Love’s Banquet

Once, she sipped from the cup we all shared
Now, we gather round the same table without her
Yet with her, in her memory
Table extended, chairs added
An overflow crowd of lives touched
This banquet is a foretaste
And even in grief, we can taste the sweetness
of the next cup we will share

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This weekend, I went to the funeral for a woman I knew at my former parish. There were a mix of people – some I knew, some I did not – all of us connected because of Cynthia and her daughter. I was asked to read one of the lessons and here is what Isaiah told us:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

The first reading at the funeral was about rejoicing at a lavish banquet. It makes you take another look at your surroundings to hear words like that. On the way into the service, I was ready to share grief with everyone else there. The sense of loss was there, but there was also a palpable sense of abundance. It was more than the number of chairs in the room (and we had to keep adding because more and more people came) and more than the cookies eaten at the reception afterwards. The abundance came from all of us together being more than the sum of our parts. That’s what love does.

 

A little community

Ball moss isn’t really moss. It is an air plant that lives off of humidity and dust, water and soil – the same stuff of which I am made. These botanical spheres seem self-sufficient,  they don’t really need any other plants for their survival. Yet, they usually live in trees. Maybe they do it for the company. That little ball of thin leaves is really a community of plants holding tightly to each other, and also shooting out long-stemmed flowers to share themselves with the wider world. Island plants that are really not islands at all.

I’ve been using a different lens lately to consider human nature. One view I’m seeing is the nature of our physical selves – humans are both corporal and corporate. We are separate bodies and connected communities – at the same time. You and I can’t be truly human without being both. Our nourishment comes not only from water and soil, but also from holding tightly together and sending our blossoms out to the wider world. It’s how we are made and what we are made for.

Feather Finder

My daughter is a feather finder. She loves feathers and finds them wherever she goes. Some are fancy enough to bring home, but most are pretty common and stay where they’ve landed on the grass or in bushes or along sidewalks. Whether she keeps them or not, she looks at them closely, because she loves them. And if you love something, it is worth some examination.

Over the weekend, she held my hand as we walked our dog around the block. It is a walk I’ve taken a thousand times before and I feel like I know it pretty well – the pavement, the neighbors’ houses, the pitch of the hills. On every walk, I compile a to-do list in my head and usually miss the nature and the neighbors. On my own, I know what lies along the route, but I don’t see it.

It is a different walk with my daughter, because she is a feather finder. We can talk about anything in the world, but because she cares about feathers, she will notice them. They are actually right there in plain sight for anyone to see – anyone who seeks them, anyone who cares about them. She finds feathers even when she isn’t looking for them because she is attuned to feathers. They find her.

What am I missing on these walks? While my mind is wandering far away, what is my heart missing? If I hold my daughter’s hand a little more often, will she tether me to the moment and help me see beauty and meaning there?

 

What I am learning

I’ve been reading some great books this summer and watching some great videos – all part of my chaplaincy training. (None of them are pictured above, but look at those titles!) The material and the discussions are changing the way I experience my encounters with just about everyone, not just patients, and also helping me develop skills to better listen and respond to people’s needs – spoken and unspoken. Check it out:

Wit – We watched the HBO movie adaptation of the play, featuring the incomparable Emma Thompson and the amazing Audra McDonald. This movie was a crash course in empathy in a medical setting. Heartbreaking.

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Rosenberg’s project is to have us rethink the way we use language, thinking, and judgments. The four components of nonviolent communication are observations of what is actually happening, identifying the feelings present in the situation (and what real feelings are), articulating the needs  connected to those feelings, and the actions we can take to address the real needs people have. It sounds simple, but it isn’t! Most of us have learned a totally different way to handle communication and conflict, and this book presents a totally new approach.

Extraordinary Leadership, by Roberta Gilbert. This book takes family systems theory and applies it contexts particular to clergy – but really the principles can apply to any organization. It is nearly impossible for me to boil the theory down here, but we’ve learned a lot about the anxiety that is present in all human interactions, the roles we all learn to play in our families of origin – and how those roles are recreated in other relationships (social, professional, etc.), and how leaders can help the organizations they serve navigate the chaos and emotional intensities that inevitably arise when people live, work, and worship together.

