Grace, Grit, and Gravy

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I’m several years late on the bestselling book, but prompted by reading her wonderful blog recently and the fact that one version or another of it seemed somehow always in my view every time I was in a bookstore, I finally gave in and bought a copy of Ann Voskamp’s “One Thousand Gifts”. Somehow the few passages I had turned to prior to purchasing the book didn’t cue me in on what might have been obvious to most from the title alone: this book is about gratitude. I mean, I’m sure I might have thought that it had something to do with gratitude, that whatever spiritual story or practice or formula the author was sharing included gratitude, but I was wrong. Spoiler alert: it’s actually all about gratitude. Really, it’s not about anything else at all. It’s all about gratitude and creating the mother of all gratitude lists, hence the title, “One Thousand Gifts”. Jesus Christ. Had I known I would’ve been grateful to not buy it. Don’t get me wrong, Voskamp’s heart is as beautiful and generous as her writing is eloquent and authentic as it can be. I actually recommend the book, for you. It’s just that for me, halfway through it, I don’t get it really. It’s lovely writing but it might as well be about animal husbandry and written in Farsi. I just don’t get it. I mean such sentiments about gratitude make great Precious Moments coffee mug text, but who really sees everything, e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g as a gift? Never mind who it is, just keep ’em away from me. “Gratitude List #862: shiny dish soap bubbles.” Ugh, truly, like animal husbandry written in Farsi. Mind you, I haven’t finished the book, but right now it seems to me that to accept every little thing, even calamity, as a gift assumes that I even want to be at the party to begin with. “One Thousand Reasons to Want to BE at The Party” would be the primer I need as a prequel. “Parties”, such as this world offers that include such incredible and escalating suffering and the majority of us who are either complicit in the suffering or somehow not heartbroken by it, don’t interest me at all, let alone being at the “gift” receiving table.

Unlike the weaver of the mother of all gratitude lists, I can pretty much count on relating to or at least being amused by David Sedaris’ writing. The other day, after reading a new piece he had written for The New Yorker, I clicked on the title of an essay he had written in 2013. The piece deals with a Sedaris family tragedy and is, I think, some of his finest writing. At one point in the decidedly unsentimental essay Sedaris refers to his family of origin, saying, “Ours is the only club I’ve ever wanted to be a member of,” and I experience a disconnect, an absolute, total disconnect. I simply have no frame of reference for such a sentiment. Families are terrifying and should all come with an escape route. For me, someone screaming, “FAMILY!” in crowded movie theatre would induce way more panic than someone shouting, “FIRE!”. At least with fire there are extinguishers to put it out immediately, but with family you’re stuck undoing the damage for the rest of your damn life.

I don’t think that I’ve ever seriously contemplated staying here. Perhaps that’s not completely true, there have been a few moments and those moments have been the great loves of my little life. It is accurate, though, to say that I cannot remember a time in my life, no matter how young I was, no matter how happy a particular day, when I didn’t contemplate leaving; staying never really seemed like an option, let alone desirable. Group me with those living daily with p.t.s.d. from the car wrecks that are families, and The Church, and the pile up of grief, and those living with p.t.s.d. from actual car wrecks for that matter. The only club I’ve been a member of, and my wanting to had nothing to do with my induction, is the club of outcasts and orphans, the club of mourners and prodigals, the left-out, locked-out, and the left-behind; the club of the never-good-enough, the wanderers and drunkards, the loved in beds and left in alleys, the lepers and the lame, the hungry and the always looking over their shoulder. This is my club. These are my people. No, none of these are badges of honor; membership doesn’t grant boasting rights. None of these are fishing lines for sympathy. None of these negate personal responsibility in my life and in the lives of my people, nor though, does it negate grace and mercy in lieu of being born into boots with straps your own two hands can reach for pulling on. What it does do is give us a completely different frame of reference. Gratitude lists are harder to get to from Survival Kit Checklists. You may hear the word “family” and think safety and refuge; we feel fear or nothing at all. You may hear the word “Christmas” and think of happy hearth, cider-mug smells; we remember hiding or abandonment or chaos. It’s a different life than we dreamed of and your life – your life of one thousand gifts to be grateful for, when we can’t come up with ten good reasons to stay – is a life we can’t even imagine. We don’t even know that language, except as a foreign tongue often spoken by those who sometimes look like us, but turn out to be aliens just the same. One of the few privileges of membership in this club is how often we find ourselves washed ashore together, shipwrecked at Calvary. Those of us who are lucky and brave and have insurance also find ourselves in therapy.

I tried to explain to my therapist today that the expiration date on all of this “everything” we’re supposed to see as “gifts” really ruins the gifts for me. Ask any of us orphans what we want and temporary shelter or foster care may bring relief, but home is what we really want; it’s home because it can’t be taken away. Ask any of us who have truly known hunger what we want and the fast food sandwich or the one-off meal will bring blessed relief, but what we really want looks more like a full pantry, a packed deep freezer; the security of relief without the sting of scarcity or famine tied to the end. I tried to explain how hard it is to even understand how other people seem to find something so good about being alive that they’d want to stay. I just don’t get that, not on my best day.

Sitting across from my therapist I pause, lean forward, and say, “Of course, you don’t have to answer this, after all, you’re the one that’s s’pose to be asking the questions, but you’ve shared briefly how you’ve survived an incredibly painful, life-threatening, life-changing situation. Can you tell me what’s so good about being here, through all of that, that you wanna stay here?”

My therapist, Donetta, originally from Spain, with her large, dark, expressive eyes and mandatory placid-lake-therapist-demeanor, folded her hands in her lap and in her lyrical accent explained how she visited an astrologist after her diagnosis. She said she had gone there wanting to know if she would die, when she would die, and about her relationships. She wanted definite answers. She wanted guarantees. Donetta shared the astrologist’s metaphor.

“He said, eet is like when you can have thee most Wand-er-Full, thee most deLICious meal, all of your very faVOrite, Wand-er-Full foods, but,” she said, her eyes suddenly growing large, feigning wonder, “but Steel, veedy soon your body will begin to diGest, to break Down, and to process this wonderful meal and, of course, eventually, we will go to the bathroom and…”

It’s here that I break in.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said, “but, so the moral of the story is that it all goes to crap? Yeah, that’s where I’m running into the problem.”

I left her office and walked up Roma Street, a neighborhood so monied that even here in the ongoing drought, all of the homes have lush green lawns, many with water fountains and babbling little brooks. The park on Roma has a few tables and benches in addition to the children’s jungle gym area, all shaded by generous, old trees. I found a choice bench, exhaled deeply, and pulled my notebook and pen out of my backpack. I had written nearly a sentence when out of nowhere an old homeless man appeared just to the left of the park bench.

Guess that’s one of the other few benefits of membership in this club, and it’s surprising every time, but no matter what it seems, we will find each other.

“What’cha writin’?,” the old man asked.

“Oh,” I said, looking up, “just jottin’ down some thoughts.”

“Yeah,” he said, sitting down uninvited next to me on the metal bench, “I write sometimes.”

“Better to get it out on paper, otherwise it gets too heavy to carry here,” I said, tapping my forehead.

Underneath his dirty baseball cap, his face was tanned and textured like jerky. His gray hair matted in bands at the top of his t-shirt collar and he sported only two visible teeth which gave even his animated smile the look of something deflated. He took a moment to think about it when I asked how old he was and I was surprised when he decided that he was only sixty-five. Assuming that he was homeless, but still not wanting to be right, I asked him where he lived.

“Oh, I live over at The Regal,” he said, “That ol’ hotel they made into little apartments, not much, just one bedroom, well, it’s just one room.”

Based on his appearance, I was a little surprised that he lived indoors at all, even if it was at a place ironically called “The Regal”. I asked him how he paid for it.

