Monday, August 3, 2009

Geriatric Gerund

In my family, "grandma" is also a verb. "Grandma-ing" means nodding your head in agreement while not really listening to what someone is saying. We have perfected the art around Grandma Schubert, an extraordinarily loquacious lady for whom silence is a mortal enemy. She fights gaps in conversation with endless chatter about health problems, death reports, church updates, redundant stories, and of course, a barrage of questions with no pause for a response. While "grandma-ing" lacks compassion, it serves as an important defense mechanism against boredom, nagging, and endless one-sided discussions.

"Grandma-ing" has taken on new meaning in recent weeks as Grandma has been actively dying from cancer. As a general rule, we Schuberts "do not go gentle (or quiet) into that good night." Grandma was given six months to live more than two years ago. She fought hard to witness my sister's wedding and my ordination last year. Now, she really does have only a few months to live, and she is raging against "the dying of the light." Her verbal tirades have targeted doctors, nurses, family, caregivers, and her own body. Many times I've tuned her out. As a pastor who listens regularly to the joy, pain, and concerns of others around me, I've wondered why I struggle so much to hear the needs of someone so close to me.

Isaiah and I visited Grandma tonight. The cancer has ravaged her lungs and diminished her vocal cords so that her voice is a scratchy whisper. For the first time in the nearly 30 years, I notice pauses in the conversation where Grandma either needs to catch her breath or is too tired to continue. In those gaps, I hope for grace for all of my years of "grandma-ing." I try to hear carefully what is being said. And I am convinced that listening -- truly listening -- may be the greatest act of love there is.

Friday, April 3, 2009

What Gives Us Paws

I always swore that I would be the perfect canine parent. That was, of course, before I adopted a puppy.

As I surfed the Humane Society website, enraptured by a four-month-old German shepherd mix, my friend warned me, “Don’t you get that one. He looks like nothing but trouble.” A day later, trouble came home with me. I named him Isaiah for the prophetic twinkle in his eye.

That gleam never left Isaiah’s eye as he set out on a puppy path of destruction, chewing up cell phone chargers, computer cords, flip-flops, eight leashes, and a wooden knickknack my grandpa made. He tore through screens, ripped up rugs, gnawed on the coffee table, and peed on my friend’s laundry pile. He was an indiscriminate eater of chew toys, rat poison (with lots of doggie Vitamin K to combat it), and tons of poop. We tried prescription medicine to conquer that last bad habit. When that failed, I sprinkled cayenne pepper on all of the piles in the backyard. Isaiah took a large fecal bite, teared up, sneezed, and kept on chewing.

We’ve traveled a long journey, Isaiah and me, on a road that has included training classes, multiple vet visits, a therapist, and Prozac. I’ll let you guess who needed what.

At almost four years old, Isaiah is much calmer now, but his obstinacy abides. This past week he aided and abetted his friend Claude in ripping a downspout from my friend’s home in hot pursuit of an elusive chipmunk. They also hit a gold mine – a wascally wabbit’s den with five dead bunnies, one of which Claude brought into the house as a gift.

Underneath Isaiah’s annoying antics, there is an unwavering loyalty, a deep affection, and an unconditional love. He repeatedly begs me the question, “How do we love those we cannot control?” How do we care for those who make us laugh one moment and cry the next? Who bring us endless joy and fits of frustration? Who break our hearts and heal our wounds?

I believe we take the risk of love, both human and canine, because it is in the messiness that we discover our own weaknesses, our longing for wholeness, and our need for redemption. When we dare to let go long enough to love, we recognize the gift that was waiting for us all along. And we realize the ultimate truth: We love because Someone first loved us.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Boxed In

I've got an issue with boxes. As the Israelites hoarded manna in the wilderness, I store oodles of cardboard boxes in my basement because you never know when there may be a box famine.

To make matters worse, most of my beloved boxes were flooded last spring when a torrential downpour flowed through my basement. They've dried out now, but they're totally useless.

