This is your fault. Well, maybe not yours in particular, but over the years enough people have told me I should write down whatever story I was telling them, I’ve decided to do it. Perhaps I am ill-advised. No matter. Bad advice often leads to interesting stories.
I love photographs. What I love most about them is how they capture a moment. Moments go by so quickly, children grow up, people move away, places change. It’s nice to have the chance to revisit them without having to depend on memory, which can be so unreliable. Photos also allow us to share reminiscences with folks who weren’t there when they were taken, and can do that even across the generations, which is a real gift. And sometimes photos allow us to see something out of our view, like a bald spot or a photo-bomber, or maybe even something more important.
Over the years I’ve not only taken thousands of photos, I’ve also repaired many of the old ones I inherited from my family. I like doing that, because it allows me to see back to a time before my time. Is that handsome young man with his suit coat slung over his shoulder my father? Did my mother really make that face? Wow, my grandmother is wearing round framed “John Lennon” glasses! Every picture is a discovery–a glimpse of someone I never had the chance to meet, or a vision of somebody’s younger self.
Of the many photos I’ve restored, one small snapshot in sepia tones and cracked with age is particularly meaningful to me. I chose to work on it because of the subject – my mother at age two. In the picture she is holding her favorite doll, Evelyn, and leaning out the window of a parked 1932 Chevrolet.
Before I began the repair work, I scanned the photo, and enlarged it so I could get a better view. As the photo appeared on the screen, details emerged that had not been visible earlier. The first thing I noticed was that the lighter marks in the background, which were not discernible in the smaller version, were actually tombstones. The car was parked in a cemetery.
Then, as I perused its enlarged surface, something else appeared that I had not seen – my grandmother and my aunt! Nana was in the passenger seat with her hands around my mother’s waist, raising her up and out the window, and my rather tall aunt was looking from behind and smiling. In the smaller image, they just looked like shading in the car’s interior. But there they were!
Inspired by that discovery, I continued to work, removing scratches on the surface and restoring several cracks. Then I zoomed out to get a better perspective on the repair. I was not expecting to see anything new, but there was another surprise! In the now restored surface of the photo was a reflection of my grandfather on the side of the car, camera raised to take the picture. Apparently, they had gone together as a family to pay their respects to loved ones at Canarsie Cemetery in Brooklyn where several of my ancestors are buried. In the smaller photo, all I could see was my mom playing in a really cool antique car. It was not until I was able to see the larger picture, remove the impediments and get some perspective that the story began to unfold. Which makes me wonder, if we did that with other pictures, what might become apparent which we otherwise would have missed?
Having recently celebrated Easter, albeit in a strange stay-at-home DIY way this year, one picture that comes to mind is another that, if they had had the technology to take it back then, would have also been taken in a graveyard–a picture of Jesus’ tomb. In its small snapshot form, it likely would tell the story we would expect:
Behind this enormous stone is the final resting place of a manmany had hoped was the Messiah. In the end, he turned out to be just another man whose death was lonely and gruesome.
But if we actually had such a picture and could do with it what I did with my family photo, what might we have seen? What would have become visible as it was enlarged? In that place of death, would we have then been able to discern those unseen hands that were present raising Jesus up to newness of life? Would we have been able to see the reflection of his heavenly Father, who even through death, never took his eyes off his child? I wonder what we might have appeared had we been able to see the bigger picture.
Well, we can, sort of… The gospels tell us about that bigger picture, allowing us to stand back and see how the events of Good Friday unfolded into Easter – how in that graveyard there was more of a story than first met the eye. Surprise! This is not a place of death; it is a place where death will be no more. Put away that too small image in your mind’s eye and come face to face with the IMAX film of the ages!
Now I know that, because of the pandemic, many of us are feeling like we, too, are standing in a place of death. We are cut off from friends and extended family. We are fearful for our livelihood and our future. We unnaturally shrink back from those with whom we must come in contact, as if our life depends on it, and likely it does. Being separated from those we love, the work that is so familiar and the normalcy of the life to which we were accustomed is painful. For others who are struggling to cope with the illness itself and the loss of those they hold most dear, it is an even crueler reality. It is like we are living a perpetual Good Friday with no vision of Easter to help us make sense of it.
This is a tough place, and no one is exempt. So, perhaps, in this moment, the best we can do is keep an eye out for what appeared unexpectedly in my family photo: Those who, out of love, continue to lift us up, and reflections of the Father who is constantly watching over us. Even a glimpse of these will help us know we are not alone, and that my friends, in this uncertain moment, is precious.
For those who observe it, Lent is a serious season. It is a time for reflection, self-denial, penitence and renewal of faith. Modeled on the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil, and culminating with an annual recounting of the events leading to the crucifixion, it prepares us to embrace the glorious dawn of Easter and the promise of eternal life with Christ.
Because the Gospel Passion stories read almost like a script, congregations will often use dramatic performance to bring them to life for the faithful. This may take the form of a multi-voiced reading, the use of sounds such as a rooster crowing or a nail being hammered, changes in lighting, the use of candles, or even a costumed play. It is important to note, however, that as the complexity of the dramatic elements increases, so too does the chance for something to go wrong. How do I know? The Living Last Supper tells me so.
This Lenten drama is a production involving thirteen performers in full costume reenacting Leonardo DaVinci’s interpretation of the last meal Jesus ate with his disciples before he was arrested. The curtain opens on the Upper Room come to life. The table is set exactly as in the famous painting and each actor is dressed, coiffed and posed to match the disciple he is portraying. If you are familiar with the painting, you will remember that it depicts a moment of action in the story, as the disciples respond to Jesus’ statement “One of you will betray me.”
Here are the words of the narrator as the play begins:
“The disciples are startled, each in a different way by the tragic pronouncement made by Christ. One registers horror. Another cries, ‘This is preposterous.’ Another disbelieves what he has heard and reaches for a companion to confirm that his ears have not tricked him. Still another begs Christ to reveal the name of the betrayer while yet another stoutly proclaims his own innocence. Judas draws back from Christ, overturning a salt shaker as he clutches tightly in his fist the bag containing his pitiful reward for betraying his master. Jesus alone is calm in the wake of the turmoil his six words have created. It is at this point that we share what each of the disciples remembered of how he came to Christ and how he felt about him.”
I must admit, I am rather fond of this play. I have to be, to have produced it so many times. And what’s not to love? It’s a great evangelistic tool, since the actors always invite friends and neighbors to watch them perform. It’s educational, as the actors’ monologues introduce the congregation to likely unfamiliar aspects of the disciples’ lives. It’s inspirational for the participants because it makes them feel like “they were there” in that Upper Room. And for me, as a female pastor, it always gave me a chance to get to know the men in the congregation better while providing them with a chance for fellowship and mutual support.
Those are great reasons. But looking back over the many years of Living Last Supper productions, what stands out to me most is how they highlighted just how human the first followers of Jesus were. In the scripture, the disciples can take on an iconic stature. In the body of someone you know, anxious about his pending performance, it is easier to see how like us they were. And that helps us to see how like them we can be. Too often, people are paralyzed by the mistaken belief that God only calls the perfect. Watching his “followers” flub a line, pause for too long trying to recall, lose a piece of beard, knock over a goblet or accidently elbow the guy next to him and still have a place at Jesus’ table is empowering.
