Notes from a Pastor

June 5th, 2013

“Behold, I send an Angel before you, to guard you on the way,
and to bring you to the place which I have prepared.”
-Exodus 23:20

Most of us have walked and talked with angels, although we rarely notice them until later.  It is like all life—nearly impossible to see the patterns we are part of while we are in the middle of them.  It is not until later that we can look back and see them clearly.  And in that way also, we often come to realize that, as the Bible says we will, we have “entertained angels unaware.”

The presence of angels in our lives comes under the category of “mystery” to me.   I can’t really explain it, although I both have experience with angels and a willingness to believe what I cannot explain (sometimes….). For me, this is an example of how we can only really explain the little things.  Like for example, some people–although not me– could explain perfectly how my computer can send a picture or a letter across the world when I only know how to type or take a picture and have no idea at all how the computer does the rest.  That is one of the really big things, like electricity itself, we can’t explain.  No one really knows exactly what it is or where it comes from or how it came into being in the first place. (My son David and I argue about things like this because he says most people understand what electricity is and how it works to light a room or power a computer.  But that is neither here nor there to me.  I do not understand it and so it works for me as a perfectly good example of what I mean by “mystery”!)

I think all the really important things in life are mysteries.  Life itself is a mystery.  We can reproduce it but we cannot create it.  Courage is a mystery and so is a sense of humor.  Love is a mystery and so are grief and kindness.  The fact that all the really important things are mysteries makes me absolutely sure that God IS and that we are connected to God and to all of life whether we know it or not.  I am also completely convinced that almost all of us, on some level, know it, or once knew it, when we were children.  The feeling of Joy that swells in my heart for no apparent reason sometimes–from a glimpse of a rainbow or a sunset or the giggle of a child– is in itself proof to me that there is something bigger than we are surrounding us, both OUT THERE–and also, in here, in our hearts.  We have all been moved to tears by an unexpected kindness or sudden compassion for someone else’s pain.  We have all trusted in Goodness at least once in our lives and have been more good than we intended to be in order not to disappoint someone who trusted us.  Music is another mystery that moves me–and many of us–so deeply that I know it speaks to our soul’s deep yearning for God.

And what about understanding?  What a mystery and a miracle that is!  Not just the amazing complexity of ideas expressed in language and transferred from brainwaves to sound waves from mouth to ears–that is decoding, and it is an astonishing physical and cognitive accomplishment!  But understanding of the mind and heart–that is a true mystery, a God-thing, as my young friend Bradley would say.

So, what if it is all true?  A true mystery that there is only one important commandment, one that holds within it all the others, to love each other as God loves us, “with all your soul and mind and heart and strength and to love your neighbor as you love yourself”.  What if by doing that we are planting Kingdom seeds, or if that language is too royal and paternalistic, that we are planting the garden of God’s domain here on earth. That God’s domain is real, and present among us when we seek it out by acting toward one another with lovingkindness and compassion and that courage that crosses barriers of difference between us to include everyone in life’s blessings.  What if it is true that we can ask and be shown the way, that we can knock and doors will open and we can seek the truth and find it and it will set us free to be whatever we were intended by God to be as long as we are motivated by the desire to become more and more the wonderful me, wonderful you and wonderful us we can possibly be….

We have nothing to gain by playing small, by being unwilling to risk, by being afraid of failure.  If it is true, God’s love and power are real and can move mountains.  If it is true, you are created in the image of God and are a child of power and light and love who can move mountains yourself with only the faith of a tiny mustard seed.  Anyone could whomp up that much faith!  If it is true, all things work for good for those who do love in this world, for doing love is the acting out of God’s plan for creation. It’s a mystery–but why not bet our lives on it?  Claim it as your own and see what happens?  Live as if Love were a verb, an action, a behavior…and not a noun!

