Going down to the river to pray

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Bethany’s Kids Session 1 Staff

I started out my adult years with some definite ideas of places I would not go. Headed to the USA to college, with the hope and dream of staying in this country, I said I would absolutely, positively, never, ever live in Alabama. After I graduated from seminary, I added another “not never, ever, ever”: “I shall not, no will not, no cannot, not ever be a priest.” We all know how that one turned out. When I moved to Huntsville, when Sherod and I got married in ’88, I added a new “heck no”: Camp McDowell signified something I neither understood, nor valued. It felt like the meeting place of the Diocese of Alabama Episcopal clique, and I wanted nothing to do with cliques, especially not Episcopal Church cliques when I could not see a place for myself in that place with those people. I was adamant that I had neither the desire nor need to go anywhere near McDowell.

What’s more, I had heard my mother tell the story of the year her father was really struggling with alcoholism, and her mother, trying to shield her from some of that, sent her to some posh summer camp in Maine. I watched my mom shudder describing the icy lake water, the mosquitos, the strenuousness of it all. For my own self with my bum hip, a summer camp program, with hiking and canoeing, and swimming and all those other outdoor activities that define summer camp was so removed from the realm of my being, desire or imagination. Between the mamacita’s story and my own limitations, all I could really say was, “isn’t going to happen.”

Then, not only did I get married in Alabama, to an Alabama boy, but when we actually had the freedom to choose where we would live as Sherod retired, I was as enthusiastic as Sherod about coming back to Alabama. After thinking I’d never get to be parish priest again after I left Ft Lauderdale, I went to work at Ascension and our vestry vestry retreats where held at McDowell the last two years as was the Diocesan Convention in 2016. It was no longer a matter of whether I’d find my way to Camp McDowell. I was going. Full stop.

What I found shattered every single one of my preconceptions. Since I left Alabama with the Mallowman in 1990, Camp McDowell has launched a folk school program. An organic farm is up and running here too. There’s a program of environmental stewardship that just knocks the socks off me. And under the leadership of our current bishop, a whole new section that’s totally accessible and hospitable to people with all kinds of “exceptionalities” and “disabilities” has been built. Earlier this summer, my girl got to attend a McDowell camp session for adults with the kinds of life challenges she faces; though she gave everyone here a run for their money during the first days, she was welcomed, she was made to feel that she belonged and she wants to come back.

About 10 weeks ago, I got a call from one of the members of McDowell’s leadership team. Along with offering camp sessions for persons with significant challenges, McDowell also offers a camp inclusion program—4th-6th graders with typical abilities and special needs attend camp together for a week. Each session is led by a priest of the diocese who sets the theme, helps develop the program and serves as chaplain and worship leader. The priest who’d committed to take the first session of “Bethany’s Kids” had backed out unexpectedly and the call was a plea for help: would I take his place?   Yes. Yes of course I would. I’d be honored.

I’m at Camp McDowell, today working with the college-aged staff who work through the summer as counselors, life guards, activity directors and musicians. On Wednesday, “camper buddies,” high school students who will be assigned to work 1-1 with the children who need a little extra help, will arrive for training; close behind will be the campers themselves. We will have time together to explore, and I hope, experience the wonder of one of God’s most wonderful gifts: the gift of being “refreshed in living waters.”

I am so glad all those rigid “I won’ts” of my younger years are not as strong as curiosity, and a capacity to eat humble pie when necessary. Me and about 75 other people, young and old, fragile and strong, all of us rich in grace, will be here this week.

Early in the morning

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The routine is firmly established for the Mallowman. Stumble out of bed, feed the critters, make a cup of coffee, go out to the deck to make sure the deer haven’t found their way into the vegetable and flower garden. Then come in and watch Morning Joe. In the meantime, Mo and Daisy have been out in the garden for a while, whined and carried on till they were let back inside, to make a beeline for Sherod, sitting on the sofa. “Pay attention to me, pay attention to me, love me, love me, love me!” they say. I get on with preparing to go to work, and most days, walk out to see my flower beds, then leave the three of them keeping each other company. I am always a little jealous as I leave—we have another funeral at Ascension on Thursday, the days are jam packed right now. That slower, gentler, pace the rest of my little family keeps is quite lovely to behold. But going into work, I never have the radio on in my car and I drive on Highway 80 through the gorgeous morning light on rolling hills, cotton fields and creeks. It’s my version of quiet. Maybe even of heaven.

