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Shrove Tuesday: Pagans, Priests, and Pancakes

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SHROVE TUESDAY: PAGANS, PRIESTS, AND PANCAKES

Known as “pancake day” in Britain, Shrove Tuesday is historically a Catholic Church thing, but since most of us like pancakes, why not crash the Catholic party?

Shrove Tuesday was traditionally a day of repentance when believers would “shrive,” or confess their sins to a priest and receive absolution before Lent began on Ash Wednesday, thus cleansing themselves and supposedly bringing their appetites under control. Then sometime in the Middle Ages, Shrove Tuesday morphed into a time of feasting and celebration, which makes good sense to me. Why spend the last day before a forty-day period of soul searching and sacrificial fasting trying to bring your appetites under control? As Scarlett O’Hara said, “I’ll think about that tomorrow!”

Practically speaking, families wanted to use up all the fats, meats, milk, and fish that would go bad over a forty-day period of food restrictions, so they all got together and stuffed themselves.

In France, the consumption of all this fat led to the day being called “Fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras. And we know where *that* led. Actually, the rowdy partying at Mardi Gras time harkens back to the Pagan spring equinox festivals that sometimes coincided with the early Christian observances. Carnival!

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Down to the real point of Shrove Tuesday for the likes of non-Catholics like me: it’s all about the pancakes. The English started the tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday as a way of emptying their cabinets of tempting indulgences like milk, butter, and eggs.

My church is big on community, getting together whenever we can, and I happen to live in a neighborhood inhabited by lots of my church friends. What’s not to like? So tonight, about fifteen of us will gather, say grace, and chow down. It’s also possible that if enough wine is drunk, we might start confessing our sins to one another. But it’s not required.

Tasty homemade pancakes with strawberries,blueberries and maple

What’s the Deadline for Finding Peace and Happiness?

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I’m struggling under too many deadlines lately, which I know won’t illicit sympathy from those of you in the work-a-day world. But as an accidental early retiree, I’m not used to deadlines anymore so they are even more stressful and intrusive than when they were organizationally imposed.

That penultimate, omnipotent organizational deadline imposer, the Internal Revenue Service, dictated a February 28th deadline for me this year, under the threat of losing my beloved, best-thing-in-the-world, don’t-mess-with-it-Supreme-Court Obamacare subsidy. I impressed myself by meeting that deadline, but as executor of two estates, there are plenty more IRS forms in my near future.

Health care ensured for the year, I’ve moved on to the next impending deadline and am ostensibly working on a sermon to be delivered next week. The topic I’ve been assigned boils down to “how to be happy and at peace.” Cinch, right? Being new to sermon preparation, I find it tortuous, and now even more so because I was recently commissioned to our church’s Pastoral Team and feel as if I’m suddenly supposed to know how to preach.

Preaching guidance did not come in my how-to-be-a-pastor packet. What came instead was about a bijillion email documents covering ten years of strategic planning, which I’m supposed to read and digest in three days.

I’m also up against a March 9th deadline to apply for a summer writing workshop. Last night I spent hours mucking around with the simple question, “Tell us something about yourself.” This does not bode well for the associated 1,000-word essay.

Last night I got a pleading call from the people who are buying my family house — the one I grew up in and where my brother fell into mental illness and died (no emotional complications there). The couple’s house has rented early and they have no place to go; can we possibly move up the settlement date by a week?

Sigh.

I now have just a few weeks to haul piles of boxes and bunches of furniture out of the house and find someplace to put it all, hire someone to clean the house, transplant Mom’s roses and azaleas, and sell a dead car for which I have no title. 

For now, I have to get back to this sermon. Hmmm – how to find peace.

flowers and Dayspring 050

Gone But Not Forgotten: A Photograph of Love

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This is Ginnie, probably one of the most well-loved women I know, and for good reason. When you’re with Ginnie, you feel like everything is going to be OK. She has faith like a rock, yet her spirit is light and effervescent. She seems unshakeable. She smiles all the time, and you know that she loves you unconditionally.

