The Life of Thankfulness

We have recently completed the most acrimonious election season in the past century.  For the better part of a year, our airwaves were inundated with advertisements that suggested both presidential candidates were deplorable.  Incredibly uncharitable things were uttered by representatives of both political parties.  Predictions of national apocalypse were made.  And yet, I am most thankful.

I express my thanks this day not for the outcome of the election (about which our parishioners have differing and heartfelt opinions), but for the fact of it.  I am thankful that we live in a land where I can wake up on a Tuesday morning, drive to the polling station, enjoy the company of friends from across the political spectrum, and cast a ballot.

I am thankful that we live in a nation so blessed that two weeks after the election, in all the relationships that matter (as opposed to the artificial relationships created by television and political pundits), goodwill abides, commerce continues, and peace reigns.

Mostly, I am thankful that we live in a country in which I am able to worship and serve the Lord in good times and in bad.  This year’s Dodson Distinguished Lecturer, Fleming Rutledge, reminds us in a sermon about Thanksgiving:

The life of thankfulness—biblically speaking—is lived in view of the hard things of existence.  As the life of thanksgiving deepens, we discover that the more mature prayers of thanksgiving are not those offered for the obvious blessings, but those spoken in gratitude for obstacles overcome, for insights gained, for lessons learned, for increased humility, for help received in time of need, for strength to persevere, for opportunities to serve others.

As we prepare to observe that most peculiar and anticipated holiday, the one that combines our national life with our gratitude to God, I pray we will remember Fleming’s words.  As Americans and as Christians, we are indeed blessed in times of comfort and in times of challenge.  Let us give thanks to God, from whom all blessings flow!

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The Odd Couple

On November 3, I was honored to speak at the 40th anniversary banquet for Kingdom Life Ministries International, our Kimoyo partner congregation in Northwest Roanoke. Kingdom Life is a charismatic, “full Gospel,” predominantly African-American congregation.  In many ways, our two churches couldn’t be more different.  And yet, we share an identity in Christ.  Below is the transcript of the speech I offered to our brothers and sisters at their celebration:

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Do you remember the old television show “The Odd Couple”?  Felix and Oscar couldn’t be more different.  Each one’s approach to life is a world apart from the other’s.  And yet, they connect with one another at a deep—and dare I say, spiritual—level.  Their friendship is difficult to describe, but anyone who witnesses it can see how genuine and real it is.

Well, you can tell where this is going!  Kingdom Life and St. John’s are a little like the odd couple.  You play drums and electric guitars; we play the pipe organ and light a lot of candles.  You speak in heavenly tongues; we kneel and make the sign of the cross.  You preach for, well, we’ll say a bit longer than we do…but we have Communion every week.

We’re an odd couple.  How did we end up together?  Well, first my predecessor Fr. Tom O’Dell developed a relationship with Fr. Joe Anyindana, before Tom even moved to Roanoke.  Then, St. John’s saint Vera Johnson met the Rev. Kathy O’Keefe at a Hollins seminar.  The two of them had a vision—I’m convinced it must have come from God—that congregations as different as Kingdom Life and St. John’s could engage in shared ministry.  They related this vision to Loraine Alston and Tom O’Dell, and the result was two Habitat for Humanity homes, built by your congregants and mine, side-by-side.

Children in Zebilla, Ghana, the location of KLM’s and St. John’s Kimoyo projects

Eventually, Tom and Kathy jointly led a mission team to Fr. Joe’s village in Ghana.  That, of course, birthed Kimoyo—the “language of the heart”—and that language has abided between Kingdom Life and St. John’s through the years to inspire ministries to children and youth, Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers, your choir singing at St. John’s with Kathy preaching from our pulpit, and your invitation to me to preach at Kingdom Life (which is, I must say, one of the most uplifting and inspiring experiences of my ministry).  Perhaps the greatest testament to our shared lives came on July 10, 2011, when we joined together to remember and commend to God the soul of Joe Anyindana, our friend and a true servant of the Lord.

Yes, there’s no doubt.  We’re an odd couple!  But then, lest we forget, it’s often odd couples through whom God works.  What could be odder than the coupling of God himself and the people Israel?  How about the odd couple of Jesus’ mother Mary and the apostle John leaning on one another at the foot of the cross?  The list goes on: Jacob and Esau, King David and his prophet Nathan.  And odd is surely the word for Peter and Paul, arguing until they’re blue in the face over what to do about the Gentiles.  Oddest of all is that the Lord Jesus would couple himself to the Church, the most awkward and broken collection of human beings ever assembled.

