Sunday, November 30, 2014

Prepare the Way

After a relaxing thanksgiving with family in Newton, and a great trip to visit friends in Lawrence, Sunday morning came too soon.  First Sunday of Advent meant first Sunday of the winter quarter meant first Sunday that I’m teaching primary Sunday school.

6:30 a.m. and I’m on the couch cracking the teacher’s book for the first time.  Anne Marie snuggles up to me.  “What is our lesson about this morning, Mom?”  I actually have no idea.  “Let me look.”

“Mom, are you looking?  What are we doing in Sunday School?”

I read through the lesson.  It’s a new format due to the new Mennonite curriculum called Shine.  It’s wonderful, but takes some getting used to.  Posters here.  Printables online.  Student sheets in a packet there.  Wooden story figures where?  Advent wreath?  Snack? 

“Oh and mom?  There’s a game that our teachers play, and we all really like it.  They get one pack of Skittles – it goes a long way – and hand us one or two if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Yeah, the Skittles aren’t happening.

In the kitchen, Nate sees the smoke curling out of my ears and asks, “Is the snack putting you over the edge?” 

“No, it’s just that there are 13 or 14 tasks to put together here.  Too much preparation!” I grumble.

At church, Anne Marie, (my consultant,) and I head down to the Sunday school room for the first time.  It’s cute; covered in 70's Thanksgiving photos.  I had told the old teacher to leave them up, but it’s Advent, and these definitely have to go.  My helper is doing good work, but time is flying and we rush upstairs to cover in the nursery for another family and find a friend an Ibuprofen.  Anne Marie plays with the baby.  I sort posters.

Unexpectedly the nursery duty family walks in.  Anne Marie excuses herself to go sit with friends.  I wander out to the lobby.  Pastor Tonya’s sermon has already started.  I decide not to walk in to the service half-way through and head downstairs to the basement.  I take down “Becoming God’s People” and put up “Journeys with Jesus.”  I feel better.

In the storage room, I rummage around and find a 50's manger scene and royal blue felt.  I bring them back and set up the crèche in the worship corner.  The felt goes back to the storage room.  The dark green satin cloth that worked for fall will work for Advent too. 

As I walk around the church basement, I notice things.  The coffee is brewed and waiting patiently on the counter – caf and decaf.  The powdered cream, sugar, Sweet ‘n’ Low, and Stevia.  The new Japanese hot water dispenser and two types of fair trade tea.  The creamy hot chocolate for the kids swirls periodically.  Two cups lie ready for the first eager hands to press the dispenser.  Now quiet and dark, the kitchen rests, prepared.

The seating area has been transformed for an adult Advent class.  An Advent verse hangs above the screen.  A fake green Advent wreath nestles in beside the projector.  Oh yes, I still need one of those.

Outside the restroom, a ping-pong tournament bracket scribed by a child hangs ready and waiting. The prayer room across the way has a corner lamp lit and the table decorated nicely, inviting me inside.  I walk through the quiet basement.  Prepare ye the way.

In the company of these offerings, my "13 or 14 preparation tasks" seem like fitting gifts to the Christ child.  Plus, I only have a few left.

I take four humble tea lights out of my church bag that I found in the sex drawer beside my bed.  These four in a line will do just fine as our Advent wreath. 

I start the music on the CD player, “Jesus brings us hope.”  He does.  He does.  I sketch a rough list, my order of operations, which will mean the difference between confidence and disorganization this first time out.

The children come in with smooth hot chocolate.  They trace and cut out their attendance hands. They tell me who is here today and who is not.  They ask if I’ll keep reading the story that the last teacher started.  Yes.

We pass around a mystery box.  We build a crooked road out of blocks and walk it while praying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  The kids that aren’t walking kneel down along the path and carefully fix the road.  Their humble attention to the job of preparing and repairing the road is as prayerful as the words we keep repeating.  “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Head to the worship center.  We light our first candle.  We tell the story from the new Shine Bible.  We straighten the road (my scarf.)  We make low the mountains (the blocks, again, love them.)  We imagine a shepherd carrying a lamb.  We wonder how God never grows tired.  We think of comforting words we could share with others.

