Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Now. Look Here.

Note:  I delivered this sermon on the Sunday before Martin Luther King's birthday and two weeks following my grandmother's death at 99 and 1/2 years old.

These years have been difficult and unsettling years.  Often when people speak to me of the future, they do so as if it is a haunted and unwholesome place.  I have become afraid of the future.  I’d rather rest in the pages of history with my heroes  but the world seems so damaged and hurting that their victories have become like accusations.  “We played our part,” they seem to say to me, “what will you do?” 
I can’t answer the question.  Sometimes I think I’ll drive myself crazy with trying.
Not that it would have mattered much if I could find the answer.  I do not know what work I will be called to do in the future, but up until last month, I knew my place and that was with my grandmother.   

These years have been difficult and unsettling years for her too as one by one she surrendered her connection to her life and to those of us who had shared it with her.  Her body weakened and her vision and hearing failed her.  She lost her ability to walk, to stand, to sit up without assistance.  She lost her ability to cook, to feed herself, and finally to swallow.  Most painfully for us, she seemed to always be somewhere else, away from us.  Days would go by without a word from her or even a smile.  In our multi-generational home, her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gathered around her, and year after year as she drifted away from us, we all drew closer.  My mother retired early and dedicated herself to my grandmother’s care.  She even began to sleep on the floor beside Grandma’s bed.  My children grew up with the mandate that every decision must be made with their great-grandmother’s needs and comforts in mind.  Shawn and I together decided that whatever we pursued in life and career must honor her as the center of the family.  
Through it all, I’d watch and read the news with a growing sense of dread for my children’s sake.  I became jealous of my grandmother who, with nearly a century behind her, had moved beyond all care for tomorrow.  And I resented her too because in satisfying my duty to her, I felt I was neglecting my duty to the future.  My career stalled.  My writing stopped.  And the more vulnerable she became, the more time she required of me, of all of us.  I loved Grandma but I resented her too. I missed the person she had been and dreaded the final loss of her.
For eleven years I helped my family protect my grandmother’s independence and dignity.  But despite our best efforts, her independence fell away, and then her dignity, and then, many long, painful months later, she was gone too. 
And I had a sermon to write.
I wanted to write of important things and chose hymns and readings that focus on interpretations of the healing presence of the Divine in our midst.  The gospel writers called it the Paraclete, which is sometimes translated as the Advocate.  The early church named it the Holy Spirit.  Generations of mystics have called it the Inward Christ, the Indwelling Spirit, “that of God,” Holy Wisdom, Intercessor, Comforter, Helper, Beloved.  
But this message is not about theology or the history of Christianity.  I wanted it to be because I love that stuff, but I couldn’t manage it.  Our household is in disarray.  My words also do not follow good order and they keep wandering.  I find that they want to be with her.  
Grandma was not a prophet like Dr. King or a mystic like Julian and I never heard her use the words “holy” or “spirit” either alone or in combination.  Still, I keep hearing her voice in my head.  “Now, look here!” she would say as she was always pointing out little details to us--a loose thread on a sweater, a bloom on an African violet, a jack-in-the-pulpit in the garden, an error in our grammar.  I have a lot of stories about her and I’ll be telling them all my life, I suppose.  But if I had to choose one to tell you now it would be how she used to take me outside to show me the plants in her garden.  My grandmother’s garden was never going to win any awards for style, but I loved it.  It was green and cool and full of interesting things.  She was not a boastful gardener with flowers set to impress, as much as she was a steward of the lowly things.  A tiny plant in a hidden place was as much a joy to her as any prize bloom.  
She was our matriarch, a sovereign and mighty force in our life surrounding us with houseplants and crocheted mittens and afghans and other signs, visible and invisible, of her love.    To outsiders, it might have been difficult to see that love.  In her affections as in her garden, you had to know what you were looking for.  She was not going to gush over us, call us sweetheart, and bake us cookies.  She was not that kind of grandmother.  I knew she loved me because when I was little, she listened to me with the same respect she would give an adult.  I knew because she hung mirrors and towel-rings down low so that we kids could reach these handy tools of life without having to ask for help.  I knew because if anyone teased one of us little ones, she would sternly defend the child with the words, “She is a person!” 
Her kids and grandkids (and there are a lot!) are an eclectic and eccentric set and we brought more odd ducks into the family when we married people of different races, nations, sexualities, and religions.  In the boxes of photographs and cards that she saved over the years is evidence of just how weird we sometimes were.  She took it all in stride.  Whatever our condition, whatever our passions, whatever our place on the spectrum of life, she welcomed us back without question or condition.  We were all persons, unique and changing, and always, always entirely acceptable and beloved in her eyes. 

