A Confession for Lent

It is not easy to follow Jesus, who resisted the temptations in the desert wilderness. It is not easy, ever, to hear the voice of one’s own, tempting, shadow self and choose something else.

I recently had personal experience with this, and I want to tell you about it, as a kind of Lenten confession.  And because for me it was an experience of grace.

Next Sunday is my birthday.  And on that day, all four of my husband’s adult children are coming over – not to celebrate me at all, but to present my dear husband Ivan with a great surprise. Ivan’s older son David lives near a planetarium in North Carolina that is undergoing renovation.  By his generosity, David is going to endow the planetarium with enough money to name the new rotunda of this planetarium after his father, the eminent astronomer, Ivan R. King.  And the gift will be made by the whole King Family, all of whom will be gathering at our house Sunday afternoon to make the announcement to Ivan.  He will be pleased and absolutely delighted.  And I am also pleased.  For his work in astronomy, he deserves this honor and recognition.

But instead of being happy for him, I have been pouting around the house, grumbling under my breath, for his kids coming on the very day that will just ruin my birthday. It is MY day, and they should not be there.  I should be celebrating with MY family and MY friends.  And on and on.

Mutter mutter mutter.

Well, it is Lent, after all, and as I sat at my computer preparing for Ash Wednesday and choosing the readings for that day of repentance, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the computer screen.  And as I looked at it, a voice inside my head said, “Judy, is this the kind of person you want to be?”  I thought about it. Do I want to be mean-spirited?  Do I want to pout and spoil what might be the biggest surprise of Ivan’s life?  I will have had lots of birthdays—76 of them.  How many times will all four of his kids come to honor Ivan in anticipation of his 90th birthday, later this year, with such a beautiful gift?

What kind of person am I?  What kind of person do I want to be?

When I considered the questions, the anger melted, and I realized I wanted to be the kind of person who graciously welcomes my husband’s offspring and welcomes his celebration.  I want to be the kind of person who says, “It’s not about me – or at least, not all about me.”

The reflection faded, and I returned to work.

This stuff really works!

No Fishing

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I was invited to lunch recently by my friend and favorite curmudgeon Maury, who loves to go fly-fishing.  I asked him what he did with all the flies he caught.  He threatened not to pay for my lunch.

I seem to have problems with the concept of fishing.

Take, for example, the story of Jesus saying to Peter and Andrew and James and John, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of humankind.” I really have a hard time with the language that equates inviting people to be followers of Jesus with fishing.

This is how I understand fishing:

You have a good line.

Then you put a sharp hook at the end of it.

You bait your hook.

You throw the hook out in hopes of snagging some poor fish.

When you get a tug on the line, you haul the poor sucker into the boat, whomp him on the head until he’s dead,  take him home, slit open his guts, and  then cook him for supper.

 

This is certainly not my understanding of what winning people for the church or for Jesus is all about!

You don’t throw them a line.

You don’t try to hook ‘em.

You don’t bait the hook.

You don’t pull them in while they’re fighting for their lives.

You certainly don’t bash them over the head and eat them for dinner!

So, dear reader, how do you follow Jesus’ invitation to win folks over, to invite them into fellowship, to be a vehicle for their call to join you in discipleship?

You tell me.  I welcome your responses.

The White Cat

white-catIt seldom snows very much in New Haven, Connecticut; the city is too close to Long Island Sound.  But one winter when I was there studying for the ministry, it snowed.  More than usual.  I sat at my table and looked out my second-story window at the snow below and was grateful I did not have far to trudge in it to class and even more grateful I did not have to drive in it.  There was enough Seattle-memory in me to make me scared of snow-driving.

One day as I watched the snow from my warm campus apartment, I noticed the white cat.  He was so white that in the snow, he just disappeared.  I almost missed seeing him.  Only the fleeting glimpse of something white moving about in the stillness of the snow caught my eye.

The cat was homeless.  And he had a limp.  The story around the apartments was that he was deaf and had been injured by a car he could not hear coming.  No one could agree about the age of the cat, , but we all agreed that he was not very friendly.  We would reach down to pet him, and he would hiss at us and then limp away as fast as he could. He was afraid not only of cars but also of people.

People attending  divinity school are not ordinary people.  They have been called by God into an extra-ordinary life of service, and they have dedicated three years of their lives to study (and to pay – somehow – the high tuition the divinity school charged for the privilege).  Deb, who lived in the apartment across from mine, was one of those extra-ordinary people.  She had been a forest ranger in Oregon before hearing a call to ministry, and she had an extra-ordinary compassion for all small animals, including the white cat.  Somehow she captured him, crated him, and drove him to the vet, who was able to fix his leg so that he no longer had the limp.  Then she brought him home and fed him and loved him and healed him, from the inside out.

