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When I met Jeannie, she was about 22, recently graduated from college, and working as an intern in my company. She had been assigned to a project with some colleagues of mine, so I didn’t work directly with her; I saw her mostly in meetings, and noticed her because she was particularly quiet and attentive.
It took me a while to realize she was deaf; she had left stuff on copier, and I brought it to her desk, approaching from behind her, talking and assuming she could hear. She jumped, obviously; she hadn’t known I was there. I apologized, but was fascinated: I had never really known a deaf person! As I gave her the papers, I watched as she read my lips. She signed and said Thank you, her voice thick and imprecise.
Back at my desk, I emailed Jeannie to apologize again for startling her. She answered graciously, with some suggestions for how to approach her next time, so that she would be aware of my presence. I wrote right back – fascinated, curious. I asked questions about her life, her disability… the conversation was wonderful and exciting. Over email, I almost forgot she was deaf: she was bright and funny and articulate, telling me all of the ways she dealt with the world in college and in the workplace. She talked about her dreams for a future in engineering, although I was a little startled at the reason; I’d imagined it would be to create a better hearing aid or implant, but she was interested in cheaper, eco-friendly building materials to build low-income housing.
We hadn’t been friends for long when I thought about the healing service at my church. We hold it once a year, hosting a preacher who tours the country. He’s a really big deal and very expensive, but he went to school with our pastor so he includes us on the tour. Every year, we rent out the high school gymnasium and people come from all over. It’s an all-day thing, with local preaching and bands and prayer groups; at the end of the day, the famous preacher comes out and preaches, gets us all fired up with the Spirit, and ends by bringing a few people forward and healing them. I’ve seen people get over cancer; people in wheelchairs get up and walk. I know – I didn’t believe it either! but I’ve seen it!
And I wanted Jeannie to go.
She was such a nice girl. I wanted her to be healed, to be able to lead a fulfilling life.
I didn’t totally know how to ask her, so I just started casually mentioning my church while we were emailing, one day. When she expressed some interest, I asked her to come with me, and arranged to pick her up on Sunday morning.
When we got to church, I started to sit in my regular spot, sorta halfway back. But Jeannie gestured, and led us forward, so I followed, asking her why… forgetting she couldn’t hear me. I waited until she looked at me, and asked again why we had to sit at the front.
“To read lips,” she said. I’d forgotten how hard it was to understand her when she spoke aloud. Still, I nodded, and made the sign for “yes”; I’d learned a few basic signs, thinking that she’d be pleased. But she just smiled briefly and began looking around at the church. She seemed to follow service pretty well, and enjoy it; afterwards, I took her downstairs to get coffee and cookies. Another church member needed to talk to me, as often happens, so I introduced Jeannie to youth director and left them chatting.
It was about twenty minutes before I could come back to get her. Although alone in that moment, she seemed happy, and as we left it seemed to me she was glad she’d come.
During the week, I followed up with her over email, told her I’d pick her up again on Sunday. But she told me she’d take the bus, for the youth director had asked her to come early to help with programming. Sure enough, when I walked in for service, there she was, right up front. The music was particularly good that day, and I found myself both sorry that Jeannie couldn’t enjoy it and glad she was coming to the church; she was on the path to healing, even though she didn’t know it yet. She didn’t know that she too would get to enjoy music…
In the weeks to come, Jeannie got more and more involved. She worked in the Sunday School, to the point where I nearly never saw her at coffee hour that she didn’t have a kid attached. And she volunteered with our mission projects, helping to build houses, working with the homeless. Actually, she was the one who pushed to have a washing machine put in at the church for the homeless, and she single-handedly organized a sleeping-bag drive for them, too.
Of course, through Jeannie, our church started working with the disabled. Soon, more and more of them started coming to our church. Some folks grumbled, but I was thrilled! I’d invited Jeannie so she could be healed; now all these other new folks could be too!
There really was something about Jeannie, though… she brought a new life, a new energy to the church. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was a difference. Maybe I was just paying more attention? But it seemed like the church was filled with renewed life, added zeal; that the noise at coffee hour was up just a bit; that people were more animated – talking with their hands, kids running around, pushing the little girl who came in wheelchair, while taking care not to hit the blind man. Whatever it was, it was nice to watch… and nicer still to imagine what was in store for them.
