Just because it is so easy to forget the real people behind the story. It’s not just “mental illness”…
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. … So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Clergy types are an awful contradiction of subversion and codependency. We want you to like us and we are always uncomfortably aware that this news which we call good is also really, really tough. So our silenced subversive selves quietly cheer the audacity of John when he starts his sermon by saying “You brood of vipers”. In a week like this one, where we are all trying to make desperate sense of what’s so meaningless, all of us cringe and are convicted when his next words are, “bear fruits worthy of repentance”.
In a while, we are going to have a brief liturgy that celebrates the graduation of several members of All Saints from Education for Ministry (EFM) which is one of the most rigorous adult formation programs of the Episcopal Church. I was very fortunate to start EFM the year after I graduated from college and was still living in New Orleans. Our mentor was the chair of the history department at Tulane and our group was astoundingly bright and educated. The studies were fascinating, but what was truly transformative for me was the weekly “TRP”–Theological Reflection Process, weekly efforts to take a small slice of life and break it open to find not only what ways it might have of showing us how God is at work in our lives—but to consider together, what it might be calling us to next.
True repentance is more than an emotion—it is a willingness to lean in a new direction, take a different path, return to what is most essential and important. EFM gives us a way to start that life-long process of repentance. When Eric Von Salzen joined All Saints in 2003 and came to talk to me about starting an EFM group I was thrilled—and I am even more thrilled now, that there are two lively, active groups in our midst. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
As wonderful as deep thoughts and stirring theological reflections can be—as giddy as it feels during a session of EFM, when you hit on the most fruitful metaphor imaginable to describe the situation you are analyzing, none of that matters if the insight does not translate to meaningful engagement with the broken and battered. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Today, Chuck Ebert is also going to recognize the volunteers of All Saints. There are any number of ways that your brothers and sisters in the West Campus are blessed by the volunteer efforts that originate here, and a few of us are here to express our appreciation for all you do. On a Sunday when we will read the litany of 27 names lost to senseless violence, what I am most mindful of is the ways in which you make the world a little bit safer, a little bit better, a little more hopeful for the children of the Centro who live life on the edge: “Miss Rosa, the policemen came to my house again because my daddy was hitting my mom.” “Reverenda, my husband has an infection in his brain and he can’t work for two months. I’m struggling to feed the children and pay the rent”. “My three year old died two months ago and I sent his body to be buried in Guatemala because I figure that one day I’ll get to visit his grave. If I buried him here and I was deported, I would never get to see his grave”.
That’s the world our children live in and it bleeds their hearts of hope and joy and innocence as surely as bullets do. The volunteer work coming from All Saints binds the wounds, helps make the fear bearable, opens windows and doors into a future otherwise unimaginable for them. You “bear fruits worthy of repentance”.
This is a remarkable community but I run the risk of making us too complacent, making it sound like we’ve arrived as I celebrate these truths about the goodness that resides here. This season of Advent is the season when we look with wonder and anticipation to the birth of the Christ child in our hearts again, but it is also a moment that reminds us, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that, The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. We should be profoundly, frighteningly disturbed by the things that happened in Connecticut.
Most of you know that Sherod and I are the parents of young woman whose mental illness includes violence. You know that earlier this year, we placed her in an intermediate care facility because we were no longer able to keep her or ourselves safe at home. Maria is now occupying one of 1200 beds in the entire state of Florida. In the entire state. As Sherod and I look out to the horizon, towards retirement, we’ve begun to ask ourselves, “where”? We have done some research about Alabama. It turns out that all the intermediate care facilities in that state have been closed down. There isn’t a single place for a person with Maria’s combination of needs to have the balance of staff support, enrichment opportunities, and care to live safely in Alabama. If we were to retire there, we would be faced with the choice of leaving her here. That’s just two states. Our whole country is failing too many people when we fail to adequately respond to the complicated, heartbreaking realities of mental illness.
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
“The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.” In this last week before Christmas, when consumerism reaches its crescendo, when we all become so easily absorbed in our own self-indulgence or self-pity, I pray that we will accept the grace that allows us to stop and look again. To listen more closely. To understand what John means when he says we are all a brood of vipers rather than get defensive and then, to make ourselves available to a grace that says it doesn’t have to be so. In the stillness that is at the heart of all that noise around us, a voice in the wilderness calls. Repent. Bear the fruits worthy of repentance.
