boys and I arrived with enough stuff to make Okies think: "Wow. Too much. You could have picked up some of that later, you know?" We banged through the Atlanta and Minneapolis airports with three humans, a stroller, two backpacks, a purse, a carry-on, coats, snacks, and (the straw that broke the mama's back) two carseats. Fortunately, I wheezed my way into the consciences of passers-by, and with a lot of kindness and compassion from strangers, we made it onto our plane and to the rental car place with relative ease. There was a brief moment where I had to run relays against myself once I picked up our massive suitcase from baggage claim and race to plunk stuff (i.e. carseats and the boys in the stroller) down about 20 feet ahead, retreat to gather what had been left (i.e. everything else) and continue forward. It was more than pathetic, and my entire left side was so bruised that I looked like I'd been in a horrible paintball accident, but we made it.

Aunty K, Maisy and Owen met us at the Hertz counter, and with a few more gymnastic feats to get two families and two Okie-loads of stuff into a single mini-van, we were on our way to the Arc Retreat center, which is about an hour north of St. Paul. The "I haven't seen you in 8 months!" jitters wore off by the time we hit the freeway, and by the time we sat down for dinner, it was as if no time had passed.

The last time we saw them was in May and Cooper was just into the real-live-person phase of his childhood, and was something of a novelty to Owen. This made Cooper a rockin' new playmate, and a total bonus friend that came with buddy Jackson. Back in May, my Goddaughter, Maisy, was a cute, little, immobile baby and has since developed into a talking, walking person of tiny adorabilty. Truly, everyone should have to spend time with an 19 month old. They're like joy and delight personified, but they also take great naps and say cute things like, "Bakywardigicans froot snaks, Peese!" On the down side, they irritate computer spell-checker programs when quoted. Ah, well. We all have our flaws.

The kids quickly settled into a routine of life and play together. Owen and Jackson were the older dudes who determined the level of involvement of any other playmates. For Maisy, this was completely fine, as she was content to come and go as she pleased. For Cooper, he scrapped around most of the week trying to stay included. Since the Mamas put the kabosh on all action figures and there was no media other than a CD player that ran instrumental Celtic spirituality songs, the boys and baby were left to their imaginations and ... a tent. Aunty K brought a perfectly sized tent that we put in the upstairs loft space. It instantly became a space ship, a rocket, a car, the Millennium Falcon, the rental van. And it defined the "who's in" and "who's out" dynamic of their play.

Incredibly enough, everyone was really "in." Cooper was either too oblivious or too determined to let the big boys get him down for long. He had the added benefit of sleeping in the tent with Jackson each night, so he had some proprietary ground to stand on when it came to belonging. Other than a few typical skirmishes, these babies of ours found a way to be in community together without leaving anyone out - at least not for too long.

For those of you who parent, I'm sure you know how difficult it is to do it alone. I find that when it's just me for any length of time, I get irritable, impatient and very snippy. I'm also crazy apologetic and overly permissive. Throwing two families together, but eliminating the second parent of each family could have been a recipe for friendship destruction. But, it's part of why Aunty K is the sister I would have if I could pick one out all by myself. We parent alike, we balance each other, our children respect each of our authority (she literally had Cooper putting himself in time-out after whacking Jackson on the arm; this is no small feat). We also gave each other a little bit of alone time during the days to work or nap, as the need arose. (I opted for napping.) We've joked that when we're together with the gaggle of children, suddenly polygamy makes a little more sense. (HA!) There's another mama to wipe noses and tie shoes and load dishes and bake brownies with just enough gooey in the center. Okay - maybe it's not polygamy that we're replicating, but some form of communal parenting. Perhaps it's simpler (and less likely to become a reality show) to say that having another set of maternal hands sure was helpful.

Our days went like this: we stayed in the cottage that was a short walk from the main retreat lodge. We had breakfast and dinner at the cottage, which the kids all called, "The Cabin in the Woods." Aunty K's brilliant wake-up light would signal that it was okay for the long since-awake kids to exit their beds at 6:15 a.m.

