Monday, April 28, 2008

out in the eye of the storm

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to Mark Heard as I’ve gone about my business here in Durham. For those of you who don’t know of him, Mark was a wonderful songwriter, thinker, and singer who died way too young and left an enduring legacy of music (much of which is available at emusic). For those of you who are familiar with him, then you know it does a heart good to tune in to his songs from time to time.

The record I’ve given the most play is Eye of the Storm, which I can remember buying while I was doing my CPE training and dealing with grief and death on an almost daily basis. The title track opens with a wonderfully infectious acoustic guitar lick and Mark begins to sing:

when it’s dark outside you’ve got to carry the light
or you’ll stumble and fall like stumbling dice
it takes a steady step, it takes God-given sight
just to tell what is the truth, what is wrong, what is right

in this world thunder throbs in the darkness
out in the eye of the storm
the friends of God suffer no permanent harm

when the night sky glows with the red fires of war
and the threat of annihilation pounds at your door
you don’t have to pretend you’ve got nerves of steel
to believe the love of the Lord is actual and real

in this world thunder throbs in the darkness
out in the eye of the storm
the friends of God suffer no permanent harm

when the daybreak comes with a trumpet blast
and the true fruit of faith is tasted at long last
when the darkness dies and death is undone
and teardrops are dried in the noonday sun

in this world thunder throbs in the darkness
out in the eye of the storm
the friends of God suffer no permanent harm
The irony that the person singing those words dropped dead at 41 is not lost on me. In fact, as much as the song pulls me, it causes me to question. As the friends of God, do we really suffer no permanent harm? Is the thought that our suffering is ultimately temporary truly comforting when the passing pain we live with carries such a wallop? How do I learn to look beyond today’s pain to grasp life’s larger promise?

Ginger and I went exploring in Carrboro, North Carolina this afternoon – “the Paris of the Piedmont” it’s called, we were told. We found a couple of great coffee shops and several restaurants to come back to. We also found one of those card shops/art galleries that had all kinds of magnets with cute sayings that included:
My life has a wonderful cast, I just can’t figure out the plot.

Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.
The quote made me smile – and hope – and then wonder if the end would be OK. We’ve had two deaths in our parish this week. Since North Carolina is next in the primary line, we are being inundated with all the things that don’t matter and being told that they do, leaving me to think that even at the end I will still live in a very broken nation that squandered its gifts and resources. I got home and spent some time reading my copies of The Nation that were delayed in their arrival due to our address change. I read about the tragedy and pain of the food shortages around the world and the painful reality that one in three of our military personnel returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home with brain injuries and/or psychological trauma. And then I found this quote in one of the book reviews in which Martin Luther King Jr. called us to live in “divine dissatisfaction”:
Let us not be satisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.
He spoke those words in August, 1967. It appears we have yet to hear them and take them to heart. I moved from paper to screen to get caught up on my blog reading. Bobbie at Emerging Sideways led me to this post by Clarrisa Pinkola Estes, which contained the following poem:
Refuse to fall down.
If you cannot refuse to fall down,
refuse to stay down.
If you cannot refuse to stay down,
lift your heart toward heaven,
and like a hungry beggar,
ask that it be filled,
and it will be filled.

You may be pushed down.
You may be kept from rising.
But no one can keep you from lifting
your heart toward heaven -- only you.

It is in the midst of misery
that so much becomes clear.
The one who says
nothing good came of this,
is not yet listening.
Her words were still ringing in my heart and head when I began reading The Official Thomas Bickle Blog where Sarah, Thomas’ mother has faithfully shared all that is painful and not OK as her little boy lives with a brain tumor. The end is approaching and it doesn’t feel OK, yet Sarah knows something about the eye of the storm because she writes about more than her world turning to shit. She is someone who has refused to stay down and continues to lift her heart – and mine – heavenward. You see, I first met Sarah leading a youth camp when she was in high school. Neither of us knew we would find each other again so many years down the road, me with my depression and her coming to terms with watching her little boy live his short life in unspeakable pain.

I’ve spent my share of Southern Baptist Sunday nights singing about the roll being called up yonder and just passing through this world that is not my home and I never really took to the idea that our days on this planet were the equivalent of sitting in a cosmic Greyhound station waiting on the Big Bus. If these days don’t count, then the pain and suffering that it takes to live them feels like a cruel joke. There was one other hymn that I loved --
but I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able
to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day
because it told me hope lived in the truth that we were created to do more than wait and hurt; we are called to make meaning of these days with the help of our God who lives in the middle of the pain – in the eye of the storm -- with us. Pain is real and hard and even deadly, but it is not the final word.

However long the pain may last, Love lasts longer.

Perhaps, as one who has food to eat and is not having to help my child face pain and death, I run the risk of sounding like I might find a career writing magnet slogans. But understand I’m sharing what I learned from Paul and Martin, from Mark and Clarissa, from Sarah and Thomas, all of them friends of God, all of them out in the eye of the storm, so I’ll say it again:

however long the pain may last, Love lasts longer.

Peace,
Milton

8 comments:

dg said...

Weirdly enough I had the vinyl out tonight and was listening to Mark Heard's "Stop The Dominoes"...man I miss that guy! I too am contemplating the off-balance way I both resonate and reel from Mark's line about no permanent harm. I ache for Sarah and Scott and Thomas, too.

Thanks for the reminder...

dg

Thomas, as told to Sarah said...

Thanks, Milton. Having plundered dg's cd collection for all Mark Heard materials back in the day, I was humming by the end of the third line.

Still, you know ... I wonder what it was like to live with him - all that apocolyptic gloom ...

I don't know about all the end-times stuff, honestly. I do know this: there's a lot of joy and grace even at the grimey "bus station." If you had told me a 3 years ago that we would laugh every day that my kid had cancer, ... ? We do.

Here's a poem for you, old pen-/pal. By Spider Thorndall:

Mort, My Friend

"Are you happy?" I say to Mort, as we tee up at the driving range. Mort doesn't say much because of the oxygen mask. But he gives me a thumbs up and then gets after it with his 3-wood.

Later, there is pie.

T.Gray said...

"love lasts longer"...I like that.
Christ's blessing on you, Ginger, Ella and your new abode-Tom

Rev Scott said...

Many amen moments in what you wrote, Milton. Thanks.

Rich Mullins is my "Mark Heard" guy; the same connection to pain and sorrow and, unfortunately, another beautiful artist taken far too soon.

When you wrote about people living in the struggle, I thought about that awful praise song that presumes we can trade in our sickness and pain for the joy of the Lord. YOU CAN'T TRADE SORROW. You can only survive it. Grrrr.

I hope love lasts longer than bad praise music. I suspect that it does. :-)

beth said...

Beautiful.

Thank you, brother.

bobbie said...

you weave story, prose & poety like I'm sure you mix ingredients for a lovely recipe - thank you, beautiful post.

Anonymous said...

I wish I could send this entry to everyone I know. It really spoke to me. Love to you and Ginger

Molly

Real Live Preacher said...

Yes, Sarah is one of the hundreds of us who still remember pounding on the tables at camp and watching you cram an entire something into your mouth. Kids laughing till they were choking.

You had to have hated it after what, 10 years or so?