Lessons from a blind man (and Mary Oliver)

I preached this story this morning at Epiphany Episcopal Church in Oak Park. Usually I weave in stories about Camp Stevens, but these readings and Maddie’s condition spun me into a world of theological doubt & questioning I haven’t experienced since Ella died. I preached from notes (not a text) so it flowed better, but this is the gist.


Jeremiah 31:7-9 | Psalm 126 | Hebrews 7:23-28 | Mark 10:46-52

Tony Campolo is a well-known preacher and teacher in the evangelical church. As an evangelical teenager, I had the opportunity to hear him speak at a youth rally. Campolo is most famous for one particular sermon – one he shared with us that day – where he shares a story about visiting an all-black church known for their preaching. As he tells it, the preacher said the same line over and over again with increasing intensity and participation from the crowd for close to an hour. The line for which the black preacher and now Tony Campolo are famous for is: it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. Campolo was reminding his listeners that this work, this hardship, this pain, this uncertainty, this exile that we are feeling today is temporary. Friday – Good Friday – is temporary, and Easter Sunday is right around the corner.

This morning’s readings relay stories of exile – of Friday experiences. The story of the Israelites retold by Jeremiah reminds us of the hardship God’s people faced as they spent 40 years in the desert. They fought, they struggled, they hurt. Blind Bartimaeus is exiled because of lack of sight, without which he sits at the side of the road begging for money for food to eat.

We can relate, in ways, to these stories of exile. Our world is full of pain and loss. Today a hurricane is exiling thousands of people in Mexico. Refugees are flooding Europe from Syria. Individuals and communities in our own country continue to experience racism and people feel exiled, abandoned, and condoned because of the color of their skin. There is illness and loss among our own families and communities. And we exile ourselves in our self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-talk when we believe that we are not enough.

Our God, though, is a God of resurrection, renewal, and restoration. Jeremiah reminds us that the Israelites made it to the promised land! Bartemaeus regained his sight! Yay! Let’s celebrate!

Hmmmm … not so fast.

I’m left feeling remarkably unsettled by such a quick ending to these stories. I believe that Sunday’s coming, like Campolo emphatically says, but I need to know how to get through Friday and Saturday.

In the short story of blind Bartemaeus, we can learn three things about living in exile:

First, we need to show up every day. Every day Bartimaeus went to the temple gates, sat by the road, and begged. For all we know, every day he hoped he’d see Jesus. What we know for sure is that he showed up. Author Kathleen Norris writes about the importance of showing up – of habit, of seeking the holy in the every day. At the beginning of “Quotidian Mysteries,” she writes about her first liturgical church experience – a wedding – when she was so taken by noticing the priest doing the dishes after communion while the entire congregation waited. That small act demonstrated to her the profound importance of the mundane. Poet Mary Oliver writes in an essay titled “Habits, Differences, and the Light That Abides:”

In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role. The religious literally wear it. Most people take action by habit in small things more often than in important things, for it’s the simple matters that get done readily, while the more somber and interesting, taking more effort and being more complex, often must wait for another day. Thus, we could improve ourselves quite well by habit, by its judicious assistance, but it’s more likely that habits rule us.

The bird in the forest or the fox on the hill has no such opportunity to forgo the important for the trivial. Habit, for these, is also the garment they wear, and indeed the very structure of their body life. It’s now or never for all their vitalities – bonding, nest building, raising a family, migrating or putting on the deeper coat of winter – all is done on time and with devoted care, even if events contain also playfulness, grace, and humor, those inseparable spirits of vitality. Neither does the tree hold back its leaves but lets them flow open or glide away when the time is right. Neither does water make its own decision about freezing or not; that moment rests with the rule of temperatures.

Men and women of faith who pray – that is, who come to a certain assigned place, at definite times, and are not abashed to go down on their knees – will not tarry for the cup of coffee of the newsbreak or the end of the movie when the moment arrives. The habit, then, has become their life. … The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real. I would like to be like the fox, earnest in devotion and humor both, or the brave, compliant pond shutting its heavy door for the long winter.”

