Church Camp: This isn't "like church" it IS church

by Donald Schell

My wife Ellen and I just returned from a week at the Bishop’s Ranch, an Episcopal Diocese of California Conference and Camp Center in Healdsburg California. We were there as grandparent participants in the annual Family Camp that Bishop Bill Swing asked us to found twenty-five years ago.

It was the longest our grandson had been away from his parents and the longest time we’d been responsible for him. He is three years old. He experienced a the different kind of independence and interaction with many adults that the temporary village of Family Camp makes possible. He did arts projects alongside us (or vice versa). He began exploring water games in the swimming pool. We participated in daily Eucharist with us. We read him bedtime stories and talked about how he missed his mom and dad. At the end of camp he was eager to see them and then wondered if we could bring them back with us for “more camp.” The three of us had a rich and joyful time together.

For Ellen and me, it was also a return; we’d been away from this Family Camp for ten years. Starting when our youngest was fourteen months old and for fifteen years, we’d led and participated in this camp as parents-leaders, me as camp dean shaping staff, guiding chapel and collaborating on program development, and Ellen as camp nurse and collaborating on program development. We shared leadership over those ten years with other volunteer staff

– an energizing and inspiring convenor/gatherer,
- a storyteller,
- an artist who could conceive and guide hands-on multi-generational arts projects,
- a musician gifted to inspire even “non-singers” to join our music making.

Together we grew this event until our team was leading an annual, multi-generational gathering of a hundred or so people, capacity for the Bishop’s Ranch. For a week each year new and returning parents and children, grandparents, uncles and aunts, teenagers and infants and a handful of close family friends lived, worked, prayed and played together.

This year, the twenty-sixth Family Camp in this ongoing tradition, we joined regulars and newcomers to welcome Kate Flexer’s new leadership. At a closing Family Camp Eucharist last year Elizabeth and the whole community had blessed Kate and Jim in the new role they were taking on. Kate is a parish priest from El Camino Real, our neighboring diocese. She and her husband Jim Hinch (a writer and editor with the voice and spirit to make people glad to hear daily announcements and a great gatherer and people-organizer) we were working with a team that our successor and Kate’s predecessor, Elizabeth DeRuff had gathered -
-musicians Fred Goff and Christopher Putnam, two skilled classically trained musicians who also love community singing and practice both with their congregations in the diocese of California,

- artist, Rene Billingslea, is a visual artist on the faculty of Santa Clara University with the imagination to create projects that will engage people of many levels of skill and the different attention span of differing ages,
- guitarist and youth encourager, Craig Benson, a water resources specialist from California’s far northern reaches who brought a strong ecological voice to our chapel and program.

Elizabeth DeRuff herself, the priest who’d led Family Camp for ten years after my wife and I moved on, was back for a couple of days with her husband Dave, who’d carried the role of energizing and inspiring convenor/gatherer for their ten years. They’d come back to spend a couple of days with the Family Camp community. Kate invited Elizabeth to preside at one of our six daily all-generational, Gospel-enacting, sung and danced Eucharists.

It was a joy to Ellen and me to be back and to sense the camp community’s deeply rooted continuity and lively development. I was pleased and startled to see the culture, customs, and ritual of family camp growing so recognizably from patterns of its earliest days. Undoubtedly part of the continuity we saw in the chapel was thanks to the ongoing participation of Rick Fabian, my longtime work partner in parish work founding St. Gregory’s, San Francisco.

As you’d expect in any community that had passed the quarter century mark (!) at lot had happened in the ten years we’d been away. Several families had moved on as their children had grown up. New families we’d never met before had made this camp a regular part of their summers, often finding their way into the extended leadership network Elizabeth and Dave DeRuff had fostered. Moms, dads, uncles, aunts, and grandparents were continuing to devote a week of their summer vacation to being together and with their children and continuing to do the work of Christian and human formation together. It was recognizably and undoubtedly…yes, church.

An old friend, a Family Camp regular since her now grown older daughters were toddlers, was at camp with her young teen.

Her husband, an attorney who’d developed a bad case of laryngitis, was reluctantly healing at home. He deeply understands and values community and loves Family Camp, and he thought keeping silent for the whole of camp would be harder than not speaking as he healed at home.

My friend offered the word “church” to describe what we were experiencing and what twenty-five years had built. She said, “You know, this isn’t just ‘like church,’ this IS church. It really is another parish of the diocese. Think about it – every day we’re sharing Eucharist and offering our prayers. We pray at each meal and eat together. We work together, caring for the children and giving them safe space to grow and find their freedom. We listen to each other and help people celebrate great things and make their way through hard things. There’s a lot of congregations where people don’t spend this much time praying and working with their fellow congregants in a whole year.”

I recognized the simple truth my friend was offering. This Family Camp (like other ongoing gatherings at Episcopal Camp and Conference Centers around the country) does what our best congregations do. Whether playing together or facing the flare-ups of conflict and working them through, we were practicing love and looking for the presence of the Spirit among us. We were becoming and experiencing ourselves as the Body of Christ. We were engaged in genuine human and Christian formation of the most powerful sort as Episcopal Camps do (and as ECCC and Forma, our network of Christian Education and Formation professionals are working to help the whole church understand)

In our first year of camp Ellen and I and our planners made a serious planning mistake. We sent word out in diocesan communication channels that Family Camp would be “more fun than Club Med.” Does our congregations sometimes make the same mistake. In that first year some campers were dismayed that we were counting on people to participate and to pitch in to help a build a community. The families who didn’t see what we were building together for taking their kids to movie matinees and an amusement park in the nearest town. We talked together a lot that year, staff and participants, about what we were doing and how to tell the story and invite people in. The next year our promotion line was “Come and help make it happen!” The talking together during camp that first year and the shift in how we invited participants made a huge difference to the shared experience of the second year of camp.

Like any congregation, Family Camp has a congregational culture, Family Camp ways of doing things. Part of that culture lies in the chapel, meal and activity practices we offered and which participants embraced. Part of the culture was shaped over time as leaders and participants together developed a shared story. Camp makes a tradition and continues to welcome change. It’s not just what camp does together - every year Camp has welcomed new participants (this year, it was about twenty out of a hundred participants, a typical proportion) and helped them join in making Camp happen, invited them to share practices, told the story, and invited them to make their own invitation to camp activities. My friend’s calling this “church” feels accurate. Family Camp is a yearly week-long practice in the Communion of Saints.
I told my wife what our friend had said about Camp being real church. Ellen added her thought that the gathering bell calling us to daily sung Eucharist, to gather to sing grace before every meal, and to find our way to the day’s work brought participants an undeclared, hidden taste of monastic community. Her observation also felt true to me.

We’d seen this happening in our fifteen years leading the camp -

- When Family Camp gathered around a lesbian couple that we prayed through the agonizing wait while domestic court considered their move to adopt their foster daughters,
- When we provided solace and five days of day care for parents coping with insurance claims and sifting through the ashes of the family home that burned down the first day of camp. We heard the horrifying news with them at dinner our first evening. We prayed with them, and then for the week folded their kids into the camp community as mom and dad commuted home daily and back to camp each evening for dinner and after dinner singing and storytelling as camp was the only shelter the family had that week.
- As we grieved and laughed and wept with a mom who was at camp between chemo sessions in stage four cancer and heard her wish that if she didn’t make it, her husband and daughter return to camp the following year to bury part of her ashes at Family Camp. Family Campers reached out through that year as she was dying, and the dad and daughter did return for the next year’s camp. We had her ashes with us in the chapel through our week of camp and prayed for her and her family, and at our concluding Eucharist we celebrated an all-generations-included Eucharist and committal service and said our good-byes.
- During the months away from camp, when campers were scattered to their home parishes, other campers, grandparents, parents, and at least one child in the ongoing Family Camp community died. And of course children grew and we all aged and welcomed young adults are children’s ages into leadership with us. The ongoing Family Camp community moved through a whole generation of time and more.

Loving stories of what we’ve been through and done together, of the friends who’d died and of those who’d moved away are part of Family Camp, the cultural work of remembering and shaping the narrative of a shared journey.

Coming back after a decade away, I was moved as moved seeing how completely the Family Camp community had embraced ways that we’d begun as I was delighted to experience how creatively and naturally the community had found ways to grow and expand its repertoire of practices and customs.

It was hugely evident Elizabeth and Dave, our successor leaders, had done a great job of steadily building on experience, recruiting more volunteer leaders, welcoming newcomers and building the culture. Talking with Kate, my younger colleague who has taken on this annual pastorate to share it with her husband and other lay and clergy volunteers, I realized how much I’d learned from all we tried together at camp, practices and experiences that I took home to congregational life and crucial growth in my skills as a collaborative pastoral leader.

When we started this Family Camp twenty-five years ago, our youngest son was fourteen months old. We returned this year as primary caregivers (for the week) of our three-year-old grandson. This year’s new leaders, Kate and Jim have their own small children. Whole-hearted participation (by all) and full-time leadership (for some) necessarily overlaps with full-time parenting. It can only happen with a leadership team of other parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents working together.

We were a couple of years into Family Camp when I first heard the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.” I thought immediately of Family Camp. Because we were leader-participants with a toddler and two other children at the beginning, we had to build shared leadership into this model of weeklong community. But what shared leadership helped create is a culturally resilient, vibrant community that is, as many adult campers say, “What church back home should be.” And stepping back into this continuing community ten years out, what I saw so clearly what my friend had said, this isn’t “like church,” it IS church.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Talking snakes and traditional marriage

by Elizabeth Kaeton

What makes a marriage Christian? What is the relationship between the Church’s blessing of a relationship, whether different-gender or same-gender, and a union, “marriage” or otherwise, created by civil law? Is the blessing of a same-gender relationship equivalent to the marriage of a different-gender couple, and if so, should this liturgy be called “marriage”?

These are some of the questions posed by the SCLM (Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music) in Resolution A050, which asks that the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies create a Task Force on the Study of Marriage. The resolution specifies that the task force consist of “not more than twelve people, consisting of theologians, liturgists, pastors, and educators, to identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage”.

Already, many are weighing in on the definition of “traditional marriage” – by which many mean to hold us to the line of “tradition”, i.e., “the way we’ve always done it before”: one (fertile) man and one (fertile) woman. At least, that’s the “tradition” that’s fresh in the minds of many.

If you want to build a case for that definition of “traditional marriage”, I have a suggestion: Don’t start with Scripture. You’ll find a greater case there for polygamy and contract negotiations between two men for the “property” of a woman than “traditional marriage”.

Most folks who want to build a case for “traditional marriage” begin with the Story of Creation, with particular emphasis on The Fall. This is a natural default position for those of the evangelical persuasion who seem blithely unaware that both stories are just that: stories. Myths. They are lovely stories - holy, sacred stories, to be sure - but they are not "The Truth" as we know it today, informed as we are by research and science and archeology and forensics and the like.

These stories are the way ancient people sat around the wilderness campfire at night and told stories to try and understand "the meaning of Life". Their inherent value lies in the evidence they provide of our evolution as human beings whose understandings about God's action in the history of our lives has also evolved. As such, these stories have great meaning and significance, but in no way do they provide the architectural foundation for the meaning of marriage.

There is something in the human condition - no matter how young or old we are - that loves a good story. Our ears perk up when we hear, "Once upon a time....." and we wait for the ending, "....and they lived happily ever after."

We have our "happily ever after" when we follow the path Jesus has set for us which leads to Life Eternal. Everything else is just details.

Ah, someone is saying, "the devil is in the details."


If you base your theological understanding of "traditional marriage" on myths that include talking snakes, then the church is in a whole lot more trouble than anything blessing covenants between two people of the same gender could bring.

I mean, seriously? Talking snakes and "The Fall"? That can be believed but not the belief that there is goodness and holiness in my 37-year faithful, monogamous relationship?

Isn't that where the conversation about "traditional marriage" always leads? It’s not a simply means to fortify the status quo but to take down anything that doesn’t look like what might have made a Norman Rockwell portrait of Americana on the front cover of The Saturday Evening Post.

I find the whole conversation about Scripture and Traditional Marriage to be surreal when it's not condescending and arrogant and deeply insulting. I find myself going back to the 38th Chapter of Job and hearing the questions which Job reports God asked him, like: "Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?"

I'm sure some find this sort of conversation enlightening and, perhaps even intellectually entertaining, but I've been in the struggle for Marriage Equality for a long time. I’ve heard it all before and I know where it leads. In the end, we all become scriptural gymnasts, twisting and turning as we try and impose the meaning we want to give on ancient words that had an entirely different context and intent in their meaning.

Sigh. I suppose it has to be done. Point, counterpoint and onward into the whirlwind of human folly. "Knowledge puffs up but love builds up" (1Corinthians 8:1b)

I do take some comfort in the fact that Resolution A050 asks, “That the task force consult with couples living in marriage and in other lifelong committed relationships and with single adults”; and “That the task force consider issues raised by changing societal and cultural norms and legal structures, including legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships between two people of the same sex, in the U.S. and other countries where The Episcopal Church is located”.

Yes, after we talk to all the “theologians, liturgists, pastors, and educators, to identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage”, please lets look at the realities we are facing in today’s world and try and find some meaning and hear some stories – just the way our ancient forebears did.

I am especially heartened that A050 also asks, “That the task force develop tools for theological reflection and norms for theological discussion at a local level.” This, I think, is an even deeper challenge than defining marriage. If we can do that for this important issue, perhaps we’ll have a means and methodology to discuss other controversial issues in the church.

Perhaps with a way to talk and listen to each other instead of listening to talking snakes, we may well find a way to talk about the traditions of mutual love, fidelity, intimacy and mutuality that are at the heart and soul of Christian marriage.

The Rev'd Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton is an Episcopal priest who loves Jesus unconditionally and struggles with the institutional church continually. She is currently a member of and assists at All Saints Rehoboth Beach and St George's Chapel, Harbeson, DE and has a private pastoral counseling and consulting practice. She blogs at Telling Secrets.

A year of house church and home school in NYC

by Kerlin Richter

I am candidate for ordination from the Diocese of Oregon, who moved to New York City last summer with my husband and seven-year-old son to attend General Theological Seminary. In Portland, Adin was at a really awesome public school, but the school here wasn’t a good fit. He was getting stomach aches every day and feeling overwhelmed and deeply anxious, so we decided to take him out of school, at least for a little while ,and see how homeschooling would work for our family. It has been great. He and my husband are having an incredible time exploring the riches of NYC and his reading level is improving. All in all, it is working out better than we even expected.

This year I am also doing my field placement with an emerging liturgical community called Transmission. They have been meeting for the past five years in members’ homes as a “house church,” exploring ritual planning and creative liturgy. One week before Ash Wednesday, they began a three-month trial of meeting at a Lutheran Church called Grace and St. Paul’s after a long discernment about Transmission’s next steps.

There are definitely similarities between the way we are educating our son and the faith community I am partnering with. Neither one comes out of anger at “traditional” systems. I love church, I have been knit back together and felt the undeniable love of God wash over me in the context of very traditional church services. And while we are having a fabulous time this year homeschooling, Adin will probably go back to public school when the time is right. But, right now, both Transmission and homeschooling are providing space to explore and ask questions and investigate in ways that feel fresh and unique.

Adin is a very smart, self-directed kid, so much of the work I am doing as a homeschooling parent is talking with him about the things he wants to explore and providing resources for that learning to happen. It is also my job to offer him experiences and ideas he might not come up with on his own, to check out books from the library I think he might like, or take him to places he doesn’t yet know.

When I started talking with Transmission last summer, the one thing they were really clear about in wanting a “Seminarian in Residence” -- even though they are very horizontal in their leadership and didn’t need a “leader” -- was that they needed a theological resource. I talk with them about things they would like to explore, help with clairifying plans, and occasionally offer experiences or ideas that might not have come up otherwise.

I believe that authority serves best when it is a helpful resource not a programmatic and prescriptive stance of superiority. I am so grateful for my time with Transmission, not only because I have learned so much from the beautiful amazing people who have let me come along on their faith journey this year, but also for the chance to live into a model of pastor as resource.

Adin is not a blank slate waiting for me to fill in my perspective on the world, any more than the people of Transmission are empty vessels waiting for some well-poured theology. Adin wants me to help him learn. He comes to me to help him figure out the complex world he is making sense of. There are plenty of people in the world who desperately want faith leaders to be supportive of the very real journeys they are already on. People want us to offer support and ideas to broaden their questions. Educated clergy have a wealth of gifts they can offer, especially if we can do it in a spirit of humility, offering ourselves as resources.

Kerlin200.jpegKerlin Richter is a student at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and a candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Oregon. Prior to coming to seminary, Kerlin was the editor of Hip Mama, a countercultural, feminist parenting ’zine. She is currently doing her field placement at Transmission, a liturgical emerging church in NYC. You can read her sermons at Postulant Mama.

Keeping marriages moving in a healthy direction

By Margaret Treadwell

As in many movies, the classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally (1989) ends with a happily-ever-after wedding. The film tells the story of how two friends became lovers. Interspersed throughout are clips of long-married couples lovingly reminiscing about how they met, scored with soaring music. How these strong couples made it through the inevitable rough patches is left to our imagination.

Staying in marriages over the long haul is a hot topic lately. The Washington Post recently reported on the decline of U.S. divorces and ran a story about a service at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception where an estimated 600 couples celebrated their marriages of 25-plus years. Those interviewed spoke mostly about how they met, while a few mentioned humor, teamwork, faithfulness, God and prayer.
Some of us are "born lucky" in love, but many more need a road map to develop into a strong couple. Using family systems thinking, I've created the following four signposts to keep marriages moving in a healthy direction:

 Grow into your fullest potential in body, mind and spirit and encourage your partner to do the same.
 Remember the sparks that attracted you to each other in the first place. Keep your fun and spontaneity fresh, individually and together.
 Believe in something greater than you.
 If you have children, defocus them and make the top three bullets your priority.
This applies regardless of your culture, race, religion, sexual identity or socio-economic group.

I believe that we can grow to our fullest potential in marriage. It may take several "marriages within a marriage" to achieve this goal - before children, with children and after children, for starters.

One young husband brought the family calendar to a counseling session and asked his wife to schedule him in. She replied, "I'll be happy to, but I have to schedule myself in first, and then I can have more fun with you."

Far from being selfish, she was taking a clear stand for her self-preservation. How can we love someone else when we won't love ourselves first? List three things you love to do out- side of family and work; now consistently schedule these passions in. You'll begin to see your life - and your marriage - in a more positive light when you take care of yourself.

In my work, I define a strong couple and marriage as the health of the whole family unit - parents and children - rather than solely the couple relationship. Stress in families can manifest with symptoms in one of three places - between the couple (from constant conflict to not speak- ing), in one or other of the couple (from headaches to serious illnesses), in one or more of their offspring (from rebellious acting out to anxiety and depression). No family ever scores 100 percent health - which would mean no symptoms at all. My favorite New Yorker cartoon shows one gentle- man sitting alone in the audience under a banner proclaiming "Conference For Normal Families."

It is remarkable how many parents send their children off to a therapist for a symptom fix rather than taking a thoughtful look at their own relationship. These family leaders - the only ones capable of making a lasting family change - often carry levels of stress that are too big to contain between the two of them. This stress trickles down like an anxiety flu to the most vulnerable child. When people tell me about rough spots in their marriages, they usually are describing some variation of this pattern.

Bottom line: If the couple is OK, over time their children will be OK, too. When they "get" the importance of becoming a strong couple for their kids (even if they aren't particularly interested at the moment in working on it for themselves), the symptom relief for children is swift. But here's the paradox: techniques for strengthening a marriage are successful only to the extent that the individuals in the marriage are willing to strengthen themselves, rather than place absurdly high expectations on a spouse or partner to create their happiness.

In his homily at the April 29 Royal Wedding, the Bishop of London held up faithful and committed relationships as a door into the spiritual life: "Marriage should transform, as hus- band and wife make one another their work of art. It is possible to transform as long as we do not harbor ambitions to reform our partner. There must be no coercion if the Spirit is to flow; each must give the other space and freedom."

Thanks to Glennon Gordon, LICSW, for our discussion about this column. Her Facebook page is Less Whine With That Marriage.

Margaret M. "Peggy" Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice.

Life in the neutral zone

By Margaret M. Treadwell

"Everything changes but death and taxes," my grandmother said during her final illness in 1968. How amazed she would be at the acceleration of change today.

Change is an underlying cause of anxiety that brings many to my office in search of a quick fix. Often, people's first reaction is to try to solve the problem by cutting off the person or situation to blame - the marriage or job, the alcoholic parent, black sheep sibling or negative friend. Since this option usually causes deeper problems, we begin to look for alternative strategies that require making a transition in oneself.

In his book, Transitions, William Bridges argues that we benefit from seeing transition (whether we have chosen it or it has been imposed upon us) as a passage with a beginning, an important neutral stage neglected at our peril, and an end that leads to a new beginning. Choosing a neutral space of "attentive inactivity" provides time to contemplate "the four Ds" endemic to transition: disengagement; disidentification; disenchantment; disorientation. Bridges maintains that honoring the gray in-between time of the neutral zone leads to a thoughtful direction.

One stay-at-home mother with a teenage daughter and a son in first grade entered the "neutral zone" during Lent, before deciding to accept a job and return to the workplace. She learned the following lessons from working on the four Ds.

Disengagement: "I entered my own wilderness to pay attention to signals that personal and professional timing was ripe for transition. A five-day retreat supported by my husband and mother, who came to be with the children, became my best thinking time."

Disidentification: "It was frightening to give up my self-definition as wife, mother and volunteer who had time for lots of friends. I wasn't sure who I was without that identity, even though I knew that the old was standing in the way of transformation."

Disenchantment: "I felt like I was floating in limbo between my old and potential new world and that neither was real. I remembered similar childhood feelings of disappointment or shock like the day my parents' huge mistake taught me they weren't perfect, the time my best friend betrayed me and leaving home for a college that turned out to be the wrong one for me."

Disorientation: "During the week's break from the familiar, I wrote in my journal about the emptiness and con- fusion of feeling stuck and dead inside and the ways I had weathered previous challenges. Gradually as I wrote about my dreams, an image and vision for my life began to emerge."

"In retrospect, I had to walk through a sense of abandonment like the valley of the shadow of death to make the transition to another way of being."

Re-entering her old world after retreat was extremely difficult. It was as if a rock of resistance within kept shattering her resolve, and for a week she could not make the call to accept the professional position that would stamp her new life. Finally, she consulted three people she really respected and when they all said the same thing, she made the plunge with a "YES!"

She was astounded at the reaction she received from her husband and children who heretofore had applauded her resolve to redefine herself. Nearing the first day of employment, her daughter went into a full-blown rebellion, her son clung to her and her husband became so busy at work that he hadn't time to participate in the new child care decisions necessary to actualize her decision. Even her supportive mother asked if she was sure about her plan.

She wondered if she had made a mistake and should wait to fulfill her dreams until after her daughter graduated from high school. Clearly a completed transition does not occur at the moment of a decision but rather after those around us have become uncomfortable with change, sought to pull us back into our old way of being, and we have been able to resist the pull back to keep on keeping on with our dreams by living the decision well.

If you want your rebellious daughter to become more focused and live into her potential, begin living a more focused life yourself and she is likely to follow suit over time. Things often get worse before they get better when you set out in a new direction. In fact, if you don't get the pull back, you probably haven't made any change at all. This truth is what the "how to" books forget to tell us!

"Is there anything as horrible as starting on a trip?...the last moments are earthquake and convulsion, and the feeling that you are a snail being pulled off your rock."
- Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Margaret M. "Peggy" Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher inn private practice.

The class of the reunion

By Margaret Treadwell

Our high school graduating class of 1960 voted Twink and Tommy “best dancers.” He has spent the ensuing decades dancing around the law on death row as a convicted criminal for two murders. More than once, he has been within hours of execution only to have the execution delayed by appeals. Once he escaped from prison, so the planners of our 50th reunion feared he might show up at our gathering last June. He didn’t, but Twink did. Her dance through life is remarkable in an understated but equally dramatic way.

Born just months apart, Twink and I grew up on the same street and played together in those elementary school years when primal relationships often retain significant importance in our lives. Although we drifted apart in high school and lost touch until this reunion, our delight at reuniting prompted our pledge to stay in touch. Her story has captivated me as we’ve talked lengthily long distance during the past weeks.

Like many in our class, Twink married early. Ten months afterwards, she bore her only child at age 20. Robert was born with Spina bifida and severe hydrocephaluses, twisted legs and clubfeet. He was paralyzed from the waist down; his pediatrician kept him in the hospital for nine weeks and, according to Twink, was going to let him die of his congenital malformation. A family friend encouraged the couple to take their baby to a neurosurgery center in Birmingham, Ala, which offered a lifeline through the insertion of a neurological shunt.

Although legally blind and subject to periodic seizures due to intermittent pressure on his optic nerve, Robert thrived when he was mainstreamed in first grade. He was taught verbally and had an amazing capacity to retain information about everything. He could tell you how to do things he’d never seen done thorough his acute listening skills.

Twink says, “I gave 24/7 to Robert. I prepared his food, fed and bathed him, managed his catheter care, helped him with bowel movements, played, laughed and read with him and constantly volunteered in his schools to care for him in those days before cell phones. He was my life and my joy.”

The high school yearbook was dedicated to Robert his senior year, and the standing ovation lasted for three minutes when the coaches lifted him onto the stage in his wheel chair to receive his graduating certificate. He was named an honorary member of the Fire Department and twice the poster child for the March of Dimes ( Colbert County, Ala).

But Twink also talks about how her heart would break when people would stare or say mean things to him. She says, “ He never voiced being hurt but would say, ‘No big deal. Let it go.’ A friend from church wrote a song about Robert entitled He Never Complained.

Robert was 42 when he died in 2004 – an astonishing age for someone with his diagnoses. His death was painless and peaceful at home with his parents in the parsonage (his father, a graduate of Emory’s Candler School of Theology when Robert was 24, is now a retired Methodist pastor working part-time). There was no unfinished business except how to move forward without Robert.

After a bilateral mastectomy in 2008, Twink says she is a perfect example of what can go wrong with the human body. When asked how she kept on keeping on with her care giving despite her chronic fatigue, depression, fibromyalgia, back problems from lifting Robert every day, and the understandable rough spots in her marriage, Twink says, “ My mothering instinct kept me going even when I was tired. I had a difficult childhood due to my parents’ complicated problems that prevented them from nurturing me. Determined to be a better mother, my faith was strengthened the many times I knew that I couldn’t do but so much and God had to do the rest. That worked on Robert’s behalf and also as his dad overcame adversity to become a minister and a rock for us. We had no financial resources, but just when we were at the bottom a parishioner’s check would arrive in the mail, another family would give us their car, or another would bring us his garden’s bounty. God provided for everything then and now.”

In addition to one of the longest serving death row inmates, our Class of 1960 boasts an astronaut, a distinguished civil servant, decorated Vietnam war veterans, a mogul of the music and recording industry, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and writers. Much as I admire their achievements that signal “success” in our generation, my reunion highlight was finding and knowing more deeply one person whose faith and love light up a room otherwise like the lobby of a hotel filled with strangers who are incapable of substantive conversations. Twink is our class act and my hero.

Margaret M. “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice. She can be contacted at Peggy

What makes a family?

By Margaret Treadwell

What makes a family? For six years I have been writing this Family Matters column assuming that the notion of family is simply understood when people write or talk about families. Now a cutting edge conference and an online article about expanding definitions of the American family provide rich reflections to challenge my assumptions.

Recently the Headmistresses Association of the East, a national organization comprised of men and women heads of independent schools from all over the country, addressed shifting family demographics at its annual conference, “Our Schools and the Changing Family.” The bottom line: Look at the natural order of the world to see that diversity is the key to survival. If your institution is catering only to traditional families, it will run out of customers. Question? How can we stay true to the needs of the people who come to us?

Keynote speaker, Brenda Husson, rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church, New York City, spoke about the diversity in her church. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-gender (LGBT), bi-racial, single and adoptive parents can be open about their challenges in a world where “family values” often means being straight. She noted Biblical examples of faith-based reasons to be inclusive, especially in choosing one’s family: Ruth chooses to become an Israelite and consequently becomes the grandmother of David; Jesus invites disciples to leave their families to follow him, and at the time of his death, gives his mother a new son, John, the beloved disciple.

Children first begin to create a larger family at church and school. Just as nature gives us a pod of whales, school of fish, gaggle of geese, pride of lions and an exaltation of larks, we human beings need larger networks where we can feel accepted enough to try on different roles, no matter how strong our biological family.

Among the 2000 U.S. Census statistics on families, 1.6 million children under the age of 18 live with their adoptive parents (who chose them); 2.8 million children under age 18 and nearly 7 million Americans of all ages identify themselves as being a part of more than one race; there are more than 7 million LGBT parents with school-age children, and in 2005, there were an estimated 8.8 million gay, lesbian and bisexual people (single and coupled) living in the U.S. Twenty percent of same-sex couples are raising children under the age of 18, and same sex couples live in 99.3 percent of all counties and in every state.

During the conference, break-out groups focused on what school heads need to be thinking about as ramifications of these statistics. For example, Abbie E. Goldberg of the Clark University Department of Psychology presented her research and recommendations for lesbian and gay-parent families. Another session considered how to end the crisis of bullying in schools, and a panel of independent school parents, teachers and students from various family backgrounds told powerful stories about their experiences.

Betsy Pursell, vice president of education and outreach at The Human Rights Campaign, co-led a session entitled “Making Your School Welcoming” which could be applied equally to churches seeking grounding and safety for diverse families. She said the following three points are often overlooked:

• People from diverse backgrounds want to see themselves reflected in the community, beginning with non-discrimination statements and photographs on websites. Lesbian and gay parishioners need to read (or hear from the pulpit) the words “lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-gender” spoken as loving messages.
• Unwritten messages and hidden symbols tell people whether or not they are truly welcomed. Many of the lesbian and gay people sitting in our Episcopal church pews are refugees from evangelical or ultra-conservative churches and they are especially attuned to the subtle and not so subtle messages they see and hear; from the Sunday sermon to weekly announcements to the agenda of the social justice work. Does this church seem to value its LGBT members?
• Word of mouth is most important. Have other bi-racial or LGBT families felt welcomed in your school or church?

Nationally representative surveys conducted by Indiana University sociologist Brian Powell show that a majority of Americans now include same-sex couples and their children in their definitions of family. This growing acceptance has come at a surprisingly quick pace, although far from a warm embrace of same-sex unions and the notion that same-sex couples with or without children are a family unit. What would it take for churches to assume leadership in extending a radical welcome and warm embrace to the expanding definitions of what makes a family?

Margaret M. “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice.

The literally life giving power of stories

By Marshall Scott

It won’t surprise anyone that I peruse medical journals for entertainment. I don’t claim to understand everything I read; but I still find fun in it.

And sometimes I find something that particularly catches my interest. During one such session not long ago, I actually found two. One was this title for a research study: “Culturally Appropriate Storytelling to Improve Blood Pressure” (Annals of Internal Medicine, 2011; 154:77-84). The second was another study with a title apparently similar, but subtly different: “Effect of Preventive Messages Tailored to Family History on Health Behaviors: the Family Healthware Impact Trial” (Annals of Family Medicine, 2011; 9:3-11).

Now, in my business both storytelling and family history are important things. So, I was certainly interested as I read the articles. As I said, the titles seem alike. However, there are differences, and the differences are important.

In “Storytelling,” a team was looking for a way to provide both information and encouragement for changes in behavior for African Americans with hypertension. African Americans are more likely to have high blood pressure, less likely to get it under control, and more likely to have serious complications. The team thought of storytelling.

Now, at first blush storytelling might seem well outside the frame of reference of modern allopathic medicine. However, for more than a decade now some medical schools have offered courses in narrative medicine. There is some appreciation that we understand ourselves and our lives, not only in light of facts, but also in light of the stories within which those facts have meaning.

So, they began with a number of focus groups made up of African Americans living with high blood pressure. From participants in those focus groups they selected a number that told their stories well. They recorded them telling their stories, and put the stories on a DVD, along with additional information on hypertension. They then provided DVDs to African American patients with hypertension. Study patients (both those with controlled and uncontrolled hypertension) received study DVD’s. Patients in the control group (whose hypertension was also not controlled) received a DVD with basic health information. Investigators hoped that study patients whose hypertension wasn’t yet controlled would show improvement, and that patients who hypertension was controlled would sustain their existing control and behaviors.

And it worked. It didn’t make a big difference for the patients whose hypertension was already controlled. However, for those for whom hypertension wasn’t controlled, those who watched the DVD had a significant improvement (lower average numbers) in their systolic blood pressure (the first number in blood pressure) over the control group at three months. In fact, the patients were followed for nine months; and while the average pressures for all patients went up between three and nine months, there was still a significant difference for those who had watched the study DVD.

What made the difference? Well, the investigators suggest (and I agree) that personal stories about living with high blood pressure were more powerful than a straight lecture, and especially when the person telling the story looked and sounded like them. As a result, they were more likely to embrace and maintain the lifestyle changes that led to better control of blood pressure.

The second study seemed to suggest the same point and yet had different results. The article “Family History” reports on the Family Healthware Impact Trial. Family Healthware is a software program developed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as an interactive tool to allow patients to record information on family history for six common diseases and for related health behaviors. When the user has completed his or her entries, the software generates a health risk assessment for the various diseases based on family history. It also provides health messages and suggestions for healthy behaviors. The thought was that because these health messages were customized and based on the patient’s individual family history the patients would find them easier to adopt and maintain. They selected 2,364 subjects in the control group, and 1,422 in the control group, and followed them for a series of good health behaviors (smoking cessation, eating more fruits and vegetables, getting more exercise, taking aspirin daily, tracking their blood pressure, and getting cholesterol and glucose checked regularly). Study subjects received the report with risk assessments and health messages connected to their individual family histories. Control subjects received a set of standard health messages, not individually tailored.

Surprisingly, investigators did not see the results they had hoped for. Study patients did show increases in eating fruits and vegetables, and in getting exercise; but for the other health behaviors results were small to insignificant. For most of the behaviors, the fact that the recommendations were based specifically on patients’ family histories didn’t seem to make much difference.

