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Posts Tagged ‘faith’

memorial church harvard spire branches blue sky

We have arrived at Holy Week, again – after a long, gray Lenten season that felt like it would never end. Last week, a cardboard box of palm fronds (shipped from Minnesota, of all places) arrived on my doorstep, and on Sunday morning, we passed them out to the waiting hands at our tiny church. I stood in a pew waving my palm branch and snapping pictures with my phone as the kids (and some adults) walked a few laps around the sanctuary, singing songs anchored by the word Hosanna.

Later in the service, we did what we do each week: paused to mention specific prayer requests for our church community and the world. People raised their hands readily to ask for prayers for a pregnant sister, a jobless husband, an ill mother. But when Nate asked about prayers for the wider world, we fell silent, as we often do. Where to begin?

I thought of the chemical attacks in Syria, of the churches bombed that day in Egypt, of the refugees still pouring into Europe, searching for a home. I thought about the headlines that inform so much of my day job: when you work in communications at a school of government, ignoring the daily news is not an option. There is so much fear and anger and unrest, everywhere, and I don’t always know how to react to it all, much less form the words of a coherent prayer.

We always end with the Lord’s Prayer, reciting it aloud in quiet unison. We say it, too, at the weekday Morning Prayers service at Memorial Church, where I have ended up more and more often this year, walking across Harvard Yard to tuck myself into a carved wooden pew right behind the choir.

All winter long, and into this fitful spring, the same line has made tears well in my eyes: On earth as it is in heaven.

I don’t know much, of course, about what heaven is like. I doubt the images from our Sunday School lessons get all that close to the reality of it, and I don’t believe that’s the point, really. But I believe in a world beyond this one: a world of hope and redemption and deep, untrammeled joy, watched over by a God who is making all things new.

I also know that life on earth isn’t like that: the glories of this life are always mingled with heartbreak. We are so far, so much of the time, from any vision of peace and justice and love. There are glimpses of it: spasmodic tricks of radiance, if you will. But we are not there yet.

Holy Week is a time when we enter into the full dramatic scope of the Christian narrative: the triumphal (though unexpected) entry into Jerusalem, the bittersweet last meal with the disciples, the jarring tragedy of arrest and brutal crucifixion. During this week, we walk alongside the disciples as they watch Jesus give himself up, and for a few heart-stopping days, it looks like the horrors of this world have won. It looks like grief and fear and hopelessness. It looks like the headlines I see every day.

Here, in the middle of Holy Week, it can be hard to see the pattern: it looks like heartbreak and struggle, rather than triumph. It looks like tears and frustration and unanswered questions, and soon it will look like deep anguish. But then, in the early hours of Sunday morning, it will start to look like hope. The sky will start to lighten, and the earth will hold its breath. And then – out of the tomb, out of the very heart of darkness and despair – will come the joy.

This week, as I walk the streets of Cambridge, I am also walking a different road: the one that winds through Jerusalem, all the way up to Golgotha. The songs from the Easter pageants at my childhood church are running through my head, and I am remembering how it felt to be part of it all, as a servant of the wise men, a young bride at Cana, a villager joining an angry mob that later became a choir of praise.

For us, Easter Sunday isn’t the end of the story: we still have to contend with the brokenness of this world. But it is worth celebrating that one glorious day when already and not yet meld together: when, for just a moment, on earth as it is in heaven becomes real.

If you’re observing Holy Week (or simply looking forward to Easter), I wish you a blessed one.

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crocuses snow diptych

I flipped the kitchen calendar to April this weekend, as a mix of snow and sleet swirled down outside the windows. This wasn’t quite the April Fool’s blizzard of 20 years ago, but it was still a proper nor’easter: more like February than April. Both Nature’s clock and my internal one seem to be off this year.

It’s been a month since Ash Wednesday, a month that has swung wildly between sunny days that coaxed the crocuses to lift up their faces to the blue sky, and freezing, bitter winds accompanied by snow, sleet and rain. I suppose we were all fooled by the mild days in late February. (I know I was.)

Lent is typically a hard season for me: I do not naturally dwell in darkness, and Lent asks us to look steadily at our human frailties, the flaws inherent in our nature that trip us up again and again. We begin, on Ash Wednesday, with the words that say it all in one sentence: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This year on Ash Wednesday, I sat with a handful of other Harvard folks in the boxy white pews of Memorial Church, listening to the prayers and readings, reciting the litany of confession. But I was thinking about two things, not (at first glance) related: a poem I’d heard that morning at the daily prayer service, and Lord Voldemort.

