Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Friday, November 21, 2008

numbering days, lifting turkeys

So teach us to number our days, that we may present to you a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)

It's Friday, and I'm nearly to my day-off destination, a place I go sometimes to breathe fir, pray, and write. Sometimes good things happen there, like meeting God in very tangible ways as the beauty of the forest, or the silence, or the prayer pierces me and I know, with Julian of Norwich that all's well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

Encounter, though, doesn't need silence and fir to pierce our clueless armor and wake us up to the bigger picture. For example...

I pull into the Safeway parking lot, halfway to the writing cabin, because I have some banking to do and my bank lives in a grocery store rather than having it's own place to call home. Having finished my busywork, I place three apples in a basket and proceed to the checkout line. The shortest one still has a person with many items to be processed, so I sigh, and stand with my apples. As I approach the credit card 'swiping machine', a voice from behind says,

"Excuse me, could you hand me one of those?" A elegant, well dressed, woman of definitely old age points to one of those dividing bars, so vital to the prevention of any one of us ever buying something for another person. I place it on the conveyor belt, and for some reason, as she says thank you, our eyes meet. When they do, lots of things begin to happen in my soul.

I don't know if it's because my cousin died of a heart attack this week at 56, or because my wife is down at the funeral, caring for my own definitely old mom, or if it was the conversation this morning between my wife and I about other family members in California who are on the far end of aging. I don't know. But I begin to feel, in that moment, profoundly, the brevity of life, and the importance of living each day well.

I saw that she had those classic little oranges in her cart, the kind that come in a box and are easy to peel. "3.99" she said, her smiling even brighter; "cheapest price in town". I know. I've checked." I suddenly need a box, and so step behind her and do an impulse buy to help the sagging economy.

"I love these" I say, mindful that guests will be in our house soon and these will all be eaten.

"Turkey's cheap too" the checker says, hoping I'll keep buying.

Then my new elderly friend says, "they're too big. I can't lift them into the oven any longer." She can still drive, walk, shop, smile, tell jokes, check prices. But she can't lift a turkey into her oven. Is she having thanksgiving alone? Is there no strong grandson to lift the turkey? My curiosity grows, but I've paid and I walk away.

"My God; life is short" I say to myself as I walk to the car, pondering how strange it is that we squander our days, often allowing lust, or bitterness, or boredom to prevail, as if we own endless units of them, kind of a Bill Gates of chronology. But we don't. Soon we can't lift our turkey. By then, we'll have known great joys and laughter, great losses and sufferings; all of will. Trying to live in such a way that we are insulated from the latter is like trying to live on brownies and chips - we can't do it, so we may as well not even try.

More important than how much suffering or joy is the deeper question: Have we lived well? For we who follow Christ, that question is not about how many notches I've carved into some evangelistic salvation belt, for even the great Paul would tell us that this matters little. What does matter though is whether or not God has found some freedom to express His heart through us - so that generosity and justice, peace and celebration, forgiveness and mercy, are spilled into the world through us.

Such things will only happen, not by us trying hard to create 'spillable' moments, but by developing the right kinds of habits to slowly but inexorably become more like Jesus. As that happens, our walking, sleeping, eating, working, and yes, even checking out of our groceries, might testify of God's character in some small or large way. That is a life well lived.

Many who read this blog are far younger then me, so perhaps none of this resonates. But I'm increasingly mindful that I only have days: 'x' number of them. I pray that I'll use mine well, because someday, sooner than I'd like, my turkey will be too heavy.


At 21/11/08 16:38, Blogger Donte said...

Your thoughts resonate with all of us, young and old. I think about my family more than ever this time of year, and I was recently reminiscing about my grandfather, who died a couple of years ago at the age of 99. His longevity is worth noting, but even more impressive is how well those 99 years were lived. He too could not lift a turkey in his old age, but he lifted his pen every week to write a check to the church that he faithfully served for over six decades.
Gramps always had great stories to tell—the difficult choice to kill a pig that had become a pet in order to survive the great depression; heading west during the dust bowl ; rising to middle management as an aeronautical engineer; hunting and fishing trips to Canada.
He cared deeply about politics and social justice. I remember walking door to door around the neighborhood with him as he registered people to vote—and then helping him set up booths in his home so that those people would have a convenient place to cast their votes.
I don’t even dare to ask God for a life of his longevity, but I pray often that mine would be as meaningful as his.

