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pink gold texas sunset sky

I’ve been carrying Frank’s funeral program in my purse for days.

I slipped it in there at the end of his memorial service, a couple of weekends ago, in the high-ceilinged sanctuary of the church where I spent nearly every Sunday growing up. I nearly forgot about it, until I reached in a few days later to retrieve something else and my fingers brushed the paper. I saw his law firm portrait again and thought: That can’t be right.

Frank was an attorney, a father and husband, a percussionist, a dog lover, a man of faith. He and his wife, Kim, have been friends with my parents since the mid-eighties, since my sister and I were tiny. We grew up seeing them at church every week, where they worked tirelessly alongside my mom and dad, teaching Sunday school and directing events, serving in countless quiet ways. I used to baby-sit their sons and daughter, going over to their big, friendly house with its assorted dogs and cats (and, for a memorable time, a corn snake named Queenie). They have loved me, and I have loved them, nearly all my life.

When Frank went into the hospital in mid-April, none of us thought for a second that we’d be sitting at his funeral service in early May.

This is how it happens sometimes: without warning, in the middle of a full and busy spring, with school programs and work assignments and birthday parties and all the stuff of life. Kim is a preschool teacher (she taught my older nephew last year) and found herself taking days off school, both when Frank became ill and when he died. Their sons and daughter-in-law came in from Houston and North Carolina, and friends local and far-flung have rallied. And I think all of us have been wrestling with the sense of sturdy disbelief that Lindsey described in a recent post.

That day at the funeral, and the next day at church, people spoke about Frank and shared stories, funny and tender. He loved Mexican food, the spicier the better. He was a stickler for doing things well: his secretary learned years ago that there is a right and a wrong way to affix paper clips, and his kids knew he had high standards. He was a disciplined, faithful servant to his church and his community. He helped more people, in more ways, than I think any of us will ever know.

But the whole time, I was thinking about something much simpler: he was my friend.

Frank embodied discipline and duty, as his son Joey said at the funeral. (I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house when Joey started crying in the middle of his tribute to his dad.) He served, as so many people said, without fanfare and without ceasing. He showed up, quietly and consistently, over and over again. These things are important.

But what I will remember – what I suspect all of us will remember, too – is his warmth, his compassion, his smile.

I don’t get back to my hometown too often these days: a few times a year, for a long weekend or a few days at Christmas. I don’t have the kind of daily or weekly interaction with the folks there that I once did. But there are still places where I am sure of a welcome, and one of them is the big Sunday school room at the north end of the church. And Frank was one of the people who always welcomed me home. He always wanted to hear about Boston; he and Kim had enjoyed several trips to Nantucket. It made him happy that we shared a connection to this part of the world.

Those chats on Sunday morning, that rock-solid welcome, is what I will remember, and what I will miss the most.

We are all grieving: Frank’s family, his coworkers, his many friends, the church family he was a part of for so long. My parents are deeply sad and shaken by the loss of their friend. There are no easy words for this; I hesitated to even write these. But it feels important to mark his passing, to say: he was here and he lived and loved. And we loved him. We still do.

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flowers lilies windowsill church tulips brookline easter 

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins…

Easter at Brookline: gold-foil-wrapped pots of flowers lining the deep windowsills, tulips and lilies and hyacinths, bright splashes of color against the white walls. When you pull back the glass-paned double doors at the rear of the church, the scent hits you like a wave. It smells like spring, like hope, like resurrection in the face of impossible odds.

We set up two long tables behind the back pews and pile them with food, a rough division of sweets and savories, plates of sandwiches and mini quiche and cookies galore. Sarah brings the traditional cake frosted to look like a lamb. Sierra makes her cherry-center cookies dusted with powdered sugar. Early on Easter morning, the hubs slices avocados in our kitchen, a sturdy apron tied over his pastel-striped church shirt. The guacamole is a reliable crowd pleaser, even if we eat a lot of it ourselves.

And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains…

I didn’t walk through Lent this year the way I sometimes do, with an urgent, pressing awareness of the story. After a blue-skied Ash Wednesday, which fell incongruously on Valentine’s Day, a thousand other things demanded my attention. Even Holy Week felt fragmented: we were on the West Coast seeing friends on Palm Sunday, then jet-lagged through the days leading up to Easter, busy with to-do lists and the demands of everyday life. I wasn’t quite able to quiet down and listen.