“I’m on SSDI,” he confided, “since, oh, eighty, two, eighty-three.”

“1983, did you say? That’s a long time ago now. What happened?,” I asked.

“I’m paranoid schizophrenic,” he volunteered without any hesitation and without hesitation I asked if he was on medication.

He explained which psychotropic medications didn’t really work and which one was best before admitting, “No, not anymore. I self-medicate,” he said and made the extended pinky and thumb, folded middle fingers-universal sign for booze.

“Well, that kind of medication’s pretty hard on your liver,” I said.

“No,” he said laughing, “I got an iron-clad liver.”

Then he told me how a friend of his, whom he said drank way more than he did, died last month, in an alley up near The Regal, behind the BBQ & Burger Hut.

One other privilege of our membership in this club is knowing that we have nothing to lose, so we will just say it.

“You know,” I said, “I’ll bet if I was sitting here with your friend, he’d tell me how he had an “iron-clad liver”, too. You outta take care a yourself and take it easy on that stuff.”

After fifteen minutes or so I said, “Look, we’ve been visiting too long for me to not even know your name. Sorry about that. What’s your name, brother?,” I asked extending my hand.

“Michael,” he said, taking my hand and smiling. I introduced myself, repeated my name, and he shook my hand again and said, “It’s real good to meet’cha.”

Over nearly the next hour I learned about Michael’s move from Chicago to Florida when he was two and half years old and to New Mexico with his mom and brothers when he was four and heard several random anecdotes about his brothers and his experience in high school. I asked him if he hadn’t married and had children. Now, I’m no prude. I can hold my own and maybe yours too (see what I did there?) when it comes to innuendo and locker room humor, but even I probably blushed as I did my best to not laugh disruptively in the otherwise quiet park as Michael proceeded to rather graphically shared about his attempts to impregnate the woman who would be his son’s mother. Positioning his hands and spreading his legs to illustrate, he explained,

“I had to get it in those, um, what do ya’ call ’em? Utopian tubes.”

Smiling hard against my laughter, I said, “Um, I think it’s fallopian tubes, Michael, but I s’pose, maybe, if it’s real, real good, maybe it is “utopian tubes”. I’m gonna defer to your experience on this one.”

Michael’s experience had been sometime ago now as he put his son at being around forty-seven and mentioned his grandson going in to the Marines, but something Michael had said earlier had stuck in my mind.

“Michael,” I said, “you know earlier when you talked about your mother passing away, you said that the ‘precious Lord took her home’. Now, I’m not trying to sound judgmental, I just know myself pretty well at this point and frankly, Michael, if I was on the street begging for food and drink, hadn’t seen my family in years, and was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, I’d probably have some other names I’d call God besides ‘precious Lord’. I’m guessin’ I’d be pretty bitter in my lucid moments, but all things considered, you seem kinda happy and still willing to accuse God of being good. Why?”

“Look,” Michael said, “I took a class years ago, a, uh, a theology class, that’s what they called it and there was such a fuss over deciding where man came from. Was it a theological cause or a, uh, what’s the word?”

“Evolution,” I supplied.

“Right,” Michael said, “What a fantastic waste of energy is what I always thought. I mean whatever the details, it weren’t no accident. I mean, from a baseline of zero, do you wanna be plus one or minus one? The problem is that some people think that everybody owes ’em somethin’ and some people do owe us somethin’, but then you get that somethin’ an’ some folks keep on askin’, an’ more an’ that is just greedy. I mean, the way I see it, the good Lord put us here so we can hear, see, speak, and breathe; it’s the least we can do. It’s when we don’t do that stuff an’ try and ask for more an’ is ours and complicate it all that we get all scuffed up.”

Well that seemed clear enough without having the blinding sheen of a thousand gifts. I thought of the outrageous dimensions of God’s love described in Ephesians 3:17-18, “how wide and long, how high and deep is God’s love that we would be filled to fullness with God.” Michael’s statement poses it’s own questions to us about our love of God and each other: how wide will we hear and listen? , how long are we willing to see? how high, how life-giving can we speak? how deep can we breathe to be filled with the fullness, the abundance of God? Activist and author, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has written that “People listen because they see signs of hope.” Michael’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia not withstanding, his clear-headedness about life and God randomly glimmered hope for me where gratitude lists had left me discouraged, rather than thankful, so I chased the glimmer and said,

“Michael, you know one of the things that wears me out?”

He looked at me, shrugging his shoulders.

“I hear people say stuff all the time like how we should all see everything as a gift, how it’s all from God. “It’s all good,” they say over and over and I’m guessin’ they have to repeat it constantly because they’re battling reality in order to hold on to that bull crap. I mean, anyone with two eyes and a tiny bit of honesty can clearly see that it is so not all a gift. If it were all God, if it were all from God, well, there’d be no need of God, would there? People tell us “it’s all good” and then, when we cannot help but see that it most obviously is not all good, we also get to feel somehow less than, somehow less spiritual for not joining them in their denial. Christians’ version of this sometimes sounds like how it’s all a part of God’s plan, grrrr,” I growl my frustration before continuing, “I mean, I really do actually believe that God has a vision, a purpose, and a plan for our lives, but, I’m also convinced that disharmony and division, broken families and broken hearts, violence and cancer are not a part of that plan! Honestly, if there’s anything worse than going through some hardship or heartbreak, it has to be being told that your hardship or heartbreak is really a “gift”; that your pain is actually “good”; and, worse yet, that it’s from some monster God who uses tragedy as the preferred lesson plan.

Apparently unphased by my little rant, Michael turned to look at me directly and asked, “Say, do you know that old story about the man with two sons?”

“Well,” I replied, “I know the parable in Luke about the man with two sons. It’s my favorite.”

“No, no, no,” he said, shaking his head, “the other story.”

“I guess I don’t then,” I said and Michael proceeded to tell me his version of an old story that it turned out I did know and had repeated myself, the hybrid parable that had been handed down and born originally from the James Kirkwood novel.

“So this old and very wealthy man had two sons,” he began, “and one day late in his life he decides to devise a kind of test for the boys to really, you know, gage their love and loyalty, to really see who they were becoming as men. So the father brings his firstborn to a room, some folks call this a son a pessimist, he brings him to the door of this room and invites him to open the door, telling him that everything the room holds is his. The firstborn son opens the door to this giant room that’s just full of every fine thing he could ever want: wine, women, every new-fangled electronic gadget; just jam-packed full a the finest a everything ever in one room. Well, the son is walking through this maze of luxury just saucer-eyed at what he’s seein’, but then his eyes narrow and he asks his father what the catch is, is something wrong? Was he leaving the boy outta his will?

Well, the old man then brings his younger son to a different door to a different room and explains to his son that all that the room holds is his. The father leaves and the boy opens the door to find a room full of shit; not garbage or trash mind you, I mean, actual shit, manure everywhere; it’s a room packed with manure. The old man returns a good while later to find his son digging through the piles of manure and he asks his son what the blazes he’s doing. The boy, some folks call him an optimist, the boy raises his head and says, “Well, I figure with all this shit, there’s gotta be a pony.”

Now, every version of this I’d heard previously had stopped there, leaving me amused but not long inspired, not shot through with gratitude.

Michael continued, “Now, God love’em, that boy loved his father and knew his father loved him. That boy had faith in the goodness of his father. Most a the time I do, too; that’s what the good Lord asks of us. But, the boy didn’t confuse one for the other. I’ma have faith in God’s goodness and if it ain’t goodness I can know it ain’t come from God. I mean, there ain’t no amount of molding or shapin’ of it that you can do that’s gonna make me mistake shit for a pony.”

“Well said, Michael. Vivid, but well said,” I replied.

