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Thursday, December 22, 2016

What's the Point of Merry Christmas?

Christmas has been a little ... disheartening this year, for a number of reasons.

One of them is Target.

I went there today. I know, bad idea. I found myself wandering the final aisle, looking for my 4-year-old son's requested box of candy canes for Santa's reindeer - apparently they don't eat carrots anymore.

The aisle was strewn with broken candy canes and broken dreams. People crushed each other up against their carts, careening from side to side - wondering if I can fit between the aisle and the column without smashing the guy next to me ... Nope.

Red and green and gold wrapping paper covered the ground, ripped from end to end, smashed chocolate Santas and opened boxes of 100 Christmas cards with Jesus and snow and Santa on them all over the floor, melting in a stream of muddled brown Starbucks coffee dumped over by a rushing woman carrying a little baby -- no time to pick it up.

The workers were like zombies. This year seemed worse than before.
Destruction and devastation on this scale was more common on Dec. 26.

It's not even Christmas yet.

As I picked my way back to the overcrowded aisle of Frozen cheese balls and Santa Pez, I wondered briefly to myself:

What's the point?

Why are we subjecting ourselves to this misery?

The anger about the recently passed plastic bags ban. The lines. The screaming. The parking lot - no, not the parking lot!

I guess we get gifts for each other on Christmas because we love each other and we want to express that to each other. Because on Christmas God loved us so much that He came to earth in the form of a tiny baby, subjecting Godself to things like hunger and gas and sleeplessness and pain and even death. To defeat death forever on the Cross and promise us eternal life.

And he loved us that much, so I guess we want to respond in some way and somehow our response got mixed up and it became I love you so much that I clicked ORDER on Amazon and shipped you a gift. Easy. Done. No manger, no shepherds, no dramatic flight to Egypt.

$9.99 on Prime. Didn't even have to pick up the phone.

Instead of being the gift, Merry Christmas - the Merry Christmas that meant the revolution of the baby Jesus who came to save the world - that Merry Christmas seems to be an after-thought.

Instead Merry Christmas has become a defense mechanism.

I'm OK. I'm great. I'm busy though. Merry Christmas!

Whew. Didn't want to talk to that person.

As I wandered through the post-apocalyptic haze that was Target on Dec. 22, I contributed to the insanity. I had my phone on speaker with obnoxious hold music because I'd been on hold with a customer service line for a local furniture store for about 25 minutes. It had become one of those calls that wasn't that big of deal but now that I'd waited this long there was no way I was hanging up.

I just wanted to be removed from a mailing list that meant once a week a catalog would be put on my driveway, littering the neighborhood, and on rainy days like today, scattered in mushy torn pieces along the driveway like some haphazard TP job with photos of sectionals and dining room tables.

The garish electronic music finally paused and a woman - a real, live woman! - answered, harried. I told her I'd first been hung up on and now had been on hold 25 minutes.

She was silent a second.

Then said, "OK, what's the issue?"

She was decidedly not sorry about my wait time.

I explained to her the issue and she sent me to the 1-800 number, that she couldn't help me. I tried explaining more, pretty patiently.

She cut me off: "Alrighty then. Merry Christmas."

And abruptly, she hung up.

It didn't feel all that Merry.

Once she hung up I found myself wanting to call her back. To say wait: that's not what Christmas is about. Let's talk. We can work this out. Who are you? What's your name? Do you have kids? Do you live here? Do you pray? Do you believe? Does it matter?

Merry Christmas. 

I don't think it means what we sometimes think it means.

Merry Christmas isn't a way to get somebody to shut up.

If anything Christmas is about openness. About love. About starting a conversation, not ending one.

About listening, not silencing.

Christmas was the beginning of God's new conversation with humanity, not the end.

So I wondered about the woman on the other end of the line.

Maybe she was facing Christmas alone. Maybe she was grieving. Maybe someone had just given her a bunch of grief. Maybe the other worker hadn't come back from lunch for 3 hours and she was left alone dealing with all these annoying people without a break for hours.

I worked retail for three years and I remember the feeling. The endless line of people. The frustration. The 30-minute break in the windowless room with a microwave. The tiny paychecks. The unfairness. The working holidays.

I was just an anonymous person with an anonymous problem and it didn't really matter.

And we're all under such pressure.

The mortgage the bills the loans the family the health care it never stops the diet the exercise the heart monitor the anti-anxiety meds the addictions the cheating the depression the race the sleeplessness the fear the loss of faith.

We have to pick and choose and some people get to count in our lives and others become these lifeless mirages somewhere off in the distance who don't matter, can't matter - because we just don't want to feel that much anymore. We can't.

I've felt that urge this Christmas. To wall myself off. To sink into the comfort of my little family of four. The two healthy little boys. The loving husband. The Christmas tree. The cookies.

I read the articles from Aleppo and I kind of half look at the pictures. Don't feel can't feel. Look away.

Merry Christmas

We've been surrounded by death at the church where I work. Good women, good men - we watch them die before our eyes, some suddenly, some much too soon, some bitterly, all leaving behind a hole that cannot be filled.

There's only so many tears a person can cry. I find myself looking through people, like holograms. It's too hard to feel. Too scary. Back to my Nordstrom Wish List.

I heard her voice again saying Alrighty. Merry Christmas.

As though God sent her to wake me up out of my slumber and remind me that
Merry Christmas can't be just words.

I don't really say Happy Holidays. It's Christmas, after all. And if for you it's something else, you can say that to me. We can coexist without denying who we are.

But my saying Merry Christmas doesn't make it merry, especially if I say it to drown out the voices I don't want to listen to, or the feelings I don't want to feel.

Merry Christmas, the world-changing Christmas God created, washes over me as the music plays:

Go tell it on the mountain! Jesus Christ is born!
Down in a lowly manger the humble Christ was born.
And God sent us salvation that blessed Christmas morn.

I felt my heart cracking open. For the overworked retail workers taken advantage of by our consumerist economy. For the UPS deliverymen and women in the rain. For the slow driver in front of me whose brake lights don't work. The mom who spilled the coffee at Target.

The little boy in Aleppo.

The little girl in Mosul.

The terrified marketgoers of Berlin.

My heart cracked open, and empathy rushed in.

This is Christmas. Not the perfect reindeer leggings. Not the brand new iPhone. Not the tree or the custom mugs or living an unperturbed life.

This is Christmas. God perturbs us, and the baby Jesus is born.

If Christmas does anything, Christmas makes you feel.

God became human so that God could feel.
God became human so that we could feel for one another.
We see God in a human baby.
In the human faces before us in our lives, we see a glimpse of God.
In each other, we see the image of a God who was born, lived and died for love.

