Contested History: A Parable

I am five years old, standing on the sidewalk at a Fourth of July parade with my mother, my aunt, and my sisters. Before the parade begins, a vendor comes by with a cart full of balloons and other kitschy souvenirs. We are each allowed one. There are the twisty-tie kind, contorted into animals. There are superheroes (my usual favorite), but something else catches my eye.

“It’s a Dukes of Hazard flag,” I yell.

My mom resists my request.

“But why?” I grow impatient. She had promised.

My mom relents.

With a toothy grin and the joy of getting my way, I wave the flag of my favorite TV show vigorously, even after the parade has passed.

I am 20 years old when my mother tells me a story about her father, the grandfather I never knew. The driveway that connected the house where I grew up ends at what used to be called Rural Route 3, a state roulade that continues on ttonthe Ohio River town of Maysville, KY (a place that boasts stops on the Underground Railroad). Whereas now rural mailboxes have a red flag which notifies mail carriers whether or not there was mail, they were once decorated with a metallic American flag.

Whether out of spite, with a devilish wink, or with a sense of mission, my grandfather replaced the American flag with a Confederate one.

‘That was just Daddy.’ My mom said with a sigh, empty of judgement. Probably just missing him.

I am 22 years old in Warren, OH, talking to a man named Bob Faulkner. We are both from Mount Sterling, KY. He is a graduate of Hiram College. I will graduate from there in a semester. I am in his office, in a small corporate office. We talk about many things–his career, his education, our shared hometown, our different experiences growing up there. He is a baby boomer, and black. I am an Xer and white.

Our conversation soon draws us to what brought us together–a poem by Winchester KY native and Vanderbilt Agrarian poet Alan Tate entitled “The Swimmers.”

It is set in our shared hometown, and it tells a story from Tate’s childhood, when he and his friends stumbled upon a lynching on their way to a swimming hole.

Neither of us had read this poem until we came to Hiram. No one we knew in Mt. Sterling knew about it. It was a memorial in ink for a nameless dead man who died a horrible death–a memorial no one in that town seemed to know existed.

The whole conversation reminds me of those famous words from another Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I am 25 years old in Pretoria, South Africa, part of a student delegation from Vanderbilt Divinity School. It is only a decade since Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, a few years since the end of Apartheid. We tour the Voortrekker monument, which commemorates Afrikaner settler expansion and defeat of a regiment of Zulu with whom the Afrikaners clashed. The monument tells the story of a covenant the Afrikaners made with God that they would be ever faithful if  God would grant them victory. 

The Zulu were defeated. The Voortrekkers became the true indigenous people of South Africa, thanks be to God, the story goes.

The portrayal of Zulu and Afrikaner is predictable: violent savage vs noble settler. 

Canaanite vs Israelite.

 Protestant vs Catholic or Catholic vs. Protestant, depending on who baptized you.

At a reception with faculty of the University of Pretoria, once the hotbed of pro-apartheid intellectual justification, where we are anticipating a conversation on reconciliation, history, and identity, a professor approaches me and greets me in Afrikaans. 

I look confused.

‘Oh,’ he says. ‘I thought you were one of us.’

On our way back to our hostel, our delegation has a contentious conversation. Several of us draw comparisons between the Voortrekker monument and the depiction of American settlers and Native Americans.

One of us does not agree.

‘But we have monuments just like this.’

‘We have nothing like this.

‘America is different.’

I am 34 years old, and I am reading the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for the first time since seminary. They tell fascinating stories about the aftermath of the Babylonian Exile, how the exiles return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, continuing the covenant with the God who blessed them in the first place, and (some would say) threw them to the Babylonians as a punishment before backing the Persians who freed them.

I bristle at the part where those who were not part of the exile, who remained in their homeland, are excoriated for marrying “foreign women,” and how they are commanded to abandon them. There is no room for them or their children.

They were Canaanites and Moabites. God has no use for them in this city. They were to be expelled.

