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Posts Tagged ‘community’

Celebrating Easter

palm sunday church

This year, the Easter planning happened on the fly.

I suppose it always does, really. Our tiny church, as I’ve said before, has no dedicated, full-time paid ministry staff. Instead, there are four or five of us who plan services and schedule preachers, print bulletins and fill glass communion cups with Welch’s grape juice, and another half dozen who deal with finances and building issues (our sanctuary ceiling has boasted multiplying cracks for years now).

We rarely all end up in the same room together for any length of time. We parcel out the responsibilities, and then we have to trust that everyone knows what they’re doing.

In true twenty-first-century fashion, a lot of the planning happens over email, my husband and I touching base with the folks who teach children’s classes, read Scripture aloud during service, lead prayers, bring snacks for the coffee hour before worship. But during the days leading up to Palm Sunday and Easter, even J and I couldn’t sit down together for more than ten minutes to talk about the services. Instead, we had those conversations when we could: brushing our teeth elbow to elbow in our tiny bathroom, sitting at the dinner table while he ate reheated leftovers after working late (again), pulling on our pajamas to fall into bed after another long day.

We were doing our best to be thoughtful, not to put off the planning until the last minute. But sometimes, the last minute – or a series of minutes, snatched here and there – is all we have. And inevitably, it makes me worry.

What if we can’t have the Easter egg hunt outside? Will the bulletins get printed with all the correct names on the list of Easter lily honorees? Will Bob remember to bring the flowers and Dan remember to make the coffee? Will the kids be so excited and hopped up on sugar that they can’t sit still? Will we have enough food for the after-church potluck? And – this is the big one – will it really feel like Easter?

Our friend Mason, who preached on Sunday, admitted to dreading Easter sermons. It’s like the Super Bowl for church, he said – a day fraught with high, often conflicting expectations, which no sermon can possibly meet. My own expectations for Easter are less about the sermon than about a few beloved hymns and the feelings they are supposed to engender. But it’s still a day with a lot of anticipation. And inevitably, not everything goes according to plan.

Yesterday, we realized five minutes before starting that we hadn’t asked anyone to give the communion thoughts – so I volunteered. Miraculously, the snow that still blanketed the backyard last week had melted – so we did get to have the Easter egg hunt outside. Bob filled the altar with armloads of lilies and the two deep windowsills along the church’s southern wall with tulips and daffodils and hyacinths. Dan did make the coffee, and we had plenty of snacks for the potluck afterward. We stood around in groups, eating scones and carrot sticks and spinach-artichoke dip with pretzels, catching up joyfully – if a little haphazardly – on each other’s lives.

easter flowers brookline

We sang “Low in the Grave He Lay” and “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” The older kids gave a presentation on the life of Jesus, standing in a ragged line on the stage, mumbling through their parts or speaking them loud and clear. The little ones were not quiet – they never are – and at times the whole morning felt a bit frenetic, a bit cobbled-together. But this is Easter: a story that takes unexpected turns, right in the middle of our ordinary, messy human lives.

I marvel at it every year, sometimes every week: how the logistics, the details, the words and notes on paper, become a living, breathing thing, a celebration of the story none of us can quite explain, but to which all of us, in our various ways, are clinging. It’s rarely neat and tidy, and it almost never turns out quite the way we plan. But – this week and always – it is beautiful.

If you celebrated Easter (or Passover), I hope you had a wonderful holiday.

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On voting.

voting sticker

Yesterday morning, I left my house a little earlier than usual, walking down the block to a plain, unadorned brick hall that regularly hosts community events ranging from AA meetings to meat raffles. (The latter, apparently, are a real thing here in New England.) I walked through a hallway that smelled of stale coffee, into a large, bare room with two tables of cheerful volunteers and a dozen or so voting booths, standing against the wall in a neat line, balanced on spindly legs.

I gave my name and street address to the women at the first table, in exchange for a ballot and an information booklet. After spending a couple of minutes filling in circles in a booth (no one looking over my shoulder), I fed the ballot into the big gray box next to the second table. The volunteers there gave me a sticker (which, as we all know, is just as exciting for adults as it is for kids). I thanked them and headed out to catch my train to work.

Every time I exercise my right to vote, I marvel at the quiet, peaceful simplicity of the process: register, show up, give your name, make your choice, submit your ballot to be counted. Everyone has a say; no one’s vote carries more or less weight than anyone else’s.

