In Memoriam: A Reflection on the Life of My Grandma

The reflection I delivered today at my grandmother’s memorial service:

I have been blessed beyond measure to have Ellen Rust as my grandma. From a very young age, I always knew that Grandma loved me and my family with an unwavering, godly kind of love. She would call me her “little angel” and leave lipstick kisses on my cheeks. She would come to grandparent’s days and piano recitals. By the time I was in college, she would offer me clothes straight from her closet – like the outfit that I’m actually wearing today.

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The last time I saw my grandma, January 2017

Now, I’m 26 and completing my first year of seminary at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. And I assure you: Ellen Rust has helped to make that possible.

Last week, when I learned of her passing, a chaplain at the seminary asked me: “Do you think there are ways that you’re similar to your grandmother?”

I thought for a long second and finally said, “You know. She would sometimes tell me that when she was young she wanted to go into the ministry. But she wasn’t sure she could because she was a woman and she didn’t have the money for seminary and probably some other reasons.”

Well, Grandma, I think you did go into the ministry. The ministry of encouragement. Support. Responsibility.

Like last fall when she called me up on the phone just to check on me and the conversation went something like this:

“Are you learning things up there at school?” she asked.

“Yes, lots of things,” I said.

“Well, that’s good. Are you going to church?”

“Yes, ma’am.” (Little did she know I would be an intern at that church some months later!)

“Are you gonna go vote for the president?”

“Yes, definitely.”

“Well, sounds like you’re doing real good.”

Simple as that. In the midst of an often complicated world, she knew her values: Education. Faith. Civic responsibility.

And maybe the value I remember most? Prayer.

When she had a short hospital stay in 2015, I went to visit and found her in good spirits. We talked, I prayed for her, and then from right there in the hospital bed she insisted on praying for me. I’ll never forget that, as I was getting ready to leave, Grandma told me this: “Every night, I lay down and talk to Jesus. Sometimes it’s real short, because I fall asleep and all. And sometimes it’s real long, because I tell him all about my day. And he listens real good and says, honey, you’ve had a pretty good day. And I say thanks, Jesus, I guess I have.”

So, even today, when I think about the life and legacy of Ellen Rust, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is listening real good and saying, “Honey, you’ve had a pretty good life.” And I imagine Ellen in glory laughing, “Thanks, Jesus. I guess I have.” 

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Sacrament at the Soul of Me

I grew up at a Baptist church receiving Communion seemingly whenever the senior pastor felt like offering it, which probably amounted to once a quarter. Ushers would pass heavy silver trays up and down the pews — a tray of wafers followed by a tray of little, thimble-sized plastic cups of grape juice. It seemed like snack time to my seven-year-old sensibilities.

06-2015-laity-lodge-02I don’t know exactly when the sacrament became something more than snack time. But it certainly has.

When I visited and joined an Episcopal church at age 22, I started receiving Communion once a week. It was the focal point of the Sunday service, as opposed to the music or sermon, which I have seen centralized and even quite frankly sensationalized in some settings.

When I interned at and worked at that Episcopal church, I started receiving Communion multiple times a week, because the parish offered the sacrament typically every Monday-Friday in conjunction with morning prayer.

Eventually, I started hungering for it. Just a few months ago, when I was away from home and from my home church one Sunday,  I noticed the hungering for it and semi-jokingly told a friend traveling with me: “I think I’m having Eucharist withdrawal!”

It’s not a physical hunger. Because, let’s be real; that’s best satiated with some Sunday brunch after church.

It’s a spiritual hunger. The hungry searching of a weary swimmer grasping for a buoy. The “hangry” searching of a tired traveler scanning airport corridors for some trustworthy sustenance. Subway and Starbucks are my airport go-tos. Bread and wine are my life’s go-tos.    

The comparison of Eucharist to fast food chains is a pale comparison indeed. But what I mean is this: it’s a source of constancy. I remember the relief of finding a Subway at the Toronto airport during a layover once, tucked away among all the unfamiliarities of poutine and ketchup-flavored potato chips. I remember the warm comfort of sipping Starbucks at the Charlotte airport during many a layover when I used to travel periodically between Texas and Virginia. Travel where I may, these edible anchors would be there, offering much the same menu each time and at each location.

Having recently moved halfway across the country, I find that Communion is an edible anchor too, offering “much the same menu” upon each reception. Maybe a thin, round wafer or a piece of sweet, soft bread. Maybe juice, usually wine. Always “the gifts of God for the people of God.”