In the last century—the mid-seventies–my husband and I and our five year old foster child Allie Little Light and our baby Jenni lived in the first group home for developmentally disabled adults ever established in Maryland–maybe anywhere.  All of the residents had been raised in Rosewood State Hospital and they ranged in age from 18 to 68.  It was a way cool job for a young family and we enjoyed ourselves very much, providing family stability and outrageous inclusive adventures to sixteen lovely residents and our own children.  We had a cook and a housekeeper and if I could have that job back right this minute I would snag it, because I never had it so good and I was only 21.

Our cook, Miss Mary King, was a black woman raised by grandparents who had been born slaves in Mississippi and she cooked supper for all those developmentally disabled clients because she had a nine year old grandson who was born with Down Syndrome and she wanted to help shape the community he would grow up in.  She used to work for her dream in the big kitchen of that group home, which we called Ridgewood…and her dreams were not about mainstreaming her grandson in school because that was still to come in the future, but about this nice home in a nice neighborhood where her grandson was welcome to come and play in the yard while she worked and where he might live some day instead of in a state hospital.

Miss Mary King used to sing a spiritual as she beat biscuits or stirred gravy for supper :  ‘”All night, all day, angels watchin’ over me My Lord…all night, all day angels watchin’ over me.”  Mary, like her Lord, had picked up her cross, and carried it not as a burden but as a gift of new life. She carried her love for her grandson just as she carried him, nine years old and with legs too weak to hold him, on her back. She thought of him as a strong young tree, not a heavy cross, and she wanted to plant him and all other suffering children, there in the yard at Ridgewood, to grow and bloom and take their place in the community of those who belonged in society and not put away for life in a state hospital.

While we were living there, our old car threw a rod.  I still don’t know what that means, lo these many years hence.  But I know it is a bad and expensive thing.  My husband suggested, since I had more varied job skills than he did, that I get an extra job so we could get it fixed.  The extra job I got was as a visiting home teacher for children too sick to attend school.  I took them their assignments and helped them do them, twice a week, while the residents were at their sheltered workshop and Allie was in school and Jenni played with her father.  Doing that, I made some extra money so we could get our car fixed.

One of my home-schooled sick children was Sarah. I first met an old man who lived on the third floor of one of those row houses they have in Baltimore, narrow and crammed side by side down each street, and once belonging to one family but then divided into three flats, one to a floor, in which lived three families.  The old man had a tree on his back, too.  He had a great granddaughter who had leukemia and who lived with him. He couldn’t carry her all the way up three flights of stairs—he was 86 and bent over with arthritis and she was nearly as tall as he was.  He made a game of their going up the stairs together, sitting down, easing up one step at a time, singing rhymes together.  They came down the same way. Only the two of them.  She was eleven years old and he adored her.  He knew she would probably die soon and knowing that was a cross that he tried to carry as if it were a strong young tree, full of life and hope.

Today childhood leukemia is one of the most curable of cancers, but then it was nearly always a death sentence.  My little brother had a brain tumor and so I felt his anguish very personally.

Sarah was a lovely girl and a brave one, and she studied hard so she could keep up with her class, which was important to her, and also, she assumed, to her great-grandfather, who was proud of her.  One day I went to their house and he was there alone.  “I wanted to tell you myself, Sarah died two days ago, in her sleep.”  He broke down then and cried and I put my arms around him and cried with him. I thought of how much he loved her and how lucky they were to have had each other and I worried about how lonely he would be now that she was gone. Three weeks later he called me on the telephone and asked if I would come see him at their regular time the next day.  He said he wanted to show me something.