Especially in these midterm elections, when the electoral college does not come into play, the process is beautifully, humbly straightforward: one citizen, one vote. In town halls and libraries and even grocery stores across the country, my fellow citizens – rich and poor, male and female, of every ethnicity and political persuasion – can exercise this fundamental American right. (And receive the stickers to show for it.)

I am as sick of campaign ads as the next person, already bracing myself for the firestorm of political rhetoric that will start long before the 2016 presidential election (and which, some would say, never really ends). I grow weary of the personal attacks, on Facebook and elsewhere, that attempt to reduce a person’s identity and character to the box marked on his or her ballot. I won’t tell you which candidates I chose on Tuesday, and I won’t ask you which ones you chose. That information belongs to each of us and no one else.

But I will say this: I hope you voted.

I hope you voted, because the system of a democracy depends on its citizens’ willingness to participate, to decide for themselves which laws they would like to uphold or repeal, and whom they would like to serve as elected officials. I know democracy is often a complicated thing, shadowed by back-door deals and mutual political favors and the byzantine processes of government. But I believe it still works, and it still matters. As a woman, I am particularly aware that I owe my right to vote to a number of brave women who fought for it – and I have a responsibility to exercise it, to honor their work and their sacrifice.

As Ann Patchett noted recently in the New York Times, “voting is like brickwork – the trick is to keep at it every election season, laying brick after brick.” I am not naive enough to believe that one vote on one day will repair all the problems that plague this (sometimes shaky) edifice of democracy. But I believe the act of showing up, trowel (or pen) in hand, is a worthy start.

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Oxford: long talks

As I noted recently, going back to Oxford always means reconnecting with a few dear friends who live there. I had a splendid afternoon with my housemates, but it was only one part of a week spent soaking in community.

After my rapturous walk home on the morning I arrived, I was greeted by my hostess – Jacque, a college friend who has lived in Oxford for years now. The first thing she said was, “Cup of tea?” Which is code for, “I’ll put the kettle on and we’ll have a long chat.”

katie jacque oxford

We had plenty of long chats that week – sitting at her kitchen table, relaxing in her spacious living room, walking to the park or the coffee shop, meandering around City Centre. Many of our chats involved, or were in the presence of, her sweet wee baby, Matilda.

matilda

Matilda isn’t much for talking yet, but she gurgles and coos with the best of them. And she didn’t seem to mind being hauled all around Oxford (and up to London and back), as Jacque and I took her everywhere with us.

On Friday, Megan, another college friend, came up to spend the weekend in Oxford.

katie megan house 9 oxford

Megan recently moved to the south coast of England, and after several exciting but overwhelming weeks of transition, she was thrilled to be back in Oxford among familiar faces. And we were thrilled to have her.

She and I shared a room for two nights and stayed up far too late talking of a hundred things – work and family and life abroad, transition and culture shock and faith. We walked downtown on Sunday morning, via our favorite sandwich shop, and we stood in the nave of the church we both call home, and sang our hearts out together.

That Monday, I walked back down the Cowley Road to a building just around the corner from my old house, to spend the evening with Lizzie in her charming fourth-floor flat.

lizzie living room oxford

When we were housemates, Lizzie and I would frequently stay up late talking. Long after Jo and Grace (those early risers) had gone to bed, and we’d given up studying for the evening, we could be found curled up on her bed or mine, putting the world to rights over cups of tea or cocoa. We laughed and cried and wrestled with matters of school and career and the heart; we told secrets, told jokes, and forged a deep bond in those late-night hours. And on this evening, Lizzie made a pot of hearty pasta and a nectarine crumble, and we ate and giggled and talked for hours. Just like old times.

lizzie river oxford

My last full day in Oxford was chock-full of community, beginning with the lovely Laura.

katie laura oxford

Laura teaches at my alma mater in West Texas, and she and her family are spending this fall in Oxford while she teaches in their study abroad program. They were away in Scotland when I arrived, but came back midway through my trip, and on Tuesday, she and I had a delightful day out together.

radcliffe camera st mary's tower oxford

We climbed St Mary’s church tower for some of my favorite views in the world (above), ate lunch at Pieminister in the Covered Market, and visited a few of my favorite shops, including Ben’s Cookies.

bens cookies oxford covered market

We also crammed in as much catching-up as we could – books, faith, travel, family, work, Oxford itself. We see one another rarely since I moved to Boston, and this bonus time together was a treat.

