between noon and three
I sit quietly
I waited for words
but they chose
to be quiet
what is there
between noon and three
I sit quietly
I waited for words
but they chose
to be quiet
what is there
I get it.
I understand why the disciples couldn’t do it. Think of what they had already been through. First, Judas left after a confrontation with Jesus that made it pretty clear the rest of the evening was not going to be a celebration. Jesus followed by offering bread and wine as both meal and metaphor—and neither were comforting. And he told Peter he was going to epically fail in the face of his biggest challenge. Three times. Then they went out to the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane.
All Jesus asked them to do was stay awake with him while he prayed. The gospels say their eyes “were heavy with sleep.” It wasn’t about being tired. They were overwhelmed. Sleep was a way out.
I started by saying I get it because sleep is my escape. When I have been in the depths of my depression, sleep was a way out from under the weight. In many ways, I feel fortunate. I know others for whom sleep is elusive or punishing. For me, it is a respite. A break—though one that usually takes me over rather than me deciding it’s nap time. When things are more than I can take, I fall asleep when I sit still for a few minutes, which makes it not so hard for me to put myself alongside Peter, James, and John sound asleep among the olive trees.
I am not trying to make excuses for them. I just understand.
I was looking for a poem to post the other day and found one titled “There, there, grieving.”
I remember a friend whose father died many years before mine recalling a trip to a mall soon after his funeral where she was overwhelmed by the fact that everyone was acting like it was a normal day when her father was dead. It wasn’t normal to her. Normal never happened again.
I understood her story once my father died. My first day back at the Apple Store in Durham I found I couldn’t talk to customers. My manager was compassionate enough to tell one of my co-workers, who was also a friend, to leave the store and sit and talk until I was ready to come back. We were gone over an hour.
The stories came back to mind as I read posts about Notre Dame on Facebook and the corresponding comments and replies that often flared into skirmishes. Some grieved the loss of the cathedral, or what the cathedral stood for. Some grieved that such an outpouring came for Notre Dame—particularly the huge amount of money pledged for rebuilding, but not the churches in St. Landry, or for Puerto Rico, or for the Brazilian museum, or for Flint, Michigan. The emotions ran from anger to compassion, from righteous indignation to self-righteousness, from questioning to indictment.
All of it, it seems it, paints a picture of grief.
That an eight-hundred-and-fifty year-old edifice that has survived wars and revolutions and who knows what else could burn up in a matter of hours feels like an obvious metaphor for the days in which we live, whether we are talking about the state of our government, the impact of climate change, the incendiary nature of public discourse, the weaponization of religion, or the increasing gap between those who have and those who do not. It feels like we are burning down our own house that took millennia to build—except this time we are all stuck inside.
Our grief is about more than Notre Dame, though the cathedral is part of it. One of my friends who is a hospital chaplain and has spent the last year learning about trauma theory says she thinks life for most of us is an unending Holy Saturday. We know more about grief than we do about resurrection.
I think she’s on to something.
Tomorrow begins what I think are the three heaviest days of the Christian calendar. Over the past year, I have read the gospels as grief stories. When you start looking for it, I think it shows up almost everywhere. As we move from Jesus saying goodbye to his friends whom he knew did not see what was coming, to the agony of his torture and sexual assault and execution, to the silence of Saturday that must have carried the gravity of a black hole for the disciples as they despaired and argued and clamored for meaning to . . . well, that will have to wait.
We live in a world consuming itself with grief among other things. We are all hurting. We are all unsure. Many of us are lashing out. Many of us, then, are fighting back. Whatever normal we think we have lost is not going to happen again. Whatever resurrection looks like, it will not be restoration. Things will not go back to the way they were anymore than they did for the disciples.
“Blessed are they that mourn,” Jesus said, “for they will find comfort.” Then he said, “Blessed are those who make peace around them, for they will be called children of God.”
We are all mourning. We are all children of God, siblings who are all created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. Perhaps offering comfort and waging peace should take the place of correcting one another and exacting judgment.
