Another Banquet

View from the Pacific Surfline train headed to LA
Union Station, Los Angeles
Len, Rosie and Sherod back in San Diego

It seemed like a wonderful plan. Sherod and I would leave from the ARAA reunion to catch a train at 8 in the morning that would take us to LA. There, we would get to spend about 4 hours with Len before coming back to San Diego. For a time, when we lived in Fort Lauderdale, Len and his now husband, David, were neighbors. We became very good friends and fell into an easy rhythm of going back and forth between our homes for Sunday supper. They live in LA where David is a highly regarded psychotherapist and Len is an artist. We have missed them since they left Fort Lauderdale in 2005 and though we wouldn’t get to see David, because he was out of town, we were simply thrilled to get to see Len.

We got to the station in San Diego about 20 minutes before the train was supposed to come through. At 8:04 (departure time), no train. Forty-five minutes later? Nothing. More time goes by, no train. And then some more. Now it’s starting to get dicey–we’re not going to get to spend hardly any time with Len because we have tickets to come back to San Diego at 3:00 pm. Do we go or do we stay? Go. It matters too much to get to see Len. Finally, 2 hours late, the train came in. The ride is lovely as long as the train goes along the shoreline, much duller once it curves into the ‘burbs of Orange County and LA.

We got to Union Station in LA, which is a magnificent building. We tried to use the Uber ap and at each and every step, it gave us problems and meantime, the time was ticking. We finally caught a cab but we barely had an hour to spend though Len had prepared the kind of vegetarian feast like he used to prepare when it was his and David’s turn to have us over in Fort Lauderdale. Finally, the Uber ap worked, the Uber car got there too fast, and before I felt like I could blink, we were back on the train, heading back to San Diego.

I rode back south with a huge knot in my throat. I have a hard time describing the friendship I have had with Len for so many years. Len is a brilliant artist and perhaps because of that, has a way of seeing the world and a way of being a friend that has made my life so much better, richer, more meaningful. My grandmother and mother both had their brokenness and issues and both also understood the place of beauty. Len does too, in ways even more profound than I had known before I met him. I still have the hand-me-down cutting board he gave me when he and David were moving west because it is the most perfect blue. Whenever I take it out to use, I smile. To have had to rush through lunch when we used to sit for hours around the table, talking, laughing, and breaking bread together was absurdly, heart-breakingly wrong. I kept telling myself, at least I got to see my friend. But it wasn’t enough.

We got back to San Diego, got settled in the Airbnb we’re staying in for the remainder of our time here and crashed early. This morning there was a text from Len and then a flurry of texts back and forth. Schedules were rearranged and Len, together with the two pug girls he got from a pug rescue organization in Korea, Rosie and Viola, drove down to hang out with us. The traffic he encountered was minimal and we ended up having this big, beautiful chunk of time together that just made my soul sing.

We ate at a lovely Lebanese restaurant close to Balboa Park, with the two dogs amusing us and laughter abounding. Then, Len, Viola, Rosie and I walked to Balboa. It was beautiful. Because the two sweet girls were with us, we couldn’t go into the museums we would have spent hours walking through under different circumstances. What Len did urge me to do was walk into the Botanical Building. It was like walking into my mother’s garden in Cali. It was so beautiful, and so alive, and so, both exotic, and so familiar, to this woman who is now every bit as much Alabama as Colombia, it left the kind of stillness of the soul that only comes with great joy.

We came back to our Airbnb, Len fed and walked his girls, allowed us to babysit them while he went for a run. A little more conversation and then it was time for him to head back to Los Angeles. Here’s what I see about the time we spent in Del Mar on Saturday, and in San Diego today: it’s about time. The kind of time that comes with shutting off phones, with letting time go where it will go, quickening and slowing down in ways that are so mysterious and open to the Spirit. The Spirit blows where it will and there’s a kind of time that only comes with trusting there is enough of it. And that’s at the heart of the matter, isn’t it? That we live as if there is not enough time, though we really, we don’t have to live like that, at least not all the time.

Eucharist

Sherod and I flew to San Diego on Thursday night. It’s some vacation time for me and for Sherod, another time to gather with his brother gunship pilots at the Aerial Rocket Artillery Association.

