Monday, November 9, 2009

Saints and Thanksgiving

Since it is November, the month of the celebration of All Saints Day and Thanksgiving, I have been thinking with gratitude about the people in my life who I have declared as saints. It might surprise you that topping my list are not the names of seminary professors, famous preachers, or great heroes of the faith. My saints are not known and recognized by others as truly great persons. Instead, they would mostly be described as common folks, ordinary people.

My mother-in-law was a saint. She died a couple of years ago. She never went to college, worked as an ice cream dipper most of her youth. She was a single mother for seventeen years, raising my husband by herself along with the help of her parents and siblings, before she married a sailor and moved south. She would never talk much about that time. I think she was ashamed that she had given birth out of wedlock and she could never find a way to forgive herself for that. And yet, that shame never defined her. Nothing harsh or heavy ever defined her. She was as simple as she was kind, compassionate as she was gentle. From the very first moment I met her, she welcomed me into her heart as the daughter she never had. And unlike all the other stories about mother-in-laws I have heard, the story of my relationship with my mother-in-law was a story of unconditional love and acceptance. She is on my roll call of saints because she was exactly the woman she showed herself to be, nobody more, nobody less. She’d give you the clean and pressed blouse off of her back and tell you when you were done wearing it to pass it on to somebody else. She never met a stranger and I never heard her say a hurtful thing about another living soul.

There’s another saint on my list, a man whose name I no longer recall, a Baptist preacher from West Virginia. He was a chaplain who helped train me and I remember him telling me the story of why he kept his cigarettes in his front shirt pocket. He said he was an addict of cigarette smoking and he saw no reason to hide it. Admonished and criticized by the other staff at the hospital, he kept his cigarettes out front where everybody could see them. He said he didn’t understand it but that when he kept his pack in his front pocket he noticed that the patients in the hospital and their family members were more likely to talk to him so that even though he was reprimanded time and time again, he kept it there. He said a few of his patients told him that if he struggled with an addiction like smoking then probably he could understand their struggles and they weren’t afraid to confess what it was that was really troubling them. That Baptist preacher taught me about being real, being honest, and even though I don’t carry cigarettes in my front pocket, I’ll never forget the importance of not hiding my sins or my sorrows, my disappointments or my doubts. Not everybody wants to see the human side of preachers but most people who are troubled appreciate the honesty.

I used to think that saints were those folks who did things I could never do, showed great courage or accomplished extraordinary feats but I don’t think that anymore. This Thanksgiving I am grateful to have learned that anybody can be a saint. If an ice cream dipping single mother can live her life with an open and loving heart and a Baptist preacher isn’t afraid to show the world his bad habits, I suppose even I have a shot at sainthood. For now, however, I’m satisfied with just being thankful with learning how to recognize a real saint.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Burden of a Grudge

I received a call awhile back inviting the church to participate in a campaign for a local radio station. The man who called was very professional, albeit a little pushy, and very well-informed about St. Paul’s. He gave his marketing plan and I listened to the entire pitch. Once he outlined the pricing program, I explained that this church is very small and operates on a very limited budget. I politely declined his offer. After my third decline, he yelled some final remark and slammed down his receiver.

I confess that the phone conversation and especially how it ended made me mad. I confess that it made me so mad I wanted to let somebody know just how mad I was. I flipped through the yellow pages, found the number for the radio station he represented, picked up the phone to dial the number, and then stopped. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I am a new pastor in the community and that perhaps I needed to refrain from making the call. Perhaps, I thought, it would be best for the church and for my reputation if I just ignored the conversation. I did, however, decide that I would forever hold a grudge against this radio station and would always wait for the day when I would be able to let them know just how rude I thought their employee was to me.

And then, I thought about that. I realized forever is a long time to hold a grudge and that maybe that was actually a worse reaction than just making the call. At least, I thought, if I call and lodge my complaint, I’ll be better able to just let it go. So, that’s what I did. I called the radio station, asked to speak to speak to someone in management, and was immediately connected to the assistant manager. I explained what had happened and that I felt angry to have been treated in this manner and that I thought the radio station supervisors might like to know how I experienced their marketing endeavor.

There was a pause and then finally, this reply. “Ma’am,” the young woman said, “we’re not participating in that kind of marketing endeavor. I don’t know who called you; but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a person on our staff.”

