Archive for November, 2011

Yesterday afternoon, about 1:30, I realized that I was really hungry, so I decided to call in a grilled chicken salad order at the Red, Hot & Blue restaurant down the street from the church. It was a rainy afternoon. Not pouring-down rain, but what I call a “dribbling rain”–the kind that if you move fast enough, you can make it from car to house without getting too wet. I parked the car, and made a dash to the covered walk that led to the restaurant.

As I passed by an open stairwell that leads to the second floor of an office building, I heard someone say, “Well, whadda ya know?” I turned, and there, sitting on about the fourth step, was Dan (not his real name).  I was startled, because I think this may be the first time Dan has ever initiated a conversation with me. You see, Dan is a paranoid schizophrenic. He is homeless. He refuses to take meds. For part of the month–while his disability income lasts–he sleeps in a motel room. The rest of the month? Who knows. An elevator that’s empty overnight. The woods. We don’t know for sure. But we know that Dan belongs to St. Philip’s. Or maybe we belong to him.

On Sundays, Dan finds his way to the parish hall, where he knows he will find a hot cup of coffee, plenty of sugar to put in the coffee, and a high likelihood of some sugary snack. Oh, and there is a baby grand piano in the conference room. It’s hard to say whether the most compelling draw is the hot coffee or the piano.  Dan plays the piano, and perhaps playing music drives the voices out of his head for a while.

He plays beautifully–as if he has been trained. Dan is very intelligent. He was raised Episcopalian. His father and grandfather were musicians. Now, his family can no longer deal with him. Frankly, no one can do much with him, because he won’t take meds, he refuses to get into housing (“I don’t want people taking my money”–and don’t bother arguing that he hands someone money to stay in a motel room. . .sigh), and even in the worst of winter storms, he refuses to go to Winterhaven, our local homeless shelters in different churches. Sometimes he gets out a pen and scribbles higher math equations on Post-It notes. Amazing.

But almost every Sunday, we can count on Dan playing the piano. Occasionally, his routine gets disrupted. Sometimes there’s an adult forum in that conference room. And for eight weeks this fall, we had to worship IN the parish hall while a new roof was being installed in our worship space. The piano got moved out into the main room, and so Dan sat on the back row at both services, hoping for a chance to play his piano for a few minutes.

One Sunday, I was in a smaller, adjacent room leading an Adult Inquirers’ Class. We were having a few minutes of silent prayer–something that in the best of circumstances is a challenge for most folks. We had just settled well into the silence and I was enjoying the solitude and quiet. All of a sudden, I heard a riff on the piano, played with gusto, that sounded strangely like the introduction to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Yep. That’s what that was. I giggled into the quiet, and several others joined me. Obviously they recognized the tune too.

You never know what Dan is going to play. It could be jazz or blues. It could be variations on a rock song. But somehow I think it’s an offering to God. It’s the only one Dan can afford. Yes, playing is soothing to his tortured mind. But it is also a gift. I walk into Wyatt Hall to ask the sexton something, and I hear music drifting out of the conference room. I find myself smiling. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” indeed.

God has given so many gifts. The cutting edge to some of those is perhaps a double-edged sword of mental illness/brilliance. And I pray for those who suffer from schizophrenia. I do not understand, but I also don’t hear the voices that drown out reality as I know it.

Yesterday, as I entered the restaurant, I turned back. “Dan, have you eaten today?”

“No ma’am.” (He is always polite.)

“Where are you staying?”

“Oh, I’m just walking up and down the street.”

I went on in. Then I remembered that once before, I had bought some Brunswick stew for him.  As the owner greeted me with a hug (yes, I’m a frequent flyer in that restaurant), I asked him if I could add something to my order. I ordered a bowl of Brunswick stew. Then the thought occurred to me that Dan might very well be halfway down the block with his variety of plastic bags. I poked my head back out.


“Yes ma’am?”
“I’m getting you some Brunswick stew. Don’t go anywhere yet.”

“Oh. Okay, ma’am.”

When I emerged from the restaurant, I handed him a bag that had a big bowl of hot Brunswick stew.

“There’s a spoon and napkins in there too,” I noted.

“Well, thank you, ma’am,” he said, and opened the bag hungrily.

I went back to the church and ate my grilled chicken salad, musing that since I am trying not to eat wheat these days, I really should have given him my little loaf of bread too. But maybe RH & B put one in the bag–I hadn’t checked.