Picnic w/ Ginnie

Ginnie and I had a picnic this summer, just a few days after her husband Ian’s memorial service. She and Ian were married more than sixty years. They raised the guy who introduced me to Jesus – the real Jesus, the loving one, not the one who judges and hates and condemns. Because Brian McLaren inherited his mother’s unsinkable spirit, he has introduced thousands to God’s love through his writing and speaking.

This particular July day, Ginnie and I sat for four hours at a picnic table on the grounds of the church that Brian founded. A vase of garden phlox on the table smelled sweet in the warm sunshine, and the bees buzzed around the magenta blossoms.

Ginnie and I shared sandwiches and lemonade and stories. We spoke of many things, but mostly of our mutual journey through grief. We shared the things we would never forget about our departed loved ones, and we talked about where we had found God in the midst of our losses.

Her husband Ian and my brother Biff: gone in 2014, but not forgotten because our love keeps them alive.

This week’s WordPress Photo Challenge is on the topic of Gone But Not Forgotten. This warm summer day is long gone, Ginnie has returned to her home in Florida, and Ian and Biff have moved on — each gone but not forgotten.

Related articles:

https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/hope-or-hostility-in-a-multi-faith-world/

http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/in-memoriam-ian-d-mclaren.html

How Not to Write a Sermon

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How Not to Write a Sermon:

I have no holy credentials. Well, I have a certificate from Cathedral College declaring that I’m an official Spiritual Companion, but aren’t we all spiritual companions in our own ways? And a few years ago I took seminary classes on spiritual formation, but never finished the certificate because I got chicken pox. A sign that I was not meant to pastor?

Anyway, only an unaffiliated rag-tag group of Jesus followers like the ones at my church would allow me to preach a sermon. It didn’t start out as a sermon, it was supposed to be a “story,” one in a series about hope. Initially our pastor (who also did not graduate from seminary, by the way) asked me to talk for ten or fifteen minutes about finding hope in grief and loss. No problem, I thought, I’ve blogged about that. Then I was told that it was to be an entire thirty-five to forty minute sermon.

So that’s where my head’s been the past few weeks, and why I haven’t been blogging. Sorry about that. I hope you’ve been managing OK without my brilliant insights. I’m afraid I have none for you today, either, but I’m trying to avoid writing this sermon, so here I am.

Attention Deficit, Depression, and a Drum

In typical ADD fashion, I began in hyper-focus mode, completely re-living my mother’s death, my brother’s death, and even my dear friend’s head-on with a tractor trailer that resulted in a nine-month coma and then death. I sat at the computer from 9 a.m. till the sun went down two days in a row, writing about hospitals and death.

Then, of course, I plunged into depression and stopped writing completely.

I became terrified by the whole project. How am I stuck writing a sermon about a trifling matter like finding hope in death? I’m not even a pastor. But maybe that’s a good thing, because a pastor might be tempted to rely on Bible verses about angels and resurrection and the afterlife, and I don’t even know how to find those verses. (I love the Bible, I just never remember chapter and verse.)

Heaven and eternal life are good, but I want to help the people sitting in chairs on Sunday morning to cope with the very real, very present, very today challenge of grieving life’s losses. “Everything will be OK once you’re dead, and not before,” is not comforting to me, and I don’t believe it. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is here, now, among us, at hand. But how does that help us grieve? Where does one find hope?

I’ve now pulled out of “the sads,” and my ADD has flipped from fierce focus to bouncing puppy mode. I sit surrounded by dozens of pages of unconnected scrawls and phrases like: Mom-Beth-orange slices; Willie, Uncle Rolphe, winged creatures; MVA letter, gym, miracle; and, I bought a drum. They meant something when I scribbled them.

So that’s where I’ve been and that’s where I am. My deadline looms. Today is the day I must pull  it together or be in serious trouble. Which is why I decided to write a blog post instead. Please pray for me!

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Part I – In Which Grief is Surprised By Another Death

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When I first heard the news, I was with some friends. (Thank God.) Bill looked at his phone and said, “This is bad.”