One year, at the request of a particularly insistent mother, Jesus was played by a 15-year-old. Everyone was nervous about that, since you can never be certain what a teenager might say. Before the worship service I had a literal “come to Jesus” talk with the kid and was satisfied that he was ready. Everything went as planned during the performance. He said his lines perfectly and with appropriate emotion. After the twelve disciples presented their monologues, it was time for him to break the bread. He picked up the loaf from the plate in front of him and recited the Passover blessing flawlessly:
“Praised is He of whose bounty we have partaken, and through whose goodness we live. Praised art Thou, O Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who nourishes the whole world in goodness, grace, loving kindness, and compassion. He gives food to all flesh, for His mercy is everlasting. Because of His enduring goodness, we have not lacked sustenance for all living things of His creation. Praised are Thou, O Eternal, who provides food for all.”
As instructed, he then put his thumbs under the loaf to break it where it was supposed to be cut. But it wasn’t. The altar guild always remembered to do it, but the stage hands obviously didn’t get the memo. Sweat began to roll down Jesus’ forehead as he struggled with the stubborn loaf. Then his hands started to shake. Frustrated and seeing no relief, he mumbled, loud enough to be picked up by the microphone, “Who made this bread?”
There was an awkward pause, then one disciple responded, “I don’t know, but Caesar made the salad!”
While the congregation was reeling with laughter, someone cut the bottom of the loaf and when their attention was again focused on the table, Jesus took bread, gave it to his disciples and said, “This is my body, broken for you,” and we believed Him.
Communion is a sacrament and should be served reverently. How it is received is another matter. Usually that issue is only observed by the pastor and her/his lay assistant. Since DaVinci told the disciples that if they wanted to be in the picture, they should crowd together on the far side of the table, that makes it easy to allow the congregation to come forward to receive on the empty side. It also gives the actors something they rarely see – a close-up view of their fellow parishioners ingesting the bread and “wine”. So when a woman put “the body of Christ” in her mouth, then retrieved the sopping mass with her thumb and forefinger and dipped it into the chalice, I guess I should not have been surprised by the loud, collective “Eeewww…” emanating from Jesus and His followers.
The first time I directed the Living Last Supper, I was 27-years-old and the associate pastor of a larger congregation. Thinking that wrangling a bunch of amateurs into wearing fake beards, long dresses and speaking in public wouldn’t be too difficult, I passed the word for volunteers. Not getting them in a timely fashion, I asked the secretary to put a note in the church bulletin. On Sunday morning, this is what was listed on the announcement page:
By the end of the worship service I had twelve “yeses” and one “maybe”. The maybe’s name was Les. He’d said that if I really needed him, he would do it.
The next day I set about assigning parts to people by body type, age and facial hair, trying to match folks as closely as possible with the DaVinci painting. I had still one disciple too few. I needed Les to play the part of John.
Knowing that that same evening I would see Les’s wife, Doris, at a Sign Language class, I figured I could send a message to Les through her. I sent a message, all right, but not the one I expected. Seeing Doris down the hall at the school, I shouted, “Doris, I need to talk to you about your husband, Les. I need a John.” It took me a full thirty seconds before I realized what I had said. It took no time for Doris and everyone else within earshot to figure it out, and they were in full guffaw long before I had any clue why. When my verbal stupidity finally hit me, so did the crimson in my cheeks. We all had a delightful laugh, and then the embarrassment was over, or so I thought.
Two nights later, the men got together for their first rehearsal. They were nervous about doing speaking parts and had a hard time getting started. Someone asked, “Does anyone know a joke they could tell to ease the tension?”
“I think Rev. Laura should tell what happened the other night after the Sign Language class,” Les suggested. “My wife said it was hilarious.”
Now remember, I am the only woman in the room with thirteen nervous men, and I am their 27-year-old pastor. The fact that I even thought it was okay to tell this story is proof that yet again, I had not engaged my brain before opening my mouth.
I began: “The other night I was at Sign Language class. I knew I needed to talk with Doris and ask her to give a message to her husband for me because I needed him to play a disciple… So without thinking, when I saw her, I yelled down the hall, ‘Doris, I need to talk to you about your husband, Les. I need a John.’ Can you believe it? With twelve the disciples to choose from, I have to pick that one. I mean, why couldn’t I have said, ‘Doris, I need to talk to you about your husband Les. I need a Peter.’
There was a moment of awkward silence as it occurred to me what I had just said. Embarrassed, I hung my head. When I looked up, thirteen men were rolling off their seats, shaking with laughter, and one of them was trying to stuff a script in his mouth. Realizing there was no way to survive this without a moment to compose myself, I headed toward the door. Just as I opened it, I heard a voice call out behind me, “Thank God there wasn’t a disciple named Richard.”
My love of the Living Last Supper knew no bounds. We performed it in full costume in Cuba at the Guantanamo Bay Chapel. We even gave a recitation of it on Maundy Thursday in Iraq with the enemy not far away. Of course, in the camp, everyone was in uniform and armed, and we didn’t bother posing like the painting, but thirteen people (including women) read the parts before we shared in Holy Communion. One would think simplifying it in this way would make it less memorable. One would be wrong. Enthusiastic to the nth degree, the Senior Psychiatrist with our unit asked me for his part the day before so he could memorize it. I told him that wasn’t necessary, but he was insistent. When it was his turn to present his monologue he stood up, placed his hands firmly on his hips and looked around, just as the script instructed him.
“I am Simon Peter,” he began. “I was a fisherman when my brother Andrew brought me to Jesus. Jesus looked at me and said ‘Your name shall be Cephas, meaning Rock or Stone‘. Maybe he saw already in me the faith and steadfastness that I would yearn for and which would take so long to grow. I was so headstrong and my impulsive spirit caused me to do and say many things for which I am now sorry. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when the mob came after Jesus, I drew my sword to protect him and cut off the ear of a slave.”
Now at this point in the script, the stage direction told him to draw his sword for emphasis, but he didn’t have a sword. So instead he drew his nine-millimeter pistol and waved it furiously in the air. With that, the congregation hit the deck, afraid that at any minute they might be taken out by a shrink. I winced and shook my head at him, and sheepishly, he holstered his weapon. Then he continued to speak, without missing a line.
When amateurs perform a liturgical drama, it should be no surprise that things could go wrong, stupid or crazy. But that doesn’t make their offering any less valuable or inspirational. The word “amateur” comes from the Latin “amator” which means “lover.” So those guys in silly beards and oversized dresses anxiously reciting lines that took weeks to memorize are doing it so the people they love can hear the word of God they love and draw ever closer to the God who is love. Perhaps in all our human frailty, that is our best.
The middle of a desert in Kuwait, 2003. After 0200. (2 am)
I am awakened by the sound of someone knocking on the pole holding up the front of the dust-laden tent in which I am sleeping. It is a young woman, one of those responsible for driving our ambulances in convoy, across the border into Iraq, to where we will soon set up our field hospital. This is dangerous work.
“We are leaving in two hours,” she says when I stumble through the tent-flaps. “We need communion. Can you do that now?”
I tell her I’ll be there in 10 minutes, just long enough to put on the rest of my uniform and dig out the field communion kit from our connex box. I reach for my flashlight to see what I am doing. Suddenly the bare overhead lightbulb begins to glow. One of the nurses with whom I am sharing our temporary shelter is by the switch.