As I read the article, I realized that there was a significant difference between the studies. In the first study communication with the patients was not only customized, but specifically reflective of their community, and, really, of their own lives. In the second the messages were customized the family history, but were not specifically reflective of the patients’ communities. They were the standard medical messages, and not personal stories. While the messages in “Family History” were arguably just as useful, the stories in “Storytelling” were more meaningful, in that they were more related in their expression to the lives and experiences of patients.

Now, this is one of those moments where we notice the differences in how we see the world. In modern medicine, “if it didn’t get documented, it didn’t get done;” and if it hasn’t been documented in a formal research study, it can’t be approved. For the rest of us, and especially for those of us in the church, the reaction is likely to be, “Well, duh!” Our most important information is rooted in story – specifically, in the story of what God has done for us. Moreover, as any person in the pew can tell you, it is shared more effectively in story than it is in simple discourse.

Fact is, this is at the center of our lives as Christians. We are committed to receiving and passing on the Gospel; and since we receive it in and through story, we are committed to passing on the story, and not just the principles and conclusions that we derive from the story. Even in passing on the principles and conclusions, it is in story that we find them meaningful. That makes it important that we find ways to pass on the story that are culturally relevant for those we pass on to. I have said over the years that central to the task of theology is translation of the truths of the faith into a language understood by those we seek to reach. That is simply another way of saying that as we pass on the faith, we do best to do so in ways that are, as the study says, “culturally relevant.”

We know, really, how this affects our evangelism. From the first efforts at translating the Scriptures in to a language understood by the people – arguably, we could go back to the Septuagint, and even farther – we have been making our efforts to share the story in ways that are culturally relevant. At times in our history we have not only identified new languages, but even created alphabets for the purpose (Cyril and Methodius come to mind). We wrestle with it within our congregations (how shall we teach our children?): in our communities (what will reach Gen X or Gen Y?): and across the Body of Christ (as one example, just what do we all think about the Chinese Three Self Christian Movement?).

At the same time, it also raises some anxiety: is there a point where cultural relevance begins to dilute, even pollute, the faith we seek to convey? How many times did European missionaries feel that they had not only to translate the language of the faith, but also to make faux Europeans of the evangelized? How well otherwise do the stories we receive translate? How well do our stories, the experiences in which we find the meaning of the faith confirmed, translate? I have noted that one of my favorite books is Martin Palmers’ The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity. In that work he translates a number of documents, produced by Chinese Christians over a couple of centuries. By the later of those documents, the effort is clear to translate the stories not only into Chinese characters, but into Chinese terms. When the stone stele of the Religion of Light, produced in 781 CE, speaks of Jesus in much the same terms as a bodhisattva, is that a culturally relevant meaning, or is it a step too far?

By the same token, we know just how central this anxiety is in our current Anglican difficulties. Each side finds points at which the other side addresses and embraces the culture; and each side asks whether the other has gone too far. I have written before here at the Café of one cultural difference – whether one lives in an individualist or a “communalist” culture – that I think makes our communication difficult. Another is between those who feel that what God wants us to know is conveyed in the contents of Scripture; and those who feel that God also wants us to know what we learn through scientific study, and to wrestle with how both can be meaningful in our lives. This difference is critical because the details of what we learn through scientific study also shape the stories that we use to make meaning. In the case in point, we do have different understandings of what it means to be human when some of us want to quote only Scripture, and some of us also want to include information from medicine, anthropology, and psychology.

In that case, it can be tempting to try to turn again to specific tenets, to distill from the received stories concepts that transcend the limits of our languages and our stories. That, too, has been an ongoing process, from Augustine to Aquinas to Tillich. Yet even then we discover that cultural relevance lurks in the wings. Each academic theologian is working with a philosophical language that reflects its own time and shapes its future – in my examples, Neo Platonic to Aristotelian to Existentialist forms. As much as some might try to see them as more pure and more abstract, each theologian and the language the theologian seeks to use is shaped not only by concepts, but by cultures and the stories through which those cultures make and find meaning.

And with each generation we discover it anew, or at least we think we do. We discover that our efforts to abstract concepts and convey them by discourse – as in, for example, modern allopathic medicine –don’t help people live in the way that we might hope. In a very real sense they aren’t meaningful, because they don’t relate to our experiences and our perceptions. We return again to stories and storytelling. It is how we make meaning in our lives. It is how we connect our past with our place in the world now, and how we shape our hopes for the future. Critically for us, it is how we live in Christ. It is how “the faith once delivered to the saints” becomes our faith. It is how we discover that faith can live in our own lives. It is how we pass on the faith we have received to those who come after. It is how we know what Christ has done for us, and is doing in us; and how we know that he will be with us even to the end of the ages.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

The miracle doesn't end at the manger

By Sylvia Miller-Mutia

People love to tell you, when you're expecting your first child, all about how much becoming a parent is going to change you. About how your world is going to turn upside down, and you're never going to be the same again.

But I found that I changed far more, and learned far more (about myself and about God), with the birth of my second child, than with the birth of my first. It's hard to imagine how the birth of a second child could be as miraculous as the birth of a first. My sister was even a little worried as the birth of my second child—her second niece—approached. “Sylvia,” she confided, “I'm a little worried because I can't imagine how I could love another baby as much as I love Alexandra! I don't know if I have that much love!”

With my first child, I was predictably (if somewhat absurdly) in awe. She can smile! She can gurgle! Oh my gosh, she can roll over! She's a genius! With our second, I expected to be a little less awestruck. So she can sit up. Big deal...her big sister can do cartwheels. But it wasn't like that at all. I was surprised to discover just as much awe and delight in my younger daughter as she learned to smile, to sit, to speak. The miracles, I discovered, just multiplied. The love just multiplied, too (which my sister, who is herself a second child, was relieved to discover.)

Christmas steeps us in the miraculous birth of Jesus, this child, who was born, not of the will of the flesh, or the will of man, but of God. This child whose birth made angels sing, and shepherds dance, and magi change their course to follow a star halfway across the world. This child whose birth brought joy to the world, and peace to God's people on earth. This child whose birth made heaven and nature sing.

But we miss out on the full extent of the miracle of the Christmas season if we think the miracle stops with the birth of a single baby in Bethlehem.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth, John writes.

When John’s Gospel writes of the “Father's only son”, the Greek word he uses is monogenes. Which doesn't signify “only” so much as it signifies “unique” or “one-of-a-kind”.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's one-of-a-kind son, full of grace and truth.

Any parent will tell you that every child is “one of a kind”. Despite the birth of her younger sister, Alexandra remains “monogenes”--completely unique and completely irreplaceable—but she is no longer my only child.

I don't want us to make too little of the “one of a kind-ness” of Jesus...the child of God so close to the Father's heart that he reveals to us the very face of God. But neither do I want us to make too much of it. Because if we make too much of the “one of a kind-ness” of Jesus we risk missing an important point in John’s prologue, and we fall short of embracing the full miracle of Christmas.

John tells us that “To all who received Jesus, he gave power to become children of God...born not of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

That strange story of a child conceived and birthed through the mysterious cooperation of divine and human forces...that story doesn't just belong to Jesus. That can be our story, too.

Through this Christmas season we are not just celebrating the mystery of Jesus' birth. We are celebrating the mysterious possibility of our own birth as children of God.

You and I have been given the power to become the younger sisters and brothers of Jesus, God's first-born child. Like my younger daughter, Johanna, who ceaselessly watches and imitates her older sister, to the best of her ability, we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, and do our best to imitate him.

Just as I delight in Johanna, so God delights in us. God isn't disappointed that we fall short of Jesus' example, like... “what's the big deal? You helped a stranger? Your big brother raises the dead.” God delights in every baby step we take, as we grow up as children of God.

If we dare to accept it, our birth as the children of God will make angels sing, and peasants dance, and wise people change their course. Our birth as the children of God will bring joy to the world and peace to God's people on earth. Our birth as children of God will make heaven and nature sing.

The miracle of Christmas began with the birth of child in Bethlehem, and it continues each day with our birth as children of God.

Through this Christmas season let us meditate on this mystery - what might it mean for you and for me to be born a child of God? And how might our birth as God's children bring joy to the world?

The Rev. Sylvia Miller-Mutia, is Youth and Family Minister at St. Gregory's, San Francisco. She is a dancer, teacher and recently ordained priest who just began her ministry at St. Gregory’s.

Making room for the piano

By Heidi Shott

When your kids are in third grade and you’re in the midst of a construction project and you discover that the foundation of your mudroom needs to be replaced and that while you’re at it adding a second floor room wouldn’t cost too much more – when all that happens, building an upstairs playroom sounds like a good idea.

At least it sounded like a good idea to my husband Scott and me in the summer of 2003.

A playroom would build a breakwater to keep the relentless surge of kid junk from spilling into the other rooms. We could get a bumper pool table. Scott could finally have a place for the 1980s pinball machine he’d been hankering to buy from Mike Knudsen. We could set up our old dartboard. At last we’d have a place to hang the entertaining campaign posters we stole from lawns across the Micronesian island of Saipan when we were teachers there in our youth.

And it was a good idea. Vast Lego and Playmobil cities spread out and could be left for days at a time without ever puncturing the tender parental foot at midnight. Pinball machines came and went. Posters and memorabilia from vacations were added to the walls. But slowly – especially in recent years as our twin sons have entered high school and are more apt to request iTunes gift cards instead of Nerf guns – it has become a place to dump stuff no one knows what to do with: old computer monitors and obsolete gadgets, clothes meant for the rummage sale that never quite made it, a castoff electronic putting green from Granddad that nobody really wanted but couldn’t not accept.

All four of us are guilty of covert dumping, especially Colin, who is responsible for the layer of cream cheese adhered to the surface of the bumper pool table from a bagel he laid down one afternoon in the late 20-oughts. While we’ve been living with growing playroom chaos for several years, today something happened that caused me to take the matter in hand: Scott finally consented to procuring for Colin a real piano.

It’s a problem when your child starts playing the piano at the late age of 15 and it becomes apparent after the first two months that he really knows what he’s about. Recriminations of “Why didn’t you start me with lessons when I was small?” have often cut deep to the maternal heart this last year. Colin’s dissatisfaction with our ancient digital Yamaha Clavinova became apparent about six months ago. “The action,” he said, “it sucks. I can’t play Debussy with that thing. I need a real piano!”

“Well, I can’t play Debussy, either,” I replied. “And your dad doesn’t believe in real pianos in Maine. He’s certain they don’t stay in tune in this climate, so don’t hold your breath, kid,” I warned.

Perhaps it was when Granddad, over for dinner recently, gave Scott a certain look that said, “I supported your interests when you were young,” that made him relent. All I know is that last Friday I returned from a work trip to Miami and suddenly there, on the kitchen table, was a copy of Maine’s quirky classified ad magazine, “Uncle Henry’s” with an entry circled: “Chickering baby grand. $500. Call after 5. Kennebunkport.”

In many ways 2003 feels like last week. Our boys were a perfectly sweet nine years old, and I was writing pieces about the election of Gene Robinson. Now they’re almost 17 and thinking about colleges and +Gene just announced his retirement. How do these things happen?

I don’t feel a day older. But here’s the thing: Scott and I work at the same places. We live in the same house. We eat the same food and read the same magazines and wear (sad to say) many of the same clothes. Lots of things have happened around us since 2003 but a remarkable number have stayed the same. Except boys: they grew an alarming number of inches and shoe sizes and turned from funny, smart, adorable little boys into funnier, smarter, handsome young men.

So amidst the work of clearing out all of the plastic bins and bookshelves and tubs of junk in the playroom, I had trouble accepting that no one wanted the mongo T-Rex that had been such a prized possession. Everyone but I was indifferent to the Mr. Potatohead that had served as a space capsule for intrepid Playmobil pirates on so many adventures to the planet of Zumbar.

I started a pile on top of the pool table for things I couldn’t throw away: one of the little black super-soft stuffed puppies I bought for the boys the day after my father died. We’d been out buying chocolate to take back to the nursing staff at the hospital and, when the children pleaded, I couldn’t say no.

“Hey, Martin,” I hollered. “C’mere.” After a moment my wise wrestler-poet leaned on the doorway to the playroom. “What do I do with some of this? I can’t chuck it.”

“Aw,” he said, fingering first a beanie baby hedgehog that his Kindergarten teacher had given him and then a much beloved Star Wars X-Wing Starfighter. “Make a nostalgia pile and we’ll go through it later,” he said, leaving me sitting on the floor surrounded by the vestigial tokens of our precious family life. But, well-adjusted person that he is, Martin left with nary a trace of nostalgia in his deep voice. He’s ready for the next thing.

In the Diocese of Maine – and in many places across the Episcopal Church and indeed, we’ve heard in recent months, in other denominations – we are embarking on a strange journey and asking ourselves many questions about how to transform the Church to meet the needs of a changing world. Our diocese is one year into a study process that is compelling us to look at both our mission strategies and our mission priorities. The coming year will reveal an emerging set of both. And, I gotta say, I’m curious about what they’ll look like and how they’ll be received.

It all started in October 2009 when Bishop Steve Lane offered a convention address that stunned members of our diocese with its combination of forthright truth-telling and the firm reassurance that together, with God, we will walk through whatever comes next.

Click here to hear the address.

In his sermon last month at our 2010 diocesan convention, Bishop Lane had this to say:

“The process of adaptive change is many things: a journey from one paradigm to another, a journey through a new and risky landscape, a journey often without a clear destination - but most of all it is a spiritual journey, a journey from habitual ways of being and doing to a closer, more trusting and self-conscious relationship with God. The journey we're on will require a change of heart and a new spirit in every congregation. It will require all of us to be flexible and to take risks…

“The ways we serve God, the shape of our communities, the nature of our buildings, the relationship between clergy and people - all these may change. But our call to announce the good news of God's merciful presence with us never changes and never ends.”

Our church is a lot like my family’s playroom. It’s hard to believe that time has passed and the same practices that have given us such pleasure and comfort over time are no longer relevant or in demand by the people around us: the people we’re called by Jesus to serve. Our nostalgia pile heaps to overflowing. And, yet, as my boss maintains – ever confident in the love of God that holds us altogether and all together - we don’t quite yet know what will take the place of all the things that we must give up.

Seven years ago, if you had told Scott and me that we would be buying a piano for the playroom so Colin could play Chopin and Mompou with such dazzling skill and passion, we would have said you were crazy. “This kid has fine motor skills below the 5th percentile,” we would have sighed. “Piano lessons would be a frustrating, futile effort for us all.”

But it turns out all the people who took a gander at him were right. “This kid has many strengths. He will compensate. He will turn out great!”

We couldn’t have imagined a piano in our playroom, but Colin had other plans.

Perhaps if we, as a people of God, let go of some of the things we can’t imagine our corporate life without, then possibilities we can’t imagine will emerge is the space left behind. The hard truth is that there’s not enough room for everything.

Right now, as I listen to the lovely sound of Beethoven coming from the grossly inadequate Yamaha in the living room, I can just hear the sweet strains of what might be possible.

Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Social Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

Stuck grief or mourning's flowing tears

By Donald Schell

‘And death itself shall die’

As I write it’s two days before the second anniversary of my father’s death. Dad lived a good life. He was a generous and loving father and grandfather, and, as I heard at his funeral, he was also a very good physician to many people. He and I talked well. We didn’t have “unfinished business.” He died peacefully in his sleep, almost eighty-seven years old. All that sounds like the makings of good, clean, grief. Finding my way to that would be a grace suitable to such a man and such a life. I’m finding my way.

I was in my mid-thirties when my wife’s parents died. For the thirty years since I’ve been making slow discoveries about grief. My first startling discovery was noticing that the loving home I’d grown up in was drenched in grief. I was a prized firstborn, a first wave boomer baby. My dad was in medical school and our lives felt full of hope. When I was old enough to hear it, I felt proud to be named Donald for my uncle who had died in the war. Looking back, I see that to my child’s mind, ‘before I was born’ was a forever, long ago, unreachable place I didn’t even try to imagine.

My parents told fascinating stories about my uncle. He was imaginative, talented, an actor in high school, a college honors student. His life had been full of promise. Family speculated about what he’d have done had he come home. He felt like a presence with us. The stories I loved of Donald felt to me like the stories I loved to hear of my grandfather, George, mother’s father who had also died. I treasured the stories. The stories meant I was inheriting something of their gifts and their promise.

My grandfather died January 1, 1945. My uncle died June 15, 1945. I was born April 11, 1947. That chronology before I was born meant nothing to me as a child. I didn’t notice the assumptions that came with not understanding the chronology. Cherished stories of my grandfather and my uncle gave me comfortable ways of thinking about Donald and George that nothing but adult experience could break. ‘Before I was born’ hid from me that my mother’s two griefs were quite raw. And I didn’t notice that in my world, it was a given, simple, neutral fact that death could come at any time.

Eventually I learned of the other grief that shaped my parents. When I was judged ‘old enough to understand,’ I learned that my other grandmother, dad’s mother, was actually his stepmother, and I heard the story of his mother Goldie’s death. Stories of dying were familiar and this one was a very long time before I was born. So the plain given-ness of another death hid my Dad’s grief from me, his loss at never having known his mother, an old tear in the soul that time can’t quite heal.

Next summer Jonathan Moscone’s new play Ghosts Light will premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I like Moscone’s work as a director and am looking forward to seeing his work as a playwright. His play unfolds with a young theater director named ‘Jon’ working on a production of Hamlet.

Jonathan Moscone was fourteen in 1978 when Dan White, the enraged city supervisor who also killed Supervisor Harvey Milk, gunned down Jonathan’s father, San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Jonathan Moscone calls Ghosts Light “a dream play.” As in a dream his character Jon, while directing a production of Hamlet, finds his work haunted not just by the elder Hamlet’s ghost, but also the ghosts of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.

I found odd comfort reading Jonathan Moscone in an interview say, “…there’s grieving, which is a form of stasis, and there’s mourning, which is an active form of moving through to another place.” Those simple, graceful words (and my wonder that mourning could move a fourteen year old boy beyond the static frozen grief at losing a dad to assassination) helped me think about old, stuck, grief.

I was sixty-one when my father died. I felt grateful that he died peacefully in his sleep and that we’d had so many good years together. I miss him terribly sometimes. But I’ve only shed a very few tears. Something resigned and fatalistic in me had thought for a long, long time – ‘It’s coming. They all die.’ Moscone’s distinction between “grieving” and “mourning” has me wondering about that resignation, wondering whether I really know how to mourn, to move through to another place. And as I wonder, Jesus’ beatitude, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” hints at the possibility of feelings fully felt and of moving from grief through mourning to comfort.

The reason I’m remembering and re-thinking is that I suspect some of my stasis with grief belongs to some old, old stories.

The oldest part of the story goes back to 1921 when Dad was delivered by C-section. His mother, Goldie, had already lost her sight to the brain tumor that would kill her. Holding her premature baby after he was delivered, she asked, ‘is he beautiful?’ and my grandfather, the father who had been present for this C-section before doctors attempted hopeless brain surgery told his dying wife, yes, their son was beautiful. Two weeks later Goldie Schell died. She was twenty-six years old.

Now in 2010 – nearly ninety years after her death, three of my children have outlived their great grandmother’s short twenty-six years. When the first of our children passed that marker, something shifted, I felt a new frustration and not really knowing who my missing grandmother had been, what she’d been like, who she might have become, and what it could have meant to me to know her. And that began the quiet ache of wondering how dad had lived his whole life knowing he’d lost her before he’d known her at all.

We only have a couple pictures of Goldie. My favorite is a 1920 photo where she seems to be play-acting ‘farm girl,’ the sun catches golden hair – a dazzling silvery white in the photo - She’s got both hands jammed in the pockets of her overalls, a straw hat knocked back on her head, and something in her radiant, crazy-playful smile makes me want to laugh. She was nurse, like my wife Ellen, so I suppose some one took a solemn photo of her at her capping ceremony. But it was this playful photo of the mother he never knew that my dad kept in his drawer, a hidden witness to his unspoken thoughts.

After I was grown, Dad told me he’d learned not talk or ask about his mother. My grandfather had remarried when Dad was still a toddler, and Dad’s new, easily angered stepmother was as unlike that sunny picture of Goldie as a person could be. Dad was relieved when he learned the sullen, sharp-tongued woman who did her best to care for him wasn’t his mother. As a teenager he’d started to build some relationship with Goldie’s brothers. His dad quietly made those occasions for him. Was grandpa stuck in his grief too?

In May of 1944, my parents left college. Dad had dropped out to join the Army Air Corps, and after basic flight school, they married, Mother took her leave from college to follow dad to Army bases around the country while he completed his flight training. When he earned his wings and shipped out to fly a B-17 in daylight bombing raids on German munitions factories, mother moved home, waiting and praying daily for Dad’s return. “It was what people were doing,” mother said. “I knew he might not come back.”

My grandfather George was a banker, and both my parents enjoyed telling stories repeating funny things he’d said or done; I loved hearing what a wry, rebellious church member he’d been, a lay leader in the church where he’d met and courted my grandmother, the church I grew up in. A few stories hinted at a workaholic whose very high standard of performance weighed heavily on himself.

They told stories of his wit, wisdom and foolishness with pride and affection. And the stories of his workaholism? Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether those were exemplary stories or cautionary tales. One story certainly was cautionary. George’s doctor told my grandmother as he lay in a coma from a heart attack that a few weeks before George had gone to the doctor with chest pains, and the doctor told him to slow down and rest. In December of 1944 his staff was closing the year-end books, George wouldn’t slow down when his staff was working hard. So he died on New Year’s Day, 1945.

My Dad never told me how he had gotten word of his father-in-law’s death. Dad was seeing a lot of death, watching for the German fighters after they crossed the channel, flying through anti-aircraft fire and shrapnel, relieved every time they got their plane back to England, wondering when the war would end, and hoping for the time he’d go home to comfort his bride. Dad was 24 when George died, and mother was 20. George himself he was only 55. Now that I’ve lived through all those ages, 24, 20, and 55 seem bitterly young.

Mother tells me that even now, sixty-five years after her father’s death, hardly a day goes by without her wishing she could tell him or ask him about something. I’m glad to hear that.

Feeling her love in that loss nudges stuck grief toward mourning.

I heard and memorized the stories of these absent people, but I didn’t know how to ask for the stories of mourning their loss. I did ask Dad about the war. “It’s why I became a physician,” was his preferred answer. If I pushed, the stories Dad was most willing to tell were of the people with whom he’d flown and of missing my mother and writing her, and sitting on an English park bench evenings after returning from a bombing run and wondering how it would all end.

The few air war stories dad would tell weren’t stories of heroism, but simply stories of seeing death.

He said precision bombing was difficult, the daylight made the bombers easier target for German anti-aircraft guns. When they arrived at a target, he had to take the plane low for bombing accuracy, into the range of the anti-aircraft guns, and fly a slow, steady course toward the target while the bombardier studied the winds. At that altitude shrapnel peppered the plane, sometimes sounding like a hailstorm, sometimes louder, metal banging against metal like the factories they were sent to destroy. Once the bombs were loosed, he’d put full power into a climb, not even pausing to close the bomb bays in the plane’s belly. He said he was continually amazed and grateful to learn how much wing or tail the B-17 could lose and still fly home.

One run he retold had targeted a ball-bearing factory adjacent to a German primary school. He said by observation their bombs had hit accurately, demolishing the factory. Even then he wondered if their bombs had blasted out the windows in the school. And were the children there? What had happened to the children?

And he told me that sometimes when he closed his eyes he’d see the moment a burning German fighter plane plummeted right through the next B-17 in formation to his, and how in that instant he’d seen the face of the German pilot and the face of his own friend. And harder, he said, than that was the next moment, when the plane had fallen out of sight, of knowing his friend was crashing with his crew to earth.

I don’t know what of the war Dad was able to write home to mother. I’ll ask her.

After VE-Day in 1945, Dad had flown his bomber back to the U.S. to be scrapped. He took the train home to California, to live in his widowed mother-in-law’s house and wait for a new assignment in the continuing war in the Pacific where Donald, my mother’s brother, was flying a B-24.

Dad had only be back home for a week or two In mid-June of 1945 when he answered the doorbell to a uniformed army officer wished to speak to Donald Campbell’s next of kin. Donald’s plane and crew were reported missing in action, just five and a half months after my grandfather’s death. It would take another eighteen more months of waiting (and hoping) before the Army would report finding the wreckage and remains of Donald and his crew.

More months passed, before the Army announced that the remains were being flown to St. Louis and buried in Jefferson Barracks, National Cemetery.

If grief is stasis, blocked, stuck, what Jonathan Moscone calls mourning is the deep feeling of loss that goes somewhere. Standing at my uncle’s gravesite a year or so ago, my first visit, I stared at the granite slab marker for that whole crew and tried to imagine my grandmother standing there almost two years after her son’s death and wondered where she found room to mourn.

Recently visiting Malawi with my wife’s AIDS work, one of Ellen’s Malawian colleague’s lost her husband, a diabetic about my grandfather George’s age. We attended the village funeral, the last eight or nine hours of the twenty-four hour funeral. When we arrived the wailing and singing had been going on from the previous day and all through the night. There were three hundred mourners. I’d been directed to sit with the clergy in the ritual place of greeting, half a dozen of us seated in chairs in the shade of a house where every newly arrived mourner would greet us one by one with a word and a handshake before proceeding to the mourning house across the stream where the body was laid out. Ellen was in that house with the widow, her colleague. When the woman’s sons arrived, home from university and from good work in South Africa, Ellen later described seeing what I heard from across the stream. When the sons appeared, the mourners began to wail with special intensity, putting a new sharp edge on their hours-long rhythm of silence, song. The high-pitched keening was sharp as a siren. Did it chill the heart, or simply touch it? The young men looked on their father’s body impassively for one moment, for two moments, and then the wailing broke their grief loose from paralysis and their mourning tears began to flow and their sobbing quickly followed. The clergy didn’t rejoin the crowd to begin the formal funeral liturgy until the sons’ tears were flowing freely.

I found some passages where St. Paul seems to acknowledge a distinction like Moscone makes between grieving and mourning:

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. - 2 Corinthians 7.10

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,* about those who have died,* so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
- 1 Thessalonians 4.13

I remember preachers I heard as a kid saying Christians didn’t grieve because our hope wouldn’t let us. But I’m hearing something quite different in the Thessalonians passage they always quoted. We DO grieve, but our way of grieving (or mourning) isn’t like the grief of those who have no hope. Ah, what is it to grieve without hope? And how does it feel to let loose the feelings and grieve and move on to mourning in hope and finally mourn through to comfort?
I’m hearing William Billings’ raucous, life-affirming setting of these verses by Isaac Watts:

How long, dear Savior, O how long
Shall this bright hour delay?
Fly swift around, ye wheels of time,
And bring the promised day.
Lo, what a glorious sight appears
To our believing eyes!

His own soft hand shall wipe the tears
From every weeping eye;
And pains and groans and griefs and fears
And death itself shall die. .

I suspect many of us carry fragments of grief we don’t know how to finish. Isaac Watts’ promise of salvation, of deliverance, of freedom offers, with St. Paul and Jesus, a blessed comfort for those who mourn. The radiance and hope Watts’ scene of Jesus’ hand drying our tears (and recognizing the grace of those tears) even hints that we can hope for deliverance from the rest of it – “pains and groans . . .and fears” that, like grief, they will die with death itself.

In this living moment, before the wheels of time bring any promised day, I welcome this tender promise and hope that His hand will comfort, mysterious as that image may be, and give us freedom to engage the grief, shed the tears, feel the sorrow, and mourn, and that as we find the freedom to weep, we’ll each one let Him wipe the tears from our weeping eyes.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is
President of All Saints Company.

Father of the bride

By Todd Donatelli

“Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don't remember growing older; When did they?” Sunrise, Sunset; Fiddler on the Roof

“Signs of endings all around us; Come O Christ and dwell among us; give us hope and faith and gladness. Show us what there yet can be.” Hymn 721, Wonder, Love and Praise.

The picture sits on a shelf in my office. It is of my oldest daughter Gina and I when she was two years old. She and I are standing on our freshly constructed backyard play set. Her eyes are ablaze with excitement. Her dad is looking pretty excited as well. The play set has traveled from Atlanta to Jackson, Mississippi to Asheville where it still resides in our yard. A few weeks ago Gina became engaged to be married. We love her fiancé Tom and have enjoyed getting to know his family. I am deeply moved when I see the ocean depths of excitement in their eyes. I am also deeply moved when I look in the backyard and see the play set. Our endings are our beginnings.

When talking with one of my wisdom friends recently (wisdom friend means someone with more grey hair than me) they talked about how we often don’t make room in our lives for times of transition; we don’t consciously acknowledge and attend to the emotional space of life changes, be they hopeful changes such as a new job or new opportunity or tough changes such as the loss of someone or the physical or cognitive changes in ourselves or those we love. Too often, they said, we tend to expect the same of ourselves in these moments as we do in other periods of our life. Too often we don’t find ways to mark and face openly that which our guts are registering quite clearly.

I have presided at weddings for over two decades watching fathers escort their daughters down the aisle. I confess I have watched the fathers more than the brides trying to comprehend how they do it. I know in the deepest parts of my soul this is “meet and right so to do”. I know this is what will bring her life and me as well. Yet when it comes to endings that lead to life, I can be quite a chicken.

Added to this is my mother wanting to talk about end of life plans, directives and how she wants to live in the time from here to there. I will not tell you mom’s age. I will tell you she lived through the Depression and my father fought in WWII. She still lives an independent life and she is naming to me that it is fall and we must consider the coming winter. I want to run.
As Episcopalians, we are big on death. That may seem a blunt, even crass statement. Yet at every Eucharistic liturgy we speak of Jesus dying, we hold high bread broken and speak of body offered for us. We devote a whole season to loss and brokenness and a whole week to the death of Jesus. With great regularity we proclaim in death our life is found. Even in the wedding liturgy we proclaim the way of the cross is the way of life. Yet while we name regularly these "signs all around us” there is still the urge to quickly pass by our endings.

One of the things I love about living in Asheville is the changing seasons each with a vibrancy all its own. We are entering the period of deep red Maple leaves, the reds of Dogwoods, the yellow-oranges of Poplars and the whole communion of hardwoods offering their amazing palate of color (yes, please come see the mountain leaves and support our local economy).
In time the leaves will fall and the mountains will have their stark, barren appearance. Yet even this barrenness affords views and understandings of the mountains unseen when leaves are present. The lines are a bit more harsh but no less compelling. Soon I will sit on the front porch looking at the garden that has gone underground for another season. The spent flowers, leaves and stalks will decompose offering their substance for the generation yet to emerge.

While seeing the barrenness I will remind myself of the gift of fallow time, the time when we must pause and be still with that which is changing before us. There is a quiet to the barrenness that invites a wisdom all its own. In time spring will return. The bulbs will push their shoots through the dirt still chilled by winter’s temperature. Birds will return and the warmth of the season will allow for the shedding of coverings.

Yet that is a ways away. For now it is time to watch the leaves change. For now it is time to be present to what this season wishes to say. In our endings are our beginnings.

Gina and I will soon go out for a dinner where we will talk about things like the play set, t-ball games, ice skating trips, her parts in school plays, trips we took to the Mississippi coast after Katrina and a host of other rich memories. We will talk excitedly about this new chapter of life. I will also tell her that between now and next summer’s wedding her dad may appear a bit crazy at times. I will indeed let go of her, already am, and, this will be a transition.

The Hebrews erected piles of stones they called tabernacles in places where they had encountered the Holy One. These served as reminders of engagement with the Sacred, places where they tasted that ineffable presence of life. The tabernacles were not some destination, they were points along the sojourn. Pictures of my girls are among my tabernacles. They are not moments to clutch. They are moments to remember for what they offered in that time. They are moments that have delivered us to this moment, this new chapter of life.

“Swiftly flow the days; Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, blossoming even as we gaze.” Sunrise, Sunset. In our endings are our beginnings.

The Very Rev. Todd Donatelli is dean of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, N. C.

The lessons of a cluttered life

By Ellen Painter Dollar

In my 20s, I attended a church that embraced material simplicity and detachment from stuff long before it became trendy. We engaged regularly in soul-searching conversations about our attachment to possessions. One friend’s long-ago purchase of a $900 wing chair continued to haunt him as a symbol of material excess. He talked about that chair so often that it’s the only vivid detail I can recall of him. Another friend worried that his arrival at a school reunion driving a used Camry would shock his former roommates, who might recall how he had spoken out against the purchase of even mundane items like house paint in a call for solidarity with the poor. Now here he was, driving a car that practically defines suburban material comfort. And Christmas…oy, such an occasion of angst Christmas was, with all those excessive, unnecessary gifts in the name of a baby born into poverty.

Now that I am a mother of three who drives a Honda Odyssey minivan (the supersized symbol of suburban material comfort), the Christian simplicity ethic has gotten mixed up in my mind with the clutter-free living extolled in the pages of shelter magazines and on home-improvement shows, in which everything, from mail and sports equipment to craft supplies and kitchen staples, is sorted into color-coordinated storage systems, and anything that goes unused for a few months is thrown away, recycled, or repurposed. I am also naturally inclined to dislike clutter; I possess a writerly desire for a “clean well-lighted room” in which to work.

The simplicity ethic on top of cultural values extolling clutter-free living and my own predisposition has led to my quasi-spiritual certainty that God just doesn’t like stuff. When I spend the morning cleaning, toting several paper bags around with me in which to sort objects I come across (things to throw away, things to put back into their designated storage container, and things to recycle or give away), I sometimes have the sense that this work of de-cluttering is almost holy work. Jesus warned us against money and possessions, so God obviously hates the plastic junk taking over my kids’ rooms, gratuitous gifts of scented candles, stacks of old magazines, and knick-knacks gathering dust just as much as I do, right? How nice when my religious values and the values espoused by HGTV, Better Homes and Gardens and Oprah all line up so nicely!

