Receive, O Lord, Your Servant

Image 9As a young child, I had an almost pathological fear of losing my parents.  For years, I suffered from insomnia and would get up regularly to make sure both were breathing.  The memory of those last few moments, walking carefully in the dark towards my parents’ bed, steeling myself for the very real possibility that one or the other of them had stopped breathing, that I would touch the cold and lifeless body of a beloved parent, still evoke the raw and absolute terror of powerlessness of that young child.

In my last conversations with my dad, it was clear that his health problems have brought his mortality to sharp focus.  In fact, earlier this week, my brothers and I got an email from him that included  a series of pictures of all the luggage he owns.  He continues to be determined to sort through and let go of as much as he can so we will have less to do after he dies.  In his email he wondered which of the pieces of luggage we wanted him to hold on to that would be helpful to us as we brought home pieces of his and my mother’s home after he dies.  My first response was of mild irritation–a bit of drama, Dad?  Then of uncomfortable guilt and sorrow–I struggle with my inability to get down to see him more frequently, knowing how we both are blessed by those times sitting in front of the fireplace, visiting or simply reading together.  And there is respect for a person who is so determined to face into his own death with such a degree of dignity and concern for his children.

At about the same time I got the email from my dad at the beginning of the week, I found out that two women–both mothers of members of the parish I still am privileged to serve–and who had gotten very ill, were now reaching the end of life.  With my new schedule and fragmented responsibilities, getting to visit with each family was important and more than a little challenging.  Before, I would have dropped everything and just gone to see them.  Now I couldn’t. Now I had to arrange my schedule, coordinate and flex enough to meet the other responsibilities I had.

I got to a hospice room in one of the large hospitals in town a day later than I had hoped;  the minute I saw the person in the bed, I knew she did not have much time left.  Her family had come in from many different places and while I was first visiting, got awful news about another very close family member who had suddenly died.  After absorbing that loss, we gathered around the bed.  In the Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer, provisions are made for the clergy person to lay hands on a person who’s sick and say a prayer over them.  It wasn’t my touch she needed–I had never met her and it was so obvious how much her family loved her.  The prayer itself approximated my sense of what needed to be said but only if I modified it, asking not for healing as much as release and freedom from the illness that had snuck up on an extraordinarily active 84 year old and in a matter of three weeks had become fulminating.

Everyone laid hands on her.  Instead of saying, “I lay hands”, I said, “we lay hands.”  Those were hands of about 10 angels of love who held her in the presence of her maker as we prayed. I left with the sacred hollowness at my very core I’ve come to know as a grace, no words, not much of anything, but awareness of what an honor it is to be allowed presence in those thin spaces.  Less than half an hour after I left her room, she died.

She died while I was in visiting another mom, this one a mom I got to know in my time at St Ambrose.  She knit booties and a cap for my niece when she found out my brother and his wife were expecting a child.  She has been a parish matriarch.  I have come to love her son and daughter deeply.  I walked into her room in the nursing home and was struck by how much ground she had lost since my last visit.  I don’t think she recognized me but she was profuse as she thanked me for coming to see her.  Gracious to the very end.

I was on a video call for my other job yesterday morning when I got word that she was fading fast.   We were covering critically important stuff on the call and I simply could not just hang up.  I called the mama’s daughter and promised her that as soon as my call ended, I would get up to the nursing home.  And when my call ended, an agonizing 10 minutes later than scheduled, I hauled up the road in heavy rain, praying I wasn’t too late.  I came into the room right at noon.  This beautiful mom, parishioner, grandmother, had lost so much more ground in less than 24 hours.  Her children, granddaughter and I spoke for a few minutes and then I had a strong sense that it was time to pray.  Again, the prayers our BCP instruct me to say were not the right ones.  There were others that expressed what we all needed–even though they are the ones for a vigil after a person has died.

I guess I’ve been a priest long enough to know I needed to trust myself.  So we began an extraordinarily beautiful set of prayers and responses.  And while we were praying, without making a fuss of any kind, my friend slipped away.  A bit later, a rabbi friend came and visited, sang to her a lullaby he sings to his children.  Then he said the prayer of the Jewish faith at the time of death. I was struck by how very similar the words were to the ones we’d said a few minutes earlier.  I watched the hospice nurse who’d been a part of the family in this in-between time tend to the earthly remains of a woman who had lived very generously.  The nurse was so gentle and knew so much about how to tend to that frail and newly emptied vessel.  The way she laid E out was homage and blessing.  It was extraordinary and it was also extraordinarily ordinary–just the commonplace things you do because death is always in the midst of life and life in the midst of death.

