Showing up for dinner

Last year, I had the privilege of preaching at the Thanksgiving eve service at Trinity UMC in Durham, NC.  Today, as so many of us in the United States are preparing once again to join with friends and family around the table, I wanted to share these words with you.

This sermon is rooted in scriptures from Ecclesiastes, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, and Paul’s “jars of clay text” from 2 Corinthians.

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During my last year as a Divinity school student, a friend of mine who was in her first year in her first church called me after returning home from a hospital visit. It was late December. One of her parishioners had become very ill. She was near to death, and the family had been told that this might be their last chance to visit. So a carload of family and near friends got onto the highway to make their way to their hometown to stand vigil, and somewhere on the road they had been in an accident. Now there were two more family members near death, at a hospital more than an hour from their hoped for destination. This friend of mine grieved for the family in this hour, and she lamented: “How can I preach a Christmas Eve service? I don’t feel very Christmassy right now, and neither do many people in my congregation.”

The tricky thing about holidays is that their season is not always our season. Thanksgiving, like Christmas, is one of the biggest festival days in our culture – it is a time for us to celebrate friends and family and good food, to give thanks for happy memories and for all of our present blessings – it is a way to mark time with a series of smiling snapshots – a time to make happy memories!

Which is great for those of us for whom this November is significantly better than last November, and not such great news for those of us for whom this past year has been lousy. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving as a newly married couple, while for others, this will be the first since the loss of a marriage through death or divorce. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving in a new home, while for others, this will be the first Thanksgiving since losing their home. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving with a new baby, while for others, this will be the first Thanksgiving after having lost a child. This may have been one of your best years, or one of your worst – and let’s not oversimplify things: this may have been a year where your best gifts have come with their own burdens: a return home from deployment overseas may come with a reminder of friends who didn’t make it back. A new baby may come with a loss of time with your spouse. A new job or new town is, for both good and ill, not like the last one. It can be hard to be full of thanks if it feels like you are running on empty.

Nothing in this life is permanent, instead, as the writer of Ecclesiastes begins his book, “all is vanity” – life is fragile and fleeting – it cannot be grasped and mastered. Or as Jesus reminds us in Luke, neither poverty nor wealth, neither grief nor joy, neither famine nor feast, neither disdain nor praise are permanent conditions! Grief gives way to laughter, as surely as laughter gives way to grief.

So what shall we do? Insofar as you can, enjoy what you can for as long as you can, the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests. Remember that you carry Christ in you, Paul admonishes. Love – love everyone! Jesus tells us. None of them seems to be saying, “Smile, and no one will notice you are having a lousy time.”

If we are going to share a table with one another, we had better show up! Being real about who we are and what season we are in is a real ministry to our friends and family. We have this treasure in clay jars. Our fragile vessels are filled to the brim with God’s grace! God has poured love into us – into our fragile, fleeting, hopeful and frightened, confused happy sad selves – we are loved exuberantly and extravagantly. Not because we are perfect hosts and hostesses, not because we have never burned a pie, not because we flawlessly executed one of the menus suggested in this year’s November issue of Gourmet magazine. And not because we manage to go through the entire meal without once mentioning any feeling of loss or sadness. No – God loves us as we really and truly are without our having to prove anything to anyone.

Our dog can eat the turkey, our toupee can slip down over our eyebrows, toilet paper can stick to our shoe and trail for yards behind us, and yet we are loved. And it may make us a laughingstock. Or it may come as a sincere relief to our companions who have been trying too hard to live up to some impossible Thanksgiving ideal. And the same goes for our grief, our hunger, and our poverty. When we are honest with one another about our needs, about what we lack and what we miss and how we are hanging on by a thread, not only are our needs more likely to get met – but our neighbors are more likely to have the courage to be more fully present as well – to acknowledge where they themselves are standing in the need of prayer. It can be a great mercy to not play at being perfect.

We are coming to the thanksgiving table tonight as a family – because eucharist means thanksgiving, and God through Christ has made us all kin to one another – we are coming to the table not because we are perfect, but because we are loved. God invites us to share in this thanksgiving meal with one another because God loves us. At this table, we do not have to hide who we are, or pretend that we are more together than we really are. And having shared together at this table, we do not need to pretend with one another, either – being who we really are is a ministry to one another, and to all the world. Because it is only when we acknowledge that we are not perfect that we can stop demanding perfection from one another – it is only when we know that we are mere clay that we can love our enemies – we begin to see with God’s eyes of mercy.

This is good practice for tomorrow! My hope for each one of you would be that you would be sitting down at the table with people who love you, who are true kindred in Christ, people for whom you do not have to be perfect, but with whom you need only to be yourself. But for the many who are not so blessed to be in that situation, instead let us all pray that though you might be afflicted, you would not be crushed; though you might be perplexed, you would not be driven to despair, and though you may be persecuted, you might remember that you are not forsaken, but instead that you are a most beloved child of God. May you find pleasure simply in the preparation of the meal and the eating of the food. And in your every interaction tomorrow, may you find the strength to be merciful even as your Heavenly Father is merciful – to yourself as well as to those you celebrate with.

Father-less Day?