The healing service happened on a Saturday.
We’d advertised for weeks leading up to it: talked about it in church, sent out emails and letters, posted on Facebook and Instagram. I arrived early to help set up, but felt continually distracted. I kept scanning for Jeannie, for the new people from church, unable to contain my excitement at the miracles I’d be seeing for people from my own church!
People began to arrive, the room began to fill; I was kept so busy I couldn’t watch as I would have liked for my own church members. As the event began I stood towards the back of the auditorium with the overflow – it was standing room only! – looking all around for a familiar head in the crowd. With the stage lights up and the house lights down, it was impossible to recognize any but those people right around me, and I finally resigned myself to simply enjoying the day, figuring I’d at least see them at the end, when the preacher called them up.
He was on fire, it was without a doubt the best preaching I’d ever heard. Dozens went forward to be healed at the end of the service, and I stood on my toes, craning my neck to see…
Jeannie was not among them.
No one I recognized was.
The next day I found Jeannie right in the front row at church, as usual. I stood right in front of her, hurt and angry, and looked directly into her face. “Why weren’t you there yesterday?” She gazed at me, steadily, calmly, then held out her bulletin. I glanced down: it was the day of the children’s program. I was stunned. I knew she was involved, but… “You chose that over…” I sputtered. But she wasn’t looking at me anymore.
I took my seat – the one where I’d sat with Jeannie for weeks – still fuming.I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand.
Lost in my anger, I didn’t see the children come in, didn’t see that church was beginning until the pastor got up to welcome us… and one of the kids was beside him, signing. Translating. He was one of the new kids, so I didn’t think much of it. But then another kid took his place, one who had been part of the church forever. There he was, signing the Call to Worship, grinning. Delighted in his newfound skill he was signing joy! Praise to God!
I couldn’t help but smile at him, too.
When we stood to sing, all the children gathered at the front of the church, the sighted ones gently leading their blind friends. Children with crutches, with wheelchairs came to the front, every child in the church dancing to the music, each moving as the Spirit led them. Each one radiant, purely happy. Over to the side, Jeannie and the youth director were dancing as well; Jeannie had a good sense of rhythm, I realized.
Throughout the service, the kids took turns signing; during the prayer time, it was actually the kid who was signing who stood in the pulpit, as the interpreter stood to the side, translating into speech the prayers of the children: for food and shelter for our neighbors, for the earth, for an end to violence, in thanksgiving for a community that was truly welcoming.
When I looked around, to see the reaction, everyone was smiling and very few eyes were dry, my own included. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a joyful worship service: whether it was the delight of the children in participating and making the service accessible to everyone; whether it was the pride of the adults and the care and thoughtfulness of the children and their teachers… maybe that’s what filled my heart. But mostly, I think, it was the little boy, maybe 8 years old, who danced during the last song, slightly apart so that his crutches wouldn’t land accidentally on the feet of his friends; just to the side of the main group, he lost himself in the music, in the moment. When the song ended, he opened his eyes, looked right at his father, and into the momentary silence exclaimed “I danced!”
I caught up with Jeannie after the service – it took a while, everyone wanted to talk to her.
“But why…?” The words trailed off as she took me by the shoulders, looked right into my eyes, then firmly turned me to look at the people gathered, drinking coffee in my church.
And I looked. And I saw.
Those gathered were, many of them, not just talking with their hands: they were signing. Awkwardly, in most cases; they were clearly still learning… but just as clearly, trying; laughing at their own ineptitude. I saw people guiding those whose vision was restricted; I realized the food tables now low enough for the folks in wheelchairs. How had I not noticed this before?
Jeannie tapped my arm. I turned; she handed me the morning’s bulletin, smiled, and walked away. On it, she had written, You thought you knew what healing looked like…and who needed it.
I read her message several times, then looked around the room at the life, at the palpable joy. I walked slowly over to the little boy who had danced, and sat beside him, noticing his crutches resting by his side. “You danced well.”