There, there, grieving. Yes, indeed.
as soon as the fires went out we started
looking for hope among the ruins
sharing the same picture over and over
of the cross beaming in the rubble
I read that the towers were still standing
that the organ had not been destroyed
heard promise after promise of rebuilding
even as the smoke still whispered to the stones
to grasp the geography of being alive
we need some direction when our maps burn
and we are left with an on-the-fly cartography
from some that act as though explanations
will help us find our way somehow but
too many times those roads run to retaliation
against those whose hearts are broken too
though maybe for different reasons than ours
someone meant to burn the churches in St. Landry
suicide bombers want to damage all they can
some of them in lands more ancient than Paris
but what does it mean that a cathedral
could become charred ruins by accident
is there anywhere safe on our map
never mind I know the answer to the
last one even though we hardly say it
none of us has a map to safety
the best we can do is stick together
and I don’t mean just you and me
we need more than us to make our way
there is no map to safety I said that
already but it seems to bear repeating
Earlier this afternoon I received this e-mail message from our church office:
Dear Church family,
We have been made aware of a family of four (mother, father, and twin boys age 7) who lost everything in a fire. Below is a list of what is needed for them to rebuild their household.
Twin Sheet sets for each boy—probably 2 each
Queen Sheets for the parents
Lots of Towels and washcloths
Everything except a microwave and toaster . . . for example
Pots and pans, silverware, cutting board, knives, plates, cups, bowls, mugs
can opener, cooking utensils, spatulas, whisks, large spoons, forks etc
soaps and clean supplies including mops and sponges
Coffee table, end tables
lamps—floor and table lamps
Clothes and shoes:
For the boys:
shoe size 13, clothing 8
shoe size 12, clothing 7
Extra large- for shirts and jackets
40 inch waist, 32 length for pants
Shoe size 10
shoe size: between 8 and 9
extra large for tops and jackets, etc
Ginger and I spent some time talking about what we had that we could give to help the family start to get back on their feet. It was some time later before I heard about the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I got to go there twice. Once, as a kid coming back from Africa with my parents and once with Ginger soon after we married. Northwest Airlines inaugurated direct Boston to Paris flights with a $99 introductory price, so we went for four days. While we were in the cathedral, we attached ourselves to a tour group. The guide was describing the two huge and stained-glass “rose” windows and commented that the “new one” has installed in the mid-1500s.
I never imagined it wouldn’t be there, any more than I never imagine I would turn the corner on to Church Street and find our house burned to the ground. When I try to imagine what it feels like to lose everything in a fire, I think about how it felt when my father died. I wanted to call everyone whose father had died before me and say, “I’m sorry. I meant well. I just had no idea this is how it felt.”
My heart aches for Paris and for the people for saw Notre Dame as their church home, which I am sure includes more than just Parisians. I wish I could go through my closet and offer something tangible that would matter the way I can share my belongings with the people here in town.
On another level, there is something lost to the world in the burning of a building that has been here for almost a millennium. It is, both factually and metaphorically, an altar—a stack of sacred stones. The people who are the church that meets there will go on, yes, and it is also not that simple. The family who lost everything will not be the same family in their new space any more than the parishioners at Notre Dame will be the same church going forward. We are defined by the spaces we build around us. We are who we are in context.
Part of our American context was the arrest of a white man in Louisiana who burned three historically black churches in two weeks. The story made bigger news when he was arrested than it did when the churches burned. Even as I write that sentence, I am aware that I know far fewer details about the fires in Louisiana than I do about what is happening in Paris. I read far fewer Facebook posts expressing either grief or outrage. It just didn’t matter as much beyond the borders of St. Landry Parish.
The five fires differ only in scale. All of them are stories of families who have lost everything. The resounding truth that burns at me is their losses do not affect us unless we choose for them to do so. Love is an act of will, not an emotional response.
When I sat down tonight to write, what came to mind are songs that capture the emotions of the week ahead, which are not easy feelings. Part of the challenge every year for me is not to rush to Easter but to take the loss and grief seriously. Here, then, is my soundtrack, which is by no means exhaustive.
To set the tone, I’ll begin with Guy Clark’s “The Dark.”
in the dark you can sometimes
you can hear your own heart beat
or the heart of the one next to you
the house settles down
after holding itself up all day
shoulder slumps, gives a big sigh
you hear no one’s foot fall in the hall
that drip in the kitchen sink marking time
june bug on the window screen
can’t get in but he keeps on trying
one way or another we’re all in the dark
James Taylor’s “Lonesome Road” helps me picture how alone Jesus must have felt in the middle of everything coming down.
carry on—never mind feeling sorry for yourself
it doesn’t save you from your troubled mind
walk down that lonesome road all by yourself
don’t turn your head back over your shoulder
and only stop to rest yourself
when the silver moon is shining high above the trees
American Kid is the album Patty Griffin wrote after her father died. “Wild Old Dog” is an amazing expression of grief using a dog abandoned on the side of the interstate as a metaphor for God.
