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If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother

St. James’ Rector, The Rev. Dr. Kate Cress was recently invited as guest homilist for Solemn Evensong at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John’s, Los Angeles. Below is the transcript.

January 19, 2019

Psychologists are known to say, “If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.”  And it’s true, isn’t it, that we can trace some of the most complicated moments in our lives to this crucial relationship, that bond forming and informing, so deeply, who we are. 

And perhaps you share with me a troubled road. I won’t walk you down that road now except to say this. My mother has lived for decades in a seemingly self-imposed but probably largely involuntary exile in the grip of many metaphorical demons. And, loving her as my bothers and sisters and I do, seeing her struggle has broken our hearts.

And now, retired in Nairobi, Kenya, (her choice!) a place she worked for many years as a wildlife conservationist, she nears the end of her life. My mother’s cottage, set in a sprawling ex-pat retirement community, a sort of Exotic Marigold Hotel, is surrounded by roses, trees dense with birds, a sunny terrace, a chameleon or two, an orange cat, and round-the-clock caregivers who treat her with gentleness and care. 

My sister and I began this year with a trip to Nairobi. With her health declining, we knew this would probably be our last visit. But we had no idea what to expect. Would she be conscious, or even know us? Imagine our surprise as we entered her cottage. Springing up in bed, she started talking and hardly stopped talking the whole week we were there! Memories tumbled out. One long retrospective monologue of … delight.

Scripture gives us such powerful stories about exiles returning “home.” The Israelites, enslaved in Egypt, suffer forty years in the wilderness before reaching home. And the Judeans, captives in Babylon, fear their homeward journey. The Temple in ruins. Their houses, fields, businesses – long gone. What could it mean to return home? And isn’t it fascinating how, so often, exiles return to a place almost unrecognizable from the one they left behind. Sometimes their children, born elsewhere, arrive “home” for the very first time.

In Nairobi, my sister and I arrived “home” to a mother we scarcely recognized. Terribly frail, her former beauty long gone. Yet spiritually we met a woman returned from exile. She recognized us, she hugged and kissed us again and again, proclaimed her love and, at the same time, spoke about her parents as alive, her siblings alive. In fact, she believed we were simultaneously in Nairobi, Kenya and Bethesda, Maryland and every other place she’d ever lived. We found her living in all the chapters of her life at once but with the pain extracted from them all. 

Soon my sister and I got the hang of her free wheeling swoops through the decades, not actively playing along so much as just nodding agreeably. And marveling at our own limits, living as we do in just one time and place, one tiny, here-and-now corner of her vast landscape.

What does it mean, this unbinding from time, this cleansing of pain? Well, dementia, of course. And I know dementia is not always this and do not mean to romanticize the loss or rearranging of memory. But, we saw a person who had lived in such pain…set free.

In Isaiah tonight we hear:

“Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:

For your sake I will send to Babylon and break down all the bars….”

And …

“…make a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters…”

Such powerful images for how God clears a path for us. Here’s another…

“I will make a way in the wilderness

and rivers in the desert…”

And we gather courage in this, for, in Isaiah, God says, “The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.”

Hear that? We can take heart on this journey. Our journey out of times of captivity, of pain, of unbearable exile. 

And here’s more comfort in Isaiah:

“Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.” 

While the past does not go away, we need not feel enslaved by ancient pain. Instead, these famous words:

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

A new thing. 

As we near the end of our lives, we wonder how we measure up. I wonder this for my mother. Will God find her life, and the lives all of us have led, good enough? Are we worthy? For in Hebrews tonight, Paul says how, “…all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Yet Paul also reminds us…we have Jesus, our great high priest, who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because he has been tested as we are. 

And so:

“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Friends, in Nairobi, I saw someone bathed in grace. Dark, dark years not forgotten but decommissioned somehow, pain lifted, and an extraordinary lightness left behind. I never would have dreamed or believed it – yet I saw with my own eyes.

And this grace spreads too. Seeing our mother return from decades of exile, able to speak kindly, warmly, openly, enthusiastically, lovingly – we staggered home from exile too. To a new home, a new and unexpected peace, a time-out-of-time place, yes, and yet, a blessed place all the same. A new thing. 

It springs forth. 

Continually. 

Do you not perceive it?                          

AMEN.