Friday, April 30, 2010

we are not alone

In my new vocational incarnation, I am reading more, both books I’ve had stacked around for awhile and those I’m reading again with students. My tenth grade class is reading one of my favorite novels, Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country, which tells the story of Stephen Kumalo’s search for his lost son. Kumalo is my favorite character in literature and the story is full of faith and humanity, as evidenced by this exchange between Kumalo and Father Vincent, his friend.

My friend, your anxiety turned to fear, and your fear turned to sorrow. But sorrow is better than fear. For fear impoverishes always, while sorrow may enrich.
Kumalo looked at him, with an intensity of gaze that was strange in so humble a man, and hard to encounter.
-- I do not know that I am enriched, he said.
-- Sorrow is better than fear, said Father Vincent doggedly. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arriving.
-- And where have I arrived? asked Kumalo.
-- When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house, said Father Vincent in that symbolic language that is like the Zulu tongue. But when a house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house. (140)
Perhaps the passage has haunted me because the words sorrow and house show up in the same passage. Sorrow is spreading like ivy across our family as we watch Reuben, my father-in-law, fall deeper into Alzheimer’s. The doctor said he has moved from the “severely moderate” stage to “moderately severe,” and lest that sound like medical semantics, we can expect his disappearance to deepen in days and weeks rather than months. We are losing more and more of him and I, like Kumalo, do not know that I am enriched. What we do know is it is time to bring him to us.

Ginger and I are making plans for her parents to come and live here in Durham with us by the end of the summer. Rachel is his primary caregiver and will soon not be able to do it on her own, so the arriving of our sorrow brings us to a place where it is time to gather in close and cling to each other, borrowing from a lyric I wrote long ago. The practical implications of the decision begin with our becoming real estate tycoons for a time, selling their house in Birmingham, ours here in Durham, and buying a larger place to accommodate us all. (Anyone want to buy a house?) My recent job change brings with it the unexpected blessing of significant time off this summer; it looks as though I will spend a good bit of it in some sort of moving van.

There is plenty of fear to go around: fear of Reuben’s continuing digression, fear of their moving for the first time in a half a century, fear of how all of this gets paid for, fear of whatever else might happen. The sorrow, as in the story, is not far behind. Elizabeth Bishop is right: the art of losing isn’t hard to master. Sharing a house with Reuben will be giving absence an address in a way, his familiar yet vacant shell sitting down to dinner with us each evening. As he continues to forget, we, his family, are charged with re-membering both him and ourselves, putting the pieces back together on a daily basis, rebuilding what continues to fall apart.

Even as I write about it, I don’t know what to expect, or how to expect it.

The tenth graders wrote essays today, looking at the same passage I quote here, along with a couple of others that didn’t come from the book to give them something to bounce off of. Here are two of them:
Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. – Ambrose Redmoon
There is much in the world to make us afraid. There is much more in our faith to make us unafraid. – Frederick W. Cropp
As I read them, I can hear Julie Miller singing in the background,
you have come by way of sorrow
you have come by way of tears
but you’ll reach your destiny
meant to find you all these years
meant to find you all these years
The reason I keep coming back to Stephen Kumalo is his story says what Cropp’s quote says: there is more in our faith to make us unafraid, even to make us bold. From where we are in the story right now, things only get worse for Kumalo, as far as circumstances go, and his compassion and faith only deepen. Father Vincent knows of what he speaks: sorrow makes for strong building blocks when it is shaped by courage and love. Part of the journey for Stephen is to a deeper understanding that he is not alone, either in the depth of his pain or the struggle for change.

The same is true for us.

We are not the first to watch helplessly as a loved one fade away before our eyes. We are not the first to struggle with the financial realities of what it means to be family. We are also not the first to trust that God is with us, as are a significant cloud of witnesses and fellow travelers. We are not alone.

We are not alone.

We are not alone. I might do well to let that begin most any paragraph I write because fear’s insidious intent is to erase that truth. We are not alone. I say it and remember it is as true for you as it is for me. In the midst of my real estate and reality, I am called to look up and offer a hand to you in your pain, even as I receive your offering.

We are not alone. What can separate us from the love of God? Will Alzheimer’s or distance or housing sales or debt? Will questions or sleeplessness or sorrow or fear? No. Nothing will separate us from a Love that will not let us go. We are not alone.