This morning, I braved the streets and highways of San Diego to get some camera supplies I needed, while Sherod attended the regular business meeting that happens on the last day of these annual gatherings. We’d talked about going for lunch at a place in Del Mar, north of San Diego. We knew one of the guys who was in Sherod’s flight group in Vietnam, Jerry, and his wife, Georgia, were coming with us. We asked two other couples to join us as well, but only Jim and Rose were able to do so. The restaurant we were going to was too full and we lucked into another joint, not on the beach like the first one, but close enough, with plenty of space and enough quiet for the three couples to sit for a long lunch.

Of the three guys, Sherod is the only one who is divorced and remarried. When talk turned to the R&R leave they all got about midway through their tour in Vietnam, it was funny, and awkward, and I found myself wondering what it would have been like to fly out to Hawaii to meet a young warrior for just a very few days in a crazy-weird in-between time and place. Hawaii is so much closer to Vietnam than Alabama—and by the time these guys met their wives and girlfriends there, they had already seen so much. I think I’d probably have had a harder time letting go of the person I loved—I would already have known too much about the loneliness and fear that would travel home with me as he flew in the opposite direction.

I listened to more than two hours of stories, some so funny I laughed till my sides ached. Some were white-knuckle stories of the crazy risks young men at war take, pushing their war machines way past the envelope of endurance they were built for. At one point, Sherod stopped and told the story of a conversation he had with his ‘Gram’—the grandmother he absolutely adored. It was many years after the war and somehow they got to talking about whether or not Gram had worried if Sherod would make it back. She told him she hadn’t. Instead, every night, she would get on her knees by her bed and pray for him and all the others he was fighting with. She said she’d pray until she was so sleepy she’d be afraid she might topple over so she’d get in bed, and keep on praying until she did actually go to sleep.

Jim, who is about as wild a man as I know, had ordered a chocolate croissant to have for desert but started on it a bit before our entrees were brought out. Before too long, Rose, his wife, gently pulled the plate toward her. The meal continued, the stories continued to unfurl, and then after everyone was almost finished eating, I watched Rose carefully, gently, break that partly-eaten croissant in smaller pieces. She took one and handed the plate to Georgia, who took a piece as well before handing the plate to me, and then I did the same, a ritual that as a priest I know down to my bones. “Take, eat. Do this for the remembrance” The plate went on to Jerry, then to the other two guys. The conversation never stopped. I don’t suppose anyone noticed this moment except me.

Eucharist is about remembrance— remembrance of love, of sacrifice, of life and death. It is also about promise, a horizon of eternity. The promise today, at that slightly wobbly table in Del Mar, was more bittersweet than most I am a part of Sunday in and Sunday out. I have been struck, watching a band of rapidly aging guys, whose wives now have serious health issues and whose children, and children’s children, and even children’s children’s children, tell their own stories of hardship and joy. The men are more stooped over. They walk more slowly. Their eyes may still flash with the mischief and life of a young man flying a helicopter, but now I think all of us who, in one way or another, are a part of this band know the days are getting shorter and fewer and not one single one of the days and reunions and lunches and stories should be taken for granted. If for no other reason than that, this was a holy meal, a holier meal than most I get to share with others.

Tonight there will be a banquet, lots of pictures taken, a guest speaker who is a well known correspondent from the days of Vietnam, lots of hugs and a promise of “Next year in Savannah”. But it’s that time out of time, when bread was broken and shared in remembrance and thanksgiving that matters most, it seems to me.

Five years later

It’s been five years since we moved away from Fort Lauderdale. I’m here for a few days to help a dear friend who is recovering from knee replacement surgery. I’ve also been able to see my sweet girl and it is heaven to hug her. Just. Heaven.

Five years later what is different, what is not?

  • My wonderful buddy, Duke, is much grayer around the muzzle.
  • And playing catch it’s him is as joyful, silly and fun as ever. Dammit Duke, you still have my heart.
  • I forgot about iguanas. They’re everywhere.
  • The sidewalk I used for my nightly rambles when I lived here is being resurfaced. I still miss the walks you can take in a city.
  • I stopped counting cranes and new buildings. Way, way many.
  • There are more cars. A lot more. The traffic is hideous.
  • There are a lot of Maseratis.
  • And now, there are people asking for money almost at every light it seems, and so many homeless folks wandering up and down US1.

Still as contradictory and complicated as ever. But then, so is Alabama. Just in a different way.

To listen to God’s word

About 6 weeks ago, I received a summons to jury duty at the circuit court in Lowndes County. It was the second time I had gotten such a summons and I found myself reacting the way I did when I got the first one: I got a big lump in my throat and I started tearing up. I am still moved beyond words by the privilege and responsibility of being part of the vast tapestry of people that the Constitution of this country, and the rule of law, have knit into one.  

