You’ll have to take my word

Last night, I had another of my listening gatherings.  Seven down, 2 or 3 more to go. People have been generous with their stories, with their time, with their willingness to start considering new possibilities for how we move into the future.  But it had been a long day. A parishioner with nothing and nobody to call her own died unexpectedly and we are scrambling to do right by her. One of the guilds had their monthly meeting and had asked me to be the presenter. I’m finishing up all the plans and preparations for Advent and Christmas, both the ones at home and the ones here at church.  And my self is catching up, still, with the emotional roller coaster of the weekend with our far-away girl.

By the time I was done with my workday, it was 8 pm and one who is scattered even on good days, I walked out without my cell phone.  I was far enough down the road when I figured that out to decide not to turn back for it, especially since it was raining cats and dogs and getting colder by the moment. I prayed for safe passage to L’boro and kept going.

For the most part, in the less than 12 hours I was phone-less, I felt liberated. When I started up my car, the thermometer said it was 31 degrees out and it sure did have that feel/smell of just-about-to snow-time. I’d heard the worst of the wet front that came through was clearing out last night so I convinced myself I was mistaken and headed out the driveway, to our street and then to Broad Street/Hwy 29.

It was when I got to Lowndesboro that I realized I’d read the weather right. It had been snowing enough that there was a very visible dusting/gathering of snow on the limbs of the trees all the way down Broad Street. I passed one tree where there were a couple of cardinals sitting on a branch. That vivid red, the insistent white of the snow that demanded to be seen, and the mossy darkness of an evergreen in winter it was all gorgeous.

Finally, I missed having my phone. If I had had it, I would have taken a picture to share. So you’ll just have to take my word. But mark the date.  On November 15 of 2018, at 7:13 in the morning, we had snow in Lowndesboro, AL. Not enough to make a whit of difference, but enough to feast the eyes on. And feel that tiny little hop and dip of anticipation in the belly because Christmas coming. It  will be a complicated and fraught time for the Mallowman and me; it always is. And sad for sure, without our girl with us to celebrate with. Nonetheless. There are moments like the one this morning when I want to stop time long enough to truly, deeply, experience the gratitude that comes as I draw one breath, and then another.

Y’all: it snowed!

My daughter

IMG_6186

I don’t write much about my girl any longer. It’s too hard and sad.  Luli has struggled with her behavior since April, when her visit with us went so wrong.  It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t viscious cycle.  When either of us visits her, we are with her for only a few hours, most of the time is spent traveling to ATL, then to Fort Lauderdale and back. And her behavior goes haywire when we leave. After the most recent round of issues, her behavior support team got on the phone with us yesterday.  We had a conversation that helped me put another small piece of the puzzle together.

The very first psychiatrist we ever worked with described Maria as having organic brain damage. He was the one who pushed Sherod and me to look at the situation with our precious child in terms of triage and to recognize that her little self had been so deeply broken through her infancy and before we were able to adopt her, that we had to be careful not to let our own lives be consumed by the dark and bitter realities of so much brokenness.

Those words, which I’d tried to forget, were with me when, some 10 years later, the amazing people who had gathered around our little family to help us care for Luz Maria, met us for breakfast one morning in the spring of 2012. These were people with the skills and heart we had needed to put pieces in place after we went through a rapid-fire series of placements in the adolescent psych units in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, when Maria was 13. Now, at 15, Maria was out of control again and we were going under with the stress and chaos of having a young person who had become dangerous to herself and us.  A bed was opening up in an intermediate care facility (ICF) and 6 weeks after our breakfast, on May 16, when Maria turned 16, she’d be eligible for placement there.  The two women who were having breakfast with us looked at us and said, “it is time to let go of her.  This is a place where Maria can live for the rest of her life where she will be safe and loved.”

Maria is now 22. For an 8-month stint when Sherod and I moved back to Alabama, she lived at an ICF in Tallahassee but the level of neglect we observed there was so serious we moved her back to BARC.  On and off during these past 4 years, Maria has been in good enough shape to come and visit with us. Most of those visits were glorious and then the last one was worse than a nightmare because there was no waking up from the amount of self injury and aggression she engaged in.  Since then, it’s been pretty much a roller coaster for her back in the ICF in Fort Lauderdale.

The new piece of the puzzle we’ve been given comes from the work that has been done on the impact of trauma on infants and very young children. If the trauma is severe enough and lasts long enough, a very young child’s emotional development simply stops. Dr. Hughes, that first psychiatrist, told us she had organic brain damage. It was the parts of her brain that gives rise to emotions and the regulation of her behavior that were so injured by the traumatic experiences of her infancy. We kept trusting that the plasticity of the human brain worked in our favor. There was nothing we weren’t willing to learn or do or try to help her overcome everything that went wrong for her from the moment she came into the world.  Somehow, that’s what it meant to say, “Love wins.”