Later than afternoon, Jacque and I had tea in the back garden – she even broke out the posh tea from Paris.

jacque matilda

Laura’s younger daughter, Molly, joined us for tea – though after trying the fancy tea we were drinking, she informed us seriously that she really prefers Earl Grey. (And ran next door to fetch her own teabag.)

tea set hands garden

That evening, I took a walk along the canal, out past the train station, to an old stone house where I’m always welcome.

simon preaching st aldates

My friend Simon (pictured above), one of the ministers at my beloved St Aldates, and his wife Tiffany welcomed me with hugs. We sat around the table with their teenage sons, eating pasta carbonara and catching up on our lives. After dinner, Tiffany served raspberry crumble topped with crushed almonds, and Simon and I sat in the living room and talked for hours.

I always wish I could record these conversations, capture their essence as well as the actual words exchanged – so many wise, loving and profound remarks come out of these hours among friends. But I have to be content with scribbling down a few of the most memorable words in my journal, and basking in the afterglow – the warm, nourished feeling that comes from spending time with people I love.

More (more!) Oxford photos and stories to come.

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when we were on fire synchroblog

That may as well be the subtitle of Addie Zierman’s memoir, When We Were on Fire, out tomorrow from Convergent Books.

I’ve never met Addie, except via blogland, but we were born in the same year (albeit in different regions of the country) and we spent our teenage years immersed in the same strange, insular, oddly intense subculture of Christianity. We both went to small Christian colleges where we met the men we married, and we have both spent a large part of our post-college years trying to hang onto our faith while having to unlearn a lot of things we thought we knew.

To celebrate her book’s publication, Addie has invited fellow bloggers to share their experiences with the evangelical subculture and the subsequent impact on their – our – faith.

The evangelical subculture, with its rah-rah zeal and catchy T-shirts and tidy, well-reasoned arguments in favor of faith, left me with some baggage, for sure. There wasn’t much room in it for doubts or questions, for the messier, blurrier side of faith or relationships. But for a few years, that didn’t matter, because it provided me with what all teenagers need: a safe place.

I grew up in a tightly knit, loving, Christian family and I had a group of close friends at school, most of whom went to church with their parents but sort of rolled their eyes at my Jesus-freak-ness. But at youth group and the Bible studies I attended, my devotion was normal, even encouraged. I could hang out with other kids who loved Jesus as much as I did, who were trying to figure out how to be good and faithful people as they navigated the halls of high school. And for six years, those other Jesus-freak teenagers were my people.

I sang with the worship band and led prayers at youth group. I worked diligently through the homework questions before Teen CBS each week. I had a black WWJD bracelet and a whole drawerful of Christian-themed T-shirts. (I still have a couple of them somewhere.)

When I was a sophomore in high school, a handsome senior (whom I later dated) asked me to sing with the praise band at a new lunchtime club called the Fellowship of Christian Musicians. The audience was mostly our fellow band nerds, and they mostly came for the free food and the fun of singing songs with goofy motions. There was never any preaching or theological debate at FCM; it was simply a loud, friendly, loosely connected community, fueled by trays of Bagel Bites and taquitos pulled warm from the oven by a few dedicated parents.

And here is what it took me a long time to understand: that was enough.

I grew up in a denomination that prizes words, specifically the words of the Bible (usually interpreted a certain way) and the words of respected theologians. It also prizes testimony, the retelling of one’s own faith story, even one as quiet and nondramatic as mine. Salvation, according to a lot of its pastors, depends on a specific set of words (the Sinner’s Prayer). Baptism (adult baptism, by immersion) is accompanied by a public “confession of faith.” Rhetorical arguments for faith – even when one is literally preaching to the choir – are encouraged.

As a lifelong bookworm, I felt right at home among all those words. But I sometimes became uneasy when participating in a faith activity that didn’t involve preaching or praying, that lacked a neat rhetorical way of tying it all together.

On a September day during my senior year of high school, I learned, along with the rest of the country, about the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania. Because it was a Tuesday, I headed to Bible study with my parents and sister that night, craving the comfort of normalcy and community (and freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies) after a day of strained expressions from my teachers and friends, and increasingly horrifying news coverage.

After eating dinner, I slipped into a metal folding chair next to my friend Adam, who looked as exhausted as I felt. One of our leaders got up on stage for the weekly welcome and greeting, which was somber, matching the tone of the room. As the worship band began to play, Adam reached over and slipped his hand into mine. We sat, silent, not even singing, in the darkened room, as Russ and the band played songs of quiet comfort. For almost the first time in my life, I had no words – only mute grief, and the solid presence of a community around me.

And here is what I began to understand that night: it was enough.