I got to celebrate and preach at the “big church”–All Saints–today. The music is stunning and it is just different, getting to celebrate with over 200 in a room with beautiful accoustics, lots of technology, beautiful appointments and lovely people. The highlight of my morning though, was when someone introduced me as the Rector of the West. Since my work is on the west campus of the New River Regional Ministry it made perfect sense to him and absolutely tickled me. I decided I probably should have some cowboy boots and a gun holster. There is certainly a whole lot more wildness at my home parish and also the energy of something new and quite messy taking shape. I think I may just have to lay claim to that title…
And some mirth: I have this grandson, Robert. Robert gets into all kinds of trouble because Robert is ever so smart. Yesterday, his mama went shopping and came back with lots of toilet paper. It was Robert’s job to put it all in the bathroom.
He is so much like his grandfather it’s scary…
We all know each of those little children who died yesterday. We know them through the little ones who fill our days, beguile, challenge and amuse us endlessly. I keep thinking of the eyes that shine so bright as they start each day during our summer reading camp and every Sunday, when I call the children of the New River Ministry up for their blessing. I thought of little Blossom, who is autistic and took months finding her way to allowing me to bless her. At first, all I was allowed to do was look at her, then to touch her hand briefly, and finally, finally, in recent weeks to be at eye level with her as I make the sign of the cross on her forehead. Each of them so infinitely precious and infinitely in need of our protection.
When I was a small child and couldn’t sleep, my mother used to sing Sov Du Lilla Videung, an old Swedish lullaby to me, and when I had my little girl, I sang it to her as well. Last night I thought about the Good Shepherd, and what He might have sung to all the little children, the ones who didn’t make it and the ones still entrusted to our care. I wondered if perhaps the song might have gone like this:
|Sov, du lilla videung,
än så är det vinter,
än så sova björk och ljung,
ros och hyacinter.
Än så är det långt till vår,
innan rönn i blomma står,
sov, du lilla vide,
än så är det vinter.
Solskens öga ser på dig;
|Sleep, now, little willow young;
still it is the winter.
So sleep yet, birch and Heather
For it’s long until the spring,
Ere the rowans flowers bring.
Sleep, now little willow young
for it’s still the winter.
Sunshine’s gaze is on you;
I have just finished preparing the worship booklet we will use for the family Christmas Eve service. I have an enormously long to-do list still staring at me. I have to take it in small pieces and stop frequently along the way. Over and over again, I have to stop and allow for the sadness because if I don’t, I risk getting swamped. I am thankful for the forbearance of those of you who read my blog because being able to describe what this is like to others is an enormous help.
In a while, Sherod and I have a meeting with Maria’s support team at BARC. We are going to start working on a way to get visitation back into gear. More important, perhaps, we need to explore alternatives to school. She continues to do very poorly there—that´s where she’s engaging in self injury, that’s where many of the behavior problems are being manifested. Don’t get me wrong—the public school system will have my eternal gratitude for everything our girl has been empowered to do through the dedication and care of so many. But as has happened other times, the ‘half life’ of school is about up and we are now exploring other possibilities in the hopes that we can withdraw her from school at the end of the semester next week. There’s another finality in that alternative—another round of having to accept that this mom’s dearly-held hopes for academic progress, let alone achievement, must be put aside for the practical realities of her needs.
Yesterday I was scrambling to get everything ready for the celebration of our Lady of Guadalupe in the evening. Since Wednesday is usually a visit day, I got lunch for María and went to her school. I used to do this—drop in to have lunch with her. She was having such a bad day that I had to leave the bag of food with a staff person and leave without having gotten to be with her. They’ve put these formidable gates and fence up around the school entrance and those gates slammed behind me as too many other doors have locked her in, me out, lots of dreams away. Sherod saw her last night and all he could say about his visit with her was that she was sad. Oh God, we are all so sad.
Last year at this time the grief for my mom was mixed with the anticipation of my dad’s visit and the excitement of Christmas that was still magical with María. The best I can say about this year is that there is the gentleness of the night and paths where the light doesn’t shine harshly. I told a friend of mine today that while I have spoken before of the ways in which I have been called to host grief, right now the grief is so intense that I see things a bit differently.
On Tuesday night when I was out walking, a beautiful little owl flew by me and alighted on a pole almost at my eye level just ahead of me. I walked on slowly till I stood right in front of it. That exquisitely beautiful little creature did not move, tremble, or look away. We faced each other for several seconds and then I continued on my way. It was Presence in the most holy sense possible. It seems to me today, and this is what gives me the strength to go back and keep doing my work, that it is God who hosts my grief, sends sentinels to look out for me and receive me and the sadness into the places where God can help me carry what I must.
