Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving Journal

I’ve already blogged about my Thanksgiving thoughts and why I wanted to do it differently this year. Indeed, I did. But it took me a few days to dwell with my thoughts before I could blog about it. Finally, four days after the event, I am ready to talk about it. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful.

This will be long and meandering. Feel free to skip over it.

I did spend my Thanksgiving serving people here at the Salvation Army. For all the reasons I’ve written already, I didn’t visit my sister and her family, nor did I opt to spend the day alone. And you’ll recall that our Episcopal parish has chosen to partner with the Salvation Army in the coming year – never mind our vast differences.

The day was a great blessing. I intend to do this again. We all know St. Frances’ prayer that “It is in giving that we receive.” Thursday, I experienced it, rather than just saying the words.

I must first say that Salvation Army here could do a better job of dispatching and organizing its volunteers. There were too many volunteers who didn’t have assignments. That’s unfortunate, and they need to fix it. The only thing worse than having a shortage of personnel is having too many with no assignments. But that’s for them to fix.

Now, remember what I have written before: In this town of 40,000, we do not see that we have a “homeless” problem. In this middle-class town, severe poverty is invisible to us.


I arrived at the Salvation Army about 9 a.m., as their staff had suggested. I signed-in and got my name tag. There were about 50 people sitting around the dining room … all volunteers waiting for work. I could see many people working hard in the kitchen.

I asked for assignment. I was told to join the “task-less” volunteers … or move into another room where they were organizing meal deliveries. Not being one who likes to sit, I went to the delivery area.


I didn’t realize that the Salvation Army also delivers meals. The staging area for this work was inefficient. I’ll spare you the details, and cut to the chase: I got to deliver meals to two families. They could not have been more different.

The first delivery: I knocked and knocked on an apartment door, with no answer. Just before I was about to give up, a man came out from the adjacent apartment, greeted me with a hearty “God bless you!” and popped back inside to find the woman whose name I had. We had a fine exchange. Graceful. Mutual. I left feeling blessed.

Then on to my 2nd delivery. Again, knock-knock-knocking on the door, eventually wondering if anyone would answer. Finally someone did – a young teen. He hollered for the woman while he closed the door on me. She finally came to the door. All full of Thanksgiving cheer and God’s blessings, I happily passed the meals along to her. But another part of me recoiled. This woman looked seriously drugged-out, strung-out, and hopeless. She was a walking skeleton. And she seemed perplexed that I had appeared on her doorstep with food. My heart broke for her on that Thanksgiving Day.

Later, when I returned to the Salvation Army, they explained that sometimes mothers or grandmothers ask for meals to be delivered to their daughters and granddaughters.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget that contrast. Clearly, the first family had requested meals, and they blessed me. But that 2nd home will haunt me – a too-young mother in a miserable home with miserable hopelessness in her eyes. It is her eyes that will haunt me.


I knew the Salvation Army didn’t plan to serve meals until 11:30, and I had finished my rounds. At this point, I was feeling about as useless as tits on a boar.
I went to Starbuck’s – God help me! – for a double tall latte. I hadn’t had good coffee yet, and I was feeling useless.

Back to Salvation Army
I went back, of course. When I returned, there were a great many volunteers standing and sitting around with nothing to do.

Among the volunteers were many families – Mom, Dad, and children. Several of them had been doing this for several years. The parents were teaching their children that this was an important ministry. That impressed me.

The Salvation Army rep greeted us warmly, talked about the importance of our ministry, talked about the importance of our spending time with the people, talked and talked. But I was lurking on the outskirts of the volunteers, asking all of them exactly what we were supposed to do and how we supposed to do it. I wanted to know the logistics – which I did not know – so that I could provide the ministry, which I probably could figure out. But none of my compatriots had served before. They were as clueless as I.

When the Salvation Army rep finished her encouraging remarks, I sidled up beside her, and asked timidly, “That’s all well and good. But what do you want us to DO?”

Many of us were serving in a wholly different venue. We had never been there before. Yes, we understood about ministering to people. But we had no idea about the mundane logistics.

Lesson to Volunteer Coordinators: If you manage to distribute your message and yield a bunch of newbies, please give us tasks!


The next 3 hours are a blur. I found work to do, without any guidance from the Salvation Army staff. One seasoned veteran volunteers shouted: “We need more rolls!” and pointed me toward the rolls, and I dispensed them. Or the seasoned veterans called, “More desserts!” and I cut more pies and cakes.