“I’m sorry to wake you,” I say. I look and another is gathering my flak jacket and helmet.
“This is important,” she replies. “We’ll help.”
Five minutes later, I head for one of the larger tents. All the ambulance drivers and their security team are inside, standing in a circle, quietly waiting. Knowing I have Sailors and Marines of various Christian traditions gathered there, as I prepare the communion elements I ask, “What’s everyone’s faith group?”
“We are crossing into the combat zone, chaplain,” one of them replied.
I served everyone.
“If thine heart is as my heart,” if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: “Give me thine hand.”
From Catholic Spirit: A Sermon by John Wesley, published in 1831.
Not everyone born with a silver spoon in his mouth makes a successful transition from privileged child to responsible adult. Peter was one who didn’t. At age 42, he lived in a beach-side studio bungalow on Long Island Sound, conveniently located next to the busiest bar in town. Years before, having worn out the patience of his influential family, residents of a gated estate a few miles from town, they’d set him up with a monthly stipend that provided for his basic needs in return for never returning. Happily, he drank away his money and stumbled home each night to sleep off the effects.
Despite Peter’s perpetual inebriation, occasionally he showed up at church for the eleven o’clock service. How he managed to get up that early was a mystery, but it was one the parishioners did not care to solve. They just let him plop into a coveted back row and left him alone. Perhaps it was because they feared being too close when the acolyte, carrying the brass candle-lighter with the burning wick, passed by, lest they be caught up in the fireball if the open flame ignited the alcohol cloud that settled over his pew. More likely it was so Peter might not accidentally let slip a story that involved them. Methodists are, at least in front of each other, absolute teetotalers…
Since few people spoke with him, Peter always got my ear after the service. One Sunday, as he filed out of the sanctuary on his way to coffee hour, he paused to shake my hand. Leaning forward, he used his other hand to point inside his partially zipped jacket.
“Hey pastor, want a kitten?” he whispered. When I gazed in, I saw a gray ball of fur curled up and sleeping. “It peed on me during the sermon,” he said as he released my hand. I winced as he turned and headed downstairs for a cup of Joe and a cookie.
Another week he complimented me on the duet I had played with a volunteer flautist during the offertory. “I played the clarinet, too, when I was in High School,” he said. “I liked the way it sounded.”
“Do you still play?” I asked, hoping it was something we could encourage that didn’t involve drinking.
“Nope. It was too much work. I gave it up,” he said flatly. He paused before heading for the stairs. “I got a friend who hasn’t been doing too well. Could she call you to talk if she wants?”
“Sure,” I said. “My phone number is on the back of the bulletin.” Just before three the next morning, my telephone rang.
“I can’t sleep,” mumbled a hoarse voice when I answered. Accustomed to calls in the night, I sat up, turned on the light so I could stay awake and pulled the blanket around me.
“Are you having a problem falling asleep or staying asleep?”
“Have you tried reading a book until you get sleepy?”
“I don’t like to read.”
“Do you need to talk about something?” I asked, realizing at once it was a dumb question. Why else would this man have called?
“No,” said the voice, and then he paused. “Will you play your clarinet for me?” This caught me off guard.
“Who is this?” I demanded.
“Peter … You know, Peter Clark… I was up and thought it might be nice to hear you play again.” I looked at the clock. It was 3:01 AM. I had to be up in a few hours for a funeral.
“So, you aren’t having a problem falling asleep?” I asked, trying to control my growing annoyance.
“Well, not really. I’m just bored. So, will you play the clarinet for me?”
“No, Peter, I will not entertain you. Go to bed and get some sleep. I have a funeral in the morning and I need sleep, too.” I put down the receiver. He did not call back.
The following Sunday Peter showed up in church again. I was standing in the narthex waiting to walk down the aisle when he arrived. The choir was milling about, rustling pages in their music folders and talking in what they thought were stage whispers. He pushed past them and leaned toward me. The smell of alcohol was unusually less pronounced.
“That friend I said wasn’t doing so well… I took her to the hospital last night. They admitted her. I stayed until she got into her room. Then they made me go home. Do you think you could visit her this afternoon?” He looked worried.
“Yes, Peter, I will visit her. Write down her name and room number and give it to me after the service.” During coffee hour, he handed me a scrap of paper torn from his bulletin. Along the edge in pencil he had scribbled “Diane–ICU bed 8.”
“Diane is my next-door neighbor. We hang out at the beach a lot,” he explained.
“Would you like to go with me to the hospital?” I asked, even though the thought of going anywhere with him was none too appealing.
“No… no, I’ve had enough of hospitals. I’ll just see her when she gets better,” he said emphatically.
“OK,” I responded, inwardly relieved. “I’ll call you when I get back and tell you how she is doing.”
That afternoon I headed to the local hospital to see patients. I stopped by to visit Diane first. She was still in the ICU. When I arrived, she was sitting up and talking on the phone. I stood in the doorway and waved. She waved, too, and went on talking. I took out a business card and scribbled, “I’m Peter’s pastor. I’ll come back later,” on the reverse, and placed it in front of her on the bed tray. She nodded.
After visiting three other parishioners, I returned to the ICU. Diane was still on the phone. I stood in the doorway. She raised her hand to let me know she had seen me and went back to her phone call. I waited a few minutes. It was obvious she had no intention of hanging up and talking with me.
“Peter sends his regards. I’ll stop again tomorrow,” I mouthed. She waved again and kept talking.
When I arrived home, I dialed Peter’s number to tell him about the “visit.” I got his answering machine. He was likely out at the bar, so I left a message. Early the next day he called back.
“She’s dead,” he announced.
“Who is dead?” I asked the voice, which sounded like Peter.
“Diane. She died this morning. The hospital just called.”
“Why did they call you?” I queried, remembering he was only a neighbor.
“Because I took her to the hospital. Because she gave them my name when they asked for next of kin. She doesn’t have anybody else, you know.”
“OK. I’ll pick you up in a half hour. Be ready.” I hung up without waiting for a response.
As I pulled into the parking area near the bungalows, I remembered that I didn’t know which was his. Thankfully, Peter was standing outside, accompanied by a small group of women. One was wearing a pink fuzzy bathrobe and Garfield slippers, her oily suicide blonde hair desperately in need of another death wish. The other two, clad in jeans and tee shirts, one which advertised the bar and the other which highlighted the spaghetti sauce she’d recently enjoyed, looked like they’d slept in their clothes. Both of them were smoking, and one was holding a beer. Peter, a stocky man, with dark hair that showed a hint of gray, looked as disheveled as the others. His “old money” fashion sense coupled with his disregard for hygiene made him look pathetic. He was wearing stained khaki pants and an untucked blue flannel shirt. His scuffed boat shoes were dirty, and a leather button on his tan corduroy blazer had come loose and bounced as he talked. I rolled down the window.
“Is that ya pastor?” I heard the woman in the bathrobe drone with a nasally New York accent. Peter nodded and headed for my car.
“We got it all set,” he said as he positioned himself in the passenger seat.
“First tell me what happened to Diane,” I said, curious how a woman burning up the telephone lines a few short hours ago could suddenly be dead.
“Massive heart attack.”