Someone once said that everything we do in life is about learning how to die.  Along with figuring out how to grow lettuce and put a home office together and get a keyboard tray installed on my desk, I am learning, still learning.

A Prayer

Dear Friends: It was our Lord Jesus himself who said,
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will
give you rest.” Let us pray, then, for our mother, E.,
that she may rest from her labors, and enter into the light
of God’s eternal sabbath rest.

Receive, O Lord, your servant, for she returns to you.
Into your hands, O Lord,
we commend our mother, E.

Wash her in the holy font of everlasting life, and clothe
her in her heavenly wedding garment.
Into your hands, O Lord, 
we commend our mother, E.

May I hear your words of invitation, “Come, you blessed of
my Father.”
Into your hands, O Lord, 
we commend our mother, E.

May she gaze upon you, Lord, face to face, and taste the
blessedness of perfect rest.
Into your hands, O Lord, 
we commend our mother, E.

May angels surround her, and saints welcome her in peace.
Into your hands, O Lord, 
we commend our mother, E.

Almighty God, our Father in heaven, before whom live all
who die in the Lord: Receive our mother E. into the courts of
your heavenly dwelling place. Let her heart and soul now ring
out in joy to you, O Lord, the living God, and the God of
those who live. This we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.

You Don’t Quit!



As I was falling asleep last night, the solution to my keyboard travails found me.  I would attach the two brackets that I had to take off the desk to the tray again.  I would affix the tray to the two brackets that were staying up.  I would tape the tray or use clamps of some sort and then I’d drill in the remaining bracket screws.  Taping or clamping the tray in place did not work well.  And Sherod is well enough that he could come and sit at my desk to hold the tray up while I did the last bits. And so this morning, I am writing with a keyboard on the tray, so much more comfortable typing than in ages.

The work I am doing with ECF is still very limited.  I have a sense that the scope and reach of what I will do in this program will be very different from my ministry here in Fort Lauderdale.  Earlier this week, I prepared a report for one of our funding agencies.  The measures we use to track our students’ progress in the school success program showed we are doing really good work with them.  One of the parts of my ministry that has been so hugely meaningful was being able to say, “I made a difference for this specific child, for this specific mom, in this specific situation.” Childrenwho were in kindergarten when we started are moving into middle school after this school year. I have watched them grow, struggle, some of them actually get to the point where they make honor roll regularly at school.  Of course, if at ECF we design good leadership programs, there will be results to show for as well.  But when a child who is learning to read really well also comes to the altar and we share communion week in and week out, there is a connection I am hard pressed to explain and is the essence of grace to me.

These days, as I let go of this ministry and learn about my new job, what I can accomplish is so much more modest.  It is raining today in Southeast Florida and the lettuce I planted is growing. There are three blooms on the tomato plant in the planter and my house is neat, the floor vacuumed enough to look decent.  God’s grace is in all that too, and in the humility of small projects and even smaller triumphs.  My wrists are certainly glad…

Heart of Darkness

DSCN0978I began the morning full of sass.  I’d found a keyboard tray I was pretty sure would work with my new desk.  The first few steps on the instruction sheet were simple and straightforward. Everything went swimmingly and I only had one more thing to do. According to the instructions, the brackets are attached to the tray first and then to the desk.  That wouldn’t have been a big deal with an extra pair of hands.  But that was not a possibility today and since that whole thing of doing things myself is such a big deal right now, I decided on an alternative that allowed me to do it all by myself.

Still in my pretty Eileen West nightgown, I lay flat on the floor under the desk, put the tray up against the bottom of desktop and used a Sharpie to mark where the bracket screws needed to go.  Then I dismounted the brackets from the tray. I went digging in what I call the “Heart of Darkness”–the part of our garage possessed by my husband and filled with deeply mysterious things that look like they could do far more damage than good, though I know that isn’t the case.  The picture above suggests far more light than can really find its way to that space when the garage door is closed.  Occasionally, there are the rustles and scurries of other living creatures and even a possum has been known to find its home there.  It is a mark of just how brave I’ve become that I dared to go digging around in there.

Armed with a power drill and determination, I went back into my office space and began mounting the brackets.  The desk is just high enough that I couldn’t lie flat and use the power drill.  I worked my abdominals till I got cramps.  The daggum blasted screws kept falling off right before I’d begin to drill, mostly they fell on my face.  With all this incarnational stuff, I am discovering a whole new, far more satisfying dimension to cussing.  I am not sure why, but when you are sweating, and your muscles are cramping up, and your arms hurt and shake and the screw won’t cooperate, a few choice words of remonstrance against the universe and the elements are extraordinarily comforting and just. so. very. right.

