Holy Week

“In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls…
East Coker, T.S. Eliot

In Fort Lauderdale, the age of buildings is measured in decades, at most in a span of a single century. While we lived there, we saw many tear-down and build-ups happen, especially in the east part of town, where the quaint old Florida homes no longer served and it seemed like everyone wanted a McMansion.

It is different here. I ride back and forth between our house and Prattville, where I do my regular shopping, on a gently curving country road. I have often noticed structures that were once inhabited or used that are slowly, but surely, returning to the land. I went into town today and happened to have my camera with me. My trip had started with a visit to St. Paul’s to take a picture I need for one of the services I will be helping with so my mind was on Holy Week. I decided to take some pictures I had been wanting to take for a while but had never gotten around to.

This turned out to be lovely, unexpected Holy Week meditation. The death and destruction in the structures I stopped to take pictures of was undeniable—and has been all along. Now, with Spring pushing out in every way imaginable, there was also that visual—and very viscerally experienced—juxtaposition. Life and death so inextricably bound together. I am glad to find myself living where that bleaker truth about our existence is not so easily plastered, tiled and painted over. It makes the absoluteness of life sweeter somehow.

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Tomorrow we head to Jerusalem

I have spent most of today working on “El Palacio de las Gallinas” (aka, the Chicken Palace).  This included learning how to use a spray painter.  The paint goes everywhere.  And it takes about 20 minutes to clean the machine properly, following lengthy and detailed instructions. There are a few more small things I’ll need to do but this is a tired and happy person this evening.

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The kind of work I did lent itself to long stretches of silence and thought.  I am keenly aware that it is was almost exactly these days, last year, when Sherod and I drove up to check the farm out and then made an offer on it.  I read my blog posts from those days and am reminded of the awful sorrow I carried. To say they were days of desolation doesn’t even begin to describe them.  I don’t want to whitewash the ways in which the rebuilding has cost.  There have been days of bleakness all along the way since last spring.  At the same time, I find myself surprised by the happiness that was waiting for me in Alabama.

The thirty day retreat, the hard work of sorting through and letting go of the magical thinking that was driving so much of my ministry in Ft Lauderdale, the willingness to face into the truths about our beautiful daughter, each one of those hard pieces of work I had to do got me through the day.  And in those last two years, a lot of what I did was get through the day.  What I could not see was the way in which I was being tempered–and built up.  I got stronger walking all those nights and I got stronger praying, trying my best to discern and be faithful to what God was calling me to next.  On the day Sherod pulled away, headed back to Ft Lauderdale to finish his tenure at All Saints and I turned back into the house to begin unpacking, I stepped into ‘now this” with so many more inner resources than I had ever had in my life.

I am stronger, and by God’s grace, our marriage is stronger.  Working together, especially working together, way out on a limb as we tried to launch a regional ministry, pushed and pulled and tore at us in ways I couldn’t even see.  One of the graces I treasure most is how we are able to talk about all that in new ways that are not about accusation and regret.  There is far more honesty than I had thought we’d be capable of but if we are doing anything, we are learning some more about the forgiveness that refuses to allow us to be stuck in the past.  Maybe that is possible because we end up laughing a lot these days too.

Since January of last year, I have been working on an ECF project that now is going live, at least as a pilot program.  I like the place where the rubber hits the road in the Church, and that’s where I am spending my work days.  And something else has happened.  With the blessing of Bp Sloan, the Diocesan of Alabama, I am in the midst of discerning with the leadership of St Paul how I might accept a call to be their next priest-in-charge.  I follow in the footsteps of a remarkable priest and I come to this possibility with far more humility than other times of new beginnings.  But for one who had wondered a year ago if I would ever get to do parish ministry again, a prayer has been answered.  It is very, very part-time, and my ECF work continues.  If there is a word for 2015, it is gratitude.  So much gratitude.