That's Christmas. That's the point of Christmas.

Let's not be so busy saying it we miss feeling it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

From Yes We Can to I Think We Should: A Millennial Female Pastor Reacts the morning after Election Day

I'm not a pantsuit person, but I wore my own version of one yesterday - white ripped jeans and white blazer - in support of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first-ever female major party presidential candidate in America.

I wore my "pantsuit" to a polling place in Orange County, which until this year hadn't voted for the Democratic presidential candidate since 1936.

I took a selfie with my "I voted" sticker and told the world: "I'm with her."

Risky stuff, especially for the pastor of a fairly conservative Lutheran congregation in Orange County. Risky stuff, for someone who tries to be moderate and votes split ticket. Risky stuff, for anyone who's anything of a public person.

I did it primarily because, as a female leader myself, I felt a real urge to solidarity. This was an historic moment. The posts of women with their daughters, black and white and Latino and Asian and Native American and young and old and differently-abled - they moved me to tears. For the first time, it seemed OK to be proud that there was a woman running for president. I'd never really been an apocalypse-NeverTrump person. But the hope for women I saw in Hillary's supporters this past week, that's what encouraged me to go public.

Hillary never brought me to tears.

I know that's a dubious mark for president: can you inspire me? Can you make me cry?

I have to be honest, she left me feeling flat. At the DNC, fired up by Rev. William Barber II and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) - moved to stand by Michelle Obama - Hillary, and Chelsea, left me cold. I didn't disagree with the words they said. I wanted Hillary to win.

But that ineffable something: it was gone. Yes We Can! became ... I think we should.

Still, those who complained about both candidates didn't move me either. We had a woman for God's sake. She was inarguably smart. I didn't doubt her sincere Christian faith. She was the right vote. I was proud to be #WithHer as an Evangelical Lutheran Christian.

I trusted The Washington Post. As a former journalist, I put my faith in the free press. The Post dedicated its editorial board and opinion writers to the defeat of Donald Trump. His supporters were whack jobs. It was all a joke, right? Prominent Republicans kept saying they were voting for Clinton.

And this is where it all turns upside down.

On Election Night we had our church small group over and we turned off the TV. Our small group was pretty divided, so we prayed for America. I was reminded of the faithful friends and family who'd supported Trump. Reminded of that first debate when he seemed the only feasible Republican choice. The Washington Post predicted landslides. Georgia, Arizona, Texas(?!) all in play.

I still trusted The Washington Post.

Small group ended and I turned on CNN. Dana Bash was white as a ghost. Clinton was trailing in Virginia. Georgia wasn't even close. Trump was winning across Florida. The electoral map they'd predicted was completely wrong.

The ones I didn't trust had called it.

Trump was in Minnesota the day before the vote. Clinton eked out a win in the state that hasn't voted Republican since 1972, by a mere 43,000 votes.

Nobody in the mainstream media predicted that. At all.

Clinton was so confident that she hadn't been to campaign in Wisconsin since the primary.

Trump won Wisconsin. Trump won Pennsylvania.

The only ones claiming these victories before Tuesday night were his pollsters and the far right media.

I had spent months reading journalism that was being proven completely wrong - or at least drastically out of touch with a big portion of the electorate.

As the returns streamed in, I wasn't crying or even primarily afraid. I was gut-checked.

How had traditional journalism been so wrong?

I felt betrayed by the sources I'd defended and trusted to a fault.

I didn't go to bed. Couldn't go to bed until it was over. Like a good Vikings fan - or Cubs fan - I had to see things through until the end.

Clinton headquarters in New York City was deserted. Clinton supporters: brave women in their white pantsuits who put it on the line for Hillary, they were there and they were crying. But the inner circle was long gone.

Campaign Manager John Podesta came to the stage and gave an exceedingly bizarre and patronizing announcement at 2:20 a.m.

He told Clinton supporters to go home. He said it wasn't over. They were still counting votes.

He wasn't being honest with them, because maybe at the same time, Hillary called her old friend Donald. She conceded. She told Donald she was conceding. She made time to call him. She didn't extend the same courtesy to the millions of women who put her candidacy on our backs and went to war for Hillary Clinton, sometimes at great personal risk and with real-life consequences.

The race changed for me in that moment. Donald Trump wasn't my champion but clearly Hillary Clinton wasn't either. She didn't care about me. I was sitting there up all night waiting for a way to process the results no one except Trump's team predicted, and the only one I got to hear was an exceedingly conciliatory Donald Trump.

The criticisms rolled around in my brain. She was phony. Elitist. Didn't have the stamina.

She didn't provide a counter-narrative. She was tired? Only supports the claims I'd dismissed out of hand. The only one to speak to Hillary's supporters on Election Night 2016 was Donald Trump, and that spoke to me loud and clear.

It felt like a betrayal. And maybe I betrayed myself in that moment, when I allowed myself to criticize Hillary in the same way she'd been criticized by so many others, so many times unfairly, so many times in the past.

My friends and fellow Clinton supporters were posting and texting early in the morning. They were devastated. Promised to resist.

My own numbness, that betrayed feeling, still sat on top of any other emotions for me.

Jeffrey Lord suddenly made sense. Corey Lewandowski was still a jerk, but maybe he wasn't all wrong. The firm truth held by traditional media was cracking. You could feel it. They'd missed something huge (Freudian slip?)

You had to at least consider the fact that there's something major out of touch in traditional media.

I heard Hillary was speaking in the morning and I still wanted to hear it. My 4-year-old waited to go to preschool and Tim Kaine came out and I saw the supporters stand and unexpectedly, my hardened heart burst open and my eyes filled with tears.

You could see he meant it. The coalition he wanted to build. The Christian faith that didn't mean hatred or racism or sexism. The hope for America's future.

I was surprised I was crying. I thought I'd moved into investigation mode. What happened? What did I miss? I was ready to listen to facts and move on and then I was crying.

I went to the bathroom to grab a Kleenex and Hillary was coming up. Improbably, she was smiling.

Women have to smile. Smile tho' your heart is aching.

People tell me they love my smile. It's their favorite part of my sermons. Just kidding.

So I get why she was smiling. But it just seemed incredibly disingenuous. Out of place.

We wore pantsuits when (my) generation pretty much universally hates them. We did it for you. We put stickers all over Susan B. Anthony's grave. We lined up behind you. We forgave the instances of elitism or classism - the inability to admit wrongdoing - the closed tent - the nonexistent media access for much of the campaign - the dishonesty.

We told people we supported you - we made it public in places like Oklahoma and Mississippi. We defended you to a fault. We went along with the dismissal of anyone who supported your opponent.

It was a real gut-check moment in America. What had I been defending?

