The beauty is there

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On Highway 80, Heading Home

This isn’t Vermont or New Hampshire. Not even North Carolina or Tennessee. Yesterday, I drove home through the grey, bone-chilling drizzle of a typical fall day in West Central Alabama, slowly making my way on Old Selma Road. I was aware that autumn is actually anything but spectacular in this part of the world. On the entire stretch, 12 miles long, from the outskirts of Montgomery to our farm, there was no other car on the road so I had an unimpeded view of the wooded lands on either side of Old Selma. When fall arrives in Lowndes County, mostly it turns leaves brown and brittle, leaves that give up the fight without one last splendid burst of color. Tropical Storm Nate blew through here this year, stripping more trees of more leaves more quickly than usual.

On Old Selma Road, poverty, the kind of poverty that is made up of beaten down old trailers and “manufactured homes” that are none-the-less home to many, mules and horses with bones etched through coats of fur dulled by hunger, is more visible now that so many of the leaves are gone. But so is a shiny new small bike, standing on an otherwise forlorn front porch, transforming what should be bleak into a place of some kind of brave and undaunted love. This isn’t beauty per se, but something transcendent and strangely filled with grace and goodness.

Here, in this part of Alabama, in this season, you have to look for beauty. You can’t just look down the road and expect to be dazzled in the way you might be by the colors further up north, so many and so brilliant on a crackling fall day. Here it is about driving slowly, and being observant. Trusting that even if all you’ve seen for any number of miles is a variation on the theme of dry brown leaves, you can reasonably hope to come upon, to be surprised by beauty, if you will look hard and not quit. Because tucked into nothing more extraordinary than a denuded pecan tree grove or a bunch of seemingly lifeless underbrush, you will find one, or maybe two trees of stunning, breath-taking color, or a bush of burning red glory, like Moses must have seen when God spoke to him, such beauty as will fly right in the face of the truth that this isn’t the place to come looking for the glory of fall.

The news about Alabama these days is like looking through the denuded trees of fall, to a place where there is much spiritual poverty and hunger and bleak truths that can’t be hidden. But when I go slowly, look carefully, hold to hope and allow myself to be surprised, I keep finding extraordinary beauty, right here, right now, in Alabama. If you’ve never been, I’d love to show you. Come visit.

Getting my tropical on

The past few weeks have been difficult at work.  We are finding our way towards a new version of church that is more hospitable and inclusive.  Some parts of that work have been joyful, especially watching new leaders emerge.  Some of it has been deeply, personally painful.  It all came to a crisis point just as I was preparing to slip down to Ft Lauderdale to visit my girl for a couple of days. It was an exercise in spiritual discipline to disconnect.  María and I did our usual: cruising up 95 to Butts Road and  “Normstrom” for a new pair of shoes that fit each of my girl’s feet correctly.   A couple of nice meals.  A visit w someone I hadn’t seen for over four years.  Lots of singing in the car. We also did something I hardly ever did when I lived in Lauderdale: we gardened.  Some of our dearest friends are in the midst of sorta awful medical challenges and their yard still tells some of the story of Hurricane Irma.  Maria and I weeded and cleaned and moved lovely plants back to where their splendor shines.  The still familiar Florida sun was on my face and shoulders–so different and so like the sun that is up for much shorter days in Lowndesboro.  Now, I’m waiting for a flight back out, grieving again about leaving my daughter who is quite simply the best. It’s early morning and I splurged on a cafecito and tostada cubana, getting my tropical on for just a bit longer before I go home.

A Woman and Priest

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There are still times as I wake up, when astonishment does battle with desolation and I am overwhelmed again, by the realization I will never bear a child. It’s absurd in one sense that I keep having to try to make my peace with that reality; for a woman late into her fifties, that train left the station so very long ago. The thing is, bearing a child wasn’t just a part of being gendered as female. It is that it was light shining in darkness for me.

All through my childhood I resisted doing the physical therapy necessary to keep my bum hip working. I had a hard time separating who I was from the incredibly ugly orthopedic shoes I had to wear, and would cry and beg to get ‘normal shoes’ instead. The one thing my mother repeated over, and over and over again was,”Rosita, but if you don’t use those shoes, if you don’t do your physical therapy, you will never be able to have babies”.

I heard that promise so many times, I held on to it so tight when I was desperately lonely as I grew up, it was woven so deep into my sense of who I was called to be, that it shaped my understanding of embodiment, of womanhood, of the source of meaning for my life. My girl Maria is beyond blessing to me. I am leading, a good meaningful life. And I suspect I will end my conscious days regretting that I was not able carry a child in my belly, see glimpses of the man I love and myself, in person conceived in love.