At 29

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There’s a certain perversity in the gift. This is one butt ugly Cockadoodle Rooster. Cement, no less, and stained the ugliest browns I could dream up.

I’ve been working for three years now on the flower bed out in front of the house. This is the year when it feels like it’s finally getting in the shape I had wanted—an oak leaf hydrangea, gladiola, daisies, yarrow, mums, roses, ornamental grass, foxglove, amaryllis, painted daisies and salvia, with some or all of them overlapping as they come into bloom. Some mornings, with the gentle light of dawn, I have marveled at the beauty of this little spot that is thriving because I tend to it, I weed, and fertilize, and plant, and prune, and, when no one is close by, talk to the plants encouragingly.

Yesterday, I got the present Sherod chose for me for our 29th wedding anniversary. It is so ugly it could make you cry. It is so “not me” as to be transcendent. It is so playful and dear and in my face, how can I not love it? There was only one place it could go, and that was in this beautiful little bed that might otherwise become too precious by half. So there he is. Sorta like the man I love.

O beautiful, for spacious

Yesterday, I went to visit a parishioner who is tending to her husband who has been slowly getting lost in the horrors of dementia/Alzheimer. He is at a VA facility in Alex City, about an hour northeast of Montgomery. The route I chose took me through Wetumka, and Santuck, then north past Equality (if I’d turned east between those two towns, I’d have reached Eclectic) and a few miles further up the road, Alex City and the Bill Nichols Veterans Home. It is a large building with plate glass windows, nicely kept large garden, good parking.

I stopped in the portico and front entrance and visited with three veterans in wheelchairs, caps telling the story of service in Korea and World War II. Courtly, they returned my greeting and when I asked how things were going, one told me they were out “enjoying the breeze, ma’am, enjoying the breeze.” The staff at the reception desk were friendly and knowledgeable. Everything looked clean and well cared for. The elevator was slow but got me to the fourth floor and from there, it was easy to find the room I was looking for.

Every person I’ve encountered in end-stage Alzheimer’s is little more than a whisp of humanity, so translucent and fragile, a strong breeze would carry them away. Every family member who has cared for a loved on in this place is exhausted. At the very end, as a person enters the stage of active dying from Alzheimer’s, the tangles of exhaustion and fear and sorrow and helplessness for the family are so very difficult. I watched the staff at this VA facility respond quickly, with compassion, with considerable competence when they were needed. I had not noticed any of the kinds of awful smells I sometimes find when I make visits to nursing home, and when I stood and waited for the elevator to take me back downstairs, I was aware of a mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

I walked out thinking of how very critical we are of the VA system. And don’t get me wrong—my husband is a veteran and I get glimpses of the bureaucratic messes the VA can create for itself and the people it serves. But still. I got to see right things being done right, so my sweet parishioner and her husband could have the peace and comfort each needs.

I drove back through the beautiful, winding, country roads of Alabama, where it’s next to impossible to tell where poverty ends and grace break through, where towns have such quaint names and rivers like the Coosa and the Talapoosa run through and refresh my spirit, even on a sad and hot ride home.

Driving, I thought about the 4th of July, how we had a our traditional parade in Lowndesboro, our speeches, patriotic songs, watermelon and cake. Nothing fancy. We celebrate in a space with complicated history we don’t necessarily talk about as much as perhaps we should, but where I watch people trying awfully hard to be true, and kind—a difficult combination. I teared up when we sang America the Beautiful because of these lines especially:

 America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine

Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!