When I receive nowadays, I go back to my seat and might recall fondly other times I have received. I might recall a quiet Jesuit retreat center in North Texas or an Anglican mission church in Belize. I might recall that home parish that first taught me to cherish Communion, glance at my watch, and realize that even across time zones they’re eating and drinking of the same body and blood at about this same time.

I might recall the time last summer when my grandma’s 94th birthday was approaching and I arranged to give her Communion for her birthday. As I told my mentor-priest: She really doesn’t need anything else, and I really can’t offer anything else. So, come Sunday, she wheeled her walker into the sanctuary, sat on the edge of a pew, fell asleep twice during the sermon (sorry, preacher), and watched as I served the chalice to countless parishioners more ambulatory than herself. Finally, a priest gestured to me to follow him out to the pew where Grandma sat. He leaned over, handed her “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” and stepped back into the aisle. I stepped forward, making eye contact with this white-haired woman of God who has thus far been around all my life but who cannot possibly continue to be around all my life. I held out “the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” she warily dipped her wafer in, and promptly dropped it. I looked at my priest, who shrugged, and I fished the wine-soaked wafer out of the chalice and placed it in her thin, receptive hands.

Later, we laughed about the awkwardness of that Communion.

Much later, I would cry about the gift of that Communion.

When so many things change, move, age, and even pass away, the Lord does not. For me, Communion attests to this.

Because, a thousand miles away from some of my closest family and friends, the continuity of Communion over time and space tells me that the Lord provides for those family and friends. I have done and will keep doing all that I humanly can to care for them, but ultimately the Lord will provide. And, Communion tells me that the Lord provides for me too. Travel where I may, this edible anchor will be there. Thanks be to God.    

A Daughter’s Ode to Fathers


FullSizeRender (1)I didn’t really realize my father’s role in my life until I was at least 22. (Sorry it took so long, Dad!) It was so everyday, so simple oftentimes, that I took it for granted. But, the everyday things matter because it’s the everyday things that mean that, all tolled, I was and am cared for every day.  

Growing up, Dad would let me play at putting plastic hair clips in his hair — even though he didn’t even have a whole lot of hair to speak of.

Dad could rip off Band-Aids just right and make the world’s best peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

He would take me to the library on Saturdays and go get lost in the basement while I got lost in the children’s section. When I had a sufficient stack of Wayside School and Baby-sitters Club, I would venture to the basement and find him absorbed in some ancient-looking tome, not knowing that someday I too would get absorbed in some ancient-looking tomes.

That one time I tried a team sport, I think he was at every basketball game — taking pictures, too, to document the awkward adolescent attempts at athleticism much to my chagrin.

The many times I tried spelling bees (yes, like the Scripps Howard kind and the kids in the documentary Spellbound), he actually made a computer program containing every single word in my practice booklet. Thousands of them. It was like a love letter written in JavaScript, saying without a word (or was it thousands of words?) that he cared about what I care about. During “spelling bee season,” we would get out the love letter for an hour every night and practice. Chionablepsia. Modinha. Ecchymosis. I still remember how to spell them, and maybe moreover I still remember my dad’s face as I spelled them, his nods and gentle no’s.

When I would come downstairs in a prom dress or walk across a stage in cap and gown, Dad would say “I’m so proud of you.” Like a little tiny echo of Father God saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

When I have a concern with my computer or car, I know all too well that Dad will answer my text messages with a healthy balance of advice  and emojis.

Now, I do realize that many, many people for many, many reasons don’t have fathers who are present like this. But, your father has probably been present at some point. I think if you think about it, there may have been some plastic hair clips or PB&Js — from a biological father or a father figure or fatherly someone.

Whether it’s easy or hard, painful or poetic, I think we can all try in some way to say this simple line, as I’ve heard a poet put it (W.S. Merwin I think): “I guess what I’m trying to say is thanks.”

Thanks for the everyday. Thanks for the mundane. Thanks for the unnoticed and unacknowledged, the forgotten and forgiven.

Thanks, fathers. Thanks.    

On Grandpas and Books and the Ministry of Presents

A few weeks ago, I wrote here about visiting my maternal grandma in the hospital. In today’s similarly-titled post, we get the story of visiting my paternal granddad at his home near Oklahoma City last weekend. (The significance of attending to the illness and aging of family alongside the joy and birth of the Christmas season has not been lost on me. Perhaps a post for another day.)

