Monday, December 10, 2012

Following the Star, Dec. 10

Despite much effort to focus my inner musings on memories of Christmas culinary, nativity scenes gifted to me over the years, an amazing rendition of A Christmas Carol I saw yesterday, or the art and craft of Christmas cards (and holiday letters of which I stand firmly in the fan of category), I find I cannot stop thinking about aluminum Christmas trees.

People of a certain age know exactly what I am talking about.
And students of psychology will understand that it takes children a long time to realize that the reality in their home of origin isn't necessarily the way things are everywhere.
From my earliest years, this is the Christmas tree I grew up with.

I truly didn't know there was any other.

I sometimes saw others out in the world, but they were big outdoor trees. It made sense that they were different from our brilliant, shiny indoor tree.

It's there in all the early pictures.

This is not a complaint or a lament.
More than anything, it is a confession.
As a young child, I really did not know there was any other kind of household Christmas tree.

As I grew a bit older, it became my job to construct the tree each year.
And I loved it.
The "trunk" was made of two solid cylinders of real wood with notches cut to insert the branches at just the right angle. Individual brown paper tube contained each branch.
They made a satisfying whooosh sound each time I freed a branch from 11 months of hibernation.
Sometime over the Thanksgiving weekend, I set the tree up and it remained a space-age testament to the Christmas season until Jan. 1, when I would take it apart and carefully reinsert each branch into its housing while I watched the New Year's Day parades on TV.

Early in my second decade of life, we switched from the artificial aluminum tree to an artificial plastic evergreen. I don't recall for certain when or why. However, I think it may have coincided with a move to a new house. That, and the fact that the tree was almost 10 years old.

Perhaps it was also see as passe -- so '60s, but I never remember a personal sense of stigma about the old tree, though a few of the pom-pom ends had begun to droop from the branches.

I don't recall a stigma, but I also don't much recall missing the tree.
Like so many great things from the sixties -- like Apollo missions and the Beatles -- the aluminum tree did not live long into the seventies.

My brother and I have spent much of the past year helping to clear out the storage closets and boxes from our mother's home. We have found many surprising remnants of our childhood. But we did not find the aluminum tree.

It lives on in memory and faded photos and nostalgia for a time when my only responsibility at Christmas was seeing that the Christmas tree went up in time to celebrate the season.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Following the Star, Dec. 7

My great-grandmother kept a consistent, yet simple journal for much of her adult life.
One line a day, on the pages of a notebook.
She recorded the rhythms of daily life, one line at a time.
I have paged through the journals that remain.
I have looked at ordinary days and extraordinary days.
Almost every Monday, the one-line entry was reduced to one word: Washed.
Tuesdays: Ironed.
Some days, she simply wrote: Usual work.
She recorded visits from neighbors and income from selling eggs or meals. She noted sewing project and the weather. And frequently an entry ended with: Fished some.
She had a passion for moving pictures, noting by name each one she saw on occasional trips into town.
Years have passed since I paged through those life lines.
It strikes me now that it could be a comforting gift to page through her lifetime of Decembers.
Christmas was present in her life, yet simple, spare.
The only December entry that I recall is for this date, Dec. 7, 1941.
That date that year, she wrote three lines.
She was shocked.
She worried for the world.
And she realized, seemingly as she wrote the lines, that her son, who had completed his service in the Navy, would be called back up, would be sent into war.
Mamie and Grandad Hanna had four children: Jewel, Elizabeth, Willard, and Rebecca.
When I arrived on the timeline, they were called by the names a generation of nieces and nephews before me had conjured: Jujer, Aunt Bea, Uncle Brother and Auntie.
Uncle Brother survived the war and lived to see many more Decembers.
Yet when I read the pages of Mamie's journal, I still feel the advent of the maternal awakening of concern she had that day not only for her own son but for all the children of the world.
Mamie and I shared less than a decade of Decembers. Though I have many rich memories of her, I don't recall many Christmases.
Mamie had a tradition at Christmastime of making popcorn balls.
Some late afternoon, probably a Sunday, when I was very young, likely a toddler, we were saying our goodbyes after a visit to her home. Someone must have asked her when she was going to get started on her popcorn balls -- probably someone eager for the annual treat. I asked what they were and someone tried to explain, but I didn't understand because I didn't understand the basic ingredient.
What's popcorn?
My great-grandmother halted our exit.
She took me into her kitchen, put a pan on her stove and popped corn for me.
From my toddler's eye view, that first test kernel flew from the pot across the room like a shooting star.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Following the Star, Dec. 3 & 4

Advent calendars have been on my mind and in my memories these early December days.