We are not alone.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

the last word

I preached this morning at our church here in Durham as the culmination of a study we did on the Book of Job. This is the text of my sermon, "The Last Word."

Only four Saturdays have passed since a group of us gathered to study the story of Job together, and yet way more than a month of life seems to have passed by since then. One of the things that has changed for me is I have returned to teaching high school English, which means I’m once again reading books with my students. My ninth grade class is reading Night, Elie Weisel’s personal account of surviving not one but five concentration camps as a teenager, finally being freed from Buchenwald by the Allied forces, but not before having lived through brutal and dehumanizing things that hit at the core of his faith. As he describes one experience he writes:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never.
We read those words in class and I thought of Job and the string of surviving servants who showed up to tell him who and what had been destroyed. I thought of Job sitting on the garbage heap, scraping his open sores with a piece of broken pot as his wife implored him to “curse God and die.” I returned to our discussions around the tables in the Fellowship Hall where we listened to Job’s friends try to explain his suffering by blaming him or giving some sort of pat answer, but never really listening, never being willing to share the pain with him. And I wondered why his tragedy didn’t murder God or destroy his faith. “I know my Redeemer lives,” he said, even as he struggled to find God in the midst of his anguish.
We don’t have to look back to Job, or even look far to find similar examples of devastation. This morning, people in Mississippi are digging out from under the damage of the tornadoes that touched down there. The families and friends of the miners who died in West Virginia are gathering for a memorial service. They have still not found the eleven workers who were on the oil rig that blew up earlier this week. Though the stories are no longer attractive to our media, Haiti and Chile and China still live in the aftermath of earthquakes. Ginger and I were in New Orleans this week and heard people tell their stories of life after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. And we have not even talked about Darfur and Congo, AIDS, malaria, or those who starve to death daily in our world, as wellas the personal and overwhelming pain that comes with depression, or Alzheimer’s, or financial hardship, or severe illness.
It doesn’t take long in this life to get to a place where we ask where God is, as Job did, or seek to offer some sort of explanation as to why life has turned sour, as his friends were quick to do. “You’ve done something wrong,” they said to Job. “This must be your fault somehow because God wouldn’t do this to a good person.” “It’s your fault; repent and God will fix everything.”
Isn’t it great to have friends who care?
Job took all that was heaped upon him, including the lectures and advice, and kept calling God to show up and answer for what was going on. Finally, God did show up – or perhaps we are better to say God revealed God’s self because when God spoke the voice came “out of the whirlwind” – from the center of the struggle. God was in the middle of the storm, not as the cause, but as a Presence. And when God spoke, God did not say anything about Job’s sin or who was at fault or why Job had managed to pull the house down on himself and his family. God didn’t give any advice or offer any explanations at all. God asked questions.
Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? . . . Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this. Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
God called Job to a different sense of perspective.
Yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of the launching of the Hubble Telescope (as a follow up to our wedding, I’m sure). NPR has a wonderful story asking different scientists to pick out their favorite Hubble image over the years. One chose “The Ultra Deep Field,” which was taken by aiming the telescope at what appeared to be an empty patch in the night sky and left the lens open for about eleven days, soaking up all the light it could see and capturing the oldest light ever seen by humanity. The frame is full of tiny dots of light, each one, the astronomer said, containing a hundred million stars – all in a space we thought was empty.
“When I gaze into the night sky,” the psalmist wrote, “and see the wonders of your hand, who are we as humans that you are mindful of us?”
We are called to hold together the depth of pain and suffering that makes up our world, as we see at Auschwitz or in Rwanda or in the poverty of Haiti or the aftermath of Katrina along the Gulf Coast or in our personal struggles, and the wonder we have been shown by Hubble reminding us that if we leave our eyes open long enough in the dark the light, the ancient light as old as creation, will finally shine.
Francois Mauriac wrote in the foreword to Night,
We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Almighty is the Almighty, the last word for each of us belongs to God.
All is grace. Listen closely: all is grace. We do not earn suffering anymore than we earn the love that God pours out on us from the moment we are breathed into existence. Life is difficult, sometimes even crushing, but not because we deserve to be crushed.
And our God is one who is acquainted with grief, who bears our grief, who never stops making stars, and who speaks out of the storm. Our God is one who responds to our cries, rather than simply answer our questions. Our God is stronger than death and destruction, more tenacious than any cancer or circumstance, more loving than any sense of alienation or worthlessness.
This is our Resurrection Story: all is grace; the last word for each of us belongs to God. And that word is Love: unfailing, unflinching, unending Love. Amen.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

last afternooon

We sat at the oyster bar at Felix’s
in the middle of a N’awlins afternoon,
eating fried food and listening to
the Chi-Lites, the O’Jays, even
Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
sing Seventies soul as the smiling
shucker offered up oysters and
opinions, both free of cynicism.

