Five years later

It’s been five years since we moved away from Fort Lauderdale. I’m here for a few days to help a dear friend who is recovering from knee replacement surgery. I’ve also been able to see my sweet girl and it is heaven to hug her. Just. Heaven.

Five years later what is different, what is not?

  • My wonderful buddy, Duke, is much grayer around the muzzle.
  • And playing catch it’s him is as joyful, silly and fun as ever. Dammit Duke, you still have my heart.
  • I forgot about iguanas. They’re everywhere.
  • The sidewalk I used for my nightly rambles when I lived here is being resurfaced. I still miss the walks you can take in a city.
  • I stopped counting cranes and new buildings. Way, way many.
  • There are more cars. A lot more. The traffic is hideous.
  • There are a lot of Maseratis.
  • And now, there are people asking for money almost at every light it seems, and so many homeless folks wandering up and down US1.

Still as contradictory and complicated as ever. But then, so is Alabama. Just in a different way.

To listen to God’s word

About 6 weeks ago, I received a summons to jury duty at the circuit court in Lowndes County. It was the second time I had gotten such a summons and I found myself reacting the way I did when I got the first one: I got a big lump in my throat and I started tearing up. I am still moved beyond words by the privilege and responsibility of being part of the vast tapestry of people that the Constitution of this country, and the rule of law, have knit into one.  

I first started hoping I’d be able to come to America as a young girl. I loved my country of origin and still do. It’s funny, how you figure out you love something deeply. I had lived far longer in the US when my mom died than I had in Colombia. Yet the morning after her death, what I wanted more than anything was to be able to sit and look up at the gorgeous Andean mountain range that watched over my family as we were growing up outside of the city of Cali.  As much as I loved my country, neither I nor anyone else could escape the fact that for 3 generations, Colombia had been torn by sectarian violence that fairly regularly broke into de facto civil war.  My family was part of the merchant class of Colombia, privileged enough not to deal with the daily realities of the violence but close enough to it to ask ourselves when the shoe would drop.  

It wasn’t until I had been gone for almost 10 years, on the night before my graduation from seminary, that the worst actually happened.  Late in the night, I was woken up when my younger brother called to tell me that my two cousins, the cousins I grew up with, the cousins who were almost brothers had gone up into the rainforest in the mountains on a foolish camping trip. Alex was 19, Mario Andrés was 21. They and the friend they’d gone out with, were attacked by a group of people from the ELN, the Army of National Liberation guerrilla group. They were pursued all night and by the time dawn broke, Alex and Mario Andrés, and the friend that was with them, were too exhausted to go on. When the guerrilla group caught up with them, they showed no mercy in the way they killed my two cousins. They let the third young man live and told him, go back to Cali and tell those rich people to stay out of our lands. After a two year cease fire, we are watching Colombia once again slip back into the sectarian violence and it is wrenching.

Even back then, as that young girl trying to find her way here, no matter how much I wanted it to be possible, there was only hope and no certainty. I figured out the best path for me involved getting highly educated in this country so I would have a skill of value that would allow me to apply to become a permanent resident, and perhaps one day, a citizen. In those days, the government agency that handled immigration was INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). When I got my letter of acceptance to RMWC, my parents helped me start the process to get a student visa.

At each and every step of the way, the process was intended to be as intimidating and discouraging as possible.  Every time I left the US as a student, I had to have a form called an I-94 that allowed me to board a plane coming to the USA. But it was the immigration officer at the airport in Miami that had absolute and total discretion in deciding whether or not I could come back into the country. At any time, they could have refused entry, revoked my visa and sent me home on the next plane.  An officer could even have said I was forbidden from ever returning to the USA and I would have had no right of appeal.  

As things worked out, I was at Vanderbilt working on my PhD when Sherod and I began to date seriously and then got married.  I got to our interview in Atlanta to get my green card, and started shaking; Sherod couldn’t understand why.  But when the interview as over, it was he shaking, though shaking not with fear like me but in anger.  A highly decorated helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam, in that interview he had been treated as if he was a lowly criminal trying to pull a fast one on his nation. 

My final step of immigration came on December 1, 1994, in the federal courthouse in Memphis, TN. Along with about 95 other people representing 83 nationalities, I stood, raised my right hand and said, “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America…” Would that I hadn’t had to renounce my loyalty to Colombia, the land that birthed and raised me. And how extraordinarily blessed and proud I felt to have become an American.

Through all my time here, I have always, always, found parts of what was happening in our nation that I was fiercely proud of, and policies, decisions and actions that I vehemently and energetically opposed—it’s cut across both political parties.