New-age priests with tattered Franciscan credentials and pop self-help and even well-intentioned Christian authors espouse non-duality and celebrate that in our modern age that there’s no such thing as sin, but those of us who have both, felt and unleashed it’s willful sting, know better. They encourage us to see it all as a gift, all as good. Michael helped me to understand, to remember more clearly, that there is no call, command, or reason to see everything as a gift when not even God has seen it all as good since the dawn of creation. If it was all good, there’d be no hunger, no poverty, no disease, and no grief. If it was all good, there’d be no need for spiritual warfare and there is such a need for spiritual warfare in the bunkers of our lives and on the frontlines of our world. It’s been said that the best tactic of the enemy is to convince us that there is no enemy and what a success that tactic continues to be. Sometimes small words can pack a wallop of a change in meaning. The Scriptures in I Thessalonians 5:18 tell us to “give thanks IN all things,” not FOR all things. We are called to be thankful from right in the middle of it, but not necessarily grateful for our location in it or, to paraphrase Michael, “We can be grateful In the crap without being grateful For the crap.”

It is almost without fail that it is those of us who can no longer afford blindness who refuse to deny what we see.

We who have been roped off from The Table, the meal, the family, the altar, and the embrace understand the reality of lines, barriers, boundaries, and walls that keep us out from the other side of them. There is no lens pink enough to gauze them away as an illusion.

I looked at Michael and said, “I’m sure glad someone else understands. It sure ain’t all good.”

“No sir,” he said, “it ain’t. But there is grace and even gravy. It’s not all just the other stuff. Guess the math might change, different percent from one day to the next maybe, that’s all. I mean, I’m here,’ he said and looked surprised, “that’s grace. And a young man earlier gave me enough money for a hamburger and I got a snack for later.” Michael nodded to the crumpled ones and the packets of mayonnaise and relish he held in his left hand. “That’s grace,” he said.

“I guess bein’ paranoid schizophrenic is shit, but I try an’ not think about it. Every single test, you know, says that worry is just no good for paranoid schizophrenics,” he said and smiled and I smiled too, thinking it would at least be redundant to be both, paranoid and worried.

“And these shoes,” he continued, “these shoes from the Penny Saver are shit. Heel came right off before I could make it from the store to the curb. But, the Good Book says that one day I’ll see my ma again. That’s gravy.”

“Well now,” he said, rocking himself back, then up to his feet,” I need to go get me a half-pint. Thank you. I had a nice afternoon.” And with that, Michael walked off but left behind generous portions of both, grace and gravy.

– PreetamDas Kirtana
October 6, 2015

Box of Song

“From fear inside I hid my own heart and locked the door,
With sin and shame I quivered, ol’ Satan had me bound;
But then one day I answered the gentle knock that came,
I swung the door wide open, now I’ll never be the same.
(v.1)

A heart unlocked is a song set free!
A song set free sets others free!
Who His love sets free is free indeed!
And Jesus is my heart-shaped key!
(chorus)

Now at my door stood Jesus, His arms open wide.
‘Child,”He said, “I love you. Let Me show you The Way.”
In His arms I fell, against His heart aflame;
His heart opened mine, now I’ll never be the same.”

-Albert Shepherd Johnson
“The Pentecostal Pilgrim Hymnal”,1946

“Hey babe, How are you? What’s goin’ on on the homefront?” Albert Shepherd Johnson the third, better known as Shep everywhere but legal documents, said as he entered the kitchen.

“Not too much, sweetheart. The kids are downstairs and dinner’ll be ready in ’bout a half hour. Just still workin’ my way through the final frontier that is the attic. How was work?,” Viola asked, Vee to Shep since they first dated a dozen years ago.

“Oh same ol’ same ol’, headlines and deadlines, all managed from above by stomach ulcers and free-floating anxiety. What’s in the box?,” Shep asked, nodding to the kitchen table.

“Oh, I, um, I thought you’d find this interesting. Found it up there among all the other boxes and cobwebs.”

Shep put his jacket on the back of a chair and loosened the paisley office noose from around his neck. Shep was the first in a line of generations of the Johnson family boys who wasn’t a minister. Shep’s father pastored the Full Gospel Tabernacle for nearly thirty years. For a brief shining familial moment there were three living generations of the Johnson boys during which Shep’s father had been known as Al-2. Shep’s grandfather, the Bishop Reverend Albert Shepherd Johnson, pastored the Full Gospel Tabernacle that he founded until his health declined and his son stepped into the role, and Grandfather Johnson was also a prolific and much published hymn writer. Many of his songs remain in hymnals across the land to this day. Despite Shep’s decade of work at the paper, family took Shep’s occasional leading of Sunday worship and Thursday night Bible study as vocational preparation and held out hope yet for his falling in line and taking up the cloth, calling, and tradition.

“What is it? What’cha got there, Vee?”

Vee opened the box and pulled out one of the Bishop Reverend Johnson’s notebooks, opened it to a page dated “October 3” and handed Shep his grandfather’s journal.

“Here, read this,” she said.

‘October 3rd

I reckon the only thing that saves me really, saves my mind, not just my soul, is bein’ here, here where I can hear crickets instead of cars and coyotes instead a sirens; out here away from all the lights, out here where there’s so many stars you could pert near get lost in ’em if ya’ didn’t make up your mind real good not to; all that and the man that I love and that loves me, whose real, right now love keeps me from tryin’ to live on memories alone. Ain’t no diet will make ya’ thinner faster’an tryin’ to live on nuthin’ but memories. Trust. If I don’t know nuthin’ else for sure, I know that, all the way sure.’

Shep turned his face from the yellowed journal to Vee, confusion and concern creasing his brow.

“The ‘man I love and that loves me’? What the dang? What does that mean? He prolly means one a the church brothers or Tyler Jenkins on the farm down the road. Pop still talks about how Granddad and Tyler were just like brothers.”

Vee turned a few pages in the notebook.

“Here,” she said, and Shep read,

‘November 12

You ain’t gotta be old anymore to lose everything and everybody you ever loved. Maybe you ain’t never had to be old, but most of us grew up thinkin’ you did or maybe we just deposited hope in thinkin’ it, like throwin’ good money into a bad gamble. We an’ the Lord the only ones that know when we’ve lived long enough, when the time is the right time, when it’s Homecomin’ time. When you’re old enough to have lost everyone you love an’ everyone that can love you back like you need to be loved, seems to me like you’re old enough for it to be the right time, no matter how old you are.

Too many right now moments, too many songs, and smells, and round-the-kitchen-table echos knock memories offin’ the shelves too often to not sometime think about swingin’ back on a low hung star, back to where we was young, and hope swung on a tire swing, back to where voices round the kitchen table weren’t just long ago echos. Sometimes I feel real sure if I just walked far enough I could reach that star, the one hung low just for me. It’d be a right lonely road to walk, but they ain’t been no roads but lonely roads this whole trip, at least thatin’ would finally take me some place I wanna be.

Won’t never be cold there, never lessin’ eighty in the shade; safe and quiet and warm forevermore and you’d feel good enough and happy and loved just cause you woke up right in it ratherin’ havin’ to search for it under every rock and between every lyin’ man’s teeth, greedy men that eat hearts and the the only love they got left is what still stains they teeth. No, there ya’ ain’t gotta floss left over love to get sumthin’ to live on. There, ya’ just wake up all ready in it, like a feather down love bed you ain’t ever gotta get out of, just prop up a bit to get served more a that Love you’re already cushioned in. Since I was a kid I’ve thought about the words of that ol’ song we use to sing in church, “What a Day That Will Be” and I wanted to go there and done my level best to get ready. We’d sing, “When He takes me by the hand and leads me to The Promised Land, what a day, a glorious day that will be…”

I’ve met a few folks that don’t believe in prayer or heaven; don’t believe in The Promised Land. Like Sam Barnett, that works down at the mill, a hardworkin’, bright enough man, but seems like nuthin’ south of his neckcollar is really workin’ right, like maybe there ain’t been enough traffic round the dirt a his heart to soften it up for da Lord’s tender feet. No sir, a few folks I’ve met over the years don’t seem to have no use for The Promised Land. I can’t make no sense of it, but I reckon that’s the Lord’s business, not mine. My business is sayin’ thanks for the glimpses of glory here, the sometime peeks of The Promised Land from right here – from our wasteland of hurt and greed and pain, that we try ‘an love each other through and dress it up like the Land to come.’

