Hope and a Future

December 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

Jeremiah 29:11

11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

The morning was still dark. I crawled deeper into the sanctuary of the blankets. I wasn’t ready. Little murky lists of undone things and must-be-done things nipped at me from within. Twisting away from one forced me to face another. Ten more minutes of unconsciousness, could it be had, would bolster me.

The familiar silhouette of my dearest one popped into the blue-gray path of my deeply smeared vision. Without glasses, the whole world looks like large, colored clots of wool. In the blue-grey haze, he was bouncing.

“Tiiiiiiiiime to get up!” My rooster had crowed. Beneath the blanket, this hen ruffled her feathers. “Not without coffee.”

This is a daily negotiation. Will he stay for less than five minutes without me while I go get milk and water for coffee? He never wants to stay. Often, it’s raining. In recent weeks, early mornings are cold. We negotiate. We Skype.

Frost glittered at my elbows as I walked the familiar path to the big house. The forecast said rain/snow mix. I didn’t hold out hope of real snow. My little one’s face bobbed in front of the camera. “Mama? Mama? Hi! Where are you!”  I watch him like he’s a miracle. He’s a miracle. I put love in my gas tank, which could still use some coffee. I can make this day o.k.

Back from the frosted tufts of Kris’s backyard, coffee began. We hunkered down inside, filling our atmosphere with warmth. Christmas lights strung over our window twinkled on the milky surface of our cups. I prayed to let a little of that sparkle shine out from within, and I reached for my sewing box.

Energy sparked as craft supplies covered the bed. J has always loved my sewing box. Careful hands examined one needle at a time as I handed him the ones he requested. A tiny finger touched each tip, “Ow!” or “Not too bad!” often came back to me. Finally, we found the round tipped yarn needle, and he got to work.

With an unused Christmas card, a crop-a-dile, and some yarn, we created a hanging for our front door. (In the Episcopal Church, you celebrate Christmas for 12 days, until Epiphany. Making Christmas decorations and cookies, singing Christmas songs, and all other Christmas-y stuff is still on.) The bottom of the card said, “Happy Holidays”. He insisted I cut it off, but not damage it.

“We’ll hang this up, too!” he said. That way everyone will know we are holiday people!”

He thrilled at the feel of punching the holes, of passing the long, slick needle through hole after hole. Together, a new thing came to life. “This is fun!” he cried. I let myself enjoy a small moment of success.

When it was done, he was ready to hang it. “Put it right out front! Let everybody know!”  I opened the door and froze. It was snowing. It seemed it might even be sticking. “Babe, let’s go for a walk.”

He was ready. He wanted to shovel. I couldn’t find his shovel (I am afraid we left it at Saint Ann’s). He wanted to eat snow. I put a bowl outside to catch some for our return. “Around the block…” I told myself. I didn’t want to be cold. I didn’t want to be wet; but it doesn’t snow in this part of Washington; we had to go out.

The snow was over an inch thick by the time we left. I forgot that I wanted to stay home. I was warm in my coat and everything was pretty. The boy practically leapt as he collected the energy of nature. His bounce took on a skipping motion, and his arms swung in a rhythm that paid it compliment. Handfuls of wet, perfect snow compressed and flew, polka-dotting our coats with celebration. We laughed. We played.

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I found a semi-sanitary row of parking barriers, one where cars never actually park. I scooped up snow. Lost in the white sky was the expulsion of a nearby paper mill. It snows once a year in Washington. One taste…

I ate it. Crisp and clean, it tasted like good water. “Can I?!?!?” The bounce, with the strength of snowflakes, became a vault.

“Here comes Susie Snowflake,
dressed in a snow-white gown,
tap tap tapping at your window pane
to tell you she’s in town!”

I sang without shame in the streets; but that is how I usually do it. Lacking some kind of natural barriers, I am a natural at making myself the fool. Still, singing is more joyful than composure, so I sang.

“If you want to build a snowman
I’ll help you make one one-tw0-three!
If you want to take a sleigh ride,
the ride’s on me!”

As we came to a corner, we saw a family playing. A mother, father, young girl and tiny boy scooped snow as they talked. “Look!” I cried, “People! Let’s go talk to them!”.

At the same time I said it, I felt regret. Over exuberant public singing is one thing. Rejection sucks; but I’m perpetually self-conscious and perpetually hopeful.

J turned to me, “Can I go, Mama??”

“Of course!” I told him, “Go!”

My ambassador blazed the trail while I measured. The sad little girl in me had a different pace, even as my heart ran ahead. Were we going to be o.k.?

With each snowball, I studied the faces of our accidental friends. Slowly, conversation began. Soon, we were cooperating to build not one, but two snow people out of the Washington snow. So precious and rare, we would elevate it even higher through a community of laborers.