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power…

On Friday night, we pulled together the worship order for Sunday, sitting in our living room, discussing hymns and Scripture readings, updating the prayer list. J suggested we begin the service by singing an old hymn, just the two of us and his guitar. We sang and he strummed, and on Sunday morning, we stood up in front of the community we love, and did it for them.

Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more…

This was our eighth Easter in this place, with these people, and as I looked out over the pews, I saw faces I love deeply and faces I’d never seen before. I saw the couple with their toddler son in his seersucker blazer, who are days away from welcoming their second child. I saw our friends who moved up from Texas three summers ago, on little more than hope and a sense of adventure. I saw our church treasurer, Dale, with his tall Jewish wife and daughter, all of whom had prepared and hosted a Passover Seder for us at the church the night before. I saw the couple who moved here from California for a year back in 1967, who have never stopped serving this church.

I sang to all of them, for all of them, my voice rising over the lines I know so well, and I saw how so many of them smiled back at me, how they could not help but sing along.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day…

I’ve been humming this hymn on and off since I read the second Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mystery, which shares part of its title. In the book, Clare is unnerved by the song, but I’ve always loved it. It belongs to the canon of hymns we sang when I was a little girl, the ones that put the cross front and center, that remind us of the ways this story is visceral and real.

And there may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away…

You can’t have a resurrection without a physical death first; you can’t have a true redemption story without it getting very, very dark. A fountain filled with blood is a gruesome image, maybe, but in my mind it has always been linked to hope and grace.

E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply…

We listened, that morning, to Amy reading from the gospel of Mark, recounting how Mary Magdalene was first baffled, then afraid and – at last – amazed. We listened to Dasha, age 12, reading the words of Psalm 118: This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. We listened to Colette, nine months old, adding her voice to the congregation’s chorus as we sang the familiar hymns.

christ the lord easter hymn sheet music

We listened to Landon reminding us of the hope of the resurrection, the fierce gladness that has endured for all these years. And when I got up to speak over the communion table, I said: today we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, of life over death, and the certainty that we are loved beyond what we can imagine.

Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die…

Those are my favorite lines from this hymn. Those of us who have believed, who have made this story our own, are called to tell it, to keep singing this song for our whole lives. We have witnessed redemption and joy, light beyond the clouds of the darkest, most bitter night. We have been rescued from grief, from loneliness, from pain: we do not get to dodge it or avoid it, but we are assured that there is something beyond it, that God is making all things new. This story, which at times baffles and confuses and even breaks our hearts, is the story we will wrestle with forever, and the story we will tell until we die.

If you celebrated, I hope you had a wonderful Easter.

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turkeypalooza 2017 friends

It began as it always does: with a look at the calendar in early November and a collective how is it time to think about that already? It continued with a sign-up sheet online and a swirl of hurried conferences after church services to make sure we’d have all the essential Thanksgiving dishes.

The list (of food and attendees) started small, then grew in size as it does every year: from a dozen or so people to around 20 adults, five kids and two babies. From turkey and sweet potatoes and cranberry relish to Korean fried chicken, baked ziti, a tempting tower of salted caramel apple cupcakes.

The emails and texts flew back and forth in the week preceding the day. Amy picked me up from work on Wednesday in the pouring rain, and we drove to the church to set out plates and goblets and turkey napkins, and hang half a dozen strands of twinkle lights.

On a bright blue Thursday afternoon, we feasted. And gave thanks.

turkeypalooza plate food thanksgiving

I woke up on Thanksgiving morning humming Nichole Nordeman’s “Gratitude,” a song that perfectly captures the day for me. Listening to it earlier that week, I choked up on a line I’d never really noticed before: Surely you can see that we are thirsty and afraid.

The song explores our constant need for reassurance and blessing, the asking we do over and over again, even as we rely on the gifts that come down to us from a place beyond ourselves. As I stood in my kitchen on Thursday morning, listening again, another line leaped out: We are blessed beyond what we could ever dream, in abundance or in need.

