Friday, August 31, 2012

List 31 - Eight of the many reasons I thank God I was part of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church

Almost thirteen years ago, the south was hampered by a horrible winter storm, complete with school closings, power outages, and a big mess.  Tim and I were one year into our new marriage and we were in the midst of figuring out how to be parents of Molly, our three week old.  We lived in Raleigh, NC and the storm found us in the middle of our 'introduce Molly to Georgia' trip.  Suffice it say that the snow in no way hampered our plans.  We were in such a bubble of narcism, we probably thought the whole affair was in our honor!

Our trip was to take us to all sorts of places to let all of our loved ones meet our little girl.  We also had plans to interview at a little church in Covington at the end of our pilgrimage.  Everything went off without a hitch, even though travel was slowed and the lights were off.  I remember thinking how funny it was that we had to hand wash our clothes and hang our skivvies on the fire place screen in Atlanta to get them dry to drive over to Covington.  We were tired, sleep deprived and, I must admit, somewhat hopeful that our Covington meeting might be postponed.  Luckily it was not.

It was a gray afternoon, and we entered the somewhat dismal office area of Good Shepherd.  I'm not sure I planned on being impressed.  After having a child, I didn't think anything other than her was very impressive!  I doubt we would have made the trip to Covington if we hadn't just come by the church a bit before and met a future friend who was preparing the altar for the following day's worship.  Evelyn was our friend instantly, and I recall driving away with a strange notion that we may have just gotten a glimpse into our future.

The room where we met looked a bit forgotten and the walls seemed a gray.  I had no idea then that we would soon meet folks in that very room who would light up the way for us for the next twelve and a half years.  We began to talk and to laugh together - they asked good questions and we all tried to get to know each other.  I don't ever remember a time where I was so struck with a yearning to know people better.  Now that I know those people so so well, I see their faces smiling, wondering and laughing.  Some of those friends are gone now, but oh what friends they became.

Good Shepherd had been going through one of those 'hard times' that all churches go through from time to time.  Some folks had left.  There was a small core group who held things together.  They were ready to be loved.  The people had a light all their own, but the circumstances were tough.  It seems surprising now that we accepted the call to Covington.  I will always be grateful that we did.  If ever there was a 'God' thing, that was one!

We were new at being married.  We were new at being parents.  We were new in Covington.  Tim had never before been a rector.  I was new at being a clergy spouse.  (Perhaps I could have just written that we didn't know what in the world we were doing!)  It should have been a shaky start.  It was not.

On that first day of meeting and learning at Good Shepherd, some precedences were begun and they never ended.  I remember that Catharine picked me up to give me a tour of Covington, and I was shocked at the confident way she threw my tiny baby (carseat and all) into the backseat of her Nissan van and sped off.  That was the beginning of the way that folks would always take care of us and give us direction over the next decade. 

At the end of that city tour, we went by to see Lee and Bob.  There they sat, warm fire roaring, casually snacking on some hot and delicious artichoke dip.  I must admit, that looked like the life!  If everybody was this relaxed and warm and happy in Covington, we must make the move!  I guess the fire didn't burn every day over the next few years, and I went in and out of many homes where there wasn't always a freshly prepared homemade snack - but that was the beginning of the way that folks would always welcome us over the next decade. 

I cannot imagine a place where folks could be more loving or welcoming that Good Shepherd church.  We spent the next twelve years loving and laughing and building and grieving and celebrating and crying and praying and working and eating [:)] and worshipping and hugging.  I remember arriving in Covington and I remember our first Sunday at Good Shepherd.  Instantly, the people of Good Shepherd were our people and we theirs.  That was the beginning of the way that we would always be a family.  When one of us died, we would grieve together.  That's what families do.  When one of us celebrated, we would be happy together.  That's what families do, too.  We would spend hours together in our dens and in the hospital waiting room and on the square and laughing in the Parish Hall.

We would worship together, in dignity and awe, whether we were at the old church or the streets of the town or the cemetery or the bright new church on Clark Street.  That first Sunday in that sweet little church, I saw the signs of how we would worship God together.

A dreamer named Tim Graham married a dreamer named Deana Graham.  Those two dreamers met the  flock at Good Shepherd and it was immediately evident that we would spend the following years dreaming together.  In 2000, we couldn't have known what we might do together.  We couldn't even begin to fathom the impossibilities we would overcome.  It would be amazing, to be sure.
In 2000 it might have seemed to a passerby that the Church of the Good Shepherd did not have a lot.  A drive past the precious edifice would have left an onlooker charmed but they might not have imagined all that went on inside those beautiful brown doors.  We learned early-on that we would work more to help others than we would to build up others than ourselves.  Outreach would be our best activity and we would be nicknamed 'the little church with the big heart.'  Who could have known?
I remember our first parish wide party - it was a welcome celebration for us.  That was the event that showed how much we would laugh together!  Day in and day out, over years and years, we would laugh together and help each other see the funny parts of this thing called life.  We would love each other enough to laugh until our stomachs hurt, to poke fun at one another and to cheer up our fellow shepherds when they were down.  I'd love to have a folder filled with all of the laughs we have shared!
 Who could have known when we first met, that together we would serve as a haven and learning space for so many new priests?  We would learn with them, love them and allow our worship to be theirs.  We would grow close to these special people and we would swell with pride when they went out into that great big world.  They would start in our midst and pieces of all of us would go out into the world with them.
The spirit of Good Shepherd will go on for decades and decades to come.  Little pieces of all of us who have loved and worshipped and cried and sang will live in it forever.  