I first started hoping I’d be able to come to America as a young girl. I loved my country of origin and still do. It’s funny, how you figure out you love something deeply. I had lived far longer in the US when my mom died than I had in Colombia. Yet the morning after her death, what I wanted more than anything was to be able to sit and look up at the gorgeous Andean mountain range that watched over my family as we were growing up outside of the city of Cali.  As much as I loved my country, neither I nor anyone else could escape the fact that for 3 generations, Colombia had been torn by sectarian violence that fairly regularly broke into de facto civil war.  My family was part of the merchant class of Colombia, privileged enough not to deal with the daily realities of the violence but close enough to it to ask ourselves when the shoe would drop.  

It wasn’t until I had been gone for almost 10 years, on the night before my graduation from seminary, that the worst actually happened.  Late in the night, I was woken up when my younger brother called to tell me that my two cousins, the cousins I grew up with, the cousins who were almost brothers had gone up into the rainforest in the mountains on a foolish camping trip. Alex was 19, Mario Andrés was 21. They and the friend they’d gone out with, were attacked by a group of people from the ELN, the Army of National Liberation guerrilla group. They were pursued all night and by the time dawn broke, Alex and Mario Andrés, and the friend that was with them, were too exhausted to go on. When the guerrilla group caught up with them, they showed no mercy in the way they killed my two cousins. They let the third young man live and told him, go back to Cali and tell those rich people to stay out of our lands. After a two year cease fire, we are watching Colombia once again slip back into the sectarian violence and it is wrenching.

Even back then, as that young girl trying to find her way here, no matter how much I wanted it to be possible, there was only hope and no certainty. I figured out the best path for me involved getting highly educated in this country so I would have a skill of value that would allow me to apply to become a permanent resident, and perhaps one day, a citizen. In those days, the government agency that handled immigration was INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). When I got my letter of acceptance to RMWC, my parents helped me start the process to get a student visa.

At each and every step of the way, the process was intended to be as intimidating and discouraging as possible.  Every time I left the US as a student, I had to have a form called an I-94 that allowed me to board a plane coming to the USA. But it was the immigration officer at the airport in Miami that had absolute and total discretion in deciding whether or not I could come back into the country. At any time, they could have refused entry, revoked my visa and sent me home on the next plane.  An officer could even have said I was forbidden from ever returning to the USA and I would have had no right of appeal.  

As things worked out, I was at Vanderbilt working on my PhD when Sherod and I began to date seriously and then got married.  I got to our interview in Atlanta to get my green card, and started shaking; Sherod couldn’t understand why.  But when the interview as over, it was he shaking, though shaking not with fear like me but in anger.  A highly decorated helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam, in that interview he had been treated as if he was a lowly criminal trying to pull a fast one on his nation. 

My final step of immigration came on December 1, 1994, in the federal courthouse in Memphis, TN. Along with about 95 other people representing 83 nationalities, I stood, raised my right hand and said, “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America…” Would that I hadn’t had to renounce my loyalty to Colombia, the land that birthed and raised me. And how extraordinarily blessed and proud I felt to have become an American.

Through all my time here, I have always, always, found parts of what was happening in our nation that I was fiercely proud of, and policies, decisions and actions that I vehemently and energetically opposed—it’s cut across both political parties.

That began to change a couple of years ago. Probably, it was only immigrants like I who became aware that policies were being changed to make it a lot easier to strip people of their citizenship. I started measuring my words a little more carefully. I now carry the kind of uneasiness that was part of daily living in Colombia—watching us tear and be torn apart into us’s and them’s. I have heard Mexican people called filthy, criminals, the lowest of the low, and how they “aren’t even human, they are animals.” Each time things like that have been said about Mexicans, the name I have heard is Luz María, the face I have seen is the face of my Mexican-born daughter, who is the light of my life, the source of the greatest joy in my life. On Wednesday night, something finally got pushed too hard in me when I heard thousands of people chanting, “send her back, send her back, send her back” and chanting it with real glee. I am filled with fear, I am filled with sorrow and anger, but above all I am convicted as a person of faith and a priest, because those voices, and all voices of hate and fear make it so hard to hear the more quiet voice, to hear the harder words that God speaks to us.