“Wow,” said Shep, “Guess that’s why he could write all those old hymns.”

“Yeah, and he sounds really lonely, Shep,” Vee said, before turning a few more pages, handing it to Shep, and saying, “One more?”

‘January 4

Now it’s true as the ground a grace I stand on that the Gospel love of Jesus saves my soul and it’s just as true that in moments stolen away in Kendrick’s arms down by the river, under stars sworn to silence, that my mind and body and heart are saved, too; feels like all a me can finally breathe. When his lips touch mine I know that this heart that Christ opened has a tenent, one that holds me and by loving me, invites me to my own love. Some would say that we’re the worst kinda deceivers, abominations that’ll split hell wide open. I don’t know about all that. I do know when our little Sophia died from the fever that if God hadn’t given my Kendrick to lean on that I’m pretty sure I couldn’t a been leaned on anymore. Who knows better how to hold hardworkin’ hands, relax burden-bearin’ shoulders, or support the worry-heavy head of a man than another lovin’ man? In my life there is one God has blessed me with whose embrace is never needful, whose arms are not an ask, but an answer; the one who just holds me home.

Do I live out betrayal keeping our secret? Am I dishonest? I reckon I’m as honest as I can be without hurtin’ folks that don’t need no more hurtin’. I loved Loretta Carlene, my Elsie. I loved our children. I love Kendrick and I love God. Ain’t never been a need to short one to love the other. Ages ago, Elsie and I buried our little girl. Goin’ on ten years ago come April, I buried my wife, Elsie. Only the love of God and the sure and faithful arms of Kendrick still remain. Yes, I’ve heard the shrill, frightened voices that would damn the love that holds me up an’ I admit, I’m only confused by it. I only look at it, fascinated by it, like it was a strange bug on the window, the likes a which I ain’t never seen before, an insect, a thick green and spotted worm whose mouth is moving and whose shrill little worm voice keeps mouthing words that would damn love. Strange, hateful little caterpillar. Best to take it away from the window so it doesn’t color my view, put it in a Mason jar, put it on the shelf an’ hope that with some time and a better perspective that there’ll be a heart-shaped key even for love-damning worms. God, by Your grace. Lord have mercy.’

“Dear God,” Shep said, “So Granddaddy Johnson was gay, actually, really gay?”

“Well, honey,” Vee said, “Seems there isn’t any doubt, actually, really.”

“What do you think we should do? What should we tell the kids? What should we say to anyone?,” Shep asked, stunned.

“Well, Shep,” Vee said, her eyes half-lidded, then opening so wide and inviting that you could fall right in, like Shep had when he married her, “based on this,” she said, “I’d suggest we say that Granddaddy found a heart-shaped key in Jesus and that prolly betterin’ anyone else we’ve known, he knew that grace was sufficient. He knew it’s not even possible to short one when we give love to another. In his time, there were so many boxes, but even Granddaddy’s boxes had a song and now, unboxed, his song soars high as the stars across the nightsky he loved so much. I’d bet it soars even higher when we’re all singin’ his songs. Well, that’s just what I’d say,” Vee concluded and cast her eyes down at the old notebook, the right corner of her mouth dancing with the idea of a smile.

-PreetamDas Kirtana
16 September 2015

51 Seconds **

Though I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Shawn Smucker in person​ ​yet, the honest way he shares his humanity and faith, the vulnerable​ ​display of his doubts and dreams that inform every economic line of​ ​his writing make him one of the handful of men who continue to affirm​ ​for me that there are good men in the world. He is one of my favorite​ ​living writers and one of my favorite people and even though Shawn’s a​ ​decade younger than I am, I still wouldn’t mind a’tall being like​ ​Shawn when I grow up. I rarely, if ever miss one of his blog posts.​ ​You shouldn’t either.

In his post, “What’s Happening Every Moment”​​(http://shawnsmucker.com/2015/09/whats-happening-every-moment/), Shawn​ ​asked some compelling questions:

“What is being planted in me this moment?…What cosmic messages, what​ ​prophetic visions, what desires, what boredom, what dreams? What hope,​ ​what bitterness, what patience laid bare in the turned up furrows of my
soul, folded over? What are these moments planting in your soul?”

What are these moments planting in my soul? What do these moments,​ ​each of these mundane and malevolent moments, plant in us? Most of us​ ​most often are soul-unaware, let alone actually knowing what’s being
planted there to take root deeply and to yield a harvest according to​ ​that seed. The admonition to “Be Present,” to “Be in the Moment,” has​ ​been trendy, cool, co-opted, and cliched. If we take it only for its
yoga tee shirt printed, Westernized-Buddhism-lite surface value, maybe​ ​we should seriously consider retiring its use retail, wholesale, and​ ​altogether. Honestly, what is the challenge for most of Westerners​ ​with any modicum of health to “be in the moment”?

(breathy ultra spiritual voice): “Be in the moment. Raise your​ ​awareness. Notice where you are, what you’re doing. ​ ​How does it​ ​feel…in this moment?”

Guy in the front yard, mopping his brow: “I’m mowing the damn grass in​ ​this moment, that’s what I’m doing…and I ​ ​feel hot, it’s hot like​ ​Judgement Day out here for the love a Christ!”

(breathy ultra spiritual voice): “Breathe in the present. Letting go​ ​of yesterday and tomorrow, just staying in this ​ ​moment. How does that​ ​feel, just right now?”

Middle-aged woman pausing her shopping cart: “Feel? I feel tired. This​ ​Target’s the size of a stadium and frankly, a little annoyed. Look,​ ​maybe I’m just old and still have a “Charlie’s Angels” girls-crush,​ ​but if Jaclyn Smith is too old to grace the cover of women’s​ ​magazines, then isn’t Caitlyn Jenner too man to be on magazine covers​ ​everywhere I turn my head?”

Yeah, let’s let those deeply self-actualizing precious moments go, but​ ​what if the moment is deeper than our comfort zones and wider than our​ ​attention spans? What if this moment that’s planting something in our​ ​souls is terrifyingly vast, vast and horrible and grand? Lately the​ ​unbearable moments are nearly back to back, these moments that knock​ ​the wind out of us and make us sit down hard, stunned, again, that​ ​This could really be the world that we live in.

Yesterday, there was the heart wrenching moment of seeing the pictures​ ​of bodies washed ashore on Turkish beaches. Particularly the haunting​ ​picture of the Syrian refugee toddler drowned and washed up on one of
Turkey’s main tourist resort beaches. He was three years old. There​ ​were others, including his five year old brother found down the beach,​ ​but thanks to the miraculous calamity of social media we know this​ ​three year old’s name. The toddler drowned, washed up, and faced down​ ​on the beach is Aylan Kurdi. And there he lies dead, having known only​ ​violence, homelessness, and hunger his entire three years of life. And​ ​having been a witness to this, how do we now just go on with our day?​ ​How can we “be” in this moment? What is this moment planting?

