Friday, May 31, 2013


We pray to this odd God of Time,
cordon off our days to please it, 
slice events into segments to appease it, 
regulate our movements to its circle dance. 
And, even knowing its artificial construct, 
we define success and failure by our capacity 
to be what we should be when time tells us it's time. 
I have not had my big love yet. 
Have never gone to sleep perfectly nestled in peace. 
I'm late for this, so tardy that no one is left to cheer me home. 
It was just January.  I still remember the snow.  
A month ago it was 1995. I can picture the VW Rabbit, 
the rows of day lilies, the upside down tree. 
I have not had my big love yet.  It's twenty past eight; 
the night is drawing to a close.  Yesterday, it was twelve years ago, 
we went to the movies and I could feel your elbow
sharing the armrest.  When I looked at you, 
I knew you would be beautiful when you grew old. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

It's universal

I have reached that age.  You know, the one where everything makes you cry.  

I used to think I loved watching the Fernway students sing because I had a personal connection to each, but, really, I love watching all children sing.  Like tonight, at Mercer's Exhibition celebration.  

These aren't my kids, but, man, it did not matter.  I loved the rocking way they moved onto the risers.  I have never seen or heard anything like it.  Nor have I ever seen or heard a group of students sing the song, "My Place."  But that's the one that got to me.  

Alice Stein, a teacher at Fernway for years, used to go to all of the assemblies wearing her dark sunglasses.  Alice could pull it off, that's for damn sure.  She was a former buyer in New York City and always wore the finest garb.  Her hair was pulled back in a chignon, her linen was always pressed.  Panty hose every day, maybe even real stockings, and always a slight heel.  She wore huge square-ish glasses like Sophia Loren – and, may I add, just as beautifully as the icon did.  When the singing would begin, Alice would just sit there and shamelessly cry.  I liked to ask her how many songs from the poetry play brought about tears. One year, she said, “Every single one.” I couldn’t have been more happy.

Maybe it should be a mandatory requirement that everyone attend one school performance.  Especially Congress members.  CEOs of major corporations.  Army commanders.  And it should be at night.  In a large ill-equipped cafeteria or multi-purpose room.  End of  May or June when it gets hot as hell.  Throw in a few toddlers spinning and dancing.  And babies crying, yeah, make sure you have some of those. 

Then, we should just lob killer songs at them.  Like tonight: We Are the World.  Or, like we will be singing next week, Seasons of Love.

I bet you all the money in my no-interest savings account that they would cry.  Because of the kids. Their earnest expressions.  Because of the teachers.  The moms and dads winking and waving at the kids.  The loyal music teacher pounding the keys.  Sure, they might not show it.  Might wipe away the tears real fast before they crested the edge of the lip.  But, how could they not well up? 

I swear I think singing could change the world.  And that fourth graders singing might just be the secret to a softening of the universal heart. Call me a crazy bleeding heart.  Call me naive and gullible.  Call me anything you want.  But then sit beside me at one of these occasions, and I dare you to not be lifted. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


There will always be slate, 
there will always be weeds, 
there will always be cracks
through which green pours. 
There will always be ground, 
feet sworn to its allegiance. 
There will always be yellow faces 
rimmed with a mane of white. 
There will always be this, 
right here, as you walk by. 
This, right here, waiting 
for an inch of your attention. 
There will always be notice: 
signs to be light seeking, 
reminders you still need to grow. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

The day Leroy told us about Vietnam

I don't know anyone who has died in war.  Not even anyone second hand, a friend's cousin or a co-worker's neighbor.  No one.  That's just one of the privileges of being relatively wealthy in America; everyone goes to college instead of joining the Army. 

The closest I've come to wartime death is when our minister reads the names of those soldiers killed in service during the last week.  We started that ritual at my church years ago, and then,  I remember being overwhelmed by the long list of names.  Now, I hate to admit, but my brain has grown used to it.  This war is a war without a face, and it's easy to forget.  Too easy.

Growing up, the Vietnam War was in our family room.  Every night, grainy black and white, then color.  And on the cover of Time Magazine that sat on our coffee table.  And in our songs. War (What is It Good For?).  Absolutely nothing.

