Sunday, July 06, 2014

Requiescat in Pace, Elizabeth Jane Palmberg

July 5, 2014

You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers;…”

            Elizabeth Jane Palmberg was a teacher.  I know.  I was her student.  You might have been too.  It was not in a classroom in California, nor at Cornell, nor even in a class here at St. Stephen’s.  She taught me—us—something of great importance.  She taught us how to die.  I hope, Zab, that you are listening in today, forasmuch as you are here among us, as are all the saints and angels and archangels in the heaven where you are, which is closer to us than the air we breathe.  I hope you are listening because I think that by now you know what and how you taught us, but you might not yet know that we caught on to your teaching.

            She taught us more.  One could start with the rather mundane things at which she was extraordinarily gifted:  writing, editing, reading, for example.  Hers was a world populated by gifted authors, many of them too much underrated women, like Elizabeth Gaskell.  She admired and perhaps emulated women of strong intellect and acute imagination like Ursula LeGuin.  She more than likely never in her life turned in a piece of shoddy work, so much care for detail did she exercise in every visible part of her life. 

            We could move on to her determined commitment to social justice.  Zab told me one day towards the end of her life that she had heard me say many times that life’s only real challenge was letting go.  She said that she had finally come to a place where she agreed with me, but that she had often disagreed when she heard that because her own great learning was that life demanded commitment and identification—the things which had driven her to stand with the poor and the oppressed and the causes of alleviating suffering.  I saw her point and she saw mine.  She modeled thoughtful reflection, restraint, the careful measurement of words, honesty of expression.

            Ah!  There is one worthy of more than passing reference.  Honesty of expression.  Yes.  Zab’s teaching often came couched in humor, a wry sense of the poetry of laughing at oneself.  She taught me one Lent several years ago that one could actually give up something to which one’s psyche was velcroed, like anxiety.  “I’m giving up worrying for Lent,” she said.  In a flash I saw and heard truth:  the truth she was speaking to and about herself, the truth that she was offering me, the permission she was giving me to glimpse my own shadow, all encased in a self-deprecating humor.  She learned her own lessons well, so much so that in her last Lent she vowed to give up “abject terror,” when she was staring death in the face, frozen betimes by the possibility that circumstances would call her to do things she doubted she could do.

            Elizabeth Jane Palmberg, teacher.  She not only was a friend; she taught friendship by modeling it.  She not only was a Christian; she taught Christian faith by living it.  She was not only a professor of responsibility; she took seriously that she needed to live what she professed by her faith.  It can be said without doubt that no good teacher has ever been a good teacher without first being a good student, a learner.  And Zab learned some things along the way, and kept on learning till the very end.  She learned that she could not do everything she wanted to do, and that that was perfectly fine.  She learned to make peace with the fact that some of her dreams she would not live to see fulfilled.  She learned that she could manage physical challenges that seemed daunting in the abstract but were just more obstacles to conquer by grace.  She learned to accept help when in other days she might have been enthralled to a persona of self-sufficiency.  She learned that many of the things she cared most deeply about were gifts that would outlast her reach and control.  And in dying as she died, she learned that most of the things that provoke abject terror in us are things that never happen and thus things we never had to worry about anyway.

            Zab’s greatest gift, perhaps we would all agree, was the way she let us share her walk, as troubled and difficult as it sometimes was.  She opened her heart in supplication and thanksgiving, teaching us that vulnerability is no badge of weakness, but of strength.  She invited us to know and feel her pain, to share her suffering, guided by a deep belief  that “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” [Romans 5:3-5]  I doubt, frankly, that she would have made that statement at any point along the way, or that she would in fact make it today.  But what I do not doubt is that she has now found it to be true.

            Nor do I doubt that Elizabeth Palmberg the brilliant teacher now sees herself in a light that from her torturous path on earth shone too dimly for her completely to embrace herself.  I refer to the part of her that was in dynamic tension between profound faith and honest doubt.  Doubt, by the way, is never the enemy of faith, but an important ingredient in it. The opposite of faith is sin, and the essence of sin is estrangement and alienation, the insubordinate position that the human being is ultimately alone and therefore its own god and savior.  

             Zab and I shared a love for Ursula LeGuin.  One day in the last month or so when I was visiting her, I noted that I could not locate a very short story of LeGuin’s.  I described in some detail the tale of this girl who had an obsession with finding words in odd places.  She would walk the beach and see the wind-blown foam left on the strand by waves, and find that it formed words that she would read aloud.  One day she found herself in a secondhand shop that sold lace, where she saw a handmade collar in which she could make out the words tightly woven into it. Zab and I searched some of her books but couldn’t locate it. 

            On my next visit she handed me a book with a story dog-eared.  “Texts,” it was called.  I turned to it, exclaiming, “Zab!  You found it!”  I read,  

It was handmade, handwritten.  The script was small and very even. Like the Spencerian hand she had been taught fifty years ago in the first grade, it was ornate but surprisingly easy to read.  “My soul must go,” was the border repeated many times, “my soul must go, my soul must go,” and the fragile webs leading inward read, “sister, sister, sister, light the light.”  And she did not know what she was to do, or how she was to do it.[1]

            Zab looked at me.  I looked at her.  “You like that esoteric crap, don’t you?” she said.

            In my mind, behind my laughter, I saw the teacher, Zab, dart behind her very own words.  I imagined that I was holding a story not because it was hers, but because it was mine, lost and now found.  I was not there to teach her anything, only to learn.  And that day’s lesson was that I did not need to know how to light the light for Zab or anybody else, only to be present.  She let me into her world and taught me, wittingly or unwittingly, how to be there.  And I think she did that for us all.

