Jesus is coming. Look busy!

Jesus is coming Look busy

We’re at the beach this week. There is no place I’d rather be. The waves of the ocean, my feet standing in the waters of her shore, calms me like no other spot. Vacation is the plan, but the beloved and I are also writing papers. She is in year 4 and I am in year 1 of a Doctorate of Ministry (DMin) program. I’m quick to point out this is a professional degree, not a PhD program. But, there are still many projects and papers that need doing and it’s been a long time since I’ve written an academic paper. Rusty is an understatement.

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on this space. Every time I’ve sat to write, my grief seemed overwhelming. All I could write was of loss, missing my father, surprised by the immense nature of my sorrow. I expected it to be big, but I did not anticipate how it would overwhelm my life and my world. Add to it the other realities of life– a new job for the beloved (and a crazy new work schedule), my mom’s thankfully good prognosis but diagnosis nonetheless of cancer (she is a rock star in full remission, but screw you, cancer) and other bits and pieces that make up a life and…I’ve had nothing. Nothing but grief. And I haven’t wanted to write about that. At least not here.

Yesterday, after a day of paper reading and writing, we walked on the beach. It was windy and dark and utterly beautiful. I stood in the same spot I had just a year ago. I remember last year feeling a desire to simply walk into the waves, to be consumed by the vastness of the ocean–not in a end my life sort of way, but also, not in a calgon-take-me-away sort of way either. The ocean seemed the only place able to contain all that I was holding.

Last night, standing in the same spot, I felt the relief of weightlessness. No longer carrying anticipatory grief, settling into a new rhythm of life, the ocean stood before me again as friend and companion. I was happy to be dancing in her waters. What a difference a year makes.

The paper I’m currently working on is about eschatology and the Eucharist. Most folks hear eschatology and think of that ridiculous and awful Left Behind series, or of a Bible thumping preacher threatening Hell and damnation if you don’t repent and get right with Jesus. As the old bumper sticker says “Jesus is coming–look busy!” That comes from the concept of eschata, plural, the end things. It anticipates a moment in linear time when Jesus will return and everything will shift.

Deeper and more true to what I think Jesus spoke of, is eschaton. Eschaton is about God, through Christ, who was and is and is to come, moving into our lives. Far less defined, eschaton leaves us to ask about how the coming of God affects us in this very moment, about how we are experiencing, as the old hymn and folk song Morning has Broken goes, “God’s re-creation of the new day.” Rather than seeing eschatology as a far off moment in the future, through the lens of eschaton, we see God intersecting with us in all moments of time, past, present and yet to come. I love this notion, because it imagines time as not linear, but circular. It imagines that we are all wholly connected through (in my Christian speak) the communion of saints–those who have come and those who have yet to arrive–all of us dancing together in the mystery of time and God and space.

Grief is a fucker. There’s just no way around it. And yet…there is this miraculous and holy thing that happens in the midst of it. Transformation is coming and comes and will come. Transformation, who looks a lot like the Holy Spirit, who hides and reveals herself in the most unlikely of places. Sometimes in the waves of the ocean, lapping on cautiously hopeful feet, standing at the shore.

Untethered

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Two weeks ago, I lived without my phone. I was on a quick trip. As the plane descended into Canada, AT&T was kind enough to inform me how much each call, text and inch of data was going to cost me in this part of the world. I tucked my phone away until I returned to the US.

Without my phone and her handy apps, without Google Maps to tell me where to go, I was free to get lost. In the October of Ottawa I felt my face slapped by the chapping winds, I smelled the at once familiar and foreign scent of city life; auto exhaust and freshly baked bread and coffee. I saw the beauty of three colours of cauliflower, purple, orange and green, for sale for a dollar, fresh from the farmer who grew it. I watched busy people rushing to work and tourists walking entirely too slowly. I heard languages–French, Spanish, English and so many others that I couldn’t identify. I nodded at the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were set up on the street, smiling and talking to each other about their purification rituals. I saw the details of the Parliament Buildings and wondered about the brick layers who built the building. Who were they? What did they do on their days off? Do their descendants come and admire, decades, centuries later, their handiwork? I heard the clicking of my feet against the cement road and felt the rhythm of my steps. Returning home, I met two Georgia men. We talked about whiskey and baseball and the power of a good night of sleep. On the flight itself, I met a physical therapist from Canada who was traveling to volunteer for a week of service. I learned more about Canadian politics and living in our 2 hour conversation than a lifetime of Wikipedia articles could have given me.