Bartimaeus shows up physically, building habits that pattern his life. But he also shows up emotionally and relationally. Bartimaeus is vulnerable with the people and with Jesus. Brenè Brown, a researcher who studies connection, vulnerability, and shame, and who has become a best-selling author of books on the same, began her national public career through a tremendously moving TED talk about vulnerability. At the end of that talk she shares three qualities people who build connection share that we all could benefit from. First, we ought to love with our whole hearts even though there’s no guarantee. Second, we should practice gratitude and joy. And third, we should believe we are enough, and we can get there by being kinder and gentler to ourselves and others.

And finally, Bartimaeus teaches us the importance of speaking up and advocating for ourselves and others. Bartimaeus, in his own way, challenges us to stop responding to “how are you?” with “I’m fine” when we’re not fine. How could our relationships and communities be different if we really knew each other, advocating for one another and ourselves? How would our relationships and communities be different if we responded to one another like Jesus, and in turn the crowd, responded to Bartimaeus? What injustice, pain, or otherwise exiled people or matters are you passionate about that you could advocate for?

Friday – Tony Campolo’s Friday – is a real thing. Yes, Sunday is coming, but in the meantime we can show up physically through habit, show up emotionally and relationaly by being vulnerable, and advocate through prayer and action for that which we need or are passionate about.

But there’s one more element of this Sunday’s readings that leaves me feeling a tremendous amount of dissonance, and that is Jesus telling Bartimaeus to get up and see, that his faith has made him well.

A week ago Thursday my friends’ 6-year-old daughter, Maddie, was taken to the hospital for a malfunctioning brain draining shunt. Over the course of the next couple days she had multiple surgeries, a seizure, and a stroke. She has been unresponsive and on a respirator since last Saturday. This idea of faith making one well, and of the simplicity of Tony Campolo’s message “it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming” are disconcerting at best.

Let’s go back to our lessons from Bartimaeus on being in exile and take note on how we might respond on this proverbial Friday.

First, we show up. We show up with cookies and casseroles. We show up with notes on Facebook. We show up to help care for other children. And we show up, out of habit, to pray over and over and over again even when we’re having a hard time believing our prayers are making a difference.

Then, if we’re able, we show up with our whole selves even though it’s terrifying and there’s no guarantee. We bring gratitude and joy into the corners of the hospital room as much as we’re able, and we try to believe that we are enough. Most especially, we work to be kind and gentle to ourselves in our grief and exile, and to others.

Finally, while we’re in exile or Peru some time after, we advocate. We advocate with our voices, our letters, or by walking for March of Dimes. We advocate by talking about the hard stuff and supporting organizations and communities that do the same. We shout from the side of the street until Jesus – and the crowd – hears us, stops, and meets us where we are.

This wellness that Jesus is talking about isn’t going back to the way things were. Sure, the Israelites made it to the promised land, but after a hell of an ordeal. And Bartimaeus did receive his sight. But Maddie may never be the same. The wellness Jesus speaks of and provides is about WHOLEness and wholeness is different than completion or the way things were.

Wholeness is about learning to live with our whole heart. It’s living with and into the tension Mary Oliver is forever dancing around when she writes: “All my life and it has come to no more than this: beauty and terror.” We find wholeness as we lean into and learn to live with loss. We find wholeness when we show up with and for those around us. We find wholeness in habit. We find wholeness in God’s unending grace.