“Must have been massive if they couldn’t save her while she was in the ICU.” I paused. “I am sorry for your loss, Peter. Diane must have been a wonderful friend.”
“Yeah, she was,” he said, “But we got it all planned out, just the way she’d like it.”
“What have you planned? And who is ‘we’ Peter?
“Me and doze ladies you saw me with. They’re her other neighbors. You do funerals, right?”
“Well, yes, but they are usually arranged by family members, not neighbors.”
“Since we’re all she’s got, we’ll be doin’ it,” he said. Figuring that this would sort itself out shortly, I let him continue.
“So, Diane really liked the beach. Most nights the group of us would sit by the water and have a few beers before going to the bar and we’d talk. Not too long ago we got talking about those Viking funerals, you know, the ones where they float you out to sea and set your body on fire… Well, we’re gonna build a raft out of pallets from behind the grocery store. Then we’ll pile sticks on it like they do for the Fourth of July bonfires. If we pour the gasoline on before we put Diane on top, she should burn real good. She might burn all the way to Connecticut. We just need you to say the funeral prayer before we push her out into Long Island Sound. When we get to the hospital, I’ll let them know what we’re gonna do. I think they may let us sign out her body today. I guess we’ll just put it back in her bungalow until we have the wood ready.”
Peter was serious. And so was the hospital social worker when she informed him that only next of kin could arrange for the disposition of a body. Undaunted, he launched into his proposed floating pyre plan, certain that once she heard it, she would be persuaded to fork over the corpse. I watched as her eyes grew wider and wider.
“I’ll take him home now,” I told her, when he finished explaining.
“Thank you,” she said, and leaned toward me. “Is he having a problem?” she whispered.
“Always,” I replied, directing Peter to the door.
“But aren’t we picking up the body?” he asked.
“Not today, Peter.”
In fact, nobody claimed the body since Diane’s only next of kin was her husband, who was in a permanent vegetative state in a nursing facility an hour away. After three months, her remains were released to the county who, I heard, gave her a send-off that was not quite up to Viking standards.
Peter was absent from church for several weeks after Diane’s death. I guessed he was unhappy with me for not being able to get the hospital to hand over the corpse. Then one Sunday, I looked up during the first hymn and there he was, coming in the back door. This time he was not alone. The congregation was singing How Great Thou Art, a hymn everyone knew by heart. We were just starting verse two when Peter and a woman we later learned was Caroline, but was known to her friends as “Candy,” headed up the aisle to the empty seats in the third row. Peter was grinning, pleased to be showing off his arm charm. Soon the singing grew weaker, and I began to notice that people seated on the aisle were paying more attention to our visitors than to the hymn.
When Candy finally slid into the pew, the first thing I noticed was cleavage, which was not something one saw much of in church. Her black leather biker’s blouse was cut almost to her navel, but then again it was a perfect match for the leather micro mini skirt and the black spiked heels with rhinestones across the straps. I was cold just looking at her. “Here we go…” I mumbled, hoping it was not loud enough to be picked up by the microphone.
But after Peter and Candy took their seats, things with the congregation returned to normal. Since it was common for this bunch to get distracted or even to whisper a snarky remark, I thought we might be okay. Then I remembered it was the first Sunday of the month. Communion. The altar guild had planned for intinction at the rail. The common cup and loaf were already in place. Soon the ushers would invite people to walk up the aisle, kneel at the rail, and receive a small piece of bread to dip into a chalice filled with grape juice. I could see disaster looming before me.
“The Lord be with you,” I announced.
“And also with you,” the congregation responded.
I launched into the liturgy. As I was consecrating the bread and “wine” I looked up. Candy was staring at me. I slipped my thumbs into the serrated bottom of the loaf and broke it open. At least the altar guild had remembered to prepare the bread, so I didn’t have to wrestle with it.
When I gave the invitation to come forward and receive, I saw Candy whispering in Peter’s ear. He nodded. Since they were in the third row, it was not long before the ushers directed them out of the pew and up to the altar rail. Together, they kneeled. Murmuring could be heard from those seated toward the front, and from those waiting in the aisle.
The lay leader assisting me walked ahead along the rail, giving each communicant a bit of bread broken from the loaf which he held in his hand. Each person kept their “Body of Christ” until I offered the chalice in which to dip it. Except Candy. She popped hers in her mouth and swallowed. When I got to her with the communion cup, her hand was empty. Before I could get the lay leader’s attention so he could give her another piece of bread, she took action. Immediately she stuck the inch long, polished black and silver nail of her right forefinger deep into the grape juice. She swished it three times around the inside of the cup, pulled it out of the liquid and then used it to make the sign of the cross on her body. When she was done, she stuck her fingernail into her mouth and loudly sucked off the remaining grape juice.
Over Candy’s shoulder, I saw a woman slap her husband on the arm. He closed his eyes as he tried in vain to “stifle himself.”
He’s in trouble… I thought as I offered the cup to the next person. “The blood of Christ, shed for you,” I said out loud.
No one else at the rail let their bread touch the juice; they just moved it close enough to make a good showing. When they returned to their seats, I went back to the altar and grabbed the second chalice I always had the guild prepare in case of hygiene emergencies or other disasters. Then, smiling as angelically as possible, I returned to my place. More people filled in at the altar rail and everything proceeded without issue through the end of the service.
Thankfully Peter and Candy did not stay for coffee hour to hear the church ladies going on about how, besides being noticeably braless, Candy also lacked panties, which had become obvious when she’d kneeled at the rail. “I could see what that hussy had for breakfast!” a member of the Thursday Morning Bible Study exclaimed.
“You could see more than that,” her husband snickered. His wife’s reaction told me he’d be in the doghouse the rest of the day, if not the entire week.
“This is an opportune time to get a few odd jobs done around the church,” I thought. “I must make a list to leave with the secretary since he is likely not the only one who will need to get out of the house for a while…”
The last time Peter came by the church was during Lent. I guess he’d heard we were serving soup and salad on Wednesday evenings, followed by a study. That night we were reviewing the history of the hymns traditionally sung during Holy Week. He must have liked the soup because he ate several bowls full. We were glad he was eating something nutritious and kept filling his plate with salad, too. While everyone else was clearing up the dishes, stacking the tables and setting the chairs around the piano, Peter wandered down the hallway between the church office and the nursery school. Next to the office door was an upside-down ten-gallon bottle.
“What’s with that water cooler jug full of pennies?” he asked when he got back to the fellowship hall.
“The nursery school is collecting pocket change as a fundraiser,” a woman replied.
“Well, it’s mostly pennies.”
“There are other coins in there, too,” another woman declared. “I’ve put lots in myself.”
Just then, the pianist called us to take our seats. “Turn in your hymnals to #231,” she said, “No one wants to be here all night.”
That’s my favorite hymn, I thought, giggling to myself. About fifteen minutes into the program, Peter disappeared out the side door. He returned a few minutes later smelling of cigarettes. Soon after, he got up and headed for the men’s bathroom closest to the fellowship hall. His flush accompanied the last verse of The Old Rugged Cross. When he came back in, he got another cup of coffee and stood near the urn, likely for a quick refill. I lost track of him through the next two hymns, then just before the third verse of Were You There, Edith, a retired school teacher, sprang from her seat. I watched as this spry 70-year-old sprinted out of the room and down the hall where Peter had wandered earlier. Worried, I got up and headed after her. As I did, I heard the hymn end abruptly, and metal chairs scrape the tiles. Apparently, others were worried, too.
