There is a point in each Sunday worship when I ask the people in the congregation to share their joys and concerns from the past week. Here is my list from this morning:
- Got to hold my three week old granddaughter, sing her some hymns, and make her some promises about the things we will do when she gets older (sweet joy)
- Heard the news that daughter Scarlette is expecting their second child this spring (surprise joy)
- Heard that my cousin Charlie died (very sad)
- Started my 47th year in the ministry this weekend (Lord have mercy)
- My beloved Chicago Cubs enter the playoffs (tap me on the shoulder and tell me to open my eyes and ears when its over)
- Got to see my friends at Holy Wisdom Monastery and spend a week there (familiar joy)
- Listened to the Ford/Kavanaugh hearings (big concern)
- Sliced a finger open cleaning a stove (concern because I only have 3 "working" fingers out of 10 at the moment...hard to type this!)
- Got to spend the moon festival with Jie, Scarlette, Sean, and Tristan last Sunday (joy)
- Got to spend a little extra time with Mindy (who was also in Madison, Wisconsin, to spend time with her new niece)
Holy Wisdom Monastery outside Madison, Wisconsin, has been my choice of spiritual retreat for almost 30 years now. The monastery is both a place and a community. The place includes 138 acres of prairie, woods, lake, gardens, guesthouse, and monastery center. The "community" is centered in five women who have gathered various hundreds of other women and men around them to pray, teach Benedictine spirituality, restore the environment, guide women in vocational choices, and work for justice.
For me, spiritual
"retreat," unlike a military retreat, should not mean going backward. It should simply be a way to pull off the main highway for a spell in order to get in touch with God and God's purpose for one's life. It is the chance to hear the still, small voice of God, the whispers of God...rather than always trying to interpret the will of God in earthquake, hurricane, and fire.
It was on the way to the monastery that I got word that my cousin Charlie had died.
I have 17 cousins, making 22 in my generation when you add in my siblings and myself. There are now 20 of us still living.
Aunt Betty had "the twins" (Charlie and Bill) six months after I was born. And until their family moved to California (when we were about 12) we were together quite a bit. The thing I remember most about Charlie back then was his lack of fear. Things like blood...and parental wrath: none of that seemed to phase him. His brother Bill was really easy going...and didn't seem too upset about the stuff Charlie instigated. But Charlie always made me a bit nervous. I always suspected that if I did everything Charlie suggested, I probably wouldn't live to be a teenager.
But there was something about Charlie that none of us could ever resist. His sense of humor spilled over everyone he met. He became a big man...physically...and somehow parlayed his size into a symbol of his extravagant generosity and fearless loyalty to all his family and friends. By the time he died, he was 20 years clean, and a big help to others in Narcotics Anonymous.
He would be disappointed if I didn't emphasize to all my readers that he was a man of pure orneriness...until the end. But he would have expressed that dispute with my with a sort of crinkle in his eyes and burgeoning smile.
As adults, we seldom crossed paths. California and Illinois
are too far apart. We both had our work to do. He discovered that there are a lot of toothless people in California who needed his custom-made dentures. And I discovered that there are a lot of Christians in Illinois who needed a pastor to corral them. And since I never needed any of his dentures...and he never let
corral him...I reckon we can anticipate enjoying each other's company on the other side more than we did on this earth. But he and his family have been much in my prayers and fond memories this week.
But life moves back and forth between birth and death.
My new granddaughter Isobel lives about 20 minutes away from the monastery. I confess I slipped away for a couple evenings to be with her. (okay...
As I sat holding her yesterday morning, coincidentally the 46th anniversary of my being a pastor, I wondered how I might best bless her...in whatever time God gives us together. There's not much I can do for her these days, other than give her mother and father encouragement...and a hand now and then. So I just sang to her...and told her wonderful places I would take her when she got older.
But soon enough there will come a day when Isobel and I will share the gift of language. And then I shall tell her a head-full of stories, and sing her a heart-full of songs. And some of those stories will be about her Charlie, her "first-cousin-twice-removed." And his relationship with me will be immortalized in one of the lyrics I shall sing to her: "Twas grace that taught my heart to fear" (that would be me...learning the fears that kept me safe and alive) and "Twas grace our fears relieved (that would be Charlie...who knew a divine grace that freed him from so many fears that paralyze us normal people.)
And until Isobel...and Sean...and descendants yet to come...are able to understand what I say and sing...meanwhile...those stories and songs will be a comfort for me...as I ponder birth...and death...and "community"... and holy places...and anniversaries.