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.” 

Side Effects of a Seminary Semester

img_3414I’ve been drafting this one for about 4 months. It’s a chronicle of the “side effects” experienced over the course of my first semester of seminary – those unexpected, sometimes humorous, sometimes meaningful things that start happening and keep happening whether you like it or not.

So, if you ever start seminary, maybe watch out for the following:

1. Humility. (Actually, this one often starts as impostor syndrome or self-doubt. But, by the time symptoms 7 and 8 set in, this can manifest as humility.) As early as orientation, I would look at the course catalog and think: I can’t possibly learn even 1% of the things taught here. I used to think I was smart, used to be accustomed to friends looking to me as something of a miniature “expert” on religious matters. Now, the thought of expertise – the thought of “mastering divinity” as my Master of Divinity degree implies I’m doing – makes me laugh. Now, I marvel at the expanse of theology, biblical studies, ethics, history, languages, spirituality, and pastoral care that exists and suppose I’m the smallest speck compared to that expanse. Now, I think maybe it would be smart to be humble about how little of the expanse I will actually “master” (even while working to master what meager portion I can).

2. Anger. By this, I mean a sometimes-righteous, sometimes-raging anger at the way churches, communities, and individuals have engaged narrowly and unjustly (often in the name of religion) throughout the world and throughout history with issues of gender, sexuality, race, poverty, abuse, mental illness, disabilities, politics, war, slavery, mass incarceration, biblical interpretation (clobber verses, anyone?), missiology (crusades, anyone?), and more. Yes, those are all topics I have crossed paths with just in my first semester – nay, first month – of seminary. Yes, it can be overwhelming. This quotation gives me hope: 

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” – St. Augustine

3. Questions. Why? What for? What does that word mean? Better yet, what does that word mean in Greek? My favorite is when I bump into a friend and they say “Hey, quick question: What do Episcopalians believe about Eucharist?” In most of life, these are not “quick questions.” In seminary, apparently these are normal.

4. The inability to answer questions simply. I increasingly hear questions in gray rather than black-and-white, thinking quickly of at least two ways to approach the question (maybe an Old Covenant approach and New Covenant approach, Protestant approach and Catholic approach, literal and metaphorical, critical and devotional). I don’t even mean to, but I’m getting trained to. For instance, a few weeks into the semester, a friend asked casually “How’s life?” I contemplated his query for a second and said, “Hmm how’s life? That’s a deep question. Can we clarify our definition of the meaning and scope of the term ‘life’? Do we mean my life right now or life in general?”

5. The inability to listen to religious music in the same way ever again. I hear songs on Christian radio or in worship services and little sirens go off in my head screaming of patriarchal language, out-of-context biblical references, or downright heresy.

6. Speaking in tongues. By this, I mean using Greek, Hebrew, and Latin right and left (but, yes, if you also wind up speaking in tongues in other ways I suppose I can analyze the history, theology, and spirituality of that). I’m not even taking a biblical language this semester, and I wrote a paper including terms like imago dei, facere quod in se est, oikonomia, kenosis, and epectasy as if that was perfectly normal.

7. Prayer. For me, every day begins with morning prayer with the Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies. Most days close with evening prayer. Most classes open with prayer – whether moments of silence, psalms, prayers of the saints, or the prayers of Professor Smith. During finals, I stopped in the hall to pray with an anxious friend one day, and then my housemate and I stopped in a parking lot to talk and pray with a homeless woman another day.

“Study that does not finally result in prayer is a dishonesty for us.” – St. Benedict   

8. Friendship. Truly, when dealing with all the above side effects, I couldn’t possibly do it alone. The people with whom I’ve been studying, praying, conversing, and eating become inherently connected to me and I to them. It is beautiful.

“We are incomplete in ourselves. We want to share our lives with others both to expand our hearts and to receive help because of our smallness of heart.” – St. Thomas Aquinas

 

 

 

 

Advent 2: A Sonnet

I’ve barely squeezed out a sonnet for the week (2 hours before the week ends, at least in my time zone). But somehow I did it!

