Friday, November 24, 2017

On Grief--or, What I'm Thankful For

I've always believed the human heart is not really equipped for grief. Why should we be? We were not created to experience death. Like the tiger's fangs, or the musk-ox's heavy coat, the way we manage loss is an adaptation to a world wounded by sin. It is unnatural. We weren't supposed to need these skills, and they aren't as good as we need anyhow.

Tonight I am grieving. Thanksgiving ended early with a phone call telling me I've lost a friend. She was young, and strong, and I don't know how to process the news. We like to snark about the early ending to Thanksgiving. We leave the table where we all talked about how happy we are for our blessings so we can (some of us, at least) hurry out to buy new stuff on sale. But I would rather have lost my thankful heart to commercialism this year, instead of to grief.

The friend who called with the news insisted I go to a private room before she would talk. And when she told me, I sat in the dark cradling the phone while we sobbed together. I'm not sure how we finally managed to hang up. My ten-year-old found me there, and hugged me and I cried into her hair until I had to find a tissue for my runny nose.  And then I cried into the tissue. Finally, I had to pull it together long enough to get my younger children bathed and put to bed. And all the while I wrestled with whether I could believe it. Was there any hope that it wasn't real?

So tonight here I am.  It's still Thanksgiving, and I finally know what I'm thankful for. Hours ago, we all sat around a table, and we went through the alphabet, taking turns naming something to be grateful for. I wracked my brain, and I came up with answers like "coffee" and "yellow." It was the luck of the alphabet, and I can't say I managed a lot of thankfulness for them.

I have now.

This year, I'm thankful to be an Adventist. I believe in a real resurrection. I believe in a God who's coming in person to break us out of this prison. The One with the answers is finally going to put the questions to rest. I believe in the Destination.

We have hope.

"Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. . . . For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. . . Therefore encourage one another with these words."
                                                                                                            I Thessalonians 4:13-18

We have hope. We say it. We sing about it. And it's so far off yet, that I can't touch it.

But I am an Adventist. We grieve, and we hope. And we sometimes say stupid things to one another because we're trying to hold the grief and the hope in the same hand, and they get garbled. Sometimes we think the promise should be enough, that it can somehow make us into creatures able to manage death.

Theology can't fix grief. Faith can't. The only real solution is the Advent. We can't really be comforted. But we will be rescued.

This blog is for my friends who are grieving. I know the hope doesn't change your loss. It doesn't make it less, or less important. But I hope you will hold them both in the same hand anyway. I don't have the answer, but there is an Answer. The Blessed Hope can't fix us, but it's the only link we have to the Blessed Reality that someday will.

We are not made to carry this burden. I don't know how we will. I'm not even sure how to get to sleep tonight. I will, of course. I'll grow the fangs, or the thick fur coat. Just like we all do. I can, because I have the one thing I need--I know it's not forever.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 17, 2017

For Thanksgiving: What I'm Not Grateful For

This week, for the first time ever, I'm posting a rerun. I have an excuse--I had surgery on Wednesday, and the pain meds have been dampening my sense of inspiration.  But I have been contemplating gratitude lately. 

This week's (repeated) blog topic is about something I'm not grateful for. Some of God's best gifts are this kind. They're like socks for Christmas. We don't love them, but we need them to our core.

As we get ready for the holidays, it's another opportunity to enjoy the gift of work. I hate work, especially of the "house" kind. But when I'm most honest, I know it's one of the things that keeps me a decent human being.

So to all of you out there stuck with the vacuum and the laundry, preparing for your company, or your travel, I'm offering this--a little Monty Python and a little philosophy.

"Blessed are the Cheesemakers" :

"What was that?"

"I think it was, 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.'"

"What's so special about cheesemakers?"

"Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally.  It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products."

I don't recommend The Life of Brian.  I haven't watched the movie since I've become an intellectually responsible adult--too much making nonsense out of what is sacred to wade through it for the good jokes.  But I find myself wondering, as I vacuum the living room this morning, if it's true.  Are the cheesemakers blessed?