I love this battered, bewildered, fractured and fractious country of mine. And I especially love this bewildering, fractured, tormented and amazing state called Alabama. The little video I put together, including that wonderful traditional piece of American music, performed by a group called Grace Notes, helps to show why…

 

Journey into death, into life

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The Saturday evenings before I am the scheduled preacher are a time of considerable anxiety for me. I start preparing my sermon on the previous Sunday afternoon, researching, praying, holding myself open to God’s Word in the words of the appointed text. I live with them all week long; bits and pieces suggest themselves to me at unexpected times and I scramble to jot them down lest I forget.   Almost always, though, it’s on Saturday evening that my message crystalizes, comes into the kind of sharp focus I need to speak from the pulpit. I concentrate and pray, and sweat more than a little, caught between clarity and fear I will run out of time to marshal my thoughts into some kind of coherence.

Last night was not different than others, this time with a little added pressure because this is the Sunday after. The Sunday after an articulate, gifted preacher and rector celebrated at our services one last time before heading on to his new congregation. We are in the process of finding an interim rector and for now, I’m the clergy person on staff. I very much wanted to do it right today.

At the same time, though, I had noticed how beautiful the light was out in the garden as night fell and we were free of rain. I had been able to go out and take some pictures of the patch of sunflower I planted early this spring. They’ve taken a pounding from all the rain we’ve had, but there are still plenty where our bees can feast.

Against that backdrop, first I got a text. Someone I know and care for immensely is very sick. This person will have tests tomorrow that probably will only serve to confirm much of what’s already known and the news is not good. The family is very private so I’m sure reaching out to me was not easy. I was grateful to hear I could bring my friend communion and visit with the family after church today.

Then the phone rang. This time, the conversation was in Spanish—a conversation I had pretty much figured I wouldn’t get to have with a young woman I’ve met a couple of times. A member of the Latino community has also been very, very sick.   There had been some question about me stopping to visit him in the hospital. Then, some conversation about the possibility of a baptism. Then, nothing. Yesterday it all came together. This person has gone into renal failure and a kidney transplant is not an option. Friends and family have gathered the resources to pay for him to return to Mexico to spend the handful of days he has left with his family at home.

But he wanted to be baptized, and for reasons that are filled both with mystery and grace, he wanted to be baptized at Ascension. I asked for the basic information I need to fill out the baptismal registry and it was he who texted back. I was surprised because he has a quaint and old-fashioned name; I took for granted this was a person rich in years.  He was born in 1994. He is 23 years old.

I did not see him at communion and I had not seen him come in earlier so as I went through our service this morning, I wondered if he would be able to make it. And then, as we processed out, singing “The Church’s One Foundation”, there he was. An achingly beautiful, achingly young man.

I was grateful for the members of our church who stayed and participated in a baptism that was in Spanish. Because literacy is an issue in the part of the Latino community I serve these days, I have modified the Rite of Baptism so what we normally say and  the way in which we recite the Nicene Creed are now questions that can be answered with a simple, “Sí”. About 30 of us gathered around the baptismal font and around this young man. I want to believe that in that gathering, we held grace. We were a space of safety. We were a people willing to be present with someone who is dying and be there in solidarity and compassion, not looking away from what is harsh and painful about life.

When the baptism was over, the young man’s family took a number of pictures, he holding the candle we’d lit from the paschal candle—a small flame from the larger one that reminds us that the light of God’s love is stronger than death or darkness. There was weeping. At first, the young man was very distant, already far into his journey to a place he goes to by himself. Towards the end of the time after the baptism, there was some kind of connection, more recognition in his eyes. But there was also fear. I hugged him and made the sign of the cross on his forehead one last, wanting to beg God not to let this happen, wanting desperately to be able to offer him life as we know it, the health and wholeness we yearn for as people of the Incarnation. But as the famous prayer I draw from often reminds me: we are ministers, not messiahs.  I had done what I was able to do.