For more reasons than I can enumerate, Sherod and I have never doubted that we took the most financially responsible step we could when he retired, which was to move to Alabama. We made that move trusting that with Maria in Tallahassee, we were a 3 ½ hour drive away and could do what we needed to do to take care of her.

And we hoped. Oh my God, we hoped to the core of our being, that there might come a time when she would be able to live and function in a less restrictive environment than an ICF, so she could maybe, possibly, move to Alabama.  This state systematically dismantled the safety net for people with Maria’s needs years ago, so only a significant improvement in her ability to manage her behavior would ever allow us to be near her.  Yesterday, I faced the reality that I need to let go of that hope now. I know how to do that—I’ve done it before and any loss of hope for a specific change, a specific outcome, in no way diminishes the love I have for my daughter. It simply frees me to deal with what is and keep learning how to love her in new ways.

Tonight, I got a call from the nurse on duty at BARC. Maria was running a high temperature so they’d taken her to the doctor who had then said she needed to go to the ER because she has a serious infection and the doctor couldn’t figure out the locus of that infection.  Maria has now been admitted.  She has a staff member of BARC with her and is waiting in the ER for a room to be ready for her.  As soon as she is in her room, the staff member will leave.  Tomorrow, another staff member will be back at the hospital in the morning.

If I stay very still and I work on my breathing, I get through the minutes. But I think of my woman-child, who is a 3 year old living in the body of a 22-year old, lying alone in the dark, in a hospital, and my heart fractures again, and fear seeps through the cracks.  I try to remind myself that my daughter is one of the privileged in this country; she could so easily be incarcerated in a for-profit jail instead, as so many men and women with mental health issues are in Florida. In Alabama. In so many parts of this country.  And I pray.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who
sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen. BCP

End times

I have been very conscious of ‘end times’ and endings today.  Regardless of the outcome of today’s elections, they always represent as much an ending as a beginning.  Dear Lord, how I pray there is some end in sight to the fear and despair that has caught us in what feels like a death grip.

As I pulled into the parking lot at Holy Comforter this morning, the wind was whipping around, tearing leaf after leaf after leaf from the trees around me.They couldn’t even settle down to rest in peace, the wind blew too strong and stirred them up repeatedly. The air was burdened with humidity as the rain waited as long as it could to fall. Before my very eyes, autumn ushered out the growing season; soon, another liturgical year, and a month after that, yet another calendar year will end. I used to be so scared of endings. Now, I am more convinced than ever that endings make room for something new I had not even imagined possible.  May the endings we have ahead be beginnings like God plans for us, if we are to believe Jeremiah, plans for our welfare and not for harm, to give us a future with hope.

Welcome home

IMG_1038-002

Many years ago now—before the turn of the century, imagine that!—I found my way back into the Episcopal Church after a long period of anger and alienation. The place that opened its doors and said, “welcome home” was All Saints Church in Fort Lauderdale.

My husband was first hired as the Associate Rector there, after I had accepted a promotion with FedEx that required me to move to Southeast Florida. Within months after his hiring, the person who was rector was deposed (suspended from ministry) and renounced his orders after charges of significant clergy misconduct were brought against him. Sherod was named interim rector and ultimately, the Bishop of Southeast Florida, Cal Schofield, made an exception and allowed him to remain as the rector.

I have learned about the ways in which a whole system, a whole family, a whole congregation, plays a part in its health or sickness. The rector at All Saints was the person who most visibly failed, but there was a deeply entrenched  culture of silence and secrets. So many knew something was not right and said nothing. It took such brave lay people to finally stand up and say, “no more.” One of the promises Sherod made to himself and to All Saints when he was made rector was that he would do what he could to open space for truth and honesty.

One of the truths that had to be faced and embraced was the number of LGBTQ people who came to church at All Saints. Everyone was welcome—but that part of the family could not be open about who they were. It was a classic “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of place. Over about 3 years, there was conversation. There was some education and formation. There were some very ugly confrontations as well, and good people who loved their church decided to leave. Those losses were real and they left us diminished; for the remainder of our time at All Saints, there were people Sherod and I continued to miss.

Coming out to ourselves was very, very hard.

