The Truest Advent

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I sit and watch the light play across the beautiful angles of her face. Even at 95, those cheekbones are breathtaking. She is tired today, battling a mild infection, with little to no appetite and even less energy. The sharp angle of the winter sun is unexpectedly flattering as it gently flickers through the window, and I draw a sharp breath as those too-familiar tears begin to form behind my eyelids. 

“Oh, Mama! I love you so. Please, Lord, let her go to sleep and wake up in the New Creation. Enough, okay? Enough.”

But who really knows how much is enough? I don’t have any special insights, only my own bedraggled emotions and growing fatigue. To me, it feels like it is time. Time to be released from this ‘body of dust,’ time to rest from the struggle, time to breathe in and never breathe out again.

We did not go out to lunch today; we barely made it from the dining room to her own sweet space, with its lounge chair in the corner, by the window. “My arms!” she cried softly as we walked. “They ache.”

Truth be told, everything aches. Every cell in her body.

As she slept in that chair, I moved my hand slightly, the one that she was clasping with both of hers. She roused a bit, turning to look in my direction.

“Oh, Mama! Thank you for being such a good, good mother,” I cried.

She didn’t understand me, so I said it again, more slowly, more loudly. She smiled slightly and said a simple, “Thank you.” Somehow her half-sleepy state made the usual questioning unnecessary. There were no confused looks, no puzzled frowns. None of this response: “I’m your mother?? Really??” 

None today. None at all.

One week ago, that’s all I heard. I came home shaking my head at my husband. “I don’t know how much more of this repetition I can navigate! We spent our entire 90 minutes together today asking and attempting to answer the same 5-6 questions — over and over and over again. Oh, Lord, give me patience!”

He and I were getting ready to leave town the next morning, our annual anniversary getaway to parts north. We both needed it — time and space to savor an ocean view, good food prepared by someone else, and quiet time together — no expectations, no obligations, no schedule. And it was good. Very, very good.

They called me from the dementia unit as we were driving home yesterday. “She has a UTI and a low-grade fever. Is it all right with you if we put her on antibiotics?” 

Yes, it was all right with me. UTIs make dementia much worse and increase confusion and disorientation. She doesn’t need any escalation of those symptoms and neither do I. But this time around, the infection plus the added medication led to extreme exhaustion — one more sign of decline, diminishment. 

And yet, as painful as it is to watch that happen, this time I will admit that my primary response is relief and gratitude. She is heading in one direction only; and today’s exhaustion underlined that truth for me. My mother is very old. She is very frail. She is extraordinarily confused.

She is also beautiful, grateful, loves people (even when she hasn’t a clue who they are), sings the old songs and hymns with a higher degree of accuracy than her illness might lead you to expect, and generally enjoys her life. It is not up to me when that life will end on this side of the mysterious veil that separates us from the eternal.

There are, however, some decisions that are up to me. When and how to treat illness, for one. I think I know what I will and will not allow — mom and I discussed it all, long before dementia took over — but until illness or accident happens, I suppose it’s all pretty hypothetical.

So, in addition to those prayers for patience, I also pray for wisdom, grace, kindness and insight as my mother moves ever closer to the end of her long and remarkable life. I will miss her presence in my life more than I can adequately put into words, more than language will allow.

 

Then again, I have been missing her for a very long time.

“Oh for grace to trust him more!”

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Fifteen

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The longer I live, the more I welcome and appreciate the celebration of the sacraments — eucharist and baptism. Setting aside everyday things like bread, wine/juice and water, and then inviting the Spirit of God to bless those simple things in an extraordinary way — well, it’s the best thing going, at least for me. Which made my experience of communion this month difficult for me. The truth is — I was distracted. We had guests whom we did not know well seated with us, I was singing in the choir, which required me to to exit my row just before the words were spoken and then take the elements in the balcony, where things were a tiny bit confusing. All of it added up to my not paying attention well and thereby missing the point.

Paying attention is important in lots of ways, it seems.

When I was on retreat in early September, the tiny group of us gathered at Mater Dolorosa enjoyed a small, intimate service of communion together in the beautiful chapel on the grounds there. The goblet and plate pictured above were part of that service.

Sometimes in small communion services, the leader will invite people to go forward alone — to partake when they feel ‘ready.’ Always, always, always — this jars me and I cannot do it. My understanding of the sacrament of the Lord’s Table is that it is communal — even if the community is as small as one bed-ridden parishioner and one pastor — and that the elements are offered, one to the other. They are received, not taken. That might seem like a pretty fine distinction to some, but for me it’s an important one. So my good friend, Sherry, who was seated next to me (and with whom I’ve had conversations about this very thing) whispered to me, “Would you like to go up with me and offer it to one another?”

And so we did. Then each of the other three opted to receive them from one of us, too. It felt right to pay attention to that small detail and I’m glad we did.

Our church community enjoyed the second sacrament a bit unusually last month. The picture below is of our beautiful baptismal bowl, made for us by the same talented Seattle artist who designed all of our stained glass windows. I love it’s curves, its soft turquoise color and the way the water is both visible and invisible within it. In our tradition, we offer both infant and adult, or believer, baptism. This particular baptism was an ‘adult’ one, but it was for a 4-year old boy. A special 4-year-old boy who had talked it over carefully with his parents and with his pastors and very clearly said that he understood what it meant and why it was important. And so, all of us together, listened to and then spoke the words together, the beautiful words that signify our remarkable passage from death to life, the words that commit us to one another as a body of believers.

