Monday, September 16, 2013

Hat tip to Flannery O'Connor

This week's issue of The New Yorker magazine features excerpts from the journals of Flannery O'Connor, in which she writes of faith and prayer.  The journal entries date from 1946, when O'Connor studied at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  I love imagining her walking down the same streets that surround the two buildings where I work. 

One entry, on the subject of charity, aided me this morning as I was already in prayer over the overabundance of criticism and judgment I've just heard among church people whom I cherish.  It's tough not to respond to judgment with more judgment.  O'Connor addresses her journal entries, "My dear God."  Here's what she penned in her notebook:

"All this is about charity.  Dear Lord please make my mind vigilant about that.  I say many too many uncharitable things about people everyday.  I say them because they make me look clever.  Please help me to realize practically how cheap this is.  I have nothing to be proud of yet myself.  I am stupid, quite as stupid as the people I ridicule.  Please help me to stop this selfishness because I love you, dear God."   (The New Yorker, 9/16/13, p.29) 

Friday, August 02, 2013

S is for Sanctus

Many times since my last post, I've had a story to share, but this crazy life has not held enough free hours to keep up here.  There's no point in detailing how many unexpected pastoral and other church-related needs have arisen -- doing so would only be obnoxious and pointless.

Two weeks ago, amidst everything else, a parishioner died rather suddenly, and the family wanted the funeral two days later.  It was a scramble to line up everyone needed, as a number of staff were away, but in the end all was well.

I'm writing this to poke fun at myself -- but also because I don't remember ever being this scattered while planning multiple services at once. 

I'd been in touch several times already with the organist, a retired professor of music who was kind to fill in without much notice.  We talked through service music, hymns, prelude and postlude.  We'd forgotten to discuss offertory music, so that was another call.  Another music professor offered to sing Vaughan-Williams' "The Call."  We got this arranged.  Then I realized that we hadn't specified the setting for the sung Sanctus.  It was time to call the organist -- again.

Picking up my church directory, I hunted for his number.  You'd think by now I'd have it memorized, but there were so many calls that day, I didn't.  The guest organist's last name begins with "D."  Where did I look, though?  Under "S" -- for "Sanctus."  And I couldn't understand why I didn't find it...for a minute, at any rate...when it was time for a good laugh at myself.  If you can't take time to laugh, especially in more demanding moments, you may as well hang it up.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Higher education

Thirty-eight years ago today, I graduated from college.  I lived in Spanish House, one of the several language dorms, pictured here.  All these years later, I still dream about this dorm, and my rooms there over the four years I spent at Oberlin.  It's there that I learned how to think independently, to question, to wonder, to know how much I still had to learn.  Every spring, I was devastated to leave campus. College was a lifeline for me, a startling and endlessly stimulating place.

I am grateful every day for the quality of my education.  I wish I had taken more than one religion course in historic Peters Hall, but the class I took with Harry Thomas Frank, author of Bible, archaelogy, and faith, will always be with me.

We've just returned from N's graduation, where again I am grateful for the quality and breadth of education he received at Yale's Institute of Sacred Music.  These graduates aren't just fine musicians.  They also learned a great deal about scripture and liturgy, and were able to enjoy the occasional theological comments and puns we seem to make in our household.  I'm delighted to have a discussion about psalms with a group of young choral conductors.

All this graduation festivity leads to reviewing past years, so I remembered once again the first weeks after N was born. I took him, all wrapped in blankets, to a college library where I worked as a cataloger.  So you might imagine how surprised I was when, at this institution of higher education (affiliated with the Lutheran Church), a colleague said to me about Noah's name: "What an interesting name.  Did you get it from a book?"

The only words I could think to say were, "Yes.  I did."

Every day, I still am learning.  Every day, I am thankful for it.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

May Day at Agape Cafe

Some mornings, we don't just serve hot, made-to-order breakfasts, free to the community.

