Strength for Today, Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

Great is Thy Faithfulness

I planted bulbs today. It might be possible to plant bulbs and not wax philosophical, but I’ve never pulled off such a feat. There are few acts of faith quite like the planting of a bulb. Here, in the waning of the year, when the last brilliant burst of color paints our hills and views before the monochrome eternity of winter overtakes us, I knelt in the fading sun and dug into the mulch and compost I had laid down this summer. Even at the moment of digging, I was building on what I had already begun – the beds I had laid out, the depth of the soil loose over the hard rocks. And with the light slanting so strongly as to throw shadows at noon, I buried the bulbs and covered them – and it was as though they had never been there.

Purple and gold here

When my work was complete, the world LOOKED the same as it had before, or maybe even worse. A detritus of bulb-papers covered the ground, and the mulch and soil were irrevocably mixed. The casual observer might think nothing at all had changed. And so it will remain for the rest of the year, and well into the following. We will pass Halloween, and the election, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. We will walk into whatever 2021 holds for us, and work well into the year. And then there will be a day where the dirty snow has receded and the warmest part of the garden, where the sun falls first, will show the first sign of my labors with a small, green glimmer. What happens next varies greatly on the year. If we get a warm spell, then maybe the bulbs race towards maturity, exploding into color and brilliance. In a cold dark spring, they’ll linger long at every phase, inching towards blossoms that they’ll hold onto with extended awe. The patches of color will spread and change as the colder, darker parts of the garden finally bask in light and warmth. And my spring self will be grateful to my fall self for her foresight and altruistic gift to the future.

Planting

These are hard times for pretty much everyone. My family is going through big challenges, and we’re not alone in that. The world is in the wearying clutch of pandemic, shut off from each other. Conflict and tumult are the order of the day. Anger and fear have become the only emotions we feed, with every news story, tweet, and interaction telling us that we should be both afraid of what is happening, and angry that it has happened. There are few – and failing – sources of hope, of joy or even of fun. It can feel irresponsible and impossible in such dire times as these dark autumn days to be cheerful, optimistic, hopeful, joyful or even just content. Those emotions feel frail – difficult to create and easy to destroy. We are in a winter of our souls, with the emotional monochrome of that fear and anger. And it doesn’t seem possible that the frail sun will ever break through the clouds or be able to melt the implacable ice of division, or that we will ever again stand bare-armed in the sun among fragrant flowers.

But there are seasons in most things. Just because this is winter, it does not mean that winter is the only truth, or the only way we will ever experience life. I don’t know whether this is the beginning of a longer season (I have been thinking a lot of Gregory of Tours – for whom my son was named – who watched the curtain close on the civilization of Rome with a lonely dread), or if we are in March and the days are already lengthening. Or perhaps we’re in February, with much left to come but none of it worse than we’ve already lived through. But I do know that we are not fools to hold on to hope.

And so we plant bulbs, knowing that we will not see flowers for a long time. We plant bulbs, knowing we are mortal but not knowing what day our mortality awaits us. We improve the soil, which will be planted with seeds of some generation of flowers to come. We create loveliness, and do not squander the loveliness left to us by the loving anticipation of the past.

Do not despair friends. The things you fear may truly be real. But they have not yet come to pass. And there is still strength in you, to either prevent those things or endure them. In this season, we strive for enough strength for today to create that bright hope, which will bloom if not tomorrow – then soon.

The first colors of spring

Lockdown

How scared should I be?
How scared should I be?

My plan for today was to wear all Boston gear, for a Boston pride day. Red Sox shirt, Patriot’s sweatshirt, Red Sox jacket (probably not needed – it’s a nice day!). While I was getting dressed, I pulled up my work email just to make sure that I wasn’t going to be client-facing. Red Sox t-shirts are not generally considered business attire, but it seemed like a small way of expressing the indomitable spirit of the region.

Then I saw a note from our CEO asking us to stay home, “in light of the recent news”. I told my husband to check his work email, and texted some friends who have similar Boston commutes. All of us were instructed to stay home.

I waited until the kids were out the door (Vacation camp/YMCA are still on) and then turned on the radio.

Right now, the towns that both my husband and I work in are shut down, with no traffic on the streets. One of those “towns” happens to be the City of Boston, the other the City of Cambridge. I have friends, coworkers, people I talk to all the time… who are in the hard core lockdown zones – both the orange and the red.

That's a lot of people with locked doors
That’s a lot of people with locked doors

My town is a considerable way north, but those cities in red… those are also quiet Boston suburbs. Safe places.

It’s hard to know what to do, what to say. Should I go pick up my kids? Is it ok to go out for lunch? It’s such a lovely day – is it ok to play in a park? In a yard? Or are our lives really on hold until the suspect is caught? Just how freaked out is the right amount for someone three towns away to be? And I’m hearing sirens… should that change my threat rating? (And how is there a vehicle with sirens still in this town?!)

Answer unknown. I will update you folks, but until then, I am fine. We are fine. We will persevere.


Update: I did go out to lunch, to Five Guys. It was packed. Nearly everyone there was wearing some sort of Boston-themed gear: Red Sox shirts, BU sweaters, Patriot’s hats. No one there was even talking about the situation. #BostonStrong

Hospitality

When you, dear reader, think of Christian values, which ones do you think are at the top for importance? I’d forgive you if you said sexual purity — some days it seems like all you ever hear from Christians in the media is talk about sex and how it’s bad. But no. Jesus says hardly anything about sex.

Some of the values I see most when I read the New Testament are:
– Being loving to all, including yourself
– Not being a hypocrite (especially not a religious hypocrite – for an example, Matthew 23:13 “‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.”)
– Sharing what you have
– And today’s topic… hospitality.