            Apostles, prophets, teachers, doers of deeds of power, workers of miracles, healers, leaders, speakers in various kinds of tongues:  all of them are body-parts of Christ, each one manifesting the Spirit for the common good.  Most of the good we do is in spite of ourselves, and certainly in spite of our limitations and shortcomings.  Elizabeth Palmberg was an exceptional person, but no exception to that truth.  That she gave us much beyond her own understanding of what she was giving and how she was giving it is a sure sign of grace.  And for the graceful life of an exquisite teacher of grace beyond all bounds of reason, how could we not be thankful and full of praise?  How, indeed, to use the words of one of her favorite songs, could we possibly keep from singing?

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014                

[1] Ursula K. LeGuin, Searoad:  Chronicles of Klatsand (New York:  HarperCollins, 1991), 119-121.


Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

            “To what shall I compare this generation?”

            Well, Jesus, to be honest, I could possibly give you a little help there.  I have been hanging around the world now for the better part of seven decades.  I can tell you that people can’t be satisfied.  The weather is either too hot or too cold.  The service is either too long or not long enough.  The sermons are too trite or too heady or too activist or not edgy enough.  Liberals get frustrated because progress is slow or gains are lost.  Conservatives are mad because the world is changing far more quickly than it should, which is ideally not at all.  Human beings experiment with ways of living ranging from communism to extreme individualism, and nothing seems to work without serious glitches. 

            “They are like children sitting in the marketplaces,” says Jesus.  “They call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you and you did not dance.  We wailed and you did not mourn.’”

            You found the same thing true in your day, Jesus?  People just couldn’t be satisfied?

            “…John [the Baptist] came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look!  A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

            What do you think the problem is, Jesus?

            That is an interesting question.  The problem is that reality is 180° different from what folks imagine it to be. 

            Could you clarify that?

            Human beings think that being smart, savvy, educated, intelligent, wise, is the way out of every problem, the solution to every challenging situation.  And so people invest fortunes in learning how to cope with their situations and millions on how to control their environment and all that happens in it.  They can get really angry when things don’t go the way they want, or when things don’t line up with the way the world “ought” to run.  When bad things happen to good people, they get aggravated, because the systems that they imagine run the world betray them. 

            So, Jesus, are you saying that wisdom is a fiction?  Is stupidity better?

            I didn’t say that at all.  In fact, wisdom is a great idea.  The trick is to see that wisdom is not necessarily what people think it is.  I keep saying that unless you become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom of God.  And I have been known to say, too, that unless you are born from above (some of you translate my words as “born again”), you cannot see the kingdom of God.  And, no, I am not speaking in riddles and hyperbole.  I mean that true wisdom is linked to total transformation.  And, by the way, the kingdom of God has already arrived.  Indeed, it is within you, in your midst. 

            But, Jesus, I’ve always thought that the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, is where we go when we die.  What you say confuses me.

            Of course it confuses you, because you are in the habit, as are most people, of thinking that heaven is all about life after death.  And you don’t much help the situation by thinking that entrance into it is based on points you collect or chips you bargain for. 

            What, then, is the kingdom?

            Glad you asked that.  I have compared it to a priceless pearl that a merchant would sell everything to own.  I have said it is like a field with buried treasure that, knowing about that treasure, you’d risk everything to buy the field.  I’ve said it is like a grain of mustard seed, so small you can hardly see or hold it, but something that becomes so large you can hardly imagine that it’s origin was so tiny.  The kingdom is like baking powder that a cook would mix in with several cups of meal or flour till the whole thing was leavened.  All of this is about risk, change, adventure, mystery, growth.  Get the picture?

            Sort of.  But I still don’t quite understand what you are driving at.  Why do you consistently say that you have the truth that God has somehow revealed to you?  What is that truth?  Does it have anything to do with the kingdom?

            Well, that is a sticking point.  Lots of people dismiss me because they think my talk is the speech of a megalomaniac.  They think I’m at least a braggart with an inflated sense of my own ego, or at worst I am insane.  What I am about is trying to help folks understand that the truth always has to do with relationships.  The relationship I have with God is exactly the relationship that you can have with God.  In fact, you already have it.  You just have to open your eyes and see.  Claim your power, which ironically means to be totally humble.  Do you know what humble means?

            I think so.  Why?

            It means to be like humus, like good rich soil.  It means to be earthy, open, receptive.  I told a parable about that, too.  When you are humble, you are open.  You hear the Truth.  And it has the effect of changing you into the person God created you to be.  And when that happens, you can hardly believe how productive you can be.  Fruit?  Harvest?  You can be hundreds of times more effective than you are when you are guarding your treasure, or allowing yourself to be distracted, or when you spend your energy trying to get rich or popular or famous. 

            This is beginning to make some sense, Jesus.

            I hope so. 

            Could you please just reduce your message to one single thought?

            Let me try.  “Come to me, you who work like dogs and carry the awful burdens of trying to prove yourselves.  Come to me, and I will give you a break.  You want a mission?  I’ll give you a mission.  Try this.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.  Let me be your teacher.  I model humility and strength at the same time.  You can do it too.  Ironically, my path is like 100% rest compared to the way you are living your life right now.  And I guarantee that following me will be a breeze, because you will be living your truest life in all its strength and glory. 

            Sounds good, Jesus.

            Yes, it does.  Now I’ve told you a lot.  Tell me something, Frank.

            What’s that?

            Why do you and your people spend so much time debating whether or not this is the right road, or the only way, or whether it makes sense or whether I’m just blowing smoke?  Does it ever occur to you all just to try living it to see?

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014