Can These Dry Bones Live?

Can These Dry Bones Live?

On Thursday of last week, I had the privilege of attending a gathering of amazingly creative and faithful leaders within the Episcopal Church.   There were moments of insight and epiphany.  Chris Corrigan who facilitated the work of this gathering opened our time with a reflection of Elijah and the Valley of the Dry Bones that will stay with me for a long time come.  One of his observations was that God took Elijah to look at an army of bones.  An army.  Soldiers, brave and self-sacrificing people willing to give their lives to protect others. They were in a valley.  That probably means the army had been trapped, caught in classic military maneuver that left them at the mercy of others.  Was it a strategic error on the part of their leaders that led to this slaughter?  And the most haunting thought:  “those weren’t just dry bones.  Those were angry dry bones.”   As a metaphor for too much of the church it is a piercing insight.  Explainable or not, if an army was slaughtered, there was leadership failure involved.  There has surely been leadership failure in our denomination and I look out and see a lot of dry bones. Damn right those bones have been angry.

The purpose of our gathering wasn’t to focus on leadership failure and throw stones at the Episcopal Church.  It was to engage as honestly and openly as we could to the question of how a system like our church lives and dies in the shadow of the cross and the light of the resurrection.   We spoke almost dreamily about the way a new version of the church emerges parallel and as a complement to what has gone before.  We used terms like “hosting fear”, and “hospicing death”, how “pioneers” leap from a system in decline sort-of into the abyss and start trying new things and at first there will be all kinds of failure.  We also described a time when those who have gone ahead build a suspension bridge back to the system that’s in decline and invite people who are still clinging to the old ways to come across.

With sadness but also resignation, we acknowledged that a suspension bridge has its risks and not all people will be able to safely make the crossing. We will lose some along the way.  The longer I’ve pondered that image, the more uncomfortable I’ve become.  I was comfortable with death, had been faced with lots of it during a year-long CPE/chaplain residency at a New Orleans hospital in my mid twenties.  And then my mom died last June and what I thought I knew about death was nothing in comparison to the brutally hard things I am still trying to integrate in my life.   If we are going to speak about those who won’t make it across the bridge, we probably should give them some names and faces so we don’t forget the very real loss, grief and suffering that are part of death.  Crucifixion is gruesome.

In sharp contrast, I have come back to a ministry that straddles a bit of all the pieces of the model we were introduced to on Friday.  I had loved the time to step back and look at this ministry I serve with fresh eyes.  Today, though, I am burdened (and I use this word advisedly; it feels like a cross) with the realities of leader- and discipleship.  In a 24 hour period, I tried to give a family in crisis the best of my experience and recommendations. I don’t know if it was enough or right.  I also realized that a major process I’ve been leading has reached a dead end.  There’s a way out and there are really good folks working with me.  That doesn’t mean though, that either the process or the results will be what they might have been.  It happened on my watch, it was my process to lead.  This morning I raised some issues and concerns about another aspect of the ministry I am engaged in.  What I said was not particularly well received and this involves a relationship that is important to me personally as well as professionally.  In each of those cases, no matter how collaborative the venture, how flat our decision-making systems, how shared the investment, how good my own efforts and intentions, I fell short.

I am no less a child of God, no less called, loved, empowered and accepted “just as I am” because of these moments.  They are no more real than all the victories and joys of the work before and ahead of me.  None of this is the end of the world, the costs of these small failures are miniscule in the greater scheme of things.  In fact, it’s all piss-ant stuff when you get right down to it.  What is important is a sense I can’t shake that accountability matters.  It matters a lot.  If an army was slaughtered because of human error and miscalculation, did the people who made those errors realize it, was there regret, metanoia, a willingness to learn and work diligently to avoid making the same mistakes again?  When we retreat to a lovely setting and in relative comfort and privilege talk about those “who will not make it”—do we give those “those” faces and names to stay mindful of the enormous cost? Are we honest, “un-self indulgent” and “un-self serving” as we look at what happened and why?   Do we make amends?

The New River Regional Ministry, an effort to braid together a strong and resource-rich downtown parish, a small parish that was on the verge of closing 2 years ago, and a Latino ministry filled with life but still incredibly fragile, has begun to accumulate a series of small victories that are very promising and exciting.  It’s not just a series of small victories—it is stories, most of them very small stories that will cross past the threshold of memory and be forgotten in months or maybe, at most, years.  Yet these stories  are luminous, stunningly beautiful moments of grace and joy like a string of precious pearls.  The work we did at Simpsonwood and the relationships I have been able to start forging will help to nurture and move us forward for a long time to come.