As I read, I remember another book that tells the story of an ancestor of David, the most beloved king in the Hebrew Bible, whose son Solomon would build the first temple, the one destroyed by the Babylonians:

The book of Ruth, which celebrates the Moabite woman whose family line would begat Israel’s most beloved king.

I imagine a scene left out of Ezra and Nehemiah, where expelled women, sitting around a fire outside of the city they miss, hold their children close and tell them that while this new temple may not be built for them, they have always had a part in the story. And they tell them of Ruth and Naomi, and of Solomon, another king, who married women of different hues and tribes.

We are reticent to tell the whole history. We shouldn’t be.

I am 36 years old and I am at an unremarkable restaurant in a town not terribly far from an airport. I am talking with a man who attends a church where I have just spoken. I am not the pastor at his church. Perhaps that is why he feels able to speak freely.

‘One thing that bothers me about you young pastors is that you all say ‘Hebrew Bible’ instead of ‘Old Testament.’ There’s no need to be politically correct. Call it what it is.’

I tell him that that is exactly what I am trying to do–that while Christians claim the books in this canon as prelude to their New Testament, the Jewish faith claims them as something different, and draws different meaning from them, and both of our faiths, as practiced in the 21st century, would look very different from the first writers and collectors of these texts. They are written in Hebrew, and we consider them scripture. I tell him about Ezra and Ruth and contested readings of history, and how important it is to remember that while Christians primarily see the Bible as centering on Jesus, there is so much more there, and we forget it at our own peril. Therefore, for me, ‘Hebrew Bible’ is the most precise term I feel I can use without falling into the trap of supersessionism, or laziness.

‘Well,’ he tells me, ‘I just don’t think we should have to be so PC.’

It is not the first time I have had this conversation. It will not be the last.

I am 42 years old, walking across the college campus across the street from the church I serve. It’s also where the closest coffee shop is, and it’s Monday. On my way back to my office, i notice a sticker of A familiar classical statue on a signpost, with the slogan “Protect Your Heritage”.  “IDENTITY EVROPA,” follows at the bottom, which I recognize as the name of a white identity/supremacy group.I stop and stare at it for a moment. I am, at heart, a civil libertarian. I have long believed that the way you overcome hate speech is with more speech. I am appalled by the weaponized anachronism of ‘white, European’ identity (my art historian sister would later express equal dismay!) Though I do not know it at the time, Identity Evropa will be among the groups in Charlottesville doubling down on nostalgia and anachronism to further their White Supremacist agenda.

I consider the price of speech, and the price of when we don’t tell a whole story. I think of the Renaissance statue of David, The descendent of the Moabite woman, whose descendants would self-consciously tell their own stories of exile and exclusion.

I remember flags waved, less self-consciously, and histories we must still reckon with. Nostalgia is not history, especially the weaponized kind. 

We must tell the whole history. Otherwise, we are just lying.

I tear the picture of the statue down.

*one of the joys of this summer was reconnecting with Bob Faulkner, almost 20 years after I interviewed him. Since retiring from the corporate world, he is now serving as a minister of a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)–another thing we share.

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Eucharistic Theology #5

Like a trembling
jack sprat
who eats no fat
no bread, not even
the barbecue brought special
up the mountain
she has lost her taste for it all.

But you will lean over
her anyway
lean in
and tell her you have
homemade peach ice cream
made by your wife

Her bed, shaded by leaves and leaves
of books on shelves that hold up
the walls of this cabin,
shaded, in turn, by the mountain trees,

will shake for a tiny second
when she leaps up.

She will eat sweets.

You will spoonfeed her tiny bites.
she will eat it greedily
and tell you

“That is how peach ice cream
is supposed to taste. You tell your wife that.”

You did not go to fancy schools
to learn how to feed someone with a
damn spoon.

But you did learn the
value of a broken body made whole
in the words shared over a meal.
You did learn the power of sharing that
meal in silence and mystery.