It turns out it was a scam. It was some professional con artist trying to get money from churches. The man did not represent the radio station. The managers knew nothing about this phone call or this campaign targeting local churches.

Of course, I am very glad I made the call, and not because I learned new information about scams and the need for caution in talking finances with strangers on the phone. I’m glad I made the call to the radio station because I learned the lesson once again that sometimes the things we hear are not always the things we need to believe. Holding a grudge is a very serious decision to make and usually not the best one. Forever, after all, is a very long time and an unfounded grudge is nothing but dead weight. Perhaps, like a phone call that’s a scam, it’s best not to pick it up in the first place.
“The Goodness of Grace”

Texas journalist Browning Ware tells the story of a man who went to have breakfast in a diner somewhere in the south. The man wanted ham and eggs and when his plate arrived he found grits sharing the plate with his order. “What’s this?” he asked his server. “Them’s grits,” the waitress answered. “I didn’t order grits,” he responded. “Mister, you don’t have to order grits. Grits just come.”

Grits, like grace, just comes.

I was going through a difficult time a few years ago. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life, whether I was going to stay in the ministry, how I was going to get through the struggle in which I found myself. A couple of times I sat in my car near an exit on Interstate 40 and considered just taking the ramp and heading west, driving until I ran out of gas. In the midst of this dark night of the soul, I spoke with a dear friend. She knew of my trouble as I had already confessed to her on a few occasions my sense of utter loss. After spilling my sorrow to her during this particular phone call, I hesitated. And she said the words that seemed to ease me just enough to find hope, to feel hopeful. “You know, we don’t have a lot of extra room here; but you can always stay with us if you need to.”

Grits, like grace, just comes.

It seems that we spend a lot of our time complaining about how things never work out the way we want them too. And it’s true that life rarely turns out like we expect. Disappointments, sorrow, trouble, betrayal, all these events and the consequences of them can keep us burdened. And yet, at least in my life, there have always been moments of grace, moments when the right words get said or when the right act of kindness comes my way, moments when the sun peeks through a sky filled with clouds or a flower blooms in the least likely place. And when these moments come, it’s as if the sky opens and great drops of mercy fall upon my head. It’s as if I get something that I didn’t even know how to order.

I can’t say that I fully understand the ways of God or how it is that someone can come along with just the right thing I need to hear or see or experience; but I do know that if I hold on long enough or even if I find myself having to let go, grace, like the grits my grandmother used to put on every breakfast plate she served, always comes.

Winter, with her long shadows and her gray mornings, her barrenness and her refusal to offer warmth, cannot last always. Do not give up on spring. Do not give up on mercy. Believe even in what you cannot see. Grace, like grits, will come.
My Grandmother's Gift

I was twenty when she died. My mother’s mother was living with my parents and I was in college when she finally lost her battle to pancreatic cancer. Her name was Lessie Alford and she was the oldest of ten children, born to a farmer in eastern North Carolina. She was also, according to everyone who knew her, a saint.
She didn’t make the news or have wealth or fame. She was not important in politics or church history books. She didn’t invent any great medical cure or write a great treatise. She was a school teacher, a Sunday School teacher, a farmer, a neighbor, a wife and mother and grandmother. And she was the kindest, most loving, faithful person I have ever known.

After her death, the family gathered to divide Grandmother’s few belongings. My sister chose her quilts. My cousins wanted some of her pots and pans and the sewing machine. My mother wanted to keep her wedding rings, her mother’s few pieces of jewelry. My dad asked for her Bible and my brother wanted a few pictures. When I was asked, I knew immediately what I wanted. I chose my grandmother’s mirror. It was part of a set; but I don’t know what happened to the brush and comb. I suppose I got them as well; but I didn’t keep up with them. The mirror has a long handle, gold-plated, with a well-faded fabric backing. Like my grandmother, on the surface, it does not look that remarkable.

For more than twenty years I have never really understood why I chose the mirror. After all, I never remember my grandmother actually using it. She was never one to wear much make-up or worry too much about her looks. She was definitely not vain; she rarely checked a mirror and I don’t recall that this mirror was that significant to her. And yet, I have always known that upon Grandmother’s death I truly wanted the mirror. And for all of my adult life, having relocated more times than I can count, I have kept the mirror on my dresser, prominently placed so that it was always near.