I am a long way from those Jesus-freak days, far from those lunchtimes when I led the FCM crowd in yet another rendition of “Sanctuary” or “Peace Like a River.” I still know all the words to those songs and many others; after years of repetition, they have made their way deep into my bones. But the words, then used so often to argue and convince and persuade, have settled into something quieter and gentler now: a background hum, steady as the blood pumping through my veins. They are no longer rhetorical weapons, polished and honed to perfection. Instead, they are part of my makeup, like my mother’s green eyes and the freckles on my nose.

These days, I am less interested in the old rhetoric of “saving souls” than I am in living a steady, quiet life of grace and peace. I refuse to be drawn into battles where people use “the sword of the Spirit” to stab each other. I have my beliefs, and they are deeply held, but I am not interested in arguing with anyone about them.

Instead, I want relationship, community. I want to offer my own presence and take comfort in the presence of other people, through times of joy and grief and through the long, everyday stretches in between.

And here is what I began learning in the evangelical subculture, and have continued to learn long after I left it: presence and community, even in the absence of so many words, are enough.

I’d love to hear about your own experiences with faith in the comments, and I’d encourage you to pick up Addie’s book – it is sensitive, honest, well-crafted and beautifully told.

(I received a free copy of When We Were on Fire in exchange for an honest review, but all opinions, experiences, etc., are my own.)

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the bookstore lenox ma

Despite my deep and copiously documented love of reading, I’ve not had very good luck with book clubs.

I joined one – a group of smart, compassionate women – when I still lived in west Texas, but I ended up moving away a few months later when my husband landed his job in Boston. A couple of years ago, two Boston girlfriends and I launched a book club, and we read some great books – Unbroken, Jane Eyre, The Weird Sisters, The Night Circus, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.  But we lost a few members due to busy schedules and other commitments, and the group eventually petered out.

But this summer, at the behest of my friend Hannah, I joined what we call the “occasional book club,” made up of 10 or so women scattered around New England, from Boston to Hartford to Rhode Island. (Hannah lives in the Boston area, but is from Rhode Island, and she is the common link between us: all the other members know her somehow.)

We meet every couple of months to discuss a book and munch on delicious food. This summer, on a sweltering July night, the menu consisted largely of ice cream. (Not that I’m complaining!) At our most recent meeting, a brilliant and wide-ranging discussion of Gaudy Night, the spread ranged from wine and candied nuts to squares of sea-salt dark chocolate, to crisp slices of bell pepper and apples dipped in hummus and caramel dip, respectively.

On the surface, we have relatively little in common except our ages (and our various connections to Hannah). We are artists, writers, librarians, office workers, therapists, stay-at-home mothers. Most of us claim some kind of Christian faith, though our backgrounds and current practices vary widely. But we all love to read and talk about books. Both meetings I’ve attended have sparked deep, thought-provoking discussions, ranging from questions of style and structure to the larger issues at the heart of the books we read.

It’s often difficult to pinpoint what makes a group work, or causes it to fall apart. In this case, the low-pressure nature of these meetings is definitely a plus: no one has to scramble to read a new book and make fresh travel plans every month. The occasional nature of the club means it feels like a treat when we do get together, and our diverse backgrounds and viewpoints make for fascinating discussion.

So many of the connections I’ve made here in Boston are different than I’d envisioned: looser, perhaps, but also rich in unexpected ways. This book club definitely fits both descriptors.

Are you part of a book club? I’m always keen to hear others’ experiences.

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Walking into the light

Harvard Yard is a different place in the early morning.

Clear, lucid sunlight falls in patches through the leaves of trees still lush with summer green. Colorful chairs lie scattered across the lawn, angled limbs akimbo, facing every which way like the passersby on the street, everyone intent on his or her own errand.

Later, the Yard will hum with students hurrying to class and tourists snapping photos with the bronze statue of John Harvard, placing their hands on his buckled shoe, rubbed gold by generations of pilgrims seeking luck. But now, in the early morning sunshine, all is quiet.

memorial church tower harvard yard

The spire of Memorial Church stretches tall and white into the sky, framed by red-brick buildings and wrought-iron gas lamps, cutouts of blue visible in its bell tower. Inside, white box pews trimmed with varnished wood march two by two up to the dark, carved pews of Appleton Chapel, the whole scene illuminated by shafts of light in the window above the altar.

memorial church interior harvard yard

We file in quietly, alone or in pairs: bleary-eyed students, grave faculty members, the occasional staff member like me. We find our places in the pews, the slim black psalters and crimson-covered hymnals sedate in their racks. The choir, a dozen or so undergraduates in long black robes with crimson yokes, processes in to the sound of the organist’s voluntary. And we begin.