The little girl and I started first. “I am so glad you came here today,” this six-year-old told me. “You need to give us your phone number so we can play, again.”

My heart jumped up. I looked at the mother. She wasn’t frowning! A tiny trill, like the rise of a flute, lit inside me. Friends?

Soon, our activities crisscrossed the yard, lifted on the sweet buoyancy of fellowship. The mother and I touched minds, and hearts soon followed. We shared so many of the same values. Small children, like magical sprites leapt around us. “Children are a gift!” I offered. “If only more people realized that!” echoed my new friend. A bond was budding.

The little girl, Abby, and I rolled like we meant it. “Yours is bigger than mine,” she lamented. “I don’t want the biggest one,” I told her. “I only want to be a part.” Together we constructed not one, but two snow people. “We should make them kissing,” she said.

As time took itself back, bit by bit, Abby continued to extend and invite. We had already been invited for numerous meals and play-dates when she said, “Do you want to come in and eat? My dad will cook for you.”

In her tiny face shone the love of Christ; and most especially, the Christ of Christmas. In the fresh and fragile essence of a babe came the message of something new. It came as a child, delicate as a child, without rigidness, without ferocity, without pomp. A humble hand, a tiny hand, reached for us. In the gesture, a simple invitation: Love.

I leaned over and I rolled. I heard her father cry out, “It was your idea, and now you are not doing the work!” I answered back, “I don’t mind!” I finished the sentence in my mind, “I love to serve.” I served the purpose of joy. I served the purpose of fellowship, I served the purpose of love.

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After over an hour, it was clear my babe and I weren’t prepared for the snow. The yard’s bounty of white had been smashed, rolled and thrown almost to it’s own end. “Ow!” cried my boy, and a shocking, sock-less foot slipped out of his boot. It’s as if his toes have built in sock ejectors. I can’t keep them on. I was horrified as I surveyed the pink, sock-less toes.

Within moments, our new mama friend, Emily, had a solution. She had shoes, and dry socks, ready to share. I looked toward her and opened to to God. With a nod, she was holding his feet.

Bent over him, she slipped on warm purple socks and small sneakers as I stood back and watched. In the bend of her head I saw our own Mary. From our conversations, her essence was more radiant than snow. She was a sister, serving in love. I rested in the unexpected love of the day. The Spirit was alive. The Spirit was carrying us.

I woke up so tired. I didn’t want to go one step. As life’s requirements propelled me as our God of Love took my hand. Like a relay runner, I grabbed the baton. Later, with a snowy glove, I passed it.

When we got home we were soaked and tired, but we glowed with promise and peace. New friends! Abby promised us a play date. A new life! God promises peace. In the bliss of God’s own sanctuary, we celebrate it all.

Amen.

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Richie Mylar, Let Your Gentleness Be Known

December 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Richie Mylar (Richard E. Mylar) sat across from me in the fourth grade. In our odd, round, experimental school house, rooms had open fronts. In those rooms, we were often clumped as grouped desks or tables that divided us into 3′s or 4′s. In my and Richie’s case, we were two.

To me, Richie seemed a wild animal. He pressed towards me across the table on his forearms, fists made into balls. “I’m going to kill your mother,” he told me. “And your cat. With my .22.” His sea-blue eyes cut the air between us. Unattended red hair spiked from his head in dull tufts. No one had combed it. No one had cared for his clothes. How did this boy even make it to school?

From across the table, I saw a boy’s face. It was hungry, dirty and full of rage. Even to my young eyes it was clear: no one was caring for this child. My world was soft. The difference terrified me. Day after day, he leaned into me to describe his plans. The stress wore me down. Finally, I told my mother.

My mother entered that classroom like the blade of a knife. Her eyes burned a path as she headed for Richie. Moving sideways on her crutches through an isle of desks and tables, her target was clear. Richie had made a terrible mistake. He had entered a grizzly’s den.

Of course, I had no idea what happened between them. I only knew the sight of my own mother frightened even me as she maneuvered down that isle. When I turned to see her coming, I was scorched to the gut by the burn of her fixed eye. She spoke directly to Richie, and then escorted him away.

After, there was a sudden peace. Richie didn’t pick on me anymore. He didn’t even behave strangely toward me. It was just over. For the rest of our school years, Richie raised a friendly arm to me and met me with a genuine smile. In fact, I shortly grew to like him, and he me. Nothing had changed in his hard life, but he brought no grief to mine. He was a friend, though distant, and he offered real warmth.

