An Advent Prayer: SheLoves — December 2017

Just click right here to finish this prayer with the readers at SheLoves.

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We’re halfway there, Lord. Halfway.

We’re walking through this season of waiting we call Advent,

this season filled with songs in a minor key, and we’re grateful for it.

 

More than many in recent memory, this particular Advent feels

heavy, confusing, and terribly sad.

The world around us is rife with tension,

with pain and loss and too many people living with heartache and fear.

And some of those suffering are friends inside our own circles,

sisters and brothers we know and love.

Some of that heartache and fear is even inside of us.

 

So these four weeks that we set aside

to wait, to look for your coming,

to remember the story that centers us —

these four weeks are a gift in the midst of all that is not right,

all that still needs the redeeming work of a Savior.

 

As we move through this time we’ve set aside to pause,

this time of intentional waiting and wondering, we want it to be a time

of making ready, of being ready.

We want to be ready for that tiny baby,

for that holy family,

for those shepherds and wise men,

for those heavenly singers, the ones that lit up the night sky

with a song of good news!

 

So, Lord, as we wait together,

this cluster of sisters who live all around this world you’ve created,

will you help us to be on the look-out for that angelic light?

To look for it with hope, and with expectation,

and most of all, with grateful hearts?

 

Because, Lord — in the midst of the busyness,

the gift-wrapping and the cookie baking,

the family gatherings and the carol-singing,

in the midst of our own personal struggles and worries,

we need you to help us hang onto hope,

and to firmly grab hold of gratitude.

 

We confess that sometimes we forget.

We forget to say ‘thank you,’

to slow down, to look up, to look around

and tell you and one another

that we are grateful.

We are so very grateful for this story of ours.

 

We are thankful for its life-changing power,

and we are thankful for its grittiness.

Ours is a story that fairly reeks of real life — life as we know it,

life as we live it, and as we see it in the world around us:

families living under oppression, poverty, homelessness,

the murder of innocent children,

an unexpected, even scandalous pregnancy.

 

And this is the story that you — our Great God, Creator of the Universe —

this is the story that you deliberately chose to step right into.

You chose to experience this life, this human life here on planet earth,

in all its crazy mixed up-ness.

 

And you chose a girl like Mary,

and a man like Joseph, to be the ones who would help to tell the story.

So we thank you for these good people, these good parents.

And we ask you to open our hearts, settle our minds,

and learn what they have to teach us. . .

Wretchedly Familiar: When Life Feels Unfair — SheLoves, November 2017

Have you ever had a really bad day, or an even worse week? How about a terrible month? Try multiple months? Yeah. That’s kinda like where I’ve been this year. So I did some reflecting on that over at SheLoves this month. The theme this month? “Return.” Please come on over and join us!

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Wasn’t it just two months ago that I wrote about lament in this space? I checked, friends, and yes, it was. In September. Today, I find myself needing to return to those songs-in-a-minor-key for a while longer. October’s theme opened my sad heart to a season of rejoicing, for remembering all of the gracious things in my life for which I can joyfully and loudly thank God.

But at this moment in time, as I sit down to write for November, I find the syllables of lament are oh-so-necessary. I am returning to the language that lets me enter my own sadness, that gives me permission to fully experience the pain of this moment on the journey that is my life.

One month ago yesterday, an ER doc told me that I had blood clots in both lungs and that one of them had caused an ‘infarct,’ which means tissue death (!!), thus causing the sudden, severe back pain of the previous 30 hours. He sent me home that evening with a new blood thinning medication, to be taken twice a day for the next month. I was also told to visit a long list of specialists, including the hematologist who had been working with me for the last seven years. He would prescribe a new drug at a new dosage to try and prevent this from happening again.

Because, you see, it had already happened once. Which is exactly why this particular ‘returning’ was not on my bucket list. The first event in 2010 put me on the only blood thinner available back then – Coumadin, a drug difficult to manage and which complicated my life for five years. In 2015, I managed to tear a muscle in my abdomen, causing significant internal bleeding and sending me to the hospital for two days. At that point, they reversed the effects of the Coumadin and took me off blood thinning meds, hopefully forever. Hooray!

Now, I am back on them — this time, for good. There are newer versions today, easier to manage, but not without risk. That is sobering. I am seeing a long list of specialists to rule out any other kind of damage to heart or kidneys and must take it easy for another couple of months. And all of it feels so wretchedly familiar. I did not want this to happen again, but . . . it has.

So now, what do I do about this particular ‘return’ in my life? Part of me wants to put on my big-girl pants and suck it up. That’s my go-to, life-long pattern. It feels familiar and even a little comforting. But the reality is, I am now seven years older than I was the last time this happened. And I’m in a season of grief and loss. SEVEN people close to me have died since my mom’s death in April. Two others (three, if I include myself) have received difficult medical news, all involving ongoing treatment, one with a terminal diagnosis, most likely in the next few years.

I feel inundated by sadness, overwhelmed by all the pain in the world at large and in my circle of family and friends in particular. And far more than action, or even re-action, I find that what I need is . . .

Click right here to discover what is helping in this season . . .

Book of the Year — A Review and a Hearty Recommendation

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Admittedly, I am way behind on my book-reading and reviewing. Some of that is due to illness, a whole lot to long-term grieving, a smidge or two to laziness. 