Collect for Advent 2:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

My sonnet for Advent 2:

Oh Merciful God, come help us hear
Your messenger birds, the prophets preach
Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near,
The kingdom of heaven is in our reach.
Prepare the way, prepare the way,
Repeats their morning warning song.
Prepare the way, prepare the way,
The kingdom of heaven is coming along!
Come help us see and still our sins
That we may come to, joyful, greet
The perfect sun that’s entering in
In earthly form for us to meet.
Helped by those birds, who say awake,
In you, through Christ, we may partake.

 

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Advent 1: A Sonnet

I used to write poetry. A few poems in middle school, a few more in high school, and a few semesters worth (enough to get me rather burnt-out) in college.

These days, I don’t write poetry, although I continue to write poetically.

And as of today? Apparently I write sonnets based on collects (pronounced coll-ects and amounting to short prayers focused on one theme, for those who don’t know) from the Book of Common Prayer, inspired by the liturgical-year sonnets of poet-priest Malcolm Guite.

Maybe, just maybe, this will even be the start of a spiritual practice of sonnet-writing, in which I try to write a sonnet for each week’s collect. Maybe. Stay tuned.

Here’s the collect for Advent 1:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

And my poem for Advent 1:

Almighty God, come give us grace
To wipe the dust from corners dark,
To clear in us for you a place,
To set the wreath and light the spark
That must precede our every flame
That must precede our every fire.
Your son so humbly, spark-ly came
To make more light be our desire.
We’re making room, so visit please
In hurried, blurry homes and hearts.
You visit and the darkness flees
From oft-forgotten crevice parts
Through him who lives and reigns with you
And readies us for Advent new.

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Jesus, Take The Wheel (Of My Prayer Life)

fall-foliage-road-trips-kancamagus-highway-jpg-rend-tccom-1280-960Some people take prayer walks. I’ve been one of those people. But lately, I guess I take prayer drives.

Day-to-day drives past joggers, bikers (of the Harley Davidson variety and the Lance Armstrong variety), construction workers, and panhandlers. Or longer road-trip drives like I took this weekend through the hills of rural Virginia.

Inevitably, I made observations about my surroundings. Miraculously, some of the observations turned into little prayers. And, suddenly, some of the little prayers turned into little slaps upside the head.

The GPS happened to take me a scenic route off the interstates, abounding in autumn beauty and lacking in public restrooms (unfortunate since I was drinking coffee the whole time).

I counted one “My boss is a Jewish carpenter” and rolled my eyes. Then, something happened and I wondered what Jewish-Christian relations might look like if everyone who’s ever had that bumper sticker not only stood up for their Jewish carpenter boss but also stood up to modern-day anti-Semitism. Then, something else happened and I prayed for the probably-perfectly-nice folks in that minivan, for their faith and family and “traveling mercies” (to quote both my grandma and Anne Lamott, which is a funny thing to be able to do).

I counted two Confederate flags and cringed and prayed for black local residents or highway passersby who might be reminded of and affected by systemic racism. And then something happened and I prayed for white local residents, for the flag owners and land owners, community members and maybe KKK members.

I counted five Trump-Pence 2016 banners and two lingering Clinton-Kaine signs and sighed and prayed for those who have been hateful (which I hated to admit might be all of us) and for those who have been hated.

I counted couldn’t count all the churches. Some dilapidated, mostly lovely. And here’s my wish for them:

“Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.” (BCP, 816).

No matter what I prayed — whether for “local” or “foreigner,” “friend” or “foe,” “conservative” or “liberal” (all terms that I’m finding hard to define much less affiliate with these days) — these prayers felt tinged with tension amidst a recently hyper-politicized, hyper-polarized nation and world.

All I know is that Christians are absolutely, unequivocally called to sit with tension and pray even — or especially — for those whom we find hard to define much less affiliate with. To pray for red and blue. To pray for black and white. To try our feeble finest to follow the life and teachings of Jesus. Teachings like this:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” – Matthew 5:44-47 (RSV)

Trust me, it rarely occurs to me to pray like this. Liturgy helps. Accountability and prayer partners and spiritual directors help.

And God more than helps. God, through the person of the Holy Spirit, hears and challenges and pushes the boundaries of my prayers. All the way through rural Virginia today. All the way through life eternally.