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The Almost-Daily eMos from St. Clement's-in-the-'Hood
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Asking for Help
"What shall I write my eMo about, Bobby?" I ask. Again. I ask him just about every time I sit down to write one. Sometimes I look into my imagination and find that there is nothing there. So I must ask for help. Sure enough: Bobby leans back in his desk chair, looks at the ceiling, and makes an irreverent suggestion. Irreverent is good. I am off and running.
Asking for help is hard for many of us. All my life, I have wondered what it is that makes it so hard. Being revealed as lacking in something? Having somebody know I'm not perfect? Having to share control of a project? Being slowed down by having to cooperate with someone else? All of the above probably, even though it is true that each time I have asked for help it has made the finished project better.
Interestingly, my reluctance to ask for help seems to be strongest when the work at hand isn't going well. It is as if I fear the widespread discovery of my ineptitude, as if by keeping it to myself I can somehow buy time for it to be magically transformed into a success, as if I might be punished if my work is not perfect. And yet, I don't recall ever having been punished for less-than-perfect work. Odd: I begin to suspect that it is I myself whose wrath I fear.
Such tortured emotions are so far from the spirit of work done to the glory of God! Work done to the glory of God is about the goodness and excellence of the task itself, about sparing no effort to make something wonderful, about enlisting the aid of those whose gifts can make something shine. It's never about lonely perfection or self-absorbed martyrdom. If God did evaluations of the work we do to the divine glory, the first item on the evaluation form would be "Who worked with you on this?"
The Devil and Lee Winston
Lee Winston used to read to the kids in the AfterSchool on Monday afternoons. Sometimes, I would sneak down the back hall to listen: blood-curdling shrieks, frightening diabolical laughs, mean witch voices, and squeaky soprano heroines all emanated from Lee's trained vocal chords, and the kids were spellbound.
One spring weekend afternoon, he went for a hike with a couple of friends and dropped dead at the top of a mountain. The AfterSchool kids were in the funeral: they sat in little chairs, all in a row, and told the people what Lee had meant to them.
For now, I have taken over Lee's story-reading ministry with the kids in the AfterSchool program. It is a way of remembering him that doesn't make me sad—you just can't be all that sad when you're surrounded by thirty or forty kids. So I can think about the day when we stumbled upon the idea of a story ministry here. Or the time when we went over to that great kids' bookstore on Seventh Avenue to buy Caldecott and Newberry Award winners to get started with it. Or how I used to like to sneak down the back hall to eavesdrop on all his different voices, one for each character in the story, and peek at the children, listening so intently. The memories of the good times make us smile. We feel grateful to have had them, even if we have lost them now. Right now, we're working on a book he was reading to them the week before he died. It's called "The People Could Fly," and it is a collection of African American folk tales. They are set in the antebellum South, or in imaginary unspecific times and places. Some feature talking animals. Some are true stories about escaping slavery. The one we read Monday featured the devil and a man named Jack who consistently outwitted him. Mrs. Devil—name of Abbie, by the way—had to keep the fires stoked down there while the devil was up here on earth trying to get Jack.
"Why do they have fire there?" Jenny wanted to know.
"Well, they're in hell," I said.
"Ooooh ..." they all said on a rising note, poking each other in the ribs.
They know you're not supposed to swear.
"Where is it?" Jenny asks a lot of questions.
"Well, it's not really a place. People just made up things about it, and one of the things they made up was that it is always on fire." In the story, Jack had the devil up a tree. Then he carved a cross in the trunk and the devil couldn't get back down—devil can't get past a cross.
"Well, he's the enemy of the cross. The devil's bad and he hates the cross. So you can stop him with the cross of Jesus." This was getting a little more theological than I had intended.
The devil always scares them. But they laugh every time Jack outwits him. This is what stories do: they give us a model of good triumphing over evil, a narrative in which we overcome those things which we fear may defeat us in real life. In stories, the weak person often triumphs over the strong. In this story, the moral consistently triumphed over the embodiment of evil.
Life is hard. Life can be bitter. Reality is not always a bargain. And in the performing arts—whether it be story, theatre, dance, or just reading aloud—we make reality different, taking it somewhere it may not always go in real life.