Hillary Clinton smiled. It was the smile of a woman who'd sacrificed everything to be first. It was a smile of the difference between her generation and my own. It was the smile of a woman born at a time when women weren't expected to work outside the home or participate in athletics, much less run for president. It was the smile of a woman who played the political game inside a box that had been smashed open.

My friends heard a heartfelt speech from a heartbroken woman. They're not wrong, and yet neither am I when I say that again I felt nothing when I heard her speak. Tim Kaine broke my heart and Hillary Clinton froze it. Maybe she had to. To become impervious to survive as she has.

I remembered the way I felt in the debate after Donald Trump's Billy Bush video went public.

Trump physically intimidated Clinton. He spoke derisively.

And she handled it. She took him down on knowledge and policy.

I felt the same way then though. I wanted to hear her say : AS A WOMAN HEARING THIS VIDEO MADE ME FEEL ________. I wanted to hear her claim the moment - as President Obama did in Charleston and after the killing of Trayvon Martin.

But maybe she couldn't claim it. Not in that way. And maybe it was unfair to expect her to. Just like the traditional media, Clinton's time had passed her by. She won at a game whose rules had been rewritten. She straddled two worlds.

Our first female candidate had to come from her world: an established, elite, wealthy, impervious world - a battled hardened realist.

Our first female president would not come from that world.

In a wry way, to this millennial feminist, I get it. It makes an odd kind of sense.

So here I sit today with President-Elect Trump, in the odd position of hoping my gut feeling that he didn't mean anything he said was an accurate one. Normally we are hoping the President will keep his promises. With Trump, you're hoping the status quo prevails and he keeps none of them.  I'm hopeful a lot of it was insincere posturing for votes.

I'm hopeful an obstructionist Republican party will begin to govern and get things done.

I'm hopeful that a new resistance movement will arise from the 2016 autopsy of the Democratic Party, whose machine and operation was proven wrong today in a multitude of ways.

I'm hopeful that resistance will privilege non-white leaders as well as female leaders, as well as inviting non-college-educated whites, rural whites, and Evangelical Christians.

I'm hopeful that with the removing of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - America's two favorite scapegoats - we'll be forced to talk and to listen to one another. I'll miss Obama, but I'm not shortsighted enough to think that this election means his presidency didn't matter. It did. A LOT.

I'm hopeful again that in 2016 it is Morning in America and the sun is shining on places that have been left in the dark for far too long. It's a light that exposes as well as brightens.

I'm thankful that I got up this morning and I got to go to my office, as a Pastor in a large church in Orange County. Hillary's loss doesn't mean I'm not a Pastor anymore. My support of her doesn't mean I'm not going to use this moment to listen to those who voted differently.

I have two Post-Its on my desk that remind me of the bridge between my former role as journalist and my current role as Pastor:

Comfort the Comfortable - Afflict the Afflicted: reads one, with a huge X through both

Comfort the Afflicted - Afflict the Comfortable: reads the other. I'll keep trying to do that, even as Jesus alternately afflicts and comforts me.

I worship a God who transformed death into life. America is still transforming. I will never stop seeking God's will for our country. I will never be afraid to speak God's voice into politics.

I will support America's President.

If it turns out Trump's rhetoric was for real, I'll be the first to sign up for the Resistance.
If it turns out his conciliatory tone was more truthful than the raging Twitter-holic, I'm hopeful he'll bring real change to a system that has certainly been divided and broken.

Good Morning, America. I'm grateful to wake up here, still.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Zika, Love, Motherhood and Injustice: A Letter to Kalissandra de Olivera

The World Health Organization predicts that more than 2,500 babies will be born in Brazil with microcephaly if current trends continue in the Zika virus outbreak. Zika is spread by mosquito bites and sexual contact. It is not preventable by medications or vaccines. Women who contract Zika in their first trimester of pregnancy are up to 13 percent likely to pass on microcephaly to their growing babies. Microcephaly usually means incomplete brain development and can lead to intellectual disability as well as hearing or vision loss. Therapy is needed from birth to help affected babies develop. Photos and name information for this blog taken from the Los Angeles Times special report: Living with Zika, by Alexandra Zavis and Katie Falkenberg. Read the story here.

Dear Kalissandra,

I woke up last night at 4:30 a.m. because my son was crying. His name is Joshua. He's about the same age as Nicolas, and just as loved.

I was tired, though, at 4:30. I walked from my king-sized memory foam mattress in my bedroom into his bedroom and lifted him out of his wooden crib. He was lying on a mattress in a muslin sleepsack. He was a little hungry. He wasn't sweaty because we had our air conditioning running. I went back to sleep a half hour later.

I thought about you because at 4:30 you were already awake for at least an hour. Did you even go to sleep at all? The van came at 3:45 a.m. It was dark and sometimes Nicolas slept and sometimes he cried. When he sleeps he looks like an angel. I saw you holding him as you both slept, exhausted, at Pedro I Municipal Hospital in Campina Grande, Brazil. You were so tired. I don't know if you have other children at home. I don't know if you are married or if Nicolas' dad takes him sometimes on the van to the hospital.

Nicolas' story is your story. The story of our children is always written on mamas' foreheads. When I saw you in this photo, your forehead was peaceful. Nicolas looks like you.

You're so tired and scared. You've barely healed from your pregnancy. Sometimes you are hopeful and sometimes you are afraid you're not doing good enough. Just like me.

Nicolas has microcephaly.

I don't know when you had Zika, if you knew it was Zika. The mosquitoes are everywhere. It was only a bite, maybe a rash. There was nothing you could have done.

Diseases don't read but they understand social contracts. They kill and maim the poorest among us, the weakest among us - first: pregnant women, people without air conditioning, people who have to store water outside in case of shortages: places where mosquitoes breed and grow and bite and viruses swarm the placenta and maim a growing baby's brain.

Where I live moms worry a lot. I guess moms worry a lot everywhere. But I didn't have to worry about Zika. It wasn't allowed into my neighborhood. Affluence and privilege blocked it, like they did with cholera and starvation and polio and measles, though we're willfully testing our immunity because we are so privileged we think we're smarter than we are.

We have other diseases here. Anxiety and depression and meanness and isolation. Not that you don't have those too, but maybe ours grow because we're so isolated from you and from each other. From our sister moms across the world who remind us the sacred trust between a mother and her baby; who remind us to trust ourselves and trust our love more than the Internet.

We call each other lazy or overprotective. We judge silently. We try our best. We keep track of silly things, like preschool tests or Pinterest snacks or percentiles.

