Generous Space

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My spiritual director used that phrase in a conversation we had recently.  It captured my imagination.  In my family of origin, we had experiences of lavishness.  My grandmother came to visit a couple of times a year, visits my brothers and I waited for with enormous anticipation.  We knew she made my mom cry a lot, that the tension in our house often went through the roof when she was in Cali.  But her suitcases…When she opened them, they looked like any other suitcase would—clothes and this and that.  Then she would begin to unpack.

Before goat cheese became chichi here in the States, in the late sixties and seventies, my grandmother bought it at a fancy cheese store in Panama and snuck it in her bags when she came to Cali, for the daily cocktail hour she and my parents never failed to gather for, even if they were hating each other bad.  You may remember when Grey Poupon Mustard had its heyday in the late 80’s with those funny, droll, pretentious adds involving Rolls Royces and snooty Brits.  We couldn’t buy Grey Poupon in Colombia but there were always a couple of bottles of it in my mom’s pantry thanks to Vera’s largesse.

You could divide the treasures in her bags into treats of this sort and rather breathtaking gifts.  Occasionally, she brought my mom a really fine piece of jewelry, usually there was some kind of sterling silverware or really fine ornament for the house.  She was especially fond of Lalique pieces.  The ones my mom lit up for were the bits and pieces of her childhood homes (yes, plural) that brought back memories of her dad.  But the presents my grandmother brought her grandchildren.  Oh. My. God.  They were over the top and I could never understand why they made my parents mad.  Without understanding the cosmically mean games she often played with her largesse, my brothers and I always managed to wheedle and cajole Mom and Dad into letting us stay home from school the day after Mormor Vera arrived (always in the evening) so we could play with our new gifts.

I arrived at adulthood understanding largesse.  I began to understand generosity when I married Sherod.  The lesson was like gall, a bitter pill to swallow.  Sherod was insistent that we would work up to tithing to the church.  He had emerged from a financially crippling divorce and I was just starting to bring in anything approaching regular wages. It made no sense to me that Sherod was employed by the church and yet was giving so much back.  Our pledges have always significantly affected what we had available as ‘disposable income’.  Quite doggedly, Sherod kept insisting, “all gifts come from God and this is how we show our gratitude”.  Over time, I began to ‘get it’ and over time, I have also become almost excruciatingly aware of God’s generosity.

Generous and generative are close friends.  So for me, at least, generosity and the ability to bear fruit, extend out beyond self-imposed limits and boundaries, create new possibilities and arrive at unexpected places go hand in hand.  Generous space is opened from one person to another, from one community to another, it can never be manipulated and extorted into being.

I am in awe because an incredibly generous space is being opened for me in October.  I will fly to Reno and then travel to small, simple living quarters at a conference center on Lake Tahoe.  I will make a 30-day silent retreat in the tradition of St Ignatius of Loyola in that space.  Twice I will break by my silence to celebrate the Eucharist at St Nicholas Parish and in keeping with the Spiritual Exercises, I will speak regularly with my retreat director.

A former Jesuit who is now an Episcopal priest and has decades providing spiritual direction, Joe has structured the exercises to reflect a more Anglican theological framework—authority, obedience and suffering mean something different in our denomination.  I am also doing this somewhat differently in that I will not be making this retreat in the company of other retreatants, the way it’s usually done.  This will be a more solitary endeavor.  I am being offered a place and time to continue to do the work of discernment that is far more Christ-centric than anything I’ve done before.  I have no idea how immersing myself in the life, death and resurrection narratives of the Gospels, how reflecting in deep silence, hoping for a new sense of this person Jesus, will help me understand what my work is to be.  But I will be in the presence of the deep, crystal clear water of Tahoe and steep and untamed mountain wilderness.  Surely, they will help point the way.

Discernment and Crisis

DSCN1995Discernment derives from the old Latin word cernere, to sift. I take great comfort in the insight that in some regards, discernment is about making gain through loss. Several years ago at All Saints, a small group of parents and children joined me in a reflection on discernment. I had put a few very pretty pieces of colored glass and lots of flour in a sieve. We took turns shaking the sieve as it made its way around the circle until all that was left were the four or five richly colored pieces. The exercise took several minutes and the reflection afterwards was a rewarding one: you have to shake forcefully but not so hard you make a mess. There really was no way to know what you would end up with until you had finished the sifting. We talked about the fact that the flour, now that it had been sifted, could be used to bake a cake; no one would have appreciated biting on a piece of colored glass if the glass had been left in with the flour. Someone asked which was more valuable, the flour or the pretty glass pieces. The contrast between those few beautiful pieces of shiny glass and the mounds of flour left on the plate was stunning.

