Altars in the Jail

When you sit at a bolted-down table in the day rooms at the Muscogee County Jail, you may think, as I have, that something mightier than a hurricane might upend it. Or maybe a rocket.

During my teaching time this past Monday, it occurred to me that these tables are really altars.

Each table has four metal seats affixed to it. The whole thing is this bland, yellowish color.

Each week I selfishly wish that three or fewer people will join us, because I don’t like the idea of standing up. I am keenly aware that posture could be seen as standing over them, as they’re sitting, when in actuality I want to be seated as an equal. (Don’t get me wrong; I have no desire to be an inmate, but I do wish to let them know I have struggles and sorrows too.)

So anyway, on Monday one of the things we talked about was gratitude. And how hard it is sometimes simply to be grateful, when life can swirl around and you get sucked in the debris and the last thought on your mind is being grateful.

These women know this, and not just because they’re locked up and not dead and they’re getting another chance. One said she’s grateful for her mother because she’s taking care of her small children while she’s behind bars. Another said she prayed the other day for tacos, and then “chicken with the bones in” and lo and behold, the jail kitchen prepared those exact meals.

“The Bible says we have not because we ask not,” she said with a laugh.

The third woman said she’s thankful for friends in jail–a couple of people who really have her back. I imagine that’s hard to come by.

I have come to see these otherwise bland, bolted-down tables as beautiful altars because we present our cares to God there; sometimes we shed tears on the table; we talk about things just like you and I would over coffee. It’s by no means fancy. But for that sacred hour, we’re really just four women in the world, trying to find our way.

The Waiting Game

The surgery waiting area of a hospital teems with activity and, throughout an 8-hour work day, takes on a life of its own. The faces may change daily but the theme is the same: an individual or a group of individuals await word on a loved one’s surgery.

The room is mostly full in the morning, and the crowd tapers off by late afternoon. (My own father’s emergency surgery in 2010 began about 8 a.m. on a Saturday, so the usual crowd wasn’t present. This is the exception rather than the rule, and looking back it was kind of eerie to be there without so much of the normal activity.)

St. Francis, the hospital where I work, is relatively small, yet a commonality among all such waiting areas is that drama resides there. And high doses of anxiety. Coffee. Food brought in. Nervous laughter and often tears.

A sweet woman named Zelma staffs the desk, and she receives a steady stream of calls all day long, communicating between the surgery suites and the families. “Ms. Zelma” is a real pro. I have never seen her flustered. Similar to an air traffic controller, Ms. Zelma has to keep up with who’s who and who’s where. She writes on a piece of blank paper on a clipboard, in pencil.

If I wonder what it must be like to wait–did he make it or did he not? How is she?–I remember I do know. In those critical hours of unknown, whether my father would live or die, we passed the time by talking to one another. We made phone calls. We drank copious amounts of coffee.

Our clergy and other friends, as well as my chaplain friend Lora, came by for more conversation, prayers and reinforcement. “Do you need anything?” Usually the answer was no, or rather we needed nothing in practical terms, but I found what we actually needed was each other.

May the waiting rooms in your own lives–awaiting news about surgery or otherwise–be filled with such love and support. And coffee, if needed.

Just Passing Through

A few years ago, I read a book by that title. Its author, Winton Porter, runs a little outfitter store in the Middle of Nowhere North Georgia. (Not its actual name.) The store happens to be one of my favorite hangouts when I’m up in the hills. I love it, in part, because of all the characters passing through, which Porter catches so poetically in the book.

Many are out hiking, as the Appalachian Trail passes through the store’s stone porch. Some who visit the store live in the area, and I’ve been there often enough to notice they’re not really shoppers but collectors of local gossip and drinkers of strong coffee.

The book title is an obvious reference to life itself. We’re all just passing through, really.

My group from St. Francis and I attended a conference in ethics this past week at Emory University.

Most of the attendees and presenters were health care professionals, who shared stories and stats from the field. Fascinating stuff. Even as many of them said, “We’re all going to die,” it also struck me that we still don’t know what to do with it.

Yes, we’re just passing through this life and thus, in my opinion, we should pack lightly, but the heart says, “What about me?” Even with those who die “naturally,” we who are left behind still hurt and grieve and spit and cry.

Even with doctors and nurses who repeatedly see patients fail and die, the human element remains. “Could I/we have done something more?” They hurt, too.

One of the most powerful speakers this week was a man named James Shepherd. About 40 years ago, he suffered paralysis due to a swimming accident.

From Atlanta, James and his family were frustrated by the lack of medical rehab care in the city at that time. So they started what would become a world-class institution called the Shepherd Center, on Peachtree Road. (My mother-in-law, now deceased, was a patient on occasion and raved about it.) James spoke eloquently of patients’ adaptation of new skills, as he himself was clearly able to adapt to a new way of life and outlook.

