I decided on the way to the Albuquerque airport to stop and do my laundry so I wouldn’t have to do it in Vancouver. I left Christ in the Desert Monastery a couple of hours before I had initially planned and stopped in Santa Fe. When I could access the internet, I looked up local laundromats and stopped at the closest one—well rated on Yelp, by the way. (I didn’t know such things were rated.)
I like going to the laundromat, frankly. I like getting all the week’s laundry done in a short time during the summer when I hit the one nearby our cottage on the Cape early in the morning before the crowds descend. This time I went on Memorial Day at about 10am. Still early, but the machines were chugging and tumbling.
My allergies have been kicking up at the monastery after having a fairly easy spring back in Boston. I brought enough Claritin to last my first two weeks, but I found that the incense used during some of the services really set me off. I needed stronger backup to my daily med.
But the closest pharmacy is an hour plus away. Rather than be miserable my last day and a half, I decided to drive out to get something.
[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]Phil LaBelle, 2017.[/featured-image]
While at the store—and back on the grid—I called to check in with Melissa and the kids, and my phone also automatically downloaded email. Since I had to make so many reservations for my sabbatical, I needed to have an email address ready, so I pulled out one I hadn’t used very much in recent years. Back when I was setting up St. Mark’s weekly email when I first arrived, I used this esoteric address as a test. But I forgot to unsubscribe it before I left. While quickly scrolling through a few emails, I saw one about a funeral.
During my sermon on Sunday I mentioned I’d put together online and app resources for praying. Here’s the list of things I’ve found (and some I’ve personally used) to make the most of your time and technology.
I wrote this essay a number of years ago when I had traveled to South Africa for a Habitat Blitz Build. I’ve been thinking about how we relate to others this week in response to all the news about violence to our neighbors. I’m so glad I met Nana; even though she lives halfway around the world, she’s my neighbot.
We stood near the front door to dedicate the Habitat house we had worked on over the past week. Nana, our homeowner who had worked with us, shed tears as the reality of the situation hit her. This building was now her home. A place to share meals with friends and to raise her child. We all shared our well wishes for Nana.
[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]Nana cleaning the windows of her new home. (c) Phil LaBelle[/featured-image]
Tears flowed freely, and our throats caught. The pain I felt from the week’s work didn’t seem to matter anymore. My eyes wandered to the other nearby houses built during that week. Dedications were happening there, too. One hundred gatherings happening at that moment asking God to bless the homes and those living in them.
Since I attended classes in New Haven, CT many of my more experienced colleagues went down to serve as chaplains. Melissa taught classes at a high school at a nearby town not many people had heard of at that time—Sandy Hook, CT—and many students had relatives or family members that had been in New York that day.
I remember a general sense of gathering together and facing this together as a nation at that time. Gatherings for prayer took place frequently. Signs of support appeared in yards. And then one day, I drove behind an SUV which had a duct-tape message on the back window.
Thoughts on recent world events and what it means to followers of Christ. Jumping off from John 18:33-37.
Over the course of the past couple of weeks, events in Paris—and, as many of us discovered afterward, also in Beirut—have grabbed ahold of our minds and hearts. This week we add to it Mali, a country I’d suspect most of us couldn’t place on a map unless we have visited West Africa. Additionally, we have the Syrian refugee crisis and our own hyper-politicized run-up to a presidential election next November adding to the frenzy. Fear and bombastic rhetoric and calls from varying positions on how to respond have flooded the airwaves and the web. The noise is overwhelming, and the issues are reduced to snappy soundbites.
What’s a faithful Christian to do?How do we follow Jesus and think about these complex issues in a way that reflects Christ’s kingdom?
Today we celebrate the Last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday or simply The Reign of Christ.We’ve reached the very end of our Church year and next Sunday we’ll be flipping the calendar to begin again with the First Sunday of Advent.On this Sunday we focus on the future hope that we have when Jesus reigns forever, and how we can embody that kingdom in the here and now.We’ll be reminded in the weeks ahead about what Jesus’ first coming looked like as we welcome him again.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve really been active on this blog except for posting the occasional sermon.
I’m taking stock about this endeavor as I consider where to go next. That’s where I could use your input: I’m asking you to fill out a short ten question survey. The survey will give me an idea of what’s helpful and what could be improved upon. You can reach that survey by clicking here.
I really appreciate you taking the time to help me out. And if you have any other thoughts or comments, please scroll down and let me know.
Joy and Hope. Photo taken at our apartment at Saint Luke’s.
Nine years ago this week I preached this sermon at Saint Luke’s Parish in Darien. That congregation loved me through the unexpected death of my mom and the joy of new birth with the arrival of our second child a few months later. Whenever I read the story of blind Bartimaeus in Mark’s gospel—like I am this week in preparation for Sunday—I think about all of this again.