Brené Brown. No particular book, just her entire project! I am a big fan of Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability – and wholehearted living. But I always thought about it in terms of my own life – my particular sources of shame and vulnerability, the risks I am willing to take. Now, I am learning to think about these concepts as I meet, listen to, and minister to strangers.

And then there are the amazingly wise chaplains who have taught us from their own experience. Today, our whole group of chaplain interns gathered at the feet of a woman who opened the discussion with a quote from Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

It is true. At a hospital, almost everyone feels broken in one way or another; most people feel extraordinarily vulnerable and imperfect, hopeless and isolated. But there is light in their troubles, in their wounds, in their mortality. There is light in their relationships and anxieties, in the words and silences we share. Once in a while, sitting with people I’ve only just met, there is a glimpse of these rays of light shining thru the cracks. What seemed like utter brokenness becomes an occasion of grace and blessing. It is those moments that illuminate all the others, the occasions into which light yet to find its way.

Books and discussions help me identify the miracles that can happen when I truly listen, when I am utterly present with another person. But nothing replaces the experience of begin with another when the light gets thru the cracks in their life, when they experience hope in their desolation, when they know love while they are feeling most isolated. If I experienced nothing else this summer, this has been more than enough.

Mountains in my mind

At about this point every summer of my life, I start dreaming of getting away from the hot Texas sun and my hectic job for a place that is cooler and calmer. And for almost every summer of my life, that place has been the North Carolina mountains. As a child, moving from city to city following my father’s medical education and career, the family ties in the Blue Ridge helped me feel connected to people and a place. When I am there, I sense the spiritual power of community, rest, and the renewable baptism of jumping in an ice cold lake.

Hike around Kanuga Lake

My mother came to visit me in Texas earlier this summer, and during her stay she asked some of us where we’d want to travel if we could go anywhere in the world. I searched my mind, but North Carolina was the only place I wanted to be. It is so full of good memories and has played such a huge role in making me who I am. It is family, tradition, creativity, love, connection, and blessing. It is one place that will always be home to me.

This summer, I am not able to make that annual pilgrimage. I’ll be working until the last week before school starts and won’t get the chance to dash off for a peek of those beautiful peaks or a walk through a tunnel of trees or a late night on a back porch full of friends.

For now, those mountains will have to be in my dreams. And they are.

Warm Words

One of the blessings of being immersed in a completely new role (hospital chaplaincy) and unfamiliar situations (other people’s grief and loss) is that it allows me to see my own life in a new way. The frame of reference I used to have raising funds to address systemic issues is now replaced with work on a more personal level. When you stand with people in their times of crisis, you can see connections between their pain and your fears, between their comfort in memories and your unfolding story, between their response to extraordinary heartache and your everyday life.

My colleague Mike recently used a moving image to describe a moment when family members were gathered around a dying loved one. They said their goodbyes by “covering him in a warm blanket of words.” I imagined their words holding precious memories of the past, and also being part of the narrative of their family going forward, keeping the lost one wrapped together with them. Words allowed them to express themselves individually and also to articulate the bond that held them together.

This image has stuck with me for days. It speaks to more than just one family’s pain or even of grief. Words connect us to one another, they carry memories and bear emotion. While touches and looks have immediacy, words can connect people through time and across distances. They can bind entire cultures…or individual families. And so, the image of this family’s warm blanket of words connects their particular experience to any of us when we use words or allow them to land on our shoulders.

As a writer, the idea of words being a warm blanket is inspiring and a little scary. I want my words to comfort…or carry the emotion I intend. But once words leave your mouth or pen or keyboard, you can’t really control how others take them in. I hope when I tuck my daughter in at night my words are a warm blanket for her. On the other hand, I am pretty sure that no matter how warm my words seem to me, they probably grate on the ears of my teenage son. I know the stories I tell my children about their deceased grandparents keep those forebears enfolded in our family. If that is how my words can touch people I know – how might my words (or yours) be felt by others? People you don’t ever see or know? Words can have a life of their own.

Even on a summer night, it is nice to imagine thoughts, memories, and emotions enveloping you. Wrapping you in relationship. Holding you in community. Like a warm blanket.

Joy v Happiness

I’ve heard about the difference between joy and happiness, but this summer, I am learning it personally.