Sometimes it causes you to tremble.
.

Prayer 7.2.2017

So many questions

O God

Whys and Hows

Curious questions,

questions filled with wonderment

Questions,

Lamentful

and

Often furious

We set them at your feet

It is you with whom we seek wisdom

and understanding

It is you to whom we look for mercy

and hope

It is you with whom we know

we are safe to struggle

and doubt

and wrestle

So much,

loving God,

comes into our lives

we host angels unaware

Cradling them even as they hold us up.

You are with us.

No matter the depths in which we seek you

No matter the constant barrage of everything

that comes our way

So, Living spirit,

we ask that you fill us

with the things we seek

Make us into the healing church we hope to be

Make us the wise Disciples you called us to be

Show us how to struggle faithfully

And be a welcoming people;

To point toward life

and practice resurrection–

For the sake of those we love

the strangers we encounter in the world

and for the world itself.

Watching U2 in the Giant Pizza Oven

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My wife, as an accomplished researcher and entrepreneur, is perhaps the best planner I know.  Events?  Give her a date, an idea of what you want to have happen, and she’ll scour online merchants and Pinterest boards to make it happen, below budget and beyond your expectations.  Mention a vacation, and she’ll find the perfect place, the best route, and the Groupon that will make you feel like you’re on vacation with the Kennedys.  When U2 announced that they were adding additional dates to their Joshua Tree Anniversary tour, I was excited.  The originally announced tour dates didn’t work with our life events, and I had been disappointed, as U2 has long been one of my favorite bands, and I’d never gotten to see them live (though I did see Bono play with the Corrs at Live8 in Edinburgh 2006…an obnoxious bragging point of mine).  Reviews of the tour had been stellar, and we decided that an early fall trip to Indianapolis would be fun.  It’d be drivable, we have friends there we could spend time with, and we like downtown Indianapolis. So, when the Monday ticket sale began, I sat at my laptop to score some seats, and Lisa went into research mode.

But then I noticed that there were tickets still available–as Ticketmaster-sanctioned resale tickets–for the Louisville show.  June 16th.  In 4 days.  It was actually a good weekend to be away.  We like Louisville a lot, too.  So we checked in via Cell and decided, why not?  We scored tickets.  Lisa, who isn’t a huge concert-goer but loves me, someone who is, went into hyperdrive planning mode (btw, if you know Lisa, ask her sometime about what it’s like to plan a spontaneous trip vs. a long range one. Spontaneity ain’t necessarily cheap, light, and breezy). She scored us an AirBnB downtown and making other arrangements, and I checked in with my colleagues and volunteers, who assured me that they had everything under control for Sunday worship, and we, whose lives don’t really allow us much room for spontaneity, were off to the concert!

It was a real gift. I’m really glad we went.  This was a huge event by Louisville standards, so there were some logistical quirks we couldn’t control (Interstate traffic heading to the concert was backed up for miles, and the venue, Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, proved to be as hot as its corporate sponsor’s pizza ovens until the Sun went down, and its vendors were as overwhelmed as the highway) and some we didn’t anticipate (Uber Surge Pricing, but our a driver, who maneuvered us through neighborhoods leading to the stadium so we weren’t stuck on the highway, lessened the sting of the pricing a little.), but it was a concert worth waiting all of these years to see.  There was so much going on–artistically, production-wise, socio-politically, and theologically–that I couldn’t turn my brain off, so I’ve organized a few of my chaotic thoughts into a few categories:

The Concert Itself

Because this tour celebrates the 30th Anniversary of the release of The Joshua Tree, the album that really marked the transformation of U2 from beloved band to superstars, I was aware that the game plan for the concert was a track-by-track performance of the songs on that album. IMG_0236
That is a rare event for any concert, whether it’s a relatively new act, who might want to profile a few new songs they’re hoping to promote, or a beloved rock and roll legend who inevitably has a few misses bogging down each album’s hits.  The Joshua Tree is an incredible piece of art, so to hear it played from start to finish live was powerful (Bono even quipped before “Red Hill Mining Town” that it was time to “play the B-side”.) and there were plenty of visuals that accented the songs, whether in their beauty (a rolling film of desert highway and sojourners looped during “Where the Streets Have No Name”) or in their razor sharp commentary (The raging guitar of “Bullet The Blue Sky,” which was originally written as a critique of the United States’ military in Nicaragua and El Salvador, was accompanied by pictures of “Everypeople” donning combat gear, bringing the complications and problems of a globally militerized culture in the age of terrorism into focus).

