“Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.”
-1 Corinthians 8:1
Today we are having two really big discussions, with real consequences on either side.
Sickness and economic ruin can both devastate and kill. Also, oppression debilitates and wounds whether it is done in the shadows or in the light, from the left or from the right.
So - people are passionate, willing to push a little harder to make the other side see.
The debate in Corinth was also significant. Each side had important values they were fighting for. Reverence for God on one side, faith in the wholeness of sanctification on the other.
Saint Paul was a theologian at heart (remember he persecuted those who didn’t agree with his view; he was smiling at the murder of Saint Stephen – as a side note – this would have him cancelled today, hmm?), but God taught him a better way.
In his letter to the Corinthians the Evangelist has given us the secret to navigating the problem of intolerable disagreements.
There are arguments, reasons, facts, evidence, spirits of the age, etc. – Knowledge. But more importantly there are people, who we must love.
It might be said like this:
We are fallen creatures, and this affects how we see the world, because our perspective here in time and on earth is limited. This can and will lead us into many and endless controversies that will make us proud in ourselves but deprive of us life, which comes from our connection to others. Love is the anecdote, for me and for them.
Some of the things that I’ve gotten hooked by in recent years are all the little memes and lessons about introverts. My mom has since elaborated some of that by referring me to the enneagram categories. We all have tendencies, and there is some comfort in understanding our strengths and weaknesses.
I love visiting my family in OK. I need it, and it is always enriching. Yet, I am one of those introverts who needs to power up in solitude. I have four sons, so this is hard even when I’m home, but on the road for nearly three weeks, it feels nearly impossible. Nevertheless, I grind for the fam. One of those family members I was blessed to see was my grandmother, MaMa.
As an aside, I just want to loudly declare how very blessed and grateful I am that Ellen Gartrelle Vanderslice is my grandmother! At nearly 101 years old, she is still teaching me the most important lessons.
But not with words, particularly.
It’s about the way she lives.
We were in Tulsa over the last several weeks, and we visited MaMa several times. The facility where she lives was offering porch visits at the time. We’ve also had a couple of recent phone conversations.
Each of these visits is laborious.
See, MaMa’s short term memory is failing, almost completely. During a one hour visit, she will ask the same questions at least three or four times. The whole process is made more difficult because she has lost most of her vision and hearing. This requires repetition. It also requires one to think carefully about the most clear and succinct way to address any topic (another side lesson).
The long and short is that unless we can get MaMa into a good rut of an old memory that still holds (she has some wondrous stories and has written a multitude of songs she might suddenly sing, what a joy!), we will be painstakingly covering the same ground, over and over and over.
It is mentally trying at times for us, and we still retain our vision, hearing, and memories.
MaMa lacks these things, but she is like a Rottweiler about hearing and connecting to each word. Sometimes, once a word or phrase has been repeated multiple times without the connection being made, someone might say, “Oh, never mind, MaMa, it wasn’t that important.” She will then show a slight but sufficient amount of resolve to compel you to repeat just one more time.
It is important to her to be in the moment, present with you, her grandchild, or daughter, or great-grandchild, her neighbor or her nurse. A human being, a soul.
MaMa loves in each moment. It is all that is available to her now (sadly, many enter that phase simply to withdraw and die), but if my memory serves me well, this is how she always loved.
I interviewed my grandmother about her life several years ago. She has also written a short memoir. One thing that is certain is that MaMa has lived an interesting life. When I was a younger man, interested in being a “revolutionary”, I wondered at my grandmother’s wit and spirit and how she could be so mellow, so content, whatever the circumstances. I know the answer now. She had knowledge, sure, but more important, she purposed to love.
During these recent visits with my grandmother, I have felt a radiating goodness around my heart, a sort of supernatural high that is unexplainable. I mean, I’m saying the same words and information over and over. I usually have to delve into some deep, philosophical discussion that ambles over and through a hundred different lanes of thought to feel satisfied. Here I am, telling the names and ages of my sons, what I teach, etc. over and over, and the ecstatic glow in my heart is beyond explanation.
I believe it is love.
My grandmother, trapped in the dark cave of a dying body which has already lost sight and hearing, is fighting for each second of connection with another human.