Back to the table.  The mystery box turns out to be a care package.  Granola bars, mittens, and band-aids.  Why are there Kleenex here?  To wipe your nose, they reply.  I reference Gilead by Marilynne Robinson where Reverend Ames recalls how God will wipe away all the tears from our faces and that is exactly what will be required.  The children stare at me innocently. 

While I cut apples and read to them, they munch on snacks and draw pictures of themselves giving comforting words like “You’re a great friend,” and “I hope you’re feeling better.”

Too soon, it is time to leave, and we sing a song of peace and I bless them, word for word right out of the teacher's book, but with no less emotion and good intention.

We clean up, gather up, and I watch my lambs fly off. 

Comfort, O comfort my people.
In the wilderness prepare a way for the Lord

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?
The valleys shall be lifted up.
The mountains and hills made low.

Then the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
And all people shall see it together

Here is your God.
Prepare the Way.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Be Well

How can we be all right in our own skin?  Last week at the soup kitchen, we saw Kaylin Smith (name changed) from our church.  Now this was initially uncomfortable.  I’m not used to knowing the people I serve.  I hadn't seen Kaylin for several months, and sure enough she waved vigorously from her seat at us.  I walked over cautiously, my welcome smile plastered to my face.  She introduced me to her 'adopted' mom, dad, sister and cousin, but they did not make eye contact.  As I left to go serve, she followed me out.

I haven't been feeling well, she confided, showing me her arms, exposed in a sleeveless shirt.  It was the middle of November and borderline chilly in the room, but she said she was burning up.  I'm breaking out in something, she said, pointing to a few red bumps across her upper arms.  Her arms didn't alarm me, but her face was beet red.  I had started to sympathize and ask questions, when Jane, the soup kitchen coordinator, walked by.

Kaylin immediately repositioned herself in front of Jane, and repeated her whole story of heat and arm rashes.  Jane was busy and brusquely said, "You're welcome to go wash off with cold water in the restroom," and was gone.  Kaylin hadn't thought of that and disappeared.

I went to help out in the kitchen.

Later in the meal, I took off my plastic gloves and went to sit with Tony and Robert.  Tony was wearing KU gear from head to toe, an annoying habit he shares with about a third of all Kansans, regardless of economic level.  Robert was large and quiet, but he later told us stories about his game warden days at Cheny Lake.  Now he didn't have the means to go hunting, but back in the day, he'd have shot himself a turkey for Thanksgiving.

I left the kids with my husband, and went back to the kitchen to see if there were any more duties serving seconds.  We were just running out of food.  (Why had our family eaten?)  I felt bad for the five meals we'd used up, when folks were getting turned away at the counter with their 'to-go' requests. 

One woman came late and didn't get a meal at all, but we gave her a whole pack of sandwich cookies and some applesauce cups.  She thanked us kindly.  Jane had already washed all the dishes while we were serving, so there wasn't much to do except gather the troops and head home.

Kaylin rushed up to me.  Esther, tell Jane it worked!  What worked?  Washing off with cold water!  It cooled off my rash, and I feel better.  So Jane, originally from Egypt and Syria, where the Orthodox Christian communities are comfortable with healing in the name of Christ, had effectively told Kaylin, Be well! 

Kaylin showed me her arms again.  They feel better!  They looked the same, but her face was markedly less flushed.  Oh, and Esther, tell the church to pray for me, she continued.  I got a flu shot last week, and I think it made me sick.  And I've just found out that I have a bunch of allergies. 

As she listed her allergies, I listened, that same welcome smile plastered on my face.  I thought of Jane, rushing by, healing in her wake.  Go and wash with cold water.  It sounded like something Jesus would say.

The next morning, I woke up with a rash on my palms.  (The irritation had begun before the soup kitchen, so it wasn't caused by the plastic serving gloves.)  The now visible small white bumps made me panic, and I spent time on WebMD ruling out many strange and scary diseases with Google Images. 

Nathan was annoyed by my non-attention to getting ready for church; I was still in my pajamas.  I read to him, if you see any of these signs: facial swelling, tightness of chest, difficulty breathing, or loss of consciousness, take me to the emergency room immediately. 