And today, God knows what compelled me to do it, today I clicked​ ​‘play’ on the fifty-one second video. I’ll never be able to erase the​ ​images from the pieces of my heart, nor should I be able to. In not​ ​quite a minute, but in fifty-one moments, as camera men jockey for the​ ​closest shot, we watch as a Syrian family fleeing for their lives​ ​refuses to board the train that will take them to a refugee camp.​ ​Resisting the police, the father is pleading hysterically, “No camp!​ ​No camp!! NO CAMP!!,” while his wife clutches their infant child to​ ​her bosom in terror. Finally, the father shouts instructions to his​ ​wife and the three of them: father, blessed mother, and holy infant​ ​lie down on the train tracks and huddle together, perfectly willing to​ ​die under the crushing steel wheels of an oncoming train rather than
to endure what awaits them at the refugee camp. In the last seconds of​ ​the video police in riot gear forcibly remove the family. The father​ ​is carried away, spread eagle, mid-air, riot policemen holding each​ ​limb, as he continues to plead, “NO CAMP!” I am stunned, breathless,​ ​sorrow souring my stomach, wondering how much grief can be lodged in​ ​my throat before I finally suffocate and in light of this suffering,​ ​even talking about our feelings feels unspeakably selfish, feels like​ ​a layer of the inhumanity that allows this horror. I cannot help but​ ​think of Sethe, the character in Toni Morrison’s novel, “Beloved”,​ ​which is based on the facts of a true story. In the novel and later in​ ​the fine film​version, Sethe attempts, and succeeds in one case, to​ ​kill her own children, to slit their throats rather than have them
return to the daily horror of the “Sweet Home” plantation cultivated​ ​in Amerikkkan slavery.

And here we are again; here we are still, but now with live video shot​ ​within the hour of a parent willing to kill their own family and die​ ​themselves rather than be in this world, while at the very same moment​ ​too many of us are obsessed with status and stuff and self-protection.​ ​There isn’t a toothy prosperity gospel preacher or self-help guru that​ ​can convince me that we can Ever be our “best selves” while at This​ ​moment our very Worst selves co-create tragedy by looking the other​ ​way.

I look around the boarding platform as I wait for the train that will​ ​take me home today. There must be a hundred or so people scattered​ ​about. I wonder how many of them have seen the picture of three year​ ​old Aylan dead on the beach or seen the video of the terrified Syrian​ ​family huddled in the train tracks in Hungary. If they’ve seen these
same images, what capacity for denial or compartmentalization do they​ ​have that I obviously lack? I’m grief-stricken. I need everything to​ ​stop. Empire and capitalism and fear, all one and the same, need​ ​everything to keep moving. My empathy continues to convince me that​ ​it’s not those who can’t cope with this world that are mentally ill,​ ​but those that can that are the dangerously unbalanced. There are​ ​small and crucial things that we can do to collectively have an​ ​impact: spreading awareness, signing petitions, and pressuring​ ​government officials, but still I’m left with feeling that none of​ ​this is enough. How can any of it be enough when any label can allow​ ​us to strip other people of their humanity and reveal our shocking​ ​lack of it?

In my head I hear over and over the second verse of that old hymn sung
in beautiful harmony by Homecoming Friends, Reggie Smith, Joy Gardner,
and the late Stephen Hill:

“Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no languor know,
These for sin could not atone,”

No, the ancient words confirm, no amount of our tears, no matter how​ ​choking the lump of grief in our throats, no matter if our passionate​ ​activism never knew rest, none of these by themselves could actually​ ​reconcile and make right the sin of these atrocities.

“Thou must save and Thou alone;”

All of our very best human efforts, our marching, petition signing,​ ​protesting, and heroic activism is necessary and needful, and still,​ ​at best, only temporary, if hearts remain unchanged. As one writer​ ​said, and it remains always true, “At the heart of the matter, it’s a​ ​matter of the heart.” I simply don’t know of any other power to change​ ​hearts but the power of the reconciling love of God. In response to​ ​the suffering of others, some of us feel powerless to do anything at​ ​all and even say we don’t believe in prayer. Of course, to me, this​ ​sounds like slamming the door shut on hope and opening wide the levy​ ​for a flood of uncontested cruelty. While our answers from God in​ ​their many forms are vital, it’s helpful for me to consider that maybe​ ​prayer isn’t so much about God answering us as it is about us​ ​answering God. “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love​ ​your neighbor as yourself; care for the widow, the orphan, the​ ​prisoner, the least, the last, and the lost,” the Scriptures say and​ ​in what way does God need to answer this? Isn’t it us that need to​ ​answer God as a bride might answer the priest’s question as she looks​ ​into the eyes of her Beloved Bridegroom?

“Do you take these, these refugees and outcasts, these prisoners, these​ ​Black Lives that Matter, these 50,000 infected with HIV every day; do​ ​you take these homeless and mentally ill, these addicted and hopeless,​ ​do you take these Muslims and Jews, these Palestinians and Christians​ ​and Queers to be your lawfully wedded neighbors and love them as I have​ ​loved you?”

This is the family that we marry into and prayer, with well-worn heels​ ​and calloused hands, is our answer to marrying into that family.

The second verse of “Rock of Ages” ends with the lines,

“In my hand no price I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling.”

What can we manufacture, produce, sell, or send to alleviate such​ ​endless suffering? By our own hands, what can we bring? Nothing,​ ​nothing short of self-sacrificial love is the redemptive answer of the​ ​cross. What can we do? What can we bring? Nothing, nothing that​ ​doesn’t cost us something. Perhaps what most of us really mean when we​ ​say we just feel like there’s nothing we can do is that we just don’t​ ​know what we can do that won’t cost us something; and, in that case,​ ​we would be right. There is nothing, nothing at all we can do that​ ​won’t cost us something, not even prayer.

I sit on the northbound train and watch the horses and cattle, the​ ​mountains, clouds, and Indian reservations roll by outside my window.​ ​I see a line of outrageously tall sunflowers, then hundreds, then​ ​thousands, and for a moment fields and fields crowded with sunflowers​ ​reaching their huge, heavy seeded heads toward the sun that seeded
itself in them not so many moments ago. It’s a bombastic blast of​ ​yellow life reflected in my eyes brimmed with tears and my heart heavy​ ​with remembering lifeless toddlers washed ashore and the family​ ​huddled together on the train tracks.

Perhaps the most sage thing ever uttered by renowned seeker, Ram Dass,​ ​was simply, “Remember.” Our capacity to remember is surely one source​ ​of our greatest potential and our remarkable capacity to forget the​ ​source of our greatest inhumanity. Of course, Christ went a gigantic​ ​one better than Ram Dass, or more accurately, three-in-One better,​ ​when He said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” The “this” that Jesus is​ ​referring to was communion – the Table that welcomes us all and leaves​ ​no one unchanged; the Table of communion and of the Last Supper – the
supper that invites us all to live for Love by letting Love live​ ​through us as we die to ourselves and somehow, somehow, through​ ​reckless, amazing grace we share and practice, proclaim and live life​ ​more abundantly.

What are these moments planting in our souls? Perhaps all of these​ ​things are planted: messages, visions, dreams, and desires, but​ ​perhaps, most importantly what is planted there in our souls is what​ ​every seed carries: the​​boundless, breaking forth, stretching,​ ​yearning hunger for the sun. Only in the redemptive breaking out and​ ​reaching toward the Son that has seeded us can we possibly redeem​ ​every moment, every one of those fifty-one seconds. Only by grace can​ ​terror and complacency be transformed into carriers, into vessels,​ ​into safe and sure boats for all of us refugees to reach the shores of​ ​each other’s hearts.​

– PreetamDas Kirtana
3 September 2015​

The Resurrection…From the Back Pew

*one truly from the archives: circa 2004, but hey, it’s lighter! In-joy

My second cousin came to my very first public reading of my writing. In one of the pieces I read, I spoke openly about how dire my financial situation was at the time of that recently written essay. After the show, she, her mother, and sister showered me with congratulations and hugs. Then, her mother slipped some money into my pocket against my protests and her daughter planned a day to take me to the grocery and asked if I needed to do laundry. I pulled her close and said into her ear, “You have no idea. My socks actually stand upright in the corner, without me in them!” She laughed and we set a date to begin the mountain of laundry. This kind, generous gesture was made even more disarming by the fact that my cousin and I had enjoyed virtually no contact for years, despite living in the same city.