My grandmother, trapped in the dark cave of a dying body which has already lost sight and hearing (she can’t read, watch Netflix, look at her phone – I mean there is almost no outside stimuli that can distract her), is fighting for each second of connection with another human. Simply, with joy and deep gratitude.
And she knows it’s temporal. She’s losing her faculties, and mentions it enough in the discussion to demonstrate that while she is not fixated and depressed, she is aware. When MaMa fights to be present, to hear you and love you, she already knows it will not last, that it is only for now, this moment, and will be gone in two or three minutes. She knows this, and she still fights to hold you for an instant, to hear the flame of another soul.
I am overwhelmed at MaMa’s simple and extraordinary wisdom, and wonder how I am so blind.
Right now there are people you love deeply who hold a different view on BLM or Covid. You have knowledge, and so do they. Beyond that, they are people, God’s children, in need of love, connection, and so do you. In the grand scheme of things, we only have a few moments. MaMa knows that, but we tend to forget.
Lord, have mercy.
My eldest son loves basketball like his pops. He’s had an uphill battle thus far, though, because, like his father, he's a late bloomer. He has almost universally been the smallest, thinnest kid on the court, and basketball is not a small man’s game.
But, he’s worked and worked, and through the years he’s developed a pretty reliable jump shot, and this keeps him in the hunt.
During our recent forced attempt at distance learning (I really missed seeing my students each day), I would conduct my classes from my basement office. This required me to block out the constant thundering herd of buffalo (my four sons) that was stampeding on the other side of my ceiling.
Another weird thing was happening. Every so often I would hear the voice of a grown man in the room above. I would think, hmm, do we have some kind of repairman here? I would sit still and listen – wow, it sounded oddly like my own voice, bellowing and deep. Then it would dawn on me that it was voice of my boy, my first baby, Noah.
He now has the voice of a man. Suddenly, it seems.
I am sad for this precious boy. Adolescents want nothing so much as to spread their wings, to leave the nest and find their strength. Our son, like so many other boys and girls becoming young men and women, has been quarantined with their "boring" parents and "annoying" siblings. They can’t see their friends. They feel caged, and this breeds some aggressive behavior.
So, this morning, my wife and I had a conversation with Noah about the benefits of a strong voice. I love to sing, and have done so many times before audiences big and small. When I control my voice just right, I can jovially subdue a classroom of radiant and unruly children in an instant. If I want to, I can induce real fear with my voice. It is powerful, and for this I am grateful. It has made certain parts of my life more rewarding and more productive.
Yet, such raw vocal power can also be harmful. Regretfully, there are a number of people I’ve harmed with the power and tone of my voice. I am so very sorry. My son, a captive fourteen year old who’s just had his voice drop an octave and round out like a bass drum, has not yet found control of his song, and in such close quarters, this can be trying.
Noah’s school load was heavy (a bright kid-he was an 8th grader in classes with 9th and 10th graders) and he was almost constantly at a desk these last three months. This means he wasn’t in front of a hoop as much as he should have been, and particularly while he was growing several inches and putting on twenty pounds. He’s stronger now, but it’s got his shot out of whack.
This past year my school basketball team was very good, nearly perfect. A great part of that success was due to size. I had several kids that grew, a lot. Two of my 8th graders were my height (6’1). Yet, part of their success was how tenaciously they worked through the awkwardness of their growth. They were able to find the way to new strength and new advantages, while they changed.
We are all going through something dramatic. It is ongoing. Very few of us have experienced anything quite like this before. Some of our old ways and comforts have gone, perhaps for good. We are being changed, and that can be extremely awkward, even painful. We are being compelled to learn new things, new ways.
If my son learns to control his voice, then he will know power. If he does not, he will bring pain. If he works on his hoops game while he grows, he will have a great chance to harness his potential. If he does not, then the hunt to play competitively will diminish.
Here is a moment, for all of us, of transition. Will we grow, be transformed into light and strength, or will we petrify and wither?
My first planting of vegetables was a fail. They froze and died. Yesterday, I saw these plump green arrivals from my second planting, the first fruits of something new and vibrant.
Father’s day was two days ago, and I was without my pops. Those days always make me wonder if I’m becoming all I need to be. Maybe you know the feeling.
If you have been deteriorating or perhaps stagnating during this trial, there is good news. You may be stumbling through, awkwardly trying to understand what you are to be. Press on, friend. You may yet learn how to fly.
Many of my friends have been posting “facts.”