Photographer Eric Pickersgill has a series of photos called Removed. By removing the phones from his photos, we see how tethered we have become to our phones. His photos highlight the power they have to remove us from our real life, allowing us to sink into the oblivion of work, distraction, busyness and other. Of course, it’s not just technology that tethers us. We’re tethered by our idols–those things we think will bring us happiness, joy, escape. And sometimes they do, but sometimes they just keep us from being present.

The magic of being untethered didn’t last long. I touched down four days later in Atlanta and grabbed my phone. I texted my beloved, I’m on my way home and made my way through the terminal. I have a friend who calls me at least once a week from Lake Shore Drive as she sits in traffic on her daily commute. I love the connection that the phone gives us. I am grateful for Google Maps when I am lost, or more often these days, looking for a way to dodge Atlanta traffic. Occasionally I even use my phone for work, sending out an urgent email. Most days, I wouldn’t go back to the dumb phone or even, gasp, those days before cell phones.

And yet, there is something lost in our busyness and the myth of our cyber connectedness. At just a month away, the season of Advent is close. I’m thinking about the invitation Advent will bring anew, an invitation to awareness, repentance, watching and waiting. The invitation to stop. I’m wondering how, now safely at home in my regular life, I can again untether myself so that I can keep awake, watching for the promise of what is to come. I’m wondering how I will stop so that I can begin again.

Airplanes and All Saints

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It was grey and overcast, the light rain noticeable, but not yet enough to send us back inside. My five-year-old companion and I stood next to the runway and watched as small planes took off and landed. One landed and drove by where we were standing. The pilot and passengers waved right at us. We both squealed with delight. The rain grew more insistent and the wind began to pick up, so we headed in. I stopped and looked back at the empty runway.

My earliest memories include driving in our blue Ford LTD to the airport to pick up my sister for a summer or Christmas visit. In those days we could meet her at the gate. The arrivals were always fun–we would stop for hamburgers and milkshakes, vanilla with whipped cream and a cherry on top. I would fall asleep while she told my parents about school and books and music. But when she would go, that was a different drive. Back then, we could walk on the plane with her, watch her get fastened safely into her seat belt. Papa always brought a pack of gum, he’d give it to her before she left so her ears wouldn’t hurt. We would leave her, and the airport with its nighttime lights and zooming planes. Filling up the car with gas, Papa would run into the store to pay and emerge with a bag of salted peanuts so I could have the same thing she was eating on the plane. I cried the whole way home.

Many years and marriages later, my brother began to fly. Small planes, up in the air, both terrifying and exciting my father. He was always happiest when we had found joy and for my brother, joy is often found in the air.

Today, All Saints’ Day, I baptized two new lives and read the names of so many beloved dead, including my father’s. I looked out at the grey runway with planes coming and going, taking people to and from each other. It is the way we humans live. We are always coming and going from each other. Sometimes the arrivals are as dramatic and hopeful as birth, and departures as final and sorrowful as death, but often we are coming and going in how we are with the living. Sometimes fierce, sometime kind–hope and goodness, hurt and anger, messy humans making their ways. Yet even in the grey and rain, there are five-year-olds waving at us along the way, who delight in our safe journey.

Standing Dead Tree

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We were hiking with our niece and nephew when I found this sign: Standing Dead Tree. “Standing dead trees…are an essential part of a forest habitat.” Life grows in that which has died, a new home is made out of something that was once living. This is a form of resurrection, I think. Life, new life, coming from of that which looks dead.