It's Wednesday, my work day.  It's the one day all the kids are out of the house, and I can do stuff without interruptions. Today it's just me and the dog and the laptop.  And yet, before I can start, I have a date with the vacuum, because I'm serving supper to the grandparent babysitters, and the house has to look sanitary enough to eat in.

Is cheesemaking blessed?  Is vacuuming honorable?  Can there be dignity, can there be value in the inescapable round of work which we call "menial?"  I really want to know this, because it seems like I can't escape it.

I want to build my identity around what I do on my laptop--the sermons or dramas I write, or the events I help create. I don't want it to come from my vacuum.  I want to be a peacemaker, on a world scale, or locally. But what I am most hours of the day is a cheesemaker.  And it gets worse because, while I do have hope that one day (when the children are all in school) I might make a living with my brain, I know it's no escape. The house will still need vacuumed, the dishes washed. No matter who else I become, I will always have to be a cheesemaker.

Where does human value, human dignity lie? I want so hard to be valued for the things I can produce with my brain, rather than what I can produce with my vacuum. But if I take the time to unwrap that want, it doesn't look so beautiful underneath.  Because as great a treasure as the human intellect is, it is the human heart which Jesus died to save.  Perhaps my value to a critical world lies in my power to comprehend or express ideas. But my value to God is in my character. Honesty compels me to admit that it's the vacuum, and not the laptop, that grows my character.

When mankind fell in Eden, and God began the work of redeeming us, the first weapon he placed in our hands was work. "Painful toil" is an accurate translation of the word God used both for tilling the ground and for bearing children. And even today it hurts, and we call it menial. Even with my trusty vacuum and my dishwasher, still, it hurts my pride, knowing I am capable of sublime* things, and yet  being kept busy folding laundry, or cleaning the litter box.

It is the vacuum, and not the laptop, which grows my character. Indeed, the very fact that I draw personal value from writing arguably disqualifies it from being an act of character.  The exercise of the mind is a good thing, it helps to make us human.  Theology is essential to the service of God.**  But it is unglamorous work that pushes and stretches, and grows me.

So I guess the irreverent British comedians have this one right.  Blessed are the cheesemakers. We are growing in grace.

So I offer my respect to all of you cheesemakers out there.  Because there's more to cheesemaking than cheese. What makes your work honorable, what gives it dignity, is you. You are the image and glory of God, and the work you do is not trivial because it makes you more like him. May God bless you!

*at least I think so

**This is very, very, very important.  Because I love theology, and philosophy, and storytelling, and I wouldn't ever want to appear to disparage them in any way.

Friday, November 10, 2017

"Suffer the Little Children to Run in Church"

Hi, my name is Laura, and my kids run in church.

I used to have an excuse for it--we were the pastor's family. Everyone knows about pastor's kids, after all. My official stand was that I'd decided to embrace the stereotype, rather than fight it. But I don't have that excuse any more. 

I do make efforts, of course. I dress them in comfortable clothes, so we don't get unneeded grouchiness. I take them to Sabbath School, so they know church can be fun. We wait in the lobby as long as possible, to limit the time of confinement. And then we take a deep breath, and walk into the worship service, armed with snacks and books and toys, and prepared to hear very little of the sermon, keeping them quiet and happy.

But we're all tight as a bowstring by the time church ends. They are ready to be let loose. And because I don't want to come and go without speaking to anyone, I stop and talk. And they run.

We've moved churches twice since the twins were old enough to toddle. There's something nice about those first two weeks, when they're still in awe of their new surroundings. But by week 3, J has always decided he owns the place, before I have a chance to make relationships with people there which will give me the benefit of the doubt regarding my parenting. There's always someone ready to step in, and give my children the instruction I must be neglecting.

I have seen a lot of childless churches. And I've heard a lot of church members say how much they love children, and want to hear their footsteps and little voices in their halls. And who doesn't want those perfect doe eyes when they're extorting the children's offering?

But kids come with baggage.  Specifically, they come with noise, motion, and Cheerios to grind into the carpet.

