Sacred Work

A dear friend is back home in Switzerland at the moment, spending time with her uncle as he’s dying. She visits him in his nursing home and they go for drives and have long conversations about where they’ll go for lunch and then she comes back to the family farmhouse and sits on the front steps and sometimes leaves me a voice message. 

And a few weeks ago, a client of mine died, just hours after I finished a shift with her. So I left Regula a message, because I figured that at the moment she’d understand even more than most people—maybe even more than I did. I told her how Phyllis had been scared because her breathing was getting worse and how I’d called the hospice nurse and how I’d sat with her and eventually held her hand even though she usually liked to be left alone and how when I got the call that night that she’d passed, I was a little shocked, even though I’d been dourly predicting it to my housemates for weeks. I think I also told her that at the beginning of the afternoon, as Phyllis’s son was valiantly urging her to eat a little more, she’d rolled her eyes over to me and pleaded dramatically, “A-lice…” and I’d burst out laughing. Even then, she was thoroughly her stubborn self, and it warmed me.

When Regula replied to me she said—more than once—that it seemed that the work that each of us was getting to do was sacred. And I’ve been thinking about that off and on ever since.

I’ve had thoughts whirling around about the sacred-secular divide and about Dorothy Sayers’ writings on work and other things of that sort, but the main thing I keep thinking is that the work that is the most sacred has a sort of unexpected constancy. It carries on unavoidably into itself from one generation to the next. It’s common grace—you get up, you get dressed, you drive to work, you clock in because you need the paycheck, and then heaven breaks through. 

Just today, I gave my client Bonnie a final copy of her life story that I wrote up, based on interviews I recorded with her a few months ago. She was a labor and delivery nurse here in Madison for forty years. As I edited it together, the bit that gave me a little catch in my throat every time I reached it was when she talked about delivering a premie the doctor thought would be stillborn. She caught him in her hands, “and then I felt it move!” So she rushed him to the nursery, and when she came back to the mother—who was very ill herself and in kidney failure—the woman said, shaking her head, “Too bad it’s dead. Oh, too bad it’s dead…” And Bonnie said to her, “It’s not dead! It’s not dead!”

After fifty years, Bonnie has still not gotten over that story and the happy, healthy little boy that baby grew up into, and I think that’s reasonable. She sits in her chair in the living room, reading the newspaper in the morning, and much of the news is bad. But most of the nice news, she cuts out with a pair of scissors she keeps in her drawer. There is a pile she saves for one of her sons, and often a couple piles for her grandchildren. And then there are all the pieces she sets aside for me. Newspaper clippings are Bonnie’s love language, so now they litter my car and mark many of my books—concerts I never go to and information about Vancouver I already know and releases of books I’ll likely never read. But I have them, just in case, padding all the cracks of my life.

All good work, paid or unpaid, which is done well (or even just done halfway) carries about it at least a whiff of the holy. Abby told me the other day about a woman she knows who says to herself whenever she sweeps the floor, “Take that, Satan!” There is goodness in showing up, opening the curtains, scooping the cats’ litter, washing my hands, wiping the pudding drool, listening, laughing, and folding the underwear, because it’s in the midst of these ordered intimacies that life and death make their grand appearances into our unsuspecting hands. I’m moving on to other places and rhythms quite soon, but I suspect that—wherever I go—I’ll never do work more sacred than this.

Grieving Normalcy

For the last week, ever since classes were moved online and the ground caved in beneath us, I’ve been making notes for a blog entry. It was supposed to be about how to retain normalcy in strange times, something I’ve been fighting for in many sectors of my life. In fact, fight for normalcy is pretty much all I’ve done in the past several days. I’ve worked to follow guidelines, but beyond that, I’ve tried to be creative within them, maintain an abundant life for myself and those around me that bears some semblance to the life we used to live just days ago.

But today, because of a variety of external and internal factors, I have come to the edge of my can-do, make-it-work attitude. That sort of entry just won’t do at the moment. There will be time later to talk about wearing lovely clothes even though no one can see and–to wildly misquote T.S. Eliot–to talk about the taking of toast and tea. There will be time later for a discussion of the new normal.

Tonight, here, I am grieving.

A friend dropped a couple things off to me this afternoon. I came out and stood barefoot in the idyllic spring sunshine on the patio and leaned against the wall. Several feet away, she leaned against her car in the driveway. I said that I was sad about everything and she said that she was angry about everything, and we wept beneath blue sky and budding trees. We were crying for everything we had tried to hold onto in the last few weeks, everything which had slipped through our fingers with terrifying alacrity as if we’d never really had control of it in the first place. We were crying because we had been given love, but seemed to no longer have agency to express it in any meaningful way. We were crying for our fear and our smallness. 