Although my priest friend Joe’s last Sunday at St Paul’s will be Easter, this is the 5th Sunday of the month so St. Paul’s will host the community service for Lowndesboro. Joe can’t be there so II will be the celebrant and preacher.  In the words of Emmy Lou Harris’ song: tomorrow we go to Jerusalem.

Spring in the country

The light was beautiful this morning.  Last evening, when i pulled into St. Paul’s, the small Episcopal Church in Lowndesboro, one of the trees up front was in full bloom. I kept thinking it reminded me of the time I got to see the cherry blossoms hit peak in Washington DC and asked about the tree I was looking at. Sure enough, it is a Japanese cherry tree so I headed back to St Paul to take some pictures this morning.

The tree was luminous

The tree was luminous

And the blossoms are so beautiful they break your heart.

And the blossoms are so beautiful they break your heart.

Driving back home, I saw quantities of wisteria blooming as well…

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I only had about 30 minutes to take these pictures and then my day roared on with all kinds of phone and video calls for work and projects that connect me to people all over the country.  In just a bit, I will help lead a webinar for ECF on team-based discernment and had agreed to get the technical check done with my boss at 4:45 PM.  I went out of my office, headed to the kitchen for a glass of water before getting started and happened to glance up at the front door which was open.

Well, hello!

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I was a little late getting on the video call because I had to help Sherod with a small relocation project.  For the beauty of this day…

Spring weekend

It’s been a busy weekend that included a trip to Petals from the Past to make use of a gift certificate and bring home some plants. Last night, it was a haunting and enlightening trip to a chicken auction in Autauga County.  My friend Pat and I had been very curious about this weekly auction so her spouse and she, Sherod and I drove into an area populated with trailer parks, goats, and car junk yards.  It is a corner of life that I would never have seen otherwise.  I kept being reminded that the animals in crates would be released quickly, that they had had to be brought into the auction one way or another.  But it is a far grittier, raw, and challenging experience of raising and having chickens than the very genteel and playful version I inhabit.  I am thinking of going out to the auction for several Saturdays in a row just to talk to these folks and get a better sense of what life is like for them.  I found myself asking, “where is God in all this?” and even more, “where is the church?”.

Coming into the auction the back way

Coming into the auction the back way

Chickens and other small live stock at auction

Chickens and other small live stock at auction

Bidding for 18 fertilized Americana eggs--they went for $4.75

Bidding for 18 fertilized Americana eggs–they went for $4.75

Today has been about getting ready for a fairly busy week, doing groceries, and between rain showers, going back out to finish a few garden projects.  I trimmed back several lantana bushes that have not been pruned in years.  Sherod will pull the tractor and wagon next to my piles, I will load them up and he’ll take them to the burn pile.  My roses are in the ground now, along with a couple of purple cone flower (equinacea) plants, and lots of herbs:  chives, rosemary, sage, lemon thyme, cilantro, parsley, oregano, basil, chocolate mint and peppermint.  This week we will do most of our planting out in the garden.  Good days, these, with the redbuds blooming, the bartlett pear petals drifting like snow and gentle spring rains.

Herbs. roses and equinacea

Herbs. roses and equinacea

Endless entertainment as evening falls

Endless entertainment as evening falls

Sherod made the girls an amazing perch; on a rainy day no need to get your feet wet.

Sherod made the girls an amazing perch; on a rainy day no need to get your feet wet.

Public service announcement 

I was already tethered to an IV.  The Dr. had been in and said the results would be immediate. In fact, my stretcher was already outside the “Procedure Room” because I was next.  That’s when it hit:  within 45 minutes I would know whether or not I had cancer and I just. about. drowned. in. fear.

This was one of the very standard tests that privileged people with insurance who are also over 50, get to have, even if they are symptom free.  There’s the indignity;  I was too embarrassed to tell anyone except a pair of nurse friends ahead of time.  The prep is miserable.  To this day, having an IV inserted makes me break out in a cold sweat–too many bad memories from infancy. Just that made me procrastinate, literally for years.  I walked into a waiting room at the crack of dawn today and there were easily 50 people already there. So many reasons why I have avoided doing this!

