There will be signs

“Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth” (Lk 21:25)

As the week ended, we began to hear about a new Corona virus variant of concern being flagged by scientists in South Africa. For a moment, the thought raced through my mind: “Is this then, how inexorably, the human population is decimated, how we face into the end? A virus so wily and strong that it outruns us once and always?” I quickly dismissed my overly dramatic notion but I would lie if I said it didn’t leave a lingering sense of uneasiness.

Then, it was time to start working on my sermon and for the third week, the Gospel reading was all about apocalyptic times. In a space that already feels so apocalyptic, the notion that there are signs all around us to read and understand about how it is that the Kingdom of God is ushered in with finality, was also deeply unsettling. Am I staying alert enough? Am I watching for signs with eyes of love? As so much feels broken, even shattered, beyond repair, can I truly put my trust in the assurance that cataclysmic events are “but the beginning of birth pangs” as God does something new? I kept looking for a ‘handle,’ an entry point that would allow me to find what I can only describe as the beating, life-giving heart of the Gospel passage for the week. I had a few glimmers of what that might be but nothing to build with. I’ve learned to trust (at least up to a point) that I will be led where I need to go for a Sunday sermon, even if that doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like.

With all that a faint, persistent hum inside me, I got up Saturday and made sure I was wearing clericals before I headed into Montgomery for a busy morning. On the 21st of this month, Ms. Helen Louise Miles died. Ms. Helen had worked in the kitchen of Jeff Davis High School in Montgomery during the week for decades. And for over 30 years, she cooked breakfast on Sunday mornings for the people of Holy Comforter. I never met her–she’d moved to Georgia long before I came to Montgomery, but had heard a tiny little bit about her. When I shared with the parish that she had died earlier on the 21st., what I can only describe as a tremulous sigh went up from the nave. Ms. Helen hadn’t only served the parish well for all those years. She had been love, light, and life to many, many, many folks.

I would not be able to attend the funeral but there was going to be a visitation and viewing before the service. I needed to pay my respects on behalf of the parish. I punched in the address to the funeral home and headed there, wondering if the street was one I’d heard about on the news a few weeks earlier. Getting close, I had to turn off Day St. on Hill St. At the first stop sign, I would need to turn left onto Jeff Davis Ave. When I got to the second street that intersected with Hill, my GPS announced it was time to get on Jeff Davis. As I turned, I looked up long enough up to see one of those innocuous green street signs we all know so well. Except it was no longer Jeff Davis Ave. It was Fred Grey Ave. Last month, the street was renamed in honor of the civil rights attorney who grew up on that very street and represented Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. The change was not—still is not—without controversy. You can read about that here.

I stopped the car and looked up again, with goose bumps all over, tears in my eyes. I had seen a segment on the local evening news about this change, had been moved that the change was approved by White folks as well as Black on the Montgomery City Council. I drove on to the funeral home, stepped into the chapel and stood before Ms. Helen’s open casket to pray. Ms. Helen, now a thin, tiny dried leaf of a self, was ready to fly away, but before she did, this place of her last repose was on a street that now remembered, not the president of the Confederacy but a man who fought for the rights of people like her.

Right there. On the corner of two streets in a tucked away and off the beaten path kind of place in Montgomery, I was invited into the Gospel. Jesus said, “There will be signs…Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” God knows—race relations, civil rights, violence, so much is achingly wrong in this city where I serve as a priest. The resistance to a small change like this one is still mean and ferocious. There is still so, so much not yet reconciled or redeemed. But even so. Here. Now. On the most ordinary looking of street signs there it was. A sign. An Advent glimpse of God’s Kingdom breaking in. We must stand up. Raise our heads. See. Redemption is drawing near.

Things broken, things repaired and transcendent II

Not long before the anniversary of my dad’s death, I was in the small space where I work out on my DE (I’m not real fond of it and the “E” stands for elliptical so I imagine you can figure out what the D stands for…). It was already dark outside and Sherod was watching TV so when I was done working out, I headed back to the den to sit with him. 

As soon as I walked in, I saw he had a very pained expression on his face and immediately launched into an apology. He’d almost tripped over Mo, our dog, close to the coffee table in the den. As he reached out to prevent himself from falling, he knocked off a ceramic bowl and broke it. The bowl was one of those extraordinarily bittersweet remnants of my childhood and my parents’ home. It was made by a well-known Swedish artist, a fine piece, and so beautiful to me, it made my heart ache when I looked at it.

The bowl had graced my mother’s living room, probably the most paradoxical space in our home in Cali.  It was where you could see how my grandmother Vera, with her French training in interior design, had helped shape my mom’s aesthetic. The living room was gracious, filled with fine furniture, and sunlight, and lovely things. It was also a space we were only allowed into on Christmas Eve.  My brothers and I never dared enter that room otherwise, though I remember standing looking in, always taken by its beauty, both so intensely familiar and so far removed from the day-to-day realities of life. The ceramic bowl was always close to one of the edges of the glass table and I can still see the whole room in my mind’s eye all these years later, and how everything seemed to fit together so perfectly.

In 2015, when it became clear that Dad was reaching the point where he needed more help and support than he had in Panamá, when he made the move to Lowndesboro, he brought very little with him. My mom had inherited a fine collection of colonial Latin American art and had a lot of fine antique furniture. All of that landed in a consignment shop in the town where Dad lived, Boquete, and who knows where any of it is now. But Dad brought the bowl with him, and asked me to put it in my living room. 

Now, that piece so loaded down with history and nostalgia and meaning, was broken. When I saw the pieces, I just sobbed. I know it was another round of grieving, another way so much of aging continues to be about subtraction rather than addition. I started to live with that reality 10 years ago and it still has not ended.

Then, as I reflected on this new loss the next day on my way to work, still tearing up, I remembered the wonderful Japanese notion of Kintsugi, a way of transcending brokenness by repairing a broken piece of pottery or ceramic, gluing the pieces back together with lacquer mixed with gold dust. The repair is not concealed but celebrated, adds further beauty to a piece. I thought perhaps I could figure out a way to do that.

I began to do the research during my lunch break and had actually found a source for that special lacquer on Etsy. I would order some because the bowl was broken into 3 or 4 large pieces and doing that meant I’d be able to give it to my niece one day, with the story of the way in which perfection is not necessarily what matters most. The “imperfections” tell about the layers of story that keep adding to my life even when I am so used to thinking (and feeling a little bit sorry for myself) ‘subtraction, all of it is subtraction.’ It really isn’t. 

When I got home, I headed to the den and as I walked by the dining room table, there was the bowl, glued back together, perhaps a little awkwardly, but nonetheless, a broken piece made whole. Sherod had worked hard on it all morning and apologized that he hadn’t been able to make the repairs seamless and invisible. This was another kind of Kintsugi—perhaps not as pretty the one you do with gold lacquer, but one that is infinitely more valuable, a gift of love and an effort to make amends.  The bowl is back in its place. I stop to feast my eyes on it often.

Today I’m in Charlotte, NC visiting my cousin and her family. We’ve been looking through old family pictures, ones that date back more than a hundred years. Our family has known its fair share of brokenness, and we are all patched and glued back together, shattered as our lives have been over and over again. This is just another way I am reminded what it means to me personally to say, “we are people of the resurrection.”