God help me, I confess I gravitated toward the behind-the-scenes tasks in the kitchen.

Eventually the “A Team” servers rotated off the hot food serving line and I found myself up front. That was my happiest time. Serving food to the people. Not hiding out behind the lines.

At some point early on, I noticed the size of the servings that my compadres were piling on. Every plate had about twice as much as an average person could consume in a meal. Later, I saw that some few people were coming back, asking for a “to-go plate.” Each “meal” we served could have served two. Another “meal” could have served two more. I was glad we had so much food that we could easily afford to be extravagant with it.

The One Encounter

Eventually, the serving line slowed. The Salvation Army had announced they would serve meals until 2:00 p.m. As I was winding-up my service on the line, one last guy came in.

Until then, I had been up to my eyeballs in chores. Now things had slowed down. I had time to leave my post (where I had served dressing and sweet potatoes onto plates), wash my hands, and have some leisure.

After all the flurry of action and do-gooderism, I wandered out into the dining room and sat down with this guy. We chatted a bit. I didn’t reveal to him how close to homeless-and-starving I was a decade ago. That wasn’t my burden to share with him. We just chatted. As he finished his meal, I asked, “Can I fix you another meal to go? We have oodles of food left.” He demurred. I said, “OK. But I’m taking one for myself.” [And I was. The food was very good!] It broke my heart to see his eyes, looking up, down, casting his chances, weighing his pride. And then he said, “OK. Me too.”

With love, I went back to the serving table to load him up with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and corn. The same overstuffed plate I had made for myself a few minutes earlier.

I have written here before about how I want to find a ministry, and how inept I feel.

This one exchange with this one man made my day.

It’s the luck of the draw that I had leisure to serve this meal. Not many years ago, I was near homeless myself. Had it not been for generous friends, I would have been homeless and hungry … just like the folks we served Thursday.


Many of the folks with whomI served Thursday have been doing this for several years. Now, I understand why., I expect I, too, will do it again.

It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.

But I bet no one will understand that I received much more than I gave last Thursday.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Episcopal Organs

Episcopal organs have been much in the news lately, and I am glad.

The latest story is here. It focuses on the parish that is my home away from home, Trinity in the Central West End of St. Louis.

They have a marvelous organ, which has caught the attention of the St. Louis newspaper. I have heard this organ, and say a hearty Amen! to the columnist.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bishop Smith on Mission

I am grateful to my Bishop, Wayne Smith, for his leadership, his vision, and who he is. I have spent many pixels trying to explain why our relationship with the Diocese of Lui (Sudan) matters. But Bishop Smith nails it here!

He published an article in the November/December issue of Seek, which I commend to all of you. I'm reprinting it here. But go to Seek for all the photos that accompany his essay.

This Practice of Mission

This November, two missioners from the Blackmore Vale Deanery in Salisbury, U.K., will join nine missioners from Missouri as we travel to Lui Diocese. We depart St. Louis the day after Diocesan Convention, and I am trying to remain calm in the face of countless details that a convention and a mission trip both require.

The Diocese of Salisbury, in the Church of England, has been in relationship with the entire Episcopal Church of Sudan for thirty-six years. In fact, when Salisbury began a partnership with Sudan, there was a single diocese encompassing the whole country. Now there are twenty-eight dioceses in a rapidly growing Sudanese Church. Salisbury’s long experience with Sudan will no doubt enrich Missouri’s own partnership with Lui. There are nineteen deaneries in the Diocese of Salisbury; Blackmore Vale seeks to focus its own mission with Lui, where there is certainly enough work for everybody who wants to join in. Would that more of God’s people would join in! It is obvious to me that a third Anglican partner could strengthen the bonds of communion during a season when these bonds are under a lot of stress.

It has been said that mission is to the life of the Church as flame is to the life of a fire. Without the flame, there is no fire. We cannot dissect one from the other. How would we describe a fire without a flame? So it is with Church and mission.

The very practice of mission produces more energy than it consumes. This seems counter-intuitive but data show that churches engaged in mission have a more robust spirituality, are more engaged in worship, are more adept in welcoming new people, and are more likely to be in good health. This formula works for large churches and small, and it is quantifiable. Mission enhances spirituality and learning, which in turn enhance worship, which in turn makes the community both more authentic and inviting, which in turn gives the community the courage to engage in mission.