That began to change a couple of years ago. Probably, it was only immigrants like I who became aware that policies were being changed to make it a lot easier to strip people of their citizenship. I started measuring my words a little more carefully. I now carry the kind of uneasiness that was part of daily living in Colombia—watching us tear and be torn apart into us’s and them’s. I have heard Mexican people called filthy, criminals, the lowest of the low, and how they “aren’t even human, they are animals.” Each time things like that have been said about Mexicans, the name I have heard is Luz María, the face I have seen is the face of my Mexican-born daughter, who is the light of my life, the source of the greatest joy in my life. On Wednesday night, something finally got pushed too hard in me when I heard thousands of people chanting, “send her back, send her back, send her back” and chanting it with real glee. I am filled with fear, I am filled with sorrow and anger, but above all I am convicted as a person of faith and a priest, because those voices, and all voices of hate and fear make it so hard to hear the more quiet voice, to hear the harder words that God speaks to us.

Between now and the beginning of Advent, the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures will all come from the great prophets from on old. Amos is considered the first of the great prophets, who spoke out in a time of relative peace both in the southern Kingdom under King Uzziah and King Jereboam, in the northern kingdom of Israel. After describing the injustices he sees, after building up a sense of impending catastrophe, Amos recounts that God says, “The time is surely coming, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” 

I have not experienced a God who punishes me, or anybody, for our brokenness, for our failures, for our sins and for our hardness of heart.  But I have experienced what it is like when we stop paying attention to, and trying to live by Gods words of mercy, of justice, of peace. Fear and hate tear and pull down and demean and destroy. Would that those who have died at the hands of violence, including Alex, and Mario Andrés, could raise a plea for life but their voices have been silenced.

 Donald Gowan, a person far more articulate than I am has asked a question that goes to the heart of the challenge I believe we face as a people of faith: “If we ignore the word God has set before us, what more can God do for us?” You and I, the Church of the Holy Comforter, are a speck, a little bit of nothing, against the vastness of the cosmos, the complexity of our shared humanity, the brokenness that is in every single one of God’s children. But that does not mean we cannot do anything.  We, just ordinary folks living ordinary lives, can and must listen carefully for God’s word. 

I have a challenge for us this week: whether you listen to MSNBC, Fox or anything in between, during the news hour either in the morning or the evening, turn off your TV, get your smart phone out and go for a walk, doesn’t matter how long. Go for a walk, looking for God.  Wherever you think you might have gotten even a brief glimpse of that God who created, redeemed and continues to want so desperately to sustain us, wherever you think you see something of that God of love, take a picture.  You don’t have to be a professional photographer—you just have to go looking with an eye of faith. Next Sunday, I’d love to hear how it went.  As we find our way through the prophets, we will continue to explore ways of responding to God’s Living Word.

But above all, amidst all the harshness, the stridency, the anger, and despair that colors so many of the voices around us, listen. Listen for the still small voice that nonetheless thunders and says,

“I am your God.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Proclaim the kingdom of God.

Choose me.”

Feasting after Pentecost

Peaches, tomatoes, blueberries and blackberries picked this morning

I have spent a good part of my morning tending to issues and needs related to the buildings and grounds of my parish. It has never stopped amazing me, how many different things a parish priest needs to know about. This week I am learning about alternatives to repair stained glass windows, how to do a cost benefit analysis for replacing wood trim with Hardie Boards as an alternative to a more traditional project to repair of the wood that has rotted. Yesterday, I found out how you provide emergency assistance with rent when person is in a weekly-stay motel (don’t try to go the credit card route—they require front and back copies of your driver’s license and your credit card, and would you give that to folks who work behind bullet-proof windows in the seediest kinds of places imaginable?), and how narrative criticism is a fascinating way to engage the Gospel of Mark. Oh, and how complicated it is to try to improve the safety and security of your buildings at a church when there are 50 kajillion copies of the master key floating around and just about the entire congregation needs access to the buildings during non-business hours.

It may sound a bit twisted and perverse, but this is one of the things I absolutely love about my work. It’s not particularly glamorous or epic—it is just the ordinariness of how a community gets through from day to day. But the variety and scope of the work I do makes it nearly impossible to ever be bored. In this growing season, the parish I serve is working very hard and intentionally on letting go of clutter that has accumulated for decades; it is looking at every single one of our spaces and asking, “Does this space communicate welcome, a sense of the future we are daring ourselves to build towards?” Each decision about what we hold on to, and what we let go of, is another invitation to ask ourselves, “who are we and why are we here?” Some of the answers are quite astoundingly wonderful.