We even wore the war on our wrists. I cant remember my POW's name, but I do remember thinking about him, especially at night, touching the name engraved in in the nickel-plated bracelet.  Reading the date he had been taken captive.  Calculating how long it had been.  Two years, 3 months, 18 days.  Nineteen days.  Twenty. 

I used to teach a class in Ohio history, and as history is wont to, we followed the trail marked by war.  French and Indian, Revolutionary, 1812, Civil.  Then the affects of World War I on manufacturing in Ohio, the role of WWII is creating women's rights and the boom of steelmaking.  We know a little bit better now and do better, but then it was a war-driven curriculum.

The boys -- ten-year-olds-- loved the class and got particularly excited with the advancement of weaponry and transport.  It bothered me, the same way I'd imagine it bothers a mother when her son turns every stick into a gun. 

I knew that our custodian, Leroy James, had served in Vietnam, so I asked him to speak to my class one Tuesday.  I remember him saying sure real fast, then backtracking in the days to come.  "I don't really talk about this.  Will they ask me lots of questions?"

When the day came, the kids did ask a lot of questions, and I could see their enthusiasm grow.  It was "cool" that a soldier would carry an M60 with 100 pre-loaded rounds. It was awesome that Leroy had been a ground soldier in a rice field.  But then one boy asked if Leroy had ever been hurt, and the whole tone shifted. 

Leroy took a big pause.  He would sigh, start a sentence, then sigh again.  He was, I could tell, thinking about something he hadn't thought about in a long while.  "I was shot three times."  The class lit up.  Wow, three times! 

Leroy, always the chummiest of fellows, said something like, "That ain't nothing to get excited about.  Getting shot hurts. Blood is real."

The room got real quiet.  Real fast.

"We was out on rotation and had been in a waiting spot for a few days.  Charlie - you know who that was?  - occupied a hill and we was told that we had to take that hill.  I knew it was a mess of trouble.  You never want to be going up a hill in war.  They got eyes on you.  No one makes it to the top."

Leroy was sweating really badly at this point.  Everyone in the room was leaning in.  Somber.  

"Me and my friend was in the middle of the pack. The whole company charged the hill and everyone I knewwell, they went down pretty fast.  We was sitting ducks, you know what that means?" A pause.  "I got shot about half way up the hill. Right here, in my shoulder.  And again, near my elbow.  Can you see the scar?"

He pointed.  The kids nodded.  

"I remember laying on that hill, taking one more bullet.  Then the blood, like water, pouring past me, rolling down the hill.  I dont know how long, then he noise stopped, the VC came down off the top and was poking around making sure they'd killed us all.  One guy stood right next to me, I knew I had to play dead.  You know what that is, playing dead?"

Pale nods. Silence. 

"I don't really know what happened next.  I woke up in California.  They said I'd been out for nearly two weeks.  All I know is that everyone was gone.  Just me and one buddy made it home."

Then Leroy took out the handkerchief he kept in his back pocket and wiped his face.  I knew the story was over and there were not going to be any more questions that day.  I also knew I'd never ask Leroy to speak with my class again.  He was perfect, the kids were changed, but I wasn't going to ask him to climb that hill again, or remember that blood. 

Every day after that day, there was a certain well-deserved anointing of Leroy.  The sixteen kids in the class told their friends and those friends told others, and before long, the whole fourth grade knew about Leroy.  They didn't talk about war the same way either.  They finally understood -- I finally understood -- the peril and risk.  War was not a game, a TV show, a movie.  When Leroy would pass the kids in the halls, they would straighten up the same way they did when the principal walked by.  "Mr. James, hello Mr. James," they would say, like we had a super-hero among us.

Those kids would be a thirty now, and for their whole adult lives, our country has been at war.  I wonder if they remember that day, our custodian telling us about what it means to serve.  I wonder if today -- this Memorial Day -- any of them are thinking about Leroy or the others.  The ones who died on that bloody hill. 

I hope so, I really do.

Today, Leroy Private Leroy James, wherever you are I want to say thank you.  Thank you for charging up that hill.  Thanks for playing dead.  Thanks for coming home.  And thanks for that winter Tuesday afternoon twenty years ago.  The day you told us about war. 

