When a summer thunderstorm drives 12-year-old Samuel Chambers into a local antique shop, he finds himself watching through a crack in the door as three old fortune tellers from a visiting fair scratch a message onto the surface of a table: “Find the Tree of Life.” Tragedy strikes his family less than 24 hours later, and as those words echo in his mind he realizes that Finding the Tree of Life is his only hope. His quest to defeat death entangles him and his best friend Abra in an ancient conflict, and a series of strange events leads them closer to the Tree, closer to reversing the tragedy that took place. Can death be defeated? But as his own personal quest unfolds, Samuel comes face to face with a deeper, more difficult question: Could it be possible that death is a gift?
Friday, May 8th, 2015
6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Join Shawn Smucker, author of “The Day the Angels Fell”
for a reading/talk and book signing.
$5.00 cash or check donation requested (more appreciated, a portion of proceeds benefit our Social Outreach/St. Martin’s Hospitality Center)
Child care provided.
Saturday, May 9th, 2015
2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Join author, Shawn Smucker for Writing Workshop
“The Power of Story and Our Power to Write a New Story: Righting Our Way through Grief & Everything Else”
EVERYONE is welcome and encouraged to join us for this workshop focusing on the transformative power of story in our lives and in our hands. You don’t need to consider yourself a “writer” to attend. Everyone can benefit from this experiential workshop.
$20.00 donation requested (more appreciated)
Space limited. Please r.s.v.p. PreetamDas at email@example.com by Friday, May 1st to reserve a spot. No payment is required to reserve your spot. Payment by cash or check only accepted at the workshop.
I wake early and make the hour long train trip to a doctor’s appointment. We finally arrive at the train depot in the transportation center and I step out of the train with the sleepy-eyed commuting workers and texting students and make my way to the bus terminal. I feel wide-eyed in the city this morning; like I’ve never been here before, even though my physical therapy appointments mean I’m here at least once a week, sometimes twice. Today, though, the steel gray of the normally sunny skies, somehow seems to emphasize, rather than cover, other shadows: the streets are dirtier, the hungry are hungrier; hope seems to always slip in the pavement cracks or slide around buried rebel roots just before I can step in it. I aim, step forward, and hope evaporates. I’m puddle jumping in a hope mirage. The violence of racism, the inhumanity of police-state brutality, and injustice across this country continues to grow, continues to break my heart and then, when I’m weak and tired, invite me to despair. I haven’t felt more like giving Christmas a complete pass than I do this year in a long time. Just meet it at the door at Twelve midnight, December 24, explain, “No, just not this year. I’m sorry, not this year,” and go back to bed, or prayer, or the streets. At the transportation center, the connecting hub for the regional train, the Amtrak, and the city buses, I look around and I can’t help but think of lyrics from Les Miserables:
“At the end of the day
You’re another day older,
that’s all you can say
for the life of the poor.
It’s a struggle, it’s a war,
and there’s nothing that anyone’s giving
One more day, standing about, what is it for?
One day less to be living.”
The Broadway lyrics in my head are interrupted by the Christmas carols playing over the speakers amid the morning rush and exhaust:
“Come, they told me, ” the song began and they seemed to. I look around and see them shuffling. The crew cut blonde guy with defeat in his eyes older than he is shuffles right into my personal space and behind me, studying every crevice and corner for a cigarette butt. He looks up just enough and just often enough as a safety precaution. He is maybe twenty-three. Stooped, leveled, solidly defeated at twenty-three.
“Our finest gifts we bring…pa rump a bum bum,” the story of the drummer boy continues while a few feet away a half a dozen others are shuffling. One man is rummaging through a trash can. Another shuffles left, then right, but never shuffling too far away to protect his two thirteen-gallon kitchen trash bags full of aluminum cans for recycling. I wonder what desperation is making this necessary: his own hunger, his family, needing medication, or a fix for an addiction, but no matter what the reason, they all grow despair, they each rob our spirit and leech our humanity.