It has been a difficult year in many respects: for me, for many of the people I love, for my country and the world at large. I’ve written about how gratitude feels complicated, how joy seems sometimes out of reach. I have often focused on the need – my own and other people’s – instead of the abundance. But the latter narrative is also true: we have so many reasons to give thanks.

On Thursday, we had abundance of all kinds, beginning that morning when some friends came over to watch the Macy’s parade and a couple of Friends Thanksgiving episodes. We ate scrambled eggs and scones, and cracked up at Joey getting Monica’s turkey stuck on his head. Then we drove to the church, where abundance was definitely the word of the day: three long tables set end to end, goblets sparkling next to every plate, tea lights and pine cones and autumn leaves making the place feel festive.

As the afternoon went on, the basement grew crowded with friends old and new.

kids table turkeypalooza thanksgiving

We had so much food, as I had hoped: mashed and sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, baked ham, homemade crescent rolls. We had cupcakes and cookies and four kinds of pie. Before the meal, we gathered to sing “Give Thanks,” as is tradition. I looked around at this group of people, all of us transplants from far-flung places, all of us finding a home here in some way, with each other. Then I led the prayer and borrowed a line from Amy: we are so grateful for all that we have been given.

This was the 11th annual Turkeypalooza, our name for the potluck, everyone-is-welcome feast that means Thanksgiving to our church community. This was my eighth Turkeypalooza, and I am deeply grateful: for its existence, for the slightly wacky name, for the hard and loving work that went into every bit of it, for every face around the table that day.

turkeypalooza foam turkey

I am grateful for all the details: for the kids filling glasses with ice cubes before the meal; for Sierra’s meticulously labeled cherry-pie cookies; for the foam turkey Eaoin made at school and brought to share with us. I’m grateful for Charles making multiple trips back and forth to coax a recalcitrant turkey into doneness, for Nik running to CVS for coffee creamer, for little Adam running around telling everyone, “I’m going to be five tomorrow!”

For the caught moments standing in the kitchen, chatting with whoever happened to be in there. For Matt, quietly scraping plates and expertly loading the dishwasher. For the babies, Colette and Abraham, who happily submitted to being passed around all afternoon. For bear hugs from a dozen or more people, for the voices raised in song and then in laughter. For the sunshine slanting through the windows, and for the many willing hands that helped cook and then clean up.

I’m still humming Nordeman’s song this week, and realizing its truth again: the blessings we have may not be what we expect, but they often outshine our wildest dreams. I could never have dreamed up Turkeypalooza if I’d tried. But it surprises and delights me every year.

If you celebrated, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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turkeypalooza table

For three long tables set end to end in a tiled church basement, covered with red-and-white cloths and decorated with gourds and tiny pumpkins and sparkly wooden leaves.

For a dozen strands of Christmas lights twinkling overhead, and mellow acoustic music via Spotify providing the soundtrack.

For breakfast at Abigail and Nate’s on Thanksgiving morning: Friends episodes and French toast, link sausage and apple slices and Evie toddling around trying out her two newest words – “Kay-kee” and “Miah.”

katie abi nate jer

For a husband who peeled and chopped sweet potatoes to save me some time (and labor) the night before. For the sweet potato casserole-cum-dessert I make every year, topped with brown sugar and pecans.

For a mix of beloveds and new faces around the table: half a dozen nationalities and at least as many languages.

For the pause to say a prayer and sing “Give Thanks” a cappella before the meal, and Evie clinging to my hip as the mad scramble for food began.

For two turkeys, 15 pounds (!) of mashed potatoes, a table crowded with casseroles and one crammed with desserts. For apple-pomegranate salad and cranberry relish, pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting and three kinds of pie.

dessert table

For mulled wine and ice water, sipped from goblets gathered from three different kitchens. For stacks of paper napkins and so many dishes, and lots of willing hands to wash and dry them afterward.

For my favorite twins, so grown up now (they’re 10), trying to spell “facetious” and bombarding me with questions about Harry Potter.

For little Adam, who turned four on Thursday, and the chocolate cake and joyful cacophony of “Happy Birthday” when it was time for dessert.