My mother-in-law Ruby will be 87 years old in a few weeks. Her home—the home she lived in for most of her adult life and raised five children in—has been a source of much eye-rolling and heavy sighing on my part over the years. She kept everything, and my husband and I have teased her for it—gently in person, sometimes more harshly in private. Her telephone sits on a 40-year-old television that no longer works, but that she kept because it was housed in a heavy wooden cabinet and therefore qualified as a good piece of furniture. Pick up a magazine in one of the guest bedrooms or the den, and it’s likely to be decades old. On one recent visit, my bedtime reading was a 1970s People magazine with the Bee Gees on the cover. Whenever we visit, my husband randomly opens dresser drawers to find clothes that have sat unworn for years—his brother Jimmy’s shirts, still pressed and in their paper wrappers from the cleaners, his own shirts from Boy Scout events from his teens, his brother David’s athletic socks. Every surface in Ruby’s house, both horizontal (tables, bookshelves) and vertical (mirrors), is covered—with mementoes, photos, candlesticks, prayer cards, signed letters from past presidents. On the refrigerator are postcards and notes from her grandchildren, some of them written more than a decade ago.

Whenever we visit Ruby’s house, my hands practically itch with the desire to start cleaning up and cleaning out. I get annoyed that there’s no place to set down a glass of water because every surface is covered. I get annoyed when my kids go down into the basement to unearth old toys—a plastic Starship Enterprise, a stuffed panda that leaks plastic pellets (probably toxic, I’m thinking) from its split seams—and come back up with their hands and feet black with dirt, carrying treasures they insist on hauling back home. I get annoyed that we can barely move around in the guest bedroom, much less unpack some clothes into the closet or the drawers, because every square inch is occupied by stuff Ruby doesn’t need, doesn’t use, and should have trashed years ago.

My mother-in-law is a Christian woman. Does she not understand that God doesn’t like stuff?

Ruby is in a nursing home now, her body weakened by diabetes, kidney failure, and heart failure, and her mind sometimes overtaken by confusion. Her house stands empty of human life but full still of the evidence of her life, and the lives of those she nurtured. Some day soon my husband, his brother, and his sister will rent a dumpster and start cleaning it out, divvying up the furniture, storing away a few treasures that are particularly evocative, and dumping the rest. Ruby’s house will finally be clutter-free, but it will also be lifeless, empty in a way that is not merely physical.

I am realizing now that I failed to see something important about all of Ruby’s clutter. Yes, she held onto too much stuff for too long. But Ruby buried her husband and two of her children; her surviving children are busy with their jobs, their own kids and grandkids. Sometimes stuff is not just stuff. Sometimes stuff really is the stuff of life—the physical objects that bind us to each other, to our past, to the times and people we have lost and still mourn. Jimmy’s cleaned and pressed shirts and David’s socks take up space in the dresser drawers because Jimmy and David never returned to claim them before they died. How is a mother supposed to move on from that harsh fact? So she didn’t move on; she left her boys’ things just as they were. The Phillips 66 jackets and polyester shirts succumbing to mildew in the closets are reminders of the service station business that paid for this little brick house on Scott Street, the plastic toys strewn about the living room on long-gone Christmas mornings, the college educations that carried Ruby’s children away from her, and the laughing, flawed man who wore those jackets and shirts to work day after day for his family, before dying of colon cancer much too soon.

All of our stuff can distract and overwhelm us, but it can also provide context. Our clutter can remind us that matter matters, that the bodies we inhabit and tend, the food we make and eat, the clothes and toys and mementoes made or given or used with love can bind us to each other, and to those who came before and come after. Our clutter and all that it evokes in us can even, perhaps, help us guard against that old heresy of Gnosticism, which insists on the separation of the spiritual and the material, and the elevation of the former over the latter. Matter matters.

As I write this, I can look up and see photos of my children as babies, but nothing brings back their infancies more vividly than coming across a tiny newborn-sized diaper in the back of my son’s sock drawer, its smell and texture bringing me back to days marked by an endless cycle of feeding and changing, and the unmatched pleasure of falling asleep with a sated infant curled on my chest. As I gather books for the church rummage sale, I stop to read our tattered copy of “Goodnight Moon." That book, and a few others, I can't bear to give away. They provide too strong a connection to those earliest bedtime routines, when my babies couldn’t understand a word of the stories I read but understood my voice, and the cradling arms and full breasts that accompanied it, as indispensable.

Jesus warned us not to care too much about our possessions. Jesus wanted us to share. Our modern obsession with what we want, buy, and have poses a danger to our spiritual life, but so can our modern obsession with de-cluttered showplaces, as we sever connections to things in the name of cleanliness, efficiency, and order. As a mother, I will continue to push back against our modern tendency to ply our children with stuff—goody bags and obscene piles of gifts and material rewards for every desired behavior. As a Christian, I will continue to confess that my desire for a comfortable home, nice clothes, and convenient take-out meals limits the money we have left over to share with those who have so little.

But I will no longer see de-cluttering as a spiritual act. I will no longer be quite so certain that God doesn’t like stuff. And when it comes time for my husband and his siblings to go through their mother’s house, I won’t sigh and roll my eyes at the dusty, unwieldy, useless objects my husband plucks out of the clutter and carries home.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Family Reunions: a taste of the sacred

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Todd Donatelli

It is called “Taste of Chicago”, a ten-day festival of food, music, art and people gathered in and around the lakefront at Grant Park. According to the website, about 70 restaurants and 3 million people are present over the ten days leading to July 4. It is a collection of all sorts and conditions of folks. It is a broad snapshot of Chicago.

It had stiff competition this year from “Taste of Benson”, a much lesser known but every bit as significant event which took place in Chicago the same weekend. There was a grand variety of food, a wide array of entertainment, and plenty of storytellers. It is actually known as the Benson Picnic, an annual summer Sunday gathering of my grandmother’s family (on my mother’s side) which began in the mid 1950’s.

Each year the invitations go out to all members of the family. One never knows how many will attend from year to year. This year’s total was 78; the record is 108. Some are unable to attend for health reasons. One niece is currently working in Spain and a weekend trip to Chicago is not practical. Some send notes if they cannot attend and others may not be heard from.

There is a family journal into which we add notes and pictures each summer. It includes notations both joyful and tragic. There is the late 60’s entry from my oldest brother, “Keep the faith baby.” There is the entry about our cousin Lee who died in a plane crash in 1977. Included is the official American citizenship document of Otto Benson dated September 14, 1892. Otto came to this country to avoid conscription in the German Army, something our mother did not tell my older brothers or me during the Vietnam years. “The three of you didn’t need any more encouragement at that time,” she later laughed. There is an amazing history of hair styles.

I must admit that as with all families there are times you cannot wait to see some members of the family and other times you may wish to avoid someone for one reason or another. I now realize I have been the subject of both sentiments for members of the family. There have been some significant disagreements in the family at times and passions are not held inside. As often as not folks figured ways to move ahead even as they might wonder about the maturity of another.

A large family tree is displayed beginning with my grandmother and her siblings. It is written on very large sheets of paper. Several years ago I was standing in front of the tree with a cousin who had been recently remarried after having gone through a divorce years before. “So what is the protocol for this?” they asked, referring to their new and former spouses. As the tree is written in ink, no one gets deleted from the tree. New persons are added, but no one is ever deleted. Once you are part of the family, you are part of the family. Some may stay away for a time, but no one is ever deleted.

As this annual reunion is in its sixth decade, there has been much change in the family. I recall being too young to play in the annual softball game. A few years ago I asked my brothers if they realized we were the oldest ones now playing. Their looks suggested they had. Gone is Grandma Myrtle and Grandpa Art. Gone is Chester, Mildred, Oz, Roy and a host of folks who were the mainstays for so many years. They are gone and yet recalled in pictures and in stories that make you laugh deeply even as they bring tears for missing them. Their presence with us is real.

The Picnic stirs many deep emotions in me. It is one of those rare places that holds in a small space the expanse of my life: my origins, my gathered experiences, the people who have known me and stood by me in all sorts and conditions of years including years I am proud of and some years I would not mind forgetting. It holds the memories of my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins now gone. It reminds me of the place I have taken in the family, the place these elders once held. It reminds me no matter how far I have traveled, no matter how far I have wandered, no matter how much I have amassed or squandered, there is a place and a people present, waiting with a meal to share. All of the above makes for a sacred event.

We are in that period of the Liturgical Calendar called Ordinary Time, the Season after Pentecost; the season which tells us we are the body of Christ, we are the physical manifestation of God, the family of God. In this space we continue to recall our origins, our people (every human being), our stories, our losses and our joys. We recall what has been learned and what has been squandered. We recall times when we were a tight group and times some of us wandered away. We recall when our separation provided the space and hunger for the work of being reunited. There are all sorts and conditions in this body; there are all sorts and conditions of stories.

In this and every season we have our own “taste of”: again and again we gather at table to remember who is present and who is not, what has been lost and what has been found. We remember the story started long before us and will continue long after we are gone. We recall that some wander and none are deleted. We gather at table and find the meal always present and waiting for us. It is our taste of the sacred.

The Very Reverend Todd Donatelli is dean of The Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, North Carolina. His published writing includes the chapter, “Art and Transformation” in “From Nomads to Pilgrims”, edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking. He blogs at Contemplation from the Angle.

Chastity, now

By Richard Helmer

In starting discernment to become a member of a spiritual community of The Episcopal Church, I have been invited in recent months to study the three classic evangelical counsels as they have been articulated as vows beginning with the mendicant orders in the twelfth century: poverty, chastity, and obedience.

As a parish priest, husband, father, and ever aspiring pianist, the one counsel that has captivated me most recently has been the vow of chastity. It has spoken most deeply to my perfectionistic desire to control outcomes in every relationship in my life -- far beyond its often narrow interpretation regarding fidelity in sexual conduct.

Chastity means setting aside dominance and control and seeking instead a new way to relate to the world and to God.

Having spent an increasing amount of time in conversation with married couples in recent years, the most commonly destructive dynamic in any relationship I have found has to do with a failure of chastity. But I don't mean sex outside the marriage. By chastity in marriage I mean the challenge of setting aside the stubborn drive to control or change person we most cherish. When couples learn this, the effect in their relationship and family is simply astonishing. Anxiety and anger levels drop almost immediately. There is a renewed simultaneous sense of freedom and connection. Spouses allow their partners to grow. Parents allow their children to seek accountable maturity. Needs are articulated. Resentments are set aside. Rather than using or abusing the relationship to change others, the relationships by themselves become transformative. Everyone is changed.

I've discovered the same truth in my walk with the congregation I serve. When I began viewing parish ministry through the lens of chastity, I soon felt far less anxious about outcomes of our various forms of service and worship. I was able to let our lay leadership step forward and engage more creatively in ministry at every level. I was less apt to get tangled up in the inevitable power games that all communities encounter. I was able to better articulate my own perspectives without expecting simple assent or agreement. I was able to hold my precious agendas more lightly. I was able to more clearly see and exercise pastoral authority when the community needed it. Frankly, I am less interested in numbers for the parochial report and parish programs for my resume than I ever have been. Chastity in this ministry is, for me at least, a spiritually life-saving discovery.

Chaste leadership serves and seeks to set example rather than manipulate or control. Chaste leadership is honest about the power it holds and seeks to exercise it with transparency, deliberation, clarity and the good of others first and foremost in mind. And chaste leadership learns to live with the reality that we are never in full control of outcomes, that consequences bad and good flow from every action, and that ends rarely if ever justify means.

Chastity deserves a thorough study by everyone presently involved in the tired crisis of the Anglican Communion. The desire to manipulate outcomes, to control others, to dominate an otherwise messy situation inherited from our colonial, modern past is all about unchaste approaches to relationship. And our late great crisis is rife with unchastity. We see it a lot in bishops and clergy attempting to manipulate the situation to their own ends. We see it in the floundering of the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury attempting to control through appeasement and veiled threats. We see it in the unwillingness to acknowledge our actions within our own Church have unforeseen consequences for everyone -- both good and bad. We see it in the grasping and grandstanding at many levels. We have already seen the failed outcomes of dishonest ecclesiastical legislating that is inherently unchaste for its attempt to placate rather than humbly hold the truth. And we know too well the abuse of reports and non-binding councils as instruments of shadow law, and the potential of distorting covenant into a tool of manipulation. Finally, we see clergy and laity alike standing behind all of these efforts aiming for a piece of the action -- following the siren call of our conflicting visions of what a church "should" be: one that is made in our image rather than God's. I'm as guilty of this form of unchastity as anyone.

But there is good news. Chastity has been in evidence in the increasing number of voices of those who recognize our disagreements as a Communion, but yet insist that costly communion in Christ is far more valuable than agreement.

Chastity has long been in evidence by those courageous, oft-threatened "firsts" of our faith who inhabit dangerous positions not for power or the quixotic pursuit of perfection, but simply by being who they are and following God's call as best they can. The consecrations in the Diocese of Los Angeles are some of the most recent examples of this form of chastity.

Chaste behavior has been in the quiet but transformative story-telling and building up
of authentic relationships across the divides of gender, class, race, culture, sexuality, and ideology all across the Communion recently. Chastity allows us to be ourselves by allowing others to be themselves. Chastity makes it known when we are encountering oppression and articulates our needs as they arise. Chastity seeks honest accountability. Chastity sets aside the weapons and metaphors of war for an honest, authentic justice. Chastity endeavors to shed the harbored resentments and unmet wants of our brief lives and move forward in renewed relationship.

Ultimately, chastity is about humility and seeing the reality that people around us are not means to an end, whether ours or anyone else's. For years, the Church stressed chastity in sexual terms for a number of reasons. Perhaps the greatest among them was that sex in patriarchal societies was often about dominance and objectification: a means to an heir or means to gratification, economic improvement, or status. We might claim we are beyond this today in some ways, but in contemporary Western culture we have perpetuated this lack of chastity in new ways: through commercialism, through sound-byte politics, through commodification of just about everyone and everything. The lesson is that the Church still has a great deal to learn and teach about chastity in our own day.

Chastity demands we return to what is real, setting aside the spectacles of objectification, and learn again to see ourselves, others, and the world through Christ's loving eyes. Chastity calls us to embrace our humility and acknowledge our lack of control -- to some degree over ourselves, and to an even greater degree over others. Chastity asks us to hope rather than to expect, to forgive rather than to condemn, to cultivate rather than destroy. Perhaps most importantly, chastity insists that God be God, not a projection of our own desires. Chastity towards the divine is captured in that critical turn of phrase in the Lord's prayer: "thy will be done..."

No one ever said chastity is easy. Yet our attempt to tame it by confining it to monasticism or sex ignores its enormous potential for transformation in our everyday lives as a Christian people. For at the end of the day, chastity calls us to live more into the love with which God loves us: a chaste love that frees and empowers us to be who we were made to be -- a people of and for our loving God.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

I am the good mother

By Ann Fontaine

The second Sunday of May is the Hallmark High Holy Day of Mother’s Day. The creation of this commemoration was supported by Julia Ward Howe in her Mothers’ Day Proclamation, and the day was set aside in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson as a day to honor mothers whose sons had died in war. Since that time it has become a day of difficulty for many clergy and preachers.

Every year I wrestle with how to balance the almost idolatrous honoring of mothers by the greeting card, flower, and gift industries and the reality of “mother” for many. While many have wonderful mothers whom they wish to honor, others had abusive mothers and flee from activities on Mothers’ Day that only salts their wounds. Those who wanted to have children and could not and those whose children have died also find it difficult to sit through a service when the focus is on something they have yearned for or lost.

How might we approach this day? Embrace it? Ignore it altogether? Add prayers for all sorts and conditions of mothers and non-mothers? Transform it? All hold possibilities

We can embrace it in the spirit of Hallmark - celebrate an idealized image of mother. Give thanks that it is a well-attended Sunday as mothers and grandmothers ask their children and grandchildren to go to church this one day that is not Christmas or Easter. Give out flowers to all mothers who attend our services. Sing hymns and songs glorifying motherhood. One priest I know changes the words of Faith of our Fathers to Faith of our Mothers, recognizing that most of us attended church because of our mothers, not our fathers.

We can ignore it. Let it slip by unnoted even though many women will be wearing corsages sent by their children. We can hold on to the Anglican tradition of celebrating Mothering Sunday during Lent, usually mid-March. Transformed from a Roman celebration of the goddess Cybele on the feast of Hilaria, to a festival honoring Mary, the mother of Jesus and by extension all mothers. Marked for many years as the one Sunday when domestic servants were allowed a day off to see their mothers. Perhaps there can be movement similar to the idea that churches should not sing Christmas songs during Advent.

Another possibility is offering prayers but not preaching on the subject. Offering prayers for those who are mothers whether kindly or abusive, for those who have mothered us regardless of gender, for those who grieve death of a mother or of a child or the inability to be a birth mother can raise the awareness that the church understands the joys and difficulties of this day for many. The following is an example by Melissa Roberts:

God of mysteries, I don’t know why Mom [insert reason mother left]. Despite all the changes in my life, I miss her. Remind me that I am Your beloved child, with whom You are well pleased. You, O God, will never abandon me. Heal me in body, mind, and spirit when I feel that my mother abandoned me. Lead me to others will nurture and guide me as a mother should and let me, also, share the love of a mother with others, in the light of Your love. Amen.

Yet another idea is transformation. This seems to be gaining favor with many both in and out of churches. As early celebrations called for an end to war current celebrations add the honoring of women for the work they do providing for their families, changing unjust laws, risking jail or death for a better life for their communities and the world, and working for a safe healthy world for all children. The US State Department recently announced the winners of the Women of Courage for this year. A developing activity for Mothers Day is called Standing Women. Women, men and children stand in silence at 1 p.m. local time for five minutes as a call to action on behalf of the world and our communities, as a type of mothering of the whole world into wholeness:

We are standing for the world’s children and grandchildren, and for the seven generations beyond them.
We dream of a world where all of our children have safe drinking water, clean air to breathe, and enough food to eat.
A world where they have access to a basic education to develop their minds and healthcare to nurture their growing bodies.
A world where they have a warm, safe and loving place to call home.
A world where they don’t live in fear of violence – in their home, in their neighborhood, in their school or in their world.
This the world of which we dream.
This is the cause for which we stand.

One year Mothers’ Day fell on the same day as the reading from the Gospel of John. After talking about the difficulties and joys of the day, I paraphrased the reading as a way of taking another look at the gospel and mothers:

Jesus said: I am the good mother. The good mother lays down her life for the children. The hired caretaker, who is not the mother and does not care for the children, sees the fearful thing coming and leaves the children and runs away -- and the children are snatched and scattered. The hired caretaker runs away because s/he does not care for the children. I am the good mother. I know my own and my own know me, just as my Mother knows me and I know my Mother. And I lay down my life for the children. I have other children that are not of this family. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one family, one mother. For this reason I am loved, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from the Holy One.
What do you do in the church you serve?

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Kipple drives out non-kipple

By Leo Campos

Kipple is a fundamental concept in the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick which was made into the movie Blade Runner. It is basically a restatement of the Law of Entropy, where "kipple" means disorder. The interesting thing here, subtle as all of PKD’s concepts are, is that "kipple" seems to be the fundamental reality with non-kipple being the absence thereof. It certainly seems a pessimistic conclusion, but fitting for a dystopian future as painted by the author.

Anyone who owns children of any sort: pets, husbands or actual small humans will be familiar with the Kipple Law as stated above. Our household consists of two cats, two children and two adults. There is an impossibility of keeping anything ordered for longer than about 15 minutes, especially if my smaller child walks into a room. I am beginning to believe that he is some sort of human equivalent of Taz, the Tasmanian Devil from the Bugs Bunny cartoons - a less grumpy version, but one with equivalent destructive powers.

Then there are the cats, whose sole job it seems is the production of fur. They are generous souls and willingly spread their wealth all around the house. They are also aesthetes and will try to rectify any fur imbalances - that is, they will congregate on the cleanest room and proceed to bring it to the same level of furriness as the others.

My older son is a plopper. You know the type - 'Plop!' goes his school bag about one step in the door. "plop, plop" go his shoes about a half a step later. "Plop" goes his jacket a few steps further.

You bring clean clothes to his room and place them on the bed, so he can properly hang them, and "Plop" to the floor they go. There are two piles of clothes in his room a clean one and a dirty one - often it is hard to tell the difference. And equally often I lose patience and throw everything in the wash, only to be confronted by an annoyed 10-year old.

"Where's my favorite shorts?"

"Don't know,” I say.

"They were in my room"

"Were they put away?"

"They were on the floor," by which he means they were "organically organized."

"Well I took all the clothes from the floor and put them in the wash."

"But they were clean!" an exasperated tone in his voice.

"How was I to know?"

This usually ends the conversation, because frankly I have the "patience of the prophets" when it comes to this topic.

We are all constantly, it seems, creating, even exuding, disorder. Much of what the work of the spiritual life is about fighting these natural tendencies, it is very much a work against nature. When it comes to human life, alone or in community, kipple does indeed drive out non-kipple.
This can be seen in our theologies. One fundamental reversal is the claim that evil is the absence of God. It would seem that from the Kipple Law above it would make more sense to claim that God is the absence of evil. Clearly, if we were going to base our theology on dispassionate observation of the world and of history, it does seem to make more sense to say that all of civilization is a fight against natural barbarism, natural chaos and anarchy. Civilization is an artificial construct which can only be maintained through artificial means.

This is why we need revelation. It turns out this picture is fundamentally wrong. In the deep reality of Creation it is God who exists, and all that is not God does not, or to put it more poetically “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1).

As we go through our days, diligently combating kipple, we can be certain that this is godly work, and is God’s work. The Opus Dei, it seems, has a lot in common with house cleaning.

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude, a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the "tech guy" for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

Burning bushes

By Sam Candler

On the Saturday before the Third Sunday in Lent, I stood around helping my brother burn off some of the woods. My father was there, too. My brother-in-law, my mother, my wife were there. A family afternoon. Burning the woods is a regular affair on the farm where I grew up. I was glad to turn aside that day.

My brother had a nifty device filled with two-thirds diesel and one-third regular gasoline. When lit, its twisted nozzle functioned like a flame thrower, but it really just dripped fire out into the pine straw and bushes and sweet gum saplings. We always have to get rid of the sweet gums. My brother had already driven around the designated patch of woods with his tractor and plow, carving out a shallow fire line.

Burning the woods is critical to clearing out the underbrush that might start another, more serious, fire in those woods. But its main accomplishment is to clear out the underbrush for more birdlife and wildlife, and to provide for sturdier pines and primary trees.

We watched the wind, and we set the fire on the leeward side. That way, the fire would stay controlled and burn backwards into the wind. Fire likes to feed into the wind, probably like all of us do. And fire really does start quickly. I watched with my folks, mesmerized by the sheer chemical reaction spreading before us. We talked randomly about whatever was on our minds. Younger folks might call it "hanging out." Hanging out is much more enthralling when a fire is burning before you.

Occasional sparks drifted out over the fire line, and we put them out. A few of the larger pines caught fire at their bases. The water from the back of my fathers's four-wheeler put it out easily. That four-wheeler is really a mule, but it's a different sort of mule from the one that trudged through these same fields so long ago.

We heard a pileated woodpecker and then saw it sail through the glade in front of us. We listened to still another flock of sandhill cranes, but we never saw them, above the thick pines towering over us. We wondered why several deer sat nonchalantly in a nearby thicket, watching us, but never running away. Too many tame deer these days.

The next day I was at church, hearing about Moses, who turned aside from tending his family's flocks one day. He watched a bush being burned and yet not being consumed, He heard an angel remind him of his father's God. "I am who I am," Yahweh said. Holy ground.

Holy ground is where fathers and sons can stand around together. Mothers and daughters, too. With nothing important to do except burn something. With nothing important to say, except maybe "It is what it is." The standing around is more fascinating than the words. Something powerful is burning all around us. It burns, but it does not consume. Instead, it enthralls and inspires. Fire destroys the straw, but it germinates the seed. Fire creates fertility. Burning bushes makes for holy ground.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He chaired the House of Deputies' Committee on Prayerbook, Liturgy and Church Music at the General Convention. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

The woman around the corner

By Greg Jones

When Moses went up the holy mountain to speak with God it changed him. Numbers says that Moses spoke to God “mouth to mouth," that “he beheld the form of the Lord.” Yes, when Moses spoke to God, and God to Moses, “mouth to mouth," you better believe it changed him.

Moses saw the light and he was changed. If you saw a burning bush, a pillar of fire, and the glorious countenance of God on high, you’d be different too. But Moses, in his enlightenment, in his illumination, came back not proud, but humble. In the enlightenment of what he witnessed, he came back not haughty, but veiled in humility. After all, he didn’t want the people to idolize him, to put him on a pedestal, to build a tabernacle around him.

For Moses knew that Moses was not God, but an enlightened witness for God – to a fragile people, still in national infancy, weak and wounded by four centuries of oppression, violence and abuse. No, Moses didn’t want to be worshipped by hungry souls, ready perhaps to miss the point. He just wanted to be faithful. And he was.

When Jesus went up the mountain and God’s glory in Him was revealed, He wouldn’t allow the witnesses to miss the point. Yes, He was revealed to Peter, James and John as God’s own expression, and they too beheld the form of God as Jesus. But then He led them down; to do what He came for; not to be trumpeted in Glory, but to serve. Not to be boothed up, but to go forth: to heal, to save, to love the children of this mortal coil who suffer still under sin and death.

Moses was changed by his encounter with God and, eventually, so were Peter, James and John. All were enlightened; for real, not for pride, as servant-witnesses to the Light of God: who wills all to be healed, loved and cherished.

Have you suffered? Do you still? From oppression? Violence? Bondage to fear and death and grief and worry? Do you know God’s precious love for you?

Last week, I drove up to Washington D.C. in the midst of its great snow. (Not many left North Carolina for D.C. last week!) But, I drove straight up 95, right across Memorial Bridge, up the gorgeously snow heavy Rock Creek Parkway, and after a stop at Booeymonger's for a bagel, I made my way to Chevy Chase, to the funeral of the woman who first showed me the precious love of God.

Fran Dabrowski was a neighbor. My dad lived next door to her when he was a kid in Chevy Chase in the 1950s, and in 1970, when I was a year old, my folks took me around the corner to Fran's house, where I fit right in. She had eight kids -- and in addition to helping to take care of me, she sheltered so many fragile persons in that old house on Leland Street.

When my parents divorced, I went to Fran’s nearly every day for a few hours of care and play. I basically lived in her house from age 1 to age 9, when she began a teaching career at Georgetown Day School, where she was also much beloved.

My first Christian experience was as a toddler in the Chevy Chase Methodist Church Cherub Choir, which she led. I learned about church, about hymns, about robes and weekly service to God. The first sentence of the message of God I ever learned, Fran taught me:

“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.”

This humble, hardworking, woman (with eight kids of her own and a household filled with refugees from scattered lives) convinced me that God loved me and all creatures – great and small. I was small when this enlightened witness to Christ showed me the powerful love of Jesus, and I’ve felt great ever since. Not in pride. Not in glory. But in being included by a Gracious Lord who sent someone like Fran to find me.

Are you feeling small? We all do. And we all are. But I’m convinced God loves us, and we can grow in His love, by following His Son. If you know this, if you’ve seen the light in the face of some enlightened witness to Christ, then share it, with all the small, who need to see it too.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C., a trustee of General Seminary and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders — whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.


By Donald Schell

My wife and I are expecting. No, our own baby girl grew up and now she’s expecting her own baby. So actually we’re expecting vicariously or at one remove. Our first grandbaby is due in April.

As grandparents-to-be we’re fascinated to watch our daughter and son-in-law think, plan, imagine, and feel their way forward. They’ve researched car seats. They took a hospital tour and checked out the hospital’s ob-gyn practice and c-section stats. They’re being particularly thoughtful of each other in their time together as a couple while they imagine how different everything will be soon as their family of two becomes three. And they wait, by choice now and some friends feel eccentrically, to see if the coming somebody will be a boy or a girl.

I saw a shadow cross our daughter's face as my wife was showing her pictures of the birthing clinic that our young friends Maggie, Andy, and Emily, and the people of eighteen nearby villages just completed in Malawi, Africa. Carrying a baby herself, our daughter sensed how frightening it would be to anticipate labor with no access to emergency maternity help.

Watching the soon-to-be parents moves us to gratitude. They ask us lovely questions about how we did things, and some practical questions too that are a pleasure to answer when we can. We share stories with them of our daughter’s own birth, and memories of her older sister and younger brothers when they were children. She’s imagining the long journey from birth giving to grand parenting days like we’re experiencing now. The mother-to-be is seven years younger than her big sister and ten years older than her younger brother. Storytelling feels very rich. We had lots of time to watch the children grow, and with four of them, we came to see how each child was his or her own self from the day each showed up and accepted (yes, sometimes re-made) the names they were given.

Now all our four are grown, each one someone we’d hardly have imagined when they were small. I pause from writing this to raise four fingers one-by-one – the history professor, the full-time youth-at-risk program director, the priest, and just grown, eight months out of college, our youngest, the actor, piecing together auditions, work, and what parts he can get.

Today’s expectant mom was ten years old when her youngest brother was born. She remembers our astonishment at her fierce little brother, the baby and child so prone to tears and rage. She remembers her “experienced” parents taking a multi-week Systematic Training for Effective Parenting class in desperation and coming home to try what we were learning in class on him and her and her sister and other brother.

“Expectant” is a funny word. It misses part of the experience. None of our four are anyone we’d expected. While we acknowledge that they graced and challenged us far beyond our imagining, we also must acknowledge that they’re not the children we imagined before they showed up. And it wasn’t even enough to ‘accept and know them’ when they arrived. They each did their own becoming. We had work to do, but our agenda as their parents came with each one, each different and distinct.

The whole family says the explosive baby brother has become our glue, the peacemaker, the one everyone can talk to, the one who makes us glad to be ourselves. All his intensity is still evident onstage where he can be breath taking, heart breaking, and even terrifying. Offstage he moves through life with a grace and ease that moves Ellen and me to say, “big improvement on his parents – just how did that happen?” He was our thunderstorm and tornado, now his smile is sunshine.

That reversal touches a part of the story we can’t tell our daughter completely because she’s got to live it herself as she becomes a mom. There’s more letting- go and letting-be to loving than we knew or now know how to tell her. She does glimpse it in her work where she’s practiced a lot of letting go and letting be with kids who have a parent in prison. And she was old enough to see her dismayed parents feeling everything they knew or had done before was useless with her second brother, and she joined her big sister worrying over him and loving him with us.

In these waiting months of watching her and her husband I’ve been thinking about the divine mother/father. If we actually think about parenting, what does that image tell us about God’s love?

In the beginning, it looks easy - all four children image the love they came from and the love that watched them grow. But their growing changes simple generative love into something more. Each of ours stretched us beyond who we had been before they entered our lives.

If God is parent, God is changing with us.

While calling God our ‘maker’ doesn’t seem to imply change to the maker, knowing a number of artists and having myself tasted the difficulty of writing what I hear in my mind’s ear or trying to remember and sing and teach others something I know, ‘creator’ does begin to hint at a more passionate relationship than control, something that partakes of both struggle and dance.

Any creative artist knows that material has its own energy and something like a ‘mind.’ Creative work counts on material, and material is unbalancing. It causes the artist suffering and ecstatic discovering as vision and skill meet what is, what’s becoming and what can be.

Calling God our mother or father takes the risk deeper still. Parenting images evoke the wildness of engendering, birthing, and the twists and turns of loving and raising one who is truly other.

I can’t tell this to my daughter in words that are big enough or strange enough, but she feels it. Mothering love and fathering love drive out fond hope and vanity’s imaginings to welcome a stranger, an autonomous person who is also wholly and unpredictably a parent’s joy. The coming stranger will give her, and perhaps even the grandparents, new becoming, new selves.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is
President of All Saints Company.

Remembering Mom's Epiphany

By Lauren R. Stanley

I lost one of my most precious notebooks recently, the one that holds my notes for my post-graduate studies. It’s a nice notebook, an old-fashioned journal actually, with heavy, dark paper and a soft leather cover. I love that notebook – its feel, its smell, the way the ink spreads a little on the page … But right now, I can’t find it.

Since my post-graduate studies resume in a few days, I have to have another journal. I own a lot of them – a friend keeps me well supplied. The one I settled on is small, also with a soft leather cover, and is hand-stitched together. I’ve used this one before, but hadn’t really touched it in years.

Flipping through it, I discovered that this was journal I used while sitting with my mother in her last days on this earth. On the very last page was a sketch I drew of her a few days before she died. She was lying in her hospice bed, sleeping peacefully, and as I sat beside her, I quietly sketched away.

It’s not a good sketch; I am not a good artist. But it seemed like the thing to do at the time, and I’m glad that I’ve found this journal again.

My mother died eight years ago, on the Feast of the Epiphany. Since that time, whenever I have celebrated the Eucharist, I’ve thought of her. When we reached the introduction to the Sanctus – “where with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” – I particularly rejoice, for I am convinced that she is part of that company of angels, and that she is singing beautifully again to the glory of God.

You see, when I was a child, my mother had a beautiful soprano voice, and we often would sing together in church, she hitting all the high notes while I struggled to come anywhere close.

I remember well the day that I first hit the highest notes of the “Ave Maria.” My mother, standing next to me, singing away, turned to me and gave me the biggest smile. We finished the hymn singing together, and that day, for at least that moment, I felt all grown up.

From that time forward, my mother and I sang together … in church, at home, in the car. We didn’t always sing beautifully, and we didn’t always sing beautiful songs. My mother would often let me pick the radio station and sometimes, the songs were the catchy rock-and-roll that I preferred. At home, more often than not we sang show tunes or hummed along to classical music. One song dear to us both: “Que Sera, Sera.” The future’s not ours to see, she would sing. And somehow, hearing her sing those words, softly and gently, she managed to remove whatever fears I might have had about whatever was, or was not, going on in my life.

Long before my mother died, her singing voice had deserted her. She still loved to sing, and she still loved to sing with me, but now it was my voice that led hers, my voice that hit the high notes. Her voice, as she admitted, quavered, and her high notes were nothing but a long-ago memory.

In her last days, I sang to her a lot. I picked hymns that she knew, and sang canticles and prayers, and on occasion, when I was alone with her, I would sing “Que Sera, Sera.” My mother wasn’t sure she was ready to face God. She wasn’t certain she had lived a good enough life. She was somewhat afraid of being judged and found lacking. So I sang, over and over again, “What will be, will be.”