God is a wild old dog
someone left out on the highway
I seen him running by me
he don’t belong to no one now
Randy Newman’s song “I’ll Never Get Over Losing You” is another statement of grief. The video below also carries the story behind the song.
when you’re young and there’s time to forget the past
you don’t think that there’s time but you will
and I know that I don’t have time enough
and I’ll never get over losing you
I’ve been cold I’ve been hungry but not for a while
guess most of my dreams have come true
with it all here around me no peace do I find
’cause I’ll never get over losing you
no, I’ll never get over losing you
I am going to close the set with Andrew Peterson’s “After the Last Tear Falls” because even in our bleakest times, love is still the last word.
after the last disgrace, after the last lie to save some face
after the last brutal jab from a poison tongue
after the last dirty politician, after the last meal down at the mission
after the last lonely night in prison
there is love, love, love, love
there is love, love, love, love
there is love
and in the end, the end is oceans and oceans of love and love again
we’ll see how the tears that have fallen
were caught in the palms of the giver of love and the lover of all
and we’ll look back on these tears as old tales
notes from the road
we drove through a fog this morning so thick
we couldn’t see New Haven from the highway
though we could see the road in front of us
at least far enough to keep moving on
hold that thought
The particles of light in sky and sea that
look blue on the horizon is light that got lost
and never makes it all the way from the sun
leaving us with the color of longing
one more thing
small theories are what we use to explain
ourselves to ourselves—how we make
sense of where we come from and who
we think we are but nothing explains it all
this week I learned about an event horizon
which is another phrase for point of no return
in black-hole-speak but it took me to the
fog, the blue, and my small theories . . .
there’s just so much
it seems like a lifetime ago
that we stood on the deck
of the USS Constitution
a still-commissioned vessel named
for our defining document
to learn much of it had been replaced
because it was still considered
active—a work in progress
only in museums does it matter
that nothing changes because
sameness is suffocating
every breath we take is
an act of resuscitation
that speaks hope into being
even as our joints creak
and groan like an old ship
every step of this voyage
reminds me that we need help
to ride these wondrous waves
no matter how strong our constitutions
or how well we exhibit courage
so on this day this storm this sea
I am grateful we sail together
An Open Letter to Dr. Linda Livingtone, President of Baylor University
Dear Dr. Livingstone,
I am one of the Baylor alumni who signed the petition asking you to recognize LGBTQ student groups on campus in light of the university’s decision to allow Matt Walsh to speak on campus. I was encouraged when I read through the list of names of those who signed before me—a list that spans generations of Baylor people. I know a lot of them, some more closely than others. One of the things I noticed was they are not a collection of “wild-eyed liberals” or—what’s the new derogation?—“social justice warriors.” The ones I recognize are people who love God, follow Christ, and love Baylor.
I read the petition urging you to hold to “traditional values” so that Baylor wouldn’t lose all its funding or be ostracized from the Baptist General Convention of Texas. I did not recognize names in its list of signers. I don’t know anything about them. I would imagine they, too, would say they are seeking to live out their faith.
l also read your “Presidential Perspective” dated April 4, 2019. You said,
As I reflect back over the past several weeks, our campus has struggled with demonstrating Christian hospitality while expressing different viewpoints. We know that once our students graduate, they will need to be equipped to handle difficult conversations or to face issues they may not agree with or that challenge our Christian beliefs.
Baylor has grown to become a diverse educational institution—with students from all 50 states and 90 countries—where students experience people from a wide range of backgrounds and with differing opinions.
It seems to me the struggle with “demonstrating Christian hospitality” has little to do with whether Matt Walsh feels welcome. He knows he’s a lighting rod. That’s exactly who he means to be. And he has an invitation to come be himself. Those who need to be the recipients of hospitality are the Baylor students who cannot be themselves because they are LGBTQ. They have to hide. They are reminded daily that they don’t belong. And it’s not because they are having premarital sex. Being gay, lesbian, or trans is not about having sex anymore than being straight is only about sex. It is about being the person God created you to be. I’m sure none of this is new information for you.
You said that Baylor “has become” a diverse place. There were gay and lesbian folks at Baylor when I was there in the 70s. There were gay and lesbian folks at Baylor when my parents were there in the 40s and 50s. That kind of diversity is not new. They had to graduate or leave to be able to fully learn that they were wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. Not all of them were able to do so.