Last year was the first Father’s Day since my own Dad died. In the United Methodist Church, Annual Conferences are typically held around Father’s Day – including the Virginia Annual Conference, in which my Dad was an ordained elder. So last year, instead of being home with my husband – my daughter’s father – I was in Roanoke, Virginia. The Saturday night before Father’s Day was the time appointed for the annual memorial service for pastors who have died in the past year, and I wanted to be there with my mother. She and I skipped church the next morning – neither of us were much in the mood to hear a single word about fathers – and instead spent the day driving back to her home outside Richmond, bemoaning that it was hard to find an antique store in Southern Virginia that was open before noon on a Sunday. Antiques shopping instead of church? It was almost as if we were calculating ways to pretend my sternly Sabbath-keeping father had never existed.

For me, my best ally in processing my grief has been my astute and sensitive five year old, who still has moments of being “sad about Grandpa Cosby.” (Not to knock my wonderful husband, friends, and therapist – I have a great team!) Hannah asks very intelligent questions, like “Is Grandpa Cosby still your Dad?” (yes!) and “Does Grandpa Cosby still have a birthday?” (yes!) And as I have talked about my continuing relationship with him and about my memories of him, I have felt his loss a little less keenly. I still have a father, even if he is not reachable by telephone.

I remember last year, feeling the loss so deeply – it was Father’s Day, and I had no one to call! But this year, celebrating at home with my husband and my daughter, I didn’t have time to think about it – every day of the past week was consumed with Hannah’s plans for making her Daddy’s Father’s Day “the best ever!!”  Keeping alive the flower she picked many days too early, making cards, planning a special breakfast in bed…  And then on to the Episcopal Church – not least because I can count on those reliably liturgical Episcopalians to leave these civil holidays nearly unmentioned.  I do not exaggerate to pray, “On Father’s Day, I thank you for the Episcopalians, most merciful God.”

I am an American – in this world, if not of it (I hope) – and so I do still find it not just impossible, but undesirable to escape celebrating Father’s Day.  There are lots of men I could call today – to thank them for being there for me, to encourage them in their own fathering… with the aid of a year of growth and reflection, I can see that I am certainly not without anyone to call on Father’s Day. And I must remember to call my mother on this Father’s Day – a woman who long ago lost her father, and more recently lost her step-father and then the father of her own children.  I wonder if she wonders who to call today?  I wonder if she went to church today? I wonder, if she did, if it was a healing or a wounding hour spent in the pew?

We who grieve on this day are not alone – there are many more like us. Rather than organizing our day around our loss – at least as the years go by – I pray that we find ways to celebrate what we had and continue to carry with us, and the many fathers we know and love who are still a telephone call away.  And I pray that the church continues to find ways to nurture those who need true comfort on the days when the culture seems to exclude their grief.

Hospital-ity

“I hope your stay with us is short!” said the kind lady who took my insurance information, “This is not the best place to be!” But then she continued, “We try to take good care of you here, though.”
Indeed they do.

What makes the hospital “not the best place to be” is the interruption that it represents. We don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “I hope I get to go to the ER today!” Hospital stays interrupt what we think of as our normal day-to-day life. I cannot arrange to have the dryer repaired or the piano tuned. I cannot pick up my daughter from school. I cannot go buy the groceries. Instead, I must wait here. Wait for the pain killers to kick in that may soon make writing this blog entry impossible and reduce me to watching television or playing a video game while I wait for the doctor to return and tell me what (if anything) he sees on my CT scan.

Almost 3 years ago, I suffered a dissection in my vertebral artery – but I didn’t realize it.  I thought I had just pulled a muscle somehow.  About a week later, I had a stroke and ended up spending a week in this hospital. And, as far as life interruptions go, I will attest that the hospital was not the best place to be. My daughter was in preschool only 2 mornings a week, I had just taken on a couple of volunteer positions at the church, my husband I had theater tickets – I had a LIFE!!  But spiritually, the hospital was the very best place in the world to be.

Prior to that, I had only stayed overnight in a hospital one time: when my daughter was born. I hadn’t given the hospital very much thought, really. But sitting in the bed day after day, my brain too cloudy to even knit, I started slowly calculating – the number of people on my hall, on my floor, in the hospital – the hundreds and hundreds of people whose lives had been interrupted. Which is to say, hundreds and hundreds of cranky people in pain and wishing that they were somewhere else altogether. Hundreds and hundreds of people having the realization that they were not in control of their lives.  And moving in and among these patients – these people whose main purpose was now to wait to arrive at the indeterminate, ever moving target of getting back to whatever they were doing before – moving in and amongst the impatient and the trying to be patient and the somehow miraculously patient were the doctors and nurses and technicians – the people who had chosen to be here in the time of interruption, to welcome us to what felt like, and hopefully would not be, our Hotel California.

There was a tremendous grace in these people – generally cheerful without being chipper, everyone who worked here made it clear that they only wished to make me feel more comfortable, to encourage me, to give me the information to cope with what had just happened and to move forward.  Their love and dedication to us, their patients, was not dependent upon how difficult or easy we were, how cranky or agreeable.  We had not done anything to earn their devotion – we had simply shown up, and they gave us the best they had.  In hundreds and hundreds of rooms, every hour of the day.

So, without reference to the interruption that being in this place represents, without reference to the insistent beeping of the monitor in the room where I wait for my CT scan results, this is in fact one of the very BEST places on earth to be.  The hospital is a holy place – a place where love and care flow freely, and where any necessary indignity is accompanied by an apologetic smile and sympathetic humor.  I am surrounded by God’s grace.  And while I do hope that I do not stay here very long today (because I hope that they find nothing on the CT – I am hoping to hear that I have simply pulled a muscle rather than dissected my vertebral artery again), I am grateful that this place is here at the ready for each and every one of us who found ourselves needing the care that the staff so graciously provides.