November 26, 2006

Day At Okefenokee

These photographs were taken on the afternoon of November 25, at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It's an amazing place.

November 22, 2006

Signal 7 and Thanksgiving

It was not a promising beginning to the Thanksgiving holiday. At 7:52 this morning I received a page that said, “Signal 7, 80 year old female.” A Signal 7 is a death. Then at 11:35 I received another that said, “9 month old baby not breathing.” I later learned that the baby was also Signal 7. This evening at 7:24 I received yet another page that said officers were investigating a possible 10-67 (sexual assault). Despite the fact that I live and work in a fairly rural county is south Georgia, sadly, such days are not all that atypical.

Responding to the death of a child has always had a profound impact on me (and evryone else involved). One of the worst was when a mother had innocently put an adult blanket into her baby’s crib to keep her warm. Sometime during the night the little girl became entangled in the blanket and smothered. I was with another officer and he was dealing with the family while I stood at the door to the child’s bedroom to keep everyone out. I could see that the baby had died face down as the fluids had begun to pool in her cheeks and the tip of her nose. The paramedics arrived shortly after we did and went into the bedroom, realized the obvious and almost immediately walked back out. I was not aware at the time that the mother was still harboring hope that her daughter was alive. When the paramedic walked back into the living room she let out a wail/scream that I will never forget, it still raises the hair on my neck. It was like the sound of her soul leaving her body.

My youngest daughter at the time was about six months old, the same age as the baby girl who died. I took it very hard, but I got to walk away, to get up the next day, to hug my daughter and still have my family complete. When blinded by grief as that mother was, there is no hope, no giving of thanks. The same with the families today, mourning the loss of a matriarch, the loss of innocence and the loss of their dearest treasure. Today and tomorrow and for many days to come there will be no thanksgiving, no joy, no holiday spirit.

But eventually the pain will ebb, the tears will slow and the memories will either fade or become a source of comfort. The holidays will be hard but bearable. God has designed us to be able (in most circumstances) to absorb such emotional trauma and somehow heal, to reconcile ourselves with the certainty of our limited time in this life. So while you can, hug your spouse, your children, your siblings, your parents. Give thanks to God for your family and your loved ones.

And be careful if you’re traveling. There will be a lot of hurried, tired people and a lot of police on the roads with you.

November 20, 2006

The Gospel of John, Paul, George and Ringo?

I had an otherworldly experience at B&N the other day. Beside (literally) two volumes of the Philokalia was The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family. It was the clash of the Titans, ancient Orthodox wisdom up against Homer Simpson. Doh! It was surreal. No wonder our culture is confused and finds it easy to look dismissively at Christianity.

Two shelves down was an even more astonishing tome entitled, The Gospel According to the Beatles. Why are we not looking to the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John instead of John, Paul, George and Ringo? Does Hey Jude count? What’s next, Gospel Girls Gone Wild?

I know the argument can be made that The Simpsons are for the most part harmless fun and I understand that under all the bluster and one-liners Homer (despite himself) is a loving father. And I understand that The Beatles were revolutionary and brought unprecedented depth and virtuosity to popular music. But we have gone too far when we start diluting the Gospel and looking to secular culture for our spiritual guidance.

These examples are just a proverbial drop in the bucket. There is a whole wall stacked high with Christian books, thousands of them (not including the Bibles, that’s another large section), Christian history, Christian apologists, Christian critics, even Christian fiction. There is a lot of good to be said for this. Trying to make people feel better about themselves, to help them cope and to encourage them to explore a spiritual dimension are in and of themselves good things. It’s when the message gets lost in the medium that the trouble starts. I believe that the ELCA congregation with which I used to worship eventually folded the tent (at least partly) because we tried too hard to accommodate everyone. We changed everything including the name and even the liturgy to try to meet people “where they are” instead of letting them bump up against Truth and began to conform to it. Too many people dealing with spiritual issues try to find a creator, a higher power, a life force to suit their tastes. Sometimes we are left with no choice but the path that leads through the narrow gate.

Society is like a bell curve, with some people on each end of the spectrum and many meandering in the middle. I may not know exactly where I am on the graph, but I do know where I am going.

What I eventually found to read I found at our own church bookstore. It was exactly what I was looking for, Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism by Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

November 16, 2006

The Symbol Of Faith

Standing in the darkened church faintly illumined in flickering candlelight, with the aroma of incense hanging in the warm air, together we recited these words...

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible. And in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He arose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; Whose Kingdom shall have no end. And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spoke by the prophets. In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Such a simple act brought a tremendous flood of emotion. I felt caught up in the sweep of the past wondering how many times over the better part of the last 17 centuries, in dank caves and in gloriously illuminated naves, the same words were chanted? Not just language, not just print on paper, but ancient words that reflect the deep truths that define us collectively and individually. Sentences pared down to the necessary, nothing extraneous, everything essential.

In darkness and in light, in time of toil and in time of trouble, through feast and famine, through plenty and through depravation, through every possible trial, under every conceivable circumstance, day after day, in tongues foreign and domestic all those who have gone before us kept the flame of faith burning brightly. We are merely the next link in the chain that ties us to the past and offers a hand to the future, neither the first nor the last to hold firm to the faith handed down by the Fathers. I am reminded that we are called to be a light on a hill, a flicker of brilliant grace in a gray world.

Together we stood, tired and hungry, reciting the small Compline with the voice of the reader ringing clear in the near-darkness. Just visible outside the circle the icons glow, Pantocrator, Theotokos, St. John the Forerunner, St. Justin, Gabriel and Raphael seeming to embrace us, reminders that we are in good company as we pursue the path to Godliness.

