First Sunday of Advent 2017

I peeked at the first page of The New Christian Year (compiled by Charles Williams) one last time before putting it on the shelf.

My well-worn copy is even more well-worn now that I’ve been through the book several times. The New Christian Year isn’t so new anymore. My copy is from 1941 — and it was written in but not falling apart when I got it. I picked it up at a used bookstore, not knowing what a dear friend it would become. It’s falling apart now, like a Velveteen Rabbit of books.

Charles Williams introduced me to so many Christian thinkers — St. Augustine, John Donne, Lancelot Andrewes, William Law, and Blaise Pascal to name a few.  The New Christian Year helped me fill my bookshelves with deep, rich books.

But, when I read Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance earlier this year, I knew I was reading a modern author who would challenge me to change my life and deepen my faith. I ordered Gift and Task as soon as I finished the Sabbath book.

When it arrived, I set it aside. I would have to wait for Advent, the start of the Christian year.

My brand new copy of Walter Brueggemann’s Gift and Task beckoned me this morning.

All those pages so new and clean.

Oh — to write in the margins!

Brueggemann starts the Christian year not with light and hope, but with a roar.

…Advent is “in like a lion,” a roaring truthfulness that disrupts our every illusion…

…Christmas is not a safe, private, or even familial enterprise but is preoccupied with great public issues of war and peace and issues of economic justice that concern the worth and bodily well-being of human persons. Our Advent preparation may invite us to consider the ways in which we ourselves are complicit in the deep inhumanity of our current world.

Not what I was expecting at all.

Indeed, for me, Advent roared in like a lion, but Brueggemann concluded today with these words –

The lion opens space for the Lamb, who will arrive soon.

I hope I’m ready for this new Christian year.

 

 

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Rough and Slippery Roads

Those who journey on level ground have no need to give one another their hands, whereas those who are on rough and slippery roads hold fast one to another… in order to walk securely and help one another in the many difficult places through which they have to pass.

St. France de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

A helping hand while climbing the rocks at Whytecliff Park

God, in His mercy, blessed me with a number of people who offer me their hand in the difficult places.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for each one of them.

 

New Every Morning

“I hurried over so you could take a picture,” said Matt, the lifeguard who was taking over for me so I could home.

Two weeks of working together and he’s got me figured out. How many times has he heard me say, “I need to get a picture of that!” Or, how many times has he seen me grab my phone out of the office so I could snap a shot of the sunrise.

I told someone at Hutchmoot that I was practically giddy over the prospect of working at this job, and that hasn’t changed since it started.

Leaving the house at 5 AM to lifeguard for two hours every morning has been fun.

And stimulating. Adult conversation is such a treat.

The sunrises aren’t bad either.

I arrive in the dark. This morning I stood, looking out from near the pool, and snapped a grainy picture. The white dot in the distance is a lighted lamppost.

Since the pool was redone, it has a wall of windows facing east. The lights are always on in there. In the darkness, the pool area fairly glows when I arrive.

Of course, when working as a lifeguard, I’m not staring out the windows. I’m scanning the pool, in case any of those early morning lap swimmers need help. So far the only help anyone has needed is turning the music down or alerting maintenance that the hot water isn’t working in the showers.

But I love my co-workers. They are such interesting people. And we converse in complete sentences.

I’ve tried explaining to people how being a caregiver for someone with dementia is like taking care of a toddler. Anyone who has had children knows the stage of incomplete conversation. That’s how it is with my father these days. That, or trying to guess what he’s trying to say, or trying to follow the tangents that his mind travels down.

Right around the time I’m getting ready to go home — I can only really afford two hours when I know he’ll be sleeping — the sky is changing.

One day last week, I tried to take a picture of it, but the pool reflected back off the glass and gave me this shot.

So this morning I went from window bay to window bay trying to find a place that didn’t reflect the pool.

“Just step outside,” said one of the other guards, so I did.

Golly, it was pretty.

I stopped again just beyond the pool on my way home.

I wondered if there was a liturgy in Every Moment Holy for the sight of a beautiful sunrise.

Then I realized I already knew one, and recited on my way home —

But this one thing I bear in mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is thy faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:21-23

Every Moment Holy: When Something Is Lost

I lost my wallet.

Again.

I started to write out the sequence of events that led up to the last time I remembered holding it in my hand, but none of it really matters. The important part of the story was that my wallet — a nice little clasp purse made by a dear friend — was missing.

At 5 AM, I was searching, trying to be quiet while the rest of the people in the house were sleeping, but I had to be at work at 5:15 AM and was starting to panic.

My mother often said, “It’s always the last place you look.”

The morning schedule was tight:  lifeguarding at the pool from 5:15-7:15, go home, eat breakfast, leave by 8 AM to take Laurel to the dentist which was an hour-and-a-half away.

Every Moment Holy, my new favorite book, sat on the table where I had finished my morning readings. Was there a liturgy in there for lost things?

I searched through the Table of Contents, wasting valuable other search time, looking for a prayer to fit this occasion.

Nope.

But the beauty of Every Moment Holy lies in the title. Every moment is holy. Even the anxiety-ridden ones.