Bread. Salad. Stew. For the first time in a day, at 2:00 p.m., a homeless man has a hot bowl of stew. And on Sunday, maybe I’ll get to hear his fingers move up the piano keys as he begins “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

All things come of thee, O Lord. And of thine own have we given thee. Play on, brother. Amen.


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Time for God

In a class I’ve been convening as part of my doctoral work, one of the “assignments” each week has been to do some kind of daily prayer, using the Book of Common Prayer. Last week, folks could either choose a prayer or thanksgiving from pp 814-841 in the BCP OR they could read the night service of Compline.

Last night, we had some interesting conversation about why it has been so challenging for folks to carve out even ten-fifteen minutes every day to pray or reflect about their spiritual lives. I asked them, “This is not a judgment on my part. I am just interested in hearing how you all believe you can be spiritually formed and strengthened if you don’t have a regular prayer discipline. What gets in the way of that?” The answers were honest and intriguing. Pressures of time, especially for those who commute in the DC area. The subtle pressure of multi-tasking. The demands of a family–especially for those with young children. The struggle to have discipline in one’s life in general.

My instincts about Sunday were confirmed. About two hours on Sunday morning really is the major block of time when spiritual formation happens for most folks. One person noted that it is easier to be prayerful in community. Yes! The monks and nuns learned that centuries ago, did they not?  And Archbishop Thomas Cranmer knew this as he crafted his masterpiece we know as the Book of Common Prayer. Christianity is about community, not individual quests.

What last night’s discussion also confirmed was my own long-held belief that because I rarely see some folks except on Sundays, my own reflections and time spent on writing and preaching a good sermon are critical. My care (as is true for others) in making Sunday morning worship rich and full for people is critical.

One person shared that she has done daily spiritual prayer and reading for years, because she is affiliated with Daughters of the King. I asked how she began to do that, and she said, “I started out with little bits here and there. And I found that the more time I spent with God, the more time I had during the day to get things done. ” Hmmm.  Sounds like a good beginning for a stewardship sermon, doesn’t it?

This morning, I found a beautiful poem by Eric Symes Abbott, who was appointed Dean of Westminster Abbey in 1959, retiring in 1974 (died in 1983).  I decided to post it here, especially for the techie students in my small class! This poem is from Invitations to Prayer: Selections from the Writings of Eric Symes Abbott, Dean of Westminster, 1959-1974. I found it in an anthology, Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness.

“Spaces of Silence

Whatever we may say about particular
times and methods of prayer,
this much is essential, that each day
should have some dedicated silence in it.
This is the gift of our time to God.
We are to put ourselves at God’s disposal
in the quietness. The prayer
will be dispersed throughout our day,
throughout our activity, but there will be
some dedicated spaces of silence.”

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For All the Saints

We celebrated the Feast of All Saints today. It was a special celebration for two main reasons. One is that after eight weeks of worshiping in our parish hall while the new roof was installed on our worship space, we were finally back in the historic worship space. Yes, we had a few unexpected challenges–including some issue that resulted in the organ not working, and acolytes who were a little rusty after being in different space for eight weeks–but it was also a glorious Feast. It was Feast of All Saints.

The Altar Guild had adorned the altar area with candelabras, which we only use on festive occasions (we have two altar candles), the choir director and choir led us in a Litany of the Saints as prelude, Ginny Wilder, one of our two seminarians, preached an “out of the ball park” All Saints sermon. Then just before the Great Thanksgiving, three of us read the names of the faithful departed whose names had been submitted by parishioners–beginning with those who have died in the past year.

Today was a special All Saints Day for me. That is because of something that happened just over a month ago. It has to do with my connection with some saints who rest in the Love’s Creek Baptist Church Cemetery in Siler City, NC.

I had gone south for my fortieth high school reunion and the weekend was full of amazing moments. You have heard it said that with some friends, you can walk into a room and pick right up where you left off years ago? Trust me. It is true. I bear witness to that, and the love shared by some dear friends has criss-crossed the ordinary boundaries of time and place. But that is not the connection to All Saints–although I suppose on some level, it could be.

On Friday afternoon that weekend, I drove about twenty miles east from Asheboro to Siler City, a little town where we had lived for eighteen months when I was about thirteen years old, where my father had served as pastor of a small Baptist church. Now, both of my parents’ mortal remains rest in that quiet cemetery. As I approached, I realized that small town America really is disappearing. Where there had been a two-lane highway, now there is a four-lane highway. Where there were fields and farms, there are now businesses and parking lots. The two old homes that were across the highway from our house? Gone. Replaced with businesses, and I imagine the homeowners now rest in that cemetery too. I found later, that the parsonage is also gone. Trees are still there (larger, of course). But the only thing that helped me find where the little house had been was a slab of concrete, where the carport had been. The only positive feeling about that was that a big children’s playground is now evident on the back of that property, where the back yard had been.