It has been my tradition for four Decembers now to buy Fair Trade chocolate Advent calendars and give them out at children's time on the first Sunday in Advent. Children receive them, youth receive them, grandparents take them to their grandchildren, and this year I found the few children in the audience at Sunday's Sacra/Profana concert and handed to them as a gift of hospitality.

In my own home, the recent tradition has been the Lego advent calendar. Each day, you open a window and build a small Lego figure. We opted for the Star Wars theme this year. I don't think there's a Christmas tree to be found in the set, but there is a snowman version of R2D2.

As a kid, I had an advent calendar that hung from a dowel with a miniature candy cane each day. After the first year, I think my mother thought better of that idea and it was back to the paper windows with pictures behind them.

There's a beautifully complex children's book about an advent calendar with a story within a story within a story. The pictures come to life each day and a little girl journeys to Bethlehem with the characters. I read it each day the December my son was nursing as an infant. He has not been able to sit still for a reading since, though.

My favorite Advent calendar is one my parents bought for Ryan that very first December. Each pocket has a cloth character from the nativity that we add a day at a time to a manager scene above. It has been out every year since, though, for several years, the baby was missing. I found him peeking from a quilt keeper earlier this year and returned him to the set.

It's past time to go hang the calendar and follow the star.

Advent calendars are like that.

Sometimes a window goes unopened for a day or more.

That just makes the catch-up days more fun, whether the windows reveal chocolate or Legos or the Light of the World.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Following the Star, Dec. 2

This morning, Christmas carols flooded my memories.
As I prepared for worship and anticipated hearing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel to open the Advent season, I kept hearing other carols and remembering when I first heard them.
Partly because my first decade or so of life was not steeped in the Christian Tradition, my exposure to Christmas carols was secular. The richness of that experience is that, for many carols,  I recall when I first heard them, when my heart or soul was first touched by their beauty.
This morning, that is where I imagined this day's reflection on Christmas memories would take me.
I thought of God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman and how I first heard it around a grand piano in the home of a Girl Scout leader as we practiced before caroling. Even at the age of nine, I was taken in by the  hope held within the melancholy melody.
I thought, too, of Little Drummer Boy and how I had never heard of it until age 10, when our Unitarian-Universalist fellowship decided to put on a Christmas worship -- which was radical for that fellowship at the time.
Tonight, however, I added two new carols to my experience of firsts. And they eclipsed the old memories.
I heard a beautiful advent carol called High O'er the Lonely Hills, with words by Jan Struther. And, I heard a stirring arrangement of the Appalachian carol Beautiful Star of Bethlehem by composer Shawn Kirchner.
These carols were among the many gifts that came in a free Community Concert offered to Mission Hills UMC by Sacra/Profana, an amazing professional chorale group that rehearses in our sanctuary.
And now I have new carols from Christmas present to flood my future memories.
Rejoice, rejoice.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Following the Star, Dec. 1

December is filled with memories and joys.
Each year I relive so very many.
Sometimes they rush past and I simply smile...

Found on Etsy at The Bluebonnet Cottage
Like the memory that fleets past almost every year of a December when I was four and an artist friend of my mom's from the Fort Worth Art Center (now The Modern) brought me the gift of an apron filled with crayons. An art apron! I almost wish I had one now. I could wear it like a gunslinger's holster and draw a crayon from it anytime I felt a coloring break would help add needed perspective.

Other memories linger, and I find myself indulging them, sometimes in comforting day dreams.