The poem, by Jan Richardson, is called “Blessing the Dust,” and Alanna read it aloud in her clear, ringing voice:

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

At many churches, the dried palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service are burned to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. The ashes are what is left after a fire: the scorched remains of what was once fresh and green. They mark us, smeared onto our foreheads by the finger of a minister or a loved one, along with those words I can’t forget: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Earlier this winter, I reread the Harry Potter series, again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve turned back to this story, diving joyfully into the world of Hogwarts and relishing Harry’s adventures with Ron and Hermione. I read them, this time around, with a friend who loves them as much as I do, which was the most fun I’ve had reading anything in a very long time.

On Ash Wednesday, my thoughts turned back to Voldemort, and how the insistent reminder of Lent – that we are dust – is the very thing he worked so hard, all his life, to deny.

Voldemort – when he was still Tom Riddle, young and friendless – always yearned to believe he was special, set apart, somehow above the rules and limits placed on other people. When he learned about his magical ability, he began searching for a way to make himself immortal, which led him down a dark and dangerous path. He always had a deep and unusual fear of death, and this obsession led him to experiment with Horcruxes: splitting his soul into multiple pieces, killing again and again, trying any means he could find to achieve a semblance of immortality. His followers – never friends – were called Death Eaters; his quest to find Harry, and kill him, was born out of the terror of his own mortality. Voldemort never believed Dumbledore’s assertion that the limits of our humanity can also be a gift.

Magic in the Harry Potter universe (which bears some resemblance to faith in our own world) provides no guarantee of immortality. Many witches and wizards live long lives, but some of them – like Dumbledore, Harry’s parents and eventually Harry himself – end up placing their lives at risk, even giving them up, to defend those they love.

The walk Harry takes into the Forbidden Forest near the end of Deathly Hallows echoes Jesus’ journey to Calvary: the action of a man, gifted but mortal after all, intent on giving up his life for the sake of others. Voldemort, by contrast, hid behind his own twisted experiments and machinations until the very end. He never would have understood the words of Richardson’s poem: he would not have believed in “the blessing / that lives within / the ancient ashes.”

We are two weeks away from Easter: from the day when we emerge, blinking, into the brightness of the Garden on a Sunday morning, into the joy that has been winking at us, calling to us from around the corner. I love the Holy Week narrative and I know we need it all: the deep, utterly despairing dive into darkness, the mournful songs of Maundy Thursday and the howling grief of Good Friday. I know we need the suspension of Holy Saturday: the world holds its breath, waiting to see if the promise will be fulfilled.

I am ready for the joy of Easter Sunday: the blaze of light, the birdsong, the proclamation of the sentence carved on James and Lily Potter’s grave: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” But we are not quite there yet, and even when we get there, some of the old sorrow will still linger. The glory of Easter doesn’t negate the wounds of our humanity. It heals them, but it does not make them disappear.

So as I walk (carefully) down sidewalks still edged with melting snow, I am holding Richardson’s words close. I am thinking about our humanity, about the frail, soft, vulnerable parts of ourselves that Voldemort feared, but which give us (among other gifts) our ability to love. I am hopeful, as Richardson is, that I will see

what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

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morning prayers montage memorial church

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at Morning Prayers, the brief service held every weekday at Harvard’s Memorial Church, across the Square from where I work.

I’ve been a sporadic attendee at Morning Prayers for a while, a more regular one this year, slipping into a pew to soak up the choral music and participate in the psalm readings, the Lord’s Prayer and the closing hymns. But this was my first time speaking there.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose to talk about what is saving my life now: reading a beloved passage by Barbara Brown Taylor, and explaining how that phrase of hers has captured and held my attention for several years. Here’s a snippet of my talk:

What is saving your life now?

It’s not a question I had ever considered in just this way, until I read it in Taylor’s book. I’d heard similar questions, phrased slightly differently: what are you grateful for? What’s making you happy these days?

But this question, with its insistence on what is vital, sneaked into my soul and set up camp there. And I’ve been amazed at the simple power of continuing to ask it. […]

It’s been a hard few months to live in the world – a hard year or so. I find myself need the reminder – and maybe you do too – that what can save our spiritual lives is the physical, embodied, daily experience of life on this earth. We are creatures who walk around in our bodies, breathing the air, dependent on food and drink for our survival, affected by our environment in a thousand ways, no matter how much we try to insist otherwise. As I kept asking this question, I found that, so often, what is saving my life now are the small things. Many of them are physical, tangible. And all of them are related to my daily, walking-around life in this world.

You can listen to the full service – just under 15 minutes – on the Memorial Church website. (My talk starts at about 4:25.) And as always, I’d love to hear about what is saving your life now.

