Deep Warm Waters

I was eight years old when I first stepped down into the deep warm waters of baptism. Dressed in a white robe, surrounded by family and friends at Kirkwood Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, I was immersed into full-body baptism. I remember being scared to death because I couldn't swim and was afraid I would drown in those deep waters.  It's not bad theology for an eight year old as we sometimes refer to baptism as a state of dying to sin and being reborn into the life of Christ.  But needless to say I didn't drown and I've never forgotten those deep warm waters. 

As an Episcopal priest, I've done a hundred or more baptisms.  All of them have been wonderful experiences of grace.  But even with my bishop's direction to use a lot of water at my first baptism, every one of these baptisms have happened with less than a gallon of water. Using the silver flagon or ceramic pitcher set out by the Altar Guild, I've sacramentally poured water into the font, swirled my hand around to bless it, and then poured three handfuls of water over the forehead of a child or adult.  And while our Book of Common Prayer clearly indicates the preferred method of baptism in the Episcopal Church is by immersion, I've never served a church that has baptismal pool.  Thus, the font has been sufficient.  

That is until two months ago when I was asked by my eleven year old granddaughter to baptize her.  Ella is Baptist.  And for her baptism I had the chance once again to step into deep warm waters.  Standing in her church's baptismal pool with Ella, I recalled my own baptism and shed tears of joy in God’s goodness and grace.  Remembering how I held her in my arms as an infant and gave her a priestly blessing, brings more joy to the privilege of now baptizing her.  

Almost as tall as I am, Ella stands before me, holds onto my arm, and in the name of God, I immerse her down into these deep warm waters.  As she rises up soaking wet from head to toe, I kiss her cheek. I don't believe either one of us will ever forget the love, the grace and the holiness of those deep warm waters.  And something tells me the next time I do a baptism with less than a gallon of water, it won't quite be the same.  Oh, it will be the sacrament of baptism but it won't be a soaking!.

A GRACIOUS PLENTY

There are some things about the south that deeply trouble me like racism and the popularity of guns but in many ways I cherish my “southern style” upbringing where everyone was sugah, or honey or darlin’.  There’s much to be learned, I believe, from the southern charm of good manners, simple kindnesses, and hospitality.  Much to be appreciated about graciousness and generosity.

 One of the sayings I often remember hearing as a girl growing up in Georgia was “a gracious plenty.”  As in, “Honey come on in to the table and eat with us, we’ve got a gracious plenty.”  This phrase, a gracious plenty, is cheerfully used in the south when welcome, hospitality and food come together.  A gracious plenty means abundance, lots of, more than enough to share.

 This reality was most evident at the annual church homecoming “dinner on the grounds”.  Long tables would be set up outside under the pine trees and filled with platters of barbeque, southern style fried chicken, mounds of  potato salad, dozens of deviled eggs, baskets of biscuits, bowls of green beans, cole slaw, corn on the cob, along with gallons of sweet tea and plenty of homemade cakes and pies.

 The goodness in these church dinners taught me about the generosity of God lived out in a community of faith.  None of these churches were huge in size but they were certainly huge in spirit. All too often these days I hear about scarcity in the church.  “We don’t have enough people, we don’t have enough money, there’s not enough time, not enough, not enough, not enough.  But the truth is we have a gracious plenty! 

People come to church to be part of a community that practices a gracious plenty of love, care, mercy and forgiveness.   Throw in food, fun and fellowship along with joyful worship and you’ve got yourself a gracious plenty church.  The grace of a gracious plenty is that there is enough, more than enough, of what we need to be the church. We just have to start believing we have a gracious plenty.  For our God is a God of abundance and provides for our every need, just ask the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. 

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

The question wasn't asked out of fear but out of curiosity regarding recent events in the Anglican Communion.  It's an important question and I wanted to give a substantive answer. So here's my response to the question, "What is your hope for the future of the Episcopal Church, and on what do you base that hope?"


My hope for our future as the Episcopal Church is strong, based on my conviction that God is at work in and among us. This knowing has lived in me from the day of my baptism at the age of eight when I came to know the presence of Jesus in my life.  Writing a daily Examen is one of my spiritual practices—and each evening, looking back on my day, I never fail to see God’s presence in my life, in the church I serve, and in the world.  