I could cast blame for this box collection in two directions. The first is necessity. I moved every year during college and grad school. I'm an itinerant pastor who could be moved again on a moment's notice. I need them, for goodness' sake, even the useless ones.

The second is heredity. Compulsive hoarding is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a genetic problem on the 14th chromosome. My grandma's home used to be piled floor-to-ceiling with used Pringles cans, Styrofoam trays, rusty coffee cans, crusty marshmallow cream jars, envelopes of blurry photographs, old-fashioned blow-dryers, friendship cards, ration coupons from World War II, sequin calendars, 30-year-old boxes of raisins, fossilized candy, receipts from my grandpa’s 1940s job at the dairy, Indianapolis Star newspapers from the 1960s, clothes she meant to give me 20 years ago, and my favorite, the sanitary belt Methodist Hospital gave her when my uncle was born in 1942.

I'm happy to report that a saintly neighbor has helped to tidy my grandma's clutter heaven so that her red Cadillac walker can be easily maneuvered. Even so, we dread the surprises that await us when it comes time to clean out her front porch, basement, attic, and spare bedroom.

As I reflect on my grandma's home, I can sense a similar future awaiting me. First boxes, then who knows what? Why do we cling to such useless possessions?

When I confessed this issue to a church small group studying simplicity, they laughed. But they also held me accountable. One person is checking my recycle bin to make sure that I'm purging those boxes.

My sister and her husband recently moved. She called the other day to see if I wanted any of their leftover boxes, adding that she didn't want to contribute to my box problem.

"No thanks," I replied, explaining that I need to remain strong to my resolution. I'm getting rid of the boxes I'm in, one at a time.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In a flash

I determined that the confirmands should burn their sins. You know, as an object lesson. They were learning about God's justifying grace. It seemed the perfect way to emphasize that when God forgives us, it is just as if we've never sinned. What's more, I have a middle-school fascination with fire and burning. Sounded like a perfect plan.

The first step, I realized, was to find an appropriate method of burning. Based on the experience of a pastor at another church, whose identity shall remain anonymous, I knew that two things were essential:
  1. Not to burn burdens in the sanctuary itself. That can create a lot of smoke, set off fire alarms, and produce the fire department. That can be a real mood-breaker during Ash Wednesday services. "Remember that you are dust, and to [LOUD SIREN] you shall return."
  2. Not to use real paper, which also produces voluminous smoke. See above.

I needed flash paper, which would vanish into thin air the moment it was lit. While googling for a flash paper source, I quickly recognized that magicians have the corner market. After an extensive search, I finally tracked down a magician on the eastside who operates a shop out of his home. Let's just say that if I ever tire of pastoral "hocus pocus," I could make decent money selling magic supplies.

I had one of those weeks where selling magic supplies didn't seem half-bad. I was suffering from ecclesial malaise -- weary of the church, the call, the endless moments of service. In spite of the tears, the venting to friends, the prayers, and the complaints, I felt like a mouse caught in a glue trap in the church's kitchen. I was still alive but unable to move.

I handed out rectangles of flash paper to the youth, who spent time reflecting, praying, chatting when they were supposed to be silent, and writing their confessions. We ventured to the courtyard. We sang, prayed, and set our papers aflame.

I don't know if you've ever used flash paper, but it's pretty fun stuff. When you set a corner of the paper on fire, it burns brightly for an instant. The key is letting go at just the right moment. POOF! The paper is engulfed with one or two flames before disappearing completely. No ash. No residue. Nothing remains.

We went around the circle. "Cool!" one person exclaimed. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. "I'm scared!" another said. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. "Whoa, stand back!" In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

My turn finally arrived. My paper began to glow. I had to let go.

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Oh Church"

As I wrestle with what it means to be the Church, love the Church, serve the Church, and yet retain a prophetic edge against the Church, I'm drawn again to the words of Carlo Corretto. A mentor shared Corretto's thoughts with me almost five years ago, and I'm only now beginning to understand the truth they contain.