Actually, the incident in fourth grade was an isolated one. The year before he had made the friendly offer to share some crawdads. Secreted under his third grade desk was a pot borrowed from his home kitchen. In it were countless crawdads that he had caught. He whispered to me about the various colors and sizes he’d discovered. His little scientist marveled at their differences, displaying them with pride. I took home three, a gift from Richie.

My senior year was irregular. Forced to change schools for twelfth grade, I was separated from Richie, and the rest of my class. At the end of our senior year, luck crossed our paths for one last moment before we thrust ourselves into the world.  In a gas station in Paden City, suddenly, he was next to me. His sea-blue eyes hung on a backdrop of red, and his smile was ready for me, along with a hug.

“You know, I still have nightmares about your mother!” he said. “I dream about her coming after me with those crutches!” I looked into his face and swam with worry. “Richie, please, take care of yourself. Stay away from drinking. Stay away from drugs.” I don’t remember the content of his response; but it was delivered with a hug, a shrug and a blessing as we drifted apart and into the world.

I worried so much about what would happen to Richie. Alcohol and drugs are common ways that young people self-medicate when their lives are full of fear and pain. It often leads to addiction. To me, he was the neglected boy from fourth grade. A fragile child had been brutalized, and then abandoned at the edge of life’s road. What kind of miracle would life demand from this one? Never taught the skills of life, how does one survive?

Whenever I talked to someone back home, I asked about Richie. When I got news, it was never good. Richie struggled with drugs, sometimes stole to support his habit, sometimes shared a stash for the very same reason. Everything about him was defined by the degree of trouble he was in. Never violent, never cruel, Richie’s path was more painful for him than anyone else; yet, the neglected child that grew into this man was forgotten. Now, he was just a villain.

In 2007, I was running for my life. More than for me, I was running for the lives of my boys. Arthur and Erik were stirring inside me, and I wanted safety more than anything on earth. Back in West Virginia, my rattled nerves reverberated off of the tight gaps in the hills. I kept my hand to my stomach, soothed my babes, and held on. I hoped to see Richie; but I didn’t.

Life plucked those children from me, one by one. From deep in my grief, I reached up with a desperate hope. I created J. From abuse, to NICU life, to grief, to new motherhood, to grief, to expectant motherhood, again: I felt so broken. I was happily pregnant, but I was worn.

My feet rocked against wooden floor of the TruValue Hardware Store in Paden City, where my aunt worked. My pregnant belly was robed in checkers as my worried eyes darted around the room. Abuse had made me cagey, while motherhood had made me calm. In the middle of my half relaxed, half tensed state, Richie walked in.

I froze, and I gaped. “Are you Richie Mylar!?”

His smile awoke like a flower. His voice, husky with time, said my name. I started to cry.

I cried as he hugged me. I saw that young boy. I saw his dull, red hair clumped over his eyes. I heard all the rumors and relived the articles from the paper. Sweet Richie. Look what life had done.

He gave me his phone number, but late pregnancy and new motherhood filled up my world. When I went to look for Richie, he was gone.

An article in the Tylar Star News from December of 2008 describes his sentencing hearing. Richie was going back to prison for attempted breaking and entering. It wasn’t until after he was gone that I heard. His brother happened to become my neighbor. He told me where to send a letter.

When I heard Richie was coming home, I sent word with his brother. “Stop and see us!”  He never did. I wasn’t surprised. I know how hectic life can get. Still, I worried.

Then, last Christmas, I ran into him in the store. “Erika!” his sea-blue eyes fell right on me. I felt a full, round touch on my soul. We touched shoulders and gripped forearms as we spoke, exchanging bits of news and our personal lives. “Have you been working?” he asked me.

When I told him no, there was a break in our chatter. Richie reached for his wallet, without pause.

“Merry Christmas, Erika,” he said, pressing money into my hand.

I protested, but Richie would not take it back. It was fifteen dollars. There was little green left in the brown leather folds of his wallet after he gave it to me. “No,” he said. “Please.”

In life’s shuffle, five of those dollars were spent. The other ten stays folded in my wallet, just as he handed it to me. I won’t spend it. This is a reminder of a gift. It is a reminder of the touch of Christ that came to me through Richie Mylar, and a tie back to our beloved friend.

I heard recently that Richie is back in jail, this time, for selling prescription drugs. I looked up the article in the Wetzel Chronicle. The accompanying photograph made me snort out a bitter laugh. A bit of money was spread around to look like a lot. A few pipes for smoking marijuana were pictured, along with a small bag of weed. There were also five pill bottles. Richie did have legitimate prescriptions for some things. I know friends with far more bottles than he. What I saw in that picture was an addict’s stash, and a few pills slung to maintain it. This man needed compassion, love, treatment and life skills, not more wasted time in jail.