But this book, I read.

In one sitting.

And so did my husband.

This is, hands down, my favorite book about church, people, love, living life well and true, community, belonging . . . you name it. I read a lot of non-fiction, good books, finely written books, some of them written by friends of mine. Not one of them comes as whisker close to truth as does this fictional compilation of letters. Maybe it’s because our church was going through its own search for a new pastor at the time I received this slender tome. Whatever the reason(s), this one struck a nerve. Better, it struck THE nerve, that one that goes to the core of who we are and begins to resonate when we find true north.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I simply cannot. It is tender, true, sensitive, heart-warming, and yet challenging, in the very best of ways. Is this the kind of pastor I have been? And want to continue to be, in the limited ways that remain available to me? Is this the kind of congregation my community is, or wants to be? Are we wrestling through the hard questions well? Are we welcoming others — all kinds of others?  Are we listening to the Spirit, together?

Built around the seasons of the church year, these 165 pages consist entirely of letters, most of them written by pastor-to-be, then new-pastor, then seasoned-pastor-approaching-his-first-sabbatical-leave Jonas McAnn. It is what is known in the trade as an epistolary novel and it is a hum-dinger. Herewith a sample — then get yourself to your favorite bookstore (clicking on the picture should take you straight to Amazon) and order up a copy . . . or two or three. This would make a perfect gift for every single member of a search committee or a church leadership board.

Maybe these words from the opening letter, written by a crusty woman member of the search committee to all potential candidates will give you a glimpse of the power and beauty I’m talking about. This one was signed by the entire committee (all 4 of them) after several frustrating months. The one candidate who answered honestly is the one they called:

“We do have a few questions for you. Perhaps we’re foolish, but I’m going to assume you love Jesus and aren’t too much of a loon when it comes to your creed. We want theology, but we want the kind that will pierce our soul or prompt tears or leave us sitting in a calm silence, the kind that will put us smack-dab in the middle of the story, the kind that will work well with a bit of Billy Collins or Wendell Berry now and then. Oh, and we like a good guffaw. I’ll be up front with you: we don’t trust a pastor who never laughs — we’ll put up with a lot, but that one’s a deal-killer.

“Here are our questions: We’d like to know if you’re going to use us. Will our church be your opportunity to right all the Church’s wrongs, the ones you’ve been jotting down over your vast ten years of experience. . . Is our church going to be your opportunity to finally enact that one flaming vision you’ve had in your crosshairs ever since seminary, that one strategic model that will finally get this Church thing straight? Or might we hope that our church might be a place where you’d settle in with us and love along-side us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us, and remind us how much God’s crazy about us?

“In other words, the question we want answered is very simple: do you actually want to be our pastor?

“I’m trying to be as straight as I know how: Will you love us? And will you teach us how to love one another? Will you give us God — and all the mystery and possibility that entails? Will you preach with hope and wonder in your heart?

“Will  you tell us again and again about the ‘love that wilt not let us go,” not ever? Will you believe with us and for us that the Kingdom is truer than we know — and that there are no shortcuts? Will you tell us the truth — that the huckster promise of a quick fix or some glitzy church dream is 100 percent BS?” — pp. 5-6

See what I mean? Thank you, thank  you, thank you, Winn Collier for telling it true. And beautifully.

In Praise of Light — SheLoves, October 2017

The theme of the month at SheLoves is ‘LIT.’ This is what came to me as I reflected on that interesting word.

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I love lights — strings of lights. I have about four long ones, composed of large, clear globes in three colors, strung across the arbor outside the back of our home. Every day at about 5:00 p.m., I turn the switch so that their blue, green and white sparkles can be enjoyed as the evening covers the day.

My sister-in-law gave me a string of lights hidden inside colorful paper umbrellas. I loved that little string so much, I immediately hung it above my baking counter in the kitchen.

Just last month, I found a new website that specializes in inexpensive strings of solar-powered white lights. I have woven 5 strands through the low hedges that demarcate the back edge of our property. Every evening, I wait for their twinkling to begin and every evening, I smile as I see them.

Don’t even get me started about Christmas lights, okay? I’ve got bits of light spread all around my house from early December through Epiphany — on the tree, to be sure. But also? Across the mantle, on a smaller counter-top tree, stretched along the top of my china cabinet, around my front door.

Yeah, I love lights. They make me smile, they lift my spirits, they give me hope when I’m feeling down, they remind me that the darkness does not and cannot win, even when all around me says otherwise.

I want to be a person of light, too. Someone who shines, even in the darkness, who holds on firmly to hope and joy, no matter what set of curve balls are being tossed at my head. I want to be someone who is lit from within, someone who carries light with me into every dark and difficult place life’s journey brings my way.

Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes, not so much. I wrote last month about lament and I sometimes think that I could write about that topic no matter what the theme-of-the-month might happen to be. After all, life is hard, people get sick and die, relationships fall apart, addiction is real and sometimes deadly, failure is endemic to the human condition. And our scripture gives us a language for these seasons of sadness.

But.

It is also important and necessary to acknowledge the flip side of that language of lament. It is good to sing songs in a major key, too, and doing so can help us acknowledge the presence of the Light, even in the midst of some dark and scary times.