For dominoes and chitchat and so much laughter. For inside jokes and old stories, budding friendships and brand-new memories.

simpsons smiles thanksgiving

When you do something once, it’s a novelty. When you do it two, three, four times, it becomes a habit, a ritual. When you’ve done it seven times, it’s a tradition.

This year’s Turkeypalooza – our name for the joyous, chaotic, come-as-you-are feast at our church – is in the books, and it was a good one. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be on Thanksgiving Day than with these friends who have become family.

How was yours, if you celebrated?

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Remembering George

 

water clouds light

“Why is it so hard to acknowledge that we all walk through life with grief for which there is, today, no compensation?”

I read these words on Christie’s blog last week, at the end of a summer that has held chaos and change and all sorts of upheaval. Transitions are difficult, no matter the kind, and they bring with them their own, often bittersweet grief. But Christie’s words also came as I, and many people I love, are mourning the death of our friend George.

I always find it hard to write about these losses, not only because of the sadness, but because it feels impossible to convey the life, the spirit, of a person through a handful of sentences.

I could tell you that George was the music minister at my family’s church in West Texas for 23 years. I could tell you that he was a talented, accomplished musician, always willing to highlight and encourage others’ gifts while modest and humble (to a fault) about his own. I could tell you that he had four children, a wife he adored, five grandsons and dozens – no, hundreds – of friends. But all that would go a short way toward honoring the memory of the man himself.

George came back to Midland to work at our church (where he had grown up) when I was in the fourth grade. His son Wade is the same age as my sister, and they became firm friends. George directed the Sunday morning choir, in which my mother sang; the youth choir, in which my sister and I both participated; and the sweeping, elaborate Easter pageants that were a formative part of my teenage years (and which came to involve my entire family).

For years, George led worship at youth retreats and Vacation Bible School, at candlelight services on Christmas Eve and at four services every Sunday: three in the morning, one at night. He managed pianists and organists, praise bands and orchestras, pastors and PowerPoints, thousands of details no one ever knew about. His fingerprints are all over that building and that community: quiet but indelible, the definition of the word faithful. But my favorite thing about George was this: he always had time for everyone.

“A friend told me he had the greatest capacity for love [they had] ever seen,” George’s wife, DiAnn, wrote on Facebook recently. “He belonged to everyone.” And it’s true: George had as many things to do as most of us (maybe more), but I never saw him turn away anyone who had a question or needed a smile. During all those rehearsals for summer musicals and mission trips and Easter pageants, I never saw him lose his temper. If I close my eyes, I can hear his clear tenor voice and see his practiced gestures, guiding us through ancient hymns, nineties praise songs and soaring choral anthems with his signature humor and grace. He loved his work and he loved his community, and I am – we are – so grateful that he was ours.

“Time is cruel because it carries us so far from the people and places and things we have loved and lost,” Christie wrote in that blog post. In a certain sense, George is far away from us now: death has a way of creating distance. It feels final and inevitable, and I know it will come home to me again, some Sunday when I’m standing in those familiar pews and he isn’t there. We grieve, and we are right to do so: it means we have loved.

Grief is complicated, and so is faith: I don’t pretend to have any answers about what happens after we die. But I believe, and hope, in a time when everything will be made new: when, as Christie wrote, “all the fragments of our lives, all the broken bits and pieces, will be gathered up.” I know George believed that too, and I hope to see him again one day.

Rest well, good and faithful friend. I am grateful for all the songs you taught me, and I will keep singing them until we meet again.

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nate evie small group

On Sunday afternoon, after a day of rushing around from church to lunch to the grocery store, my husband and I hopped in the car and drove across the Boston metro area, under an already-darkening sky.

We head that way several times a month, to a house in the western suburbs where our friends Ryan and Amy live, with two kids, two cats, one dog and a general atmosphere of cheerful, friendly chaos. On Sunday nights, when we can, about a dozen of us come over for a potluck dinner, sitting around the long table on mismatched chairs, eating, laughing and catching up on our lives.

This fall, we have struggled to gather on a regular basis: soccer games, illness and travel have kept one family or another from joining in. But the minute we stepped inside the front door to be greeted by Telly, the resident dog, we were home.

telly dog

We piled jackets and handbags in the front hallway, carrying the food we’d brought through to the kitchen. Ryan stood at the stove, flipping pancakes, while Nate turned sausages on the griddle he’d carted over from his house. There were hugs and hellos as the kids raced around underfoot, and baby Evie, befuddled by the time change, tried to decide whether to laugh or cry.

