On Wednesday I sit in the Hospice in Vermont. “Wait and watch,” I read from Mark’s Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent.” I’m doing that,” I think to myself. Within are friends who are near death. I wait and watch.
On Thursday: I am with our granddaughter. She is seven months and full of wonder. Her excitement expressed with squeals of joy. “Wait and Watch” I read. I watch and wait for her to show me the new unveiling that has come to her. She chatters on, tries sounds. She speaks a magical language as she brings form and connection to the sounds that may, no will, I trust, become words. I throw a few Spanish. Italian, Russian, German, Czech words into the mix. She entices my sense of mischief and adventure. I watch and wait for the new creation who has come to grace our lives, a new and glorious re- Incarnation as one of the beat poets reminded me years ago . In fact as with Ferlinghetti, “I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder.” She is our teacher on the way to a second and even better childhood. We can appreciate it now, maybe we can wait and watch for the signs when she may become so full of knowledge that she will need a reminder to keep wonder, to live in awe of the creation as much as possible, to bless each day and each moment for the wisdom it brings.
On Wednesday I watch and wait as my friends die: My friends are both healers: One is a peacemaker and has worked throughout the world to bring her skills into some of the worlds most stubborn conflicts. She is dearly loved by many. A newcomer to her circle, she still in the weeks or months left, invites me in. I inwardly bow before her. She has met and talked with the Dalai Lama. Born a Jew she is now a Buddhist, and yet she has room for this Christian who prays for her in the words and through the image of Jesus. I feel deeply honored and humbled to be in such a presence. She waits eager and weary for the divine. She is held already in the arms of God, friends come and pray in the words of Buddhism, Judaism and my silent Christian prayers, a psalm: “Where can I go from the hand of God?”
My other friend, a healer who has devoted his life to the study and nurture of remedies based in plants, lives with both gratitude and resentment that his life is being cut too short. He struggles with any faith that requires an almost total loss of control. And yet he has given so much to the world, he is surrounded by the accumulation of thousands of souls and bodies he has freed from suffering. Richard Rohr’s simple definition of suffering is not being in control. Somehow his wait and watch works its way through the cancer that takes claim of his body, he will suffer much and my prayer is that he will fall into the arms of the holy. I suspect his Holy One is the good earth he has tended with such brilliant care these many years. We will all fall into the sweet arms of the ground.
Where can I go from the love of God? The question to me is nowhere and everywhere. It depends on my availability. I sit and read the lessons for this Sunday to come. I am at once far away and near. My own brain still pulls at me, makes argument, wrestles with suffering and with my paltry ball-point pen as it tries to make sense of my friend’s sense of betrayal and loss of his functions. I have no answer. Together we walk the wait and watch without simple answers, all we have are the prayers I say under my breath so as not to annoy him with anything that sounds too religious or sentimental. I reach out and take his hand. “ Thank you dear man for giving your life to the art of healing.” It is enough, I think, to give yourself totally to what you love. Your life is a blessing to the earth.
On Thursday: The child leads me to marvel: sight and sound become for her and through her to me a new creation. She invites me to see again with new eyes, a new heart. She sees without words or constructs or ideas for the first time. I catch myself when I am too quick to name everything she touches and sees and tastes and hears and feels as if words can ever replace the first touch of a leaf, the first taste of milk from her mother, the first sight of a creature in flight, the texture of my beard, the wind in her ears, the sun in her eyes, the blessings of sleep and rest.
And so we sing to her, her grandmother and I, lullabies, the one I once sang to children in Philadelphia who were born with AIDS. “If I could give you three things I would give you these: songs and laugher and a wooden home on the shining seas. When you see old Isle La Haut arising in the dawn, you will play in yellow fields in the morning sun…”**Gordon Bok
And there is a sweet sadness to the wait and watch. I delight in the child who awakens me to wonder, and brings me to imagine what the next step will be for my friends and me as we make the journey from this life to the next. For now it is best to be here and alive and be a witness to the presence of wonder as she arrives each new day, fresh, awake and new born.
