It had been a long day of planes and more planes and funny, weary people and a sick kid and the sorrow of leaving my boys.
The last time I landed, when I came home from California in October, I got a message from an old friend in Florida. It was clear from her voice that something was wrong, but it wasn't the kind of wrong I had in mind. It was the very worst wrong there is: a cancer diagnosis with little-to-none in the hope department.
Someone asked me a few days later, What do you say to someone when they tell you that?
Nothing, I told them, there is nothing to say. It sucks and there isn't a word in the English language that will take away that truth. It just sucks.
Yesterday when I landed I got an unexpected message, again. I had to read this one a few times because I don't usually get messages like this. I usually get the cancer news and the accident news and the death news.
Here is what it said: Happy Thanksgiving! You may not remember me... but you gave me a hug 2.5 years ago that I cannot forget. It was just what I needed and I wanted to thank you. I am thankful for you and all that you do!!
My lousy memory embarrasses me on a daily basis, so with my Wow response I had to confess that I didn't remember the hug.
And then a few minutes later I did. I did remember the hug.
Two and a half years ago I had just started working at the Pawlet Community Church as a pastor. I really had no idea what I was doing, but I knew the town and the people well; I had lived there before. Not long after I started there was a huge barn fire in town, the kind of big event in a small Vermont village that brings out the best in everyone and does untold damage in the financial and heart departments. I knew of the family, but I didn't know them personally. I asked the board members at the church if I should go over, kind of in an official capacity as the pastor, to offer ... I don't even know. To offer what? What an ass, to have even asked the question. Of course you go, of course you ask what you can do, of course you listen and comfort.
Still, I felt a little awkward, asserting my pastor-ness that day.
I went to the farm and introduced myself to the person there, Julie. We probably made small talk. I told her I was sorry for their loss and that the church was there to help in any way they needed, blah blah blah. I mean, the fire, it just sucked. Wordiness only makes it worse.
Then we hugged.
Truly, I had no idea that it mattered that much, until yesterday.
That's kind of something, isn't it? That we can minister to this world simply by offering generosities of flesh, letting words stay where they belong, at home in a dark closet.
"It was really exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it," Julie said.
Here is the thing. Julie's thank-you was exactly what I needed when I needed it. Because I go through these phases, these passages where I am unsure if I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing where I'm supposed to be doing it. Sometimes the doubt threatens to sink the ship; sometimes being the captain is the loneliest job on board and the loneliness makes me tired. Julie sent me kind words that reaffirmed something important for me: I am right where I'm supposed to be. There's no way she could have known how much her brief and belated thank-you would mean to me, yesterday.
Tomorrow's reading is a letter that Jeremiah wrote to the folks exiled in Babylon. The people are sad and overwhelmed and they want answers and they want them now. And they want to go home. But Jeremiah knows there's no quick fix or easy answer. He gives them advice: build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; get married and have kids; take good care of the community where you find yourself and pray. Pray for the welfare of that community.
Build, plant and pray, work toward peace and community-building.
If I had the chance to meet Jeremiah, I would thank him for offering such sound and meaningful advice to the churning masses. "It probably wasn't what they wanted to hear," I would say to Jer, "but it's really the truth of life, that all good things take time and the love of God is found precisely in those places: in our homes and in our gardens and in our families. Plus also the hugs," I would tell him.
You bring someone in close and press your heart up to their heart and you hold them there for a few minutes so the world doesn't feel as hard as it actually is. A fleeting moment of rest and respite so we are fortified for all of the the building and planting and praying that makes a community that makes a life. Amen.