May 12, 2013
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
I am so delighted to be with you this morning, and to share how the Church of the Savior community continues to make new ripples through the Discipleship Year program. I am one of five “new ripples” taking part in the year-long volunteer program, and let me assure you that it has felt more like a tidal wave to this Lutheran from southern Minnesota!
Today I am honored to speak about my experience at Joseph’s House, my placement for the year. Now, I will go ahead and say that I will need a lot of grace from you this morning. I know, how very Lutheran of me to bring up grace within the first minute of a sermon!
I ask for grace knowing that this morning I attempt to use words to share with you things that may be more comprehensible by actually crossing the threshold of the beautiful house on the corner of Ontario & Lanier. Truly, words are often too small of a container, and tempt us to construct an understanding from our heads, rather than opening to receive the truth and mystery with our entire humanity.
Today I share what has been one of my most formative experiences in my life, with profound lessons I am still very much in the middle of, and, admittedly, still learning how to fully receive. And these lessons are some of the most earnest and urgent of my life.
Encountering these lessons has been an unfolding process for me, and all I can do is continue to find ways to cultivate openness that allows me to welcome them fully as they present themselves. So, I invite us to open into this time together with a prayer of welcome, by Mary Mrozowski:
Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I welcome everything that comes to me in this moment
[the rest of this prayer may be found at http://www.camillecaldwell.com/WelcomePrayer.html]
While I entered my time at Joseph’s House with little idea of the challenges and lessons I would encounter, I knew my education from St. Olaf College prepared me to be open to them. St. Olaf is a private liberal arts college affiliated with the Lutheran church, and is located in Southern Minnesota. There is a great deal of Norwegian heritage, meaning I went to school with people like Hal Halvorson, Lars Bergeren, and Solveig Wastvedt. These are real people. There is also a strong presence of music on campus, and one of my most joy-filled experiences was playing cello in the orchestra for four years.
I began my undergrad years on the pre-medicine tract, was quickly “ruined” by my first course in the sociology and anthropology department (and the many more to follow), and eventually I encountered my call in the intersection of public health, ministry, and social justice. I felt my whole self begin to bloom as I explored growing interests in social determinants of health, the balance (or imbalance) of biological and social systems, the meaning of community, and the meaning of healing.
I had mentors among the faculty that helped me explore intellectual topics and cross-cutting social issues with humility and compassion. They encouraged the cultivation of my insatiable curiosity for things beyond my understanding, and the courage and conviction to continue to engage with issues and people well outside my realm of comfort and knowing.
So it was this lesson of welcoming, if you will, that I carried with me as I crossed over the threshold of Joseph’s House on my first day back in September. I soon realized that there were several new thresholds I had to cross, both in hearts of others and deep within my own.
It is now that I ask for grace, as I welcome you over the threshold of my heart space this morning, a space that is expanding in its capacity to love and to heal this year in ways I never anticipated.
Allow me to begin with the scripture I chose for today. It may have been obvious that it didn’t come from the scheduled lectionary, as the story of Joseph and Mary is often a focus during much colder, and in MN, much colder and snowier months. Again, I invite you to receive the words from Matthew 1:18-19:
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
Here ends the reading. If this ending seems abrupt to you, you’re right- it absolutely is! But for whatever reason, when I read these verses back in December, this is where I stopped, and I saw them in a way I had never considered before. Perhaps in light of my first few months at Joseph’s House where there is such mindfulness towards presence, this moment in the Gospel struck me as yet another opportunity to practice meeting another in the moment, and not jump ahead to what I anticipate is about to happen. So I ask us this morning to stay with Joseph precisely where he’s at in this particular moment.
What could you imagine is coming up in the heart of Joseph? In his mind? What would come up in your own? Admittedly we can’t fully know, and I’m not about to psychoanalyze Joseph, but we can make guesses based on our knowledge of the social context within which Mary and Joseph lived. Joseph has just discovered that Mary is pregnant with a child he knows he did not father. Based on the laws and traditions of their society, she could be publically shamed and both could be subject to judgment and stigma. And really, as her husband, Joseph could have even stoned her. We get a glimpse into Joseph’s heart when reading of his mercy towards Mary as he is “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.” So, yeah, Joseph is a good guy. And yet, we see his mind making the decision to dismiss her based on the social consequences he could face. Joseph is ready to abandon Mary in perhaps one of the most vulnerable moments of her life, and the most uncertain of his own.
Perhaps I’m given pause because I am struck by the humanness of Joseph in this moment. What do we do when we face uncertainty and things beyond our control? Do we too have the impulse to run from, to quiet, or send mystery away? Are we tempted to cling all the harder to the security of our own reason, or to give in to the ideals of popular society? Let me, for my part, confess yes, and also share with you the profound lessons I’ve learned when I’ve chosen not to dismiss, but to welcome, and stay.