I write these things because it is against this personal backdrop that twice, as an adult, I was asked to accompany another woman to have an abortion. I was newly married the first time, and I can’t say I knew the person I went with particularly well nor have I seen or talked to her since then. She and her husband did not share with me the reasons for her decision, but the anguish in their faces when they asked for my help led me to believe then, as I believe now, that it was extraordinarily difficult circumstances that forced them to make that decision.

The second time, I was older. I was also a priest by then. A person who deserved a future, who had barely scratched out an existence for herself for years, and was finally getting on her feet, was raped. Raped pretty savagely. And ended up pregnant. She had no good choices, she was and is a remarkable person, but would have gone under with the weight of bearing a child and being responsible for him or her. I held her hand while she had the procedure. I watched her grieve, then return to the work she had been given to do.

The irony of both those moments does not escape me. The one who desperately wanted to be in the position of taking a pregnancy test and watching the ribbons turn the right color was the one who gave comfort to two different women for whom that news represented utter and complete devastation. If I was able to be of any comfort, if I made any difference, it came from the conviction that there are times when there are no good choices, when all we can do is make a decision, no matter how shattering, and regather the shards of a life we’d hoped would go a certain way and now won’t, so we can get on with living.

I have known tragedy in my own life, have experienced grace as capable of putting broken pieces back into some semblance of a new heart that learned to beat strong and hopeful again. I have also seen up close and personal, the cost a child, who was neither planned for, nor wanted, pays. I have seen what child abuse does. I have seen how overburdened and inadequate our foster programs are. I am the mother of an adopted daughter whose life will always be bitterly hard. Years and years and years ago, I heard someone say, “there are worse things than not being born.” I have seen the truth of that first hand.

I write these things today because I am heart sick reading about the decision by the current administration to make it more difficult for women to have access to contraceptives. I respect and will always protect the right of another person to reject abortion as a viable choice in a desperate situation. I have kept hoping that those who want to see abortion made illegal again, and those who don’t, will find common ground to stand on. I thought the common ground we might share involved helping to prevent pregnancies that lead to devastation. I believe that birth control is essential to the well being of women and that a loving God could not have given us minds capable of developing contraceptives only to snatch that possibility away as a “sin.”

Today’s news fills me with grief. There is a casual harshness towards the hard realities of being a woman in this news that is cruel beyond words. I am reminded of that brilliant definition of hope I have quoted in this blog befor:

[H]ope is not optimism. In fact, in certain cases (I suspect most of the cases where it actually matters) optimism can be a vice opposed to hope. An optimist can discount and ignore evidence against her conviction that things will right themselves. An optimist is threatened by others’ pain. But someone acting in hope—the conviction not that things will right themselves, nor that we’ll be able to right them, but that God’s power will work to overturn whatever wrongs our systems can devise—that person can face pain. Without denying pain or being swept away by it, she can face her own and others’ suffering. https://womenintheology.org/2013/05/08/hope-in-the-storm-tossed-church/

I cling to these words.

Hayneville, AL

Hayneville is a town with a painful past: it was in this small, quintessential Southern town that Jonathan Daniels, VMI graduate, Episcopal seminarian, courageous young man, was killed during the civil rights era. In August of each year, there is a pilgrimage to the site of his death and a Eucharist in the courthouse where the man who shot him at point-blank range was acquitted of his murder. There are markers and reminders of that painful past in the center of town so if you stop and read and pay attention, you don’t forget. But it also means there is always, always this combination of pity, disdain, judgment in those daily reminders.

The county seat of Lowndes, Hayneville is a gritty, pretty marginalized community; almost 87% of its residents are African American. Almost 30% of its citizens live below the poverty line. In short, it’s one of those complicated towns in Alabama hardly anyone would choose to go see, not for its history but for itself. I go there fairly often. We are fortunate to have a young, strong friend who occasionally helps me with garden projects and I meet him in Hayneville to bring him over to the house. You get your tags and your driver’s license renewed in Hayneville and there’s a Subway there, the closest fast food joint to our house. I find small spaces of almost absurd beauty in the midst of all the complexity, sorrow and despair of this community.

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Coming into Hayneville

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Early On a Fall Morning

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There’s No Denying the Ravages of Time and Poverty

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And Yet, There’s Just This Aesthetic!

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And the Colors…Love Me Some Hayneville!

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fullsizeoutput_125bThat’s what they are. Improbable.

Although I settled in Lowndesboro in June of 2014, Sherod retired from All Saints on August 31st and arrived here on September 1st of that year. I had also arrived after summer had taken strong hold in Alabama, so the first real sense of the passage from one season to the next happened at this time of the year for me and my spouseman, and here we are, now back in that kind of time, now for a fourth year.