I like to think it brought her some comfort. I know that when she died, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she had an epiphany of her own, for my belief tells me that when at last she reached the Alpha of the rest of life, she found that God loved her and welcomed her home.

And now, whenever I celebrate the Eucharist, and especially when I celebrate on the Feast of the Epiphany, whenever I speak of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, I think of my mother, and I smile a bit, because I know that she’s part of that glorious company, and that her voice has been returned to her and that indeed is singing away in heaven. Her epiphany of God’s love helps me remember that I am loved as well.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Haiti, where she works on the Partnership Program and Development, and teaches at the Theological Seminary in Port au Prince. Her website is, where she is providing regular updates on the aftermath of the earthquake.

Go forth from this world

By Deirdre Good

It wasn't April and I wasn't longing to go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury in good company. Instead it was on a cold December day that I went to Canterbury behind the ambulance bearing my father to the Pilgrim's Hospice where he would spend the last four days of his life. It would be the end of his struggle with cancer. My mother accompanied him in the ambulance. She will have her own tale to tell.

Although my father was under hospice care and hospice nurses visited us regularly, we didn't expect to be visiting the hospice as he had made it clear that he wished to die at home. But during the course of the last full week of his life, it became obvious that while my mother had to this point managed to look after him wonderfully well night and day at home, this was no longer possible. I'd never been to a hospice before but it seemed that no pilgrims could have been more considerately welcomed than we were. The ambulance had arrived abruptly in the late morning and lunch was the last thing on our minds as we left the house. But the hospice took care of the three of us: Dad was admitted and we were offered sandwiches for lunch and the knowledge that he would have better palliative care for his last days.

Each day we visited the hospice different volunteers at the front desk greeted us, and, reminding us to sign in and wash our hands, they went off to make sure that our patient could receive a visit. At the bedside we were regularly offered coffee or tea or hot drinks by hospice staff depending on the time of day. And no one intruded on our grief as we sat and prayed or wept or just held his hands.

The patients recognized differences amongst themselves. The man in the bed opposite my father was going home before Christmas. When my mother was initially confused about the medicines being given to my father, he told her in some detail what the tubes delivering medicine to his body were. One morning as we sat by the bedside, another patient delivered a Christmas present to my comatose, deeply sedated unconscious father, laying it carefully next to him. We found out that he had done the same for every patient in the hospice. When we went to thank him, we found him dressed as an elf. "Don't look at my green tights!" he said.

And the hospice staff accompanied us every step of the way on our journey towards my father's death. They met us where we were and they did what we asked. "How did you sleep?" they asked my mother the morning after my father was admitted. "Would you like to be present when he dies?" they asked us both. We were offered an overnight stay to keep watch by the bedside. When we requested that the chaplain come to anoint my father late on a Sunday evening after she had already been to the hospice that morning for a Communion Service, they rang her and she came. Then they moved his bed into the chapel where she lit the Advent candles, prayed over him and anointed him.

Other family members made the same pilgrimage to the hospice that we did. My father's younger sister was driven across the country by her elder daughter to see her brother on the first day after he was admitted. It was in her presence that he opened his eyes for the last time as he tried to say something acknowledging family presence. My wife Julian flew over from New York City to be there for the duration. My eleven-year old niece, his grandchild, came with her parents from London to play Christmas Carols for him on her violin the day before he died. Hospice staff not only moved us into the chapel for this occasion but also brought in a piano that enabled her mother to accompany her. We listened, sang carols and wept as they each said goodbye to my father, holding his hands.

My father embarked on his own last journey at 2am on December 23rd. The night staff rang my mother and we were there within the hour to see his body for the last time in the darkness of early morning. They had laid a red carnation by his head. They assured us that he died peacefully. And after some time, they offered us tea in the chapel. So we began our strange new journeys without him. As we left the hospice and drove out into the deserted streets, I could hear the chaplain's blessing and farewell:

Go forth from this world: in the love of God the Father who
created you, in the mercy of Jesus Christ who redeemed you, in
the power of the Holy Spirit who strengthens you. May the
heavenly host sustain you and the company of heaven enfold
you. In the communion with all the faithful may you dwell in
peace. May the choirs of angels come to greet you; may they
lead you to heaven. May God’s tender mercy now enfold you, and
may you find eternal life.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

Holding hands at the comma

By Heidi Shott

At the very end of June I sat with my parents on the front porch of the old family farm in rural upstate New York. Three weeks before, my father had been out mowing on the tractor. Three weeks hence, he would be dead.

"Twenty years ago when my brother was at the end," he recalled, "Doc Redding came and gave him a shot." My mother, sitting in dad’s shadow on the porch, caught my eye and shook her head slightly. "No, I was there," her eyes told me. "It wasn't like that."

"You could stop eating and drinking," I offered. "That might be a gentle way for you to go, a way you can control." I paused, despairing over this conversation. "Dad, the Doc Reddings of the world are gone."

My father’s reprieve from the lung cancer that had spread to his brain and other vital body parts was over. He was fading fast, and that’s why my young boys and I had returned. Dad took pleasure in watching the children play on the floor, and he and I critiqued the political ads on television. I drank tea with my mom in the kitchen. My childhood home was transformed into one of those quiet houses I remember from hospice volunteering where death was imminent and everyone was uncharacteristically gentle with one another.

The day after we returned to Maine, a pneumonia crisis scared my parents silly and they hoofed it to the hospital in the middle of the night. He stayed a week, and at the end of that time a decision needed to be made. I drove back to New York alone.

We decided to place him in a Lutheran nursing home for palliative care: no drugs, no forced food, no IV fluids, just morphine and comfy tactics. He was sleeping a lot and, mid-way through his hospital stay, he had stopped making much sense. The Lutheran home seemed like the right move.

While waiting for the ambulance that would take him there, we sat in the hospital room and held hands. His eyes were closed, and he seemed to be listening to someone… smiling, nodding, commenting now and again. At one point he scratched his wrist, looked at me with a broad smile and said, "Isn’t this fun?"

"What is it, Dad? Is it like a movie?"

"Yes, sort of," he said, returning to his inside place.

"A movie of your life?" I fished around.

"Yes," he murmured. Gone, but bemused. I hummed the big band tunes of the forties and let what was happening sink in. This was a big life moment here. The dying itself was a journey, a thin period when what we know as life and something else briefly intersect. I was invited to a little moment in his journey toward the something else.

Then suddenly I was disinvited. After he settled into the nursing home, I went to sit with him in the evening. He seemed restless, and when a nurse came in he said to her, "Would you please ask my daughter to leave." Nonplussed, I left the room and leaned against the wall watching the long-term residents cruise the corridors in their wheelchairs. After a few moments the nurse came out and said, "He said he doesn’t want you to see him die, but I told him I didn’t think he was going anywhere tonight and he’s agreed to let you back in."

The next day I returned and was greeted with, "Oh shit. You came back." This wasn’t going at all like I had planned. How was I to be the wonderful, caring daughter when he had an attitude like that? Awhile later some noisy nursing assistants came to take his untouched lunch tray. Dad woke fully, looked away to the window, and said with strained patience, "Would you please go? Would you please get into your car and go back to Maine. I can’t relax with you here."

With a lurch of my heart, I realized my version of his death was about what I had envisioned, not about what he needed. I stood beside his bed and knew what I had to ask.

"Dad, if I leave, will it help you to die?"

"Yes," he said, finally looking up at me, sunken, un-Dad-like, but still recognizable around the eyes. An unanticipated wave of grief thundered over me, and instantly, uncontrollably, I burst into giant sobs. The moment of parting was suddenly upon us, and I was caught by surprise.

After a minute I sat back in my chair. "How ‘bout I make you a deal, Dad," I said, reverting to our old style of talking. "How ‘bout I leave and say ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’ and then I won’t come. How’s that?"

"That’s good," he said, relieved and beginning to get a little fuzzy. I knew I had only a few more moments with my real father before the brain tumor/morphine father politely asked me to put the cheese next to the spare tire. We said our ‘I love yous' and hugged and kissed and then did it again a couple of times. Finally, I moved to the doorway, turned and said, "I’ll see you tomorrow. Good-bye."

He gave me his best, most winsome smile. "I’ll see you," my father said. I smiled back -- my parting gift -- and walked away.

In 1999 a play called Wit by Margaret Edson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It’s about a John Donne scholar who has terminal cancer, and one line reads, "Nothing but a breath – a comma – separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really…death is no longer something to act out on stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause."

Despite my promise, the following week my sons and I returned to New York. Dad had begun to die in earnest… the loud rattle of his breath, his eyes rolled back, his odd smell. As my mom and I sat on either side of his bed holding his hands, I thought about the moment…the pause in the heart-wrenching breathing…the comma, the full-stop. I thought about the journey’s end when we throw the last feeble leg over the fence to the something else. The moment when we see everything clearly in the presence of God, and say to ourselves, "What an idiot I was! Why didn’t I see how things really were?"

The following day, before my "shift" began, I took my woefully bored six year-old sons to a game farm. The best I can figure, we were delighting in the play of a couple of frisky otters when my father passed gently into that good morning.

Although my father was frustrated with the last six weeks of his life and his inability to get up and make coffee in the morning, I don’t think he would have wanted to miss the opportunity to show us how to do one last thing. He taught me that we are stewards of this life that God has entrusted us with and that we are susceptible to grace until the very end.

The day before Dad died, he lifted my hand to his lips…not seeing, not speaking, just doing. And by so doing, he invited me back to his life. It was his family he wanted at the end. He didn't want Doc Redding after all.

Heidi Shott is the canon for communications and social justice in the Diocese of Maine.

Managing anxiety in times of stress

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Mark Twain said: “I’ve had many troubles in my life and most of them never happened.”
Jesus said: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. … Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6: 25)

If this is true, then why did God create his creatures great and small to constantly anticipate danger in preparation for fight or flight? A childhood friend grew up in a family where her mother and grandmother lived by the mantra: “Look out ahead of yourself to name the possible catastrophes, worry, and prepare for the worst yet to come.” This focus on future doom never got to the real cause of their terrors, nor did it give them strategies to face life more calmly and faithfully. It was chronic anxiety, which differs from the acute anxiety we rely on to get us out of harm’s way. (“Oops, that truck running a red light would have crushed me if I hadn’t jumped back on the curb!”)

Over time, her family’s general anxiety spread like the flu to my young friend, who by osmotic absorption of fear seemed to attract bad luck – frequent accidents, illnesses and troubles in school. She became a timid adult and indeed her misfortunes followed her.

Her only son’s diagnosis of schizophrenia and the early death of her husband strengthened her resolve never to stray far from home in order to protect her son and herself. So she religiously tended her garden, invited a few people over from time to time, and gradually lost touch with her church community, insisting it couldn’t meet her needs. Since it takes a community to raise a child, her son suffered as much as she from her alienation. She saw doctors with expert opinions and took many medications, but she simply became more reclusive. One of her remaining friends remarked that she could have gone for a brisk walk in the time it took her to swallow the enormous number of pills she consumed each day.

In her mid 50s she was poisoned by arsenic from chemical toxins left in her garden’s soil by live WWI bombs buried for safety in her neighborhood. She had never truly lived. Avoiding danger was no safer in the long run than exposure to risk.

All of us bear the brunt of some familial anxiety, and searching for its real cause can be of great benefit. But the best way to reduce anxiety is often to increase one’s basic level of differentiation. How might my friend’s life have been different if she had worked more at being an individual and less at perfectly pleasing her family?

The following three questions have saved many a life from fear and anxiety paralysis:

• Where do I begin and end and where does another begin?

One of the most challenging and defining things you – or anyone – can do is to work on being clear about your beliefs and then having the courage to say “No.” No to family or friend when their expectations differ from your life goals. No to situations at work that don’t allow you to use your strengths. No to children when their demands are excessive or contrary to your principles.

• How can I stay connected with my family and others when their disapproval of my
opinions and choices makes it tempting to cut them out of my life?

Though they may not like your decisions, people appreciate clarity of belief and someone who is willing to take a stand when it is clearly, calmly articulated using “I statements.” Even so, it’s human nature to strive for “togetherness” and to resist another’s clarity. Learning to plan for that resistance and contain your reactivity to it is the true mark of progress. (Hint: more playfulness and less seriousness are essential to persistence when it seems easier to give in to another’s complaints.)

• Is all this worth it to grow up?

If your answer is “Yes,” you will have embarked on a lifetime process with a goal that mortals can never fully achieve, although Jesus provides us a model to reach for.
Differentiation is thoughtfully taking responsibility for your emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others and your lot in life. This means forgiving others for trying to fix us and forgiving ourselves for never measuring up. If we decide to welcome God’s presence on our journey and draw on our faith, we’ll have a better chance of moving toward the wholeness and maturity that is God’s wish for each of us.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Life, in some superlative form

By Adam Thomas

Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to serve several people who were grieving over the deaths of loved ones. I’ve been a priest for nearly a year and a half, but it was not until this summer that I officiated at a burial office or spent hours with families, stumbling together through the wilderness of loss. These recent months have again and again brought me to the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to John (which appears more than once in the burial service) and to my own first remembrance of the loss of a loved one.

In the months before she passed on, she began having difficulty remembering which of the people in the room were related to her. One time, she thought my father was her biological son, though he had married one of her four daughters thirty years before. The last time I saw my grandmother, she was confined to her bed in the nursing home, a sterile facility a few miles inland from the rock beaches of the northern Massachusetts coastline. In my memory, she was always a small woman, shrunken by age. But during that final visit, I was shocked by her deterioration: the sheets and blankets seemed to double her body mass. Her white hair, once so carefully curled, hung limply from her head. She spoke in a choked whisper, as if her words were too special to share with the rest of the world. And, in a way, they were.

We got the call one summer evening and immediately made plans to fly to New England. When we arrived, we joined the rest of the extended family and pooled our grief with theirs. Cousins and aunts and sisters shared long embraces and reassuring shoulder squeezes and tears. We conversed in muted tones, offering our favorite memories of Esther: the swing set adjacent to her apartment complex; her inability to cook pot roast; her glowing love for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. As we remembered my grandmother, we started repeating certain phrases. “She lived a long life.” “She’s no longer in pain.” “She was ready to go.” “A part of her died twenty years ago with Jack; I’m so glad they are together again.” These sentiments comforted us as we shared them with each other. An outsider listening in on our conversations might have scoffed at such clichéd remarks, but for our family such well-worn comments gave us words to assuage our grief.

When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha leaves her home and goes out to meet him. Their conversation begins with similar phrases that emerge out of grief. I imagine that Martha and Mary had often said, “If Jesus had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died,” in the four days since they had buried their brother. And now Martha addresses Jesus with these words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Perhaps, this is an accusation; perhaps, it is a statement of faith. More likely (as is so often the case), it is a combination of the two. She continues, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

At first, Jesus responds with what sounds like an empty, stock answer to a grieving person: “Your brother will rise again.” Indeed, such a statement had probably reached cliché status at that time, considering a large portion of Jewish society believed in a final resurrection. Judging by her next words, Martha certainly takes Jesus’ words in this clichéd manner. I imagine her hanging her head when she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

But Martha has not grasped Jesus’ full meaning. Far from offering the usual comforting words to a person in grief, Jesus eliminates the cliché by completely retooling the rules for resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

The writer of the Gospel throws the full weight of Jesus’ “I am” statements behind these words. By taking resurrection into his very identity, Jesus proclaims to Martha and to us that his business is always remaining in life-giving relationships. Yes, death will occur, he says; after all, resurrection cannot take place without death. But life, in some superlative form, emerges when resurrection denies the finality of death. The first verses of the Gospel link life and light: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Just as darkness did not overcome light, death fails to conquer life because of the power of the resurrection.

Jesus’ words to Martha appear in our burial services to remind us of that power. But these words carry the weight of Jesus’ divine identity, and thus serve as so much more than a simple reminder. Resurrection is not some impersonal thing that may or may not impact our lives and deaths. Resurrection is not something to bring up just to make a grieving person feel better. Jesus is resurrection. Jesus is life. By revealing resurrection as part of his identity, Jesus further divulges the lengths to which he goes to be in relationship with us. Death cannot stop this relationship, because Jesus is resurrection and life.

Martha understands that resurrection assures this continued relationship with Jesus. When he asks her if she believes his words, she replies in the affirmative, but she answers a different question than the one Jesus asked. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” She answers that she believes in him. Rather than her belief fulfilling a requirement for resurrection, her belief simply affirms her relationship with Jesus. She desires a relationship with him, and Jesus, in his unwillingness to end such a relationship, offers the gift of resurrection. Our belief in Jesus affirms our desire to remain in relationship with him. His gift of resurrection affirms his desire to remain in relationship with us.

When my grandmother died, my family came together to celebrate her life in the midst of our grief. We spoke comforting words to each other, words that had the power of love behind them. And at the service where we laid Esther’s body to rest next to her beloved Jack, we heard Jesus’ words of life proclaiming Jesus’ desire to continue his relationship with us beyond death in the power of the resurrection.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the curate of Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, WV. He blogs at

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Finding your place on the family tree

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Ninety-eight percent of the people who call my psychotherapy practice are seeking help with a relationship. Whether my clients are dealing with the bliss-laced jitters of pre-marital counseling, bad patches in their love affairs and marriages, or challenges in raising children and seeking new ways to relate to parents, I believe my most useful purpose is to help them find a better way of functioning within their family of origin and extended family, where we first learn how to negotiate all our relationships.

One person who benefited from bridging his family’s “intra-continental drift” over several years of coaching told this story:

“It all began after World War II separations when my family reconvened with Bronxville, N.Y. as the center, then exploded like a star to remote parts of the country from Buffalo to Minnesota and California. I’m an only son, and my motivation to reconnect with cousins came after the death of my mother and from observing my wife’s delight in her family reunions. I developed a yearning to have closer blood relations rather than rely on her family or my friends. Mother’s two sisters had large families so my cousins really didn’t need me, and I felt isolated.

“I began in 2007 to send out feelers, and made my first big mistake when I wrote that I wanted to plan a family reunion before another sister dies. A male cousin I seldom hear from hit ‘reply all’ to my message, chastising me for not being attentive enough to his mother who was dying of Alzheimer’s disease. It took some time to overcome this clash between us two firstborns. There were other reasons the reunion didn’t come together, as cousins cited rites of passage – weddings, births and a multitude of transitions. At least their reunion regrets kept me newly in touch, and I became aware of how important my staying the course was for our children and grandchildren to know my family.

“I began to realize that rather than herd all these cats, I’d have to start speaking to each cousin individually. I was surprised to find that one-on-one, each expressed an interest in expanding their circles to include more extended family. My efforts were a lot like fishing. I had to pay out a lot of line before I could reel in the fish. I’d wait but hold tight to the rod while I imagined how tempting it would be for each cousin to fall back to his or her own siblings. I learned how to take their “No, not now, ” less personally and never to ask defensively, “Why?” A leader’s motivation has to be sufficient to overcome resistance.

“The breakthrough came when I found out that I could book several days last August at The Bishop’s Ranch in the Episcopal Diocese of California ( near several cousins who live in the San Francisco area. Like a catered event where guests walk into a beautiful room, I began to paint an emotional picture of what it would be like to have a family vacation (not calling it a two-day reunion) at a convenient site. I wrote to them about the swimming and hiking through miles of gorgeous property, including vineyards. I knew I’d caught the biggest fish when my Buffalo cousin, whose travel would be the toughest, became excited about my plan. Her spark carried her sisters along for a full catch. Adept followers are crucial to good leadership!

“As the date drew near, I had a tendency to over-organize. I ordered logo T-shirts, found games to play, asked cousins to bring family pictures and written histories if available. But in the end I learned that none of this mattered as much as our time laughing and talking together – first in small groups and later all gathered around a table where we drew our family tree and filled in information for the roots and branches together.

“The result: Each person brought pieces of the puzzle of who we are and where we stand in the family as we unraveled the mystery of lives in previous generations. Our experience spread motivation for another reunion in two years, so everyone will participate and I no longer have to be head cheerleader. I feel myself more included and have become an integrated part of my extended family.”

“The ability to be more of a self brings people into better emotional contact with the most durable and reliable support system they will ever have. … Improving emotional contact with the extended family has the potential to significantly reduce serious physical, emotional, and social symptoms in oneself and/or one’s nuclear family (and)…appears to reduce an individual’s level of chronic anxiety.” From Family Evaluation by Michael E. Kerr and Murray Bowen.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Take back your birthday

By Kristin Fontaine

November 22 is my mother's birthday. She was 22 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated. That event transformed the day of her birth so that it would always be associated with a terrible act.

Every year as we approached her birthday I would notice the Kennedy retrospectives on television and the whole terrible event would be rehashed to my annoyance. I was not born until 5 years after his death so it was all ancient history to me by the time I was old enough to notice.

The first public tragedy I remember was the mass suicide/killings at the Jones compound in Guyana. I don't remember the exact year but I do remember reading everything I could find about cults. I remember trying to understand how such a horrible thing could happen. I remember asking my parents to explain and finding out, for the first time, that they could not. That there was no rational explanation for evil of that magnitude.

I write letters for Amnesty International on behalf of prisoners of conscience. In the September letters I learned about a woman and her two-year-old son who were arrested as a result of the woman's political activities. She and her son were tortured and held by the authorities. This happened two years ago and the letters are an attempt to get the government to investigate and punish the people involved and to secure reparations for the harm done to the woman and her son.

One of my friends is HIV positive. The available medications have worked very well so far but they are not a cure. The drugs have both short- and long-term side effects and once they stop working he will die unless a cure has been found by then. He is one person who I love
and who I want to live to see my two-year-old son grow into an adult. Every day he lives is a gift and every day we don't work for a cure is a waste.

Each day, each person chooses good or evil. We choose to spend resources on life or death. We decide, as a society, whose life is valuable and whose life is expendable. I still hear rumblings from the so-called-Christian right that HIV is a plague brought by god and that those that have it deserve to die. No one deserves to die. No one should have the right to take away someone's life. Without life there is no hope of repentance, forgiveness, or change.

I hear of preparations for a long war against terrorism and I think about all the people in Africa dying untreated of AIDS. I think of people in the United States beaten to death because they are the wrong skin color/gender/sexual orientation. Where is the massive response for these victims? Where is the 40 billion dollars for food and medicine for the poor, for decent housing, and for support for the mentally ill? Why does our world culture keep turning to death to try to bring back life?

September 11 is my father's birthday. He turned 61 this year. Just like my mother's birthday 38 years ago, his birthday was overshadowed by the horrible choices made by others. I love my father more than I can express in words. I am glad of the day of his birth and all the good he has done in the world. His love has made the world a better place.

Horrible things are being done on your birthday by people who have turned away from love. People who look at their fellow humans and see objects that they can use or destroy. We cannot force them to see our humanity. But we can make our own choice not to follow them down their dark and lonely path.

Take back your birthday. Live and love every day.

Kristin Fontaine blogs at Ceramic Episcopalian.

Soul-deep hunger

By Joy Caires

There are times when I crave the island I grew up on--missing it with a longing indeed a yearning, that nothing can fill. Last week, I was in line at the pharmacy’s photo kiosk and a man came up behind me. He looked like any of a number of the men I grew up around—the uncles, cousins and friends who would gather around my dad’s pick-up truck late in the afternoon “talking story.” I knew it wouldn’t be appropriate to turn around and say “where are you from?" That would have been rude. But, I longed to speak. I longed for a tangible reminder in the middle of my summer afternoon and I began to long for home.

But, rather than speak, I waited for the photos from our mission trip to download—glancing behind me a bit too frequently for politeness. Then, he picked up his cell phone and began to speak. And suddenly, the familiar lilt of Pidgin English filled my ears—intonations I rarely hear, except in the occasional long distance phone call. As he finished his call I steeled myself, turned and asked, “Excuse me, are you from Hawai’i?” He looked startled—this was probably not a question he’d heard often in rural Ohio! With his “yes” we plunged into conversation—how often do you get back, how long have you been here, where do you get good Hawaiian food, wow, they really let you check a cooler full of Ahi tuna!

As we talked the photos from the mission trip to Kentucky downloaded and soon it was time to go. But, this encounter cued the longing in my soul for the smell of the salt air, the taste of kalua pig and a time zone that fits me just a little bit better than the one here does. So, as my longing for home has increased I’ve cued up the Hawai’ian music in my car and I crave the foods that I grew up enjoying: Spam musubi, manapua, kalua pig, poi (the list goes on) chicken long rice, haupia, lau lau, cone sushi, pulehu beef, char siu, hekka, komoda’s donuts, saimin, opihi. (Are you hungry yet?) This food represents comfort and my taste buds long for it as this litany of the soyu soaked, sugar filled and salt cured appears across my computer screen.

When I graduated from high school I was given a rice pot—just like every other graduating senior who was headed to the mainland for college. Our relatives feared that we would starve on the mainland without rice. Rice that had been rinsed in cold water until the starch was released from the grain, rice poured into the pot and swirled with your hand and then drained. Rice which was cooked in the rice pot where it would sit, waiting to be scooped into the next bowl or plate, until it was time to make more rice. Rice came in 25 pound bags—and there was only one kind of rice. Going away to college with our rice pots in tow was our community’s way of telling us that we were loved and would be missed. And, for many of us, our rice was salted with tears in those initial days.

I’m guessing that most people know what “home food” is, what “comfort food” should taste like. Southern friends search out grits of the right texture, taste and consistency and know that most things improve with a generous lashing of bacon grease. Fry bread, baked beans, biscuits, rice, spaghetti…we all have our own litanies. But, for most of us, our hunger isn’t about the need to fill our bellies; it is about the need to fill our hearts. My hunger for local food isn’t about the food—although I wouldn’t turn down a plate of chicken long rice or a stick donut if it were offered. It is about the familiarity, the love, the sense of wholeness I have when I am back on Maui.

It is about the security that comes of being related to everyone and the comfort of fitting in. It is about the unity of family and the way the air smells of flowers and salt breezes. It is about being surrounded by people who are more than happy to speak the truth in love and who, despite their grumblings, love you even when you are most unloveable. It is about being with people who share my story and quite simply, get it. I long for the bread, or in this case rice, of eternal life—the rice that gives me back that sense of home, of family, of being known and belonging. It is this yearning, this craving, which brings me to church and calls me to the altar. This is the hunger that drove me to awaken with the bells on Sunday mornings in college and to warm up the car’s engine on wintry Ohio Sundays. It is a soul deep hunger and I long to fill and be filled with good food, food that will indeed “give life to the world.”

So, approach the railing and extend a hand—fill your soul and abide until you are home once more.

The Reverend Joy Caires, a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School, is currently the Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Akron, Ohio. Joy's first call, after ordination, was as the pediatric chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.

Fathers and daughters

By Deirdre Good

The quiche was a disaster--the egg and cheese filling lay flat on the pastry instead of rising to a melting egg mixture. Everyone around the lunch table-- my parents, my cousin and my aunt-- ate it politely over conversation. I've eaten the quiches they've baked and there was just no comparison. And it was meant to be something easy for my father to eat after the cancerous part of his jaw was replaced with titanium plate. He'd only been out of hospital a week.

Fortunately, it wasn't the only meal we ate together celebrating this new incarnation of our family life. No one had known how the surgery would go. Would my father be able to speak or eat? I'd arrived only a few days earlier to discover that Dad had been surviving on vegetable soups and anything soft Mum could think of making. Mum's favorite foods are leftovers, so I set about trying to generate some. I made a fish pie that night.

My aunt was anxious to see her older brother so she and her elder daughter drove across Southern England for a visit. After tea in the garden, the three of us went for a walk. The sky was blue and the sun shone. We enjoyed clear views on a cliff walk looking out to sea, down to the Roman fort of Reculver, and across the Isle of Thanet as far as Richborough. We heard a skylark. We talked and laughed and rejoiced in being alive. And then we sat down to dinner.

When you live on the other side of the ocean from your family, such mealtimes seem miraculous, even sacramental. My father was recovering. He could speak and eat and he even looked like himself although some facial swelling was obvious. My mother had coped with the surgery, the daily hospital visits for a fortnight, and the daily phone calls updating family and friends. Both of them had survived the ups and downs of the British health care system. One letter notifying them of an appointment arrived on the day of the appointment; another letter confirming an appointment failed to mention where. They went to the office from which the letter was sent only to find that it was at a different hospital (45 minutes closer to home). Having driven further away, they then had to drive at breakneck speed back to the place where the doctor actually was so they could see him before the office closed for a 3-day weekend. And on the day originally scheduled for surgery, after he had exhausted himself shaving off his own extensive beard, the surgeon told my father in the late morning that there was no bed for him in the ICU so the surgery would have to be postponed for a week. The cancer kept on growing. Given all of this, my parents were doing very well.

Over dinner with my aunt and cousin, my mother retold the story of how my father's cancer had come about. He'd had a tooth extracted in February. There had seemed to be an abscess under the tooth and the dentist had prescribed antibiotics. Since they had no apparent effect, the dentist then extracted an adjacent tooth and followed this with two equally ineffective courses of antibiotics. Sometime after that, a mass began to grow on his lower jaw where the first tooth had been. By the beginning of May, he'd been referred by his doctor to a specialist and by mid-May, he'd been given a date for maxillo-facial surgery. My father added his own commentary in slurred but understandable speech.

I'm so grateful that my father is still alive and that I've seen him. I wish I could be nearer to be of help to my mother. To take communion with them both the first time Dad went back to the local parish church was extraordinary. The last thing my father said to me when I called them from the airport was "When can you come back?" As for quiche, it turns out that it is my niece's new favorite food. When she and her parents come to drop her off for a fortnight's holiday in Maine next week, I plan to have baked one for our first meal together. By the end of her stay I hope to do it blindfold. That way I'll be able to make an edible one on the next visit to my father. Of course, by then, he may be ready for steak!

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

Not a pretty sight

By Donald Schell

Peter is twenty-eight now. This memory must be almost twenty years old. It was Christmas. I’m guessing we were home between the early Pageant Liturgy and the Midnight Choral Eucharist on Christmas Eve. Peter, just beginning to grow into his manhood, took an elegant nonchalant stance leaning against the mantle over the fireplace when a tea-light on the mantle ignited his t-shirt. He felt heat on his back glanced over his shoulder and did what any of us might do seeing fire - he ran. His mother, the nurse, did what she knew to do – though I don’t remember her telling us that she’d been trained as a tackle in nursing school. She ran after him to the dining room, threw her arms around him, and slammed him against the dining wall, smothering the flames. And when the nurse had dealt with the first stage of the emergency, his mom reappeared to comfort him and calm him enough to get the t-shirt off and survey the damage.

Between Peter’s shoulder blades, he had a blistered area about four inches across, second-degree burns. Some small areas were charred, third degree burns. My dad, the physician was there and Ellen and Dad cleansed the wound and Dad set out the twice-daily protocol for debriding the wound. For the next several days I was her assistant.

A serious burn destroys our body’s most powerful defense against infection, our skin, and to make matters worse, dead skin in a moist wound is particularly hospitable to airborne bacteria. Debriding is tough love. Twice daily with a sterilized pair of tweezers Ellen methodically pulled dead skin from the wound. Dead skin is attached to living skin. It hurt Peter. My job was to help him lie very still on his stomach while she worked. I say ‘help him’ because Peter proved a brave and cooperative patient. Step by step Ellen told him what she was doing, and when she was about to pull. He did his best to steel himself and not to jump or pull away from her. My pinning his shoulders down was his back-up. Because sometimes he had to flinch, and then, without my hands on his shoulders holding him still, he would inadvertently poke himself on the tweezers or break his mother’s grip on the scrap of skin she was pulling away. Sometimes too, Ellen asked me to help by pulling the healthy skin on either side of the wound taut to make a dead skin fragment yield an end she could grab.

My role was mostly silent. For the first couple of days I thought of what an unlikely nurse's assistant I was. Growing up with both father and grandfather physicians, I lost track of how many people had asked me if I wanted to be a doctor. Usually I just said, ‘no.’ Sometimes I might venture a boyish imagining of vocation as ‘a preacher.’ But either way, my unspoken response was a forceful ‘NO,’ imbued with the painful knowledge that not only didn’t I feel called to medicine, but that I couldn't do it. Visible wounds made me queasy. Injuries to my own body frightened me. I was convinced I was too squeamish to be a doctor.

When my firstborn was coming and dad heard that her mother and I were taking birthing classes and that I planned to be in the delivery room, he wondered whether my presence there was a good idea. ‘Birth can be a little startling,’ he said. ‘It’s messy. There’s blood.’ But I was determined, and was glad to be present, and am still very glad for that experience. It was also my first hint that I’d outgrown some of the old un-ease at how raw bodies can be.

Then in my Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Luke’s Hospital, New York, I saw some badly battered bodies, some living, some dead, and I did my job all right, helped families talk to staff, stood by the body, said prayers, touched when it was helpful and appropriate. For my C.P.E. summer I’d been assigned to be the student chaplain on the Intensive Care Unit, which included burn patients.

Eighteen years later, as Ellen and I began our twice-daily routine with Peter, I remembered St. Luke’s burn unit. The memory of a child on the burn unit, most of his body burned, no one knowing whether he’d live or die, helped me with context and focus as we worked on Peter. Where, I wondered, was God in such suffering? I wasn’t satisfied with any answer I could offer to that question, but ‘where is God,’ resonated in this work, the painful and more hopeful treatment of my son. My job was to watch closely to anticipate when Peter's taut muscles would jump or lurch. As the delegated minister of stillness, my task was to watch, to hold a steady gaze as Ellen’s tweezers patiently took us to lower layers of Peter’s burn.

In the second day of this gazing as I watched Ellen’s meticulous work, I saw in Peter’s wound what Symeon the New Theologian called, ‘the impossible beauty of the life in Christ,’ or, to put it in plainer language, the awesome beauty of Life.

So soon after the burn “the wound” that I’d begun to know well from steady scrutiny through twenty minutes of teamwork unexpectedly showed a wholly different face. Just hours before I’d seen only ugly disfigurement, an opening to infection, damage, and grave risk to his health. Now healing was visible. In that same place where old skin was dying, brand new skin was beginning to appear. It felt so much like seeing healing in the moment that I wondered whether we’d actually see new cells or fresh patches of healthy skin move into place as Ellen worked. Peter’s body’s own work healing itself from session to session presented greater changes day by day. I was astonished. Watching the wound was moving me to a kind of joy. I loved gazing at it.