Wait. Let me stop here. Have I told you yet about Aunty K's magic talking light? She saw this contraption online about a year ago, and thought it would be a perfect solution to her childrens' early rising times. She was so sleep deprived that she almost shelled out the nearly $80 for the light, and no one would have blamed her. After a good nap and some strong coffee, or a whisper from the Holy Spirit, she realized that a simple timer and Christmas candle would do the same thing for literally 1/20 of the cost. During the week, we set it for wake-up times, rest times, and sleep times. I can't tell you how hilariously simple this idea is, and how marvelously effective it was to give them all some structure. So, the older boys would stay in the tent until the light went on, and then they would leap about as if magic had played a role in freeing them from rest-time confines. It was marginally effective in the morning - even though it was set for 6:15 a.m. CST - everyone was up well before that. Everyone but me, that is. I would wallow for another 2-10 minutes and pray that no one noticed. As long as I mumbled down some answers to questions: "Sure, bear! You can have cerelmfnnazzzzzzzzzz...", I felt like I was still participating. Downstairs, everyone else would be eager to re-greet each other with a refreshing newness and instant comfort of activities that remained to be completed from the day before. The boys built creations with legos, Maisy ate the first of at least 3 breakfasts, and we were all fed and dressed by 7:30.

Aunty K gave me some time each morning to go to the lodge for some grown-up conversation and breakfast. The staff offered a silent prayer service for 20 minutes at 8 a.m., and I went one day, only to find that silent prayer services are not for me. You may argue that this could mean that it's exactly what I need, but I'll argue back. It just wasn't for me. My guilt over leaving my dearest friend with our four children in a cottage by herself while I sat in silence made that time less than illuminating. Granted, she gave me this time for free, but I could think of hundreds of ways that I could have used it, and only 999 of them were "more sleep."

At 11:00 each day, we'd make piles of winter clothes on the floor and bundle up all the folks for some outside sledding time before lunch. It took us 30 minutes to get them ready for a 20 minute excursion, but it was so worth it. After cramming chubby arms into jackets, tiny bird legs into snow pants, wobbly ankles into boots, fingers into mittens, necks into scarves, heads into hats, and cameras into pockets, we were finally ready to head out. The road from the cottage to the lodge was the perfect incline for some bunny-hill sledding with novices. I should admit that "novices" include me. I have never, ever in my whole entire life been sledding. We got plenty of snow when I was a kid, and despite my ownership of an authentic Flexible Flyer sled with steel runners, I could never really use it. We never packed down the snow enough for it to move. Ah, the travails of living in the south. I could spend the rest of this blog just posting sledding pictures (all of which are available here), but I'll offer some narrative with them.

Like everything in our successful week in the woods, we developed a routine for sledding. Owen would go first, with Jackson running behind him. J would gleefully drag the sled back up the hill, and then he would go down, and drag the sled back up. Some combination of Cooper/Jackson/me would sled down, and Jackson would drag the sled back up. We made one attempt to send Maisy down, and she made it about 9 feet before we stopped her and her sorrowful cries. J dragged the sled back up. You see how it went. It was really fun, and kept us outside long enough to turn all of our cheeks into perfect, red circles.

We would head to the lodge at 11:45 and untangle ourselves from the masses of down and wool. In our socked feet, we would head upstairs to the main dining room of the lodge, and enjoy incredible and simple meals of homemade bread, delicious hot soup, and crisp salads. After consuming piles of warm bread with butter and honey, we would stuff ourselves with cookies and milk, pouring bengal spice tea into the last available spaces in our bellies, and would head outside to the snow labyrinth that a staff member had carefully carved into an open space. The older boys first caught sight of this when looking out the massive picture window of the lodge. They had been entranced with a large, shallow bowl on the coffee table that contained a little water and a few stones. Aunty K taught them how to remember their baptisms, and J even took a moment to help me remember mine. Stunning, no?