Some days and weeks and seasons feel more like Friday than others, and right now, and as long as we wait for Maddie to wake, is especially heavy. And sure, Sunday is coming in the grand scheme of things. But in the meantime there is grace. And it is through that grace from one another, toward ourselves, and by the grace of God, that we will learn to live in the tension of this temporal world and we will find our way out of exile. By the grace of God we will be made whole.


stanley kunitz (by mary oliver)

i used to imagine him
coming from the house, like merlin
strolling with important gestures
through the garden
where everything grows so thickly,
where birds sing, little snakes lie
on the boughs, thinking of nothing
but their own good lives,
where petals float upward,
their colors exploding,
and trees open their moist
pages of thunder —
it has happened every summer for years.

but now i know more
about the great wheel of growth,
and decay, and rebirth,
and know my vision for a falsehood.
now i see him coming from the house —
i see him on his knees,
cutting away the diseased, the superfluous,
coaxing the new,
knowing that the hour of fulfillment
is buried in years of patience–
yet willing to labor like that
on the mortal wheel.

oh, what good it does the heart
to know it isn’t magic!
like the human child i am
i rush to imitate–
i watch him as he bends
among the leaves and vines
to hook some weed or other;
even when i do not see him,
i think of him there
raking and trimming, stirring up
those sheets of fire
between the smothering weights of earth,
the wild and shapeless air.

i’m starting to think that my 38th year will be defined by this line of this poem “oh, what good it does the heart to know it isn’t magic.” don’t get me wrong, i love magic and wonder and mystery and i believe in all those things. but i think the stuff that gets us there – the stuff of motherhood and leadership and marriage and friendship: it’s only part magic and mostly hard work – sometimes hard work no one sees, like the gardener.

not one to typically take on resolutions at the new year or anytime, i’m surprised by the intention with which i’ve approached this birthday. 37 feels like a coming of age – one i’m hoping to embrace. inspired by influential women i’ve met and heard over the last few months, my family, a deeper sense of belonging and vision at work, and a general interest in always living more authentically and wholeheartedly, i’m interested to see what this new year brings.

a moment of magic on my birthday

a blurry moment of magic on my birthday

rainbow baptism

mysteries, yes (mary oliver)

truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

how grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
how rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
how two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
how people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

let me keep company always with those who say,
“look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

it is not lost on me that this is pregnancy and infant loss awareness week. my facebook feed reminds me daily, in part but not entirely because of one particular page i follow. i’ve mostly buried myself in work and family and puppy training, but as the week closes and i am forced to ready for this weekend (house cleaning, food preparation, friends visiting, baptism) it’s coming into focus.

a new term to me, james is my rainbow baby – a baby born following a pregnancy/infant loss. i’ve been wrestling with his baptism a bit, not because of james, but because my experience with baptism has been powerful yet varied. eliot was baptized the day mitch was ordained a priest – friends and family came to town, there was cake, lots of people attended, and i even bought a special outfit. ella was baptized with a few drops from a hospital water bottle right after she was born and before the nurse took her to be cremated.

sunday, we’ll baptize james at the camp stevens chapel surrounded by friends, woodpeckers, giant oaks, and the most beautiful font i’ve ever seen. sunday is the feast day of st. francis of assisi. seems perfect to me. we’ll follow the baptism with a hodge podge potluck. the food might not be plentiful enough. the hand-me-down outfit i’ve got in mind might not be warm enough. the hospitality i offer to guests probably won’t feel good enough. the weather (rain and cold in the forecast) might not hold out long enough.

but my baby will be baptized. not because god doesn’t already love and welcome him, but because it’s important that we – his family and friends – commit to raising him with intention and love and grace, reminding him (and us) that “you’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”

Brown quote - wired for struggle


mary / she moves behind me / she leaves her fingerprints everywhere / everytime the snow drifts, everytime the sand shifts / even when the night lifts / she’s always there … mary / you’re covered in roses / you’re covered in ruin / you’re covered in secrets / you’re covered in treetops / covered in birds / covered in a million songs without any words (patty griffin)


sitting in wisdom literature class at roberts wesleyan college, then professor martin predicted mitch and i would get married. or, really, he used us as an example of the confusion that occurs in prayer and hearing god’s wisdom.

