Ellie’s Home!

My daughter Ellie came home for a surprise visit this weekend (that’s her on the left in the picture above).  It’s a long bus ride from New York to Richmond, but if you get on the bus in Chinatown at 10:30 p.m. you can sometimes get your parents to come pick you up at Parham Road at 4:00 in the morning.

It was just about this time last year that she got on a train to New York with a couple of suitcases and no idea where she was going to spend the night.  Now she is living in an apartment in Manhattan and working at Lonny, an online interior design magazine, where she’s been since the beginning.  She started as an intern, quickly moved up to editorial assistant, and now has a major role in the production of the bi-monthly magazine, blogs on the Lonny site, and makes an occasional guest appearance at Etsy (which everybody seems to know about but me).

I’m proud of Ellie.  It’s no secret.  Not only for what she’s done but for who she is.  Some people say pride is a sin, but I think there’s a special exception for parents, don’t you?

Authenticity

Nobody could have predicted what happened at last Sunday night’s concert.

Phil Mitchell had put together a program called “Dear God”: an assortment of hymns and anthems interspersed with personal letters to God from members of the congregation.  There must have been a hundred people in the choir, singing like angels, and the orchestral accompaniment was heavenly, but when people began to read their prayers a reverent hush fell over the sanctuary. 

Martha Joyner talked about how grateful she was for her family, and especially for her new granddaughter, Emma Grace.  Carl Johnson talked about how God had led him into his work as treasurer of the International Mission Board and through a time of deep personal tragedy.  But then Hannah Ramsey got up to speak.  You could tell, even before she started, that this was going to be hard for her.  Her hands were shaking.  She took a deep breath and let it out.  And then she said, “Dear God, it’s been 99 days since we last talked…”

As she sobbed and struggled through the rest of her letter she talked about losing her sixteen-year-old brother, Jackson, to suicide.  She talked about how angry she was—still—and how she had been trying to work through her pain and her grief.  Her emotion was raw and real, and she held nothing back.  When she finished I let out the breath I had been holding since she began with a single word: “Wow!”   And when she sat down behind me I wrote this note on a slip of paper and passed it to her:

“That was just about the bravest thing I have ever seen.  Certainly the most honest.  Thank you.”

Her courage and honesty added to what had already been shared, and raised the experience of that concert to a new level.  By the time the choir sang “Total Praise” at the end of the evening we were all caught up in a kind of rare unity, where it didn’t really matter who you were or where you came from—we had become family just by being there.  And as we stood to sing the Lord’s Prayer together as a kind of benediction Pastor Emeritus Jim Flamming made his way over to where Hannah was standing and put his arms around her.  I glanced over my shoulder, saw what was going on, and thought what a good instinct it was on his part.  He’s known Hannah all her life.  There was probably a time when she thought Dr. Flamming was God.  For him to put his arms around her like that and hand her his handkerchief was just the right kind of pastoral care. 

The tears flowed freely.

When it was over I told Hannah’s mother that I had read something that very afternoon about how some people avoid church because it doesn’t seem real to them; they’re looking for something “authentic.”  I told her, “But it doesn’t get any more real than it did tonight.” 

It doesn’t. 

And I think we all learned something: that we can not only trust God with our most honest emotions but—when church is real—we can trust each other, too.  And when we do it can make all the difference.  We’re not a roomful of strangers anymore: we’re family.  And a girl who has lost her brother might just discover that she is not alone.

Not by a long shot.

Re-entry

Last week was a busy week for me.

  • I preached three times at the bicentennial celebration of Wingate Baptist Church in North Carolina, a church I served from 1991-2000.
  • I went from there to a sermon-planning retreat in South Carolina, where five other Baptist pastors and I planned our preaching for an entire year.
  • I went from there to an Episcopal camp and conference center near Houston, Texas, to lead a preaching workshop for a group of newly ordained priests.
  • I came back to Richmond in time to preach (twice) on Sunday, dedicate three children, and run with the 10K training team.

I can sum up the events of the week in a few bullet points, but it would take much longer to describe how it felt to step to the pulpit in the sanctuary of Wingate Baptist Church last Saturday night and look out over the beautiful, beaming faces of people I loved and served for nine years.  I told them it reminded me of a dream I’d had about heaven once, and it did—almost exactly.  Or to describe what it was like to share ideas with five of my closest colleagues as we sat around the living room of a lake house in Greenwood, South Carolina, bundled up in fleece pullovers, taking notes and jabbing our pens in the air for emphasis as the sun went down on a January day.  It would take too long to describe that moment when the nervous young Episcopal priest stood in front of our group and told the story of how she learned what ministry was about during a summer on the pediatric intensive care wing of a hospital, as the rest of us swallowed at the lumps in our throats and wiped our eyes.  And it would take even longer to describe what it was like to come home to Richmond, finally, and preach to a sanctuary full of people who feel—more and more these days—like family, to catch those winks and nods, those smiles and knowing looks, that can only come after you’ve spent some time together.

It was wonderful.

I will say this: it seems that every time I come back to Richmond from somewhere else I feel a little more at home here, as if you needed to say “I’m home!” out loud a few dozen times in a new place before you really felt it.  I’m feeling it, and it feels good, and except for the quick trip I’m taking to Orlando on Wednesday and the drive up to New York at the end of the month to take some things to my daughter,

I’m home.