Lent 2018

My sister messaged me yesterday, “…about Tuga… has he returned to your pocket, or was he so last year?”

Tuga, the little brown bunny who stayed in my pocket for Lent 2017 as a reminder of the sorrow in the world, is not so last year. He’s so in Bosnia.

I have other Tugas. Three sets, as a matter of fact, of Tuga and Aleluja, sitting on my shelf. One set is promised to someone. The other two are at-the-ready, for when I meet someone who needs a mindfulness token of sorrow and joy.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, has had new meaning for me since 2014. That year, early in the morning of Ash Wednesday, my sister called with the news that my oldest brother had unexpectedly passed away after a heart attack.

Yesterday I read through some of the posts I had written in the subsequent days. Most are private now — as in, you can’t read them; I took them down because they were too personal — but the Ash Wednesday one is public.

When I’m telling someone about Stewart, I almost always refer to him as brilliant. Hamilton College undergrad — their first Russian Studies major. Yale Divinity School for his M. Div. and then Syracuse Law for his J.D. He had a home computer before that was a thing — like in 1983. He had set it up to run tessellations — which, of course, has nothing to do with Russian or Divinity or Law.

In the last few years of Stewart’s life I had been frustrated with him.  He had been nearly job-less, doing pulpit supply and seemingly little else. Every month my father sent him money to pay his rent.

In the meantime, I was running myself ragged, driving back and forth between Greene and Cooperstown, trying to help my father take care of my mother.

“Why can’t Stewart move in with Mom and Dad?” I griped to my sister. “He could be of real help to them and Dad wouldn’t have to keep sending him money.”

It irked me.

It seemed unfair.

But when Stewart died, and I met the many people whose lives had been touched by Stewart’s, I realized that I only knew part of the story. Stewart lived in a low-income area. He drove neighbors to doctor’s appointments and listened to their lives. His congregation gathered every evening in the apartment complex’s gazebo.

“That’s where Stewart sat,” one lady told us, pointing to a bench at one of the picnic tables. “He was always here for us.”

He had a church, unrecognized by anyone, because it was so informal, yet so personal. It didn’t pay the bills. It paid in intangibles.

I couldn’t see it — I don’t think anyone could — until he was gone, and we slowly unknotted the knot that was his life.

In his book, Great Lent, my Lenten reading for this year, Alexander Schmemann said,

If God loves every man it is because He alone knows the priceless and absolutely unique treasure, the “soul” or “person” He gave every man. There is no “impersonal” love because love is the wonderful discovery of the “person” in “man,” of the personal and unique in the common and general. It is the discovery of the unique in each man of that which is “lovable” in him, of that which is from God.

I looked around my room this morning for something to carry in my pocket for Lent. Tuga had been a good companion last year, but I wanted something to remind me of the hidden person, the God in each person I meet.

I settled on a Monkey’s Fist that had been sitting on my dresser. It probably belongs to one of my children — but it’s mine for this season. A knot, the heart of which is hidden from me.

Wikipedia says, “Monkey’s fists are commonly used as a convenient and unobtrusive method of storing and transporting precious gemstones.” What can be more precious than God?

God wears a costume of human flesh. He’s in the guy at the gas station, and the friend that encourages me.

But He’s also hiding somewhere in the woman who irritates me, and the man sitting on the couch in the other room, rifling through papers again and again.

I’m going to be on the lookout for Him.

The Journey of Tuga and Aleluja — part one

Part One of what I tried to say in church:

This past Lent I carried a little brown rabbit in my pocket every day.

I named him Tuga, the Bosnian word for sorrow. His purpose was to remind me of the season, of the pain in this world, even when we can’t see it because it is hidden in a person’s heart — or in a pocket.

Tuga had come to me as part of a set. The other rabbit, a white one, I named Aleluja, a word we aren’t supposed to say during Lent. I hid Aleluja on Ash Wednesday, planning to bring him out again on Easter Sunday.

So Tuga was my companion for 40 days.

I carried him with me on my walks.

He was with me when I cooked, when I did laundry, when I read.

He went with me to swim meets, staying in my pocket while I officiated from the bulk head or along the deck.

Often I would reach down to pat my pocket and feel the hard corners of his ears, reminding myself that he was there — and why he was there. Or I would put my hand in my pocket and turn him over and over, like a fidget toy.

You see, in 2014, in the early hours of the morning on Ash Wednesday, my oldest brother, Stewart, died of a heart attack.  I went through the Lenten season that year feeling numb. Everywhere I went, I saw people talking and laughing, but I felt like my heart had, at least temporarily, turned to stone.

Stewart

For me, the anniversary of Stewart’s death isn’t a specific date. It’s Ash Wednesday.