I was pleasantly surprised, however, that the track-by-track journey through the album was framed by two other “acts,”–beforehand, a quick highlight of pre-Joshua Tree songs that began with War’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and included “New Year’s Day,” as well as The Unforgettable Fire’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Bad” (one of my very favorites), and then, after, a performance of two deep tracks:  “Miss Sarajevo,” written for a documentary about a beauty pageant held during the Bosnian War, and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” from Achtung Baby.  Both tunes were re-contextualized for this tour, with “Miss Sarajevo” sung against a backdrop of video highlighting the Syrian refugee crisis, and “Ultraviolet” dedicated to women as a global force for transformative justice, with a montage of suffragists, activists, artists, and icons flashing behind the band.  They then launched into some of the most recognizable post-Joshua Tree tunes, including “One,” “Beautiful Day,” “Elevation,” and “Vertigo”–Rocking harder with each tune.

(I did silently note that there was nothing from the oft-maligned Pop and Zooropa albums and certainly nothing from the marketing disaster that was Songs of Innocence.   Though I personally like No Line on the Horizon, it isn’t as widely beloved as other albums, and certainly doesn’t include the same number of memorable singles as the albums from which they hand-selected the set. ) It made for a mesmerizing performance–and it included something for every fan.  I couldn’t have asked for a better show.

A Liturgy of Justice

My friend and colleague Jonathan saw U2 play a week before I did.  In conversation earlier this week, he noted that Bono “took [the audience] to church” with the depth of performance and his always-ready commentary.  The sheer theatricality of the concert, its well-finessed segues and perfectly coordinated visual imagary, and even the three “acts” showcasing the phases of the band’s career did offer the sort of storytelling structure that religious liturgy offers, and like liturgy done well, casts a powerful, persuasive vision of the world and what the world could be.

It was striking that the set would begin with “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a song written about the 20th Century violence between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at a time of deep political division and conflict in the United States.  Bono, ever the improviser, even played around with the final verse, switching two key words to drive home a critique of American Culture, our cult of celebrity, and the blurring of lines that has created our hunger for infotainment (his revision is marked in red below):

And it’s true we are immune
When fact is fiction and reality TV
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die

The final haunting line of the song, meant to call out the painful absurdity of a conflict divided along Protestant and Catholic lines, also rang in my ears, reminding me of the liminal, transitional time in the role of the Church and American culture, be it from the perspective of the troubled Mainline or the troubling Religious Right:

And the battle has just begun
To claim the victory Jesus won

As Bono’s commentary between songs emphasized these Irish rocker’s love for the United States, he doubled down on Bloody Sunday’s clarion call, imploring the audience to not look to the political right or left, but to work and look toward something higher.

The run through The Joshua Tree, which I’ve always heard as a critical love letter through America like a mashup of Kerouac’s On the Road and The New Testament dropped in Reagan’s White House Inbox, proved as relevent a confession and sermon as ever. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” served as a skeptical pilgrim’s gospel song, “Red Hill Mining Town,” and “Running to Stand Still” echoed the same stories of lives lived in quiet desperation that they did 30 years ago, and “Bullet The Blue Sky” and “Mothers of The Disappeared” served as powerful altar calls to an American Superpower longing to re-make its image of greatness in an isolationist model.  Though the days of the Domino Effect and funding the Contras may be long over, the voices of migrants and disappeared dissidents are not.  What, the album still asks, are we prepared to do?  Who are we prepared to be and become?

