As the wind abated and the shadows stretched out in solemn parade, the phone rang again. I looked at the number and it was the hospital. I folded up my hopes for a quiet evening like one folds a fitted sheet --roughly approximate, and tried to open my heart. 'Mother,' he said. 'Someone wants a comfort service. I can't go --a commitment for my daughter, every one else can't go. Would you please go for me.'
You could have pushed me over. It was one of the guys who sings at the drum, one who follows the Traditional Lakota road. How could he possibly think I could fill his shoes --how could my presence instead of his ever satisfy a grieving family? He had gone through the list of the others who had been called and either didn't answer or couldn't go. They were all Lakota. All spoke the language. The family, in their grief, in their hour of need, wanted the comfort of nationhood, familiarity, solidarity. Not me.
And I understand. I fully understand. 'Of course I'll go,' I said. 'But if they want you, how can I help them?' I was hoping my inflection, emphasizing HELP not 'I', would carry the weight it needed to carry.
'You know how to pray, Mother,' he said, laughing, teasing. And then he said, 'Oh, hey, there's a wacipi (powwow) tomorrow night, you should come --our Halloween wacipi. Wear a costume, come for dinner.'
'Oh, that sounds like fun,' I said. 'I don't know about a costume, though.' I haven't lived in a place for years where costumes on a priest would be acceptable. 'You could come as a heathen,' he said. And we laughed and laughed.
So, Joel fed me soup. I took a shower. I went off in to the dark night, preparing myself to step aside if someone else came to lead the family in prayer... acknowledging quietly to myself that it was time here as much as race that mattered --and I had neither.
At some point during the whirlwind visit of M and P, we had discussed tenure and broken models of ministry. That priests were the seemingly expendable cog in the machinations of current parish life. Bishops bending to please congregations, because bishops need congregations. Congregations pressured inside and out to define who they are, confused on what it means to be Christian in an age of fundamentalism; unsure of what it means to be the Body of Christ; unsure of lines between politics and gospel --or resolute in a particular interpretation; shrinking pocketbooks and numbers as the instability and pressure grow. Priests convinced that congregations must change to survive... and they must, in so many ways. So, the easiest thing to do is throw the priest away, or pressure them until they leave... dysfunction becoming ingrained, all the way around.
Which is why the average tenure (if there is such a word any more) for priests in congregations ranges between five to eight years. And bishops about seven to ten years. While congregations still suffer or die. Yes, there are some who are thriving. No doubt about it. But that is certainly not the norm.
What happened, we asked, to the idea of a priest being embedded in community?
In this place, the tenure is between three and five years....
I left all these thoughts in the car. Brushed myself off as I stepped out in to the gravel of the parking lot at the funeral home. Walked in the door --saw the trays full of bologna sandwiches, smelled the coffee, started to shake hands all around wondering who was going to be making the decisions in this family group, the children running to hold me.
We waited for other family members to arrive. And then waited some more. 'Indian time.' When I was given the okay to begin the service, I began with a prayer in Lakota. The affirmation 'oh-hunh' followed --not amen. I felt a sense of gratitude. The elder who had first given me the encouragement to pray in Lakota, who had laughed fewer and fewer times each time I practiced it with her, who has gone on before us with all the saints, all the ancestors --she came and stood by my side. 'You will learn, don't stop, don't be discouraged, don't be afraid or ashamed,' she had said. And on this night, she cleared the path for me to pray, again.
When, after I gave the invitation for any one to speak, and I had waited a white eternity--a Lakota pause, and two had come forward, but no one else --I stood and admitted in a joking way that I was never sure how long to wait --that I came from a very fast, very white world... 'In fact,' I said to the gathered family, 'someone tried to sell me a watch the other day. Gee, I said to that person, it took you guys a year to get me to take my watch off --and now you want to sell me one?' And we laughed and laughed. And finished our prayer. Together.
At prayer today (Luke 12:13-31)
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”See... there it is again... do not be afraid... quit striving... God knows.
But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”
As I say my prayers this morning, I offer to Our Creator the dark recesses of my heart --and the dark recesses of other hearts shared with me in an offering of brokenness.... things done, things left undone... knowing full well that although I did not cause the suffering here, all my life and the lives of my ancestors have benefited from it... and I pray for a vision of reconciliation and healing... I pray for all those who suffer in racial, ethnic and economic oppression... I pray for the children who suffer neglect and abuse and abandonment... I pray for those stuck in addiction... I pray for the grandmas who keep on... I pray for those unwilling to talk about the past or the present... I pray for the rich... for the cold-hearted... for those unmoved, waiting... for those who hope someone else will do 'it'.... I pray for the Church in her dysfunction... I thank God for those who serve selflessly --giving their lives so that the people might live....
Off I go. Maybe I will go as a heathen to the wacipi tonight...
--just for a laugh... and to remember that the veil between the quick and the dead, between the holy and profane, has been torn....
thanks be to God.
A blessed All Hallow's Eve to all. All is hallow... All are hallowed. Be holy, because you are made in the image of God, and God is holy.