A week before Easter nineteen years ago, a package came for me. My mother-in-law had sent a set of floral placemats and napkins, with this note:
I saw these in a shop downtown and thought they would look lovely with your violet tablecloth. Happy Easter. Love, Carol
She was right. There was a bit of violet in the fabric that was an exact match for my tablecloth. How she knew that from thousands of miles away, I do not know. But if there’s a visual equivalent to absolute pitch, Carol had it.
The beauty of things mattered to her – setting a table, arranging furniture, picking a wardrobe. She had the gift of making things look just so, and my own table is the better for it.
My son and I used those napkins last night. More than for their beauty, I value them because they are a visible sign of Carol’s love. My life is more beautiful for it.
Jeanne Pena is a master at saying these three precious words. So is John Capellaro. Fred Rogers said like, but everyone knew there was love behind it. The more candles I add to my birthday cake, the more I’m convinced that these are the real movers and shakers of the world.
If ever the Kingdom of Heaven is realized in the Here and Now, it will come because every living creature has learned how to say, believe, and live these words.
It’s one of the tracks on Dark Side of the Moon [Pink Floyd], it’s a mindset, and it’s a lie. Cosmically and religiously speaking, it’s all us – it’s just that the us comes in many shapes and sizes. All of us are God’s beloved creatures, given the capacity to love and the terrible freedom to withhold it. My husband, siblings, children, and other relatives are part of us; the person in the grocery checkout, the driver cutting me off on route 3 are part of us; Barbara next door and the grieving people of Christ Church, New Zealand are us; even the ones who hurt and kill are part of us – just a part I’d rather not acknowledge.
Them is a false category, a dark place to put the people I don’t know or don’t like. But it comes at a cost: a piece of who I am always goes to the hell I wish for others.
It’s why Jesus advised us to judge not lest ye be judged (Mt. 7:1) – it’s as much to save us as it is to benefit the ones we would pass judgement upon…
Readings: Psalm 80:1-7; Isaiah 66:7-11; Luke 13:31-35
Before she was in labor she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her she delivered a son.
Who has heard of such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?
Yet as soon as Zion was in labor she delivered her children.
Shall I open the womb and not deliver? says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb? says your God.
Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her –
that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom.
Isaiah 66:7-11 NRSV
New life doesn’t survive on its own very long: a mother’s milk nourishes the newborn body, a mother’s and father’s loving gaze and comforting embrace nourish the heart, mind, and soul. Without this love and devotion, new life withers and does not grow.
Sometimes I forget that the same is true of the life-giving spark that is born in the soul, the image-of-God in everyone. That spark is nurtured by the people we love and the faith traditions that sustain them. I am in debt to every person who embraced my spiritual growth and fostered it.
Sometimes, I forget that faiths are also born – gifts of the loving God who created everything and sustains every breath. My own faith of manger and cross was born to the faithful children of Yahweh. It is the faith of Israel, the heritage of Abraham and Sarah, Deborah, Jacob, Mary, and Joseph that embraced and fed it. I am an ungrateful and unwise child, indeed, if I don’t see in this a mother’s love and the steadying hand of God.
Nat King Cole, Christmas for Kids from One to Ninety-two, (recorded at Capitol Studios, Hollywood, CA), compilation [Hollywood, CA: Capitol Records, 2000]
My mother’s living room was showing its age, so my sister and I offered to paint it – a Mother’s Day gift of a fresh look. Off we went for a couple of cans of Bistro White (walls) and Dune Grass (doors) and a paint kit. An hour of cleaning, another for prepping the space, and we were ready to paint. A few hours later, the furniture was polished and back in place, curtains were up, and we were on the sofa looking at the results. Even though the color on the walls was the same, the difference that new paint and a little effort made was remarkable – to have fresh paint on the walls and things within the space given a good scrubbing has always been more than the sum of the labor and materials it took to do it.
The hundred and thirty mile drive between my mother’s home and mine gave me a chance to think back on the other rooms in other houses. Whenever possible, my mother let me and my siblings choose the paint color for our bedrooms; she and my father thought it was good to offer choices when possible – and that we should enjoy the spaces we lived in. It wasn’t so much the paint as it was the wish that we be at home in the world, accepted and loved for the unique souls we were.
I know that no amount of paint, spit, and polish can make a house a home, or a bad situation a good one. But I also know that every time walls are washed, painter’s tape applied, and gallon buckets opened a new opportunity emerges. I don’t know if it’s just the brighter and cleaner reality that a few hours of work ushers in, or if it’s the closer look at a living space necessary to get it done that matters most. Taken together, they open up the possibility to fall in love with the same old four walls I’ve barely noticed for years.
It’s been years since I’ve painted anything larger than a bedroom closet in my own home. But I’ve noticed lately that the bathroom ceiling above the shower has a few dark marks, and there are smudges near the light switch. It might be time to pull out the tarps, tape around the fixtures, and change this room through sweat, intention, and careful attention to detail. I just may get a glimpse of the grace I so often overlook – a place to call home, and the lovely way it holds everyone who lives here.
