St Paul’s, Lowndesboro is hosting VBS for the town between today and Wednesday in the evening. Without idealizing little peeps, Tonight I am thankful for the clear voices of children singing about love.
During the almost two years it took to do all the legal work that allowed Sherod and me to adopt Maria, she and I talked by phone about twice a week. Actually, it isn’t accurate to say we talked–already she had such serious language development delays that conversation was not really possible. Instead we sang. Our most favorite song was “Pio Pio Pio Dicen Los Pollitos“, a song about baby chicks and their mama. I feel like a mama hen today, working in my office and stopping every hour or so to walk out to our little Florida room to marvel again at the little peeps who’ve come to be a part of our family. It made me think of those days with Maria, made me miss her something fierce. I think tonight when I call, we’ll sing that song again…
After our beautiful hens were killed a few weeks ago, we knew the Chicken Palace that Sherod had given me for Christmas simply did not provide the safety and security the girls needed. About 10 days ago, Sherod designed and began to build a much sturdier new home–maybe not as pleasing to the eye but more functional, bigger, much, much safer. It has a pull out tray at the bottom which will make cleaning it easier. The rest of the time, the tray will be latched in place. There are a whole series of improvements and upgrades like that but mainly, it is that this is a project built in the language of Sherod’s love. We’ve pushed and pulled a bit around some of the details and in the end, I am left in awe of his skill and his willingness to give all this time and effort. Last night, I went out and hung the flipflop lights I had gotten a couple of months ago and had never actually put up. In the dark, they create something close to a chicken wonderland since the lights attract all kinds of tasty bug morsels for our chickens’ dining pleasure.
At 6:30 this morning, I got the call: “Miss Rosa, this is a courtesy call to let you know your biddies are here at the Lowndesboro Post Office and you can come pick them up as soon as you are ready.” I signed for the little box alive with movement and peeping, got back in my car with the heat on at full blast and brought our new little girls home. We have 7 this time around: 2 Barred Plymouth Rocks, 2 Americanas, 2 Buff Orpingtons, and 1 Lavender Orpington. They melt my heart. Again. After we lost our first set of girls, lots of folks suggested we not name any other chickens we might get. I can’t not give them names–some of their names are Swedish and some are Colombian /Latina names this time around: Britt, Pepita, Mechas, Bengta, Elin, Mafaldita, and Freja. The Plymouth Rocks are Britt and Mechas, the 2 Americanas are Pepita and Freja, the 2 Buffs, Mafaldita and Elin, and the Lavender, Bengta.
I sighed more than once, re-reading the instructions for biddy care. A few times a day, you have to check each one’s be-hiney for poop matting/clumping. Any sign of that and you have to wipe that little butt with a soft, damp cloth, and use a toothpick to finish unplugging her. Otherwise the peep will die. It’s like having to change diapers all over again and one is so relieved when that part of child or chicken rearing (no pun intended) is done. Starting over, all I want to do is sit and stare at those new babies…
Last summer, I actually wore a light sweater on many of the mornings right after I moved and would sit out in the garden to drink my coffee. My thought then was, “Summer? Easy peasy!” This morning, I needed to shovel mulch out of Sherod’s truck bed to spread in one of the flower beds. I got started at about 6:20 and it didn’t take 10 minutes before the sweat was running into my eyes, stinging like all get out. At half past eight, when I finished my garden chores, my hair and clothes were soaked and it wasn’t because I’d gotten in the way of a sprinkler. It is caliente, caliente, ¡¡¡caliente!!! And summer has just begun….
It’s been a year. A year of losing and finding, all mixed up together, since that early, early morning when we drove away from Fort Lauderdale. My best friend was here for a visit this past weekend and I was finally able to say out loud what I hadn’t been able to before. As I drove that first day, I wondered if I would make it. I had gotten used to seeing myself as a strong and capable woman who had done things like a 30-day Ignatian retreat and a half marathon. But the pain of leaving so much behind felt like it was capable of swamping and drowning me. It was an almost “out of body” realization—an awareness of our human fragility and how things can break and never get put back together, including our hearts. The only thing to do was keep driving and so I did.
Last night, I was almost asleep when my iPhone started buzzing with text messages. Lupe, one of my true heroes, was sending me a series of pictures of the summer school program the Latina women who were part of El Centro Hispano de Todos los Santos, have put together this year. The last IM said, “When will we finish thanking you for teaching us how to believe in ourselves? Thank you for helping us discover who we are. Nothing happens by chance and we miss you very much but we know that you are happy and that helps. We love you.” The kingdom of God is always beyond our reach and through parish ministry, I have also found out that it is so close that we get to see and experience a tiny fraction of its magnificence and that is enough to leave me wordless.