I continue to watch more carefully, have more time to look, and more reason too, when I drive here than I ever did in South Florida. Our closest full grocery is almost 20 miles away. My job is 27 miles away and though the routes to each are different, both go through lovely farmlands and forested, rolling hills. Fortunately we have not had the drought conditions of last year, nor the implacable heat. Where last year, by mid summer, fields and trees and just about everything I looked at, was withered and brown, this year, the shades of green have been lush and juicy all season long. As I drive to work on Highway 80, with the sun newly risen, fields are still incandescent in the morning light. I smiled today, driving down the hill next to the farm with a flock of sheep. One of them had her front legs up on the fence, a look of contentment on her face as she chomped away on a vine.

With four years of marveling at so much beauty, I have also learned the contours of the pathways through which time and the seasons slip away. How the trees on  Old Selma Road, have a fairly thick coat of dust now so they are not quite as verdant to the eye as before. A very few already show some of the beginnings of a change in color. I saw a V-formation of birds earlier this week and on more than one morning, walking out to feed our chicken ladies, our new boy cat Gilbert and sweet girl cat, Sunny, I felt that slight crispness in the air, the harbinger of cooler weather to come. The Black-eyed Susans bloomed lustily for weeks and now are just about gone. Watching those small shifts is like checking off a list: “Yep—this happened right on time. Yes! There’s that next sign now. Wow—that one’s a little early but certainly welcome.” I delight in the sense of knowing to anticipate a change and give myself a high five for having known what to look for next. From there it is quite easy to feel a little smug, like “I know this place.”

So it was with some surprise that late last week, I realized something red had caught my eye as I was driving on Old Selma Road. I slowed down, backed up and looked. Oh my stars! I had completely forgotten. Just totally lost any notion of the beautiful red lilies that bloom as summer ends and autumn begins. Their stems shoot up with very little foliage so I don’t notice them until they are in full color. They look a little absurd and certainly improbable, coming up so late in the growing season, a stem or two here, perhaps a small clump there, but most of them solitary in a sea of green. They are also exquisite, and I can’t believe it was so easy to forget such beauty. But the forgetting, at least this time around, made for a kind and charming, end-of-season, unexpected and undeserved gift.

I slow down whenever I see a field blooming with these lilies. I remind myself not to hope for summer to pass too soon, nor time to move any faster than it does, even if I am hot and sticky and ready to sit quietly with a book in front of the fireplace.

I stop to give thanks way before it is time for thanksgiving.

Forgiveness: A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

You’ve probably been a witness to or part of a familiar drama. A child does something hurtful to another child and we tell him, “say you are sorry” then hear the somewhat grudging, muffled words that sound pushed out through gritted teeth and pouty lips, and is little more than a response to threat and obligation, “I sorry”.

In a bit, together we will say the confession and I will stand before you to say your sins are forgiven. I have said the words of absolution so often that most of the time, they slip through and out of me like they’re the most obvious thing in the world, and quite honestly I don’t stop to question or consider this responsibility, simply taking for granted that this is one of the things I do on a Sunday morning like today.

Elie Wiesel who died a little over a year ago, confronts that ever so easy version of one of the central acts and fruit of faith.   In one of her podcasts, Krista Tippet reminded me of one of the most harrowing parts of Weisel’s memoir, his description of watching a young child slowly die of hanging, in Auschwitz. Wiesel not only sees God’s very self hanging from those gallows but recognizes how absolutely that moment confronts any easy and cheap version of forgiveness. Talking about the Yom Kippur that was approaching when he did that interview for On Being—just as it is at the end of this month, Wiesel said, “we plead with God for forgiveness, and God forgives, I hope. But one thing He does not forgive: the evil I have done to other fellow human beings. Only they can forgive. If I do something bad to you, I cannot ask God to forgive me. You must forgive me”.

Just like that, we are reminded that the business of forgiveness is about our agency and our intentions, not the magic of a sappy version of God. It is about our willingness to directly, humbly, honestly, engage each other without guile, or pretense or protection. We stand, face to face, the one who has hurt and the one who has been hurt, to be as real and true to what has been as we can possibly bear to be.

If I am the one has caused the hurt, I have to understand that we go into that kind of moment with no guarantee that the forgiveness will be offered. In fact, one of the things Wiesel said was all his life was that he simply could not forgive what had happened in the Holocaust, but what he could do instead was to tell the truth, and to sensitize other people not to repeat history. He did not accept the notion of corporate guilt and spent a lot of time developing relationships with the children, and the children’s children of the generation of Germans that participated in the mass extermination of Jews.

