October 31, 2007

Sliver Of Hope

Warning: You may find some passages in this entry very disturbing.

Listening to the 911 tape brought me to tears. On the tape you can hear the woman saying he’s got a gun, he’s really mad. Then you hear the dull thud as he presses the barrel of the pistol to the back of her head and shoots her while she is talking to the 911 dispatcher. Then you hear a loud shot as he shoots himself in the head. Then you hear the screams of the two little boys who just witnessed all this. There was also a 9-month old in a crib in the next room. Later on one of the boys told investigators that the battery (the shell casing) from Daddy’s gun hit him. That’s how close these two boys were.

This tragedy was brought on because the man (a sailor) thought his wife had been cheating on him while he was out at sea. It truly was a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Not so long ago a woman called our 911 Center to report her husband missing. She said he was depressed and that he had a pistol with him when he left. His daughter found him in the woods about 50 yards from the road. He had put one bullet into his right temple. If it was not an instantaneous death it was at least mercifully quick. Not so for his daughter who is now left with memories of a sight that will never leave her. Everyone who loved him will wonder what else they could have done.

The innocent bystanders are the ones who really suffer in suicide cases. For the person who takes their own life their temporal misery is over. There are no more black days, there is no more pain. For the spouses, the children, the friends and the co-workers the pain only increases and often festers as guilt.

All that aside I can see how some people come to believe that death is better than another tomorrow. There was a time in my life when the consequences of a number of horrendous decisions descended on me all at once. My very public downfall reverberated through every aspect of my life, my family, my friends, my job and buried me in the deepest depression. They were my bad decisions and I made amends everywhere I could and tried to regain the trust I had so maliciously violated. Trapped in the throes of grief and shame I went shopping for a shotgun. It seemed at the time more like a backup plan if things got worse. Fortunately the thoughts quickly passed and I committed myself to a becoming the man I wanted to be. I began listening to my conscience. Over many years I have become the man I am today and repaired most of the damage I inflicted on so many innocent people. In the ensuing years I also encountered true unconditional love.

Part of my decision to step back from the brink was that I did not want to be remembered as a man who quit. I wanted to be remembered as a man who fought back and remade himself from the shattered shards of his former self. That sliver of hope, or grace if you will, was enough to work with.

I am not trying to imply that someone who takes their own life is weak or is a quitter. I believe that there are no suicide decisions that are entered into lightly. Perhaps it’s one too many days with no hope, or the discovery of a fatal disease, or perhaps it is simply too much shame to bear. There are many more suicides in our community than I would have imagined. There probably more in your community as well. Unless the suicide is particularly gruesome, or is a public figure or a murder suicide the media generally stays away.

Sadly, as we enter into the so called Holiday Season the number of suicides will increase. For some the memory of a loved one who died during this season will simply overwhelm them. For others perhaps the isolation from the allegedly merry world will simply be too much. Many people, myself included, often have a hard time feeling the unabashed merriment everyone else’s seems to be wallowing in. I have had too many grey Holiday Seasons for that.

What should be the season of The Nativity of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, will for most of us instead be a season trampled by materialism and over indulgence. For some it will be too much. So I will try to remember the lonely, the sad, and the outcasts, to reach out to them to assure them that another tomorrow is better than the alternative, that the light of hope and love still permeates our sometimes lonely and bleak world.


Note: I painted the image used in this post several years ago.

October 10, 2007

The Fire Of Dedication

To embrace this path [of spiritual growth] is to go from first fervor to true fervor, from sentimental, romantic love to self-giving love, from the fire of emotions to the fire of dedication, moving in a continuously upward spiral into the fullness of what we are meant to be. . . Our concern must be what we are responsible for: transforming our fervor, our behavior, our love. Throughout the spiritual journey we are required to let go of this preoccupation with “what we can get out of it.” To do this courageously is one of the principal efforts and effects of authentic and wholesome spiritual practice.

In The Spirit Of Happiness by the Monks of New Skete

For the basic question is: of what are we witnesses? What have we seen and touched with our hands? Of what have we partaken and been made communicants? Where do we call men? What can we offer them?

For The Life Of The World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann


In my reading this week these two passages gave me pause. What to do when the fire doesn't burn quite so bright? Are we what we say we are? Is my life a faithful witness? Why do I not fast and pray as I should? Why am I so stingy with money and affection?

I know the answers yet I do not act. I understand that after the thrill is gone (pardon the phrase) comes the day to day expression of faith through action or inaction, through the daily sloughing of self and seeking to conform to His will. Even when I don't feel like it. No, especially when I don't feel like it. I once asked one of my former pastors/friend how she could get up every Sunday and preach? There must be days when she just didn't feel like it. Her answer was, "Fake it until you make it." That seems harsh but I think her comment contains a nugget of truth. In the repetition of prayer, in the unfortunate rhythm of repentance, in the acting out of our faith we find wisdom and solace. In our day to day we find eternity.

October 2, 2007

The Work At Hand

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Luke 6:35-36

Is this not the heart of the Gospel? This reading from Sunday brought a lot to mind. There was a time in my life when I was in a program in which I had to do a kind deed for someone every day and then not tell them what I had done. How quickly my enthusiasm waned. Doing good felt a lot better with positive feedback. I wanted everyone to know I was capable of kindness, that I was more than just a roiling cauldron of rage. What I did not realize then (or for too many years later) was that in doing good for others I was saving myself. It was not at all about what their reaction might or might not be. It was about my motivation. Why did I do the good deed? Works without love are dead. Love without works is not love.

This desire for affirmation was, of course, my pride talking. I could not see beyond my own self and never really took others or their needs into consideration. I suppose I could say I was raised in a family rife with alcoholism and abuse on both sides. Or that sometimes I like things too much for my own good. But those are crutches. I am responsible for my actions as well as my inactions and part of this responsibility is being honest with myself.

In some ways I have made no progress in the piercing of my pride. Here is an example. There are times when going through a restaurant drive-through that I also pay for the order of the people in the car behind me. I believe the politically correct term is practicing random acts of kindness. Initially I believed this was a way of being generous without taking credit, almsgiving of a sort. But I did enjoy the look on the face of the person working at the window. I realize now it is still about assuaging my guilty soul, taking the road most traveled and avoiding the real work at hand.

There is a homeless man who sleeps on a bench in front of a shut down restaurant near my home. He is harmless enough but he is slowly drinking himself to death as he fights to quiet the war still raging in his mind. Not the funny Otis Campbell kind of drunk from The Andy Griffith Show. His is serious alcohol abuse. Leaving food there for him would be an act of mercy yet I do nothing. When I am called to be merciful I am instead merciless. My unwillingness to reach out, to go beyond myself is disgraceful. I am undone. Will they know I am a Christian by my love?

September 30, 2007

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

This is one of my favorite poems. Every day it seems more and more appropriate to the times in which we live.


The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The
falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The
blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best
lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the
Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of
Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the
indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-- William Butler Yeats, January 1919

September 27, 2007

Words Of Earnest

This album came out in 1972 I believe and I probably first heard it sometime in 1974 or 1975. Don't be deceived by the cover art. This is a profound album that has worn extremely well. Just today I was listening and discovering things I had never noticed before. In the title song the words of Earnest (or Ernest) are, "Happiness is free." Simple yet profound truth. In addition to excellent song writing the musicians are all top notch. If you are not familiar with Goose Creek Symphony or this album you owe it to yourself to give it a listen. It's a hybrid of bluegrass, country, rock and more. There is even a cover of Janis Joplin's "Oh Lord, Won't You Buy Me A Mercedes Benz." My brother and I saw them years ago and they were still prime musicians who knew how to put on a show. More than a show really, more like an event. I wore the t-shirt from the concert so often it eventually turned to shreds.

I know this post is a bit off topic for me. Just trying to pass it on.

