Los Quinces de Luz Maria, May 28, 2011

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Maria’s Quinces Birthday Cake

On May 28, 2011, my mother was dying. I had flown to Panama 5 days earlier, when I’d heard over the phone, “Rosita, your mother is not going to make it much longer, you need to come now.” It wasn’t just the sorrow of traveling to walk with my mother through those last days of her life. It was that I had to leave just as I was finishing up all the planning and preparation I had started months earlier to celebrate Maria’s Quinces–the Latino equivalent of Sweet Sixteen, a rite of passage into adulthood.  There is so much my girl will not get to experience of a ‘regular’ life that it is incredibly important to me to find the ways for her to experience every bit as much of the lovely parts of life as she possibly can.

We had settled on a tea-dance for her at the parish hall of the small parish where I served as priest-in-charge. It would be  grown up enough for a DJ and dancing, a beautiful cake, and manageable even for a woman-child who, despite all her strength, is fragile, and needs buffers and breathing spaces from everything that functioning in our society and culture requires of us.

I’d been having a ball with the planning–there was so much I could do to make it both magical and real for this person entrusted to my care whose first name is Luz, Light.  I was so close to putting the finishing details in place, and then, I couldn’t.  Some amazing friends picked up where I had to leave off. The parish hall was packed with folks who loved our girl so much.  That night, after I had helped settle my mother for the night, as I had prayed, as I did every night, “please God, not yet”, I logged into Facebook and started seeing the pictures.  From so far away, I got to see glimpses of how beautiful my girl had been, how special the afternoon turned out, and especially, what a stunning toast her Dad had given.  I think you can see a video of that toast by clicking here.

All these years later, having just celebrated her 21st Birthday week before last, having sat with my dad this evening over dinner, remembering with him that on the 5th of June it will be 6 years since my mom died, it is almost as if I can slip back into that day, and that incredible combination of wonder and horror that lived side by side in me as I listened to my mother’s labored breathing and got to see the pictures and videos of my girl celebrating.  Such a life I have gotten to live…

Sometimes all I can do is sit

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I had to take my dad to the doctor this morning. There was more planned for the day but I just could not do it. I cleared the figurative ‘decks,’ because the events and news of this week had left me spinning. On Monday, my boss, the Rector at Ascension, told me he has been called to a new parish that’s all kinds of wonderful; his last Sunday is June 18. It took the rest of the week for the news to actually be shared publicly and until that happened, I had to act like nothing had changed.

Last night we celebrated our patronal feast, Ascension Day. We are part of a group of churches that participate in a magnificent respite program for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Recently, the people who are served through this program, and the volunteers whom they love, have formed a choir called Side-by-Side. The Side-by-Side Singers performed for us last night and asked the congregation to sing along. Their music selection was so sweet—songs like “The sun will come out tomorrow”—and it was almost excruciatingly ironic for a handful of us, who knew that today’s mail would bring the official announcement of Andy’s new call. Then, when it was time for the feast that so many people helped prepare, I stood and talked to a couple of people who are ever so dear to me, holding my dinner plate in one hand and a bottle of water in the other.  I made some jerky, awkward movement so I poured water and half my dinner on myself. It was time to come home, though only to my sweet animals, because Sherod’s on a trip.

I was tired and fell asleep early, but today I woke up simply overwhelmed. When I got home from taking my daddy to the doctor, I crawled into the most comfortable chair in the house and spent a good part of the day simply staring out at the garden. I kept telling myself to get up and do something but I could not think of what that might be. Sometimes we must simply sit with grief and turmoil and fear; when I finally quit criticizing my inertia, something changed; slowly the fear ebbed out, the anxious little parts of me quieted. The notion that we must carry all work, all ministry, lightly, surrendering fear, so we can open spaces for new possibilities, is one I relearn over, and over, and over again. Today was one of those days.

Last night we sang, “the sun will come out tomorrow” and the scared, petulant child in me snapped silently, “no it won’t, because my world is upside down and the things I was counting on aren’t going to happen!” Well, the thing about sitting in our living room, looking out at the garden was, I had acknowledge that, yup, the sun had, in fact, come out. That the day was beautiful, that as the afternoon sun became less harsh, I could go out and pick some squash for my dinner, and figure out that in a few days, our sunflower patch is going to be pretty spectacular. I could turn and look at our rambling house already filled with so many stories and echoes of laughter. I could start thinking about a ministry project I had put to one side that might yet come to fruition. I had the time and energy to briefly touch base with someone whose wisdom and companionship a few years ago continues to light the way for me, even in the midst of the turbulence of the week, and who now walks with his beloved through far more difficult and dark valleys.  Today I had so much time for prayer, even if some of that prayer was chaotic and childish.

Tomorrow I have a list of all kinds of garden projects. The sun comes up early these days and lingers in such beautiful twilight, filled with lightning bugs. This is “my one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver).