Two days later I stood in her kitchen as she began to cook and the first of the ‘winter laundry’ began to spin. I asked about her job and she explained that she hadn’t returned to work since the birth of her now toddler son, Little Joe. Her time was consumed daily by tending to the needs of her son and by occasional volunteer work. One of her volunteer activities is being a precinct judge and officiating at voting sites during elections. Now, after all these long years, my cousin came out to me. I had, of course, suspected, even knew this in the back of my mind. But, well, to hear her say it right out loud, well, it still cut like a knife. All the tell-tale signs had been there. She is white, very, very, white actually, married with a kid, and drives . . . a mini-van. We share an ol’-time Pentecostal religion upbringing and she still attends weekly services locally. Her family, with their backyard deck and two car garage, appear to enjoy middle-class status. Perhaps, even more telling, is her family’s holiday tradition of sending out those family update form letters that detail all of the family tragedies and triumphs with photographs since the previous Christmas. All of these signs and red flags and I chose to remain in denial, until she said it again, “Of course, being REPUBLICAN, I said that of course, I wanted the Bush campaign sign in our yard when they asked down at the headquarters.” I turned my face away, knowing it would betray me and register the shock, pain, and repulsion that I felt at her declaration. The intensity of my response was surprising, even to me. Instantly I just wanted to leave. I wanted to pack my baker’s dozen or so bags of still dirty laundry back into the mini-van, return the groceries, and have her drive me back home in stony silence. I just wanted out. How DARE here extend such kindness: invite me into her home and then casually drop this bombshell! “Oh, by the way, I strike preemptively and deny you equal status under the law. Would you pass the gravy and those potato rolls?” Great. “Bring it on”, I’d reply. This was horrible, unbelievable. I wondered if she had told her mother. She must have. No wonder the woman has had so much trouble with her heart recently. It must be just killing her. After doing her level best to raise her daughter right, to now be faced with the dark reality of her being: a Republican.

A moment later I became aware of just how snug this shoe was on my other foot. What kind of a Falwellian bigot did I sound like? Next I would instigate panic and controversy by suggesting that she and “her kind” should not be allowed to teach or adopt children. Jesus wept! So much for building bridges. I remembered again the Walt Whitman quote, “We convince by our presence,” and I stayed, despite my initially deep internal resistance. I insisted that this kindness was too extravagant and that she should allow me to do something to express my gratitude. “I could . . . wash the mini-van. I could give you some money when I get paid on Friday.” She said ‘no’ repeatedly to all of my offers, then paused. “Well, there is one thing you could do.” “Sure, what is it?” “You could come to our Easter cantata at our church this Easter.” “Alright. Okay.” I had already said that I was usually off work on Sundays. No saves there. In my mind I calculated exactly how much time I had before Easter Sunday to catch something that would render me bed-ridden and a risk for contagion, but aloud I said, “I can do that.”

On Easter morning I sat next to my cousin as the Passion play unfolded. Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount, turned water into wine, and calmed a raging storm at sea. I had visions of Ted Neeley and Mel Gibson and lamented my decision to smoke that joint before church. I can hardly stay awake. I finger my mala beads and pray to stay upright. Apparently, “cantata”, the word itself, is an ancient Latin word used only in certain religious sects and roughly translates to the equivalent of the Spanish word “siesta, or more accurately “coma”. Now, Christ was dying and I was surrounded by people who would wet themselves trying to decide whether to stone my because I had been a ‘rebellious child’ or because I’m a ‘homosexual’. My mouth was as dry as disciple’s sandal. Smoking weed before Easter service was not a good idea after all. It feels remotely inappropriate to be looking forward to the last supper so much. Maybe they’ll have communion. Wafers and juice. LOTS of wafers and juice. God, I could eat my hymnal. The munchies seem so ‘high school’ like hickies. Nevertheless, they’re here and I ask my cousin if maybe she has any little thing at all, in abundance, in that huge purse of hers to eat. She clears her throat. “PreetamDas”, she says, “this would be the crucifixion part.” I cast my eyes downward, then back to the stage and think to myself, “It’s the Passion play for Chrissake, the whole thing is the crucifixion part.”

The pre-recorded clap of thunder startles me awake from another 8 second, head-bobbing nap. Base begins to rumble from the speakers throughout the church, apparently signifying the saviors final breath on the cross. Lights flashed as the choir hummed ominously and then, suddenly, all went completely dark and silent. A hush fell over the darkened church auditorium, with the exception of random, muffled sobbing. The director held the moment, caressed the moment, then squeezed the silent, dark moment like a wet washcloth for all he was worth. When the lights came back up, Mary rushed out of a papier-mache tomb declaring that Christ’s body had been stolen and she darted up the path to tell the others. In a flash, a painted, transparent screen was whisked up in front of Mary to reveal a scarred, but resurrected Jesus. I had wondered how they would effect the resurrection. I ‘d had amusing fantasies of an unfortunate messiah crash landing into Pilate’s balcony as his Peter Pan wires got crossed.

But, as the director would have it, a veil was simply removed and Christ was revealed.

I decided not only that I appreciated this dramatic treatment, but also that perhaps this was also part of the message: Christ hadn’t flown in or even descended. His feet still touched the ground, yet He was risen. Having seen several Passion plays with my family on summer vacations, yep, including “Christ of the Ozarks, the “greatest story ever told” was not new to me. There was no surprise ending. What I did find useful was the reminder that right where we are at, feet on the ground, we are called to and able to rise. My cousin took my hand in hers and together, we sat there on our church pew, both a little bit risen.”

pdk archives March 25, 2004

Sitting Shiva for Lent: Through a Glass Darkly

Sitting Shiva for Lent: Through a Glass Darkly

I believe in the possibility of reconciliation under any circumstance, and yet there are things that we say to each other sometimes that may not be beyond the reach of forgiveness but remain beyond forgetting.

I was a skinny kid that grew up in a family of fat relatives. In an extended family where being overweight was the norm, I stuck out like a sore thumb; a thumb made more sore by frequently being made fun of and enduring nicknames mocking my body size. It was 1976. I was ten years old. Even an adult cousin that I adored would announce, “Jimmy, you’re so skinny, you look funny cuz your bones stick out.” Of course the bones she was referring to were elbows and knees. Given that kind of public derogatory announement today after years of building a fine defense and a quick, bitter tongue, I’d probably snap back that it was her that looked funny because when I stood next to her, we looked like the number 10. But, then, to suggest that visible elbows and knees were normal would have been risking switch-welted legs or a bloodied mouth. I was outweighed and outnumbered.

I was a skinny kid with a gap between my two front teeth. Braces would correct my teeth when I was older, but no stage of growth changed my underdog size. My slight size combined with my fastidiousness and what my birth mother called being “tender-hearted” got me called a “fag” by kids at school long before I knew what the intended insult meant. I only felt the way the kids said it and I felt dirty, dirty and outcast without knowing why; dirty, even before they spit on me on the crowded school bus.

When I was a kid, adults said that I’d “fill out” when I grew up. They lied about that, too. Ten years later, other gay men started dying. No one understood anything about H.I.V. then. Everyone was afraid. The government, at best, didn’t care. The church told us that we had it coming. They told us that we were being punished and we were, but not by God. We were being punished by the fear and hatred of people who left us to fight and die alone. I remember being so young and so afraid. I remember at one gathering, a young man, Jeff, carried his own drinking glass so as to not risk contagion. Jeff and countless other guys in the bars would speculate and sometimes outright accuse me of having A.I.D.S. Does anyone get “accused” of having cancer or heart disease? It was never a good time to be a skinny kid. It’s never been a good time to be a skinny gay man, even among other gay men. It was shaping up to just not be a good time to ever be me. Jeff’s personal drinking glass didn’t save him.