Lui Diocese cannot be the only venue for the work of mission in our own Diocese. And let me be clear that only a few handfuls of Missourians will ever have the privilege—and the challenge—of journeying to Sudan. It is a long and expensive journey and living conditions there are physically demanding on Westerners. But it is well worth doing.

Our friends and colleagues in Lui cherish the time we spend there with them, so much so that it is humbling. They had felt very much alone, forgotten, and cut off from Christian friendship during twenty-one years of war (ending in 2005). They never fail to express gratitude to God that we have come to stand with them.

Whatever little bit of material aid we can contribute to development leverages great change for good. The wells we have helped to drill in Lui Diocese have increased the quality of life, increased it beyond my own ability to imagine. The Moru people (the name of the tribe living in Lui) are more than eager to learn—education having been nearly impossible during the war—and any expertise we might share is gratefully received. It needs not be profound expertise to make a difference, and education is a focus for our November trip.

The exchange of Christian faith between two vastly different cultures helps both to hear the gospel more clearly. It always seems to me that Missourians are the greater beneficiaries in this economy of grace.

It is clear to me that no one can go to Sudan without being changed. Every missioner I have known makes this clear. But mission of any sort works the same way with us. Herein lies the great grace for the missioner, and for the church who engages in mission, it changes us. It transforms us. It converts us. And for this reason I yearn for every believer to have the chance for hands-on mission, far off or near—or both.

The greater missional value for our partnership with Lui and, potentially, with Blackmore Vale, does not end with whatever good we might accomplish in Sudan. Such practice in mission will open our eyes to what is perhaps more difficult to see, the need and possibility for engaging in mission right here in Missouri. Are we so accustomed to what we see in our own neighborhoods that we fail to take notice?

The work of mission for Missouri Episcopalians is not just in Lui. It is in Lui and St. Louis City. Or it is in Lui and in the Bootheel. Or it is in Lui and in the Ozarks. Or it is in Lui and in the locale of wherever you live and worship.

Work that is far off and stark, but full of joy, can open our eyes to see possibilities at home—possibilities which may be stark but also brimming over with the likelihood of joy.

The Rt. Rev. George Wayne Smith
Tenth Bishop of Missouri

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving in a Different Key

As part of the Stewardship Campaign this year, the leaders of our parish decided to focus on two new ventures. They identified a new internal ministry: ministry to young families. And they opted to focus our energies on one external mission: to our local Salvation Army. I’m grateful they gave us this focus.

The mission focus strikes me as funny, in some ways. The Salvation Army must be as far as far can be from Episcopal liturgy and theology. But the Salvation Army here has the only homeless shelter in town, the only regular food ministry in our community. Our parish built a prayer garden on their grounds a couple years ago. This year, with support from our diocese, we built a playground for the children who live in their facility. So the vestry is building on a relationship that we have built slowly, and it feels right (if slightly incongruous and surprising).

In the last few days, with Thanksgiving Day looming, I suddenly had a thought: I could volunteer to help serve the Thanksgiving meal at the Salvation Army. No guilt about the undeserved plenty I enjoy. No angst about family. I could spend the day giving thanks and sharing blessings instead of stuffing my mouth with food I don’t actually need nowadays.

Mind you, that notion pushed me far outside my comfort zone. While I recognize I could have been one of the homeless not long ago, I also feel deeply inadequate to serve in this ministry. In the past few weeks in my parish, I have beseeched our leadership to equip people like me for this ministry. I don’t know how to do it. I feel wholly inept and unprepared. What can I offer? The Peace of the Lord and a heap of mashed potatoes? Maybe. That doesn’t sound so bad to me, actually.

I went to the Salvation Army this afternoon to give them a smoked turkey I had bought, and I talked with one of their volunteer coordinators. She made me feel inspired – that I can do this.

I feel inept. But I am also hopeful to think I can step outside my comfort zone.

So that’s where I’ll be tomorrow, starting at 9 a.m. Preparing food and serving. And you know what? Having no “Thanksgiving invitation,” early today I had tried to make a little grocery list of what I could make as a faux feast for myself. Now … I am looking forward to sharing a meal tomorrow with the folks at the Salvation Army Center. Weird as it seems to me, I’m looking forward to this more than I’ve looked forward to any Thanksgiving in a very long time.