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, followed the next day by the Feast of All Souls. Every year I am surprised by how much I love these two days. These are days that are at once profoundly Church (capital C) oriented and yet also very personal. On All Saints we remember the Saints, Capital S. My mind goes to Magdalene and her steadfast witness to both the cross and the resurrection. My heart goes to Peter his constant screw ups, how he’d get it right and then turn around and miss the point entirely and how delightfully hopeful it is that block-head Peter is the one whom Jesus looks at and says feed my sheep and build my church. The list is bountiful. So many Saints, still standing even if no longer on this earth, still giving life to us, still teaching, as the hymn goes, who “feebly struggle, they in glory shine.”

My favorite day, though, is All Souls, when we remember our own beloved dead. Every year I think of Victor, a man I never  met, but who had such a profound impact on my mother’s life. Victor and my mama met in her acting days. He went on to become a priest in the Episcopal Church. I imagine, in some small and some larger ways, he is one of the reasons why my mama ended up bringing her new baby through the doors of the Episcopal Church. Victor is always one of my beloved dead, because, although I never met him, he helped form me, my faith and my life.

On All Souls I remember my grandparents, my aunt Kay, and countless others, the list too long to post here, taking a moment to thank them, to remember them, to think about what part of them lives on in me, how, like that Standing Dead Tree, life continues, new and different, alive and vibrant. This year, of course, I will add my friend Elizabeth’s father, Dev, and my own beloved father to that list–the men who bookended our summer, the men who, in a strange way, bind an old friendship even closer, the men who, daily, are missed by so many. All Souls is about our beloved dead, our saints. We all have them. They are the ones who taught us and loved us and formed us into the people we are still becoming. We remember them, and entrust them anew, to God’s good and constant love and care. And we get glimpses of them, even though they are gone, because they remain an essential part of our habitat, giving us life, even now.

Eve, Kelly, God and the Apple

A rainbow appears over the prison where Kelly waits.
A rainbow appears over the prison where Kelly waits.

I sit atop a hill, look out on the vastness of God’s good creation, mingled with human development. A pristine golf course, with lush green everywhere, the only spot of red and orange is the hint of leaves in the distance, as the begin their annual return to the earth. It is pouring and my only shelter is an umbrella, a make-shift covering on a camp chair. As I wait for golfers to come play in the rain, offering them a chance to play the “closest to the pin” hole, I bite into my favorite of all the apples, the Honey Crisp, and it doesn’t disappoint. Tonight, Kelly Gissendaner is scheduled to die.

Under the shelter of my umbrella, looking at this garden of green, with the sweet, crisp taste of fall still lingering, I wonder what it was like for Eve. Did she look out and see the beauty, the hope, the new-ness of everything? Did she become disenchanted with the ordinary-ness that the garden of home became? What was she hoping to taste when she took that bite?

Eden is all around. We are constantly given the gift of recreating that which has always been, and we are given the option of destroying it as well. Kelly heard the voice of the serpent over the voice of the Creator that fateful day, decades ago. Most of us have heard it too. We may not kill, but we destroy nonetheless: gossip, envy, apathy, cruelty–it abounds.

Here’s what we forget. Eve was cast out of the garden, but she was not alone. Adam went with her (he was cast out too, of course). And they went on. They had a life with children and chores and Sunday dinners around the table. Grief would come into their lives again and they would survive that too. In the Rite of Christian Burial are the words “to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.” Eve knew that truth.

Kelly knew it too. Life changed. It didn’t end. And in a prison cell, she recreated Eden. She recreated herself, becoming ever more like the One who created her. In the image of God, he created them. In the image of God, all of us are created. And we hear the serpent and we bite the apple and we are cast out of Eden. And by grace and hope, we are given the chance to recreate Eden. Not the same, but life, real life, good life.

Today Kelly, now numbered with the saints in light, knows this even more fully. For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended. It’s true for us too. Let us remember it. Let us recreate Eden everyday.

Fearing Evil

This summer at Beyond Walls, I wrote a piece on the 23rd Psalm and Kelly. The Christian Century has published it on their blog.

Kelly Gissendaner is scheduled for execution in four days. Please pray for her. Please also pray for her family, for the family of Doug Gissendaner and all who commit and are victims of violent crimes. And pray for the State of Georgia, who sees execution as an acceptable form of punishment. May we find our hearts moved to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.

