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.

Pure Delight

I was awake before dawn this morning but it was still a gentle, slow start, slowly grinding the coffee beans I roasted before we travelled to California, eating the most amazing strawberries our Airbnb hostess left in the cabin we rented in Bodega Bay.

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By about 7:30, I was headed out the door to Shell Beach up the road from us, to hike on a trail that runs south along the cliffs that overlooks the Pacific and then follows a fold down to a small cove beach far below. It’s a loop when the tide is low but even at higher tide, the climb down to the small beach, though strenuous, is so beautiful you hardily even notice. I sat on a large piece of driftwood, played for a long while with shutter speed and aperture on my camera, as I watched the surf dance with the enormous rocks that dot the coastline and took dozens of pictures. Few of the pictures are any good but that’s ok because I will try again tomorrow.  When it was time to head back up the trail and home, I was delighted once again by tiny succulents growing in the crags and crevices of the California shoreline.

 

There were deer and quail and butterflies along my path and behind me, beautiful young surfers riding their waves and their bliss.  Not that the suffering isn’t real and the brokenness of the world harrowing, but that one in my vocation needs a reminder that even so, all creation rejoices in the beauty of a new day.

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I came home in time to shower, with the window open wide and a hummingbird bush and rose vines waving in a gentle breeze.  The utter luxury of having a beautiful view as I washed my hair!

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We got ready for one of two extravagances we are allowing ourselves on this vacation. This weekend, Sonoma County hosts something called “Sonoma Wine Country Weekend”. It’s a somewhat bacchanalian celebration of good food and good wine that lasts for the weekend and includes all kinds of events. Most of them will involve massive numbers of people so at first we thought we’d sidestep this extravaganza. However, to launch the weekend, local chefs and better known vineyards in the area joined forces today to offer luncheons for small groups of people. Sherod and I decided to buy tickets to attend a luncheon at Balletto Vineyard with the meal prepared by Thomas Schmidt of a restaurant in Sonoma called John Ash & Co. Along with 22 other guests, almost all of them locals who know their wine and were so warm and kind, Sherod and I had lunch on a beautiful patio.

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The food was spectacular and the wine, what you’d expect from a vineyard that’s won a number of awards–I could have sat all by myself in a corner, with a bottle of their Pinot Noir or their Brut Rosé, though I hardly ever drink. Anthony Beckman is the Winemaker at Balletto who entertained us with stories about making the wines we enjoyed. Though it was hot as forty hades (104 according to the temperature gauge in the car when we left), the people we sat with were so charming that it really didn’t matter.

 

And again, it wasn’t the amazing vistas that really moved me. It was the vines laden with grapes and the apple trees loaded with the most beautiful fruit in the area, the bees busy at work among the small flowers of a rosemary bush in the patio of the Balletos’ house, that I could have spent hours photographing and marveling over.

 

In a while, the Mallowman and I will do what we did last night: pack some olives and nuts, a bit of cheese and sourdough bread, apricots, strawberries and a nice bottle of wine in my backpack. We’ll head over to a picnic table on one of the cliffs overlooking the ocean and talk a bit, laugh (God, I’d forgotten how much fun it is to laugh with my husband), and then call it a day.

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A vacation day pretty close to perfect.

 

Of hummingbirds, Chicken Little and “Suite Française”

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At some point, when most days have been warm in the weeks between April and May, Sherod takes down the bird feeders that hung all winter in front of our deck. Then, he makes simple syrup, carefully washes out the hummingbird feeders and puts them out instead.

This year, he and I were out on the deck, visiting in the early evening, when the first hummingbird, back from its migration south, hovered for a bit and then settled to help himself to something to drink. We’ve had lots of visitors to the feeders all summer long and about now, especially in the evenings, the two feeders are crowded with birds dive-bombing each other, jostling and pushing each other away to get another chance to eat. It won’t be too much longer before another season of migration begins and there’s that sense of urgency building, as birds do all they can to prepare themselves to withstand the long journey ahead.

I sat on our deck with my camera, watching, waiting to get a good shot, listening the buzz of their wings in the air, noticing how the lightning bugs were slowly floating out of their burrows in the grass, thankful that summer is not yet all the way over. But everyone’s back in school, and the truth is, there’s little left of the season of sunshine and growth. Usually, I would have felt the quickening of excitement at a new season approaching, how the winds from the north will begin to blow before too long, and how fall will come behind.

On this day, as Harvey has been pouring its misery on Texas, as I think of my transgender friends after that vicious and unnecessary ban that’s been reimposed, as I think of the men and women I have served through my work in Latino ministries, especially in Fort Lauderdale, and the pardon of Joe Arpaio, I have this weird sense of far deeper, more desolating, endings and beginnings as well.

It is not my intention to play Chicken Little and run screaming, “the Sky is Falling, the Sky is falling.” Neither can I say this is comparable to the situation Irène Némirovsky describes in her remarkable book, Suite Française, a novel about members of the Jewish community as they to flee from Paris when it is about to fall to the Germans.

I read Suite Française many years ago and still remember my heart racing in one section in particular. A woman of considerable privilege, is standing next to her car, finishing up the family’s preparations to drive away from Paris. She is worried about trying to get all her Porthault linens and the silver into the trunk, unwilling to part with any of it, so she makes her household staff load and unload the trunk this way and that, losing precious minutes to flee, while all the while, with impeccable precision and order, the Nazi death machine marches towards Paris. Perhaps because fine linens and silver were greatly valued in my mother’s family, and I have inherited so much that is beautiful and fine in a traditional sense, I found myself getting more and more frantic as I read on. “Flee, flee, flee,” I kept wanting to implore her, “None of that matters. The world, as you have known and loved it, is giving out under you and all that stuff is worth nothing.”

It is not so much that I am afraid (though sometimes I do feel afraid), as I am aware of how easily we pay attention to precisely the opposite of what matters. That poem by Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the Socialists…” has made the rounds on Facebook to the point that it is easily dismissed as trite by now. But Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor, spent 7 years in a German concentration camp and spoke a truth that cuts to the quick if we let it.

After hearing about Joe Arpaio’s pardon, I made myself read the DOJ investigative report on the Sheriff’s Office of Maricopa County when he was Sheriff and then, other pieces about him. I read how he jokingly talked about his “concentration camp” –the “prison tent city” where, between 1996 and 2015, there was no explanation given for how 73 people died. I had been reading about him on and off for years now, nauseated by his sheer cruelty and at the same time, always mindful of the need to speak carefully and gently as a priest of the church, so as not to offend. I am infinitely capable of finding distractions that allow me to look the other way.

I can’t any longer. Arpaio was found guilty of felonies that directly undermined our constitution. By pardoning him, Trump has once again thrown his lot in with advocates of a kind of racial supremacy that can only become more hateful and destructive with each nod from him. He has gone another step in subverting the rule of law in this country.

The sky is not falling. For most of us, today, tomorrow, and the next will be pretty ordinary. The Nazi’s aren’t marching into town either. It’s just that in too many ways, I see true evil and darkness gaining a foothold in the country I so love. I will give witness against the harm I see being done. I will resist my temptation to be comfortable at the expense of others’ pain. And I pray for God’s strengthening grace to persevere as I find ways to be part of an alternative to all the hate, the despair and desolation taking hold.