It’s different, writing an Easter Sunday or Midnight Mass sermon. Someone has described the experience for most pastors who serve a congregation really well when he or she says that we live in the tyranny of Sunday in “ordinary time”. That simply means if you serve a community, especially a small one, like I do, Sunday in and Sunday out, you prepare a sermon, whether the sky has fallen, or the tedium has made your head feel like it would explode, or incredible pain has been visited upon the community or in the daily hubbub, there have been moments of exquisite joy and meaning—small miraculous occasions when as leader of the congregation you’ve gotten a glimpse of the Kingdom–at some point in the week, the reality that you will stand in the pulpit again comes home to roost and there’s no escape. Sunday will come, ready or not.
The longer I minister in community, the more aware I become that there’s something different, at least for me, about preparing the sermon I will preach for one of our two highest holy days—Christmas and Easter. There’s more pressure. Our churches typically fill up with folks who normally don’t come to church. The events are so well known and so many sermons have already been preached about the exact same thing. We’re competing with all the images of a plural culture. The list goes on. For several years, that felt overwhelming.
Something’s been changing though. Perhaps because I know all those things, and words matter so much on that night, I find myself engaged with the Christmas sermon all year long. I constantly scan for new images, new stories, new ways of retelling the old familiar story. This part is hard to describe: there’s a hollowing out, especially as November turns to December. On my long walks and early, early in the morning when my household is asleep and I sit at the kitchen table and savor my coffee and the silence, I work on slowing the chatter of the itty bitty little chorus of voices in my mind. I suppose this is akin to meditation. Over time, I have come to see that even if only for brief moments, I put myself at God’s disposal, practice what Gabriel Marcel calls ‘disponibilité’.
The pieces start coming together. It has never stopped astonishing me, how little by little, a pattern emerges, a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts becomes clear. The words and the “movements” of the sermon etch themselves out. Sometimes, my heart literally starts racing because there’s this sense of discovery, of finally seeing what was there all along, waiting to be found. Always, there is a sense not just of relief, but of gratitude.
This year, preparing weekly sermons has been especially hard for me. I am regretful for my community because so often I have failed to do the Scriptures and the folks I love justice. I had been dreading the preparation of my Christmas sermon. I didn’t need to. It is coming together. The darkness of these past few nights in particular has been wonderful to walk in. Ad majorem Dei gloriam.
“…Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.” Malachi 3: 2-4
Each year, on Christmas Eve, our guests would begin to arrive at my parents’ house around 5:30. The list always included my cousins and their children, the people who worked for my family and their children, and the occasional stray Swedes who found themselves far from anything familiar. It all happened the same way, year after year. Soon after everyone had arrived, the children sat down for dinner while the adults visited. Then, just as dusk became night, either my mom or my dad would ask the question that filled us with awe and terror: “Niños, it sure is getting dark. I wonder if Farbror Jultomten has gotten lost? Would you help us look for him?”
My parents had built their house on a hilly 2 acres outside of Cali. Our house sat on one hill, then the property dipped down in the middle to a small brook and went back up another hill. Every year, all the children would head down one hill and up the other, to the farthest corner of the property where we would all call for Farbror Jultomten over and over again, growing most worried about his health and ability to find us. And then, once again my mom would urgently call us back: “Niños, come, come and see”. You wouldn’t believe how fast those little legs churned down one hill and back up the other to arrive, panting, just as Farbror Jultomten was making his magnificent entrance to our house.
Farbror Jultomten was older than God; stooped over, with a long beard that reached below his waist and snow-white eyebrows, he breathed heavily and his gloved hands shook. All these years later, I can still hear the sound of his cleat boots clicking against the cobblestones of the pathway into my parents’ home. It was both the most dreaded and most anticipated sound imaginable. He would walk slowly, headed to the living room. Now, my mom was awfully proud of her living room, so much so that we were only allowed in there on Christmas Eve, after having taken off our shoes off and promised not to spill anything on her fine antique Chinese rugs. Carefully, we would seat ourselves on around Farbror Jultomten’s chair near the Christmas tree.
After catching his breath and resting for a few moments, Farbror Jultomten would greet us and make a comment or two about the long journey he’d been on and how hard it had been to find our house. And then, he would start. He always started with Hans, my older brother. In the reedy, wheezy voice of an old, old man, and pointing his trembling finger, Farbror Jultomten would something like, “You, Hans, have been fighting all year long with your sister, and you have teased her far too much.” Gulp! Next, it was my turn: “And you, Rosita, you have had an awfully messy room almost the whole year long and that closet of yours is a disgrace…” Then on to my brother Nils: “Oh Nils, you have talked back at your mother many, many times”. He spoke in Spanish with a Swedish accent (we always figured it had to do with the Scandinavian countries being so close to the North Pole) and he said these things with a combination of clarity and kindness that were simply devastating. Year after year, I thought to myself, “this is it. This is the year I really blew it and I can kiss away any hope of getting a single Christmas gift”.
