May: the mercurial month. It sweeps in, giving us the short, sweet life of peonies and the sharp sting of bees. Flowers and flash flooding showers. Fifty degrees one day and 90 the next.
It plays havoc with emotions, too. Ever since the calendar turned the corner to May, I’ve been jolting from joy to utter sadness and back again.
Joy: Sitting in the cool predawn of a Wednesday with my infant grandson, Henry, in my lap. In a few hours, he and his mom would be back on a plane, headed home after his first visit to North Carolina.
Either Henry is tone deaf, or my version of “I love you, a bushel and a peck,” is not so hard on a 2-month-old’s ears. In between songs, I told him about the house where we raised his mother, the baby bluebirds who hatched at about the same time as he did, and about all the dogs who lived in this house for the past 30 years. Joy joy joy joy down in my heart!
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Joy that quickly turned to sadness, as we dropped our child and her child at the airport.
Words you don't want to hear
Within an hour, though, I slid into a pew next to my friend Beth at a spiritual writing conference with one of my favorite writers, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, as keynote. I facilitate a spiritual writing group at my church. I’m always searching for ways to inspire others to write (and to breathe some life into my own tired work).
Beth is hysterically funny, so I look forward to spending time with her. But on this day, instead of a joke, she greeted me with these words: “John is dying.”
John. The lead usher at our church, always the person standing at the front door when we all arrive. Smiling and shaking hands. He’d been recovering in recent weeks from surgery, and only days before, was told he’d be going home soon. But dying?
So, we prayed. Hard. For John and his two kids and his beautiful wife. Surely the God we know could and would take away the infection that suddenly attacked his heart, and give him back to his family. Back to us.
We were numb, honestly, as Taylor began to speak.
“Spiritual writers must find the words for things we can’t say directly,” she told us that morning, asking us to quickly write down five or six words we think of when we consider faith. Love came to my mind.
“What might that look like?” she asked.
Trust. Prayer. Grace. Love. But death is there, too.
John died the next morning, on his 50th birthday. It wasn’t long before the trickle to church began — those closest to him and his family seeking something active to do in their grief. They sat in the chapel, walked through the burial garden, stood at my office door or found a chair to sit with their grief — crying and angry and stricken — at the loss of such a good, faithful man. And in the days after, they pulled weeds in the burial garden and bought up every pink flower they could find to arrange for the altar.
At his funeral, my friend and boss, Greg, struggled to find the right words to soothe the 750 people gathered to say goodbye. He’d been with John and his family at the end.
“I don’t want to be here,” he said from the pulpit. “I want John to be here, the way he was for so many Sunday mornings, so many Christmas Eves. … Setting up chairs, and handing out candles, and teaching so many people how to be connected to God and God’s church.”
John, he said, was part of “that great daisy chain of souls woven into Christ …in which you and I have our place."
I know religion isn't for everybody, but I honestly wonder what people do without a faith community when unexplainable tragedy happens. Or when joy envelopes their lives. Or both happen, on the same day, in the same week. Or every week.
For me, it’s the only place I can go to seek some understanding of too much in the world today that just can’t be understood. It is in community that we somehow find strength to keep going.
I am an Episcopalian, from the cradle, as we say. And in the events of this May, I turned to my faith in sorrow and in celebration. It’s what we do.
In the days after John’s death, we were searching, all of us, for some joy, and we knew we’d find it by week’s end, when Bishop Michael Curry was set to preach at the royal wedding. But May’s mercurial nature spilled again with the school shooting in Houston. Death one day, a wedding the next.
Star of the wedding
Until a week ago, I’d venture to say most of the world knew little about the Episcopal Church, though we’ve been around for centuries.
But then, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, stood in front of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and talked about the redemptive power of love. Within days, our denomination began trending on Twitter, and Bishop Curry found himself making talk show rounds.
Watching him be his joyful self, it was remarkable to hear him tell Whoopi Goldberg on "The View" about the passage from the Song of Solomon chosen by Prince Harry and Meghan for their service.
Most watching had no idea that before being called to lead the national Episcopal Church, he served as our bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina for 17 years. I’ve heard him rock the pulpit many times — he held back a bit on his delivery at the wedding — and I’ve enjoyed chatting with him whenever he visited us. He once interviewed Beth and me for a weekly video produced by the diocese about our spiritual writing class.
Curry exudes joy, and as a preacher, he is unmatched in it. Those who know him knew he’d shake up the royals with his delivery, just as he did to our staid denomination when he first arrived in North Carolina. Though few could have predicted that his message would receive the most acclaim.
Bishop Curry has been using his message of God’s love for all to fight the lack of love that is sweeping our world: hate, racism, greed, dishonesty — not one of them a word found in any faith.
“There's power in love,” he told the world last week. “There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can…
“And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world. If you don't believe me, just stop and imagine. Think and imagine a world where love is the way."
For a shining few moments, the world listened, and we felt that sense of joy that we all needed.