I'm back in St. Louis after a week of work and wonder in Philippi and Belington, WV. Our annual mission trip left most all of us exhausted and restored, that distinctive place where grace and grit can take you from time to time if you're lucky enough. We were. We helped refurbish homes and hosted a children's camp, something we've been doing since the trip's inception in July of 1998. What began with a dozen or so folk from Broadview Baptist Church in Temple Hills, MD, has now grown most years to include roughly a hundred volunteers from a half-dozen churches from Maryland, Missouri and Virginia. Things shift every year. The face of our mission community changes: newbies step up for the first time, veterans step back to foster new leadership, pastors come and go. Sometimes the demands of schedules, jobs, schooling, or the severe limits of health and age get in the way of our desire to return. One summer I was mugged by a wheel barrow and missed out; another time a close, close friend and mentor had two knees replaced but made it anyway. Somewhere I'm pretty sure there's a picture from that summer of him standing on a rooftop, helping lay shingles. But every year God somehow manages to gather us into one unique flame of Christ's fiery love.
For 17 years now our annual journey has been in flux, twisting and turning with our availability and the varying ministry demands on the ground. However, certain invariables nestled within the mayhem always find their way to us. For example, alongside the Great Constancy of God's Love, we have been blessed with two other constants. One's a place; the other a person: we always end up in the same neck of the woods, the Belington and Philippi vicinity of Barbour County, WV; and Brother Leon is always there to greet and spur us on.
Aren't there, you might ask, other places of equally great need? At least one or two. Must we drive for hours beyond our own backyard to find places of great need? Not at all, but we do. Every year. Aren't there other people that welcome you once you arrive besides Leon? Sure. Lots of them. And we could not manage without them. The whole world's in need, and some 17,000 of them live in Barbour County. All of them deserve to be mentioned by name, but who'd stand for that? Heck, there are about 1900 souls in Belington alone! But even that's not particular enough. As poet Wendell Berry puts it, "There can be no such thing as a "global village." No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity." Big words from a poet who has such a robust faith in the small, the local, the particular. So we live our lives as best we can where we live 51 weeks a year, and then, God willing, once a year we take a small piece of "where we live and who we live there with" to Barbour County where Belington and Philippi and Leon await us with welcome.
We do this because of their great need--and ours. We need the props pulled out from under us, need the startling beauty of the West Virginia hills, need the long drive to visit and think, need
the makeshift mission community we've come to know over the years as our "reunion," need to work together, pull together, paint gazebos, reconnoiter firewood, pour concrete, teach the bible, do
concerts, dig holes, nail decks, prepare meals, roof houses, fill potholes, do weird science, shoot videos, build swing sets, eat raspberry ice cream at Dairy King together until all hours of the
night. We need the hospitality of people who have the strength and humility to say the three magic words, "Please help me"--and then entrust their very homes and children to our safekeeping. (How
long has it been since you've done anything so simple and courageous?) We need to know the refreshing quality of being exhausted by someone or something that's not "ours," of spending our money,
time and energy on the needs of someone or something else for a change. We need to get so close in such a short period of time that we get on each others' nerves and step on each others' toes.
Why? Because it says we love each other enough to be vulnerable and tired and tied together, which always leads to the gifts of being honest and raw. And to humor, too, for we need to laugh
ourselves silly together. These are the needs of a community, not of privatized, suburban isolation and its posture of self-sufficiency. These are the needs of a people of all ages drawn from
three states by God to circle up with compassionate intent in a particular place with a particular people. Our needs. Our calling. We have found the place Frederick Buechner names so well:
"The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
So on our last evening together we gathered in a circle, around a fire, in the woods. We spoke of the Celtic notion of "thin places," how certain places seem so "thick" with God, that Belington and Philippi had become such places for us. We swapped stories about how we'd experienced God. We also savored Wendell Berry's idea that there are no unsacred places. Only sacred places and desecrated places. We thought together about how the same is true for people: all people are sacred, but some desecrate their lives, or have been desecrated by life. If spirituality is what we do with the fire of our desire, then each person must come to grips with his or her deepest longing for God. It's this fire, this holy passion for God and compassion for others, that warms and vitalizes us. Misplaced, ignored or misdirected, this longing can destroy us. Finally, we were invited to partake of the Holy Fire of God's presence through the sharing of the Bread and the Cup. Just as the sun's fire is in the grain and the grape, so is God's Presence burning within each of our hearts.