At the other end of the hallway, in front of the door that opened into the parking lot, was Peter. He had his back to us and with his right hand he was dragging the enormous bottle of coins. Edith was running up behind him, yelling for him to stop and before we could intervene, she leaped up on his back causing him to lose his balance. In what seemed like slow motion, the two tumbled to the floor.
“What do you think you are doing?” she shouted.
“Well… uh… umph…” was all he could mumble as two men, rushed toward them and reached down to help Edith off the floor. She stood up, remarkably unscathed for having tackled a man nearly 30 years her junior and twice her weight. By that time, the rest of us had gathered and were now staring at Peter, slumped in a heap near the doormat.
“What were you doing with that bottle?” Edith demanded, using her teacher voice.
“Well, I was listening to those hymns, and I started thinking how it says in the Bible that ‘God helps those who help themselves’ so I was helping myself.”
“You haven’t helped yourself a day in your life, Peter. You are in your forties and your parents still pay for everything. All you do is whatever pleases you. If you were my student again, I’d… I’d…” Edith was so angry she couldn’t finish her thought. The gaggle of us stood silently and waited for Peter to get up. He didn’t.
Finally, Edith regained her composure. “You don’t understand that verse at all, Peter, not one bit. Yes, God helps those who help themselves, but what you are doing, Peter, is stealing. This is the last straw.” She paused. “It is about time you are held accountable for your actions. Somebody please call the police.” With that, Peter got to his feet, brushed the dust off his pants, and walked out the door.
I suppose I should have mentioned that “God helps those who help themselves” is from Poor Richard’s Almanac, not the Bible, but I didn’t. I’d had my fill of drama by then and just wanted everyone to go home.
Later that evening a police officer dropped by the parsonage to explain that, like many times before, Peter had been given a stern “talking to,” but since he was well on his way to drunk by the time he received it, it was not likely to make any difference. The officer also explained that it would not be wise to make a report in which we admitted that a parishioner had assaulted Peter. That news would surely make the papers, and she could be in a lot of trouble if he wanted to press charges.
“Peter probably won’t remember what happened after a night of drinking and my advice is to leave it that way,” the officer chuckled.
So that’s how we left it. This decision saved the church from embarrassment, Edith from legal issues, and Peter from ever having to grow up. I can attest to that because the last time I saw him was in the parking lot of the local grocery store. I was heading home on foot with a small bag of staples when I noticed him. Good thing I did, because he was heading straight for me with his car. If I had not leaped into the grass at the edge of the lot in time, I would have made an instant career change to “hood ornament” as he skidded out into the roadway. Maybe he was drunk; he could even have been angry. I’m just glad I did not become the next guest of honor for that well-planned Viking funeral.
In 1986, three months after my ordination, I was at a retreat center on the west side of the Hudson River when I received a call from the senior pastor with whom I worked. He wanted me to drive two hours north to Albany to see a 25-year-old woman, pregnant with twins, who had developed complications and was about to lose her babies. I tried to explain that such a serious case warranted the experience of the senior pastor, but he said it was a woman’s issue, so the woman on staff should see to it. I suggested that someone who was a father would be better able to help than childless me. He responded that he was the senior pastor who made the decisions, and he had decided that I would be going.
With fear and trembling, I drove north. At the hospital, I met the twins’ grandparents and two other couples from the church. We sat together in the waiting area next to the critical delivery room, fidgeting and praying. After midnight, the door opened partway, and a doctor stuck his head out.
“Which one of you is the pastor?” he asked. I’m sure he did not expect the 26-year-old woman casually dressed for a retreat to respond. I looked around, hoping for a rescue. Then I slowly raised my hand.
“Well, come on in, she is about to give birth to the second one,” he said. When I entered the delivery room, he turned to face me. In his hand was a baby twenty-five weeks from conception. “I don’t know what you want to do with this,” he said, handing the child to me. Then he whispered in my ear, “He is about to die, and the other one will, too.” Since his mother and I had just locked eyes, I was careful that she not be able to read his words on my face.
I held the baby in my hand. His tiny head lay on my fingertips, his feet extending only to my wrist. While his mom delivered his brother, in my mind I began to speak to him. Realizing he would not be with us long, I wanted him to know a few things that make this life wonderful. I thought to him about bunnies and sunshine, crisp apples, hot sandy beaches and cool mountain streams. I silently spoke to him about ice cream and cake and how delightful it is to eat it after a meal, surrounded by family and friends, especially when there is something to celebrate. I told him he had arrived in this world because of love, and although he would be with us only a few minutes, he would never be forgotten. I said that Jesus loved him, and he would soon see Him face to face. I continued to hold that baby and smile, even though everyone else in the room-the nurses, his father, even the doctor, were fighting back tears.
After giving birth to her second son, the boys’ mother was wheeled across the hall where her family, friends and the delivery room staff had gathered so I could baptize the boys. Now I know that according to United Methodist doctrine, baptism is not required for a dying baby. But parents should not lose their twin sons, either. If baptizing those boys comforted my grieving friends, then I would do what they needed. By the time the sacrament was complete, the babies were dead.
For me, this experience was more my ordination than the laying on of hands by the Bishop a few months earlier. It was the first time I was present for a birth, the first time I witnessed a death and the first time I baptized anyone. A few days later, I would conduct my first funeral.
Driving two hours home from the hospital in the early morning light, I had time to reflect on what I had just experienced. During that lengthy conversation with God, the realization overcame me that although I had none of the required skills or experiences to handle the situation, I had remained composed, dry eyed and able to focus on the family’s pastoral needs. Even though I was young and felt inadequate and had longed for a rescue by someone more able than I. And why? Why was I able to do that which I believed I could not do? Because at the moment God needed me to do it, God made me able.
Fast forward 17 years:
The day the war began in Iraq, I was in Kuwait with Bravo Surgical Company waiting to be called forward to provide near-front-line pastoral care for Marines. Immediately after hearing that American forces had gone through the breach, scud missiles started coming at us from across the border. The first time they shelled us, everyone ran to the bunkers, donned gas masks, charcoal lined suits and floppy rubber boots, and waited, hoping we would not be hit. Our other wish was that there not be a chemical or biological agent attached to the scud that might prove worse than an instant death. We waited in eerie silence until we heard a thud in the distance. Then we waited to learn if there were follow-on dangers. Next to me, a barely out of high school Marine began to hyperventilate inside his mask. Unable to speak because of my mask, I pulled him close, put his head on my shoulder and rubbed his back until his breathing normalized and he became calm. I remember thinking then that I was sure I could not do all that would soon be asked of me. These people needed a chaplain, and theirs was shaking in her combat boots.