mitch and i hadn’t starting dating at the time, and knew one another only as acquaintances. dr. martin pointed out that it’d be a bit crazy if mitch approached me and said: “god told me we should get married.” my response – and i agreed that it would be my response – would have been something like: “well, god didn’t tell me that!”

and so it goes that hearing god’s wisdom and call is tricky business.

for lent this year, i re-tried on extemporaneous prayer as a regular discipline. i’ve seen and experienced non-prayer-book prayer as powerful, life-giving, and eye-opening. but i’ve also seen and experienced it as manipulative, showy, and shallow. and so with those memories and anne lamont’s help, thanks, wow, i began my experiment.

now several weeks after lent, i’m happy to report that praying has added a new level of beauty and terror to my life. and i am grateful for it.

the rawness i feel admitting to god – and therefore to myself – that i don’t have life figured out is beautiful and freeing. i believe god speaks to me through my gut, my intuition. when i follow my gut, i can be talked out of it by myself or others. when i follow god through my gut, i have a sense of rightness that is downright terrifying. powerful, but terrifying. and i’m still not sure what to do with it.

between meetings in los angeles earlier this week, i found myself in the sanctuary of st. john’s cathedral. cathedral spaces and wild spaces do the same thing for my soul. i feel a sense of openness, vitality, vulnerability, and rightness. my time at st. john’s was no different. being open to god, my gut, and my intuition makes me feel vulnerable. what if i’m wrong? what if how i feel god moving contradicts someone else’s intuition? why does vulnerability feel so terrifying yet open up such amazing possibilities?

and then i read about peace.

and then i wandered and took some pictures.


and then i shed a tear for ella.


and then i left, feeling tired, powerful, and beautiful.

for mother’s day: the gardener

the gardener (mary oliver, a thousand mornings)

have i lived enough?
have i loved enough?
have i considered right action enough? have i
come to any conclusion?
have i experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?

i say this, or perhaps i’m just thinking it.
actually, i probably think too much.

then i step out into the garden
where the gardener, who is said to be a simple man,
is tending his children, the roses.

i know i share, “like,” and recommend some pretty angsty things on and around mother’s day (like this, this, and this). but the truth is, i do delight in homemade cards and crafts, mother’s day tea at school, and the way the world around me stops to honor the women who bore them (i know, beauty and terror, right?).

(at the mother’s day tea eliot beamed telling me how the cucumbers and dill in the sweet little sandwiches he helped make were from the school garden he helped grow. that and the way he and his friends doted on james were the sweetest things ever.)


in reflecting on child loss with a friend who (unfortunately) shares a similar story, we both regularly yearn to have our ignorance back. like mary oliver says, “i probably think too much.” and so i went to the garden.

last year i double dug a good bit of my garden space. eliot and i tried starting seeds at least twice after that but forgot to water them and never got anything in the soil.


i’ve been talking about getting plants in the ground this spring for weeks. one day after mother’s day, it happened.


best mother’s day gift ever. well, gardening, some sweet earrings a friend sent, and some reminiscing with eliot at breakfast this morning about how we used to talk about how ella would have liked watching birds with us when he was 3.

tonight i’ve got seeds started in egg cartons on my kitchen counter, a few plants trying to spread their roots in the earth, and dirt under my fingernails. i am sufficiently happy and grateful.




sometimes, part 4 (mary oliver)

instructions for living a life.
pay attention.
be astonished.
tell about it.

in the spirit of this blog post, here’s the real story of our micro-adventure on monday.  i try to stay away from play-by-play blog posts (because, frankly, they’re usually boring), but …

last year for eliot’s spring break, my mother, my cousin, eliot, and i drove to saguaro national park for a couple nights of camping.  in my insanity eagerness and optimism, i decided this national park/spring break combo ought to be a tradition.  (and then i had a baby.)  at first with disappointment, and during/after with relief, eliot, james, and i opted this year for a much more sane local option: anza-borrego state park.