I will never go to another church where all three of my children were baptized.  I will never walk the aisles of a church where I used to pass off one of my babies to a loving parishioner on the way back from communion.  Good Shepherd will always be my children's first church - and, I imagine, a picture of what a church looks and acts like.  Tim won't ever become a rector in another space and I'll never again worship with others who are beginning to figure out parenting along with me.  There are firsts at Good Shepherd that will always be.  

Regardless of where we go or where we worship or where we live, Good Shepherd will forever fill a place in our hearts that can never be replaced.  I will be eternally thankful for all that I have learned and loved alongside my friends, sisters and brothers of this amazing space.  I have pictures filed away that I will see as long as I live.  I'll see the ones of you I've laughed with.  I'll see some of you kneeling at the altar rail.  I'll see the sneaky laughs of the ushers as they rush us in late and I'll see the face of Edna Ruth as she turns to check on the newcomers.  I'll see those of you who have sung like angels and I'll hear Joanne playing the piano like no other.  I'll see the faces of the children I watched be born and then  laugh and then walk and then acolyte and then grow, grow, grow.  I'll see my kids at Good Shepherd, too, and I'll never forget how you watched them with the eyes of unconditional love.  I'll see Tim at the altar chanting and I'll see all who have joined him in the act of worship.  I'll hear you reading and I'll see you in the bookstore.  I'll imagine you at Holy Comforter or the Food Pantry or at coffee fellowship.  I'll see you laughing at Camp Mikell or at the Christmas party or getting giddy after a long meeting.  We've done it all together, friends, and I have a million pictures filed away.  I'll see them often and I'll pray for you.
There aren't words to describe a place like Good Shepherd.  It's a feeling I wish everyone knew.  A few years ago, one of my kids said something childish and prolific at the same time.  "I feel sorry for all of the people in the world who don't go to Good Shepherd - don't you?"  Yeah, I do.  I actually do.  My prayer is that everyone has a place in the world that they love as much as we love Good Shepherd.  I can't imagine a life without the source of strength and love that we have known for these many years.  Everyone should know the feeling of love and acceptance and awe that is present each time the doors of Good Shepherd open.  

The only thing left to say is Thanks be to God.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Dear Covington,

Dear Covington,

I've never written a thank you note to a town before.  This is my first.  This note goes to you, C-ton, and the amazing folks that inhabit you.  I feel sure I can't do an adequate job showing my gratitude, but I'd like to try.

When I arrived here with my family of three, I had no idea of all that you'd teach me.  I didn't know then what a lot of learning I had to do. You were gentle with me, and I was able to take it slow over our twelve and a half years together.  I came to you with a three month old child, pretty confident that I knew a lot.  I leave you with a seventh grader, a sixth grader and a third grader, totally sure that I have a lot to learn.  Thank goodness you were patient with me.  Thank goodness you were patient with my whole family.

I must confess that you didn't sound all that great when I first heard about you.  Now I know that I don't know anything about a place until I have lived there; until I have met the people that make a place tick. I couldn't have known then what a mark you would make on my life, what you would teach me or the ways you would teach me to maneuver through life.  

Back in 2000, as Tim and I ate pimento cheese sandwiches at People's Drug Store, I had no idea how many memories I was about to make.  I couldn't have known about the times my kids and I would dance on the square, listening to awesome music.  I wouldn't have imagined I would roller blade a few years later in the Christmas parade or that my children would make a memory on each yard of that square.  I didn't know that I would be in and out of your beautiful houses, knowing and learning from your great citizens about everything from childrearing to gardening and that many, many times I would visit in those same homes and laugh and laugh and laugh.  

I didn't know when we first visited here in the great snow storm of early 2000 that we would have two more children here and that the people of this sleepy little town would be our extended family.  I couldn't have known then that your citizens would be with me when I was happy or when I was scared, when we were celebrating or when we were grieving.  I had no idea how much I would love you and how you and yours would return that love.  I didn't know that my children would roam your streets with a jubilant confidence that comes with being somewhere where folks love you and appreciate you and watch out for you.  I didn't know then the feeling I would have later when my friends loved my children as if they were their own, or how proud I would be to be surrounded by the friends of my children, as they ran in and out of our house.

