Among Many Tasks

The fall will bring a slightly different schedule for me.  The whole thing holds together and will open me to new ways of deepening my vocation and the little works which make up my vocation.  I’ll be doing a lot, and I’m looking forward to it.

Perhaps it seems inappropriate to hold this poem on this blog, but it seems a striking reminder for me as a parent.  In the end, as I see it and believe it and imagine it, all our small works turn to one task of continued self-surrender, continued dying.

That dying sits at the bottom of my faith, though that bottom would quickly, almost too effortlessly, be named as living.  That eternal life only comes after one has regularly and daily passed through the gates of death.  Life comes from death, says the One we follow.  May this poet’s words be a reminder of these things to me:

Among Many Tasks

Among many tasks

very urgent

I’ve forgotten that

it’s also necessary

to be dying

frivolous

I have neglected this obligation

or have been fulfilling it

superficially

beginning tomorrow

everything will change

I will start dying assiduously

wisely optimistically

without wasting time

Tadeusz Rozewicz (From The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry)

Gratitude

You don’t have an income or a bedroom that belongs to you.  You don’t have clothes that haven’t been given to you.  So, beautiful son of ours, remember to be thankful because your entire life is still so early and so young that it’s all a gift.

Walking into your room, which I still say is my home office, you are surrounded by gifts, things given, including the words painted on your walls which were done by Auntie Sheila and Uncle Alan.  When you’re able to read those words, they too will remind you that you come from some where, that your life was given to you and given to us.

Everything around you, unearned by you and really unearned by us, is a bold or implicit sign to be grateful.

Intimate Partners, Violence, and Other Related Things

There is a misconception that abuse is limited to physicality (or heterosexual relationships) but it’s not.  I believe emotional, psychic and psychological abuse is also unacceptable and just as damaging.

There is so much worth rehearsing in our heads, pushing into our ways of being, and practicing in our relationships in those words and in the post below.  I’ve been encountering more conversations about intimate partner violence, relational abuse, domestic violence, whichever brand you’re familiar with.  And among the many things I question and consider, I come back to how I’ll raise my son to live in the world.

But I’m a pastor and a teacher, and I always (and almost immediately) question what I’m saying and showing and putting forward for the people who are a part of my spheres of ministry and influence.  I hope the men especially that I know are doing the same things as they listen to the news, watch television, and engage in barbershop talk.

The sinister evil of abuse is in its pervading, serpent-like ability to creep and dance and stand in culture as if it belongs, as if the world is as it should be when people harm one another.  Of course, it is a part of my faith structure, my theology, my talk about God-in-relation-to-God’s-stuff to say that the world is not exactly the way it should be and that such violence is only a grand, bold, and startling show of how bad the world is in these instances.

Relational violence is a narrow version of violence, and violence in its broadest sense is wrong and misdirected and worth our being troubled over and changed by.  But this type of violence, this violence that happens between people who supposedly love each other, people who are related to each other, is so destructive.

I tell couples in my church who are preparing for marriage that marriage is so potentially and actually effective, for good or bad, because marriage is one of those mystical vehicles that God uses to initiate, enrich, or nurture grace in our lives.  Of course, I can say about other vehicles and not marriage alone, but my point is to say that the impact of marriage is in its strong placement in our lives.  We do marriage daily, and when we give ourselves to certain practices daily, those practices–loving practices, misshapen practices, and so forth–eventually because the ways we get whatever we perceive God has for us.

Further, or in other words, marriage specifically and loving relationships more broadly construct how we understand, accept, and exhibit love.  Those relationships influence and shape us.  So when those relationships are inherently and historically violent, we attach all types of meanings to that violence in the context of a relationship, right?

We think that relationships are supposed to be violent and that when violence isn’t present, the relationship is off.  We believe worse things, too, like our prospects for better love or different love are low.  We set ourselves into a theological or psychological framework to judge our love and our promise-keeping by our settling with abuse.  We believe our faith demands that loyalty and commitment be expressed through the daily submission of our whole selves to the foolish presentation of hatred through words and gestures and the lack of good words and good gestures.

I’m grateful for all the good teachers and tutors who help me walk through the conversations (hushed though they may be) happening in the media these days.  This post–and perhaps all the posts over at the Crunk Feminist Collective–needs to make its rounds.  Read the full post here.  And share it.

An Old Friend

I visited an old friend this past week. I’ve known her since 1984. We spent lots of time together when I lived in Urbana, Illinois. We visited together at least once each week until she moved away in 2002. She moved to a small town near Schenectady, New York and changed her name. I knew her as the Elite Diner. Now she’s the Chuck Wagon.

I had to go about 900 miles to see her. According to the map, she was just a few miles off the road on my trip to Maine, so it seemed a good detour. Turns out it was a great detour.

I scoured the roadside as I drove down the Western Turnpike (Hwy. 20) hoping to see her at every turn. Then, suddenly, there she was. Just as I’d remembered her. Silver with red trim, the rounded corners, windows across the front. The Elite Diner.