The babiest of babies needed a nap right after lunch, so I would keep the older ones with me at the snow labyrinth. Owen and Jackson were surprisingly respectful of this space and its intent. I tried to teach them about how it was like our journey with God, and sometimes we walk closer to the center, and sometimes we're very far away. But, a simple turn can bring us back closer than we might have ever imagined. I don't know if they got the metaphor, but they trekked with purpose and intent each day after lunch to this place and followed it to the center and back out in near silence, with only a few attempts to rush their journey to the center. So, pretty much, they're spiritual geniuses.

The afternoon led to naps for most of us and books on tape for O and J in the tent in the loft. At the chime, they patiently turned each page of The Magic Tree House, Peace and Pancakes, and other beloved tales while waiting for the candle to ignite. Once it did, all bets were off, and they would whoop with joy and begin re-enacting some form of Star Buzz Lightyear Wars. We would take some time to read The Stinky Cheese Man, just to give them something to joke about other than underpants and poop.

Kara spent the afternoons at the lodge working on stuff for Sunday, and when she returned, she would set the table for dinner, warm the food that had already been brought to us, and I would transform into TICKLE MONSTER, Lord of all Hilarity. She's got some great photos of all four kiddos lying on the floor, waiting for their turn to be tickled, but mostly the boys ran in circles around the downstairs space and waited for me to capture them. This was definitely time for them to get their ya-yas out, and resulted in at least one late-afternoon game of Twister one night. Sadly, no photos exist, and it has nothing to do with the fact that my bum would have been prominently displayed in all of them.

After dinner, we would pajama-up and read a chapter from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Cabin in the Woods, and only had to skip over details in one chapter that was about a panther attacking Laura's great-grandfather. Funny - I loved that whole series when I was a girl. Laura Ingalls Wilder was always my answer to the "Dead or alive - with whom would you want to have a conversation?" question (right after Jesus, that is. Incidentally, I'm contractually obligated to say Jesus to any and all questions relating to my personal preference or whose leadership style to I strive to emulate. Servant leaders: Unite!). I don't remember being terrified of these stories. The one freaky one was about Laura (or Mary?) nearly drowning in the creek. But clearly, I worked my way through it.

Once all the kiddos were in their beds (or tents), Aunty K and I spent the lovely, long evenings at the dining room table with piles of liturgical resources, hymnals, and wine. We worked on ideas for Lent and more ideas for the upcoming Sunday. We planned worship and talked through sermons. We caught up in longer-than-30-second bursts, and it made the day feel somehow balanced, and we even got to work through her church's website, which you should totally check out here: Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church.

The week went shockingly quickly. I couldn't believe it when Friday rolled around and we found ourselves loading the van and watching Jackson vacuum the living room (that kid has a gift). The huge motivator for all of us was a trip to the world-famous Pannekoeken Huis, which serves the most delicious and authentic puffed pancakes. Kara gave me her recipe for pannekoeken years ago, and one Saturday out of four, it will substitute for our standard pancake day. My blogmother, Catherine Newman, posted a pannekoeken recipe recently, and I made sure to comment and remind her that she left out the most important part: melt butter in the pan, then add thinly sliced apples and crumbles of brown sugar before pouring on the batter. You'll thank me later.

The afternoon meant that the boys got to reconnect with their toys and favorite shows. We made sort of a dumb decision to head to Target at 3:30 on a Friday. With four children. Who haven't napped much. Or eaten recently. It was awesome. With a lot of key-jangling and distraction techniques, we managed to get out of the store with provisions for dinner, milk, milk and more milk, and snacks for the Super Bowl without huge tantrums or massive meltdowns. A light snow fluttered around us as we packed back into the Minivan and finished our first day back in town.

