Oh my goodness. J J Baskin, a great man and a good man, has died.
Every now and then someone offers the gift of letting us witness their journey through illness, and their transition from this life to the next. Steve Hayner was one of those people. So was J J, though the tone of his public posts was different than Steve’s. He was defiant and feisty, evidenced by his invoking of Friday Night Lights’s signature slogan and the way he refused to dwell on medical details publicly. He fiercely kept private things private.
I didn’t know J J well. I write this not as an intimate friend but as a friend on social media and a fellow Texan/Presbyterian, which is a smaller tribe than you might think. This tribe knows well that God lives at Mo-Ranch and Montreat is at most her summer home. Like many, I was a proud member of J J’s Fight Club. Like many, I wore the shirt as a defiant F U to cancer.
A friend and I were texting back and forth this morning. This one hits hard. The last journal entry on J J’s CaringBridge site reports that the boys are doing OK; they were currently snuggled up with their mother watching Pokemon. No one young enough to watch Pokemon should be without their father today.
For her part, my friend said she couldn’t get “His Eye is on the Sparrow” out of her head.
That’s just right. Just right.
I can never think about that song without remembering this rollicking bit of audio by Anne Lamott, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Take 18 minutes and listen, or at least listen to Anne’s friend Renola sing it at the end. I post it in gratitude for J J and in hopes that Anne’s irreverent reverence would please him.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere we’re winding down to Sunday, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Here in the DC area, the sun will rise that day at 7:23 a.m. and set at 4:50 p.m., giving us just 9 1/2 hours of light.
I know a good number of people who are having a tough time this year. There are family dramas and medical setbacks and stresses at work, not to mention the chronic struggles and annoyances that will always be with us. Those don’t take a break simply because Andy Williams calls it the most wonderful time of the year.
There’s the torture report, and the painfully raw conversations around #BlackLivesMatter. There’s a bungled Rolling Stone story that threatens to distract us from the disgraceful stats about sexual assault on college campuses.
There’s the two year anniversary of Newtown, which came and went with so little notice, and certainly no new laws regarding gun regulation, nor much of anything else, for that matter. (Where are all those people who claimed the guns weren’t to blame but rather the state of mental health services in this country? Have they been out there crusading without my knowledge for increased support for people with mental illnesses? Or is the death of 26 people and a school shooting every week the price we are willing to pay for “freedom”?)
Where is the light? This week, it is seeping away, a few minutes at a time on the margins of the day.
Many churches, Tiny Church included, have special gatherings for people who aren’t feeling the holly-jolliness. We have ours on a Sunday evening in December, and we’ve always called it “Blue Christmas.” This year, the solstice is on a Sunday, so we’ll be able to call it what it is: A Service of the Longest Night. It’s one of my favorite services of the year.
I must admit, though, as the darkness grows:
The light is absolutely beautiful this time of year.
Yes, there’s less of it than in the summer, with all its full blazes and its squat, sharp noon shadows. But what’s here right now is dynamic and textured. It’s brilliant and full and filtered through bare branches rather than blocked by leafy trees. Then it’s smudgy and silver when the clouds roll in.
And then it’s full of color. The sunrises and sunsets can be stunning. It feels strange liturgically to be preparing for a Service of the Longest Night when we are gifted with this:
Many Decembers ago, I was awake before dawn with a teething Margaret. I was wishing I were back in my warm bed in my dark room instead of trying to entertain a cranky toddler when something caught my eye outside the east-facing window. At first I didn’t understand what I was seeing. There in the otherwise dark sky was a vertical streak of light, jagged like a bolt of lightning, but it hung there for the longest time, frozen like a still photo.
Finally something in the scene shifted enough so I could realize: there was a massive cloud taking up half the sky. The cloud was invisible in the pre-dawn sky, until the sun rose behind it. What I was seeing was the side of the cloud, tinged with light.
The winter light is surely less abundant. But it’s startling and strange and exquisitely beautiful. We dare not blink or we will miss it. And we need it; we crave it.
It feels sometimes like our world is in a season of diminishing light. It’s felt that way for too long a while. Part of the invitation is to see gifts in the darkness, as Barbara Brown Taylor argues in her book. But we also have to keep alert and awake to see the fleeting brilliance when it comes.
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.