Too Long

“It’s been too long since I’ve had a conversation like this,” he said.

It was one of those cold gray days that would be miserable come February but that in November still carried a sort of crisp promise of the impending Christmas season.  The perfect sort of day for long conversations over cups of espresso. We settled in accordingly, curling up on sofas and armchairs, nibbling on sweet-spicy, cinnamon candied almonds.

We knew one another well or barely at all.  The guys had been friends for a long time. She and I had as well, though our friendship was recently renewed after years apart. I’d met the others  just this weekend.

But this morning we’d shared bread and wine in the bare sanctuary of the little Evangelical church, and this afternoon we’d shared bread and wine (and pasta and soup and home-made tiramisu) in the cheerful sanctuary of the homey kitchen.  And shared worship and shared family time make for quick familiarity even with the barrier of a foreign tongue.

Now, with our hosts busy about their afternoon business, the other young people spoke English for my sake.  I envied their easy fluency in two languages, but was thankful not to be straining my ears and my memory to follow Italian.  In English, our conversation could range from the church service to our travels, from plans to anxieties.  We discussed loneliness and the desire for belonging as comfortably as we speculated over international population density and the materials of home-architecture in different parts of the world.  Ideas and opinions about music and art and literature, philosophy and government and theology, all flowing into one another through that near-mystical association that sometimes arises so spontaneously in the “right” mix of personalities.

And in the conversation I was happy.  But the joy was edged with sorrow, with a knowledge that we all live so far apart, that this perfect fellowship between the four of us would last only a few hours, would probably never exist again.  There is something, in such moments, that highlights the loneliness of so many other moments, moments of being alone, or worse, not alone but still outside.

But then, “It’s been too long since I’ve had a conversation like this,” he said, and I saw that the others were thinking the same.

And I realized, the pain of the joy also is shared. Here, at least, I was not being admitted into a world of fellowship that was common to the others. I was not the only one who felt more often out than in. And somehow that made the loneliness less lonely.  It had been too long. It would be too long again.  But it would not be forever.

For each of us there would be other moments, in other places, with other people where we would again think “it’s been too long.” We can’t hold on here to that easy feeling of belonging, but someday we’ll know it again.  And for this afternoon, at least, that hope is enough.


The Feast II

The lines of the church are long and clean. There are bare walls, and simple straight benches. Apart from strings of colorful triangular flags that crisscross above our heads, the only complex forms in the entire building are the people. At the front stands a tall, thin man in clerical robes. Though I do not understand most of his words, the rhythms of his speech sound familiarly pastoral. I follow along with the order of service, the Book of Common Prayer. Even though these vernacular prayers are not in my “mother tongue,” I can pick out parts simply from their form: the creed, the Lord’s prayer. Bwana, I know, is Lord, and it punctuates sentences as much in Swahili as it does in English.

The place and the worship seem very familiar and yet I know that the church–like the city in which it sits–is filled with lifetimes of experiences and words that are, at least for now, veiled from any real understanding on my part. I have heard (parts of) the stories of (some of) the people sitting here beside me, and my privileged access to education, health care, and safe roads hangs uncomfortably close to me.

But then the service moves to a meal. The bread and wine we are about to eat and drink have been taken, received, consumed, by each of us before and by so many others. It is not too mystical, perhaps, to think we are all reaching forward now to take it, separated by miles and centuries and oceans. There is a prayer of gratitude, in words I don’t understand, but from hearts I do. And a man in the chill of an Italian winter, with sandals on his feet and the threat of death in the air outside, prays. The music begins. The tune is Nothing but the Blood–the words I can only guess, their echoes in English are inside my head and sometimes slipping from my lips. A woman, living and breathing in the hot grime of nineteenth century Philadelphia, hears the claim “as white as snow” as she prepares for her turn to receive. At the front, we kneel, hands cupped. Two English men, one at a table, the other an altar, receive with joy. The voice I don’t understand tells me, I know, that this is Christ’s body, broken for me. In Mexico, in the midst of the chaos of revolution, a thin girl drinks, knowing this is Christ’s blood, shed for her. Next to me, a friend of my sister, her beautiful face full of faith, rises, knowing she is forgiven.