You watch your percentiles, too. Each time they wrap the measuring tape around Nicolas' head he screams. Somewhere he knows. His numbers aren't about 30th or 70th percentile, about "red-shirting" kindergarten or jumping ahead. His numbers aren't on the doctors' chart. His numbers are the answer to an equation stacked against him before he was conceived.

Still he is a fighter. Like you.



You hold your head up with your hand on one exercise ball. You heard once these were good for sit-ups. Sometimes we use them to help Josh fall asleep.

Nicolas is rolling on his exercise ball with his therapist. His eyes are wiser than they're supposed to be for his age, for his Zika-ravaged brain. He's wearing a polo shirt with two buttons. Did you pack it in his bag? Did you dress him in it at 3 in the morning before the van came to pick you up and take you to the hospital?

I didn't see your diaper bag. How did you have time to pack it? How do you do it?

He looks perfect. He reminds me of Josh.

Maybe you're like me and you hate when moms use the word perfect because no one is perfect. Nicolas has microcephaly.



Seconds later Nicolas is screaming. He's tired. He's hungry. He's all the things babies are and he's not even 6 months old and he's doing physical therapy. It's not fair. Maybe he wants you. They always do.

The appointment is over and then it's the long wait and the long van ride back. Sometimes for my doctor appointments with Josh we have to wait 45 minutes. You wait hours. A day. I'm embarrassed of my complaining, my entitlement.

And still we are all, especially Nicolas, more complicated than we first appear.

There is no certainty with Zika, with microcephaly, with motherhood, with life. Maybe Nicolas will go to college. Maybe he'll need help his whole life to walk or feed himself.

Maybe well-off American moms think we should pity you. Your waiting, your lack of air-conditioning, the social circumstances of your environment that predisposed you to Zika, Nicolas to microcephaly.

The motherhood we experience is so different.

In this waiting room at Pedro I municipal hospital in Campina Grande, Brazil, this small room filled with fake flowers, coffee, cake and broken scanners - mamas are laughing.


In a few weeks, or a month or two, maybe Nicolas will laugh, too. You'll hear it and forget everything else. You are a mom. Perversely, perhaps, the waiting room is a sanctuary - a place where motherhood is what it was meant to be. Women supporting each other. Babies crying and laughing and living. Imperfectly.

Your laughter, your support for each other, your refusal to quit in the face of fear, of Zika, of microcephaly, of despair: it is a revolutionary act. Mighty warriors have fallen down before in the face of much less.

Your laughter won't cure microcephaly.
It won't cure hatred or injustice or the various geopolitical alignments, the cheating, the offshore accounts, the excesses, that left you vulnerable to Zika.

But God is watching you. The God who created Nicolas is the God who loves Nicolas is the God who transformed death on the cross into everlasting life.

The evil in the world, the Zika the microcephaly the injustice the violence the fear they are all still there.

But God is transforming them. See I thought your story was about Zika but it wasn't about Zika at all.
It was about love, and the courage and faith that turns death into life.

Rest well, Kalissandra. Rest well, Nicolas. Rise and bear witness.

Where, O Zika, is thy sting?


Photos and name information taken from the Los Angeles Times special report: Living with Zika, by Alexandra Zavis and Katie Falkenberg. Read the story here.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Our Better Angels: An Appeal to American Christians in a Time of Trump

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." 
- Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861

Today I spoke at a gathering all too rare in America today: a non-compulsory meeting of Republicans and Democrats who are not related.

It was all the more rare because this multi-partisan gathering happened in a church, among the most stratified of American institutions.

It was a fragile peace: the progressives and the conservatives coexisting uneasily, guiltily wondering if their political leaders would be angry at them for fraternizing with "the enemy," even in a church.

We've forgotten how to be both partisans and friends; to be Christians first and Republicans or Democrats second.

One-hundred-fifty-five years ago, President Abraham Lincoln uttered these words at his First Inaugural Address, while seven Southern states had already seceded from the union.

We are not enemies, but friends.

His appeal, while beautiful, went unheard for four long years of Civil War: brother fought brother and blood split the nation, destroying a generation and crippling the South for generations to come.

Lincoln was not a religious man, and yet even he appealed to our "better angels." It is an appeal American Christians would do well to hear again this week, as Republicans and Democrats jockey for position in the 2016 Presidential Race.

"Our better angels" in America have always believed in the impossible: hope instead of fear, unity instead of division, justice instead of favor, life instead of death. We have clung to "our better angels" when faced with Ellis Island, segregation, women's voting rights, gay marriage. There have always been fearful and angry voices: jealous, bitter men and women who cannot imagine what it is to be free, but "our better angels" have always prevailed.

We want to be a people of hope and not of anger, don't we?

We have always been a country of hope. Where the rest of the world toiled and scraped, America was a shining beacon of Hollywood and hot dogs. You could make it here. You could be free here. We always had room for one more.

Until we didn't. 

The first time I saw Donald Trump debate I liked him in spite of myself. He was confident, bold; he said the things I sometimes thought: when I was afraid, when I was mean, when I was cornered.

Trump kept talking. He pushed further. I didn't like him anymore but the polls kept going up. The more protesters he shoved and scorned; the more minority groups he destined for deportation; the more hatred he spewed ... our better angels' wings were clipped. We could no longer fly. The Dream and the Dreamers woke up in a nightmare.

He said he'd make us great again but what he'd made us was ashamed at night when we admitted what we liked about him after all. He brought us back, not forward. We saw his money and his bravado and wanted it for ourselves; he promised us the world if we'd only sell America's soul.

He said Muslims and Mexicans and women - though some of them were his dear friends - these are not America's friends. He spoke of everyone else as "the other" and in the darkness of our homes on cold January nights, our better angels' white light went out and the blue glow of the TV screen lit sterile living rooms. We didn't know our neighbors. They weren't our friends. We became afraid and we got up and locked the door to our house and the door to our heart.

Into the void, which was left unfilled by Bernie's turn to Scandinavia, or Hillary's pledge to make rational plans, or a chorus of Republican wannabes too self-centered to come together for good - a still small voice whispered Lincoln's words as a blizzard shut down D.C.:

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Will it take four years this time - for our better angels to remind us that we are not enemies but friends?

Or will American assert itself once more as a Christian nation?

We may not have been founded as such. We may be populated by people of all religions, and it may be our pride that religious freedom is assured in the Constitution.

No, it has always been our hope and not our policies that has made America Christian: a belief that we are not enemies but friends. That Republicans and Democrats play for the same team: an American team with black and white faces, that speaks Spanish and English where it once spoke German and English, a team that invites in the Muslim refugee to stand on the same shores that welcomed the Mayflower.

We were a Christian nation because we had faith that good would beat evil with good; that to win did not mean losing our goodness.