I also realized today that there is another dimension of this work that is extremely important.  For lack of a better word, it is competence.  It is doing things well—with discipline, follow through, care, thought, reflection, transparency, honesty, self-assessment and a willingness to accept feedback, attentiveness and thoroughness.  Starting something new and big and underfunded, this is the biggest struggle the New River Regional Ministry faces right now and I am enough of a pragmatist to know that if we don’t raise our level of competence, we will not stretch into the dreams that God has for us.

It seems to me that the biggest part of my “being” right now is being in a painful, uncomfortable spot that is the opposite of dreamy—always trying to work and be present with both a hermeneutic of suspicion (including of myself, my work, my presence and my motives) and a hermeneutic of generosity.  Cross and resurrection.  Both equally true.  Both at the heart of the call and the path. This afternoon it is so painful I have been on the verge of tears for hours.  I just don’t think there’s another way forward.  So I stop and cry. And then the next thing ahead calls out.

Nobody’s Daughter & Everyone’s Child

Nobody’s Daughter & Everyone’s Child

Light of My Life, October 2001

One of my earliest memories of our child is of her striding purposefully down a hallway, Sherod in tow, and a small handbag firmly in place under her arm.  It was Sherod’s first time meeting her in the hospice in México where Light of our Life had been left to die after her biological mother and the woman who bought her abandonded her at birth.  Perhaps I was projecting on her but I think not.  That morning what struck me was this child’s determination to find her way to life.  Though her capacity to love deeply and form strong bonds was crippled by so many years making it on her own, she was an absolutely delightful, beguiling little girl with a well developed sense of mischief and humor.

Yesterday  Sherod and I sat across the table from two remarkable women who have been a constant source of hope for our child.  One is her behavior therapist, the other a person who has dedicated her whole adult life to creating safe spaces for people with very special needs.  She is zealous in protecting the dignity and the quality of life for people who are so fragile cognitively and emotionally that it is easy to pass them over.  These two guardian angels of our girl laid out a path into the future for Light of our Life that we knew was coming but not this fast.

Earlier this week, a place opened at the intermediate care facility that our behavior therapist helped start in the 80’s.  A 10 or 15 minute drive from our house, it is a group of three homes on a large fenced property that shelters 36 people with significant special needs.  This is a place where our daughter could live out the rest of her life safely, with people committed to treating her and others like her with respect and gentleness, where she would have a level of care that we simply can no longer provide.  She would not be drugged and warehoused.  In a rich, nurturing environment, she would be encouraged to continue developing her full potential for the rest of her life. “Placement” is just a nicer word for institutionalizing someone and at this stage in her life, it is the most responsible way we can show our girl that we love her. The ball is rolling now and it is likely that Light of our Life will move to this facility in early June.

Once again, I am offered harsh and lovely grace.   Those early days of June, when I lost my mom and one year later will be surrendering my daughter, are the cruelest days now.  How terribly strange to have to discover who I am to be, not by addition but by subtraction.  As we talked over breakfast, one of the  women used a phrase that tumbles and rolls in my mind over and over again:  she said that our girl will be considered “a family of one” as other receive her into their care  and we relinquish our claim to her.  We accept that in many respects, she has always been a family of one.  Even as an itty bitty girl, she was so incredibly self-contained.  The only way I got her to allow me to hold her close was by getting into our pool with her for hours on end in the weeks after we brought her home from Mexico. I’d stand where she could not touch bottom, and in the middle so she couldn’t grab on to the sides.  She had never had a tub bath, let alone gotten in a pool, so she was forced to hold on to me and let me hold her close. Getting in the pool with her was like trying to take a cat swimming; I still laugh at how hard she fought me and how she yelled bloody murder.

As much as I love her, our woman-child moves through life as if she was nobody’s daughter and everyone’s child.  I have always known with a mixture of sorrow and amusement that she constantly works the crowd, looking for something newer and shinier in the parent department —you never know, there might be someone out there with an even better deal than ours, and besides, the ones she has might disappear. A once-abandoned child can never have too many folks on retainer just in case she needs plan B.

Sherod and our two friends  talked over breakfast about these next steps, it was clear that this facility, with all kinds of staff and safeguards provides the structure Light of our Life needs.  She will be coming into a facility staffed by people who already know and love her because she has participated in several of this agency’s programs.  If there was ever a person who needed the whole village to have a decent chance at life, it is this young woman.  She has to be everyone’s child even though in my heart, she will always be my daughter.

Sherod and I were blessed beyond reason, when she found us and we found her. I know all these things and I can enumerate them endlessly. That said,  I tiptoe to the edge of real acceptance of the steps ahead but have to pull myself back quickly.  I can’t linger there  long yet because I rage, I rage with white-hot, all consuming fury. I will have to manage myself as we make and put the transition plan in place. Our daughter has to have the certainty of our quiet confidence and trust in what lies ahead.  Staying true feels overwhelming.  I am aware that it’s  going to take the village to get her dad and her mom through the days and weeks that lie ahead.  Please pray for us.

