This may come as something of a surprise to you but, long ago in another galaxy far, far away, I was once a registered nurse. Indeed, over the years I’ve become convinced that God called me first to be a nurse to prepare me for what it means to be a priest. And, a better mother. And, in fact, a better Christian.
It’s a long story, which I’ll share at another time but I want to tell you about the time I was a public health nurse in Maine. See also: long ago in another galaxy far, far away.
At the time, I was living and working in Portland, Maine. I was young and pretty full of myself. I thought I was going to save the world – or, at least, a little corner of the earth and maybe a few people along the way.
My title said it all: I was a High Risk Maternal and Infant Specialist. I worked with very young very new moms – teenagers – some as young as 12 or 13. I visited them weekly, teaching them the basics of childcare as well as providing them information about their own bodies so they wouldn’t get pregnant again – well, at least, not for a while. Preferably, when they were ready.
I can’t remember the specifics but I think either my census was low or the overall census was high, or nurses were out sick – whatever the issue, I was asked to help out on the medical-surgical team. I was not pleased. Most of the patients were old and dying and, remember, I was young and going to save the world. That’s why I put all my energy and passion into caring for young mothers and their babies.
I was young and arrogant and, despite all my education, quite stupid. I was about to learn a lesson in just how young and arrogant and stupid I really was.
I was asked to see an elderly man, one Mr. Leroy T. Jones who lived over on A Street – affectionately known as “The Alphabet City” – downtown, behind the old Greyhound Bus Station, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks.
His street address told me that he was an African American man who lived in the “shabby” section of town. I knew the neighborhood well as a few of my patients lived over in Alphabet City.
It was a hot morning in August when I pulled up A Street in my car and I was rendered almost breathless at the corner lot of the home of Mr. Jones. While his home was small and modest, the flowers that surrounded it were an absolute riot of the luxury of color and beauty. It was really an amazing sight to behold amidst the rest of the shabby, almost shanty houses in the neighborhood.
I followed the path around the house and saw that the whole of the backyard was a vegetable garden, filled with corn and carrots, pole beans and tomatoes, potatoes and yams, beets and zucchini and watermelon, along with a apple tree and a pear tree and even a small grape arbor.
I stopped to put down my bag and wipe my brow and take in this amazing site when I heard Mr. Jones yell, “Ho! Is that the nurse? I’m over here, near the back steps, by the faucet.”
I looked, and sure enough, there he was. I can still see him in my mind’s eye. A wee little slip of a man, he sat upright on a wooden box, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and bow tie and a proper straw fedora on his head. A large pair of sunglasses completed his dapper summer look. He was ready for his visit with the nurse.
He greeted me warmly as he dragged another wooden box from behind him and motioned to it for me to sit down, all the while talking about what a beautiful morning it was and how lovely I looked.
This was all quite remarkable to me because, you see, Mr. Jones was blind. He was a brittle diabetic who had lost his sight years ago to the disease – no doubt because he had not gotten proper care, despite the excellent health insurance and pension he received as a former railroad worker. He also had crippling arthritis and had a difficult time moving around and, on bad days – which were increasing – walking.
After we exchanged pleasantries I mentioned the beauty of the garden and how fortunate he was to live in the midst of it – flowers all around and vegetables and fruit trees in the back. He threw back his head and laughed in delight that I had noticed.
“Whose garden is this? Is this your garden, sir?” I asked.
Again, Mr. Jones threw back
his head and laughed. “Whose garden is this?" he roared with laughter.
"Why, this is MY garden, of course,” he said.
“Your garden?” I asked. “My, my my!” I exclaimed in wonder. “But, excuse me, sir,” I asked. “Who tends your garden?”
Well, now Mr. Jones could hardly contain himself. He practically fell off his wooden crate, his little body was shaking so hard with laughter.
“Who tends my garden? Hehehe! Why child,” he said, “I do. I tend my garden.”
I was momentarily relieved that he was blind and couldn’t see the embarrassment on my face but then suddenly realized that you don’t have to have eyes to see. Still, I pressed on.
“But, Mr. Jones,” I said, “How can you tend your garden? You are blind, sir,” I said almost in a whisper. “How can you tell a weed from a sprout? And your body and hands are all crippled up! How do you manage? Shouldn’t you be taking it easy? I mean, a man of your age and condition?”