The news was stellar and I don’t need to be back for another five years.  It was only in that moment of fear, bordering on panic, that I understood just how huge it is to decide not to allow ourselves to give in to all the excuses for why not. I even had time, before it was my turn, to say a prayer for Linda who lost her life way too soon.  And I decided I would write this post to say: if you are 50 or older and haven’t, do it.  Have a colonoscopy.  Life is precious and worth holding on to.  There.  I said it…

Girl-squirrel and kindness

Early morning on the farm

Early morning on the farm

Alston should probably be called Allie or something like that since it turns out she’s a little girl-squirrel. She’s doing well with her friend Joe—travels in his pocket so his body heat can keep her at the right temperature and to be right there for feeding times. She’s been to Fairhope and Mobile, down on the Gulf Coast, and by all accounts she has made it back into the fullness of life, albeit the life of an orphaned squirrel.

I hadn’t thought that would be the case. I did not expect that little wisp of life Sherod and I took turns holding would make it. I am more accepting of the reality of death in the middle of life out here on the farm. In fact, I had noticed this about myself earlier, on the day we brought home the chickens. One of them, Bitsy, simply collapsed on the floor of the brooder when I took her out of the little box we’d used to bring the girls home from Georgia. She was too weak to even lift her head. I gently picked her back up and followed the instructions I’d been given—to make sure I dipped her little beak all the way into the  water dispenser.  and lay her back down next to the water and close to the feeder.

Maria and I left her, and the rest of the chicks, for a while and I found it took very little to accept that when I walked back in, Bitsy might well be dead. There was no squeamishness about planning to handle a little corpse if that was what I found. I had already thought about how Maria and I would entrust her to the earth  in a small corner of the farm. In the Eucharistic prayer I used to recite with the Latino community in Fort Lauderdale, one of my favorite passages says about God, “You created the skies with your mighty love and with tenderness gave us the earth as nurturing mother, to be our cradle, our home and our grave.” Living on a farm has given those words even more power and beauty for me. That both Bitsy and Alston made it does not blind me to the reality that there will be plenty of death in the years to come.

What strikes me though, is that on Sunday, I was in the presence of  an incredibly fragile little creature, who had expended everything she had to find her way to the house. I could not imagine she had much left with which to live. For that very reason, holding her required deep reverence. Strange, then, to realize that at the same time, there wasn’t the kind of drama and horror I used to associate with death. I was glad that we could do this small thing for what many would say is an insignificant—in fact, a nuisance—member of creation. It does not escape me that squirrels will more than likely wreak havoc with my garden in just a few weeks. Yet truly, it was not just the common, but the undesirable, that made Sunday evening holy.

I am mindful—and appreciative—that kindness where I live now has quite little to do with words, or fixing things or people, or “making it all better”. It is far more about an orientation, and as I keep finding my way in ministry, it is a commitment to relationships rather than scores, results and wins. I want to be clear about my understanding in this respect: I do not seek to minimize or try to sweep under the rug the cost of failures and brokenness, especially my own. Nor does this let me or any of us off the hook for holding each other compassionately accountable.   This is a way of understanding the work of relationships that my friend, Joe Duggan, and I continue to explore, mull over and consider for its implications in ministry.

But as so often happens these days, it is the words of another, far wiser person than I, that capture what I now understand a little better. Mary Luti is a retired seminary professor who is currently serving as an interim pastor with the UCC in Massachussets. Recently, she wrote this:

“Many believed because they saw the signs he was doing. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people; he knew what was in them.”  – John 2:23-25

Jesus sounds stand-offish in this passage, but he’s just protecting himself from the neediness of the people clamoring for miracles. It’s a trap, and he wants to steer clear. But he’s not condemning anyone for feeling that need. ‘He knew what was in them’—desire for sensation, love of the spectacular, confusion about power. He’d struggled with those same temptations for forty days and nights in the wilderness. It could have gone either way.