So today, I want to sing a song in praise of light, to say thank you for the people and places, events and circumstances that have brought light into my life:

To see my list (and to add some of your own, in the comments) please follow this link and join the conversation over there.

31 Days of Photo Journaling: Day One – An Introduction

At the beginning of September, I had such high hopes for this year’s 31-day series. I wrote the introductory theme piece several weeks ago and never got back to add more. So I have decided to change course! I will be joining Kate Montaug’s 5 Minute Friday 31 day group, writing on a particular theme each day of the 31 days of October. Hopefully, it will happen each and every day this month. Time will tell, right?

So here is the intro piece to the first series I planned to write. Who knows? Maybe I’ll try this series idea next year!

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It’s (almost!) October again, and for the sixth year in a row, I am joining Crystal Stine’s 31 Day Challenge, choosing a theme to write on every day of the month. I am trying to be just a tiny bit more intentional about this blog space again, despite the loss of subscribers I experience every time I write here!

This space has been an important part of my life for the last decade and I’d like that to continue. One way for me to do that is to be disciplined about writing short, hopefully pithy, posts on a daily basis whenever the invitation arises. And this invitation is a big one! So . . . “once more, into the breach,” right?

The theme I’ve chosen for this year is Photo-Journaling, something I love to do and can easily transfer here. I take pictures a lot. A lot. And I always have — even before the invention of phone cameras! It’s a way of documenting, remembering and reflecting on my life. My photo folders tell our story as a family, my story as a pastor and as a child of God/wife/mother/grandmother/friend. I have often used my photos to organize my blog posts or my newsletters, weaving words around the pictures as I go. Something about the combination of the photo and the words tells the story more completely.

So here are a few thoughts for day one of our journey together this year. The photo above was taken on one of the walks I take several times each week. My husband and I have headed for the marina in our town quite a lot during the last few weeks and always see something fun/interesting/educational/inspiring when we do. This particular late afternoon was an interesting one. The fog had rolled out about midday, sitting like a lurking giant just beyond the breakwater. It was a low roll, however, leaving space for the clear blue skies which had become our predominant view just a few blocks further inland.

As we walked out on that concrete barrier that protects millions of dollars worth of yachts and fishing boats, a small sailboat was cutting across the water at exactly the right angle for me to capture both the fog and the blue, blue sky behind it. Something about that image grabbed my heart. I saw myself as that little boat, sailing across the vast mystery that is our life as followers of Jesus. Sometimes thick fog blurs my view and feels as though it is limiting my options. But what I need to remember during those times is that the blue sky is still there, somewhere just above me, encircling both my small boat/life and the fog bank, no matter how huge it may appear to be at any given moment. And that boat is heading straight for safe haven, making a bee-line for the harbor entrance. That’s where I want to be — en route home.

Can I hear an ‘amen?’

Making Room for Lament: SheLoves — September 2017

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In the months from April to August of this year, we have attended five funerals and sent a eulogy to be read at a sixth. These were services of worship and remembrance, held in honor of people we loved, people whose lives intersected with ours regularly, even when those lives were very short.

It began with my mom’s death on the 19th of April after a 7-year journey through dementia. At the end of May, we dealt with the shock of an accidental drowning — a 2-year-old grandson in our extended congregational family. That death was followed about five weeks later by the loss of a dear woman friend and leader in our community. She died only 7 months after an abrupt diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.

The week we came back from vacation in early August, we attended an emotional farewell for a dear 8-year-old boy who was born with only half a heart, and whose life had a lasting impact on our entire city. At the end of that same week, we listened to parts of a life story we had never heard, as we said good-bye to a faithful woman in our congregation who passed away at the age of 105. In the middle of last month, I received news of the anticipated death of a former colleague and partner in ministry who had a heart attack and a brain bleed while in the physical therapist’s clinic. We traveled 100 miles south to be there for his stunned widow and adult children.

I suppose I should not be surprised that the most self-descriptive word I can come up with these days is, ‘weary.’ Although I ‘do not grieve as those who have no hope,’ I grieve nonetheless. I don’t think I have begun to fully internalize all the facets of my mom’s death, what it means to be an orphan in this world. That truth tells me that there is even less space inside to grieve well for each of the other losses which have left such huge holes in our lives.

So the words I want to amplify in this particular season are the beautiful and necessary words of lament. Those words that speak the pain in us out into the atmosphere, those words that call us to be fully human, acknowledging that it sometimes hurts to be alive when others are no longer breathing beside us. I want to make space inside — and outside — for the tears that bring healing, tears that tell stories, tears that say, “I loved them and I can no longer whisper that truth into their ears.”

So let me say this as loudly and as clearly as written space in an e-magazine will allow: lament is required when we walk through the valley. Imagine that I am using my big-girl, outdoor voice when you read those words, will you? Because this is important: there is no such thing as loss without pain and suffering. The bromides and clichés that are too often bandied about at such times are less than useless. In fact, they can be harmful. People do not want to hear about “God’s plan” when they are in shock, when they are completely exhausted and empty, when they don’t know how they are going to get through the next hour, much less the next year. . . 

Please click here to read the remainder of this reflection and to join the conversation at one of the finest magazines on the interweb.

