Update on June 15, 2017:
I wrote the post below nearly six years ago. This past Tuesday, I learned that Z., the parishioner I wrote about, died last week. She had been in a nursing home for the past few years, which resulted in a huge improvement to her health. Two years ago, she re-connected with long estranged family members who, until they heard her voice on the phone, thought Z. had been dead for years. They continued to visit her at the nursing home regularly up until her death. Emmanuelites also continued to visit her and sent her cards.
Tomorrow Emmanuel will hold a funeral for her, this woman who both taught us and learned from us how friends accompany each other: doggedly, imperfectly, earnestly, generously, with forgiveness, patience, admiration, and whatever else we can muster, in service to each other and to the mysterious force that is the gravity of love. We’ll sing, pray, and eat with her one last time (while Z. came to and ate at every potluck, she steadfastly refused to participate in communion because she was afraid of germs). Then we’ll send Z. along to the burying ground, and to whatever is next. I hope her version of heaven is a place where, among other things, she is the only one allowed to smoke. She loved smoking, but hated when anyone else did.
This poem I read recently is for Z.
Enriching the Earth
by Wendell Berry
To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass
to grow and die. I have plowed in the seeds
of winter grains and various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal
and the decay of the growth of past seasons
and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark. Against the shadow
of veiled possibility my workdays stand
in a most asking light. I am slowly falling
into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness
and a delight to the air, and my days
do not wholly pass. It is the mind’s service,
for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest
and most mute is at last raised up into song.
Original post, dated July 25, 2011:
All the churchgoing I’ve done in my adult life has been in urban settings. When I compare this to the churchgoing of my childhood, the biggest differences seem to be that, as an adult, I’ve attended churches with a lot more people who are either visibly mentally ill, or homeless, or both.
Listening to the radical teachings of a homeless rabbi to the marginalized people of a land occupied by a hostile foreign army is a lot more intense when some of my pewmates are marginalized people who stink to high heaven because they don’t have a regular place to bathe or wash their clothes, and/or who are clearly struggling to keep any sort of grip on their minds. Some have been given to what I think of as Liturgical Wandering, where they get up and mill about at inappropriate moments. Some have come storming down the center aisle, hollering incoherently and angrily. Some have panhandled during communion. You get the idea.
We have a few regulars at my church who are in the category that PW refers to as “the least, the last and the lost.” Like all the rest of us who more easily pass as “normal” (even though in our own ways we are also “least, last, and lost”), some are higher functioning than others. Recently, one of our “least, last, and lost” responded to an announcement in the worship folder that offered pastoral care services to anyone who needs them.
I will call this person Z.
Z’s pastoral care needs include help with laundry, grocery shopping, and getting rides to and from church. I don’t know if there’s any diagnosable condition involved, but Z is consumed with fear and suspicion. This results in incredibly tense situations at church, especially around personal contact (touching) and food. I’ve seen more than a few well-meaning people tenderly touch Z on the shoulder while trying to find out what it is that Z needs, only to find themselves on the other end of Z’s outraged, “Get your HANDS OFF OF ME! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE??”
Yesterday, I volunteered to give Z a ride home from church. Well, I didn’t exactly volunteer. PW asked if I would do it. I didn’t want to do it, but when my inner Bartleby the Scrivener muttered “I would prefer not to,” I took a deep breath and said “too bad” to it. Then I responded to PW with, “Okay.” There were at least a thousand other things I would rather have done, but it’s a shallow, flimsy, and ultimately worthless commitment to a difficult and demanding faith tradition if I only show up for the people I enjoy. There’s at least one thing I’ve learned in all these years of church-going: if we’re really following the example of our homeless rabbi, being a Christian is less like a garden party, and more like mud wrestling.
At the exchange of the peace during church yesterday, the co-chair of the pastoral care committee, B, hugged me and wished me “many blessings” on my afternoon adventure with Z. B knows how important those blessings are. She recently spent something like 5 hours sitting in a laundromat while Z did laundry and refused all help. I didn’t realize that such a simple exchange with someone I love would end up becoming a life preserver that I would cling to desperately in order to get through the afternoon.
Giving Z a ride home was excruciating – it took way too long, it overwhelmed every one of my senses in bad ways, and it tapped the bottom of qualities I think of myself as having in abundance: patience, kindness, compassion, empathy, and good humor. I completely underestimated the effect that an hour’s worth of Z’s paranoia would have on me. I knew that I was only experiencing a sliver of what it is like for Z to navigate the world on a daily basis. This simultaneously comforted me, made me feel ill, and shattered my heart. I squeezed the life preserver of B’s blessings and hung on tight.
As you may have gathered from the description of the scene at the laundromat, Z moves at a glacially slow pace. After a complicated and time-consuming trip to the grocery store, where I thought Z might collapse from stress, we arrived at Z’s apartment. I carried the groceries up and stacked them precariously on one of the few available flat surfaces. Z thanked me awkwardly, and looked smaller than ever as I closed the door behind me. When I left the tiny, chaotic room that Z calls home, I got in my car and took a deep breath. I didn’t know if I would throw up or start sobbing, or both.
I sat there for a few minutes, bobbing in the sea of a wider world that was both roiling with the shock, horror, and grief of Norway – where my grandfather was born – and buoyant with the glee, relief, and wonder of the many same-sex couples across the State of New York, who spoke their vows to each other and got to hear the thrilling words, “By the power vested in me by the laws of the state of New York, I now pronounce you legally married.” I let the tears come.
More and more, I think the practice of going to church is, basically, swimming in the School of Love. It’s about learning that sometimes love is as simple, and as difficult, as escorting a nausea-inducing person to your car, opening the door, and helping the person sit down on the once pristine passenger seat. It is about remembering to hold your breath while you reach across to help that person, who does not want to be touched, with the seat belt. It is about wielding a grocery cart and 20 bucks to buy diet soda, blueberry muffins, pita bread, hummus, and taboule. It is about choosing to be compassionate, even when everything about it makes you feel ill.
One of my swim coaches once told me, “You won’t get any better if you back off from the pain. So if you want to be better, when you get to the pain, just swim through it.” He made it sound so easy. Oh sure, la dee dah! Just swim through it! La la! Even when I knew there was an endorphin rush on the other side, I always found it terrifying to swim through the pain. That was several decades and two shoulders ago, before I found that most of life’s swimming doesn’t happen anywhere near a pool.
What do I want to be when I grow up? Better. Better at compassion today than yesterday. Better at love this year than last. Better at doing the next right thing than I was just a moment ago. And so I keep swimming in the School of Love, clinging to the lifeline of my many blessings.