The second scud alert came less than two hours after the first. Since we had not been issued a loud speaker, we were warned by two corpsmen sent running in opposite directions across the compound screaming “bunker, bunker, bunker.” On the way to shelter, I ran past my tent to grab the suit that was supposed to protect me from chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear agents. I already had my gas mask strapped to my leg, and I was wearing a helmet, flak jacket, canteen and first aid kit as required. When I arrived, there was an envelope on my cot. I grabbed it with my protective gear and ran for safety to my assigned hole in the sand, which had been fortified by sandbags and a makeshift wooden roof. I was in the bunker about a half hour when I remembered the envelope. I didn’t think it was a letter because our camp’s mail system had not been functioning. I looked at it. The postmark said Poughkeepsie, NY and the return information showed it was from the grandparents of the twins. We had not seen each other in at least a dozen years. How did they know I was in the Navy, serving with Marines in the Middle East, and how on earth had they found my address? It had changed twice and none of us had, as yet, received mail. How was it possible that I was holding a letter from that family? Yet there it was.
And why had they written? To remind me that no matter how scared I might be or how inadequate I might feel, they knew for certain I was not alone. The couple wanted to reassure me that God, who had given me every strength to help them when they lost their grandchildren, would not fail me or forsake me in whatever lay ahead. They ended the letter by telling me that if the twins had lived, they would have been almost old enough to be with me in Iraq, and they assured me that, as I had cared for them, I would be able to care for the young people with me. As evidence of God’s providence and grace, enclosed with the letter was a photograph of their daughter and son-in-law with their two teenagers. I remembered then that after losing the twins, their daughter had been told she likely could not have children, but there they were in the photo smiling at me.
Now I know who wrote that letter, but I also know who sent it. And the timing was impeccable. Less than two hours after admitting I did not think myself capable of doing what I had been called to do, God sent a response in the words of a couple I had always admired for their strong faith. That our mail service was not functioning, I had not spoken with the letter writers in years, and I was in a temporary, remote place doing something about which they shouldn’t have had a clue only added to my certainty. But their message in direct response to my fear and self-doubt made it unmistakable.
A lesson I have come to trust, based on repeated experience, is that when God wants to get my attention, He uses ordinary means that have a touch of the extraordinary about them. How do I know? I just know.
Through the whole combat deployment, as we cared for the severely injured in our field hospital in very austere and at times, frightening conditions, I carried that letter and picture in my cargo pocket. Daily it served as a reminder that if I relied on God’s providence and care, it would be enough. I am not implying that I carried it like a good luck charm to save me from harm. We were at war, and war is chaotic and lethal. That is reality. But so is God’s peace and presence. For me that peace is best described in Romans 8:14 which reads: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”That letter was a concrete reminder that no matter what happened, God was paying attention. After all, He had sent me a message seventeen years in the making.
I am sharing this story with you now because we are again in an extraordinary situation. We do not know what lies ahead for us individually, as families, as a nation, or as residents of our international community. We are moving into the future in much the same way military members go off to war: we know there are grave risks, we know we will be forever changed by what is about to happen and we know we cannot opt out of the mission. Our mettle is about to be tested in very personal ways. So is our faith.
The Gospel of Matthew calls Jesus Emmanuel, which means God with us. Trust in Him. It will be enough.
Every time a military member reenlists or accepts promotion, he or she is required to reaffirm the oath of enlistment or oath of office, both of which include these words:
“I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
This vow, taken by generations of patriots who have backed it up with actions, has preserved the values of our nation, embodied in the Constitution, and if continually upheld will sustain those values for generations to come.
As we look to developing and sustaining our personal values, it might be helpful for us to adopt a similar level of intentionality and commitment by periodically reaffirming that oath with one word change:
“I will support and defend my character against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
The word “character” comes from Greek and means “to carve” or “to engrave”. It is the pattern engraved in us by the repetition of thoughts and behaviors along which we make moral and ethical choices. Its development is influenced by a variety of sources including family, friends, people we admire, life experiences and media of all sorts.
Like the Constitution, our character also has enemies. Some are foreign (outside us) and some are domestic–they come from inside us. Foreign enemies that assault our character may be friends with destructive habits, family members who manipulate and use us, individuals who devalue or abuse us, people who discourage adherence to moral codes or encourage us to lay aside that which promotes health in body, mind or spirit. Domestic enemies are also many, and may take the form of unmanaged feelings, laziness, addictions, selfishness, procrastination and poor self-image, to name a few. It is vital that we stay alert in the support and defense of our character against these enemies-within-and-without, for they can destroy us.
Instead of letting our characters be determined by default (not making conscious choices), or by reaction (to the behaviors or words of someone else) we must adopt a higher level of vigilance. We must work pro-actively to protect our character so we will not be hijacked by our emotions, our actions will continue to support our core values and our goals, we will not give in to harmful self-indulgence and we will not allow ourselves to be defined by people who have hurt us.
Is your character developing as you desire, or are you letting your life be “engraved” by “enemies”? Are the patterns that are being carved into you by repeated behaviors and thoughts leading you to a life lived with integrity and honor, or to one that is less principled? If there is any level of dissatisfaction in your answer, today is the right day to make a change. One way to begin your battle plan for the preservation and strengthening of your character is to raise your right hand and repeat these words:
“I will support and defend my character against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Keep in mind that every other vow you make in life depends on how well you fulfill this one.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” -Will Durant
The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers
In 2007, I had the privilege to study for a semester under Elie Wiesel. You likely know him not only because he is a Holocaust survivor and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize but because he is the author of over 35 books, among them Night, frequently required for reading in High School. The course, entitled Hope and Despair,gave us an opportunity to explore these issues through the lens of the collected literature of the Hasidic teachers, or Rebbes as they were called, who lived and taught during the 1700s, primarily in Central Europe. One of the most famous of these Rebbes was Yisrael Ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov, the founder the Hasidic movement.
Once the Baal Shem Tov was approached by his Hasidim and asked why he always answered their questions with a story. Then they waited for him to answer with yet another story, but after a “loving and lingering pause,” he responded: “Salvation lies in remembrance.” 1
Years later the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson, Rebbe Barukh of Medzebozh was talking with his Hasidim about their Torah studies and he told them this story:
“Do you know the legend about the light that shines above the child’s head before he is born? This light enables him to study and absorb the entire Torah. But one second before he enters into the world, the child receives a slap from his personal angel; in his fright, he forgets all that he has learned. So why study if it is all to be forgotten? It is to teach man the importance of forgetfulness–for it, too, is given by God. If man were not to forget certain things, if he were to remember the time that passes and the approaching death, he would not be able to live as a man among men. He would no longer go to plow his field; he would no longer build a house; nor would he have children. That is why the angel planted forgetfulness in him: to allow him to live.” 2
One lesson I learned by serving as a pastor and chaplain for thirty-four years is that the ability to forget can be a blessing. So many of us have suffered things in our lifetime that, were we to think on them often, they would severely impact our capacity to live fully. Sometimes those things come back involuntarily, invading our sleep with disturbing dreams and our waking times with intrusive thoughts. Other times these memories are invited, in the vain hope that if we ruminate on them often enough, the outcome might change. For all of us whose past continues to haunt and disturb, or even just causes us to live with undue caution, regret and pain, the ability to forget is truly a gift from God. It opens to us the opportunity to transcend our injuries and failings, it gives us hope for a future not defined by past trauma and it increases the possibility of forgiveness, both for ourselves and others. For me, one of the surprising delights of aging has been a growing inability to recall past grievances, which makes me wish I could forget more of them and sooner.