A nation who trusts in a Savior who died and rose again cannot be fooled by a would-be savior whose only prayer is a people without resurrection hope.

Christians who seek a Christ-centered government would do well to look elsewhere. 

A preening parody of faux-strength does not impress a Risen Lord who told us the meek will inherit the earth.

Our better angels remind us that we are not enemies but friends. The enemy is the one who tells us otherwise.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

What I Learned on My Maternity Leave

This is intention No. 952 to write this blog since my second son, Joshua, was born eight weeks ago. For the first four weeks, even walking up to turn on the computer seemed an insurmountable task in the midst of feeding, pumping, changing, washing and the interminable newborn screaming that made it impossible to think straight.

A few days ago I turned on the computer, opened a page, and I started typing - only to have Josh wake up three minutes later.

I may not finish again today. But it seems essential and important to record these learnings.

See while the world continued on its way ... while Paris burned and San Bernardino wept ... while Donald Trump spewed inanity and Americans cowered and wondered, holding tightly to handguns and maybe one another -- I wiped a newborn butt, to the tune of 20 diapers per day. I waited for him to fart and looked up techniques for releasing newborn gas. I may have purchased a device called "The Windi."

I wondered: did he weigh enough? Too much?

I drank supplemental "milkmaid" tea. I iced my chest. I put a heating pad on my chest.

I took antibiotics for a breast infection. I applied cream for thrush. I got strep throat and took antibiotics again.

I took a probiotic to get rid of all those antibiotics.

I wondered what I was eating that was making him cry.
I wondered what I was eating that was making me cry.

I stopped eating dairy, caffeine and chocolate. I drank my first beer since becoming pregnant and then gave that up in case that, too, was giving him gas.

My Google search history was dominated by searches about boobs and poops. My 3-year-old wondered what had happened to our special bond. My husband wondered where his dynamic, successful wife had gone - replaced by a quivering, anxious, insecure new mom.

We thought this time we had it down - that we'd learned and now, the second time around, we were pros.

Except each new child throws you back again. The same emotions, fears, joys and thrills - tempered perhaps this time but there nonetheless.

My first son was born when I was just 27 years old - living in a 1BR apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area, and finishing up my seminary degree to become a Lutheran pastor. I had no maternity leave and no break from classes, but I also had no job for the first 11 months of his life.

Now I had a new congregation who depended on me, a fellow pastor awaiting my return, and a 3-year-old who had already moved across the country just months before this new little brother had shaken up his reality once again.

I told myself that this time I wasn't going to gain the 70-some odd pounds I had the first, but despite eating healthier and exercising more -- it happened again. A cashier at Costco asked me, two weeks after Josh's birth, if I was pregnant again already -- despite the newborn in my arms. I comforted myself by thinking: at least I still look pregnant and not merely massively overweight.

I told myself this time I'd give birth naturally, and I ended up with my water breaking almost a week late - failure to progress - failed epidural - and eventually, an emergency C-section that all but guaranteed that this would be my last child. With the C-section came the ugly abdominal reminder of womanly failure, the slow progress and retightening of stomach muscles and skin that had been stretched beyond what seemed possible.

There were pads for everything, everything leaked. I felt homely and ashamed and yet at the same time filled, remarkably, with love and wonder and amazement. I begged Joshua to sleep and then when he did I awaited his reawakening eagerly, rushing to his side: "I missed you!"

It's no wonder my husband thought I was crazy. The hormones, the sleep deprivation, the loss and reintegrating of identity -- it was crazy.

I read the news each day as I nursed Josh: Syed Farook, Paris, Cruz, Rubio, Clinton, Trump, China -- a big world was out there and my world had become so small. I forgot my accomplishments, as a writer, as a speaker and a preacher - and my sole worth became tied to the size of two stomachs: was Josh's big enough, and was mine small enough.

Around 7 weeks old, back from a trip to the in-laws for Thanksgiving and just about over a familial bout with strep throat, my husband Ben and I seemed to stop merely surviving and be able to take stock of our lives. We worked on a morning routine with our 3-year-old and started a loose schedule with our newborn. We took family photos on the beach and I tried not to cringe at the size of my butt. I started to breathe purposefully, occasionally. I would be returning to work in one week, and I knew once there I would miss this time - even if I had spent a good part of it wishing it away.

Maybe you've been on maternity leave, or home with a newborn, and you can relate to this. Maybe you're wondering about the alien who has replaced your wife after the birth of your newborn. Maybe you're pregnant and wondering what to expect ...

I know your experiences won't be mine. But I can at least be honest and share the lightness and darkness of an incomparable time in a woman's life. Because when all you read is: "I am panicking about going back to work, I can't bear to leave my baby -- and your baby has been screaming for 3 hours straight and you are missing your professional setting and the vocation God has given you -- maybe it's time for a balanced approach, full of love, admiration, and maybe even some humor.

Here's what I learned on my maternity leave:

1. It's not fair. The very fact that MAternity leave is guaranteed and PAternity leave is mostly a pipe dream shows the unbalanced approach we Americans, and most of the world, have to parenting. After a major abdominal surgery, most men would be laid up - waited on for six weeks with Netflix and healthy meals and physical therapy appointments. They certainly would not be tasked with the care of a newborn, who would rip at their nipples until they bled, and refuse to allow more than 37 minutes of sleep at one time. These men would also not be expected to "enjoy every minute" of this "recovery" time. My husband is a wonderful, loving, devoted man and father. He also will never understand what it's like to give birth, and then stay home alone with a newborn five days a week while he returned to work. I've often thought what would really be great is if men could nurse while women recover from childbirth - but God decided to give us gals all the fun.

2. It's intense. Josh was entirely dependent on me, for everything - just as he was in the womb, except now he was out of it, and he was loud! I had no idea what he wanted. I lived in a perpetual state of anxiety for several weeks, especially after he lost more than 2 pounds after birth due to my milk's late arrival. I'll never forget that initial piercing cry, as he was desperate for food. Even after now chunking up nicely and becoming a regular chowhound just like his brother, he seems to never forget that urgency to eat: immediately.

3. It's as boring as it is intense. Work is often intense, but it comes with rewards and validation. Complete this task - write this sermon, plan this service -- and then celebrate as the Holy Spirit comes and people are filled with the message of Jesus Christ. On maternity leave, no one says as they walk away: "Hey GREAT diaper change! You really nailed that one. It hit me."

"Wow, AWESOME breastfeeding. So inspiring."

Instead Josh would often respond to my AWESOME nursing or diaper changes with sheer screams. He was, like his brother, a vocal child. I initially thought he was always hungry (see No. 2) which resulted in overeating and tons of tiny poops and farts.

