lenten journal: what is today?


    Some days on the calendar pass by as one in a succession of days. Others draw a line between before and after, leaving an indelible mark. They do not stand alone — even the most cataclysmic of events is a culmination of antecedents, but the event itself causes us to remember one day in particular as The Day. Garrison Keilor’s list of events sent me searching for what today means.

    April 14, 1865 was the day John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head at the Ford Theater, five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appamattox. Keillor comments:

    “Lincoln had received word of Robert E. Lee’s surrender and the end of the Civil War just a few days before he died. He spent his last week as president arguing with Congress about how to readmit the Southern states to the Union. He believed that there should be as little punishment for the rebels as possible.

    “He had a dream that week that he was on a boat moving rapidly toward shore. It was the same dream he’d had just before every positive development since the war started. He believed it was a sign that everything was coming out right. That afternoon, at 3:00, Lincoln took a ride in an open carriage with his wife and he was the happiest she’d ever seen him. He told her, ‘I consider this day, the war, has come to a close.’”

    April 14, 1912 – at 11:40 pm – was the day the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg. The “unsinkable ship” sailed on hubris as much as water. Barely two hours into the following morning, the ship had gone down killing over fifteen hundred people.

    April 14, 1935, Black Sunday, was the worst of the dust storms to hit Texas and Oklahoma, which was known as the Dust Bowl. At one point, that region was the most fertile in the country, but was over cultivated to the point of exhaustion. “The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face,” Avis D. Carlson wrote in a New Republic article. “People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk… We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming Real.”

    April 14, 2006 – today — is the day my cousin Ryan turns 13, which doesn’t carry the slightest hint of tragedy. His thirteen years on the planet stack up as good news. I’m grateful he’s alive and well. Today he officially becomes a teenager, a particularly significant American rite of passage.

    This year, today is Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ death, which matters to some more than others. Last night, after Maundy Thursday services at our respective churches, Ginger and I planned to meet for dinner. The place we picked had, unknown to us, gone out of business, so we ended up at Bull’s Run, a pub in our neighborhood. In a matter of about a half an hour, we went from the solemn darkness of our Tenebrae services to someone doing a horrible karaoke rendition of “Hotel California.” The bar was packed; my guess is we were the only ones in the room who had come from church.

    My schedule is a bit different from most Fridays because the owner of the restaurant decided to stop serving lunch, so instead of going in at nine I’m going in at four. I had already tried to mentally prepare myself for making burgers between noon and three; now I will get to spend it quietly. I’m grateful for the gift, even if I do lose some hours. I want to take time to notice, to pay attention.

    When I was in Dallas a few weeks back, my friend Lynn and I were talking about grief. She told about their dog dying and the way her three sons reacted to losing their lifelong friend. They were in the car one day when one of the boys said, “Mom, how can all these people just keep going on with their lives? Don’t they know what happened?”
    No, they don’t. They have too much other stuff coming at them, without much help in how to make sense of it at all. So says Robert Phillips:


    War Dims Hope for Peace.
    Plane Too Close to Ground, Crash Probe Told.
    Clinton Wins Budget; More Lies Ahead.

    Miners Refuse to Work after Death.
    Include Your Children When Baking Cookies.
    War Dims Hope for Peace.

    Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Experts Say
    Prostitutes Appeal to Pope.
    Clinton Wins Budget; More Lies Ahead.

    Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half.
    Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide.
    & War Dims Hope for Peace.

    Stolen Painting Found by Tree.
    Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over.
    & Clinton Wins Budget; More Lies Ahead.

    Iraqi Head Seeks Arms.
    Police Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers.
    War Dims Hope for Peace.
    Clinton Wins Budget; More Lies Ahead

    How do I mark today? Though the coincidences are interesting, there must be more than the irony of a president’s death, a vicious storm, and an archetypal maritime tragedy all happening on Crucifixion Day. There has to be more to the soundtrack than Daniel Powter singing, “You’ve had a bad day.” Try as I might, I will not be able to create the despair and hopelessness of the disciples as they saw Jesus die and then ran to hide from whatever might be coming next. I know Sunday’s coming; we’ve already printed the orders of service.

    Jesus’ death wasn’t big news on the day it happened, outside of his circle of friends, anymore than those who will die today in the Congo or Darfur or Baghdad or Boston. On this side of the Resurrection, his death is big news because it offers us the chance to move through despair to hope, to find some meaning in death beyond grief. And to give some meaning to life beyond making ourselves comfortable. Ginger chooses the language of “Jesus gave his life for us” rather than “Jesus died for us,” saying that all of Jesus’ earthly existence was part of the act, not just the death on the cross. He was about more than the Big Finish.

    Katrina Vanden Heuvel posted a wonderful tribute to William Sloane Coffin in which she writes, “A few years ago, James Carroll wrote of Coffin’s gospel, ‘…What a gospel it was. The world he described was upside-down; the church on the side of the poor; the powerful at risk for losing everything; the disenfranchised as sole custodians of moral legitimacy. Coffin, in his passionate sermon that day, was perhaps the first person from which you heard that defining question: Whose side are you on?’”

    Though it’s tempting to flee like the first disciples, or act like it’s just another day, may we be disciples who stay and give our lives, everyday.


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