I sit with my 96 year old mother in her assisted living facility. She is not dying – not right away – but is in end stage congestive heart failure, has seriously high blood pressure, and seems to have had some mini-strokes. We are sitting in the common area where she does not like to be. She has been on the border of agoraphobia for decades. Her ability to focus and communicate is limited, so we have little to say.
A group begins to gather for worship. I offer to push my mother’s wheel chair back to her room where we can continue our non-conversation. I do not recall her being in a church except for a funeral or wedding since 1959. She has never joined the services at this assisted living home. I don’t know why she avoids corporate worship. I suspect she doesn’t get the worship and doesn’t like the corporate. She has never spoken of it. In our family, religion is a private affair. I offer to facilitate her escape.
To my surprise, she says, “Can I stay and hear it?” She does mean hear it – like hearing the mass – she does not sing and is quite blind – also deaf, but they sing loudly. I say “yes” and push her chair into formation with the gathered assembly – wondering what shift has happened in her and why. We are sitting in a worship service together for the first time in 50 years.
We sing from the Baptist hymnal. While we sing, the demented old lady sitting next to us reaches over and steals from my mother’s shoulders a ratty-looking towel which she has wrapped around herself for warmth. The geriatric thief turns the towel to her own use. But my mother still has an attractive blanket worn like a shawl around her shoulders, so it is ok. We sing:
“Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer!
May I thy consolation share,
Till, from Mt. Pisgah’s lofty height,
I see my home and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop and rise,
To seize the everlasting prize . . . .”
What is my mother thinking as we sing this? Of my father, of my brother, of herself?
Then the pastor speaks. He is from Myrtle Springs Baptist, the little country church where I walked down the center aisle any number of times to Just As I Am. He is a pudgy young man in a knit shirt and sneakers. I am grateful to him for being here and so I think charitably on his vague abstract message about how Americans should be grateful to God that even when things are bad here, they worse in developing nations. I am not grateful for that. But I am grateful to him. He has spoken of spiritual things to my mother and he is from the church of my childhood.
At the end of the service, he passes through the throng shaking hands. He comes to me and I say, “When I was a boy, I attended Myrtle Springs. It is an important place to me.”
It is an important place to me. Those words hold memories of Royal Ambassadors, sword drill, Sunday School, of friends now departed, of Brother Tate shouting his ruddy faced robust gospel, succeeded by Brother Bob whose message was friendlier but less interesting, memories of the choir’s red headed soprano just a year older than me, the one I stared at but never spoke to.
“When I was a boy, I attended Myrtle Springs. It is an important place to me,” I said.
“That’s very nice,” he said and walked on by.
Double whammy. I had just been dismissively patronized the way old people are. He was in his patronizing-the-old-folks pastoral mode and was not able to shift gears fast enough to respond to me – bright, energetic, colorful character from Las Vegas that I am – and so he responded to me as he had to all the others. I learned something about my craft, about listening to people of any age and responding to them as if they matter.
But that is only one of the whammies. The other whammy is not about age. It is about shared places which is actually my point. During my long decades spent East of the Mississippi, I would on very rare occasion see someone get out of a car with an Idaho license plate. I eventually learned better, but at first I would speak to them. It was like seeing a long lost family member, so I would speak, saying,
“Idaho! I lived in Boise for over a decade, had a law office in Eagle, practiced in Canyon County too. Where were you? Did you eat Austrian Food at Peter Shott’s, drink beer at the Burger & Brew? What was that jazz piano player’s name?”
And they would stare at me like a panhandler at best, more likely someone about to pick their pocket.
In Las Vegas, I have twice at the gym seen someone with a Texas Longhorn shirt, and I have said something like,
“Hook ‘em horns. I’m a Texas Ex. When were you there? Ever eat the schnitzel at Sholz’s Beer Garden?”
They have looked at me nervously and moved away. Even Texans, the mega-cult of all mega-cults, the ultimate granfaloon, refuse to exchange the secret handshake based on sharing a common place in our past. These are not ordinary places. They are special places. To have been there is formative. To have been in the same place, when it is such a place, is to have been formed somewhat together.
There are still a few places where those bonds can be invoked. New Yorkers still recognize each other.
“I’m from New York.”
“I lived there in the late 80’s.”
“No kidding. Where?”
“Chelsea. Corner of 9th and 20th. How about you?”
“Upper West Side.”
“Cool. I used to work at John the Divine.”
“O yeah? . . . . .”
Places in common are precious in a transient society. This year I confirmed a woman in Henderson who turned out to be a lawyer with a Master of Divinity, and is now an aspirant for Holy Orders. There she was in Henderson, Nevada, and right away the first time I met her she said,
“I’m from Macon, Georgia.”
“No! How is that possible?”
“Lived there from birth through college.”
“What high school?”
“So you knew Marcia Aldridge?”
“Oh that’s right, she was at Southeast. Which college? Macon State?”
“No. Mercer. I had Mary Wilder.”
“You’re kidding. She was at St. Francis.”
We are not just inhabitants of places. We don’t just own, rent, or pass through them. We imbibe them. They become part of us and we become part of them. And we can never fully leave them. Not by moving a thousand miles away or staying in exile for decades. They are woven into our identity.
To have shared a place in our past is a bond. It may not make us friends. But it makes us compatriots – and that is a relationship. It is a relationship so rarely recognized that I just had to look up the word to make sure it means what I thought it did. It does. That pastor and I are compatriots. I could tell him a thing or two about his home if he would listen. And he could tell me what’s happening now. Those Idahoans and New Yorkers are my compatriots. The woman from Henderson and Macon and I are double compatriots.
Before long my mother will be buried in the same Texas earth where my grandparents, father, brother, most of the family I have known, and a goodly number of friends are buried. Even if I lived in Istanbul, Texas has a claim on me; and I, on it. Those who are bound to the same land are bound to me; and I, to them.
And what of those who share a place now? What is our tie to each other? There is a moral and metaphysical answer which is true regardless of what we acknowledge. To deny it is to cut ourselves off from reality. But the social and political question is: what tie will we own? Is our presence here an inconvenience or an asset to each other? Regardless of that, is our sharing of this space sacramental? Is the kingdom in fact among us waiting for us to live into it by acknowledging our earthy human bond?