“I am a poor boy, too…pa rump a bum bum,” the steady, solemn carol continues and I think that there, in that one unassuming word of the carol, seemes to be the key: “too,” “I am a poor boy, too,” a poor boy, also; a poor boy like you: a King on the inside but poor on the out. One of the half dozen homeless men is moving in start and stop, herky jerky, wide circular motions, his hands in the waist of his layers of pants. The others continue, intense as a forensics team, scouring the area for change or cigarette butts. And this, this is their long day and their hungry night; every night, their every day; everyday for what the Les Miserables lyricist called “the wretched of the earth.” For me, this is a few minutes of my day on my way to my physical therapy appointment. These are lean times. I have nothing extra to share today. My spouse and I live simply; more faith than funds, but I’m assured of at least my next meal and sometimes I remember my song.
Of all that I don’t remember from my childhood, I remember that someone sang over me when I was a baby. I had a cradle song and it seemed only logical that if you’ve got a cradle song then you know for sure what your Homecoming song will be. I wonder, did Christ at Calvary hear even an echo in His Mother’s weeping of His cradle song, of Mary’s Magnificat. I wonder if it welcomed Him home. I wonder if these shuffling, searching men had a cradle song, if they had someone to sing over them. I wonder if it would matter at all now, if they did have one, but they didn’t even know it. “Probably not,” I think, “except maybe, maybe some grace could let a humble and very late cradle song still be their Homecoming song; at least as a back up. If there’s a Book of Life, there’s bound to be an even Bigger Book of Commentary, Corrections, and Back up Homecoming Songs. Everyone has to have a welcome song, especially when the world has been so cold, so brutal; when our waiting, our Advent, has been so long. We should have a Homecoming song. So I grabbed the bus schedule and around its paramenter I wrote:
“This cradle song’s for the brokenhearted,
Hope is born for wounded souls;
Calling all to come as children:
The scared, the least, the left behind.
Lay down your cares,
Let Me dry all your tears,
Trade your songs of sorrow now
For the Savior’s lullaby:
“I rest in Jesus
as Jesus rests in me.
I’m never afraid
Nestled in the Prince of Peace,
I’m never afraid, nestled in the Prince of Peace.”
I look up from the bus schedule as the aluminum can man boards a city bus followed by a few of his friends, leaving the others to scatter.
We all scatter, all of us, all of our cradle songs half-remembered, our stories untold, and Homecoming songs unsung.
We all scatter, brothers unclaimed.
– PreetamDas Kirtana 12/8/14
An Epiphany of Angels
“I’ll decide, In a moments time, To turn away, Leave it all behind.
So we climb, So we’re all told the line, The crowd is home, The treasure found.
So let it go, Wake up, Wake up, Wake up, We’re almost home . . . ” -Moby ft. Damien Jurado
After showering this evening I walk to the bedroom and lie down. The scent of cedar and myrrh rises from the body that carries me but that was never really mine. Lying here, what I can see framed by the bedroom doorway looks like a living still from a familiar movie, a screen that I could walk through and again be in a completely different world, like the children in the C.S. Lewis books, passing into another grand and terrifying world behind all of the woolen coats in the back of that old wardrobe. The doorway is itself a keyhole; a keyhole that we unlock by walking through. Resting here in dusk light and stillness, the soft, warm blanket of believing in safety for just a few minutes again, I only observe, free of any temptation to enter. To leave this space, to unlock the door by my entrance is to again enter the world of grace and brutality. To cross this threshold, in crossing every threshold and passing every portal is the magnificent, routine epiphany of birth and baptism. We are born of the Spirit, birthed from the womb of illusion and isolation, only to be born again of the Spirit.
Every doorway entered, every hand extended, every risk to speak and to listen, is certainly a kind of baptism, a happy funeral, the burial and resurrection that baptism represents. In all of these monumental, minute ways we are baptised: when we enter and close the door behind us instead of in front of us – we are burying isolation so that we can rise in community; when we cleanse ourselves of our need for protection to reveal the grace, to instead of being safe, being willing to risk love again; when we make an Exodus from the bondage of fear and self-obsession to the promised land of a loving God and neighbor-love, when we immerse our ‘no’ and it comes up out of the waters a ‘Yes’; a breathless, trembling, astonished ‘Yes’ perhaps, but distinctly a ‘Yes’.