But even though I was doing something immensely important, the day-to-day moments were boring. I didn't have anyone to talk to. I relished preschool drop-off so that I could say hello to an adult. Once Jake's preschool teacher hugged me and I felt tears roll down my face as I breathed heavily. It was pathetic and poignant all at once. I tried to plan one major outing a day. Trader Joes and Target never felt so wild and crazy.

4. It's lonely. I don't know why we Americans tend to do this, and maybe I contribute to this by isolating myself, but we tend to isolate our new moms. It's almost as if moms give birth, spend a couple of weeks with visitors and family -- and then in those crazy weeks from 2 to about 6-12 -- we leave them alone, waiting for them to emerge with shiny hair and flat stomachs, and children who survived the first three months without society's interference, or help.

I felt immense pressure to "look good" and to immediately slim down after giving birth. It consumed me nearly as much as the pressure to feed Josh enough and also somehow keep the house and my 3-year-old functioning. I'd done it once before - without another son - and I'd seen my friends do the same. You even see it on Social Media. Watch a new mom's Facebook page. There's the hospital photos, the one and two-week photos - and then things usually go dark for a month or two, perhaps with the occasional selfie or post to a mommy's group. The mom reemerges in month 3: thinner, heading back to work, with a child who now somewhat sleeps and eats in a regular fashion. All is well, except you didn't see the battle she endured to come out the other side.

With my first son I was able to join a new moms group through the hospital at 6 weeks, but this time nothing like that was offered and I couldn't really find much online. I went to one group, but only three of us came, and it was loosely organized. I called friends back home, called my mom way too often, and spent tons of time on Internet groups filled with new moms like me, obsessing over questions to which there was no possible answer except the passage of time.

I knew this intellectually, but I still bought the $20 gripe water in hopes it would help.

5. You always think your child is the only one who ... but he or she is probably normal.

I was convinced I was cursed with overly fussy, alert, wild, difficult children. Now I think perhaps I'm just overly honest and other people lie. And I'm impatient and overly Type A.

My pediatrician didn't help matters one day when I brought Josh in. He examined him, checked him out in the midst of a crying fit and said: "He's fine. He's just a REALLY fussy kid."

The dr went on to say that some kids will just sit and be content. But Josh was tense, super alert, super strong, and intolerant of much manipulation from outsiders. Perhaps it's no coincidence this description also fits me, my husband, and our older son.

You can't escape your genes when you have (biological) children. I'm sure even adoptive parents notice their traits rubbing off in ways they may not expect. But despite each baby's quirks, usually - things are normal. That incessant crying: normal, and will be outgrown. Just when you try just about every remedy possible, you realize - they've outgrown it and now something else is wrong.

6. There is no one way to be a good mom.

Right now it seems "attachment parenting" is en vogue. Babywearing, breastfeeding constantly, no schedules, cosleeping -- all are on the rise. This isn't really my nature. I like my space when I sleep at night, and in general. I also enjoy my identity as a working parent, and "attachment parenting" doesn't fit with my role as a full-time pastor.

So often I felt "less than." I bought the baby wraps -- and actually liked them. And this time I did decide keep breastfeeding, though it was mostly because I thought I'd lose weight - and only became manageable when I instituted a schedule and stopped feeding on-demand at 7 weeks.

There are also the CrossFit moms. The "glamourous" moms. The "Pinterest" moms. Whole ways of being. I saw it all at preschool drop off and lamented my own schlubby, disorganized, store-bought snack self.

But my boys love me, and I love them SO MUCH. As my leave ends this week, that's what I know most of all. That despite the lack of sleep, the identity crisis, the raging hormones -- having a baby INCREASED the love in my life. My capacity to love has expanded yet again and for that, in spite of Donald Trump and ISIS and the hatred that surrounds our world today, I am grateful.

I looked again today at those Christmas photos we took when Josh was 7 weeks old. This time I looked past my expanded waistline, that wide butt, the double chin -- and I looked at the expression on my face in the photo I took just with my husband.

It was recognizable. The same exact expression I had five years ago when we took our engagement photos in Minnesota: unencumbered by parenthood, marriage, "adult" concerns. We still looked at each other the same way. Love had endured, except now - I looked not only at him, but at our two little boys in that same exact way. Whatever size I was post-pregnancy, I looked the same because I was filled with unremitting love.

It reminded me that I was the same person I always had been, just swelled with life and with love.
I was exactly the kind of mom God intended me to be.

I was enough, and so was God's grace.



Thursday, August 13, 2015

Mommy, Don't let the sun go down on your anger

Jake and I were driving to preschool/church earlier this week and he said the funniest thing.

He's almost 3 years old, so he says lots of funny things - but this one made me stop with wonder.

"Mommy," he said. "Why's it get dark?"

"It gets dark at night, when the sun goes down."

"Mommy ... " he said, almost sheepishly, taking a deep breath ...

"Mommy, don't let the sun go down on your anger."

***

Even for a pastor's kid, this was a new one. Where in the world did he get it? I originally thought he was quoting Proverbs. Maybe he'd been watching too many episodes of Veggie Tales.  Maybe when he sat in church watching cartoons on Daddy's iPhone, he was actually listening ...

"Mommy, don't let the sun go down on your anger."

***

Wherever it came from, it was astute. I'd been angry that week, even at one point particularly angry, or at least frustrated - with him. He was such a great kid, so smart, but he had a knack for potty accidents at exactly the worst times.

It had been nearly a month with no accidents whatsoever - even exiting the pool to go potty, which for some adults remains a major accomplishment (see: Las Vegas' Wet Republic at the MGM).

Then Monday afternoon I got the call from the preschool: "Jacob pooped his pants." He's supposed to be fully potty trained in order to be enrolled, so this was bad news.

I had about 5 minutes to get down there, help him change, and make it to my 32-week OB appointment for Baby Boy No. 2. When we tried to slip out of his shorts and get changed, he inevitably stepped his shoe right into the brown mess, creating a bigger problem and further increasing my frustration.

"Mommy, are you not happy?"

Not the right question to ask at the moment.

***

We made it to the doctor appointment a few minutes late, ate dinner with dad, and I honestly don't even remember the rest of the night. I think I took a bath while Daddy did bedtime duty, and I think Jake asked me again a few times: "Mommy, are you not happy?"

The accident alone wasn't a big deal. Then it was the ever-present laundry, the car who cut me off, the empty toilet paper roll, adjusting to a cross-country move, the aches and pains of third-trimester pregnancy, the way my once-huge maternity jeans now nearly cut off circulation to my legs ...

At one point, I think it was on the way to the doctor appointment when the light turned red in front of us, and I said again: "No pooping in your pants!"