Had I not loved my work as a priest, that gazing spoke deeply enough to prompt a vocational crisis. Why had I imaged I couldn’t bear doing what my dad loved so much? Being a physician, seeing healing happen – ever – was an amazing privilege. Did Dad have to get over his own queasiness? Gazing at the wound, I understood something of my father’s heart and of his joy in his work. My Dad was an often skeptical Christian, but he did insist Life and God did the real work of healing, which he said made his work simpler and humbler: doctors could remove obstacles, sometimes clean things up or put them back together, keep them clean and in their right place, and watch healing overcome disease while trying to prevent complications.

Those days of watching my son’s very ugly wound heal I experienced, saw, and felt beauty where I’d imagined nothing was possible but ugliness. I’m not saying I found the idea of healing beautiful, not even my own thoughts observing the process of healing, but rather seeing Life present as Peter’s body healed, I felt the radiance of the Life that is the Light of humankind.

Culturally, but also religiously, we have a hard time with beauty. Sometimes we explain that difficulty in economic terms. When we’re working for justice or any pragmatic alleviation of human suffering, we mistrust beauty, suspecting it’s a luxury or a distraction. By common cultural consent we reduce beauty to a purely subjective, personal, and even idiosyncratic matter of taste.

But theologians as diverse as Jonathan Edwards (who calls the Spirit “the beautifier, the one in whom the happiness of God overflows … the one who bestows radiance, shape clarity and enticing splendor.” (Paraphrased by David Bentley Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite, the Aesthetics of Christian Truth). Or Gregory of Nyssa (“Human nature’s perfection is nothing but this endless desire for beauty and more beauty, this hunger for God.” From Gregory’s Life of Moses, quoted in Hart) Or Hans Urs von Balthazar,
Or – liberation theologian Alejandro Garcia Rivera whose work, The Community of The Beautiful, Jesuit James Empereur draws on so heavily in La Vida Sacra, Contemporary Hispanic Sacramental Theology.

Ancient theologians, a famous Puritan in New England, a Roman Catholic teacher beloved by Vatican conservatives, a Jesuit, and new work in the tradition of liberation theology all tell us beauty drives it all.

Gregory of Nyssa describes the engine something like this:

God creates life, Life beholds Beauty, Beauty begets Love, Love of the Life of God.
(Paraphrase from Gregory’s On the Soul and the Resurrection by Scott King who set this text as a four-part canon in Music for Liturgy)

Just as ‘love is stronger than death,’ beauty, the real thing has power enough to include and transform the raw suffering of a healing wound.

Beauty makes our world radiant with the life of God.

Some recent discussions here at the Café focused on verifiable truth claims got me thinking about Peter’s burn and healing and prompted this piece. Watching my son’s wound heal doesn’t prove the existence of God. In fact those who play the game of proofs, sooner or later will admit that none of the proofs give us a loving, forgiving God; it’s simply not possible

Love proves nothing, and watching that wound heal wasn’t an experience of proof or testing but one of simpler knowing: in a community of love facing a hard task, I was seeing the love that sustains our every moment in Life doing its work. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was simply beautiful.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

The great gift of grandchildren

By Margaret M. Treadwell

“Being a grandparent is the only condition on earth not overrated,” a newly minted grandfather declared. A decade later, he still acknowledges the mystical bond he shares with each grandchild, but muses that the condition isn’t always predictable and covers a wide breadth, as do other relationships. He tries not to take personally perceived slights and neglect now that his grandkids have grown older. What are the views of other grandparents who have gleaned their wisdom through trial and error?

One woman started a Grandmother’s Group where one member, a former head of school, mentors them through rough spots like inter-grandparental jealousies, the different ways not to give advice, how to strategize long distance grandparenting or just say “no” to grandchildren living nearby.

On a recent trip to care for her three grandsons, a friend reported that she experimented with four simple concepts during her time with them:
• Be present
• Never rush your grandchild
• Play
• See what grandchildren can teach you rather than vice versa

She is the eldest child in her family and has found that her oldest grandson has a harder time than the other little ones. “He gives me an opportunity to do things better than I did as a parent. When I’m with him, he teaches me about myself and my first-born son,” she says. She believes everyone suffers from attention deficit, so she gives each grandson one-on-one time doing exactly what they want to do (if it doesn’t cost money). “What’s the matter with ice cream every day after school or golf in the snow?” she chuckles.

When I asked a step-grandmother how her stepdaughters and their children became so fond of her, she explained, “It was mostly their father who involved his daughters in the death of their mother. They heard her say to him, ‘Make sure in choosing a new companion that our daughters have a say.’ What helped most with the grandchildren was their mothers’ decisions to incorporate me into their lives early on; it didn’t matter by the time they were born whether I was a ‘step.’ ” She acknowledges the situation would be more difficult – but not impossible – with a divorce.

A social worker said, “If you’ve loved your children and they’ve grown into healthy, well-adjusted adults, you can’t make many mistakes as a grandparent. It comes from multigenerational models of good parenting. Our children watched me include my parents in their upbringing, and my mother used to say, ‘don’t just talk about it; set a good example!’ I’ve tried to pass that along in my work to less fortunate families.”

How best for grandparents to function when there’s a crisis in the family? One set of grandparents who raised their grandson while his mother struggled with substance abuse told the story of falling in love with the baby at their first meeting and how they had worked to be an oasis of calm. Their key as he has grown up is never to assume primacy in his life or say anything against his parents.

What about the worst possible experience of losing a grandchild? Grandparents invited their pregnant daughter, son-in-law and 3-year-old granddaughter to live in their home upon their return to the Washington area. When the baby was born compromised genetically, mentally and physically, the family set about loving, supporting and simultaneously setting appropriate boundaries with each other as the parents grappled with the question of extraordinary measures to keep him alive. With the help of doctors, they decided that the baby would go home with hospice care, and the family invited the other set of grandparents to come and stay with them during the 10 days before he died so that everyone had a chance to say goodbye.

A close friend spoke about the baby’s death in the context of his entire family during the lovingly planned funeral. When she had finished and beautiful music filled the space, the small granddaughter spontaneously rose, walked to the front and began to dance, slowly at first and then with energy and purpose. How she comforted the congregation with her unconscious message, “Life is for the living and will carry on!” Multigenerational healing continues since her parents had the faith and courage to conceive another baby full of happy health and the family emerges stronger from their suffering.

One of the most fulfilled grandmothers revealed her secret mantra for her grandchildren: “Leave them alone.” Then she confessed to a careful balance between involvement and disengagement, keeping her own creative life thriving rather than letting her children or grandchildren become her sole focus.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

The Rev. Pookie

By Howard Anderson

It was a bit like the movie “Father of the Bride,” when Steve Martin’s daughter announced that she was getting married. Rather than seeing the lovely, mature woman in front of him, the Daddy in him sees his little girl, in pigtails, saying a ridiculous thing-“I’m getting married.” Our little Pookie getting ordained? How can it be? As Bishop Alan Scarfe, the Bishop of Iowa laid hands on our little girl, making her a transitional deacon, I was seeing something quite different, and someone quite different.

I was seeing, in my mind’s eye, the new born baby girl, who, when I held her the first time, changed my life forever. I was seeing the little blonde Haole girl running naked across the hot sand at Makapu’u beach, her little bottom covered with sand, accompanied by several of her little friends, and the “herd” of them jumping, laughing into the Pacific. I was seeing the little girl standing in front of her stuffed animals, her faithful old dog propped up in a bean bag chair, with glasses on her snout, with thin slices or radish she had picked from the salad, handing each a thin, white slice and saying “take, eat, this is my body.”

I was shaken out of my reverie by a small voice next to me saying, “Papi, Momma is crying, what did Bishop Alan do to her?” Now there’s a question for you! My grandson, Will, watching his Momma kneeling before the Bishop, tears streaming down her face, was concerned. I leaned toward him and said, “Don’t worry Will, those are tears of joy. Your Momma is very happy to be ordained.”

I was moved to be asked to be a presenter. My wife, Linda, and I, just as when we held her at her baptism, at her various graduations, Will’s baptism, stood this day to support her in her decision to answer the call of The Holy One to give her vocational life to serve God’s people as an ordained person. As I listened to Bishop Scarfe preaching to and about Kesha, I could sense how deeply he knew our little girl, now a woman. She had been on his diocesan staff, and all her foibles, gifts, skills and charisms he knew well. And what a window on her soul his words were…and challenging. More tears. The symbol of unity in the Church, the Bishop, was ordaining a person, our little one, with such tenderness and insight. And then I began to remember. My own ordination as a Deacon came back so clearly.

I remembered, years earlier, a bishop I loved and love still, Bob Anderson, laying hands on me. Like my daughter, I, too, had been a lay professional for many years before I was ordained. And like Bishop Scarfe, Bishop Anderson was ordaining someone he knew well. These two men were ordaining someone whom they had loved, challenged, counseled, someone with whom they had laughed and cried in many unguarded moments. Warts and all, fears and gifts, accomplishments all laid humbly before the Holy One…all made holy through Christ’s love and the power of the Spirit.

Feelings washed over me and time slowed, as the ordination proceeded. Kesha had fought the call to ordination almost as long as I had. Proud lay professionals in the Church for over a decade, she and I were alike in this way. I had feared God could not be trusted. I could not get myself to believe what I preached, that The Holy Spirit guided the Councils of the Church and guided God’s people to call some apart for ordination. Kesha and I had always talked “shop.” And we both believed that the primary vocational sacrament was not ordination, but Baptism. And yet, here she was. Now ordained.

Kesha as a 10 year old, watched another family member, her uncle, announce that he was leaving his position as an athletic trainer and physical therapist for a major Division I university athletic department to follow his older brother to seminary. This was just too much of her. Her mother a parish school principal, and her Daddy, two uncles, a great grandfather and four great uncles all ordained. She placed her little hands on her scrawny hips and crossly said, “Now all we’ll ever talk about at family gatherings is God!”

But The Holy One is a patient and persistent suitor. And here we were. Father and daughter…both reluctant, both now ordained. Her collar felt too tight she said. She was not convinced that there was an ontological change. “Will my friends all stop cussing around me and only want to talk about church?”

And then the pictures. The Mom and Dad and ordinand, their baby, newly ordained and chafing already at the collar. The proud husband and even prouder little boy all smiles. More tears. More laughter.

Future and past all collapsed into a wintry Iowa day when a young woman began a new and perilous journey off to fight the good fight armed with only a bit of bread, a little wine, some olive oil and a couple of books. Paltry things in the world’s eyes. Very ordinary. But with the Spirits gifts empowered, just enough. The Rev. Pookie now thank you. The Rev. Pookie.

The Rev. Dr. Howard Anderson is rector of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Pacific Palisades, California. He was a long time General Convention deputy and most importantly, is grandfather to a six-year-old theologian, Will.

Wounds that don't heal

By Martin L. Smith

I will be celebrating Easter in Sydney this year, and no doubt the aromas of early fall down under will be different from the springtime scents of the northern hemisphere. But I expect there will be Easter lilies there somehow. I was recalling their fragrance the other day, and very particular feelings it has evoked in me ever since Holy Saturday, 1989.

I was arranging Easter lilies in a little chapel, not very well, so it is no wonder that I got distracted by one of the old magazines I was using to protect the floor. I glanced down and was shocked to read the title, “Children After Divorce: Wounds That Don’t Heal.” I knelt down and began to read the damp page with a strange feeling of apprehension; I felt on the verge of breaking a taboo. I was abandoned by a parent when I was a child, and endured the divorce that followed. And I was forbidden to grieve. I internalized the ban so thoroughly that for most of my life all sorts of upbeat interpretations of my experience sprang instinctively to my lips: “Well, it was hard, of course, but maybe it was all for the best… Everything worked out OK in the end. My parents weren’t a good fit for each other. We were resilient…” etc. etc.

This was the passage that struck me from Judith Wallerstein’s article, one anecdote from her research with kids who have undergone the divorce of their parents. A 6-year-old boy came to the research center. He wouldn’t talk about his parents’ break up, but he made a beeline for the array of dolls and toys that the therapists used. “When he found a good number of them, he stood the baby dolls firmly on their feet and placed the miniature tables, chairs, beds and, eventually, all the playhouse furniture on top of them. He looked at me satisfied. The babies were supporting a great deal. Then, wordlessly, he placed all the mother and father dolls in precarious positions on the steep roof of the doll house. As a father doll slid off the roof, the boy caught him and, looking up at me, said, ‘He might die.’ Soon all the mother and father dolls began sliding off the roof. He caught them gently, one by one. ‘The babies are holding up the world,’ he said.”

The devastating simplicity of that little boy’s words and the piercing eloquence of the scene he had created with the toys struck me to the core. “The babies are holding up the world.” That’s how it had felt! This unjust reversal of roles, this burden of protecting parents from their pain, this huge sense of responsibility… Kneeling among the disarray of Easter lilies, I felt knots beginning to loosen. It wasn’t too late, then, to feel the healing that comes when one’s pain is acknowledged as absolutely real. The burden of having to obey the protocols of denial begins to be lifted away.

Self-pity is such a horrible phrase that its associations can prevent us from feeling something that is different and wholly good—self-compassion. I felt tender compassion for the child I had been, and I put my finger on the wounds that suppressed grief had inflicted, wounds I had been taught to pretend weren’t there. I somehow managed to arrange the flowers though my vision was blurred by tears—good tears that seemed like the harbingers of integration and blessing.

Was it merely coincidental that this moment of truth happened on Holy Saturday? Perhaps not. After all, wouldn’t “Wounds that don’t heal” be an accurate title for an Easter sermon? I’m not alone in finding this single detail found in the stories of Jesus’ Easter appearances—that the Risen Christ has open wounds—to be the key that convinces me that the resurrection did occur. A made-up story would have had the wounds healed and an imaginary Christ as a figure of sheer glory. But no: the resurrection as it actually happened is God’s savage rebuke of all human tendency to cover up pain, all cosmetic smoothing over, all letting bygones be bygones, all conspiracies of silence, and phony cover-ups masquerading as reconciliation. “He showed them his hand and his side.”

Yet the resurrection of the wounded one is also the supreme gesture by God that bestows irrevocable permission for all time on those who have suffered to acknowledge their suffering as genuine, however others deny or minimize it. In the resurrection of the crucified, as the crucified, sufferers meet the Son of God as the one who keeps them company in the worst that can befall us. Through this meeting, we can find the redemption of what we endured, and delve into possibilities of grace in which buds of life and creativity can germinate just where injury and loss have done their worst.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

A sense of place

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Did you grow up in a small town you left to pursue careers and adventures as an urban dweller? My hometown is on the banks of the Tennessee River in the northwest corner of Alabama, where back in the day we children could play anywhere fancy free and without worry for our safety. “It takes a village” was an unknown phrase, but our actions seemed always to be known by a plethora of kind, intelligent adults who loved and cared for us as if our families all belonged to each other. Sheffield, Ala., gave me a sense of place and basic trust in a good world.

Named for Sheffield, England, our town was incorporated in 1885. It was created to be an iron and steel center, using locally available iron ore and shipping products to market via river transportation. Boom and bust years followed until 1933, when the newly elected President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. The TVA’s programs, along with those of the National Recovery Act, helped bring the area out of the severe economic depression during the 30s. Pictures of our town from WWII through the 1980s show a bustling main street filled with a variety of shops to meet every need.

Today, this street is boarded up and closed down, a victim of poor planning by town fathers who refused to merge with the nearby town of Muscle Shoals, where the strip including Wall Mart attracts business unfortunately bypassing Sheffield. Even before the current economic crisis, Sheffield looked dead and decaying. It has become a bedroom community and settling place for senior citizens living in several retirement facilities.

But Sheffield still has a heart if you bother to look beneath sad appearances. The town may be boarded up, but the spirits of good people abound in three abiding institutions: The art association brings the community together with lively theater and museum exhibits; the library provides a center where residents gather and poverty-stricken kids receive warm adult attention with story hours, computer use and help with homework and book selections; the churches continue to draw spiritual seekers who give back to the town.

Grace Episcopal Church is a good example. Five years ago, rector Rick Oberheide was called to help the congregation grow or perish. He focused on a mission of hope for transformation and is overjoyed that young families are flocking to services, joining the parish and committing themselves to the vision. Meanwhile, he is a pastoral presence to his aging parishioners, including my homebound mother (98) who adores the visits that Rick calls “Tuesdays with Flo.”

Rick says he’s an unlikely priest, describing himself as directionally challenged (he gets lost no matter where he’s driving around town), but spiritually directed. His family’s dysfunction left him a spiritual orphan at a very young age, so as a child he began to seek mentors and a church to call home. Finding the right wife and psychoanalysis helped him form an identity and then a love for other people that flows to his parishioners and to others, no matter what their religious beliefs. Remarkably, he has welcomed two retired Grace church rectors back as parishioners as well as several other former priests from other dioceses. He appreciates their assistance at services and with shared leadership. Encouraging his predecessors to participate brings a presence of the past that has helped foster healing and growth.

One of Rick’s greatest gifts is his ability to be vulnerable and to laugh at himself. His stories abound, like the time he rose to leave an important interview, opened the wrong door and walked into a closet. Or the time his microphone was turned on before a service and he went to the men’s room where he says, “I opened my own Niagara Falls amplified throughout the church. The congregation cracked up.” His latest story has become a Sheffield legend:

When a church patriarch named Frank died, Rick drove immediately to his widow Mary’s home, which in his directional confusion, he mistook for the house next door. He knocked, entered and found a group of people he’d never seen. Believing they were out-of-town relatives, he began to converse and minister to them. After a while, he said, “Where is Mary?” Said an elderly woman, “Mary? Why Mary died!” Rick said, “No, it was Frank who died. I spoke to Mary this morning!” A silence filled the room. For a few minutes everyone was speechless. Finally someone said, “Mary is not here because she died. Could you have the wrong house? Frank lived next door but we didn’t know he died.”

Rick sums this one up, “Grace is the space between how you want to react and when you speak.”

As more small towns struggle during these current hard times, we can support the heart of town in people who dream of a positive outcome and continue to give back to the community with love, optimism, humor and commitment to future generations.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Coping with hard economic times

By Margaret Treadwell

Our family has a history of making lemonade out of lemons during hard financial times. Thinking about our ancestors who found unexpected blessings during the adversity of job loss is one way we deal with the current economic crisis; after all, it is the way we THINK about a situation that makes a difference in the outcome.

My husband’s grandfather lost his job as a bridge engineer during the Great Depression and had to draw on all of his creative skills to support his wife and three daughters. He became an entrepreneur using his talents to build and sell window fans from which he created a good enough business to see the family through. Imagination and perseverance are his legacies to us.

My father used to say about the Depression, “We were all in it together; not two nickels to rub together.” He and Mother had to postpone their wedding for several years, and Dad moved far from their families to a town where he could join a surviving law practice. Mom tells the story of their honeymoon when they were able to take a night away at an hour’s drive to another town in a borrowed car with a broken door handle which required tying the passenger door shut. She says, “We didn’t think much about it because nobody had anything for years; I believe that made our friendships stronger.” My parents worked together to build Dad’s practice and gave us the twin gifts of endurance and faith triumphing over fear.

During my husband’s job loss in the 1983 recession, we learned useful lessons that we put into our “ NOWork Workshop” for families who wanted to survive and even thrive during those scary years. We based our coaching on a team approach to job loss that stressed the importance of maintaining one’s individuality without becoming a victim or allowing the crisis to consume the family. Now twenty-six years later, we remember how applying our research to ourselves helped us grow up, especially with the following three healing experiences important to our family’s well being:

1) Family financial inventory: Assess and budget spouse’s income, unemployment benefits (Yes! Sign up for them ASAP) and any other family resources. Questions: How can you enjoy a simpler life? Cut all non-essentials from the budget? Involve children who are old enough in these discussions and encourage them to take some responsibility in positive ways and certainly with home chores necessary for family functioning. Talking calmly and openly about financial issues can be a freeing, new experience.

2) Grieve: Job loss is like a death, especially when it represents the family’s community and social life as well as income. Couples move through the stages of grief at different times and in different ways – a healthy response when acknowledged and one that frees families to focus on practical day-to-day functioning.

3) Time Discipline:
• The job seeker is not out of work; it takes hours everyday to market oneself – networking, assessing strengths and weaknesses, rewriting resumes, follow-up. If an unemployment support group would be a benefit, start one, check local churches or on line. Volunteer in your career field or simply help others.
•. Set aside a specific daily limited time with your spouse to discuss the loss and how you are coping and moving forward. Could this be your prayer and faith time as well? Occasionally share this time with children who are old enough to understand. Very young children sense when something is wrong, and they “get it” when a parent explains that he/she will have more time to spend with them while searching for meaningful new work. Extend this to relaxing family time when a) spouses are alone or b) the children are involved. Laugh. Exercise. Appreciate leisure time, especially in the Washington area where there are so many free cultural and recreational opportunities. Unemployed parents say that more nurturing time with children turned out to be their greatest blessing.
• Take time to be with friends. A few want to know the details of your search and how they can help. For others, a brief, carefully chosen sentence that doesn’t focus on the past (ex. “I lost my job.”), but rather helps define what you are moving toward (“I’m looking at several opportunities to tell you about later.”) suffices to open other topics of conversation.

Turning the crisis of job loss into opportunity involves slowing life’s fast pace to stay awake for serendipity. Otherwise, you might miss the dormant skills that need space to bloom, the basic values that give sustenance, and the truth that your job is not you. Our God is a God of surprises.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Closer to daybreak

By Heidi Shott

In my dream we were sitting around the table in a staff meeting at the diocesan office. A colleague announced that someone had discovered five snakes in the basement of the building. The Bishop turned to me in his empathic way that suggests he knows he's asking something difficult but that he feels you're up to it, and said, "Heidi, will you take care of that?"

I gulped and tried to muster the courage to say, "I'm the wrong person for the job."

"Mom?" I recognize this voice.

Colin, my son, my love, my beautiful child. Many times over the years I've chosen to ignore this nighttime voice. If I do that, I know it will return in five minutes just as plaintive. The sooner I answer, the sooner we'll both get back to sleep.

I throw off the covers and stand up. Scott turns onto his back, breathing loudly -- the Breathe Rite Strips he has so much faith in doing a poor job of it. I walk down the dark hall into Marty's room. Colin is on a mattress on the floor. Since he's been sleeping in his brother's room he hasn't been wakeful, so I'm a little pissed at this beckoning but also a little relieved to be sprung from snake retrieval duty.

"What, Col?" I ask.

"Bad dream," he says.

"It's almost daybreak," I lie. "It'll be light soon. Go back to sleep."


Back in bed I press the light on my travel alarm to read "3:35." Compared to the time between the building of the Egyptian pyramids and this very minute, it IS almost daybreak. I close my eyes and wait for the other shoe to drop. A few minutes pass.


Back in the bedroom I lay down crossways at the foot of his mattress and say nothing.

"Don't talk," he says. "I don't want to wake up Martin." We settle down. After a moment Colin tosses a spare pillow my way. He has his tempur-pedic pillow that he blew his whole wad of Christmas and birthday money on at Brookstone.

We settle down again, but after 15 minutes I begin to get cold and restless with my legs hanging off the side. He knows I'm about to leave.

"I'm getting cold," I say.

"You can climb in with me."


He knows I'm trying to be patient. "It would mean a lot to me," he says. "It would give you an opportunity to spend time with your son."

At this I smile and climb under the covers with him. It is very warm; he's like a little furnace. He offers me a corner of his tempur-pedic, a remarkable gesture.
We settle down and I begin to think about all the people I know who have probably been wakeful this night: Our godson, Lucas, a two-year old who has a standing 4 a.m. date with his parents in their bed; my mother, Audrey, in Louisiana visiting friends, no doubt listening to the radio turned down low and dozing; our friend Tom across the river is a light sleeper and his five-year old daughter Jenny knows it.

I have other friends who are wakeful people: one watches C-Span, another surfs the TV for late-night episodes of Jeopardy. Scott is often wakeful for a few hours at night. Sometimes I wake to see a flat place on his side and know he's playing gin rummy on the computer in his office. When I am wakeful, I go down to the couch on the porch with my book and fall asleep just as the sky begins to brighten over the millpond.

I find comfort in these thoughts of others in the same boat, but it doesn't help me sleep--no matter how cozy it is here with Colin. From his twitchiness, I can tell he isn't asleep either.

"I'm going back to bed, Dude." I say with a sigh. "I'll put your sweet dreams blanket over you. That will help."

This blanket used to contain magic. It is one of two wonderful, heavy-duty quilts made for our twin sons before their birth by our friend Joanne. When they would wake in the night, I'd go to their room and say, "Oh look! Your sweet dreams blanket has come off. I'll just re-adjust it and everything will be all right." And it always worked.

In recent years the quilts have lost some of their magic in the daytime, but at night they regain a measure of their old power to protect and comfort the children in my absence.

I climb back into my own bed. It's grown cold and Scott is far away across the king-sized expanse. I try to find a comfortable position and begin to pray. I recall a line from Psalms that says, "The angel of the Lord encamps round about them." I pray that angels of the Lord will encamp around the four corners of Colin's mattress, of Marty's bed, of our bed, of the beds of everyone we care for, of the bed's of everyone we don't know, of the beds of everyone in the whole universe. In the cadence of this ever-expanding prayer, it is impossible to remain awake.

When I was cleaning out my desk recently, I found a yellow sticky note on which I had written, "Don't worry about the world ending today. It's already tomorrow in Australia."

There's something reassuring about knowing that somewhere the worries and terrors of the night have been pierced by the light of day, even if it is not where I am. There's something comforting about knowing that someone will come when you call and lie at the foot of your bed and say nothing. There's something dear about knowing that you're the one who can do that for another human being: a child, a friend, a lover, a parent, and even, sometimes when you're open enough, a stranger.

Just before I drift off, I think that perhaps I will leave a deck of cards at the head and foot of Colin's mattress tomorrow night. The angels at the four corners of his bed must get bored and might appreciate playing a little late-night gin rummy. I gaze at the clock again and through the fuzz of near-sightedness, see that it is 4:45.

It's still not daybreak, but it's closer.

Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Social Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

Claiming our moral authority

By Richard Helmer

"We have no moral authority in this town," said a local minister in a closed-door ecumenical meeting shortly after I was called as rector of Church of Our Saviour. What followed were a few knowing chuckles around the table. Spurred on by worried parents in my new parish and a youthful naiveté, I had brought up the subject of sports practices and games pulling our young people away from Sunday morning Christian education and worship, with no clear ecclesiastical remedy in sight. We’d mulled over all the alternatives: Sunday afternoons were for additional games, rest, or homework. Sunday evening was for more homework. Saturday night was preparation for the game, or the ever elusive goal of "family time.” Weeknights were a maze of extracurricular and school-related activities (read: even more homework). Maybe a churchless society becomes an overscheduled society. Maybe an overscheduled society becomes a churchless society. "Should we write a letter together to the local paper?" I wondered aloud, prompting blank stares from my new colleagues.

Another pastor at last responded by noting that the Jewish community had come together a few years before to protest the crowding of sports into the Sabbath. They got some traction, but not much. The local Christian churches, on the other hand, had simply rolled over in reaction to the proliferation of teams and the encroachment on Sunday mornings. We apparently had even less “moral authority” over secular affairs than did our Jewish sisters and brothers.

I chewed on this for quite some time both in prayer and in conversation. Lacking moral authority seems to be the sum of all fears. It smacks of the irrelevancy that every Christian leader dreads, that every struggling faith community must confront in an ostensibly post- or even anti-Christian society. I looked across the yawning chasm between the Gospel and militant secularism and nearly despaired. Not seeing any tenable action to take that would bridge the chasm left me with the gnawing question that often appears from the pens of our harshest critics: If the church, or at least somewhat credible Christians, have no moral authority anymore, what then? Shouldn’t we just throw in the towel? Had we at long last sold our children out to the tide of secularism?

Soon after, our largely affluent, suburban community was gripped by a teenage suicide. A local high school student joined the hundreds of people who, over the course of several decades, had jumped off the Golden Gate bridge. Our small parish youth group spoke about Clive's death and made mention to our youth minister that his was only one of a series of recent deaths in the local school system - to drinking, drugs, or suicide. One of our youth members opined that there would be a month of triage at school: therapists, counselors, and experts would descend upon the student body for a few weeks. Then the subject of Clive’s death would fade from attention and fall off the priority list...until the next tragedy added to the already overpowering sea of shared pain and bewildered grief.

In the ensuing months, a 19-year-old graduate of the high school, while home from college, overdosed at a party. His non-religious memorial, led by his own parents and teachers, was held a week later in the high school theater, which was jam-packed even in the height of summer vacation season. I was awestruck by the finger-pointing and despair that was given a platform to speak during the memorial. But what utterly silenced me was the rampant co-dependency and addiction evident in the room. This wasn't the realm of the individual, which I had learned to understand and perhaps fathom. This was corporate, communal, and widespread. Josh was yet another canary in the coal mine, the next in line to go over the edge, which was even celebrated in a letter from one of his teachers that was read to the assembly. His picture and impish eyes in the memorial bulletin haunted me from an office bookshelf for the next month. We at Church of Our Saviour had to act. If not us, who? But how?

"We have no moral authority in this town." The words stuck in my head, playing over and over like the refrain to a cheap song.

To hell with it, I finally decided both figuratively and literally, and I called the counseling staff at the local high school to discuss the situation. Expecting resistance, I was instead greeted with a surprising "When can we meet?" In a week or so, with a group of parishioners, I sat down with the counseling staff, who welcomed us with open arms. They were practically running an ER on top of the usual academic counseling, with high-powered parents on one side, harried students on the other, no time and scant, mostly gutted state resources at their disposal. Could the church start helping organize the community? Could we step out and begin the hard work of breaking down barriers between institutions? Could we help rebuild a community of support for our youth over and against the isolation and addiction that was consuming so many?

We said yes, and within a year we had gathered together a variety of church leaders, non-profits, and health professionals into a coalition. We were before the city council helping advocate for a social host ordinance, so law enforcement could at last hold parents accountable for serving alcohol at youth parties in their homes. We were setting up community forums for parents and teens to talk about the pressures and dead ends of adolescence and an affluent, success-driven culture gone pathological for its children. We were reopening a conversation that had long been silenced by shame and fear: about the loss of human dignity in our young people that was fueling addiction, depression, and self-destruction.

When a 17-year-old member of a neighboring Episcopal parish jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge this January in an impulse suicide, we joined Casey’s parents and her priest, in witness to the board that oversees the world-renowned landmark. On what began as a recent ho-hum Friday, I found myself present in a history-making meeting that made international headlines. The bridge board, after decades of carnage, finally set aside the laissez-faire myth of "they'll do it somewhere else," heeded the pleas of religious leaders, countless family and community victims, and the mounting evidence of the psychological and psychiatric communities, and agreed to seek funding for a suicide barrier. The "silent cult of death," as a mentor and colleague deemed the pattern of complicity and suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, was at last starting to break, and the church had played a part in that sea change.

Moral authority is an odd thing. Claim it as an abstraction, and no doubt we'll be laughed out of the town square in this day and probably in any age. My learning as I dug through the accounts of the New Testament in search of Christ's example, was that Jesus and his earliest followers never went into a town or village waving their moral authority credentials in people's faces. They simply began to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and proclaim the Good News.

Their example was telling us all we really needed to know: When we respond from the heart of our faith directly to the world's deep need for healing, we will find all the moral authority we need.

After sharing this with the parish I served, I was awestruck one morning when a parishioner stuck her head in my office door to thank me and say that she and her family had agreed not to sign up for any sports teams that practiced or played on Sundays. Church was that important to them.

The chasm, I realized, between church and secularism, the path to the church’s moral authority, was bridged God's grace. All we have to do is walk across and invite others along.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His active leadership in the church includes interfaith, ecumenical, and wider church organizations, especially Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries, stewardship, youth advocacy, and ethnic and multicultural ministries in the Diocese of California. Richard’s sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

Healing tears

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Question: I began thinking about the tears I experience regularly in my own life as a woman, wife and mother. Although not exclusively so, are there some tears more common to our experience as women?

“A woman’s tears express her greatest truth,” goes an old adage. The above question reminds me of a woman whose first clear memory occurred on Christmas Eve when, as a 5-year-old, she sleeplessly waited for Santa Claus. Hearing a loud crash downstairs, she was certain he had arrived. She jumped out of bed, crept to the landing, and silently watched her mother weeping as she sat on the floor next to her drunken father who had knocked over the Christmas tree. At that moment, this little girl vowed never to cry, let anyone else see her cry or appear helpless like her mother.

Instead, she spent much of her youth trying to fix her father and later worked to keep the peace in her own dysfunctional marriage. She managed her pain by staying in perpetual motion – raising her two children as if she were a single parent, volunteering, going to church and exercising – but doing little else to create and follow her dreams.

Until her son began to struggle in high school and her pain became great enough that it could no longer be denied. Willing to do anything to help her child, she finally was able to end her vow and over time let a trusted therapist see her tears. She began to realize that in blocking her tears she had been unable to fully communicate with herself and had become sick. As the sickness worsened, it had spread to other people.

The first step in healing was to allow her tears to flow freely while acknowledging that they represented huge feelings and emotions she had been unable to express in words. Gradually, she was able to ask as she cried, “What are my tears about at this moment?” At first, she was surprised to find that crying was her expression of unarticulated anger. Sometimes she raged at others who had wronged her, but more often she was furious and disappointed in herself. As she became more astute in her own diagnosis, she was able to get beneath her anger to discover it was masking the fear and anxiety she had denied in order to survive her chaotic childhood in an alcoholic family where it was dangerous to appear vulnerable.

Naming and talking about her tears opened doors of understanding and compassion necessary for her healing. As she came to respect her tears as a friend in her process of self-examination, she used them to go deeper in understanding the losses, failures, rejections and hurt in her life. Sometimes it seemed that her situation was growing worse instead of better in therapy and that she could drown in her tears. But with her faith, prayer, courage and a continued desire to change, she developed more appropriate ways to express her anger, fear and loss and then to take better stands for herself. “Who in my life am I pleasing by not doing what I want to do?” she asked.