After searching the internet, I found an article about his 2008 arrest. He was worried about returning to jail because the last time he was incarcerated they had denied him his cancer medication. When I read that, I burst into tears.

Tonight, I talked with a friend of Richie’s son. She told me about Richie from her perspective. With the skills that come only from the heart, he had loved his boy. Even if he didn’t always know how to be the perfect father, he was a father. He was present with love. That was more than Richie had ever known, but he had found a way to give it.

This Christmas, Richie will be in jail. How many Christmases has he spent there? What were his Christmases like as a child? How many tiny ones are following in his footsteps, right now?

In Richie’s hometown, they seem to revel in maligning him. Where he came from is a thing of the past. He is, as he has always been, an easy target. Yet, let’s think about Jesus for a minute. What kind of people did Jesus hang around with? What seed of goodness did he see in their hearts?

When I am feeling all out of hope, I take out that ten dollar bill. I see Richie’s face, and see the warmth of his eyes. In his act of love, he was lifted. A life like Richie’s is full of forgotten moments like that. Sometimes it’s a few crawdads, sometimes it’s a few dollars, but every time it comes from a place deep inside that he’s learned to tap on his own. It comes from a place that is pure.

Please, this Christmas season, let’s remember Richie in our prayers.

And if you have a moment, please send him a hand written note to let him know he is not forgotten. GREETING CARDS ARE NOT ALLOWED BY THE JAIL

Richard E. Mylar
Northern Correctional Facility
RD 2 Box 1
Moundsville, WV 26041

 

Luke 23:32-43

32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[a] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”

36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[b]

43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

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Summer is Near

December 12, 2012 in Uncategorized

Luke 21:29-38

29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

In our wet, northern pacific world, the only thing sprouting is moss. Spongy, green pads grow on trees, benches, stones–even replace lawns–in the abundant presence of Washington’s heavenly dew. It doesn’t rain every second, but it is always wet. This new climate is the backdrop for our every excursion.

At 52°, with a persistent drizzle, we darted out under the heavy Washington sky. Today, I was on Mission Arica. Arica has no phone, so it’s hard to keep in touch. The episodes of life have woven a web between us, but I’ve been looking for the path through it for a while.

Today, the drops finally opened onto the smiling face of our friend, Arica. A corridor opened in traffic as we approached the cross walk (according to Washington law), and we ran towards our friend, who we could see through the store window. I called her name even as we ran. Her bent head raised to meet us, and a smile raced across her face.

The motion of the wet world behind us resumed as we jingled the bells of her door. Arica stood, polishing a dainty for display. “Erika! Juice! Where have you been?!” her whole face radiated with her genuine warmth. I ran toward it. I threw my arms around her and felt relief rush in. I had wanted to make contact with her so badly. I wanted her to know how glad I am that we are friends, and how much we enjoyed Thanksgiving. But Life, you are a complicated conspiracy set against my own designs! Still, today, I defeated you; Arica was mine.

She had lost my contact information. She said we were M.I.A. All of her friends had been asking about us. There was a birthday party to which J was invited. How were we going to do Christmas? From a damp, cold rain we took a place by the fire. We looked for a place to settle in and catch up. Since the kid wanted to see toys, we headed to the rear.

As we headed back, I noticed she was limping. I asked her about it. It took several minutes to untangle the tale of her ongoing foot problems and lack of insurance. She was working hard, an active participant in moving her life forward; yet, she wouldn’t take off a day to get treatment for herself because she couldn’t afford either the loss of pay or the medical treatment. I felt a hot crackle inside. That is not justice. There was a time when she would have qualified for some kind of assistance, but those days are gone. What has been spared at the expense of this working, single mother-of-three who can barely walk?

Once we found a place in the back, Arica found a chair. With a bin of Barbies to the right and a bin of clothes and accessories to the left, she sought to create gifts that anyone’s child might enjoy. On the right was a bin of well-worn dolls with hair too matted to comb–most with all their hands and limbs. On the left sat a bin of mismatched  clothes and accessories.

I volunteered to help. I couldn’t stand and chit-chat while Arica sorted through those bins.

“I like to be useful,” I told her.

Arica set her warm face on me. “That’s what you said at Thanksgiving,”

I started brushing Barbies. As I passed the brush through one frazzled head-of-hair after the other, my heart broke. People were not donating, giving something of themselves. In too many cases, they were dumping garbage. This is what our culture thinks of the poor.

When I collected donations for the reservation there were very strict rules. If things were not new they needed to be in like-new condition. If you would not accept it for your child, don’t donate it: simply put. Still, there is not one toy in that shop that isn’t broken or missing pieces.