Then there is the experience of being asked for forgiveness. Another very wise woman, Sharon Salzberg, describes how forgiveness can be bittersweet: It carries with it the sweetness of the release, the freedom from, of a memory that has caused so much suffering, but it may also be a poignant recognition that relationships can shift so much in the course of our lives that we will not be able to reclaim the way we were to each other in the past. Ecen if we accept the apology, even if we wish the person only well, even if we can be grateful for the time during which the relationship existed as strong, and warm, a vessel for giving and receiving of love, often, the new freedom carries with it loss as well. There will be no going back to an easy intimacy that once existed. There will only be the freedom for both parties to get on with their lives.

I am convinced that it is against this kind of clarity and honesty that we must listen to the words from today’s Gospel. The work is not easy. I suspect each of us could pause for 2-3 minutes and find places in our lives where the absence of forgiveness is like a leak, perhaps small, perhaps a large, a hole in our existence, through which joy and hope constantly escape, robbing our lives of the abundance the one who Created, Redeemed and Sustains us, would wish to give us. And we allow ourselves to get used to those never-ending losses because they feel more comfortable, more manageable than the alternative, the act of asking for, or giving forgiveness.

It isn’t just individuals who struggle with all that forgiveness requires. Communities, especially communities of faith, do too. How do we, this church, this place and people we call Church of the Ascension, become a people of forgiveness in the complexity, confusion, and brokenness of the world we live in?

First, we need to understand how and why we avoid the practice of forgiveness.

I think faith communities are an odd combination of strength and fragility. Ascension knows this only too well; when a congregation has faced into a time when it fractured under the weight of differences, that very fracture creates a space where fear can take hold, and it is a very specific fear that says, “we can’t let another fracture like this break open because this time we might not survive”. And in the face of such fear, we seek anesthesia to dull the anxiety. It’s an anesthesia with several elements.

The anesthesia for this fear has several elements. We tell ourselves “we can’t change too much”. After a time of tremendous uncertainty and distrust, we have learned to navigate in a space that at least feels safe and because we know it so well, allows us to sidestep land mines. If we avoid the land mines, we will limit our capacity to be hurt or hurt each other.

Another element says this: “let’s not talk about the differences already present, here in our own midst. Let’s not talk about those things because they will open all kinds of new cans of worms and we will never close those cans again.” Talking on a more superficial level, telling reassuring stories about ourselves and how we all love and get along with each other, will also keep harm at bay we keep telling ourselves.

And last but not least, let’s hope and pray we attract people who, for the most part, are like us. It isn’t that Ascension is not hospitable, generous or kind. Look at me. I am a woman priest from Latin America who not only got called to serve here but has been welcomed with extraordinary warmth. This isn’t about bad people, but when that fear of what might hurt, what might fracture, has taken hold, we want to think we can add to our safety by welcoming people people who share our values, our way of seeing things, our way of being the church because they will know what it takes not to cause hurt.

The awful paradox is that avoiding the danger of being hurt will more often than not mean the death of a congregation. I’ve become convinced that fear becomes the proverbial elephant that grows and grows in the middle of our shared life, an elephant that sucks the very life and oxygen out of a community. And perhaps ironically, it is the practice of forgiveness, it is the willingness to allow this place to become a laboratory for the practice of forgiveness, that helps us break out of that trap.

If we choose life, if we are convinced that ours is a future full of hope and promise, we can start moving forward by becoming less risk aversive and more comfortable as people of forgiveness.

We gather on Sundays because we give each other strength and courage, but we also gather to hear the stories that can lead us out of dead ends. Today’s readings can help guide us to a place where our differences are not our weakness, but rather, our strength. Right off the bat, the passage from the book of Exodus reminds us that it is not we, but God, who will have the last word. This scene where a bunch of brothers who’ve really wronged Joseph, feel themselves backed into a corner realizing their very survival depends on the largesse of the one they’ve wronged, tells us something of great importance. It isn’t that Joseph says, “ah, it’s water under the bridge, my life turned out so much better that so all is forgiven.” Instead, he recognizes what you and I so easily forget, that even what we as humans have intended (and sometimes not intended) for harm, God can use for good. That’s grace!

And the grace that God promises, that grace is the only real antidote to fear. In today’s reading from the letter of Paul to the Romans, we hear the promise of God’s love like this: We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. Along with, and despite, all the differences that might split us not just in two but in a million small pieces, each and every one of us are God’s, we are God’s children. We are God’s beloved. Whether we are monolithic, speak in one voice, represent single perspective, one single set of values and beliefs, or are complicated and confusing, sometimes annoying and uncomfortable community that hopes to be faithful rather than thinks we’re already the best there ever was, we are claimed by God’s love, all of us are. We belong to the Lord! Think about the astounding grace of this statement. That is what grounds our work of forgiveness.