It seems too early in December to linger long in one of my favorites, the sight of sanctuaries filled with hands holding candles lifted high and the light in the darkness that is so central to my grown-up Christmas Eves. These memories rush together, a light growing brighter as the years converge. My memories bring these lights from many perspectives -- the view from the pew, the view from the pulpit, even the view from the volunteer preparing the candles to light the way for each Christmas Eve pilgrim.

As I sojourn toward Bethlehem this December, I welcome the memories.

As my Advent practice, I choose to pause and engage them.

December often has difficult memories, as well. I know I am not alone in sifting among joys and sorrows. It is seven years since I spent a December fortnight in hope that surgery would heal my father's heart and in ultimate sorrow and despair that it did not.

Seven is such a sacred number that it seems a good year to release those memories. I will engage them as they come, but I plan to pause this December on the crayon aprons and the Year of the Hamster and the matching pj sets my grandmother always gave my brother and me on Christmas Eve and the plastic toy tradition and Mom's Chex mix and watches for homeless teens and the ornaments on the tree and amaryllis growing before my eyes and homemade cinnamon rolls and the light,
the light overcoming the darkness.

Christmas Eve image by Randal Newton, used with permission.
Crayon Apron found on Etsy at The Bluebonnet Cottage


Friday, July 27, 2012

Exit Prosperity Ave.

Exit Prosperity Ave.

The invitation came via billboard:
Exit Prosperity Ave.
I smiled a knowing smile
And kept traveling.

My destination lay
Beyond the Road to Prosperity;
The Road to Riches was a detour
On my path to paradise.

Resisting temptation to the very end,
My father never took the exit: Fate 1 Mile.
I find it easy now to bypass Prosperity
For the path to peace.
 -- Karen Clark Ristine

 This poem references an iconic poem by my father, Tony Clark, titled Fate 1 Mile

Friday, February 19, 2010

Three Reasons to Stay in Ministry

One of my Lenten practices this year is to be able to find, in each day, something that points to the joy of ministry, particularly ministry in the local church.

One of my frustrations in the local church ever since I started working in one five years ago was my immediate discovery that you could speak the truth in the newsroom and newspaper far more freely than you can speak the truth in the church. This is a challenge for me for multivalent reasons.

So, rather than live into or out of those frustrations, I have chosen this Lent to find in each day something that brings joy or meaning in local church ministry.

On Ash Wednesday, the list was enormous.

Here are three:

The woman who told me after our small, intimate evening Ash Wednesday service how meaningful it was and how she felt she had found her home in our church.

A longtime journalism friend who is grilling me with questions on the Bible and belief each Wednesday in our new Bible study, adding a new dimension not just to our friendship but to my ministry.

A conversation of hope in the future with our music director as we prepared for worship. He then beautifully played Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah as his piano prelude, knowingly bringing a piece of exquisite beauty, unknowingly bringing my father into the moment as well.

I still long for a day when speaking truths in church and church meetings is as free as free speech. Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech were meant to walk hand in hand. And the gospel message is intended to set all people free.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Theology after Gutenberg

I remember a day, years ago now, when I paused on deadline in the newsroom to give thanks for Google.

As an editor at a major metro daily newspaper, I had spent the earlier years of my career relying on an amazing array of reference books to research and confirm information in the stories I was responsible to edit -- phone books, cross-directories, almanacs, the AP Stylebook, Webster's New World Dictionary, the newspaper's own electronic clip library.

With Google, I could check many more references, including almost any primary source associated with the subjects of the stories. In later years, the whole world would open up through satellite map images, complex and interactive election result databases, even online dictionaries.

I paused on deadline that day, almost a decade ago, and gave thanks, but it would be many more years before I actually accepted "Googled" as a verb.

Google transformed my work as an editor, and I knew it. I had no clue, though, how Google and other emerging communications media would Google up the journalism world.

I left the newsroom in 2005, and the transformation of this new media world in just that time has been phenomenal.

I left the newsroom to attend seminary, and I see amazing parallels between journalism and theology. Many of them beautiful parallels about the connections people make through sharing meaningful stories.