We have spent a lot of time in that shop, watching little ones pick over the bones. As you watch these little hollow faces meander, questions come up. When parents are deprived, it is only these who suffer? Poverty breaks in on every level, and affects us as a culture on every level. As long as some of us are without, none of us is really whole.

Some of the Barbies needed haircuts. I brushed and cut doll hair like i was a kid again. I thought of each little girl who might hold that doll. And we talked. A lot had happened, and yet all was the same. Still, I gave her mine and she gave me hers.

At Thanksgiving, I had promised to teach her the delicious art of pie crust. She said she had blueberries. Before long, we were making plans. On Saturday, I will show a beautiful young woman how to make homemade pie-crust.

I don’t think either of us has a rolling pin. I made pie-dough for Thanksgiving with a can of Pam. We’ll work it out.

Something is in the air. Our adjustment here has not been easy, but hands are reaching out. Some are near, and some are far. From across the miles, hands touch us. Friendships continue to grow as we reach forward together, in faith. God is assembling a family.

Like lights coming on in a darkened house, the faces of friends light the way. As each branch rises to make us stumble, a hand reaches out to catch our fall.

Leaves are spouting.

Can you smell it?

In the air, there is spring.

 

 

 

The Labor of Love

December 5, 2012 in Uncategorized

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12

Instead, we were like young children[a] among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

Check out the words of Paul. He gives us a window into the disciples’ way of spreading the Good News of Christ. They go in with a message. Following the guidance of Jesus, they approach like servants, delivering that message with both word and action.

Imagine the Thessalonians, hearing the values Jesus espoused for the first time. As Paul enters to teach he rolls up his sleeves to work. Caring for others, contributing to others’ work, they worked and sweated together as Paul shared the message. He shared it in words, and he shared it in actions. Give more than you take. Broaden the family. Try love, says Jesus. Open sesame.

People are looking for this kind of open-armed embrace. People with a loving core reach out for love; but too many find closed doors. Through the log in the eye comes a chant from the inner circle: “Get clean, get clean, get clean.” But it’s more about adhering to culture than to ethics. “Get in line, get in line, get in line” seems to be the actual message.

Hey, Episcopal Church: I’m about to praise you, again. In the seeds of The Church rests a radical message; and I do see it described each week. In practice, the Episcopal Church is open-minded, curiousity driven and respectful. A range of beliefs exists within; and no argument need take place nor exact point be agreed upon. It is justice, peace, love and equality that define it all.

This weekend, we had the chance to attend the Light-Up Night Christmas Parade. Unprepared for a Washington parade, we had no umbrella. We darted from leafless tree to leafless tree, leaving a trail of lukewarm hot chocolate. Finding a prime piece of curb, we stopped. It seemed wrong to stand openly in the rain, but there was no other option. Huddled in the chilly dark, we listened for a far off cadence of a marching band.

A couple stood to the right of us, a young man to our rear. My boy, in typical open love, started a conversation with the young man. The young man’s shy, loving eyes glanced from my babe to me. A space of kindness and understanding was created between us and my boy slipped right in.

His name was Grant, a teenager, a satellite of his friend’s parents. The edges our of experiences crossed at the curb. My son asked boldly for a share of Grant’s umbrella. Grant lowered it with a tender smile, and stood in the rain. I ceased to wait for the parade. I had found something else to watch.

I didn’t let Grant stand in the rain. I got him to raise the umbrella and urged my sweet one to stand closer to him. The three of us continued to fellowship in the wet night as we waited.

It was almost a taste of Glenwood in those few shared moments. We touched on justice. We touched on the needs of our fragile earth. We exchanged small bits of concern and messages of kindness, beads strung together on the thin band of time that stretched itself from our tiny, new community to the distant start of the parade. Like jewels, they hung in the wet and in the dark; and they glittered, with love and with hope. Every young, conscious mind is a hope for tomorrow.

“Walk in love, as Christ loves us” they tell us in church. You say it over and over until it’s meaning fades away. Brought sharply back to the words “walk in love” the world takes on a new shape when we look around.

On our way to the parade, I passed a woman playing air guitar on a large, guitar-shaped cardboard imprinted with the image of a pizza. My first reaction was amusement, but it didn’t last. It was raining. The woman was easily in her early fifties. She was standing in the rain, playing air guitar on a cardboard pizza. What was this woman’s life like? What was it like to earn your living by humiliating yourself in the rain?

Some of you may think my question is poorly thought out, or inappropriate. “Hey, in today’s economy, she’s lucky to have a job!”  The point can be taken well enough. I don’t have one. My daily searches have, as yet, been fruitless. My efforts to sell my own work are a struggle. Still, I’ve been in her shoes. From her point of view, it’s probably hard to feel lucky.