Oh, and then we made S'mores as a celebratory benediction.
On the last day, I said goodbye to Leon. Over the years, as he's watched over us, we've watched him. He's begun to slip a little. In the beginning, he worked on the local train, and visited with us when he was off. Then he began to follow us around on his bike. This year, unable to walk, he was sporting a little scooter. As I took the photo above, he asked me if I would send him a picture of my church. He was a little confused about his address at the time, so I promised I'd bring him a picture next year. He paused and thought about that. Then said, "I don't know if I'll still be here." Then he smiled and gave me two big "thumbs up."
We don't know, either, Leon. But, God willing, we intend to be back, following the One who once said, "I've come to bring fire to the earth. Oh, how I wish it were already kindled!" (Luke 12:49)
The Rev. Dr. Guy Sayes, aka "Gus," and I had just returned to St. Louis from a week-long road trip and retreat at Nada Hermitage, a Carmelite monastery in Crestone, CO. Before he flew home to Asheville, NC, since he has so much time on his hands these days, I asked him to scout out the nurseries in the area for a Sycamore. He promised he would. I left it at that.
The Sycamore was to figure decisively into my son's upcoming wedding, which would to be held in a few weeks just outside Asheville, Gus's "hometown." Zak and Kathleen would plant it as the central metaphor of their faithful intent to entrust their marriage to the deep soil of God's gracious love "like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream" (Jeremiah 17:8). At least, that was the plan.
But forget the Sycamore. For now, let's do some math. The weekend began with the 8 of us, our immediate family, who made the day's drive to the cabin we'd rented for wedding week. There we were
met by our son (that's 9). Eventually, my younger sister, Cindy, and her husband, Tony, and daughter, Katiebelle joined us (. . . 12), also several of Zak's buddies and their significant others
(. . . 13-18). Finally, at the cookout the day after the wedding, we were joined by 13 more wonderful friends who'd driven all the way in from Arkansas, Missouri and Maryland (that's 30 or so).
My numbers may be off a tad, but you get the picture: the love grew and grew all week. It started little but got big--and you could easily multiply this by two when you factor in Kathleen's
family and friends who were in their own beautiful cabin just up the road.
The thing about our week-long community was how organic it all felt. Everyone pitched in, helped prepare meals and kept things fun yet in good order. Some played board games, others put together a puzzle the size of Texas involving myriad lighthouses. Still others took long walks and hit the sauna, or sat out on the deck to visit or read. An elite few obsessively did pushups--I'm still not sure what that was about. Some drank their share of beer, vodka and wine; others were teetotalers. Almost all of us, except for the Davis and Hussung families, and possibly my younger sister, were introverts. But we all managed to give each other space and grace. (Okay, we did run out of toilet paper at one point, but that small panic was easily remedied by a quick trip to Ingles.) As the community grew, so did the love.
But back to the lowly Sycamore. The time in the cabin flew by in its fullness. Soon it was the day before the wedding rehearsal and still no tree. I began to Google nurseries and make inquiries. After several calls, it became clear that Sycamores weren't much in demand in the Asheville area. In fact, they were considered almost weedlike, a "trash tree" nuisance because of their "proclivity for self-pruning." One nursery, however, invited us to come out. They had a large Sycamore on their grounds, which meant that Sycamore seedlings were cropping up everywhere. There might be a few around that had escaped their latest application of Roundup.
While enroute, I happened to remember Guy's "promise." So I called him in the off chance he'd remembered to find a Sycamore. He didn't answer--no big surprise there, given how busy he stays. So I
left a message: "Gus, I don't expect you to remember the promise you made to find a Sycamore, even though we sealed it in blood. I know you have far more important things to think about, big
ideas and big meetings with big churches and big people to tend to. But if you happened to remember your little friend and his son's puny wedding, and your big vow to find a Sycamore, call me
back." (My memory's not what it once was, but I'm pretty sure this capture's the gracious, non-manipulative manner of my message.)