My Favorite Kind of Story

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Two years ago, I wrote the following review of a book written by a friend of mine named Shawn Smucker. I loved it then and even helped to kick-start his self-publishing journey. Now, a major publishing house has brought out a new edition, with a stunning new cover, but the same wondrous story. It’s a keeper and a repeater, friends, and I encourage you to order yourself a copy — and get one for a friend, while you’re at it!

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It all started with a tree, didn’t it? And that theme of trees winds its way throughout scripture and throughout our lives, unfolding in myriad ways — as metaphor, sustenance, shade, comfort, even horror. The tree.

Shawn Smucker has woven a fantastic and beautiful story about a particular tree, a re-imagining of the story of the tree of life. The story begins unpretentiously, maybe even a little slowly, but if you’ll settle in, let the beauty of his words flow in and around you, I will guarantee you that you’ll be hooked.

Hooked, I tell you!

This is masterful story-telling — intriguing idea, fascinating characters, great conflict and an empathetic look at how very difficult it is for us to lose someone we love. This is, in many ways, a story about death. But do not be deceived: the book is definitely not a downer. It’s a grab-you-by-the-throat, make-you-think-as-well-as-feel, turn-our-ordinary-ideas-on-their-heads kind of book and I highly recommend it to you. Highly.

Samuel is both an old man and a 12 year old boy in this story, an old man looking back at a pivotal summer in his life. A hot, drippy, menacing summer in the valley between two mountain ranges in central Pennsylvania. He has a good friend, a girl named Abra (which happens to be the name of one of Smucker’s daughters, as Samuel is the name of one of his sons). And there is a mysterious neighbor, an even more mysterious stranger, a grieving father, and the memories of a beautiful and loving mom. There is also a carnival, three very strange old women and an antique store, to say nothing of thunder and lightning and ancient, broken trees here and there.

And there is a search here, too, a search that reveals the true hero of this piece. There is also an epic battle between good and evil, and like all good fantasies, some dang good, nail-biting, cliff-hanging scenes sprinkled throughout.

I LOVED this book. And there is just a hint, at the very end, that there might be more of them in the future. Oh, glory!

Get thee to a bookstore or over to Amazon and order this one ASAP. And carve out some weekend time to devour it. Because I’m here to tell you – it’s a tough one to put down!

The Land of Tears — SheLoves, June 2017

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            From The Little Prince: “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
                                                                     — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This land is a place I’ve visited many times over my life, a strange and secret country, indeed.

I could say it feels familiar, except that it doesn’t. Not quite. Each visit is unique, bringing its own sadness, regret, emptiness, and eventually, fullness and replenishment as I wend my way back to the familiar terra firma of ‘regular’ life, whatever the heck that is.

After a winding journey of several years, my mama died from Alzheimer’s disease in April of this year. There have been tears all along the highway of this Thief of Time and Remembering, of course. Oodles of them. But none quite like the ones that spilled that Wednesday afternoon in April, standing by her hospital bed. I saw her leave us — an open-eyed gaze, two loud gasps, followed by the strangest silence I’ve ever experienced. I will be forever grateful that I was able to say good-bye . . . thank you . . . I love you.

Or the tears that sprang to my cheeks as I drove out of a doctor’s parking lot one week later, remembering how I have always planned my medical appointments around mom’s schedule these last few years, and wishing fiercely that she could be next to me in my car just one more time. I know there are many tears that have not yet worked their way into the air that surrounds me, tears I carry in this body, waiting behind my eyelids, behind my heart. Each one, shed or yet to be, remind me that grief is a land of secrets, of strange and sudden surprise.

I understand that losing my last parent at the age of 72 is a rare thing. I am grateful for that truth, grateful for her long life, and for my own, glad that we could be together more closely these last few years. Nevertheless, this feeling of loss is real. It winds its tendrils around me in ways that surprise and perplex me, showing up in simple things — like driving down a particular street or watching a television series we used to enjoy together. It stings when I see the bags of clothing waiting for the Goodwill truck or when I pick up a photograph. Though I’ve been here before, this trip feels particularly treacherous and very, very lonely.

We held her memorial service a full month after her death. It was a lovely afternoon, full of memories, scripture, and sweet, old songs. There were digitized home movies, good Mexican food in our backyard after the service, and lots and lots of shared stories. She would have loved every minute of it. In fact, I’m quite sure she did.

The next morning, life moved on. It was time to be ‘the pastor’ for a while, six years into retirement. I led in worship, preached a charge to our fine new confirmand, then went home and collapsed, eager for some space to weep and rest.

But it was not to be. Why?

To find out why it was not to be, please click on this link and read the rest of this piece over at SheLoves today. Join the conversation!

Let Love Overflow — Transition Sunday 2017

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It’s been a heckuva coupla months. I promised this post almost one month ago and have just today found space to sort it out and edit it for this space. I took a month off from my commitment at SheLoves and my next post there will go live on Saturday of this week — I’ll be back here to set up a linking post later in the week.

But I wanted to get this one done first because that crazy weekend in May was a rich and important one. We said farewell to my mother on that Saturday, with a service, a reception and a dinner at our home, which I wrote about here. The next morning, I led in worship and preached for the first time in a while, although the sermon was more of a homily due to the demands of that particular Sunday in the ongoing life of our community.