We are loved, and so we love. We are drawn into a union so complete–despite the fact that almost all of the accidental elements of our lives are so different–that this union is the inviolable integrity of one body. This is the love story of the church.

Another Family

It is not the nicest drive on a dark winter night, dark even before you leave the office. The canyon is pleasant enough in the fading twilight. But then comes the freeway,  slow crawl amongst headlights and taillights  – loneliness exacerbated by the abstract crowd around you. Then the busy city street through the San Fernando Valley which certainly doesn’t look like its going anywhere you’d want to go: past a low, square building selling tombstones and masonry, bright neon lights of fast-food restaurants and corner liquor stores, a strip club on the right advertising discount lap dances.

Once off the busy street you find yourself in a dark neighborhood with bland mid-century houses: utilitarian, unimpressive. A couple rights and lefts more and you pull up in front of a house that you recognized even on the first visit. This one is set apart from the others by attention and love – welcoming landscaping, bright light pouring through the frosted glass ichthys (ichthyses? ichthyss?)  in the wood-framed front door.  You ring the doorbell and then there is an open door and open arms and a welcome home in the darkness of winter.

It is their home, but as long as you are here it is your home and this time of year – and this time of life – it is nice to find home wherever possible.  It is a good home to find when you come on your own to talk about life, when you need to be comforted or corrected. And it’s also a good home to find when you come along with the rest of the family and you don’t need anything in particular except love.

On that sort of a night there is laughter and chatter and rich Cuban accents. The daughters and sons-in-law ask about your work and your family in genuine effort to know you better. The grandchildren are happy to have a new playmate, a new ear for their stories, a new seat-mate at supper.

The meal is loud and full of laughter as the daughters tell stories on their mother, interrupting each other with details and she laughs at herself along with the rest.  The older of the grandchildren listens with increasing skepticism as her grandpa tells a story. Even if a grandfather is a priest, you still can’t believe his tall tales. And you grin at him and say “she knows who to trust in this family” and he laughs “She knows to trust no one in this family” and she says “uh huh! Grandma!”

And with desert there is a frosting fight between the uncle and the five-year-old and she comes to show you the smear of sugar on her nose, dimples deepening when you pretend like you’re going to lick it off for her

These  friendships are still new, and you are a little surprised at your own comfort. You’ve heard before and said before, that the church is a family; words like “brother” and “sister” tossed around until they seem trite.  But tonight, almost for the first time, that doesn’t feel like an idea or an analogy.  Tonight it seems like mystery and reality.

Behind the reality of fellowship and the joy of laughter, all the stresses of life remain, different for each but real for all (except, perhaps, the five-year-old).  Being together doesn’t make them go away, but it is good not to bear them all alone.  And as you say goodbye after dinner, you thank them and you thank God that, for tonight, your sorrows and joys were welcomed into the mix.

The Voice

link to part 1

Every Sunday they pray. This is not unusual for a church. What may be more unusual is the generous and unwieldy time to voice specific needs beforehand. The requests are short: “There was a bad accident on the 219 this morning. They had it shut down. We should pray.” Or ongoing, a battle with cancer. Sometimes the story is longer, more complex, or told with choked tears. The voices range from the pastor’s wife to those of the children who are don’t realize that this is an odd practice in a public service to those who, though nervous, are driven by a need for help. Each one is carefully recorded in a book and will be remembered at a prayer meeting later in the week.

After everyone has been heard, the congregation moves together, joining hands across the aisles. There is no drawing back, no sitting quietly removed.

The pastor is a tall, thin man in his eighties. Though the congregation may wear jeans or even sweats or camo, he is always in a suit. It is held to his bent frame with suspenders, always giving the impression his proportions defy the best efforts of a belt. His hands over the years have twisted like the branches of a bristlecone pine, a realized metaphor for time and wisdom. His voice can be quite soft. And of late he sits to converse with people after the service, preaching having drained his lessening stores of energy.