Last week, I advised my team at ECF that in August, when we finish the pilot phase of the work we’ve been doing, I will leave my position with them. The pull of parish ministry is simply too strong and this self, who is no longer a spring chicken, has had an awfully hard time with all the travel the work has involved and will continue to require. I am doing some work with a large downtown parish in Montgomery this summer, as well as really getting started as priest-in-charge at St. Paul’s here in Lowndesboro. There is some more part-time parish work that may come together for me towards the end of September. Taking this step is also taking another step in the direction of simplicity and more careful stewardship of our financial resources. I get scared from time to time, but it is in that letting go that I am able to say yes to the unexpected gifts of the future.
So now, a year later, what have I learned, what do I know that I didn’t (and couldn’t) know as I turned off 595 headed north on the Florida Turnpike? Love endures. Saying good bye, letting go—leaving—in no way diminished or will diminish the love and joy that resided in my work and my life in Fort Lauderdale. It enlivens and gives direction to the work and life I lead now. Returning to the audio book I listened to on that journey last year, The Fault In Our Stars, I know this: however small a little infinity might be, it is still an infinity. Love does not end.
On Monday afternoon, I was working in my office when the doorbell rang and Daisy started yapping. I went to our front door and there stood Grace, one of my favorite acolytes at St Paul’s and an all-around wonderful young girl. She and her little sister, Ella, had been by to visit the chicken girls several weeks ago, before the chickens’ untimely demise. Gracie wanted to extend her condolences and she had made this picture for me, a wonderfully sweet keepsake that I will always treasure.
Out picking tomatoes, okra and green beans, I stopped to marvel at all the bees feasting on this one sunflower (it’s hard to see them all, they blend so well, but there are a lot). This particular flower bloomed in the last 24 hours and I imagine some small bee, buzzing along, hoping to find sustenance for the day and stopping mid-air: Well, Hello! It’s like that, isn’t it?
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 2 Corinthians 5
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Mark 4
It’s always a little strange to be a guest celebrant and preacher when we don’t know each other and there has been little or none of the give and take that gives us a way to explore together what it means to be people of faith. Nonetheless, I am honored to be here with you and to get to abide with you for a bit in the beauty and hopefulness of today’s passages.
Almost exactly one year ago, Sherod, my husband, and I watched a moving van pull away from our home in Fort Lauderdale. The next morning, it was our turn; with a wretchedly miserable cat and a restless dog, I drove my car while Sherod headed down the road in his truck with his beloved Lab, Boo. I remember driving along the massive interstate system in Southeast Florida that we had known for 18 years, nerves jangling because driving in that kind of traffic is simply horrible to me. That is a paradox because I grew up in Cali, a city in the Southwest of Colombia that had a population of over 2 million in those days. Except for a couple of years in Lynchburg Va, and another 18 months in Huntsville, since 1980, I had always lived in large urban spaces—New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis, and Southeast Florida—and now, with Sherod’s retirement imminent, here we were moving to this little farm in Lowndes County that Nancy Bennett had helped us buy.
There were people who told me I was crazy—crazy to move to Alabama, even more crazy to move to a small farm in an area where it is hard to get your trash picked up and even harder to get decent internet access. On the morning we drove away from Fort Lauderdale, in that in-between time, I panicked thinking they might be right. But it wasn’t like that at all.
Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
It is hard to describe to someone who did not see the kind of endless stress and challenge that defined the life for two priests doing some experimental ministry in a large urban center, and raising an adopted daughter with enormous special needs, how moving to our small farm has been like being made new. We can spread a blanket on the ground on a clear winter’s night and see a forever number of stars. The wonder of lightening bugs as the weather warms and light refracting through frost on the grass at dawn during the winter. The silence. We look at each other often and exclaim, “can you believe this is our life now?”
The sense of wonder extends even to what we thought we had read and seen and known for forever. I love the the parable of the Mustard Seed, reading it is like putting an a pair of old comfortable shoes. Yet it is filled with new wonder for me.
I had grown used to high drama. To grand gestures. To lavish displays of wealth and devastating suffering. In big cities, where so much is always going on, that’s what’s easy to pay attention to. Even what we get in the news is like that: yesterday, the news was all about the dramatic assault on the police department in Dallas, TX, the manhunt following that spectacular jailbreak in upstate New York. Sherod’s and my move to our farm contradicts that addiction to the adrenaline rush and has taught me, if I am looking for truth, start in the small places, the moments nobody notices.
I have a hunch that if I could invite Jesus to spend the early morning with me, picking green beans, if I could ask him what parts of his ministry have meant the most to him, he’d describe how much he loved those small moments of showing people who had always been marginalized know they were somebody, somebody loved, when he broke bread with them. He might tell me how it mattered that he was able to place his hand on the shoulder of one who had never known what a healing touch is like. It is still in those small ways that grace continues to spread through the world, how things which had grown old are made new.