September 25, 2007

Still A Sojourner

Many times when looking at the quality of other blogs I realized I was a pauper among princes. No deep insights, no profound pronouncements, just a melancholy man trying to express the often inexpressible. I am in practice a very private man. I am slow to trust and quick to back off. Yet I found myself putting my life on public display. Vanity? Insanity?

I quickly discovered the hidden cost of blogging. The blog took over, leading to vanity, to skewed priorities. Often I wrote hoping for a large response. Thankfully the groundswell of adulation never materialized. My vanity, my pride would have only tempted me to seek more. For the first time in my adult life writing offered no relief.

It got to the point that even looking at the blogs I usually perused became something I had to cast aside, if only temporarily. It all was taking up too much of my time. Time that should have been used in prayer, or learning to love those who hate me, or in seeking my salvation.

Also, I let myself get caught up in moving and spending all my free time addressing the many needs of a 50-year-old house. Perhaps I was searching for a geographical cure. But I am still a sojourner so I will try to post entries more regularly.

July 27, 2007

A Dream Come True

Much change has occurred since my last posting. My family (finally) sold the small three bedroom home we had lived in for 9 years and purchased an older home. We had simply outgrown the old residence. There were many good memories there but there were also some that were a constant source of emotional irritation. In adddition the neighborhood had grown up around us. Walking the dog at night was taking your life into your hands. Vehicles flew through the neighborhood at warp speed.

The new (but 50 year old) house is in the county seat of about 1,500 souls. As I sit here now I can see the trees in my front yard and the wonderful red brick home across the street. At the old house I would simply have to stare at the wall. The county courthouse is close enough that I could hit it with a rock. I can walk to work in about 2 minutes. The new house was for many years a Baptist parsonage so there is a warm, comforting spirit to the place. Here we have four bedrooms, a study, a family room, two baths and a half acre yard.

The move was for me a dream come true. My eight year old daughter is still struggling with the change. The old home was the only one she had ever known. She'll adapt quickly. My wife had many reservations from the very first day. I saw that the house was for sale and dragged her with me to go see it. I saw potential. She saw poblems. Thankfully, she too is coming around. As we unpack and settle in I will hopefully have more time to write.

June 4, 2007

Man Overboard

Leviathan
For years uncounted I ruled the depths, unchallenged and unchecked. So when he plunged into my murky world, I swallowed him. What else to do? Just another mere morsel.

Then, for three long days he roiled, trampling around, oblivious to my discomfort. At the greatest depths, with the pressure building to unbearable, his meager voice rang out, vibrating within me. But not the mournful lamentation of one lost to his fate. With hope all but extinguished, the gladsome chorus swelled.

Swallowed, but not destroyed.

Distasteful. So up and out he came, back into the land of men, floundering in the light like a newborn. He won't be back, but there are always others struggling in the deep water.

Jonah
I was in the house of my father when the voice roaring like the tempest called to me. I had not heard the voice before and believed it to be just the song of whirling wind. Then it called again with the voice of a man yet I was alone. The final call was like birdsong yet I understood.

I fled the house of my father. I made it to the sea and hired passage but my flight was in vain as a raging maelstrom descended upon us. I knew the cause to be my own cowardice. I told them to throw me overboard, to save themselves. Being good men they refused. Then, being men afraid of the watery grave they acquiesced. Into the deep I dropped.

I awoke trapped in a great heaving blackness beyond all description. I drew breath in the putrid darkness and cried out, giving voice to my despair. I admitted my helplessness; I knew I could not save myself. I swore to pay all that I have vowed.

Then, thrown from blackness to blackness with water rushing around I caught a shimmer of dim light growing brighter. I broke the surface and waded ashore, collapsing in the ebb tide.

Here I stand, the voice still whispering, telling me of Nineveh.

Storm
He came aboard bedraggled, furtive, scared. A lubber he was. Low born I suspect. Slight of build with an unmemorable face, there was no thing remarkable about him except the story he had to tell. He told us his name and said he had heard a voice calling him as a prophet. Delusions of grandeur I thought. Until the storm. That made believers of us all. But we’ll get to that.

He said it was the voice of the God of Isaac, Abraham and Jacob calling him to cry out against the great city, to turn them from their wicked, wicked ways. As if any man could do that. So being the wise man that he is he set his mind to a course away from the city. His gold was as good as any and he joined us.

Then, the storm. It swallowed us like a serpent on a mouse. Lighten the load. Everything but the ballast went over the side. Whereas we began as honest men seeking a living we were soon reduced to seeking only survival. What matters if we gain the world but lose our souls?

As we died, he slept. I shook him and said, “Awaken and call upon your great God that we may not perish.”

He answered us not. Unsure, we cast lots. He lost. I asked, “What have you done to drop this doom upon us? What must we do to be saved?”

He said he was a Hebrew, that he feared his God but did not obey Him.

“Throw me overboard. Cast me forth as I must be cast down. It is my fear that forges this fury. I must be sacrificed.”

But we said no we would not give up a man to the deep and rowed harder believing still our lives to be in our own hands. The storm abated not, increasing in violence until we too prayed to his God asking not to suffer for his folly or shed his innocent blood.

Finally, and only to save ourselves, we dropped him into the deep. We all saw it. As he struggled something enormous took him and descended. The wind eased, the storm ceased. We were saved but lost.

Turmoil
Unwashed, unshorn and uncouth he infiltrated Nineveh from out of the west. At the Mashki Gate, he cried out in a thin, trembling voice. He said he sailed over the heaving seas, escaped the belly of the beast and made his way across the endless desert all the while carrying the word of his god.

"People of Nineveh, slave and freeborn, king and nobles; in forty days Yahweh will lay your city waste. Your fornications are an abomination in his sight. Like a scorpion underfoot you will die. Repent and give over your gods. Repent and turn from your lusts. Repent and know mercy."

As the king’s counselor I was duty-bound to respond. "Foolish man. You are but the latest in a caravan of impotent prophets, false men serving empty gods. Who is this mighty Yahweh that we should tremble in fear? Who can imagine eternal mighty Nineveh brought low? Go back to your goats."

All reluctance gone he trumpeted, "Heed His word. Yahweh will not be mocked. Cease the violence that is in your hands. Repent and accept His mercy or wallow in your evil and die."

And so he raved, haranguing, merciless, unending. Slowly, like the ceaseless wind shaping soft stone his words eroded the royal resolve. By decree (and against my explicit advice) the whole city was thrown into mourning. A city of revelry reduced to wailing. It fills me with terror to see the people of Nineveh brought so low, prostrating themselves in sackcloth and ashes before an unimaginable foreign god. The city’s finest forgo their finery, degrade themselves until there is no longer any distinction between artisan and prince, between gentlewoman and harlot. An unknown spirit has gripped the city.

I too am reduced to wearing the unsightly garb of woe. Like a commoner I am denied entrance to the king’s chamber. No privilege, no protection and no end in sight. I believe this Yahweh is nothing more than a faceless, formless, figment of this pathetic so-called prophet’s imagination.

And yet just today I watched an infamous judge who has never shown forbearance sit in judgment on a worthless dog convicted of stealing grain. This magistrate who favors the whip, who enjoys exercising the rod of wrath, instead forgave the man, gave him grain and sent him home. How the world is cast into turmoil!

And still this Jonah thunders.

Nineveh
I am the seductress in the desert, my allure untarnished by time. For years uncounted like bees to the blossoms they have come. So when he wandered into my shadowed world, I swallowed him. What else to do? Just another mere mortal.

The moment we embraced his entrancing voice sang out, echoing through me. In my alleyways and thoroughfares he spread his poison, tainting my solace and succor. For forty short days he raged, exhorting the people, exacerbating my discomfort.

I am betrayed. Slave and freeborn, king and nobles they all sup at his vile cup. It shames me to see my children prostrating themselves in sackcloth and ashes. My beauty muted to black and gray. My revelries reduced to wailing.