To My Friend Carolyn

I walk every night now–it is my sanity.  Most nights, I walk in silence.  Every now and then, I take my iPhone with me. This is what played last night right after I hit the “shuffle” option. My best friend Carolyn came back from Junior Year abroad in Paris playing this song on her guitar.  I remember a rather sauced night in New Orleans with her and a couple of guys (John and Brian?) and this song and I found myself laughing out loud as I walked through my very quiet neighborhood.  Looking forward from looking back, was sort of astounding–the “tout” of tout es possible turned out to be something else!  I would not go back and do anything differently.  Life is good.



There are times in my life, almost like chapters, that are defined by a very specific word or theme.  I think for now, the operative word is loss.

Those of you who know my family know that life with our girl has never been easy.  In fact, we learned by the hardest that the things she lived through as an infant and toddler so completely changed the structures of her brain, that managing her behavior when she spins out of control takes the most drastic approach possible.  Three years ago, under the supervision and direction of an amazing therapist, we finally faced into the need to build an isolation space, basically a padded cell, that became our daughter’s time out space when she spun out of control.

This step required us to put a lot in place.  We took a course called TCM that taught us how to “transport”  her to the isolation space when she is out of control, hell-bent on causing maximum damage. The techniques we learned are intended to reduce the danger of causing her injury and to protect ourselves as much as possible.  Isolation is such a drastic intervention that it requires us to be in daily contact with her behavior therapist and carefully document every incident that leads to time out.  Awful as it was to put in place, it gave us 4 years with our daughter, something no one believed was possible.

We are at another juncture now.  Our daughter, the light of our life, is big enough and strong enough (and her parents have aged enough!) that breaking into those times when she loses control has become almost impossible.  Getting her to time out is simply too dangerous for us all.  We are also dealing with very normal teen age issues that are so much harder with a woman-child like LM.  After a series of incidents, we had an appointment with our behavior specialist  last week and have agreed that time out/isolation is no longer a viable option.  The implications of this decision are enormous.  It is an acknowledgment that our home is not safe for any of us, though things are under control almost all the time.

Now, the first line of response is neurochemical—and after 15 minutes with her psychiatrist (whom we like a lot) I walked out with 3 new medications to try.  It’s all trial and error, this business of psychopharmacology, and as he said, “anything more than she’s taking now means we have to start worrying about side-effects”.  I haven’t even been able to make myself do the Internet research on all this stuff yet—I allow myself some time at each step to do a Scarlett O’Hara.  I have no regret about the medications our girl has been on because they have opened spaces in the chaos of her mind for better decision making and stronger impulse control.  But the line is so thin and we know so little about all this.  How can anyone bear to watch these powerful drugs start erasing the person entrusted to our care?

At the same time, her psychiatrist, and the behavior therapist, and folks who know our situation well, are very clear.  It is time to start working on “new placement”.  It is time to accept that we do our daughter no good if we are not able to be safe in our  own home by keeping her with us.  None of the alternatives are real good.  None of this moves fast.  But still.  A couple of nights ago, I went into her room just as she was falling asleep.  One of the small but significant marks of progress for this little light of ours, is that finally, after 11 years living with us, she is able to sleep without any lights on.  In the dark, I leaned down to kiss her.  She put out her arm and wrapped it around my neck so I stood with my cheek on hers.  She whispered in her sleepiest voice that she wished I could stay and keep her company.  I felt like Emily in the third act of Our Town looking in on my life,  excruciatingly aware of the gift of that small slice of time.  The wonder of being her mother simply doesn’t dim.

Every Sunday when I am the celebrant at the Eucharist, I start the final blessing with a reminder that we have been lent to each other for a very short time, urging  the community to make speed to love and to make haste to forgive.  I think all these years I have been saying that as much to my own self as to everyone else. I forget that I have had her on loan.  Today what keeps bubbling inside me insists “This is too soon.  We haven’t had enough time. I am not ready.  I’ve already lost a lot  this year.”  All of that threatens to spill over and drown me.  But I don’t drown.  Each wave of pain carries me out to dark places but then it brings me back to the shore, to something strong and solid and here, always ready to receive me.  I don’t get answers to my questions, there are no magic fixes or easy outs.  But the silence is companionable and gentle and unafraid and I am able to get back up.

Paul Tillich, the theologian who first gave words to my hope and my faith when I was a young student in Virginia, is the one I go back to now.  He talks about God as “the ground of our being”—this phrase has been used and abused, sometimes beyond recognition.  But it gets at my certainty:  all that I am, including what I am losing, is grounded in God’s love and goodness.  The other Paul, the one I am always arguing with, says it even better.  “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus” (KJV, Romans 8:38-39).  That love grounds me. It grounds my daughter. It grounds the future as it unfolds.