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t give us much in terms of background on the story of blind Bartimaeus. We don’t know how often he would gather himself together to go and sit beside that road outside Jericho. We don’t know how long he had been blind, or what caused his blindness. At some point in his life, his eyesight was lost, and he had to learn how to stumble around in the darkness making his way through life. And so he was there that day sitting in the dust trying to scrape together a few coins so he could buy some bread.
Then he hears a crowd coming up the road, and then someone says the name Jesus, and he wonders if this is the same Jesus he’s heard about. He asks those walking by him as the crowd gets nearer, and finally he learns that it is this same Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth. And so blind Bartimaeus stands up and begins shouting loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” He’s shushed by those around him to be quiet, but he gets even louder. “Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Sometimes in life we are blindsided by something that leaves us numb. Things come at us so quickly we can’t quite distinguish where we’ve been or where we’re going. We drift. We stumble around in the dark. We hold out a hope that maybe things can change. We long for wholeness. And so we offer up a prayer, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Sitting in the living room next to a hospital bed that has been delivered to my parents’ house by hospice care. I hold my mother’s hand; it’s colder now than what I used to remember. It’s only been five months since her diagnosis with cancer. The news came fast and in varying waves of good and bad: first a small lump, and then the possibility of more. And then nodules in the lung, but then two non-related stage 1 cancers, a very rare but positive diagnosis. Surgery followed, but recovery was slow. And then the call that brought me home.
The oxygen machine whirs nearby, helping her breathe. I whisper my love into her ear. I recount stories from my childhood. She smiles, and coughs out a laugh. She tells me how much she loves me but the surgery has proven to be too much.
My dad, brothers and sisters and I take turns by her side. We sit near her and pray. We squint back tears. We walk outside, and run to the pharmacy and try to plan meals. We play games with my nieces and nephews out on the back patio. Early on during those last two weeks, she sat in a wheelchair under an umbrella to be with us. Later, she is confined to the bed, and later still she is unable to talk. And then one morning her heart begins to beat more slowly, and we gather around, joining hands, praying. I anoint her with oil and give last rites. I kiss her one last time, and stroke her hair.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks Bartimaeus. It’s an unreal sort of question; he must have been stunned. What went through his mind? Was he thinking how this could be happening to him, how his luck had changed?
I imagine he couldn’t truly fathom that Jesus was standing before him asking him what he wanted. He probably couldn’t take it all in. One minute he was begging beside the road wondering where his dinner is coming from, and the next minute he is being asked what this miracle worker can do for him. The words come rushing out of his mouth, “Teacher, let me see again.”
Bartimaeus wants the same thing all of us want. He wants to be healed. He wants the numbness to be taken away and replaced with something else, something he can’t quite put his finger on. He knows for certain that he doesn’t want to remain as he is. He wants to see again. He wants to be made whole.
And Jesus looks at him and says, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he can see again. He sees Jesus and the crowd of people, he notices the way the sun’s rays dance on the dirt road. He turns and looks at the city gates and the people coming and going from Jericho. The world is opened before him in new and unexpected ways.
It’s two months later, and I am sitting next to another hospital bed, Labor and Delivery at Greenwich Hospital. I hold Melissa’s hand as we await this new little one who is about to join us. Even though we don’t know the gender of this baby, we are convinced it’s another boy. We share stories and laugh between contractions and try to catch some rest. And then in those last painful moments of pushing, a new little one begins to cry, drawing in those first breaths of air and the doctor says, “It’s a girl!”
We are stunned. And then immediately, a wave of unexpected healing and joy and emotion wash over us both. We look at the face of this new little daughter, and try names on for size. We remember one of the last conversations Mom had with us about the baby, and how much she loved one particular name. We look at this dark-haired little bundle of crying humanity, and we know what we should call her.
I go out into the waiting room and make phone calls. I call my sister. “It’s a girl!” I shout. “What’s her name?” she asks. “Olivia,” I say. “Olivia Hope.” “Mom would have loved it,” and I know she’s right. I go back into the room and hold Olivia, and the world is opened up before me.
At the end of our story Bartimaeus makes an unexpected turn. He’s been made whole, and Jesus tells him he can go back home, but he knows his life will never be the same. He gathers his things and begins following Jesus. Every time I read this story, I am struck by that last line, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
What stuns me most of all is the very next sentence, the one we didn’t read, which details where Jesus is headed. You see, as soon as Jesus heals Bartimaeus, Jesus turns his sights toward Jerusalem and the triumphal entry. The very next scene details what the way of Jesus really is, it is none other than the way of the cross. Even though Bartimaeus is given wholeness, Jesus himself walks toward brokenness. It is this way that Bartimaeus walks in too; it is this road that he chooses to follow Christ along.