Although some aspects of the gathering of Primates this past week (January 11-15, 2016) in Canterbury is disappointing, the unanimous desire voiced by the primates to walk together is a hopeful sign. A task force established for restoring relationships, rebuilding mutual trust, healing hurt, and exploring differences is a hopeful prospect. And, as our Presiding Bishop reminded us, it is “important to remember that we are still part of the Anglican Communion. We are the Episcopal Church, and we are part of the Jesus Movement, and that Movement goes on, and our work goes on… And so we must claim that high calling; claim the high calling of love and faith; love even for those with whom we disagree, and then continue, and that we will do, and we will do it together.” I agree. 


My strong hope for our future is also based on first-hand experience of our legislative process.  In 2000 I was appointed as a Coordinator for General Convention.  For four Conventions I coordinated the meeting rooms for the legislative committees.  My responsibilities enabled me to see and hear our national church wrestle with challenging issues. Conflict stemming from the election of Gene Robinson, prayer book revisions, canonical changes, and budget allocations were contentious debates.  But, time and again, I was deeply moved by the prayerfulness and faithfulness to respectful listening. Committee chairpersons followed fair and faithful processes to hear all voices.  Decisions were not made hastily.  And, after voicing diverse and disparate perspectives, and the struggle to discern the best way forward, all gathered for worship as one body.  


Other evidences of hope I see are the ways dioceses, bishops, clergy and laity, are collaborating for stronger ministry.  For example, a colleague in the Diocese of Delaware is serving as a “Covenant Rector” serving three small congregations. She’s working hard and learning a great deal. Cluster-ministry is occurring in several dioceses.  Shared-ministry with ecumenical partners is occurring.  Congregational Development is a priority.  Vocational Deacons are more widely utilized.  Clergy are beginning to rely less on the church for full-time employment and finding alternative sources of income.  The Episcopal Church is becoming less hierarchical.  I see more visionary prophetic leadership (and practice this myself). We know maintaining the status-quo will not work so we’re breaking through glass ceilings, launching into social media to tell our story, investing in our youth and re-imagining the church.  All this gives me great hope for our future. To be living and serving in these times of change is nothing but grace!

 

HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

The house is lovely and welcoming, reminiscent of Williamsburg decorated with rich warm colors.  It sits on a small hill with a large front porch, circular driveway, surrounded by pine trees.  Red geraniums punctuate the porch with Southern charm.  This house is picture-perfect and, in fact, the herb garden and kitchen were featured years ago in "Better Homes and Gardens."  

This house belongs to my parents and for years it has been my place to come home to for family gatherings.  That it is being sold is breaking my heart.  As much as I know and my parents and sisters know that this is the right decision for my eighty-something parents, I cannot imagine not having this house to come home to.  I cannot imagine no longer having coffee in the kitchen, sitting at the dining room table for Thanksgiving, having a glass of wine on the screened porch or swimming in the pool.  While this is not the house I grew up in, it is the house I have come home to as an adult; during my divorce and the sad years that followed; for birthdays and holidays, to be loved and treasured as a daughter.

For weeks I have been looking for God's grace in all of this.  Like the woman in scripture who loses her treasured coin and searches for it relentlessly, I've been searching for grace in the selling of my parent's home.  Loss and sadness is all I've found.  That is until the first night my parents spent in their new apartment at the retirement home.  I called the next morning and asked how they were doing.  My mother said it was the most peaceful restful night's sleep she has had in years.  And there it was.  The grace of my parents being at peace, no longer worrying about a house that is too big for them, too burdensome to care for properly.  This hidden grace of God at work in the lives of my aging parents is such a blessing to me.  Grace abounds in knowing that they are sleeping well, have meals prepared for them, and are in the company of newly found friends.  As the saying goes, "home is where the heart is" and home will always be with my parents wherever they are.    