Not Orphaned

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I have some ‘go-to’ sources that usually give me a way to start reflecting on the lessons appointed for a Sunday when I am preaching. In one of those places, I read a very helpful reflection about the passage in John appointed for today, and how we are called to live “Paraklete (Advocate) kinds of lives.” (www.workingpreacher.com) Though the phrase captured my imagination, the rest of the essay felt quite theoretical and disengaged. Nonetheless, today’s reading, and that phrase, “live a Paraklete kind of life” reminded me of something that happened many years ago.

This is the core of my sermon based on John 14:15-21:

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” I don’t know if you have ever felt orphaned. For me, the experience came early in life. I’ve shared before that a birth defect in my left hip made it necessary for me to have significant surgery and medical care through my childhood. It was my fortune and blessing that my parents were able to take me to Boston where I had all my surgeries at Children’s Hospital.

Even as late as 1968, when I was 8 years old and had another surgery at Children’s, the hospital set and strictly enforced visiting hours for parents. My mom could be with me from mid-morning till about 5 in the evening. After that, I was on my own, pretty much trapped in a full-length cast, waiting for sleep to come. We humans have an incredible capacity to adapt so, by and large, I learned to say my goodbyes at the end of the day without making a scene, though the leave-taking never got easy.

 One evening, I was washed over with a tidal wave of fear and loneliness as I watched my mami walk out the door of my hospital room. It kept getting worse and worse, until I lay in my hospital bed, just weeping. My bed was next to a big plate window that looked out into the hallway of the unit, and a woman—not a nurse, but perhaps a volunteer, or a hospital employee—must have walked by my room, seen my distress, and came in to find out why I was so sad. All I could say through sobs was, “I miss my mami”. She managed to get me to tell her where my mami was, then, she unlocked the wheels of my bed and literally rolled it out of the room and, down the hall to the public phone by the elevators. There was a phone book, hanging below the phone, like there used to be at phone booths, and before long, she had managed to get me to tell her that my mom was staying at the Longwood Inn, had taken out a nickel from her purse, had dialed and gotten my mother on the phone. To this day, almost 50 years later, I can still feel the indescribable relief and comfort of hearing my mother’s voice at the other end of the line. We didn’t talk long, but long enough for my mami to reassure me that morning would come quickly and she’d be back with me; then, the woman rolled my bed back into the hospital room and left.  

 The whole encounter could not have lasted longer than 15-20 minutes. It was a small enough moment that it brings to mind Julian of Norwich, who once found something as small as a hazelnut and gazing on it in the palm of her hand, she said, “I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall.” She goes on to add, “In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.” 

 That moment on the 6th floor of Children’s on a summer night in 1968 was such that it might have “fallen into nothing for its littleness”. And it meant the difference between life and death for the spirit and heart of a young child. Because she lived, I lived. I’ll never know the woman’s name. I’ll never get to thank her. In the larger span and scope of her life and mine, let alone the arc of human history, that moment was so tiny as to be insignificant. Nonetheless, she abides in me, and I will always abide in the sheer grace and salvation she offered me that evening. This was a Holy Spirit kind of moment, an absolute affirmation of the generous, creative, bold Spirit of Love described by Jesus in this passage.

I only preached at 8:00 this morning. Bishop Kee came for his visit and for Confirmation. He is gentle; there is a lightness of touch in his words, so I laugh and delight in his use of language and attention to detail. Then wham, I look up and he’s brought me right up against that unchanging, incredibly hard call of the Gospel—to live into the commandment given by Jesus: Love God. Love one another as I have loved you. Love not just your family. Not just your tribe. Not just the members of your denomination or religion or nationality or race or political party. Everybody. Everybody. We must love one another.

New Eyes

My husband gave me a new lens for my camera on Mother’s Day. It’s called a Macro Lens and is designed to get very close to that which you want to photograph. I have a funeral this morning, and I continue to struggle with despair—for our country, the world, the beautiful creation God has entrusted to our care. It is my early morning rambles in the garden that restore me. I took a bunch of pictures with my new lens this morning and came back in to load them on my computer. It was like looking through new eyes when the images came up. Sometimes grace is about being given a sharper vision for the beauty right here, right now.

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On A Difficult Tuesday Evening

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Sherod and I sat out on the deck Sherod made last year and ate a dinner with food we’ve already been able to harvest from the vegetable garden. It wasn’t fancy fare, but it was fresh and delicious. The light was gorgeous, and the hummingbirds are back from their migration south for the winter.

The beauty and peace of our lovely home was in stark contrast with the news of Comey’s firing as FBI Director on the heels of some pretty frightening testimony yesterday about the connection between Flynn and the Russian government. Most of us will be able to get up tomorrow and life will not be very different from what it was today before the news broke. But we normalize and minimize the seriousness of the attacks on transparency, the press, the judicial, and now the leadership of the FBI, that are critical to our protections as a democracy at our own peril. It will take all of us to make sure that there is a fundamental level of integrity, transparency and honesty at the highest levels of government. Who will we be?

Doing Hard Things

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There’s a backstory. All the years I was in elementary, junior and high school, I had to go to physical therapy in the afternoons, working to keep an extraordinarily fragile and improbable left hip strong and functional. There were a lot of things I didn’t get to do. Of the things I missed out on, a big one was the kind of extracurricular activities that round out and give depth to people’s lives. What I am most aware of all these years later, is having lost out on taking piano lessons. Without any formal musical formation, I considered I lost out on something important. At the same time, I am also aware that I did not take up  plenty of opportunities I have had as an adult to close that gap so I can’t feel too sorry for myself.