Granddad is the kind of relative I don’t know well and only see sporadically, the last time being 5 years ago at a family wedding. But, 5 years makes a big difference, especially for the elderly, and in recent months he’s experienced rapid weight loss, no appetite, and significant weakness.

While visiting, my family and I set out to help him eat a little something 2-3 times a day, do household chores, and do some ministry of presence. Along the way, Granddad gave me an unintentional surprise: the ministry of presents.

Years ago, he attended New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and served numerous churches as a Baptist minister. I knew this. To this day, he has a sizable theological library collecting dust in his home. I did not know thisIMG_1754.

And let’s just say around a theological library, I act like a puppy in a pet store.

After perusing the shelves, I removed two intriguing volumes, took them to the living room, sat on the floral-patterned couch next to Granddad, and said, wide-eyed: “Your books. They’re amazing.”

“You can have them,” he said. “Any of them.”

FLASHBACK: As a high school student, I sat on the same couch and told Granddad that I wanted to pursue theological studies and work in vocational ministry. He promptly suggested that I can’t preach because I’m a woman. He might have been alright with women in other, non-preaching roles (e.g. children’s ministry, youth ministry). But the conversation ended there. If he was proud of me, I couldn’t tell. END FLASHBACK.

This time around, I know he’s proud of me. I know because he offered me his theology books. And because they used to mean a lot to him, and now they mean a lot to me. And because his 1938 anthology Christ and the Fine Arts showed us that we have some things in common — two things, to be exact: Christ and the fine arts. And I know he’s proud of me because he said so.

In what might be one of our last conversations this side of heaven, Granddad said in a weak, raspy voice, rather like a weary Jesus talking to a wary Peter, “You want to work for the Church?” (Peter, do you love me?) 

“Yes, I do,” I said. (Yes, Lord, you know I love you.)

“That’s real good,” he said. “I’m proud of you.” (Then feed my sheep.)

He didn’t mind that I’m a woman. He didn’t even know that I’ve become an Episcopalian in recent years. He knew that, in the end, we all alike hold fast to “the holy catholic church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” (to quote the Apostles’ Creed). And what a present that is. 

On Grandmas and Hospitals and the Ministry of Presence

I’m pretty sure my grandma is invincible. At 93 years old, she’s broken bones, to be sure, and been sick an average amount. But she just keeps living — the kind of living that just never gives up, laughs at the little things, prays about all the things.     OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But this Wednesday she was taken to the emergency room with enough weakness and nausea to merit a couple days in the hospital. As soon as Mom called with the news, I was off to the hospital.

Here’s the deal: visiting a hospital is awkward. There’s few places like it where visitors so deeply don’t know where to go, what to do, what to expect.

Do I bring a present? Do I tell jokes? Do I say something wise?

Sure, sure, and sure. But, those things are optional, it seems. I learned that afternoon that, at least when visiting a hospital, I don’t have to come prepared with a plan of what to do — probably shouldn’t in fact; in a hospital, plans can change as fast as a heart rate. I don’t exactly have be a chaplain or a nurse or a Patch Adams.

I just have to be.

In a recent Advent sermon, I heard mention of Henri Nouwen’s notion of the ministry of presence.

“It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”

In the hospital, I saw more and more, like Nouwen, that maybe the first thing should be to know the patient’s name, help them eat and drink, hear about their hurts and hearts and hunger, hold their hand while they get blood drawn (even if you both cringe…because, well, at least you’re cringing together).

When they need an advocate, be an advocate. When they need a listener, be a listener. When they need a translator to dumb down the doctor-speak, be a translator. Just be.

When they need a walker or wheelchair or something (and you can’t locate one), be a walker. Yep. When Grandma had to walk to the bathroom, Mom would take up the rear, prepared to prevent a fall, and I would shuffle along in front holding my arms out straight and stiff and saying “Use me as a walker. Use me as a walker.”

I think about sitting on the edge of Grandma’s hospital bed, holding her very frail, thin-skinned hand, with all its IV tubes and ID bracelets, and I think about Advent and I marvel that God would come and be with us. That God, in Christ, came to sit alongside our lives and hold our hands. That Immanuel, God with us, practiced the ultimate ministry of presence and calls us to follow in his footsteps just however we can.