“What?” Shobha said.

Silence.

“WHAT?”

“This is very bad,” Bill said again, as if his soundtrack was stuck in shock.

As he read the words of the text out loud, “tragic . . . died suddenly . . . flu . . . pneumonia . . . stopped breathing . . . unable to revive . . .,” I felt — no, I actually saw — my emotions shutting down. I was staring unblinking at a Christmas tree and I saw the white lights blur and then dim as my “self” withdrew deep inside my body.

Already hiding in shock and denial after my brother Biff’s death last month, this was too much for my raw soul. Impossible. Not our dear friend Betsy. Some survival instinct moved my inner emotional switch from the hibernate setting where it had been for the past month into the full OFF position.

Being Without Betsy

I entered church the next morning in full shut-down mode and so was able to do my usual job of greeting folks. At least I didn’t have to smile — many had already heard the news about Betsy on Facebook or by phone, but some were only just finding out as they entered the building and saw her face on the screen and the “In Loving Memory” underneath. It’s odd how many people thought it was some kind of morbid  humor, that it must be Betsy’s quirky idea of a joke. Because of course it couldn’t be true.

Actually, quirky doesn’t begin to describe Betsy. She’s very hard to describe, although many have tried over the past week of remembrances and services and Facebook tributes.

Of all the people I know, I think she is the most alive. Truly, fully alive and engaged with life.

Only she’s not.

None of us can imagine Cedar Ridge Community Church without Betsy. She’s been on staff there forever, often working in the sound booth, where you could see her hot pink hair poking up over the partial wall and her arms waving in full-on joyful worship when the band played the rockin’ songs. How she loved God!

Betsy Mitchell Henning

Betsy Mitchell Henning (photo by Jed Curl)

And how she loved us! All of us. As so many said at her memorial service, she was the most absolutely non-judgmental person you could find. She was utterly fascinated by people and their stories and found something to like in everyone she met. She knew how to connect and she knew how to love unconditionally.

The Good News

When I entered the sanctuary that morning, I was surprisingly unsurprised to feel Betsy’s spirit alive as ever, hovering in and through and above everyone and everything. It is impossible to imagine our church without her because we will never be without her. The unconditional love she radiated was absorbed by all of us and is being radiated back out to the world.

This is unbelievably good news! Did you know that’s what “gospel” means? Good news.

When I realized that Betsy’s spirit is not “dead,” I also realized that my brother’s spirit is not gone either. At least I realized that in a tentative kind of way — in my journal I wrote: “Somehow that makes it almost possible to allow myself to believe that Biff’s spirit is also still with me. Almost. Too good to hope for in a way. Too good to be true. Do I believe in Jesus or not?”

Do I believe?

Do I believe?

Stay tuned for Part II of this post tomorrow, in which I find myself apologizing to just about everyone: my atheist, aggressively agnostic, and conservative Christian friends . . .

In the meantime, here’s a lovely blog about Betsy by someone who barely knew her but felt her spirit: http://thedefiningyears.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/dear-betsy/

An Outsider on Christmas Eve

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There’s red, a lot of red. The overhead lights are dim, but there are candles. Bulky shapes mill about, coats and scarves and hats that presumably contain people. All of this I can see as I approach the double glass doors, and I slow my pace.

What was I thinking coming here?

I’ve met some friends in the parking lot, and they nudge me towards to the church building.

“You OK?” one of them asks, and my scarf nods. I feel completely disembodied, as if my physical self left with my brother when he died, now twenty-eight hours ago.

It’s Christmas Eve, my favorite church service of the year. I thought I wanted to come.

My friend opens the door and my body recoils from the music, the laughter, and oh my God, the smiles. An arm is around me and shepherds me through the door. Inside, I shrink against the wall, burying my face more deeply into my red scarf, the one my brother gave me last year.