Guy called back immediately. Yes, he'd travelled the globe in his quest for the lowly Sycamore. Yes, the memory of his promise had burned throughout his odd-yssey, as he visited one nursery after another and met with rejection and ridicule. Finally, after weeks of scouring the Blue Ridge Mountains, he ditched his Subaru for a rudderless coracle,* travelled the Seven Seas and one day found shore at the mysterious Isle of Sycamores. From there he hoofed it, as he is wont, till he found the one golden boutique nursery in this universe that carries Sycamores. It cost him everything. He became a man of constant sorrows. But, yes, he came through. He did indeed have a Sycamore. He placed it at our feet and fell prostrate before us.
That's the good news; then the bad: the beloved Sycamore looked pretty withered, "distressed" is how the nursery put it, though they assured him that, once planted, it would be just fine. One look and I knew we were in trouble. Take a gander for yourself (upper left): a dismal stick with a single sun-burnt brown leaf. Think of a "switch" your mom used to tan your hide when you were little but had somehow managed, in her eyes, to get too big for your britches. (What? Oh, so this never happened to you? Right.) Sure enough, it was to serve as a symbol, and even a raggedy flag can stir the heart. But this tree was exorbitantly ratty, so ratty that it had zero metaphorical possibility--and Guy agreed. We wound up running with the seedlings we'd rescued from Reemer's Nursery in Weaverville. They were young, green, and full of promise--apt symbols for a wedding.
I can be slow on the uptake. It wasn't until after the wedding that things began to add up. We all packed up our cars and said our goodbyes. The cabin that had been our home, stood empty, awaiting the next guests. There, in the middle of the driveway, stood the picked-over Sycamore, the butt of our jokes, about to be left behind. I picked it up by the pot. Its last leaf fell to the ground. Our Jetta was packed to the gills. "What you gonna do with that?" someone asked.
It'll ride all the way back to St. Louis, leaning back snug in the backseat between us. It'll be planted in our backyard, maybe near the chicken coop. It'll be watered and fertilized and, if needed, weeded. It'll weather and grow and leaf out. It'll remind me of Zak and Kathleen's love. One day it'll shelter my hens and inspire my heart. Chances are, it'll outlive my friend Gus and me. This gift of love will become a blessing. That's what.
*This point is contested by Guy, who claims that he rode a "high-powered jet ski." You be the judge.
This weekend many of our family and friends will converge in Asheville, NC, for the wedding of our son, Zak, and his fiance, Kathleen. Both sides of our immediate families landed early to feast and sight-see in this beautiful town spread among the Blue Ridge Mountains.
There's something about attending a wedding that sets one to thinking. We want the best for the couple, but most of us weren't born yesterday: we have a sobering sense of what they might be up against. However, marriage statistics are changing. During the decades of the 70s and the 80s, over half of all marriages ended in divorce. Yet things have shifted in a more positive direction since the 90s. Today, if present trends continue, nearly two-thirds of all couples getting married will remain so. And then this curious fact: divorce rates are falling; but so are marriage rates. Fewer couples are tying the knot, but those who do, make sure the knot stays tight. All these numbers lead this father of the groom to feel encouraged and hopeful. The take-away may be that couples today are more prenuptially savvy. They take their own sweet time in discerning who their life partner will be. Of course, at some point, they must also take the leap of being "all in" with one another. And there's the rub!
The cabin where we're staying this week is perched high up on a hillside just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are no bad views. On my daily walks I amble down a winding ribbon of road past all manner of homes hidden among the trees. It's clear that the people here are not that different from those who live elsewhere: they like to "get away." They value their privacy. The driveway pictured above is flanked by two golden lions, a fierce reinforcement of the "No Trespassing" sign. The lions would be even more foreboding if they weren't the size of miniature chihuahuas. I joke, but I've always been saddened by "No Trespassing" or "Posted" signs--especially now as I carry Zak and Kathleen's dreams for their shared life so close to my heart.
They are with me everywhere I go, their willingness to say to the world, "I have found someone beautiful to me. I have opened myself to him. I have let her in. Our guards have dropped so that a vulnerable and sacrificial love can be born. Lifelong intimacy and connection mean more to us than isolation and self-protection."