We all deeply long for certainties, especially when we want comfort, protection from uncertainties, and expressly when those worries are about our own deeply held but fearful frailties and perhaps, guilt.
This is my twenty-second year of teaching. Wow, does that make me feel old, but nevertheless, it’s true. I’m a grizzled veteran in the teaching profession. And one of the things all us old-timer teachers have experienced is a never-ending cycle of new-fangled and “data-driven” silver bullets.
(Incidentally, I come from a family of teachers – my parents were both teachers; so was my 100+ MaMa – they all echo this reality – it is old).
And while it is true that some specialists, book authors, administrators, state education bureaucrats and standardized test creating CEOs swear by the conclusiveness of their “facts”, most teachers recognize in their souls and behold in the eyes of their individual young students that such concrete boxes fail to provide any foregone conclusions.
I’m working, ever so slowly, on the outline of a book on teaching. Its working title is “Don’t Forget They Have Souls: The Inadequacy of Data-Driven Education.” Lord willing, I’ll finish my rebuttal against the Standardized Testing Industrial Complex.
The reliance on data infiltrates every part of our lives, even entertainment. How about this - ask a Philadelphia Eagles or Phillies fan what they think about the data-driven coaching of Chip Kelly or Gabe Kapler. (Good luck, SoCal)
Atheists and other anti-believers hold fast to science and its facts, and regard faith as foolishness.
All of you out there who hold to some kind of faith are simpletons, they say. Blind, because you don’t have the facts. You cannot prove in a universal way (of course we all have personal anecdotes) that your faith system is real, beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The scribes and teachers of the law that encountered Jesus were able to site their facts, too. They called him false Messiah, because his actions defied their understanding (facts?) of scripture.
Today, religious fundamentalists tell us we must act a certain way, speak a certain way, must engage in some activities and must refrain from others. If not, we have no place in the Kingdom of Heaven. They have their facts, too.
Doubt is scary.
Variables, unknowns, left-outs (sometimes those who compile data have something to hide) – there is a lot that goes into a complete picture. I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever have an exact understanding of anything at all during my lifetime.
So, when we see mass mourning and protest (some of it violent/I believe the majority of the violence is that of opportunists and criminals using the protest as cover) about a cycle of destruction that traces its roots to the 1600s-a cycle of systematic degradation of enslaved people become freedmen become segregated and second-class-and-barely citizens who could be lynched at the whim of local and powerful racist leaders, who had to become peaceful marchers beaten and attacked by dogs and sprayed with fire hoses and teargas, who finally became theoretically integrated but still barred from the boardroom people, who at last got to send forth a token, but only if he (and much later she) would say and champion agreed upon topics, become in recent years tolerated folk, and when we finally see almost every single blessed black brother and sister that we know speak in unity and sorrow, it fills us with dread, because our souls know something heavy and desolate has gone down here in America.
So, some of us start searching for “facts” we can use to obscure and minimize the pain in the other, certainly, but also, in our own souls. We are, indeed, one human race. We are all God’s children. And when any child of God suffers, I believe the Lord grieves.
We should, too.
Last season, we had cherry tomatoes galore, and I planted another round of those and also cucumbers and squash. But 2020 is strange, so a late freeze killed them all. I waited two weeks, and then tried again, this time adding zucchini and vine tomatoes as well.
They’re growing now, slowly inching up and out, thickening in the middle. I’ve been attentive, looking for wilting or discoloration, weeding to keep the ground free of competition, adding just the right amount of water. I want the fruit. There is something so strange in the desire, as if those green and red and yellow globular and oblong shapes of plump flesh can save me.
Last winter I buried our old pumpkins in a corner of the garden, and I can see the spread, wonder if they will hog the soil. My mint, rosemary and lemon balm are growing in the gaps and spreading fast too; they'll probably have to be curbed.
My oldest is fourteen, about the age when one desires to sever or at least loosen ties to family. He has been stuck with us since March. He needs to grow, but is being stifled. We’ve been playing ball in the street and yard, but I’m not a teenager anymore. I guess my cool factor has diminished. What!?!
My middle sons are two years apart, and competitive. They come to blows over the silliest things yet sometimes fall asleep side by side in embrace. They can’t get out of each other’s way, and don’t seem to try. Both have an abundance of scratches and scars testifying to their constant jostling and affection.