One Thanksgiving she was able to say to her father, “Pop, I don’t like it when you drink and pass out every holiday. Are you going to stop this Thanksgiving and Christmas, or would you prefer for me not to come home?” And when he gave his promise but drank anyway, “Pop, I meant it. Are you going to stop drinking this holiday or shall my family and I leave now?” No longer the small child crying inside while observing from the upstairs landing, she said, “I always thought taking a stand was conflict I wanted to avoid, but I learned that it is simply taking a stand and how empowering that can be. I don’t think Dad liked it, but he absolutely respected me when I spoke from my heart with integrity.”

Tears can become a sign of strength when they are honored as a pathway to our deepest feelings and clarity. Jesus asks in the healing parables, “What do you want me to do for you?” And when a person wants with all her heart to be healed he says, “Go; your faith has made you well” (Mark 10: 51-52). But sometimes work is required to obtain clarity, recognize our need for God and know that we do truly want to be healed. “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened,” says Jesus (Luke 11 9-10).

When was the last time you cried, and what were your tears about?

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

"My dad died"

By Donald Schell

Wednesday, Day 1: hearing and telling, “My dad died”

5:30 a.m. New York time, my phone wakened me. It was my wife, Ellen, calling from San Francisco. 2:30 a.m. there. She said it simply, ‘Donald, your dad has died.’ I heard it but had no idea what to do next. Ellen spoke to my stammering silence, ‘Come home now, your mother needs you.’ Clarity.

Downstairs in the lobby, I told the night clerk I was leaving - “I have two more nights, but I’m leaving now. My dad died.” More than check-out: I needed to tell someone.

When I caught a cab, I told the cabbie, “JFK,” and as he pulled out added that I was grateful for his service because my dad had died. At the terminal I thanked him again and tipped extra, a thank you? Or penance for beginning his day with a death? Maybe both.

At the airport time dragged (or seemed to stop) until we got called for boarding. Soon we’d be airborne and I could sleep and maybe wake up closer to knowing dad had died. My quick silent prayer on the jetway surprised me – “Dad’s death is enough for the family to deal with just now,” I explained to God. Then stumbling over which of the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews would be flying to California on other flights, simply added, “Keep us all safe.”

I leaned my seat back, closed my eyes and welcomed merciful sleep, but an hour and half later, much too soon, I woke up thinking, “I’m flying home because my dad died this morning,” and wondering whether any of the other passengers were flying home for a funeral.

The man next to me began light chat that eventually went to his work, and when I learned he was a physician like my dad, I wanted to tell him. I must have been looking for the opening. “My Dad was a doctor too. I’m flying home because he died this morning.” My voice didn’t break.

He asked how my dad had died and invited me to talk about him.

For some months Dad had been worrying about a cluster of small physical ailments and mental lapses. Ever the physician, he was putting pieces together and wondering if he’d begun a decline (and what it would mean for him and for my mother).

My new friend wanted more diagnosis. I told him about Dad’s heart history, his childhood rheumatic fever, the damaged heart valve that had to be replaced twice, and his bypass. Combining his history and his dying in his sleep, my companion said it sounded like a heart attack. We agreed it seemed like a quick, easy end to a long good life.

I told him how dad’s flying a B-17 in World War II made him want to become a doctor and spend the rest of his life saving lives if he could. Then we landed.

I drove the hour south to San Jose repeating aloud, “My dad died.” I stopped the dark mantra when I left the freeway, then started it again when I pulled into the driveway of my parents’ house, now “Mother’s house.”

Mother welcomed me with a hug and tears. Ellen too. Dad’s absence was a silence in the house. Ellen told again how she and our daughter had driven down at 3 a.m. and what a good job my brother had done. He’d been down visiting mom and dad for dinner and had stayed overnight in their guestroom, so he was there for mother when she woke to find dad not breathing.

When Ellen arrived Dad’s body was still on the floor where my brother had done CPR until the paramedics took over and then stopped it. Ellen had pulled back the sheet to see Dad’s face. She told me he’d looked like himself, surprisingly peaceful after the CPR, very still, but with a little color left in his cheeks and not yet cold. Now his body was downtown at the funeral home. It would be cold. He’d been dead for just over twelve hours.

I wanted to see Dad’s body. The funeral home insisted they needed two days to ‘arrange the features’ and ‘prepare for a viewing.’ I was frustrated. It had seemed simpler with Ellen’s dad.

Ellen and I stayed over at mother’s house. We slept in the guest room under the Monet prints Dad had found so fascinating. “I think the impressionists understood how the optic nerve and the brain work together to see,” he’d said. At dinner that night we’d been seven. We’d set the funeral for the following Friday. Drifting toward sleep, I thought, “It was our first dinner here without Dad.”

Thursday, Day 2: remembering

I spent the morning writing an obituary. Harold Newton Schell, October 30, 1921-October 15, 2008. Remembering felt good. After lunch Ellen and I drove back to San Francisco.

Friday, Day 3: tears

I woke in the dark – Ellen wasn’t in bed. I listened. She was writing on the computer in the next room – keyboard sound…then sobs. She caught her breath and was back. She’d wakened and decided to write something about dad –

‘Harold was my father-in-law for 33 years. My own father died when I was 29…my father-in-law’s heart had dodged a lot of bullets, as a premature infant taken by Caesarean section from his mother who was dying of brain tumor, from rheumatic fever that damaged his heart valve as a child, from two heart surgeries to replace the damaged valve and then replace the worn-out replacement fifteen years later. That good, faithful, wise heart loved so much and endured…that good heart. Shakespeare came to mind, Horatio’s words at Hamlet’s death: ‘now cracks a noble heart.’ I cannot think of a human being of whom the word ‘noble’ is more appropriate than Harold Schell. ‘Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’

Horatio’s ‘noble heart,’ she told me, loosed her tears, imagining what courage had kept dad going and living well for so long, before ‘it cracked.’ Heartbreak. She’d lost her second father.

My older daughter and her partner arrived from England. Driving down to San Jose again, we each told our stories of the last two days, how we each heard of Dad’s death, our travels now converging, and more tentatively stories of him.

At the viewing an attendant showed us into a hushed, windowless room. Dad’s body lay in a draped cremation casket covered with a colored satin sheet up to his neck. When we scheduled this, they’d offered to dress him, but mother said, ‘No, please don’t. He’s dead.’ Dad would have enjoyed the Monet print they’d hung on the wall above him, but his “arranged” features look like someone else pretending to be him. This face they’d made from his flesh had lips pursed in a tight thin line. Even in sorrow or deep thought, his living face seemed ready to smile.

I wanted to speak to a body I knew. What here was familiar? I studied his chin. It looked right, despite the face above it. Then I lay my hand on his forehead and knew this is what I was looking for. I must have done this when I sat on his lap as a child. I knew every contour of the skull beneath the cold skin. I closed my eyes and spoke it silently to myself, “It’s him. No – his body, not him. He’d dead.”

Another crowd at mother’s house for dinner. Fortunately the church kept delivering food.

Saturday, Day 4: space

The flood of sympathy notes amazed me with vivid descriptions of his character, some from people who had only met him a time or two. More friends than I’d realized knew the man I loved.

Sunday, Day 5: Church and Mother’s birthday

Too soon after Dad’s death, it was Mother’s birthday.

My mother still works half-time as a Presbyterian minister, but this first Sunday after Dad’s death she wanted to go to a church where no one would know her. We went to a colleague’s church. Tears.

After church fourteen family members gathered in a hotel downtown to eat and celebrate mother’s birthday. We did actually celebrate with plenty of food and more talk. She welcomed the feasting, though with some tears.

My dad died and we can’t get enough of one another’s company. He would have enjoyed these gatherings, though at recent dinner gatherings he’d spoken less and watched more. But we felt his steady affection and, if he missed a joke, he’d ask to hear it again.

Day 6, Monday: the orphans’ club

Home again in San Francisco. I’d asked my oldest friend from college, K. to spend the day with us. Forty years ago, my first year of seminary, he was visiting when his father died five thousand miles away – I remember the distance. Mine died when I was three thousand miles away.

We gathered in our kitchen, my old friend, my daughter and her partner, Ellen, and me. One by one I ask for the stories of lost parents, stories I already know. K. talked about his father’s death and why his father hadn’t told him he was dying, and about his mother’s death, and about the feelings that linger. Ellen told of hearing about her father’s heart attack, how he collapsed on the dance floor at a wedding rehearsal party, when she was also three thousand miles distant. My daughter’s partner talked of the slow disease that had wasted his father’s mind and body in a death that gathered family and began the grieving before the dying that made the death sadder because it was such a relief. Ellen told the story of my dad’s death again. Phone call from my brother. Drive down.

Paramedics. My daughter said she was not part of this orphans’ club and didn’t want to be soon. I promised to do my best to keep her ineligible for membership. Ellen’s dinner is a little feast, chicken and a Mediterranean rice with nuts and dried fruit bits.

For the last few days of his life Dad hardly ate anything, but he’d been losing his appetite for a year. My rock of strength who’d taught me tenderness grew thin and frail. Until I was thirty, this man whose love I knew so well never said the words, ‘I love you,’ or hugged a greeting or a good-bye. The love was evident in every way, and when I began greeting him with a hug, he seemed to welcome it, and with good-bye hugs, even began to reply in kind to my, ‘I love you, dad.’

So it was thirty years ago, that I began drawing strength from holding his muscular back in a hug. Then for the last few years, I’d felt the bony ridge of his spine and the plane of his shoulder blades beneath his sweater and wished I could pour strength back into him.

Day 7, Tuesday: weary

No energy. It was early as usual when the alarm went off, but up? Slowly. Wearily. That afternoon, like several others, I took a nap because I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Day 8 and 9, Wednesday and Thursday: the banquet

Each day we drove to San Jose, the dinner gathering was larger. My father’s sister and her husband had arrived. More nieces and nephews too. More grandchildren – our next generation’s two priests, my son and his wife from D.C. We crowded ourselves in tight to eat. Food just kept coming.

“On this mountain, I will make a feast for all peoples, and take away the mourning veil that covers the nations.”

My dad died and we talked, told stories, and laughed. Sometimes someone cried. We talked of dad’s medical practice, family vacations, old history a generation or two back, and we pieced together our few tiny glimpses of his B-17 bomber missions in World War II. Questions we’d like to ask him sneaked up on us, and his stillness, the answers he couldn’t offer silenced us for a moment.

Day 10, Friday: the funeral

Our youngest son, my brother-in-law, and my sister-in-law made our gathering complete. Mother had asked Judy, her Presbyterian pastor colleague, to preach. I was on the platform to lead family rememberings, one of three Episcopal clergy (my son and his wife, also vested, sat by me to lead prayers). I looked out on the church where I’d grown up, where my parents and grandparents had grown up, and surveyed the faces. My Jewish son-in-law and his parents, friends from our Episcopal church in San Francisco, second cousins I hadn’t seen for thirty or forty years. Faces I didn’t know - people who would tell us afterwards that they’d been dad’s patients, ministry colleagues of mother’s.

It really was the promised mountaintop gathering in Isaiah, all peoples. This healing work was holy and deeply human.

We gathered a lot of people to remember and give thanks for Dad’s life, worked to say what we believe and see how true it rang, we cried and took the time to feel our loss. Then after a long and noisy reception (in which we just avoided reciting ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which would have delighted my dad) family adjourned to mother’s house…for half a dozen large pizzas, another feast.

Day 11 Saturday: good-byes

Saturday began the good-byes. Our two sons and a daughter-in-law, two cousins, my aunt and uncle soon to follow. No one wanted to break the group, but beyond that, good-byes felt plain risky. We knew more clearly than we’d like to that every one of us was mortal.

Day 12, Sunday: my friend’s church again, more Gospel, more tears

The Gospel reading – Jesus choosing two commandments to summarize the whole of God’s law – to love God heart and soul and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s what church is for. My dad joked that no one ever truly became a doctor, and that he was just “practicing” medicine. We’re glad to be back here just practicing Christian life with our little bits and pieces of loving our neighbors and accepting their love. We drove back to Mother’s for another big family dinner.

Day 13, Monday: more good-byes

Driving my older daughter and her partner to the airport, I told them about the end of Mom’s, Dad’s and my visit with them in the U.K. eighteen months before. I told them how we’d gotten lost driving from their place down to London. The M-1 was closed and detours sent us off the main road without further directions. I was driving and Dad was navigating. We had good maps, but the old pilot for all his pride in reading them kept losing his place. At a rest stop I quietly asked mother to take over. “I can’t do that to him,” she’d said.

Our last afternoon in England, I took them to see Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe. At lunch before the play, mother wasn’t at the table when Dad said, “I was afraid one of us might die on this trip.” He was already thinking about it, watching his health, knowing he needed to make his peace. After the play he said, “Shylock was right. The Christians weren’t acting much like Christians.” It concerned him.

Day 18, Saturday: All Saints Day

A week and a day after the funeral Ellen and I drove down for an intimate All Saints Day celebration at mother’s church. Judy, mother’s clergy friend presided and Mother preached. We sang “For All the Saints” with a young M.D. colleague of Dad’s accompanying us on piano.

After the service he gave me a flu shot from the store of vaccine that the Medical Society had asked Dad to dispense, and then he told a story he said would have made my Dad smile and laugh. Only an hour before Dad’s funeral, this friend was seeing patients in clinic, and one had a cardiac arrest. The young doctor had gotten the man’s heart going again, turned him over to the paramedics, and made it to the funeral just as it began, and yes, the patient had made it.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company. He contributed "What Would Jesus Sing", and "Searching for Sacred Space" to Music By Heart, (a collaboration of Church Publishing with All Saints Company's New Music Project).

Halloween humor and a dark-skinned son

By LeeAnne Watkins

Part 1: Knock on the Door

I’ve got a difficult thing to do tonight.

It started a few days ago with my neighbors down the street. They have these humongous McCain/Palin signs in their yard, and as they were decorating their yard for Halloween they added their usual assortment of ghouls and ghosties.

But this year one of the ghouls was leaning over the McCain sign, holding the severed head of Barack Obama.

My son Shyam and I saw it at the same time, and while I was shocked, he went straight to outrage. “That’s a death-threat to Obama! We have to call the police!” I mumbled something about Halloween being different somehow, and he just looked at me in a puzzled way. Then I mentioned free speech, but he said, “free speech doesn’t include death threats, does it?”

We’ve been talking about it for days, both of us deeply disturbed in a way that gets a little worse as each day passes. We have been wondering what to do, if anything. Calling the police didn’t seem right. Shyam asked his godmother Lisa for advice, and she suggested that he talk with the neighbor and explain how the display makes him feel. Shyam brought it up with his teacher and classmates, but although I hear the discussion was good, they didn’t have any satisfying suggestions about what was to be done. In the end, he and I talked about exactly what we want say, and not say. We agree that I’m the one to deliver the message. So tonight I go to knock on the door of a neighbor I barely know, and without any smooth segue, try to explain what effect their display has had on us.

As I’ve been imagining how I might have this conversation in a way that brings out our best selves, I might try to explain what it is like for my son, who they have never really met but surely have seen. I will tell the neighbor what I overheard my son tell his friend Colin this morning as we drove past the Barack head on the way to school: “It looks like me, doesn’t it?"

You see, my son has dark skin, and black eyes, and black hair, and in that mask he saw a version of himself.

How difficult it must be to be one of the only kids of color in his suburban grade school. There are layers of depth to the experience he must be internalizing about growing up dark in an almost exclusively caucasian Minnesotan town. I intellectually know that Shyam’s not being white puts him at a disadvantage in our world. I know that given the lynchings in Minnesota’s history, and the continued violence toward people of color, that his race will always be a factor in his safety. I’ve known that in my head, but I’ve never felt that deep chill like I did this morning, when Shyam recognized that this level of ugliness is real, right on our street, against him more than the other boys he plays baseball with.

It made me cry a little on the way in to work today. I want to be a good mother of an inter-racial family, and on days like this I feel so ill equipped. I wonder if I should move into St Paul where there are more people that look like him, where there would be more safety in numbers. But that’s an illusion too, isn’t it, the safety in numbers. So what do I do, to make the world a better place not just for all people of color all over the world, but for my boy, on my street? I will knock on the door.

But I fret over how that might go. I have imagined them yelling at me, thinking me a left-wing whacko, giving me a lecture on free speech, on how I ought to mind my own business and not try to control what other people do with theirs. I worry that they will argue that it is simply a joke, a little Halloween fun and I’m making too much out of nothing. Maybe they are right.

But no, they are not right. There are consequences to free speech, and this one has offended and frightened my family. The mother bear in me has been aggravated.

In my best imagining for this conversation, the neighbors quickly apologize, saying they never thought about the implications of their Halloween joke for the dark-skinned boy down the street. At the very least I hope they take down the decapitated Obama head. But I would also hope that they could reach out to Shyam in some way that builds relationship, that strengthens rather than frays our little attempt at a neighborhood community. I guess I’m looking for transformation, on our little street, just this one actual street, changed to look more like the Reign of God. In my best imagining this is how racism is washed away, each of us gathering up our courage to influence the tone of our common life, one difficult conversation at a time, face to face, neighbor to neighbor.

I’m used to preaching on this theme, but I’m embarrassingly anxious about moving my feet to make it so. But I believe in the whole Reign of God thing. I believe that bit about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. I do believe in the example of Jesus as a guide in making that so. So tonight I will knock on my neighbor’s door. I will say my prayers for courage and for the right words and for the Holy Spirit to move between us. I will pray for a better world, for all of us, but especially for Shyam, who will be watching.

Part II: “Tell your son it’s only a mask.”

It was the height of awkwardness. I knocked on that door, stomach in knots, and was nicely invited in to the living room to have a seat. I explained that my goal was only to be a good mom, and ask for a few minutes of their time to explain what effect their Obama display has had on my boy. I tottered around my well-rehearsed sentences. They listened. They were surprised to hear about what my son said about how the mask looks like him, and had to spell out that Shyam has dark skin and dark hair. (it is always interesting to me the way in which people see, and don’t see, race).

Then they said: “Tell your son it is only a mask." And: “If we had a body to put under the mask, we would have" and “We never gave it much thought." And then they went on to say how many people have driven by to run up and have their photos taken with big “thumbs ups" in front of it. And how mine is the first negative comment they have gotten, verses the many supportive ones.

The room got silent. I couldn’t stand the quiet and so began repeating myself until I realized the conversation was pretty much over. I stood to go, they continued to sit. I said ‘good night’, and they wished me a good night too, but I felt their hostility as I made my own way out the door.

What happens now? On one hand, I feel I did what I set out to do, which was to speak out against a situation that was offensive to my family, and my son knows that I did. What my neighbor does or doesn’t do with that Obama mask is only mildly relevant at this point. I acted like the mother (and the neighbor, and the citizen, and the Christian) I want to be.

All this leaves some profound questions. Where is the line between free speech and hate speech? Where is the line between speaking out against a perceived injustice and butting in to someone else’s business? Does our history of violence make that headless black man a symbol of something much more sinister, or is it really just a Halloween mask?

So what is next? I’m prayerfully pondering all sorts of options, including doing nothing at all. Or I might speak with my elected representative on our local human rights commission, or the police chief, or the mayor, asking for advice. Maybe I will make a version of this article into an Op Ed piece for the newspaper. I don’t know. But I do know that I still want to make the world a better, less intimidating place for all people, most particularly my son, even here, particularly here, on my street.

The Rev. LeeAnne Watkins is rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the mother of an adopted son.

Soccer dad

By Tim Schenck

Nothing screams “suburban dad” quite like standing on a soccer field on a Saturday afternoon. It’s one thing to stand in front of a smoky grill with tongs at the ready or walk around the backyard with beads of sweat dripping from your forehead while wielding a weed whacker. But when you’re staring at a bunch of kids swarming around a soccer ball on a weekend morning when you should still be in bed drinking coffee and reading the paper, you’ve reached suburban nirvana. You may as well take out a second mortgage on the house because you’re not going anywhere for awhile.

It’s fascinating to me how the most popular sport in the world binds American families together in a common weekend pursuit. At the appointed hour thousands of cleated kids pour out of mini vans all across the country. Parents, carrying travel mugs of coffee and those fold-up soccer mom chairs, trudge out behind them. This ritual continues every weekend during the fall and spring. At least until our kids graduate high school. Then no self-respecting American could care less about soccer. Which may be why the United States has never won the World Cup.

While most of us enjoy watching our children engage in athletic endeavors, it’s amazing how many parents feel imprisoned by weekend youth sports. The constant shuttling around to practices and games, the precious moments of free time being slowly sucked away by 10-minute quarters. No one’s forcing you at gunpoint to sign your kid up, but guilt and suburban peer pressure are powerful things.

I helped coach Ben’s teams his first couple of seasons. It wasn’t too much of a commitment at first – a brief Saturday morning practice followed by a half-hour game. But this eventually morphed into an hour-long Saturday practice followed by games on Sunday afternoon. Since I work on Sunday mornings (couldn’t negotiate that out of my contract) and am pretty much spent by the afternoon, I just help out on an ad hoc basis whenever the coach needs an extra pair of hands. I particularly enjoy the pre-practice exercise where I’m the goalkeeper and all the kids take shots. At the same time.

Most coaches at the kindergarten level have little knowledge of the game of soccer. Their coaching careers began because someone had to do it. I actually love the game of soccer and in my glory days was captain of a lousy high school soccer team. But even if you imported some Brazilian soccer star to coach your kid’s AYSO squad, it still comes down to two basic concepts: kick the ball towards your opponent’s goal and don’t use your hands. That’s as much coaching as a bunch of five-year-old boys and girls can digest. The nuances of the game are, shall we say, lost on this crowd.

Nonetheless, some coaches take this stuff pretty seriously. This despite the fact that no one’s even keeping score at this level – “every game’s a tie” is the mantra for these games. But not to some of these guys; they play to win even if no one else does. They probably call the parents the night before for bed checks just to make sure none of their players are out late partying. We played one team where the coach pulled out a dry erase board between quarters to draw up plays. The kids dutifully gathered around to listen but then when play resumed they swarmed around the ball like every other group of kindergartners in the free world. I’m sorry but you’re not Vince Lombardi; step away from the clipboard.

One thing I learned after awhile is that coaching your son doesn’t work so well. Things I would tell Ben got either ignored or met with a look of complete annoyance. But when the same thing was said by a “real” coach, i.e. not his dad, he would respond immediately. As if my exhortation to throw the ball in to a teammate down the line instead of into the middle of the field was inherently flawed. But if Coach Ian said it, it must be brilliant strategy. I guess it’s the same phenomenon you run into when you hear your child was so polite at a play date, saying “please” and “thank you.” Are you sure we’re talking about my kid? There are places when not being the parent is helpful to a child’s development and the soccer field is one of them.

In beginning youth soccer, as in life, it’s helpful to keep things simple. When it comes to our faith lives, Jesus, too, urges simplicity. He distills everything down to the following: “Love God and love neighbor.” Simple, straightforward, no frills. It’s the equivalent of the two commandments of kindergarten soccer – kick the ball towards your opponent’s goal and don’t use your hands. When you remember the basics, everything else eventually falls into place. Even Pelé had to start with the basics and it’s not a bad place for us as well. We don’t have to be fundamentalists to remember the “fundamentals” of faith. Love God and love neighbor. The fundamentals are what keep us spiritually grounded and focused. So if we work hard to love God and neighbor, we’ll be in pretty good shape.

In the meantime, I’ll see you on the soccer field. I’ll be the one cursing the Good Humor truck that always seems to pull up just as the game is ending.

From What Size Are God's Shoes, copyright Timothy Schenck 2008, and used by permission of Church Publishing. The Rev. Tim Schenck, rector of All Saints, Briarcliff Manor, New York, blogs at Clergy Family Confidential.

What size are God's shoes?

By Tim Schenck

What does God look like? This question gets asked a lot at our house and I never have a very good answer. I tend to mutter something about us being made in God’s image. And then, once the boys have expressed adequate annoyance at my unsatisfying answer, what follows is a steady stream of more probing questions about God’s appearance. They’re relentless – like sharks who’ve smelled blood. “How tall is God? Does God have a face? How big are God’s hands? Does God have really big shoes?” On and on they come, making me feel less and less adequate as a parent and as a member of the clergy. Because my answers can’t possibly be complete.

Sometimes I turn the question around and ask, “What do you think God looks like?” This is a classic counseling technique, redirecting the unanswerable into a question. And, while I’m never too proud to use it on my kids, it doesn’t work. Often I end up in the land of generalities by stating that God is everywhere. Which is true but not exactly the most concrete answer. I think this response in particular, the one about God being everywhere, leads to the obsession with God’s size. If God is everywhere, the next logical question may well be to wonder about the immense size of God’s shoes.

The fact is we don’t know what God looks like. We haven’t a clue. Scripture certainly gives us lots of images of God. But I can’t really tell the boys that God is a rock or a whirlwind or fire. We’re told that we’re made in the image of God but that doesn’t really help us too much. Is that literal or metaphorical? And getting into an existential debate with a four-year old is a road to nowhere. Believe me, I’ve tried.

But ultimately, does it matter what God looks like? For humans, seeing is often believing. And so, for many, that’s the end of the conversation. “If I can’t see something, I can’t believe in it. End of story.” It’s “Doubting” Thomas without the chance to touch Jesus’ wounds and believe. To know what something or someone looks like is a way to gain control or power over that thing. If we can visualize something, then we can describe it with our own words. And if we can see it and name it, we somehow own it. But of course God is too great to be contained by human sight or language. So we can never fully see God or describe God in totality. And we certainly can’t own God.

We can, however, experience God. And this happens in all sorts of ways. We can experience God through the compassion and love of others. We can experience God through the majesty of nature. We can experience God simply by wondering alongside a child about God’s appearance.

When I was a little boy my family had a children’s Bible. I have no idea where it is at this point; I haven’t seen it in years. But I vividly remember the inside-cover. It had an illustration of a brilliant, multi-colored star stretching over the entire length of the page. My parents, probably out of desperation or exasperation from the unceasing questions, suggested that maybe that was God. And the image has stuck with me throughout my life. Not as the definitive image of what God looks like but as one possibility. Somehow it beats George Burns.

As I’m faced with question after question about what God looks like, I find myself answering “yes” to most of these questions. Is God tall? Yes, and short too. Does God have big shoes? Yes, and small ones too. Because the fullness of God is the ultimate “yes.” If God is in everything, then God is both tall and short, big and small and every size in-between. God has a face and yet God does not have a face. God is a tree or a flower or a star and yet God is so much more than any of these.

John’s gospel tells us simply that “God is love.” It’s a straightforward statement, a three word sentence. “God is love.” And maybe that’s what God looks like: love. It may be an elderly couple holding hands, a mother cradling her child, the sharing of tears with a grieving friend. Love comes in many forms and appears in many faces. And so does God.

For Christians, the most tangible face of God is, of course, Jesus himself. In the face of Jesus we see God. If God is love, Jesus personifies that love. His face is the very face of God because it is the very face of love. And so whenever we serve the poor, feed the hungry, or clothe the naked we not only share God’s love, we see it.

But of course, none of this provides the most tangible answer for a child wanting to know if God is tall. So I keep saying “yes” to the onslaught of questions and I do what I can to be a loving father. For if God is love, then we see God by showing our love for others. We see the face of God in one another. Our faces can reflect the love that is God. You and I can look like God, if only occasionally, if only briefly, if only haltingly. But we have the ability to do this precisely because we are made in God's image.

I’m not sure what size sandals Jesus wore. A ten? An eleven wide? I assume no one ever measured his “footprints in the sand.” But it probably doesn’t matter. Because there’s a wideness in experiencing God’s all-encompassing love and mercy.

From What Size Are God's Shoes, copyright Timothy Schenck 2008, and used by permission of Church Publishing. The Rev. Tim Schenck, rector of All Saints, Briarcliff Manor, New York, blogs at Clergy Family Confidential.

The rise of the alpha parent

By Margaret M. Treadwell

“Parenthood is forever. Plan it.” reads my favorite T-shirt, which over the years has humbled me as I’ve stumbled, muddled through and hopefully learned from my mistakes as a mother. With school beginning, I use that message to ask, “How do you want to position yourself this fall to foster growth and independence in your children? How might you stay connected while loosening the reins for the rest of the school year?” These are lifelong questions for parents and grandparents who wish to strike a balance between being overly involved and not involved enough.

While pondering these questions, I came across several recent studies concerning “helicopter parents,” a term which first appeared in the 1990s to describe a new category of 40-something Baby Boomers who are intensely involved in their children’s development, hovering over every aspect of their education and recreation and even rising as far as the graduate job market to intervene on behalf of their young adults. Some even bail out their “children” from marriages by providing finances and childhood bedrooms readied for a return home.

I have heard most about this phenomenon from teachers, principals and college deans, who cite the lack of responsibility students take for themselves when they are constantly calling home on cell phones – surely the longest “cordless” umbilical cord in history. These educators insist that children are not spoiled by material wealth, but rather by parents who arrange for their offspring to never experience failure or suffer the consequences of their actions.

In a 2007 study, the National Survey of Student Engagement polled 313,000 college students at 610 schools and found that seven out of 10 students communicated “very often” with a parent (mothers were the most frequently contacted), and 13 percent of first year students and 8 percent of seniors reported frequent intervention by a parent or guardian. The study found that college students who reported high levels of contact with parents and guardians, and whose parents frequently intervened on their behalf, were more satisfied with their education and reported deeper learning activities than students with less-involved parents. Meanwhile, professors worry about the blurring of the boundaries between childhood and adulthood and the gradual ‘infantilisation’ of society with the appearance of ‘kidults’ or ‘adultescents.’ The dilemma? Students welcome the involvement of their alpha parents!

The phenomenon also has garnered attention in Great Britain. In a Jan. 3, 2008 article in the Guardian, Paul Redmond, head of careers at the University of Liverpool, describes the five most common kinds of helicopter parents:

* The agent who operates like a footballer’s agent – fixing deals, arranging contracts and smoothing out local difficulties.
* The banker who is unique in the financial services world for never seeing loans repaid,
asking few, if any, questions, expecting no collateral and being psychologically inclined to say “yes” no matter how illogical or poorly articulated the request.
* The white knight who appears at short notice to resolve awkward situations, then silently disappears once intervention is accomplished.
* The bodyguard who protects the client from a range of embarrassing social situations such as canceling appointments, constructing elaborate excuses, doubling up as chauffeur and personal assistant.
* The black hawk who is dreaded by teachers for going to any length – legal or illegal – to give their offspring a positional advantage over any competition.

All of us want the best for our children and perhaps fall somewhere along this continuum from time to time, especially as the cost of college increases. James Boyle, president of College Parents of America says, “The vast majority of parents just want to be better consumers and support their child’s education.” But what are we creating with our singularity of focus on academic, athletic or social success, rather than thinking about the whole, integrated person?

Happy children are those who grow up to take responsibility for their own destiny and being, which makes for productive, fulfilled human beings giving back to the world. This requires independence, self-motivation, resiliency, reliability and an ability to make decisions and take stands for themselves. What would it take for helicopter parents to draw on their faith and trust in God, remembering that our children are His children?

Prayer for Young Persons

God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world; Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
The Book of Common Prayer, p. 829.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Scenes from a family reunion

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Our family tree is spread across a picnic table at Camp Cullen on Mobile Bay.

“Tommy, have you met your cousin Tommy?” I ask the two young men who are studying it. They reach across the table to shake hands over the diagram of their ancestors including four previous generations of Thomas Henrys.

“Here is the great, great grandfather you both are named for,” I point to the first Thomas born in 1800. His son, escaping Ireland’s Potato Famine in 1848, bypassed Ellis Island and landed with his new wife in Mobile, where they produced a large family (our grandfather Thomas Henry was the eighth of eleven children) and with them built a successful wholesale grocery business. Both Tommys quickly discover they have inherited that entrepreneurial, adventuresome spirit - a bond enriched by the mystery of how deep blood flows.

This moment was one of the thrills of our first McDonnell Family Reunion, a biennial event since 1996 and renamed "Uncle Buddy's Reunion" for our beloved remaining uncle who recently died at age 95. Before that first gathering, 18 of us first cousins had never met or had only passing acquaintance. (My locked-in memories include two mean girl cousins who pulled my hair as a child, and a slightly older boy who was invited to baseball games with my Dad and uncles while I stayed home.) Our fathers, seven brothers who lost both their parents way too young, married strong women who preferred their own family of origin. As my mother succinctly explains, “I just liked my family and your father was contented with them too.”

Drifting apart is the way many families solve the unresolved emotional attachment to their parents, siblings and larger family.

In our generation, we cousins of cut-off parents were repeating this pattern, joining our spouse’s family like an “appendage.” This position often made me more a follower rather than a leader in our nuclear family, reacting to others rather than initiating decisions.

So, why initiate a family reunion? What difference could it make? I had the following five goals

• To satisfy my curiosity. Who are these people? If I were writing a Southern novel, where would I find our strengths, joys, sorrows, blood, guts, and secrets? Could we nourish each other’s strengths? Was it possible to become more objective rather than holding on to my subjective stance of “My mother’s family is more important; besides you were mean to me when I was 5?”

• To reduce the intense focus on my husband and two children by expanding our circle, especially while my father and several of his brothers were dying of terminal illnesses. The pain of isolation had grown too great to bear, and our kids needed cousins.

• To be one of the team and a part of the family system. How might I fit into this large Irish band?

• To gather stories and put life into our family tree.

• To have fun.

After I found my amazing cousin Betty who, surrounded by brothers, longed for a sister, planning the reunion was fairly simple because she liked my ideas and knew the means to carry them out on Mobile Bay where our fathers had summered until their parents’ deaths.

Except for drawing the family tree (also known as a diagram or genogram), I determined simply to listen, watch and enjoy folks. I became the self-appointed “game cousin,” finding ways to gather facts and stories about each other through play. I believe the lighthearted pleasure we share is what keeps us returning to reunions and staying in touch throughout the year. When the going gets tough, one conversation with a cousin (including the two special ones with whom I grew up on my mother’s side) can work wonders to give me perspective, make me laugh and calm me down.