Against that backdrop, we hear Peter ask how often must he forgive and Jesus answers, seventy-seven—an even bigger infinity than the infinity in seven. All the time. All the time. Full stop.

If we were asked to forgive seventy seven times in order to earn God’s love, that would not just be impossible, it would show God to be unspeakably cruel. But we have been reassured over and over again, you are loved, you are loved so much that you will be given the strength and grace to forgive those seventyseven times seven. Said another way, we get seventyseven times to practice forgiveness. We may not get it right the first time, we may not even get it all the way right ever, but we will get to try again, and again, we will get to keep practicing and it is with practice that we develop the muscle we need. Along the way, we will discover a kind of freedom from the burdens of fear, anger and guilt we didn’t know was even possible. It is slow work. It is hard work. But it is work we can do together, a little bit at a time.

The work of forgiveness is the work of building up a community humble enough, resilient enough, capable enough of learning from its mistakes, that it can move mountains rather than huddle in fear in a bunker. The work of forgiveness is the work of giving ourselves to one another and to God in ways that free us up to be instruments of God’s peace and love in a world that knows next to nothing about forgiveness.

The message for us today, is this: “Do not give in to fear. Do the work of forgiveness, be a people of forgiveness, for, as today’s Psalm reminds us, we belong to a God “full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness…” That God not only will teach and guides in the ways of forgiveness, that God will be by our side each and every time we try again, so that together we will be able offer peace. We will be able to offer love in a world that so desperately needs both.

It’s all about love…

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The ability to stand and live even in fierce wind

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And a light house to guide the way…

There will be more stories to tell, but the story today is about what it means to love our woman-child María.

Last year, María ended up having to be Baker Acted—that is, checked into a psych unit by the police—when she lost it right before a much-anticipated hurricane that ended up being a non-event in Fort Lauderdale. For a host of reasons that had almost nothing to do with her actual state of mind, and so much more to do with the limitations and fragilities of even the best of systems and institutions that care for the vulnerable in a time of crisis, Maria ended up hospitalized for 13 days.

A couple of days after we got to California, Irma started registering on our ‘girl-radar’–that part of us that is always attuned to what comes next for María. We reached out to two people with access to a quality and level of meterological information that we knew we could trust. We’ve stayed in touch and this afternoon, as we were driving down towards Monterey, one of them just flat out said, “if it were my child I would see about getting her out sooner rather than later.”

We pulled off to the side of the road and began the work of turning around the good ship “Lindahl Mallow” so it could head way, way east, instead of a few more miles south. By the time we were done, we had reservations to fly out of San Francisco tomorrow, early in the morning. Sherod will go on to Fort Lauderdale tomorrow evening, pick up María and  fly back to Atlanta with her on Wednesday. Meanwhile, tomorrow I’ll continue on to Montgomery to get our car out of the airport parking. I’ll drive to Atlanta on Wednesday, in time to pick up my peeps in the early afternoon and bring them home for dinner. We will watch, and wait, and especially pray, for the people we love and served through the years in SoFla.

All our other reservations for this vacation trip are cancelled and we are now at the airport Hampton Inn, waiting for early morning to arrive. I want to cry, but I can’t. The truth is, taking care of Maria is so much more of who we are and what we are about. We had four lovely days in Bodega Bay and today we made it all the way to Half Moon Bay on Hwy 1 before turning back; the Pacific shoreline is beyond beautiful. We stopped at the Point Reyes National Seashore and I was able to hike to the observation deck over the Point Reyes Lighthouse. I felt more than a small stirring of regret that I am not in good enough shape to try to venture down and back on a set of stairs equal to those of a 30 story building. But the hike I did get to take was fun and strenuous with a the wind blowing so hard if I stopped and relaxed at all, the wind pushed me around this way and that.

Life is good. Tough things happen. You’re sometimes faced with binary choices and only have a small window of time and limited information to make the call, so you do your best and don’t look back. My daughter will be safe, whether or not Irma blows through Southeast Florida (and Lord knows, I pray it will head up north and east and out to sea instead of wreaking its havoc anywhere). The glorious roar of the surf against the shore still rings in my ears. The pictures I got to take  go with me, as do the bits and pieces I got to write, that will become more complete stories in the days and weeks ahead. And my husband is still my husband, now with us in our 30th year of marriage, and laughter found us again and again in these past 5 days. Love wins.