I am not yet undone. Let them grovel in their repentance; let them bask in their holiness. Soon enough this pathetic prophet will pass from memory and the pilgrims of the flesh will once again wander out into the deep sands.

Jonah
The city was like an old harlot, brittle but still dancing. At least until I arrived and pointed out that her robe was too revealing. Then she covered herself and became respectable.

Never had I seen a people so undeserving of salvation. Never was there a city more deserving of purging in the refiner’s fire. We warned them of the wrath to come and we went unheeded, our words scattered like chaff from the thresher’s winnow.

Eventually, like cattle catching the scent of water all the people from king to slave turned together and followed. Turned from the desires of their flesh to the desire of their heart, turned from revelry to fasting, turned from silk and linen to sackcloth and ashes, turned from gods to God and Nineveh was transformed.

I was astounded to witness such change firsthand and yet I was sorely disappointed. I was driven from my father’s house, I lost all my possessions, I was thrown overboard, I was swallowed by Leviathan, I was twice nearly drowned and I walked for weeks across the open desert, all to preach salvation to this unworthy heathen horde.

From the beginning I knew He would repent and show mercy. Did I not say at the beginning that these idolaters would be spared? So here I sit with nothing, even the shade has withered. How will I get home? How many precious days have I wasted on this fool’s errand? No fire from on high, no bolt from the blue, no destruction visited upon generation after generation. All for nothing, all for naught.

He says I have no right to be angry. After all I have done for Him. Waves of rage break over me. Withdraw your shade, withhold your sustenance and let me die. Alone I walk to Tarshish, swallowed in the vast expanse.

May 7, 2007

Eight Years Old Today

Today is my youngest daughter's (Sophia) eighth birthday. Over the weekend one of her paintings entitled "Rain Storm" won a ribbon at a local art show/festival and we went to the beach which is never far away literally and figuratively. Enjoy the photos.

Also, I am done making changes to the blog. I am very happy with this theme. I was tired of the blogger templates and needed to come up with something at least semi original. Please let me know what you think.

And finally, for no good reason at all, my view when being walked by the dogs.


April 30, 2007

Homeless and Hungry

At the intersection, (this was yesterday afternoon) beneath the stop sign sat a slim, nondescript, middle-aged man with a hand-scrawled sign that said Homeless and Hungry. Someone in the vehicle ahead of us lowered a window enough to hand the man what was probably no more than a pittance. I didn’t even do that. I could use the excuse that it’s a dangerous intersection (and it is), that I was focusing on the road and simply did not see him. But I did and I did my best to ignore him.

Very shortly thereafter we heard our daughter crying in the backseat. She had read the man’s sign and was instantly moved to tears by his plight. To her this was a man without food, without a soft bed, without a Mommy and a Daddy. This was a plight for which (thank God) she had no point of reference. To her this was a man who simply was hungry, homeless and needed help.

To me he was a potential predator, someone who might hurt my family if given the chance, a malodorous possibly mentally ill threat. Or, even worse, someone who was not really homeless but simply a lazy beggar. I know that I am jaded by experience and often err on the side of being too cautious, too self-contained.

She wanted to know if he could stay at our house, he could have her bed and she would sleep in her sleeping bag on the floor. The part that brought me to tears was that she hoped he was not allergic to dogs as we have two and she did not want them to bother him when he stayed with us. She was far more worried that this stranger be well taken care of than anything else.

I, of course, was horribly ashamed and, in my own defense, she has seen me help the destitute. But this day I was knowingly negligent.

I told her that we didn’t really know him and while we would stop and help him on the way home he could not stay in our house, in the back yard maybe, but not in the house. We had to crack the door a little more and let her get another glimpse of just how harsh the world can be, a slow gradual loss of innocence that breaks my heart. In all honesty, I am glad he was not still there on our return trip.

My wife and I talked about this at length. This was not the first time our little girl had been moved to tears by someone else’s plight. On Great and Holy Friday she did the same when she realized Christ was being placed in His tomb (we also should have been overcome by our emotions). We reminded her of His certain resurrection and her joy was then as complete as her grief.

She is seven years old, I am almost forty-seven. She has a kind heart and overflows with love. I am too often uncaring and stingy. In her innocence she is wise, in my wisdom I am blind.

April 29, 2007

Ashes, Ashes

For the past several days we have intermittently found ourselves directly downwind of the 60,000 acre plus fire burning in Ware and Charlton Counties. The distance becomes blurred in a blue haze, the sun a pink orb at midday. A cascade of ash, mute messengers from sixty miles away drifts on the breeze, delicate white, black and gray smudges. The neighborhood looks otherworldly, a reminder of the many forces over which many times we have absolutely no control.

We have been by no means immune. The above photo was taken this afternoon (that’s my lovely wife and daughter). On the horizon you can see the plume of a fire that could have very easily become a major conflagration. Only the unceasing efforts of our local firefighters managed to get in under control in a matter of hours. High winds, low humidity and literally tinder dry woods make a potentially potent combination.

Just yesterday I saw a car erupt in flames on the side of the interstate when the hot exhaust ignited the grass. And there is no relief in sight.

April 26, 2007

Conquering The Worm

And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on the inventors’ heads: all this can I
Truly deliver.

Hamlet
Act 5, Scene 2

It was a dank day for dying on the old Dixie Highway that heads north through the prickly palmetto spears and towering Georgia pines. A malfunction of undetermined origin sent the car sliding though the slick grass sideways into the live oak that stands just before the crossroad. The driver was ejected, thrown rudely through the midday gloom into the unforgiving underbrush. His legs broke upon impact. Flames swallowed up the car, quickly consuming the faded paint and tattered upholstery.

Mosquitos and sand gnats agitated the humid air, tag-teaming the rescue workers and the gawkers, all drawn like moths to the flame, the makeshift funeral pyre. As they stood in an irregular circle around the scene I innocently walked up and stuck my head in the driver’s window. A sweet, earthy smell of mud, burnt flesh and spent fire extinguishers nearly gagged me. The passenger had died, trapped in the car. What I first thought was the charred remains of the front seat was his torso. He was truly cooked. The deltoid muscle on his shoulder looked like a turkey drumstick. The skin had burned away from the top of his skull to reveal an egg-shaped indentation from his striking the windshield. I clearly saw the interstitial cracks between the skull bones that look like irregular stitches. This was not the sepulcher white skull of some anatomy class skeleton. This was the skull of a sentient rational being who until a few moments earlier was alive and breathing, full of dreams and despair. This skull still held a warm brain.

It was then that I realized that our frail forms obey the laws of physics. We’re just flesh, bones, skin and water. We roast and char like any other animal on a spit. Entranced by this stranger’s misfortune, I made myself stand and look, glad that it was he and not I curled there in a fetal ball. Even in death he assumed this basic vertebrate position. I felt a peculiar power from not flinching at the face of death. Conquering the worm, as it were.

They were both Mexicans seeking the proverbial better life in rural South Georgia, working in one of the seafood processing plants, up to their elbows in fish or shrimp all day. Around the passenger’s neck, blackened but still whole, was a silver medal of St. Christopher engraved with a likeness of the venerable saint.

At the scene, everyone was joking. Hot tamale. Crispy critter. Burnt toast. It seems cruel but humor in such a horrific situation is a defense mechanism to men and women for whom death is their stock in trade. Men who have seen decapitation, men hardened by necessity, men who have the job of prying him free from the car.

I later learned that after awhile the physical landscape takes on a much more emotional dimension. You find yourself remembering grisly accident scenes, bloody suicides, domestic disputes and a host of other horrors while riding the county. A mental map covered with skulls and crossbones marking where death and destruction visited themselves upon the unsuspecting. But all that was still to come.