He looked over at me, his face entirely lit up in a smile. “I never thought anyone would ask me to dance, especially in church!”
“Are you learning sign language, too?”
“We’ve all been learning from Miss Jeannie for weeks!” He bounced a little in his seat, excited, joyful
Hesitantly, I asked him, “Will you teach me?”
His face grew serious, but for the shining light in his eyes, as he took my hand, fingers splayed, then folded the middle two down to rest my fingertips against my palm.
“This is how you say, ‘I love you.’”
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened; and the ears of the deaf unstopped… everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
I hadn’t seen another human in long enough that the sight of one was shocking.
I’m really not sure how long I’d been walking… weeks, at least. Months? It was possible. It’s hard to tell, to mark seasons, when so little vegetation remains: no leaves to bud, or grow, or fall and mark the passing of the seasons. It also makes foraging hard; I ate by taking from the stores left behind, the ones not totally destroyed. Even climbing over rubble, it was hard at first, because stealing is such a terrible crime. Those first times, I would take what I need, constantly glancing over my shoulder and running away through silent streets; eating alone, I waited for the brutal punishment from the conglomerates whose profits I’d taken. I would hide myself at night in the empty towns, fearful of the consequences for this worst of all crimes.
Slowly, the taking got easier, and I would grab more, enough to carry some with me so that I wouldn’t have to scrounge every single meal… so that I could escape the towns for a little while. The emotion, every day, of stepping through the destruction, carnage; the terrific mess that comes from the anger of people with nothing to lose… The towns through which I walked had once teemed with those who were never more than disposable labor, never more than paying customers, existing to make the industry owners fat. In the end, they had nothing to lose; though, perhaps more importantly, nothing to gain as their toil, their little income, was used – as they were used. Used up, sucked dry and discarded when finally nothing was left of them but the scents of disease, of death… of whatever chemical had destroyed what the weapons and bacteria hadn’t.
Day after day, I stepped over rubble, not looking too closely at what lay beneath. Day after day, I focused only on keeping myself alive. It was too much to think about those who had perished. I don’t know why or how I survived. Long ago I stopped asking; that was energy I needed for other things… for living with the assumption that I was the only one in the world, the only one to have survived the war that had touched everywhere. Everyone else seemed to have succumbed to the shows of force that had only resulted in fear and revenge; in the booming industry of destruction. They told us it was job creation, the making of death machines. If so, it was job creation for both sides, in the end.
The conglomerates never told us war is profitable.
War was supposed to make us powerful. Violence was supposed to end violence. Exclusion was supposed to make us safe. Fear was supposed to create respect. It didn’t quite work out that way.
When I was a child, my grandparents told me stories of when they’d talked with their neighbors – when people had lived side by side, rather than behind walls. They told me of their grandparents’ time, when a family with two jobs could both eat and pay bills. One story in particular came back to me often, in those lonely days: Grampa told me about his father’s friend, who had come to our land from far away. As a child, I would ask, over and over, “But how could he trust that his friend wouldn’t kill him?”
That was all I knew.
War, in the end, had wrought nothing but death. Including, I believed, my own: although I still lived, I couldn’t imagine it would be for long. Not alone, not on canned beans and whatever else I could find. I walked, I believed, towards my death. Yet still I walked, because staying put would make me see, make me think, make me dwell on the horrors we’d all seen in this world-ending war to see who could be the greatest.
Actually, it wasn’t the sight of people, but the scent of cooking that stopped me in my tracks. I had gone up into the hills, with enough food to last a while, feeling a need to be away from the vestiges of humanity, of industry. After a day or so of hiking, as I came up towards the top of a hill, a scent drifted towards me… a scent which reminded me not so much of food, but of home; of a time, almost forgotten, before the only possible emotion was fear, or anger, or retribution.
The scent seemed like a dream, so beautiful that my eyes filled and a lump rose in my throat. I didn’t fully believe it could be real, even when I came over the crest of the hill, and beheld through my tears a blur of green.
As though things were living, growing!
The shock knocked me off my feet, and I sat down hard, staring hungrily. I hadn’t seen anything like it… well, since both sides started burning, poisoning, trying to starve the other side… trying to drive up prices, gain wealth off of the pain of ordinary people.