Tuga, in 2017, reminded me of that Lent.

In fact, I had hidden Aleluja behind a picture of Stewart. Life hidden behind death. Sorrow in the midst of life.

When I was packing to go to Bosnia some months later, trying to choose only the barest of essentials because I needed to fit two weeks worth of stuff into one backpack, at the last minute, I grabbed Tuga and Aleluja off the shelf in my bedroom where they had been since Easter Sunday.

While some people worried that it would be risky to travel there, I wasn’t afraid. I was going to a place that had been scarred by war. Tuga would remind that the people I would meet bore scars — but those scars may be hidden in their hearts.

(Tune in for part two tomorrow.)

Discomfort

While still in my pajamas yesterday morning, I carried the laundry downstairs, holding Tuga in my hand.  His rigid little ears poked into my fingers and palm. I tried to shift him to a better spot but it was impossible to carry the basket and the bunny without a little discomfort.

“Could you just not?” I asked him, but he didn’t answer.

The lesson was easy to see. Sorrow is uncomfortable.

In today’s society, we are fairly averse to discomfort. We desire to be always at ease.

Have a headache? Take some ibuprofen.

Are you cold? Grab a blanket or a sweater, or turn up the heat.

Too hot? That’s why God invented A/C.

Plastic rabbit ears poking your hand? Put the silly thing down. It’s a dumb exercise anyway.

C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, said,

Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We ‘have all we want’ is a terribly saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God in an interruption.

Tuga is an interruption. He interrupts my day to remind me that there are people in pain all around me, if I would only open my eyes to them. Maybe this discomfort of my own will remind me.

I set Tuga on top of the dryer while I threw the clothes in the washer. An hour later I remembered him. See how I am?img_1312

Tuga is a mindfulness prop.

I know people who carry special coins in their pocket and I’ve given my own children fidget-toys to carry, but Tuga isn’t just for fiddling with when I’m bored. He’s there to remind me of the sorrow in this world, the sorrow people carry unseen in their hearts, the sorrow I carry in my own heart.

I’d say he’s doing a good job.

Lessons from Tuga

“I suppose I should take a picture of you,” I said to Tuga, pulling him out of my pocket yesterday while I walked around town.

He said nothing, which felt almost like a dare. I dare you to take pictures of a plastic rabbit. Won’t you look foolish!

Ah, but I knew better. I was on the last leg of my walk, going down the path. Nobody walks on the path, especially after it rains because of the mud and it had just rained. I doubted anyone would see me photographing my plastic bunny.

I set him in a dry patch of grass.
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He laid his ears back and didn’t look happy.

Oh, wait, his ears are always back.

He’s not supposed to be happy.

“Tuga,” I said, “you’re supposed to teach me something this Lent.”

I was hoping for a little more cooperation.

“How about you look out at the river?” I said, moving him a little and stepping back. I was thinking of the scene from Watershed Down where the rabbits must escape across the river.

But the blue sky with its big puffy clouds reflected so beautifully in the water that I took another step back to include it. Tuga, my little sorrowing bunny, all but got lost in the shot.

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It struck me — isn’t that the way it is with sorrow? In the bigness and busy-ness of life, the sorrowing one can get lost.

I picked him up and tucked him in pocket, knowing I would have to ponder that a little more.

When I reached the stone bridge, I set Tuga on a parapet.img_1301

He looked rather lost in there, too. So small.

That’s when I saw the man on the stone bridge talking on his cell phone. We briefly made eye contact before I grabbed Tuga and stuffed him in my pocket again, hurrying on down the path.

Once again, I was struck by the picture of sorrow. How often do sorrowing people stuff their emotions away because they’re embarrassed or self-conscious?

If nothing else, Tuga is teaching me an awareness for the sorrowful. In my own busyness, I may pass them by, or, in their self-consciousness, they may hide their feelings.

Lord, make me more aware!

 

Tuga and Aleluja

A few months ago I made an impulse buy at Target — two plastic rabbits. I set them on my bookshelf to remind me of my “rabbit” friends — an affectionate term for the people I know through The Rabbit Room and Hutchmoot (tickets go on sale today, by the way).

A fellow blogger, Manee, posted pictures of her flamingo in February, calling it Flamingo February. I found myself looking forward to Fancy the Flamingo’s adventures — splashes of pink in an otherwise drab month.

I also started looking around for something I could use to follow suit, and caught sight of the rabbits. I hesitated, though, because March marks the start of Lent, and that’s not a time for silliness. Lippity-lippity Lent sounds goofy — even though I love Beatrix Potter’s descriptive words for a rabbit’s slow hop, and I really want to slow down even more during Lent.