The snow melted, spring came, the dogwood tree outside my window burst into blossom, and one day I was again looking out.  One of the university facilities persons was standing outside, trying to look busy but in fact doing not much of anything.  The white cat ambled up to him and rubbed insistently against his leg, demanding to be petted.  At last the man reached down and scratched the cat between his ears.  I couldn’t hear him, but I am sure the cat was purring.

Then the cat leaped up in joy, and danced away.  The snow was not all that had melted.  The stony broken heart of the cat had turned into trusting love.  I was a witness to grace.

Dandelions

dandelionsThe days are so short during December that I end up, more often than not, walking LouLu in the dark.  I carry a flashlight, she sports a little tiny light on her harness, and off we go,  poop bags and dog cookies in my pocket and leash in hand.  That’s not so bad, because I can layer sweaters and sweatshirt with pockets for all the paraphernalia required.  I can handle cold, dark weather.

However, on the days it rains – which are too many! – then I have a problem.  I can put a raincoat on LouLu, so she stays somewhat dry (she still has to squat in the wet grass, so her legs get muddy and wet), but my own rain jacket does not cover my legs.  And if I wear my hood, I lose track of reality on either side of me.  To make things even worse, when I lean over, shining the flashlight on the stuff I am scooping up, I get wet on my behind.  I come home soggy and cold, and, in spite of vigorous toweling of LouLu, the room remains perfumed with Eau de Chien wet (I don’t know the French for “wet”) for quite a while.

But today’s walk was different.  First of all, I went out earlier, when the sun was shining on the tops of the tall trees.  And before I went out, I was in the back yard, cleaning up after LouLu in anticipation of the worker who would be coming tomorrow.  When I looked around at what I thought were merely forlorn plants, I got a real surprise.  A brave bunch of daffodils was already up, their yellow blooms still tight and not ready to open, but waiting.  Did they think it was February already?  Or do the daffodils know something I don’t?

I’ve been pretty bummed since the outcome of the Presidential election.  Maybe it is time to take a broader view of things. Maybe it is time to let myself see signs of hope.  So, strapping on the harness and attaching the leash, my pockets full of cookies and plastic bags, LouLu and I started out.  With every step I took, my right knee complained, but I ignored it.  And my swollen, arthritic left hand holding the leash complained, but I ignored that, too.  I was bound and determined to look for hopeful signs.

And I found them.  About two blocks east from my house I saw two little trees bravely abundant in pink blossoms.  And about three blocks further on there was a camellia bush with a number of bright red flowers.  Perhaps this year’s “bleak mid-winter” will not be so bleak after all.

When you look for signs of hope, instead of reasons to complain, you will be blessed.  I am here to testify to that.  Thanks be to God for the blessing of daffodils.  (Tonight I think I just might wrap a blanket around the blessed things.  It is predicted to be very cold.)

A Sad Poem for the Rest of Us: Post Election Reflection

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LouLu, during happier times at the Magnuson Park dog beach in October.

LouLu the Wonder Dog and I were taking our evening walk recently when I noticed, not for the first time, a Hillary sign in a neighbor’s front yard.  Because it was after Election Day, and I was still sad that my candidate had not won, I began to muse on the sound of her name and how I was feeling.  As I kept walking, the rhythm of my steps inspired the rhythm of what follows.  I do not usually write poems, but that evening the words just came to me.

For what it’s worth, I showed my poem to husband Ivan, the Astronomer-who-knows-everything, and he wrinkled up his nose and told me said poem was nothing but doggerel.

Perhaps LouLu also inspired it.

A Sad Poem for the Rest of Us

Hillary, Dillary, Pudding and Pie.
Losing for president raised a great cry:
“Can all of Trump’s minions
And all of Trump’s schemes
Return us again to the Land of our Dreams?”

Hillary, Dillary, Pudding and stuff.
I for one have had quite enough
Of Trump’s ranting and raving.
His words hurt my ears.
He’s preying upon our very worst fears.

Yet the people have spoken
And can I complain?
I would like to, but then
What have I got to gain?

We’ve got him, I guess
For the next four long years.
The elephants are parading
In our circus of tears.

Being Scared

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It is mid-September as I write this, but already Halloween candy and house decorations are being featured in department and grocery stores, and kids and their parents are (no doubt) talking about what costume they will  wear for the great Candy-Raid holiday.  I love Halloween.  I love the silliness of it, the spookiness of it, the sheer autumn-ness of it.  I love pretending to be scared when little goblins appear before my front door, demanding treats (which I willingly give over).

Most of us do not take Halloween seriously, and prefer to think of it as just one more opportunity to eat sugar and remember that it presages the end of Daylight Savings Time.  But we could see Halloween as the holiday in which we practice confronting our worst fears – whether it be a haunted house, a haunted life, or our own mortality.