      

FRIDAY'S GRACE

Fridays are sermon writing days at home but since we have a guest preacher coming on Sunday I am at church Friday morning when the phone rings.  Our parish administrator has stepped away from her desk so I answer the call.   "Can you come and bring mom communion?"  "Of course, how is one o'clock?"  "Perfect," the daughter, Joyce, says.

Arriving at the house, Joyce is waiting for me outside.  "It's not good, come on in."  I'm surprised when she guides me upstairs. Entering the bedroom, Katherine, the mom and a beloved member of our church, is in bed .  She's on oxygen and needs assistance sitting up. Pillows are lovingly positioned to support her by her daughter-in-law.  

A month ago Katherine was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, two weeks ago we buried her husband.  Katherine is in her eighties and beautiful.  As sick as she is, she maintains an air of dignity, graciousness and matriarchy.  She softly tells me she is dying and it is only a matter of days.  She is at peace.  As her last act of faith she wants to receive the sacrament of Christ's body and blood.  

A tv tray is brought over by the bed and becomes our make-shift altar.  I set it for communion. Katherine's daughter, daughter-in-law, and niece kneel on the floor at the foot of the bed.  Like the women at the foot of the cross, they will not allow their beloved to die alone. The "holiest of holies" in the temple of Jerusalem could not have been more sacred than this bedroom.  Grace fills it. The five of us know we are standing on holy ground and the veil between heaven and earth is profoundly palpable.

I read some verses from John's gospel, pray the prayers, and together we make Eucharist.  I give a final blessing.  Tears trickle as we say good-bye, all the while claiming the promise of everlasting life.  Much sooner than expected, Katherine passes from this life into glory that night at 9:10pm.  

In a few weeks we will have a burial service for Katherine.  At the beginning of it I will say "I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.  Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though they die."  Life in death. This is grace as I know it on Friday.            

   

  

In The Midst of Suffering

When a clergy friend, who lives hours away, asks if I would visit one of her parishioners in a hospital twenty minutes from me, I say "sure" and add this to my rather lengthy "to do" list. Planning to squeeze in this visit, I arrive at the hospital making a mental note that I will need to leave in thirty minutes to be on time for my next meeting.  

Walking into intensive care I find the young man.  His mom, Barbara, is in the cafeteria buying him a cheeseburger and milkshake so he doesn't have to eat the unappetizing meat loaf.   Robert is twenty-six and is very sick.  He is their only child. The prognosis is questionable at this point.  They are hopeful.  Because of the aneurism and infection in his brain Robert is unable to move much and his verbal communication is limited.  But he can smile.

When Barbara returns we leave the nursing assistant to feed Robert and because the Family Waiting Room is so crowded we wander around looking for a place to talk.  Two chairs positioned in front of bright windows, away from patient rooms, seem to have been placed there for us so we take them.

 I don't know Barbara and she doesn't know me but the ease with which we talk is grace filled. She loves her church and is a faithful Christian.  She is a social worker and knows a lot about emotional and mental health.  But this is hard, really hard.  Both she and her husband are doing their best to stay positive.  As we talk she tells me about Robert's girlfriend, a childhood friend he's known for years.  They've been dating for six months and are very much in love.  Katie, who happens to be a nurse, comes every day to see Robert.

When the time feels right for both Barbara and me, I say a prayer and we walk back to Robert's room for me to pray for him.  I say to Robert that I've enjoyed getting to know his mom and that she has told me about Katie.  Instantly Robert's face lights up and a huge smile fills it.  This is what love does and we all need it.

As I write the re-telling of this story, my heart breaks for this family.  I am humbled and grateful to walk this way with them.  Being an hour late for my next meeting didn't matter at all.   Grace and hope in the midst of suffering is what matters.  

Nieces

We have a new baby in our family.  Her name is Billie Sue.  She has a six-year old big sister and her parents are my thirty-something niece and her wife.  These two millennial women are wonderful moms.  They are also tech savvy, widely connected through social media, creative, amazing entrepreneurial women.  Their road to conceiving a child was not simple, some might say unconventional, and I admire them greatly for pursing their dream of becoming moms. The fact is, I adore my niece.  In her pre-school years she would come and spend a week with me.  We would bake cookies and play dolls and my sons were insanely jealous of her back then. That she has become such an incredible woman does not surprise me at all.   