My youngest has begun to hit us with the Mutombo finger-wag and accompanying “No, no, no,” and when chastised, responds, “I’m not talking to you.” He is constantly playing with his Star Wars legos, and we’re pretty sure he thinks he’s the Emperor around here.
My wife has been working non-stop trying to make home a haven, cooking wondrous meals and ordering the house each day. I love her, I’m lucky, and I’m filled with gratitude.
But we get on each other’s nerves too, you know. I used to leave five days a week, and give her a break. So did the kids. And she’s an extrovert, so she’d sure like to see some new faces. I’m a loner, so I’d like to go find a green cliff on an island in the middle of nowhere for a few days. I might bring books. And Coffee.
We’re all still trying to live, still trying to flourish in our little container garden, striving toward the light, but we’re on top of each other, and whether we like it or not, we’ve been forced to look hard and honest at our weeds. They have to go. There is no room.
I learned a lot in my landscaping days with my dad (he would have turned 72 today-love you and miss you, Pops – memory eternal!).
I pulled millions (probably trillions) of weeds. If allowed to fester too long, weed roots become entwined with the plants you want to keep. Sometimes, despite your most surgical efforts, some of what is good is also torn, damaged. Pulling the weeds sometimes brings destruction. But left alone, weeds will consume everything.
This time is a drag in so many ways, some physical, and many emotional and spiritual.
Here’s to looking forward to a bountiful harvest.
When this started, I thought I’d write a whole novel. I remember seeing a lot of memes about folks dreaming of perfect bods or second and third languages, PhD's or decks and pools. That was before the cloud kept darkening. I hear people are snatching up pets for comfort. We’re just trying to get through.
I pray mercy for us all. There is little room to escape the honest look right now. We can’t hide from ourselves, and tough choices have to be made. Mainly, we have to surrender, and then there can be rest, and fruit.
“Take my yolk upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yolk is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:29-30
“But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” – Galatians 5:22-23
In several weeks, I’ll have to increase my vigilance around the plants. Scavengers will be coming for easy pickings. You’ll have to protect what you’ve gained, too.
Take care, and press on.
Our contemporary Christian church era is one of skepticism, questioning, doubt and wandering. These strains take an emotional and intellectual toll on believers far and wide, and the reactions of individuals vary widely. Some leave the faith altogether, rejecting old ways as useless and false at best and corrupt and harmful at worst. Others are bewildered, and waver between belief and despair. Many churchgoers dig deep, doubling down on their traditions and building walls against anyone outside their own denominations. Anyone who spends a few hours scrolling faith discussions via Social Networks will come away wearied and pained by the spiritual drama of our time.
In Not All Who Wander (Spiritually) Are Lost (A Story Of Church), Traci Rhoades offers a refreshing outlook that both honors the best things within her own traditions and also encourages the reader to seek answers and joy among their brethren of various faith expressions.
The main storyline is a personal one, and the reader follows Ms. Rhoades from a small country Methodist church in Missouri, where the doors were always unlocked and she learned to pray as a little girl, to a megachurch in a big city and to church plants and everywhere in between. Along the way, she first encounters and then seeks out those traditions she’d been informally catechized to distrust. She finds out those prejudices were wrong, and much of her wandering is a purposeful search to find out how various groups love God.
This comes from a deep recognition that while her own upbringing is rich, she is missing some things that are ancient anchors of belief, that have carried the saints through all ages into greater knowledge and love of God. So she sets out, searching for these great treasures:
“If I’m being completely honest, sometimes I feel cheated by the faith of my childhood. It was life-giving in so many ways, but I didn’t learn anything about church history or ancient traditions…Crossing oneself, ancient prayers, anointing the sick, confessing our sins to another, lamenting…these acts are a part of our heritage too, and can add a richness to one’s faith.”
This book is not, however, a naïve cherry-picking of the happy. It does not keep the sorrow and hurt of life in general or life in church hidden. Rather, Ms. Rhoades makes it clear that she has been wounded, disappointed and disillusioned at times by individuals and collectives of those beside whom she’d lived her faith. Anyone who has been burned will immediately sense her sorrow. Yet, in the closing paragraph of the first chapter, Ms. Rhoades makes clear her position regarding these wounds:
“If you’re in the church long enough, it will disappoint you, I promise. The way I always saw it, that disappointment left me with choices. I could stick it out and try to make a positive change in the church I attended. I could determine the fellowship was broken enough I needed to find a new church home. Or I could ultimately decide God was to blame for the hurt and suffering, causing me to abandon church altogether. This last choice never seemed a viable option to me.”