Early in the life of this blog, I felt deep grief, realizing I was entering a time in my life when I would be defined more by loss than gain, by subtraction and not addition. Losing my mom and exactly one year later, having to institutionalize María, made it feel like death and loss and nothingness were all the same. It’s not quite that cut and dry, is it? I don’t experience as much grief any longer, and in fact, it is rather the opposite: I become more and more awestruck by what is the simplest and most essential around me, by how little we actually need, and how small bits and pieces are also infinities in their own right.

And even as I am hard at work doing what I can to help us let go of, pare down, simplify, our shared life at church, I unexpectedly receive a picture from my spouseman who was out in the garden doing some harvesting after I left for work. On Monday, I used 4 pounds of our blackberries to can blackberry jam. We have put up almost 2 gallons of blueberries, the jalapeños are ready for picking, and the tomatoes are starting to ripen with the figs not far behind.

Ebb and flow, loss and gain all the time.

Eight years

Mami helping me dress on the day of my wedding

Dear Mami:

Eight years ago, today was the day when we turned the last corner with you. Early that Saturday morning, I watched Hans leave your house at the crack of dawn, headed to Panamá City to fly out that evening to Amsterdam. The weight of spending whatever time was left with you, without my big brother to help carry the sorrow was more than a little overwhelming. I was missing my own girl and spouseman a lot after two weeks away from them. And it was so hard watching you lose ground, day by day.

What I held onto that Saturday, was the knowledge that our intrepid Hospice ladies would visit mid-morning. They always brought laughter, comfort, insight and peace with them. I still don’t know how we would have gotten through without them. But that morning was different. I could see it in Barbara’s face the minute she put her stethoscope against your chest She didn’t even consult with the other two women with her. She put the stethoscope down, looked at Dad and me and said, “You have to get Hans back; do not let him get on that plane to Amsterdam.” In another time and another place, a nurse would have not had the freedom to give such direction, but up in Boquete, with such little medical care available, she did the right thing.

You didn’t just get upset—you were furious—that the next thing she said was that you were not to get out of bed any longer. I still chuckle that the minute we turned our back on you, you did get out of bed and with Pastora’s help, found your way to the living room “throne” where you had gotten to be Queen of Everything for so long.

The only women more strong and stubborn than you were the Hospice Ladies and before you knew it, they’d rolled your hospital bed into the living room, rearranged the whole space so you could look out those beautiful glass sliding doors out to the garden and gathered all kinds of beauty around you. You had no excuses now to get out of bed and I could see your relief. You were tired. But you still wanted to be in the space you loved best.

It didn’t take long for you to fall asleep and I watched you sleep through most of the day as I waited for Hans, dreaded the reality that made it so critical for him to come back. But oh, when you woke up in the evening and saw Hans, your face lit up with such utter joy and delight that I can still only thank God for how that day unfolded.

And then it was Sunday and now you didn’t just sleep, you struggled to take each breath. Dad, Hans and I kept watch with you, tried to do what we could to give you comfort as your body finally could no longer keep going. In those last few moments when your breathing had ended but your heart kept racing, I am fiercely, heartbreakingly, glad that I was able to do one last thing to make your leave-taking a little easier. That night I walked with you right up to the gates of heaven and what an extraordinary privilege it was, even if it meant leaving you in God’s hands and returning to my life.

The next morning, locked in my room, weeping, I demanded of God that the next time we meet I get to be in your presence with you as your truest self. I wanted assurances that I would get to see the tender smiles I still remember, your eyes twinkling, your hand holding mine. I know now that those things I wanted were things that had actually been lost along the way, especially as the cancer ravaged your body. Even more, I know that what you had given me was already enough, more than enough, of what I will ever need in the way of a mother’s love. It still strengthens me, even when being a mother myself gets hard. These days I make fewer demands and try to extract fewer promises from God. After you died was when I really began to learn what gratitude is all about. Grieving for you was another gift received because you were my mother and I, your daughter.

So today and tomorrow, as I remember those last hours of your life and the fact that you have been gone for so long now, I don’t worry any longer about how, or when I may get to be with you again. I simply acknowledge that I miss you and that even now, your love endures and abides with me.

All is well, Mami, rest in peace…

The face of God

The stories in the Bible about being in the presence of God are conflicting and conflicted. Can you see the face of God and live? How can you live if you have not seen the face of God? I am steeped in the Judeo-Christian version of reality, that assumes that power, might and glory, like God’s, look big, imposing, scary enough to maybe make you die of fear. Every now and then, that image gets turned upside down.