This entry was written as a way of coping with the very first death scene to which I ever responded. It was written as the beginning of a fictionalized account of the event, but all the details are true and accurate. It was brought to mind after I responded last week to the suicide of an 83-year-old man. Alzheimer’s was tightening its inexorable grip and I suppose he wanted to die with at least a modicum of dignity. The suicide took place just down the road from one of the most horrific scenes I have ever witnessed. Several years ago a young boy accidentally shot his even younger friend between the eyes at nearly point blank range (in his bedroom) with a .30-06 hunting rifle. I won't go into any details, but it was one of those days after which you know you'll never be the same.

I apologize for the cheapshot blast from the past. I am in the process writing something more current and relevant (and not so grisly).

April 19, 2007

Real Live Dragonslayers

Below is a paragraph I wrote that is part of a letter to the editor in the local newspaper. I'll not get into the larger context, but suffice it to say that this is something I have wanted to say to the media for a very, very long time.

"The next time you start to criticize the men and women of law enforcement remember that you sleep and rest secure under the umbrella of their protection. That it is through their sacrifice, through their willingness to literally put their lives on the line every day that you enjoy the safety and security of your home. They are not the stereotypes you imagine. They are men and women who believe enough in public service to go out and try to make the world a better place. And despite the public apathy or even open disdain, despite the media nipping at their heels and doing everything in its power to demean and degrade them, despite the emotional and physical burden it places on them and their families, they still suit up every day to go out to slay the dragons. They are what is best about all of us."

April 17, 2007

Sacred and Profane

I have thought a lot recently about the intertwining of the sacred and the profane in our lives, about how chaos can coexist with calmness. Of course it is not always as much coexistence as it is a sudden purging of one by the other, or of the wind that bodes no goodness seeking to extinguish the flame of our joy.

Not so long ago I was in my vehicle listening to Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou’s very profound remarks on The Hidden Heart of Man (if you have heard any of Zacahrou’s talks you know just how deep he gets). In the background the seemingly ceaseless chatter of the radio provided a stark contrast. Traffic accidents, domestic disputes, routine violence served as background for, “The Awakening of the Heart by the Mindfulness of Death and the Moment of Death.”

There is probably not a more sacred time than when we pierce the veil on Pascha and join in with the eternal chorus in proclaiming Christ’s victory over death Then we enter into the glory of Bright Week when the whole world resounds with Christ risen. But even then lurks the mundane, the ever-encroaching blackness seeking to convince us we have no hope, that our faith has no firm foundation.

This past weekend I stood by the body of a woman who died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. When I arrived she was lying on the side of the interstate on a backboard, wrapped in a sheet. Helping to put her in the hearse was an insignificant act, but it somehow felt sacred. It was right to help restore dignity to an undignified demise. To the people caught in the miles-long traffic jam, this was an aggravating delay. To us it was, unfortunately, not all that unordinary. To her family and her husband (who was driving the vehicle) it will be a day seared into their memory. A routine trip turned eternal.

Yesterday morning I drove my daughter to a three day learning field trip on one of the barrier islands. It was a wonderful time watching her rise to the challenge of spending three days away from Mom and Dad. I was thinking about how much I absolutely love her and how my love, no matter how intense or deep, is but a shadow of the love our Father has for us. Then upon my return to the office I saw the reports of the killings at Virginia Tech. Most of the victim’s parents had probably had moments like the one I just had. Now the anxiety and uncertainty would be devastating. The profane crashed into the sacred in a most violent way.

But I rejoice that it also works in the opposite direction. Even those who profess little or no faith have moments of sacredness thrust upon them, in the embrace of their child, in acts of unexpected kindness, in rainbows, in the consolation and true forgiveness the Pennsylvania Amish offered to the family of the man who murdered their children.

When the despair seems about to overpower me I remember that we are called to be the salt and the light, to season the world with our example and to bring the light of love and forgiveness to every dark corner of the world and of our hearts. When enveloped by the utter darkness of the deaths of 32 innocent people, we must shine brighter.

We live in a profane world edging closer everyday to being flooded by a tide of apathy, hatred and evil. We are called to stand in the breech. We do not have the right to hold grudges, to seek revenge, to hate those who hate us. With prayer, with love, with almsgiving, with forgiveness we must seek the sacred.

April 15, 2007

Thinking Blogger?

This blog is the recipient of two (both undeserved) Thinking Blogger Awards, one from From Wittenberg to Athens and All Stops in Between and one from Deb on the run. I read both of these blogs daily and enjoy them immensly. Both Deb and Dixie are thoughtful and kind Orthodox woman who have been tremendously generous with their encouragement and support.

Here are the instructions:1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.

My first choice has to be Glory to God for All Things. Well written and well reasoned. We can all learn something from Fr. Freeman’s insightful entries. This is Orthodox blogging at its finest.

My second choice is Wisdom of the Desert for it’s beauty and simplicity. I take a look every day.

My third choice goes to Irenic Thoughts. The author is an Episcopal priest and a personal friend. It is my belief that he is on his way to Orthodoxy, but he won’t admit it.

My fourth choice goes to the ubiquitious ORTHODIXIE. A fine man who clearly loves his family and his faith. And what a sense of humor!

My last and ceratinly not least choices (yes I am fudging a bit) are Dixie and Deb.

I was guided by my own blogging habits when making these selections. These are the blogs I visit most and the ones where I am most likely to leave a comment.

April 14, 2007

Out Of Control

These are some of the messages I have received on my pager in the past 24 hours:

23:30 10-10 WHOLE BAR FIGHTING CHAIRS AND BROKEN BOTTLES USED

05:53 **** GREEN HAS DIED OF NATURAL CAUSES HAS BEEN SICK 95 YEAR OLD FEMALE

11:29 MULTI VEH 10-50 NB AND SB SHUT DOWN VEH OVERTURNED MULTI ENTRAPMENT

11:38 BOTH HELOS ENROUTE TO 95 NB 16MM ALL LANES NB AND SB SHUT DOWN HAZ MAT GAS LEAK AND ENTRAP

11:47 SOUTHBOUND LANES OPEN 1 PT CARDIAC RED

11:51 ONE PT DOA 95 NB 16 MM PASSENGER EXTRICATED DOA

12:28 VEH HIT A BICYCLIST IN AND OUT OF CONSCIOUSNESS HEAD INJURY

11:37 REPORTS OF A PLANE DOWN

14:41 PLANE CONFIRMED DOWN, WOODS IN FLAMES ONE PT WITH INJURIES
Translation: At 11:23 last night there was a full blown bar fight. Early this morning a 95-year-old woman passed away of natural causes. At about 11:30 this morning there was a multi-vehicle automobile accident, all lanes of the interstate northbound and southbound were shut down, two people were trapped in a vehicle. At 11:38 two air ambulance helicopters were enroute, the haz-mat team was called because of a diesel leak. The southbound lanes were opened and one patient (a 68-year-old woman) was in full cardiac arrest. One passenger (the woman) was dead on arrival after being extricated from her vehicle. At 12:28 a man riding a bicycle on a busy county road was hit by an automobile and suffered head injuries; the air ambulance was once again called. At 2:37 this afternoon a report came in of an airplane crash near the local airport. The plane did go down in a wooded area very close to several apartment complexes. The subsequent fire was put out, the pilot miraculously walked away. Some days the world seems to spin completely out of control.

April 2, 2007

The Son I Am Today

As I worked my way through Lent I experienced a profound change within myself, brought on by the grace of a God who loves me despite myself. If you have read this blog for any length of time you know I had a somewhat troubled childhood and witnessed the death of my father while still a young boy. These experiences molded me into the man I am today, but they also left many parts of my life empty and other parts undeveloped or ill-developed. Unfortunately, one of those parts is my relationship to my mother. She is now 67 years old and has survived a very hard life. While most people her age enjoy the reward of their retirement, she is reduced to a very meager existence.

My recent visit to see her (with my young daughter in tow) brought the disparity of our lives into very sharp focus. We pulled up to her ramshackle doublewide in my 2007 Silverado crew cab pickup. The contrast shamed me as few things have. But it was not just the financial disparity, it was the conviction (this is the profound change I first alluded to) that I have failed to honor my mother. I have withheld my support and my love. I have been willfully blind to her blight.