That the word crisis also derives from cernere is new to me and oddly reassuring as well. I could accurately describe my life as being in crisis right now. Not all crises are highly dramatic nor do they unfold quickly. Certainly mine isn’t either of those. This midlife crisis—and I have decide that is what I’m in the midst of—has several components. One has to do with my girl.

All is not great with María. It is better than before, and her struggles are taking place in a far safer, healthier environment. But the struggle to maintain self control, to achieve her highest possible level of independence and function is brutally hard for María; progress is millimetric. Her ability to succeed at daily living still depends on an extraordinarily structured environment. María has not been able to internalize the kinds of behavior patterns that can keep her and those around her safe—at least not yet.

Many, many years ago, the psychiatrist who helped us get María on the medications that gave us a fighting chance as a family, suggested we place María in the type of residential program she now lives in. I was furious at his suggestion. I masked my fury in reasonableness and asked how that could help our child when it was precisely the fact that her first 5 years were spent in God-awful institutions that had so damaged her. Dr. Hughes gently and calmly explained that from his perspective this was about triage. The damage to María was real and so extensive that Maria threatened to shatter the whole edifice of our marriage, professional commitments and individual dreams. I am glad we were able to keep chaos at bay long enough to remain as a fairly intact family for several more years but in the end, he was absolutely right.

Now, as Sherod and I begin planning for the next step in our lives, I have to let go even more. When we’ve talked about things like timing, our starting point has been María. We had harbored the hope that if María got a few more years at BARC with all its structure and excellent care, she might be capable of moving into a less structured living situation—a group home, for example. If she could function in that environment, then we could make plans that would include bringing her with us as we moved away from South Florida.

A few weeks ago, at a conference with the behavior specialist who understands us best, she told us categorically that we could not make decisions about our future counting on any improvements of that magnitude from María. We need to plan for María to spend her life at BARC and we need to make the decisions that are best for Sherod and me without including the girl in our plan. This is what triage looks like for our family.

In a situation where triage is necessary, the option of suspended animation does not exist. The lie Sherod and I were telling ourselves was that we could postpone getting on with our own lives so María could catch up. It doesn’t work like that. Sorting out—truth and illusion, self and other, past and future; the sieving shakes me to the core.

In a faithful, intentional process of discernment, some of what slips through and out of your life is as insubstantial and tasteless as flour or cornstarch. And sometimes, it is beautiful, beloved, and of great value. You are heart broken to realize it no longer has the same place in your life. Sherod and I are being called to make decisions about our lives that more than likely will not allow us the privilege and joy of jumping in the car to see María for half an hour in the middle of a busy day. What seemed unimaginable before, that I would need to choose between the family quotidian-ness we’ve held on to, even with her living at BARC, and finding a place and life that is true to the rest of me is life and liberation I don’t much want to accept.

And yet, I must. I continue to make the arrangements to go on a 30-day silent retreat. The only time I took anywhere near that much time away from work was when I went on adoption leave to bring María home from México and get her settled with us. I took 3 weeks off then. But I am profoundly mindful that for this process of discernment to be about choosing life and not inadvertently allowing my soul to be crushed, it must include time set aside to walk and wrestle with the One who created and redeemed me, the only one who will be able to sustain me as I walk through what lies ahead.

God of the present moment.
God who in Jesus stills the storm
and soothes the frantic heart;
bring hope and courage to me
as I wait in uncertainty.
Bring hope that you will make me the equal
of whatever lies ahead.
Bring me courage to endure what cannot be avoided,
for your will is health and wholeness;
You are God, and we need you.

The Feast: Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

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Some weeks, a sermon comes together in a way that feels effortless, like it was simply waiting to write itself out of me.  Other weeks, it is harder than pulling teeth.  And then, there are times, and this was one of them, when preparing a sermon becomes an invitation to follow a path with absolutely no idea where I am going.  I finished reading the Gospel assigned for today early in the week.  The question that I was left with was, “what banquet would I want to be invited to as the honored guest?

I’ll freely admit that I am a shameless fan of Michelle Obama’s sense of style—I imagined a state dinner at the White House.  But I also imagined the banquet given annually in the Stockholm City Hall in honor of Nobel Prize winners—pretty cool to sit at the right hand of the King of Sweden after winning the coveted Nobel Prize, huh?  I would want to win the prize for literature and that made my mind wander away to the realization that I would love to be invited to the home of one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver or, if he were still alive, Pablo Neruda. To sit next to either one of them—what a mind-blowing honor.  And I would also love to be invited to Rowan Williams’ house.  Rowan Williams is the recently retired archbishop of Canterbury.  He made a mess of it in the Anglican Communion in many ways and he also combines the most amazing intellect with a profound spirituality.  To sit next to him, drinking a cup of tea and talking?  Breath-taking to consider

But because the mind—or at least mine can be so fickle and shallow, I veered back from the sublime to something quite trite.  Some people I know, more than acquaintances but less than friends, have a pretty amazing yacht they keep in the Caribbean except when their crew takes it to Cape Cod.  Not half shabby to sit at that table as an honored guest—for a whole lot of meals, as a matter of fact!