She lived on the corner of Elm and Vine in Urbana the 18 years I had known her. She and her cramped parking lot took up the corner, so she looked bigger than she does now.

I parked and climbed a few unfamiliar steps, then entered surroundings that were familiar and comforting. She has not changed much on the inside. Same green and pink tiles on the floor with the same cracks in the tiles. The same silver, pink, and green on walls and ceiling, same booths, though reupholstered.

I sat on the same stool at the counter I had occupies hundreds of times, sometimes by myself, sometimes with one of my children on a stool next to me. The green Formica on the counter was the same. The seam in the Formica had been rubbed smooth and white from thousands of plates of food and mugs of coffee sliding over it.

I had spent hundreds of hours of writing, thinking, planning, or just gathering my early-morning thoughts. I’d had meetings with colleagues and bosses there. I’d commiserated with Bob the welder, who also had an infant son at the time. We’d compare hours of sleep or lack thereof from the night before.

But mostly, this became the place I shared with my kids. This was where we connected over coffee and hot chocolate, sometimes a sweet roll, sometimes a Number 9 (an unhealthy but totally satisfying plate of biscuits covered with hash browns and gravy). My children, now 32 and 25, never hesitated if I woke them before dawn, two full hours before their school started, as long as the question was, “Want to go to the Diner?”

I can’t tell you much about what we did while sitting there. We talked, or not.  Sometimes the talk was about school or homework. We listened to the music overhead and I sometimes I talked about (or made up stuff about) the oldies playing and what was going on with me when the song was new. And we watched and evaluated the cook as he labored over the fried eggs, pancakes, bacon, and other breakfast items being prepared. “Don’t pat the pancakes.” That’s one of my cardinal rules of breakfast cooking, if you care about tasteful, fluffy pancakes, that is. It’s also a pretty good metaphor for lots of things in life. That was something we always watched for.

I was sitting on this very stool the morning my daughter and I had a falling out that ended our trips to the Diner for a few years. It was a sad but necessary morning for each of us. As a friend of mine said to me, “Parenting is about teaching your children to deal with disappointment.” That was one of those morning when we each learned lessons we didn’t want, but needed.

To finish, John Powell’s post, click here.

Where Wounds Become Insignificant

When a wounded child climbs into its mother’s lap, it draws so much strength from the mother’s presence that its own wound becomes insignificant.  So too with us when we climb into the lap of our great Mother God.  Our crisis soon domesticates and comes into a peaceful perspective, not because it goes away, but because the presence of God so overshadows us.

When I read this in Forgotten Among the Lilies, I thought of Eliot, next to Bryce, slipping at the table Sunday, nearly falling to the floor but stopping as his ear clipped the chair.  Hard enough to sting.  Hard enough to crack the little eruption that is a child’s pain magnified by surprise and other people’s company.

I had one of his arms to lift him.  Maggie came over to pick him up because he was crying by then.  He complained about the pain and Maggie took him in her arms, his head to her shoulder, and convinced him by her hug that he would live through it.

He calmed as long as she held him.  Then he cried again, trading his mom for his dad.  David, master of redirection with the boys that he is, turned Eliot’s attention with a high-pitched question.

The image of a child in pain.  The image of a mother, then a father, and a few onlookers.  It seems like these words are easily seen.

What I Fear

A news story about the United Nations and the Roman church’s response to sexual abuse of minors and an article about the Texas teacher who assaulted her students by giving a boy a birthday lapdance.  I read those stories before I sat to write.  Of course I thought of how me and Dawn have been troubled over the ways we will shepherd our son through his natural social disposition toward a more realistic humanity because of the world’s wrongness or, the world’s distortion and because people in the world are wrong and distorted.

When I think about teachers harming students and family members harming students, it makes me shake my head in disgust.  Raising a child, a son in my case, is such an experiment in trust.

I think of those boys and girls who were molested–even if only in a psychological way, although such molestation always joins other kinds–and how their skies have fallen, been severely limited, or turned perpetually bleak.

What I fear is my son’s absolute proximity to children who are hurt, victimized, ignored, unseen, underfed, and unloved.  I fear the unnoticed ways all our children are hindered because of the stupid decisions of a person, a family, an institution, a culture which promotes poor ways of parenting as a society.

There is only so much a parent can do.  There are so many things that a father can’t control about his child’s path.  There is so much trust inherent in bringing home a baby.

I’d love to see my son protected and I will do everything I can to preserve his life, his whole life, his happy life, his enriched humanity.  But I do fear that I will change him and his budding openness to people in general because of the specific people who don’t deserve his beautiful self.

Allergies

Puffy eyes, a dripping, sniffling nose, tiny and multiple bumps that remind me of hills on his face.  It’s either an allergic reaction or an allergy, which is the same thing, isn’t it?