While pondering my shame on the long ride home I realized that for all these years I had been looking in the wrong place. I had looked to the memory of my father, held him up as the saint he never was, while diminishing the role and value of my mother. Here was the hero I was looking for. Here was the one who had kept me fed and alive (even though sometimes just barely). Here was the one I had not forgiven. My heart is heavy with the weight of my shortcomings, but light with the hope of healing.

I have spoken with Mom several times since returning home and I realized just how much of a story she has to tell. Below is a first attempt at the crafting of an introduction to that story. The previous blog entry is also one of my attempts to work my way through these changes.

As with many men, age and life experience have allowed me a more even handed assessment of my mother. For far too many years I mourned the death of my father who drank himself to death before his 37th birthday. I longed for him, treasured the few fragmented memories I have and most likely imagined him as too much saint and not enough sinner. During much of that time I held a strange brew of feelings for my mother. She was certainly a sinner and indulged herself in her appetites and addictions to a less than healthy degree while my siblings and I went along for the ride, but she did raise five of us in the process and while we endured many abuses and depravations, I have blamed too many of them on her.

The first insight came when I was in therapy and discussing my feelings, or more correctly my lack of feelings, for her. My therapist brought it to my attention that yes, she was in many ways less than perfect, but she had also managed to raise all of us despite an eternally drunk husband, never any money, in the mountains of Virginia in the days before disposable diapers, in a house with no indoor plumbing. I agreed that he was correct and it was proper that I should love my mother if for no other reason than she is a survivor (you will see to what degree as the story unfolds). My heart was still unmoved, held still by years of misunderstanding, physical separation and emotional immaturity.

Let me give you an example. As I reached chronological adulthood I began calling her by her given name instead of Mom. I tried to play it off as light-hearted, a sign that I had grown up, a sign of our equality. It was in reality my resentment, my way of passively stabbing back at her. I would acknowledge her as a woman, but not as my mother and I denied all the good she had done. It was also part of my trying to achieve manhood, trying to define myself as myself, and not as part of her.


I have long believed that names, titles are of the utmost importance and this use of her proper name was a profound psychological shift. I realize now how I would react if my 19-year-old daughter were to address me as William.

The final revelation came recently when I traveled to visit her with my seven-year-old daughter. I was shocked by my mother’s situation and my apathy to it. As some of you already know, she lives on $700 a month in a nearly decrepit, double-wide trailer hanging off the miserable side of a mountain in Virginia. She has survived abuse of nearly every sort imaginable, years of pulverizing poverty, decades of alcoholism, cancer and only she knows what else.

As I pondered just exactly what she had been through, at least to the degree that I could know it, I realized hers is a story that needs to be told. It is a tale of strong fisted resistance to the forces that would break her and it is a story of the human experience writ small, a tale full of death, destruction, and addiction.

The telling is also an act of love and respect for the woman who birthed me, beat me and loved me. This is what I can do. This she deserves. It is true that many times she was not much of a mother, but it’s just as true that many times I have not been much of a son. She is proud of me, it’s time I was proud of her. I do not agree with many things she did or let be done, but (pardon the cliché) it did not kill me and it certainly made me stronger.

March 27, 2007

Life On The Edge

Her dusty-brown, just short of decrepit double-wide trailer hangs on the side a mountain in a place disingenuously called Brand’s Flats with a hundred or so others. The land is too steep to be of much use so the landlord hacked out notches big enough to hold a home and another trailer park was born. It’s not the location most people would make as their first pick of places to live, but to her it’s home. She often says the only time she’ll ever live anywhere else is when she is too senile to know any better.

Carol’s trailer is the only double-wide, but at 22 is older than most of the others in the neighborhood. Ants often make themselves at home as there are too many holes, small and large, to keep them out. Chemical sprays only slow the inexorable insect tide. Birds roost in the eaves where the boards have either rotted or fallen off.

Carol does not drive, relying on family as a lifeline. Most days are spent with books, or crossword puzzles or crime shows. The Internet is an unexplored mystery and likely to remain so. Most nights she falls asleep on the couch embraced in the television’s soft glow.

Last month her electric bill was $490 while her monthly income is only $700. Nonetheless, the last time I saw her she insisted on making meatloaf and potato salad. Like most Southern women (and perhaps all) she takes great pleasure in nourishing all that grace her doorway.

Carol, at 67, has already survived uterine cancer and she just recently suffered a very nearly fatal blood infection. The good news is the hospital stay scared her enough to quit smoking after more than 40 years, the bad news is she will be on oxygen from now on.

She has also survived a violently abusive, alcoholic father and two abusive, alcoholic husbands. Alcoholism is so commonplace it was expected of her children, and they more than lived up to the expectation. It has been said that her family tree is not a tree, it is a vine. She has wrestled with the demon herself. So far she’s got him pinned.

Despite the poverty, the poor health, the ghosts of abuse and loss that haunt her memory Carol is helping to raise her great-grandchildren. They are the children of her oldest grandson who is in prison, again. The three boys, the youngest is actually no kin but the son of their mother by another man, love her with the abandon and fervor of the young. To them she is love, she is protection, she is Grandma.

To me she is Mom.

March 26, 2007

Wisdom Of The Desert

Not many blogs have caught and held my attention as easily as this one, Wisdom of the Desert. It is aesthetically and ascetically pleasing and believe it or not the woman who created it is not Orthodox. She is a wonderful woman and clearly puts a lot of time and effort into her daily entries. Take a look, I believe you'll agree.

Making Memories

These photos were taken on our recent trip to Virginia with my seven-year-old daughter to visit with some of our family. She took all the photos except the first two.




March 25, 2007

Back From Virginia

We made it back safely from Virginia. These photos are from this morning after the Divine Liturgy. The man holding the Blessed Bread is Moses, a true servant of God.

March 19, 2007

Apology and Clarification

I want to apologize to anyone who found the preceding post too strong or were offended by its content. It was not my intention to offend anyone and I ask your forgiveness. Here in our community, in the middle of Lent, evil of the worst sort reared its ugly head and it was my intention to point out that there are many people in the world (especially children) who are at risk every day. There are also many people who willingly inflict harm on those entrusted to their care. My point was that we should pray for the innocents and do what we can to ease their burden. Again, I apologize and ask your forgiveness if you were offended.

March 18, 2007

Suffer Not The Little Children

I hate to keep writing about the same topic, but the death of Christopher Michael Barrios Jr. has been very troublesome in our community. Even though we all know it’s undeniably true, we all hate to think that something this dreadful could happen here. It’s shocking to realize just how many active monsters walk among us. Many details of Christopher’s death have not been released.

One comment to my previous post said that I am exposed to evil of the vilest sort. I am exposed to it more than most, but not nearly as much as some other folks I know. The investigators who deal with crimes against children are a special breed. They have to be able to deal with some of the most potently evil people on the planet without sacrificing their own humanity, their own sense of dignity, their compassion. I do not have the stomach or the heart for it.

The story of what happened to little Christopher has only just begun. We will have trials where the particulars of his life and his death will be revealed in full. We will be shocked and we will weep for this child who came face to face with the darkest side of our kind. And those responsible will have their day in court, and they will be exposed for what they are, aberrations, monsters, child killers.

Many times I have wondered why cases involving children seem to bother me so much more than others. I realize that crimes against children shock most of us more than other crimes, and rightly so. But with me it seems to cut very deep and take a long time to heal, even when I have no direct knowledge of anyone involved. I think the answer (at least partially) is because I know and remember on a very deep level how it felt/feels to be a defenseless child. Without going into particulars, my childhood was not without its trauma. Several generations of alcoholism, persistent poverty and lack of parental skills coalesced to make the childhood of myself and my siblings (and many of my cousins and neighbors) a rollercoaster ride though Hell. Don’t get me wrong, my childhood was no worse than some. In fact, compared to other stories I have heard (and have direct knowledge of) it was rather tame. But it was sufficiently cruel to stunt my development, emotionally and physically, to a marked degree.

