Monday, March 31, 2008

these things

I spent the weekend leading a youth retreat for a church in Virginia where a good friend pastors. The group of fifteen included kids from seventh through twelfth grade. They are kind, gentle, fun, and welcoming people. The weekend was scheduled to take the word retreat seriously: we have a few sessions and a great deal of free time, which we used walking together, talking together, playing guitars together, and consuming an inordinate amount of junk food.

As I was driving up to meet them -- it’s been a long time since I drove north to Virginia (well there’s the opening line to a country song if I ever heard it) – I kept wondering how a teenager thinks about following Jesus in this overwhelming world, so I decided that’s what I would talk about. In the second session, we looked at the Beatitudes. We read them and then I asked, “Who are the poor in spirit?”

One seventh grade girl raised her hand, which she does every time there is a question, and she said, “I think they are the people who don’t know how much God loves them because they don’t love themselves.” There was an audible “Wow!” in the room and we all congratulated her.

“If that’s our working definition,” I said, “then what are they inheriting if theirs is the kingdom of heaven?”

Another seventh grader raised his hand. “I think of the kingdom of heaven like a big table where everyone gets to eat and there’s always an empty chair for anyone who wants to sit down.”

From what I learned about the kids in the group, they were well acquainted with grief. One kid’s dad just got back from Iraq and is a good candidate for the lead role in a remake of The Great Santini. The girl who talked about the poor in spirit pretty much described herself; the boy who talked about God’s extravagant welcome incarnated it, despite his own struggles and sorrow. There was plenty of pain to go around. Plenty of love, too.

The other thing I did as I drove to Virginia was listen to music. I burned a few CDs of songs my nephew, Tim, gave me when he was here and didn’t get through too many of them because I kept listening to one made up of original songs by him and his older brother, Ben. They call themselves, “The Olive Tree”. On the way home, I put the CD in again because I wanted to hear one song in particular, “These Things,” which Ben signs, hit me hard because I knew the back story. His aunt, on my sister-in-law’s side of the family, died of cancer last year, leaving a husband and two small children. Here are the words to the first verse and chorus:

my aunt she died and left my uncle dying in their room
the morning weighed a million pounds and he could hardly move
two children in the house somewhere who won’t come down the stairs
wondering what will life be without their mother there

he hits the door and hits the floor and give anyone a call
and I’m listening to his sister talk to him right down the hall
words of resurrection love and pain through the tears
and I hit the road to take for granted my mother’s still here

I think about these things
I don’t know what they mean
is there joy in suffering
I think about these things

it’s gonna be alright
it’s gonna be alright
though the darkness holds tight
we’re locked into the light
I called him to make sure he knew how the truth of his poetry had hit me – particularly the last two lines:
though the darkness holds tight
we’re locked into the light
Harlan Howard said, “Country music is three chords and the truth.” Though Ben and Tim write in a more alt-country vein, they prove his words.

When I left town, I thought I was going to speak. Thank God I had time to listen. It was when I did my best work.



Tracy Simmons said...

Milton, is that CD for sale anywhere? Or MP3s anywhere on the web? I'm not a country music fan, but those words are incredible and I'd sure love to listen.

don't eat alone said...


Right now it's a demo they made for our family. I'll ask, though.


Real Live Preacher said...

Those kids have NO idea who was with them. They had the great Milton, one of the coolest and best ministers to work with kids ever. I wish my three daughters knew you. The oldest two could use a shot of your gentle wisdom. Maybe we'll see you someday.

Anonymous said...

Milton, that was beautiful.