Trayshawn came to Joseph’s House at the end of November. She would be the first female resident since I began. It’s been fascinating to observe how the atmosphere of the house shifts with each new resident. We were all curious and a little giddy to see what it would be like to have a little more estrogen in the air. Or a lot.
I met Trayshawn right as her ambulance pulled into our back alley. I helped her get situated in bed and filled her closet with stylish clothes, long jackets, and achingly high heels. This was a woman who defined glamour.
One of the many things I loved about Trayshawn from the beginning was her vivacious spirit and sense of humor. In those first months as I navigated all the newness in my role as a resident care aide, she taught me to laugh at and be gentler towards myself. She accepted me just as I was, and that was so freeing for me. For example, we laughed so hard on the drive to her dentist appointment as I attempted to make it through crazy DC traffic in the Joseph’s House minivan. We finally made it home, but realized I still needed to parallel park on a one-way street. As we say in Minnesota, “Uff da.” Trayshawn was also the first shower I assisted a resident with…let me just say that we both ended up doused in water and fits of laughter. I looked forward to being greeted by her kindness each morning with a “hey Miss Amy! How are you doing today, lady?” And I left each night with her loving care as she gave me a hug and told me to be safe on my walk home.
One night after dinner, the two of us stayed in the living room and ended up talking for over an hour. I sat with her and listened as she allowed me into her whole self behind layers of labels, assumptions, and judgment placed on her by society. And these were many. Trayshawn was living with (and then, actually dying from) AIDS. She was an immigrant. A stroke she suffered several months before left her with impaired speech, making her difficult to understand much of the time. And, Trayshawn was trans-female.
I was surprised how normal it was to talk about, for example, her penis during staff meetings when she was suffering from a urinary tract infection. I was even more touched by how quickly and fully Trayshawn opened to me as she shared in tears much of the deep heartaches of her life. I realized that I had no words, no reasoning or explanation to offer her that seemed adequate. There was no medication I could retrieve from the nurses’ office for her pain, the deep pain of having one’s humanity diminished by being isolated from society. But what I did have were ears to listen with compassion, and a hand to hold with the assurance that I was staying with her.
In what ended up being the last week of her life, Trayshawn became confined to her bed, her pain, dizziness, and nausea too much to handle. I sat up with her on the edge of her bed, supporting her as she choked down her meds, and holding her as she shook and vomited into a bucket. Laying back down exhausted, she looked at me and said “I don’t like this at all, Amy. I’m so tired of it.”
As said by one of our current residents last week, “I can shower every morning and put on a nice skirt, but I can’t dress up pain.” Trayshawn, a beautiful, glamorous woman to any passerby on the street, was I think able to find healing at Joseph’s House by being able to share her whole self, even the parts society strips of beauty, knowing that someone would choose to stay with her through whatever lay ahead.
We hold one another a lot and in different ways at Joseph’s House. When I would slip my hand into Ernestine’s, rub Edna’s back, massage Carl’s temples…Even if no words were spoken, we met one another in this moment of hospitality that said: “you are welcomed as you are. You are loved. I am staying with you through whatever you go through. You will not be abandoned.”
It is here again that I meet Joseph. He could have abandoned Mary, but did something quite radical instead; Joseph stayed. After a visit from one of God’s messengers, Joseph hears and responds to the Call of God to accompany Mary on a journey beyond both of their understanding. Joseph abides by the law of God to accompany, not the law of society that would have him abandon and shun her. I just think it’s so magnificent that Christ the healer entered our world in the midst of this beautifully vulnerable companionship of Mary and Joseph. The word of God is delivered, and we know that word is Love. We’re all called to love, and to truly learn how, we must answer God’s call to welcome one another, especially those most isolated in our current society.
It has been five full months since Trayshawn’s passing, and I have continued to live with magnificent love and loss. Meanwhile, the lessons from “staying with” have taken root and deepened in all aspects of my life. With Trayshawn, I learned about staying with others. But I have also learned about the importance of learning to stay with, and not abandon, myself. And, to stay with one another as members of a community.
I have realized that in this year I am called not only to heal, but to be healed myself. And that healing comes through the practice of self-presence and self-compassion. The society we live in doesn’t make this easy, as “staying with self” can be viewed with contempt, or ridiculed as selfishness. If we are honest with ourselves, however, isn’t the aversion largely due to the fear of the brokenness we might find, the uncertain, the unfamiliar, the emotions so intense that we may not know how or if we can handle them?
I certainly have encountered a great deal of brokenness this year, but have found deep healing within it. Right around the time of Trayshawn’s passing I received the devastating news that one of my friends from college had died tragically in a car accident near his home in Tennessee. I was in complete shock, and felt my mind and body go weak and numb. Then, the grief became very real, and I was amazed of how physically I felt it. My lungs, chest, stomach, head, and whole body felt like it was in a vice, surrounded by this invisible and increasing pressure that began to feel suffocating.