I feel as if I’ve unexpectedly happened upon a horrible accident, and I wish for all the world that I was not here. I can’t bear to be near the joy.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I say to my friends. They circle around me, offering protection from the churning mass of smiling humanity. One of them hands me a cup of hot cider and I inhale the sweet smell but am afraid to sip it. Swallowing is not the simple matter it was a few days ago. Nothing is simple.

One foot in front of the other, I walk with my friends into the sanctuary. Delicate white lights twine through Christmas trees, wreaths, and holly, and quiet carols fill the room.

“Merry Christmas!” someone says. “How are you?”

“My brother died,” I say, because that seems to be all I will ever say for the rest of my life when someone asks me that question.

“Oh my God, no,” and I’m enfolded in arms and then more arms and I cry.

Then I’m sitting between my friends holding the candle that will soon be lit and raised upwards as we all sing Silent Night together.

“You OK?”

I take a sip of my hot cider and feel its spicy warmth move into my chest. I nod and smile, just a little.

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This post was written in response to today’s Daily Prompt:

Tell us about the experience of being outside, looking in — however you’d like to interpret that.

Knowing Love

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They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but I would argue the opposite. For me, knowing and being fully known is downright holy.

Let it all hang out.

What you see is what you get.

Take me as you find me.

I would rather not have to wade through a bunch of BS before finding the authentic you. And Lord knows I have wasted enough time and effort over the years erecting barricades and tricky funhouse mirrors to hide the real me – even from myself.

But in recent years I’ve been working on getting to know myself better, and as I become familiar with the good, the bad, and the ugly, I am also learning to love myself.

For me, familiarity runs through everything that I love.

The Question

Today the WordPress Gods have posed the Daily Prompt question:

We each have many types of love relationships — parents, children, spouses, friends. And they’re not always with people; you may love an animal, or a place. Is there a single idea or definition that runs through all the varieties of “love”?

So that’s my answer to their question — familiarity.

Knowing God

My main love affair is with God. My Higher Power. Whatever you want to call the spirit that hovers around our heads and hearts causing love. Of course, any idea I might have of God is not actually God, and my inability to grasp the spiritual realm with my intellect pretty much guarantees that I can’t become truly “familiar” with God, no matter how much prayer or meditation I might engage in.

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I think we can, however, become familiar with God’s ways and with the evidence of God, beginning with the ground we walk on and the air we breathe and the water we drink.

In the book of Romans in the Bible, it says that “what may be known about God is plain” because God has made it plain: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal  power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

I take this as a clue that learning about the natural world and spending time in it will help us get to know God. I know that many of my friends who do not believe in God still have a sense of the holy when they are out in nature. I personally believe that’s the Creator knocking.

What Has Been Made

What Has Been Made

The category of “what has been made” includes a lot of things I love…I see God in all of them.

Other Things I Love

I love my friends. Nothing beats getting together with my oldest, dearest friends – it’s like finding a favorite comfy sweater in the back of the closet and snuggling into it. We fit.

I love my family, even their annoying, familiar quirks. My brother and sister have known me since before I was born. How cool is that?

I love my church community. They are my chosen family. It’s where people encourage me to continue to grow into the real me. They know me, love me, and forgive me.

I love my cats. I love that I know everything they are going to do at every moment of the day. How they move to the sunny square on the hallway carpet after the warm spot I’ve left in the covers has cooled. How Mayasika rushes to block my path when I’m going upstairs so that I will scritch her back. How Eliza Bean comes into the kitchen at lunchtime and stands on her hind legs waiting for her cheese.

Mayasika

Mayasika

I love my town. The smell of popcorn in the town center when the theater opens each evening; the Coop grocery clerks who know my name and ask after my sick brother; the annual meetings that always go late into the night because people can’t get enough of talking about our little community.

I love my house, even though it’s usually trashed and causes me great stress and embarrassment. It is home. It is familiar.

Belonging

As I write, I’m realizing that I am talking about something beyond familiarity. Beyond knowing and being known.

I’m talking about belonging.

A sense of belonging is the thread that runs through everything and everyone that I love. This is what grounds me.

What about you? What binds together the things that you love?

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