“All those things in life…”

“How will you tell our story when we are gone?” Things don’t always end how and when we want them to, and for the Bahamas Methodist interns, the decision has been that their injuries are serious enough to send them home for recuperation. Preparing for their departure; taking leave of new friends that have quickly become like family; some of them can’t help but wonder what version of the narrative future visitors and volunteers will hear. “Will we be described as naive? As victims of a freak accident? As heroic?” For better or for worse, many people on the island seem to be under the impression that they are neither naive nor heroic, but deceased after news spread that they were struck by a rogue wave while walking on the cliffs. Thanks be to God, that narrative is not true, but it is hard to leave not knowing how their story will be told.

Several years ago, when I started in pastoral ministry in North Carolina, a particularly wise Bahamian told me that I must make sure to always tell my story. He told me that my story was my truth, only I knew it and only I could tell it. But if I did not tell it, there would always be people willing to rush in and tell it for me whether it was the truth or not.

That reality is expressed in few places as surely as the church – we love to tell one another’s stories, often with as much enthusiasm and visceral delight as we find in telling the “old, old story, of Jesus and his love.” Stories about others, sometimes called rumors, are traded like rare and valuable baseball cards, that once obtained give a great sense of pride to the owner until they are traded up for something even more valuable.

This can produce anxiety… if you let it. Yet, for our departing interns, as for me, as for you, as for us all, the key is not what story will be told, the key is what story will be lived. Our own actions and our own words are the only thing any of us have authentic control over. That action, called self-control, is a virtue and a fruit of the spirit – while control of others and what they say and do is neither virtue nor fruit. A simple modifying noun makes all the difference. I’ve lived off the high of trading stories and trying to control the world around me enough to know that it is a high that is neither authentic, nor lasting, nor satisfying. It seems the more we try to control what is not ours to control, the less control we truly have; for in the act of control of others, we have lost control of self.

“All those things in life. All those things in life. When you’re dead and you’re gone to Jesus, all those things in life going to be gone.”

I’m shaken out of my reflections by the groans from the woman in the flowered straw hat on the clinic bench beside me. Waiting for the interns wounds to be rebandaged, I sit beside an elderly woman who is writhing in pain after falling and bruising her knee the night before.

“All those things in life. All those things in life. When you’re dead and you’re gone to Jesus, all those things in life…”

She’s right, you know. All those things in life that frustrate you, when you’re dead and gone to Jesus, that is all that they are going to be – all those things in life.

But as right as she is, all those things in life can feel awfully important while you are living through them – and as much as her mind denies it, her body well knows it as she arches her back and throws herself against my shoulder moaning, “All those things in life… All those things in life.”

Helpless to do anything to ease her anguish, all I can offer is my agreement. Yes, all those things in life… all those things in life… we must learn to live more gently through all these things in life.

As we left the clinic, we went back to the cliffs that they had been dragged down. (Don’t worry Abe, not close enough to get caught by another rogue wave, just close enough to observe from a distance). Jess, Alex & Alicia were able to see and remember and begin to understand what had happened to them. And because they were better able to understand their story, they will now be better able to tell it. So friends, go home and tell your story, but be patient with yourself. Some stories take time to tell. Some stories we must tell to ourselves before we can tell them to others. And remember, as long as your life is not over, neither is your story, and the end of the story is never final – it is always be rewritten every moment, every hour, every day.

As you return home, there are many things that you will have no more control over than that rogue wave that arched over you with its white fury. Continue to write your ever-evolving story as you look to yourself to see where you place your feet, for those feet are the only thing you have control over. And look to God, who is no more controllable than your rogue wave, but much more merciful and who always has your best interests in mind.

“All those things in life. All those things in life…” Let us learn to live more loving, through all these things in life.

The edge of the water near the cliffs that a rogue wave overwhelmed
The edge of the water near the cliffs that a rogue wave overwhelmed
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Sea of Stars

“Care for a cup?” This is the way every day should start, I say to myself, as Leroy goes to get me a cup of his special blend. Coconut water and pulp from the trees out front. Milk. Sugar. Stir. Its pretty much the best thing you’ll ever put in your mouth. Electrolytes, they tell me, electrolytes are why you drink it. It will make you stand up tall and ready to take on the day. Yet, certain that no amount of coconuts will make me taller, and already prepared to take on the day, I drink it for one reason alone. It is absolutely delicious.

