Yesterday I shared a reflection from earlier in my life on the influence my grandmother, Myrtie Mclamb Barefoot, had on my life and faith. I thought it would be appropriate to share this further reflection on her life.
This is particularly poignant to me as it reflects on the continued presence of such strong figures in our life through the mystery of the communion of saints. The last several years I’ve gone through the experience of being widowed, so the reference to a wife (and also mother-in-law, for Katharine’s mother also passed) in this writing are now of folks only present to us in the communion of the saints.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
= = =
This morning, cup of coffee in hand, sitting on my porch in Carrboro, I’m drawn into the presence of eternity.
My mother-in-law bought me a bird feeder for an early birthday gift. Today is one of the first warm mornings in a good while here in the Carolinas. And as I sit and sip my coffee, I am surrounded. I’m surrounded by the light which slides through the tree branches like a summer rain, falling as quiet around me as oak leaves in autumn, and wrapping around me like the blanket I put around my shoulders to keep out the early morning chill. I am surrounded by the rising music of bird-song, and the chitter of squirrels.
While I grab a bite to eat, a bird hops beside the table, a small tattered brown leaf in its mouth, and looks me right in the eye.
In moments like this I sense the nearness of my grandmother, who I shared about last year when I wrote The Power of a Southern Grandma: How My Southern Belle Granny Helped Me Become a Progressive Christian . Grandma Myrtie is the only grandmother I remember, since the rest of my grandparents died when I was very little. After her husband, Charles, died she had a stroke and came to live with us. Our back window looked out into a wooded area and often the scene I saw this morning would play out through that large window – squirrels chasing and playing, birds singing and flittering, and the sunlight falling through the tree branches like a shower of light. I remember Grandma Myrtie sitting in rapt attention watching those scenes. She had a particular fondness for the squirrels. She would sit, her hand on my little fingers, and point out all the little in’s and out’s of the squirrels’ running, jumping, and dalliances through the window.
I think my life-long love of nature, particularly of sitting in the spring weather watching the birds build their nests and the squirrels at chase with each other, is something I in part learned sitting beside her on that grey tweed couch, watching the squirrels go by the window.
Grandma Myrtie passed in my early teens, in a nursing home near my parent’s house in Fayetteville. Momma had taken care of her as long as she could, but Grandma’s dementia got worse, to the point she needed constant care. I always remember that the night before she died, momma pointed out to me – “Every night I could hear her praying to us, ‘God give me strength to be here one more day, to be here for my family’. Tonight I heard her say ‘Lord, I’m ready. Take me home’”. That next day Grandma Myrtie had congestive heart failure and passed.
Yet every time I see the squirrels play, I feel she sits beside me, her wrinkled hand on my little palm, whispering words of comfort and of strength. I remember it when I would go to a creek in adolescent distress, just to be alone, and saw the squirrels in the tree. I remember when I learned to pray by the lake side on my own as a teenager finding my own faith, seeing the birds dip into the water. I remember feeling that sense of not being alone one afternoon sitting outside the bookstore at Campbell University having just gone through a painful breakup and said bye to many friends who graduated. I looked up and two squirrels were circling my table, staring at BLT. Each moment when I sit with the squirrels, I am reminded of a truth of the faith Grandma Myrtie’s life was a testament to – I believe in the communion of the saints.
“The communion of the saints” is the Christian phrase used to describe the experience those open to things of the Spirit have found of sensing that all of us are connected and that even though we might be separated by miles or continents, if we both remain open to the Spirit, that same Spirit who breathes life into the budding flower and fluttering bird will connect us despite the miles. And that this connection continues even after we leave this earthly body, for death is not the end but the beginning of a new kind of life.
This has been an important reminder this past year, when I’ve sadly had to face many close to me pass. It can be quite heart-wrenching to say “good-bye” or, at times, to hear the news another has passed without the chance to say good-bye. But even then there are moments where I sense the fact they are ok, that their life continues in a way that I could not have expected, and that their love and care for me goes on.
Yet in the days before I got the news she passed, I remember having moments I felt a presence standing near me, one familiar and full of love. I remember once swearing I could hear her laughing. Then I got the call that next day that she had passed after falling suddenly. In my heart I know in some way, God had let me sense that she was alright; that this was not the end for her but the beginning of something beautiful I could only begin to glimpse. And in moments here or there that led to my friend’s funeral I could sense again that feeling of presence, peace, and love which told me she was entering into new and deeper life, a life where I was not forgotten nor any she cared of.
I wrote the following about one of those experiences:
On Golden Streets
The last time
I saw you
a kaleidoscope of color
was it you I saw
or some phantasmic vision
of my desperate mind?
My heart knows.
Has always known.
Finally I saw you that day
as you’ve always said
in your dreams.
As you have always been
though too few saw it.
Your crumpled form
I had been told fell lifeless,
and without warning
like some rag doll dropped
by an untidy and careless child
was such no longer,
but now you stood alive
more alive than ever.
You stood almost three inches taller that day.
But, how can I call it standing?
Your feet were ever moving
your body swaying like a ballerina.
You were dancing,
moving as always
to music you alone could hear,
dancing upon that marble altar
as if it was transfigured into some disco-balled club,
and no longer the altar before which cold preachers droned on
like the foghorns of Fort Fisher
mournful in the mist
announcing the coming of the night.
Your laughter chimed out its own song,
a thousand hand-bell choirs
in joyful unison
cheerfully echoing on the tin roof of my soul
like summer rain on my old home,
drowning out those other more ghostly voices.
I could have sworn this brilliant form
all crutches and wheelchairs layed aside
and you giggled
whispering of joys
that mournful company could not dream of.
Another secret you whispered
like the many we shared
as friends so long ago.
You were a gift to me, dear one,
a friend and big sister
when friends fled
and my own big sister forgot me.
Know you are never forgotten.
I can still remember our late night talks
stories and jokes
singing in my Chevy Sprint
en route to each visit our youthful loves,
and the whispered stories
we both shared of our romantic endeavors
Nor can I ever forget
the wonder of
seeing in you
a person more alive
than I’d ever known,
never worried what the world would say
free to be herself.
Dance on, bright spirit.
And one bright morning I shall don my dancing shoes
and join you in moving again
to the music of the spheres.
Dance on, bright spirit, dance on!
Recently while reflecting on my life and especially the ways in which we take with us so much from our families, including some things we so deeply appreciate and also areas of brokenness we have to work with God’s help to heal, it dawned me another way we experience the communion of the saints: we carry with us all who are dear to us every moment of our lives, choosing which aspects of who they are to embrace as a gift. I carry my daddy’s love of fishing, of story, of good preaching, and I make that a part of who I am. Yet I also carry my dad’s temper, his tendency to be a bit workaholic, to drink more than he ought. I choose each moment which part of him that I have taken into myself I will be faithful to and how. So I listen to Garrison Keillor’s Prayer Home Companion, I preach my heart out, and I choose to find peace in my soul that doesn’t need a bottle nor flies off the handle. It is more than memories we carry – it is all those good qualities others have that we can let shape us, all the mistakes they have made we can learn from, and all the quirky uniqueness they have we can celebrate.
What is your point of connection to the communion of the saints? Who has been that point of light shedding the way for you, whose presence in one way or another continues to inspire you, though separated from you by distance or by the veil of death & the life after? What qualities do you choose to embrace from those who’ve touched your life, and what do you choose to take as lessons to walk another path?
May you sense the nearness and love of all who have gone before you, and hear the invitation of our faith – “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage … that trips us up,and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, Common English Bible)
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!
Your progressive redneck preacher,