And yet that’s just what Jesus does.  And that’s what Jesus has done, I firmly believe, between the congregations of Kingdom Life and St. John’s.  I tell our story to anyone who will listen, and I hope you do, too.  I tell it at Kiwanis Club; I tell it at clergy gatherings in other states; I tell it to my family in Arkansas.  I’ve told the national Episcopal News Service they need to come down from New York and write a story about us!

We are as different as Peter was from Paul, but our Christian relationship is a witness.  Just think about our current political climate.  The world would claim there is no way under the sun that people as different as you and me could worship the same God, serve the same Lord, and embrace the same Gospel in such diverse ways.  But we do.

The Reverend Doug Bailey came to Roanoke from Wake Forest University a few years ago to facilitate a weekend urban ministry conference.  He asked all the pastors present this question: “If your church disappeared tomorrow, would it matter to anyone other than your own members?”

I hope we can say “yes” for a lot of reasons.  But I know Kingdom Life and St. John’s can say “yes” with regard to our shared relationship.  We are a witness to this valley.  We are a witness to one another.  We are a witness to the truth that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, no black or white, no speakers of tongues or frozen chosen, no Kingdom Life or St. John’s…there are only Christians, servants of God and his son Jesus.  There are only you and us.

I give thanks to God for you on this anniversary of your lives in community.  Every blessing be upon you.

The Saint Who Saved the Baby’s Hands

It’s been forty years since the baby almost lost his hands.  He’d been born in a small country hospital, and at day six he’d developed unexpectedly severe jaundice.  His grandmother had been giving him a bath while his mother tended to his toddler older brother, when the grandmother called out, “This baby’s yella!”  And with that they headed back to the hospital.

Forty years ago there were no take-home glowworm blankets in which to wrap a severely jaundiced baby.  The only protocol was to admit the child and put him under a bilirubin light.  As you might imagine, in a small-town hospital with no pediatric ward, and in the days anyhow before warm colors and kid-friendly scenes, the experience was traumatic for an infant.  To keep the light from mesmerizing the child and thus burning his staring retinas, gauze blinders were placed over his eyes.  And to keep him from incessantly pulling the gauze away, someone created little make-shift pouches of gauze and put them over the baby’s hands like mittens.  The mittens were kept snugly in place by some convenient elastic rubber bands.

For a while the baby kept pawing at the blinders covering his eyes, but then he merely lolled his arms about.  And finally he quit raising his arms at all, as though his hands were too heavy to move.  No one is quite sure how long it was before a new nurse on duty looked askance at the makeshift mittens and removed the rubber bands from the infant’s wrists, but when the mittens were taken off, the newborn’s hands were limp, cold, and very, very blue.

Immediately, the nurse began firmly but carefully massaging the tiny child’s hands.  She spoke soothing words to the baby, though tears of concern welled in the corners of her own eyes.  She cooed and sang and stopped periodically to thump the child’s palm with a finger to see if he had any feeling or reflex.  For a long time—or, at least, for what seemed like a long time—the nurse continued her work.  And then, finally, she was able to tease life back into what had felt like dead, cold tiny lumps of flesh.  The doctor stormed in demanding to know how this had happened, how someone could constrict a child’s hands so.  But while he blustered, the nurse smiled at the baby once more and for a final moment warmed his hands in hers.  And then she left the room, nameless, and, forever to that baby with gauze on his eyes, faceless.  She saved his hands in the course of a day’s work and moved on, perhaps to save someone else’s life.

Me, not long after the incident

I know the story of the six-day-old baby who almost lost his hands because my grandmother told it to me.  She sat in the corner of the room as the melee occurred, as the saintly nurse unbound the child’s hands and massaged them, hope against hope, back to life.  I remember the story, and repeatedly asked my grandmother to tell it to me over the years, because the newborn baby was me.  And when we celebrate the Feast of All Saints–which occurs this week–I cannot help but recall that nurse.

When I was ordained a priest, the story took on even greater poignancy for me.  Each week I stand at the altar of God and raise my outstretched hands in the “orans” position.  It is a position of beckoning and invitation, and it is all about the hands.  I stand before the congregation, and I utter, “Let us join our voices with angels, and archangels, and with all the company of heaven,” and I know this host to include a woman in a country hospital, a saint for a day and perhaps after that for life, who soothed and sang and massaged back to life the very hands I raise.

I am not, usually, among the better of men.  But when I recall that woman, who did not let her own fear well to the surface but soothed my tender fear as she soothed my hands, I hear the angels sing, and in me her saintly light shines warm and bright.

All Saints Sunday is November 4.  Remember this year all the saints in your lives.  Honor them; bless them; pray for them. And let their leaven raise you to lives bright as the sun.