Between now and the beginning of Advent, the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures will all come from the great prophets from on old. Amos is considered the first of the great prophets, who spoke out in a time of relative peace both in the southern Kingdom under King Uzziah and King Jereboam, in the northern kingdom of Israel. After describing the injustices he sees, after building up a sense of impending catastrophe, Amos recounts that God says, “The time is surely coming, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” 

I have not experienced a God who punishes me, or anybody, for our brokenness, for our failures, for our sins and for our hardness of heart.  But I have experienced what it is like when we stop paying attention to, and trying to live by Gods words of mercy, of justice, of peace. Fear and hate tear and pull down and demean and destroy. Would that those who have died at the hands of violence, including Alex, and Mario Andrés, could raise a plea for life but their voices have been silenced.

 Donald Gowan, a person far more articulate than I am has asked a question that goes to the heart of the challenge I believe we face as a people of faith: “If we ignore the word God has set before us, what more can God do for us?” You and I, the Church of the Holy Comforter, are a speck, a little bit of nothing, against the vastness of the cosmos, the complexity of our shared humanity, the brokenness that is in every single one of God’s children. But that does not mean we cannot do anything.  We, just ordinary folks living ordinary lives, can and must listen carefully for God’s word. 

I have a challenge for us this week: whether you listen to MSNBC, Fox or anything in between, during the news hour either in the morning or the evening, turn off your TV, get your smart phone out and go for a walk, doesn’t matter how long. Go for a walk, looking for God.  Wherever you think you might have gotten even a brief glimpse of that God who created, redeemed and continues to want so desperately to sustain us, wherever you think you see something of that God of love, take a picture.  You don’t have to be a professional photographer—you just have to go looking with an eye of faith. Next Sunday, I’d love to hear how it went.  As we find our way through the prophets, we will continue to explore ways of responding to God’s Living Word.

But above all, amidst all the harshness, the stridency, the anger, and despair that colors so many of the voices around us, listen. Listen for the still small voice that nonetheless thunders and says,

“I am your God.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Proclaim the kingdom of God.

Choose me.”

Feasting after Pentecost

Peaches, tomatoes, blueberries and blackberries picked this morning

I have spent a good part of my morning tending to issues and needs related to the buildings and grounds of my parish. It has never stopped amazing me, how many different things a parish priest needs to know about. This week I am learning about alternatives to repair stained glass windows, how to do a cost benefit analysis for replacing wood trim with Hardie Boards as an alternative to a more traditional project to repair of the wood that has rotted. Yesterday, I found out how you provide emergency assistance with rent when person is in a weekly-stay motel (don’t try to go the credit card route—they require front and back copies of your driver’s license and your credit card, and would you give that to folks who work behind bullet-proof windows in the seediest kinds of places imaginable?), and how narrative criticism is a fascinating way to engage the Gospel of Mark. Oh, and how complicated it is to try to improve the safety and security of your buildings at a church when there are 50 kajillion copies of the master key floating around and just about the entire congregation needs access to the buildings during non-business hours.

It may sound a bit twisted and perverse, but this is one of the things I absolutely love about my work. It’s not particularly glamorous or epic—it is just the ordinariness of how a community gets through from day to day. But the variety and scope of the work I do makes it nearly impossible to ever be bored. In this growing season, the parish I serve is working very hard and intentionally on letting go of clutter that has accumulated for decades; it is looking at every single one of our spaces and asking, “Does this space communicate welcome, a sense of the future we are daring ourselves to build towards?” Each decision about what we hold on to, and what we let go of, is another invitation to ask ourselves, “who are we and why are we here?” Some of the answers are quite astoundingly wonderful.

Early in the life of this blog, I felt deep grief, realizing I was entering a time in my life when I would be defined more by loss than gain, by subtraction and not addition. Losing my mom and exactly one year later, having to institutionalize María, made it feel like death and loss and nothingness were all the same. It’s not quite that cut and dry, is it? I don’t experience as much grief any longer, and in fact, it is rather the opposite: I become more and more awestruck by what is the simplest and most essential around me, by how little we actually need, and how small bits and pieces are also infinities in their own right.

And even as I am hard at work doing what I can to help us let go of, pare down, simplify, our shared life at church, I unexpectedly receive a picture from my spouseman who was out in the garden doing some harvesting after I left for work. On Monday, I used 4 pounds of our blackberries to can blackberry jam. We have put up almost 2 gallons of blueberries, the jalapeños are ready for picking, and the tomatoes are starting to ripen with the figs not far behind.

Ebb and flow, loss and gain all the time.