Like all families, we have our multigenerational patterns of weakness. Many of us inherited the propensity to problem solve by physically and emotionally distancing from one another, unconsciously cutting ourselves off from healing resources. The branch of our family that lives the closest to Mobile Bay is least likely to show up for reunions because one daughter doesn’t speak to her mother creating polarization between herself and the siblings who do.

But our inherited strengths and love are greater. Our cousins who had completely disappeared before that first reunion gave us a bedtime goodnight poem from their father, who also died young. It could be repeated to any child no matter what his country of origin and that child would feel proud: “You are direct descendants of Brian Boru, the first and only King of Ireland, and you are a Princess (or Prince) in your own right.”

We cousins need each other.

Margaret M. (Peggy) Treadwell, L.I.C.S.W., is a family psychotherapist and teacher in private practice. She teaches a course on Congregational Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary and writes a monthly column for Washington Window.


By Margaret M. Treadwell

My summer begins in early June when the dolphins are back playing in the ocean off Cape Henlopen, knowing better how to play than any human being I ever met. Webster’s Dictionary defines play as moving lightly; “to frisk; to flutter; as, sunlight plays on the waves; to have fun; to engage in recreation.” To my mind, dolphins are the embodiment of playfulness.

I thought about them during recent readings from Forward Day by Day which focus on “kingdom moments,” those often undervalued times when we experience God’s love, loving relationships with others and self acceptance. Without trying too hard, we almost unconsciously are living the Great Commandment: to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.

I usually draw inspiration from the dolphins on early morning beach walks, when they are playfully maneuvering through the waters to find their breakfasts. But the most remarkable “kingdom moment” I experienced with them occurred on a late afternoon after I had a quarrel with our vacationing family. Deciding the best course of action was to temporarily separate myself from the argument, I left the scene to paddle a friend’s single kayak out into Delaware Bay.

About a mile offshore, I heard what I thought was laughter. Then to my astonishment, three dolphins began to play hide-and-seek under, around and beside my small craft as if I were part of the game. For a few minutes I was afraid of capsizing, but I quickly realized that these beautiful mammals were in control of their play, had no intention of harming me and, indeed, were treating me as if I were one of them. I sat very still, allowing myself to relax into their fun while imagining that I could see through their eyes. It was a moment of awe, pure delight and a sense of oneness with the natural world.

When they moved on, I was so eager to tell my story that I forgot my anger and headed back to join my family. Maybe it was because the dolphins accepted me that I could accept and respect the differences in each of us that night. They cast their spell on our evening barbeque, which, simple as it was, stands out as the best of our times together that vacation – in retrospect, another kingdom moment.

Dolphins teach us how to be creatures of God’s Great Commandment. Over the years, I have grappled with the meaning of loving one's neighbor as oneself. One client who described herself as “stuck” asked, “Am I supposed to love myself and my neighbor or just love my neighbor, not myself?” We talked about how if we give and give ourselves away, there is no self left for giving. Conversely, opening ourselves to experience joy and blessings in God’s creation is an important way to love God and ourselves. A self is more lovable (and therefore able to love) than a no self.

Dolphins, with their basic anatomy unchanged for 5 million years and the most well-developed brains of all animals on earth, take good care of themselves while living in communities called pods. Their two eyeballs move independently so that they can close one eye to rest while the other looks ahead and behind to watch for predators. They communicate with each other through a set of sounds – whistles, clicks and chirps when they separate, bubble streams and silence when swimming together – often 50 miles a day. Each sound has about 20 different frequencies, all meaning something different. Is there any wonder this sounds like laughter to a mere mortal?

Their care for each other is expressed in a range of emotion shown in gestures, postures and touch, through which they make friends, flirt, tap each other with their pectoral fins in a show of affection, kiss, make love in the blink of an eye, fight, play and in captivity seem to confer in order to synchronize their dance. Instinctively, dolphins have a large repertoire of ways to stay healthily connected and to know what’s best for their community.

For example, when they find a bait ball (a swarm of small fish) to eat, they refrain from all attacking the bait, which would mean not enough for all. Rather, they swim individually, taking turns to consume exactly how much each needs. Their behavior reminds us that man is not the center of the universe, and The Family of Man neglects all creatures great and small at our peril.

How will you move lightly, play, have fun and re-create with God, your neighbor and yourself this summer?

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Looking back at a life well lived

By Margaret Treadwell

The Rev. Craig Eder, 87, has been a beloved priest in the Diocese of Washington since 1945, when he graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary after studying biology and pre-med at Harvard. He has served at a number of churches as an associate, interim or volunteer, was chaplain at St. Albans School from 1953-1973 and has been an associate at St. Columba’s from 1975 until the present. His only time away was from 1947-53 when he served rural churches around White Sulpher Springs, W.Va.

Recently we enjoyed an afternoon in the garden at The Methodist Home in Northwest Washington, where he talked about his life.

How did you know when the time was right to move from your longtime home to a retirement community?

Our children told us and we listened to them. My wife Edie was having heart trouble and my 85 wonderful healthy years had changed in the last three years with four hospitalizations.

What is your best advice about adjusting to this big change and challenge?

I think of the refrain of a hymn, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” (*) We were fortunate to find a place in our community where I can stay connected to my church and younger people. Now, I’ve become involved here by loving older people too. Our dog Dilly was the best icebreaker with these new friends. They talked to the dog, and only then to me.

What drew you away from pre-med to the ministry?

Harvard was a time of soul-searching when Darwin and evolution were great issues. I was in the class of 1942 and there was a belief in inevitable progress despite the oncoming war. I greatly admired my father, an Episcopal priest, who wanted me to become a priest. A few short statements summed up the intellectual struggle that ended in a decision to offer myself to the ministry. One found in a Forward Movement publication was the idea that although I can’t do everything, I’m not going to let that get in the way of things I can do. Another was that life has a real meaning if all things that religion claims are true; if not true, life has no real meaning. Another powerful thought came from the scientific method I’d been involved in; it teaches one to postulate a theory and then test it. I thought, “I’ll live by the belief that religion is true. Since there’s no proof, I’ll choose the one I want, given the alternative.” Looking back, I’m sure I made the right choice.

What are the highlights of your life in ministry?

Times when I took some leadership in conflict and reconciliation come to mind, such as the ordination of women, the 1979 prayer book, and interim positions where I loved both sides in disputes and refused to become polarized. In one historic church this led to reconciliation between parish members and also between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. In a magnificent ecumenical service on July 4, 1976 on the lawn in front of Trinity, St. Mary’s City, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of our country.

Recently, I had a powerful religious experience. I knew a woman named Gracie, a fellow patient in the nursing part of the Methodist Home here, who cried out constantly, “Help me! Somebody help me!” Once I rolled my wheelchair over and asked her how I could help. “Take me home,” she said.

I explained that I couldn’t because that was her nurse’s job. But from then on we greeted each other whenever we met, she with the plea, “Help me. Help me.” I was deeply moved when I learned that she had died the very evening of a pleasant visit with her family from California. When I went to her service, I introduced myself and asked her son if I could speak. He said, “Yes! She was a distant Episcopalian.” So I told her story observing that her cry, “Help me,” is an elemental call of all human beings. She had been loved in her home growing up and wanted to return, representing all of us who yearn for God. Just like breathing while repeating the Jesus prayer, “Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” her cry repeated with each breath was a prayer of the heart deeply longing for home where she had known love, the meaning of it all.

It occurred to me that an angel passing by heard her prayer, took her by the hand and brought her to God who would give her the love that all of us need, that she so desperately needed.

“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

(*) The hymn, “We are one in the Spirit,” by Peter Schotes, can be found in a supplemental hymnal, “Songs for Liturgy and More Hymns and Spiritual Songs” published in 1970 by the Join Commission on Church Music of the Episcopal Church.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. She creates and leads conferences across the country for bishops, clergy and church lay leaders, helping them to apply family systems concepts to their leadership in diocesan and parish ministry.

The spiritual life of Grades 3 thru 6

By Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick

What percent of your happiness comes from your spiritual life? Three percent, would you say? Or is the percentage closer to 6.5?

I'm still puzzling over the question. For me the spiritual runs through relationships and moments the way blood circulates around the body, and trying to isolate and measure it as a percentage of happiness sounds as impossible as it would be pointless. But recently two researchers at the University of British Columbia concluded that 6.5 to 16.5 percent of children's happiness can be accounted for by their spirituality. Mark Holder, associate professor of psychology, and Judi Wallace, a graduate student, asked 315 children aged nine to twelve to describe their daily spiritual experiences and private religious practices by rating statements such as “I feel a higher power’s presence,” and answering questions including “How often do you pray or meditate privately outside of church or other places of worship?” Teachers and parents described each student's happiness level and the researchers made the correlations.

Considering that parents' wealth accounts for less than 1 percent of a child's happiness, the 6.5 to 16.5 percent results for spirituality took Wallace and Holder by surprise: “From our perspective, it’s a whopping big effect,” says Holder in a UBC press release. “I expected it to be much less – I thought their spirituality would be too immature to account for their well-being.”
So much for "and a little child shall lead them."

Well, it's easy to poke fun at the percentages. And it's hard for many of us to understand how much statistics like these can possibly mean. The researchers' definition of spirituality as "having an inner belief system" is sadly heady. It seems to ignore the natural, hands-on spiritual connection a child develops through loving relationships, nature, and play. And the scientists' tendency to speak of spirituality as though it were no more than a happiness-enhancement tool is all too familiar these days.

Still, in discussing their research Holder and Wallace zero in on two aspects of children's spirituality. One is a sense of thankfulness. As many parents recognize through table graces and bedtime prayers, in a loving home, the impulse to give thanks is a child's natural spiritual expression. "The prayer of children up to the age of seven or eight is almost exclusively prayer of thanksgiving and praise," noted the Italian Montessori educator Sofia Cavalletti in The Religious Potential of the Child over twenty years ago. "The adult who tries to lead the child to prayers of petition falsifies and distorts the child's religious expression. The child feels no need to ask because he knows himself to be in the peaceful possession of certain goods." When we share our own gratitude and encourage our children to do the same, we help them hold onto it as they grow.

What's even more intriguing is that Wallace and Holder talk about the the anticipation of beauty as an important aspect of children's spiritual lives. In my own workshops on children's spiritual nurture, parents often tell me that their childhood and adolescence experiences of beauty -- in redwood forests, under vast starry skies, at midnight mass -- have been touchstones in their own journeys. Children are far hungrier for these moments than many adults recognize. I still remember how as a ten-year-old I saw Michelangelo's Pieta' under a spotlight in an otherwise dark pavilion at the New York World's Fair. To this day I can picture the gleaming marble and the dramatic beauty of the figures, which took my breath away -- and which had far less impact on me a decade later when I saw the sculpture again in St. Peter's basilica.

Today, with children's lives often structured and scheduled from breakfast till bedtime, many are growing up far removed from nature and immersed in a media culture of banality and violence. The habit of seeking that which is harmonious and inspiring in the world is one that must be nurtured. Children need to move beyond the television, the computer screen, the classroom and the sports field to discover that which is truly awe-inspiring in nature, art, music, dance and literature. Too often we think we need to justify such exposures by claiming they will lead to increased fine-motor development or higher SAT scores. Surely it's enough to know that in sharing these experiences we are helping our children's tender hearts stay open. When we learn to look around us for beauty, we tend to find it in our world, in one another, and in ourselves.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, sees couples and individuals in her private practice. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at

"The bonds of affection", and the wreck of the SS Tennessee

By Donald Schell

Like many Anglicans I’ve got the Windsor Report’s phrase, ‘Bonds of Affection’ rolling round in my head like a melody from the radio that won’t be dismissed. I think about affection and whether it makes relationship or just happens sometimes in it. What sense do we make of people who say affection is fleeting? Does good affection bind? That gets more wondering about choices and how we make them, and how bonds and choices live together. And that brings an old personal story to mind.

For eighteen months after she got her R.N. my wife Ellen worked nights caring for sleeping and sleepless patients at teaching hospital near our home. When she was on, I’d walk her over to the hospital, leaving our children sleeping for ten minutes. There had been some late night muggings in our neighborhood and I didn’t want her walking over alone. Ten minutes to eleven I’d steal a good-night kiss from my lovely nurse in uniform and walk home to sleep alone while she worked the shift that hospitals don’t call ‘graveyard.’ Next morning at 7:15 while I was making the kids’ breakfast, we’d listen for her key in the door and her weary "Good morning." Then it was breakfast together and, if it was a weekday, I’d deliver the children to school and child care while Ellen slept.

Regular weekdays I plunged into the priestly and missionary tasks I’d taken founding a new congregation from the ground up, leaving the house to Ellen as a temple of silence. With earplugs and a sleeping mask, she could sleep, more or less, and be ready to greet us in the late afternoon for tea and dinner together before my evening church meetings. Whenever Ellen had a week night off work, I’d take off the following day (with the children off at school) and we’d do something outdoors in the daylight (rain or shine) and enjoy lunch together.

On the weekends that Ellen worked, my task was to keep an intense three-year old son and our more contemplative seven-year old daughter happily occupied away from home so she could sleep. Wherever I took the children on Saturday, our company was divorced dads, men and their children haunting the hands-on Exploratorium, the zoo, the beach, the park. Ellen would make herself stay up for church if she’d worked Saturday night, so on Sundays, our outings were in the afternoon.

Night shift made Ellen’s weekends off important events to us. The Saturday I’m remembering we’d planned a hike and picnic to Tennessee Beach, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area just north of San Francisco. It’s a beautiful place and the long gentle hike to Tennessee Beach was a favorite for us and the children.

I can’t remember how the morning went wrong except that something Ellen said as we were packing the picnic angered me. I made a tentative statement of what bugged me and why and quickly decided she wasn’t listening. So I decided to sit on my anger and say nothing about it. Of course, I was absolutely certain I was right, that Ellen was wrong, and furthermore that by not listening to me she essentially conceding that I was Right about The Very Important Point I Was Making. Happily casting myself as a righteous victim, I concluded that her evident wrong-headedness gave me no choice but to claim the intellectual and moral high ground and hold it in silence. I didn’t say, "Fine, have it your way," but I thought it.

However, not wanting to be a jerk, I decided to pity her for a long week of working nights, by doing my duty as a dad and father in every particular, being exquisitely nice and helpful as I did it. I agreed with absolutely everything she said, and I smiled a lot and kept busy. I felt Ellen picking up on my rage as we were walking from the ridge down to the beach where the Gold Rush era S.S. Tennessee was wrecked in 1853. My first indication was a look from her – angry, hurt, reproachful, and questioning all at once. The children seemed to be enjoying dad’s catering to them and had a great time. Since I wasn’t making conversation but only responding to Ellen’s or the children’s questions, I had some quiet time during the picnic to think about the early steamship whose wreck had given the beach its name.

Coming up from Panama finding the Golden Gate enshrouded in heavy fog, the Captain was counting on dead reckoning to establish his position. He knew there was land just to the north of him and thought he was entering into the Golden Gate to make anchor in San Francisco Bay, but the sound of waves breaking directly ahead told him his navigation calculations had been disastrously wrong. Through the mists a high cliff appeared, now directly astern. Turning the ship hard away from the cliff and driving the big steam-driven sidewheels full speed he struggled against waves and current and until he saw the other cliff that defined the little cove directly ahead. No way forward and no way back, each succeeding wave drove the ship closer to the beach until finally the sand caught it broadside. More than five hundred passengers and all the U.S. mail were successfully brought ashore. The Tennessee’s owners came out to find their ship beached, but still sound. Soon they had tugs and cables and workmen on the shore trying to re-float the ship, but a couple of days after the Tennessee was beached, a big storm blew in from the Pacific and fierce waves pounded it to pieces.

Three hours or so into my folly of forced niceness, fake smiles and cold helpfulness, I thought I was as trapped as the S.S. Tennessee had been, a nearly new ship, best technology of its era, now little left but rusty boilers buried beneath this beach. As the kids explored the quiet beach and played at the sea’s edge, Ellen asked what was going on. "Nothing," I insisted with all the warmth of an airline steward. Did I actually think I could fool her? Probably not. "Everything" was what I really meant, and she heard me.

We packed our picnic and hiked back to the car. I was impeccably helpful, showily available to the children, excruciatingly respectful and solicitous of my wife. And I knew as I did all this that I was trapped in my own folly and doing us serious damage. All the work of parenting had Ellen stranded too - baffled and frustrated with her incommunicative husband.

Finally, after a dinner at which I tried to channel Ward Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver, and then cheerily took dish duty while Ellen put the children to bed, she came back to the kitchen, stood looking at me for a fierce, loving moment and said, "We don’t do it this way. Tell me what’s wrong."

Words of a response lined up in my head, ‘Well, this is how we do it now!’ but I hated those words and knew I’d regret them for ever, so I left them unspoken. She had me. I was immediately embarrassed to recognize that I’d long since lost track of the fine points from our morning’s conflict, but knowing I was as trapped as the captain of the doomed steamship, I welcomed her direct appeal to unbreakable bonds of affection. I’d never heard us say it before, but she was stating an immediately evident fact – we had tried to shape the course of our life together from a steady intention to grow in love and truth. She was offering us what the S.S. Tennessee could not find, a way forward.

I told her what remained from our conversation that morning, how I’d felt unheard and not taken seriously. She replied describing the scene I’d actually witnessed that morning – her very steady focus on all it took to get the picnic made and us out the door and in the car.

What generated the strain of that day was real bonds of affection we’d forged in the eight years before. I felt the painful bind with which wisdom and the force of my loving her cramped my self-righteousness. Like St. Paul in Acts (26:14) I was straining against the constraints of love. Real bonds of affection are like the muscles and sinews of our bodies, and like those living bonds, practicing relationship makes the bonds more flexible and effective through the strain of use.

Taking ‘bonds of affection’ seriously gives the lie to the old, neat distinction between agape and eros—Christian love and erotic love. Ellen was calling on our established practice of disciplined affection. Letting her touch me with that reminder validated our history together, good memories, and hopes we’d shaped over some years. Her demand rested in the delight in each other’s presence and voice and yes, in the flesh she knew I treasured. She was asking me to use the blessed, powerful bond we’d forged together to break the bind I’d created that morning. We needed to talk. She appealed to what we knew but had never declared before. This new phrase, "How we do it," refused to accept that there were any disagreements we couldn’t talk about.

I am grateful for every liberal and every conservative in our Anglican Communion who is saying now, "That’s not how we do it." With cliffs behind ahead of our ship, there’s no way forward in the righteous certainty than "I’m right" or "She’s wrong." Genuine bonds of affection demand what forged them, the commitment to keep talking, graceful conversation, through whatever conflict we face.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company, working for community development in congregational life focusing on sharing leadership, welcoming creativity, building community through music, and making liturgical architecture a win/win for building and congregation. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago.

Unknown Child

By Richard Helmer

While gathering paperwork to get our son registered for kindergarten a few weeks ago, I came across the hospital record of his birth in San Francisco. Beneath his gender designation, length, and weight at birth was his racial designation in big-block capitals:


It stopped me dead in my tracks. Our son, born in 2003, holds immediate claims to two heritages: American and Japanese. Had his mother been, say, French or Swedish, he would have easily been classified as White or Caucasian. Had his mother been African American, chances are he would have been classified as Black. But because his mother is Japanese, and I am of European – mostly English – ancestry, Daniel is a mystery, an unknown quantity in the slippery pseudo-science of race and identity.

Part of me rejoices that he defies standard classification. Part of me worries that his heritage falls into that nebulous, but ever-growing population of children born of marriages that transcend the boundaries of nation and race; children who get a second glance on the street as a rude question bounces around the conventional mind. It’s a question best summed up in the title of a work by author Pearl Fuyo Gaskins: What are you?

“UNKNOWN,” its big, black-on-white, block capitals seemed to also carry with it a mild insult. Marrying across racial boundaries and then having children continues to trip up the legal system in its categorizations, even in an avowedly liberal city like San Francisco. As I prepared Daniel’s kindergarten registration, I was reminded that we are still less than half a century beyond the day when anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. And still only decades from an era when I might have been shipped off to an internment camp with my wife for simply living and loving in the wrong place at the wrong time, for being wed on the wrong side of the war.

In its infinite wisdom, the government now offers a new racial category to the list of choices, and I don’t mean that bland Other ____________. (Please fill in the blank.) It’s "Mixed," which brings to mind the ways Daniel can at times look white and at other times, Asian. Which stereo-typed feature shall we pick? The brown eyes and dark hair or the fair skin? The long fingers or the round face? Will he “pass” as a white person when he needs to, or is he Asian enough to go unnoticed in Japan? Or perhaps he simply fits into the relatively new classification of happa, a term that denotes someone born of one Asian and one non-Asian parent. But even happa says very little. Once considered derogatory, the word is derived from the Hawaiian hapa-haole, which simply means, “half white.” But no Solomon could ever determine which half of Daniel is which.

Mixed belies the deeper truth about our common heritage. Daniel might be mixed but he works: he’s healthy, happy, and behaves like most four-year-old boys do, taking over space in all the lives he meets with his boundless energy. Mixed at one time in the Judeo-Christian tradition implied something or someone impure, less than fully functional, whole, or worthy. The truth is, we are all Mixed if you dig back in our genetic history very far. Our wholeness is deeply rooted in our unity as people made in God’s image, and a shared genetic history that is only several tens of thousands of years old. Our racial categories are very late to arrive on the scene. We have in each of us the biological essence of what it is to be European, African, Asian, Latino, Aborigine, Indian, Native American. . .and the capacity to see the face of Christ in one another and the Body of Christ revealed in one another’s cultural heritage.

It’s also in this way that we are all Unknown.

Unknown like the first-born child of young woman and her carpenter husband two millennia ago. Unknown to the world, born in a stable in a backwater town far from the seats of power and empire. Unknown, yet Mixed, says our tradition – of divine and human origin, but not happa; rather 100% each in the theological math that never seems to add up. Instead, it plunges us into the mystery of a God who touches every piece of us, giving new meaning to that line from the Creed that reminds us that ours is the God of the “seen and unseen,” or in that line from the confession, the Redeemer of the “known and unknown.”

Unknown like every child is born – children who must be named and must receive a social identity from those who care for them. Unknown even then, as they must ultimately find themselves and grow into the gifts they have received. Gifts that came from the only One who truly knows each of us when the stardust comes together in a new way, the genes play mix and match, cells divide, and a new heart begins to beat.

So perhaps Unknown is a good category for a child who is a mystery as much as any of us. Our two-dimensional racial categories pretend to know a person, saddle us with an identity that may or may not fit, pigeon-hole us without regard to our unique natures as children of God. The racial categories, while they might remain useful to track our slow institutional progress in honoring the dignity of all, ultimately reveal the hand of human hubris at work in God’s Creation.

Maybe one day, Daniel will recognize Unknown not as a slap for those who fall in the arbitrary fault-lines of race and culture, but a true freedom to become who God made him to be.

All I can do is keep vigil, pray, and wonder, and reflect on my son’s Unknown-ness – that which has yet to be revealed.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. He has served in interfaith, ecumenical, diocesan, and national church organizations, including Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries. His sermons have been published at Sermons that Work, and he blogs regularly about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, and church politics at Caught by the Light.

A blessing from the blest

By Melody Wilson Shobe

One of the highlights of my job as assistant rector is the work that I am privileged to do with our church day school. Each week I work together with the lay chaplain to conduct two chapel services, one for the Pre-K and Kindergarten students, and another for the 1st through 5th grade students. Chapel is always an adventure and a joy. With the older students, we follow the service of Morning Prayer from the Prayer Book. With the younger students, we follow the outline of Morning Prayer, but the words are greatly simplified so that small children can memorize them. In lieu of the entire Apostle’s Creed, we recite a children’s creed:

“I believe in God above.
I believe in Jesus’ love.
I believe the Spirit, too,
comes to teach me what to do.
I believe that I can be kind and loving,
Lord like Thee.”

We dance to funny songs, and we pray very heartfelt prayers. When I ask a question in my sermon, no matter what the question is, at least one child shouts out: “Jesus!” “What was the bread that God gave the Israelites in the desert called?” I ask. The answer comes back quickly and forcefully “Jesus!” Not quite what I was looking for, but a great answer all the same. I tell them about manna, but make a point to connect it to Jesus and the Eucharist as well. I find myself leaving school chapel each week with a smile on my face and a lighter heart; it is a truly uplifting experience.

Last week, I had a particularly meaningful “chapel moment.” At the end of the service I stood and turned to the children to offer the blessing. As I said the words and moved my hand in the familiar shape of the cross, something caught my eye. One of the first grade boys seated in the second row was moving his arm with mine. His face was scrunched in concentration, his little fingers shaped just as mine were, his arm also tracing the shape of the cross through the air. He was mimicking me. I’m not sure if he thought he was supposed to mimic my motions, like we do when we sing together, or if he was just being playful. Regardless of why he did so, as I was blessing him, he was blessing me.

In the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob tricks his father into giving him his brother’s blessing, the blessing that is traditionally reserved for the first-born son. Now, the authors of the Bible want you to prefer Jacob to Esau. After all, Jacob is Israel, the one on whom the rest of the Hebrew Bible will be built. So Esau is described as unrefined, both in appearance and manners. And yet, when I read the story, it is Esau who I identify with, Esau who I am pulling for. Because his response when he hears of what Jacob has done is heartbreaking. “When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, ‘Bless me too, Father!’… ‘Have you not reserved a blessing for me?’(Genesis 27.34, 36b) Isaac tries to explain, but again Esau cries out, ‘Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!’ And Esau wept aloud.” (Genesis 27.38) When I read it, the exchange almost brings me to tears. You can hear the pain and confusion in Esau’s voice. He wants a blessing more than anything else in the world, and somehow there is not enough blessing to go around.

As a priest, I am more used to doing the blessing than I am to being blessed. I haven’t been doing this that long, but already I have all but forgotten what it feels like to have the beautiful words of blessing spoken over me rather than by me. I think that sometimes, without meaning to, I feel like Esau felt in Genesis. I want a blessing more than anything else in the world; I yearn for it. But somehow I just miss the blessing. I don’t feel it. So when that little boy in chapel raised his hand and, without even fully knowing what he was doing, made the sign of the cross, I felt blessed perhaps more powerfully than ever before. What I had forgotten was that the act of blessing is not something I do, with my rehearsed motions and scripted words. It is something that God does to and through me.

Blessing doesn’t come in limited quantities, as Jacob and Esau thought. Nor is there just one blessing to be given and one person who blesses. What I learned from that little boy in chapel is that blessing is a two-way street. I can bless someone in God’s name, and I can receive a blessing at the very same time. When I, like Esau, cry out, “Have you but one blessing, Father?” God’s answer is clear: “No.” When I ask, with all my heart, “Bless me too, Father!” The blessing will come. Maybe in an unexpected way from an unexpected person. But it will be a blessing all the same.

The Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe is Assistant Rector at a church in the Diocese of Texas. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and is married to fellow priest The Rev. Casey Shobe.

Hidden zippers

By Heidi Shott

Yesterday the ironing crisis in our house reached a critical point. The piles of shirts, skirts, and slacks balanced on a maple rocking chair in my bedroom attained such historic proportions that I could no longer ignore them. At least three dozen articles of clothing – most of them mine because long ago my husband Scott learned to send out his shirts – required the attention of a hot, steamy iron. That doesn’t count the 30 or so linen napkins that graced our table at various dinners from Thanksgiving to New Years, which were washed and then relegated to the realm of forgotten textiles.

This is embarrassing and I am loath to reveal it in such a public, Oprah-esque way except that I can’t think of a better way to tell this story.

Scott gave the rocking chair to me 20 years ago on my birthday. I’m fond of it but haven’t sat in it for years because, well, because it’s always covered in wrinkled clothing. But in the late fall of 1993, in a different house six miles inland, I moved the rocker from my bedroom to the room across the hall that, with its new dormer and fresh carpet and built-in cupboards, would serve as a nursery for our imminent twins. I bought some lovely watercolory fabric for the curtains with enough left over for a seat and back cushion for the rocker. I figured I’d be spending a lot of time rocking over the next year and I was right. The seamstress I hired did a beautiful job fashioning both the cushions and the curtains, immeasurably better than I could have dreamed of doing myself.

Over the next few months the cushions stayed perfect. Then the babies arrived and before long the cushions weren’t so pristine anymore: baby spit-up, stray squirts of breast milk, later juice and gummy cheerios, still later crayon marks and smears of play dough. Though the cushions turned dingy, I never thought of more than spot cleaning them because I assumed that the cushions had been permanently sewn into the covers.

Ten years ago, when our sons turned four, we sold that house and moved closer to town. I left the curtains for the new owners, but the cushions and the rocker made their way to our new home. The smart thing to do would have been to chuck the cushions, but I felt the need to keep some remnant of that fabric close at hand. It spoke to me of hundreds of dimly-lighted midnights with a baby or two in my arms, the sweetness of rocking and singing or the desperate whisperings of please please please, darling boy, go back to sleep. In a corner of our new bedroom, the chair began to take on clothes faster than a leaky boat takes on water. Until yesterday, I hadn’t had a visual on those cushions in years.

When I removed the ironing for triage, out of the corner of my eye I noticed something I had never seen before: an overlap of fabric indicating a zipper. Fourteen and a half years since I tied them onto the rocker, I realized the covers were removable.

“No way.” I said, shaking my head, and in a moment both the back and seat covers were in the machine for a long-delayed bath. The mechanism to keep them clean and fresh had been there all along but my lack of curiosity and the fuss and busyness of daily life had not given me eyes to see.

Why is it so easy to get used to the familiar, grimy things in our lives that they become virtually invisible? How many hidden zippers are lurking under our piles of ironing or among our daily comings and goings? What else waits 14 years to be discovered, ripped off and scrubbed clean? Eastertide isn’t a bad time to look for the zippers in our lives – for that quiet moment or that seemingly random encounter that causes you to see something clearly.

For many years now I’ve been writing personal essays that start with simple moments of daily modern life and then eventually wend their way to matters of faith. And what a hypocrite I’ve felt each time I’ve written about reconciliation or doing hard things or choosing to act in a Christ-like way. And here’s why: Since 2000, with the exception of one phone conversation when she had by-pass surgery, I haven’t seen or spoken to my sister nor have I made an effort to do so.

However, the events of recent months have served as a Gordian knot to reverse this estrangement. I’ll call my sister “Peg” because her story is complicated and not mine to tell. Peg has lived in the Midwest for years, but agreed to come to upstate New York to care 24/7 for our mother in December when Mom was essentially kicked out of a nursing home for refusing to do physical and occupation therapy.

In advance of Peg’s arrival, we spoke on the phone several times. The conversations were focused on train fares and arrival times and our mother’s condition. While initially strained because of our long lack of communication, they became remarkably natural and cordial as long as we stayed within the confines of the current situation. Arriving at my mother’s apartment the night before we were to spring her from the nursing home, I felt anxious about seeing Peg after so long. She is 16 years older than I am, and, as the oldest of the four children, she often took care of me, the youngest by many years. Her older son and I grew up more like siblings. Still we never had the close sisterly relationship that I often envy my friends for sharing with their sisters and a sad set of family circumstances led to our years of mutual silence.

But there I was at the front door with my bag and my laptop. The gap of eight years, since she last came to New York to make peace with our father who was dying of lung cancer, had pushed her into her sixties and me into my forties and we both stood at the doorway gulping back the shock.

Because it was snowing hard, I had called her when I turned off the Utica exit on the Thruway. She had put the tea kettle on. After I dropped my things, we sat at our mother’s kitchen table and drank tea and talked. And talked and talked and talked.

Gently and instinctively, we didn’t talk about the past or any hurtful, sorrowful, regretful things. We talked about our families, and our brothers, and what the heck to do about our mother. We talked about today and tomorrow.

Here’s the hard truth: On my best day as a Christian, I could not have picked up the phone to call her in the Midwest to start that conversation. My mother’s health crisis became an opportunity, a suddenly revealed zipper that allowed us to whip off the veil that separated us…not completely perhaps...but enough for healing to start.

Last week my sister returned to the Midwest. My mother is on her own in a new apartment with meals on wheels and Lifeline. We don’t know how long this equilibrium of our extended and far-flung family life will last but for today, this day, all is well.

In the midst of my ironing marathon, my sister called and I happily picked up the phone. We talked about her trip home, her grandchildren, my sons, our mother and how the hard it will be to get through the next four weeks without the TV show Lost.

Despite how well this has turned out, I’m frightened to think what other sorrows and difficulties in my life could be redeemed if I choose. What possibilities are there for forging new relationships and challenging old fears and casting aside old stumbling blocks. As one who knows I am lavishly beloved of God, I should be able to open my eyes to see how easy it is to do such things. But without the miraculous grace of the previously unseen zipper and the knowledge of how to work it, I’m not so sure how to start.

As I walked back into my bedroom and the pile of clothing on the floor, my eye caught the empty rocking chair. Instead of returning to the ironing, I sat in the chair and turned my face to the familiar cushion: stained, faded but so so so sweet.

Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. She is communications director of the Genesis Fund, a revolving loan fund that provides expertise and low-interest loans to nonprofits engaged in community development. Heidi's essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

Living long, living well

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Uncle Buddy, our McDonnell family patriarch at 94, recently began taking guitar lessons. The last remaining brother of seven with no sisters, his favorite song is Amazing Grace, which he practices often on the guitar and daily in his life.

“How did you manage to live so long and so well?” his nieces and nephews wonder, seeing their own fathers in him. Buddy says, “It's because God has something left for me to do.”

During World War II, Buddy served as ball gunner on a B-24 Liberator and was also on the B-17, known as the Flying Fortress. He flew 50 missions over Europe and received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Service medals. The faded newspaper article with accompanying handsome picture cites his “courage, coolness and exceptional skill” which contributed to the success of these missions.

“Uncle Sam” trained Buddy to be an aircraft mechanic, which he parlayed into a post war job at Brookley Field in Mobile, his hometown. He retired in 1978, and after his beloved wife of 44 years died, Buddy lived by himself in Belle Fountain, Ala., tending his pecan orchard while pursuing his hobbies – bird watching, fishing, eating out, attending church and enjoying friends. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit and changed his life.