DSCN0975I got one of the brackets up.  And then my arms were too tired, and I had places to be and things to do so I got up and headed for the rest of my day.

There was much about work that was tough.  We are all in transition, there are some pretty big pastoral needs brewing, a to-do list that doesn’t get shorter, and in fact, just the opposite, offhand comments that cut to the quick, a frustrating sense that I am not doing anything particularly well, that I am fragmented and scattered.  I got home feeling defeated with a to-do list waiting for me as well, including some stuff I had  not planned or wanted to do.

I decided I would stop and finish my keyboard tray project. It would do me good, I said.  I’d feel great, in a masochistic kind of way, making those abs work hard again.  The B-words, as Maria calls them, would give me a sense of righteous vindication.  And then I would have a keyboard tray so my laptop won’t keep biting into my wrists.  I got on with it, stopping quite frequently to let my arm rest or dig around the floor for a screw that had gotten away.   Then, I went to attach the tray to the brackets.  It didn’t work.  I swear I measured right this morning but obviously, I didn’t. And I ignored the 1-10-1000 rule they taught us in the 90’s when TQM was so popular. Stop and check your work a lot. Catching a problem early avoids all kinds of trouble.

The brackets are about 3/4 inch too far apart.  I will have to take two of the brackets off and try again.

The cussing is fun.  Working my muscles, problem-solving, learning all these new things is really great.  But there is also loneliness.  Whether in this new place I find myself with ministry, or running our household while Sherod heals, or taking responsibility for the things that need to be done so I have a functional office space, doing it by myself makes even this off-the scale introvert long for companionship and laughter, a sense of community.  Including because more than likely, someone else would have gently prodded me to check and check twice.  I’ll try again tomorrow.


Coming Together

DSCN0973Keep adding bits and pieces to my office.  Still have a bit more to go–books coming from my office at church, a keyboard tray that actually works.  Also working on the new rhythms of work.  It is quite lovely to sit and work while Maria visits and plays on her IPad right behind me.  The pieces fit today.



DSCN0961Walking out to put the trash bins out on the street for weekly pickup and seeing the
light of evening against the side of I-95.

DSCN0965Flowers that have brightened my day, every day, for almost a week.

The amazing meals folks have quietly left at the door every day since Sherod got home that allowed us to eat well with a minimum of fuss in the busy past few days. How Sherod relished eating congealed salad and “pineapple-mandarin orange delight” and the DVD’s and popcorn that we will share with the girl Maria tonight.

The notes of encouragement I got this week.

And how each day, Sherod’s steps become more sure, he stands up straighter,
he walks longer, he gets stronger.

Happy Friday, friends, and thank you to everyone who has taken such good care of us this week. You know who you are and we love you.



Let it Go

Over Christmas, Sherod suggested we go see Frozen with Maria.  You could have knocked me over with a feather–the Mallowman and I both are not Disney friends, and even less, of the whole Disney notion of the princess game.  I grudgingly acceded mainly because Maria was delighted.  I figured I could have a nice nap in the cool darkness of the theater.

Wow!  It was compelling, it was funny, it was so completely unexpected, turning the stereotype of the passive princess on its head, giving a whole new meaning to “true love” as the only way to break the spell of darkness. In a sense, Let it Go  is the anthem, even if it is a Disney anthem, for breaking out of imprisoning chains of duty, chains of the dreaded word that still points at some important truths about the messes we get into: codependence, and out chains of fear.  My favorite part of this particular sequence is when Eva finds her way towards the yes of her existence and you see her move into her full incarnate self in a sexy, sassy, lovely way. Spoiler alert: her new found beauty is not in preparation for when that handsome prince finally comes to save her.

I loved this movie.  Go see it you haven’t yet.


Sherod came through the surgery well. It is still hard to believe the Dr wasn’t even in the same room since it was robotic surgery. Holy Cross is perhaps the foremost hospital in this country for hip replacement. That fits considering how many elderly people live here in this area. Skilled, probably brilliant, surgery is followed by mediocre service and nursing. I had to insist that the special air “stockings” that help prevent phlebitis got hooked up and used. When we got to his room, I was handed a menu and told I would call “room service” to order meals for him. Mid afternoon, we called and after 40 minutes on hold and more calls I finally had to go through the system demanding a human voice not voice mail. Food services has been outsourced and it sucks. Though Sherod is in a double room, the other bed is empty. I asked if I could sleep over with him and was told yes, if I wanted to sleep in the chair pictured above. I guess I am going home late tonight instead.