A few years ago, I escaped from a maniac. After living for over a year as a prisoner on a remote farm, I was cautiously free. I had no money, and no work. He had taken everything. My job of over nine years had ended because of him. My car, just paid off, he destroyed. My radical feminism and insistent independence was kicked, punched, raped and strangled away. My thin legs were poor crutches for the load that I bore.

Have you ever heard of Liberty Tax? They do a promotional gimmick at tax time. They hire people to dress up like the Statue of Liberty and dance at the side of the road. I took that job.

When I went in to try on the costumes, a problem arose. My abuser had worked me very hard. He had fed me very little. Around my bones I wrapped yards of cloth that dragged on the very near ground. Being winter, after I layered up with five layers of sweat clothes, I was ready for the rainless, Arkansas cold. At 40 years old, I stepped to the curb dressed like a statue, nearly as lifeless, down to my core.

I danced. With earphones in my ears, I danced on the side of the highway. Often, there were tears running down my face. I laughed into the traffic. My laughs ricocheted within the cavern of my being, looking for a seat. From inside, I listened to my voice and I watched my face. I was radiant. Inside, I was an animal fresh from a cage. I broken, beaten and raped, odd green rags hung from my bones beneath a foam headdress. I was lucky to have a job.

After a few small checks, it was done. Soon my sons would start to grow and I would have to run. To all those people who passed me on the road, I was forgotten. My family was within me, and we were moving on.

That night at the parade, we cheered and we screamed. We scrambled for candy (most of which would not be eaten) and exclaimed at the animals, music, cars and lights. As we did, our eyes would flash at Grant, our partner in the glittering spectacle out in the rain. A momentary bond of peace, love and kindness was forged.

Grant’s kind face was an opening. I treasure it when I find them. There are moments, small windows, that we slip into as we travel through life. In this town, they are few. That makes people like Grant all the more precious as we look for purchase on uncertain ground.

Today was my birthday. My babe and I celebrated by making a cake in the crock pot like we did for our friend, Kris. When he asked to lick the bowl, I set few limits. His clothes and body were soon covered as I watched through the thin veil of adulthood. I reach towards his joy.

We are not finding this coast as open as we hoped. Experiences like those with Grant are very precious. Sadly, people often turn their backs to us, even ignore my boy when he tries to speak to them. Yet I know, difficult as it is, in this experience lies an important message from God. I listen for it, and I wait.

Today was also the Feast of Saint Nicholas. We celebrated with other people from our church. The boy and I volunteered to help. We showed up early to sort and position ornaments for the tree. In fellowship, I worked along side Buddy and Stephen as we laid the foundations for the children’s’ decorating bonanza.

Balls rolled, glass broke, and my sweet one ran for the dust pan, each time. At the end, we were full, tired, laden with crafts, and ready for bed. A few from our new church family let us know we were missed on Sunday. “We were worried!” we heard from several congregants. A small warmth slipped in against the cold.

A few arms pressed tighter. Their gentle pressure released my ready tears. We don’t feel welcome in this town, but we are rolling up our sleeves. With a message, and with a mission, we come offering our all. We are ready to work. Will you have us? Only time will tell.

 

Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Castle Rock, Washington

December 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

Isaiah 1:11-20

11 “The multitude of your sacrifices—
    what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
    of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
    in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
    who has asked this of you,
    this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
    Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
    I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
    I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
    I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
    I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
    Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
    stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,”
    says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
    they shall be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
    you will eat the good things of the land;
20 but if you resist and rebel,
    you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

This Sunday, we decided to shake things up a bit. The longing for the road has not left us and we wanted to start experiencing some of the area’s other Episcopal Churches. We threw a dart at Saint Matthew’s in Castle Rock, and then took to the road.

Movement, on any morning, offers me a challenge. A pot of hot coffee used to motivate me; but I am finding it harder and harder to rise from the bed. A groggy awakening led to bins of clothes rapidly slid and coffee rapidly slurped. Cups full of fruit and granola passed hands between refills of milk, with probably one milky latte making its way into the mix. Fueled and fed, our ready souls were ferried towards the door.

I couldn’t believe how great the road felt. When my wheels hit the interstate, my back let out slack. We were moving. This was more like it. Finances have us grounded, but movement is our natural state. Volcanic mountains rose and fell to my sweet one’s cries of delight. A moist, foggy morning enclosed us as Washington offered its all. Freedom.

A sudden exit, a snail’s shell spiral of turns, and our bumper faced a small, modern grey building with two unassuming red doors. My emotions went through possible experiences within like an animated flip-book. Whatever waited on the other side of that door, I was ready.