Not about me! THANKS BE TO GOD!

I’ll let you know how it goes. I pray I’ll lose myself once I get into it. If you’re still up, please say a little prayer for me. As I've said too many times, this is going to push me outside my comfort zone. But I want to be pushed. I need to be pushed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Angst

If you’ve been reading this blog over the past few years, you know that I basically hate the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas. I hate the American secular consumer-driven holidays. They are painful to me, fraught with things I miss, and increasingly odious. I much prefer the holy days to the so-called “holidays.” Year after year, I try to immerse myself more deeply into the holy season of Advent and eschew the American “holidays,” which are ever more uncomfortable to me.

This year, I’ve been thinking a bit more about why that is. Why have I set up an Iron Curtain between the Holy Days and the “holidays”? Is it because this season falls so far from the Norman Rockwell days of my childhood? I don’t expect to find an answer this year, but I’m beginning to reframe the question.

I come from a family with many aunts and uncles. My father was the youngest of 8, so I have cousins spread out over about four decades – from those my father’s age to cousins a few years younger than I. In the past few months, one of my Fox cousins has set up an e-mail listserv for The Cousins. This month, one of them asked what Thanksgiving traditions we have retained, what we have added, and what we miss of the very close extended family gatherings with which we were raised.

As far as I know, none of my cousins know about my blog, so I think I can safely share this thoughtful reflection, which my sister offered. My sister speaks my heart. She wrote:

Hmmmm .... Thanksgiving gatherings. In my mind, all gatherings are compared to those at Grandmother's house. Uncles at first table, others scattered in the two living rooms, we younger ones […] in the kitchen (I actually was disappointed when we "graduated" to the living room. To me, it was only because the group/gathering got smaller.), Aunts at "Second table" in the dining room. Unlike some of my more feminist cousins, I didn't see it as a degradation; I saw that they got to sit and visit at the table, that it was a more European meal for them than for my uncles who ate, then moved outside to make room. I noticed that when I "graduated" to the front room, the uncles and aunts were together at the dining room table. I so deeply envy the sense of community they seemed to have. They talked town, politics, social issues; they seemed to disagree some, but still liked and respected one another.

That transition of who-was-where leads me into what I do for Thanksgiving gatherings now. This is very sad for me. Ours is a blended family (divorce, step parents, etc.), which means the gatherings are smaller because children have other commitments. I hate that. Somehow I feel like I'm letting my child down because I can't re-create the great experiences I had at Grandmother's, can't re-create that sense of large family community. They call us nuclear families, but it seems beyond that to isolationist.

I've supplemented my family by inviting friends/co-workers who might be alone or a very small group. Especially single parents who don't have their children, or who would only have their children seem happy for the inclusion. Vic and I have been married for 5 years, and I still don't feel at home when we do Thanksgiving at his family's house.

I don't want to be morose, but does anyone else struggle with that?

Yes, I struggle with that. My sister is courageous and gracious in intentionally trying to extend hospitality to others. Me, I just try to ignore the day. I decline invitations. For the past few years, I have “played ostrich” on Thanksgiving, trying to have an “ordinary” meal and watching football. That’s hard to do in the U.S., where the pull to Thanksgiving as a secular holiday is almost impossible to resist.

I would welcome others of you to talk about how you try to cope with the Thanksgiving tradition if you’re single without family nearby. I do observe it as a day of thanks. I try to be mindful of the blessings in my life. But I don’t find the American tradition quite meshes with my attempt to be mindful of the blessings in my life.

God knows, I love the traditional Thanksgiving dinner!! I loves me some turkey and dressing and giblet gravy and sweet potatoes and scalloped corn and cranberry jelly and yeast rolls (and even the Johnny-come-lately green bean casserole) and pecan pie. But, the older I get, the more I want something else beyond the yummy meal. And I am mindful of the years when I was flat broke and literally had to depend on the kindness of others. Whenever I sit down to a sumptuous meal, the memory of my near-homelessness haunts me.

This year, I’m going to try something different. I’ll post about that next.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Communion of Saints

Maybe this is something that comes to us as we enter the mid-century mark. We get slapped upside the head by death. Too many people die. And too many of them die too soon.