Her theology, and she would never use that word, was very basic.  The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit that religious literature describes so mytho-poetically is really quite an ordinary and humble thing.  It is, finally and simply, a presence that seems to be always there, though we hardly ever take the time to notice.  It is the impetus, pathway, and action of love.  It is the divine part of us that makes humanity humane and informs the way we deal with death and grief and memory.  It is Spirit seeking itself and finding it in the hidden places.  It is what we learn from folks around us as they pass in and out of our lives--whether they are Jesus of Nazareth or Martin Luther King, or my grandmother, Prudence Mary, of a tiny town in central New York. 
It was difficult to wait with her in her last years.  Like a little kid, I was restless and eager to run off and away, but instead I held her hand and followed her as if we were still together in her garden.   Except there were no more gardens.  No more painting or pottery or furniture refinishing.  No more shopping or visiting or Eastern Star meetings.  No more crocheting and knitting, croquet or dominoes.  No more delicious cakes or horrible casseroles.  All of that was long ago and all that was left was an old woman, sometimes selfish, very frail, and wholly dependent.  But she was not done teaching me.  As the silence grew around us and between us, it was still as if Grandma was saying, “Now, look here!”  The woman who had taught me all I know about personal dignity and self was also teaching me how to let those things go. 
Revelation can be a humble thing.  The Apostle Paul and Dr. King found it in a jail cell.  My grandmother spent her life seeing worth and divinity in small and humble places.  She was not a big picture person, my grandmother.  She made her life in the everyday.  It is a very human, and very holy thing to do.  Look here.  This is the stuff that justice is made of.  This is where kindness grows.  As I struggle to understand just how my life will continue without her in it, I keep encountering her lesson that it is not the outward success but the such-ness of a life that deserves our attention.  Do not mistake greatness for importance, power for strength, or piety for faith.  
For nearly a hundred years, Prudence was simply herself, formal and formidable, stubborn, brilliant, irascible, creative, witty, and kind.  Sometimes I wanted to set aside my duty to her and become important, to roll up my sleeves and seek a ministry outside the family.  But it was never that time--so I waited.  I waited until the morning after Christmas when I took my turn with her as she lay quietly breathing…breath after purposeful, intentional breath.  I listened to her sigh in what sounded like a young woman’s voice.  It was a beautiful sound.  The household around us continued to bustle and live, but Grandma and I were caught in a moment of blessed quietness when I said, “I love you.  It’s alright.  We all love you.  It’s alright.”   Then, though she had seemed barely conscious for days, she set her jaw in one final moment of determination and was gone.
Now it seems that she and I are both free and I must decide how to live in a troubled world without her.  I do not know what I will do.  I hesitate to bring so private a message to you.  I feel selfish in doing so, but this is the only thing I could write.  I have not yet received my new orders.  I do not know what to do next.  “We wait in the quietness for some centering moment that will redefine, reshape, and refocus our lives,” wrote Howard Thurman. I think I know what he meant.
For my entire adult life, I have been my grandmother’s apprentice and companion.  But that is all over, and I do not know what is next.  Perhaps for the first time in my life, I feel ready to rest in a faith I cannot understand or describe except to say that I do believe and I have known that a Comforter has come and does abide with us forever though we are sometimes too busy to notice.  “Now,” my grandmother would say, “Look here.”  The Beloved has been with us all along.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Treasures in Heaven

I offer this with my thanks to one of my favorite blogs,  Friendly Skripture Study which recently explored Matthew 6:19-21.  You can link to it here.