I don't think it's any bad thing that when Jesus says, "Let the little children come to me," in scripture, the old English translation uses the word "suffer." No, I'm not trying to say that's the word Jesus meant--he wasn't speaking English. But it might be useful to meditate on why, in English, the idea of permitting something, and suffering through it, are related. Because there is a cost to having these kids with us. It's a negligible cost, if we love them. But here it is:

1. Kids are loud. They're often clueless about how loud they are. The only reliable way to keep children from being loud is to arrange them into a choir and set them up front.*

2. Kids are in motion. They run. They run everywhere.  And they usually move too fast to notice someone telling them to slow down. If you're going to have kids in a church, they will run--in the lobby, in the sanctuary, around the potluck tables. Please don't waste valuable time expecting something else.

3. Kids are messy. They drop their snack crackers, and don't finish their potluck food. They leave their Sabbath School crafts in the lobby, and pull the sharing books out of the give-away display. And since they're loud, and in motion, their parents might not notice the messes as they try to keep up.

Parents might make noble efforts (or you might think their efforts aren't noble enough), but they can't change the fundamental nature of childhood.  And they shouldn't. Because it's not moms and dads who made their kids this way--God did. I can't vouch for what he was thinking, making my kids in the form of perpetual-motion machines.  But I know I don't have power to recreate them--just to nudge them along in the growing up process that's going to take (let's face it) a lot of years to achieve. 

So if you want children in your church, the ugly truth is that you'll have to suffer.  "Suffer the little children to come to me . . ."

Lucky thing, there are good reasons to suffer cheerfully.

First, you should do it because they need to you to. Yes, I know that hearing the sermon is important. Walking safely in the halls is important. But running in church is important, too. No, I'm serious. Well, to be precise, being accepted and loved in church, in spite of child-like habits, is vitally important.

What children learn about God has less to do with their Sabbath School lesson, and more with how the adults treat them there. They may be slow in the critical thinking, but they're razor-sharp about feelings--your feelings about them to be exact. Kids believe in what they experience. And how they feel about their church experience IS their theology. 

Do you want them to believe in a God who's loving, gentle, encouraging, interested in their cares, and forgiving of their honest mistakes? Then you have to show them what that means. What do those words look like in real life? They won't learn it if they come to church to be shushed, halted, and disapproved of. 

If the church is going to pass the gospel on to a new generation, then being a kid-friendly place has to be a priority.

But it's not just for their sake. 

If kids believe what they experience, so do we. No matter what words we use to describe our theology, we believe what we live. When we pay more attention to someone's behavior than their hearts--as in, when we let ourselves judge them for being loud, or inconvenient, we do ourselves the most harm. Whether we mean to or not, we'll find ourselves worshiping a God who does the same. We are always our best selves, as a church, when we stretch to accept children.

Many years ago, one of our small Pennsylvania churches did a monthly "family Sabbath School" where the adults and kids did the morning lesson together. We took the adult lesson, and taught it with songs, and play-acting, and interactive questions.** I was hoping to draw more families to Sabbath School time. I didn't get as many as I wanted, and thought we should give it up (it was a lot of work), but the seniors objected. 

It turns out, the things we teach children are the building blocks of our faith. Lessons like trust in God's protection, love, and service to others, are the most important ones we learn. Teaching kids centers us back in the gospel.

Jesus also said "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 18:3

The truth is that the generations need each other. Adults need kids as much as kids need us. It's not an advantage that every church has. So if your church is one of the lucky ones, and you get to put up with the noise, and motion, and mess each week, make the most of it. Get acquainted with the children, and their parents. Look past the chaos, and enjoy the personalities. And if you need to, sit closer to the speaker.

"Let the little children come to me . . . " And be advised, they're going to come at a run.

*It's true that kids can speak up with a microphone in front of them, but this usually happens when they are unscripted. And that's a story for another day.