At the cafe, we've had regulars over the years, and two come early to help out.  One of them, F, arrives like clockwork, half an hour before we serve.  He helps to set up the coffee and pastry table, checks periodically through the morning to see whether pots or silverware baskets need refilling, and keeps an eye out for anyone in the dining room needing help.

Today, F didn't show up.  The kitchen staff grew concerned.  He'd just lost his housing, and I feared for his living on the street, especially with his medical complications.

Soon we learned that F had been jailed for something involving a car he'd rented -- no need to elaborate, other than saying it seems likely that what happened was mostly not under his control.  Since the local jail is overcrowded, he's been moved to another city.

Before the kitchen cleanup was finished, several of our volunteers had chipped in to send money for F's commissary account at the jail, and two others are figuring out how to help get him a place to live.
I wish I could see the look on F's face when he learns that his friends have done something to help him out, since he's been lending us a hand for many years.

Cafe volunteers, you rock.

Friday, April 19, 2013

For a day like this

Wendell Berry,

The Peace of wild things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.  For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Thursday, April 04, 2013


Yesterday's gift came in the form of an organ recital during the noon hour, with one 37-minute piece on the program.  The experience was musically wonderful, but the surprise was rising from my seat feeling as though I had just been on a short retreat. 

After the recital, two of us stopped for a cup of soup.  When I asked God's blessing upon our meal, I started by giving thanks for hands: hands that played the organ, hands that built the organ, hands that made the soup, our hands that would eat and then return to do the work we have been given to do.

Out on a walk today, I looked at my own hands.  My fists were clenched -- both of them.  It's no surprise that this week is full of stress, for too many reasons to name here.  I had thought I was managing better till I saw my fists.  Sometime during the night, I awoke to find one fist clenched -- even in sleep.

All will be well; the next five days just need to be over soon.  So if you are reading this and happen to be someone that I see in person, it would be okay to remind me to breathe, to check my hands, or both.

Monday, April 01, 2013


In our household, we talk about a favorite kind of exercise: jumping to conclusions.  Who among us doesn't slip into this very human habit?  During Easter weekend, I heard a few of these "jumps" in the form of criticism. It was a big weekend with 452 in attendance for the Great Vigil and Easter morning, and our services went splendidly -- so blessedly well that focusing on small bloopers doesn't appeal to me.   Were the liturgies perfect?  No.  We're humans.

Jumping example: 
HC (Habitual Critic): "The lectors don't know what they are doing.  Someone needs to train them."
RS (Real Story): Today's lector DID in fact attend a recent lector training, but he messed up in a minor way last time, and was therefore nervous to be scheduled again on Easter morning -- when he made the same small mistake.  It's not the case that we don't train, and it's not true that he and others don't care about reading well. 

Second example:
HC: The acolytes don't care about serving anymore.
RS:  Acolytes sometimes serve because a parent forces them to do so, and this seems to me a direct path to helping a young person hate church.  When I see this, I encourage the parent to let the young person take a break -- or even stop serving.  Many of the younger members would love to be at the earlier, more informal service now, alongside their peers.

On the other hand, a few acolytes just love to serve, and one of them served at yesterday's baptism. After talking through the choreography with everyone, I said to E, the acolyte: "When it's time for me to take the baby from her mom, I'm going to hand you my prayer book.  Please keep the book opened when I hand it to you."

E takes this all in, and then says: "What if you hand me the baby instead of the prayer book?" Another priest chimes in: "Then you don't drop the baby!"

The baptism proceeds; I hand E my book and take the wide-awake baby.  When it's time for me to speak the prayer which immediately follows, I see that E has kept the prayer book opened as I had asked, but she holds it exactly as I gave it to her -- now upside down to my eyes.  She gently turns it around and holds it up when asked, and we welcome this marvelous child into the household of God.

Later, I am with E's dad when E says proudly, "Guess what -- I had to hold Raisin's prayer book!"  Her job means something to her.  Joking in the sacristy does not mean that she's not taking church seriously.  Some acolytes do care about what they're doing.  Yes, sometimes they mess up.  Get over it, people!