Emotive but never cloying, passionate and yes, preachy, but not without the authority of having been invested in the work, Bono framed the band’s body of work around the critical issues that still make their voice relevant, never losing the trajectory of their catalog brought to life for a night. From the opioid crisis that has rocked Kentucky to gun violence (Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly were there as guests) to HIV/AIDS and the work of the ONE foundation, I was reminded that I wouldn’t do the work that I do now in the way I do it now had I not picked up The Joshua Tree and War in middle school, flipped through the liner notes, learning for the first time about Amnesty International, the Disappeared in Argentina, or South African Apartheid. U2 was a critical part of my moral education.

Hearing the Prophetic Voice

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                                                                     –Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination

I’m hardly the first person to think about U2 through a theological lens. Most recently, however, I’ve found the work of Walter Brueggemann and U2 to be perfect conversation partners, and my post-seminary readings of Brueggemann have been as instructive to me as U2 was to my impressionable middle school heart and mind.  U2’s vision and Brueggemann’s work point to the intertwining of two impulses: to create something beautiful and transformative and to work for a more just world.  Both require imagination that envision a world–an “Other Place”–that turns a world ruled by powers and principalities on its head:

It’s a beautiful day

Touch me
Take me to that other place
Teach me
I know I’m not a hopeless case

Like Brueggemann’s prophet, U2 casts the transformative vision with familiar metaphors, shifting a bird’s eye view of the planet earth to an even wider view that catches glimpses of hope, transformation, and the reconciliation of all things:

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the Bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth

After the flood all the colors came out

What makes a socially-conscious set of artists like U2 so engaging and inspiring is that their work is precisely what Brueggemann describes as the vocation of ministry to which I am called: a call to co-imagine with their fans this better world and then work with the very powerful people they challenge for policies that bring this hope-filled glimpse to life.  It’s critique with compassion, always driven by a hope that what while we’re looking for is yet to be found, it will be–and it will mean that there is enough–food, health, and justice–for all.  And on Friday night, I was reminded that this is a call that I will hear long after the echo of the concert stops ringing in my ears.

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all photos and videos by Lisa Hale

 

Nightdrive: a New Basement Page

It’s been a while since I’ve added an entry like this–it’s a short story I wrote in college (21 years ago now, SHEESH!). I’ve reworked it a little today. It was always a piece that I was really proud of, but reading it today reminded me that what we think is great when we’re twenty doesn’t always have staying power. There are still some cringe-worthy uses of language, but I think it reflects a more seasoned critical eye now. Enjoy, and be gentle as you laugh at my angst-ridden youth. Also, though it was written before I ever read Gurney Norman, I’ve come to think of it as an homage to one of his stories, Night Ride.

And I’m driving. It’s one of those night when the blood seems to slowly flow through the veins. Where the streets look too familiar, but I’m still lost. Tonight, it’s not just 9.8 meters per second per second that’s pulling down on me because even dreaming of touching the sky is impossible tonight. I am pulled spiraling back to the farm on rural route three, Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, USA. The earth. This is back home. Here I feel every bump in the road as it turns from gravel to old blacktop to highway and back again. It makes my blood real tonight.

I am home.

Down Bunker Hill Road, hidden beneath the autumn foliage and asking to be briefly noticed by passersby, stands a brick chimney, long abandoned by its home. Dad always pointed it out.

“It hardly reaches above the trees anymore, but I remember going down there to see Uncle Joe when we was kids,” Dad would tell me at times like this, when he and I were the only ones at home–kings castled by the night.

And home is where the heart is. Tonight my heart burns. The car stops, but the burn reaches my head. I open the gate at the cattleguard and stand, looking at the sky, wishing I could reach it. I’m standing on gravel, feeling the rocks sting me through the worn down cork soles of my sandals. In my head, I’m raging against the sky, silently shouting.

