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A month ago I wrote about a pilgrimage I was going on. Yes, it was part vacation that included the desert of Vegas with my fair share of neon shimmer. Yet that was not all this vacation entailed. My spouse and I traveled outside the disneyland of the desert and into the Colorado Plateau where the landscape takes on the names of burnt sienna, red rock, rust orange, and the other subtle shades of the earth. We hiked through the Grand Canyon and my new favorite place, Zion National Park. In between the vintage neon signs of Vegas and the red rock residue on my hiking boots, we traveled to Farmington, New Mexico where I was born.
On All Saints Sunday I asked my congregation in my sermon, “Who are the saints that have gone before you that you would like to sit down and have a cup of coffee and ask them questions about faith?” I told my congregation that from Scripture I would love to take Mary Magdalene out to coffee, the first minister of the resurrection of Jesus. I would love to ask her questions about what it was like when she preached to the other disciples about the empty tomb. I went on in my sermon, revealing another layer of vulnerability, to say that I wish I could take my birth parents out for coffee and ask them all sorts of questions. They died when I was nine months old. I have inherited a manila envelope filled with pictures of who they are and stories from my family (I was adopted by my maternal grandparents). I have had an incredible life with so much love from my family, but nothing will quench the fact that the people who created me and brought me into this world are people I do not have recollection of.
It was the first time I was back in Farmington in 30 years. I don’t remember living there and yet I knew I had to go back. This was the land I was born on. My birth parents were teachers on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock. The memories of who they are do not live in the community anymore. I did not know anyone when I returned and I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for. My adopted parents gave me the address of the apartment I lived at when I was a newborn. After checking into the hotel my spouse and I drove to the apartment. It feels silly to confess what I am about to write. It also feels quite vulnerable. So be gracious with my tender heart when you read this. I think what I wanted to happen is that when I went to the apartment my birth parents would be standing at the door with arms wide open saying, “Jes! We’ve heard so much about you. Come in, you are home.” But, dear reader, of course that didn’t happen. They have been in Glory for 29 of my 30 years.
One of the clues to my birthparents faith I have inherited are checks made out to their church. I am guessing it was part of their Sunday tithe. I do not know how much this church took up space in their life. Were they church geeks like their daughter? Probably not; that title is usally reserved for us ordained minister types. But perhaps they were like the average person that comes to the churches we serve, wondering about the meaning of life and what the hope of the resurrection had to do with their life.
We decided to go to the parish my birth parents worshipped at. It was a Saturday morning and my spouse made a comment, “Too bad it’s Saturday morning. There probably isn’t anyone here. I wish we could go in.” A closed door usually doesn’t stop me. I said, “Let’s go try all the doors.” We found one that was open. We walked inside. I dipped my hand in the holy water, crossed myself, and made my way to a pew. I sat down and imagined what it was like for my birth parents to worship there. What were they thinking? What were they feeling? I didn’t stay in the pew long. I quietly went up to the front of the parish, stood behind the pulpit and assumed the role of pastor. This was quite the powerful experience. My birth parents questions that I had imagined when I was sitting in the pew just moments before took on new weight in this new role of pastor of this imaginary congregation. What would I preach to a town that was economically struggling? What does the hope of Jesus look like, I mean, really look like, in the day to day lives of the people of Farmington? Would there have been something I could have said that reminded my birth parents how dearly loved of God they were, did they ever doubt how much God loved them? I began ministering to my birth parents in this imaginary world I was conjuring up.
Between the pew and pulpit I felt a strange and holy communion between my birth parents and me. We were present to each other. In a mystical way, we were able to communicate. This is the closest thing I will get to sitting down and having a cup of coffee with them this side of Glory.
Today is Ash Wednesday. This morning and this evening I will dip my fingers in ashes and make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the people in my congregation. I will remind them of how dearly beloved of God they are and I will remind them that from dust they came and to dust they will return. Just like I have been adopted by my maternal grandparents, I feel I have been adopted with great love, by the Reformed tradition. When I was at my birth parents church in New Mexico the words of Heidelberg Q & A 1 kept popping in my head. What a comfort for me and what a comfort to know that of my birth parents, too. As I place ashes on the foreheads of the congregation today, the words of Heidelberg Q & A 1 will not be far from me:
“What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death– to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
I look forward to that day to be reunited with my birth parents and to sit down in heaven’s coffee shop and behold the mystery of belonging in God’s love together.