Eventually, we all gathered around the table in a ragged circle, Evie bouncing on my knees, to join hands and hear Amy say grace.

It’s the simplest and sometimes the most difficult thing in the world: inviting people into your home, letting them be a part of your family’s life. I have missed it this fall, while we’ve all been tugged in our opposite directions, and that night, it was loud and imperfect and crazy, and just right.

Perched around the table, we dug into stacks of pancakes and munched on crispy bacon, and exclaimed over photos of the kids in their Halloween costumes: a pirate, Scooby-Doo, Princess Leia, a “zombie skeleton scientist.” We listened to snatches of a cappella songs (sung by Nate and my husband), told stories, cracked jokes. We refilled the kids’ glasses of milk and our own mugs of hot mulled cider. Telly padded around underfoot, and Nate carried a massive skillet of scrambled eggs out of the kitchen and spooned them onto everyone’s plates.

Later, I stood in the kitchen and tried to explain Daylight Savings Time to nine-year-old Michael, nearly dead on his feet after two soccer games that morning. And still later, we drifted into the living room to sing a few songs from battered hymnbooks, Abi rocking Evie slowly to sleep, the younger kids looking wide-eyed at Richard Scarry picture books while we sang “Be Thou My Vision” and “Mighty God.”

We left later than we intended (isn’t that always the way?), with bear hugs and “see you soons.” J and I were exhausted by the time we got home: we’re both introverts, and Sundays can be challenging. I was out of words and out of extrovert. But I also felt full, and grateful. This community, this warm, chaotic, nourishing thing we do on Sunday nights, saves my life over and over again.

Where do you find community in your life?

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sunflowers

Here we are in the middle of ordinary time, that long stretch of the church year between Pentecost and Advent.

Although the high liturgical seasons – especially Christmas and Easter – tend to steal all the attention, the truth is that ordinary time takes up nearly half of the church calendar. The long sequence of Sundays after Pentecost includes the whole summer and most of the fall. During these Sundays, the weekly lectionary texts prod us to think about how to live.

I go to a tiny, semi-liturgical church that has adopted the lectionary and the church year as a way of ordering our communal life. We are part of a denomination that traditionally resisted such things, but we have come to love the quiet rhythms (weekly and annual) that help give shape and focus to our time together.

Many of us are refugees from big evangelical churches that emphasized emotion over thoughtfulness; others came from church communities that prized rationalism over mystery. The liturgy – the Lord’s Prayer, the communion table, the cycle of the church year – helps us make space for all these things.

Although summer is a set-apart time for many people (especially in a city like Boston, which takes its cues from the academic calendar), it always coincides with deep ordinary time. In the midst of school vacations, travel plans, warm weather and looser schedules, we turn back to the Epistles and the Gospels, asking every Sunday: what kind of people are we going to be?

I like ordinary time as a metaphor for our lives. I have a friend who used to slip up and call it “mundane time.” It can sometimes feel like that, but it’s also where most of us live, most of the time. All of our lives contain high moments of joy and low moments of grief and fear, but we mostly live in between. It’s the same at church: while many of us relish the excitement of various holidays, most of our sermons and services, and the issues we discuss, are linked to our everyday, walking-around lives.

Here, in the longest and quietest (in some ways) season, we are called to live faithfully, to consider our instructions (and the story we find ourselves in), and decide how we are going to live. The altar color of this season is green, for new life and growth. If we are faithful (and sometimes lucky), we can experience growth in ordinary time.

I will always love the anticipation of Advent, the starry-eyed wonder of Christmas, the drama of Holy Week and the bursting joy of Easter. But I am developing an appreciation for ordinary time. The beauty of the everyday is particularly present in these weeks, as spring slides into summer and then summer turns toward fall.

Here in ordinary time, it is our job to pay attention, to do our best to live thoughtfully and wisely, to walk through this world with wisdom and compassion. To make these things ordinary, even while they remain mysterious and full of grace.

May it ever be so.

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