A single woman in a white robe sat at the lectern. The wood-paneled walls enclosed a small, modern space that was just beginning to respond to its heaters. From her bent position, her smiling face rose. “Welcome! We’re so glad to have you! We gather in the back before services. You’re welcome to join them.”

I turned my neck to look behind me. A small group of friends sat in front of coffee at a communal table. Already a woman was approaching, arms open wide. “Hi!” she offered. “Come on back. We do have Sunday School, if you’re interested.” There were no other kids, and my babe always stays in services, but her words shaped a funnel through which I willing spun. I fell down, down into Saint Matthew’s embrace.

“My boy loves to be in church,” I told her. “He won’t miss communion.”

I only saw a moment’s dip in her enthusiasm. “No commune today. Our priest is away, so it’s morning prayer.” Nonetheless, the open faces and hands all around us fed that communal need. With the tiny fray, we were swept into the nave.

Including us, there were 11 congregants. I grinned like a school girl at a summer dance. Eyes flicked our way continually, full of round, rich smiles and genuine love. Not one eye turned away from us as we followed along doing the Episcopalian Book Shuffle. It was like coming home.

My boy was dying to know about the bell. From behind a small electric organ, the organist was ringing a bell with a full, long, lifting tone. My boy wanted to see it. As we greeted one another during The Peace, he asked to see the bell. The kind organist, Ken, in his jacket and t-shirt, lifted a meditation bowl and wooden striker. Gently he touched the bowl and an unavoidable “Om” rose out. My boy asked to touch the bowl to stop the sound, just in play. I heard a woman say, “Ken likes to let the sound ring out.”

As The Peace was ending, my boy ran back to me. The tone of the meditation bowl was still fading as he hung a sharp left. His toe caught, and he was sailing forward. The sound of wood on flesh broke my chest in two. I scooped him off the floor before his stunned reaction could sink in. His forehead was nearly split and the goose egg rose as I watched.

Brokenhearted cries filled the church. Songs were sung and prayers made as he wept into my chest on the bench. In each pained tear sat a seed of frustration, hurt, or a hope denied. The stress of our travels and our new adjustments all joined his mournful throbs as they sang out a chorus of grief and sorrow. I rocked and rocked, and I prayed and prayed. Lord guide us into a better future, and shape me into a better mother.

As the service ended, our Sunday School friend returned. There was a sandbox. Suddenly, a small window opened that led away from tears. The surrounding smell of foods materialized our plates. Each bite I ate was tinged with my sweet one’s well-worked sand.

“We’re a family!” Mary, one dear sister, offered. Her face shone with pride and love. It was all so different from our experiences in our new hometown. As we moved through its stores and streets, the people there made us invisible in a single glance. Behind us we left a community of loving friends. Here, when my boy approaches, most work hard not to hear his voice. At Saint Matthew’s, we were instantly a part of the family.

They listened as I shared our trip and the project around it. Eager eyes followed as I shared the history and beauty of some of the churches. Waiting laughter met our stories of fellowship, and of the road. Suddenly, I froze.

“WAIT!” I cried, with all urgency. “No one leave, yet!”

I ran through grey drizzle to the trunk of my car. In a tussle of unloaded cargo sat a paisley, pink bag. Within, the last of the chaplets from Saint John’s in Glenwood, Iowa. Treasures. I had been very careful with these last few.

I burst through the door with nine chaplets hugged to my chest. I blurted out the story as I spread them out on the table. “Erika!” Mary gasped, and I knew I had done the right thing to save them. Click. The fellowship of Jesus went right down to the heart.

Our Sunday School friend had clerical work to do. She invited my sweet one’s help, and he learned a lot about the printer. Soft eyes touched us and warm arms hugged us. My tattooed face was no different from any other in the room. In our fellowship, I felt the real presence of the Jesus’ own message.

Love. It’s such a hard concept, so hard to practice and so hard to feel. It’s all love. As soon as you think you’ve lowered yourself enough, you need to go a little more. Love. You see a face like mine coming? Look at the eyes. Look deeper, now lower yourself, and look further. Listen to the voice. Consider what it represents. Walk in Love.

People love to snip this passage from Isaiah.

18 …Though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;

We love the part where our yucky red sins turn white. Still, while we sit in comfort, look back. Before he offers forgiveness, the Lord sends out this call:

17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

Is that what we find in our churches? In the parish hall of Saint Matthew’s, Ken, the organist and ringer of the mediation bowl described a cathedral he’d visited in Washington. “They said they left the Cathedral so open so its spaces could fill with love.” From his kind eyes came nothing but.

Thank you, Saint Matthew’s. We’ll be back.