You seemed to be such a small place.  I had no idea that I would meet people that seemed just like me and people who were organic farmers and people who made great music and people who had traveled the world.  I didn't know that inside those stately homes and those elegant facades were the folks who would soon feel like family.  I didn't know that you would hurt with us and help us and urge us on when we needed it.  I had no idea then how very much my family would love all of yours.  

I did not know that you would afford my children the adventures you would: that they would perform on stage and sing in school and learn more about the arts on the Oxford campus.  I didn't know that those friendly looking souls we saw strolling along your streets would soon feel like our grandparents, our cousins, our brothers and sisters.  You couldn't have told me then that we would love folks so much that my children would call them "Aunt" and "Uncle" or that our family would be as comfortable in everyone else's churches as we are in ours.  I did not know how amazing it would be to worship with loved ones all over town.
It seems funny now, but I had no idea how many laughs we would share with your people.  I didn't imagine that we would laugh at all of the crazy things we would do together - the Bunco, the Girl Scout cookies, the impromptu gatherings at Scoops, the long talks in the driveways or the book club meetings.    I wouldn't have imagined then all of the ways that your people would become my family.  I didn't know then that I could actually love the children of my friends as much as I do or that I would ever drop my children off at school with the peace of mind that comes with knowing how very much they are loved.

I didn't have any idea how friendships between people of all ages would be forged between my family and your people.  I didn't know that I would soon walk around your square and not be able to go more than ten feet without bumping into someone I truly loved.  

Sometimes we would get sick in your town.  Or sometimes we would be sad.  I wouldn't understand right at first that we would be supported in such loving ways or that your people would hold their breath with us, pray for us and carry us through.  I had heard of the "it takes a village" bit, but I had no idea of what that really meant.  Now I do.  I'll never forget.

We didn't know when we first came to you that we would build a church with your people or build a school with them or work with them to create things we thought impossible.  I would never have believed that I would change careers while I was with you or that your people would encourage me so so much.  

I guess I wasn't sure when we arrived in this special place that I could be appreciated for who I really am or that Tim, my children and I would feel so loved.  I wasn't sure how comfortable it would all feel, how often we would smile or all of the times that we would laugh until our stomach hurt!

Everything wasn't perfect here.  That's just it.  We've been really living the day to day, right along with your people.  We've struggled together, outlasted the mundane together, gotten up early together and stayed up late together.  It has been fun.  In your town, the people are 'in it' together.  

I guess no one really knows, when they arrive in a town, what awaits them.  But you have taught me that I shouldn't ever let my mind jump to any conclusions.  I know now that it's the people that make the place and I know now that sometimes people are full of surprises.  Some of them are good storytellers, some can whittle magic out of wood, some sing like angels, some listen with sweet and patient ears and some are nurses whenever you need help.  You have them all in Covington, and your characters have etched a spot in my heart that won't ever be erased.  

You've been gentle with us.

You've listened to us.

You've taught us.

We have hung out with your people.

We have laughed alongside your people.

We have dreamed with your people.

We have wondered about what we might become with your people.  

Just before we came to your town, a friend told me something I never forgot.  She said that Covington would always be different in my heart because it would be the place my children started their lives.  

Our children did start their lives here, and I am eternally grateful.  Wherever they go, they will be forever different because of the strength of their beginning.  They will always carry pieces of your special town, and I pray they never lose the feelings they learned here of being loved and appreciated.  It will carry them far.

You aren't able to avail your citizens every activity in the world or chances to choose between hundreds of restaurants, but you offer them something even more special.  Your folks can wander the streets, supported by every human they pass; the children in your spaces have the unique feeling of 'owning' the town.  Neighbors are neighbors and the events of each citizen's life are appreciated.  

I didn't know much about being a Mama or wife when I arrived in your midst.  I might not know much more now; but all that I know about my life in these roles, I learned with you.  Your children painted in my garage, destroyed my house, dug 'pools' in my backyard and sent me off on quiet times with Tim.  In this place I've learned to cook, learned how to get away without cooking, what I need, what I don't need, and who to call when any situation arises.  I don't take that lightly.  

On your streets, I've driven mini-vans that should have been retired, I've walked with sleeping babies, I've 'gotten into shape' and I've taken casual strolls.  

And, man o man, have we laughed!  I've learned to laugh at myself in your town, and I hope my children take away the same skill.  

Covington has been, and always will be, my village.  

I'm sorry for the folks who don't ever live in a place like you.  I'm quite sure they don't know what they are missing.  They don't know about the people who make the place, the village mentality, the laughs or the strength that comes from the unconditional love of real friends.  We didn't all start here, but we were here together during a special time.  I'm grateful that we came.  

Wherever we are, you will be with us.  You have shaped us.  You have held us up.  You've taught us and you've changed us.  You have loved us.  

Thank you, Covington, for your people and your lessons and your quiet streets.  Thank you for twelve and half years of living and loving.  

With much love and a heart full of thanks,

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