And to your friends, especially the ones who did not make it home to tell their stories: our country is forever indebted and humbled by your valor.  

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sermon ~ Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday.

Red, white and blue.  Bacon, egg and cheese biscuit. And the greatest combination of all: Vizquel to Alomar to Thome.

We like to set things in threes.  It comes naturally to us.

But this idea of a Trinitarian God has always been difficult for me. 3 Gods in One? One God, three parts?  Who is the most important?  To whom am I accountable?  I do like the image on the front cover of the bulletin – please excuse the sexist language, but I think most of us first learned of the trinity this way and I wanted us to recall that original quandary. 

The diagram really seemed to help me.  Take a look at it.

   "The Father is God"
   "The Son is God"
   "The Holy Spirit is God"
   "God is the Father"
   "God is the Son"
   "God is the Holy Spirit"
   "The Father is not the Son"
   "The Son is not the Father"
   "The Father is not the Holy Spirit"
   "The Holy Spirit is not the Father"
   "The Son is not the Holy Spirit"
   "The Holy Spirit is not the Son"

Kind of reminds me of those logic questions on the SAT.  If all cocklings are bogles, but not all bogles are grankers, are all coklings grankers?

This is not about logic though; this is about the overwhelming generosity of a giving God to manifest in various forms to increase the chance of relationship. 

Let me repeat that:  this is about the overwhelming generosity of a giving God to manifest in various forms to increase the chance of relationship. 

The confirmands got us started thinking about the trinity last week in their statements of faith.  I loved what each person wrote; Molly Webster is whom I’ll quote here.  “God creates all beauty.  Jesus is my teacher.  And the Holy Spirit is God’s presence in the world.”  Nice, right.  Concise and to the point.

I don’t know about you, but my relationships – my connection  -- with each element of the trinity seemed to wax and wane.  There was a time when the idea of parent God was the one I attached to.  Someone who defined parameters and expectations. Then, for a while, Jesus popped in full force, Godspell Jesus. I was always afraid of “The Holy Ghost” as a child, who wouldn’t be?  Then I fell for a creator God, the one who provides bounty and beauty.   Long stretches of no God in any form.  Then Jesus as the innocent baby -- God before cognition, God with human constraints.  Jesus as rabbi, instructive with word and action.  Finally, a dash of whooshing spirit, mixed with a smidgeon of God the Universalist. Sometimes they even come to me as duos: Jesus and spirit.  God and Jesus.  Spirit and Creator. You get my point. Right now, I seem to connect most powerfully to what I call the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps, instead of getting caught up in who is who and how they interact, we might just relax into the notion that we have the profound opportunity to know a God who has volume and dimension. 

Just as we are not any one of the single attributes that may be attributed to us, the idea of a Trinitarian God expands what holy is.  It adds body to what sacred can be. It provides possibilities, entrée points, and places of intersection. 

I love what Jesus said in our text, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” 

A triune God tells us that we are given what we can understand when we can understand it.  And how we can understand it. 

There are things we simply cannot bear.  Maybe because of their weight.  Their sophistication, their complexity, their profound simplicity, their awkward shape or presentation.  Who knows?  

But, in an instant, something shifts. It has happened to you and it has happened to me.  That click.  That whack on the head, the ah-ha moment.

I had no idea what love was until I loved.  Even though I thought I did.

I had no idea what death was until nuzzled up against true grief, though I thought I did.

I had no idea what joy was until I released myself from the bounds of fear, even though I was sure I knew.

One of the greatest gifts of aging is aging.  Stacking experience onto experience and watching our own selves change and learn. 

We are not fixed and static, and knowing that God is a) willing to show up at the right time and b) show up in a form that makes God accessible.   

God is willing to be an idea.  A savior.  A breath. A flame.  A rebel.  A student.  The creator.  A rule maker.  A vision. A voice.  A wind.  A burning bush.  A tap on the shoulder.  A miracle.  A man. 

Sometimes our minds are sparked, sometimes our hearts are shaken. Sometimes our souls are swayed.  We never know how God will approach us, all we know is that God will speak to us in a way that we can understand as was promised last week on Pentecost Sunday. 

So don’t be confused by the triune God.  Just rest in the knowledge that God wants to be with you, God will do anything it takes to be with you.  