This ground had been burned, but a streak of bright, brilliant green shone against the blackish-gray landscape. I stumbled to my feet and ran down the hill, eyes fixed on the life before me, just wanting to bury my face in something living…
She stepped out before me, spoke to me, stopped me.
I didn’t know anyone else was alive.
But suddenly, there was a woman standing in front of me. She spoke again; I didn’t understand her, it was not my language that she spoke. Everything I had been taught, all my life, should have made me suspicious. She was everything that was enemy, from the color of her skin to her clothes and language.
But none of that seemed to matter, in that moment. She was human. She was alive. My attention was caught by the beating pulse in her throat: the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life.
I fell at her feet and wept.
She spoke again, and though I still couldn’t understand, she spoke softly, almost with… kindness? That couldn’t be… I couldn’t understand it. The whole scene felt suddenly surreal, and the sense of hallucination dried my tears. None of this was real. I was dead, that was the only rational explanation: this was some afterlife of peace – the religious whackjobs had been right after all.
She turned and started towards the green; bemused, I followed her, aware again of scent of cooking and of my own rumbling stomach. Maybe at least the afterlife would have more than canned beans.
Then we reached the next hill.
The swath of green marked not only things growing, but cultivation: neat rows, plants I hadn’t seen in years and could barely name. All of my wonder came rushing back. In awe, I kept stopping, touching leaves, smelling the ashy dirt, thinking my heart would explode within me. It hardly occurred to me that this must be the work of more than one person. But at the top of the hill, beyond the end of the fields, I saw a small cluster of shacks, heard the hum of voices, smelled the smoke of cooking fires.
Not just me. Not just me and her. People.
Not many, mind: a few dozen at most. They were quiet, almost sullen, appearing angry. At the time, I barely noticed, for that had been the norm among people. I wandered among them, half-following my guide, dazed.
Suddenly I found myself knocked off my feet again; not by emotion, for once, but literally: hit behind the knees. By instinct, I swiveled to strike at my assailant.
I found myself staring into eyes of a child.
A child! It had been so long. I had no sense of how old this one might be. Towards the end of the war, the end of time, the women near me stopped bearing children, knowing their babies would only die.
I should have been angry at being hit, but mostly, I was fascinated by this little one who suddenly cowered, scared by this accident, knowing there would be consequences. Sure enough, someone came quickly, their hand raised to strike child. The gesture was so familiar, so expected… I had been so close to doing it myself. But before the blow could land, I caught their wrist, stopped them; with my other hand, I pulled child close, reassured her. “It was an accident,” I mumbled, my voice hoarse from disuse.
I let go the wrist I was still holding, held my hands out in a gesture meant to say it was okay. The man who had come over to punish the child eyed me warily for a moment, then took my hands and pulled me to my feet. For a moment, I tensed, scared; then he let go, nodded brusquely, walked away.
Had someone really just helped me?
My guide took me to where people were cooking, sat me down. Someone gave me a plate. I watched as others bustled around, preparing the meal; eventually, someone rang a bell – a rock hung among metal fragments – and everyone gathered, shoving, pushing to be first, to get the most. I didn’t think, just leapt up and pushed into the scrum, eager to get real food, be with real people, fill my belly.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw child, the one who had knocked over. She’d been pushed back, and lay sprawled on ground, crying….
I stopped. The world stopped; the air vanished as though I’d been punched. Gasping, ears ringing, fighting, pushing others away, suddenly desperate; meanwhile the child still cried, and the shoving only sent people careening towards her –
“No! Don’t hurt her!”
I didn’t think I’d shouted. But there was silence, stillness, shock. Shaking, I walked over and picked up the child, who was surprisingly light. I carried her, still sniffling, to get food, then sat with her; made sure she ate carefully, chewed every bite. I’d never watched someone else eat; I’d never cared for anyone’s hunger but my own. Her evident fear broke my heart: she ate quickly, messily, focused on her food but aware of her surroundings; aware of those who would readily take her meager portion. In her fear, I recognized myself, both in the desire to take and her fear of being stolen from. My stomach hurt as I looked at this child, as doomed as I, fighting for her food – might it not be more merciful to take it?
