Moments of grace in an East Tennessee hospital and a pasture in the Carolina foothills

112618 Debi offers DW a treat

Traveling to the South will bring unexpected happiness. – Chinese fortune cookie.

Debi and I like ethnic restaurants, and the night before we left for North Carolina we ate at Little Saigon on Wabash. When we opened the fortune cookies that came with our check, mine said, “Traveling to the South will bring unexpected happiness.” I wasn’t sure what that portended. But Debi’s was, uh, happier. “You will always be surrounded by happiness.”

So Thursday we had Thanksgiving dinner at Taste of India (since we
don’t have family in town, we’ve done it before and it’s becoming a holiday tradition), and we hit the road in the afternoon. Friday evening we were about 100 miles from our destination when Debi decided she’d been feeling a little off all day and she ought to check her blood pressure.

So we asked them to check it a Walgreen’s off I-75.

Twice they checked it.

And when it didn’t come down the second time, they sent us to the nearest emergency room, at Tennova North Knoxville Medical Center a few miles down the road on I-75, where they stabilized Debi’s blood pressure and kept her overnight for observation.

Welp, I figured, the damn fortune cookie sure got it right! This is certainly “unexpected.”

Saturday morning, while we were waiting for lab results, our cousins John and Anne called. It wasn’t much of a drive to Knoxville from Waynesville, N.C., where they live, so why didn’t they come on over? We couldn’t be sure yet we might not have to turn around and go back to Illinois, and it might be our best chance for a visit. So we talked back and forth a bit, and we said OK.

A couple of hours later there was a knock on the hospital room door, and we were surrounded by family – John and Anne, their daughter Lise, who was visiting from Denmark, and grandson Nate who was on Thanksgiving break from his college down in Charlotte. And with that moment, the “unexpected happiness” part of the fortune cookie’s prediction came true.

It was also, I think, a moment of grace.

I’ve wrestled with the concept since I started meeting with a spiritual director back in the spring. So I know to look for “different periods of grace or circumstance when I was aware of God’s consoling presence in the day,” to quote a paraphrase of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Examen on the Marquette University website. And I like what Samantha Smithstein says on the Psychology Today website about “that moment when God’s presence is experienced and it makes magic happen.” At the hospital, I’d also been reading a book titled Spirituality: Toward a 21st-Century Lutheran Understanding. “At the core of Lutheran spirituality,” says theology professor Kirsi Stjerna in the introduction, there is a sense “of the omnipresent and sustaining work of the Spirit in all creation, in all its dimensions.”

Stjerna, who teaches Reformation church history at Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary, also flatly says “Christian spirituality is incarnational,” and I’m learning to see the Holy Spirit at work in my daily life (at least in my better moments). I especially like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America T-shirts that proclaim in black letters on a bright yellow background, “God’s work. Our Hands.” It’s all incarnational. The Holy Spirit lives in us. So it wasn’t too much of a stretch to see the Spirit at work when our hospital room filled up with cousins.

Also at work on our behalf, I’m convinced, was Murphy’s Law.

Not a half hour after the family showed up, a doctor showed up with the results of the lab work. Debi’s vitals were back to normal; she could be released as soon as soon as the paperwork was ready; and we could continue on our way to Carolina. (Anne blogged about the weekend, too, here, here and here.)

We had little moments like that, call them moments of grace, all weekend. I guess they’re always present, of course, if you train yourself to look for them. That, as far as I can tell, is what St. Ignatius is all about. We had reservations for the weekend at a hotel in the United Methodist campground (northerners might call it a chautauqua) at Lake Junaluska; since we were still in the hospital, we had to blow off the first night without notice, but when it came time to check out and pay our bill Monday, we weren’t charged for it because we’d had a medical emergency. Nothing terribly unusual about that, but it was another bit of unexpected happiness.

There were others. The the nurses who switched sofas and let me stay in Debi’s room, the waitress in Asheville who brought our group an extra appetizer while we were taking Nate back to Charlotte, the proprietor at Willie Brooks BBQ in Waynesville who heard me talking about Carolina barbecue and made sure I left with some of his house sauce in addition to the vinegar sop I’d ordered. (Both were excellent.) None of this (other than the barbecue sauce) was out of the ordinary. I tend to be most aware of the presence of God, of the omnipresent and sustaining work of the Spirit, in other people. This, I believe, is what St. Ignatius’ exercises and my ELCA T-shirt are trying to tell me. And this is what I experienced over the weekend in Tennessee and North Carolina.

One especially nice moment came when Debi and my cousin Anne took a handful of apple cores out for the horses in an adjacent pasture. A small moment, a treat for the animals, but, I think, an act of grace. (I’m sure the horses would agree if we asked them.) In an often-quoted passage, Luther said it’s in the small moments we are called to manifest the sustaining work of the Spirit. “If you ask an insignificant maidservant why she scours a dish or milks the cow, she can say, ‘I know that the thing I do pleases God, for I have God’s Word and commandment.’ God does not look at the insignificance of the acts but at the heart that serves Him in such little things.” In other words, our calling, what Luther called our vocation, is in our attitude to these little things.

I think there’s even more to it. I could make a case that feeding the neighbor’s horses, or setting out birdseed for the birds (and the squirrels and chipmunks), in our back yard is remindful of our first vocation in the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve were called to exercise dominion and care for the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and every living thing that moves upon the earth. The Unitarian Universalists have a guiding principle, which they insist is not part of a creed, of “[r]espect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” I think it all fits together somehow.

But figuring out all of these things comes later. In the meantime, I’m left with questions. What is my vocation? Who is my neighbor? What is God calling me to do? When, and how, does God speak to me? Basically they’re the same questions I had before we left for Carolina. Maybe, I’m coming to believe, asking them is my vocation.

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