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.

November 10, 2006

November Is the Cruelest Month

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Matthew Arnold
Dover Beach

Not to belabor the point, but below is an account of what happened 35 years ago this month. Some things you just don't forget.

The shelter squats at the foot of these solemn blue ridges where the forest, long dominant and ungiving, is now slowly dying. The dirty, white, battered shell that serves as a house is one of many that dot the mountains like wood chips on a rumpled blue-brown-green carpet. It is the last building on the left before the road succumbs to the mud and dies at the edge of the woods. Rough planks and irregular support posts serve as a partial bridge over the nearly omnipresent moat of mud that at this time of year is the front yard. A green tar-paper roof and crumbling red brick chimney only slow the rain water and melting snow. The house was thrown together without insulation and the wind whistles through the white clapboard exterior. The only amenities are electricity and cold running water.

Inside are three rooms with old beds. A living room with a round woodstove, a sagging three cushion floral couch and a torn black chair. Another room has the cooking stove, a table, five chairs and a sink. The sixth room is outside to the left of the front opening, about twenty yards down the path.

It is the day for giving thanks in the bitter winter of 1971. The bleak night blanketed several inches of new snow onto the old froth of mud and snow, temporarily camouflaging the chaos with a cold purity. Dirty, low hanging cotton ball clouds threaten to drop more snow as the green-sweet smell of damp wood trying to burn chokes the air, trapped there by the low clouds and no wind.

The morning sputters in to replace the night. The fading moon illuminates two monstrous oaks anchored in the mud. They branch together, tangled in a headstone arch over the house. The air is chilled and quiet except for patches of snow diving from trees and power lines to meet their grounded companions in a muffled whisper of recognition.

The home. In the sleeping room closest to the left of the living room, a man and woman blow faint mushrooms of visible breath into the frigid air. The woman's unsleep is a thin skin of exhaustion over a churning drum of desperate fear. The stick thin man has slept long and deep in the stupor of disease and alcohol. They have long been partners in dying, like two leeches set upon one another, struggling, fighting, sucking out life and soul but unable or unwilling to pull away.

More mushrooms of breath rise into the air. Three boys in two beds in the one room and two girls sharing a bed in the back coldest room. Their short young lives have been long and desperate. The eldest son is proud and defiant. He hates the father for the sins of the past and for the mire of the present. The oldest sister is proud but not defiant. She has to try to mother while still a child. The Middle Child survives in a world of his own making because he cannot bear the pain of existence. His wall of non-reality keeps too much out and too much in. The youngest son is a wildman straining in the skin of a boy. His wildness is his pain brought forth and hurled back to/at its source. The youngest girl, and smallest sibling, is potent sarcasm. Too small to fight physically, she poisons with words. She is the brunt and the receptacle of the family's anger.

The time. Reluctantly the mother sluggishly slides into her cold, stiffened clothes. The trousers and blouse, coat, gloves and slippers slide on with the familiarity of long acquaintance. Once dressed, the mother ghosts steadily and easily through the tomb-dark house. A menthol non-filter cigarette, ignites a furious fit of coughing. Despite the healthy objection, her lungs greedily suck in the carcinogens.

The fire is nearly dead. She packs the stove full of Kroger bags and dry kindling. Then the now roaring mouth of the stove is crammed with the last of the wood from last night's stacking. The heat from the stove slowly fights off the biting, numbing cold.

The cold. The house and the woman fight the clinging cold and habitually meet the day. Poised on the fulcrum, she balances a delicate act between despair and grief, always tinged by both but not engulfed by either.

The rosy fingertips of dawn. Morning eternal. The time of waning light and strengthening morning, a limbo, a brief eternity between Luna and Sol as the timeless balance pauses between the endless rhythm of the heavens. The ebb and flow of day and night hold for a time and the essence of both is present in a state of calm flux. It is at this time, on this day, that the scythe cuts its inevitable, inescapable arc.

The father's lungs heave in a suffocating panic. Sleep is ripped from his unconsciousness. Through the fury of coughing, a tearing abdominal pain. He rises from the shroud of blankets out of the darkness, through the cloth door and into the warmth. The wife dismisses her cigarette as the husband emerges from the tomb cold room. He gropes through the room fighting for balance, passes through to the kitchen and uses the pot kept there for cold winter nights. The wife waits, hesitant, frightened as he slumps over the pot and nearly falls to the floor. In a motion of pure instinct, with his heart and brain dying from oxygen deprivation, the father lunges upward, back into the living and dying room. Oh my God.

The mother's scream, the essence of her pain, dragged the Middle Child from the panacea of sleep. At the open bedroom door they all witnessed the sight that haunted and scarred, the sight and the moment that defined their existence.

Their father's long, heavy body had fallen unto the mother, pinning her to the couch. His handsome face was horrible and red. Now only a battered shell, emaciated and gaunt outlined through the blood, phlegm, urine, sweat, and nicotine stained pajamas. His eyes and mouth were open, frozen in the last moment of ultimate reality, horrified by the abyss. Scarlet saliva escaped out of the corner of his mouth and left a dark spreading stain on her blouse. The oldest brother ran to the nearest sociable neighbor to phone for the rescue squad. They could only state the obvious and carry the once-father away.

The new day rose and merged with the old horror and grief of desolation and isolation. The noble, limping old gentleman, the ambassador of goodwill, brought a banquet of fresh food from the Salvation Army. He gave thanks, broke bread and brought hope. Then, the night settled again, and was long in lifting its cold hand from the hearts and lives of those who lived at the end of the road.

As the night lies down in the deepest darkness, the snow turns into rain.