Forgetting is a blessing, but so is its antithesis – remembering, for by it we come to know our true selves. We are reminded of who we love and to whom we matter by the photos we carry. Thinking on the kindnesses we have experienced helps us discern our value to those around us. The love of our Creator is recalled by remembering the grace we have received. The difficulties we have overcome point to our resilience. Our ideals and principles are fortified by seeing the trust others place in us. The events and relationships we cherish evoke hallowed memories and fill our lives with meaning. No wonder the Baal Shem Tov declared “salvation lies in remembrance,” for by it we know who we are, what we value, and to whom we belong.
In a world fraught with things that threaten undo us, may God bless both your forgetting and your remembering so you might find both fullness of life and salvation for your soul.
1. Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Journey to Wholeness (New York: Bantam, 1992) 155.
2. Elie Wiesel, Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy (London: Notre Dame Press, 1978), 69.
This weekend many churches, including the one I attend, did not gather for worship in an effort to lower the incidence curve of Covid-19 in our communities. Although some people view the national request to restrict personal liberty as more of an imposition than a necessity, I see it as a sacred duty to follow the guidance of health professionals during the pandemic. As a Christian, I take seriously Jesus’ teaching “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) These words reinforce in me the need to choose my actions out of concern for those most vulnerable who are at risk of severe complications and even death from the virus.
As a New Yorker who served twenty years as a Navy chaplain, six of which was with the Marine Corps, three with an office next door to the Sergeant Major with a very thin wall separating us, I often find myself channeling my inner Gunny. Here is the translation:
“Unless you want to shoot Grandma outright, wash your filthy paws, quit picking your nose, keep your butt in the house, shut up and color… Belay my last. Go find something to clean.”
Taking that advice, I was writing (rather than cleaning) when a comment arrived from a former parishioner named Donna.
“Tell people about your pickle recipe and the sermon you gave about it.”
I admit including a recipe as a bulletin insert was unusual, and yes, I preached about pickles, but unlike some sermons which folks may claim are pointless, this time there really was one. Not only am I going to explain, since Donna asked me to do it, but if you stick with me to the end, there might even be help for that hand-washing problem we’ve been hearing about in the news for weeks-the problem being that so few of us do it properly, if at all. Yuk…
So here goes: (Don’t worry. It’s just a few comments, not a sermon)
For most Christians, baptism is a sacrament. It is also a topic for debate. Should we dip, sprinkle or fully immerse? Should there be Baby Dedication followed by Believer’s Baptism or Infant Baptism followed by confirmation? Since my faith group is of the latter persuasion, is it proper to baptize infants who may sleep or poop their way through the event, or as it happened to me, grab the pastor’s shiny, dangling earring causing a yowl from said pastor that was definitely NOT part of the liturgy? Since baptizing infants requires their parents to promise to raise them in faith until they are old enough to confirm for themselves the vow made on their behalf, what do you do about parents you know are lying? Many times parents would tell me they wanted to “get their kid done” to get the grandparents off their case. I didn’t know whether I should be checking the child’s diaper for that thing that pops up out of a turkey to let you know it’s ready or advertising baptism as an equivalent to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Despite all the tradition and lack thereof about the practice of baptism, a few things are essential. Repentance, the turning away from sin and all that separates us from God; water, used to wash away all unrighteousness and as a sign of commitment to that new life; and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, to guide the newly baptized in a way that leads to eternal life in Christ. Which means that baptism is about getting one begun, not done. It is a commencement, at any age, not a “Thank God that’s over” occasion.
So, what does this have to do with pickles?
Having studied Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, I often feel compelled to peruse the Greek text before I preach. Why waste 3 ½ torturous years learning a language which nobody alive speaks? Besides, the nuanced word usages and meanings are interesting and increase my understanding of the text.
On the day which Donna remembers as Pickle Sunday, the Gospel lesson was Luke 12:49-56, a passage in which Jesus tells his hearers he has come not to bring peace to the earth, but division. This will occur because those who follow his teachings will find their priorities and values reordered in ways that will put them at odds with cultural norms. In verse 50, Jesus speaks of the trials he, too, will undergo in his clash with the establishment. He says, “But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!”
In my study of this passage, I spent some time looking over the word translated here as “baptism.” That word is baptizo, which means to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash or overwhelm. But later in the same gospel the root of this word is used for merely dipping one’s finger in water. “And he (the rich man) cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus (a beggar), that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.” (Luke 16:24) The Greek word used here is bapto, which means to dip or dye. So, what is really meant by baptism? Is it a simple dip in some water that gets one wet, or if color is added merely changes one’s outward appearance? Or does baptism mean something more?
A statement written by James Montgomery Boice, published in the May 1989 edition of Bible Study Magazine, and quoted in many Bible commentaries, provides an easy-to-understand description of the difference. On Pickle Sunday I read it to my congregation:
“The clearest example that shows the meaning of baptizo is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles and is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ (bapto) into boiling water and then ‘baptised’ (baptizo) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptizing the vegetable, produces a permanent change.”
To get back to our current situation, that of trying to reduce the incidence of Covid-19 by voluntarily curtailing some of our personal liberties and being vigilant about hygiene, it is time for those of us who have been baptized into Christ to take that transforming commitment seriously. We must be at the forefront of care in our communities in whatever capacity we are called. If that means in the trenches, then please take all precautions and practice self-care so you do not wear out from its lack. If that means spending quality time with family in quarantine, be on your best behavior. No one wants to be stuck inside with a self-absorbed _____ (sorry, channeling my inner Gunny again).
Far too many “Christians” have treated their baptisms like they do their hand-washing practices – a dip in the water that changes nothing. Today, as you soap up for a 20 second scrub, may your hands be transformed from potential lethal weapons into agents of care that make your commitment to Christ obvious to all–from at least 10 feet away, of course.
The first time I heard Cora’s voice was over the phone. “Are you the pastor?” she asked. It was 1990, and I was female, so most people still phrased that question with more shock than a need for clarification in their voices. “Are you the pastor?” they’d say with disdain or disbelief. But not Cora; she’d never met me, so she was just trying to make sure she had the right person on the line.
“Yes, I am. How may I help……” I didn’t even get the phrase out.
“Please come over. My husband is dead.” Click. She hung up. I put the receiver down and stared at the phone. It rang again. “My name is Cora and I live at…” She gave me her address.
“I’ll be right over.”
“Good,” she replied and hung up again.
I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I arrived. Had her husband just died? Was he sprawled on the kitchen floor where he’d dropped or sitting with a blank stare in his favorite chair? Maybe he had died a day or two ago and she had been so paralyzed with grief that she couldn’t find the voice to call. Or maybe he had been dead a long time, and I’d be overcome with the odor when she opened the front door to lead me to the back bedroom where his rotting remains were melting into the mattress.
I drove into the nearby trailer park and followed the numbers around the circle until I found hers. She lived in an older, more established, single-wide with another half attached, which, as it turned out, was a pleasant dining room that caught the afternoon sun. Her front door opened into this room and she was standing at it when I arrived.
“Here I am,” she called, waving an arm around the open screen.
I introduced myself and she invited me in. I scanned the rooms as I entered. No body in the recliner by the picture window. The kitchen floor was empty. I sniffed the air. It smelled like tea.
“You called about your husband,” I said cautiously.