One of the blessings of this book is that Ms. Rhoades has generously offered the stories of sixteen other wanderers. Most of these individuals have taken similar journeys, but some simply offer the stories of their own tradition, and the deep joy and harbor that they’ve known. Few authors would devote so many of their pages to other writers. Yet, for Ms. Rhoades, this is the story - multi-denominational voices singing in numerous and beautiful ways their hope and love for the divine.
It harkens to the beautiful meaning behind the iconography in some liturgical traditions she explores. By loving our neighbor, venerating their faith and humility, we’ve loved God. This is what Ms. Rhoades does again and again in the pages of this edifying book. The introduction is entitled “Let’s Be Friends”, and that is the spirit of the book and also in the dialogue one can find in Ms. Rhoades’s online discourse as well.
This is a book of hope.
The reader can almost hear the rising intensity of joy and longing in Ms. Rhoades’s voice as she brings the final chapter and epilogue to the joyous conclusion that perhaps we can find a way to love one another, offering and accepting gifts that lead us into great unity in the faith, and love for God.
If you wander, if you have been wounded in church, if you want encouragement in your meandering, and perhaps limping journey of faith, then Not All Who Wander (Spiritually) Are Lost (A Story Of Church) will be a balm to your soul.
Last night, I had several horrible dreams. In one, I had a heart attack. Another had me leading my sons through a massive abandoned skyscraper full of aggressive monsters, and the third had me unraveling a predator’s plot against one of my sons. Pretty bleek and disturbing.
Bet I’m not the only one having bad dreams.
I woke in the dark, and the twilight of my consciousness was filled with Odysseus and his strange and seemingly endless journey, filled with obstacles and setbacks. The never-ending feeling of it all is familiar these days.
When I thought to put these strange mental wanderings down on paper, I wanted to consider all those terrible things, recall Scylla and the Whirlpool, the Cyclops and the Sirens, the Seductresses and Cannibals. We’ve got all that, too, all that suffering and loss.
Or, the Lotus Eaters, binging distraction until they die, forgetful of their dreams.
Grief and disappointment, self-made or inflicted, were real themes nearly 3,000 years ago too.
What about that time when poor Odysseus was sleeping restfully, nearly home, back to normal (whatever that is) and his greedy bonehead sailors pillaged his bag of winds and everything had to start all over. Seemed pertinent for today.
But this is a special and important day, and I won’t be asking the ladies to sit quiet in the back while I highlight some dude. I’d like to focus on Penelope, whose story is an important key for us today.
Odysseus was gone two decades, important ones for Telemachus, their son, and Penelope did all of the heavy parenting. Brave Odysseus, we always consider his perseverance, his determination to find his way home.
What of his wife, raising a boy on her own, fending off ravenous and groping suitors who wanted to use her and destroy her child. For much of the story she carries grief, thinking her husband has died.
Unlike Odysseus, who needed a little comfort from goddesses along the way, Penelope puts her son first, and forgoes her personal need for touch. She holds tenaciously to the long view, even when all hope seems gone.
Not only does Penelope raise a son and hold off the lusty young lads. She had to run a kingdom, by the way.
I’m privileged in the wonderful ladies of my life. From Moddie Kirk (‘Ma’ - my great-grandma) to Ellen Gartrelle (‘MaMa’ – my grandma) to Marilyn Leigh (my Momma) to my wife Jessica Maria, I’ve rubbed shoulders and hearts with a litany of strong, intelligent Queens, running their kingdoms with wondrous efficiency and patience, always with a dash of love.
I’m also a teacher of twenty-one seasons, which has allowed me to see up close the excellence with which so many teacher-moms have cared for the children of others while still loving and sacrificing for their own. I’ve been blessed to see many of these wise moms travel the valley of sorrow and anxiety with their sons and daughters, coming out the other side rejoicing. Cheers, ladies, and thank you – I’ve learned so much listening to your words and your hearts.
We’ve been asked to stay at home. No adventures or quests today, or probably tomorrow, and perhaps not even in a few weeks or months. We’re carrying grief, and fear is lurking in the uncertainty of the future.