To leave the banks of the river and step into the waters, to leave the bed, to step out the door, to leave the house and risk the first chance of eye contact again today is to trust the forgiveness we’ve received and given; and the forgiveness still in progress. It’s to invest in hope despite all of the backing from the deep pockets of despair, it is to face fear again each time for a moment as we brush by it on our way out. It’s a disappointing realization, the incredible shelf life of fear compared to that of hope. If fear has the shelf life of say, canned beans; hope is the local organic dairy product and seems to need to be restocked constantly. This is why some wise teachers counsel us to not believe in hope as an emotion, but as something much deeper, something unchanging, something solid. Take a shovel to the surface and it’s hard to tell what you’ll find, but once we hit the foundation, there’s only Rock, only unyielding firmness. This is not just “where hope lives”, this, down here, underneath, this is Hope itself. This is hope that propels us out of the safety of our solitude and into relationships in this world where fear seems to be always in the spotlight and has a longer shelf life and shame sells better. This is an insidious hope that sends us daily into our world where grace is more abundant than grief, but rarely reported, rarely celebrated. This hope is the assurance of those not blind since birth; those that walk in our world where we are so rarely seen that it is unsettling when we finally are. This is our world, populated with what Hafiz called “thirsty fish swimming in the Ocean”, and yet these waters are the hope of Life that move through us. Parched for communion, desperate to be heard, to be seen and to belong, we look past each other and then complain that we can’t find God. But if our “searching for God” leads us past each other, past ‘Jesus in all His disguises’ on the corner, at the check-out lane, the pride parade, in the shelter, and in our enemy, not only have we passed God, we’ve stopped looking for God and have simply resumed our regularly scheduled self-seeking. Chances are good that we’re trying again to “protect our heart by acting like we don’t have one” to quote an unforgettable Facebook meme. I loved that. Boy does that fit. I loved it more of course, before quickly realizing how often and how well it describes…me. I mean why on earth would we Not be scared? Why on earth would we not be guarding our hearts?
Too often another driver’s bad decision can change our lives in a moment, shaking our core so deeply, that like i did, we find ourselves vomiting weeks later. Too often she says that she Never did, when your whole life has been built around believing that she always had. Too often he says that he did, when everything in you needs to hear and believe his Denial Not his confession. Too often the doctor says, “Stage 4, cancer”. Too often people are hungry and shamed rather than fed. Too often the test is positive, the funds have been cut, the medication unaffordable. Too often we recycle paper, plastic, and glass but treat each other as disposable. Too often there’s still no work, there’s still no sleep, still no relief to be seen. Too often they don’t call back, we don’t apologize; too often there isn’t another chance. Too often our isolation is finally no longer a choice. “He just couldn’t live by himself anymore.” “People will look after her there.” Too often we never saw it coming. Too often we knew it all along, but there’s still nothing we can do about it. We can’t even attempt to weigh these without being weighted by them. When I take a measure I find ample reason to be scared and abundant reason to guard our hearts except for this prior situation, this pre-existing condition, the condition of my being included; all of us being included. There’s that more ancient epiphany: that the gift of the Magi was not the gifts that they brought, but the gifts of invitation and calling and acceptance that they received – the first Gentiles to witness the birth arrival of God as man, signaling that all of us are now included in every “Don’t be afraid”, in all of the “glad tidings”, in every bit of the Good News to come. This is for everyone, no exceptions. “Peace be still” is for this storm. “Still waters” and “green pastures” will calm this mind this very night. Because we are accepted, we cannot ever really be alone; never really despairing. We are born of community to be in community. We’ve been accepted. We’ve been included and there’s no way to un-include ourselves. Of course, we can turn in exactly the opposite direction, but that only changes our position, not our inclusion. Because we too, have been invited, called, and accepted, we slowly learn to be less afraid, to guard our hearts less vigilantly, less often. Because we bear the family name of “Accepted”, of “Reconciled”, of “beloved Child of God”, we hold fast to the words of the prophet Isaiah even when the storm is raging or the drought unending:
“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.