We call it Promotion Sunday now — it used to be called Confirmation Sunday, but we added in recognition of all children and young adults making transitions over the summer to a new grade/stage of life. It was rich and wonderful and L O N G, so the sermon, by necessity, was short. The picture above shows off our single confirmand this year, Tyler H, 3rd from the left. And that is our Director of Student Ministries, Anna Beebe on the far left. She has been a spectacular partner to Dick and me as we stepped in to teach 9 students this year. Such a joy that has been for us in a year of change and tumult; we are humbled and grateful to have had this opportunity.

Our Rite of Confirmation includes the reading of a paper by the confirmand(s) on any of the 26 “Building Blocks” in their workbooks. These are the traditional Q & A from the Luther Catechism and Tyler chose to respond to the question: Who is God? He did a wonderful job! Then the confirmand replies to three questions about their faith, kneels to receive a blessing as his family surrounds him. He/she is given a taste of salt and a lit candle as a reminder that they are called to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Then a very personal prayer is prayed over them before the charge/homily is given to the entire class. It has long been one of my favorite Sundays of the church year.

There is a video for the song I mention in the opening paragraph of this homily at the bottom of this inset and the lyrics are posted above it. It’s a wonderful and unusual hymn, absolutely perfect for this Sunday or for any baptism or infant dedication service.

“I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry”
— written by John Ylsvikar

I was there to hear your borning cry,
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
to see your life unfold.

I was there when you were but a child,
with a faith to suit you well;
In a blaze of light you wandered off
to find where demons dwell.

When you heard the wonder of the Word
I was there to cheer you on;
You were raised to praise the living Lord,
to whom you now belong.

If you find someone to share your time
and you join your hearts as one,
I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme
from dusk ’till rising sun.

In the middle ages of your life,
not too old, no longer young,
I’ll be there to guide you through the night,
complete what I’ve begun.

When the evening gently closes in,
and you shut your weary eyes,
I’ll be there as I have always been
with just one more surprise.

I was there to hear your borning cry,
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
to see your life unfold.

This video was produced by a fellow Covenant pastor and worship leader and reflects his mostly white congregation. It is beautifully done — I wish it were a bit more ethnically/racially balanced, but it is lovely, nonetheless.

Let Love Overflow
Philippians 1:1-11
A Homily for the Confirmation Class
May 20, 2017
Diana R.G. Trautwein
Montecito Covenant Church

That’s a really unusual song we’ve just sung, isn’t it? It’s one I happen to like a lot and so I requested it for this morning’s service. Why? Because this is a special day in the life of our community and somehow, the words of this song touch on some of the reasons why.

Promotion Sunday is a day when we celebrate who it is God is forming us to be — all of us, from little to young adult to mid-life to old age. We’re in this thing together and today is a day for remembering that and celebrating it! We belong to God and we belong to one another.

That’s one of the reasons we include the Rite of Confirmation in a Sunday morning service of worship rather than doing it in someone’s backyard after dinner – because it’s important for the community of faith to celebrate together. It’s a good thing for all of us to affirm the work these young people have done in beginning and in completing this two-year course, this intentional time of learning more about what we believe as followers of Jesus Christ.

Rituals, with set words and actions help us to mark out special events, to set them aside and say, “This is important and we want to remember it.” We mark lots of life’s important moments with rites and rituals, don’t we? Baptism, marriage, ordination, death.

Yesterday, we held a special service called A Witness to the Resurrection, a memorial service for a Christian who has died. This one was for my mother, who left this earth last month. These young people right here in front — there were 8 of them for most of the year — they have walked with me on this journey. They have prayed for her and for me, they have asked me how she was doing, how I am doing, they have shown me understanding and grace in so many ways. Teaching them in this class all year has turned out to be one of the greatest gifts during a difficult time in my own life and I am deeply grateful to each and every one of them.

So it is with joy and an extra measure of satisfaction that I offer a few words to them this morning. A charge, if you will, a brief homily that is directed primarily to this small band in the front of the center section. The rest of you are warmly invited to listen in, of course, but these words are for them.

Dylan read a passage for us just a few minutes ago, way back before we acknowledged the graduates and before Tyler was confirmed. It’s from a small letter in the New Testament called Philippians. Eleven verses only, but eleven verses that contain pretty much EXACTLY THE WORDS I would like to say to each of you today.

One of the loveliest things about this small letter is the overall spirit of it. Those of you who have done the New Testament year in Confirmation might remember that there are a bunch of letters in the that part of the Bible, many of them written by a man named Paul. Some of those letters sound a bit angry at times; some of them are intent on working through some of the more complicated parts of what the newly formed church was coming to understand about who Jesus really was and what he came to do on this earth.

But this letter is gentle, encouraging, marked by the deep love that Paul felt for these people who lived in a busy, very diverse city, in a place called Macedonia, which is now a part of the country of Greece in southern Europe. In this letter, Paul uses the word ‘joy’ more times than anywhere else in all his writing – 11 different times. He also uses the name of Jesus a whole lot, something you’ll hear as we walk through it. Joy and Jesus — they go together well and they’re at the heart of what Paul has to say and what I want to say, too.