When I arrived he was waiting downstairs for my car to pull up and he asked if he could get in and take me somewhere.  Puzzled but agreeable I reached over and unlocked the passenger door so he could climb in.  He directed me to another row house about three miles away.  I parked and we climbed to the second floor this time and he knocked on the door.  A child answered and her face lit up when she saw him.  “Great-grampa!” she exclaimed with delight.  “I was afraid you wouldn’t come anymore!”  It turned out that in this foster home near the hospital, five children in end-stage leukemia were being cared for by a foster mother who was also a licensed practical nurse.  Sarah and her grandfather had known all the children from the hospital and had come once a week to the house and brought treats for supper and games and puzzles and toys and an evening of good company.  We stayed and he was jolly and friendly and so very kind and gentle with the children.  As it got to be time to leave, one boy asked, “Are we all going to die like Sarah did?”  All five children were listening intently for his answer.

“Everybody dies,” the old man said.  “But a good life and a good death is one where people remember you afterwards and miss you and where your death matters because people learned something important from your life.  You children are all going to live good lives and have good deaths because the doctors are learning from you about this difficult disease and the seeds of learning you pass on to them in your lives will bloom and grow in so many other lives, until no children die any more from leukemia and that will be your seeds, blooming.  That is the best life and the best death anyone could hope for.  And I believe Sarah will be waiting for you when it is your time, to show you what the next adventure will be, because dying is only a doorway to something even more amazing than you could imagine.”

I have thought about that over the years. What he said to those children came true.  They all died soon, but few children, at least in this country, ever die of leukemia anymore, thanks to what was learned from those six children and hundreds like them. And we have closed the state hospitals that used to house disabled children.  Both Miss Mary King and Sarah and her grandfather helped change the world, at least in this country.

We all carry a tree on our back of one kind or another, don’t we:  a heavy burden from childhood or a mistake in early adulthood or a terrible loss or sorrow, a disease, a crippling affliction, an attitude problem stemming from a sense of terminal uniqueness that just won’t stop our sense of entitlement. Some suffer from oppression or abuse or post traumatic stress disorder from war or displacement from their homes or jobs.  Some from outrageous injustice, horrific poverty, loveless relationships. Everyone suffers over something.  Some people carry the weight of the cedars of Lebanon on their backs, stooping like the Caryatids under the burden.  Others seem just as bent over, but with only a bundle of dry twigs on their back. You can’t tell what kind of a weight people are carrying just by looking. Sometimes people cheerfully stride forth through life with a mighty oak draped across their back and seem eternally at ease and pleasant regardless.

Nevertheless, the burden may not just be laid down at will or at once or just because it is heavy.  The Teacher who said, Take up your cross and follow me knew it would become not a heavy burden but a growing path to new life.  For that to happen, we must find a way to plant the tree on our back, so that it springs forth into new life and becomes what the Lord of Trees intends it to be all along, a strong young tree.

Turning the deadwood of burden and pain into the new growth of a planted and living tree in God’s domain is how a new thing can spring forth, how God can use us to make rivers in the desert and a way through the wilderness.  We are all carrying God’s seeds and God’s trees, and a cross shared with Jesus that is meant to live, evergreen and everlasting, seeds of hope, trees that grow up strong and true and covered with new life. One day, when you go forth with joy, those trees of the fields, planted by lives, well lived and well-loved, will clap their hands to the songs the angels sing.  How do I know?  The Bible tells me so!

 Blessing and Benediction

Life and Death are both part of a Mystery we do not understand.  But we can see in a garden or by the sea, in the redwoods or in a starry night sky, that the Mystery has beauty and order.  May we live the Mystery, and love the Mystery, and be caught up and held secure in the Mystery, whose wisdom exceeds all human knowledge, whose ways surpass all understanding, whose blessing fills our lives with hope.  As we meet in holy conversation here today may we take peace with us, the deep peace of the oak and the redwood trees, of the running waves of the sea, of the gentle breeze, the quiet earth and the shining stars. May God’s Sacred Spirit of Love bless us and keep us in light and in love and in friendship and in peace, now and forevermore. Amen.

One Response to “Notes from a Pastor”

  1. synying says:

    I, too, have met angels, though, only looking back did I recognize them. Usually, I think, they wear human faces and we are blessed if we allow ourselves to be used by them.

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