(last year m was helping his recently retired mother move.  this year spring break aligned with holy week – not exactly a good time for a priest to go out of town.)

our first task was to set up the tent.  this went delightfully easily, even in the 95 degree heat.  eliot was helpful as helpful as a 6-year-old can be and james sat happily in the stroller i’d brought along mostly to have somewhere to put him down.  then, while i started dinner, eliot entertained his brother.


perhaps my favorite picture of the bunch:


the sling came with instructions never to cook when carrying a baby.  whatevs.


sunset and the desert blooms really were stunning:


i grabbed firewood on my way out of camp stevens to make a s’mores fire, but apparently picked up wood that hadn’t dried yet (hard to believe in this drought).  thankfully i still had the remains of the summer camp mailing in the jeep!


even with the extra paper i couldn’t get a fire started (sorry, ego), so we made s’mores over the fire made by the paper and eliot happily enjoyed eating dirt raw marshmallows:


after dessert we crawled into the tent, at which point i realized i’d forgotten my contact case, flashlights, and eliot’s melatonin.  he’s taken a melatonin gummy for years to help him get to sleep.  sometimes i wonder if it’s really just a placebo, and monday was a good, healthy reminder that: no, not a placebo.  yes, he needs the gummy.

the other time we use melatonin gummies is if he wakes in the night, which he does on occasion.  about 4am eliot woke for god-knows-why and he played quietly for two hours with these glowsticks in his sleeping bag.


i’d say the biggest challenge of this whole little adventure had to do with taking an infant, not yet sleeping through the night, camping.  i bed-share half the night at home and knew i’d sleep with him all night in the tent, but wasn’t as prepared as i should have been for the sore back that followed from the combination of nursing for food and comfort + a camping mattress.  but when i woke up to this, all was mostly forgiven:




we took a short hike after breakfast up palm canyon.  thankfully, because of the heat, my sore back, and not having as much water as i was comfortable with (we passed folks with no water), we turned around just in time for eliot’s lack of sleep to fizzle his brain catch up to him.  it took us twice as long to get back.  he wanted me to carry his backpack.  i told him i would if he carried james …


a snake, a ladybug, a handful of lizards, and no bighorn sheep later, we made it back to our campsite to pack up and head to town for brunch.



annoyed that i wouldn’t take a picture of any of the lizards on the trail (he has yet to learn about shutter speed), we snapped this shot of a lizard in the coffee shop.  he was happy, i was exhausted happy, james was oblivious (and happy).  then we went home and took naps.


the end.

he may have it

in honor of play week …


william (mary oliver)

now there’s william.  he comes pecking, like a bird, at my
heart.  his eyebrows are like the feathers of a wren.  his ears
are little seashells.

i would keep him always in my mind’s eye.

soon enough he’ll be tall, walking and coversing; he’ll have
ideas, and a capricious will; the passions will unfold in him,
like greased wheels, and he will leap forward upon them.

who knows, maybe he’ll be an athlete, quick and luminous;
or a musician, bent like a long-legged pin over the piano’s
open wing; or maybe he will stand day after day over a drafts-
man’s desk, making something exquisite and useful — a tower
or a bridge.

whatever he does, he’ll want the world to do it in.  maybe,
who knows, he’ll want this very room which, only for con-
venience, i realize, i’ve been calling mine.

i feel myself begin to wilt, like an old flower, weak in the

but he is irresistible!  whatever he wants of mine — my room,
my ideas, my glass of milk, my socks and shirts, my place in
line, my portion, my world — he may have it.


this one has stolen my heart entirely.  i’m not usually one for mushiness, but …

the smiling and the cooing and the rubbing his eyes when he’s tired and the waking up next to me willing to stare out at the trees until i’ve come to.  yes he cries, yes he interrupts work for feeding, yes my back hurts from the co-sleeping.  but oh my, is he ever irresistible.  whatever he wants of mine, he can have it.


(octopus knit by delaney)