And tonight, our little family had a wonderful dinner here while Sherod’s pot of Brunswick Stew simmered for the party tomorrow…
In Alabama with sweet Maria in the car. We’ve been listening to loud music all the way, and whooped ‘n hollered and played this piece REAL loud when we crossed the ‘Bama state line. The girl gets to be home with us this weekend. Such joy…
A few bits and pieces of the last few days: late on Thursday, when I was waiting because there were maintenance issues with the plane for my flight from ATL to MGM, I went into the women’s bathroom at the airport. It was pushing 11 at night and a woman was hard at work, mopping the floor. On my way out I stopped to talk to her, told her I travel a lot these days and I dread the bathrooms in some of the airports. The ones in Atlanta are always clean so I wanted to thank her. When I did, her eyes welled up with tears.
Yesterday, our house was crawling with folks working on the renovation. One of them, a wiry, sharp-featured young man was putting up siding. Earlier this summer, he was one of the first people to start on this project of ours. At the time, he saw Maria’s loft bed, taken apart and leaning against a wall in the garage, and asked about it. Truth is, we were never going to use it again and he explained he wanted it for his little girl, wondered if we were selling it. I bartered some help from him getting Sherod’s shop fixed up instead. It was good to see Michael again and I asked how the loft bed had worked out. He explained he’d had to cut it down some to fit it in his family’s trailer and that his daughter loves it.
This young man has a significant scar right at the base of his throat, where he had emergency neck surgery after a terrible accident that almost left him paralyzed. He also wanted me to see a picture–he’s been gathering leftover siding and discarded windows that are still good, just dated, to build a playhouse for his children. The detail of his work bespoke the love he has for his children and the pride in his craft. He told me if I knew anyone who’d like one for their kids to let him know–he’s trying to do layaway for Christmas.
All the guys working on this renovation are like that–they work very, very hard, chew tobacco, wear either Auburn or Alabama t-shirts and are tough. Their world is probably very small by lots of standards. I suspect they and I would not see eye to eye on a whole lot of issues, but another one has invited Sherod and me to visit his church and they are all curious when they see me head out to catch another flight in my clergy outfits; they always ask about my trips when I get back and stop to look at my work when I am doing some of my e-learning design work on my laptop. I don’t imagine they do much more than make it, though they are smart and capable.
A friend of mine, Marie, has commented more than once that I make Alabama look idyllic and I want to make sure I am not candy-coating what life is like. This is a state where poverty is very, very real. Where there are plenty of meth labs–probably some not too far from my house. Where even out here in the country, there are break-ins and house invasions. Mainly, it is folks eking out an existence. The thing is is, more and more, I see the beauty and goodness right in the grit and determination and the sheer will to make something out of almost nothing.
Up at four this morning, Sherod and I headed down “Old Selma Road” as the sun was climbing, to look at the Black-Eyed Susans growing wild, the steam rising from creeks along the way, and all those other sights of a new day in the country when it’s cold and clear.
The day I came for my interview with ECF in late December, it was snowing. This trip brings me back in the autumn, with wind and cold rain. Black clothes are back with renewed determination. That said, I am still seeing lots of women in winter dresses and flats without socks or stockings. We are ready and not, anticipate and cling. Funny how we want to have it all.
Sherod was already asleep. We continue to be squished into the upstairs living space, clothes laid out on trash bags on the floor while the flooring goes down in our bedroom closet. I was still filled with restless energy so I sat at a small round table a few feet from the bed, writing. All of a sudden, and from very close by, a piercing, sharp keening filled the room. Coyotes were out in the field across the road from us. That sound, the fierce darkness of the night, the big questions waiting to be answered: all of it so wild and untamed.
I’m in Chicago attending a workshop on a process designed to help foster more open, direct and honest conversation in places like the Church. There is some irony that does not escape me about the fact that we turn to organizational consultants for direction on leadership. There’s this guy Jesus who’s a pretty good model for leadership but we have a harder time turning to the stories about his ministry because they make it very difficult to have it both ways. Safe, but truthful is not a sustainable paradox for long. Nonetheless, there are some good things to learn and especially, the stories people bring to these workshops are deeply, powerfully moving. That’s where I see the stirring of the Spirit.