One of my pet definitions of God goes like this: "God is a circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere." It dates way back, in one form or another (see Jorge Luis Borges' essay "Pascal's Sphere"). I love how it helps me envision God's mystery. God is in the circumference and center business. The breadth of God's Presence knows no bounds, its branches reach all peoples in all places ("whose circumference is nowhere"). The depth of God's Presence, God's very Heart, is rooted as the hidden depth of all persons and places ("whose center is everywhere"). Now, if this is true of God, the Loving One who is our most "solid" reality, then all self-centered resistance and division is destined to fail. God embraces all; God centers all. Which is not to say that we always strive to live as if this were true, good or beautiful. But when we do, you can bet we are at our best, or, as the Indigo Girls put it, we up the odds of our being "closer to fine."
A little further down the road from our cabin, I came across the fence line pictured below. I was struck by the incongruity of the "No Trespassing" sign alongside the stump of a tree that squats on and straddles both pieces of property. In fact, when the chain-link fence was first constructed, the builders were careful to work the tree into the actual fence line. (The fence continues on behind the tree.) I can't think of a more fitting symbol of the Christian faith. How willing are we to have our lives planted in such a way that bridges and reconciles? Do we need healthy "boundaries"? By all means, but any boundaries we set in place are meant to assure the vitality of God's reconciling love. Healthy boundaries are not walls, but gates. They keep us healthily engaged, but not entangled. They say where we end and others begin, and signal the best way to enter one another's lives. They are crucial to all human connections--and all vibrant marriages.
In just a few days, Zak and Kathleen will make their vows. To express their commitment, they will plant a Sycamore. They want their marriage to be planted and rooted deep in God's love. They hope such depth will be known in the myriad ways they branch out to share their life and shelter the world. They're praying their marriage will be a beautiful and inviting gift, not a beautiful yet exclusive possession. May their prayers come true, guided by God's mercy toward a life where "No Trespassing" gets trumped every time by "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. ~Ephesians 3:18-19
Last night, Alice, my mother-in-law, gifted her daughter, my wife, Sandy, with a new quilt. I know next to nothing about quilts or quilting. (I once took all morning to sew back on a missing button, whereupon a chorus of angels sang "Hallelujah" and raised a great ruckus as they high-fived one another.) But I love everything about quilts, especially those sewn as gifts with love in every stitch. Like this one: each square is a butterfly with wings made mostly of swatches of dresses my wife once wore, some as a child and others later as a wife and mother. A better photographer than myself would do justice to the ornate piano-key border, the little childhood fabric photos of Sandy in the margins.
What I love about homemade quilts is how each one tells a story. Picture Alice as she sews away the hours. The loving intent of her gift embedded with each pull of the thread. Here are dresses from recitals, plays, graduations. Here are maternity dresses. Possibly, even, funeral dresses. Alice sews through the hard seasons: a diagnosis of lymphoma, endless chemo treatments, the funerals of friends and family members. She sews in front of the TV, while riding as her husband drives her to and from doctor visits, while sitting up in bed when she can't sleep at night. She sews because it calms her. Alice sews because even "chemo brain" can't stop her. Some days are better than others, so on those days sewing gives her something to do when she does not know what to do with herself. She sews because she loves butterflies, how over time their unimaginable wings unfurl. She sews, maybe, because she knows this quilt will outlive her, that the story of how she raised her beloved daughter will be passed on. She sews because she's shy, so her needle and thread speak of this love in ways her tongue cannot.
We like to joke about memory loss among senior adults. They're corny enough, but always good for a cheap laugh. Yet I'm thinking there's a gift of memory that comes only with time and maturity. My children are only beginning to get their memories back as they push thirty. Alice may not always get the details and dates right at her age, but her desire to remember is as vital and clear as ever. She wants to remember, to shake the family tree, to piece together again the story: the "who begat whom" of genealogy, the varied stories of chance meetings and hard decisions and where they led that make up family history. Things have a way of coming back to her as she ages. She seeks to take stock.