Thanks, Mom, for all the rooms and all the life you gave me within them. Thanks, Charna, for being my painting partner and lifelong sister and friend. I’m so glad I got to paint with you.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
Psalm 126, NRSV
I’ve never seen it in real life, but I’ve seen it dozens of times in movies and television shows: a New Orleans funeral procession. Musicians play a dirge, giving mourners a slow beat as they walk with the casket, heading for burial. Through streets they go, their grief on display for everyone – a bartender heading to work, a mother pushing a stroller, the tourist taking selfies and some kids with their homework. Grief cuts through all of them, keeping its own graveyard appointment. Memento Mori.
But the way back is something else. When the casket is lowered and the last prayers said, the band picks up the tempo. Those who buried a friend or relative leave the mournful music behind, dancing back to life with exuberance and joy. Those who went out weeping come home with shouts of joy, just like the psalmist said. The fruits of mourning and loss are joy and a renewed appreciation for life: the seeds of loss become the sheaves that nourish and enrich life. It’s Psalm 126, it’s the hope of resurrection, it’s an acceptance and release of death set to music, walking down a street.
The older I get, the more I like the idea of this kind of funeral. There’s no denying the loss – everyone sees it and no one attempts to keep it private. Grief walks every street in every city: New Orleans is just more honest about it. On the other side of the grave is a street celebration of life with drums and horns to get everyone moving back into life. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen? Accept the loss, share your grief, let it go, return to the land of the living in joy.
It’s an old pattern and a modern one, found in two thousand year old psalms and New Orleans funeral processions and Irish wakes. Mourn, let it go, return to life a bit wiser and a bit more joyful. It’s a holy pattern, one of the gifts of faith from a God who wants even our greatest losses to end in jubilation. May I have the strength, courage, and wisdom to follow it.
The Blind Boy of Alabama, Uncloudy Day, Down in New Orleans, 2008 Available on iTunes
I’ve seen several car accidents in the past seven days. Last Thursday: A high school driver and a minivan crashed at a four-way stop, a sedan side-swiped turning left onto a busy road, and a truck running through a red and into a four door Corolla. Last Friday: two SUV’s crumpled on the side of I495 and a dump truck rear-ended on Main Street in Carver. Tuesday: three police cruisers, an ambulance and a firetruck tending to the drivers and passengers of two wrecked vehicles in front of Carver’s Rockland Trust. Miraculously, no one involved was seriously injured. In fact, only one person out of all the crashes required assistance to get out of a car. Thank God for the life-saving automotive technology!
During this past week, in the same areas as these accidents, I’ve been passed in a double yellow zone by drivers frustrated by the reduced speed in school zones and thickly settled areas. A woman in the car behind me beeped and flipped me off for not turning left into oncoming traffic. A pick-up truck driver laid on the horn because I yielded to oncoming traffic at the end of an off-ramp. Fortunately, none of these ended in dented fenders.
I understand that people are in a rush, and that life pace pushes drivers to take risks they might avoid if they weren’t constantly hurrying. Passing all those crashes, I wondered how many of the drivers and passengers in the other cars paused long enough in their busyness to be thankful for the lives of strangers that weren’t lost – and for their own good fortune to be observing an accident rather than in one. I also wondered how many accidents I’ve passed in my lifetime that didn’t register more than a passing glance. I suspect the number is higher than it should be.
Today, I’ll drive to Plymouth for a weekly Bible study and carpool pick-up. I hope I can remember that the slow cars and the speeding cars, the beeping horns and squealing brakes are not inanimate annoyances – they are the carriers of God’s beloved children. May I have a grateful enough spirit to value each life without needing the reminder of roadside wrecks.
There’s a turn-of-the-century Cape on the corner of Gibbs and Bodfish. New people moved in a couple of years back, writing the latest chapter of the house’s biography. They’ve cleared out the scrubby bushes, repainted the trim, and laid new garden beds to the left of the driveway. It’s one of my favorite homes in town, and I enjoy seeing how it changes with the seasons – Spring crocuses, Summer hydrangea and tomatoes, Autumn pumpkins and trick-or-treat candy, Winter wreath and twinkling lights. But today, something I’d never seen before lay before me: a stone walkway connecting the front steps to the sidewalk.
The stones in the path are old, irregular in shape, varied in color and kind. They are large, well worn, and have been submerged in grass for at least as long as I’ve been living here. Someone stripped away the grass and dirt to reveal what was hidden underneath – an old path that was lost has been reborn, restoring a way for neighbors to reach the house and owners to visit neighbors.
I wonder how the owners found it. Did they see a stone or two in the grass and realize they were visible parts of a much larger but hidden design? Did they have old photos of the house that showed the walkway? Short of knocking on the door and asking, I’ll never know. I do know that it took a lot of work to restore that walkway, and an appreciation of the work that went in to laying it in the first place.
I’m writing curriculum this week for a Sunday morning high school class, delving into sacred stories, creeds, and prayers. Seeing that beautiful, old walkway rediscovered and restored gave me a new way of seeing my own work. The history, theology, prayer practices, and stories of faith provide a solid path from our faith home to the faith homes of our neighbors. It’s an ancient road, and I had no hand in its creation. But it is my privilege to do my part to uncover it, clearing the path that connects neighbor to neighbor.
For more in this series, check out “Retracing My Steps.”