But those of us who stayed and worked, worshipped, loved, sometimes fought, and almost always laughed, were invited deeper into God’s generous and extravagant life. Matthew Shepherd was brutally killed right in the middle of that time; the way he was killed was so violent it left us wordless. A few years later, Gene Robinson was elected Bishop of New Hampshire. An openly gay man was elected to the vestry at All Saints. So were lesbian women. One served with me as the lay leader of our youth programs at All Saints; I remember Katie and I talking about bullying with our youth as we sat around a table and talked about the challenges of being a teenager. She was an amazing youth leader. We continued to be church.

In 2012, after the Episcopal Church approved the blessing of same gender marriages, nine couples who were members at All Saints, gay and lesbian, who had been married in other parts of the country, because Florida did not allow same gender marriage, gathered with Sherod and planned a shared service of blessing of their marriages. Between them, they had over 240 years of committed relationship. One of the youngest had an absolutely delicious little son. We all were concerned for one of the couples who had been together the longest. One of them had dementia and we all held our breath, praying R would be able to be cognitively present that day. He was. All Saints has a balcony and as they processed out at the end of the service, several people threw rose petals on them from the balcony.

One of the loveliest moments of those years occurred when Bishop Robinson came to visit at All Saints. He was with us over a weekend, preached, broke bread with us, brought a gentle spirit with him that graced us all.

On this day when, thank God, no lives were lost despite the fact that 13 bombs were mailed out, the starkness of fear, turned to anger, turned to hate, turned to violence, weighs heavy. Today is also the day that Matthew Shepard’s remains were laid to rest at the National Cathedral. I watched most of the service on YouTube. Bp Robinson is retired now, and as he processed in, carrying Matthew, he was older, more stooped than when I met him. I imagined how incredibly bittersweet that moment must have been for him. The violence of Matthew’s death surely haunts and grieves Bp Robinson to the core, even 20 years after Matthew was killed. The honor of being the person bringing Matthew’s remains home must have been piercingly beautiful for Bp Robinson.

To me, some of the scariest ‘cinematographic’ moments are ones when someone is out on ice and it starts cracking more and more quickly, giving out from under the person and plunging her or him into water so cold it can kill in minutes. Sometimes these days, it feels like in this time and this place, we are standing on ice cracking and giving out beneath us. Today was like that for me. And then I remembered today was the interment of Matthew’s ashes. I watched how, in the chancel of the National Cathedral, an old man who wept frequently during his homily, who was dwarfed by the space he occupied, and who got a long standing ovation as he finished preaching, reminded us all that we are called to anamnesis. A remembering that makes events of the past ours, and challenges us to remember in order to be transformed. A remembering that loves and works for twenty years to find a place safe enough, and loving enough, to receive the ashes of a young man who others were so scared of, they killed him.  It was my church, the Episcopal Church that finally said to Matthew, “Welcome home,”  as it had to me all those years ago.

A new season

44162537_542977276150399_3047567334198738944_o

Blessing of the Animals at Holy Comforter, October 7, 2018. Photo by Harrison Black

It seemed like autumn would never reach Alabama, and as always, it’s happened in fits and starts, with small harbingers I’ve had to be vigilant to notice.  The red spider lilies have just about run their course for the year, their long, fragile, awkward stems topped with a small burst of fire that waves with the wind of each car that zooms past on Old Selma Road.  Very close behind the lilies came the peak bloom season for the wild black-eyed susans. Maybe because we had good rain all through the summer, not too much, not too little, they too were resplendent, flames of deep yellow beauty.  I fought the impulse to stop and pick a bunch to put in a vase at home. I wondered if I should run home for my camera. Instead, I pulled my car off to the side of the road one afternoon, after the sun had begun to set, and allowed my eyes to feast on their glory.

Last Friday evening, Sherod and I were driving to a gathering in downtown Lowndesboro, when a doe came out from one side of Hwy 29/Broad Street and started across the road at a pace so sedate we both worried that someone else, coming down the road fast,  would have run into her.  Sherod coaxed her on all the way across, saying “Oh little doe, hurry, hurry, that’s how you get killed,” She’d already made it to the brush alongside the road when all of a sudden, a small, white spotted fawn darted across the road too, following mama.  It  happened so fast. Those creatures were exquisite.

For me, the new season as priest-in-charge at Holy Comforter, has also begun.  On the first Sunday, I looked out at the congregation and thought my heart would burst. So many faces filled with expectation. In the past, there was an almost complete break with what had gone before, when I started a new assignment.  Last Sunday, a few people from Ascension came to my first service at Holy Comforter.  I can feel the tears start to sting behind my eyes when I think about that. People I love and respect walked with me to a new place, not to cling, or deny endings and beginnings, but to remind me that a thin gold thread of grace weaves all my beginnings and endings together, into a whole that I call my life, and is more filled with love than I could ever earn or deserve.