Recently, during my weekly housecleaning, as I was dusting the bedroom furniture, I picked up the mirror and decided to look at myself. I put down the dust rag, held the long handle in my hands and turned it over to see my reflection. And without having any real clear idea of why I was having this revelation at that particular moment, it was just at that time that I finally understood why I chose my grandmother’s mirror.

I have never thought of myself as being special or important. In fact, I would have to say that I have spent much of my life feeling inferior, insignificant, even worthless. Mine, I have learned, is a constant and familiar battle for many people, that struggle of never quite feeling good enough. As I stared at myself in that old and well-worn mirror, however, I realized that I never felt that way when I was with my grandmother. She always made me feel special and significant and beautiful. She said only good things about me, always told me that I could do anything, that I could be anybody. And I realized as I stood looking at myself in my grandmother’s mirror, more than twenty-five years after her death, that this was the reason for my choice. This gift meant more than her jewelry or her hand sewn quilts or her sewing machine or even her pictures. I wanted to keep with me for as long as I live my grandmother’s image of me. I have always longed to see myself as she saw me.
And so, I keep the mirror close at hand, always in sight. It will never bring me money or fame or even great wisdom. It will, however, bring me what nothing else can, a reflection of myself, created in love. It holds the best of me, the view from my grandmother’s eyes. It is her greatest gift.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Filling Our Pockets With Feathers

I started collecting feathers many years ago. I find them on paths in forests, along mountain trails, and beside lakes and streams. Like people discovering pennies and figuring them for good luck, I have always thought of feathers as some sort of blessing, a sign of good fortune or heavenly approval. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I considered them to be something more.

Every Sunday, as the pastor of a small church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I am called upon to lead both a sermon for the adults and a sermon for the children. I usually try to shape them around the same Bible story or the same message. Recently, there were two Sundays that I talked about angels. One week I told the children about a man named Jacob who wrestled with an angel. His is the story of a guy on his way home to reconcile with an estranged brother and I told them that angels sometimes help us do the hard work of forgiveness and managing conflicts. The next Sunday I told the story of the prophet Elijah and how he ran in fear for his life until he fell exhausted in the desert, begging to die. I explained how an angel came to him bearing the gifts of cake and water and the presents of rest and refreshment. It was that Sunday and with that story that I decided to give away my feathers to the children, explaining to them how I loved to collect them and how they remind me of heavenly attention. “In fact,” I said, without much forethought, “When I see a feather, I think that an angel has passed by that place.”

Jimmy, a bright eight year old boy who comes to church every Sunday, likes feathers too. He took a couple of my long hawk feathers, tan with narrow brown streaks, their curved form, soft and smooth to the touch. Jimmy’s life is not an easy one. His mother, addicted to drugs, is in and out of trouble and in and out of unhealthy relationships. He was adopted by his great-grandmother when he was still a baby. Jimmy sometimes has trouble concentrating and staying on task. He also struggles with anger. The days before the beginning of the school year this summer were especially hard for Jimmy and his great-grandparents.
He started third grade a few days ago and his great-grandmother dropped by the office later in the week. “I walked with Jimmy to the bus stop the first day of school,” she reported. “While we waited for the bus he spotted a feather right at his feet. He believes an angel was there.”

I waited for the rest of the story. “He bent down and picked up the feather. ‘Why do you think an angel came here?’ He asked me.”

“And I told him, to make sure you had a good start to school. And then,” she said grinning, “he had the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.” She paused.

I knew trying to raise an eight year old was no easy task for my parishioner. I knew she was often tired and frustrated and that she was deeply afraid that she would not always be there for her young great-grandson. “I didn’t tell Jimmy what I really think,” she confessed.

“And what is that?” I asked, not exactly sure of what she was going to say.

“I think Jimmy and I are going to be okay,” she replied. “I think the angel really came for me.” And she drew in a deep breath, turned around, and left my office. And as she walked away, I thought I saw a feather drop from her fingers. And it was then that I realized that sometimes we merely find the signs of angels and sometimes, if we’re paying close attention, we catch a true glimpse of them before they slip away.

What I Learned at Camp

Philip is what would be described as a high-functioning client in the circles of caregivers for those suffering from developmental disabilities. He carries a job, is literate, and manages most of his own personal care. His question, posed to me at camp on the last night while we danced to Beyonce’s “If you like what you see put a ring on it,” came as a surprise. I was shaking and gyrating and grooving, using muscles I forgot I had when he asked what his question, jolting me right out of rhythm. “When do you think Jesus is coming back?” That was what Philip wanted to know.