"Do you just want to go to the ER right now?" he asked.  His humor broke my concentration, and I went to get dressed for church.

Over pizza after church, I told the story of Kaylin's healing, and my own rash (and need for healing.)  The man beside me said not to touch his pizza.  What is causing this, the others wondered?  I admitted that I had ruled out everything but stress.  Why are you stressed, they simply asked.  I told them the short version: work. 

The older woman across from me, another Jane, promptly took me through a yoga pose that included arms over head, breathing in and out.  At her insistence, I did it with her.  The high school girl beside me smiled good-naturedly as my elbows extended into her space.

I identify with Kaylin, I said.  It's hard to be well.  We get rashes because we're stressed and we stress out because we have rashes.  The other Jane told me to keep practicing my breathing.  My neighbor asked me once again not to touch him or anyone he loves.  He was kind of joking, but his words stung.  It's no fun being a pariah.  I really identified with Kaylin.

I went home and slept hard.  That evening a friend came over and wanted feedback on his radio show.  I made hot pretzels with my kids and their cousins.  We all played a game and then watched Napolean Dynamite, a celebration of super nerds and friendship, each finding joy in their own way.

That night I went to bed happy.  I was loved.  My palms might be getting better.  We were praying for Kaylin.  Jane and Jane were looking out for us.  My sister with eczema called back with medication advice.  

It's hard to be all right in our own skin.

But we need to get dressed for church anyway.  We need to be embraced anyway.  We need warm meals, cold water, deep breaths, and lots of prayers.  We need to be told, Go and wash.  Rise and take your mat.  Your sins are forgiven.                       

As Kaylin left the soup kitchen on Saturday night, she was grinning and carrying three bundles of flowers she had won.  I watched her go, admiring her happiness.  The flowers were beautiful and so was her face.  Go my sister.  Be well.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Home and Gone Again: Everything Can Change

A book review of Gone Girl and Home

One third of the way through Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, I thought, "How suspenseful!  I deserve an escapist page-turner in my life right now."  I would curl up with this book every night - sometimes even before I put the kids to bed.  The ingenious "he said/she said" style kept me tearing through "just one more" of the short chapters.  Two thirds of the way through the book, I woke up from a bad dream and said, enough!  The book had taken a sharp plot twist, and the sin of the unfaithful, inattentive husband was replaced by a deeper darker plotting evil.  

The evil that the book sought to highlight was the way the wife hoped to frame the husband and bring about his unjust demise through the Missouri death penalty.  But the thing that was keeping me up at night was her wish to disappear, to slowly plot and finally carry out a complete disappearance.  Who hasn't wanted to disappear?  I just don't have a neglectful husband to pin it on.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  (Phillipians 4:8)

These words popped into my head that morning when I woke up from the dream.  I promptly set the book in the "leaving the house" pile and drove to work with a lighter heart. 

It took me two more days to pick up the sad-looking book, that I had so quickly set aside when distracted by Gone Girl.  Home by Marilynne Robinson.  I had read her "sibling" book, Gilead, years ago and liked it, but remembered little.  Now this was a book.  True, honorable, just, and pure.  Pleasing, (but not titillating,) commendable, and worthy of praise.  I set my mind on these things.

At the outset of Home, Jack, lost to the family for two decades, has sent notice that he is coming home.  Old papa, Reverend Boughton, is beside himself with joy, grief, and anticipation.  This has been his lifelong prayer.  He later admits to Jack, that if he had never seen his son again, he may have doubted the goodness of the Lord.

Glory, the younger sister, now exactly my age - and the age of my mother when she broke down and wept at the dinner table for her black sheep brother,- is home taking care of Papa.  This book resonated truth.  A happy, church-going family mystified by the youngest son, who is mischievous and devious and never around.  He finally disappears altogether, leaving behind an illegitimate child that the family tries to save, but fails.

That Jack is the darling and heartache of the family is not hard for me to understand.  My uncle, James, played this role in his family of eight also.  My mother, a younger sister, looked up to him with the same adoration that Glory bestows on her older brother. 