From A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
These are two stories; the first is an old tale that is radically edited from Leo Tolstoy. Absolution requested. The second is some reflections of another nature on Matthew 25, the final judgment. If you read to the end you’ll find out what I intend by “goat cheese and starfish”.
Martin The Cobbler
There was a cobbler who lived alone in his shop with one window that looked out on the street. His wife and children had all died and he asked God, “Holy One why have you so long delayed your coming? I have almost given up hope in seeing you. Please come to my humble shop this day and show me your face.”
Outside on the street the cold winter brought snow. Through his window he saw a beggar who shivered in the cold. He invited the beggar into the shop to warm him and offer a meager meal from his shrinking larder. The beggar thanked him and left.
As the day passed, a few customers came with repairs they needed for their shoes and harnesses. A young boy sought shelter from the cold and snow. The child’s feet were wrapped in old dirty rags and stuffed with paper. Into the shop he invited the boy. After making him some warm milk and a sandwich from the little food he had he went to his closet and found a pair of shoes that belonged to his son. He fit the shoes to the boy. Grateful, the boy left with a promise to return to visit him.
It was approaching dusk and the cobbler despaired of a visit from the Lord. A woman with her young babe appeared in front of the window. She was dressed in a thin piece of cloth and she looked as if she might freeze to death. The cobbler invited her into his shop. Wary of the old man, she hesitated at the door, but feeling the warmth within she stepped across the threshold. The cobbler made her some tea and went to his closet to find a heavy woolen cloak that belonged to his wife. Giving her the cloak the woman thanked him and after he shared the rest of his larder with her, she left with the child.
The sun descended and left the cobbler bereft. “Why didn’t you come and visit me today,” the cobbler asked? There was a voice that spoke to him in his humble shop: “But I did come to you. When you invited in the beggar, the boy, and the mother and her child, I was there with you. In each of their faces you looked into my eyes.” Martin then remembered the scripture: “When did you see me hungry and feed me, alone and naked and clothe me and thirsty and you gave me a drink.” The visitors who had come to his shop that day had been his master. In their faces he had looked into the eyes of God.
That night the cobbler slept happy and at peace for the first time in many months.
Now for Goat Cheese and Starfish
Goats are independently minded and unruly and make the most luscious cheese. Sheep are great too, but they tend to be docile and easily herded. Their cheese is good too, but I like goat cheese better.
There has always been an attraction to Matthew’s vision of the final judgment: As William McNamara, the Discalced Carmelite told us: “We know what our final judgment will be.” All we have to do is read Matthew 25. And yet there is something paradoxical to the image. Aren’t they a little too absolute? From foolish virgins and the poor slave who buried his talent and now the goats, isn’t it too simple? We are both sheep and goats. We are sometimes wise and sometimes foolish. We sometimes visit the sick and feed the hungry and love the poor and visit the prisoner and the dying. Some of us even are paid to do this. Sometimes we throw up our hands and fret at the enormity of the problem and do nothing except send a check to help with the Ebola crisis in Liberia.
My friend the Rabbi says we are given freedom to live and do what we can to create life and shepherd the creation and it comes with conditions. You have to follow the covenant: which is summarized in the Hebrew Bible, by the way, to “love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.” We like our freedom and are troubled by her conditions. And yet it’s the very conditions that magnify the freedom. Our true freedom depends on welcoming the poor, the prisoner, the naked, and the sick into the circle of our compassion. And that includes our own goat and sheep selves.
Those who give themselves whole and free to these ministries are the saints. And yet not one of them, including Jesus and the Buddha lived without doubt or under any illusion that all the compassion in the world could solve the problems of injustice, greed, or apathy. Yet they threw themselves fully into life so that we could find a way. It is a paradox.
St Augustine it is told was walking along the beach one day and saw Starfish, thousands on thousands of them, washed ashore. A little girl was running to and fro on the sand and throwing the Starfish back into the water. “Why are you doing that,” Augustine asked the girl? “There are too many to save, it won’t make a difference.” “It will make a difference to this one,” the girl said as she threw another Starfish into the sea.