This morning I brought the rabbits downstairs with me for my quiet time. I set them on top of my Lenten devotional. They stared at me, unblinking.img_1269

“How can you help me with Lent?” I asked them.

 

My devotional is a study of Isaiah. The theme verse is Isaiah 43:1

… I have called you by your name; you are mine.

It reminded me of a theme that ran through Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga — the importance of names.

img_1273I decided to name my rabbits Tuga and Aleluja. Tuga is the dark-colored rabbit, and Aleluja is the white one.

Tuga is Croatian for sorrow. I’m going to carry Tuga with me throughout Lent.

Aleluja means, as you probably guessed, Alleluia.

I hid Aleluja away this morning, burying him as it were.

On Easter morning, he’ll emerge again.

This morning I went for a short walk with Tuga in my pocket. I patted my pants, making sure he was there. I could feel the hardness of his plastic ears poking against the denim.

He will be my companion for the next 40 days. I imagine he’ll show up here a time or two.

Today, especially, he’ll share my sorrow as I remember Stewart’s passing.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

The Last Hallelujah

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.

Three years ago, Ash Wednesday began with an early phone call from my sister telling me that my brother had died unexpectedly. It brought a whole new depth to “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Now the two events are forever linked in my mind — Ash Wednesday and Stewart’s death. Somber and sad.

This morning I was looking for a Collect for Shrove Tuesday and stumbled across a website where I would like to spend more time:  Liturgy  It’s the work of Bosco Peters, an Anglican priest in New Zealand. On his Shrove Tuesday page, he said,

This is the last day of the “Alleluias” until Easter. This day may even involve the burying of the Alleluia.

I loved the idea of making today a day of Hallelujahs, the last day of Hallelujahs before Easter.

I looked out the window and saw a little chickadee hopping around on a tree and imagined it chirruping Hallelujah. I could hear the stream in the basement (not a good thing, but a sign of spring) and saw the clear blue sky with puffy white clouds. Before I knew it, I was writing a little Hallelujah poem.

My day will be filled with Hallelujahs. Will you join me?


The chickadee hops from twig, branch, to limb
Chick-chick-a-dee hallelujah
The gurgle of water as snow melts to spring
Burble-splish-splosh hallelujah

10X sugar piles on robin’s egg sky
Azurean cerulean hallelujah
Mud-luscious earth, spikes of green occupy
Plant-sprouting-spring-shouting hallelujah

Brisk breeze brushes cheek in a chilly embrace
Shiver and shudder hallelujah
Remembering the quickening, tender touches of grace
Life, light, and love — hallelujah

Tomorrow hallelujah dies from our lips
We walk with both Jesus and Judas
Today we rejoice, putting darkness aside —
Come sing! Come shout! Hallelujah!trees

Ash Wednesday

It was an ominous way to begin Lent.

An early morning phone call let me know that my oldest brother, Stewart, had passed away from a heart attack.

And I stood in the kitchen, and I stared at the wall
And I prayed for some wisdom, so I could make a little sense of it all.
And I thought about the seasons, and how quickly they pass
Now there’s little to do but hope that the good ones will last…

Andrew Peterson, “Three Days Before Autumn”

I stood in the kitchen this morning, but I didn’t stare at the wall. I left the lights off and stood at the window, waiting for the sunrise.

Some sunrises are so spectacular with bursts of color lighting my horizon. I could have written, then, about how God spoke to me in the richness of the dawn, in the vast of array of pinks and golds and purples and oranges.

But He gave me an unassuming dawn, black to deep blue to gray. Gray. Non-descript.

I felt dull, like the sunrise.

My eyes filled with tears and I can’t even tell you why.

Stewart called me for my birthday, but I wasn’t home. He said he would call back, but he never did.

I had thought about it. I should call him, I thought, but I never picked up the phone.

And it’s easy enough to say, “He’s better off,
Chalk it up to the luck of the draw,
Life is tough, it was his time to go,
That’s all.”
Well, I don’t know about that…

Andrew Peterson, “Three Days Before Autumn”

Life is so short.  Just yesterday, I had been looking at Isaiah 40 —

The grass withers,
the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows on it.
Surely the people are grass.

I had thought about the Tenebrae services a woman at Laity Lodge had described to me, with candles being extinguished one by one until the church was in total darkness. I had been thinking about the breath of the Lord, withering the grass, blowing out the candles, one by one.

Our world is dark and sad.

I suppose that’s an appropriate place to start Lent, in the darkness and sadness of a broken world. Surely the people are grass. Surely Stewart is grass. Surely I am grass.

The grass withers,
the flower fades,
but the word of our Lord will stand forever.

I suppose that’s an appropriate place to start Lent, too.

Beyond this grassy withered world, there is eternity. And it is filled with hope.

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