As if the sky were keeping me down. It’s just gravity.

But it’s like the sky shoves me out, presses down on my heart, makes it want to explode. As if the touch of the earth is the touch of death. Tonight, only driving comes close to escaping the pull. I take my place behind the wheel.

Dad got up for a moment, went to his room, and returned with an old, hand-carved wooden toy. I immediately recognized it from the mantle. The mantle in my mom and dad’s room served as a sort of mishmash monument to two bloodlines. A still life family reunion: cousins, aunts and uncles, my dad’s favorite dog Babe all gathered above the abandoned fireplace. Upon the iron door covering the fireplace is an engraving of Artemis, goddess of the moon, her arrow drawn, head turned upward, facing the night sky. Right beside my baby picture, a place was reserved for the to I now held–a little boat with a little stick man holding two little stick paddles. On the bottom was carved:

Old Man of Sea. For Billy Wayne
Love, Uncle Joe

“What kind of wood is this?” my dad asked. A test.
“I dunno.”
“Smell it, then.”
It only smelled like burning.

And my thoughts go a million miles an hour now, perhaps because I still only trust myself to take these roads at about 45. The curves come up quickly in the dark, and now I see the old stone fences built by settlers and slaves as they came through this old hunting ground. Fencing in the pure blood, pushing out what doesn’t quite make the grade. Thoroughbreds or Gentry, it’s all the same talk of blood.

I remember the preacher at the old Baptist church screaming for us to be “Washed in the blood! Washed in the blood!” and my eyes grow heavier, so I take each curve more deliberately. Don’t want to leave the pull of gravity and end up crushed against the jags of the old stone fences, washing some softhearted passerby in my blood.

“Your Uncle Joe was a carpenter,” Dad said. “He had this carpentry shop right beside his house. Real little place. He built chairs and tables, cabinets and things like that. He was real good. He built stuff real good.”

I turned the Old Man of Sea in my hands, examining the smooth whittling done by Uncle Joe. The slight details of the stickman’s face had faded after years of handling. I looked into wooden face and saw only the enigma that was Uncle Joe. That’s how stories go in my family. Not always complete, like fragments. Apocrypha.

My eyes burned.

But driving is good for the soul, right? When my body is tired but not my mind, I can move while sitting still, watching the stone turn to wood, the small town become country, the light become stars.
I can move. Back in time, almost. Looking for something.

“There was this one time when your Uncle Joe, your granddaddy, and some other men were working in Uncle Joe’s shop. This little boy was fooling around with stuff and cut himself real bad. He was starting to bleed and he ws real scared. So uncle Joe come up to him and lay his hands on the boy.”

The bleeding stopped.

“Now, I don’t know,”Dad continued. “He probably just knew which vein to push where, but I wasn’t there. All I know is your granddaddy swears by it. He says it was a miracle.”

And it’s a miracle I made it out here. The road is so narrow, so dark. It feels almost futureless–you figure you’ll make it to the end and find yourself staring at nothing but your soul. But it never seems to end, only bleed into darkness. As you move straight on, the now begins to come into better view with each step, even in the dark. I pull over. I’ve arrived. I take my first step so the now comes faster and faster. I lose sight of my little car as I walk up the hill. New now after new now. The mind and body are at last moving together. The blood is flowing.

“I don’t know if anybody ever told you this, you were probably too young . . . but Uncle Joe had this son who moved down to Florida and headed up shooting a priest.”

Dad paused, expecting me to be shocked. I wasn’t.

“I don’t know. You hear things about priests. . .It could’ve been about anything. He was in jail there in Florida and nobody hard from him, not even Uncle Joe. Then one day, we heard he escaped and that he might be on his way back up here.”

The chimney is gone. A Pile of a few bricks remains. Strange how the one monument that I remember from my childhood could disappear in a matter of months. Eighteen years at home and three semesters away, it remains the same. But then after the fourth, when I want to find my way there, only fragments. Gravity had at last overcome the axis mundi. Revolutions of my universe killed at the rate of 9.8 meters per second per second. Blood on the ground.