To allow the LGBTQ students to meet as a recognized group on campus would be an act of radical Christian hospitality because it would be choosing relationship over doctrine—like Jesus did. It would truly create room for discussion, for engagement, and for community because it would demonstrate that the primary value of our faith in Christ is not being right but being love.
If it costs you money, then you’re probably on the right track, if I read Jesus’ words correctly. There’s a lot in there about how much our faith will cost us.
I should probably have started by saying I am writing to you because I am pulling for Baylor. I believe my alma mater is capable of being a beacon of love in the world. I’ve had my Baylor shirt on for four straight days up here in UConn country where I live because of the heart and spirit of the women’s basketball team. I’d like to wear it so I can tell the story of how my Baptist university incarnated the love of Christ in the way they worked to let all students know they belonged. I notice that you have a big athletic event coming up this weekend called “United for Family.” I borrowed the logo for my post. That slogan could have a more profound meaning in the context of this discussion.
The LGBTQ students are asking to be recognized. I love the verb. To recognize someone is to say, “Hey—I know you and I love you.” Recognize them. Unite the family. A whole lifetime of good things will come from that.
Class of ‘78
This morning, like many who attend a worship service that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, I heard a sermon from John 12 about Mary pouring the expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and Judas protesting about how the money could have been used otherwise. This is Mary, sister of Martha, who is also famous for wanting to hang out with Jesus when there was a lot of work to do. She was also the sister of Lazarus, who was at supper that night because Jesus had raised him from the dead. Mary, shall we say, had a keen sense of how to live in the moment.
I’m sure the story had been told many times before it was finally written down in John’s gospel, which also explains why John does everything but call Judas a sonuvabitch as he describes his objecting to the extravagance. I have a feeling he was not the only one in the room who was uneasy with Mary’s over-the-top expression of devotion and gratitude, but, since he was the identified betrayer, it was perhaps easier to remember him as the one who objected.
First of all, she poured a pound of perfume on Jesus’ feet. No wonder the whole house was filled with the fragrance. The whole neighborhood probably smelled that something was up—for days. And that pound of nard, as unattractive as the name is, would cost about $54,000 today, translating denarii into dollars. To name it as an extravagant gesture is understatement. I’m not sure it’s easy for any of us to understand. It was a gift so extravagant that it might have put her in financial jeopardy. It was a risky move.
“You will always have the poor with you,” Jesus said, “you will not always have me.”
In John’s timeline, the event happens just before Jesus enters Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. Though the gospel writers didn’t coordinate their chronologies, it struck me this afternoon that Jesus told three parables that Luke records some time before that night and those stories might help us look at Mary’s actions a bit differently.
In Luke 15, Jesus told a trio of stories that point to the extravagance of God. First, he talks about a shepherd who loses one sheep out of a flock of a hundred. He then asks, in a way that is both ironic and rhetorical, “Who wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine to go find the missing one?” The tone sounds the same as asking, “Who wouldn’t drop 50K on a bottle of perfume if you could wash Jesus’ feet with it?”
Then he tells of a woman who lost one of ten silver coins—we are not told the denominations—and proceeds to turn the house upside down looking for it, which leads me to believe she needed the money. When she finally finds it under one of the couch cushions, she spends the rest of the month’s grocery budget throwing a party in celebration.
The last story is the most often retold—the parable of the prodigal son. A man had two sons, as did almost all of the men in Jesus’ parables. The oldest one was compliant; the younger one was adventurous/rebellious/self-absorbed (your pick). He asked for his share of his inheritance and took off for whatever part of Palestine felt like Vegas and blew everything to the point that he thought coming back to his father and asking to be a servant was his best option. Before he even got to voice his contrition, which may not have been that sincere, the father ran to meet him, welcomed him home, and also threw a big party. The older son who had dutifully, though not joyfully, done what he was supposed to do, responded much like Judas: “Why does he get a party when the rest of us have been doing our job and never even got a barbecue?”
The father uses similar words to Jesus’ response: “You are always with me, but we thought your brother was dead and now he is alive. It is right that we should make merry.”
Whether Mary was there to hear those parables we don’t know, other than she seemed to understand how to live out the extravagant love of God in her words and actions. For Jesus, her actions were not unusual; he was familiar with extravagance. He was the incarnation of a spendthrift God. And he didn’t flinch when he told those parables, or follow them with saying, “Remember those kind of things only happen occasionally; it’s not like you can live that way.” He told the stories and left them there: this is what love looks like. Period.
I wish that such extravagance were so familiar to us.