Three years ago, today, I began to serve as Associate Rector at Church of the Ascension. It’s been such a bittersweet morning of reflection for me. The passage from Deuteronomy that we will hear tomorrow and which will be, in part, what I preach about, has Moses preparing to re-present the Ten Commandments as the Israelites are about to enter the promised land, a land he will not cross into with them. Ministry is all about these moments—of remembrance, celebration, regret, rejoicing. They are moments where, in some ways, you step out of time, or perhaps into the richness of God’s time which is timeless.
As I’ve been working on my sermon this morning, Sherod’s been watching John McCain’s funeral service. The volume is up high enough, and the words of the Episcopal Rite of Burial go so deep for me after these three years at Ascension, when I assisted or officiated at so many funerals, that even here in this quiet room, with sweet Tux resting next to me, I can recite along from memory, “You only are immortal, the creator and maker of [hu]mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” It is a strange and beautiful paradox that these words capture the glory of parish ministry as well.
The story that best captures the grace of this time is the story of one family, the Westons, who have kindly and ever so generously allowed me to tell their story on this page. I remember Bill, and I remember Heather, from fairly early in my ministry as Associate Rector. In a church as big as Ascension, you first start getting to know faces as people come forward to receive communion. I remember Bill and Heather kneeling at the rail, though I can’t say I remember them coming up together, though they probably did. It is amazing when your regular encounters with people are about sharing communion, even if you know nothing about them.
At some point in that first year, Heather friended me on Facebook. Sometime in late 2015 or early 2016, I realized from her posts that Heather worked with an organization that cares for rescued dogs—and that she adores all kinds of fuzzy, furry children-friends who steal our hearts again and again. Not too long after, there was a set of pictures, taken in front of, and inside of a small chapel, somewhere wooded and beautiful. It was how I learned that Heather and Bill had gotten married. The pictures painted a picture of laughter and joy. It wasn’t too much longer after that when there was another picture on Facebook. This time it was of Bill and Heather with their dogs and a tiny pair of pink booties. A baby was on her way and again, the joy. So much happiness. So much anticipation. So much already knit together for the Westons, both as a couple, and as members of Ascension, to hold and cherish a new life.
At a staff meeting in in December of 2016, I learned from Andy Thayer, then our rector, that with metal screeching and tearing and twisting, the Westons’ world had been turned inside out. Heather was not yet 30 weeks pregnant when a car plowed into her car without ever using his brakes. She was injured, and her baby was in enough distress that she had to be delivered by C-Section. No one thought that tiny baby girl would survive. For days, Andy was on red alert, ready to baptize little Vera Jane. But he kept insisting that we should not rush to do that. If there was any way for her to be baptized in church in due time, when everything else about her birth had been so excruciating, it was worth the wait. In parish ministry, those you minister with have so much to teach.
Vera Jane was in NICU for months on end. She had a serious brain bleed that caused extensive damage. Andy was the Weston’s pastor and the rest of us prayed. We prayed so much. The women of the Prayers and Squares ministry at Ascension made her a little quilt and for two Sundays, it was out in the nave so all of us could stop and say a prayer, tie a knot in the yarn that binds the quilt together. That quilt and those prayers still cover her today. Love bears fruit of all kinds and parishes are places where you get to see a myriad sacraments of love.
Heather and Bill shared pictures on Facebook all along the way so we had the gift of watching Vera take small steps forward, a fierce little fighter. We saw the wonder and awe in her mom and dad’s faces, the unquestioning love that grows with a special needs child that teaches us that our definition of what it means to be a person is too often too narrow and too shallow and too limited. Each cuddle and hug and holding of their little girl was pure gift and that was obvious to everyone. As the mother of a special needs child, I also knew something about the fear. The nights you lie awake and try to make sure you have thought of everything you need to do the next day, while wisps of fear slip through you from the dark and into the dark, fears about the care of such a vulnerable little one in a world growing so much tougher to navigate in. Heather and Bill know the cost of love and they know they would gladly pay it tenfold in thanksgiving for their Vera. Who teaches whom about holiness in a parish?
Not long after Andy left, Heather got in touch with me about baptizing Vera. I was awed. I am still awed when I think about holding her in my arms and marking her forehead with a cross and saying, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Those words. The enormity of love they represent!
With flu season, the Westons had to take extra precautions so Vera, with all her fragilities, didn’t get any virus or infection that could be life threatening. They stopped going out much. A few days before Christmas, I drove to their new home in Wetumpka and brought communion. Vera was sleepy and sassy and delicious and we got to talk for the first time about parenting vulnerable girls. Heather told me she’d just found out she was pregnant. “For unto us a child is given” means something completely new for me now. And that day: the joy and love.
In early summer, another quick note from Heather and a phone conversation. Little Vivie, due in the last part of July, would be born with Spina Bifida. There was strength and clarity in Heather’s voice, no self pity, no drama, as she shared this news with me. She wanted me to know they were moving to Birmingham to be closer to the medical support both girls would need but she also wanted me to know she wanted Vivie baptized at Ascension. And when that delicious girl was born on July 16th, there was jubilation and a few weeks later, relief, when the initial steps to begin addressing the issues with Spina Bifida went well.
At the same time, life was getting turned inside out, all over again. Vera kept getting sicker and sicker with symptoms difficult to understand until an MRI showed that the brain injury caused by her original bleed was becoming more extensive, seriously affecting her brain stem, the part that regulates the most basic of our life-giving functions like body temperature and heart-rate. The future is impossible to look into, a void where Bill and Heather, through tears, told me they trust they will find grace and God’s love. They think Vera held on far longer than she was expected to, so Vivie could be accompany her parents in the days and months and years that lie ahead. Bill and Heather have made excruciatingly hard decisions and are home with their little girls, taking each day as it comes.
My time of walking with these beautiful people is coming to a close. They need the support and care of a clergy person in Birmingham. I know a number of priests there and the one I would call if I found myself in such a time, has graciously begun visiting with the Westons and building a relationship with them. I am grateful. Vivie will be baptized, though where and when is still something to decide in the future. I trust Vivie’s baptism will be in a community, like Ascension, that will love and cherish this family, that the person welcoming her into the household of God will marvel at the miracle of this beautiful child. The church is full of such clergy.
That there was a beginning and there will soon be an end to my time of being the Westons’ priest is both hard and wonderful. We help each other along the way, as much as we can, for as long as we can. We are woven together into the great cloud of saints and witnesses, and into each other’s lives, and the richness and grace of all the people who fill our lives are part of what makes it possible for us to say with certainty, “even at the grave, we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” And for this priest looking back and looking forward, I am reminded that the Alleluias ring out both in the homecomings and the leave-takings. AMGD