So we go on loving our goat and our sheep selves and do what we can out of the love of God to transform our freedom into hearts of compassion, and try to make a difference one Starfish or goat at a time.
The sheep already have it made.
Grumpy: Matthew 25: 14-30
There lived a man who was grumpy. He was grumpy from birth. He was a grumpy child, a grumpy father and a grumpy husband. His wife had the patience of a saint. She saw all his gifts, but he couldn’t see them. He had everything and saw nothing. He died grumpy.
When he arrived in heaven he was shown to a room filled with beautifully wrapped boxes. The boxes were covered in tapestried paper and ribbons with bows and little trinkets on the outside to suggest what there might be wrapped inside the packages.
“What are these boxes,” asked the man grumpily?
The reply was: “These are all the gifts we sent to you while you were alive on earth and you never opened.” * I don’t know the origin of this story. The beginning was suggested by Joshua Chasan, Rabbi at Ohavi Zedek in Burlington, VT
Either I’m grumpy or we’re dealing with a grumpy part of the Gospel. This ain’t no God in heaven story from Matthew this week. This is one about an arbitrary and manipulative slave owner. He lends money to test his slaves. Two of them are unafraid enough to invest their talents and one does not. He buries his. In the end they remain slaves and none of them get to keep any of the profits. One is cast into the outer darkness; the other two are given more responsibility to make more money for the slave owner. The first two take the opportunity to test their talents and creativity, the later doesn’t.
If Jesus told this story are there layers here? Use your talents, gifts, in spite of the odds that may be against you. Open the gifts that have been given to you whether a slave or free. And yet could there also be an indictment of the economic system that places human beings under such pressure and fear? Finally, what do we do with the fear of the slave master on our way to freedom, to creativity, to God?
I think all of the above and more that I do not now see are true for me. Paul Tillich talks about Europe during the time up to and including Germany in WWII. In “The Courage to Be” he writes, “The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself in spite of being unacceptable.” He talks about the affirmation of life “in spite” of the fearful voices within and without: To speak our “no” to injustice, violence, racial and economic inequality, and not count the cost. And to have enough courage to see through our prejudices and narrow mindedness, to be able to make enough room in our lives for those who make us uncomfortable and downright grumpy.
This is to say that the word and command of Jesus is to Love God, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That word and command is to be lived out in spite of our fear.
At root for all of this is a faith that there is some source out there and within that holds you in spite of the way you may feel or in spite of what takes place around you. You are held by a love and a mystery that will sustain you in spite of everything.
For many of us that Source is Jesus. His mercy flows in spite of how many gifts we refuse. But why not open some of those boxes you’ve got stashed away in the closet or under the bed and try them on?
I remember the wedding of a Liberian couple. The groom, because of work and the slowness of the jeweler, had left to the morning of the wedding the drive into NYC to get the ring and return. It was a hot Saturday; the bride arrived in a white limo and colorful traditional Liberian dress. But the groom was stuck in New York gridlock. The temperature in the 1856 Church rose to the eighties and nineties. Three hours later the groom arrived. The heat in the church was now about 100 degrees. Sweat poured, and the harried groom waited with me as the bride and her entourage walked in grace and regal stateliness down the aisle.
All was forgotten, at least until the bride and groom returned later that day to their room where I can imagine the words were either said or thought, “What were you thinking?”
And yet we all remained, waiting for the delayed bridegroom to show up.
That’s what we do; wait for the bridegroom to show up. We supply water and drink and a snack for the guests and the wedding party, place fans around the church for maximum effect, periodically checking with the bride about the whereabouts of the groom. Thank God for cell phones, and try to stay cool and present.
It worked that day. It doesn’t always. Sometimes we’re the wise virgins, other times we’re the foolish. If I can wait four hours on a hot summer day when temperatures approached the fires of hell, and it was not dry heat, won’t God who is much more forgiving than I, also keep the doors open to those who at least wait with or without oil. It seems to me the only ones who close the door to our virginal hearts, is us.
So dear ones breathe lightly into making quick distinctions between what is wise and what is foolish. Instead let the lamps of your love be filled to overflowing with the holy oil of God’s mercy and grace which never fails.