One morning as I walked to Joseph’s House, my mind went back to my first days when I was sitting with Dewey, a man who passed away shortly after I arrived. While sitting vigil with him as he was actively dying, one of our nurses, Ann, entered the room to check in on us. She asked how I was doing, and encouraged me to pay attention to how it felt to sit with Dewey in his suffering, and where I felt it. So on my walk that morning with Ann’s words lingering in my mind, I paid attention once again to how I was feeling the shock and grief of Tyler’s death. Something astonishing happened, and I remember stopping on the sidewalk as the realization hit me: “Maybe,” I wondered, “Maybe this is what it feels like to be held. Maybe what I’ve been feeling has actually been an embrace.” Right then, my physical experience of grief transformed into an equally physical experience of divine comfort. I felt Tyler’s loss strongly, but felt held in the midst of it.
It can be so easy to numb ourselves to grief, confusion, uncertainty, vulnerability…to run away from the intensity of feeling, or to “quietly dismiss” the fear of facing something where we have little control, as Joseph nearly did with Mary. Yet, we must honor God’s Call to stay with, and not abandon, ourselves just as much as we are Called to do so with others.
In welcoming, as Mary Mrozwoski encourages, all emotions, persons, and situations, I encounter things that are new, unclear, and that even remind me of my own brokenness. Yet when I choose not to cling to my own way of knowing, and let go in giving it over to God, I also find myself open to receive a love that is higher, longer, wider, and deeper than I ever imagined.
Part of our practice of mindfulness at Joseph’s House encourages us to be present to ourselves so that ultimately we can be more present to others, especially in their suffering. I’ve learned that letting go of my need to control is equally crucial in healing on the community level as it is on the individual level. I came to DC with a firm belief in the healing power of cultivating community, and have seen its truth lived out at Joseph’s House again and again over the past eight months.
As we welcome new residents at the house and say goodbye to ones we’ve grown to love, I am always amazed at how quickly the atmosphere of the house shifts. Or even if it’s the same house of residents, their state of health can be so fragile that it can change over a few short hours. In this dynamic environment, to stay with a resident means to commit to being present with them in each moment, letting go of past interactions or emotions tied to how we anticipate them to be.
We take care to welcome each new resident during our weekly community meetings, and someone always offers the wish that the resident may find the comfort and support to be whatever it is he most wants to be in the house. Sometimes it takes awhile for that part to show itself beyond the layers of physical or emotional suffering, layers acquired over years of feeling unloved and unsafe as a social pariah. This can come out through hostile words, refusal to participate in community gatherings, refusal of meds, or cold, painful rejection. But we as care givers are Called to stay, especially in times like these when we feel helpless and maybe even judgmental. Gradually, and sometimes after some pain or frustration, we remember to let go and let God, and learn again how to practice unconditional love.
Take meal times as an example. One resident may lead us in boisterous conversation, while another sits down, eats, and leaves without a word. A resident may spend all afternoon preparing for us his specialty of fried fish, while another refuses to eat it, knowing she can’t keep food down with her new pill regimen. Welcoming all to the table is a simple gesture to show that each belongs as they are to community. Each mealtime is always different, and yet another opportunity to practice presence as we let go of any expectation for the gathering based on ones we’ve had in the past. Literally and metaphorically, welcoming all to the table broadens our understanding of the capacity of God’s Kingdom on earth, as our understanding of the height, depth, length, width of love explodes to a greatness we never before imagined.
Over and over again I recognize that the healing component of community, that feeling that everyone talks about getting the first time they walk through the front door of Joseph’s House, is God’s grace. God acknowledges our imperfections, our brokenness, our awkwardness, fears, joys, sorrows, and that beautiful part of ourselves that wants to be known but doesn’t quite know how…. Through grace, God sees us fully, and stays. So how can we all make space for grace? Surely I’m still figuring that out, even as a Lutheran. But what I have learned so far is of the healing found in vulnerability, from holding others and ourselves with compassion, and from our determination to see beauty in all situations, even in woundedness, even in dying. In all of these, the grace of God dwells.
Practicing a life of welcome this year has been so transformative for me. It is a deeply spiritual practice, and I continue to learn how to cultivate hospitality within the walls of Joseph’s House, and the walls within my heart. This is allowing my living to open me so I may more courageously, more vulnerably, and more joyfully share my heart-space with others and with things beyond my own understanding. And in that space, I find God, I find grace, I find healing.
It moves me that I have learned so much about hospitality this year from people who were, at least for some time in their life, homeless. It moves me that I have learned of the height, depth, length, and width of God’s love from those to whom love has so often been denied. And I want to live my life in a way that honors Trayshawn, Carl, Eric, James, Edna, Ernestine, Shana, Anna, Curtis, Roy, Dewey, Hawk, Tony, Flaud, Brenda, Levon, Joey, Kathy, and Thomas, all who have shared their heart space with me and helped me understand how to welcome, how to love, how to let go, and how to heal.