Saturday, April 12, 2014
Two or Three
Although my little church has only a couple of hundred members and there are 42,094 students at the University of Washington, it seems that whenever I go to a social justice event at the university, where I am in graduate school, I see someone I met at church.
I have attended multiple lectures on addiction, and Kirsten, who was a child in the church when Ann and I first started going there, is always there. Sometimes she's leading. Last time we went to an addiction lecture, Graham, another person who was a child when I met him, was there. Graham and I went to El Salvador on delegations from our church, and he once saved me from an angry scorpion.
Then a couple of weeks ago I met with a small team of people at the University's D-Center. (D is cool for Disability). A student working on an event joined us, and this student was Tash, who was also a child in the church when Ann and I started going there.
And just the other day, Diana, who is a professor focused on the feminization of poverty, walked by in the hallway. Diana and I participate in a study group at the church on Race and Spirituality.
People I know from church are also showing up in my textbooks. Vicky, who was the executive director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, was in a book on trauma because the work that the agency did was so tough. Vicky and I went to El Salvador together as part of our church's first delegation to Guarjila, our sister parish. And Jeri, who plays the harp and led some of the church's work with people with AIDS, was in a chapter about the arts and healing, my newest interest.
Though this little church isn't in our neighborhood, we started going there because in another life Ann had spontaneously joined a hoedown in the church basement where men were dancing with men and women with women and nobody seemed to mind, which was more unusual in the 1980s than it is now. When we first attended a church service twenty years ago, we were welcomed and loved as a couple in this church before being gay was fashionable.
Our little church brings to mind the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead's comment: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
That's partly another way of saying what the King James version of the Bible records that Christ said: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). I was thinking they were the same thing, but I’m learning that there is more to faith than doing good works.
After twenty years, this little church continues to be a great place for Ann and me. We've been especially involved with our church's relationship with the rural Salvadoran town Guarjila and with a relatively new study group focused on Race and Spirituality, so we've grown with the church's social justice work. But we also grow in the community's love.
During my brain tumors, members of this community held us in their hearts, their arms, and their prayers. At my recent fiftieth birthday party, church members packed the house. Last week, in her sermon about Jesus raising Lazarus, our minister Karla made the promise of forgiveness real for me, and she didn't even know my situation. I suppose she touched me because she talked about a human condition: the condition of missed moments and regret.
Before this Sunday, I have always felt that Jesus had an unfair advantage over typical human regret in the Lazarus story, and that the story does not speak to me. In this story, Jesus gets to the home of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus too late to save Lazarus, who has now been dead for four days and, as King James says, "stinketh." Mary and Martha believe that Jesus could have saved their brother, so they are angry that he came so late. Jesus rolls aside the stone to Lazarus's tomb and calls Lazarus, no longer dead, back into life.
Does Jesus have to say he's sorry and feel regret that he let them down? No. That has in the past made me feel that Jesus used his divine advantage so that he didn't have to feel guilty, an option that I—who do not have a divine advantage—do not have. Jesus is usually living life in the way I want to live it, so I have found his escape from my regret irritating. However, Sunday our pastor Karla read the passage in a different way: Jesus is showing us that we have second chances, that we are forgiven for the times when we come too late.
The forgiveness that Karla sees in this story forgives me for regrets that seldom come to my consciousness. A decade or so before my brain tumors, in the years before death seemed like a natural part of life, my dear friend Rick called me from Texas soon after his visit to Seattle. I thought he was calling to tell me that he had made it safely home. (He was a quadriplegic and had flown his own plane.) I was busy and did not immediately return the call, and before I called him back I got a message that he had died of a cancer discovered when he spilled hot coffee on himself in an airport on the way home.
Also, after my brain tumors, when I should have known better, a young woman who had been a student teacher in my classroom and who I knew had leukemia, called and—again busy and tired—I postponed returning her call, and she had died by the time I called. Again, I was too late.
Usually, I do not think about these mistakes, but sometimes, I struggle with them. For example, I found this writing from a time this fall when I struggled with these mistakes:
This morning, music was back in my mind. “Forgive me,” I sang in Tracy Chapman’s voice again and again. (In my mind I can sing like Tracy Chapman.) Though some days, I don’t know why I’m singing a particular song, this morning I knew.
In my mind, I changed the verse to fit my current train of thoughts, and the rest of the song doesn’t apply, so here’s how I sang it:
That’s all that I can say.
Years gone by and still,
Words don't come easily,
Like forgive me.
In my mind, I sang it deeply and plaintively (and right on key), like Tracy. (By the way, I know the convention is to use an artist’s last name, but for some artists I feel a kinship that causes me to use their first names. This is true for artists like Tracy and Emily—Dickinson, of course, who also knew about pain: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes. The nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.” How can I say it better than Emily?)
Forgive me. Forgive me.
For a long while I could not sleep, but somewhere in the middle of the night, my resting place gave way, and I fell again, a slow falling, like a ship sinking in deep water, falling into my world where I need to find my own forgiveness.
This search for forgiveness seems to connect with some of my recent wonderings. I have been thinking lately about why I connect so much to people who are in pain. Since my tumors, that’s generally been people who have been hurt by diseases, but there are other reasons for such pain as well. There are so many in my church and other parts of my life who are in pain.
In church there are healers, too. I am especially grateful for Robbie, who steps up as the church doctor when we need someone. Though Robbie and I don’t connect often, I will not forget the time when she approached me after my diagnosis but before my surgery…or maybe it was with my second diagnosis. She hugged me and said, “We’re not ready to let you go. We’re with you through this.” Of course, Robbie had been Polly’s doctor—Polly, our minister’s wife about 15 years ago, died after a long struggle with breast cancer—and we both knew that Robbie had no medical power over my tumor, but her reassurance that I was part of the heart of this community was a reassurance I didn’t even know I needed.
I am learning that two or three can gather for more than a meeting or a rally. We can gather to love and care for one another, as perhaps God has put us together in this world to do.
So we too (two?), you and I, gather on this page to care for one another just as we will go away from this page to make the world a better place for all of the twos and threes who gather here.
And so I continue to feel humbled by all there is to learn, and by so much grace in the world. And instead of feeling formal, like Emily, I'm feeling softer. Day by day. And now I'm singing a different tune, this one from Godspell, sung most recently to me (and a gazillion others) by The Seattle Men's Chorus:
Day by day. Day by day.
Oh, dear Lord, three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by day.