As endearing as it is to see Jack come home and get to know his younger sister for the first time as adult to adult, it is maddening the way the Boughton family keeps its secrets.  They pry not, lest they be pried against.  What I wouldn't have given for a good "Come to Jesus" conversation, where the truth would finally, painfully be laid out on the table.  What happened to you?  Why are you wounded?  Where is your wife and family?  Why aren't they with you?  What did I ever do wrong to you to make you carry this pain, this guilt?  What do you need from me now to help you forward from here into a brighter future?

Alas, these questions go unasked and unanswered.  Jack asks his father, Reverend Boughton, and his namesake, Reverend Ames if they believe in predestination.  The men pontificate awkwardly, (everyone is always cautious around Jack,) but it is Lila, Ames' uneducated wife, who hasn't seemed to even follow the heady conversation, who says, "A person can change.  Everything can change." 

Jack responds, "Thank you, Mrs. Ames.  That's all I wanted to know."  And we are relieved that she said this, but we ache because it does not come from the elder pastors, the fathers who Jack is seeking to both to impress and assure. 

And Jack finally succumbs to despair again.  He is rescued by Glory from a drunken suicide attempt, and heads out into the world again, leaving his siblings to gather and comfort their dying father.

I was not satisfied with the ending.  I hoped for greater things for intelligent, sensitive Jack.  My uncle James came back to the fold, securely and definitely.  He joined a Presbyterian church in Shaker Heights, Cleveland, and spent winter weekends writing poetry through the brief seasons that cancer ravaged his body.  Thus my mother's tears at the dinner table were tears of both gladness and sorrow.

But Jack.  Will he make it?  The urge to annihilate is strong.  Will he get back together with his family, the black woman and son he never told us about?   Jack kept an eye on the race riots in Montgomery, but never stood up to the unconscious racism that the old man expressed.  My uncle James had Lynne in his life.  I was so wishing for Della to come back into Jack's.  But she doesn't arrive until after he's left.  And Glory is surprised and warm - but lets them drive off again.  Imagine!  This is a book of unspoken questions, unopened letters, deep love, and missed communication.  It was frustrating for me, that's for sure.  In my family, we open letters.  We ask hard questions.

My favorite scene is when Jack nervously dons his self-dry-cleaned suit and heads to Reverend Ames' church on a Sunday morning.  His sister and father wait with baited breath for him to return, but by 2:00 the food is cold and Glory goes looking.  She finds Jack sitting in the barn in the old family car, despondent.  The sermon was about unfaithfulness, and it may as well have been directed straight to him.  He was so ashamed.  He tells Glory, "I thought about putting my jacket over my head as I left."

Glory and her father are furious.  (That made me happy.  Let's see some emotion already!)  Reverend Boughton has wished for nothing more than to preach peace to the anxious heart of his son, and when his soul mate is given the chance to do just that, he foils it, badly. 

Now this is a father that I can relate to.  This is a feisty sister, much like my mother, who would do anything to defend and bring home the sheep that was lost. 

And so, I close this lengthy reflection with a sigh and a smile.  A smile that there are sisters who still wait.  There are fathers who still pray.  There are friends who make mistakes, and there are wives who surprise us.  There are children who possess wisdom beyond their elders.  There is injustice, but there is the hope for justice.  Glory hopes that someday, her nephew, young mixed-race Robert will come back and find her.  I wish she'd go find him.  But I am glad that she has hope.

I'm glad that Gone Girl is still on the "leave the house" pile, and that the movie is deleted from my Netflix cue.  I haven't missed it, and I'm sleeping peacefully at night.  There are too many souls who struggle with their place in this world, to know if there is hope in their existence.  Who wonder are they good enough?  Are they strong enough?  Are they loved enough to last another day?  I refuse to be entertained by a shallow thriller which makes use of this desperation.  Instead I applaud Jack.  I applaud the effort it took him to come home at all.  I applaud the tenderness with which he treated his sister and father, I applaud the courage to go to church again, the courage to seek out a way forward for his family.  I join Glory and Lila and Della in their hope for Jack.  May he gain the security of worth that has evaded him his whole life.  And if not for Jack, for Robert.  Will America be a place where young Robert can thrive?  Everything can change.