At middle-age now, it remains an elusive goal to hit a hundred and fifty pounds. No, ladies, it is not an enviable thing. Please stop saying that. Yes, I can “eat whatever I want”, as you so often say, “without gaining a pound”. It’s also true that if it’s not eighty in the shade, I’m cold and it hurts to sit. I’m getting closer to looking into finding an ass prosthetic; either that or I’ll be that guy that carries a pillow with him everywhere to sit on. As a rule, stress seems to effect our eating habits in one of two ways. Under stress some of us will eat everything and some of us will eat nothing. I tend toward the latter group. During a period of hardship and predictable weight loss for me five or six years ago, I was at dinner with my friend Suzanne, when she took my breath away when, while encouraging me to eat, she told me that I looked like “a poster boy for A.I.D.S.”.

I’m not often speechless.

I didn’t much want to go outside for awhile after that.

Sometimes we say things that are not beyond forgiveness, but remain beyond forgetting.

I ache when I consider the times that I know I’ve been guilty of this.

Three years or so ago I was as physically present as I’ve ever been weighing in at an astonishing personal best of a hundred and sixty-five pounds. Since our car accident last year and the head injury I suffered I struggle to hit a hundred and thirty-five pounds. As a result of that space between my two front teeth when I was a kid and the braces and the slightly off-color cap on one of those two front teeth, I’ve always been a little o.c.d. about my dental hygiene. It hasn’t paid off. None of my enthusiastic flossing or gargling with hydrogen peroxide a half dozen times a day has made any difference in the tremendous bone loss that continues to happen. Dec. 30th, tooth number fifteen, the upper back left, was extracted. Not five weeks later, number three, the back upper right had to be extracted. I now have no upper back teeth to chew with. Pending insurance approval, a partial is hopefully on the way. In the meantime, I eat soft foods and boy, do I have cheekbones. I look like I’m doing an impression of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” now, even when I’m actually not . . . or “a poster boy for A.I.D.S.”

Those words said to us that remain beyond forgetting don’t live in our minds in a moment-to-moment or even in a daily way. They’re not predators so much as scavengers. They wait until we’re vulnerable, exhausted, and just about to give up and it’s then that the jackals of some one’s words return from the nowhere of the past in hope of feeding on what’s left of us.

I was washing my face one morning a few days ago and when I saw my face in the mirror, it broke my heart. I saw hollowed spaces and shadows and weariness and I cried looking at my own reflection. Over the course of my lifetime I’ve become rather obsessed about my appearance; not in the way that beautiful people do, but in the way that only the deeply wounded do. I’ve been grieving my teeth and terrified of getting “A.I.D.S. face”, daunted by the prospect of one more obstacle to self-acceptance and crumbling at the idea of one more reason for public rejection. Now, I was losing my hope to the sallow reflection in my bathroom mirror. When it happened again, when I washed my face and cried again at the rather Nosfertu reflection looking back at me, I decided that I couldn’t do this anymore.

I remembered that in a recent issue of AARP magazine that Cher had been quoted as saying that she had “given up mirrors”, that she “hadn’t looked in a mirror in years.” Of course she’s lying, but the idea of not looking in a mirror at all was nearly as compelling as it was frightening. You have to understand how vital, how strangely addictive mirrors are for someone like me: always one more glance, one more snip at a hair, one more disapproving look and then one more. No, you wouldn’t want to live with me and ever want to be anywhere on time, ever. I guess mirrors and cigarettes are to the life of my ego what humility and love are meant to be to my walk of faith. But now I couldn’t see past my own fear and grief, so I made a decision.

I took down the obsessively checked mirror to the right of my office door. I put the eye-level framed pictures on my desk on top of the bookshelf where I can see them but they can’t reflect my image back to me in their glass. I covered my bathroom mirror save for an eye-level strip opening about an inch and a half long by an eighth of an inch high. I can see just my eyes, just my nose, or just my mouth at one time. Mind you, I’m not throwing vanity completely out the window. I will know if that blueberry or spinach is visibly stuck in my teeth, but I won’t face self-rejection with my every reflection.

This is how I’ve come to begin this Lenten season by sitting shiva. The Jewish custom surrounding the ritual of grief dictates that mirrors be covered because mourners need not be concerned about their personal appearance, that mourners should be aware that their normal priorities have changed, and that mirrors should not be present in rooms where we pray as we are to direct our focus on God, not ourselves. I’ve been in mourning in many ways no more so than now as the shallow sand-built defenses I’ve invested a lifetime of energy in are incrementally and systematically stripped away. I mourn not only for myself, but for the suffering all around me that I feel so acutely so often. I grieve for living in a world so abrasive that I frequently feel sanded raw.

This Ash Wednesday is only the third day of no mirrors, but I feel drawn to continue the sacrifice of my painful vanity for the entire Lenten season, not just because of the hurt reflected back at me right now, but also because it might help. Already, without my physical image constantly reflected back at me, from time to time I can forget what I look like and just remember that I might Feel good in any given moment. Maybe without my appearance being my constant priority my focus will begin to shift, even a little. Maybe I’ll come closer to understanding that my reflection in a thing isn’t necessary for a thing to be beautiful. How much more beauty there must be to see in the world when our identification with something or someone isn’t required for them to be seen as beautiful and worthy.

Maybe, right now, while it’s so hard to see myself through my own eyes, let alone through God’s eyes, maybe it’s best if I only see myself through your eyes and only see what you show me.

If this life is about union and communion, and I believe that it is, then our self-rejection keeps us only ever halfway to the table and nearly all of us are too malnourished to not pull all the way up to the banquet table of our Father’s love and full acceptance.

Maybe, in covering some mirrors, maybe in borrowing each other’s eyes, we might get closer to pulling up a chair to the Table together.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 3/4/15

Did I Tell You the One About…?

Did I Tell You the One About…

Since my head injury from our car accident nearly a year ago I’ve sought whatever treatment might provide some relief from the frequently debilitating pressure and pain in the vertebrae in my neck. Enough pain will make you experimental. Nothing that has promised even a little blessed relief has been ruled out. I’ve tried prayer and prescriptions, ice packs and heating pads. I’ve tried rubs, balms, and bathing in a plant called “buffalo gourds” by locals. I try to remember to breathe from my belly to encourage even a little relaxation and blood flow in my traumatized muscles. I’ve had ongoing physical therapy treatments that were for awhile interspersed with acupuncture treatments. I know. I couldn’t believe it either. I laid there the first time, with a dozen tiny needles inserted all over my body, stifling laughter after thinking to myself, “Dear God, I look like a gay voodoo doll.” I didn’t care anymore. If it stood any chance of relieving this chronic pain, if I thought it would actually help, I’d watch the Christian Broadcasting Network IN a sports bar WHILE accordion music played on a loop, even if I ground my teeth right down to dust as a result. I’d try it. Really. I mean it. At some point, it’s really only about relief.

Today I had another massage therapy appointment. As I took off my shirt and shoes I shared with the therapist how much better I was feeling than last week; not off medication and not without any pressure, but better, and even a little “better” means e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. She made some notes and I laid down on the massage table. She began massaging the painful muscles that had robbed me of so much of my regular little life this past year. Then, as I was asking her how her holidays had been, she put her finger on it. I stopped speaking mid-sentence, caught my breath, and as my eyes filled welled up with tears I said, “Dear God! Don’t move. What is that? Where are you? Show me what you’re doing” I asked and offered her my own hand so she could show me exactly where she was at so that I could hope to replicate this myself. Just the right amount of pressure that she was applying to just the right spot gave unspeakable, breathtaking relief to the pressure that, even on a “good” day has become a fact of my everyday life. It made me at once sad and hopeful. It made me sad that I had grown so accustomed to nearly constant discomfort and, at the same time, it made me hopeful that it could be different, that I still could heal and relax back into what I had almost forgotten.

