A couple of Sundays ago, in those restless moments before the alarm goes off but you know it’s about to, Robert and I heard a large thud and the power went out. It came on 30 minutes later.
We assumed that a transformer blew, but later we saw one of the entrances to our subdivision was blocked off. Beyond the barricade was a police cruiser, repair truck, and a car. Or half a car. The front was completely smashed.
We later learned more about the accident. Or at least, the two pertinent facts. There was alcohol involved, and a person died.
Someone was driving drunk at 6:00 in the morning.
A person died at the entrance to our subdivision.
The next day, when the street had opened, I was taking the girls to choir when I saw the crowd of people at the crash site, with flowers and stuffed animals and notes. And, I saw tonight after dark, electric candles.
I’ve long been fascinated with roadside memorials. And this new one, so close to where my kids walk to school and where I begin almost every one of my runs, reminded me of the following poem, which I wrote about a different roadside memorial many, many years ago.
It seems appropriate to share it before Ash Wednesday.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
To dust all things return.
you are remarkably sober
as you assemble what you need,
a strange array of supplies:
glue, feathers, cardboard, flowers, wire;
and you fashion a set of wings
and a funeral bouquet,
and a sign that says Rest in Peace
in black marker
in your best script,
and you take it to the tree
with the bark ripped off,
at the ruthless bend in the road.
you hang the wings
well above the tree’s white wound,
and nestle the bouquet
between two roots,
and as you affix the sign
a car speeds by,
slicing the air as it goes.
another car passes, and another,
and at first
the gusts knock you off balance,
but you learn to adjust,
to brace yourself,
to stand firm and lean in.
how dare these people
floating on the waves of radio songs,
laughing into their phones?
you think about the place often,
but you don’t return for some time.
you can’t, because
the busyness of your mourning has tipped over
into the business of your
getting back to
getting on with
moving forward with
it’s embarrassing, all your grief on
so you leave the site untended;
it’s just easier.
sooner or later you must return,
straighten the feathered wings,
remove the sign that bled black letters,
and clear out the wilted blooms,
or maybe just crush them into brown confetti
that trembles into the road.
fresh flowers were the right decision at first
(vibrant, real, momentary, like she was)
but now it’s time for practical silk, and you cry,
not because she deserves better than fakes, though she does,
but because silk lasts awhile, and you know now,
this is going to take much longer than you thought.
so you secure those wings even tighter,
and you plant those silk flowers
secure, for the long unchanging time.
now’s the season
when nothing much happens.
you glide by the place, just like the others;
though you slow and breathe, you don’t stop.
as time goes on, you notice:
the bright, fake flowers grimace on, stupidly,
as if put there only yesterday,
the cardboard wings have aged:
the feathers are dulled,
the edges are worn,
the fringes are ragged;
despite all your hard work,
they are becoming more and more
an organic part of things.
it is the paradox of grief,
always and ever new.
I wrote this a year ago. It was a few days after Newtown and amid people having fun with that supposed Maya prophecy about the end of the world. It’s been on my mind as we remember what happened on that terrible December 14.
As humorist Andy Borowitz ruefully put it recently: “We are approaching the one-year anniversary of doing nothing in response to Newtown.”
For the last few days it has felt a bit like the world is falling apart. It’s times like this, thinking about the people of Newtown, that I remember the line from “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice”:
Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this!
Only I walk around muttering it to myself in disbelief:
Christ was born for this?
Seriously, God: THIS world?
* * *
It’s weird, what finally drives it home: I have a first grader in the house. For some reason, I didn’t make the connection right away. Maybe it didn’t happen until I was ready for it. Sunday night, at our church’s Blue Christmas service, I read the names of those who were killed at Sandy Hook. And their ages.
Then Monday I put together some notecards that Margaret designed, and typed on the back: “Artwork by Margaret Dana, age 6.”