When we brought Olivia home, our 22 month-old Noah couldn’t quite get out her name. After giving it some deep thought, he shortened it. I point to his sister and say, “Who’s that?” “Hope,” he says. I am struck, befuddled. He hears her fussing in the other room and says, “Hope crying.” He gives her a kiss and says, “O Hope.” Over and over as I look at my squirmy, smiling daughter I hear him declare that promise of new life, that promise of hope.
And that really is the way that we join Bartimaeus on when we choose to follow Christ. We walk the way of the cross—it’s true—but it is none other than the way of life. When we are made whole, we see that there is no other way in our lives. It’s only in our brokenness and our blindness that we can fully understand the gift of life given to us by Jesus. It is only when we are healed that we can truly comprehend the significance of the cross. And so we walk in this way of his, knowing that it is only Jesus who can truly have mercy on us. Jesus is the only who can bring healing to our lives. He is the only one who can lead us into the way of hope. Amen.
I’ve learned that all of us face dark times. I wish that weren’t the case; why wish anyone to have to experience difficulties in life? In my role as a priest, I hear the stories and sometimes have the honor of walking with people through their dark nights. These words are for them and for the others who fear they have been abandoned by God.
“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”These words of Job tear at our souls.Here he is desolate and alone, fearing he has been forgotten by God.We hear these words echoed in the cry from the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Both are in what St. John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the soul.”And neither of them wants to be there in that seemingly God-forsaken place.Afraid and alone and overwhelmed.
Nine years ago today we said goodbye to my mom, Betty LaBelle. Here’s the eulogy I gave on the day of her funeral.
One morning during Mom’s last week, we gathered together around her watching the nurse, Nancy, take her vitals. After she was done, Nancy pulled the stethoscope out of her ears and turned to my two and half year old niece Lily and asked if she wanted to listen to her Nena’s heart. Lily was thrilled and jumped at the chance. Nancy helped her put the stethoscope in her ears and then placed the other end on Mom’s chest.
After a moment, Nancy looked at Lily and said, “What do you hear?” Lily’s eyes were big, her mouth wide. “A lion!” she exclaimed. And she was right. She heard the heart of a lion.
That strong heart kept her with us much longer than we had expected during those last few weeks. I lost count of the predictions the hospice nurse had given us based on Mom’s health and vitals; she possessed a deep desire to be with her family. Instead, we surrounded her and held her hand and whispered our love into her ear and snatched another kiss. We did for her what she most certainly would have done for any of us.
What can a son say in a matter of minutes to sum up the life of a mother who meant so much? How can I attempt to distill the life of Betty LaBelle into a brief eulogy? And yet—and yet. “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us,” author Norman Maclean writes at the end of one of his stories. It is those we love, the ones we share the most moments with, the ones we think we know, who somehow turn out to be the ones who become shadowy to us. But we still try to understand them, we still reach out to them.
Mom lost her own mother very early in life, while she was just a teenager. Not long after that, she was asked to be a live-in nanny for another family. Those two events merged together in her mind; that early death and her departure from her family home while still in high school became fused because of the difficulty both presented to her. Losing a parent at a young age raises enough questions of uncertainty, let alone an early departure from your childhood home. Yet she jumped into her new role with a gentleness and caring that would become her trademark. She would often tell stories about Walter and Theo and their children with fondness. In spite of the tragedy of her mother’s death, she found something positive to hold onto.
She and Dad met at a St. Patrick’s Day party in 1958. He was completely enamored with her right from the start, and claims it was her great legs that caught his eye. The way she told the story, he asked her to marry him on their third date, and she told him to wait six months. He proposed again in six weeks. They were married eight months after they first met, and spent forty-seven years sharing their lives and love with one another.
My own early memories of Mom are fuzzy, uncertain, tentative, and that’s exactly what you’d expect from the sixth child of any woman. I can’t imagine the hours of work she had, the diapers and potty training and meals and homework and running this one here and that one there, and the laundry, good Lord, the laundry. I do remember sitting in my spot at the kitchen table for dinner, something we did together every night as a family. I sat in the curve on the bench at the corner, which I must assume was the least desirable spot since I got it. And I do remember kneeling beside her each night with my sister Rhonda before we went to bed so she could hear our bedtime prayers.