Sadly, my story and even Christopher’s are not unique. Every day untold numbers of children suffer at the hands of strangers, but many more suffer at the hands of those who are supposed to love and protect them. I know of cases of children being shaken to death, of children put in scalding hot water, of children bashed against walls, of children smothered, of children burned with cigarettes, of men having sex with infants, of infants ejected from cars because no one strapped them in. I also know of a situation where a mother shook her child violently enough to cause major brain trauma. Yet she did nothing for weeks until another family member forced her to take the child to a doctor.

Make no mistake, this is the world we all live in. We have our jobs and our cars and our homes and our families that love us. We are the fortunate ones. So pray. Pray hard for this wicked, wicked world and the children trapped in it.

March 7, 2007

Humble Pie

Earlier this week my wife and our two daughters went out to eat at one of our favorite restaurants. It’s one of those places caught in a time warp. A place where all the waitresses call you "Honey" and the kids don’t have to worry so much about being quiet. The sign outside is so old it’s in style again. A place where you can ask for fried chicken gizzards or fried okra and no one will even blink an eye. A place where for about six bucks you get a dinner with beverage and dessert included. A place where you can write a check and they don’t ask for identification. Blue collar cuisine at its finest.

That night it took about half an hour to get our food. It was getting late and we were getting a bit testy about having to wait so long. What I really wanted to do was to go see the owner (she was working as a waitress because they were so shorthanded) and demand our food. I would not be rude, but very straightforward and curt. But my daughters were sitting there. How would I want them to behave if confronted with this situation? Would I want them to be polite? Would I want them to fight the urge to demand better service? Would I want them to be compassionate, to put the event in context, to consider how hard the two waitresses were working to accommodate so many people?

So many times I tend to want to blame others, to make my faults something they caused. But of course my faults are my own. The problem is within me, in my pride, in my unwillingness to put others first. I know that it is important, especially during the Lenten season, to put aside pride, to resist the deadly seduction of anger, to love equally. Even though I am aware of the problem, I tend to let myself get rattled by the smallest things, things that at the time seem enormous, but really mean absolutely nothing. Many times I let negative emotions get in the way and cloud my judgement. I know that I am a much better man, husband and father when I am in control, when I decide how I will react, when calm reason replaces the rage.

So I sat there and tried to look like I was just taking it all in stride. I reminded my daughters that we knew they were shorthanded, that generally the waitresses were very prompt, and that the owner took great pleasure in making vanilla milkshakes for the youngest daughter. I hope my frustration was not too obvious. I hope they saw the man I want to be.

Mission In Valdosta

A few weeks ago my wife, my daughter and I traveled to Valdosta to worship with the folks at Valdosta Orthodox Christian Mission. It’s about a two hour drive so we drove over the day before and spent the night in a hotel.

They meet very early in a room provided by a Presbyterian congregation. Once a month a priest and a reader from St Justin Martyr drive to Valdosta to conduct the Divine Liturgy. Other weeks they have a layman’s service. This particular week the priest and reader were there so there were about a dozen people all together (including us) gathered in a converted Sunday school room. Essentially it is church in a box. Every week they lug their supplies out of a closet then put them all back in when the liturgy ends. Compared to the beauty of a traditional Orthodox church the place was pretty Spartan, but the essentials were all there, with icons of the Theotokos and our Saviour.

Being there stirred up brew of memories, some good, some not so good. Prior to discovering Orthodoxy I was the church council president for an ELCA Lutheran congregation that finally ended its long slide to oblivion. We had been meeting together for about a decade, but due to a variety of circumstances the congregation was never really economically viable. It was nice meeting with a small group of people on a very regular basis and becoming thoroughly entwined in each others lives.

The down side was that we were stagnant. We tried everything, sometimes by mandate of the ELCA and sometimes on our own, but we did not survive. Sadly, the lack of growth caused much anguish to the core group. Many people came and went but there were about a dozen of us who were there from beginning to end. Going though the process of disbanding was like attending a funeral that never ended. We are now scattered to the proverbial four winds with most everyone ending up in a Lutheran or Episcopal congregation.

So the folks in Valdosta have a long row to hoe, but they have the advantage of having a very supportive mission partner at St. Justin Martyr. The winds of adversity will only makes their roots grow deeper.

February 26, 2007

Reading Deliberately

I have always imagined myself as someone who travels light and fast, unencumbered by things, unmoored from the passion for possessions. Following the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, I tried to simplify, to live life deliberately, to cut my own path. As Thoreau says in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Yet as I prepare to move from one house into another I discover to my dismay that I have accumulated a great number of things that I could just as easily live without. Spartan-like I am not. Clothes I don’t wear, music I don’t listen to, things that once had some meaning or struck some emotional chord that are now just useless, meaningless clutter. Boxes and boxes of stuff that move with me from one spot to the next. Much more than enough to fill up the small cabin Thoreau built and inhabited at Walden Pond.

One thing I never really mind toting from place to place are my books. Books are to me what wine is to the oenophile. I could live without them, but what would be the point? They are always the first thing to be packed and one of the first things to be unpacked. Even though last year we got rid of probably 500 or so (donated to the local library), I still packed up 19 boxes worth in the past week. Most are novels (especially Southern literature), some poetry and a few history and mythology books. I have even managed to acquire a few Orthodox texts.

I know many people who don’t do a lot of reading and I wonder how they manage to muddle through. Books are to me mother’s milk. I even had one woman tell me she had never read a book cover to cover. I can’t imagine such an existence. Thoreau said this about books: “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

To me books are very much alive, silent companions waiting to share their wealth, to give up their secrets. Books are treasured memories, points of reference, a source of solidity and stability in a chaotic creation. As I loaded box after box I suddenly felt like a hoarder, like I was jealously keeping them all for myself. Briefly I thought I might donate the rest of them to the local library, perhaps in the hands of others they would live more fully, would more readily release their mysteries. But then I came to my senses.

Either way, books enrich my life immeasurably. As I get older what I read has changed a great deal, but the joy, the pure pleasure of reading will never diminish. I may not be traveling as light or as fast, but I am living deeper. Instead of sailing over the sea of life, I am gladly languishing in the pools.

February 13, 2007

I Am My Father's Keeper

I am posting this essay because I was thinking about my father whose birthday would be February 22, if he were alive. It was originally written for an assignment in college, but with some modifications it seemed appropriate.

I never really knew my father, I am not sure that anyone ever could, and yet he is as real and vital to my life as the invisible air that I breathe. I have few memories and few mementos to guide me on the twisted path to understanding. Most of the memories are too violent (I saw him die when I was eleven) and the mementos too fragmented to allow any even handed assessment of his life or his relationship to me. The only tangible thing left is, appropriately enough, a bookshelf. Somehow it survived the last 35 years and still has the place of honor in my sister’s home.

Our father was a journeyman carpenter and a cabinet maker with the soul of an artist. In high school he showed potential as a painter. For many years a small icon-like painting of Christ survived as testimony to his talent. The painting was ugly and awkward, but I remember that it captured some inherent sense of the suffering. The face was battered and scarred but still noble, still unbroken.

The bookshelf is now battered but whole. Somehow it weathered the storms. I think that after it left my mother's possession (I'm not sure how) it went to my stepfather's brother, then to my older sister and then to me and now back to her. It had been in my possession for at least ten years. Somewhere along the way someone sawed off the top part of the top shelf. The shelf is still nearly seven feet high so this was probably done to fit it into an old small house. It survived the decapitation but looks awkward as all the other shelves are tall and deep while the top shelf is barely three inches high. The color is not what it first was, darker, stained by exposure, age and nicotine. There are numerous nicks, scratches and scrapes but the shelf is sound. The battering years have only served to point out the sense of utility and artistic integrity inherent in the homemade design.