I also see the need for both journalism and theology to move beyond Gutenberg. The printing press transformed journalism and theology.
Google has done it again.

Imagine the many ways we can continue to share our stories and theology.

I plan to attend "Theology after Google"at Claremont School of Theology on March 10-12 to help spark my own imaginings. Come join the discussion.

While I'm excited to attend and learn, I'm also excited to be leading an "on-ramp" workshop with my friend James Kang to help anyone interested in theology but not so well versed in new media understand the transformation from Gutenberg to Google and beyond.

Here's a bit more info:

Theology After Gutenberg
Fascinated by Theology after Google but not up-to-speed on new media? This on-ramp workshop travels through time and communications culture to quickly introduce basic concepts that will be useful for the rest of the conference and essential to imagining the future. James Kang is lead pastor of the Greenhouse District faith community in Pomona, Calif., and an MDiv. student at Claremont School of Theology. Karen Clark Ristine, a newspaper reporter and editor for more than 20 years, left journalism right before it got Googled up to attend seminary and is now pastor of a century-old neighborhood church in San Diego, Calif., who believes that, sometimes, Facebook is holy.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

December 15

Today is December 15.
The day four years ago that my father died.
A day that always reminds me that it's time to put up the Christmas tree.

It's really December 14 that is hard for me.
A day of recalling great hope and great hope dashed.
The day my father was released from cardiac ICU, just waiting for a room to open.
The day I said goodbye as I left to return home after a week in Texas.
It was a beautiful farewell, and it is a gift that neither of us knew that it was goodbye forever -- at least on this mortal coil.
There was a winter thunderstorm in Houston that day and the sky out the hospital windows was dark accept where lightning accented the clouds. I headed for the airport, at my mother's insistence, since Dad was cleared for release from ICU.

And then the phone calls began.
First the call to let my mother know that I had been able to catch a standby flight home. But she didn't answer. Much of the hospital was without cell service. Maybe she just couldn't hear her phone.
And then the call with my brother when I was changing planes in Dallas, telling me that he couldn't reach Mom or get the hospital to confirm that Dad was still in ICU. And another call trying to reach Mom.
Then the call from my brother when I had landed in San Diego, telling me that something had changed and they were keeping Dad in ICU.
And then the call just a bit later from my brother telling me that the doctor, the most renowned cardiac surgeon in Texas, had been called back to the hospital to care for Dad. It was now past midnight in Texas.
And then my call to the hospital asking that they send a chaplain wherever my mother was.
And then the call when I finally reached my mother, and she told me that the doctor was with her and had just told her that Dad had died. It was just past midnight in California.
There were other calls that night. The call where Mom asked my brother, who was heading from Austin back to Houston, to pull over so she could tell him our father had died. The call to me when Mom was safely in my brother's care. A call with my brother's wife the next morning confirming that my brother and mother had arrived safely.

December 14th is not the longest night of the year, but it was by far one of the longest nights of my life. And I always think of Dec. 14 as the day my father died, though the real date is today's, Dec. 15.

Four years ago, I awoke in San Diego after that long day of transition from hope to despair, from life to death. I awoke on Dec. 15, the day my father died, in that state of disbelief and false hope in those pre-conscious moments that maybe it had not happened at all.

I awoke to great grief and yet great hope. Great pain and yet great love.

Grief transforms profoundly. Those are the best words I have to describe the journey of these four years.

That first Dec. 15, in an unimaginable act of hope, we put up our Christmas tree. Dear friends had asked what I might need, and I said that there had not been time to decorate the house for Christmas and I wanted to decorate before we all headed back to Texas for Dad's funeral. Dear, dear friends and colleagues from church brought dinner and baked Christmas cookies and helped us light and decorate our tree. It was a hopeful act that brought blessing upon blessing. It wasn't until a year later that I realized we had decorated the tree on the same day that Dad had died. He would love that story.

When Mom visited at Thanksgiving this year, she brought me an ornament that I had given my Dad years ago. It is a pewter image of a great blue heron, a bird of special meaning to Dad, invoking many things, including his grandmother who loved the great blue herons, too.

