I am not much of a doomsday-prepper. I’d like to be, I watch shows like the Walking Dead and am able to picture myself in a similar situation, in a place where nothing looked the way it did yesterday. I am able to prioritize and to plan, but I’m disorganized in that way, I can hardly keep milk in the fridge, much less hoard empty milk jugs of water in my basement. I am not a great planner.
I see glimpses though, probably you do too, be they via media, or be they real life, signs and whispers on the breeze that speak of change, imminent change. I can prepare myself, prepare my heart, plan just a little, in that gray space where I am in my comfortable bed and the coffee pot is ready for the alarm to ring – I can plan for a minute – because that is usually about all I can take.
Tonight the tent fell again. I felt it start to shake itself free, the hair on the back of my neck, those curls that won’t be contained under a baseball cap, they shivered in the breeze. I felt at home again, not doing a job, not showing up. I was immersed in this business of grilled cheese and tomato soup, laughing with other women and with my own daughters, this work that is (for all the feminist in me fights against it) women’s work. The magical thing that happens when kindred female souls gather in a kitchen and prepare food happened, and its something that I hadn’t realized I’d even missed.
I realized tonight, with folks from another church background and one who didn’t say what her background was, with a woman who came to visit family from Chicago and heard about our kitchen and wanted to help; who brought hand knitted mittens as gifts – I realized that this is what the church is.
Church is a 12 year old who finishes the last load of dishes five minutes before the kitchen closes. It is a man who says, we thought about doing this at our church, and we thought, why not help at St. John’s since they are already set up? A man who said, you can count on us to volunteer. Church is the way the lights in the nave light only the altar and the woman there who sets the table, changing the linens to Advent colors, under the watchful eye of her husband – standing guard in a dark church as the hands of his wife handle these precious things, readying this space for the meal we will all share in just a few days.
Church is an 8 year old who says, give me a job. And then doesn’t want the job she is offered. (Because we adults do that too, don’t we?)
It seems that we struggle and fight against the exodus of folks we perceive as leaving the church. We make phone calls and set up lunches, we market ourselves and we try to attract new people, new families, when maybe all along the people who are leaving aren’t actually leaving. Maybe they just figured it out before we did.
Hang on here, I will try to make sense of this.
Two summers ago my church went camping. They set up tents and some had campers and some rented small cabins in a campground not far from home. On Sunday, as I was at a retreat for deacon school, they had Eucharist in the campground, and I had Eucharist in a conference room. They set up on a picnic table with simple things, necessary things. They sat in camp chairs around the smoldering remains of campfires and there were dogs on leashes and kids being kids, but they were having church. I left fed from a conference room Eucharist with then strangers in the same way that this extended family of mine left fed, still in their pajamas, packing up their tents and their chairs.
I just am saying that we are the church, we the people, are the church. It isn’t the building.
Make no mistake. I have a deep love affair, you could almost call it a torrid love affair, this feeling that comes over me when I enter an old and lovely church, when I gaze at the altar and the brass candlesticks – – But. There is more than that. Isn’t there more than that?
I’ve a feeling that our world is changing friends, spinning backward along the long arc of history. I’ve a feeling that in not too many more decades our world will not be recognizable to those of us who do church now, in our robes, with our fonts and our candles, like the way the world we live in now was not conceivable to those who lived just a century before.
My message to you then, on this Thanksgiving Eve, is that one constant has never changed and that constant is our humanity.
I imagine over and over the way that Moses felt, on that plain, surrounded by the susurations of his people as they set up camp, tended kids and animals, set up tents and started fires, just outside what was their Promised Land. I imagine the way the wind rippled the surface of the water in the cooking pots, the despair of knowing that he could not come too. Do not misunderstand me, there is despair at the thought of what is to come – but there is hope too, because our humanity is not lost.Our humanity still largely involves women basting turkeys and girls setting tables, the satisfaction of another meal served, of the shining eyes of loved ones around a table.
But I am standing here with you, I am hearing the last reverberation of the organ’s Agnus Dei and I am grieving because I know that I cannot go with you. I can help lead you out, but I will die on this plain, surrounded by your still warm fires, in arms reach of the place I have longed for.
God let it be so.
Our humanity still largely involves the shining eyes of loved ones around a table, be it a picnic table or an altar from the early 1900s or a table shrouded in a pressed white cloth in a conference room somewhere in mid-Michigan.
My message to you is that when bread is broken and shared we are church. Be it communion bread or those icky wafers, maybe God can even come among us in the form of a grilled cheese – cooked by a 12 year old, served with tomato soup. The essential elements of a sacrament are there, and so maybe our historic churches and our traditions matter less in the face of that. Maybe, when we look at who we are called to be we see that nowhere are we required to go to an actual church. Maybe this supposed exodus is yet another sign, another lamp post lighting our way in the darkening world around us.
There are people who care. There are people who see what they are called to, who will respect the dignity of every person with their dying breaths. They are at Standing Rock, they are with you in the pews of your churches, in the kitchens where you serve the hungry, most especially in the hungry who gather, seeking the food that is offered at our communal table.
Letting go is hard, I’m not very good at it myself. I say things I don’t mean, I react with anger and sarcasm as I scramble to clench my fists closed — but the same waters that baptized me dribbles out through my fingers and puddles on the floor. I cannot be contained and refuse to be, apparently.
I read a book last night, (I promise to wrap it up here), it was a play called the Soul of the World. And in the book Simeon is questioned on his prophecy, on being a prophet. He said, My mind is full of mist and broken sound. It is not I who speak.
My own mind is full of mist and broken sound, it truly is not I who speaks.
Un-clench your fist. Open your hands. Realize that you cannot contain this magic any more than I can, that the story of humankind is steeped in sacrificial love. Contemplate what it is you are called to give up, and when your heart shies away, when your mind closes its doors – there!
That is the thing.
We are pilgrims together on this road, and I will not pretend for you that any of this easy. I cannot say that I have the answers.
I love you still.
I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept.. and I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful, at midnight, to receive you.