This past Monday was the last day I went into Regent. I worked a strange, ghostly library shift and about ten minutes before it ended an older woman came in with her husband and told me that she had just had cataract surgery and wasn’t able to read her list and could I please help her find the books on it? I have never in my life been more happy to help. I took her list and bustled around, pulling book after book on the Psalms and the life of David plus a couple recorded lectures besides. I piled my findings on the counter in front of them with pride. And that evening, a friend asked me in and made me tea and we sat on his couch and talked about coffee table books for half an hour. Coffee table books.

I am grateful that in both of these moments I had my wits about me enough to see their brightness. There are and will increasingly be many things to mourn. You may have your own list pattering in your head already. But for now I am grieving the glorious mundanity of the gift of human interaction. I am mourning the normalcy we have lost, the good structures which we thought held us up, made us whole.

We’ll grieve these things together, friends. We’ll grieve together, helpless, at the feet of the great Helper, Healer, Maker and Lover of our fragile souls and selves.

Christmas and Tradition

When I was growing up, Christmas meant Grandma’s. It meant long hours in the car stuffed with puffy coats, reading Dickens’ Christmas Carol aloud stave by stave, and then arriving in Missouri to cousins and orange balls and running fast on carpet in sock feet. Christmas meant crowded rooms and couches and beds. It meant all twenty-some of us choosing a favorite carol in order from oldest to youngest while siblings switched off at the piano. It meant sitting hip-to-hip with contented joy. I was in awe of those Christmases, so in awe that they sometimes made me forget myself.

But I am grown now, and no Christmas will ever be the same. My grandparents have been gone for over a year and the house is sold. The place we went is no longer ours and the faces which used to await our arrival have been buried. The things which made me love Christmas so seem to have vanished. So it is tempting to me to spend the holiday mourning the traditions and the stability that are lost. This time of year, I want nothing more than to run back to the comforts of childhood or even adolescence, to revel in the reliable beauty of those Christmas customs.

But I cannot return to those traditions, so instead I will try to remember the self-forgetfulness that they taught me.  Because Christmas is not actually meant to be about tradition. It is meant to be about the world turned upside down, shook to its core. It is the story of a remote corner of a poor place where a child was born to speak truth, and to sweat blood, and to die, that I may know truth, and be clean, and live.

Every year that is true. The foundations of our little worlds may shudder, the walls which kept us safe and warm may crumble, the faces around us may seem strange and hard, but every year, if we look up, a star calls us to Bethlehem. We are meant to follow its light, to worship and be changed.

On Friday, I read How the Grinch Stole Christmas to my juniors for storytime. I laughed through some of it, but some lines moved me:

Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

I am grateful for the Child who has come to save, and I am thirsty for his grace.

Thursday’s Children

This is going to be one of those entries where I sit down with my computer, get keyboard happy, and draw tenuous connections between lots of largely unrelated things. But that’s not so bad. It means I’ve been thinking lately.

I turn twenty-four on Sunday, and I’ve been remembering that old nursery rhyme I learned growing up about the day you’re born on.

Monday’s child is fair of face,

Tuesday’s child is full of grace,

Wednesday’s child is full of woe,

Thursday’s child has far to go,

Friday’s child is loving and giving,

Saturday’s child must work for a living,

But the child is born on the Sabbath day

Is bonny and blithe, good and gay.

If we’re getting technical, I’m supposed to be Friday’s child, loving and giving, but I seem to find myself continually in Thursday. I am never enough. Never strong enough, tough enough, brave enough, far enough. Always coming in three steps (or three miles) behind where all my “shoulds” tell me I ought to be. Of course, this has been a hard week at school, not terrible, but full and heavy, so I know I am not alone in this. As Leslie said on Tuesday, “All the news seems to be bad news.”

And last weekend I read Matthew 8, and I wondered. It tells the story of Jesus casting out a legion of demons into a herd of pigs. “And He said to them, ‘Go.’ So when they had come out, they went into the herd of swine. And suddenly the whole herd of swine ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and perished in the water.” When the people in the town hear what has happened, what lengths Christ has gone to to heal two possessed men, they come out to meet him en masse and beg him to leave them alone and never come back.