From there, we wandered through
the shutters and smells of the Quarter
to Café du Monde, restaurant of the world,
for beignets and café au lait while
a street-wise incarnation of Sam
Cooke sang for smiles and tips.

This is the last afternoon of our first
twenty years: who knows how many
thousand and six hundred minutes
have added up to our story of two
common hearts, but it is a tale best
told in the small scenes that say
life with you is better now
than when we first began.


Monday, April 19, 2010

they're playing our song

Ginger and I leave in the morning to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary on the twenty-first, and we're going to do it in New Orleans, thanks to our friend Jay. So I offer a little traveling music, that is to say, some of the songs we've carried with us in our wonderful journey so far.

Baby, it's you.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

creative writing

adjectives attach like
grammatical barnacles
explanatory sidecars
directing distinctions
guitars didn’t need them

until someone found
a Fender and plugged in
so we pulled out
acoustic and electric
to state the obvious

writing goes back
as far as the stories
and then one day some
scheduler needed a name
for a course and wrote

Creative Writing
legitimizing the mundane
and discounting words
it’s all creating whether
writing of stars or stones


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

morning has broken

I have to admit I didn’t know it was a hymn the first time I heard it.

I was in tenth grade, living in Fort Worth, Texas during our year of leave from the mission field (as they used to say) and completely taken with American popular radio. It was the year of “American Pie” and “I’ll Take You There,” and “Morning Has Broken.” By the time I knew it was a hymn, it had also become the wake up music for any number of youth camps, beginning (for me, anyway) with First Baptist Richardson at Camp Ozark when Gene Wilkes and I would do a less than reverent, but nonetheless sacred version to call the young campers out into the day we had planned for them.

Our version broke morning wide open, I must say.

Last Sunday morning, the hymn broke in on me as I sat among our faithful to hear the first of the “Stories of Resurrection” we had been promised on the Sundays from Easter to Pentecost. We’re going off lectionary to look at particular stories both in scripture and in the world around us here in Durham. This week it was the Gospel According to Housing For New Hope, an amazing organization here that reaches out to homeless folks with tenacity and redemption. Three people told their stories and two others sang in between tales, ending with Terry, the founder and a church member and the best damn harmonica player I know, calling us all home with a medley of “Precious Lord” and “O When the Saints Go Marching In.”

And just before they began telling their stories we sang,

morning has broken like the first morning
blackbird has spoken like the first bird
praise for the singing praise for the morning
praise for them springing fresh from the word
It was also just after Suzanne, one of our church members who is a member of the Biblical Storytellers, delivered the story of Jesus and Peter at breakfast from memory and with meaning. The story is one of my favorites from the gospels. Peter, still despondent from his failure in the courtyard, had been fishing all night with his friends when Jesus called out to them from the shoreline. When Peter realized who was calling, he shucked whatever clothing he had and swam to shore, coming up in need of a robe and redemption, and probably in that order.

With the scene in my head as we began singing, I jotted down,
morning has broken
broken open –
like an egg
or heart
broken through
like a prisoner
or a prayer
darkness falls
but morning breaks
Peter at breakfast
broke like the morning
“yes, Lord, you know
I love you”
every day we live
is broken
before it starts
About the time I finished scribbling, we got to the third verse:
mine is the sunlight mine is the morning
born of the one light eden saw play
praise with elation praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day
When Cat Steven’s sings it, he pronounces the second word in the final line with a short e, the way we say the word when we mean something we do for fun rather than meaning to create over again. Though we usually sing the second meaning in church, it seems, I think Cat is on to something: God at play. At its very core, its very essence, creation is a reflection of God having fun.