We might look to Odysseus and emphasize slogging on until we make it home. Sure, but perhaps a better focus is on staying home, keeping the flame of hope burning indefinitely, no matter what may come. Perhaps we should commemorate those whose uncertain waiting is so valorous.
This weekend, one of our sons deceived us, rode his bike clear across town (don’t think my old West Texas hometown of Borger – we live in New Jersey, traffic capital of the US) with no helmet, taking roads that are dangerous to the wary rider, much less the invincible and reckless teen. For me, the disappointment was more about the deception. I mean, he was on an adventure, exploring, right?
For my wife Jessica, it was like a sucker punch. She kept replaying all of the ways he could have been harmed, or lost. There is a deep, soulful way a mother loves.
Mom’s have the wisdom to love past the faults, or, rather, through the storm of failings that inevitably come. Mom’s also know how to love in the darkness of unknowing.
Mom’s know how to be brave in the midst of sorrow. And, they know how to be tender. No one, sick as a dog, lying in their bed, is wishing for their Pops. Nope, we want Momma. We need her.
We need you now, Queens. Your example of steady under pressure in the face of indefinite ends is the road map. Thank you, and pray for us.
We need stories, desperately.
I have a confession to make – I’m a sports addict. I've had a growing hunch, but this quarantine has removed all doubt.
No March Madness. No NBA playoffs. No World Cup. No Summer Olympics. No Opening Day baseball.
All the games have been cancelled.
There is no drama, no winners or losers, no comebacks or valiant one-second or one shot or one goal-too-short losses. There have been no ‘thrills of victory or the agony of defeat’ as they used to say on ABC’s Wild World of Sport that broadcast during the Saturday’s of my childhood.
We all have things that buffer us against the storms of life. For me, one of those things is sport, though I believe the underlying factor is story.
Enter the 2020 NFL draft.
This may seem silly, but I’ve had to fight back a few tears while watching the draft. Now, I realize the NFL is a major corporation that does a lot of things wrong. However, it also knows how to tell a great story. And, for these three days, there is real drama, competition at last between the teams.
Sometimes, we look at overpaid athletes (as a teacher who will, in my lifetime, earn less than most players do in a year or two of playing a game – I know) and are dismissive of them as real, struggling human beings.
Yet, each one of those boys-become-men drafted this weekend have fought through innumerable struggles to achieve their goal, just like you and me. And, most of them have done it under a spotlight. For every kid having their name called, there have been multitudes that flamed out or spent everything and came up short. Some of those guys will become teachers and coaches :).
For those drafted, it is a story of talent, sure, but also of hard work. And, if you’ve been watching like I have, many of these soon to be millionaires have stories of loss and great sorrow. Also - great responsibility to lost parents, siblings, or their community.
I would grade my youthful athletic self as slightly above average to decent. My point is - my love for sport is not some sort of hanging on. There never was much to hang on to. Especially these days, when my knees and hips and feet moan in pain every time I play 1-on-1 with my fourteen year old firstborn son Noah.
However, I’ve been coaching middle school boys’ basketball for nearly two decades, and I love all those boys I’ve had the great pleasure to coach, because in their precious lives, there is a valiant and beautiful story being worked out. There is hard work, belief, camaraderie, sacrifice, elation, and yes, bitter disappointment. After that, there is a choice. Give up, or press on. Many of them are young men now, with families of their own.
In my first two blog offerings, I've taken you into the natural world. I’d like to do that again, today, because I think all stories are intertwined in the same mysteries. I was up again this morning, and down at the lake, where the sun was cascading over trees, adding startling luminescence to the fog that was hovering over still waters. The birds accompanied this vision with their usual joy.
As I walked through the woods to the shore, I noticed a few wonderful things. A large stump, felled by man or weather, and yet from the side of its severed trunk, a thin twig was sprouting, with one plump green leaf. Also - an elder tree, lying on its side, its massive exposed roots bare and dry. Even as mosses and ivy crawled over and siphoned away its vitality, it was still pushing hopeful shoots toward the light.
I love the forest, because every story that could ever be told is found there.
Several of the writers I admire, and have been blessed by recently, find their inspiration in the woods and creeks and sky and shore. Annie Dillard’s “Teaching a Stone to Talk” is a wonder. So is anything written by Rick Bass or Alistair Macleod.