I have two other nieces who are in their twenties and are also incredible.  I adore them as well. One just graduated from a prestigious law school and is keeping her fingers crossed that she passed the bar exam. She is smart as a whip and will be an awesome attorney.  She is also funny and makes me laugh at her quirky antics.  Her younger sister is a senior in college, majoring in English and well on her way to becoming a writer.  This niece is very social, has tons of friends and a heart of gold.  In May for her 21st birthday we all went dancing...my nieces, my sisters and me.  What a blast!  

Today it is the grace of having nieces and now great-nieces for which I am most grateful. Generation after generation of Montgomery women who are amazing!   

               

Hammock Time

On Sunday I was keenly aware of God's presence as I was preaching, presiding at the Altar and in our FISHing conversations after church.  During the week God's presence has been felt in times of pastoral care, meetings with staff and supervision with our seminarian.  I also felt God's presence while walking our dog, talking with my sister, and making an apple pie for Joe.  And I am convinced that without my sabbath day on Mondays I could not be as tuned into God's presence throughout the week.  This spiritual practice of making Mondays my sabbath started ten years ago.  It took some time to acclimate my body and soul to a day of rest and it still does especially when I'm revved up from Sunday.  What helps is being out in our country cottage, if only for 24 hours.  Which is where we were this past Monday.  

Late morning Joe is out cutting the grass while I relax in the hammock (not exactly fair but he's okay with it!).  Our cottage, a former school house, is in a valley and early morning fog had obscured the mountains.  But by late morning the fog is lifting and the sun beginning to shine. Psalm 121 comes to mind, "I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth."  I need this reminder.  I need to remember the grace of these words.  God is omnipresent.  I am never alone and it's not all up to me!    

My Grandmother's Swing

I was a June baby, born in Atlanta.  For the first six months of my life we lived next door to my mother's parents.  A narrow driveway ran between our two houses. In the stifling heat of the summer, with my bedroom window open, my grandmother heard all my infant cries.  Whenever she would hear me, she would call out across the drive to my mother to check on me.  As a mom myself I can only imagine how annoying this must have been for my first-time mother.  But grandmothers and granddaughters are different.  Suffice it to say I adored my grandmother!

Blinded by glaucoma at the age of fifty, my grandmother never laid eyes on me but she is someone who I truly believe saw the real me.  This is in part because we spent so much time together on her front porch swing.  On this swing we would play hide-and-go-seek.  I would pretend to be hiding under the flower pot and she would guess all the places I could be and then find me there.  We would take long train trips to California.  She let me be the conductor. We would sail across the ocean to England on a big ship and I would watch for whales. All of this, of course, in our imaginations.  But in my mind's eye I could see us in all these places, together.  

Today my grandmother's swing is on the front porch of my parents' home. I swing on it every time I'm back in Atlanta. To know that one day it will be mine delights me.  A devout Christian woman who loved Jesus, her church and her family, my grandmother taught me to look beyond challenges and obstacles.  With creativity and imagination she taught me to find adventure.  She taught me how to walk, not by sight, but by faith.  She taught me from the time I was a baby to look for grace in all things.        

The Grace of Play

What a serious soul I can be at times!  I'm like my dad in this way.  For too long I have pushed aside the grace of play.  But returning this week from a four-month sabbatical, I am reclaiming play.  While on sabbatical I played a lot.  I went bike riding at the beach, hiked arroyos and mesas in the high desert, kayaked on Abiqu Lake, and went white water rafting on the Yuma River. I also went dancing at Johnny's Hideaway in Atlanta!  I laughed a lot, made new friends, ate scrumptious salads and honey soaked sopapillas.  I've promised myself not to lose the grace of play.  And so far I haven't.  A friend suggested I take tennis lessons with her and I had my first class last night.  What a blast!  There's a prayer for the good use of leisure in our Book of Common Prayer and I'm taking it to heart:  O God, in the course of this busy life, give us times of refreshment and peace; and grant that we may so use our leisure to rebuild our bodies and renew our minds, that our spirits may be opened to the goodness of your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.