At 21/11/08 18:34, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life is a gift I receive every day and determine its value by how I live.

At 23/11/08 10:20, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your are not alone in those thoughts- even I, who is Noah's age has become increasingly aware that there is no guarantee for a tomorrow, that every day is our new wineskin waiting to be filled with Christ's precious fruits.

I am recently married, at the age of twenty two. During the engagement, especially in the final stretch before the wedding, God kept reminding me of what you were writing. Maybe that a part of growing up (and hopefully maturing!), in the hopes that we cling tighter to God.

The youthful sense of invincibility meets the adulthood of reality limits and responsibility (which can be good) and perhaps a sense of self preservation can blind us to God's loving and open arms. Amid this transition from youth to adulthood, I feel this battle within me, but the more I give God room in my daily routine- in how I relate to others and in my spiritual disciplines, each day seems to gain more meaning. I can confront those moments of mortality not with helplessness but with a confidence of God's presence.


At 24/11/08 10:01, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Fantastic piece of writing, and thank you for sharing your experience.

I have given some extra thought to the idea of family, friends, and thanks over the past year.

Similar to many, I lost my mother 2 years ago at the age of 54. A close family friend passed last week at the age of 48. Not the mention the ones who lived a good long life, whos passings seem less tragic, but I miss them nonetheless.

What amazes me with the loss we had in our family, is how it has thrown off the family paradigm, to the point where no one is thankful for each other.

I always wondered how family rifts occurred over large and small things, but to now see myself in that exact situation is truly bizarre.

I am unsure how God view my decision to surround myself with people who are thankful at times of holidays, vs. thankless family, but I continue to do it, for the sake of my sanity, and example for my son.

As the inevibility of loss gets closer year by year, I wonder if I am only delaying suffering by not enduring tough family situations, by choosing the company of thankful strangers.

The potential guilt seems to be the only motivator that might force me to see the light, no matter how many stories of reflection I read.

I just hope I'm not alone in such feelings.

At 26/11/08 22:40, Anonymous Anonymous said...

forgive me for pointing this out but, while your story is beautifully written, i had caught on to a build-up of eventually inviting the woman to your home for thanksgiving. but instead, the protagonist, you, breaks & simply uses the woman for his own self-reflection. wouldn't part of this 'spilling' go further than words and reflections and 'spill' over into tangible action?

now i'm merely being devil's advocate here and i realize that logistically we can't 'do the right thing' all the time, if even often, but isn't that the point? inconvenience? i would have been really impressed, & taught a lesson, had that been where the story had gone. and yet i can't honestly say that even that would not have inspired me to go out & do the same myself, as i am one of those who logistically REALLY can't, & would probably actually sometimes need to be on the receiving end herself.

but it would have inspired me to do so in future, 'when i grow up', when i am able. it would have broken my disillusionment with long-winded christians who love to write & preach in separation, and leave the dirty work for someone else (often non-christians who talk less and do more.) it would have proven to me that do-gooders still exist and that being one is tangibly something to aspire to.

and pastor, i am not faulting you personally. your blog & approach, though fresher than most, is a part of the bigger trend of christians living in the periphery, while pretending to do something important. the worst part is they stop there, because they think it's enough, when really it's nothing at all for those who really need them. but this is a tangent, so i'll stop.

it isn't fair to pick on you to make a greater christian social commentary, or maybe because you are the pastor of such a large, mostly 'fine' congregation in such a large US city, it is. lead by serving?

and i know there are charities out there, and i know there are fund-raising drives and christmas pageants, books and CDs and lots of holy 'loving-on'... but there's not a whole lot of old-fashioned roll-up your sleeves church dinners for those that need them, (simple christmas pageants featuring underprivileged minority kids with things like fetal-alcohol syndrome), invitations to fading elderly over Thanksgiving; general good-samaritanism.