And then there is the mustard seed—or really, any seed at all. Earlier this year, Sherod and I got a few packages of wildflower mix, we turned over that hard red Alabama clay and mixed in some mulch in it. While we scattered the seeds, we told ourselves they probably wouldn’t amount to anything. We do that, don’t we, as if those assurances could inoculate us against disappointment? We also walked around and looked at the plants that were already in our garden, planted by others before us. The previous owners had lots of horses on the property and the horses just about destroyed a fig that you could tell had once been tall and bountiful and beautiful. There were blueberry bushes being choked to death by weeds and neglect. We shook our head and said that probably, both the blueberry bush and the fig would have to come down. These two were not just small, they were old and they were broken and battered.
I lack words to tell you about the the sense of wonder, and humility and gratitude with which we begin each morning out on that little farm these days. That patch where we scattered the seeds? It has become a space of gentle beauty, lush with flowers of all colors and sizes. I had dreamed of having flowers I could cut and use in the house. Turns out that the flower patch is also a place where bees come to feast—bees, that as we hear constantly, are dying off and making our food chain even more fragile and vulnerable. Here they have found an unexpected welcome.
We have harvested more blueberries than we know what to do with and the fig tree is laden with fruit. Just this week, we realized a cardinal has made its nest in that same tree, finding safety and shade amongst its branches.
You and I, who are used to believing that more is more and bigger is better, we are always tempted to look at something as small and insignificant as a mustard seed and worry it will not be enough. Someone far more eloquent than I has said that Jesus looks at those things that stir our worry “and thinks about the decisive nature of the little bit you have in hand, the magnitude of small things—a mustard seed, a child, one coin lost in the house, one sheep detached from the fold, five small loaves, two fish. He knows it takes a lot less than you think” 
It takes a lot less than we think. When we consider our own selves, our own communities of faith, we wonder how we could possibly be enough. And yet we too are like the mustard seed, we too carry the promise of the Kingdom of God in our heart. God’s love, already resident in every part of our being, yearns to help us grow into the fullness of love that freely answers with a yes to the needs, the hopes, the possibilities for healing and renewal in the world.
In the fullness of his love we are invited to think like Jesus thinks, to see and to love like he does. In this growing season, when you pick a ripe, red tomato, when you make a big mess of green beans, when you marvel at the jewel-colored jam you have canned and are about to put up, remember it all began with small seeds. And remember those seeds of the Kingdom are in us too. May this be a season of growth abundant and love given away extravagantly so all the birds in the skies, and everything else in need of a place for shelter, hope and comfort, may find rest amongst us.
This Sunday I will be celebrant and preacher at St. Paul’s, Selma. The Gospel passage is from Mark: With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed. Or any other seed. I have held seeds tightly in my fist, doubted, as they scattered, that anything would come of them. I have fretted and fumed at bad weather or excessive heat or rain or the fact that things take time to grow and some, no matter what, never amount to much. Still, love grows.
It’s off to DC tomorrow to facilitate a workshop at one of our Episcopal seminaries and after that, a good stretch of time here at home. I am exhausted. Two or three times this month, I have woken up and wondered where in God’s creation I was. The work has been fruitful, visits with friends and our girl essential. Now, I am eagerly anticipating lots of morning in the garden. Every day there is a lot of produce to pick and I will start some canning this afternoon. I relish the thought of returning to summer routines that I grew to love last year. Life is good…
There is a certain presumptuousness on my part to say that I am a farmer. I have seen farmer’s hands and mine have never worked that hard. But this morning I woke up and went out to see the chicken coop, see the deep grooves where the coyote tried to go in through the silly little window on the chicken palace and the place where he or she finally got in. The bottom of the nesting box is removable–week in and week out, I have removed that bottom, put the pine shavings on a pile that we are composting, scrubbed all the chicken droppings off and sprayed it with vinegar. I hate that part of my work but no one said it would all be fun and easy. That a feature of the coop that made my life a little easier was also what made those beautiful girls vulnerable hurts. As Sherod and I looked at the damage, we agreed that we would pull that fancy house out and replace it with a far more utilitarian coop where new chickens will one day be safer.
Then, I went back inside and put a new mail order in. We will get new baby chicks around the 22nd of June, in time for our grand babies to help care for them when they come spend a week at what the Mallowman calls “Camp YES SIR“. Then I went out with Sherod to harvest what was ready for today. After a week-long absence, we had so much produce it got a bit overwhelming. Our green beans are all planted in the ground and there are about 15 bushes–leaning over to pick them all is hard on the old back, but doable. Sherod is still out there picking blueberries. He will harvest more than a quart and there will be 3 or 4 times that many to harvest in the weeks to come. Later today, we will share the bounty with friends here in Lowndesboro and my friend and colleague in Birmingham. I am taking her some of my roses and daises and zinnias, and some thyme, lavender and basil as well. I didn’t even bother to tackle the hydrangeas. They are beautiful right where they are.
A farm requires a new kind of heart. You have to do your grieving fiercely but you can’t linger. The answer to the prayer “lighten our darkness” is morning, with all its work and responsibilities, with all its mercies that require grit and effort and hardened hands to receive. A priest does well learning at least some of these lessons…