Is it mine? I wonder. Is Uncle Joe’s blood mine, too?

“Anyway, about the same time Uncle Joe’s son come back, there was this couple renting a trailer we had on the back of the farm. The man got drunk one night and drove the car through the fence out back. I fixed it up alright, but I sent them a bill for the barbed wire. The wife came up here cussin’ and complainin’.”

Dad grinned. There was more.

“They had been running stories in the paper about Uncle Joe’s boy coming back here, to watch out for him and all. Course, his name was Murphy, like ours. So I looked at this woman and told her I was one of them bad Murphys you read about in the paper.

“I got my money.”

We laughed a little. Dad got serious again.

“His boy did show up and wanted Uncle Joe to hide him, or give him money or something. The county sheriff had already been out there to check out the place. they were watching Uncle Joe pretty close. He was his daddy, after all. So Uncle Joe told him no, and wouldn’t give him nothing. He might have told him to turn himself in, that would be like Uncle Joe to do something like that. His son got mad. That night, somebody burned the house down. Uncle Joe died in the fire, and they found his boy not too far away. He shot himself.”

So there’s blood on this ground. That’s what my grandfather would say about this place. The carpenter who worked and healed on this hill died here, too. Just three generations ago, we knew how to stop the bleeding, to defy gravity. Now I can’t even see past the new now.

It’s so dark. Dark enough the bricks have disappeared.


Dad and I sat in the sunroom. Nodding off occasionally, he watched T.V. I watched the moon rise through the trees outside. He didn’t tell me that he missed my being around. I didn’t tell him that I was glad to be home. He only asked me if I knew what time my mother would be home. But of course, I didn’t.

I thought about telling him that I knew what it meant to burn and bleed and catch sight of the new now. What it meant to change so much that twenty felt old. How we only have five billion or so years left. How God is as dead as Uncle Joe, and I helped do the killing. How Hart Crane couldn’t see the stars anymore so he threw himself off the side of a boat.

Most of all, I wanted to the him how the acceleration of gravity was too strong, that no one could jump at a rate higher than 9.8 meters per second per second for long enough. It keeps us down. But I couldn’t.

He would’ve done the calculation in his head and said, “Of course it does.”

I would’ve loved him for saying that. He could always do the math in his head, even if he didn’t know how to lay hands on a man to heal a bleeding wound. No words passed, but I sat, loving my father regardless.

When I looked to see if he had more to say, he was asleep–nighttime cup of coffee growing cold beside him. Even caffeine can’t stop gravity, I snorted to myself. It’s that strong.

I stood up. I needed to go for a drive.

I felt the need to be alone more when I came home. When I left for school, every missed birthday, missed milestone, every “What? When did that happen?” became more like folklore than fact. Bloodline without blood. More mere apocrypha. An Axis Mundi shattered and scattered into pieces so fine, it was like sand spilt upon the floor. Nine-point-eight.

I could only go backward, so I drove beyond the back of my memory, chasing the story of my Uncle Joe. Maybe I could find that place at the beginning of the world, a place where we once stood, touching the base of the axis, touching the sky, forgetting gravity. A place for healing wounds, for stopping the bleeding.

There’s nothing for me here. White care on the side of the road, broken chimney on the ground, my face cold in the night air. It’s time to begin again. I climb into my car and feel a chill in my blood. I am tired. I lock the doors of the car, lean my seat back, and I am still.

I am still here.

The sun wakes me. Another car is driving a cautious 35 around the curves and crosses the median to avoid the left side of my car, which is jutting out onto the pike.

Still here, I think. Still here.

I check for traffic and get out, turn my face toward the sun, let it paint everything. Alone, I am not afraid of being seen stretching my body awake, pushing against the sun’s pull. Here I am still, and still touching the earth, though I feel the gravity of the sun provide tension as I stretch outward and back. Awake and asleep. Near and afar.