I started to make a fuss about this too and then I stopped. As soon as Sherod got settled in the room and the medical staff had left, he held out his hand and asked me to pull the chair closer. For most of the afternoon, I sat quietly and held hands with him. After this tough year, part of the healing is about lowering our guard, not moving so automatically into warrior mode. I will be attentive and insist he gets the care he needs. The rest I can let go of so I can sit and hold his hand.

Cultivate Joy


Last year, in early January, as I began training for the half marathon walk I participated in with my friend Marsha, folks in my circle of web friendship were finding a word to claim for 2013 and though I had not planned to choose one, I did.  I wrote a post about that word here.  It was way more prescient than I would have wished for.  I am grateful for the endurance that allowed me to walk in that half marathon, I am grateful for an amazing community that made it possible to endure through very hard times at the end of the year.  I am grateful for the enduring love between Sherod and me and what I have learned about endurance with him.

Last night I began my ‘formal training’ for a new half-marathon, this one in Nashville in early March.  There’s all kinds of symmetry happening, since I lived in Nashville and went to Vanderbilt, dropped out and haven’t been back since the late 80’s.  As I walked, not a word so much as a phrase insinuated itself into my thinking:  Cultivate Joy.  Doing my regular etymology schtick, I found all kinds of layers of meaning for this phrase.  Cultivate derives from the Latin cultivare word that means “to till”.  In turn, cultivare is a derivation of cultus–care, labor, reverence, worship.

On Saturday afternoon, I spent some time opening furrows in the planter I gave Sherod and then planted lettuce seeds.  I also have this tray of mini-planters to germinate some of the heirloom tomato seeds as well as some of the more delicate lettuce with names like Jaune Flamme tomato and Freckles Lettuce.  My nails were crusted with dirt, the smell of loam lingered for me and there was that wonderful sense of anticipation and impatience-.  Grow already; let me see what you are going to be!  Cultivate–to grow, to care and labor for, to deepen a capacity for reverence.  It is all so incarnational, so much about effort, commitment, and in the end, gifts and fruit.  I already find myself fantasizing about picking a fresh tomato and coming in to make me a ‘mater sandwich still warmed by the sun.  I used to do that with my friend Carolyn in Dalton  (Ga) and then with Sherod in Alabama and Tennessee.  With company, and a fresh loaf of bread–pure banquet.

So cultivate joy.  That’s my phrase and work for 2014.  I cultivated joy in these past two days in these ways:
–Spending time at a bus stop just trying to pay attention to the people who were waiting for buses or got off of them.  There was one young woman in particular whose features just looked wooden with the burdens of life.  We made eye contact, I smiled and all of a sudden her face lit up and she was so beautiful.
–Talking to members of the discernment committee of the church that had been considering me to be their rector.  Generous, curious, brave, several have reached out to let me know how disappointed they were that I withdrew my name from their process, eager to ask if we could stay in conversation so when Sherod and I get to Alabama there might be a way for me to help them as they try to find a way to welcome Latinos to their community.
–Connecting with my friends Robin, and Joe, knowing how easily I tend to self isolate and what an amazing chance I have with my new work situation to not let that happen.
–Starting my training for that new half marathon on March 8.  It felt like I just zipped down the street, listening to Mason Williams and Lindsey Stirling.  I made good time and grinned remembering what it was like crossing the finish line in B’ham and hugging my friend Marsha.

Joy.  That sounds like this:

Believe in Miracles

My Christmas Gift from Juanita Mallow  Given Soon After Sherod Was Diagnosed with Cancer, December 2000

My Christmas Gift from Juanita Mallow
Given Soon After Sherod Was Diagnosed with Cancer, December 2000

Today is the annual meeting of the parish of St Ambrose.  Every year across the Episcopal Church, parishes call these meetings to elect new leaders, review the budget for the next year, report on the results of the previous year.  No one is totally thrilled by these meetings and we all know they are necessary and important.

It is something of a miracle that we are having this meeting at St Ambrose.  The year of 2013 will not go down as a wonderful year.  Yes, we became a United Way Agency, successfully planned and held a wonderful Cinco de Mayo Celebration, opened a thrift shop and got a food pantry on its feet.  We have a waiting list of over 40 children whose families would love for their children to participate in our school success programs.  The reading comprehension test results for our literacy summer camp were the strongest ever.  But it was a year of unhealthy drama within our own community and a year of serious and destructive conflict with a part of the leadership team of the “mother ship”/big church that we work with.  For the first time ever, I spent a too much time looking over my shoulder because it was clear that there were some folks who’d set their sights on my staff and me.  In November, the conflict broke wide open at one of the ugliest, most confrontational church meetings anyone would want to be a part of.  For the next few weeks, it was hard to find a way forward that would keep the ministries I so believe in open. My job as I had known it was finito; it made for a very bittersweet Christmas.