I am in the process of becoming a morning person again, now that I am back teaching. I haven’t stopped being a night owl, which is causing some issues when it comes to getting enough sleep, but I am seeing more of morning than I have in a long, long time. I walked out into a beautiful spring morning and couldn’t help but find the hymn again as I walked to my car. I’m not sure what clicked – maybe it’s the part about being on my way to teaching English – but I realized the song was not about morning being broken, but about morning having broken, as in having broken through.
darkness falls
but morning breaks through
The day is not what is broken, but what does the breaking, scattering chards of darkness all over the place. Morning has broken like that first morning when God said, “Let there be light,” accompanied by a giant belly laugh with enough playful energy to burst that first dawn into existence. When it comes to playing, God means business. The juke box in my mind switched to Michael Been and The Call:
here’s to the babies in a brand new world
here’s to the beauty of the stars
here’s to the travelers on the open road
here’s to the dreamers in the bars
here’s to the teachers in the crowded rooms
here’s to the workers in the fields
here’s to the preachers of the sacred words
here’s to the drivers at the wheel
here’s to you my little love
with blessings from above
now let the day begin
There are days we break through or in or out, and then there are days we end up broken on the beach, like Peter, hoping for forgiveness and maybe some breakfast. Either way, most every day holds its share of broken places, as Leonard Cohen reminds us.
ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in
May it dawn on us that we belong to a God whose love and laughter are deep enough to fuel suns and forgive stumbling saints who wash up on the beach at breakfast, or stuck in traffic, or standing in line at Starbucks.

Here’s to you, my little love, with blessings from above.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

out from under the pollen

Through all of our years in Massachusetts, we had more than one Easter that left the children hunting for eggs in the snow. North Carolina offers warmer climes, but snow of a different sort: we’ve been knee deep in pollen. And I’ve sneezed and sorted and snuffled all week long. In my mind’s yellow haze there is room, however, to sing Paul Simon’s song, “Allergies” (from my favorite of his solo albums, Hearts and Bones):

I go to a famous physician
I sleep in the local hotel
From what I can see of the people like me
We get better
But we never get well
So I ask myself this question
It's a question I often repeat
Where do allergies go
When it's after a show
And they want to get something to eat?
Something's living on my skin
Doctor please
Doctor please
Open up it's me again
I am still in the transition from kitchen to classroom (seven more double shifts to go), so the days have been both stuffy and short. As one who has lived my whole life with allergies of varying sorts, part of the rites of spring is my asking why they have to be part of the mix. On some theological level, it does me good to ask the question because the question calls me to look beyond my misery to any number of more severe circumstances that people live with and through that don’t make any more sense than my sneezing. Not all pain is purposeful; some of it just hurts.

My relief came in being able to sit down to dinner with Ginger and Cherry and let the evening wind down and another layer of pollen fall while we tightened the bonds with pan-fried cod, good conversation, and a whole lot of laughter. I am looking forward to being home for dinner on a regular basis. While I was cooking tonight, I reached for a couple of James Taylor CDs I had not heard in some time, One Man Dog and Walking Man, which added another layer of memory and meaning to the evening including thoughts of an old friend I miss dearly when I heard:
Little David, play on your harp
Hallelu, hallelu, little David
Play on your harp, hallelujah
Little David, play on your harp
hallelu, hallelu, little David
Play on your harp, hallelujah
It’s late now. The darkness has fallen heavier than the pollen and I’m still snorting around, trying to the words out of my congested head and into some coherent shape. There’s no earth-shattering message to share, other than to say thanks for a good day and a wonderful evening, even in the middle of a pollen storm.


Sunday, April 04, 2010

lenten journal: resurrection

we stood in the columbarium
well after sunrise
to speak of resurrection
with the names of those
who share death in common
as our backdrop
the whistle of trees
our soundtrack and
the promise of pancakes
waiting for us inside

as we retold the story I heard
the passive verb:
the stone was rolled away
as though coming back
to life were as easy as
sliding a door to find
the tomb as empty
as a bag of oreos
only the wrapper left
next to a smiling angel

later thomas would ask to
see Jesus' pierced palms
but they only show he died
you must turn the hands over
look at the heart whose
knuckles are skinned
tiny cuts of commitment
fingernails filled with hope
coming back to life means
putting your shoulder into it


Saturday, April 03, 2010

lenten journal: the women

On one of their early albums, Simon and Garfunkel sang “Silent Night” while a recording of the Seven O’Clock News played at the same time. (You can hear it here.) The song began playing in my head as I sat down to write, I think, because of the way my day went. My Holy Saturday was an active one, with little quiet. And so I wrote the following poem to this soundtrack. Click on this link and read on.

