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.