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A blessing

holden chapel reflection harvard yard

My favorite part of Morning Prayers these days is often the benediction, which comes at the end of the service: after the choral anthem, after the Lord’s Prayer, after the brief address by the day’s speaker and the hymn of the morning. Benediction means blessing, and we stand quietly in the uneven rows of chairs, ready to receive it.

Sometimes the benediction is a familiar one, from the book of Numbers: the one that begins, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.” Sometimes it is a prayer or a blessing from an entirely different source, often unknown to me.

About once a week, this fall, it has been this prayer, delivered by a young seminarian who is particularly fond of it. (He might have written it. I don’t know.) It bolsters me up every time I hear it, and yesterday, I stood in front of my small church community and spoke it over them.

We are heading into a contentious election week here in the U.S., and I am as anxious as the next person about what’s coming our way. But in the spirit of sharing what is saving our lives these days, I wanted to pass this blessing on to you:

May God go before you to lead you.
May he stand behind you to push you,
on the side of you to guide you,
above you to protect you,
beneath you to sustain you,
and in you to keep you.

Amen.

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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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becoming wise book sunflowers tea

“I’m a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for voices not shouting to be heard.”

These are the opening sentences of Krista Tippett’s luminous memoir, Becoming Wise, which distills the best of what she has heard, and learned, in nearly 15 years of hosting the radio show On Being.

Each week, Tippett interviews a guest about his or her work in a stunning range of fields: from poetry to physics, counseling to yoga to social activism. She has listened to doctors and actors, priests and lawyers, people who are household names and those who work in quiet, unheralded spaces. Becoming Wise introduces us to some of those voices, and lets us listen in as they talk with Tippett about the big questions of what it means to be human.

If you’re a regular reader, chances are you’ve heard me rave about Becoming Wise in recent months. I’m over at Great New Books today, talking about it more fully. Please join me over there to read the rest of my (glowing) review.

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strand bookstore awning nyc

My reading pace has been fairly slow (for me) this month. New apartment, still-new job, lots of other things crowding into my brain. But I’ve still found a few good books. Here they are:

A Sense of Wonder: The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane and the Ordinary, ed. Brian Doyle
An eclectic, luminous, often demanding collection of essays first published in Portland Magazine. My favorites are by Heather King, Robin Cody and Pico Iyer, but they are all worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 15).

Crowned and Dangerous, Rhys Bowen
This 10th entry in Bowen’s Royal Spyness series, which I love, finds Lady Georgiana Rannoch unexpectedly in Ireland with her beau, Darcy, trying to exonerate his father of a murder charge. Frothy, fun and smart, like this entire series. (I adore Georgie.)

The House of Dreams, Kate Lord Brown
Journalist Sophie Cass interviews artist Gabriel Lambert about his experience as a refugee in Marseille during World War II. The true story of Varian Fry and others at the Emergency Rescue Committee, who worked tirelessly to get artists out of France, is fascinating. But the novel’s framing story was less so, and I did not like the ending. (I loved Brown’s previous novel, The Perfume Garden.)

Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, David Hajdu
Music critic (and self-professed music geek) Hajdu takes readers on a tour of pop music in the U.S., from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, 45s to LPs to mixtapes and MP3s. Smart, entertaining and surprisingly deep. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

The Queen’s Accomplice, Susan Elia MacNeal
Mathematician-turned-spy Maggie Hope returns to WWII London and gets pulled onto a gruesome Scotland Yard case: a Jack-the-Ripper copycat serial killer targeting young professional women. I like Maggie (this is her sixth adventure), but this book was daaark. Also, the comments on the treatment of women felt heavy-handed. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 4).

Faithful, Alice Hoffman
Since the night of the accident that left her best friend in a coma, Shelby Richmond doesn’t believe she deserves to live. Faithful is the slow, rich, heartbreaking story of how Shelby finds her way, with help from her stalwart mother, a few stray dogs and a few highly unlikely friends. Bleak and gritty at times (Shelby messes up over and over), but also beautiful, and ultimately hopeful. Hoffman has written many books, but I’d never read her before. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 1).

The Boy is Back, Meg Cabot
Pro golfer Reed Stewart hasn’t been back to his Indiana hometown in a decade. But when his parents end up in the news (and in financial trouble), he returns to try and help out – which means facing his ex, Becky Flowers. Cabot tells this hilarious story through emails, texts and newspaper articles. Fluffy and really fun – smart chick lit. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

Wonder Women: 25 Inventors, Innovators and Trailblazers Who Changed History, Sam Maggs
We are hearing a lot lately (it’s long overdue!) about brilliant, brave women whose stories have been overlooked. Sam Maggs writes bite-size biographies of 25 such women in this snappy, girl-power book. The colloquial tone got a little wearing, but these women – inventors, spies, scientists – are amazing. Would pair well with Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, which I loved. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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