Before I left the house, I tip-toed into my father’s darkened room with a flashlight to see if perchance he had picked it up. My mother, in her dementia, used to squirrel away all sorts of treasures, and my father has started doing similar things. She had opted for shiny things — silverware and napkin rings, but he liked books and pens and shirts. My wallet wasn’t in his room, though.

I drove into the pool, worrying, and trying to allay my worries with words that could go into The Liturgy for Searching for Lost Items.

I got to the pool only to find the service door locked.

“Sorry, Sally,” said the woman at the front desk who let me in.

“No worries,” I said. It’s my standard response. Even when I’m worried.

And I was quite worried.

But the liturgy for lost or misplaced things was starting to take shape.

I found that when I started feeling the worry rise, it helped to think about what the Bible said about lost things.

I had two hours at the pool, three hours in the car, and an hour sitting in a dentist office to think about it. Six hours of pushing worry into prayer.

My initial thoughts:

O, Lord — I know You care about lost things
You talk about a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to search for the one lost lamb
You talk about a widow searching for a lost coin

My later thoughts:

Lord, I’m holding on too tight to the temporal, to things that don’t last.
If I never find that wallet again —
If every worse case scenario I imagine comes true
If it was dropped and found by an unscrupulous person
Or taken because I wasn’t paying attention
If my credit cards and, worse, my identity are stolen,
It’s okay
Because I have everything I need in You

My hands are open, Lord.
Whatever You want from me is Yours
It was never mine to begin with

Truly my morning was holy.

Anxious — but also holy in a way I couldn’t have imagined.

My mother was right. It’s always in the last place you look. Sometimes it’s in a place you’ve even looked before.

I found it when I got back home. Even though I had looked there previously, it was in my father’s car.

Matt Canlis said at Hutchmoot that God is closer than you think and in places you don’t expect.

I realized that all my searching wasn’t about my wallet. It was about God guiding me into truths I need to learn.

 

 

The Journey of Tuga and Aleluja — part three

(This is the conclusion of a presentation I gave — or tried to give — at our church on October 15, 2017)

Our work in Bosnia took place in Gradacac, a city about 3 hours north of Sarajevo.

Ostensibly, we were there to build a house.

Every morning we drove to the work site in two loads using a car lent to our group by a family for whom a house had been built by a previous team. We were a little cosy in the Peugeot station wagon but it got us back and forth on the narrow windy roads.

I asked Amy what the family who lent us their car would do for transportation that week.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Probably walk.”

At the house, the work were directed by maestros, some older experienced builders.  Initially I’m not sure they trusted the skills of the Americans. Our men-folk were tested by wiring together lengths of rebar.

The women moved bricks.

Passing bricks

Eventually, we all got to try our hand at rebar-wiring.

Some got to do a little masonry.

Most of the time, though, while the skilled laborers worked, we waited for tasks we would be allowed to do.

We talked. 

We told them about our families

and about our lives.

We tried to learn some words in Bosnian.And they practiced their English with us.

In the evenings we were regaled with music and food.

Significant progress was made on the house.

When we got there

Progress

But I’m convinced that the real mission work took place in the realm of relationship.

On our last day there, we went back to say our good-byes. The families had been so incredibly generous to us. I wanted to give them something in return.

I had brought some bracelets made by women in Haiti. When one of my friends had been raising money for an adoption I bought them from her.

These I gave to some of the women. I asked our translator explain that these were made by women from another part of the world who were looking for ways to provide for their families. I told her to tell them that women all over the world can support each other in small ways like this because we understand each other’s struggles.

Then I took Tuga and Aleluja from my pocket. How could I possibly explain these little bunnies?

“In our religion,” I told the translator to tell Hanka, the woman I wanted to give them to — a woman who had shared her concerns about mental health in Bosnia, and how there was very little support for it, “we have a season called Lent. It’s a sad time. Jesus, who we believe to be the Son of God, knew He was going to die.”

I struggled to know how to express what I wanted to say — and, truth be told, I don’t remember exactly what came out of my mouth. I do, however, remember inwardly praying, as the lump rose in my throat, and I looked at the two rabbits sitting in the palm of my hand.

“I named these rabbits Tuga and Aleluja,” I said, and I looked at her to see that she recognized the words.

“Tuga means sorrow, right?” I asked, and she nodded. Her eyes were filling with tears, as were mine.

“Aleluja is a joyful word that we don’t say during Lent, so I hid this rabbit away.” I stuck the white rabbit behind my back. “But I put Tuga in my pocket and carried him with me everywhere, to remind myself that people all have sorrows hidden in the hearts.”

I looked at Hanka while the translator translated my words. I hoped it was making sense. Hanka kept nodding to show that she understood.

“All during Lent I carried Tuga and I thought about the deep sorrow of the world, but on Easter, the day that Lent ends because Jesus rose from the dead, I got Aleluja out from his hiding place and we were joyful again.”

I paused again, listening to the flow of Bosnian, hoping it was close to the essence of what I was trying to say.  When the translator was done, I handed the rabbits to Hanka.