“Yeah, he died a few months ago, and I’m lonely. I made us some tea. You take sugar?” I nodded. Tea with sugar was my favorite, but after several years of home visitation I had learned to be wary of offered refreshments. Lollys, my pet name for little old ladies, often had trouble seeing if their dishes were clean or remembering just how long something had been in the refrigerator. So I’d learned to eat or drink whatever was offered, kiss it up to God and hope for the best. Cora’s tea was good, and so were the Pepperidge Farm cookies. We ate them right out of the bag.
Cora told me she was 80, and she looked it. Like most women her age she was beginning to fade–her hair had lost its color; she’d shrunk in both height and weight; she had health issues–but what she was losing in physicality she more than made up for in personality. Having worked for many years as a police dispatcher, she had no problem being direct, even with the wiliest of individuals. This trait came in handy when dealing with her usually absent extended family. She told me that the husband who had recently died was number four. Having outlived the first three, she’d then married her childhood sweetheart. His name was Bill, and she really missed him.
“Maybe I should have been more specific when I told you my husband was dead,” she said with a grin. “You probably thought there was a corpse rotting in my bedroom…” We chatted for two hours, and as I left her house, she gently socked me in the jaw. “Come see me again, kid, this was fun!”
She started attending church services and liked to give me commentary on the behavior of the parishioners. With the magnification of her eyeglass lenses, I had no problem seeing her rolling her eyes at their antics when I looked toward her from the pulpit. “Judy is too bossy,” she’d tell me later. “Wayne is a show-off.” Once she asked me about the handsome man who sat in the next pew.
“He’s gay,” I explained.
“Honey, I’m just shopping, I’m not buying.” The next week she showed up in his car. “I told him I needed a ride,” she said with a smirk.
I dropped by when I could. One afternoon was spent trying on hats from the top of her closet. Another was to see the hole in her stomach after major surgery. “I want you to look at it and tell me what you see,” she ordered as the visiting nurse changed the gauze packing.
“It’s a really big hole.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” she said, trying to grin.
Cora was the kind of person who aged, but never grew old. The last time I saw her was just before she turned 90. Having been reassigned to another church in 1994, I hadn’t been her pastor for five years, but we’d kept in touch. I was on my way from the Naval Chaplains School in Newport, RI to my first assignment: two-and-a-half years of isolated duty in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We both knew this was the last time we would see each other.
We met at Dennys for lunch. “So what did you do at boot camp?” she quizzed, eager for some fresh story of adventure. I told her about being the nozzleman at firefighting training, about entering and exiting a non-landing helicopter by hanging from a rope, I even showed her the blisters from a three-day hike. She was enthralled.
“Hey Cora, do you think I am nuts for running away and joining the Navy at 40?”
“No, honey, if you want to be me at 90 you gotta do these crazy things at your age!” I rolled my eyes.
When lunch was over, and we were getting ready to say good bye, Cora looked more serious then I’d ever seen her. “Could you promise me something, honey? Would you do my funeral?” I looked straight at her.
“No Cora, I can’t. Your pastor will do that.” She grunted, obviously swallowing some commentary on the new pastor. “I can’t do your funeral, Cora, but there is something I can promise. I promise I will always miss you.” She grinned.
It’s Christmastime again. Last week when I was out to sea on USS New York, my husband Ken (you’d like him) brought down the boxes of decorations from the attic and before I got home, had hung your sleigh bells on the front door. I love how they jingle on our way in or out, and they were especially cheery to hear when I arrived home after ten days away. How is it you have been gone for sixteen years and can still bring joy to others?
I remember when we met. I was standing by the side door greeting parishioners on my first Sunday as pastor of my first church. I felt inadequate and awkward; secretly wishing that the real minister would show up and take charge. You stopped to shake hands with me and asked if you could show me around town the next day. I remember that you told me you had made the same offer to the previous preacher on his first Sunday, too, but he had not taken you up on it. So how could I refuse? You were the patriarch of the congregation–you’d been there longer than anyone else. I didn’t want to turn down your invitation, but I was anxious about it. You were more than fifty years my senior. It seemed silly to imagine I could be your pastor.
The next day you came to pick me up at the parsonage and we headed straight for the cemetery. That this was our first stop surprised me. We drove up the hill near the more recent interments and got out of the car. “Let me tell you about your congregation,” you’d said as you began pointing to various graves. “Let’s start with their parents who are buried here. That will help you understand why they are the way they are,” you said with a grin.
You know, Elmer, the stories you told me that day gave me valuable insight into the dynamics at play in our church. And when later in the day you took me to the other churches and helping agencies in town and introduced me as you pastor, I started to think or at least hope that perhaps I could be. But nothing made me feel as welcome as when we visited your wife Evelyn’s grave and after telling me at length about her, you paused, looked right at me and said, “You know, she’d like you.” It was the best compliment I could imagine.
Although making me welcome was part of your agenda for that day, I know it was not the whole story. You were also getting things settled. At eighty you knew you would not live much longer, and you needed to make plans. So you took me to see the graves of the people you had known and loved throughout your life and then got down to business. “One day you will bring me here and leave me,” you’d said. “And when you do that, I don’t want you to feel bad. I’ve lived a good life and have now outlived most of my closest companions. On the day you bring me here, Pastor, remember that you are really bringing me home.”
So I guess I should not have been surprised when four and a half years later, on my last Sunday as your pastor before I transferred to my next assignment, I got a phone call after lunch. “Elmer was found dead in his recliner” the voice on the other end of the line said.
“But I just saw him a few hours ago,” I remember responding. “He attended the Sunday service and shook hands with me on his way home. How can he be dead?” But you were. After worship you’d gone back to your house, sat down in your favorite chair and gone home to be with Evelyn and all those people to whom you’d introduced me. And the last thing I did before I left that church for good was take you up the hill in Wappingers Rural Cemetery to where the more recent graves were located and leave you, just as you’d said I would. And I didn’t feel bad doing it. It’s not that I didn’t miss you; we all missed you. You were a sweet and caring man. But I didn’t feel bad because I’d been able to do for you exactly what you’d asked me to do — send you home to that place we both know is wonderful.
Now since it is Christmas again, Elmer, I must report to you on how my other assignment is going. You remember, the one about the bells? It was a snowy day when you gave them to me. The church youth group had stopped by your house to sing a few carols, and as you’d done every year, you’d come out on your porch to jingle the bells and join us in singing. They were real sleigh bells, you’d told us. They’d come off a sleigh you’d ridden in as a child, and the sound of them accompanying the carols never ceased to bring a smile to our faces. They were one of your treasures, so I was surprised when, on what turned out to be your last Christmas, you called me back as the teens headed off toward the next house. Placing the bells in my hand, you gave me the assignment: “Make sure you find a way for them to bring someone joy each Christmas,” you’d said.
Well, Elmer, here is this year’s report: Tonight, my husband was invited to play Santa Claus for the children of Sailors who are not yet halfway through a nine month deployment. These Sailors will not be home for Christmas, nor were they there for Thanksgiving. They will miss Easter with their families and even Memorial Day. But tonight, when they heard your sleigh bells, their faces brightened with expectation, for Santa (who is not subject to Navy deployments) was arriving as scheduled, just as you did in heaven.
So thank you, Elmer, not only for helping me to become your pastor, but for your perpetual Christmas gift, which warms our hearts every year — that of finding ways to bring joy to others.