I’ve called your name. Your Mine.
When you’re in over your head, I will be there with you.
When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and hard place, it won’t be a dead end –
Because I am God, your personal God, your Savior.
Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert. Be present. I’m about to do something brand-new! It’s bursting out!
I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands.
Strengthen the feeble hands, the weak-in-the-knees, say to those with fearful hearts,
‘Be strong, don’t be afraid. God is here, right here to put things right. Blind eyes will open,
deaf ears unstopped, lame men and women will leap like dear,
the voiceless will break into song. Water will gush in the wilderness
and streams flow in the desert. Gladness will overtake you
and all sorrow and sighs will flee away.”
(Isaiah 43:1-4,16-21/ 35:3-6)
Perhaps because we’ve been a witness to the voiceless breaking into song, we also believe in the hope of water in our personal wilderness; in streams flowing in our intimate desert experience. Perhaps because we’ve had a moment, at least, of being overtaken with gladness, even if we only dreamed it so vividly or the life of the vision was so tangible, it was still, however fleetingly, very real and because we know the reality of this, we also trust in the possibility of “all sorrows and sighs fleeing away.” Perhaps because I’ve lost so much; because we lose so much, because I’ve been so lost so often; because we all find ourselves so often lost, I’m reminded of how much it’s all about being lost and found; of losing and finding again. In “the gospel of the Gospel”, Luke 15, everything is lost. Those three parables that encapsulate the gospel: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. But everything is risked by the shepherd, the woman, and the prodigals’ father and everything is found; everything is reconciled and all of it is celebrated. If it or they can be loved, it says, we can be reconciled. And so we hang on to hope, the hope beneath our feet, filling our lungs; the hope that is both, the beating and the opening of our hearts. A chorus becomes more clear now from a song heard faintly long ago. In our longing search for hope the song’s words I can finally begin to hear:
“Where is hope you ask?
Where can hope be found?
Look beneath your feet my child,
You’re standing on hope-full ground.
Remove your shoes and Look to the Hills;
For hope rides the wind as well –
Never departing AND always arriving,
My Hope will never fail.”
In our crisis and grief, in trials and in isolation, in physical pain and emotional distress we cling to that foundation; we go that Rock. We are a cruciform arrangement of surrender, sacrifice, and acceptance as we prostrate ourselves toe to toe, palm to palm, face to face, face down in our foundation. In our chronic state of recovery, our healing always “in-progress”, we move to the banks of the river. We inch toward the water’s edge, the open door, the pregnant pause, the moment of commitment. In our baptism, as Christ did in His, we choose Presence over protection, person hood and kinship over individuality, community at any price over ‘our way no matter what the cost’, and we commit ourselves to the mire of grace over stainless self-righteousness. And we hang on to hope, but not like a teddy bear, no, we hang on to hope like the Mother Bear she is. We hang on to the the hope of love and acceptance, the hope of lullabies singing comforting truths to us; we hang on to the hope of angels.
I remember my birth mother. In an effort to calm my night time fears she would come to my bedroom and sit on the edge of my bed. She’d sit there on my bedspread with the astronauts on it that I had pressed wrinkle-free around me, where with my three-foot stuffed Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the pair of teddy bears, she would sing; not sweetly, but lovingly. She couldn’t sing “sweetly” any more than I can, but her heart for me was in every word as she sang,
“All night, all day, angels watching over me, my Lord. All night, all day angels watching over me.”
I hope that she was right about this one good thing. I hope that angels do come. Angels that leave behind our tears and trials, our failing bodies and slipping minds and carry our broken and longing spirits across that next threshold. There in that first wordless, holy moment of darshan, of seeing and being seen by God, each in our fullness, I will forgive God and God will still forgive me and, in mercy, understand that even though I failed, I was still, against all odds a man who still loved, who still occasionally stumbled into grace and shared the hope of that ever after.
– PreetamDas Kirtana