He probably originally set out to build the bookshelf as a gift of atonement to my mother as he frequently erred in judgment, but the artist in him would not let him do any less than his best. The quality is evident everywhere from the tongue in groove design of the individual shelves to the beautiful but functional trim. Simple form allowing complexity in function. In this complexity I see not only my father, I see myself. I see my own obsession with details and worrying about every one no matter how small. I see my own need to do a thing well, to make a thing of beauty and of quality, to show the world my own sense of value through what I create.

The shelf was originally to hold my mother's whatnots but has since held nearly everything imaginable. I am a bibliophile by nature and I valued the shelf as a way of displaying my treasures. But the real value is in how and why it was built. It was built by a man in love with his wife, a man who was trying to smooth out a constantly rough relationship. A man engulfed by a marriage that yielded five children by the age of 28. He was a troubled man who led a troubled life, but despite the adversity the artist in him survived. In these tight fitting joints I see the tight embraces of a man's love. In this battered shelf I see the life of a man trying to survive, trying to build a thing of beauty, a thing that would last. Here is that creation, here is that art, here is his immortality. This is the solace found by a man who drank too much and had the weight heavy on him, the terrible burden of being unfulfilled. This is the manifestation of his joy and the triumph of his spirit. It was and is a gift of love.

February 5, 2007

Instrument Of Grace

How I found myself standing in the Holiness Church of Deliverance during a Wednesday night prayer meeting pointing a loaded pistol at Bob is a short story with long term consequences. It started the week prior when Bob asked me to come to church. Bob is Pentecostal and I am strictly part-time high church so that puts us at odds theologically speaking, he’s dancing in the basement and I’m sleeping in the attic. In his own not so subtle way I know he is trying to proselytize me (I am long since immune), but we grew up together and he has been a good if somewhat too enthusiastic friend. So I agreed.

I found the pistol in Bob’s car on the way to the service. Small and compact it easily disappeared when I closed my fist. Without being too consciously aware of it, I slipped the pistol into my coat pocket.

As Pastor Wayne Mueller pulled the service along to it’s crescendo I felt the pistol warming in my hand. It was not premeditated, but during the altar call, with every head bowed and every eye closed (except mine) I discretely took aim directly at Bob. I unlocked and unloaded and in the last microsecond, I swear the water was en route, he leaned back and threw his arms up like a funnel to catch the Holy Ghost. Problem was, he ruined my shot.

The squirt went between Bob’s right arm and his head, through the Holy Ghost and hit a small, elderly woman whom I did not recognize more or less between the eyes. She fell/dropped like one of the little plastic parachute men children get out of the quarter vending machines at the entrances to restaurants. This was not a choreographed collapse like you see on TV when the so-called faith healer slaps people between the eyes with the palm of his hand and yells out, “In the name of Jesus be healed,” and the so-called healee falls gracefully into the arms of a waiting usher. This was a genuine, honest to God collapse. Slowly, first forward, then back, she threw over her aluminum walker, succumbed to gravity and crumpled to the carpet with her white beehive coiffeur still intact, water running out of her left eye like a dirty tear.

When she hit the ground it started a ruckus that I thought would never end, I’m not so sure it has, at least for me, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Her husband knelt beside her calling, “Grace, Grace” as he lightly chafed her cheek. Needless to say I did not ‘fess up. The last thing I wanted was to be known/thought of as a man who would engage in such tomfoolery during a Holy Ghost meeting. Everyone in the place congregated in a large circle around Grace gawking, unsure if she was dead or just dying. Even for a Pentecostal meeting this was something to see.

Pastor Mueller began braying, telling everyone to step back, to give the woman some air. Grace opened her eyes and looked straight at me. Or more accurately she looked through me or maybe didn’t even see me. Our eyes locked but there was no acknowledgement on her part, we were on different frequencies.

Just then the paramedics arrived, bundled Grace up and took her away, her frightened husband in tow. While waiting to clear out with Bob and bring this nightmare to an end, I heard several people say Grace was in the very last stage of inoperable, incurable cancer. The consensus seemed to be that at least she died in church.

Now I was really feeling poorly. I had scared an old woman to death, pushed her down the stairs of life. Outside, in the cool Arkansas evening while Bob smoked and talked tractor repair with one of his business/church cronies I dropped the pistol into the unshorn grass and ground it underfoot.

Bob was strangely quiet on the drive home. I thought for sure I was busted. He seemed to be struggling with something he couldn’t name.

“I just cain’t believe she died in church,” he finally said.

Despite my best efforts the truth was knocking hard, pressing to be let out. I started to mutter.

“I just cain’t believe she died in church,” Bob said again, relieving me of the burden. “I know you don’t know her but she is one of the sweetest souls you could ever meet. Would do anything in the world for ya. Her only daughter died a year ago in a car wreck, then about six months ago she found out she was eat up with the cancer. We were surprised she lasted this long. Wow. Dying in church. Now I seen it all.”

Bob reverted back to his reverie, aiming the car toward home, the headlights parting the curtain of darkness which cascaded shut in our wake.

I told no one and for a few days my life continued unabated on its long slow slide to senility. But ours is a nosy newspaper, rife with gossip and not immune to innuendo, to flights of fancy and spells of speculation. True to form there was the headline: Holy Healing At Holiness

Halleluiah, I was off the hook. Hot damn. The story said the old woman did not die but rose from her bed, claiming to have been healed in church. She would tell what happened from the pulpit Sunday morning.

I called Bob.

“She didn’t die?”

“Naw man, she just got the Holy Ghost. Ain’t that great. We have witnessed us a genuine miracle.”

Bob and I were back at Holiness Church of Deliverance Sunday morning. It was as crowded as Easter Sunday when all the backsliders slink in. Nothing like a miracle to titillate the masses. Only it wasn’t. It was just me and a squirt gun.

The old woman, there was no frailty in her, ascended to the pulpit.

“I feel led to talk this morning because of what God has done done in my life. Most of ya’ll knows I been real sick, ate up with the cancer. Most of ya’ll also know I fell out during the Wednesday night meeting. I’m truly sorry for causing so much commotion. But what ya’ll don’t know is that right before I passed out, while Pastor was praying for the Holy Ghost, I felt the Spirit come upon me. It felt like warm water on my face, then I was taken up into the heavenly places.”

Grace stopped to wipe the tears of joy from her face.

“Lord it was purdy, shining so bright and I didn’t never want to leave. I saw Jesus and he looks just like His picture. He told me I was healed.”

He was telling me I was a heel for letting this go on. It was time for confession, time to set the record straight.

“That’s not right. She doesn’t know what really happened.”

I found myself standing amidst the stupefied stares. Grace stood stunned, my words had pierced like an accusation.

“Continue, Brother,” said Pastor Mueller. “Give us the word of the Lord.”

“I know what happened.”

For the second time I met Grace’s eyes. This time she was not looking through me, but in me. Expectantly. Trying to find my frequency.

Bob nudged me out into the aisle.

“What you think happened is not what really happened. It was me. I had a squirt gun in my pocket. I aimed it at Bob. I was messin’ with him during the prayer. Lord knows I know it was wrong and I never meant for any of this to happen. I had no intention of hurting anyone, especially you Grace. I mean, you seem like a decent woman and I know you think you’re healed, but it was just water.”

I stood, ashamed.

“Brothers and sisters,” Pastor Wayne said, “This man is a healer sent into our midst by a providential God, the God of Abraham and Isaac.”

What?

“God has taken this unbeliever unto Himself and through him has revealed Himself to us.”

What?

“We are all instruments of grace in the hands of the Lord.”

Lord no. No.

“Brothers and sisters the Lord is telling me that we need to lay hands on this young man, to share in his power.”

I fell into the dark embrace.


