Thursday, March 2, 2017

Ash Wednesday 2017

I must return to blogging during Lent.

It appears that this blog provides a time of reflection.

Last year, I was looking for renewal, a glimpse of God when I cleaned the church.
This year, I found myself back at Ktizo United Church of Christ. Only this time, I was rehearsing a script to read to people who might take advantage of our drive-through Ash Wednesday. Get Your Ash in Here was the invitation. I set up the card table covered in a gold dining table cloth, carried out the bowl of ashes from last year's Palm Sunday burned frond crosses mixed with olive oil, a stack of Ktizo brochures, some rocks with words like "peace," "joy," "love," written on them, and copies of the brief script to read when we marked black ash crosses on people's foreheads.

We are an urban church, which means we have a family of three who sometimes parks their white mini van in our parking lot. Dave, the dad, has joined our church. His wife Cheryl is just two years on the other side of chemotherapy that left her with neuropathy and an unsteady gait. Their 20-year-old son Jonathan can't find a job although he graduated from Cortez High School.  I can't remember why they are forced to live in their van and not in the apartment across the street that they once called home. They are not alcoholics, or addicts, or mentally ill. They simply found themselves with no jobs, cancer, disabilities that keep them from working and a car that they now call home.  Ktizo is one of their bases. Dave offers to help landscape, weed, carry out the trash and on this morning google "lent" to remind me what it means. He declines my offer to put the ash cross on his forehead. But Cheryl happily accepts. So does Jonathan. I dip my finger in the bowl of black ashes and oil and repeat that the crosses I'm marking on their foreheads are reminders that our lives are gifts and that Christ calls us to live as we were created to be: people of love, of justice, of peace and of forgiveness. I added "forgiveness."  And to go in peace.

Dave reluctantly comes forward at the end of my hour and I put the ash smudge on his forehead hoping he hears the words that he is a gift.

I am standing in the parking lot of a church on 35th Avenue in Phoenix, Az., where several homeless people come to charge their cell phones, use the bathroom, talk to Pastor Ted, sleep under the porch when it rains and stash their shopping carts of plastic bags, jugs of water, blankets and the other things they haul around to give them some protection against sun, rain, cold and hunger. Some of those people have joined our church.  Some will stop by the card table and hear these words and leave with this sign of God's love and the beginning of this Lenten season on their foreheads.

Later, as the sun sets and a slim crescent of moon appears, we enter the chapel of Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in north Scottsdale. Mack is singing as part of the children's choir performing in that church's Ash Wednesday service. This is a wealthy congregation. This campus is a far cry from the worn, disheveled building that houses Ktizo. Here there is an altar, pews, a pipe organ, a grand piano, a huge stained glass window. This isn't a card table in the middle of a parking lot.

The 45-minute service includes hymns, voices filling the chapel and two sopranos whose exquisite voices soar above the congregation in breathtaking beauty.  Children squirm, hungry and tired at the end of a day. And then they come forward and sing in their lovely, clear, sweet voices.  Once again, I find myself leaning forward to have the sign of the cross put on my forehead, the one from the morning long since worn off.  This is the third time in my 67 years that I have attended an Ash Wednesday service and the only time I've had two black smudges on my forehead in one day.

I can't believe the richness of the day. The beginning of 40 days that my friend Margot (margotruminates is the name of her blog) reminds all of us isn't as much about what you give up or discipline yourself to do as it is about seeking God and finding He's all around. In parking lots, mini vans, and chapels.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Lent: Cleaning

This is my week to clean the middle building of our church. We are an urban church -- Ktizo United Church of Christ -- with an awesome mission and a meagre budget.  It means that once a month, it's my turn to vacuum stained ruby red carpet, clean toilets, empty wastebaskets, wipe mirrors, dust and mop the tile floor. Then remember how to sit the alarm when I leave with two bags of trash, one of which I'll take home to my house for the recycle bin.

Ken has helped me at least two other times. He cleans the toilets. The sinks. The floor. The mirror.  When I clean alone, I give the restrooms a quick swipe. He labors. Scrubbing. Polishing. Taking such care with a room we all frequent but where we seldom choose to linger.

I don't come to this monthly task with a servant's heart.  But it is Lent, so I'm curious to see what might happen.  Since I am trying to notice the small things and savor them, I anticipate something will be revealed.

But I'm too consumed with my aching back to notice little gems of joy. I dwell on how I find myself adjusting my gait in anticipation of twinges of pain that can come at random. I am no longer free and fluid with my movements. I remember when I tackled moving towering cabinets, sofas, lifting heavy boxes with brazen confidence. I long for that abandon. Instead I am careful now. And noisy. I groan. And I complain shamelessly to a man whose debilitating back pain confines him to a motorized wheelchair or a scooter. He uses two canes and props himself up on shaky legs and tired arms when he scrubs sinks and toilets.

We finish cleaning. And I pause to admire our handiwork. The bathrooms sparkle. There is less lint on the carpet. I imagine people coming into the space and registering someone has come before them and made the space neat and tidy. Someone has cared. I think that's important.