 "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

When I read this, I could not help but think of two people who passed out of this life many years ago.  I will interpret this biblical passage through the lens of my memory of my great-grandmother, Beth, and of her son-in-law, my grandfather, Theodore.  They were ordinary people without much of what the world would call treasure to their names.  They worked all their lives on farms and in factories and shops.  They left me with no inheritance apart from their wisdom and their love.

While reading Matthew's comments on treasure and heaven, my great-grandmother immediately came to mind.  She once said that she would gladly give up her place in Heaven if she could give it to a criminal here on earth.  Some folks receive blessing after blessing in happy childhoods and strong communities.  Their physical and emotional needs are fulfilled.  Others begin life with such injustice and pain that they seem to fall from grace.  Poverty, violence, and inequality are heaped upon some far more than on others.  She did not take credit for her virtue but believed it came to her as an unmerited gift of circumstance.  Her life, full as it was with love, made making good decisions easy.  It made being good easy.  She felt that those who committed crime or could not find their way to virtue, were in that situation because they had, for whatever reason, been deprived of the soul-sustaining comforts and the helping hand of loving relationships.  They had not known the privileges of connections, security, and safety.  She told her family that she had experienced her Heaven here on earth with those she loved.  She would give up her place in Heaven for another soul.  Her view of Heaven and the way she linked it to social justice have always stayed with me.

My grandfather came to mind because he taught me how to seek treasure. I remember how he told me that he wanted me to go to college not to learn how to make a living, but to learn how to make a life.  Even if I didn't use my knowledge to earn money or make a career, to seek knowledge and to love it would make my life more meaningful, more valuable, more rich in treasure.  Because I know the man he was, I also know that he did not simply mean knowledge for its own sake but as a means of increasing wisdom and understanding.  Grandpa organized his entire life around love and found the deepest meaning in that love.  I felt clear that he sent me off toward my education with a strongly implied directive.  "Seek out knowledge, beauty, understanding, and wisdom.  Be full of gratitude for the wonders you find in the world and the people in it.  Be generous.  Be kind.  Be light-filled.  Magnify the good."

Now mind you, if my grandfather had ever made such a speech, it would have knocked us out of our chairs.  He was painfully shy and very quiet.  He was more likely to say a few short words of support than to make speeches.  He was more likely to smile quietly than to laugh out loud, but his eyes would twinkle and he would gaze at us proudly when we came home and told him about our projects and our passions. He believed each of us was an expression of life's miracle.  When I was a small child, I sat on his lap with my little hand in his.  He would tell me how marvelous the human hand was and what a miracle could be found in the opposable thumb.  I remember gazing at my own hand and feeling connected to all humanity and its potential.   He sent each of his children and his grandchildren into the world with his expectation and hope that his curiosity and wonderment would go with us.  And so it did and for that inheritance of treasure, I am ever thankful.

My great-grandmother and my grandfather believed their lives were blessed, rich, full of treasure.  Others would have disagreed.  Theo had a speech impediment and walked on bowed legs.  He lost his oldest sister to a fire and his father to tuberculosis.  Finally, just as he was coming of age, his mother died and he and his orphaned brothers and sisters were cheated out of their family farm.  As a young adult, he watched sibling after sibling die at a young age and lived his entire (ironically) long life in fear of death and separation from his loved ones.  He worked until he was 85 and then, following his doctors' medical neglect, nearly died of an long-untreated aneurysm which was followed by five long years of dementia ending in his death. 

His mother-in-law, Beth, was an immigrant to the United States.  She lost her beloved brother to the First World War, had to leave her family in England to make a life for herself in the States, struggled to raise a family on a Upstate New York farm during the Great Depression, saw two sons traumatized by World War II, and despite being an artist, a poet, and a schoolteacher, had to take a job in a factory to support her terminally ill husband in his last years before his premature death.  She lived as a widow for many years before she died of breast cancer at 87. 