For me, especially following Pentecost, I lean into the Spirit.  Truly, I think it’s my innate way.  I have a nose for the spirit, the same way a dog can catch a whiff of chocolate from a block away. 

I feel – I don’t know how else to say it without sounding like a hippie – I feel the spirit when meeting some new people, when singing a song, when letting the sun drape across my face, when meditating, when reading.  I felt the holy spirit when I took my job, when I bought my house, when I signed up for Faith Leaders, when I spoke at Presbytery, when my grandmother was aging, when my mother was dying.    I don’t know what it is, but suddenly and irrevocably, I have been filled with a knowing and a sense of direction.  I feel the way to proceed; I know that I am being guided.  

My favorite story about the collaborating spirit of God happened about fifteen years ago.  I was trying to decide if I should attend the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop.  I had been selected but was not sure if the hefty price would be worth it.  I had never been to Gambier, never been to a writer’s workshop, never tested my writing skills in public and so, it was going to take a lot to convince me that I should go.  300 dollars a day was expensive back then, at least for me, so I had to take that into consideration too. 

Well, I asked my writing teacher in Lakewood if I should go and she said No way – that’s way too much money.  Go to Iowa Summer writing program.  It’s way cheaper.

I left thinking No, No Kenyon.  My mind was made up.  But as I was driving out of the Beck Center onto Detroit Road, the SUV in front of me had – no joke – a Kenyon sticker.  Purple, gold and white.  I had never seen one before and there it was staring me in the face, perfect eye-level.

I flipped to yes.  Yes Kenyon.  I was certain I should go.  Then I went to the Giant Eagle down the street and got one bag of groceries that somehow totaled 30 dollars and I thought, No way, I cannot go.  It’s just to extravagantly costly.   I do not have 1800 to waste on writing.  Writing is free for God’s sake!

But as I was backing out of my parking space, looking over my shoulder, I was reversing towards a big boat of a Buick that I was trying not to hit.  And once again – no, I am not kidding – that car had a Kenyon sticker on it.  I had never before seen a Kenyon sticker and in the span of fifteen minutes, I had seen two.

Then, like Peter, like Doubting Thomas, I actually said out loud, Okay God I’ll need one more sign.  One more sign from you.

The next day, I went to the old Booksellers on Chagrin to get the Kenyon Review, the College’s literary journal.  I stood in front of the journals section in the corner by the small café.  A clerk walked up and asked if she could help.  I explained that I wanted the Kenyon Review and she said that it was a quarterly and must have already sold out.  Why, she asked, did I need that journal?  I told her that I was thinking of going to a writer’s workshop there during the summer and I just needed to see the journal.  She said, Well, I’m a Kenyon alum – no joke – and I just received my alumni magazine and the only article I read last night was about the Writers Workshop and how great last summer’s classes were. 

I immediately went to my car and wrote out my deposit check.  Mailed it it the next day.  I know I don’t need to tell you this, but that time at Kenyon changed my life.  Who I was a woman.  As a writer.  As a risk-taker.   

I have no doubt that the spirit of something larger was pulling me toward my fate. 

That is the sacred juncture in one’s life.  Seeing the something bigger, trusting the something bigger.  Having a keen and grateful eye to that which is larger and more loving to us than we will ever know how to be.   

You can scoff.  You can dismiss it, but I call it the Holy Spirit.  I am willing to name it God.  And, I tell you, when that kind of mysterious force shows up in my life, I follow. 

You all know God as the creator, you all know God through Jesus, and you all know God from the sweet kiss of the spirit. This is the magnanimous gift of the trinity.  God in different forms so that, ultimately, we can do what God wants us to do most: Love the Lord God with all of our hearts, souls and minds. 

Would we want God to be one thing?
Would we know God, had God not come to us in human form?
Would our lives be as tuned to God without the whispers of the spirit?
Which part of the triune God could we possible eliminate?

None of them. 

So, hear God when God speaks to you.  Listen to Jesus when he teaches you.   Swallow the spirit when it swings by.  Welcome God no matter how – no matter when.  When God shows up, it’s the perfect time and God is the perfect God.

In the name of the father,
and the son,
and the holy spirit,
we give all thanks and praise.