It is December 15, and there has not been time to decorate the house for Christmas this year. Today seems like a perfect day to get a tree and bring a little Divine Light into my house and my heart in honor and memory of Dad.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Four years ago tonight...

Four years ago tonight, I left my desk in the newsroom for the last time.
My metaphor for editing was always that of the plate spinner.
I'm just barely old enough to remember having seen them on the Ed Sullivan show when i was single digits.
I always mark this anniversary with gratitude, but this year it seems bittersweet for numerous reasons, starting with the layoff of dear friends twice this year.

My journey these past four years has been remarkable.
And I marvel that it could really only be four years since I started seminary, and now I pastor a church.
I have lived so much life in these four years that I could not have imagined that night.

As a former-journalist, I can't help but wonder what the five-year anniversary story will be. Perhaps I should go start working on it...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dreaming Dad's Poetry

I woke from a dream this morning,
a vivid dream, of Dad,
Dad reciting poetry.

At first it seemed
the poetry
was not his own.

Yet, by the end it was clear
He knew this poem by heart
because it was his own.

In the dream, I heard all the words,
listening intently
for the message beyond the words.

I woke to breeze blowing in the window
a calming and comforting breeze
and, when I realized I had dreamed of Dad

Not only of Dad
but of Dad's voice,
Dad's poetry, Dad's presence.

I replayed the dream,
and I remembered everything,
everything except the words.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Celebrating the sacred

As I traveled around the labyrinth at First United Methodist Church in San Diego on June 30, as my parting devotion of my appointment there as a local pastor, what came into my mindfulness were multitudes of times when I had been in prayer with people.

It was such an appropriate reflection for all my time there as a parent of a toddler in the preschool, as a member, as a student pastor and then as an appointed local pastor. Prayer centers me and prayer centers my ministry. To be flooded with memories of prayer was prayerful unto itself.

As I exited the labyrinth, I began to reflect on the New (appointment) Year. Last year, I actually committed some New (appointment) Year's resolutions to writing. So I began to reflect on what resolutions I might have for this VERY New Year. What came to me as an overwhelming awareness was my desire to celebrate the sacred wherever it appears.

As if on cue, the sacred hopped into my garage on July 1, New (appointment) Year's Day, in the form of a Horned Toad. I haven't held a horned frog in my hand since I was 10. I still hold an image in clear memory of catching and admiring one along the driveway of my grandmother's house in Jacksboro, Texas. I had never seen one outside of Texas. And this little baby came hopping up my drive and into my garage. Ryan saw it first and was amazed. It was as if a baby dragon had hopped into our awareness. I was delighted by his delight. And I knew as I held this horned toad and marveled at it some (ahem) 40 years later that this, THIS, was the sacred I had vowed to celebrate. It was one of those moments of connection with the Divine, one of those awarenesses of the transient and not-entirely-stable nature of time that connects me to all I have been and helps me imagine all I will be. It was as if the family totem had come to life to offer me blessing. I felt my tenuous Native American roots come alive with this gift of presence.

And so, I celebrated. I celebrated the sacred.

Last year, my list of New (appointment) Year's resolutions read like a litany of literary desire, hopeful appreciation, and trust in the Spirit:

1) Read more poetry.
1a) Write more poetry.
2) See more theatre.
2a) Research cheap ways to see theatre in San Diego.
3) Thank promptly.
3a) Live in an attitude of gratitude.
4) Keep it clean -- the desk, the coffee mug, maybe even the language
5) Delight daily in something.
6) Renew my resolve to follow the leadings and guidings, nudgings and shoves of the Spirit.
7) Hold on to hope.

This year, my singular resolution is more centering prayer than litany:
Celebrate the sacred.

And my hope will be that those celebrations sometimes include poetry, sometimes theatre, sometimes delight and always Spirit presence and great gratitude.

I am grateful for the Horned Toad
That traveled across time and memory
To bless the beginnings of this ministry year
To bless the future from the past
And to remind me that wonders never cease.

Thanks be to God!