Today, I had a sheet of wallet-sized photos of her, the school picture, and I’m cutting out individual smiling shots. Margaret after Margaret after Margaret, perfect and dimpled and alive.
And I think of the sheets of pictures of children who are no more.
It is unbearable.
* * *
Things have been ridiculously hectic lately. Pastoring and purchasing and shipping and baking and preaching and mothering. Sabbath moments have been hard to come by. And then I remember what I said again and again in the book:
Today is their childhood.
What does that mean? There are still dishes to be done. But the focus is different, the pace is slowed, the ears are open. Marjorie Williams writes about the experience of being a mother with a life-threatening illness:
Having found myself faced with that old bull-session question (What would you do if you found out you had a year to live?), I learned that a woman with children has the privilege or duty of bypassing the existential. What you do, if you have little kids, is lead as normal a life as possible, only with more pancakes.
That is our spiritual work, post-Newtown. Yes, we work for peace. We advocate for policies that curb our culture’s violent ways. We speak up for the vulnerable and care for the disturbed and the isolated.
But we also cup one another’s faces in our hands, sticky with maple syrup.
My last obligations went out by FedEx just a while ago. There is a small handful of loose ends left. I will tie those up, or not. But the rest of this week and next is for my loved ones and for me. Join me, in embracing and savoring those things that really matter. If this be the end of the world, let us toast to life and richness and delight.
When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Turns out there’s a deep theological principle at work there.
I’m reading Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics by Samuel Wells in preparation for my presentations next week. Wells, the former dean of Duke University Chapel, uses the rules of improv as a lens for viewing God’s work in the world and our response to it. There’s a good summary here.
Wells calls the things that happen to us “gifts.” Of course, not every gift we’re offered is a happy thing. I think he means to use the word literally and neutrally: a gift is a thing that is given. But he’s also nudging us to try to see the potential in the gift—that there may be something positive that can be imagined from this unwelcome (and even downright crappy) circumstance.
Wells offers us three options when we are given gifts, and these come out of improv, and it turns out, the scripture story itself.
You can block the gift. You can simply refuse to receive what’s being offered. You could argue that the people of Israel do this in the wilderness when they construct the golden calf as an object of worship, rather than relying on the God who brought them out of Egypt in the first place. Blocking, it turns out, doesn’t work so well.
You can accept the gift. You can receive it, picking it up but doing very little with it. Think of Jonah after the big fish. He finally accepted the call to preach to Nineveh, but he didn’t exactly put his shoulder into it, did he? One sentence of prophecy and then he pouts when the wicked city repents of its sins.
Or you can over-accept. This is how Wells describes the experience of accepting a gift and then building on it. I don’t like the word, because it doesn’t connote its meaning well, but in any case, it’s a fancy way of saying “yes-and,” which is the basis of improv. There’s lots of yes-and in scripture, including the pivotal event for Christians, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Jesus’ message and his movement led to his execution by the powers and principalities. He did not block this outcome, nor did he merely accept it. Instead he over-accepted, proclaiming forgiveness and grace from the very cross that was meant to humiliate and defeat him. And of course, the resurrection story is the ultimate yes-and.
Our little church is witnessing a yes-and right now. An over-acceptance so beautiful, it hurts your eyes to look at.
I’vewrittenbefore about the family who lost not one, but two sons to the same terrible childhood illness. It is an awful, wrenching thing. I cannot call those losses “gifts” except in the most absolutely literal sense: a thing that is offered. Some “gifts” should be fought against. Some should be blocked, if they can be blocked. In fact, the family and the boys fought this illness fiercely and valiantly. But Eric died, and three years later, Jacob died as well.
To accept the circumstances is all anyone could ever ask or expect. To come to terms with the loss and to keep living. But the family is determined not to accept, but to over-accept. To yes-and.
Within the next several days, two little ones from the Ukraine will arrive in Newark, along with a couple dozen other children from that country. The brother and sister will travel on to Dulles Airport, where the family will meet them and host them for a few weeks. When the way be clear, hopefully within the year, they will become a forever family.