And then, somehow, as if my mind had simply gone shallow to try to go deep again, I realized I’d taken another unexpected shift.  The longer I reflected on whose table I’d like to sit at, the clearer it became that my desire is not to rub elbows with the rich and famous and especially not to get to sit at the place of honor in a party that is solely intended for those who want to see and be seen. My heart’s yearnings, it turns out, are different.  My younger brother and I have had a very strained relationship almost all our adult lives.  I would give anything to get to have a meal with him, his wife and daughter in their home, a meal with us reconciled to each other and able to stop walking on pins and needles, able to let go of carefully parsing our words and measuring each other’s reactions, in a state of red alert, ready to get defensive at the drop of a hat.

I could not think of that meal without imagining one that included my mom.  Or my dear friend Michael who died way too soon and before I could say good bye. There’s a fairly long list of people now who are no longer with us who would make the feast complete for me.  The gospel promises a banquet like that but if that promise is true, this is not a feast I will be invited to in the kind of time I know and live in.

Today’s Gospel tells us about the kinds of banquets we get glimpses of in the gossip rags and society pages of the newspaper.  Almost all the meals Jesus attended were distinctly different—they happened on the beach, or on the go, or around a camp fire.  I am convinced they are the meals that we are all invited to, still.

About 6 years ago, two of Sherod’s and my dearest friends, Mike and Mary, came to visit from Indiana.  El Centro was brand new.  We were using one bay in that little strip mall next to the Wings place on Davie—we were proud of our little chapel because there was such beauty in its ugliness.  We had hung a lovely cross from the ceiling with fishing line. For services on Saturday evening, we had the altar that’s here against the back wall now, close to the statue of Guadalupe.  We would sit in the white folding chairs that now grace the Parish Hall.  On Monday nights, we would reconfigure the chairs around a folding table and we’d have dinner together.  That particular Monday, I prepared my Lentejitas—a pot of lentils prepared in the simple, country style of Colombia—you serve it with rice and fried plantain.  Sherod, Mike and Mary joined us for that dinner.  Diana, Jaime and Angel were there.  So were about 5-6 other young people who helped start el Centro.

One of the joys of a storefront ministry on a busy street is you fling your doors wide to everyone.  There were a handful of men who basically lived on the streets close to us, all of them struggling with addictions—to drugs, to alcohol.  They were dirty and smelly and they made us all uneasy, but we could all see that coming in to join us for the liturgy or for dinner meant something really good for them. We simply could not close the door on them.  I am pretty sure that that night, Jorge, who had lost an eye, came staggering in and joined the party.  We laughed and talked and kept each other company late into the evening,  a small community of people struggling to get through to the next day who had stopped to eat a meal, literally at the foot of the cross.

I had a similar experience here at St Ambrose one Friday when I showed up to work on my day off.  The “Friday Lunch Bunch” was here, gathered at one of the round tables at the parish hall.  I think that is one of the hallmarks of the heavenly banquet—if there’s a table, it will be round, with no head or foot, just folks, gathered in a circle where the Holy Spirit can move easily.  That Friday, J was being her tart and sassy self.  ML had something she needed to fuss at me about—she does that you know; I need her to keep on the straight and narrow.  J and the brothers were there too and one of them dug around in his bag from Wendy’s and insisted I share a slightly mashed up chicken sandwich with him. We laughed, because you always laugh with the Lunch Bunch.  They had a really arcane question about their current Bible study that sent me scrambling to dig out old seminary text books.  M shared how G, her beloved husband had taken another bad turn under the dreaded shadow of advancing dementia.

I had a sense of belonging and belonging as myself without pretensions.  There was a place for us all at that table and  no one had to demonstrate how smart, rich, capable or above average they were.  I swear, as I blinked, or maybe it was out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young man sitting with us.

As I know life today, I will not get to partake in the heavenly banquet.  But I get foretastes—glimpses.  To be a community of faith means that we get to have lots of parties like these—not just around the altar every Sunday, but when we gather in fellowship.  In these circles of laughter, hope, and companionship, the Spirit of love moves among us, blesses us, builds us up, stretches and pushes and opens us, who are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, to do the work we have been entrusted with for the sake of the reign of God.