- I’ve had a fierce case of tendonitis or arthritis or something in my thumb as I finished my work with ECF. I’ve been trying to do only the essential typing to give my hand a chance. Today, I sent in my last expense report, the last bit of administrative stuff I had left to do and today was my official last day. These past two weeks I have been organizing and documenting my two major projects. My friend and co-facilitator, Deb, and I also did our final workshop over the weekend. The job never quite fit for me and at the same time, I am thankful for work that allowed me to make the transition from Ft Lauderdale to here, and I am proud because as a member of the start-up team, I think I made a strong contribution. This is a nice, clean ending and for that, I am glad.
- At the same time I was wrapping up with ECF, I was going deeper into parish ministry. We lost a member of St. Paul’s who was particularly dear to me and Monday found Sherod and me driving to Trussville, AL a suburb of Birmingham, to do the funeral. There’s quite a lot to do at the Ascension right now as well. I had missed the mess and grit of parish ministry, the fact that there is always something a little bit frayed (and sometimes tattered) at the edges. There’s a different kind of rhythm that emerges around worship — an order that isn’t sequential and clear, not a map, as much as a field, ground you cover over and over again, yet is different each time you look. I am preaching and celebrating at the Ascension this Sunday and I realized I have preached on this particular passage from John in five different communities now. It amazes me that it keeps meaning something so different each time it arrives in the Revised Common Lectionary.
- One of the absolutely amazing gifts of my time ministering in the Latino community in Fort Lauderdale was discovering home-cooked Mexican food. Maru, Marlene, Lupe, Alejandra, Mónica and many others prepared meals I will never forget. I have missed their food and the fellowship over meals with them more than words can tell. So when I saw a post by one of the Ascension folks about this Mexican place in Montgomery, I knew I had to check it out. I almost wept it felt so good to be back in that world, with Univision playing and cilantro, radishes and tacos al pastor so good they’d make you slap your mama bringing back sweet, sweet memories. There was a party in my mouth–a sparkling, caliente, wonderful party in my mouth and next time they make Pollo con Mole Verde they’re going to call and let me know. Isn’t it amazing how the pieces rearrange themselves and what we thought was lost sometimes has simply been made new.
This summer I have loved spending time in the Gospel of Mark with its straightforward, sometimes terse, style that uses so many agrarian images and parables that are ever so vivid and meaningful now that Sherod and I live out in the country. I am also moved by the ordinariness of what he does. Some guys need to cross on a boat and a storm comes up so the waves are crashing and the wind howling? His is not the response of Aladin or the fairy godmother. Jesus does not turn their rickety boat into an intergalactic extravaganza like the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) from the Dr. Who series—he doesn’t even fix the boat. He simply offers them safe passage. The work of redemption is always about that which is most human about us.
Starting today, and for 5 weeks, we turn to John, and more specifically the 6th Chapter of John, where we will hear the first of the seven great “I am’s” statements that invite us deep into the mystery of Christ’s divinity. But I am glad that to start with, this chapter continues to place the story squarely in the midst of the human condition.
I can imagine Jesus and his friends realizing a large crowd of people is coming in their direction. A few years ago, a parishioner back in my previous church convinced me I should watch the TV series called The Walking Dead. After gritting my teeth the first few times I watched it, I learned to appreciate how much it had to say about the human condition. What struck me about the scenes where you see a swarm of zombies approaching was the absolute, insatiable need—that is all there is, it is the beginning and the end. What’s worse, no matter how much that need is fed, it is never enough so we see humankind become worse than a black hole in space that turns something into nothing.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that the crowd that came in search of Jesus was a hoard of zombies. But I can imagine the sense of overwhelming, desperate responsibility that must have washed over Jesus’ friends as they saw “need made flesh”. When we perceive enormous need we tend to think it calls for enormous response and we quickly collapse under the burden of it—or justify our much pettier excuses for not even trying.
The thing is, I believe that a lot of what we are invited to consider in the Good News of Jesus, and he the Christ, is that the mighty acts of redemption are not necessarily mammoth in scale. I am often struck by how little it takes to stay on this side of the divide between life and death—how little can make life possible. Think of what people who unexpectedly find themselves having to survive in the wilderness can make due with.
If we consider the smallness of scale with which we can be sustained in life, it is also illuminating and important to consider smallness of scale on the flip side. There was a piece in the New Yorker recently that had a simply magnificent line: describing the fallen condition of Adam and Eve, the author talked about “a canyon of tiny distances”[i]. Each of us, day in and day out makes miniscule decisions that end up having cosmic implications. I’m driving, and as I approach a light I see a panhandler right in front of me. I know the light changes fast and if I lean over and get my phone to pretend to make I call, I’ll get to look away. The light will change and allow me to drive away never having acknowledged her humanity. Over the course of a day, a hundred others like me, with perfectly good reasons not to, will probably also avoid looking at her, and by day’s end, there is a canyon of tiny distances between her and the rest of humankind, a canyon of tiny distances that makes the difference between life and hellish desolation.
