Turn left at the Baptist Church

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Mortal pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust;
what with care and toil we fashion,
tow’r and temple, fall to dust.
(
from the hymn All my hope on God is founded)

Two blocks up the road from my house is a large, five street intersection. One corner boasts being the original site of the Dekalb Farmer’s Market. Another was home to my favorite thrift store. The center of the intersection was the Baptist Church. As an undergraduate at Agnes Scott College, this was one of the landmarks that marked the arrival to my college town, the return to school, the promise of growing up. Maps and I have never gotten along so well, but landmarks I can manage. Turn left at the Baptist Church and then go two blocks more, towards the old car dealership…those are words I can understand.

I’ve known they were going to tear it down. We’ve been at war with Wal-Mart for years. And when we finally lost, and as the congregation of the Baptist Church continued her decline, the future quickly became apparent. The once quirky intersection where the bowling ally, the local pub and the fabric store all took up residence would become just another corner with a  Wal-Mart and a generic strip mall.

And yet. It took them weeks, maybe even months, to prepare the church site for demolition. Like they were preparing a body for burial. They took it down in such small bite size pieces, almost with care–a gathering room here, a kitchen there. Still the front stood proudly, the sanctuary and her steeple. In the final days, everything was gone, save those very front walls. The very last days, in the broken out windows, amid the rubble, someone appeared. Dressed head-to-toe in black, the body could be seen dancing or protesting, no one is really sure. It’s the stuff of neighborhood debate. I heard it was a ninja (really! that was a rumor!). Another heard an artist. Another still a film student making a film. Whoever it was, someone noticed the transformation, the final stages before her complete demise.

On the last day, all that was left was a single rectangular structure–walls with a steeple. As they started to work, tearing down the steeple, she would not go without a fight. It took bending and contorting the piece before it would give way, anchored so well to the old brick, the steeple itself seemed to lift its dying breath in protest. And then it was gone. The rest came down quickly. Nothing left to stand for, once the steeple gave way.

The rubble was cleaned up in less than a day, a stark contrast to all time it had taken to get there. And now, for a pause that I imagine won’t last long, it sits barren, an empty lot.

The first few times I drove by it, I literally got lost. Not for long, but I lost my bearings. Turn right at the church, then you’re almost home. That’s the familiar way of travel. And suddenly that compass point was gone and I found myself having to shift, to adjust my own markers and map. But now the emptiness has become its own marker. My eyes have shifted to meet the space and recognize it for what it is. And in time I will again adjust, to recognize the ugly strip mall that will go in it’s place as the new landscape of home.

Less than a year ago, on my last day of work at my church in the foothills of the Northeast Georgia Mountains, I packed up my office and turned in my keys. The rain had stopped and I looked up. As if a gift from the Creator, there was a rainbow pouring over the steeple. The doors always open, I walked into the church, one last time, to say goodbye. I sat in the old rickety wooden pews and looked out over the pines as the day turned to night. I sat in the dark–I don’t know how long–and sobbed. Here, in these walls, had been my home. Not for forever, but for a time. They echoed with Eucharists and healing prayers, with funerals and baptisms, with laughter and with intimate confessions and the promise of absolution. Choirs had sung and the organ had played, often off key and with missed notes and still God was praised. Here I had stood and told the congregation that someone they loved had died or that someone they didn’t yet know, but already loved, had been born. Here I stood and blessed, broke and shared God with people. All of it, etched in the bones of that place just as it is etched into me.

I don’t grieve the Baptist Church–not really. It wasn’t mine, save a familiarity, a comfort driving home. But I grieve for those who lost it. They will find and make new walls, for, as we all know,  the Church is not the building, the Church is her people. And yet. They are the places that shelter us, that teach us, that frustrate us, that encourage us. They are the walls that stand when we sometimes can not. Until they can no more.

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Loki at Sunset

Barbed Wire Sunset

Only Loki was not a fighter. Only Loki stood at the sides and laughed, a laughter more deadly to the self-important gods than any sword or spear. No wonder they had chained him.” –M.D. Lachlan

Loki worshipped with us on Monday. He is new. His first week behind the bars and barbed wire of the prison he now calls home. He is thoughtful and calm, giving little attention to anything but the person before him, a gentle nudge that seems to say “I am here, see me.”

Loki lives, for now, in a prison cell with his friend B. Where B goes, Loki goes. And so when B comes to the weekly Episcopal Eucharist, Loki comes too. He takes up residence, stretching his long body out behind an old metal desk that we’ve pushed to the side to make space for our circle. With patience he waits as we read, and sing, preach and share holy bread and grape juice. Loki makes no requests for treats or holy blessings, but I can’t help it, I offer him one anyway. Despite my brand specific preference for Black Labs, Loki gives me pause.

The service ends and I make my way to Loki. There is an innate kindness and sadness in his eyes that makes me it even harder to leave these prison walls. B and I talk about life and her week. We talk about Loki too. He is the calmest of her charges. B tells me I can take him home if I want. “He deserves good people.” I am honored that I pass her litmus test as one qualified to share a life with such a beloved friend.

The sun begins her descent and it is time for the three of us part. I am struck, and not for the first time, at the space between us. While I may enter, I do not stay. B and Loki live beyond the walls where I am welcome, beyond the walls of safety and freedom. They live in a world of chains and buzzers and slamming doors. I want to cross the chasm. But I can not. Yet Loki does. With that mystical power that comes from being something other than human, Loki makes a home amid the shackles and chains, the bars and wires that, if we’re honest, terrify us. Loki has no such fear. He sees past B’s crime, into the kindness that her hands and heart offer him. Loki sees the goodness in me too. He bumps up against me. “I don’t have any treats, I’m sorry buddy” I tell him. “That’s okay,” says B. “He doesn’t want treats. He wants you to pay attention, to love him. It’s all he cares about.”  I scratch his head one last time before the guard escorts me through the gates.

Outside I watch the sunset, struck by the beauty of the rays that bounce off and illuminate the wire and gate. There is hope, even in those places that look like the end. There are no limits for where Love will go. I turn the key in my engine, take a final look back, and begin the long drive home.

Writing Camp

This week I am spending a week in Gambier Ohio (population 600 people and 29 bicycles) at Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon College, also affectionately known by its participants as Writing Camp. I’m sleeping in a top bunk bed, although, to be fair, it has no bottom. The bottom bunks are all in another dorm. We eat delicious food that has been prepared for us and are in groups that go do different counselors teachers each day who impart knowledge and inspire discussion and give delicious writing prompts. I am exhausted and exhilarated. It’s exactly where I need to be. I’m sure at some point there will be s’mores.

One of the highlights for me has been hearing Marie Howe read from her poetry. I had read her work before, but to hear it in her own voice, I laughed in places I couldn’t have imagined and found my eyes full of tears more than once. Her daughter called in the middle of her reading–and she answered it. It was one of my favorite moments, because she was so real.

Today I went to her book signing. Instantly, I am reduced to an awkward 13 year old stumbling for the right thing to say. Marie made it okay. She signed my book! FullSizeRender.jpg

But most of all, she led a Master Class, which was terrifying and funny and exciting and new. This is what I wrote (and read. Out loud! In front of people, y’all!)

I heard the wail of sirens

round and round

like carousel horses

one goes up as another comes down

I can not remember his beard

or his hair, his face

is clear enough

The Scottish Wool blanket I hid beneath

Bad Jesus TV through the screen

He would always find me.

The blanket is lost.

I don’t know where to find it.