And after three days of teasing me to go in the kitchen and fix him a meal, Manex does what is at the same time both unexpected and inevitable – he makes us breakfast. I decide that this morning what I have witnessed is not a feminist victory, but an authentic act of kindness and so I receive it with appropriate gratitude. Chicken eggs freshly gathered from the hen house are transformed under the delicate touch of BMH‘s Assistant Construction Coordinator into what may just be the most perfect over easy eggs I have ever seen.

This day has begun with what I felt sure were heroic acts of community and love. This day had begun just about as well as the night before it had ended.

The night in question had ended as Jess and Alex and I had lain flat on our backs on the rooftop patio of BMH counting the shooting stars that crossed overhead. It was amazing to me that the longer I lay there, the more stars appeared – as if the sky that arcs over the surrounding sea was a sea unto itself in which more bright specks of light floated to the surface the longer you watched. Our eyes, becoming accustomed to the darkness, spotted one shooting star after another as our mouths and hands took turns pointing and crying out “there’s another!”

After a long day that ended in a vigorous hour of play with the local school children, we had debated for probably about an hour how to spend the evening; the lackadaisical conversation somehow itself becoming the evening’s activity. How should we spend one of the last nights that Jess and Alex would be on the island. Beach? Too likely to fall with their injuries. Movie? Really? On a beautiful Bahamian night? But pondering the stars, spread across the sky in a quantity I have never seen before – that was an activity worthy of such a night.

I reflected on how unlikely a choice this would be for me back home. With so many distractions – gadgets – television – cable – phonecalls – “to do” lists – deadlines. Stars? Who has time for that? And yet, in that moment, it was hard to believe that I had ever spent an evening in any other manner.

As we lay on our backs, spread out around the roof, completely horizontal, we took a poll to gauge our tiredness factor – Alex was at 6 of 10, Jess and I were at about 7. Not quite ready to sleep, but getting there. I decide that I will wait for just one more shooting star to cross the sky. And after that one more. And one more. And maybe just one more.

This vibrant, moving, shifting sky is a place I can easily imagine sleeping under; truly, more than just imagine sleeping under, long to sleep under. But knowing that while that choice could easily be made in the intoxicating darkness, by daylight my body would be swollen with bug bites and scolding its nocturnal half like a chiding spouse. Yet, it is hard to pull myself away. Growing up camping, I have always loved sleeping under the stars. When I was a child, I was given glow in the dark stars for Christmas. Predictably, like the focused and determined child I was, I took a star map and painstakingly applied them to my ceiling. Even now, when I am home, I delight in turning out the lights and watching the night sky and constellations burst into view above my head.

But this sky shows me something altogether different. No static, stationary, pasted-in-place stars here. These stars twinkle, they pop, they soar across the sky in shooting arcs. This sky is alive. Just as alive as this place. And I realize it is all moving, all alive. The plants in the brush. The water in the sea. Even the stars in the sky. Unlike the fixed, concrete world I have spent so much time in – this world is alive.

I long to come alive like this place. Not to be bound, stuck, stationary. Not to be predictable, common place, anticipated. There is no way that an imitation of life can be acceptable once the authentic thing has been experienced. And with that I rejoice and give thanks to this great, powerful, mysterious, uncontrollable, unpredictable God who “danced in the moon and the stars and the sun.” No, not give thanks to God, I give thanks with God, knowing that God rejoices in my delight just as I rejoice in God’s.

And with that, I slip away to bed, unsuspecting that the morning would hold its own divine delights as Leroy and Manex, now asleep in their beds, would whip up blessings of encouragement and fellowship for my injured friends and I. But not quite yet. For a few more hours this narrow strip of land would slumber, as I did, surrounded below by its sea of liquid mystery and above by God’s endless sea of stars.

Leroy and I share a coconut during our hard day's work.
Leroy and I share a coconut during our hard day’s work.