It May Be Later Than You Think, But It's Also Better Than It Looks
The trumpet vine in our garden, cut off in its prime in an early spring ice storm, has now been resurrected. It was reduced to a stump, and that's putting it kindly: jagged trunk torn off at the base, splintered vine shafts littering the ground. No potential. But it now stands four feet tall, right on the jagged stump of its demise—who would have thought it? One of its emissaries has traveled twenty feet under solid concrete to sprout a new colony. Another one is intently strangling a peony even as we speak—there is a high degree of recidivism among the trumpet population.
The deficit in St. Clement's budget, at a terrifying $59,000 last month, now stands at $45,000 and will sink to $30,000 or so by next Wednesday. Who would have thought it? Not what one would call out of the woods, but one heck of an improvement.
The parish audit, in tragic arrears since Solomon was a bachelor, is happily nestled, virtuously complete, in the diocesan comptroller's office along with all the other law-abiding parishes' audits. A first for us: law-abiding. Who would have thought it?
Things sometimes look as if they are heading straight off a cliff with no brakes. But life itself has a positive momentum: there are few situations in which some positive intervention cannot produce some positive results. The moral: Don't quit until you've lost for sure. Don't despair until you're sure you've tried everything. Don't have a funeral until you know for sure you're dead. And never underestimate the mighty power of God.
A Visit to America
It was Sanela's parents first visit to America, where their daughter has been living with us and studying at Rutgers for the past four years. After four years of war in Bosnia, during which they saw people shot and houses bombed with people in them, four years during which a famous 15th-century bridge that was the pride of their town was blown to smithereens, four years during which their brilliant daughter was becoming resigned to the fact that she would never get to attend college, becoming convinced that the war had grabbed her future and smothered it like it smothered everything else—they had the chance to send her halfway around the world to live with people they had never met and attend a university they had never seen. In an act of immense courage, this is what they did. She came to live with us. And so their daughter is now ours too, in a way.
And now we all stood in the athletic field, watching the long line of graduates file past the Dean and receive hard evidence of their successful achievement. Sanela was one of fewer than twenty who wrote and successfully defended an honors thesis. Written in a language not her own. Awe is the word best suited to my feelings.
On Sunday they came to St. Clement's, where they hesitantly joined the circle of fellowship, not sure at first if they should, because they are Muslim. They were not accustomed to intimacy in a worship setting. Coffee hour seemed warm and wonderful to them. Then Q took them off on the Grand Tour, the same tour I used to give international seafarers when I was a waterfront chaplain: down Broadway through Times Square, through the Village, pass the World Trade Center, stop at St. Paul's Chapel, take a peek at Trinity Church Wall Street, look right at the tip of Lower Manhattan to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, up through the South Street Seaport to see the tall ships and the cobblestone streets, through Chinatown, up First Avenue through the Bowery, past the oldest Jewish cemetery in the New World, through the immigrant neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, past the United Nations, past the world-famous hospitals in the east twenties and again in the east sixties, up Madison past the famous designer shops—Sanela's mother owns a boutique, which in communist days was a state-run store and now struggles through the Bosnian economic transition—over to Amsterdam on Duke Ellington Boulevard to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where they went in. They spent over an hour there. In the Holocaust Memorial bay, they found a monument to the dead of Bosnia-Herzegovina. They stood there a long time. They photographed the bronze table to show the folks back home. They were stunned to think that New Yorkers had remembered them in their agony. Vespers was beginning as they left. The organist used the immense trumpet stops at the cathedral's west end. They sound like the trumpet at the last judgment. They had never heard anything so amazing.
Back to Hell's Kitchen, where they were thunderstruck—as we all were—at the Ninth Avenue Food Festival, known locally as the Food Fight. And finally to O'Flaherty's, where we all sat down for a pub meal so my daughter Anna could meet Sanela's parents, even if she had to wait on our table to do so. One of the bartenders took pictures of everyone, and then whole wait staff lined up to meet the Bosnians. A last drive through the neon jungle of Times Square, snapping pictures of horse-drawn carriages against the backdrop of Broadway, and they were ready to call it an evening.
They loved the immensity. They loved the motion. They loved the intimacy of St. Clement's and the awesomeness of the Cathedral. They loved beautiful old St. Paul's. They loved Central Park. They loved it all. And, showing them this amazing, infuriating, wonderful, terrible place, we loved it, too, all over again. There is nothing to make one appreciate New York like showing it to a stranger.
We are blessed to be here. It is a hard place to be—simple things are hard, like getting to a doctor or buying food. Even taking out the trash is hard here. It's hard to be poor here. But some of the best things in New York are free to all of us, poor or not. So God is still good. Even here.