It isn’t the fact that none of us gave her a buck or some change we could easily spare—we can and should have a conversations about the ways in which generosity can be most helpful—that’s not what I am talking about. What I am talking about is what happens to us and “that woman” when you and I decide it is too difficult to acknowledge a person not just as a person but as a human being deserving of dignity and respect.
In today’s story, there are people who are hungry, people with a very real need, who are looking for answers from that ragtag bunch of friends who Jesus has brought together. Again, even with a large crowd, it helps to think of scale. The space between hunger and satisfaction is not as great as we would believe, we who live in the world of supersize fries and mega-jumbo slushies. A piece of bread, a small part of a fish—that is enough.
The exchange between Jesus, Philip and Andrew also tells us something about distances and spaces. Philip looks at the enormity of the need. That’s his starting point. Andrew, however briefly, doesn’t see such a huge difference between what’s needed and what’s available—“look, here’s this: 5 loaves and 2 fish, I bet we can make this work, can’t we?” Jesus sees the need and is not afraid. In fact, he sees people in need of hospitality and he sees abundance, the abundance of a field of green grass large enough for all of them. The story doesn’t say this, but I can imagine him saying, “You are here. Welcome. Sit down—the grass is soft and cool, the road was long and hot, you must be tired. Rest. “ Like a shepherd bringing his sheep to the green pastures and living waters, he closes the distance between himself and “those people”.
My modern—or perhaps my post-modern mind—has a hard time considering the exact nature of the miracle. Was it that he transgressed and disrupted what we call the laws of nature, or did he soften 5000 hearts so, even though no one could have gotten very much, when generously shared, those 5 loaves and 2 fish sufficed to blunt the sharp edge of hunger? In some ways, that’s beside the point.
I know this for sure: whatever happened turned the ordinary into something absolutely extraordinary and life changing for those who were there. A gap, another one of those tiny distances between need and fulfillment, did not get added into an endless string of other disappointments, that ended up being an enormous canyon of separation—between us and them, between hopes and reality, between what was needed and what was given.
One of my brothers lives in the UK and many years ago, I went to visit him and his family. He lives in Bristol and towards the end of my visit we spent a couple of days in London and got around in the tube—the subway system. At every stop, a voice would come over the loudspeaker to repeat again and again “Mind the gap. Mind the gap. Mind the gap.” That, I think, is one of the things today’s Gospel is about.
Our work as disciples, as people of faith is to mind the gap. To mind the gap means we have to notice it first of all. We must also acknowledge that often (though not always) it is our brokenness, the ways in which we fall short of what we are capable of, that has caused it. Philip was awfully quick to see a gap as a canyon of distance and moved from recognition to despair. Andrew briefly, very briefly, recognized a fragile, risky, improbable possibility that might close the gap. Jesus? Jesus offers himself—all he is, all he is capable of being and doing, so that very fragile, risky, improbable possibility which always resides within the human condition, the part that says, “it’s not much but maybe it will suffice…” can work on behalf of the one who has becomes separated, who trips and falls, who might altogether be lost through the gap.
As I continue to get to know and work with you here at the Ascension, I wonder; what are the gaps we can mind? Where are the gaps in our community where our witness to a God of endless love and new beginnings can allow grace to pour forth so a gap becomes part of the path to newness and abundance of life? This week may we all be aware. May we be willing to look at what we would prefer to ignore, may we be willing to listen. May we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we are called to be connected to every human being, even the most unlovely.
Mind the gap.
The figs are all ripening and they are plentiful at the curb market as well. I thoroughly enjoyed canning peaches and figs last year and my “go to” book is called Canning for a New Generation. I like it for a bunch of reasons. The author hardly ever uses pectin in her recipes—too often, recipes that use pectin favor gelling over flavor. The author’s solution is to make the most of natural pectin found in things like the cores of green apples; many of her recipes call for coring apples, collecting those cores in cheese cloth and allowing them to cook along with the fruit you’re going to can. She also uses less sugar in her recipes. It takes more patience–in order to get jam that’s thick enough to spread, you have to cook the fruit longer over lower heat. But the flavor is intense and true to the fruit in ways I really appreciate
Last year, one of my favorite recipes was for a roasted fig and lemon jam. I made several batches and looked forward to doing the same this year. When it became clear our fig tree was going to have a good crop, I was even more delighted. Now that I am a lot more confident about canning, I realized I could try to figure out some more about jams and preserves on my own—“yes, and”—a fundamental of improvisation. My herbs have done well this year too and I have particularly enjoyed the lavender. The kind I’m growing (Lavendula vera) is one of the varieties considered best for culinary uses and I kept thinking lavender and figs should go well together. The problem is that the flower pods are a bit grassy and tough and you have to be careful because the flavor can be really strong.
