This week, the oldest member of our parish (who still sits in the pews every Sunday) is turning 102. Yep, that’s right – take a second to just let that number soak in.
When I interviewed for this position at St Peter’s I was told that it was a church community of many faithful elders. The vestry joked with me that their tag line could be, “Worship with us and live forever!”
In my time here thus far, I have begun to build relationships with these elders, particularly those who are regular attenders on Sunday – which many of them are. They encourage me, impress me, and always brighten my spirit.
In church yesterday, as I thought about our elders, the lives they have lived and their active participation in our parish, I also thought about their children. I have witnessed some of the most gracious, thoughtful, kind caregiving in this parish.
For most of our active elders, there are adult children who accompany them to church every week – who make sure they get in to the service safely, show them where in the bulletin we are, and assist them in getting to the communion rail.
My view of this is limited, of course – Sometimes I know about a larger story, but most of the time I don’t. I just get glimpses, from my vantage point, of what love looks like. I see the dedication in taking care of parents. Some still have the ability to walk, remember, or hold conversation – some don’t.
These members of my parish, who are caring for their mothers and fathers, always seem to do so with such dignity, and respect. I can see a commandment lived out – to honour your mother and your father.
Last week, in hula, we spent time making lei po’o (head leis) out of ti leaves. We were making them for a performance yesterday, Sunday, which I couldn’t make since I was in service. As a result, I spent my time in class helping my hula sisters tear and braid their lei.
First, you have to measure the thickness of the ti leaf, and tear it into strips, and then cut into smaller pieces to be braided in. Once you get the hang of it, this can be soothing in its repetition. You de-bone the other leaves to be used for braiding, tear them in half and microwave them, to make them soft and pliable.
The small pieces get collected in bundles of three and braided in to the lei, making it full and attractive.
As we braided and talked, I remembered being in hula when I was young, and my mom making pieces like this for me and with me. My fingers are still clumsy, and I still get frustrated easily. I am not a perfectionist like some others, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad. I had a sense of fullness in this lei making – a sense of being brought full circle.
I don’t think I’ve learned any more skills since I was in class as a kid, but my body still remembered it. I had, in my muscle memory, something deeper even than my own memory – it felt ancestral. It felt like there was a part of me recognising and remembering how to braid together this lei which might not even have belonged to me, or my mom, so much as it belonged to my great and great great grandmothers, and even further back beyond them, extending to those whom I have never met.
As my fingers pulled the braid tight, I thought about the strands of DNA in their double helix, and the many strands we weave together to form identity. Something about pulling that braid, making it strong, was firming up something in my own identity.
There are parts of identity which we feel, or know, or believe – but many more parts, I think, which are made through our actions.
This might be a bit like people who say they are spiritual, but not religious. While spirituality is certainly something which can be felt, there isn’t an action beyond one’s own self. In a religious setting, in contrast, the action is gathering with one another, singing or praying together – and this action informs one’s identity, not only as a religious person individually, but as part of a religious community.
Helping my hula sisters to braid their lei, I was acting in a belief of community; of Hawaiian identity; of creation of beauty.
May we be gifted by the presence of community as we braid our many strands of identity together.
On Sunday, I preached about overcoming fear. I thought about the widows in both the old testament lesson from Kings, and the new testament lesson from Mark. Both women were sending me a message – to hold on to hope, even in the midst of fear.
This is, of course, easier to say than to do. How do we hold on to hope, or stay brave, in the face of fear? Can we cultivate courage?
I can think of examples of many parishioners who inspire me in this regard. When I visit someone who is homebound, or bed-bound, who maintains a particular joy, I am awe-struck by their bravery. Something which must be so challenging, and so limiting, is somehow kept in check with a sense of courage. Of course, there are harder days and easier days – but even on the harder days, we are usually still able to laugh together.
There is one woman in particular who I am thinking of, and this week have been inspired by. She is a regular at our Jazz Vespers service, has many health challenges, and needs some assistance in getting from the Handi-Van to the church. Last Thursday, she called the office as she was coming close to the church (which is her routine), and I went downstairs to meet her, help her to the bathroom, and then to her seat in the church.
She arrives about an hour and a half, or two hours before the service. She told me that then she can get help more easily, and doesn’t cause such a bother. She shared with me that she had been listening to a Chicken Soup for the Soul series, on people facing challenges, and had been inspired by it.
As we walked into the church, we talked about the gospel lesson, of the widow who gives her two mites. “I have all I need”, she said to me. “I won’t die with money, but I never had any in my life. But I know that the man upstairs is taking good care of me. All I need has been provided.”
Tears came to my eyes, and I was grateful that she couldn’t see me. I was so touched by her faith — so inspired by her witness. She was a living courage to me that day — and, indeed, every week that she makes her way to worship with us.
I am reminded that God hasn’t just given me stories of courage from long ago, but is writing them still in the hearts of those I am called to serve.
This weekend, I went out with a few different friends for dinner. Each of them has been in my life for a long time – and there are parts of my history each of them hold that are important to my sense of self.
We can become vessels to one another – holders of history, and of grace – holders of what has been and what might be.
The thing I was so touched by, with each of these friends – is that each of them not only holds my history, but also gives me so much space. Often, it is those who you grow up with that have the hardest time seeing you change. It can be odd, to think you know someone, and find that you’re wrong. But each of these friends has been able not only to hold a part of me from the past, but also give me space to be who I am today.
I hope I can be a friend like that.