We start with a word of greeting. Now letters written 2000 years ago sounded a bit more formal than the emails or texts you guys are used to these days. Listen and you’ll see what I mean:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons :

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 One sentence — a single L O N G sentence — tells us who’s writing the letter, who’s getting the letter and then offers a special word of blessing, a very specific greeting of grace and peace — and not just any grace and peace, but grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 Those of you who have been taking sermon notes here during your time as a confirmation student may remember that our former pastor — and your former teacher — Don Johnson, always began his sermons with exactly those words, didn’t he? “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s a grand greeting, don’t you think?

Then Paul goes on to tell these friends how he really feels about them!

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

 I hope you have some people in your life for whom you thank God every time you think about them! I hope there are those for whom you pray with joy. As we’ve grown together this year, you have become those people for me. I thank God for each one of you and I pray for you with joy.

Paul calls his friends ‘partners in the gospel,’ because of how well they worked together, how tightly knit they were to one another, and how they were caring for one another. This was a church that was really clicking, and learning how to be generous. We know this because they sent money to help the big church in Jerusalem and they sent help to Paul when he was in jail.

But you know the line I really love in this part of the passage is the one that talks about confidence. Did you catch that? “. . . being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

 Now this church in Philippi wasn’t perfect — no church is! God chooses human beings to be the church, right? And we humans have this tendency to mess things up from time to time, don’t we? And these folks were no exception to that rule.

But . . . BUT . . . Paul has confidence in them. More accurately, Paul has confidence in God, who is at work within them. Even when they make mistakes, even when they trip and stumble, God is alive in them, completing the work that the Holy Spirit began at the moment they first said ‘yes’ to the gospel of Jesus.

Paul believes in them because Paul believes in the God who is in them.

In his oh-so-good paper, Tyler talked about his experience of being saved at winter camp this year — that’s when Tyler said ‘yes’ to the gospel of Jesus.

Each of you already has or will soon, I hope and pray, say that ‘yes’ yourself. And like Paul, I believe in the God who hears the ‘yes’ you offer, so I believe in you.

The work that begins in you at that moment of ‘yes’ will continue your whole life long and it will be a beautiful thing to see someday. In fact, it already is.

Yesterday, I celebrated with my family and my friends the good work that God did in my mom over her long, long life. Even in her last years, when her mind was so very damaged and her body so frail . . . even then. God was completing the work that had begun in her when she was a teenager, just like you.

God is in the business of finishing what God starts, believe me when I tell you this. And I am confident that the good work God is doing in you, my young friends . . . that work will continue your whole life long, until that day when you see Jesus face to face. Which is exactly where my mom is now. 

Finally, we come to the last few verses of this scripture passage, which get to the heart of it all, and they offer the main point of my charge to each of you today.

Listen to Paul’s words:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound — may overflow — more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

 That is all one sentences, friends and it is a jam-packed one, too.

It all begins with LOVE. The kind of love that comes only from God, the kind of love that changes hearts and minds, the kind of love that changes churches and cities, the kind of love that can change the world, if we let it loose, if we live it, if we grab hold of it and hang on for dear life.

So the most important thing I can say to you this morning, the most important thing I can ever say to you is this:

GOD LOVES YOU.

Not in spite of all the ways you mess up, not even because you need God’s forgiveness and grace. God loves you because you are YOU, a totally unique person created in God’s image, gifted with the ability to choose to follow in God’s way and the basic equipment to receive the power of the Holy Spirit right now.

Yes, you need God’s forgiveness. We all do. But even more basic than that need in you is the truth that God loves you — first, last and always.

It is that love which will make it possible for you to make good choices going forward in your life. It is that love that will gradually — sometimes gently and sometimes not so much — begin to shape you more and more into the image of Jesus himself. It is that love that will work its wondrous way in you, helping you to really learn the difference between right and wrong, good and evil.

Paul prays for his friends that Love will help them to grow in knowledge and in depth of insight. That means head knowledge and heart knowledge, because both are so important if we are to be the kind of people we were designed to be in the first place.

Living life is a process of refinement, like precious metals are refined by fire, like gorgeous gems are carved out of rocks. And when we say yes to God’s love, yes to the gospel, yes to Jesus — that process of refinement leads us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of other people, it helps us to make good choices, it empowers us to extend grace and peace to the people we live with, those we sit in class with, even to those we work with, when you’re old enough to have jobs.

Love and knowledge and insight go together, but that order is crucial. Start with love. Always, always start with love.

Don’t be afraid of your tenderness, don’t be embarrassed by your concern for those who are on the edges, who are being bullied, who are left out. When you feel their pain, you are letting love win. When your heart is open to God, to yourself and to others, that’s when the ‘fruit of righteousness’ Paul talks about in this sentence becomes obvious.

That big word ‘righteousness’ actually means ‘right relationship’ as much as it does ‘right behavior.’ They go together, you see? When you live in a relationship of love with the God who made you, then you’ll find it easier and easier to do what is right and good to do. You won’t do it perfectly — because, once again — ain’t none of us perfect, right?? But you will do it more and more.