Enter my cousin Jean-Marie McDonnell of Daphne, Ala., an artist whose mother recently died. She says, “I had wonderful help in place. I needed to figure out a way to maintain my lifestyle. Buddy needed a place where he would not be alone. I believe family members should not be institutionalized if other alternatives are available. It's working.”

She thinks three characteristics lend themselves to Buddy's good quality of life and therefore his longevity:

* Positive Attitude. Although he has a bad knee, terrible hearing and needs a few pills for health issues, Buddy looks forward to what each day might bring, whether it be hummingbirds, church, a trip to the barbershop, grocery shopping, or sitting, his feet up in a recliner, to watch a football game with a potential Alabama win. He posts aphorisms around his room and the one he first sees in capital letters upon awaking is THINK POSITIVE SMILE.

* Love of All Things. Buddy loves people and always looks for the good in them. He keeps a box of the cards and letters he's received and says, “I save my cards because they have so many beautiful thoughts from friends of mine that I love.” His care extends to plants – his pecan trees, the amaryllis as it blossoms – and to all animals, especially the little dog that jumps into his lap when he positions the recliner just right for her flying leap.

* Control Over his Own Life. Buddy's decision to move in with Jean-Marie was his choice, as was giving up driving voluntarily after a small accident. He has created a routine to keep himself healthy and on course, such as carefully taking his medications with supervision, setting up the coffeepot for the next day, hanging up his clothes, praying a nightly rosary, dressing himself – including putting on his knee brace – doing exercises in his room, practicing the guitar and attending a weekly lesson, enjoying church in a caring community, and eating out twice a week with Jean-Marie.

Buddy wrote about the high points of his life for us cousins, his surrogate children. His chapters were: My Family: Boyhood Days at Point Clear (the most vivid with tales of all our fathers); Sailing and the Lipton Regatta (where he made the team several times, sailed in many regattas all over the country, and once won a race on Lake Ponchartrain in New Orleans); Wonderful Life with Mary Louise, 44 Years; Baseball; Friends; WWII Air Force; and The McDonnell Reunions (he eagerly awaits the next one in July).

He writes simply and clearly about his life and it is a testament to his 94 years lived with "Amazing Grace."

Margaret M. “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice. She can be contacted at


By Jean Fitzpatrick

We were supposed to get a storm of Antarctic proportions, and the radio announced a long list of school closings, but it's only a light snowfall. For an instant, I stop to look: as the wind rises through the trees, showers of huge lollipop flakes, like the ones in a child's drawing, fall to the ground, and the pure winter light reflected off the snow pours in our windows and bathes the whole house. But then it's business as usual: I return a few phone calls, exchange emails with colleagues about an upcoming meeting. My neighbor calls and we congratulate ourselves on the fact that with the snow on our driveways already melted, we won't need to call the plow.

As I put down the kitchen phone, I remember with a pang how, when my kids were small, they would greet a day like this with great whoops of joy, running outside to sled down the lawn and make snow angels. Once they were back indoors -- noses runny, mittens caked with snow, hair electrified from their knit hats -- we'd spread their wet clothes over the radiators and it would be time for hot chocolate. They'd spend the long afternoon rummaging through old clothes for costumes, getting lost in a storybook, watching Gilligan's Island reruns.

I don't let myself do that very often. Don't look back, I tell myself. Banish the self-pity. You have two healthy, grown kids. They're moving forward, they're happy and caring, they stay in touch. You have a full life, people and work you love. You're safe in a warm house. To be anything but thankful would be a disgrace.

Right. I turn away from the window. Back in my office, sinking into the swivel chair at my desk, I click on the online reservation that will, in a few weeks, whisk me away from winter. Tropical sunsets, blue water and pineapple daiquiris: just the ticket.

Now, hold on a minute, something inside me says. What are you running away from?

I take a deep breath and check in with myself. Actually, I'm surprised to notice, I feel no sadness, no pain, nothing. Zero. How did it happen so quickly that the most frozen place of all is inside my own heart?

I go back to the kitchen, fix a cup of orange tea, and gaze out the window. This time I let myself picture my children trudging across the meadow beyond the trees, calling out to each other, putting out their tongues to catch falling flakes. Ice glistens along the birch branches. A cardinal lights on the feeder and flies off. This time, instead of flinging off the sadness, I'm letting it rest with me, but lightly. Before long, as I slow down to take in the beauty of the silent, snowy woods, I'm deep in the present moment, with all its fullness.

There's no substitute for letting ourselves be human. At certain times in our lives, other people -- those we love, those we reach out to help, those with a gift for prayer or preaching -- help us see the world in an intense, new way. In doing so, they open our eyes to a larger reality, mediate the divine for us. When those times pass, no two ways about it: we're bound to grieve. It's true there's no point in looking back, like Lot's wife. But if we insulate ourselves completely against those inner waves of loss, we end up walling off the grace that is always offered to us. We lose touch with joy.

The sky is a milky white. I'm pretty sure it's going to snow again.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth. She has a website at

Accepting God's daily gift

By Heidi Shott

Last August my sons and I made our way downeast to Mount Desert Island for our annual camping trip to Acadia National Park. Our stated goal – my stated goal – is to hike every named peak by the time the boys graduate from high school in 2012. Each year we update a master map of the park by circling the peaks we’ve knocked off. Last year we hiked Sargent and Dorr Mountains and were joined by my non-camping husband on the final morning for a hike up Pemetic.

By real mountain standards the peaks of Acadia are only biggish hills, but on clear days the views of the glacial lakes and the outline of the piney islands off the Atlantic coast still take my breath away. This annual trip at the end of summer is a touchstone for our family, a final time together before the new school year to pick the last wild blueberries along the trail, to walk around Bar Harbor with ice cream, and to savor the hot popovers with butter and strawberry jam at the park’s venerable Jordan Pond House.

Another touchstone has been reading aloud. From the time they were four or five until last summer when we finished the last Harry Potter book after a six hour marathon ending at 2:30 a.m., we’ve always had a read-aloud going. However, last summer the boys announced that after Harry Potter, we should call it quits. “It’s been fun, Mom, but we prefer to read alone from now on. No offence, okay?”

With a hard swallow, I accepted this rare example of twin solidarity. Their tastes are, after all, diverging: Colin reads history and historical novels; Martin prefers contemporary fiction and poetry. And already, at 13, they are commending many hard and wonderful books that I’ve never gotten around to reading.

So in August, shoehorned into our tent at the remotest, raccoon-infested corner of Southwest Harbor’s Smugglers Den Campground, the three of us were each to our own book. Martin was sailing around the tent alone with the poetry of Billy Collins, I was halfway through Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, and Colin was reading an anthology of P.G. Wodehouse. (He dressed up as Bertie Wooster for Halloween and was disappointed when our neighbors mistook him for a croquet player). For me, it was sweet – each boy kept interrupting to read lines thereby annoying his brother – but not the same as reading together, immersed in the same book. I missed the plaintive cries of “One more chapter, please, or at least read to an asterisk!” After much phony reluctance, I always gave in.

In late November when it came time for Martin’s eighth grade conference, he shared with us the following poem he wrote early in the school year.

“Daily Gift”
“Each one is a gift, no doubt,
mysteriously placed in your walking hand
or set upon your forehead
moments before you open your eyes.”

- Billy Collins, “Days”

The first thing I hear
are the birds.

I am lying in a snug sleeping bag,
eyes closed,
absorbing the whistles
and tweets.

The second sound is the tap
of raindrops on a nylon tent
as they trickle from soggy trees.

The final noise
in my semi-asleep state
is the kettle reaching its boiling point.

Now I am awake.

I rise,
a zombie of the campground,
hair untamed,
and glare through trash-bag eyes:

a nocturnal adolescent
sore from hiking.

I clamber out of my cave
and utter the first word
of a fresh day:


Who knows what this day,
this gift,
will bring.

I only know one way
to find out.

- Martin Shott

How I wish I had Martin’s trash-bag eyes to see each new day as it is delivered to my bedside. In this new year, how I wish that we Episcopalians could focus on the gifts so freely and lavishly given to each of us by God: our capacity to love and our freedom to commit ourselves to whomever we choose; the thousands of opportunities available to serve those without a voice in our society and in the wider world. These gifts are already ours, no matter where General Convention stands on the matter at any given time or whether some among us have chosen to leave the Church altogether.

Years ago, my college’s chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship invited a Presbyterian minister from Charlottesville to preside at an evening called, “Hard Questions.” It was meant to be a particularly intriguing and evangelical night, drawing students who wouldn’t ordinarily attend one of our weekly meetings. We were hopeful this Presbyterian dude would be good on the stump. (Our local Episcopal priest who faithfully attended our meetings was a genial, laid back guy and glad to escape the hot seat.) While I recall we drew a good crowd including a couple of lively agnostics, I can only remember two sure things about the evening: one is that the Presbyterian guy had a beard and the other is his response to question, “How can you explain terrible things that happen in the world?”

I had just read the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamozov and was interested to see where he would go with the answer. I was also interested because my comfort level with my friends’ confidence in a fairly rigid Evangelical view of faith was beginning to shift. At the same time I was terrified of being left as a castaway to grapple alone with an increasing number of questions and an emerging vision of what it could mean to be a Christian. So I listened to the Presbyterian intently.

He said something close to this: A countless number of horrible things happen to people that we can’t explain, no one disputes that. But the Bible gives us a clue by fully explaining that God the Creator loved humankind deeply enough to redeem us by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. All the details are there, all the explanation is there. It’s the most complex and most horrifying deal in all of history, but God has seen fit to reveal it to us fully. A god who will explain an event of such magnitude…one that demonstrates such abounding love for creation… is a god who can be trusted with millions of things – the tragedies and the mysteries – we can’t explain in the world.

While I was disappointed with the answer at the time, I’ve found that I’ve remembered it for almost 25 years. The gifts are there. The child is born, and we know the how and why. While I miss the gift of reading to my sons, the closeness and the sweetness of it, their sharing of the books they read alone takes us new places and bestows its own gifts. I need to learn to let old gifts go and new gifts emerge, but it’s not easy.

Hark, friends, and listen closely in this New Year. Each day as you wake remember what you know is true; remember you are well-loved. Remember it is worth the struggle to climb out of your cozy tent and into the new day to accept whatever’s out there.

Just ask Martin, he’ll tell you.

Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. Her essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

Affluent beggars

By Jean Fitzpatrick

Leafing through this week's classifieds in New York magazine, I came across the following ad in the real estate section:

WE NEED HELP BUYING AN APT on the UWS (editor's note: that's Upper West Side), 3bd2bath. YOU are a philanthropic, wealthy person who would not miss a million bucks and would be interested in donating (or even investing) in a highly targeted manner: to my family. WE are a wonderful, hard working middle class family who contributes to our UWS community, is entrenched, happy and desperately wants to remain on the UWS (lest the city lose yet another wonderful family to the burbs). We can afford 600-700k, so you see the predicament. Can you help us??

Well, I thought, here are some grown-ups who believe in Santa Claus. So this is what Manhattan real estate prices have come to, that people who can afford to pay more than half a million for an apartment are looking for handouts. There's an absurd Little Match Girl tone to the whole ad: urban Mom, Dad, and kids standing on the sidewalk outside the Upper West Side's elegant prewar buildings, filled with longing, fingers numb in the cold. In a borough where many pay exorbitant sums to live in apartments not much bigger than a sectional sofa, the ad's Manhattan real estate envy is familiar to most of us, writ large. Now, there's something to be said for the idea that not every condo and coop in the city should end up owned by Wall Street people or international real estate investors. And with the richest two percent of people on earth owning more than half of the household wealth, maybe it's inevitable these days that middle-class people will feel poor. Maybe soon we'll be seeing similar requests from people asking for a Sub Zero kitchen ("WE are fabulous cooks!") or a Bose stereo ("WE only listen to classical music played on authentic period instruments!") or a $4,000 Capresso cappuccino maker ("WE only brew coffee with whole, fair-trade beans!").

I couldn't help noticing the theology here. In explaining their "predicament," the ad's writers appeal to the good old Protestant work ethic: they are a "wonderful, hard working middle class family who contributes to our UWS community." It's the word "wonderful" that got to me. Here's a chance, during this Advent season, to consider the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus. We are brought up to believe that if we're good boys and girls, we'll get everything on our Christmas list. Most of us recognize, by the time we reach adulthood, that life just doesn't add up that way. "Wonderful" people, we discover, experience suffering, disappointment, and loss. There are "wonderful" people living in cities and suburbs -- in New York and all over the world -- who who go to bed hungry, lack basic health care, and have no roof at all over their heads, let alone a home with two bathrooms. Talk about predicaments.

No wonder the story of a holy child born in a filthy manger touches us so deeply. We are invited to imagine, in the midst of so much hardship, the presence of joy. We're reminded that we can avoid experiencing a kind of envy that is not only unappealing, but painful, if we turn our gaze to people who have less than we do and focus on reaching out with prayers and help. And in doing so we feel blessed -- no matter where we live.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst, is a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at

Questions we meant to ask

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Your responses to two questions in my previous column about preparing for death, were inspirational and helpful. Here is a sampling, and to all of you who wrote in – thank you!

I asked: “What do you wish you’d asked your parent before he or she died?”

Readers responded:

I’d ask my mother:
* How she learned to survive with my father all those years?
* To tell me more about her faith in God, which sustained her and held Dad up.
* If she would write a letter to my sister and me? (She died when we were teenagers.)
* How did you show such fortitude and calm during your last illness?

I’d ask my father:
* What he thought about his relationship with Mom – only duty and interdependence?
* About family heirlooms disconnected from meaning discovered after his death?
* About the other women in his life and how many half siblings I have?
* About his childhood after his mother died and his stepmother treated him cruelly?

I’d ask each parent:
* What they believed about life after death?
* About my grandparents and all relatives whose history is lost with their deaths?
* What was your life like when you were young?
* What were your favorites things to do? The disappointments, roads not taken?

I asked: “Did you leave anything undone that you wish you’d done?”

And this reader’s words beautifully summarize many responses: “I wish I had done more to reinforce with my mother her value to the family and to me with words and more hugs and anything else that would have helped reassure her of her own worth. She often thanked me for the help I was extending to her and my response was that I was doing it because I loved her. Then, we simply went on with whatever it was we were doing. That would have been the perfect time, however, to talk more about her value from a whole variety of perspectives. I think I was somewhat lazy in not thinking of this until after her death.”

Another reader wrote a testimony to peace: “One thing I learned from my mother’s death is how to be when my own children gather round (I hope!) to see me off. Let them know I’m not disappointed or fearful or needing anything more than their presence...going with grace. Mother was a clear writer, but I never read anything more perfectly worded from her than this final letter she had left on her desk…the clear intention being to free us from worry and regret:

To my family, my physician, my clergyman, my lawyer – If the time comes when I can no longer take part in decisions for my own future, let this statement stand as the testament of my wishes: If there is no very good expectation of my making an excellent recovery from physical or mental disability, I demand that I be allowed to die and not be kept alive by artificial means or heroic measures. I do not fear death as much as I fear the indignity of deterioration, dependence and hopeless pain. I ask that drugs be mercifully administered to me for terminal suffering, even if they hasten the moment of death. You who care for me will, I hope, feel morally bound to follow this mandate. I recognize that it places a heavy burden of responsibility upon you, and it is with the intention of sharing that responsibility and of mitigating any feelings of guilt that this statement is made. In case of cardiac arrest which is instantly detected, I permit two minutes maximum attempts to resuscitate me."

And if you do have regrets? Many people have found it helpful to write letters to deceased loved ones, then to write another letter from that person back to themselves. This process can be freeing, like the following words from Canon Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918):

“Death is nothing at all: I have only slipped away into the next room: I am I and you are you: whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by my old familiar name; speak to me in the easy way, which you always used…. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.”

Margaret M. (Peggy) Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice. She writes a monthly column for Washington Window
and teaches a course, "Congregational Leadership: Family Systems Theory for Clergy" at Virginia Theological Seminary's Center for Lifetime Theological Education.

O, the mighty gulf

By Heidi Shott

My mom, Audrey, is 84 years old and lives alone in my tiny hometown in upstate New York. For about five years, she’s used a walker because she needs a hip replacement. She can’t have a hip replacement because she refuses to have a heart valve replaced and no orthopedist will touch her unless she does. Last Wednesday morning she was scheduled for surgery to stop intestinal bleeding. But then suddenly she wasn’t.

In the midst of getting ready to go to work and rustling my sons off to school, I called my brother, Brad, to remind him that I’d placed her living will in her purse before I returned home to Maine a few days before. “Well, it doesn’t matter, Heid,” he said with a huff. “She’s refusing to have the operation. She’s afraid she’ll die.”

“You’re kidding me,” I hissed. This is the woman who 18 hours before said over the phone that she had the peace that passeth all understanding.

It had been a long few weeks for both of us – for Brad because he lives next door and is the “first responder” – her go-to guy – and me because I’d come out to New York – a seven hour drive – to take care of her when she arrived home after eight inconclusive days in the hospital. We had a nice couple of hours sitting and talking, my mother reminiscing fondly (now that he’s dead) about her long and bumpy life with my dad and telling me tidbits about neighbors and family members that she forgets to mention when we talk on the phone. Then suddenly, things went wrong. You’ll have to trust me on this, because anything more gets into the realm of too-much-information.

After an initial, highly alarming crisis and a call to her doctor, we tried to settle down to sleep. She called to me in the night and I thought it was my son, Colin, calling. I thought I was at home in Maine…not in the spare room in what we call the “front apartment.”

After shaking off the confusion, I tended to her in the night, twice, three times, and in the morning we tried to leave for the hospital but she was too weak and dizzy to make it the last 25 feet to my car. “Do you want me to call for an ambulance?” I asked. It was a dumb question. She leaned deeply over her walker and I thought, “Shit, this is it.” I called 911 and returned to her, rubbing circles on her back while we waited.

“That feels good,” she said. “It feels good when you rub my back like that.”

I remember my mother rubbing my back when I was small and afraid to go to sleep or when I was sick. “I’ll pull out my old nursing tactics,” she’d say brightly. My mother, an army nurse during World War II, nursed many of the men who survived the Bataan death march when they returned to the states at the end of the war. She told stories of how they would rally for their families and girlfriends who came across the country to see them and then die shortly after the jubilant visitors departed. She told of how she painted all of their toenails bright red while they slept to cheer them up and then had to fess up when a general visited the ward the next morning. “Who did this?” the general bellowed, the story goes. “I timidly said, ‘I did,’ and the General roared with laughter.” And my mother always laughs at that sweet memory. But here she was at 84, dizzy and weak and waiting for the ambulance in the dingy garage of the front apartment. I rubbed her back.

My mother is a Southern Baptist, and we don’t talk much about religion anymore. She thinks I’m nuts and I think she’s nuts and we generally get along fine.

The previous evening, having been away from the piano for more than a week while she was in the hospital, she sat down to play. Between the ages of 11 and 14, when I started hitching rides to a more liturgical church and several years before I found myself at the door of an Episcopal church as a college freshman, I learned a whole lot of Baptist hymns and Gospel songs. Downstairs my mother started to play a song from the 1970s, Because He Lives by Bill Gaither. I know the chorus by heart; it goes like this:

Because He lives I can face tomorrow Because He lives All fear is gone. Because I know-oh-oh, He holds the future And life is worth the living Just because He lives.

Frankly, I’ve spent the last 27 years trying to forget that song and others like it. It’s not that I don’t believe that Jesus lives or that knowing Jesus doesn’t make life worth living, but because…

And that’s the problem, I thought as I stood in the upstairs hall listening to her play, suddenly I don’t know why I hate that simplistic, unnuanced, goofy music, because, whatever else it is, it is a balm to her in this frightening time of illness and worry. It’s her centering prayer, her compline, her Taize, her Eucharist.

Before long, we were stationed in an acute bay in the emergency room at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica. Nurses milled about asking questions. “She was just discharged yesterday,” I said from a chair in the corner. “Shouldn’t you have all that information?” They glared at me. I’m not used to this in a hospital. My husband is an administrator at a small, community hospital on the Maine coast where we know everybody. We’re used to big-hearted people but here my mom was just an 84 year-old female patient who presented with thus and so.

The nurses shifted her in her bed. “My mom’s a nurse,” I gambled. They perked up and looked at her. “You are!” Suddenly Mrs. Stukey was a person.

In the afternoon with my mother finally settled after hours in the ER, I drove back to her place and embarked on some industrial strength cleaning. Old ladies with walkers and bad eyesight who are too proud to pay someone to clean for them are prone to harboring crumbs in their toasters and all manner of splorches on their kitchen linoleum. I also had promised to find her living will, health care proxy, and power of attorney. After cleaning the kitchen, I was rummaging around in the curious mix of junk in her desk…ancient family photos, a TV Guide from last winter, never sent Christmas cards from 1964, and this month’s phone bill…when Brad walked in.

Here’s the truth: my brother Brad and I have spoken more in the last three weeks than we have in the entire time since he left home to learn to fly helicopters in 1973. We never felt we had much in common. We were busy with our own lives and work and families. He lived in Alaska for many years near our older brother. I’ve lived in Maine for most of my adult life. Like most families, ours is complicated in its own Tolstoyian way – the inner workings of which are of little interest to anyone outside the circle. But here’s another truth: I really like him. He sat on the sofa while I went through the desk. I chucked papers and photos at him to look at. We found controversial documents about our dead aunt’s estate and rehashed the drama.

“Come on, let’s go down to the VFW for a beer,” he said when I’d found the papers I was looking for and stashed the rest back in the drawers.

“No,” I said, smiling. “I promised Mom I’d come back over to St. E’s tonight.”

“Come on, Heid,” he cajoled.

“Really, no, there’s a certain type of bar I won’t go to,” I said. “When I was little, Dad dragged me to bars all over the place.” I named a number of them.

“Dad took you into LBJ’s?” he said, eyes wide. “What a dive, I wouldn’t go in that place.”

“Didn’t he take you to bars, too?” I asked. I always assumed my older siblings were dragged to bars as well.

“No,” he shook his head, still stunned at the differences in our childhoods. “No, he never did.”

“C’mon, I’ll walk you back to your house,” I said, and swung my arm through his, so deeply tanned and strong.

A week later Brad and I were on the phone after Mom’s refusal to have surgery. “I’ll come right out,” I said. “I’ll talk some sense into her.” So after making arrangements for kids’ activities and work, with a Michael Chabon novel to listen to on CD, back to New York I went.

With surgery declined, St. Elizabeth’s discharged my mother to one of three fates: eat food and bleed; drink fluids and grow weak; have surgery and return to health. When I arrived at the front apartment, she was obviously happy to be home. Her choice was to drink fluids until she got her nerve up to have the surgery. She had a permanent IV line dangling from her black and blue arm.

Still mad at her for refusing to have surgery, I couldn’t refrain from a snide remark, “What happened to the peace that passeth all understanding, Mom?” I was standing over her. She had lost about 15 pounds in three weeks. She was small and wrinkled in her easy chair, and I instantly felt like a supercreep for jabbing at her faith.

“I was so scared. An anesthesiologist came in last night and said, ‘Wow, you’re a serious heart risk,’ and walked out. It scared the pants off me. I couldn’t sleep and when Brad got there this morning, I told him I couldn’t go through with it.”

Sighing, I sat down on the arm of the sofa. Even if Jesus lives, even if life is worth the living, it can still be scary. And the fact is that right now, life is scary for my mother. Maybe what she needs to be brave is to see the face of Jesus in her children, no matter how imperfect they are. Being cynical about her simple, abiding faith shouldn’t be a part of how I live out my faith…so exquisite at times with its shades of gray and intriguing dappled colors.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” and bent down to kiss her hair before taking my bag upstairs to the spare room where as a little girl I had often slept when my sister – married so young – lived here in the late sixties. Downstairs I heard Mom move her walker over to the piano. She was playing “At Calvary,” and the fourth verse popped into my head:

O, the love that drew salvation’s plan O, the grace that brought it down to man O, the mighty gulf that God did span, At Calvary.

Mercy there was great and grace was free.
Pardon there was multiplied to me.
There my burdened soul found liberty
At Calvary.

“Preach it, Mom,” I whispered.

Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. She is also communications director of the Genesis Fund, a revolving loan fund that provides expertise and low-interest loans to nonprofits engaged in community development. Heidi's essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

Preparing for death

By Margaret Treadwell

My mother regularly tells me she is ready to die. She says, “Ninety-seven is too old to live when physically you don’t feel like doing anything! I know I could stop eating but I enjoy my food too much. Maybe I could stop being curious about my family and friends?” But that’s just not who I am.” I tell her I’ll support her decision no matter what, and we talk about her faith in reuniting with loved ones in Heaven. We usually end this conversation with the words of her beloved caretaker who tells her, “Mrs. McDonnell, I don’t think when you die is up to you.”

“Maybe all of us have more say about our death than we know,” I muse. I tell her about a colleague whose family members appear to draw a very thin line between life and death. One uncle returned all his library books, checked no more out and died the next week. Another wanted only to spend Christmas with his sister and died sitting in her comfortable living room chair.

“How do you think our family has handled death in previous generations?” I ask. Mother says, “No one ever talked about it. Mamaw (her mother) lived to 94 and we all thought she’d live forever. Daddy was sick so long with Parkinson’s pain that he was frustrated and difficult at the end. I’m beginning to understand him better these days!” So much for that.

But a few days later, Mother calls to tell me about a vivid dream: “Mamaw and my sister Beth (both deceased) came to invite me on a trip to Europe. I told them I wasn’t feeling well with a stomachache and would stay home to take care of Daddy. After they left, I found the front door of his house locked so I couldn’t get in to help.”

Knowing that many people unconsciously preparing for death have dreams about going on journeys, I ask, “What do you make of it?” After a thoughtful pause, Mother says, “I think I made a mistake. I should have gone with Mamaw and Beth.” Taking a deep breath to ground myself in being her daughter rather than a therapist, I say, “I love you, Mom. Remember more dreams and tell me.”

Mother was just as eager to die eleven years ago. “I have no reason to live,” she told me after my father died of the Alzheimer’s disease she had faithfully nursed him through. Without thinking I shouted, “Don’t do that to me, Mother! I don’t have any siblings!” A few days later, I amended my outburst to the phrase I’ve been repeating ever since: “Mom, I support you in any decision you make until you won’t or can’t make a good decision for yourself. Then, I’ll do what’s best for me.”

So far this agreement has translated into my attempts to be emotionally present while physically distant as Mother chooses to remain in her own home where I grew up in Sheffield, Ala. When the going gets rough with health setbacks, Mom pulls through with one certainty: “I do NOT want to move to Washington, D.C.”

Except for weekly visits to Gay’s Hair Salon and doctors unable to relieve her arthritic and other pains, she is thoroughly homebound surrounded by caretakers and hospice workers with whom I keep in touch. Younger neighbors, friends and clergy from her cherished Episcopal church often visit, and she is endlessly interested and invested in their lives. I call her home ministry “Flo’s salon.”

Increasingly helpless in her ongoing fragility to help her have a reason for living, I listen. I try to live in the moment of each long distance phone call to appreciate the gift of being a non-anxious presence with her now. After listening, I ask one question per conversation about her extended family in Mobile, a favorite topic. How did they show love? How did she spend time with her grandparents? How did they play? What about meals together? How did they grieve? Any more family secrets you haven’t told me?

I travel as often as possible to my hometown that is harder to reach than Europe. Recently I celebrated Mom there with my family – husband, son, daughter, their spouses and her three great grandchildren. We had a blast and she let us know when enough was ENOUGH, like the time she turned on the evening news to invite Brian Williams (NBC News anchor) into our midst. He immediately broke up the party!

On our good days, Mom and I are doing great. But I always wonder what more I can be and do. So many of us are pioneering similar situations with our elderly parents that I’m asking you my readers a favor: What questions do you wish you’d asked your parent before he or she died? Did you leave anything undone that you wish you’d done? If you’ll email me , I’ll gather and include your questions and thoughts in a future column, which will be useful to others and me.

Margaret M. (Peggy) Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice. She writes regularly for Washington Window.

Wardrobe malfunctions

By Sara McGinley

Have you ever noticed how baby poo has an uncanny ability to expand and multiply and how that capability is exponentially truer when you’re wearing nice clothing or the child is wearing nice clothing or a lot of people are watching you?

I wasn’t aware of that law of nature until almost exactly 3 years ago when I took my then infant son to church for the first time.

He was the first clergy baby in that church in a very long time and his first visit to church was a highly anticipated event.

That day just as communion was about to start I noticed a little wetness on my arm. When I looked down to investigate I noticed that my wrist and Eliot’s side were covered in some, I’ll call it, stuff.

I raced out of church with my huge, new mommy over-stuffed diaper bag, changed him out of his cute little red outfit I’d spent hours deciding on for his first trip to church and put him in the runner up outfit (a little baseball uniform which included a hat which I didn’t put on my poor pooping baby). I raced back to church and was able to run up to the altar to be the very last person to get communion.

I felt pretty cool.

He was just a few weeks old and I’d managed to get about 15 gallons of poop off of me and him and get his clothes off of him and him back in a new diaper and new clothes and have communion.

On my way back to my seat in the 7th or 8th row of the church three people noticed that Eliot was wearing a different outfit.

Before that day I’d felt like I was living in a fish bowl.

Until that day I didn’t know the full extent of it.

I realized that I was living in a fish bowl where costume changes are noticed.

I can’t say that I thrive in the fish bowl. I mean, truly, there is a reason there are signs on the fish tanks at the pediatricians office. “Please don’t tap the glass I will make the fish sick.”

My husband and kids and I took a whole entire 2 week vacation recently.

On that vacation we were just anonymous humans fishing the lake, just another organism walking through the woods, just another tourist eating the over-priced kids hot-dog on the patio.

We were nobodies.

We were nothing of great interest to anyone.

I didn’t fully realize I was on a break from being noticed until one evening when I took my now 3 year old son out for dinner without a diaper bag or even a diaper stuck in my pocket.

During dinner he filled his pants in one of those amazing multiplying ways.

I decided we could just go in the bathroom, remove the stuff, wipe the stuff and return his pants to his little boy bottom and head back home without much trouble.

I anonymously walked off the full patio at the restaurant. Anonymously walked through the bar and anonymously walked into the bathroom.

Once in the bathroom Eliot wanted to look at stuff.

I wanted to get his pants and shoes and diaper off without laying him down on the insanely wet (yuck) public bathroom floor.

He wanted to run away during the wiping part.

I wanted to get it over with.

At one exasperating moment he ran, I grabbed and slipped everything was just enough stressed and pulled in just the right way that I ripped. Yes. Ripped. The entire front end of my pants wide open.

Don’t imagine that rip as a small tear.

It was a rip. A foot-long tear across the front of my pants.

It ran from near my waste band to pretty close to my knee.

So I was stuck with a stinky, dirty three year old without a diaper and the very front of my pants completely hanging in the breeze.

I couldn’t stay where I was. It was a one-seater with someone knocking on the door behind me.

So I just put things back together as well as I could and walked out of the bathroom and back through the patio to my husband and daughter pretending there was nothing at all smelly or exposed about us.

And no one noticed us at all. We were just another mom and her son. Just another pair with their pants on all wrong.

Sara McGinley, irreverent priest's wife and mother of two, writes the blog subtly named, Sara McGinley. She is a lay person from Minnesota who thinks the term 'lay person' is unnecessarily suggestive.

Time is your friend

By Jean G. Fitzpatrick

Labor Day weekend: our collective crash-landing to the "real world." The prospect is enough to make many young parents shudder. "Summer's been so relaxed," they tell me. "The kids swim all day or go to camp. No school projects or practices or after-school programs to drive to. We eat outside, go for walks together. We have so much more time."

We don't have more or less time, of course. We just use it differently. But in the rush to accomplish everything we think is important, it's easy to forget that. I know I do. This summer a colleague and I talked about taking a poetry workshop that sounded intriguing. "I don't have time for distractions," I said, feeling torn. "I should be working on my book."

"What you do in the workshop could help you with the book," my colleague said. "It's a chance to play with words."

"Yes!" I wanted to tell him. "That's just what I'm longing to do." But the stern grown-up inside my head was warning that play like that would be a detour from what I was really supposed to be doing. "I need to focus," I said firmly. "I'm not going to live forever."

My colleague smiled. "Time is your friend," he said.

For the rest of the day I repeated his words to myself. Time is your friend. What could that possibly mean, I wondered.

To this middle-aged mortal, time feels more like a prankster getting ready to yank the rug out from under my feet. No, time and I are not friends. We're rivals in a game I can never win. These days I find myself racing against time, fighting the clock, striving to accomplish the things that matter to me. I'm not so different, you see, from the frantic young parents who cram too many activities into their family life. Nothing wrong with the things we want to do, but sometimes we get so determined that we undercut our own efforts, take the joy out.

"Time is your friend." I pondered the phrase all the way to summer's end on Cape Cod, a week of relaxation with my husband and grown kids. As I loosened my grip on each passing day, the words started making sense to me. Burrowing my toes in the sand at Nauset Light beach, steaming little-necks for dinner, square dancing on the Wellfleet pier, it dawned on me that my colleague and I had been talking about different kinds of time. I'd had in mind the fleeting minutes and hours of the chronological day, the appointments I schedule on my Treo. My colleague had been talking about God's time.

We all catch glimpses of God's time now and then, when we pause long enough to welcome it as a gift. Enjoying the natural world, playing with a young child, dancing to music, making love, praying: moments like these can transport us to a richer experience of time, to something like eternity. Short of moving to a monastery, I don't know how to live in God's time all day, and yet it is always present to us, always within reach. If we create space for it in the midst of all our busyness, we can stay grounded in it, its fullness enveloping us, informing every moment of our day. Paradoxical though this may sound, that usually means scheduling it. Finding a balance between chronological time and God's time demands attention and a certain kind of discipline, and when we neglect those we end up feeling frantic.

The work and practices and projects and lessons are the stuff of life, and often joyful ones. When they turn into burdens, we've probably squeezed God's time out of our busy day. Caught up in fighting the clock, we've forgotten that time is our friend.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst is a layreader in the Diocese of New York, and the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth. Visit her at

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