Leslie is a wonderful, honest, thoughtful writer, and has started a blog about this process. (If you want to read their story thus far, there are links to the CaringBridge sites. Yes, that’s plural.)
The title of the blog, Invincible Summer, comes from Albert Camus:
In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.
The news from Moore Oklahoma is almost unfathomable.
I lived in Tornado Alley during my teenage years, but they were quiet years for tornadoes. Honestly, I never took them seriously. Teenagers are invincible, after all. Whenever the subject came up we’d make jokes about trailer parks. It was classist privilege—I know that now, wrapped in a candy coating of “it couldn’t happen to me.”
It could. It certainly could.
I don’t know if crazy stuff is happening more frequently or if it just seems like it because I’ve been on this earth long enough for stuff to accumulate. Not to mention the effect of cable news and Twitter. But it’s tiring. It’s not even happening to me and it’s tiring. I’m tired of telling my kids to find the helpers. I’ve included the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance donation info so many times in emails to Tiny Church that I might as well incorporate it into the template on MailChimp.
But this post isn’t about parenting or logistics. It’s about bad theology that creeps in, even among those who studiously try to avoid it. My cousin lives in Moore, OK. For a little while folks didn’t know if he was OK. He is. In his message he said that they’d recently moved to a new house. The new house is fine, but the old house is destroyed. Whoa.
And there it was, like a flash: Man. Someone’s livin’ right, I said to myself.
No no no.
This is a good call for greater compassion on my part toward people who blurt out bromides in the wake of disaster, illness or suffering: God needed another angel in heaven. Everything happens for a reason. We’re being punished for our sin. (Really. It’s only amatteroftime.)
Linda Holmes, writing in a completely different context today, talked about the difference between a reaction, and a thought, and a conclusion. A reaction is just that—an initial response, easily tweeted but not much of substance, unless we examine it, test it, develop it into a thought, and maybe in time, a conclusion. If our reaction doesn’t survive that scrutiny, we should let it go.
The trouble with a lot of our public discourse, whether we’re talking about Sunday night’s episode of Mad Men (I gather something bizarro went down?) or dozens of people perishing in an F5 tornado, is that we don’t get past the reaction stage. “Someone’s living right” is a reaction. It’s an understandable one—even though I don’t see this cousin much, I don’t want to see him suffer—but it’s ultimately false. It’s a product of the lizard brain.
So what do we do with our reptilian reactions? We hold them under the microscope. No, maybe they are the microscope, or the telescope, and we peer through to see if they bring other parts of our lives into sharper view. If they do, maybe they are worth keeping.
And if we’re religious, we also press them like flowers between the pages of our sacred texts, and see what happens. Sometimes they crumble from the pressure. And sometimes they hang together.
But “someone’s livin’ right” doesn’t hold together. Neither does “it’s because of gay marriage.” (Because seriously. In Oklahoma?)
The trouble is, when it comes to suffering, the more we work with our reactions and our thoughts, the less conclusive we become. Christian Wiman’s latest book, written about his struggles with faith in the midst of cancer, is an elegantly devastating case in point. He writes in My Bright Abyss:
If God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me.
I laughed out loud when I read that. Yes: Who is this God who makes it all better? Who punishes the wicked and rewards the good with uncanny precision? Tell me, New Atheists, about the God you don’t believe in. I don’t believe in that God either.
And yet, like Wiman, I continue to wrestle in faith, even though conclusions are increasingly hard to come by. I continue because there is heart-wrenching beauty happening in Oklahoma tonight—it’s in the caring efficiency of hospitals and shelters; it’s in the scrabbling through the rubble; it’s in embraces between neighbors. That beauty is not the work of God. That beauty is God. That’s all I can say for certain… and even that’s not very certain at all.