How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you!
How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you!
I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.
You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand sanctity.
I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful.
How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, although not completely.
And where should I go? To build myself another church?

But I could build one only with the same defects, because they are mine:
Defects which I have inside myself.
And if I built one, it would no longer be the Church of Christ.
I am old enough to understand that I am no better than other people.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Morning Has Broken Me

"If people were meant to pop out of bed, we'd all sleep in toasters."
-- Garfield

Mornings have always hated me, and in return, I've despised them. I don't like to pop out of bed. I try to limit my snooze button hits to three, but sometimes more are necessary, depending on how mean the morning appears.

As loquacious as I am throughout the day, I don't like to talk to people first thing in the morning. I can be very grumpy toward anyone who crosses my path. When I was in kindergarten, my mom used to wake me with a lovely rendition of "Morning Has Broken." I was so nasty to her that my maternal reveille was soon replaced by an impersonal alarm clock.

If I were in charge of the world, the workday would start shortly before noon and end about 9 p.m. I'm in my prime in the late afternoon and early evening, just as others are slowing down.
Since the world is not likely to conform to my recommendation, I'm learning to cope. I'm certainly never going to be a morning person. But my seminary roommate, who knew how horribly rotten I could be in the early hours of the day, has said that I've greatly improved. We traveled together again last summer, and she was shocked at how much more sociable I was upon waking.

I will never be ready, however, to sleep in a toaster.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

It's slum life

I've wondered a lot about the child stars from the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. A week ago Sunday, Azharuddin Ismail and Rubina Ali were lauded by glamorous Hollywood. Three days later, they returned to their homes in the slums of Mumbai.

Azharuddin, according to CNN, sleeps under a plastic sheet in a shantytown. Rubina stays with her family in a tiny shack next to an open drain.

One moment they were twirling through rides in a land of milk and honey and Disney. The next second they were welcomed as heroes in a community of shacks and hunger and poverty. One instant they were whiffing ice cream and celebrity perfume; the next was cow dung and urine. One second they paraded down the red carpet. The next time they ran through the dirt path, stumbling over raw sewage and trash and neighbor children.

The contrast is almost too much for the human heart to bear.

The film's producers have vowed to put together an educational package for Azharuddin and Rubina to guarantee them schooling, as well as a sum of money upon completion of their schooling at age 18.

Azharuddin's mother has heard rumors that the Indian government will provide her with a new home as a result of her son's new-found fame. Those plans are unconfirmed. "I've been praying for a new home for awhile now," she said. "It's all up to Allah now. "

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Kicking Ash Wednesday

I hate those interpersonal conflicts where your chest tightens and the blood pulses through your skull. Where you're ready to take your rival down -- mentally, verbally, emotionally, and maybe even physically. Where you know that no matter what you say or do, you will not win the argument. Where your adversary starts to get personal, even when the issue is not. Where the antagonist demands, "I want to speak with the PASTOR!" And you have to reply, "I AM the pastor!"

I hate those types of conflicts, and I was embroiled in one the past two days. Fitting, I suppose, on the eve of Lent, as we recall that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It's always humbling to recall that our greatest opponents may be ourselves. The line between good and evil doesn't run between people, but through our own hearts. We are finite, broken people.

I wish I could say the conflict was resolved. It ended, but with no real reconciliation. Instead, I was left hanging on the verge of 40 days -- a holy period of time to ponder and pray and practice extending the grace in which I believe.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Small sparks

I'm learning to be grateful for the sparks of hope God offers us through people who collide with our lives. As I left church on a bone-chilling day, a gentleman stopped me with great excitement. He had just been given a pair of gloves and a hat that fortuitously matched the color his bicycle.

"That's cool," I told him with half-hearted enthusiasm, trying to extricate myself politely from the conversation.

"It's not just cool," the man replied, "it's a blessing. When you don't have much, let alone gloves and a hat, this is a blessing. I hope you can see that."

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. "
-- Luke 6:20