 

 

Behold, behold, I make all things new

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A week ago I left our parish retreat and drove to my hometown, expecting to visit with my father for a bit and drive home. But one look at him and I knew. The vigil was beginning of what would be the last days of his life. He died, surrounded by love. I miss him. And I suspect I shall always be searching for him, in the benediction of the rain, the bite of a good scotch, in the hummingbirds at the feeder, and in the telling of good stories.

Yesterday, the first morning in over a week, I woke up in my own bed, and began the day drinking coffee brewed in the familiarity of my own kitchen and watching the world wake up from the beauty of the back porch. And then we went for a walk.

Our neighborhood walks often include stops inside of houses being built or rebuilt. Mandy likes to look at the layouts and changing construction. She’ll often point out what she likes or critique what she thinks might be a better flow or plan for the house. I like to imagine what it will become, to see the bare beam and subfloor and know that once our house was only this, waiting to become something more complete, and then to come back and see what the final product yields.

Today we walked past one of our favorite renovations, now complete, with a “for sale” sign in the yard. We haven’t walked through it yet, but we will. Outside was a giant dumpster, complete with a beat up orange couch. Mandy and I rarely agree on anything related to style. She likes classic, I like more modern. She likes neutrals, I like loud colours. You get the idea. But this upside down, in the dumpster sofa–something about it spoke to both of us.

We called our neighbor with the pick up truck and he drove with us to pick it up. He took one look at the sofa and said “I’m chalking this one up to grief!” Somehow I think I’ll need a project in the next few weeks and months. While I won’t physically reupholster the couch, I’ll help imagine and create what it will become. I love the idea of something discarded finding meaning, of that which we thought was finished becoming something new and delightful. One of the many things my father gave me was this truth: there are always hidden gifts and joys waiting to be discovered.

Someday I will tell you more about my father. I will post my favorite picture of him, in his headset, in the control booth he so loved, telling someone what to do to get the perfect shot. He holds a cigarette, which even now, I don’t hate. It was part of who he was, it was part of the choices he made that made up a life and ultimately a death, which was, thanks be to God, holy and good. It is him, captured for a moment in time, but the essence, remains.

Songs have been a big part of this journey–hymns and folk tunes, the songs he sang in our growing up, the jazz he loved. We have been singing. This is the one that came to me as we were out walking this morning. It’s a simple tune from Iona, one of my favorites (alas, the internet doesn’t seem to have a lot of good audio or video from Iona, but I’ll sing it for you if you ask). We sang it as we walked part of the way. I trust that it is as true for me as it is for him.

Behold, behold, I make all things new,

Beginning with you and starting from today.

Behold, behold, I make all things new,

My promise is true, for I am Christ the way.

© WGRG, Iona Community, 1995.

Vigil

I woke up to this text today: “Good morning, friend. Sun comes up, it’s Wednesday morning…”. Small gifts come, like these. It feels like we’ve been here for months and then I realize it’s not even been three full days. People come and visit, each visit a gift too, a reminder of how much love there is. Food comes, so much food. My favorite offering so far came from a family friend who brought a bottle of wine, a bottle of hand soap and a giant package of toilet paper. Practical and hilarious.

Yesterday the church choir came and sang to him us for almost an hour. They started with Morning has Broken. And I sang the first verse with them. As the second verse started, ever so gently the choir master whispered “parts” and this lullaby morning song opened into something wholly other, the familiar song, the glory of a magnificent choir in four part harmony, the surround of home and nature, the comfort of church, this strange thing that I’ve known all my life, holding us in this liminal moment. Tears took my voice, as they will,  and that too was a gift.

My last conversation with my father was a week ago today. It included many things, some of which are uniquely mine and I hold them in my heart. But a memory I cherish, was watching him eat. We’ve been given the gift of remarkable sitters to be with him during the day and the night. Kimmis, a young, strong new father, stays with my papa during the day. And they have formed this lovely relationship (don’t get me started on him crying yesterday when we explained that we weren’t going to feed or give Papa any more water. Such care and love, even in this new relationship. Today he’s bringing his 7 week old son to meet my father.) But last week, Kimmis brought up lunch for Papa. Soup and cantaloupe. And after every bite, my father would stop and say “it’s just so delicious. Thank you. I’m so grateful.” After every single bite. His gratitude, a gift that I’m holding and hoping to reflect back to him this day and in the years to come.