On March 29 – during the last week of Lent this year – my friend Lee Davenport killed himself. As I wrote here, I knew Lee was troubled, but I didn’t realize the depth or despair of his troubles.

In the aftermath of Lee’s death, I had some intense e-mail exchanges with Roseann Allen-Matthews, who blogged at Give Peace A Chance, Please. Both she and I (as well as others) had tried to befriend Lee. Both of us felt we had failed him. Roseann ministered to me in those days and weeks after Lee’s death. I hope she felt I ministered to her, too.

Then Roseann went into a serious health decline. Her kidneys were failing. She needed a transplant, but none could be found. She went on dialysis. She went into hospice. During her long decline, she blogged, she commented on other blogs, and she radiated joy and hope. In the last days, she radiated grace. Profoundly.

And now she, too, has died. Grandmère Mimi carried the last couple of news posts – the news of Roseann’s death on Saturday and the notice of her funeral. I wish I could make it to Roseann’s funeral tomorrow, but my work obligations make it impossible.

So I am left to ponder this death alone. But not quite alone, for many in our blogging community are talking about it. And many of us treasure this silly photo she gave us. I treasure hearing their words, even though I have not been able to articulate my thoughts until this meager offering.

Roseann was fiercely, joyfully, and sometimes irreverently in love with life. With me, she railed against Lee’s untimely death, grieved that he gave up on hope. She clung fiercely to life as long as she could do so … then gradually accepted her impending death with a grace that still leaves me in awe. Read her last few posts for a taste of that. On November 10th, the last day she had the strength to blog, she wrote:
I believe that I am living in a state of grace at this moment. I could write pages on how this feels and how it affects my perception but I am far too inarticulate to give it justice. My spirit feels so light and blessed. Thank you all for everything.

Tonight's [Holy Eucharist] will be glorious and I hope you will all join me in spirit.
and later:
Friends, I enjoyed, rejoiced and celebrated HE [Holy Eucharist] in a way that is still giving me the chills. I felt so much love and I was able to return that love. I will always be grateful. I could feel you all with me and if love were a color this house would still saturated.

Thank you all for your presence in my life. Thank you, thank you.

Oh, and FYI if I haven't told you already Dr. Kimball says passing should be very gentle, that my heart till just stop. I feel comforted by that fact.

Love you all and I'll try to write more tomorrow.

Love, R
That’s the last time she wrote to us.

She’s in the arms of the angels now. As is our mutual friend, Lee. Lee in the last days of Lent. Roseann as we approach Advent.

I don’t know what “Heaven” is. I believe it is a spiritual place in which we meet God – where we know God and are fully known, where we finally enter into Truth we have only glimpsed dimly in this life.

And I have a fantasy that Roseann has sought out our friend Lee, given him a dope-slap, and embraced him with an everlasting love – she who clung to life so fiercely, speaking to him who gave it up all too soon.

I sing a song of the saints of God – including Saint Lee and Saint Roseann. Tonight, it feels like Sarah McLaughlin sings it as well as any of our Anglican hymodists.

Both have been pulled from the wreckage.

Let it be.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Many of you have followed my cat sagas. You know about Scotty's health issues ... and Shug's death ... and my "providential" adoption of Mocha.

Two weeks ago, I learned that a co-worker had rescued a cat in a tree. He had posted "found cat" notices around the neighborhood. He tried to give her to the local animal shelter, but they would not take her (because they were overcrowded). He spread the news in the office. I went to his home, met her, fell in love, and adopted her on the spot.

Several of you know about this, but you haven't seen any photos of her, because my digital camera died. Today, I found this funny video that his rescuers had posted. You'll get a good look at Neko.

She is now settling in well. She and 2-year-old Mocha love playing chase and hide-and-seek. Scotty remains above it all.

And, yes, Neko is just as wild and wicked as the video suggests. She has a serious case of cattitude. She is a handful, but I adore her, and I am glad that providence brought her into our home.


In a few minutes, dawn will be breaking in Lui. My friends from Missouri -- and our new friends from Blackmore Vale Deanery (in the Diocese of Salisbury, England) -- are making their way toward Lui. Half my soul is with them. Follow the journey at LuiNotes and LuLuLui.

I hearken back to the time I spent in Lui in 2006 -- where we engaged the people of Lui in sessions like this one.

Pray for our missioners en route to Lui.

And pray for the people of Lui.