And then, so much to think about, so much to do.  I have gained a lot of experience and knowledge through 35 years of work and ‘adulting’.  What I’ve realized in these past 2 weeks is how much of that I held in check for the past three years because I needed to honor the boundaries of my role as associate rector.  That actually took more energy than I knew.   I am so happy, dusting off old practices; there’s “muscle memory,” like riding a bike, about how I serve in a broader leadership capacity. The knowledge just falls back into place, piece by piece, as I go through my days at the church.  I already love my new parish—the red doors and the somewhat creaky, but resonant, bell we ring for services each Sunday.  I have been the recipient of so many big and small gestures of generosity and kindness.  The work is hard and the challenges significant for all Episcopal churches, especially the ones, like Holy Comforter, that must learn how our identity is ‘re-formed’ when the neighborhood around us has changed dramatically.  Holy Comforter and I must learn again and anew, what it means to be people of the cross and resurrection.  

It is a good, and right, and joyful thing to be starting in this new ministry as fall begins, when the leaves fall off the trees and it seems like there is nothing left but grey, cold, lifeless limbs, lifted up to the heavens in silent plea.  I think we too must allow ourselves to be stripped of false pretenses, our ever-so easy answers and the ability to distract and be distracted.  I have learned that it is in this kind of time that I am able to see more clearly that which is most essential, most true, about my life and my faith.

Evolution

IMG_8519

Take I

IMG_0885

Take II

IMG_4988.jpg

Take III

I figured out, this is my 6th church office. There are some pieces that have been with me all along. A whole lot of them are gifts, each with a story I get to remember, as I find their new places in the new office. There are so many stories of goodness. This time around, there is a very strong sense of the ways in which all those stories have shaped my understanding of myself as a person who happens to be an ordained Episcopal priest. I have stopped presuming I know how any one of my calls fits in the larger scheme of things–the path has taken so many unpredicted turns.  Now, I see more clearly how all the stories, the successes, the failures, maybe especially, the things I didn’t know I didn’t know, have prepared me to say this yes with more trust in God’s generosity than I’ve ever had before.  Out of the chaos of moving, there is a new creation slowly emerging and good work already underway. AMDG

Nada te turbe

The work is finally done. There was nothing easy about the Rite of Burial we celebrated on Saturday morning for Vera Jane. I will always remember how small that little casket was in such a big soaring space at Church of the Ascension, how tenderly she was carried in.  I also carry the awe that hundreds of people gathered not just around her but her family, to walk with them through this valley of the shadow of death.  The light shines, and darkness has not overcome it.  

Going from that service, to the service and party for my leave-taking from Ascension just 24 hours later, was a little disorienting. I am glad I was then able to load up my car, put Tux in her car seat, and drive away to spend a couple of days by myself at a friend’s lake home. All we had, Tux and I, was the water, the breeze whispering through the oak trees, and, very occasionally, the honk of geese flying overhead.  Another friend had said I needed some days of weeping and prayer—what I realized was I needed those days as days of weeping, for sure. They were also days of prayer, because I had just surrendered myself into a future not of my own making (and I do so like to believe it is mine to shape). Above all, they were days of thanksgiving.  I’ve already started writing my thank you notes, but the gratitude I leave Ascension with goes far deeper than a thank you note could convey. It is the kind of thankfulness that only means something if you give it forward.  

As I slowly skeine these days of sabbath, preparing for the time ahead, they bring with them half-formed ideas, new bits and pieces of possibility that will be there for me to unwrap bit by bit as I make Holy Comforter my new faith community and home. I stop to acknowledge them and then trust I will be able to explore them more fully in due time. These days are about trying my best to be simply present to this moment, this now.  When I was ordained a deacon, one of the pieces we sang during communion that evening was the Taize setting to Santa Teresa de la Cruz’s beautiful prayer: nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you, whoever has God, lacks nothing, only God is enough. 

I love this prayer for many reasons, including because I get to pray it in my first language.  It is when I pray in Spanish that I seem to be most able to simply unclench my hands, hold them open, in quiet and trust. While Sherod watches the Bama game on Saturday, I will go into my new office to start putting my books and tchotchkes in their new places. I will take the prayer with me. I’m glad for a few hours of work that, like my days at the lake, will be carried out in silence and simplicity.  Because then, when Monday finally arrives, and I hold my first staff meeting at 9:00 am, it’s time to lean, ‘all in’.