And I wondered, because I could see the people’s point. They are deeply unsettled by this man who speaks only one syllable, yet who looms over the whole story. He destroys their whole livelihood, sends it racing over a cliff, just to make clean the minds and souls of two outsiders living literally on the edge of death. I sat reading, Thursday’s worn child, asking why he would send away the things which support us, the things which get us closer to far enough. The herd of swine was the daily provision these people had for simply getting to the next step, keeping themselves from falling too far behind. Why let evil destroy it? I was annoyed.

But then, this past Saturday, I went to the funeral of a friend’s uncle who had died suddenly. He was a few months younger than my mom and this was very sad and a little bit frightening, but more than that, throughout the whole service, I was struck by joy. Every person who spoke, though grieved, seemed full of the joy that comes with knowing Jesus, joy that the man they loved was now in his presence. I had met him only once or twice, but found myself so moved by the whole proceeding and it was not until a day or two ago that I realized why.

I look around at all of us and think how far we have to go. The light is a long way down the path we walk, and we know that we are lagging and weak, and our hard-bought income has gone crashing into the sea.

But perhaps we should open our eyes, because he is here before us. Alive even on a Thursday.

The demons are cast out but we, we are not. We are brought in. Love himself died so that you would not have to lose heart on those endless roads of self-sanctification. So turn home to the hands that made you and you will find a good, good Father running to meet you. In the light of his day, you will not care about the pigs.

Heavenly feet pound the earth,

Stones and soil shake,

The mud on my eyes cracks and crumbles,

The shape of you grows,

And fire wraps round your shoulders like love.

In Praise of Light and Salt

My grandfather died a week ago tonight. (Don’t worry, not many more entries will begin this way.)

He left us less than three months after his wife of sixty years, which is not surprising, but no less hard. This feels like the second half of a whole is gone. In September, when my Grandma died, we felt truncated and sober. Now sometimes we lose the feeling in our legs and we must reach down and check that they’re still there–he did show us how to stand on them, didn’t he?

On Monday night we prayed and my mom said that it felt like some of the light and salt had gone out of the world. It did–it does. There is no better way to explain him than to tell you how he lived.

In 1954, he graduated from medical school in Iowa, got married, and, in 1956, moved down to a tiny town in north central Missouri to  start a practice. And he stayed. While other doctors moved in and out of town, he always stayed.

In college I wrote a paper on small-town doctors, and in the process I interviewed both my grandparents. I dug that paper up last night and reread it and found myself smiling at the difference in the stories each of them wanted to tell. My grandma, who had a love of a good story and an even greater love of her husband, showcased him as the compassionate hero of the town. She talked about the time the child with the suicidal mother called in the middle of the night and he had to go and talk her down by himself, because the sheriff decided he wanted a full night’s rest. She talked about how he regularly treated the local prostitutes, one of whom would periodically slit her wrists, and then call him at his house for a ride to the hospital. The other had such great respect for him that she named her son after him and once asked him to testify for her good character in court. (He declined.)

Grandpa told different stories, though. Smaller stories, which always focused not on himself, but on the things he got the opportunity to learn or to love. He told me about coming out to the barn once and finding a lamb that had gotten into the feed box and was gorging himself. Annoyed, he knocked it out and went on with his chores, and when he came back later it was dead. “That was a good lesson to me not to be too harsh with people as well as animals,” he told me. He always said these things in a soft, light tone, not as if he were preaching it to you, but as if he were preaching it to his own heart and it was just possible you might benefit from it too.

He also talked a lot about delivering babies. Delivering babies was his favorite thing. I knew that, but I asked him why. “Everybody’s happy, even the baby,” he told me. “The baby’s crying, but happy.” He loved life, he loved its beginnings, and he loved its preciousness just as he loved the God who saw fit to give it to His people. Probably half the population of Brookfield over the age of twenty-five was delivered by my grandpa. Sometimes, growing up, I would be approached by strangers who told me wide-eyed how he had attended their entrance into the world: farmers, Walmart greeters, tired single mothers in screen-print t-shirts. All of them spoke of him not only with respect, but with a sort of foreign joy. When these same people would approach him, he would tell them, with quiet but evident pleasure, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you. You’ve changed.”

I meant to say more, but I am worn out and a bit overwhelmed by even beginning to tell these stories and here is why: we all, my siblings and cousins, even my mom and her brothers and sisters, we all grew up being told what a good man our Dr. Howell was. My grandma ceaselessly sang his praises to her children and later to her grandchildren. Not only my mother, but also my father, consistently used him as an example to us of patience and humility and godliness.