© Copyright 2007

February 1, 2007

Lost In Translation

If you have read this blog for any length of time you know more about me than many people who have known me (in my fleshly manifestation) for many years.
Yet they will know many things about me that are lost in the translation to the blogosphere, dry skin, long fingers, blue eyes, mild scoliosis, ever-encroaching baldness, a tendency to talk way too fast.

I am more open here because most of you don’t know who I am, what my status is in the community, who my family is. You don’t have any preconceived ideas about how I should act or what I should write. I get to start with a clean slate. It may be that I have crafted the persona I want you to see. There is much on this blog about Orthodoxy, yet most of the people I interact with every day would not be familiar. I’m not sure if this is a comment about how much I want you to think I am pious or about how incompletely I live my faith among those around me. Maybe I am crafting what I want to be, or who I wish to be.

I suppose that we are all in a very real ways several different people. Not a split personality but adaptations to different situations and relationships. I am certainly not the same person to my seven-year-old daughter as I am to one of the reporters with whom I frequently interact or to the waitress at my favorite restaurant. The first probably sees me as larger than life and all-knowing, the second as kind of shifty and the third as fairly generous. These perceptions are all wrong, or at least incomplete.

I perceive myself as a very serious person yet in a recent discussion with my wife about this very topic she used the word silly to describe me (I have realized in recent years that I do joke around with people quite a bit). I believe that anyone reading this blog would find it a stretch to call me silly, yet indeed I am.

Sometimes the “real” world and the blogosphere collide in unexpected ways. This week I was at a high school basketball game with my daughter when we were approached by a very respectable looking young man. He had read this blog and suspected that I was the ghost in the machine. It’s a complex story, but basically he wanted to tell me how much he liked the writing here on NIMS. He was more than generous and I was of course flattered, but even more it was this roundabout way of meeting that intrigued me. I believe he found this blog by reading this blog which is the stomping ground of a friend of mine. The young man who approached me has his own blog. He gave up a very promising secular career to go into ministry. We all live in the same community, we are all members of different faith persuasions yet we found common ground here.

I also realize that the mental image I have of the authors of the blogs I read is very different from reality (whatever that is). One example is this blog. Reading it you would never realize how bright and funny Fr. Frank is in real life or how well known and respected he is in our community (maybe he doesn’t even know). He is very adept at using technology to assist him in his ministry, but the real joy is meeting him face to face.

Blogs are a wonderful way to let hack writers like myself speak our minds. But they are at best just that, tools, vehicles for an always incomplete expression of an idea or a person. They let us be who we want to be, not necessarily who we are.

January 29, 2007

Going Berserk

I am a lover and a student of language. Reading and writing are to me like Bonnie and Clyde, like peanut butter and jelly, like crime and punishment. I love synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, anagrams and even momanems. Playing with words, lighting linguistic pyrotechnics, teasing out multiple meanings, even ignoring correct punctuation and following the rules to make my diction gooder interests me.

One idea in particular, and it is not particular to just the written word, is the concept of form and function. That a particular passage says what it does, or perhaps more correctly it is what it says. Killing the two proverbial birds. There is perhaps no better example of the successful synthesis of form and function than these lines from Alexander Pope’s An Essay On Criticism. Pope is implicitly talking about form and function

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And smooth the stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rocks vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;
Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.

I have often thought that Pope and some of the other poets who specialize in the rhymed couplet would be good source material for some of today’s hip-hop artists. How’s that for a mental picture, Dr. Dre rapping The Rape Of The Lock! Sorry for the digression. I have often explored this concept (form and function) in my own writing and hopefully there are several examples in the excerpt below titled Berserker:

Two boys fishing.
Two hungry boys cast through the mid day shadow of the rusted green foot bridge trying, hoping to lure a perch or two out of the South River. The murky muddied water flows by embracing only a small circle of ripples as their lines dip into the cool depths. The mirror surface is nearly smooth, marred only by the drops of vomit.

The family grilling.
The earth grounded public grill still smokes. Under the canopy of cool leaves a cheap ragged black and red baseball cap on a man with shiny black shoes, thin black socks anchoring pillar stone white legs. Iridescent Bermuda shorts and a too small faded green tee shirt with a cheap neon airbrushed green and yellow heart with their names, that refuses to stay pulled down over his white hairless mole speckled belly that heaves from lungs tainted with asthma and pollen. A yellow tinged woman skinny with breasts that look like golf balls in a sock, chain smoking a pack from the first light. Daughter cutting through the rolling freshly mowed green aiming for the white, brown primer spotted Pinto station wagon in the black lot. Son unruly teetering on the brown bank crumbling seeking destruction. The man tells the woman that he knows that haggard boy there on the bridge. He looks just like someone he used to work with. He cannot remember the name.

Roared like a bear.
The vile spewed into the air as anger and sickness. Vision twirling in royal maddening kaleidoscope purple and gold music. Heavy shirt, changing shape. Lost inside and out. Trapped in time and memory bowing to the gods inside.

Free at last.
The dark flat rock, wrenched from its prison, free from the hand. It arched out over half the river then touched down wetting, skimming free curving up again and down only to rise again and down into an ever descending series of arcs before settling down and through, resting, trapped in the deep bottom.

Out of your depths.
She glides through the slow water smooth and true, instinctively relishing the coolness. Time and again she dives deeper and deeper seeking the coolest place, the coolest water. Ahead she sees it, bright and shiny. Interesting, caught somehow in still motion in the winding water. She goes closer, irresistibly drawn to its strangeness. Suddenly without forethought she reaches. The hook pierces into her lip and she is drawn out and up into the glistening suffocating sunlight.

This selection is the middle section from a much longer narrative. Following the classical five act form, it is an exploration of the same moment in time from multiple points of view, much like cubism in painting.

I chose the title Berserker for several reasons. It is a word and a concept that comes from the Norse culture and I am fascinated by the Vikings. And I just like the way it sounds. The modern word probably comes from the Old Norse words björn (bear) and serkr (shirt). To put on a bear shirt was to become the bear. Berserkers were frenzied warriors believed to be invulnerable in battle. The irony is of course that the boy is anything but invulnerable.

The boy, he would be about 13 or 14 years old, is on a bridge, stuck between being a man and a boy, between reality and hallucination, between life and death. Around him two boys are fishing, a somewhat unusual family is having a cookout and someone is skimming rocks on the river. All disconnected events yet bound together by time and space.

The reader is drawn into the river in the opening paragraph then (hopefully) down into the depths before being unexpectedly yanked out at the end much like the fish. In a sense the reader is the fish, fascinated by the lure.

I know this is a bit different from my usual drivel and if you have read this far thank you for your indulgence. I know I am word geek but I make no apologies. Thanks for reading.

January 28, 2007

Likewise Have We Been Taught

Chapter LXVI.-Of the Eucharist.
And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body; "and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, "This is My blood; "and gave it to them alone…

Chapter LXVII.-Weekly Worship of the Christians.
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.

From the first Apology of Justin Martyr (Written in the second century)

January 27, 2007

In Faith Let Us Embrace Humility

9 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke 18:9-14

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
Philippians 2:8

“If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied today, it is indeed humility. The culture in which we live constantly instills in us the sense of pride, of self-glorification, and of self-righteousness”
Great Lent: The Journey To Pascha
Fr. Alexander Schmemann



When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am,
I tremble at the fearful day of judgment.
But trusting in thy loving kindness, like David I cry to thee:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.
*****

Through parables leading all mankind
to seek amendment of life,
Christ raises up the Publican from his abasement
and humbles the Pharisee in his pride.

We see the exalted honor that comes through humility,
and the grievous fall that comes through pride.
Let us, then, emulate the good actions of the Publican
and hate the evil sin of the Pharisee!

Every good deed is made of no effect through foolish pride,
while every evil is cleansed by humility.
In faith let us embrace humility
and utterly abhor the ways of vainglory.

Misc. from the Triodion