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.

Reminders

Once a week, I volunteer at a center that serves women and men who are homeless or extremely poor. I’ve been involved in one way or another with the place for more than a decade, but I still get surprises every time I go…or maybe not so much surprises as reminders.

The first reminder is that there is no typical homeless person. I saw a man who looked like the stereotype–long hair held back with bandana, unshaved face, raggedy jeans–and another who looked for all the world like a physician, with bifocal glasses, a tweed jacket, and a gentle demeanor.

The second reminder was how generous people who are poor can be. They will pray for you, ask how you are doing, and help their friends in just about any way imaginable. They will tithe out of the paltry sums they get from minimum wage jobs or Social Security checks. Today, as I collected meal tickets, one of the regulars–a woman who carries her tiny dog around in her jacket–gave me a beaded bracelet. I knew better than to turn it down–accepting the generosity of others is a lesson learned early in this business.

a gift to pay forward

The bracelet sat on the desk next to me as I did my work. Just about everyone commented on and admired it. Before I left, I passed it along to another woman at the center that day. She needed a pick-me-up.

The third reminder is that the rules are different for people who live on the streets. They can’t be fully themselves. The woman who reminded me of this spent a good deal of the morning on the phone with a lawyer; she was getting help to keep custody of her kids. She got teary telling me about her situation–and who wouldn’t–but then she said, “No tears. Tears are a sign of weakness. Gangsters don’t cry.” I looked at her; she was not a gangster. “You can’t show weakness on the street,” she said. And, of course, she is right.

The last reminder for today was that shelter is more than a roof over your head. I live in a home that is safe and with people who will care for me if I am sick or in trouble. That is a gift. But it is also a gift to be with people who have very little. It is a cliche that they remind us of how lucky we are. Sure, sure. Being with people in extreme poverty also reminds me of how completely human it is to fear your own vulnerability even as you protect those around you who are vulnerable. The poor folks I have met remind me not only of what I have that sets me apart, but what we all have that brings us together. Sometimes, the people who make up your community are a kind of shelter, too. They give you a place to feel safe and they care for you when you are sick or in trouble. They won’t take advantage if you shed a tear. Sometimes, they will even give you a little bling for no reason at all.

A lesson in hope and gratitude

On a pretty regular basis, I help out at a center that serves men and women in our community who are homeless. It is a worship service and meal. Simple and incredibly moving. The reasons people come are diverse. Some are chronically homeless, others recently lost jobs or had a major illness. For women, domestic and sexual violence are a pretty common reason for ending up on the streets. There are people there who volunteer and they have their own diverse reasons for being there. I am no longer surprised, but always brightened that folks at that service pray for me as we work together setting up, singing, and cleaning.

This week there was a different vibe and I am not sure why, probably just the coincidental convergence of the people there that day. That, and all the various struggles they had. In any case, when it came time to ask for prayers, nearly all of them were about mental illness.

“God, I hope my family will talk to me more often and I hope for bi-polar to be gone from the earth.”
“I pray for the man I saw yelling at no one and everyone on the street today.”
“Thank you for a church that is honest. I will not be as sick as my secrets.”

There has been a lot of public discussion lately about mental illness and how we can better “handle it” as a society. Mostly those who have mental illness are seen as the perpetrators of violent and scary behavior, so “handling” them is supposed to make us all feel safer and correct a lot of social ills. But in my experience–in my family, through the center where I volunteer, through friends–I know that people who struggle with mental illness are more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators. So I am pretty sure that what most people mean by “handling” mental illness won’t fix the problems they expect.

Despite their struggles, the men and women I see in this small worshiping community do some pretty healthy things from a spiritual perspective. They seek out the company of friends and helpers, they look for ways to help others, they are grateful for all that they have.¬†One man approached me after the meal to ask if I knew of a shelter for him that night. He had been kicked out of one the previous day, but was suffering from flu and needed to be inside during what was expected to be a very cold night. “I broke one of the rules,” he said, “Mea culpa, it was all my fault.” I wondered how many of my friends would face such immediate and harsh accountability for our behavior? I surely would not.

While not everyone who is homeless is mentally ill, their challenges often hold up a mirror to struggles we all face–a magnifying mirror. Health and illness, inclusion and exclusion, love and indifference. I face all of those, but the impact on my life is usually not as harsh as it is for my neighbors who live on the streets. The judgements and barriers they face every day magnify the violence and injustice woven through our whole society.

And still they pray. And sing. And hope.

The woman who prayed for bi-polar to be gone from the earth later closed our intersessions that day. “Lord,” she asked, “I wish for a car so that I could drive old people to get to the doctor.” I’m going to hold her up as my role model for hope and gratitude this week.