This morning his breathing is more labored. We move, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, closer to the end of his labor. And it is like labor. No one can do it for him. The last step, the last leap, his alone to make.

Mandy sang this for him, I joined and it’s now become the lullaby offering I can give. The internet doesn’t do it justice. A song from Iona, appropriate as the veil is very thin, even now.

Don’t be afraid My love is stronger
My love is stronger than your fear
Don’t be afraid My love is stronger
And I have promised, promised to be always near

On being in a body

A few weeks ago I was given an unexpected gift. As a graduate of the school where I received my massage therapy training, I’m eligible for a free series of personal training sessions with their student trainers. Better still, it’s held at this crazy fancy, I-could-never-afford-it-otherwise gym. So I signed myself up. And I’ve been working with this super young, super southern, super kind young man who just LOVES what he’s doing. He gets so excited to explain how the muscle groups work, how this exercise works not only the obvious muscles, but also these less obvious muscles. He often gives me tons of information I don’t fully understand, but I nod my head knowingly and say “wow” and I mean it.

When I was last there he gave me a new exercise–a sort of reverse plank–and I got down on the floor and started this pose and said “how long do I hold this?” and he said “as long as you can.”  I had to explain to him that I need a goal. “As long as you can” translates to 5 seconds for me. But tell me I’ve got to go for 30 and I can probably do that too. I’m pretty good at psyching myself out, but, as it turns out, I’m also good at surprising myself (I made it 40 seconds, BTW). We were talking during my rest periods and got on the topic of the human body. And this kid, with his soft southern drawl and “yes ma’am” politeness looks at me and says “the human body is just…crazy amazing. I just can’t believe it. It’s so..”and he exhales this huge breath of air, smiling in both delight and admiration. The kid has awe about our human bodies–our imperfect, trying to figure them out, full of shame, full of grace, full of complexity bodies. And that too, of course, was a gift. Because awe can be contagious.

I write this from a church retreat in the Northeast Georgia mountains. I spent about a year and a half serving a parish not far from here, a wonderful sojourn that fed my heart and soul. So the air up here is balm for my lungs, the views are familiar to my eyes, and I find myself more at home and more at peace in this complicated old body of mine. Last night we gathered around a bonfire, sang every cliche campfire song you can imagine, made s’mores and prayed some ancient prayers. I loved it all, but mostly I loved watching and talking with these beautiful high school students, who took pictures of each other, laughed and sang, danced and played in their blissfully new, still being discovered bodies.

And I’m here, holding onto the constant truth that my father is in the final moments of his earthly pilgrimage. Watching cancer destroy his once strong body has me thinking a lot about these strange things we live in. They can give us such joy and pleasure and delight. And they can cause us to feel shame and powerless. We experience the world through them. We experience God through them. And God, at least in my tradition, experienced the world through something so strong and so frail.

When God kissed the ground in Bethlehem, when God put on human skin, when God danced on this earth, I hope God felt the fullness of this strange and holy mystery we call body. We tend to focus on the pain Jesus felt, but I wonder why we don’t tell the story of what it was like for Jesus to feel the cold water of the Jordan River, to taste the sweetness of the figs (before he cursed the tree, of course!),of Mary Magdalene rubbing his sore calf muscles after that long hike up Mount Tabor, of walking hand-in-hand as a boy with Joseph through the bumpy roads of the Galilee, of the way the bread his mother made tasted or the time his best friend made him laugh so hard he peed himself a little (that happens to men too, right?).

We who claim the Christian faith claim not only the divinity of God, but the humanity of God too. God made flesh. God made body. And yet we shy away from the complexity of the human part, the body part. I wonder if we’d have Ashley Madison scandals and televangelists who preach one thing and then are caught in shame-filled scandals if we were a little more comfortable with the complex and holy and deliciously real things that are our bodies. I don’t know. But I do know this: they are amazing, resilient, breakable, fixable, unique, adaptable, full-of-memory, transformable and graceful. They are holy. Wow.