Just passing through. All of us are. Hike on.

P.S. I just paid a visit to my parents and they had been on the phone with my father’s cousin Tom in California. Tom is about 80. Upon discovering they were all interested in reading a book about the second half of life by Richard Rohr, my mother told Tom: “It seems we’re all cramming for finals.”

Life on the margins

The margins are messy but the margins need us.

Most of us, most days, don’t live on the margins. We who aren’t on the margins have jobs, kids who do well in school and gas money for the car. We can pay the mortgage.

Those on the margins have nothing, or next to nothing. Sometimes they smell. They’re sick. Met one the other day who admitted he used to sleep in the hospital, undetected. 

For a long time I romanticized people on the margins and to a great extent I still do. My faith tradition teaches me that these are the ones I need to pay attention to. So I would write checks here and there and feel my job was largely complete.

Now I rub shoulders with the marginalized all the time and my romanticism gets checked. Some are people who are sick, who may have it all together on the outside of the hospital but their world has just capsized because of a grim diagnosis. Or it’s someone whose diagnosis is taking awhile and they’re anxious and afraid. Or another wonders aloud: Am I going to hell for that awful thing I did last week? 

Or it could be a spouse who’s been a widow for five whole minutes and she doesn’t know how to breathe anymore.

My view of the margins is becoming more complex as I see my dis-ease with it. The stench in a patient’s room is sometimes unbearable. A loved one falls to the floor in grief and after awhile I think, “Enough already!” (Some of this discomfort, I know, comes from my discomfort with the raw parts of myself that I’d just as soon weren’t there.)

Yet, as I continue to interact with those who are hurting and on the edge, if only for a day or so in the hospital, I am finding the outskirts the more-preferable place to be. People on the margins generally aren’t concerned with the latest political drama or basketball score. They want to know, Can I make it through this? What happens next? What will my new life look like? In such conversations, the high level of B.S. that makes up modern life is largely gone.

And it’s a beautiful place to be.

Off the beaten path

Not my usual subject matter (goings-on at the hospital) but I just had to share what a gift we had in our town the past couple of days. The Rev. Dan Matthews, rector emeritus of Trinity Church Wall Street, spoke at two churches here.

On Sunday, he preached at mine and Michael’s church, led a lunch gathering about stewardship, and a Sunday school class on what it was like to be in New York on 9/11. Trinity Wall Street and its accompanying St. Paul’s Chapel are both within blocks of the Twin Towers.

Then today, Dan spoke at a Lenten lunch series held annually at another church. He’s a great preacher in the vein of great storytellers. Before you know it, a mesmerizing tale has turned into a biblical lesson, or three.

A few snippets I took from his visit: On 9/11, he was taking part in a meeting in the church offices in Manhattan. When the first plane hit, someone in the meeting thought it could have been a blown gas main. Others thought it might have been a rocket. The adults scrambled down the office’s many flights of stairs and each retrieved one child apiece from the church’s daycare. That was long their drill. That day amounted to about 75 kids.

They all scurried to a room in the basement, only to have it fill with what they thought was smoke from a fire, but actually it was all the dust and debris filtering in from the outside, through the A/C unit.

Attempting repeatedly to open a door to the outside, they failed. Dan thought they would all die, so full of smoke was the basement. A Catholic friend confided he was OK, as he’d just given confession, but then confessed to Dan again. Moments later, the door opened and they and the children all made it to safety.

In the months to come, St. Paul’s Chapel would be turned into a relief center for all those working or volunteering at Ground Zero. I remember reading reports of this at the time. Certainly other congregations and agencies were pitching in, as well, but because of its proximity to the World Trade Center, St. Paul’s became a natural outreach center.

It was open for eight months, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They did everything from serving food to giving massages to conducting counseling sessions. Imagine talking to people who come in and say things like, “We just found a foot.”

Today’s lunch message was on the Beatitudes, otherwise known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Dan started off with illustrations of how we all, each of us, like to feel privileged. He mentioned the cards common these days in wallets: preferred member of thus-and-such store, a certain level at airports that gets us better access, and into shorter lines. And that a town of just 500 people may have one of the latest trends: storage units. Dan asked: What are we doing with all this STUFF? (On a side note, ever read the book “Affluenza”?)

Dan was cool in that he wasn’t laying on the guilt as if he himself weren’t part of the human race in 21st century North America; he very much associates with what he called the dominant culture–this culture that says you have to have more and more of the Latest Thing in order to be fulfilled, or even counted.

Contained in my faith tradition, the Beatitudes turn this on its head: Blessed are the poor  in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. There’s more, but you get the idea.

If you ever have occasion to hear Dan Matthews preach or give a talk, go. Immediately.