In some ways, the canvas of my son’s beautiful face made only more beautiful can be fixed by something diagnosed, something prescribed.  In other ways, the rumple in our lives that comes with spring is a reminder of how this wonderful son has things happening in him that I’ll never see, never be able to control, never be able to change.

Seeing him helps me see that as he grows, I must grow.  Grow to surrender that daily lie I live into so well: that I control any of this experience called raising a child.  I have a part and I’ll play it.  But there’s someone else in control.  That’s the hope and that’s the worse feeling in the world.

Parenting and the Divine Advantage

I think this quote can touch a lot of the places I’m walking through as a father.  It’s admittedly about a common prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, but it seems to relate to the giving and surrendering of the will, the offering of many little, hardly-noticed acts which are so common in parenting.  Can what a mother or father does be turned into the Divine’s advantage?  Can wiping a nose or a butt or a shoe be taken into the larger world of God’s stuff?  One would hope.

This is from Evelyn Underhill’s reflection on the phrase, “Thy Kingdom Come”:

Thus more and more we must expect our small action to be overruled and swallowed up in the vast Divine action; and be ready to offer it, whatever it may be, for the fulfillment of God’s purpose, however much this may differ from our purpose.  The Christian turns again and again from that bewildered contemplation of history in which God is so easily lost, to the prayer of filial trust in which He is always found; knowing here that those very things which seem to turn to man’s disadvantage, may yet work to the Divine advantage.

Things That Strengthen Us, pt 2 of 2

From Christian Wiman’s meditation, in My Bright Abyss (pg. 161):

Life tears us apart, but through those wounds, if we have tended them, love may enter us.  It may be the love of someone you have lost.  It may be the love of your own spirit for the self that at time you think you hate.  However it comes through, in all these—of all these and yet more than, so much more—there burns the abiding love of God.  But if you find that you cannot believe in God, then do not worry yourself with it.  No one can say what names or forms God might take, nor gauge the intensity of unbelief we may need to wake up our souls.  My love is still true, my children, still with you, still straining through your ambitions and your disappointments, your frenzies and forgetfulness, through all the glints and gulfs of implacable matter—to reach you, to help you, to heal you.

Things That Strengthen Us, pt 1 of 2

From Christman Wiman’s meditation, in My Bright Abyss, undoubtedly written first to the close loves of his life (pg. 161):

My loves, I will be with you, even if I am not with you.  Every day I feel a little more the impress of eternity, learn a little more “the discipline of suffering which leads to peace of the spirit,” as T. S. Eliot said, writing of the seventeenth-century poet and priest George Herbert (read him!), who died when he was thirty-nine and had only recently found true happiness with his new wife and new commitment to God.  My loves, I love you with all the volatility and expansiveness of spirit that you have taught me to feel, and I feel your futures opening out from you, and in those futures I know my own.  I will be with you.  I will comfort you in your despair and I will share in your joy.  They need not be only grief, only pain, these black holes in our lives.  If we can learn to live not merely with them but by means of them, if we can let them be part of the works of sacred art that we in fact are, then these apparent weaknesses can be the very things that strengthen us.

Favorite Paradoxical Questions

I’m reading Christian Wiman’s plunging book, My Bright Abyss.  Christian is a poet, which means he’s a thinker and feeler and imaginative person.  I’ve come through the early chapters of his meditations, small but full chunks about art and death and love and sorrow.  He’s turning to the reality (the notion?) of God in the section I’m reading now.

He opens by restating something I’ve heard from you.  Christian says behind all of our beliefs, whatever they may be, is the child’s insistent question: Why?

This question has been your favorite for a while.  Like cornbread or chocolate or cookies, the word comes from your lips with regularity.  I can anticipate it the way I can you being the first to rise from bed.

And with your question comes the distant penetrating truth that whatever I say, whatever your mama says, exhausts.  Our answers, however clever, will meet an end, will stall in silence.  We will not answer every creation of your curiosity.  You have too many questions.  You’re too interested in each answer.

And it shows me how deep conversation can go, how full an answer quickly offered can turn into another invitation.  At my best, I take a breath and come up with another answer, one that can make sense to you.  And even while I’m answering it, I know that that shrunken answer won’t be fully true.

I want to tell you the exact truth, the best answer, even when I know you won’t grasp it.  Why?  You keep asking.  We keep trying.  And when we don’t know how to answer, you’re still waiting.  And we sit in quiet and ask silence to tell us.

My Fear of Losing You

Beneath our enduring friendship

the unspoken, latent fear

I never mentioned to you,

that I would lose you

to work, to poor health,

to a faraway move

or something unforeseen.

And then one day I did lose you.

Death sliced you from me

with a condor’s swiftness,

ripped you out of

my fearful grasp without

a moment’s hesitation.

Always death wins

in who gets to keep.

You are gone now

and so is my old fear,

leaving plenty of room

for loneliness and sorrow

but also sufficient space

for the savoring of love,

the one thing Death

could not take from me.

From Joyce Rupp’s My Soul Feels Lean