Uncle Joe is gone, the axis is gone, the past is gone, but I am still here. Uncle Joe’s touch moves the blood through this small plot of land, through my imagination, through my own veins. And the past still reaches for me, pulling me back to where I can trace the map of my own bloodline in a handful of relics and photographs, dreaming of restoring something, the sky, maybe–with my hand on the axis. But for once, I am still. And the bleeding seems to have stopped.

Buttrick

David Buttrick had the sort of rich, not-of-this-Earth voice that you expect from a professor of preaching. It was deep but it rang out, in the chapel, in the classroom, from whatever place he transformed into a pulpit.

cropped-img_8414.jpgHe was nearing the end of his career when I had him for class–“Theology of Proclamation and Word,” or something along those lines.  It wasn’t my favorite class, and he did yell at me once when I challenged him on something he said that I thought minimized religious pluralism:

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re trying to do here! I’m on to you.”

But with a boom of a voice like his, he may not have actually been yelling.  It was hard to tell.

I did read much of his seminal text on preaching, Homiletic, in another class.  Though there was much that I didn’t really like about the method (something I also let the professor know), there are a couple of tricks that I still rely upon, even though my style–writing and delivery–is primarily influenced by other preachers, speakers, and writers. The method is a really helpful tool–tired of terrible preaching, Buttrick worked for years to come up with a method that had theological integrity and was rooted in communication theory.  And it works. if you learn the method, you will–at worst–have a stylistically humdrum homily with theological integrity.   While I’ve preferred to play with style and push the envelope theologically, when I’m vexed about how to structure a homily, I’ll flip over to his discussion on moves and start scribbling notes in pencil, mindful of their importance–and their impermanence.

But the memory of David Buttrick that I continue to come back to is a moment when he was silent.

I took his Proclamation class in the Spring of 1999, and as we were nearing the end of the semester, on Tuesday, April 20th, the Divinity School joined the entire country in mourning as word of the Columbine High School made its way through the hallways and classrooms.  That evening, some classmates and I went to a memorial at Centennial Park to puzzle over the violence and to mourn the dead, so many states away.

A local pastor had been invited to share words of healing and hope with the gathered crowd of what looked to be thousands of people.  He seemed like a nice enough guy, but I have had a hard time forgiving, even all these years later, what he said to the crowd.

People have been asking me all day “Where was God in all of this?”  “Why didn’t God prevent this?”

“Well, friends,” he said with a sort of nice-guy authoritativeness, “Well, God had a plan. And I think part of God’s plan was to send angels down to stop any more people from being killed.  We can thank God that he saved who he did save.”

I have long been troubled by such a notion of a God whose intervention in the world is based on some sort of plan that lets some people suffer and lets others thrive–the kind of God who performs “miracles” when some people pray before plane crashes, but lets the ones die who were asleep during the flight, so to speak.  And in my first year of Div School, to my mind, such talk of a callous, abusive God reflected the language of a cruel, abusive church.  There was nothing pastoral about telling people that teenagers are allowed to die because it’s what’s laid out in God’s day planner.

And so….I was angry.

I took that anger into Buttrick’s Proclamation class the next morning.  We had discussion groups, and Buttrick sat in on my group.  We talked a bit about effective use of language in liturgical settings, and I let loose my anger about the previous evening’s event with a string of curse words, even calling the nice-guy preacher’s attempt to explain evil “Bullshit.”

This time, Buttrick didn’t yell at me.

He just looked really sad. He leaned on his cane. He wiped a tear from the corner of his eye, grimaced, shook his head.

David Buttrick was a man of deep integrity.  On that day, he taught me that part of a minister’s calling is to know that when words are not enough, when their inadequacy turns them into something cruel, that when you are so angry at the injustice of it all, sometimes your silence is worth more than anything.  Sometimes, you are simply called to weep with those who mourn.

I thank God for that lesson.

IN PACE REQUIESCAT