Who has a child in times like this?
She shouldn’t grow up like this, fearful and hungry. She shouldn’t grow up like me, simply waiting to die.
Her scant meal finished, she looked up at me, wary curious; her gaze made my heart beat painfully in my chest. I’d thought myself alone, the sole survivor perhaps on the entire planet. Yet here there were people, and the beginnings of community. Here, there was a child; here, there was life; here, there way hope. Prompted by the aching of my heart, I moved to do what I had never even imagined: I gave the child my food.
And every head turned.
And every voice faltered.
And every breath was held as this tiny one looked at me, eyes wide, and took what I gave her as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
We’ve been here two years now. Two years, but four harvests, for the weather here is mild and the soil is good. We still eat together, the whole community, but now the line is quiet. We are beginning to trust there is enough. And now always, the children eat first.
I have made a point of learning enough words to speak to those around me. Really, we’re all developing our own language, a pidgin mix that is ours alone. But on my own, I’ve learned enough to know that the best cook used to own one of the industrial conglomorates; that the most careful gardener lost her whole family when the factory next door exploded after safety measures were repealed for sake of productivity; the woman who had led me here had been a bill collector who often lined her own pocket by extortion, forced to choose between the suffering of her own or of others; the child’s father had, as a child himself, been sold by his family; sold and sold again at the whims of the oligarchs. Here, in this village, lived those who had labored and those who profited from that labor: the predators and the prey. Here, we live together, work together, eat together, speak together, create together.
It’s not easy to undo old patterns. It’s not easy to let go of old fears, of prejudices, of desires for revenge. I should say: it’s not easy for us, the adults. But the children here laugh and sing, dance and play, and they are teaching us.
Here, anything seems possible, for we had all believed ourselves walking dead. We had seen ourselves simply as those who hadn’t yet succumbed when humanity was cut down and leveled. But here, out of that which had seemed dead – this burned ground, this doomed people, springs new life where no one feeds upon the blood and sweat of another. No one profits by another’s loss.
It is a hard lesson to learn, and there are nights when I stand on our hill, looking out at the land around, still blighted and dead, and wish we had learned it sooner: what it means to be community, what it means to live in peace.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse; a branch shall grow out of his roots… the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. And a little child shall lead them.
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. -Isaiah 2:4
Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. – Romans 13:12b
I am very fortunate: there are several clergy groups of which I am a member, both in real life with local and regional colleagues, and on social media. This latter tends to connect me especially to younger clergy, like myself; and perhaps the best part of that is the frequent recognition that I’m not the only strange one out there.
This week, as I was preparing for Bible study and for this sermon, one particular quote kept rattling around in my head… and I turned to Facebook, only to find that same quote apparently rattling around in a lot of colleague’s heads, as well. It’s from the fourth book in the Harry Potter series, in which the mantra of one of Harry’s professors is “Constant Vigilance!” (Bonus points if you can name the professor.) But it’s an appropriate quote for many biblical passages, both in the Gospels and the epistles, where we are frequently exhorted to be vigilant, to be watchful. It’s even appropriate in the specific context of Harry Potter: he and his classmates are, of course, being warned to keep an eye out for the works of Lord Voldemort, who is essentially evil incarnate. The Bible isn’t quite so dramatic in this instance, but we are reminded that if we had known when the thief was coming, we wouldn’t have let our house be broken into (Luke 12:39). We are reminded to be vigilant for the Master’s coming (Luke 12: 35), with the implication of great trouble if we’re not prepared. The message seems clear, from the Bible as from Harry Potter: keep an eye out, because you never know when something bad is going to happen.
That’s usually how we understand vigilance: it’s the preparedness and alertness on our part that keeps bad things at bay. It’s what keeps us safe, keeps our loved ones and our families from the potential harms that are lurking, just out of sight. It’s the constant awareness of the worst-case scenario. And so vigilance often renders us suspicious; mistrustful of anything new, or strange, or different.
