LOSING EDEN: Grace and septic

A few years ago I took a train ride to the heart of the Appalachian Mountains to help drive 15 Good Samaritans out of our church. They had spent a week rebuilding the homes and spirits of some extremely poor West Virginians. The Amtrak Cardinal ride to West Virginia takes passengers deep into mist-shrouded valleys and then to the top of mighty peaks, only to begin the descent again. This up and down continues mile after mile as the train travels from cities in the Northeast to Huntington, West Virginia.

That trip got me thinking about another ride I took on the Cardinal one late June day decades ago—only in the opposite direction, from Huntington to Boston.

There is only one passenger train to and from Huntington, and it only travels the tracks once every three days. So my attention was completely drawn when I heard the Amtrak agent tell the passenger in front of me that the train would be at least six hours late. It was 7:30 a.m., an hour before the train was originally scheduled to arrive, and it was already suffocatingly hot. The air was saturated with H20 and the foul-smelling atoms from nearby chemical plant exhaust. After a seven-hour wait in the hot, kitchen-sized Amtrak station crowded with other sweaty, moody travelers, I immediately realized that this had all the potential of a religious experience — that of Hades, or at least purgatory. Also, I was worried that I would miss my connection in Washington, DC and be further delayed when I got back to Boston.

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Do not get me wrong; I love wild and beautiful West Virginia. If I had a bumper sticker like this, I would proudly put it on my car’s bumper. If you’ve ever traveled along the New River Gorge or into the Highlands or sat on the porch of an old woman’s house and watched a whole galaxy of fireflies whose glow lit up the landscape at night as well as the woman’s face old and wise like the hills themselves and no less beautiful in their own way – once you’ve experienced this you might be reluctant to leave too. But I had to go back to work.

Left this year is another group of 22 hardworking church people, young and old, wielding hammers, cutting 2x4s and doing the things that need to be done to create homes that are safe, warm and dry for those who living in poverty and poverty fringes our consciousness. They donated their time and talent to an ecumenical workcamp and those it served. But as I said, other tasks called and I had to go back. Since the train wasn’t due to arrive in Huntington until well after lunch, I was stuck.

My ride had long since headed back into the hills. And on the outskirts of town and on the wrong side of the tracks, there didn’t seem to be much to do.

I recalled the story of a missed flight from New York City by another traveler that cost him ten hours to wait before the next flight. He whined to the ticket office, “What am I supposed to do for ten hours?”

His response was, “My goodness, mister, this is New York City.”

Huntington, West Virginia isn’t New York City, but each place is worth exploring. So I asked the Amtrak ticket agent what attractions I could walk to. “Well,” he said, “there’s a Rite-Aid pharmacy about six blocks from here where you can buy a newspaper, and go four blocks more and you’ll find a frozen yogurt diner.” I asked him , what flavor of frozen yogurt he wanted, grabbed my backpack and set off in the general direction of the steel mills, chemical plants, and the previously recommended Frozen Yogurt Oasis.

In my impatient younger years I might have seen such a delay as a problem. And even though I would miss my connection in DC and delay my return by another 5 1/2 hours, I knew this wasn’t a problem, it was an annoyance. There’s a difference.

One issue is what the woman, who lived far back in one of the “hollers,” had with her six children, her mother, and her mentally disabled brother. They lived in a one-room apartment, which is now being repaired by the work campers. We could fix their leaking roof, put a screen door to keep out the mud stains, and insulate their walls to make next winter a little more bearable. But her pungent, overflowing, what-she-had-for-a-sewage-treatment-plant-water-seeping-down-to-her-well meant she and her children had to walk miles from the Roar to get into until the return of the labor camp next year Water to be bottled.

One problem is what Bill and Mary and their children had. Her house slid down the sandy slope it was built on. One problem was that the work crew found a safe way to jack up the house and construct a foundation to save the building from a fateful collision with the creek below.

One problem is what Vicki, a 14 year old on my work crew, had. Her parents had divorced two years ago, her father was awarded custody because her mother could not give her the necessary stability. A year after the divorce, her father died of a brain tumor and she was shipped off to live with an aunt and uncle. The concept of home was even more slippery for her than it was for the family, whose house insisted on moving to the creek.

As writer Robert Fulgham says, “There’s trouble and there’s trouble. Anger asks little of us in terms of coping skills and is unlikely to change our lives very much. have only partial answers or no answer and require seemingly unbearable, endless waiting.

“Annoyances fundamentally require us to make an adjustment or wait until a foreseeable end. A nuisance is like the mosquito that suddenly improves hearing at night. Head under the covers, the unmistakable buzzing keeps you awake and wondering where the mosquito is going to bite. But finally the night ends and you wake up to a new day full of fresh possibilities and mosquito-free.”

The other thing about life’s annoyances is the ability to find something like a spot for frozen yogurt that makes the whole thing easier to swallow.

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But having a problem is a far-off journey where the unknown landscape is the self or another self. It means going within and carrying the burden of finding what is uncomfortable or ugly or anxious or sad or grieving and needs healing or courage or at least patience. Having a problem means searching for God, or for your own higher power, or whatever you call that eternal rose that by any other name offers the scent of a very different life. A life in which nothing important is lost and everything important is found. This fragrance is known as Grace. And it’s amazing when you think about it, because it’s usually found somewhere near a problem.

For example, grace was found in the work done by youth and adult volunteers in West Virginia precisely in an effort to serve others. Every time a member of the family of eight looks up at the new blanket or remembers not to drink the water until the work campers come back, which they did, they found grace.

And Grace is Vicki who ends up in a work crew whose leader also lost his parents at a young age who could listen and ask with understanding and promise to write.

Grace is the undeserved, perhaps unexpected, sign of a more hopeful future that we glimpse in such moments of grace. This is not to say that we make experiences of grace easy or cheap. Indeed, we are typically found by grace as we hold on to our dear lives, when the one who needs saving is, in the words of the old song, “a miserable like me” or “lost” or “is blind” or “has gone through many hardships, dangers and snares”.

I remember reading about one such man, a Holocaust survivor who had endured many dangers, hardships and pitfalls. The younger man, Robert Fulghum, now UU pastor and author, constantly grumbled about the lousy food served in the company canteen. The older man finally had enough and said to him, “You think you know everything, but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. Learn to separate inconveniences from the real problems. Life is uncomfortable. Life is lumpy. Learn to separate inconveniences from problems. You’ll live longer and won’t annoy people like me as much.”

After all, learning to tell the difference between anger and problems is also grace.

Rick Giragosian has sold shoes for Thom McAn (the ’70s) and iPhones for Apple, and is a constant reminder that no one is ever outside of God’s love. He does this for the United Church of Christ.

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