As I understand it (and it should now be noted that I != Biblical scholar), hospitality was a critical virtue in the ancient world in which the Bible was written. There were few inns, and pretty much no restaurants, quickie-marts, C-stores, or even cars to take shelter in. The earlier you went, the rarer the inns were. So if you had to go anywhere, you relied on hospitality and that hospitality was a sacred rite and obligation.

For example, in Genesis 19:6-8, Lot welcomes two angels into his home: “Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’” Lot’s obligation as a host here trumps his obligation as a father and caretaker to his daughters (harsh, huh?).

Throughout the New Testament there are stories of hospitality. Jesus’ very first miracle (by tradition — this miracle is only recorded in John) was helping a groom out of a predicament when the wine ran short at his wedding – a failing of the expectations of hospitality. Jesus then goes on the ACCEPT the hospitality of the unacceptable. He sits down with and eats meals with sinners, prostitutes, soldiers, tax collectors (who were probably as popular as drug dealers are for us), turncoats and traitors. When the disciples go out to spread the good news, they are told to shake the dust off their feet from any town which does not offer them appropriate hospitality.

Hospitality is harder than it was, because we’ve lost the habit of it. We don’t invite the homeless to come eat dinner with us because they might be sociopathic kleptomaniacs who will sleep in our front lawns for the rest of our lives if they know where we live. Strangers to our land, the aliens who also populate the Bible, do not expect a welcome to our homes. Instead they book rooms in Motel 8 and buy food from the “Excellent Mart” we’ve never been to; and we glance away across the gulf of culture at each other on the rare instances our paths cross.

I think about this imperative to welcome and nurture when I set the table for company. We do sometimes feed others, although it is usually friends. I wish that I had more courage to be more outrageously hospitable, and welcome the too-talkative, the kind of weird, the left out, the unknown to share a meal with my husband and I, and our two screeching sons. I meet people in those few margins of intersection, and I wish it was ok for me to say, “You look cold. Would you like to come in and have some dinner? There’s plenty.” I’m afraid to. I’m afraid that they will be offended. What if they’re perfectly well off and see my offer as pity? I’m afraid of the disruption in my tightly slotted life. I’m highly cognizant that culture is constantly telling me to be more afraid than I am. I’m supposed to teach my four year old “stranger danger” and it’ll be all my fault if he’s abducted by a dangerous pedophile because I never taught him that people he doesn’t know are enemies until proven otherwise.

Still, I’m haunted by the hospitality I don’t offer. There was the man and his two children, trudging up the hill our house sits on too late at night. Where was he going? Did he have a place? He seemed so quiet, and they so subdued. Would he have welcomed some warmth in the darkness, or was he just going on an evening constitutional?

There was the other man with the Santa beard — his name is Hal — at the grocery store. He was there the entire time I was. I bought $175 worth of nutritious produce, milk, meat, cereals — a veritable bounty. He, after looking in the scratch-and-dent section and walking all through the store… he bought a jar of sauce. Was he lonely? Bored? Hungry? Broke? Did he have a place to go? I wish I had the courage to ask him to come home with me, and I would fix him up a nice dinner and we would talk and he could be filled with company and food.

Did you know that is simply not done? And as a woman and a mother, it is particular verboten for me to do it. Risking my self (and my sexual purity and property) is bad enough. Exposing my sons to such risk, and my husband to such inconvenience? Keep it to a smile and small-talk. Even that, I’m told, is risky and only marginally appropriate.

I’m afraid to even pray for the courage to offer hospitality, because what if that courage arrives? Never ask the Holy Spirit for gifts you will not accept.

I don’t know how to end this rather rambly essay on a snappy note. I will say this, however. If you tire of the tropes of Christianity, why not pay attention to a different virtue this holiday season? Instead of being sparkly pure and blameless, like I know you are, why don’t you try to be courageously hospitable? Risk a little in the cause of kindness. Whether that’s eye contact where you would usually look away, or asking the homeless person you see what their name is, or even inviting someone to share your meal with you, tell the tsking voices to be silent for a moment.

Hold on to what is good

During Lent, I am trying to not walk down the path of panic, negativity and despair. I know the path is there. I know what is going on in the world. But I see nothing to be gained by letting fear corrode my soul, by widening and making firm that dark road. Bad things will happen, or they won’t. Who by worrying can change what may or may not come?

Of course, there still needs to be planning. I think we’re all saving our extra nickels these days and carefully looking at our balance sheets. Do you lie in bed at night and think about how long you would be ok if you lost your job? I do. I make plans in my head for what I would do if it were a little bad, a lot bad, horrible. I stop at the “martial law and pillage” level because I don’t think there is a good plan against that one.

During the hard times, though, those who have enough and a little bit extra need to be sure that we throw our weight against the doors of last resort, to keep them closed against hunger, nakedness and bitter cold.

This morning I read an article talking about food banks. Actually, donations to food banks are up. But costs and needs are up higher. How horrible it would be to swallow pride (your only meal for the day) and go to a food bank, only to discover that there is nothing for you.

http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2009/03/16/turse/

There is a great sense of powerlessness and anxiety, rippling through our culture and our days. It is hard not to feel insignificant in the face of problems in the Trillions of dollars and the canker of uncertainty. We can’t fix the banking system. We don’t know how the world will look when this all shakes out. We don’t know if ours was an aberration of time, and things will never be that way again. Against that, however, we need to hold on to what we have and what we can do. We have love, friendship and fellowship. Spring is not aware that life is dismal, and will shortly be glorious as though it’s 2005 all over again. And while we can’t fix the banking system, many of us can give a donation of money, food or time to help our brethren eat.

Hold on to what is good. Encourage the faint-hearted. Help the weak. Be patient with them all. Rejoice without ceasing.