I had gone on retreat at Tahoe in October because I was as lost and turned upside down as a person can be and still function.  The conflict, chaos and drama of the past year not only made my work situation difficult but brought enormous pressure to bear on my marriage.  For a while, it seemed like I was going to lose everything that anchored my life and gave it meaning.  Those thirty days of retreat, prayer and reflection reminded me that in fact, it is in losing everything that we find our lives and somehow, I began to lose the fear; the sense of hopelessness and failure I had struggled with all year.

Something else quite lovely happened. While I was at Tahoe, I was approached about two pretty remarkable work opportunities.  One was to become rector of a large, successful parish in Alabama.  The other was to become lead consultant for a church-wide new program that is being launched by the Episcopal Church.  This second job would start part-time and would allow me to be based wherever I chose. There would be travel, including fairly regular trips to NYC, but a lot of flexibility as well.

And that parish job! If you had ever told me I would be seriously considered for rector of a large, established, quite traditional congregation in the South I would have been incredulous.  Yet at each step of the discernment process with them, I experienced a community filled with grace, curiosity, courage and humor.  They are a pretty remarkable bunch of people and it was with real regret that I withdrew my name from their consideration in order to accept the consultant position.  I will never know how far I could have gone in that discernment process and I also have the certainty that I have made a very good decision for myself because I need the flexibility and the ability to craft a new way of working that fits my life now.

One of the results of this decision is that with the help of the diocese,  it looks like we have found a way for me to be able to transition out of my position with St Ambrose much more slowly and carefully than I had thought would be necessary.  One day a week, I will continue to work at St Ambrose, focused on the school success programs that are the heart and portal of our ministry.  I will continue to serve liturgically on Sunday mornings.  There’s no denying that the whole edifice is fragile and vulnerable, but we have endured and persisted and found a way forward for another year.  That is what ministry looks like these days, if you are serving as a member of the Episcopal Church in a community that does not have lots of resources to draw from.

What doesn’t kill you or your marriage makes both stronger too.  Sherod and I found the resources we needed to make our way out of hell—and that really is what our life had become.  Perhaps some day there will be a way to write about the hardship and grace peculiar to a clergy couple, especially a clergy couple who both thrive on risk and find themselves out at the very edges of the church where the ice is thin and the water beneath brutally cold.  I can say this: for longer than I can remember, and because of all the problems with my hip,  I have identified with Jacob, who wrestled a blessing from God and also came out lame as a result.  On Friday of this week, Sherod is having hip replacement surgery, the same surgery on the same side, as I had a few years ago.  It is both of us who have wrestled with God. It is both of us who recognize the brokenness of the human condition and have scars to show for that truth.  We have asked our community to allow me to sit by myself at the hospital on the morning of Sherod’s surgery and to give us some time to ourselves as Sherod begins the process of healing.  I will lean on him and he will lean on me, and together, we will get on with rebuilding our life after a very, very hard year.



DSCN0935My new office space is just about ready.  I am even going to have place to sit and read, knit or sew with good light when the Mallowman wants to watch his football games.  I’ve had to do a heck of a lot of moving things around, sorting and decluttering, and accepting the pieces that don’t quite fit perfectly but are are good enough.  I have a sense now of how the space will work–in fact, I am writing this at my new desk.  My life and vocation, like my office space,are sorting themselves out into a new order and path.   The icing on the cake this evening was dinner with the girl Maria who has navigated the first three days back at school flawlessly–a completely new experience for all of us.  Every single year since she started school in 2002, the first week after Christmas vacation has been a nightmare.  Even if it goes south tomorrow and Friday, the first three days were great.

Earlier this week, I was in touch with Carol, her behavior therapist who has been such a graceful member of “Team Maria”.  She said that at BARC and at school, the rest of the team and she are observing Maria get into her white-hot trigger situations (that is, the situations where she is most likely to loose it) and self restrain successfully.  None of us had dared hope for such a step forward. I know this path and I am grateful for today without projecting what tomorrow may bring.  But still.  Progress.  Real, deeply meaningful progress.  And the sweetest joy imaginable.