Kara and I celebrated an easy bedtime with grown up drinks and a viewing of "The Soup," and the most recent episode of "The Flight of the Conchords." Feeling warm and bouyant, we crashed at 9:30 or so. Saturday brought pancakes, and time for Aunty K to finish her sermon while I partied with the kidlings in the morning. Owen was so delighted to be back home with his stuff that he and Jackson hardly emerged from his room the entire time. J suited-up as Buzz Lightyear for the morning, and I dressed Maisy in her fanciest of fancy clothes while I had free reign of her wardrobe, and Cooper spent time running near and far away from Kirby and Kimmel, the dogs of the house. Kara returned, brilliant sermon in hand (please, please, please read it here - click on "God of All"; you'll be so glad you did. You'll never hear this scripture the same way again.), and we proceeded to do what we do best: lunch.

When Kara and I were in the infancy of our friendship, we would spend afternoons together after our baby swim class with the 12 week old boys we'd produced. They would conk out quickly, and leave us 12-90 minutes to make lunch. It became the highlight of my week, those Wednesdays. I would hunt for good lunch recipes, shop days ahead of time, and look forward to her oatmeal chocolate chip cookies dunked in hot coffee with cream. The meals we made were never replicable in my own setting. There was something special and remarkably simple about the ingredients that we used and the resulting feast of deliciousness. We made salmon cakes on baby greens, tuna salads with kalmata olives and roasted red peppers. Any good idea I had about lunch was instantly made better by one of her suggestions. "This would be great with basil!" She would observe. And she was always right. So, we got a chance to work our chemical romance in the kitchen and made the best kinds of lunches that involved apples, red peppers, candied walnuts and bleu cheese, or pasta, with parrano cheese, salami and tomatoes. Balsamic vinegar is the secret to all good succesful cooking, and it was used with abundance.

By the time everyone woke up on Saturday afternoon, the temperature had skyrocketed up 50 degrees from the day before. FIFTY. It was a stunning 43 outside, and we loaded up the kiddos into the wagon and trundled with mamas, kids and dogs to nearby College Park. If it's not famous, it should be. If you have ever pictured a scene from Garrison Kiellor's Lake Woebegon Days that involved massive sledding hills, bundled couples walking mitten in glove, squeals of delighted, above-average children and recipe swapping by kind and well-meaning mamas, then you've seen College Park. It's surrounded by huge, beautiful homes, sidewalks, gorgeous stone churches, and lovely neighbors. Here is a photo from the spring of Jackson and Owen racing down the hill and into the basin of the park, next to a photo taken in the approximate location 8 months later:

This was the most beautiful day Winter could have produced. It was warm enough to be outside for long periods of time, but cool enough that the snow didn't seem like an anomaly. The boys and I spent most of our time sledding down the hill, and running Cooper to discreet places to urinate in the snow. Ah, motherhood.

Sunday, we headed to Lake Nokomis for church. In ministry, it is rare to have the chance to see your colleagues in action, since we all work at the exact same time. This is why I missed Owen's baptism - which is a decision I sorely regret. But, church is church and as all preachers know, it comes relentlessly and predictably at the same time each week. But, this week, we loaded up the rental van with dapper children, mugs of delicious coffee in hand, and got to church in plenty of time. I can't tell you enough about how great Kara's sermon was (did I mention you should READ IT HERE? Just checking...), and how age-inclusive the congregation is. During the hymns, the children pick instruments out of a basket and play as the congregation sings. I credit Cooper with starting a parade.

It was a wonderful morning, and we all sort of crashed into a funk in the afternoon, which is typical for pastors on Sundays. But, I think it was also everyone's way of saying, "I'm sad to go, but also kind of ready. I don't want to think about saying goodbye." We fumbled through the afternoon, and somehow managed to get all the tiny ones in bed by 6:45, just in time for the last half of the Super Bowl, which I understand was quite good. Kara and I spent most of the time with the volume on mute and looking through our photos from the week, which are instant classics.

The boys and I were packed and ready to go the next morning, and we said goodbye after a final portrait session. We banged our way back through the Minneapolis airport, and were welcomed by Cindy's minivan chariot, which had arrived to take us home. Surrounded on all sides by loving and kind friends, it did feel good to be home. But, there's nowhere quite like Minnesota.