The Women
They didn’t know Sunday was coming
in the way we take for granted
the Cross is not final punctuation.
What I know as expectancy they knew
as uncertainty; what I know for sure
they took on faith, as best they could.
I wonder how late into the night the three
women sat talking about whether or not
to go to the tomb at sunrise.
No matter how dark we make the room,
we weren’t there. We were spared that pain
and can only know their joy secondhand.

Friday, April 02, 2010

lenten journal: finished

“It is finished,” you said.

When we finally get
to ask questions
you will be answer,
mine will be, “What
did you mean?”

I’ve taken my shot
at explanations;
the words matter
too much to let them
just hang there.

Yet even when I look
back from Sunday,
full of resurrection
neither life nor death
will be done.

I dug in the dirt
from noon till three
pulling up the dead
stalks of last summer’s
tomato plants,

among other things:
nothing much ever
feels finished to me.
One day you’ll tell me
what it feels like.


Thursday, April 01, 2010

lenten journal: traveling mercies

Several years ago, Ginger and I went to Las Vegas because we had never been. We were already in California for a gathering with my side of the family and we tacked on a couple of days and drove from San Diego to Vegas, staying – of course – at the Hard Rock Hotel. On the morning we were packing to leave, I walked down to put the suitcases in the car and ended up following three people, two men and a woman, out of lobby and out into the parking lot. For them, it was still the night before. As they walked, the woman said, “Well, I’ll you two things you always gotta know. You gotta know where you’re going and you gotta know where you’re at.”

“Hell,” said one of the men. “I’ve always known where I’m at, but I ain’t never known where I was going.”

Maundy Thursday is one of the markers in my life that reminds me, to borrow their grammar, where I’m at. Fifteen years ago, as best Ginger and I can remember, we got to go to Israel and Palestine and had a chance to, as the old song says, walk that day where Jesus walked. One of those places was the Garden of Gethsemane, where we were given a good bit of time to sit among the ancient olive trees, which our guide told us had root systems that could have dated back to Jesus’ time. Whether her information was factual didn’t matter; I was captured by the thought that we were in the same garden, the same piece of earth, where Jesus had prayed with his disciples. I sat on one of the benches in silence with one of the other folks on the trip for a while and then we began to sing one of the songs from Godspell, “On the Willows.” (I had recently sung the song in a production of the play at Cambridgeport Baptist Church, so it was fresh in my mind.)
on the willows there
we hung up our lyres
for our captors there
required of us songs
and our tomentors, mirth
saying sing us one of the songs of Zion
sing us one of the songs of Zion
sing us one of the songs of Zion
how can we sing
sing the Lord’s songs
in a foreign land?
The roots became a metaphor of the thread of love and sorrow that reached across the centuries to find us in that garden, that place where Jesus had been in his darkest hour, after he had washed the dust of life from the feet of his friends knowing, as John so beautifully says, “he had come from God and was going to God.” He knew where he was and where he was going. That night, neither one held much comfort.

I came home from the Duke restaurant tonight to find a message from someone I have reconnected with, thanks to Facebook, who asked for the lyrics to a song Billy and I wrote years ago called "Traveling Mercies." She is going through a difficult time in her marriage and, she said, the song just popped into her mind today and she couldn’t find the old CD and did I have the words. By the time I read her words, a couple of other friends with whom we share history had “replied to the thread,” as Facebook calls it, leaving the lyric:
take bread for the journey and strength for the fight
comfort to sleep through the night
wisdom to choose at the fork in the road
and a heart that knows the way home
go in peace live in grace
trust in the arms that will hold you
go in peace live in grace
trust God’s love
All I had to add was
and for the faithful
and for the weary
and for the hopeful
here is my prayer . . . .
Maybe it’s not so much we have to know where we are as much as who we are. The gospel GPS that let Jesus know he had come from God and was returning to God served to be more identifier than locator: he was Love Incarnate, God made known in a way that had never happened before. Remembering who he was, he washed their feet, he prayed for them in the Garden, and then he went to the Cross because the thread of Love had to go through death to show us Love is the Last Word.

So, on this Maundy Thursday, I know who I am and who I’m with. That’s enough.

(Go in) Peace,