No one escaped the gentle scolding that was always, always, right on the mark. And then, when even the youngest had heard about the ways he or she could have done better, Farbror Jultomten would say, “children, tell me: do you think you can try very, very hard to do better this next year?” With the greatest sincerity and solemnity we would all promise we would. He’d say that he trusted us to keep trying and would then tell us that in fact, he had brought us a few small gifts (!!!) . Out would come coffee sacks full of presents that he would distribute before leaving to continue his night journey around the world.
Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier…
We are in the season of Advent, the time when we are invited to listen, to listen deeply for the dreams and hopes of a God who the prophet Malachi tells us is like a refiner’s fire. Each year, the message is unequivocal: we receive a no that is essential for God’s yes to us: a no to the ways that lead us away from God’s steadfast friendship, a no to all those things we do that fracture us and give us permission to fall far short of what we are capable of. Our self-indulgent and self-serving ways not only hurt others and ourselves, they keep God at arm’s length, prevent the fullness of his transforming love to do its refining and purifying work in our lives.
Like the little children who gathered so reverently around Farbror Jultomten, we probably hear the same message each year—we all already know the ways we fall short, don’t we? But the message is still new and electrifying each year. It is still shocking that we are known that thoroughly. We are seen and understood and our shortcomings are that well catalogued, and yet still, we are loved enough to receive the gift and the chance to try again.
It’s the season of Advent.. Stop. Listen. Listen deeply and carefully. Hear how our God, who will not force love on us, is calling us to make straight the paths, present our ourselves to be healed and made whole, lifted up so that we will allow that God so far into our lives that we may receive the gifts of joy, and hope, and goodness and light in our lives. He draws close. So close. Will this be the year we receive him?
You do what you gotta do to get through the night…
I cannot follow María into many of the places she heads for these days. If she self injures, I can’t even try to get into her head hoping to understand why. Mental Illness, or whatever you want to call it, pulls at all of us like a black hole and I resist with all my might now. There is a still, small strength that will not, cannot, allow all hope, life and joy to be consumed. There’s a certitude that even in these really dark times, this is my daughter, not a monster.
It’s Christmas. About two years after we brought María home, I started a tradition with her that has withstood the vicissitudes of our life together. Olaf is an elf who arrives at the beginning of December and carelessly leaves his tiny Danish (after all, a Swedish elf would never be so naughty) passport lying around somewhere in the house for the rest of the month. At best, one might catch a flash or glimpse of him, but we sure know when he’s arrived. One time, he got one of Mami’s fine silk cushions and poured himself some Coca Cola in a crystal cordial glass. He took both of them and settled in for the night in the refrigerator. When María woke up the next day and went to the fridge to get her morning OJ, those big brown eyes just about popped out of her face. In a hushed, awed and horror-struck voice she said, “Oh. My. God. Mami. You have to come see this”. With appropriate indignation I threatened to have him removed immediately back to the cold northern tundras and only relented when she begged me to give him one last chance.
Olaf has been known to put peanut butter in María’s hair when she was asleep and make all kinds of mess with Dad’s can of shaving cream. But he also got in her room one day when she was at school and turned it into a winter wonderland of snow and twinkling lights. He leaves her notes and gifts and María has never stopped trying to find him. It didn’t seem possible, earlier this week, for Olaf to find his way to BARC. And then, it didn’t seem possible not to help him get there. He has left a basket in her room. This year, his visits will be a little different. There will be less mischief. He will leave little notes and gifts for María and small treats for her to share with the other members of her community. But he will be there.
I laughed and cried as I put holiday-themed stickers in all kinds of foolish places in her room and bathroom. That tenuous, gossamer thin, thread of love that binds her to me and I to her, is not broken. Even if her face is scarred from the damage she’s done this week, even if there are many more “even though’s” ahead of us, and we are always fragile and on the verge of fracturing, that still, small strength sustains us. Even now. And it is Christmas.
By one of those graceful lovely coincidences that help keep us going, yesterday I was introduced to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album. After helping Olaf get to BARC house to do his work, I rode home listening to Shine on You Crazy Diamond, full blast, with the sunroof open.
Maria is self-injuring. She’s had a rough time of it at BARC and at school. And so she is hurting herself; part of her face is pretty messed up. The sense of helplessness is overwhelming tonight. My beautiful, beautiful girl. What I wouldn’t give for her to have a different chance at life.