Rufino heads home to Chiapas on Friday. I will pray for him and pray for a world where a young man does not have to die so young.  If you are so inclined, hold him close in your heart.

Still. Life!

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I am trying to remember you
&
Let you go
At
The same time
Nayyirah Waheed

Three years ago, these were the last, somewhat frantic, days of our life in Fort Lauderdale. The movers would be at the house on the 17th and 18th. On the 19th as dawn was breaking, we’d head out, Sherod in his truck, I in my car, with Boo and Spot and Daisy along for the ride. On this date, that year, Maria was on the eve of heading to her new home in Tallahassee.

It is increasingly peculiar, this business of looking back. The dates are so clearly registered in the muscle and sinew and bone of my very body it seems, so I cannot but stop and pay attention. What was once so vivid there was no way I would ever forget a single detail now grows more blurry, while still so present. I was driving home not long ago and out of nowhere, realized my mind was carefully crafting the definitive answer I wished I could give to one of the serious, innuendo-laden concerns raised about the New River Regional Ministry, especially on the St Ambrose campus. I walked myself back from the edge of self-righteous rage. I reminded myself life had gone on. I listened to myself breathe.

We are called to live fruitful lives and these past few days have been filled with reminders that what fruit we bear, we bear where we are. I picked three San Marzano tomatoes and an eggplant last evening, then found another eggplant the Spouseman had forgotten on a bench close to the vegetable garden. The first blackberry of our new blackberry vine was ripe for the picking as well. It looked so good, I ate it as soon as I took this picture, sweet and delicious and the essence of summer.

These next few weeks will find us scrambling to put up, can and freeze such abundance.

Yesterday, during the Bible Study I facilitate weekly, we had a marvelous conversation about call and commission—how apostolic succession is in tension with a Spirit-filled commission that comes from an unexpected place. We are working on the 9th chapter of Acts, and looking at Ananias, who was not an apostle yet issued the prophetic call to Saul. That lead to a discussion of the ordination of Bishop Seabury and the ordination of the Philadelphia 11 and in the conversation, our connection to every bit of the story of God’s work in creation told in the Bible was real and energizing.

Waheed’s brief and eloquent verses give me a sense of my life in these still early days of summer, when the harvest has begun and winter and desolation are still within sight, even as they grow dimmer in memory. Still. Life.

Feelin’ the righteousness…

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This year I have to be a little extra creative to make sure I get in my continuing ed time  before September 1st, when I start on my third year of employment at Ascension. I finally settled on a reading and writing project. On Thursdays for the next 9 or so weeks, I am going to work on a self-study project. I will pick back up on the writing I started last year with Collegeville and have made less progress on than I coulda, shoulda woulda. I am grateful that there is a fine editor in town who I look forward to working with.

I am also adding another layer to my project. Way back in my days as a seminarian, I did a really cool independent study course with a woman called Sue Armentrout, where we had a semester-long discussion about a book by a French philosopher called Paul Ricouer. He had just published the first part of the first volume of a set called Time and Narrative. It was a wonderful discussion and I have wanted to go back to his work for a long time now; I went on a tad of a shopping spree last week. I have no idea if his work will in any way inform my writing, or if in fact, it will be the reverse (though I am not holding my breath that I have anything at all to engage with Ricouer). I should probably count myself lucky if I manage to work my way through the three volumes of Time and Narrative.  It is so well worth the effort, though…

To make this even more official (and in a perverse sorta way, thrilling), I have procured a carrel in an out-of-the-way corner of the library of the Supreme Court of Alabama thanks to the generosity of their librarian, Mr. Tim Lewis, Esq. At least in the morning, but probably for most of my Thursdays, I will be squirreled away doing my readin’n writin’. Totally cool.

Then, this evening I saw something that was truly the icing on the cake or the exclamation point on a particularly well crafted sentence. An online friend, Katherine,  linked an article about Macron and Ricouer. You can read it here. So, in a friend of a friend, existential kind of way, it’s like I get to hang out with Macron as well. Not shabby company. Sweeeeeet!