Last night, my sweet girl dog Tux jumped up on our bed after we’d tucked in for the night and came and snuggled against me.  I had literally just put a new coverlet on our bed in the afternoon, tickled that I’d finally found something I really liked for the summer. when even nights are hot and sticky in Alabama.  All of a sudden, Tux jumped up, got as far as the bottom edge of the bed, and proceeded to throw up this ghastly, stinky gob of stuff. I practically flew out of bed with nothing to do but wipe the stuff off the coverlet ( trying hard not to retch myself), gather it up, and head to the washing machine.  I set it to wash for a long time…

This morning, when the sun was already high, I took the coverlet out of the washing machine and went out to hang it on the clothesline.  It was a bit big and cumbersome. As I was stretching it out on the line, out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow move by and heard fluttering.  I glanced down and literally, at my feet, looking up at me with the shiniest obsidian little eyes imaginable, was a robin.  He looked at me for several seconds and I looked back, astounded by the beauty of his plumage, but even more, by his fearless examination of me.  And then, the moment was over and he was off, probably to find some more food for his brood that’s still holed up in the bluebird house at the end of our wildflower bed.

I wonder if these aren’t the moments when we actually do get to see the face of God.

Just about perfect

Blueberries, blackberries and little Miss Tux helping out

I was up very early—before 5 this morning, and it didn’t take long for dawn to start breaking. After feeding Tux and Mo, who demand to be taken care of before anybody else, I sat with my cup of coffee.  My small obsession is good coffee and today, the coffee I roasted Friday was just right. On a day off it somehow tastes so very much more delicious, perhaps because I get to savor each sip. I read for a bit, played with my silly dog, slipped into some gardening clothes, and got started on the things I’d promised myself I’d do today.

The best part of the work was out in the garden before the heat had taken hold.  This is the first day blueberries truly needed picking and now I know how to do it—how to turn them gently this way and that, to make sure they are blue all over. How to pluck them so their tiny, delicate stems stay on the plant and I don’t have to pick them out when I’m getting ready to make some jam. 

I used to do this work in a hurry, anxious to get the work done, anxious that I might not pick enough and too many would go to waste. The pace is much more slow and careful and deliberate so I see the bees, the big, loud bumble bees and hear the endlessly noisy mockingbirds. It’s all about the journey, not the destination when I find the right rhythm. Some of the berries I plucked slipped through my fingers and fell in, under the branches of the blueberry bush. I didn’t even try to find them. I decided it’s one of the ways I share this bounty with all the other creatures who appreciate their juicy deliciousness.

When I stopped, I walked over to our blackberry vine and put down my trug. It looked so pretty I had to grab a few pictures.  We planted the blackberry vine three years ago; last year was the first time it bore fruit. This year it stretches a good 6-8 feet in either direction, and the vine is laden with blackberries that will be ripe, most of them all at once, in the next 2-3 weeks.  

Volunteer flowers are growing on either side of the fence between our fruit and vegetable garden and our backyard. In the next two weeks, if the heat doesn’t kill them, they will bust open too. And if I looked down towards the gate into our food garden, I could see the fig tree that has plenty of fruit this year as well, and the peach trees that Sherod has so carefully tended to and should bear some nice peaches. I got a recipe for pickled peaches yesterday, knowing canning is in my near future. It never stops being new. It never stops being a parable of the gracious reign of God.

The rest of the day whirred its way through. I had washing and ironing and beds to make, with line-dried sheets. I cooked some of the meal for this Memorial Day, I continued to work on my thank you notes for everyone who was so amazing the night of Holy Comforter’s Celebration of a New Ministry, went back out for one more round of work on the flower beds.  When I was hot, really hot, really tired, really dusty and gritty and grimy, I rinsed off, got in my bathing suit and Sherod and I got in the pool long enough to splash around, watch the shadows start growing longer and laugh at the utter cuteness of our two silly dogs as they played around the pool. 

And then, it was time for dinner with my dad, time to clean up, time to watch an episode of Downton Abby (am not exactly binging but trying to see an episode a day; I only started watching episode 1 of season 1 a few days ago).

This was a day when Sherod and I were like three-year-olds intently engaged in our own projects, only catching glimpses of each other, or stopping to ask a quick question.  I kept silence most of the day and luxuriated in the solitude.

All that’s left is to post this, brush my teeth and go to bed. A day doesn’t get much better than this.