My prayer for you, dear Confirmation Class of 2017, is that one day, someone will say of you what I said of my mother yesterday afternoon:

“What rises to the top is her goodness. Her generosity. Her great good humor, her searching intelligence, her love for us. Give me the choice of all the mothers in this world, I’d choose the one I had. In a heartbeat.’”

Let love abound, my friends. Let it overflow.

Let’s pray together:

Gracious and loving God,

How I thank you for the gift of this morning. For each child and young adult moving forward in life. For each Confirmation student in this year’s class, and especially today, for Tyler, whose kindness and sweet spirit have made our Tuesday afternoons such a lovely experience for all of us.

Will you help these friends — and their parents, and fellow believers around this room — to really take in the power and beauty of Paul’s words this morning?

Open our hearts to receive your love anew, remind us when we step outside of that love, and point us again in the direction of righteousness, of right relationship and right behavior.

Help us to look to Jesus, the one who calls us, who names us as his own, who goes before us and who receives us when we pass from this life to the next.

Amen.

Honoring the Body — Remembering Ruth Gold: July 6, 1921 – April 19, 2017

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Beautiful Mom, about 1948.

For most of my life, my mother was my best friend. As she began to leave us, almost a decade ago now, the inexorable blade of dementia sliced her memory into ever smaller pieces. During these years of decline, I often wondered how I would endure, who I would become without her richly textured presence in my life. What I witnessed was remarkable: the very essence of who she was became ever more finely distilled, until only a small but brilliant shard of light remained. Slowly, I began to understand — it was enough. Even though I no longer had access to all the pieces of my mother, the stories and memories I had come to know over the decades, what I did have was lovely. In truth, it was a strange and beautiful gift. Not a gift that either of us would have chosen, but a gift nonetheless.

Not every dementia story unfolds the way my mother’s did, a truth which makes me grateful on multiple levels for this particular and exquisite experience. For the last five years, I have wandered through grief, shed copious tears, railed at God for the cruelty of this growing epidemic in our land and across the world. I have also fallen to my knees in gratitude for the shining core of her, that glorious flame that blazed up and out and into the core of every single person she encountered. As the limits of her world grew larger and darker, as she lost the desire to eat, to drink, to walk — even then, she found a smile, a sweet word of gratitude, an exclamation of complimentary joy. “You look so beautiful today!” she would say. “Thank you so much for your help.” Not one other syllable made sense toward the end, but those words of kindness remained.

Ruth was born in Duncan, a small logging town on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, the second child and first-born daughter of Harry and Elsie Hobson. They gave her a long, cumbersome name, which included the names of some female relatives who eventually left mom two small diamonds. She gave those to me — and I managed to lose them both. Mom’s full name was Edith Lemody Ruth Hobson and she was a beautiful baby. They called her Ruthie.

Two years later, the Hobsons gathered up their little family and boarded a train, with siblings and cousins, and emigrated to southern California. Two little boys, my little mom, a second daughter ‘in the oven,’ two parents, three maiden aunts, a cousin or two, and an elderly grandfather arrived in 1923 and settled into a variety of Los Angeles neighborhoods. Mom rode the street car, roller-skated or walked all over what is now Hollywood and graduated from Hollywood High School in 1938. She went to UCLA for two years, and then quit when her family ran out of money; she always regretted never finishing her college career.

Mom’s father was a difficult man, and her mother worked. My mom became a surrogate mom to her siblings and found safe harbor in a local Methodist church. She met my dad there and they married in 1941 when mom was 20. I was born four years later, while they lived in San Diego. My dad taught math and physics at a military academy in that town during WWII — he was deemed entirely too spindly to join the army. In 1947, my brother Tom was born in a tiny town in central California where dad had an in-between teaching job while he waited for an opening at Los Angeles City College. When that job opened, we moved back to Los Angeles and bought our first house — a small, post-war tract home in North Hollywood. I was four years old.

All four of us attended that old Methodist church in downtown LA for the next eight years. I loved that place. My dad was the pianist, my mom sang in the choir, my brother and I went to Sunday School. It was at Trinity Methodist that I began to love choral singing — at the tender age of six. My mom made lifelong friends in that community and was the last one left from the old gang when she died last Wednesday afternoon.

Everywhere we lived, everywhere we worshipped, my mother made friends. Fast friends. I described her to the caregivers where she lived as, “The most flaming extrovert I have ever known.” Her gregarious and compassionate nature made her an excellent neighbor, an even better friend. In the earliest days of her dementia, I discovered that she regularly purchased small boxes of candy to take to her neighbors, to let them know she was thinking about them, to tell them they were loved.

In 1955, when I was almost 11 and Tom was almost 9, our youngest brother Ken was born. One month later, we moved across town to a different valley, from San Fernando to San Gabriel, buying an English Tudor style home in Glendale, CA. I endured (and enjoyed) adolescence in that home, learned to drive on the curvy hills of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and drove off to UCLA at the age of 17. Wanting to get my youngest brother into what they thought was a better school district, my parents moved to north Glendale while I was in college. That house was never my home in the same way that the previous two had been. I married a year later, graduated six months after that, and then my husband and I sailed off for two years of living and working in Africa.