Yet, as he firmly grasps the hands of the two men next to him, his voice rings out at the end of the prayer, needing no microphone. “Our Father…”

Without prompting, the others join in, but it is his baritone guiding the many. The conviction of decades of faith resounds through the words: “thy will be done.”

The Feast

Often she finds going to her parents’ rural church an exercise in extreme self-consciousness. She feels herself a poorly constructed appendage of her familiar family, showing up for holidays and occasional longer trips, but having been gone for far too long really. After the service, everyone gathers for coffee and baked treats. Here are the kind, inquiring faces from childhood, who assume things about a life in a city, about jobs. Another explanation that, yes, she was still in school seems almost unbearable. There is the embarrassment of trying to justify obscure study in a blue-collar world.

And yet, such discomfort seems self-involved, even in the moment. The “Sister” who hugs her and casually mentions (as she has for the last decade) what her grandson is up to, has known her for her whole life and genuinely means the set cultural phrases of greeting: “It’s good to see you.”

There is an old phrase for this still common practice of eating together after gathering for worship: a love feast. Here is it is humbly translated into mediocre church coffee and pretty good brownies or coconut bars. There is the buzz of voices, male and female, darting children, routine conversation about the week ahead, and sometimes continued prayers or tears.

And just before, in the adjoining room, there has been another meal, one that joined them all together past the awkwardness and the routine chit-chat. They had each gone to the front, one by one, and eaten and drank of that mysterious food, which presented in tangible form the highest love. And each face, some tired, some much worn by the world, some youthful and innocent, had encountered that love. It reached down into the despair of addiction, the pain and terror of abuse, the isolation of arrogance, and all of this ordinary, sometimes unpresentable humanity.

The words spoken, so familiar, so radical, recall a broken body and spilt blood. Which made communion between all these many people.

The Perfect Bond of Unity

The sermon began with the text, “Let not your hearts be troubled, you believe in God – believe also in me.”  But we never heard the sermon and there was not a heart in the church that morning that was not troubled as we waited, straining to catch the sound of sirens.

A small group had gathered around the man in distress, striving to make him comfortable, to loosen his shirt and collar; vague, helpless responses from people who know nothing about medicine.

Others sat in the pews with bent heads, or knelt to pray.  But what to pray when you don’t know what’s happening?  I heard the whispered, pleading repetitions, “Lord have mercy.  Oh God, protect, send help quickly, Lord, have mercy, Lord Christ have mercy.”

And above the whispered, non-medical advice and the whispered, inarticulate prayer, the soft crying of his wife, frightened as any woman would be, too upset in the moment to help or to pray.  Another woman drew her aside, and a number of others gathered to comfort her.  I joined the circle, reaching out with the other women, a little shyly, to lay my hand on her arms in comfort and prayer.  You are not alone.  We are here.  He is here.

But hands are not words, and there seemed no words of comfort in that moment.  We, too, whispered halting prayers for mercy and grace and comfort, requests that seemed both necessary and insufficient.

The woman who had embraced her first was Nigerian. She prayed softly, fervently, smoothly, her sweetly accented voice steady through the halting whispers of the other women.  After a moment, I realized she was praying in tongues.  I am not charismatic, and am, in general, skeptical of the miraculous gifts when manifest.  But in that moment, there was strength and comfort in her prayer.  It was a moment for groanings too deep for words.  I could pray only “grant us your peace” but her gentle prayer expressed and conveyed the peace.  And wrapped in the strength of her arms, and the strength of her prayers, the sobs of the frightened woman calmed and then ceased.

Then finally the sound of sirens, and the soothing questions of medical professionals, and gentle hands helping him to the gurney and the growing confidence that the emergency was ended, that he would be okay.  And his wife and the pastor’s wife and a deaconess followed the ambulance to the hospital and the rest of us returned to the service, the sermon abandoned completely in favor of extended prayer and the quiet familiarity of liturgy.  A subdued service, joy and sorrow mingled together with fear and gratitude and, most of all, a deep, quiet awareness of love, that grace to the troubled heart.