Jake responded: "Mommy, you are not happy?"

Tears started to come to his eyes: "I want you to be happy. You have to be happy."

***

It was a beautiful, innocent wish - and ultimately unattainable, perhaps especially during the third trimester of pregnancy. No one, not even mommies, are happy all the time. Sometimes, we are angry. Sometimes there is one thing that rationally makes us angry: righteously angry. Maybe it's unjust murders and civil wars halfway across the world or in our own hometown. Maybe it's racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, bullying. The way the female body, pregnant or not, is always fair game for comments of desire or derision. The way women can be relegated to one role or another: the saintly mother, the beautiful wife, the promiscuous harlot, the bossy career woman - defining us so narrowly that to occupy multiple roles seems to consist of walking a daily tightrope: skirt not too short but not too long; hair not too curly but not too straight; voice not too high but not too low.

As a mom of two boys I recognize I will bear much of the responsibility for defining womanhood to them. They will put me on an unfair pedestal, make fun of me with future romantic partners, and - I pray - always love me as dearly and as deeply as I will love them.

As their mom, I have the opportunity and the prerogative to teach them about anger. So that they might give permission to the women in their lives to feel it fully, and not let it consume them.

***

This is - I think - the deeper meaning to Jake's hilariously wise words spoken the other morning in the car. He had changed his tune. No longer: "Mommy, you have to be happy ... " - now it was - "Mommy, don't let the sun go down on your anger."

This is a Biblical phrase. It comes not from the Old Testament but from the New Testament letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 4, verse 26:

Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.

God seems to have spoken through my 3-year-old, who spoke through the Apostle and letter-writer to the Ephesians. 

Be angry.

Have you ever met a kind, charitable church-going woman who always seems right on the verge of anger? She volunteers for all the potlucks. She cleans the church, puts away the folding chairs, leads the choir, helps with Sunday School. She can always be counted on to do what needs to be done, and she loves Jesus.

She is Jesus' disciple, but perhaps all her life - she's been told: "Don't be angry. Be happy." She's never been given the permission of Ephesians 4: to experience anger and frustration and even express it. So she does what so many of us do: in bathroom stalls, driving cars, at home with our families, in the privacy of a quiet room - we stuff our anger until it explodes in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the wrong person. 

We think it's wrong for a woman, much less a mother, to be angry and so when anger inevitably, righteously, hits us - with its cousin fatigue and its brother frustration - we don't know what to do except to bury it beneath a smile that gets thinner and weaker as the day winds on.

All women cope with our anger differently. Some kickbox or Zumba, some mow down a surreptitious box of Dunkin Donuts after dropoff at school. Some drink glasses of wine or pour vodka in water bottles. Some spread nasty, secretive rumors. Some take it out on those who we love most.

We all get angry, though. It is a function of being human and I daresay without anger we would never have won the American Revolution, the Civil War, the women's right to vote, school desegregation or any other host of advances that came about when people got righteously angry and unleashed the power of justice and the Holy Spirit.

God got angry and created the Flood, which became the opportunity for renewal.

Jesus got angry and destroyed the Temple, driving out the moneychangers and those who denigrated religious practice.

Their anger was a means to a righteous end, just as ours may be.

So Be Angry when you are angry and do not be ashamed to say, in the moment: "This is not right. I'm angry."

Let yourself Be Angry. The Bible Says.

Then the Bible says this:

... Do not let the sun go down on your anger

If your anger and frustration has been bubbling today, rising up and threatening to spill over - let it spill. Let it out, however that works for you - and don't be afraid to say: "I'm angry." You're merely doing what the Bible says.

But then, as my 3-year-old so wisely reminded me ... Don't let the anger consume you. When it's out, when it's expressed, when you've allowed yourself to feel this most natural of human emotions - anger loses its power. You feel it draining from you. God - and those around you - have heard it and felt it, and it no longer weighs only on you but now it is shared and as Jesus reminds us, a shared yoke with him is easy - and his burden is light.

Anger is powerful but only as a tool. I believe what the letter writer wanted the people of Ephesus to know was that we damage ourselves and those around us when we allow a relationship - or a day - to end on our anger. Anger must be walked through, but it is a landmark on the journey - not the final destination. It's a means to an end: an end of reconciliation, an end of forgiveness, an end of resurrection.

Be angry ... Do not let the sun go down on your anger

Feel your anger. Accept it. Don't apologize for a feeling. Men have been using anger to get things done for centuries. Let anger's energy empower you for justice and righteousness. 

Think of Rosa Parks. Of Malala Yousafzai.

And then when you've expressed it and felt your anger, let it melt away. Allow yourself to smile - not at anyone else, necessarily - because your smile is not for them but for you and for God. Look in the mirror at yourself and smile, wryly perhaps.

I was angry, and I am not sorry, but there is more to me than anger. I am woman. I am mommy. Hear me roar. And then give your child or your spouse or your parent or your friend or yourself a hug, because: 

"I Love You, and even when I'm not happy - even when I'm angry, or sad, or especially when I'm angry or sad but not ashamed - Love will win in the end."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Pruning Withered Petals and Facing Death in July 2015

July is the cruelest month, with apologies to T.S. Eliot.

July is when grass and people die, when flowers wither in the afternoon heat and parents secretly count down the days until school begins and the screaming frenzy stops.

When sweat beads burn in the late afternoon sun, and air conditioners fry, and desert mouths thirst for water.

July has always seemed to me to be the longest month, though February in Chicago seemed to last 10 years.

The July days stretch into oblivion, and like the lizard darting across the scorched sidewalk in front of my path, I seek refuge in the shade and air conditioning.

In July 2015 Sandra Bland died in police custody in Waller County, Texas, and six days later Samuel Dubose was shot by a University of Cincinnati police officer during a nonviolent traffic stop.

Seven days later Bobbi Kristina Brown died, after six months in hospice care since being found face down in a bathtub, unresponsive, on Jan. 31, in much the same condition her mother Whitney Houston was found dead three years earlier.

A movement has arisen in the past year, to protest police brutality and the unjust killing of African Americans - an uncomfortable realization that the dream of Civil Rights has gone unrealized in a still-racist America. It's called Black Lives Matter, but in the summer of 2015 - life seems cheap.

White supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black Bible Study participants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 15.

As of July 30, the city of Chicago has experienced 276 homicides in 2015 - with 55 in July alone. The average age of the dead: 28. Seventy-seven percent of victims were black.

A deadly summer is not only an American problem. Almost 12,000 people have died in Syria since the beginning of 2015, including 20,000 children since the conflict there began. Fifty-nine people died under torture in Syria in June 2015, almost two a day.