I announce that I am too tired to go to the movie. Ken says the obvious: what's so taxing about sitting in a movie eating popcorn. I talk about the stress of finding a parking spot. Loading and unloading the scooter. Making our way to the ticket counter. Standing in line for the popcorn. It's too much. "I can understand why it's easy to gain weight when you hurt," I say. "Eating gratifies and it distracts." And then I tell him how gracious he is. That if it was me in his position, it would be awful. All I would do is complain. Ken never complains. He says, "No you wouldn't. I just sit the pain aside and don't think about it." He assumes I would do the same thing. I know he's wrong.

And that's my Lenten gift for the day. The Israelites couldn't hear Moses' reassurance straight from God that they would be free. That He hadn't forsaken them (See They (the Israelites) were broken, dispirited, tired. What enslaves me? What am I too dispirited, broken to hear, to be consoled and buoyed by?

Here's a prayer (see My prayer:

Here is a prayer by Ted Loder

O God,
let something essential happen to me,
someting more than interesting
or entertaining,
or thoughtful.

O God,
let something essential happen to me,
something awesome,
something real.
Speak to my condition, Lord,
and change me somewhere inside where it matters....
Let something happen in me
which is my real self.  God. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Lent begins

Lent began last night with nine women around my table drinking wine, sharing a meal and talking about The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty  by Vendela Vida. It was my Book Club. Actually, the splinter club of My Book Club.

One of us had ashes on her forehead. The other Catholics talked about their mothers' faith. Going to sleep holding their rosaries. Lots of talk about mothers and rosaries as if the clutching of a rosary was absurd and not endearing. Sixty-plus-year-old women still needing to note the absurdities of our mothers.  Maybe it was the wine.

I want to note the small, often unnoticed things of nature, relationships, moments that grace a day. My day. And write about them. And the one that comes to mind is my remembrance of the conversation last night about rosaries and mothers.  One of my friends there recently lost her husband.  He died from ALS. A harrowing year watching this once virile, life force of a human decline in lightening speed from a disease from which there is no cure only the sureness of death. I sensed our quiet as we heard the laughter as each person tried to top the other about her mother's grip on the prayer beads Catholic women hold in their hands.  I felt our shared sadness listening to this from a group of women who I admire, enjoy.

I imagined the sweet solace and comfort those older women, closer to death than we now assume ourselves, seeking from those familiar beads and the words long encrypted in their souls.

This Lenten season I too seek the comfort and reassurance of a ritual that connects me to God and thus to myself.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


There's another woman in our home and her name is Bertha.

Bertha is formidable and powerful. And despite her unfashionable name and appearance, she is a dominant force to whom my husband is quite attached.

She occupies much space, although she's fairly nimble and capable of great destruction.

I don't mind the space she occupies in my husband's affections but I resent the real estate she occupies in my home. Did I say she's huge?

I loathe Bertha.

Until this week.

Bertha is a six-wheeled motorized wheelchair, capable of doing 15 mph on a wide stretch of roadway. She's powerful, having bent the steel frame holding a sliding glass door when our grandson decided to take her for an unexpected ride down a hallway.  She's capable of mowing down children and beast with a single push of her sensitive toggle control. She has gouged the woodwork around this house illustrating her strength and recklessness when not properly managed.

Bertha arrived at our home over my protests a couple of years ago when Ken returned home following a lengthy hospital stay.  In the logic of Medicare, it made sense to order this $36,000 piece of equipment now rather than the inevitable later because Ken's ability to walk even with a walker had dramatically diminished. Physical therapists said his limitations would only increase given his condition and approval was certain now and incomprehensibly might not be as assured later. I worried that a motorized wheelchair would exacerbate the situation. Given the option of walking or riding, riding would win and Ken's muscles would deteriorate faster. Then there was the presence of this beast in our 1,700 square foot home. Sight unseen, I named her Bertha.

I like to think we've grown to accommodate each other, Bertha and I.  I snarl less. When she regularly sideswipes the Belgian Linen paint finish on our walls and takes a hunk of wood from the crisp white door frames, I paint over them without whimper or wail. We share a small kitchen less begrudgingly and an even smaller master closet by unspoken routine. First you, then me.

And I've watched, with no satisfaction, that I was right. Her presence has made him dependent. When once he parked her in the hallway and used canes to walk into our bedroom, he now drives Bertha to the bedside. (She ripped the Pottery Barn bedskirt within two weeks of its arrival.) But our grandchildren vie to sit on their PapaKen's lap to ride up and down the hallway.

When I arrived home the other night and found Bertha parked in the middle of our patio looking forlorn, my heart stuttered. She had inexplicably died. She and Ken had been outside gardening and Bertha had simply quit. A jump start hadn't brought her to life. She was too mammoth for either of us to be able to roll her inside. Storm clouds, although welcomed in the desert, were building and rain seemed imminent. I swathed her in plastic. And stood inside and hoped that the storm would pass.

I imagined life without her.  And for a minute I was inconsolable. Bertha made our life work.  I forgave her the bed skirt, the woodwork, the $500 repair bill for the bent frame, the square footage she consumes and the endless tire marks she leaves behind on our wood floors.

Like hearing the vet recommend costly treatment to keep your pet alive, I would have joyfully paid the price to restart Bertha with no hope of Medicare reimbursement.  But Clarkson said it would only cost $480.  We had dead batteries. (Bertha, of course, has two.) Batteries don't last longer than two to three years, he said. Bertha, always ambitious, had ones that lasted four.

God bless her.