After some experimenting, I finally got it right. The recipe I use calls for ½ c of sugar per pound of figs and similarly, 1/3 c of water per pound. To make the preserve, you slice a lemon very, very thinly, and quarter the slices. Then you put the quartered lemon slices in a layer on a roasting pan. The figs go on top, and on top of them goes the sugar followed by the water. My variation on the theme was this: I combined the sugar, water and 2 teaspoons of lavender to make a lavender simple syrup infusion. I let the syrup sit for a couple of hours to really absorb the lavender scent. When it was time to roast the figs, the syrup was wonderfully fragrant.
Before you process the preserves in boiling water for 10 minutes,
You jar them-it’s a bit messy process because speed is important
When I pull them out of the boiling water, I hold my breath waiting for a little “pop” sound as the lids are sealed. If that pop doesn’t happen, the seal hasn’t formed and you either refrigerate that can or process the jam again. I have to allow the sealed jars to sit for 12 hours. This morning, I put up 6 half-pints of roasted fig-lavender preserves in my pantry. I will probably get to make two more batches this fig season.
Later this week, it’s time to can peach-lemon thyme jam too.
The Bishop came to visit tonight; he confirmed two people and received two others. Right before the service began, a terrific storm with wind and lightening and thunder and torrential rain broke loose that continued well into the service. Bishop Sloan would start his sermon talking about the reassurance that comes when people are gathered inside a church during a storm, how it speaks, somehow of God’s trustworthiness. We sang, we listened to Esther and Jay make their glorious music, we prayed, we welcomed Pat and Larry and Laura and Lee into the Episcopal Church and then had a lovely dinner afterwards. While we were having dinner, I found out that one of our parishioners is looking for people to adopt 4 donkeys that belonged to her mom, who recently passed away. The four of them love cookies so you have to be willing to get a package of cookies at the dollar store once a week if you take one of them in. But they are gentle and they need new homes. We’re going to see if the horses that share our pastures with us would do OK with a little donkey and if they do, we’ll have a new member of the family. Did I mention how much I love being a parish priest again?
It’s a little unnerving, these days. I am 2 weeks away from wrapping up my work with ECF, working at Church of the Ascension 30-36 hours a month, about half that much at St. Paul’s. Except for two afternoons, one week-day evening a month, and Sunday mornings, I am pretty much responsible for sketching out the contours of each day for myself. Sometimes, that feels like oppressive freedom. There was a certain comfort when I was carried along from day to day by a schedule and obligations that came with a single commitment, in a well-defined role as priest missioner. This alternative means daily decisions, daily temptations to put off this bit or jump into that other without following all the way through on something I had already started. There are times when having sole responsibility for filling out the blank page of the day gets to me.
That said, having those daily decisions, while harder in some ways, is also quite marvelous. On Saturday, I got up early and went to the farmer’s market to buy a few things we aren’t growing ourselves: peaches, garlic, onions, lettuce. I had another quick errand then came home and over the course of the rest of the day, I made zucchini bread, gazpacho, ratatouille and crab-stuffed flounder for dinner. Several times during my cooking marathon, I stopped to go out to my little herb patch to bring in sprigs of lemon thyme, of oregano, of mint. The smell of the herbs was delicious, the heft and weight of an old pair of garden scissors from Sweden in my hand strangely comforting. While some of the food was cooking or baking, I worked on my sermon for yesterday. And at day’s end, the spouseman and I had a nice swim in the pool.
Yesterday was equally busy but with very different tasks. Church of the Ascension is a big church with big, beautiful music, lots of people, even in the summer. The rector and I had gone into the morning with some trepidation—word had it that one of those fringe, militant groups that pickets churches was in town and might try to disrupt our services. But that didn’t happen. When church was over, I took communion and visited a family with enormous challenges related to illness. It was one of several pastoral visits I had on my schedule for the week.
I find that time goes still during those visits. I am not checking off another item on a to-do list, I am not putting out fires. Mainly, I am blessed to spend time with people who have hard lives and still find the ways to be gracious, generous and brave. There’s a lot of laughter. Last year, as we began the move to Alabama, as I let go of a more traditional parish ministry position, I talked about my growing sense that as much as anything, I wanted to practice kindness in whatever small ways possible in our new home and life. I get to do that. I also get to notice the many small details about life that always passed me by before.