Fast forward to now. The heart and anchor of Ascension’s ministries is its music. Our organist/choir director has called out truly superb skills in the community and the music is consistently excellent. Andrew, our Rector, is deeply musically gifted as well. He composes music; he plays the guitar well enough to have considered being a concert guitarist. He’s got a great voice. I sit next to him on Sundays and often stop my own singing to listen to him move effortlessly from singing the melody to going into all kinds of harmonies that are lovely.

Planning for Eastertide, Becky and Andy considered having the celebrant at the 10:15 Eucharist chant the Sursum Corda (the beginning of the Eucharist Prayer that starts with “The Lord be with you), the Easter preface for the Sanctus and Benedictus, and the concluding doxology. That means singing solo, a capella. It’s all on the celebrant.

Andy asked if I’d be OK with that; I gulped and said, “sure!” And immediately wondered what the heck I was thinking to say that! Except that: my liturgics professor at Sewanee, Marion Hatchett, who was a colorful character and a recognized liturgical authority in the church, had insisted over and over again, that anyone could chant and chanting must not be reserved for only those with really good voices. Somewhere along the line, I read, learned and inwardly digested that point of view. So, really, there was no question: I’d do it when it was my turn.  That would be on the last Sunday in April–in other words, yesterday.

I practiced. And practiced. And practiced. And practiced one more time. A couple of days last week, I started getting hoarse and had to stop. At red lights, I practiced. Ironing, I practiced. In the shower, I practiced (sounded real good there!). Yesterday morning, I drove to church practicing all the way. When I actually got to church, I found I kept getting these adrenaline rushes where my heart would start to pound and my hands would get cold and clammy. I tried not to sing anything during the liturgy of the word in case I wore out my vocal chords (?!). Then, we sat up around the altar, listening to the Offertory Anthem and I decided I wasn’t going to do it, couldn’t do it. I would mess up, I wouldn’t be able to find the right pitch, I’d make a fool of myself and let down my church. I practiced breathing and tried unsuccessfully to find “my happy place” (not sure it exists). I wondered if the Holy Spirit might be so kind as to work a miracle.

And then, it was time. I guess that competitive streak of mine that says I can do what other people can do, or Marion’s voice, or plain old determination, propelled me forward and off I went with the chant. I hit most of the notes correctly and my voice was not as reedy and wobbly and thin as I had feared. My Madonna microphone helped too.

I’ll do it again this coming week and at least one more time before Pentecost. It’s part of my job. And in a small, relatively unimportant way, I did something that was very, very hard for me. There’s research going around these days that suggests that the best way to keep our minds sharp as we age is to take on tough challenges that push us significantly beyond our comfort zone. For just that reason alone, I’m glad I did this. But there’s something even more fundamental. We do hard things because we should—but even more, we do them because we can.

Progressing in the direction of summer

This year, the biggest part of my spring work has been in the flower beds—that’s where I tend to my roses and continue to add to the collection of perennials I hope will be the biggest part of all those beds. I’m also carefully starting to learn about ornamental grasses and have planted a few in the newest bed. We’ll see how it goes.

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About a month ago, though, I had a pound of wildflower seeds and a quarter pound of mixed sunflower seeds I sowed into the area in our wildflower patch that was nothing but red Alabama dirt. Each year since we’ve been here, we’ve added to the patch, and now, the perennials that were sowed in earlier years are flowering. The hollyhock is especially lovely this year, in two vibrant shades of pink. These are biannual plants that seem to be reseeding themselves so hopefully they are now a more permanent fixture in our garden. By next year, the whole section we had designated as the wild flower patch will have been planted and our job from then on will be an occasional reseeding.  I have come to love the patience of slow work that I measure not in months, but years.

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Sherod has been busy with the vegetable garden. Okra, squash, onions, zucchini, lettuce, eggplant, cabbage, spinach, strawberries, asparagus, basil, peppers, chives, and tomatoes are all in the ground. So far, the strawberries and carrots have been a bust, but everything else is thriving. I asked for two San Marzano tomato plants and one already has fruit on it. We’re hoping to can some serious pickled okra this year.

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Then there are the volunteers and the left-behinds. Our blueberry crop will not be anywhere near as abundant as last year. Sherod is an exuberant pruner and had at the blueberry bushes the fall. We do well with a smaller harvest this year, especially with the promise that 2018 will return us to the kind of crop we saw last year; we used our last package of frozen blueberries just a few weeks ago and they tasted especially wonderful! Along with the gift of blueberry bushes that was left behind for us, this year we have some unexpected volunteers. Sherod put up a little shelf on one of the big trees in the back yard and stocked it regularly with sunflower seeds for Buddy. Along with him, other squirrels and lots of birds feasted on them. Not all the seeds made it into bellies and instead, fell on the ground. We now have a circle of sunflower volunteers blooming and bringing us great joy.

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Spring is progressing in the direction of summer…