The writer who has most shaped my recent writing, especially my poetry (here’s my most recently published poem, out this weekend), has been Mary Oliver. Listen to what she had to say about stories and the wilderness in her essay entitled “Staying Alive”:
“I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything – other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned, that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion – that standing within this otherness – the beauty and mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books – can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”
This quarantine has many of us on tilt.
Last night, I hollered in anger at my boys and was compelled by truth to sit beside them and apologize. I had let my stung heart and mind become bigger than my hope and peace. My guess – many of us have slipped lately, have been less than the story we aspire to tell.
Remember the disciples, and especially Saint Peter. The God-man wonder of all history was beside them, suffering so that He sweat great drops of blood, and all they could do was hide in sleep. Then Peter hid in denial, and ran from his better self, his truest self.
But, that is not the end of his story.
He was redeemed, got back up and carried on in the faith, for himself and for generations of believers. His story is a comeback tale of epic proportion.
Our God knows how weak we are, and is not surprised when we fall. He is reaching out, always, wanting us to see what He already knows about us, that our story is one for the ages. We just have to believe.
Here's another comeback story I really like. Anthony Cassar is my thirdborn son Luke's godfather, a wonderful role model to my boys and me.
Our routines are disrupted, and that’s a worthy sacrifice to limit the damage of COVID-19 to our neighbors and kin.
We are beings that need ritual, pattern. Our bodies are made that way. For instance, I have not left my house to work in nearly a month. Yet, my body is so attuned to schedule that I still wake in the blue-gray of morning, before the rising of the sun.
During these weeks I’ve been staying up late, my night owl tendency unleashed, because there is no pressing urgency to rise. And so, when my body tells me it’s time to get up, I tell it to lie down a little longer. I’ve been sleeping in. For a parent of four relatively young sons (aged 4, 8, 10, 14), this pleasure seems well earned. I’ve enjoyed burying my face in my pillow for a few more lolling hours.
I keep waking each day, though, my body calling out for normalcy, some balancing of life. So, today I succumbed, rose and walked in the cool of the morning. (It was 41 degrees Fahrenheit, perfect for a sweatshirt and shorts!)
This is the Lenten season, where every day is filled with potential for repentance, and while I’m a poor ascetic, I remain grateful the Church has ordained an annual remembrance of our desperate need for salvation, and also of God’s great love and redemption.
It’s been a strange Lent, perhaps particularly for an Orthodox Christian, who is aided so richly by iconography and incense and light. Yet all people of faith have accoutrements of worship that we’ve been missing, and for this I am very sad. Thankfully, our priests and pastors and worship leaders have been vigilant, censing chapels, and chanting hymns and offering words and songs of encouragement. May God bless them for their faithfulness to their flock.
(We teachers are trying to do the same.)
Tears of joy and sorrow have intermingled as I’ve watched my priest and his wife and young daughter chant before God, alone. But they are not alone. Thank you.
I have been able to listen to my brother and his wife lead their congregation in song. Thank you.
I have also been able to listen to the wise words of Fr. George Eber, my parish priest from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I am grateful.
In one of Fr. Eber’s recent morning talks, he mentioned how the birds rise before the sun to sing, announcing the arrival of the day. He said it was a reminder that the long dark of night must end, and there is joy in the morning!
So, when the clock in my body woke me today, I consented to hurry out and listen to their song. I saw no one on my walk down to the nearby lake shore. I heard no cars, or trucks, or any human sounds. Only creaking of trees and rippling of waters; also the breeze. And, a symphony of birds! Chanting and chattering in a hundred hopeful tongues. Even the cranky honking of geese sounded lovely amid the jubilant refrain. I was reminded that all of creation worships God, even the somber stones.
It is spring. New Jersey is the garden state, so there is loveliness all around. At our house, I have a number of trees and bushes that are sprouting green buds of new life. There is a wondrous unfolding of pink and purple and white flowers. (Yesterday, between running routes and catching footballs from me, my 8 year old son Luke kept stopping to bring flowers to show me – oh, the pure elation of a child!)