Today, I will do some administrative work related to winding up with ECF. I have carefully cut over 100 7.5×7.5 inch squares of contrasting fabric and I hope to have some time to start sewing a of quilt I’m making for Maria. I have to write about 25-30 invitation notes and put them in the mail for a morning retreat I will lead at the end of August and tend to the final details related to the confirmation service we’re having with the Bishop of Alabama at St. Paul’s this Wednesday evening. I will stop often to check on my chicken littles and have lunch with Sherod. No drama. Just a life.
Last night, Sherod and I were out at Fort Yolk, sweat running down our faces and backs, trying to figure out how to keep our new little girls warm enough but not too warm, in weather that’s hard for baby chicks. They are growing really fast and the bin we’d used as their brooder is not big enough for seven peeps who are already testing their wings with lots of success. Their coop has a tin roof and in the hottest part of the day, with temperatures in the high 90’s and a layer of humidity to make it worse, we’ve had to keep the roof up to give them some ventilation. We keep bird netting over that opening to keep predators out. Yesterday, one of the bravest of the lot, Elin, managed to fly up to the ledge at the top of the coop and almost got herself all tangled up in that netting.
Reluctantly, we made the decision to let them down into the lower part of their new digs and then of course, last night could not get them to go back upstairs where we have better temperature control for when the temperature drops below 85 (which is the age-appropriate temperature for 3-week old chicks). So there we were, at 9 PM, working a new plan, sweating, contorting, getting all bitten up by mosquitos. When we came back inside, the Mallowman wanted me to open his anniversary presents. Today marks 27 years. He gave me two pink flamingos that now grace the flower bed in the front of the house—a sweet reminder that we spent most of our married life in Florida. He also gave me the sign he made himself.
It’s taken me this long, but I have figured something out about marriage: yes, there is romance and sparky-sparky, certainly in the early years. There are moments of the most wonderful companionship imaginable. And as we abide and endure, what I see more and more, is that it strengthens us to love and serve beyond ourselves. Last night, it was loving and serving those silly little chicks who are growing into that gawky, awkward stage that evokes a whole new level of tenderness in me. This is no earth-shaking revelation. But it makes the whole notion of marriage even more meaningful and his and mine even more a sacrament of God’s grace. The Episcopal Church has made some momentous decisions in the past few weeks about this sacrament. For many it is profoundly painful and contrary to what they hold dearest. For the men and women I knew and served in Fort Lauderdale, who are strengthened in their love for each other and who serve selflessly and more generously than I dare hope for–and for those whose lives they touch, including mine–this is a blessing that blesses.
I can’t even remember who said this, but I know I was still fairly recently married and figuring out what it meant to be part of a blended family. This person said that when one marries someone with children, especially if the children are older, one should never, ever try to develop a role “in loco parenti”. We all have only one mama, one dad. The new spouse in a blended family will need to find his or her own role that has some authority, some clear boundaries, and a whole lot of flexibility–but is not a ‘sort-of mom’. Then the person said, “but when those children whom you helped raise have children of their own, you absolutely can claim grandparent-hood. You can never have too many grandparents”. Her advice worked well for me. And it still does. Charlie, Martha and I have figured out our relationships around the fact that we all love Sherod, and that has been more than enough.
On Sunday, Grace and Robert, our grandchildren, came to spend a little over a week with us. We have been swimming, gone to the movies, they got to do some horseback riding and we’ve made ice-cream from scratch. Robert is my chicken and cat helper. He is gentle and ever so kind with the critters. Grace and I are slowly, very carefully, working on a quilt using fabric from clothes that belonged to her great-grandmother who recently died. She and I have also gone to VBS each evening and one night earlier in the week, weathered a friendship storm that had brewed back home in Crawfordville. Grace is a good baker and she is going to make a red, white and blue Fourth of July pound cake. Robert and she are going to decorate the wagon we use with the tractor and Sherod’s going to drive the tractor down to the starting place of the 4th of July Lowndesboro Parade—the three of them will be in the parade and I am the official photographer. As I write this, Sherod is teaching Robert how to play solitaire.
Yesterday, a good friend gave me some TV viewing and reading recommendations that I suspect will have a strong streak of dark edginess to them. I look forward to reading the book he recommended and watching a TV series that he says is like Dexter with a hacker. Lord knows, there is still plenty in the news that cuts to the quick, knocks the air out of me with its horror and suffering. I need to stay connected to those parts of the human condition.
I also find myself marveling at this very different experience of family life I have been afforded. Robert and Grace are pretty amazing young people and the sheer ordinariness of things like preparing lunch while Robert and a couple of new friends–other grandchildren here for a visit– play a card game and Grace texts so fast that her fingers are flying, is a revelation. And wonderful.