I also did a webinar on Sabbath for the Presbyterian Outlook this week. I covered some stuff that’s in the book but a lot that’s not, including how to get congregations thinking about and practicing Sabbath. You can order a DVD here.
Some schools forbid children to play in the snow for fear of legal action in the event of an accident. We live in a litigious age, but this is about far more than that: it is about the kind of children we are creating.
By insidiously demanding that children always seek permission for the most trivial of actions, that they must obey the commands of others at every turn, we ensure that children today are not so much beaten into obedience as eroded into it. A risk-averse society creates a docility and loss of autonomy that has a horrible political shadow: a populace malleable, commandable, and blindly obedient.
The author also talks about a real-life Lord of the Flies incident… that didn’t end like Lord of the Flies:
One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip. They left safe harbor, and fate befell them. Badly. Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe?
They made a pact never to quarrel, because they could see that arguing could lead to mutually assured destruction. They promised each other that wherever they went on the island, they would go in twos, in case they got lost or had an accident. They agreed to have a rotation of being on guard, night and day, to watch out for anything that might harm them or anything that might help. And they kept their promises—for a day that became a week, a month, a year. After fifteen months, two boys, on watch as they had agreed, saw a speck of a boat on the horizon. The boys were found and rescued, all of them, grace intact and promises held.
If anyone knows more about this story, please let me know. I would love to read more. Google didn’t turn up much.
In a school notorious for its lack of discipline, where backpacks were prohibited for fear the students would use them to carry weapons, Bott’s bold decision to replace the security guards with art teachers was met with skepticism by those who also questioned why he would choose to lead the troubled school.
“A lot of my colleagues really questioned the decision,” he said. “A lot of people actually would say to me, ‘You realize that Orchard Gardens is a career killer? You know, you don’t want to go to Orchard Gardens.’”
But now, three years later, the school is almost unrecognizable. Brightly colored paintings, essays of achievement, and motivational posters line the halls. The dance studio has been resurrected, along with the band room, and an artists’ studio.
Dr. Angelo Volandes is making a film that he believes will change the way you die. The studio is his living room in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston; the control panel is his laptop; the camera crew is a 24-year-old guy named Jake; the star is his wife, Aretha Delight Davis. Volandes, a thickening mesomorph with straight brown hair that is graying at his temples, is wearing a T-shirt and shorts and looks like he belongs at a football game. Davis, a beautiful woman of Guyanese extraction with richly braided hair, is dressed in a white lab coat over a black shirt and stands before a plain gray backdrop.
“Remember: always slow,” Volandes says.
“Sure, hon,” Davis says, annoyed. She has done this many times.
Volandes claps to sync the sound. “Take one: Goals of Care, Dementia.”
As a pastor I would love to get my hands on the video series Dr. Volandes is creating.
I’ll read just about any topic, so long as Gopnik writes it. And we are years away from kids leaving the nest, but this still spoke to me.
I suspect he will return one Christmas soon with an icy, exquisite, intelligent young woman in black clothes, with a single odd piercing somewhere elegant – ear or nose or lip – who will, when I am almost out of earshot, issue a gentle warning: “Listen, with the wedding toasts – could you make sure your father doesn’t get, you know, all boozy and damp and weepy?” My son will nod at the warning.
Doubt is a thing which many Christians see as opposing their faith. Many have fought it and its prevalence in the modern minds of man. 19th century pastor Robert Turnbull once stated that “Doubt, indeed, is the disease of this inquisitive, restless age.” Many people react negatively towards any feelings of doubt that they may have, fearing that this doubt means that they aren’t fully committed to God.
However, this fear of doubt is dreadfully dangerous. Not every man who doubts his faith loses it. And if they look at most human lives, they’ll find that if one doesn’t doubt, then one isn’t human. It is a necessary idea for any believer, for it acts as the catalyst and tool for a man or woman to grow.
Then a quote from Tim Keller:
A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts—not only their own but their friends’ and neighbors’.
Would be interesting to have a church group study on doubt.