Her faith in Christ gave a deep foundation to her life. That faith took on various expressions throughout her years, yet she never took it lightly. And I suspect that it was her faith that instilled in her a desire to help others, even sometimes at the expense of her own wellbeing. She had what can almost be described as an urgency to help others who were in need, just not in the ways you’d expect. She didn’t visit a nursing home, or give her time at local charities, rather she opened herself up to people both young and old who were hurting. She found ways to help those who somehow fell through the cracks. Our home became a haven for folks all throughout her life: from relatives who were in between places, to someone wanting a listening ear, to a friend needing a home for a few months. Ultimately she and Dad expressed this deep sense of compassion in opening their hearts and home to my sisters Laura and Berniece when Mom and Dad were just two years away from an empty nest. Instead of thinking of themselves and the gift of being finished with raising children, they began again with girls in kindergarten. They wanted to give these daughters a life of hope and promise that would otherwise escape them.
Mom desired for all of us as her children to fully experience and cherish a sense of togetherness. Sometimes she could be downright forceful about this. I remember a time when the entire family went to Cedar Point: children, grandchildren, Mom and Dad. Mom had made it a rule that we gather together and check in every couple of hours. So just as you were making it through the line of the Gemini or the log flume, it was time to check in again, and you had to skip your ride altogether. I ended up missing more attractions than I rode that day, but I can say that I saw my family with great frequency. I learned how to take one for the team that day.
This sense of connectedness that Mom desired for us spilled over one day as a group of neighborhood kids played kickball in our yard. A brother and sister from down the street got into a shouting match—they were on opposing teams. Mom heard them fighting through an open window. She came out, stopped the game and made them apologize to one another. Then in the coup de grâce, she made them end their apologies by giving each other a hug. That was the last time we played kick ball at our house.
Mom wanted us to have the joy in our lives that elusively evaded hers after her mother died. She would attend my brothers’ baseball and basketball games religiously. With most of us in musical ensembles, she and Dad sat through endless performances on uncomfortable chairs in the school gymnasium, all the while feeling pride. She always had high hopes for the gifts she gave, and was let down if there wasn’t an immediate response of gratitude—which meant that you had to be good at faking it if she gave you something you already had or saw that it was the wrong size. When trouble arose from time to time in our family—as it does in every family I know—she became disheartened. Although she had an ideal about how life should be, she also had a strong pessimistic streak, and that made some of the inevitable disappointments in life larger in her mind. In spite of this pessimism, she always held on to the belief that life in general, and our lives in particular, could be so much more.
Mom’s sense of humor around the table was infectious. I have fond memories of sitting in the kitchen playing cards all throughout my life. Mom could hold in tension both a seriousness for the game—she was a fierce competitor—and also the wisdom to have a good laugh when something tickled her fancy. She held on to that sense of humor until the very end. On one of my last visits with her earlier this year, Dad and I stopped at Wendy’s to grab some lunch for all of us. As I handed her her burger, I said, “We got it just the way you like it, with extra pickles,” knowing full well she hated pickles. She looked at me with that infamous look of hers and without missing a beat said, “So what you’re telling me is that you want to get to your grave quicker than I’m getting to mine?”
The thing that brought her the most joy, however, was her grandchildren. When Angela, the first grandchild, began talking, she couldn’t get out “Grandma” and instead said “Nena.” Mom latched onto that name—it made her sound less old, more fun-loving—and it became the name all of her grandchildren used for her. Those kids loved their Nena and she doted on them as every grandparent should. She went to all sorts of events, competitions, baseball games, and concerts for them. She traveled to see the ones who were out of town. She spent weeks finding the perfect Christmas gifts—she made Christmas into an unbelievable extravaganza of presents and joy. She babysat and gave hugs and always had a multitude of snacks in her pantry. Nena worked her magic and made each of her grandchildren feel special. When Dad retired, they decided to relocate to Charlotte to be closer to my sisters and their younger children, so they could see them frequently and shower them with love.
Since I’ve only become a parent recently, I didn’t have long to experience this firsthand, but I was amazed at the love and generosity she bestowed on my son Noah. Even when her health was beginning to fail, she still wanted to see him playing on the playground near her house. So one bright afternoon, Melissa and I drove Mom down to the park, and she watched from the bench with a huge smile on her face as Noah squealed with delight from the infant swing.
In the end, I know Mom took a great deal of pride in her children and grandchildren. She told me a number of times during those last two weeks of how proud she was of me, how proud she was of all us. She and Dad taught us well: to be generous toward others, to approach life in gentleness and gratitude, to be faithful to our Christian beliefs. That’s what she was proud of. That’s what she embraced in her life.
There are many things about Mom’s life that I will never understand, and there were conversations we never had for various reasons. Even though we all lived together for such a long time and loved each other and should have known each other, she still eluded us. She still eluded me. But I will continue to reach out to her. And I will always know the brilliant legacy she left: she had a deep and abiding faith, an unfathomable love and generosity for others, and, above all, she had the heart of a lion. More than anything else, I want that heart.