I found the graves of my parents.  I must admit that I found myself very unsettled by the fact that at the edge of the cemetery, where trees had overlooked the sites and where my father used to sit after Mama died, was now a chain link fence that separated the cemetery from a shopping center. I mused, “Hmmm, Joni Mitchell was right. Paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Yet I parked, went over and sat at the foot of the graves, took my Birkenstocks off and sat down to reflect on my parents’ lives.

I must digress here for a moment. Mama was a singer. She was not a trained singer; however her vocal ability was a natural gift, and I have always been grateful that this is a gift I inherited. Mama could also play the piano and organ. She had had piano lessons at some time, but she taught herself on the organ, as far as I know. However, Mama could also play by ear. She could play a version of “St. Louis Blues” that would make you sit up and take notice, and for years, I have wished that I had a recording of her playing that. In fact, during my senior year in high school, Mama played that and I sang it for a talent show. I think I won first place. No matter. It was one of those special times when our usual mother-daughter rivalry came together and made real music.

As I sat there in a cemetery that was–despite its proximity to shopping and golden arches–peaceful and quiet, I began to talk to my parents. I told them many things, among which was my grief that my mother had never known my son, because he was born the year after she died of breast cancer. I told her how proud she would have been of the man he has become, and that that very weekend, he was going to walk for Breast Cancer–he’d raised over $400 for that cause.

I thanked my parents for what they had given me–especially my faith and my strength–and as I did, I found myself weeping. Barefoot, blue-jeaned, eldest living daughter, I grieved for the things done and left undone, especially between  me and Mama, and for the things unsaid that one always wishes one had said (after the fact of course). I wept for Daddy who had died mentally long before he died physically, from the ravages of Altzheimer’s. I wept for the baby sister that had preceded me in birth by a year, who had only lived seventeen days and who is buried in a cemetery in Buchanan, Va. I wept for my son who never knew this preacher when he was strong and vital, or this big, strong, red-headed, freckle-faced woman with an infectious laugh, who loved ice cream in any form–especially when it was orange sherbet in ginger-ale punch.

I hadn’t intended to get emotional, but it was cleansing, and afterwards, I felt a deep peace settle into my bones. I said, “Mama, I have only felt your presence twice since you died. Sometime, it would be nice if you would let me know you’re around.” And I asked both of them to guide my son.

After a time, I got up, got in the car and headed back to Asheboro, scanning the dial for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” I found the station out of Chapel Hill, but wasn’t paying much attention to a bit on the news about letters–a Friday regular. As I approached a traffic light on the way out of Siler City, the reporter read a letter from a woman in St. Louis. She was not happy about the fact that NPR had done a feature on the four baseball teams that had made the semi-finals for the World Series, but had really only focused on three of them–completely ignoring the St. Louis Cardinals.

I was idly watching the changes in this small town. I noticed that finally, the sun was peeking out from clouds for the first time that day. The announcer finished reading the letter. And as they segued out of that part of NPR, a saxaphonist began to play. The sounds of “The St. Louis Blues” filled the car. Suddenly, I was barely able to see the road for my tears. I whispered, “Thank you, Mama.”  The past, present and future had suddenly rushed together in one of those inexplicable “you can’t make this stuff up” kind of moments.

That happened again this morning during the Feast of All Saints. As two other saints picked up where I had left off with the prayers for the faithful departed, I left my place at the altar to go to the foot of the chancel steps. I picked up two thin tapers and  lit them for the mothers of a parishioner and her husband who had asked me to do that. And then, although I hadn’t planned to do this, I thought of that afternoon a month ago, then I chose two other tall, thin tapers.

“These are for you, Mama and Daddy. I love you.” Slowly, through my tears, I reached out, touched the tips of the tapers to the candle in the center, then anchored them firmly in the sand.

For all the saints. May they rest from their labors in peace this day and forever.

“But lo!  there breaks a yet more glorious day;
the saints triumphant rise in bright array;
the King of glory passes on his way.
Alleluia, alleluia.

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pear streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Alleluia, alleluia! “(from Sine Nomine, Hymn 287)

(c) The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton

Icon of Russian saints and picture of candle tapers accessed through Google images
Other pictures taken by author

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