Both of them suffered their share of sorrows and carried their own heavy burdens, but they both knew and celebrated the treasures they had and the treasures that they passed along to us.  We cherish Beth's poems which are about the simple joys of life and her steadfast belief in human equality.  We have her oil paintings and her watercolors in which she lovingly captured the beauty around her, a vase of flowers, a favorite book, the woods in the fall.  She was a prolific painter and gave her work away to many friends and family who admired it.  Her paintings hang in almost every room in my home and in those of my extended family.  One of her oil paintings hangs in the community library and I love to point it out to my children to remind them of Gram's spirit.  Her poems and paintings are a wonderful legacy and we are proud of them, but they are still just things and those things, paper and canvas, ink and paint, will fade away.  What will last will be her joy, her love, her dignity and grace.  Her love of beauty in simple things was shared over and over again until it became a habit in all of us who descended from her.  Several of us have careers in the arts or have made craft and creativity a central theme in our lives.  More importantly, as we create, we do so with her central teaching that creativity matters.  Love matters.  Equality matters.  Any woman who would give up her place in heaven not only for "the less fortunate" but for the most despised here on earth cannot help but leave the world aglow in treasure.

Likewise, my grandfather, Theodore, through hard work and self-denial, left his wife, and therefore those of us who continue to care for her in her old age, a nest egg of savings.  He ensured that she would have a physical home to live in for the remainder of her life, that she could continue to pay for her health care, and that so long as she lived simply, she would not go without.  But that is just money and with prolonged illness and the relentless march of time, it too dwindles and disappears.   He gave us so much more than that.  We have story after story of wisdom and kindness from my grandfather.  These Grandpa-stories are shared each time the family comes together.  These are mostly funny stories that end with his constant message of patience, tolerance, and kindness. 

Beth must have seen that in him after he married her daughter.  My grandpa, the man who told me to go learn and seek out the meaningful and the worthy was her son-in-law and she chose to live close to him and to her daughter after her husband died.  She must have appreciated his loyal spirit, and she painted a special painting just for him.  She knew that his own vulnerabilities, his speech impediment and his tremendous shyness gave him gifts of sensitivity and gentleness.  When her husband was full of sorrow, she had called on Theodore to spend time with him, not to "cheer him up" but because she knew her son-in-law's heart was tender enough to listen closely and to love unconditionally.  Her husband, like her, was an artist and yet he struggled to make his way as a farmer.  He struggled with an injured heart, both physically and metaphorically.  So Beth sent Theodore out to the fields to spend time with him.  She knew that sometimes we do not need to be cheered.  We need to be heard.  We need others to see the light that shines in us.

In the end, and from the beginning, the Light is our treasure.  We are called to shine and we are called to see others shine and to glory in it.  I think we miss it because we expect something brash and bold and stupendous.  Perhaps we expect trumpets and angels, but sometimes, most times, it is a very humble and human thing.  You can find it in the treasure house of our curious minds and our loving hearts.  Once, long ago, Grandpa held my little hand in his and told me what a miracle it is to be human.  When he closed his great, work-worn hand around mine it was as if he had pressed treasure beyond measure into my palm.  Our riches are our passions and hopes and creative souls.  We build our fortunes when we work for each other, honor each other, celebrate each other.  Our treasure is Love, not of the Hallmark variety, but the kind of love my grandfather gave me when he looked at me and saw a miracle.  Our heaven is each other.  So go out and paint and write poetry.  Go out and raise children and work hard.  Go out and learn and be filled, forever, with the wonder of it.  Go out and let your paintbrush dance and your eyes twinkle and your heart ache.   Teach this human miracle to others.  Love them into the fullness of their lives.  Hear them into the fullness of their Voice.  Give without counting the cost. Follow the advice George Fox gave us:

  "Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you." 

Let your love for all people everywhere so fill you and enrich you that you cannot help but declare that it is enough and more than enough. Give up your place in Heaven for love's sake and Heaven's treasures will pour down upon you.