Handling the Holy

For Wendy on the occasion of her 70th birthday.

Blessed are those whose touch leaves more life than it takes.

Wendy is one of the people in our church who takes care of the details. She is the one who sorts through the candles before the Christmas Eve service, taking out the ones that burned too low to the cup last year. Wendy irons the drapes we hang on the back wall to muffle the sound. She brings flowers from her home for our tables. Wendy is a mother figure at our church, always ready to volunteer her home, her food, her capacity to care for us. I’ve caught myself wanting to rest my head on her shoulder more than once.

On Easter Sunday, the year before last, our little church gathered to celebrate resurrection. The lights had been lowered, the cross had been lain down on the Friday before, empty and dark as the day we gathered for. As people came in on Sunday morning however, we handed them each a live flower. As we started to sing, each person was invited to travel to the front, where the cross lay, and attach their flower to it, tucking the stem into wire wrapped around the wood. We read a poem then raised the cross – raising the flowers with it, raising everyone’s little bit of life attached to this cross. And it was what Easter Sunday needed to be. Gorgeous, unsentimental, with layer on layer of meaning offered – a complete meal for everyone who came.

Now, Wendy was the one who wrapped the cross with wire and bought the colorful blooms. But what happened next is what caught me most and I made a note of it on a scrap of folded-up bulletin. As we sat down, the jostle and scrape of chairs moving filling the room, Wendy got up to arrange a cloth across the arms the cross. She spent time moving the folds of the cloth, pulling it one way, then back again, so that the fabric would sit well. She did not rush. And it was her unhurried care for the cross caught me. This small detail of care-full and intentional touch was as much a gift as the flowers or the songs or the big pronouncement and grand joy of announcing that we are indeed resurrection people after all.

Because in that moment with the fabric, Wendy affirmed that IT matters. That this life, resurrected life, with its details and nuances, mattered and deserved to be handled with the utmost of care.

When I led my first ever retreat, by lucky happenstance, my own mentor was also leading a retreat at the same centre for another group. Having her in the building, even though unplanned, even though we did our separate work, was a gift for me on my “first time out.”

After the last lunch of the weekend, each of us at the centre was expected to clean our rooms for the next guests. I was walking down the hall to do this for my own room and, I’m not proud of it, but I had the thought “ I really shouldn’t have to be doing this – I mean, I just led the whole thing, I’m tired.” Then I passed by the room my mentor was staying in. She didn’t see me, but through the open door, I saw this accomplished woman in her 70’s, on the other side of the bed, working the heavy industrial vacuum around her room, around the desk and chair, under the bed, every now and then stooping to pick something up. And I understood something then.

I understood that the work we do in this world is not separate from the ground the work is done on. The work of leading people to places where they might experience God can never be divorced from the real things that enable that work, the real people that are present to that work. The bedmaking, the cleaning, the tables, cups, cloths, the care-full touch of each arm who makes up the community. Our understanding of the holy has to include the real life it creates and has to maintain the space to hold it. Or else the holy, the incarnated holy, is nullified into just another idea. If it is divorced from the real life things that give it shape, the holy is neutered. It is how we hold the incarnate reality – the god-charged reality, will be how we witness to the presence of God in our lives.

There is a holiness to how we handle things. A cup isn’t holy because it is the communion cup. It is holy because people made in the image of God had touched it, accepting the embodied invitation to know their creator. And slowly washing that cup, drying it, and placing it away properly is the work of handling the holy. I wonder if it’s not this sort of attending that might change us. This isn’t just about undo reverence and it’s not about being fussy. It’s how we handle God’s matter – the real life of God-life. In a culture of throw away convenience and “I didn’t get what I paid for,” and dead cynical efficiency, this deep care of the everyday will have more impact on the shalom, justice, and right living than we know. Because it is a practice that will shape our deepest selves and the way we treat each other.

In my teen years I was in churches where the “holy things” were done on stage, demonstratively. What happened on the stage is what was celebrated and desirable. What happened on that stage was the entire goal of the gathering. I never saw who worked in the big, industrial kitchen making coffee. I never saw who cleaned up, who emptied the garbage, who collected the candles on Christmas Eve and sorted through them painstakingly. I never once saw the people who handled the things we used to have our great and holy experiences. I never saw how they touched those things and I never saw how they themselves were treated in those spaces. I never knew their stories, their experiences. The truth we all long for is an incarnated truth. It’s best we start attending to the incarnated tasks, vessels, and embodied stories of others if we are going to say anything about truth.

We see Wendy, and those like her, do this attending week after week. They affirm our life in God because, in their intentional care, they affirm that the ground we live on matters. Our bodies, minds, hearts, actions, wounds, joys, need for grace and the dishes – all of it is of a piece. How we handle the tiny morsels of life, is how we handle the holy mouthfuls. The way Wendy, and those like her, handle the holy makes me want to slow down, build more margin for moving the folds of the cloth, and attending to this holy life I’ve been given. The way Wendy, and those like her, handle the holy is a gift to the body and we honor it.

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