 

 

 

 

 

Like-Minded

December 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

Philippians 2:1-11

2 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Like-minded. Do nothing out of vain conceit; value others above yourselves. We know what Jesus was like here on the earth. Jesus was passionate about inclusion. Jesus was passionate about compassion, forgiveness, humility, generosity. Jesus traveled from place to place with empty pockets, depending on the generosity of others to sustain him and his companions. God would show them the way they should go. They lived, day to day, on love, fellowship and prayer.

With no property taxes or stock options or insurance, it was life on the brink. Jesus advised not to be invested in this world. Jesus said that if you love life in this awful place, it’s all yours. For those who hate it, you’re coming with me. Two will stand in a field and one will go *POOF*, just like that. Is it a literal poof or a figurative description of a complex idea? In the Episcopal Church, take your pick. That really helps me with these concepts.

I’m like those who clambered after the hem of his garment. I’m blubbering and frightened, desperate for a miracle. Not only does this world not attract, it terrifies. The words of so many Great Teachers are ignored and it’s countless fragile systems are bullied into the arms of destruction in which the unnatural stampedes.

Christianity is Jesus. Jesus was something new. Jesus was a radical who loved everyone, especially those nobody else loved. It wasn’t about who you were; it was about what you wanted and who you wanted to be. Values. Behaviors. The whole system is based on love. Who is ready to throw it all, throw it ALL, on love?

Christianity has more followers than any religion of the world. Why are we at war? Why are people hungry? Why do some have so much while others have nothing at all? We dominate the world. Why do the values of Christ not dominate?

This is one of the questions that kept me away from religion. At times, this question enraged me. I churned in the dark in bitter fear. My clutched hands twitched around the space in which I hoped to conjure the answer. Say it. Justify this horror and I will strangle you.

The Episcopal Church doesn’t justify it. When I ask my questions there, I often find peace. Like a thirsty animal who discovers a trickle, I lap and lap until I get my fill. I stay near. I know my thirst will return. When I stretch out my hands for communion my whole life waits within them; and that barest of  trickles runs down the back of my neck.

At the dark edges of fear, I knit myself to God. I hear the clear, bold instructions that come from the teachings of Jesus (and many others, I’ve found) and it brings me peace. Somewhere, someone is believing this. Behind my closed eyes I see sisters and brothers; I feel the touch of distant hands. I see a place where we nurture peace. Sustaining these visions is is not easy; but I know we’re in it together, and that helps.

A few days ago a letter came in the mail. Our friend, Hannah, was reaching out. Hannah, only 17, has lived her whole life in the Ohio Valley. The Ohio Valley can be a very protected, limiting way of growing up; but, somehow, in this silenced place, Hannah is pressing at its edges as she blooms.

In her letter, she shared a solo and impromptu human rights action that she originated. After observing six of her classmates chanting another student towards suicide, my shy Hannah was lifted by ire. Knowing that no actions would be taken against the aggressors, she addressed the injustice herself.

She stood in front of the lunchroom and requested its attention. With a small carton of milk in hand, she made a clear statement about the lack of follow-through on current bullying policies, and then ceremoniously poured the milk over the heads of the abusers. Trembling, in a world almost outside of herself, sweet Hannah was embraced with eruption of applause.

When the night is dark, it is lights like Hannah’s that shine. In a recent speech, Hannah raised challenging questions regarding the true equality and justice among people, and the corruption of current systems of justice and democracy. When I hear these ideas rising up from that narrow valley, I want to leap up with gratitude and celebration.

As a result of her errant behavior, Hannah is now head of an anti-bullying group in formation. There are a lot of exciting ideas fueling her life. As I read the folded pages describing her action, my nose receives a gentle cloud of her scent. The smell of rain and clouds, it’s the scent of a radical.

The other night, a text from her came through. Could I talk? With the babe asleep in the tiny house, I had to take the conversation outside. My back hugged Kris’s house just under the eaves as Hannah shared with me her plans and designs.

I was transfixed. Clear statements of justice and equality, clear values based on love, frame every idea that she sets forth. I hear with such clarity things I hope the world to learn. If it’s coming from this young thing maybe there is a chance. Her words offer a cool trickle on a very dry rock. I drink; and, in motherly admiration, I wait.

My respect for her keeps growing as I appreciate the ways her goodness could impact the world. I was trying to tell her how awesome she is last night. Instead, she pointed me back to her ideas and away from her. In humility, she values others above herself and seeks continually to find new ways to share the good love that comes from God. As the way opens before her, she bows continually in deference. Hers is the path of a peacemaker.

Like-minded. We dominate the world, yet chaos dominates the world. What good is it to follow Christ on paper only? What does it look like when we really love, really welcome, really receive. What does it look like when we stop looking for fault in others (really stop), and start focusing on making ourselves more loving, tolerant and humble?

To me, it looks like peace.


 

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