what could be better for breaking the status quo? yet it seems no one is able or willing to do anything without a title and an expense account. and before this really turns into a rant, i would like to tell you that i'm not sure who to address this to, but maybe just putting it here is a start.

i hope someone somewhere did invite a lonely stranger over for Thanksgiving, and will do so over Christmas too. i hope there are people that do it on a weekly, or God bless them - daily - basis. (i know there's one little church who does do a weekly sunday dinner, & a makeshift yearly christmas pageant too.) i hope inconvenience or taboo or fear or disillusionment don't inhibit God's 'christian soldiers' from moving onward in authentic 'spillage' in their daily lives (as they have in mine) - and authentic as defined in the dictionary, not its overused, impossible, catch-phrased, surface counterpart. i hope God brings one or more of these people into my own life, to listen to and support a truly deep piece of me, and to share a truly deep piece of them; and care about more than 'being in the club' and playing the part, or are blissfully ignorant of either. which hasn't happened so far.

that is my prayer for Thanksgiving, for america, and for the world.

thanks for reading pastor, hope you've had, & are having, a blessed thanksgiving.

At 27/11/08 09:42, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

fair enough anonymous - the only contextual defense for my lack of hospitality was that I was 60 miles from my home - perhaps not the best place to find a stranger to invite in.

But your larger point is legitimate as I hear it: an exhortation for we who use words to also live them. I struggle, to be honest, in sharing my own victories in this realm (few though they might be) because it sounds like boasting. But perhaps the main consideration is simply listening to your exhortation, receiving it with humility, and looking more closely for opportunities. Thanks for the good word.

At 27/11/08 20:37, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for receiving my 'word' gracefully. you're excused for being far from home. ;) but yes, my point was larger, and maybe not so much to chastise you & other pastors, but to encourage congregations to be humane, above all else, instead of just warming pews or being busy with distracting activities just for the sake of business. (what is the point of being christian otherwise?) but i suppose they do take their cues from you, and so i suppose it does come back to leading by example. the old adages still holding true.

i would like to hear your victories, not as boasting, but as a living example. bill mahr said that he didn't want his president to be someone he could have a beer with, he wanted his president to be better than that, to be someone more capable than himself. i suppose the same applies, moreso, in the church. not holier than thou, but christians have been working so hard to be unholier than thou, they're tripping over themselves to be unexceptional. what kind of inspiration is that?

so yes, it is you, the leaders who can spark the change, if only for the lack of a better idea, or general human passivity (or great power = great responsibility.) but there also needs to be discernment among those already doing, that they not just be doing anything for the sake of doing, 'in the name of the Lord', but that their work may be truly fruitful - somehow truly blessing the life of another.

christians, from the Bible as i read it, ought to be the MOST loving, the most joyful, the most peaceful, the most patient, the most kind, the most good, the most faithful, the most gentle and the most self-controlled. and we're not. and i'm not sure we're even trying to be.

part of my sorrow, comes from having known fantastic people who humbly served the needy, opened their generous home, and blessed many lives, setting an exemplary example. when tragedy struck, they received little support from the congregation, and that was the beginning of my disillusionment. since then we've drifted apart, and i haven't met anyone even remotely as kind or as genuine or as generous. and yet everyone claims to be christian. but if they're not even remotely striving for a piece of this blessing of others - what the heck for?

there is so much suffering in this world, and so much excess at the same time. we all long for something, and we all have something someone else longs for. if only we could even that out, help each other, we would all be that much better off. it is the responsibility of those with blessings, to bless. not just you, but you as the example to your congregation who is as well.

as i write this i am watching CNN's night for heroes, and magic johnson just said that a hero is someone unselfish, who works for the betterment of all society. by that definition, shouldn't all christians be heroes? great power and great responsibility.

this was much too long & verging on preachy. thank you again, Godspeed.


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