I think he came out of that experience with a sense of the precariousness of goodness so strong he finds it nearly impossible to condemn anybody. The only people he condemns are those who refuse to see that what we call sin is more often haplessness than perversity; that human choice is never simple; that our motives are complicated; that pain is everywhere; that we’re so desperate for worth we’re prepared to do almost anything to get it.

He knows what is in us. This is our hope in those trembling moments when we face ourselves in God’s presence. It saves us from imagined divine condemnation. More crucially, it saves us from self-condemnation. “When we are vulnerable and fragile,” writes Rowan Williams, “it is Jesus who is wounded and broken, carrying all our hurt in himself. So we may take our whole selves to him in the sure trust that nothing will be thrown back at us to wound or destroy…this is the gospel whose ministers we are. (http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_he_knew)

That line, taken from Rowan Williams, that with God we can present ourselves trusting that “nothing will be thrown back to wound and destroy” marks the path of kindness for me. Though farther at the edges, I continue to work within the Church and find things—no, find people’s actions and decisions—that get to me, that get me furious, that fill me with despair. And of course, my own actions and decisions lead me to the exact same place. What I am trying so hard to do is let go my fist, stop mid-swing before I hurl well sharpened words that are all about revenge and retribution, not healing or reconciliation.

Opening my hand to receive that little squirrel from Sherod on Sunday night was a lesson in surrendering to kindness. I think that’s where it starts: with physically receiving and holding in one’s hands that which is in need of protection, and care and warmth. Only then can my muscle memory translate all this to my far more resistant and recalcitrant heart.

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The utter tenderness of this little creature...

The utter tenderness of this little creature…

Our friends Pat and Larry, and Sherod and I, have dinner together almost every Sunday. We enjoy each other’s company. There are lots and lots of stories to tell. Pat has been wonderful, helping me get my bearings with my “chickenses”. Larry and Sherod have a friendship that goes back decades. Last summer, while I waited for Sherod to finish his work at All Saints, Pat and Larry watched out for me in big ways and small.

Sherod made a nice pot of vegetable soup and I pulled out the San Francisco sour dough bread and the cheese I brought from Cowgirl Creamery. When Pat and Larry arrived in the very late afternoon, we spent time outside, laughing and admiring the chickens. Then, as evening shadows stretched out long and quiet, we came inside for dinner. The weather is warm enough now that we are able to keep the front door open late into the night, since the screen door in front of it keeps critters out.

We were sitting having dinner and laughing when Pat noticed and exclaimed that a small squirrel seemed to be heading toward the house, down the driveway. A few minutes later, I saw a small tail through the screen door and then we all heard a very loud and insistent squirrel cry. I looked over my shoulder and I could tell that the little squirrel was trying to get in under the screen door.

I got up and went to the door. Then Sherod came too and we scooped the little one up and brought him inside. We scrambled madly for a dropper or straw without success. I jumped in my car and drove about 14 miles to a Dollar store where I bought baby formula, a dropper and some rice cereal. By the time I got home, little baby squirrel had a new name: Alston. Sherod had scooped lowfat milk in his hand and fed him. And now, he was lying across his hand, sound asleep.

We have since done more research and realized that feeding Alston milk was not what we should have done and we can expect diarrhea, perhaps death-dealing diarrhea. Thanks to Facebook crowdsourcing, we have found Joe, the local squirrel whisperer, who is on his way to get Alston and try to help him make it. I am left pondering, what made that little creature, who probably fell out of a tree, find its way to our door? What about that very loud insistence that we pay attention? The self-preservation instinct simply takes my breath away.  It is humbling to live in this place, where on my way back with the dropper and other things, I saw a coyote and two deers as well. It is a good, good life.