There is something to be said for confronting one’s fears.  It takes courage.  The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, writes in her book, The Places That Scare You:  “The essence of bravery is being without self-deception.”    That intrigued me.  What, after all, is a Halloween mask if not a deception?  But are the masks we wear in our ordinary lives self-deceiving?  At Halloween should we take courage to look at ourselves without our masks?  The mask may not be so scary as what we fear lies beneath it.

Yet facing our fears need not be so depth-defying.  A friend once confessed to me that he was so afraid of the dark that he always slept with a light on in his bedroom.  Now this friend was a grown man, not a child;  I was surprised.  Recently he determined to cure himself of his fear of the darkness.  When the weekend came, he packed up his tent, some food, and clothing, and set out alone to spend the night outside, in a dark place in one of the Blue River valleys near Ephrata, Washington.

That night he got comfortable in his sleeping bag, calmed himself that the sounds he heard were not animals threatening to harm him, and then prepared to brave the darkness.  He had barely fallen asleep when he was awakened by a bright light shining in his eyes.  A full moon had risen over the cliff; it was as bright as morning.

He chuckled that maybe God did not want him to overcome his fear after all.  He said to me, “God gave me a night light.”

While I do not believe in a micro-managing God, I do believe that what is dark is frightening (it triggers our worst imaginings), and that God can be present to us in the midst of our fears.  And often is.  In fact, sometimes it requires an experience of fear or darkness for us to call upon God.

May you seek to be brave about the dark areas without and within, and may God’s light show you who you truly are – beloved.  And may your Halloween this year be a celebration of darkness, moonlight, candy corn, costumes, carved and lighted pumpkins, and children extorting sweets in the traditional way by saying, “Trick or Treat!”

The Olympics, Baseball, and Life

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Like many of you, I watched some of the Olympic sports on TV.  My favorites were diving, gymnastics, and volleyball; I didn’t care much for boxing.  The stakes were very high to earn the bronze, silver, and gold medals, and competition was fierce.  I was reminded of my high school days when I competed – not in sports, but in music.  Year after year, during my four years of high school, I practiced Mozart concertos on my French horn and played them from memory at state contests.  The first year I competed, I blanked on a note in the middle of the piece, stopped cold, then started again. I got a II.  I was devastated until the next year, when I got a I.

Competitions can be merciless.  Either you perform at the highest level, as judged by someone expert in the field, or you don’t.  Either you come in first in the race or you don’t.  There is no room for grace, no allowance for errors.  Errors count against you, no matter who you are.  Competitions are impersonal.  They pit you against others, but also against your best self, and they can be terrible anxiety-producing. One’s self-esteem can depend on getting the gold, being the best, winning the contest.

I like watching baseball better than watching the Olympics. Even when the game is on the line, and the Mariners win (or blow it) it in the 9th, for me it is not only the win that counts, but the persistence, the perseverance, the staying in the game.  And not only today’s game, or yesterday’s game, but game after game after game.  Baseball is for the season, and I am in it with the Mariners for the whole season, cheering when they win, whining when they don’t, but faithfully  watching them do their best, game after game.  It’s about hanging in there with my favorite boys of summer.  And at the end of the season, whether or not they make the playoffs, I can always say, “Wait till next year!” and know that when summer comes around again, I’ll be a Mariners fan for real.

I love pitchers’ duels; I love the drama of pitcher-against-batter, the aching psychology of the staring, scowling pitcher and the proud batter showing off his muscles.  I love the epic run from first to second to third and then to be safe at home.  I love the roar of the crowd, the rhythm of the encouraging clapping, and I am just in love with the King’s Court of bright, optimistic yellow K’s.  Baseball in Seattle is what it means to be  home for summer.

Life  is real.  It is not a game, with its own somewhat capricious rules.  Life is for the long haul.  Not seasons, alone, but years that cluster into seasons: childhood, youth, middle age, old age; learning, trying, accomplishing, relinquishing; wondering, knowing, understanding, embracing the mystery.

There are no prizes, but there is grace, abounding every day.  Morning comes after nighttime, and dreams are but dimly remembered.  Colds and flu happen, but one survives them and awakens one day surprised and delighted that one can again breathe freely.  Energy builds and then wanes.  And as bodies grow older and less vigorous, the soul grows through its hurts, betrayals, loves, and commitments.  We have this life.  It is a gift; it is a multitude  of gifts.  But it is not a contest.  No one wins; we are all mortal, and we will all die.  How we have lived will be judged by the one who says to us, day after day, “You are already a winner, because I love you and have chosen you to be my beloved.”

So, hooray for the Olympic medalists, whatever nation they represent.  And hooray for the home team that wins the baseball game, whatever league they are playing in.  And hooray for all of us trying to live lives according to the purposes of God.  It’s God who keeps score, and God always gives us extra innings, extra points, and second chances.  Because it is God who knows that life is real, because it really comes from God.