While they lived in Glendale, my parents were active members of Glendale Presbyterian Church. Each of them served on Session, my mom on at least one pastoral search committee. They thoroughly enjoyed the Sunday school teaching of Paul Jewett, then a theology professor at nearby Fuller Seminary. My mother read widely, with a lively sense of curiosity and a commitment to growing in her faith. She read everything ever written by C.S. Lewis, Catherine Marshall, and Paul Tillich along with a long list of fiction writers. She instilled her love of language, reading, writing and beauty into the core of me at a very young age. 

She was also a ton of fun. She had an earthy sense of humor, loved to laugh, introduced us kids to British humor early on (anyone remember the “Carry On” movies??), and threw grand parties. She also decorated our homes on very little money, made most of my clothes and baked great birthday cakes. One of my daughters said to me last week, “One of my strongest memories of Momma was that she was always, ALWAYS, so happy to see me.” And that was real — she took delight in her family. De-light. Yes, she worried about us (especially Ken, whose life was difficult at many points and who died eight years ago.) But she loved us all and we knew it. Deep down, we knew we were loved. It was like oxygen — something that surrounded us always, something that gave us energy and life.

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Five generations – from lower left – Elsie Hobson, Ruth Gold, Diana Trautwein,
Lisa Fischinger, 
Ben Fischinger — taken in Orange County, 1991

My parents worked hard to create a good home for the three of us. There was one salary in our home, and that one a teacher’s salary, so we didn’t do fancy things. But we listened to all kinds of music on my dad’s home-built hi-fi set (or from his fingers at the keyboard), we camped all over California, and we enjoyed extended family gatherings on both sides, especially gatherings at some of the beaches along the southern California coast.

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Mom, doing what she loved more than almost anything else: boogey-boarding, Huntington Beach,
sometime in the 1980s, I think. She would have been in her early 60s.

Toward the end of his career as a professor and administrator at the junior college level, my dad had some serious health issues that required them to move out of the valley and closer to the sea. They lived in Oceanside for two years, then settled into a lovely town home in Mission Viejo, in Orange County. They loved that community and lived there for about fifteen years. In 2002, we moved them to a retirement community in LaVerne CA. My father died two and a half years later in February of 2005. My mom lived there independently until 2012, when Alzheimer’s put her into assisted living. The next year, we moved her to The Samarkand dementia unit, just ten minutes from our home here in Santa Barbara. 

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My parents, when they lived in Orange County

While they were in Orange County, I took the train south once each month for a long midweek visit. After they moved to LaVerne, I drove south monthly, then twice monthly, and stayed with our daughter, who lived about 30 minutes from there. All of those visits were an attempt to be as present as I could be with the two of them, and then with my mom, while their bodies breathed earth’s air.

Those bodies of theirs were holy to me, often in ways I didn’t fully understand. They had birthed me, loved me, tended me when mildly wounded or critically ill, clothed me, fed me and gave me away to my husband. (Yes, that is an outdated term, one that I no longer use, but it’s the truth of my lived experience in that season of my life.) I was with my father three days before his death, praying the blessing of Aaron over his unconscious, frail frame, telling him how much I loved him and how grateful I was for his care for me. When my brother called to tell me he had died, I asked that his body remain in the room until I could get there. Our bodies are supremely important collections of cosmic dust; they bear the image of an invisible God, they carry our stories, our selves. I wanted to honor him by honoring what remained.

Last week, I had the privilege of doing the same thing for my mama. Her journey took eight days, and every one of those days, I was by her side. Most of the time, I sat in front of a window, using only natural light. I put Pandora onto a hymn station and played it for hours. I finished a large crochet project. I called for more meds, as needed. I got up and blessed her face, stroked her shoulders. I ate the lunches I packed, I took occasional walks. I thanked every one of the Hospice team who came and cared for her so lovingly. One woman offered sponge baths, one offered quiet company, another brought her guitar and sang. The nurses were supremely skilled and compassionate, as were the caregivers at the facility. My pastor came twice, my friend Sherry, Samarkand chaplain for over twenty years, came daily.

Room 62 became holy ground during those long days.

At 4:32 p.m. on Wednesday, Sherry and I stood beside her and my friend said, “Look! Her eyes are open!” Those eyes had been closed for most of the previous five days. Her breathing was quite labored at this point, but as her eyes flew open, the noise stopped. She gasped twice and looked right into my eyes as I blessed her, thanked her, loved her. And she flew. I mean she flew to Jesus in those moments. I had been visualizing my father, my brother, her siblings, her parents and so many of her friends all around that room for days. And I do believe that in that moment, she saw them. And she was not afraid.  

All those dear ones welcomed her home — with love, joy and laughter. This I know, in the deepest part of me, this I know.

We will bury her on Tuesday morning, dropping her earthly remains into the grave plot she will share with my dad. We will hold a special service of worship to celebrate her life on May 20th at 2:00 p.m. in The Chapel at the Samarkand, the place that she called, ‘my church.’

Over and around the fatigue that I feel at this end of the journey, the strongest emotion in my heart is gratitude. It absolutely overwhelms me at some moments. There is sadness, yes, there is sadness. But over and around and in between everything else, there is thanksgiving. For 95 years, she graced this earth, 72 of them with me in the center of that grace. 

Thank you, Mama. And thank you, God.

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November, 2015, last formal portrait

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April 7, 2017