And I loved paying attention to every word.

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Liturgy is important in my life. What about you? Do you enjoy beautiful words of worship that are familiar and frequent?

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Advent Two: A Prayer for Peace

Each week of Advent, I am offering a simple prayer centered around the ‘theme’ of that particular Advent Sunday. Last week was ‘hope,’ this week, is ‘peace.’ These words will often flow from my own reflection on the texts and the sermon of that week. Yesterday’s preaching text was Luke 3:1-6.

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I gotta admit, Lord,
peace is looking a tad impossible these days.

Everywhere, we are killing one another.
Some of us use guns,
and some of us use words.

So, yeah, Lord.
Peace is feeling more than a little bit elusive,
like a shy child, hiding in Mama’s skirts.

Come out, I want to cry.
Come out and settle with us.
Sit in our hearts and in our minds,
bring us together,
help us to put away those guns,
soften those words,
open these tired hearts of ours.

And then I read those words of Isaiah’s as our dear
and slightly crazy friend John the Baptist used them
at the unfolding of his ministry, his odd and marvelous ministry —
of strange words and of water.

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And as I read them,
I remember that the whole idea of peace has more to do with what’s

happening inside me, and what’s happening in your church,
than it does with what’s happening in the nations,
or the cities, or the terrorist camps and capitals.

Peace has to do with my, with our, willingness to let go.

To let go of anxieties,
and of our feeble attempts to ‘fix’ others —
other people, other relationships, other situations.

But I struggle so to hold the heck on.
To worry things to death,
to try and manage people and things.

Oh, I am such a slow learner.

When will I remember that there is very, very little
within my actual capacity to control?
All that is given to me is the ability to choose,
to choose my own words, responses and actions.
And even that choosing has its limits, doesn’t it, Lord?

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Luke’s gospel uses so few words to tell us about John and his ministry.
Maybe that’s because John himself was a man of few words.

Yet from those words, whole swarms of people got a peek
at what You were up to in their world.
John’s words were these: ‘repent,’ ‘forgiveness of sins,’ ‘be baptized.’

And then your servant Luke dips into his ancient scripture text and finds a few more, these beauties from the prophet Isaiah:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight. 
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be brought low;
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways shall be made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

       — Isaiah 40, NKJV

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More than a description of the changes in our physical landscape
brought by the ‘salvation of God,’
these words describe the changing landscape inside
each and every one of us.

I, for one, have a lot of hills and valleys goin’ on.
Rough places?
Yes, yes. I’ve got more than a few.
And there is a whole lot that is crooked in here,
a whole lot that needs straightening.
The kind of straightening that only You can do, Lord God.

So, as trite as it sometimes sounds to say or sing those
old-chestnut words,
‘let there be peace on earth,
and let it begin with me,’
I will say them, right here, right now.

Yes, yes.
Let it begin with me.

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Come right on in here, dear God.
Trim down the hill of my resistance,
fill in the valleys of my anxieties,
straighten out the crookedness of my 
malformed desires and dreams,
and smooth out the roughness,
the edginess,
that too often rises to the surface,
especially during busy seasons like this one.

You have invited me to be your partner in peace,
real peace,
true peace,
the kind that starts inside . . .
and then works its way out.

The kind that brings lasting changes,
in us and in our world.

So, Prince of Peace . . .
do your amazing thing,
and start right here, okay?

Right here,

Inside this messed-up heart of mine.

Amen. May it be so.

31 Days of Aging Gracefully: Day 7 — Staying Open

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Our new home provides visual reminders on a moment-to-moment basis that it is a very good thing to stay open to the widest view possible. We are continually stunned by what we see from the entire backside of this house — the foothills, the city (with all it’s landmarks, including the mission — twin towers, can  you spot it?)

Here, maybe this one will help:

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No matter which direction you face, there is something lovely and interesting to look at.

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And at just the right spot, you can even see a glimpse of the harbor, especially if you use the zoom feature on your iPhone camera. (Smile.)

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Although I am not interested in being ‘hip’ as an aging woman, I do want to stay at least somewhat current. I want to know what’s happening in our world, in our churches, in our families, in our communities. I want to be open to learning, changing, growing. The stereotypical picture of an old fogie is NOT what I want to become.

And it’s so easy to get there. Especially if I let yesterday’s lesson go to waste — if I choose fear over hope and joy. Many older folks are frightened, I think. And too often, they let that fear be the rudder of life. There is, under all else, the fear of death. But there are so many other things to fear — falling, failing, losing touch, life/culture/society changing beyond recognition. Yes, there are lots of things to be fearful about. But . . .

But there is also much to celebrate, to learn, to try. So . . . what if we begin to ask for hope early on in our lives? What if we make it a goal to learn more each year? What if we listen to people who disagree with us, civilly and earnestly? What if?

Maybe, just maybe, we might discover that life becomes more interesting, intriguing, palatable, maybe even more recognizable? Because let’s face it, friends:

CHANGE HAPPENS.

Things shift, ideas morph, interpretations vary. Truth is truth — but our understanding of it does not stay the same. The world has never been flat, but for a whole lotta centuries, we were sure convinced of its flatness.

For me, a huge part of aging gracefully is cultivating a desire to preferentially lean toward openness. For that to happen, there must also be a regular, practiced release of . . . all that fear.

Which is why that was yesterday’s topic. And this one is today’s. (Smile)

Just Wondering