Still Not Stephen King
There are book signings and there are book signings. The kind you have in a place where the people know and love you is one thing. We've had several here at St. Clement's. Free wine and cheese—they're a blast.
Less satisfying is a book signing in a Barnes & Noble in some distant city where I am not known. I am set up somewhere near the counter next to a table full of my books. People come in and out of the mammoth store, looking for books on car repair or the latest John Grisham. They're usually not looking for warm little books of essays on spiritual topics. You can see them raising their eyebrows at each other—"Who is she?"—and then shrugging their shoulders—"Beats me."
When you arrive in a city on a book tour, the publisher has an escort waiting for you at the airport, holding a sign with your name on it. There is a national organization of these escorts; they meet at the same time the American Association of Booksellers meets. One of them told me that they give an annual award (in absentia) to the most annoying author to have toured during the previous year. It's called "The Golden Screw." She said that Martha Stewart has won it more than once. Somehow I was pleased to hear that.
Ninety-eight percent of all books published in the United States do not "earn out" their advance—the upfront payment of royalties an author gets upon signing the contract and commencing the work. You sell books and earn a 10% or 15% royalty on each copy—a dollar or two per book, maybe. It can take a long time to earn out a decent advance at a dollar or two a pop. Those of us whose sales are a little ... um ... slow ... are carried by Stephen King. We wish publishers wouldn't give people like Monica Lewinsky million-dollar advances, since celebrity books hardly ever earn out. But they don't ask us.
The only reason they ever take a chance on an unknown author is that the unknown author may be the next Stephen King. Our envious eyes are turned on the madly successful; we struggle not to think of it. We know that we write because we love to write. We know that is enough.
Not everybody is a runaway success at what they do. Nobody is one all the time. Everybody likes money, but it isn't everything. Neither is fame. In the end, devotion to our chosen work is what we will take away with us with gratitude for having had the chance to spend our lives doing it.
Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Postponing
I knew I'd be punished for taking Memorial Day off. It really didn't seem that putting some finishing touches on Rosie's two costumes for her performance as Ruth in Pirates of Penzance would take that long: some sleeves tightened, a skirt shortened, a neckline narrowed, a piratical-looking vest lined. Nothing to it. I would just get up a little early and knock them right out.
Instead I ran into an old enemy of mine: my chronic inability to estimate with accuracy the amount of time a task will consume. I got up fine—5 a.m. The sleeves were a breeze. The hem was a snap. The neckline was two minutes.
It was lining the vest that hurt. I will not disclose the manner in which I proceeded, as there are seamstresses online as we speak—but it was intended to save me some trouble. I should have known. Once in awhile I believe that I can deviate from the usual way of doing things to good advantage, and once in awhile I can. But ordinarily, all it does is remind me why the usual way is usual.
It was six o clock when I started the vest. I would finish it by seven, haul Rosie out of bed for a fitting and get dressed and run for the train.
At seven o-clock, I was still turning it over and over again, inside out and right side up, again and again, cursing the metallic threads of the vest and the invisible thread I was using to sew with. Cursing my vision—I used to thread a dozen needles for my mother every time I visited her. Now I need somebody to thread mine. I decided I would finish by 8 o'clock instead. I could still get the 9:25 and make it to my 10:00 a.m. spiritual direction appointment only a little late.
At 8 a.m., Rosie left with my promise that the costumes would be delivered to the school by 2 p.m. I was sure to finish by 9 a.m., I thought, although the vest was still putting up a good fight. I would get the 10:07 train. I called my spiritual director to cancel my appointment. I was too frantic and overburdened to go to my own spiritual direction appointment—something wrong with that picture.
But the 10:07 train whistle blew and I was still cursing over the damn vest. A little more. A little more. A couple of clumsy tucks taken in the lining that somehow did not fit its partner. Just spiteful.
I finished, hung the two ensembles on their hangers, put a Victorian looking pin at the neckline of the blouse. They looked really nice. I got the 11:07, and was at the church by noon. Better than I deserved.
You shouldn't get yourself into these things, I scolded myself all the way in on the train. Well, part of the way in on the train. Then I thought—but if you do get yourself into them, all you can do is put your shoulder to the wheel and just do it, no matter how long it takes, and then don't dwell on how mad it made you that you underestimated. Again.
Excerpted from The Almost Daily eMOs by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. Copyright © 2002 Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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