But here is how I am wonderfully baffled: this was not just the mythos surrounding a beloved figure. Everything we experienced of him bore it out. It was all true. I am sitting alone on my bed right now miles from most of my family, but I can confidently speak for all of us: he was the best man we knew. He is still the best man we know.

This is important. I am typing very slowly now because I am fighting for the words to tell you how important. For a while in his seventies and eighties my grandfather led a Bible study at a maximum security prison about an hour away in Moberly, Missouri. When the prison officials first asked why he wanted to do such a thing he simply said, “Well, I believe that the Word of God changes lives.” He said this because in the early 1940’s in Cumberland, Iowa, the Word of God changed his life. The Word changed his life and continued to change it. My grandfather and his kind are important, because in a world full of fear and violence and bitterness, where even as Christians we cling harder to irony and mockery than to truth, they are proof that God can clean a sinful heart so new and clear that goodness can can shine through it like morning sunlight and fill the room. They are proof that holiness is real and strong and will triumph. And that holiness is what Jesus means for each of us.

About two weeks ago, when we got to my uncle’s house for Thanksgiving, I walked into the kitchen and Grandpa was hunched over the table, thin and gaunt, focussed on finishing a sandwich, breathing heavily with each movement. I asked him how he was. “Greatly blessed,” he said. He knew. Oh, he knew.

Ho! Everyone who thirsts,

Come to the waters;

And you who have no money,

Come, buy and eat.

Yes, come, buy wine and milk

Without money and without price.


A Family Funeral

Late last Tuesday night, my grandma died.

Grief has been in the periphery of my vision all weekend, and I have avoided looking it square in the face, mostly because I don’t know what I will find there and how it will change me. Also, the whole situation is improbable. My grandmother dead? My grandma to be grieved?

Grandma was not a person of grief but of cheerfulness and hard work and practicality, of swift pats on the knee or a brisk kiss on the cheek, of getting out leftovers on Sunday night.

I did not like to see her lying there in the open casket partly because she never lay still like that. She was always doing and moving. Even in her last months, they had to put up a child-gate at the door to her apartment to keep her from wandering off in a fit of usefulness. And her face in the coffin was not right–they hadn’t drawn in her eyebrows and all the color had faded from her hair. But the hands were hers: round knuckles, dark, familiar sunspots on their backs. (But even her hands were never still and folded like that in my memory–they too were always moving, and usually wet from the water in the kitchen sink…)

I feel as if I am writing this underwater–all of my movements and thoughts are slower. I am unsure of my own feelings, but I’m trying to speak for all of us anyway, which is probably foolish. At the visitation on Friday night, I sat in the front pew with my sister and cousin and Mary suddenly said, “For some reason, I didn’t think this would be so sad.” I didn’t think so either. I didn’t think she would be gone. She was never gone and now she is. I didn’t really know that even in old age, death is ugly like that. It takes. The rest of us know how to keep going, sure, but our roots feel lost without her.

The funeral service was good. I played a few hymns on cello, which wound my nerves up tight into a little ball, the siblings shared memories, and, in an unexpected turn of events, the family stood up front and sang. My grandma would have said it was so nice. I was once publicly chastised in a college class for using that word, but for my grandma it was rich with meaning: appropriate, sweet, lovely, good and right, just-so. It was very nice and mostly we did not cry. Probably because we don’t understand yet. And we cannot express.

We don’t understand this impossible balance between the finite and the infinite. Her face and her voice and her words and even her approval of our niceness are all gone. But she read to my mother and my mother read to me. And when she laughed very, very hard her face crumbled up helplessly like she was crying. The same thing happens to my mother, and sometimes to me. She got up early, early every morning and prayed for children, grandchildren, friends, missionaries whom she’s never even met. These things are infinite, especially that last. At its highest point, her very active love for us meant very actively giving us over to the grace of God.

We came to her to find home, but she knew all along that there was a home and a Host beyond and above, bigger and realler. And in the last year of her life up in Minnesota she asked and agitated again and again to be taken home, until even she was not sure what she meant. But Jesus knew. The home that we found at her table she’s even now finding, to an infinite degree, with Christ.

My grandpa is very feeble, and tired, and now also pretty sad. But what he said over and over this weekend, is this: Christ Jesus does all things well. He did not say much else, but I suppose the things we repeat most often are the things we know we must preach to ourselves: Christ Jesus does all things well.