**Credit to Jeanne Hartwell, who created the Pennsylvania Conference Campmeeting's morning Family Worship meeting, from which I stole the idea.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Fellowship of the Church Parents' Room

There is a special kind of isolation that happens with parenthood, especially for mothers.  We are barely recovering from the cosmically un-private event of childbirth when the dial reverses. We scrape together our wits enough to go out in public, and a thoughtful friend ushers us into "this quiet room back here, where you can nurse in private."  We might welcome the room--I personally can remember plunging my whole head under the blanket when I had company over, and was still trying to get the hang of the latch-on. But needed or not, we cannot help but notice that all of the conversation is happening without us.

Thus it begins. The constant stream of infant needs leaves us overstressed and overtired, and if we get any free time, we nod off rather than picking up the phone.  This is parenthood. And it's more isolating than I expected.

Of course, the children grow. As the bag of needed battle-gear shrinks, the child's mobility grows to compensate. Now stranger-anxiety plays an odd dance with toddler independence, and the lovely people who were willing to hold the baby for us (invariably in cold and flu season) can't even do that for us.  As they start to sleep more regularly, we might not be tired zombies anymore, but now we are shackled to bedtimes.*

And then there's church. Church, of course, is no exception. I once read the opinion of a nameless stuffy man who insisted that church wasn't manly enough because it was "suited to the needs of women and children." I will not tell you how long I laughed when I read it. This man has obviously never taken small children to a church. It's not just the joy of trying to convince a 3-year-old that he is not, in fact, whispering, or juggling three plates in the potluck line.  There is also the fact that church may be the most isolated part of our week.

We start in the little Beginner Sabbath School, where we actually see some other parents in the same situation. We try to get in a little adult conversation, but not much, since it distracts the kids from their butterfly felts.

From there we head to the worship service, where we often land in the parents' room, not hearing the service because we're too busy tending our kids. I remember very well the feeling of being trapped.  Outside, in the church, were my friends, but I might not even see them in the melee of fixing emergencies and answering kid questions.  There, just out of reach beyond the (decidedly not-sound-proof) window was the adult world--I could see it, but it was out of reach.

The parents' room is like the "quiet back room to nurse in," only it's been institutionalized. We get to spend years of our lives in this room.  Sometimes we have other parents with us, depending on how big the church is. We can be quarantined together, and compare notes on our conditions.  We talk sometimes, and that's good.  Except that it guarantees we won't hear any of the service at all.

I don't regret the parents' room.  There would have been chunks of my life where I would not have come to church at all if that room wasn't there.  Because of the parents' room, I got to do two things: 1. Talk to people between services and afterward, reassuring myself that I am part of the community, and 2. Maintain the habit of getting dressed and going to church once a week, keeping a place reserved in my schedule for when the kids are older, and I can participate again.

Today's blog is dedicated to all of you parents, quarantined to the parents' room.  To you who get up on Sabbath mornings and dress in nice clothes which no one will see, who could show up to church without a Bible, but had better not forget the snacks. To all of you who haven't heard a sermon or participated in a song service uninterrupted for longer than you can remember.  To all of you in the holding tank, sequestered, and put aside, I want to honor you today.

Not everyone makes this choice. I have no blame for the parents who decide to skip this chore. It's reasonable, given the realities, to stay home. But that fact gives me all the more admiration for the parents who go.

You are important.  And you are making a difference. As little as it feels that you participate in church, still the church depends on you for its very life. If we don't keep this place reserved for church life in our families, if we don't pass this priority to our children, there is no church. This is the least-glorified, and (let's face it, evangelists) the most labor-intense form of evangelism.

On this Sabbath eve, as you take a breath from your busy week, and think about whether you can pull yourself out of bed tomorrow, I want you to know I see you. I'm with you. To all of you keeping vigil, waiting out your quarantine, hold on. Persist. In a thousand parents' rooms around the globe, you are not alone. The Fellowship of the Parents' Room is with you.  We know.  We're there.  And we'll see you on the other side.

Happy Sabbath!

*I confess that I have mixed feelings about all of this.  Before kids, I would have called myself an extrovert, and chosen to be out with friends whenever I had the chance.  After kids, confined to the house at night, I've gotten in touch with my inner homebody. Sometimes bedtime is a burden, but just as often, it's a handy excuse. The advent of Netflix may have something to do with the change.