Countless migrants risked their lives for new life and died in the process: the Rohingya people of Myanmar in Southeast Asia were left to perish on rickety boats; Africans and Middle Easterners rushed the English Channel tunnel and a man was crushed to death by a truck on July 29. Central Americans and Mexicans died while riding atop La Bestia, while others crossed the Rio Grande only to languish in crowded Family Detention Centers in New Mexico and Texas.

Donald Trump called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, and went on to lead the 16 candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Lives - all lives, but especially those with black or brown skin, or born as refugees, or even the unborn - seemed cheap in July 2015, and yet all around the country Americans continued to blithely deny death, drinking our protein shakes and taking our vitamins.

***

My Grandpa John - my dad's dad - died when I was in third grade. He lived nearby, and he enjoyed dropping by unannounced on Saturday mornings or Thursday evenings. I remember three things about him distinctly: the lingering smell of cologne, and cigarettes, that lasted on his leather gloves my dad wore well into my high school years; the sound and smell of the disgusting cherry throat spray he had to use every few minutes in the months before he died, while throat and lung cancer ravaged his ability to eat and to speak; and finally the ritual he performed every spring and summer Saturday morning when he came to visit our house.

He'd park in the street, walk up the driveway, and pause in the rocks in the front lawn - stooping down carefully to observe the battered flowers my mom and dad planted each Minnesota spring in anticipation of the return of life to the winter tundra outdoors.

I'm not even sure how tall he was - to me he seemed a giant - and yet when he kneeled down, he was at eye level with the violets and marigolds and perennial flowers in front of him - in tones of lavender and orange and gold and whatever had been on special at the neighborhood nursery weeks before.

His knees and ankles and thighs and calves had to hurt when he did it, but he kneeled nonetheless, bending carefully to remove each withered petal from the plants below. Picking carefully, he gathered them into his hands, pruning gently, making space for petals to push through.

Recently I've found myself paying homage to his memory. I buy the $3 Trader Joes flowers on Monday afternoons for home and the office, and the rest of the week I carefully care for the blossoms - each day removing wilted petals, trimming stems, replacing dirty water. 

Sometimes it seems a romantic waste of time, an inutility at a time when every moment counts - when work and church and child and spouse and friends could use my time more than these pitiful petals and yet each time I do it I think of Grandpa John.

He was a man well-acquainted with death. Just a day after reporting to the Pacific front - Okinawa, to be precise - of World War II, he was near-fatally shot in the stomach and airlifted to Guam, and then Australia, where he barely clung to life for the next several months. My Grandma Millie, his recent sweetheart and later-to-be bride, sustained herself on infrequent letters and rosary beads from the Catholic Church down the street where later, their seven children would be baptized and confirmed.

John survived his grisly injury on that ill-fated island, but in a WWII military hospital, death was all around him. He'd watched men die on the battlefield and he regarded their agony in the starched white sheets of an unfamiliar Paradise Lost.

John returned home in one piece, physically, but he was never the same. The shooting had left him with some nasty wartime habits: GI cigarettes, an affinity toward pain medication and morphine, and an ever-present addiction to alcohol.

A young Minnesota father in the '50s and '60s, sometimes his four boys would have to accompany him to the bar or back home; though it was rare for him to accompany them to Sunday mass. They relied more on their strong, stalwart German mother, and when he first met my mom, my dad said he "hated" his dad.

Around then, though, John had started going to Alcoholics Anonymous, and before it was too late he won his sobriety. I never knew him as anything but sober as a grandpa - and my mom grew to love him dearly, embracing his frequent visits and his deep love of his grandchildren.

It was the smoking, perhaps, that led to the throat and lung cancer and congestive heart failure that eventually killed him in 1993, and I carried with me those three deep memories: the scent on my dad's leather gloves, his cherry throat spray, and the way he pruned our dead petals.

At his funeral our family was overwhelmed by a crowd of strangers, who said they knew John from AA. For many he was a sponsor, someone to call in the middle of the night when addiction roared and danger loomed. They said he helped them get sober, that he was the mentor and leader they needed, and John's own sons and daughters felt a strange mix of pride and sadness.

On this day as they mourned his death and remembered his life, it seemed that he'd shouldered as best he could this nearness to death: from his early years as a poor German Catholic in rural Minnesota, to the killing fields of the South Pacific, to the triage of hospital beds in Guam and Australia, to men drinking themselves to death in the bars and pubs of the 1950s, to a cancer patient, AA sponsor, and Grandpa who died too young - but not before he learned to live amidst death.

***

As I prune my own Trader Joes petals far from Minnesota in Southern California in 2015, I do so I think honoring this memory of my Grandpa John. I believe he did this pruning act in an almost unconscious knowledge that to embrace life and live life anew one must prune and confront death: the death of wilted petals, the death of wounded soldiers, of refugees and victims of racism, the innocent victims of careless concern for life, the death of ones we've loved and lost.

His act was a quiet one, a subtle one - but it was nonetheless an act of resistance against a culture that blithely ignores or sublimates the reality of death until it's too late and death crushes us under its weight. 

He himself had looked death in the eyes and attempted to ignore its power by drinking, by denying, for too many years and then - he confronted it and pruned it, choosing instead to live. 

It was for him, a lifelong Catholic who memorized the Latin mass, a deeply faithful act. In pruning he acknowledged the power of the Cross and the hope for resurrection - that by Jesus' death new life would come; that by God's facing death on the Cross eternal life was won for us all.

For all of us who would call ourselves Christians and followers of Jesus in 2015, we too cannot continue to ignore the death all around us, wiping aside the wilted petals and wounded hearts - from Maddy Middleton, murdered in Santa Cruz, to Samuel Dubose dying of a traffic stop in Cincinnati, to hundreds of children perishing on the open seas and trash-strewn refugee roads, their parents risking it all to give them a chance at real life - and those who never had a chance at all.

We must confront the death that faces our environment, that faces our families, that faces our relationships and our heavy hearts, carrying deep burdens we don't bear to share: addictions and anxieties and worries and financial fears. 

It is only when we see the death that we can then seek to prune, to pick, to clear our lives and our world of the wilted petals of the past: of racism and sexism and classism; of hatred and greed - that we will begin to live the lives God has planted for us, blossoming into brilliant colors we could never have imagined.

***

When it came time to plant flowers again after my Grandpa John's death, I noticed that the sprouts again peeked up out of the once-frozen ground. I watched as my dad carefully unwound the hose and watered them gently, and then days later he and my mom knelt down carefully, slowly, eye level with the purple violets and orange marigolds that had made their way toward the sky. They carefully plucked off the wilted petals, pruning as Grandpa John had done, making way after death for the hope of new life.