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.