Shouldn't we call such a remembrance sacred? Isn't the fitting together of a larger picture from the small bits and pieces of disparate experiences our surest antidote against the mounting losses and isolating grief of aging? Let me be clear: I'm not speaking of nostalgia, that pernicious tendency to avoid the precious demands of the present and the future by retreating into some idealized past. Sure, I'd love to retrace Route 66 one day, but I'll take that trip, thank you very much, with air-conditioning, wifi, and no "whites only" diners and motels along the way. Again, the sacred memory re-members, figures out an imaginative and loving way to quilt together all the myriad pieces that tend to get lost,forgotten, or lopped off as unforgiven.
I have a hunch that sacred memory is a special grace for those up in years. Perhaps, because of the lived reality of death. We cross the line from the abstract to the concrete, from "everyone dies one day" to "I will die one day soon." Not only does death draw in close and personal, but for the person of faith, death also begins to lose its teeth. Think about it. All those years of sacred recollection begin to take hold, years of taking up the bread and the cup in a celebrative "remembrance" of Christ's Last Supper, of "proclaiming" the Lord's death. All those times we addressed the departed faithful as living members of the "communion of saints." Everywhere death, everywhere the hum and joy of the much moreness of life. With each good-bye, a new kind of hello begins to be conceived and set in motion. Communion shifts from a nice ritual to a core reality.
I'm a lifelong baptist, but I love being apprenticed by the larger community in Christ. The late Donald Sheehan's book of essays, The Grace of Incorruption, offers compelling insight from the Orthodox faith. In an essay on Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, he speaks of the Orthodox notion of Memory Eternal, the sense that the dead in faith continue "to act back into the lives of those who continue to love him or her" (p. 30). I'm struck by how this notion weds loving memory and resurrection. When we remember the deceased or, I might add, even the "dead" events of long ago, more is at play than the simple use of our memories to recall a face or draw up the specific details of what happened. Nor are we merely conjuring by sheer will some sort of adventure in wishful thinking. Instead, each remembrance is "live," since "death on earth is defeated by unceasing aliveness in God" (ibid). Such is the grace of Memory Eternal. For years I had to drive all the way to Little Rock, some seven hours from St. Louis, to visit with my buddy Tom Logue. These days, since he died, I visit with him most every day. The only difference is his jokes are funny now. I love this man. And I thank God daily that Tom lives and continues to "back into my life."
To bring all this home, Sheehan notes a scene in Brothers Karamazov where Alyosha kneels by the coffin of his spiritual father, Elder Zosima. As he half prays and dozes, Alyosha enters into a vision where he sees Father Zosima sitting at the wedding table in Cana with Jesus. Alyosha wonders, "Why, he is in the coffin . . . But here too." He listens to his beloved teacher. Then Alyosha "suddenly falls to earth, weeping in joy and kissing the earth; and the Elder's voice rings again in Alyosha's soul: 'Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears . . .' The narrator then says: 'It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, "touching other worlds"' (ibid.).
Strange, I know. This trembling of all God's worlds, this bleeding together of life and death. But unless the resurrected life is about real life, the kind of life that surely dies, but even more surely rises again as Christ himself rose, unless God re-members us again, piece by piece, by name, as the peculiar, crooked-grinned, beloved presence we are, then we're simply fooling ourselves. Perhaps more to the point, we are being fooled by ourselves, for we are then locked into that tight-fisted, fearful place where we're chasing our tails, desperately seeking to find ourselves in ourselves. Through Christ, however, we've been opened up by the gift of the Risen Life that sets us free to know "that we are precious not in our self-assertion but only in our self-emptying" (p. 31). We can let ourselves go because it's never too late,. We can sew away without self-regard. Surrender ourselves to our deepest intent. Lose ourselves in whatever gift we hope to offer to this world God loves through and through. We can do these things without pretense or self-conceit because we know that such life and love is always ever just getting under way.
Years from now, someone will happen upon Alice's quilt. She may note a missing thread or a stitched-in patch or two. He may be drawn to how the colors have faded, wonder how long it's been folded away in this attic trunk. But mostly, as children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, they may be apt to recall a woman named Sandy whose life they knew and loved, or only knew indirectly by others. That life would have been sewn into the very fabric by another woman named Alice. These names may be recalled, or maybe not, depending on the time passed. But if these children are people of faith, they will know that somewhere, somehow, in a relational place larger than even their own hearts, both the one for whom the quilt was made, and quilt's maker herself, live on even now in Christ's risen body.
"We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living" (Romans 14:7-8).