This is the first time I’ve been in Chicago and I am in the heart of downtown, close to Michigan Avenue and just a few blocks from the lake. I brought my camera anticipating some time for photography but it is raw and cold outside and raining on and off. I am not sure I’ll make it. So I contented myself with a few pix around St. James Commons. The Diocese of Chicago has just opened a very lovely conference space at the top of a 5-story annex to St James Cathedral. I am especially delighted by the juxtaposition of very clean, sleek lines in the annex, and the old, Anglo-catholic ornateness of the Chapel of St Andrew where we say Morning Prayer together.
While I was in Boquete in September, one morning I had to run downtown to take care of an errand for my dad. I was already coming back towards his house when I heard the bells of the town church start ringing. I looked at my watch and realized it was about 10 past the hour, not a normal time for them to be ringing and imagined they were ringing to mark the end of funeral. They rang and rang as I kept on walking, which brought me towards the church. As the sound surrounded and went through me, John Donne’s words walked with me:
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
I reached the church just as 6 pallbearers carried a casket out and carefully slid it into a hearse. I stood quietly and waited for the rest of the people attending the funeral to come out and fall into step behind the hearse that drove away slowly.
I had not thought about that moment until earlier today. It is the second time in a relatively short period of time when pieces of writing, not that esoteric, but very old, have drifted back to my attention. Donne and Julian of Norwich feel like old friends who have dropped in unexpectedly and I am not sure their appearance is purely coincidental. You see, they speak of a time when humankind was so much more aware of how little there is to control, how fragile and strong we are at the same time, because we are involved with humankind, because we are all, every single one one of us, held so close by the One who created, redeemed and to this day, sustains us.
It is Donne and Dame Julian who give me my bearings as the crisis around the Ebola epidemic keeps crashing into this idyllic little corner Sherod and I have chosen for ourselves. A couple of weeks ago, Sherod, who usually sleeps in late, was up at the crack of dawn wanting to have a conversation about the point at which one chooses to self-isolate to protect from the virus. Alarmed, I tried to get a feel for how near and real the threat was. In response, a dear friend gently reminded me that both of us are far more likely to succumb from the flu than Ebola. How easily fear had been welcomed into our home…
I was at work on my laptop two days ago, when a New York Times banner came across the top of my screen with the news that Thomas Eric Duntan had died. I stopped for a little while—there was nothing I wanted or could do, except take notice of this death, the horrible death, of one person among billions that populate our planet. I was appalled and continue to grieve as I see so many people on Facebook make simply hateful comments about him and his death. I understand the fear that has gripped us. I see the missteps and errors all around. Perhaps worst, I am aware of the indifference of people like me, people with privilege and power, who stood back as the epidemic began and let the horror of this disease unfold in Africa because we were so sure we would in no way be diminished by the suffering and desolation “those people” were living and dying through. But to malign a person who has just died, especially died such a horrible death? We lose our own humanity when we surrender to the angry face of fear.
In contrast to my callous indifference, I am convinced that each time our Good Shepherd has to bend down to pick up and hold against his heart one more of his beloved who has died of Ebola, He weeps as he wept with each person who died of AIDS. I am convicted by the certainty that if Jesus were still walking the paths of Earth, he would have been in Thomas Eric’s room. Recently, some friends of a friend went to West Africa on a trip they had scheduled before the epidemic broke out. Before they left, they pondered what it meant that so many people had recommended they not go. As they shared with my friend through Facebook posts: how could they say they are people of faith in solidarity with the people of Africa and not go. In them and through them, and others of such courage, Christ, who fears not death, is present where healing is most needed.
I don’t have the skills to go to West Africa and be of much help. But I can do this: I can give witness to a God who calls us to something different than fear in this dark and sad time. Earlier, I read this article and I feel like it is now my personal responsibility to keep both Thomas and little baby Diana in my remembrance and in my prayers. I am going to get my flu shot tomorrow so I don’t take ill and draw resources away from those who need them more. I am going to keep reading the stories and listening to the news to bring myself closer to what is happening and not look away just because it is all so ugly and so painful. I am going to keep saying to everyone I know, whether through this blog, or on Facebook or best yet, face to face, that we must not be afraid. We must be part of bringing the hope into this desolation in whatever way we can.