First Day on Eleuthera

Bleary eyed, I pull on socks, tie my shoes, and stumble out into the sunlight. A chronic addict to the snooze button, this morning has been no different. Tomorrow, I promise myself, tomorrow I’ll get up at the first sound… or then again, maybe I won’t… and if I don’t, I won’t be mad at myself. With this much more reasonable promise to myself, my orange and pink Mizunos carry me off down the lane of the Bahamas Methodist Habitat. Thus, begins my first day back on Eleuthera.

As I turn the corner back from my morning jog into Camp Symonette, I am reminded that the hens have not yet received their morning greeting from me. My eyes are happy to discover that the chickens have indeed made their daily contribution to the household economy – four eggs – two in their proper places in the nesting boxes – and two, as Brenda had predicted, near the feed bin where the creative ladies of the coop offered evidence of their outside-of-the-box thinking.

I wash the eggs, which I later find out I should not do. Sometimes I have that tendency to try to make things too neat, too clean, too tidy. Sometimes with people, as with eggs, it is better to let them be. Leave the smudge of dirt across their cheek alone, which shows they have been doing good, honest work. Let them make their messes and clean them up how and when they want to… or not at all.

While erring slightly in my egg hunting mission, it has in no way been fatally botched and new tasks await. Back in the sleeping quarters, Pauline is already sweeping up a storm, finishing up the remnants, I assume, from last weeks “fly in.” There is no shortage of work to do after the three interns injured themselves in a rogue wave the day before I arrived. Rather than being swept out to sea, Alex, Alicia and Jess escaped with some pretty serious cuts and scrapes after being dragged across the razor sharp rocks. The powerful feeling of gratitude that my friends are alive and whole has been a bit of a surreal experience ever since I realized the seriousness of their ordeal. With the energy and enthusiasm that sincere gratitude produces, I would be willing to sweep up anything they wanted me to, and so I grab a broom and join Pauline.

After feeding the convalescing interns breakfast, Brenda arrives and takes me on a tour of the garden.

I had chosen to come back to the island for a good bit of time in order to be quiet with God, and I could think of no better place to do that than in a garden. There have been many places were I sensed God – creativity and love flowing down as sunlight filters through new green leaves in the spring – mystery and power tumbling forward and receding back at the mercy of an ocean’s wave – stability and wisdom standing firmly planted among a valley of boulders. But something internal and ancient tells me that there is no better place to find quiet and peace with God than in a garden; the place where God first loved us and where God intended us to be.

Wandering through the garden, Brenda tells me that the banana trees need their leaves trimmed. Dead leaves that are taking life from the tree need to be released so that nutrients can flow into the new growth and help it to thrive. Trimming the leaves helps the banana tree make better use of its resources, grow taller and produce fruit. There’s a sermon in that I know, but right now is not the time. Now is the time to be quiet with God, to work hard with my hands instead of my head, and to find myself with that smudge of honest dirt across my cheek.

The mulberries, I am told, have some bugs eating up their leaves. New berries that have begun to sprout may never get the chance to change from vibrant green to deepest purple if the insect invasion is not interrupted. Orange trees to the right, lime trees to the left; just a little weeding should make them happy. Watermelons to be watered in the evening. Tomatoes to be examined and thinned.

The case of the pineapples is an especially delicate one. Pineapples take 18 months to grow, Brenda tells me, and they are already 6 months into that investment of time and growth. What a sadness it would be to lose them when they are already so far along the path. My mind wanders to all the passionate young leaders I have seen walk away from the church… years of investment… ready to produce fruit… but then I bring my mind back to the garden. This time is not about the church’s problems, or my peers problems, or the many other problems that I simply cannot fix. This time is about God and me and a garden.

Green leaves. Turquoise water. Gray rocks. Warm sun. Green leaves. Turbulent waves. Honest work. Simple life. Breathe.

A few hours later, filthy and satisfied, I am looking at the freshly trimmed, freshly weeded, freshly watered banana trees. They look to me as if they too can breathe easier now.

I tell Pauline that I am walking to Miss Lee’s to get lunch. She laughs at me, for who would walk that far on an empty stomach when they could drive. But despite her kind advice, I insist on walking. I’m not choosing to do anything the faster way today.

The sun sets over the BMH garden
The sun sets over the BMH garden

"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)