I got into the habit of sleeping in this summer, hitting the snooze button a few times as the sunlight drifted in the window, rolling over for an extra cuddle with my husband. But as the new school year begins, we are getting up earlier: he to head to the gym, me to get into the shower and start my morning so I can get out the door in time for Morning Prayers.

Since we moved to Boston, J and I have been increasingly involved in the life of our little church, where he leads worship (which we often plan) nearly every Sunday. I read Scripture aloud and fill communion cups, send out the weekly email update, wash the coffeepot, write down prayer requests. We both plan and attend events, and generally help keep things humming.

We love this community, and we would not be content simply to sit on the sidelines, especially in a small place where all hands are needed. But at Morning Prayers, I have no responsibilities, no public part to play. I can come, sit, listen, and be.

We stand and reach for the black psalters, repeating familiar words of comfort, protection and grace. We sit and listen to the anthem, sung a cappella by the choir, delicate harmonies lingering on the air. We listen to a brief address by a member of the Harvard community, carefully considered words of welcome, challenge or wisdom. We bow our heads in our pews, and repeat the Lord’s Prayer together.

And then we stand, reach for our hymnals, and our voices swell with the organ in a final, soaring hymn. During the first week of school, we sang two of my favorites: “We Gather Together” and “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The minister raises his hand and gives a benediction: “Go in peace.” He reminds us what the Lord requires of us: “to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.”

We walk out silently, behind the choir, after the final Amen. The notes of the organ follow us out, and we scatter in all directions, to our offices and classrooms, to the work we have been given to do. This morning ritual grounds us, gives us space to begin again, to reflect on what it is to do justly and love mercy. It is a brief window, before the rush of our busy days, a chance to glimpse again the life of grace and peace we are all pursuing.

Amen.

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summer small group backyard

Several times a month, year-round, a group of us gather at Ryan and Amy’s on Sunday nights. We bring a potluck dinner, the dishes sometimes loosely coordinated at church that morning or via text message the day before, sometimes utterly spontaneous (or dependent on what we all have in the fridge and the pantry).

We arrange our dishes on the long wooden sideboard, and Amy pulls out the basket of plastic utensils and paper napkins. Sophie, the gray cat, hops up in the bay window to investigate the drink options, and cranes her neck toward the sideboard, sniffing at the tempting food, till someone shoos her away.

Abi and I rummage through drawers and cabinets for serving spoons and ladles and big salad bowls. We chop and stir and heat dishes on the stove, bumping into each other, making a mess, laughing.

Michael, age seven, begs Jeremiah to join him in a game of football or soccer, baseball or (occasionally) video games on the Wii. Sophie and Jai, the black cat, wind around our legs, and Telly, the dog, pads from person to person, nosing our hands, seeking affection. We join hands around the long table and say a brief prayer. And then we pile our plates with food, pull up mismatched chairs, and dig in.

In the summer, we gather even more eagerly, because the food, and the action, shifts outside.

abi table food

The round grill in the center of the backyard plays host to bratwurst or hot dogs or chicken and vegetables on skewers. Abi stirs up a pitcher of sweet iced tea, often flavored with blackberry or mint. Michael and Jeremiah toss a baseball back and forth, all around the yard, sometimes scaring a stray bird or rabbit into the woodpile. Telly sprawls out on the flagstone patio, gnawing a bone, sated with sun and content to be among all his favorite people.

telly dog

We spread tables with colorful checked or flowered cloths. We light citronella candles, make dozens of trips to the kitchen and back, hauling out napkins and paper plates, fresh fruit and potato salad, bags of chips or raw veggies, the latter sometimes fresh from Ryan and Amy’s garden. We join hands and give thanks, and dig in.

We sit outside until the light fails, soaking up the golden alchemy that transforms summer evenings in New England, stretching the hours out like taffy. We head inside reluctantly, when the mosquitoes start to bite and the shadows start to fall, carting dishes and food and stacks of dirty plates. We divide them among the counters and the dishwasher and the trash can, and then we pull the same mismatched chairs into a circle in the living room. Sierra, age seven, passes out the heavy old hymnals and the lighter, spiral-bound new songbooks, and we riffle through the pages, and choose a song to sing.

Even though it’s long past dark by the time we leave, even though the golden light has faded from the sky, these evenings linger sun-washed in my memory, filled with herb-flecked salads and fresh, tart fruits and the smoky taste of meat from the grill. We bring food to nourish ourselves and each other, but what really nourishes us is being together, outside under the wide summer sky.

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