If you are reading this blog, I hope you will click on the link to the NYT article and see the whole slideshow. I hope you too will consider what you can do to help make sure the light keeps shining in the darkness. We have talked ourselves into believing that we are an island unto our own. We aren’t. Our determination to hold ourselves apart and claim superiority is what makes us afraid and weak. Even if we choose not to believe it, we are diminished by the death of Thomas, and little baby Diana and her mom, and the thousands of others who have died of this hideous disease. Our fear is not OK. It is courage and the certainty that even in this time, God holds us all in the palm of God’s hand, that allow us to be light, to set free, to offer life. May we be light.
I was the celebrant and preacher at a big church in Montgomery yesterday. I was there solely on the basis of my own work in ministry, not in the shadow of my husband’s ministry. Nor was I there, as I have been at St. Paul’s, with a connection in through another clergy person. I was an unknown quantity as were they to me. It wasn’t that I was apprehensive as much I had a sense of testing myself, figuring out some more about what it means to me to be a priest these days.
I had worked on my sermon most of the week and at 4:30 yesterday morning was very dissatisfied with what I had. I started over and by six, had something I thought could preach. In both services, I used my text to get started. In both services, that thing that sometimes happens, happened. I knew the message I had heard in the readings and how I thought I could share it. I was equally aware that I was at worship with a community and it wasn’t nearly as important to use every carefully crafted sentence as it was to be there–to be present and to allow those folks into my life as I preached. Even a script can become a barrier, a security blanket that insulates me from the people I am with. So I let it go and simply talked to the congregation.
A young man in coat and tie came up to me at the end of the first service and told me I had given him a new way to think about the Ten Commandments, that he’d have a lot to consider this week. A preacher can ask for no better response than that. Other people were very gracious as they stopped to talk to me after the service. And my sense even up in the pulpit was that I had connected with the community.
Ascension has a long, relatively narrow nave. The choir stalls are directly behind the pulpit and lectern and the altar behind them, several steps up on a bema. It is literally the “high altar”. I think it was the first time I celebrated the Eucharist so far from the congregation that I could not make eye contact with anyone. I wanted to push everything closer, close that distance and especially, come off that high altar. And then, it was time for communion and all of a sudden it seemed like everyone was right there—so many beautiful children, so many people of all sizes and shapes. The immensity of the need and hope of the human heart that brings us to our knees with hands outstretched.
Today, I shifted gears, worked almost without interruption on the courseware I am designing and developing for ECF. Sherod and I are doing really well, it seems to me, sharing a household 24-7. We rarely even have time to have lunch with each other during the day, each of us intent on our own projects. We did stop mid afternoon to run an errand in Selma and then, when I was getting settled back in my work, he asked me to come help him pick pecans in our small pecan grove.
With a tin bucket, we went out and came back to the house with a bunch of them. We will find something to watch on TV together later in the week and crack and pick pecans out of their shells. In this part of the world that is a perfectly quotidian thing to do. For me, it is still a source of wonder. After a few minutes picking the pecans, listening to them hit against the bottom of the bucket, realizing they have a softer outside hull that covers the shell, I was overwhelmed by the memory of Julian of Norwich’s reflection on a hazel nut. In her Shewings of Divine Love she says,
He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third, that God keepeth it (1st Revelation)
I am being shown so much these days—how here and there, and now and then, I still get to serve as a priest. How I am able to contribute to the larger church and provide financially for my own household in such a different way than I had hoped and imagined when I was ordained. How our land sustains Sherod and me, how we can be together in a new way that leaves room for real laughter and space for each of us to be true to ourselves as separate and distinct people and priests. I am also being shown that answers don’t come all at once. The kind of certainty I had with my fulltime job as a parish priest is just not available to me and yet I am able to find deep satisfaction in piece-meal, patched-together work.
It all comes down to those three things contained in a small pecan in my hand: God has made us and all that is. God has and always will love what is—not what might have been. God keeps it all in God’s palm, under the shadow of a wing.