“I want you to have these,” I said, “because you know that people carry sadness in their hearts. Tuga reminds you of that, but Aleluja also reminds you that there is joy in the world.”

She nodded and hugged me. We were both crying.

My friend Leah, who had followed the posts about Tuga during Lent and was also on this trip, saw what was going on. “Is that Tuga?” she asked, and then she offered to take a picture of us.

I like to picture Tuga and Aleluja sitting on a window ledge in Bosnia, doing whatever two rabbits can do to remind us of God and of tenderness and of compassion in this world.

It was an unplanned ending for my rabbits’ journey, but it seemed a fitting one.

 

 

 

 

The Journey of Tuga and Aleluja — part two

(This is a continuation of a presentation I gave  — or tried to give — at our church on October 15, 2017)

Tuga and Aleluja accompanied me to Bosnia this summer. At every place I stayed, I set them on the window ledge or my nightstand to remind me that every single person I would encounter on this trip has known both joys and sorrows..

Before traveling, I tried to read up on Bosnia, which turned out to be learning about Yugoslavia, which led to an attempt to understand the Ottoman Empire. The history of that land is layered and complex.

While the United States divides itself along racial lines, Bosnia and Herzegovina is divided along ethnic lines, and religion is often linked to ethnicity: most Bosniaks are Muslim, Serbs are Orthodox Christian, and Croats are Roman Catholic. Places of worship in Bosnia, though, have stood side by side for centuries.

Mosques and churches stood side by side

The wars that resulted in the break-up of Yugoslavia took place along those ethno-religious lines. The BBC documentary, The Death of Yugoslavia, begins its story with a rise in nationalism following the death of Tito.

The war in Bosnia was particularly horrible. Serbs slaughtered Bosniak men and boys, throwing their bodies into mass graves. The Bosniak women were systematically raped. Although it has been 25 years since their war, the scars are not fully healed. Fragments of bone are still being analyzed and those murdered are still being identified. In fact, we were in Bosnia for “Remembrance Day” — a day set aside to remember, to mourn, and to lay to rest those remains that have been found and identified in the previous year.

As we toured Sarajevo, we saw the site of the assassination of  Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the event that triggered World War 1.

We stood outside the library and I felt sick in my heart as I tried to understand what part of a war involved burning all the books and historic documents that had been housed there.

We saw buildings still pock-marked by mortar shells.

Sarajevo Roses dotted the streets. These commemorated places of fatal mortar strikes — red resin filling the scars left and plaques on nearby buildings with the names of those who died.

Parks became cemeteries because they had no other place to bury the bodies.

Just months before I had visited several cemeteries in Normandy. Any cemetery is a sobering place to visit, but these war cemeteries were especially heart-wrenching. The cemetery in Sarajevo stood out because these brave young men were my peers.

“In the midst of life, we are in death.” (Book of Common Prayer)

From the start, Amy, the pastor organizing the trip, had said this was a non-proselytizing trip. In the context of Bosnia’s history, it made sense that this trip would not involve talk of religion. We were to be the hands and feet of Christ, ministering to the people of a wounded country. Our actions were our words.

I had an advantage over the others on the trip. I had a little bunny to remind me of the sorrow.

 

The Journey of Tuga and Aleluja — part one

Part One of what I tried to say in church:

This past Lent I carried a little brown rabbit in my pocket every day.

I named him Tuga, the Bosnian word for sorrow. His purpose was to remind me of the season, of the pain in this world, even when we can’t see it because it is hidden in a person’s heart — or in a pocket.

Tuga had come to me as part of a set. The other rabbit, a white one, I named Aleluja, a word we aren’t supposed to say during Lent. I hid Aleluja on Ash Wednesday, planning to bring him out again on Easter Sunday.

So Tuga was my companion for 40 days.

I carried him with me on my walks.

He was with me when I cooked, when I did laundry, when I read.

He went with me to swim meets, staying in my pocket while I officiated from the bulk head or along the deck.

Often I would reach down to pat my pocket and feel the hard corners of his ears, reminding myself that he was there — and why he was there. Or I would put my hand in my pocket and turn him over and over, like a fidget toy.

You see, in 2014, in the early hours of the morning on Ash Wednesday, my oldest brother, Stewart, died of a heart attack.  I went through the Lenten season that year feeling numb. Everywhere I went, I saw people talking and laughing, but I felt like my heart had, at least temporarily, turned to stone.

Stewart

For me, the anniversary of Stewart’s death isn’t a specific date. It’s Ash Wednesday.

Tuga, in 2017, reminded me of that Lent.

In fact, I had hidden Aleluja behind a picture of Stewart. Life hidden behind death. Sorrow in the midst of life.

When I was packing to go to Bosnia some months later, trying to choose only the barest of essentials because I needed to fit two weeks worth of stuff into one backpack, at the last minute, I grabbed Tuga and Aleluja off the shelf in my bedroom where they had been since Easter Sunday.

While some people worried that it would be risky to travel there, I wasn’t afraid. I was going to a place that had been scarred by war. Tuga would remind that the people I would meet bore scars — but those scars may be hidden in their hearts.

(Tune in for part two tomorrow.)