We’ve been having April showers, and two days ago, nearing evening, a storm blew suddenly through, and left behind a momentary vision. Half the sky was hovering dark of passing rain cloud, the other half descending golden orange glow of sun. And arcing over the sky was an extraordinarily vivid double-rainbow. The sun was just peeking over our roof, and trunks of trees in my backyard had slipped into grey shadow, while the red and green and yellow spring buds were illuminated, producing warm colors unseen at any other moment.
This isolation is hard for so many, and it is much worse for the suffering sick and dying who are alone. Lord, have mercy!
For those who can, set your alarm for half an hour before sunrise. Drag yourself out to listen to the song of creation, praising the God of order and innovation, of steady and surreal.
Yesterday, on a sudden, a wind that hearkened to tornado days in Oklahoma blew through and bowed the trees and flung debris in every direction. I was on the sun porch watching my boys play in the yard. They were frightened horribly and went running in circles yelping; there was also an amazed gleam in their eye, grateful for such a marvel.
We moved into our current home nearly a decade ago. I began working hard in
the yard right away, trying to live up to the legacy of beauty my father (a landscape artist, truly) instilled in me. This earned the friendship of my neighbor across the street who was also much devoted to her garden. In the years since, she’s been occupied several days a week, cultivating the flowering of her property.
Untold hours were spent there, laboring and loving and creating.
This past summer our neighbor sold her home and moved away. The new neighbors, a young couple just getting started, tore out all of her flowers and shrubs. They’ve begun something good, but most of my first neighbor’s toil of is lost.
Recently I was on Facebook, and saw a post from my old karate instructor and dear friend Patti regarding her previous home. She shared a picture of the landscaping. Impeccable, elegant, a marvelous ointment for the soul. My pops created the design and we worked together in that yard and many others for years, softening the suffering of the world with flowers and leaves and roots and trunks. Patti sold her home recently, and now her paradise is also gone, replaced by grass, boring and plain. Someone commented that it was like trashing a virtuoso painting.
One of the last jobs my father ever did was for my aunt and uncle in Fort Worth, Texas. It was also a wonder, a truly uplifting and astounding touch of splendor. When they sold their home, the new owners also rendered my father’s art null by ripping it out for more asphalt.
These are all very sad stories. They recall an account of Thomas Jefferson working so diligently to make Monticello a marvel, only for it to be overgrown within years of his death. Its grandeur has since been recaptured, perhaps, by the national park service, but one speculates that again in future those memories will be erased by war, or economic collapse or unseen consequences of climate change coming.
Every single thing we build in this world, even our art, will pass away in its concrete form, though we try and hold on. It is mind-boggling to consider all the cultures and histories of the world that have already been destroyed and forgotten.
Like the national park service at Monticello, my mother has tried to preserve her own yard, planted and cared for through the years by her beloved. She wants to hold on to the gifts he gave. But even in her yard, his, there is a slow fade, as if his voice is drifting slowly to a whisper before silence. She won’t live there forever, and one day new owners might annihilate my father’s vision once and for all.
These truths can be hard. What use is there in living, in lifting feet to walk or hands to industry? I’ve been reading my father’s journals off and on through these desolate years since his passing. I want to read them slow. I want to have some piece of him yet to learn, some tone of voice or aching and jubilation of his soul for all of the days coming until I’m also on my way.
He struggled with sadness and frustration and many other things, burdened like us all. His life was work, but it was also joy. He was frequently a failure, but he also pressed on. My pops did a lot of great things in this world. Some lingering beauty hovers among aging maples, mugos, crepe myrtles and privet, barberry, boxwood, yaupon and pine; thickening rings, limbs and blossoms will continue to remind of his hunger for awe in many yards across Texas and Oklahoma for decades to come. Some will outlive us. There are also a number of recordings beaming from sound systems in untold homes and cars that also testify to his commitment to worship God in song.
My father was an artist, but he is mostly remembered for the good he gave to others. His art is loved because he was.
We are told to accumulate treasure in heaven that cannot be touched by moth or rust. Even as I mourn the destruction of my father’s art I rejoice, for I know his humble offerings to others on behalf of his Lord are eternal; the changing of lives endures. I think a lot about the quality and quantity of my writing, but the question for me is not whether my art is beautiful.
Rather, do I love?
NOTE: I wrote this a while back, but thought that its message was appropriate for our current situation, which is one of gloom. Nevertheless, ‘love conquers all’, and if we’ll continue to reach across the social distancing to one another, we still retain great power of healing and hope.