Since I come from a long line of literal-minded Christians, I know what Philip was asking. What he wanted to know was whether I thought the rapture would happen in our lifetime or whether it would be later. He could probably even quote me chapter and verse to back up his theory of when the world would end, but I was dancing and I didn’t really want to stop and hold a theological discussion.

The funny thing about his question, however, was that I sort of felt like the second coming of Jesus had already happened. The reign of God, as far as what I know, was breaking out all around me at that very minute Philip asked his question. I saw it when I glanced over to see Jill, a tiny slip of a girl, nonverbal and profoundly disabled, donned in her pink helmet and hugging her teddy bear, standing right in front of the speaker, smiling and rocking in perfect rhythm, perfect rhythm, her face completely at peace. I saw it when Bonnie, a staffer who teaches high school English, wheeled a squealing Johnny, darting in and out of couples and circling the group. I saw the reign of God break out when Larry, a camper who would never even enter the room where we danced in years passed, wore his cowboy hat and a huge grin, camped out in the center of the floor, dancing the entire night.

Bill, now in his sixties and suffering from dementia along with other developmental disabilities, slow-danced with Martha, a young woman who points to pictures to show you what she wants and laughs hysterically when offered cookies and applesauce. Roger, bound to his wheelchair, also profoundly disabled, was lifted up and out by his caregiver and whisked across the floor. Frank held hands with Matthew, swinging their arms back and forth while Debbie, a staffer and survivor of breast cancer twirled by herself, laughing right out loud.
It was all there and it was complete and whole and right. The reign of God, a dance of crooked people, broken people, despised people, all holding each other up, all dancing together, all in perfect delight. “If you like what you see, put a ring on it,” pulsing louder and louder.

“When do you think Jesus is coming back?” Philip asks his question so innocently, so honestly, so desiring of acceptance, so desiring to be seen as normal.

And I look around the room and I bounce from side to side, snap my fingers, dip my knees, fling my hips, and I smile and say, “Philip, he already has. He already has!”

Going To Camp

Every year in June I direct a camp in Blowing Rock, NC for developmentally disabled adults. Since moving to New Mexico, I have at times thought that it’s just too expensive and time-consuming to go back every summer, but as the time rolls around I realize I’m not just doing this because it’s a charitable thing to do or because the camp needs my help. I lead this camp, I participate, because it’s really the best thing I can do for myself and subsequently, the best thing I can do for my family and for the parish I serve.

I don’t exactly know why or how or when it happens, but at some point during the week of crafts and devotions and sing-alongs, the talent show and shared meals, I remember the person I want to be. I see the woman I desire to become. I find myself slowing down, paying attention to small things, saying thank-you more often, laughing at myself, holding hands with someone. At some point in the midst of the campers’ delight, their unique spiritual maturity and their special needs, I find myself more loving, kinder, a gentler spirit and I have to admit I am happy and relieved to find and be that woman again.

It’s not that I dwell in self-loathing. It’s not that I hate who I am the other fifty-one weeks out of the year. It’s just that I’m not always pleased with how I handle things, how I process events, how I participate in relationships. It just seems that so often during the rest of the year, the rest of my life, I hurry through the days and worry through the nights and I’m not always very nice or very hopeful and I look in the mirror and I’m not happy with who I see. Special Days, this camp I attend, puts me back on the spiritual track I try to follow. It makes me slow down, makes me be attentive to things going on around me, makes me sing and laugh and reach for the hand of somebody else. And somehow by Tuesday night while the campers congratulate each other on their great talents or Wednesday morning when we’re heading out to Tweetsie Railroad, I catch a glance of myself in the mirror and I see her. I recognize her, that woman I want to be. There she is, the kind woman, the loving woman, the gentle woman. And truth be told, I’m afraid that if I quit going to camp, quit participating in this summer experience, I will lose her forever and that I will not remember how to find her.

So, during the first week of June I will be in the mountains. I’m directing a camp called Special Days. I’m playing the guitar. I’m helping with crafts. I’m dancing. I’m serving meals and rocking in a rocking chair. I’m leading devotions and I’m riding the train at Tweetsie. And most importantly, I’m finding the woman I want to be. The good news for my family is that when I come home I plan to bring her back!