Constant vigilance! we are told, as though the Master were coming. Constant vigilance! as though thieves might break in any moment. Constant vigilance! And we respond as though Jesus’ examples weren’t just that – as though they were real scenarios, rather than metaphors. As though there really were thieves, as though there really was some great evil against which we needed to guard ourselves and our loved ones, as though Lord Voldemort might – at this very moment – be aiming his wand at us.
As though it weren’t the Kingdom of God for which we were being told to watch.
There was a fascinating story on NPR this past week – similar to, and possibly inspired by, one circulating as an internet rumor for quite a while now. A Mormon bishop in Taylorsville, Utah, outside of Salt Lake City, paid a visit to a local makeup artist. She found him a gray, grizzled wig; added bushy gray mutton-chops and a scar on one of his cheeks; she blacked out a couple of his teeth. The bishop completed the transformation with some old, ratty clothes, and I rather suspect he didn’t bother with a shower that day. In costume, he showed up in front of the church, an hour before the services began. Many people ignored him, a very few gave him money. Several church members specifically asked him to leave, told him that the front of the church wasn’t an appropriate place for him to be. He was quite convincing in his role of homeless man, even as he slipped into the church about 10 minutes into the service; even as he quietly made his way up to the front… and into the pulpit, where he removed his disguise.
The reactions were more intense than he’d imagined, and he took care to let his congregation know that he hadn’t intended to shame them, or guilt-trip them, but to make them aware that human perception can be faulty. That most of the time, we see only what we are expecting to see. That we need to be vigilant in a whole new way.
Vigilance need not imply suspicion. It simply remarks upon our perspective, our vision… and our blinders. If we are vigilant for evil, then we will be aware of evil. We will see what we are expecting to see, what we’re looking for, whether or not it’s actually what is in front of us. When we are suspicious, when we are expecting thieves, then we see a smelly panhandler, rather than a child of God. When we are suspicious, we see a threat, rather than a nineteen year old whose car has broken down, or an Alzheimer’s patient, or a human being in need of help – and we react accordingly: both of these people were shot to death this month. When we are suspicious, we see a trap, rather than a merchant beaten and left for dead on the Jericho road, passed even by the priest and the Levite, whose vigilance on that road didn’t show them the way to compassion.
When we are suspicious, we see more need for swords than for plowshares, more need of spears than of pruning hooks. We feel more need to protect our loved ones from the possibility of hurt or evil than we do to ensure an adequate harvest to feed those very same people.
The cycle of vigilance, of suspicion, just continues… and yet we are surprised that, despite our vigilance, the Kingdom of God does not seem to be drawing any nearer.
We are surprised, but it has never been thieves for whom we’re supposed to keep watch. Despite the similarities with Harry Potter, Lord Voldemort is not right around the corner, and we’re not called to be vigilant against evil. We are called to be vigilant without suspicion: vigilant for the best-case scenario, vigilant for God, and God’s presence in our every day lives. We are called to a vigilance that allows us to see one another with compassion, ans human beings in need one of another; even if we are strangers, even if we are different.
Paul reminds us to clothe ourselves in the armor of light – which also sounds like a militaristic, suspicious turn of phrase, implying that something bad is coming. But militarism, protectiveness, suspicion – all that divides us, all that comes from fear and mistrust – these are the powers of darkness against which Paul is speaking. The armor of light is not protective, but clarifying, opening our eyes and allowing for the vigilance that our faith requires. Clothe yourselves in light so that you may be on the lookout for all of the signs of God in the world: for the Christ who walks as one of us, for the Spirit’s still, small, continually-speaking voice.
We are called to be aware of the sparks of light in the Advent darkness; not just the Advent that heralds the old story of the birth of the Christ child; rather the Advent that we have all been in since that first Christmas day: the darkness that lasts throughout the year, whatever our seasonal liturgy. We are called to be aware of the sparks of light that will lead us to the promised Kingdom of God.
For there is good, if we simply know to look for it.
There is light in our darkness. There is hope; there is peace; there is joy; there is love: there is God, present in our lives, visible to us if we are vigilant. If we allow ourselves to be aware. If we allow ourselves to live in the light.
Constant vigilance! Even in Advent, God is nearer than we realize.