Happiness comes from outside yourself – good fortune, wealth, life running smoothly. But this summer I am with people who are in the midst of crises and lives that have hit rough spots. None of them are happy about it, but some of them do have joy. It can be almost tangible, the sense they exude of peace and contentment, even when they are suffering.

Joy comes from within, it is part of a person’s essence. Both theologians and psychologists describe this capacity that people have (or don’t) to rise above tough times, to be resilient, to find meaning in their circumstances.

I cannot give anyone joy – although perhaps I can give them happiness from time to time – but I hope I can help them honor, discover, or recover the joy within them. I know that they do it for me. Sometimes watching joy sustain a person in pain touches a place of joy in me and reminds me to nurture this inner resource.

Resurrections

The other day, I posted a photo on Facebook of a sage bush that is blooming in my front yard. These shrubs are usually pale green, but when it rains a lot (as it has in Texas this Spring and Summer) they blossom with purple flowers. A friend saw the photo and commented that sages are a true resurrection plant. It made me see them in a new way.

In truth, the sages here don’t ever seem to die. They are hearty and drought-resistant. But when it rains, they take on a whole new look and liveliness. Those purple flowers seem to have been waiting for the right circumstances to bring them out. As Summer progresses, the flowers will drop, but the sage will flower again. That is what they do.

In my faith tradition, resurrection is a central belief, yet even those who don’t believe the dead literally come back to life find hope in the theme of resurrection. It isn’t the passing of one soul through many lives – that is reincarnation – but the renewal of one single life or even of a community. In a way, resurrection can be seen as a person or community becoming most fully themselves. That’s why the symbols of resurrection are things like butterflies and eggs and sage bushes – living beings that undergo a transformation but retain the same essence; they stay what they have always been, only better. For some of us, the theme of resurrection is what gives us hope when we face all kinds of small “deaths,” like church attendance going down or changes in leadership. Or bigger “deaths” like racism or the daily indignities of poverty.

Resurrection is hope, transformation, and renewal.

As I work with patients and families at the hospital this summer, the image of my “resurrection” sage is a helpful one. People, too, blossom when the circumstances allow. Many times, those circumstances might be a death or a difficult transition. Sometimes, as I sit with people experiencing grief and pain, they begin to flower with stories, memories, plans, and gratitude. I’ve experienced it at similar times in my own family. In the midst of grief, we’ve recalled old family jokes, planned favorite meals, reached out to disconnected loved ones. And so it is with the families I companion this summer. Thanks to my friend’s comment, I’ll be looking for these resurrection moments every chance I get.

Light and Love

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every Sunday, I light two candles: one for people on my prayer list and one for peace. The prayers are always specific, but some days they are lifted up from more places than just my heart. This was one of those days – the events of this week seemed to rise up before many of us at once, begging for light.

Like most people I know, this week has been one of grief and anger as we learned about the murder of nine African American women and men in their church. As we learned that they were murdered in an act of racist domestic terrorism. As we realized that, although this slaughter was unimaginably horrible, it was not surprising. Because we’ve seen so much of it lately – literally seen it captured on video and widely broadcast.

There is a lot I could say about what happened in Charleston – but there are other people saying it so well whose words I’ve been sharing on social media. (And I highly recommend you check them out.) What I can add is how this event was framed for me this morning. Because after I lit my candles and hoped those flames were bringing a tiny bit of light to the darkness in the world, we had a baptism in my congregation. After reflecting on the hatred we confront in the world and how faith calls us to respond, a joyful, dancing girl took vows to join in the work of helping light overcome darkness and love overcome hate. Together, a community  vowed with her to resist evil, love our neighbors as ourselves, strive for justice and peace, respect the dignity of every human being.

As dismal as this week (and this year and this decade) has been, it is nice to be reminded that we have reason for hope. Dismantling racism – or any kind of evil – takes a team and today a very young girl joined that team. I am betting she was joined by many others as people gathered in congregations around the country to remember the victims in Charleston. In fact, I am betting the team to confront evil got bigger where people gathered in homes and community centers and on street corners to find their roles in peace and justice-making.

On days when hope seems distant and optimism feels false, it might be a candle or a splash of water or a young child reminding us that evil has not won. It might be an unexpected ally, shared bread, or the words of a song. Look for them, these reminders of hope all around us. Darkness cannot drive out darkness and hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only light and love can do that.