I suppose Mr. Jones could have been angry and yelled at me. Instead, he laughed again and took pity on me, poor young, arrogant, stupid soul that I was.
Mr. Jones reached behind his wooden crate and pulled out a few old burlap bags. “See these?” he said as he held them up. “Well, I just throw one of these down on the ground there. Then, I just throw myself on top of it. It helps me to glide better through the rows. I suppose I look funny but I can’t see myself so it don’t matter much to me,” he chuckled.
“I feel around the rows for weeds, and I probably pull a sprout instead of a weed every now and then, but you know,” he chuckled again, “mostly, I do alright.” He sniffed the air, “Yup! By the smell of these vegetables and those flowers, I suppose I do alllll-right. Yes, ma’am!”
St. Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, asks, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
I suppose Moses looked and sounded foolish to the Israelites who had been newly liberated from Egypt when he came down from Mt. Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments, saying that God had dictated them to him. It hadn’t taken them long to build a golden calf to worship while he was gone.
I suppose Jesus did not seem wise to his disciples as he tore through the Temple, turning over tables and chasing out the moneychangers, yelling and screaming that they had turned his father’s house into a “market place” or, in one translation, “a den of thieves”.
There’s a line from our
collect prayer that serves for me as a key to open the meaning of these pieces
of ancient scripture and connect it to the story of Mr. Leroy Jones: “Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and
inwardly in our souls . . . .” .
There’s a wholeness – a whole-some-ness – about holiness. It’s about having greater synchronicity between “outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls”.
That is the gift of those 10 Commandments which God gave to Moses and Moses carried to his people. If you look beyond and beneath all the negative “Thou shalt not’s” there’s a whole lot of interior work – a philosophy, a theology – a manner of life that must come inwardly from the soul and then is made manifest “outwardly in our bodies” by the way we live. If they are just one-dimensional rules to follow blindly, they speak more of blind obedience than holiness of life.
Being seriously out of sync is what angered Jesus to the point of turning over tables and driving out those who had taken advantage of the kindness of changing money into a profit-gouging enterprise as well as over-charging for the animals of sacrifice. It brought Jesus to the point of rage to see that the laws made to enrich the inward, spiritual life were being corrupted in the outward, corporate life of the community that gathered to pray at the Temple. St. Paul would later speak of the difference of being obedient to the law vs. being freed from the letter of the law to follow the spirit of the law.
In my youthful ignorance, Mr. Jones connected the dots for me. I mistook the condition of his outward body for the status of his inward soul. He taught me that we are not here on this earth to be perfect either inwardly or outwardly. Like Mr. Jones, we often flop around in our appointed row of life. We feel around for weeds and sometimes we mistakenly pull a sprout instead of a weed, but mostly, we do alright – especially when our outward bodies are in sync with our inward souls.
That’s the task of this Season of Lent – to be have greater synchronicity between our souls and bodies so that the lives we live are more wholesome and holy. The 10 Commandments are not the beginning and end; they are the means to an end. Even the holy places in our lives – our churches and temples of worship – must flow authentically from places of goodness in our souls.
I want you to leave you with
how my visit with Mr. Jones ended.
“This world can be an ugly place,” Mr. Jones explained, “filled with ugly people who do mean, ugly things. But, the world can also be a beautiful place, filled with flowers and trees and butterflies and bees that make food for the eyes and the soul as well as the body.”
“I want the people in my neighborhood to know that once there was a man who lived among them who chose beauty over ugly, food over hunger, hope over despair. I love giving my fruit and vegetables to he kids as snacks and to their families for their meals. And I give the flowers so there’s some beauty in their lives. That means I have to let a little bit of myself die every day. Got to let my pride die in order to do this work that the Lord has given me to do. Got to suffer a little bit of pain in order for beauty to grow and flourish.”
He lowered his glasses and his cloudy eyes looked straight into mine and asked. “See?”
“Yes, sir, I do, sir.” I answered looking straight into his eyes, “I believe I do – through your eyes. I stand accused of being blind.”
“And you have been found guilty,” Mr. Jones said, putting his glasses back over his eyes before he broke into a serious, wide grin, “but not of being blind, but of having a kind heart,” he laughed.
“Guilty as charged,” he roared, laughing so hard he almost fell off his wooded crate.
And, I laughed right along
Please pray today’s collect again with me: Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.