It was then that I thought again about what Tom had said yesterday. Tom is straight, late sixty-something I’d guess, a retired Teamster truck driver, a vet prone to faintly off-color jokes, and who, by his own admission, started coming to church at all to bring his wife. I adore him. Unlikely kindreds perhaps, but kindreds never find each other by sight alone. Without fail, when I see Tom, I can count on his very next words after “Hey there partner,” being “Hey, did I tell you the one about…?” And Tom will be off again with three more nuns at the pearly gates or after a grand build up, deliver the punch line explaining that PMS is in the Bible. Walking away from Tom one day after playing the “straight man” to his jokes one day last month I decided that if I have to be old, I wanna be like Tom . . . Tom or Wendell Berry. Yesterday, after our regular Sunday service a workshop was being held around how we can be more welcoming, more inclusive, and more aware of the subtle ways that we might exclude others. The facilitator enthusiastically explained what the hour was all about and then said those dreaded words: “Now,” she chirped, “if you’ll all break into groups of three…”

I hate breaking into groups of three.

“How rude can I be without being called rude?” I wondered as I considered just leaving the room of only maybe fifteen people as quickly as I could. “Whoa! Look at the time!” “My grandma just died.” “I’m sorry, I just had an accident. If you’ll excuse me.” As every lame excuse ever tried by every fifth grader ever went through my mind, we broke into groups of three. I’m not sure why I’m so resistant to small group stuff. I think, aside from obviously not being in control, that I’m always worried that I’ll drop emotional trou and No one else will or someone else will drop emotional trou – someone I don’t even like! Then what? Well, then I’m left both, kind of heartbroken over what the person shared and feeling guilty because I hadn’t previously been able to bring myself to even think kindly of them. Typically, if the menu only offers: breaking into small groups or eating liver smothered in yellow mustard, I’d typically go for the disgusting organ meat and vile condiment.

My group of three included Tom and Ben, another longtime member of our congregation. The facilitator announced questions that each of us were to take a couple of minutes and answer. As the hour grew to a close the facilitator announced the last question.

“Alright now,” she said, “now share with each other about a time when you felt excluded.”

Ben went first, sharing his answer in our confidence. I mentioned one incident, unsure of how to pick one out of a lifetime of examples. Finally, it was Tom’s turn to share and this small group thing would finally be over. Tom thought for a moment, started to say something, stopped, then began again.

“You know, course folks look at me kinda funny or don’t really believe me, I think, when I say this, butcha’ know, I don’t think I ever really felt excluded,” Tom said. Then, just as I was wondering how that could really be true, Tom put his finger on it as he continued. “I never doubted God loved me,” he said and I just kind of froze, staring saucer-eyed at Tom when I realized I was fighting tears. I was was shocked and tearing up because “I never doubted that God loved me,” is the single most outrageous thing I’ve heard someone say in real life that I believed. I’m sure I probably looked nearly comically dismayed. I certainly felt stunned, like seeing color or light for the first time or seeing someone who recognizes you after so long of being a foreigner, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” post-Clarence the angel, “Mary! Do you know me, Mary?!” And this time, she does know him. I’m not sure that all our trying to find words for the simple, glorious recognition by someone who is in the dream we once dreamt isn’t why poems and music and all our God-seeking and possibility exist at all in the first place.

“Tom,” I said in a hushed tone, “I know the two of us are just s’pose to listen right now, but you just said, that you’ve never doubted that God loved you, which to me is Outrageous, so if you’ll forgive me for infringing on your time, but how? How is that true that you never doubted God’s love? really? How?”, I whispered urgently. I’m guessing that Tom was probably prepared to meet disbelief. I would also guess that he probably hadn’t planned on his words having such an impact on me. I’d guess he wasn’t trying to be a “witness”, but I can assure that he was. I can hardly imagine trying to come up with an answer if eager eyes were fixed in anticipation on my own, as I know my eyes were on Tom’s waiting, impatient that our time might run out before he had time to share this incredible secret to the commanding confidence that he was, is, and always will be loved by God. In true Tom-style, his answer to my Big Question was plain, no nonsense, just matter-of-fact.

“Well,” Tom began, “I grew up around some religious folks, Evangelicals and what-not, but, you know, I just decided pretty early on that they were just dumb asses and didn’t really have anything to do with them.”

Tom did reference his good health and the beauty of nature, but that was it really. He had simply denied anyone or anything else the right to have any say or impact on this fact that he took for granted. I was amazed by all of this. I’m amazed by all of us who have been “churched”, we who have gone straight from womb to Sunday school and who struggle with that. I’m amazed by all of us who have ever been exposed to those commissioned to love and have come away instead deeply doubting that God loves us. I imagine holding and protecting that Good News that God loves us like most of us hold and protect our core belief that that couldn’t be true, not in any meaningful way, not for real. I imagine what being able to take God’s love as a given must be like and I’m reminded that, of course, it is just that, “a given”.

After the workshop was over I approached Tom and thanked him for what he had shared, for how with just the right amount of pressure to just the right spot he had given unspeakable, breathtaking relief to the pressure, that even on a “good” day had become a fact of my everyday life, the fact of not living in the absolute certainty of God’s love. It made me sad and hopeful at the same time. I was sad that so many of us never really inhabit and live from just knowing that God loves us and, at the same time, hopeful that it could still be different, that I can and we can still heal and relax back into what we’ve almost forgotten sometimes. If this could be true for Tom, it can be true for me and you!

I shook Tom’s hand again, saying goodbye. He assured me again of what he never doubted. “You’re a fine young man. You ain’t got a reason to ever think for a minute that God doesn’t love you just as much as He ever did love anybody.”

I smiled sheepishly, tried to absorb what he was saying and tried not to cry again.

“You’re a successful man,” Tom said.

“Successful?, I rolled my eyes, dismissing his unfounded appraisal.

“Well,” I said, “I’m pretty sure no one, including me, expected me to still be here, so I reckon that means Somebody loves me.”

“Yessir,” Tom said, “Listen, did I ever tell you the one about . . .”

“Tom,” I said grinning, interrupting him and hating needing to leave, “tell me this one Sunday. Next Sunday. Tom, I’ll see you then.”

No punchline, even delivered by Tom, could top him telling me the one about how we can be confident that God loves us; no doubt, no joke.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 1/16/15

Cocoon

Cocoon

When I was a kid, I not only imagined that my bedroom was its’ own world, I also worked to make sure that it was. Surviving the red-velvet clutter and “Chuck Wagon Gang” gospel music that assaulted you at the front door and making it to my bedroom was, in my mind, akin to surviving Mordor on your return to the Shire, or making it through the rest of *Texas to get to Austin. Even at a young age I was deeply embarrassed by my simple, unrefined parents and, much to their frustration, I took every opportunity to accentuate our differences. In fact, I thought we were so different from each other that we couldn’t really be related at all. I was filled with new hope as an adolescent at the idea that I must have been adopted. My determination culminated in an exhaustive, but futile secret search through my parent’s boxes and drawers, looking for papers that would prove my adoption. Years later, at my high school graduation, I would take great satisfaction when adult friends would comment to me that they couldn’t believe Mom and Dad were my parents. Now, other people; adults, suggested that perhaps I was adopted and I couldn’t have felt more . . . proud. In a room full of people, a stranger wouldn’t connect me with my parents; not by looks, or speech, or demeanor. My determination to be as different from them as I could be, had paid off.

Of course, my adult perspective of my parents is more seasoned; they’re not complete scapegoats to be sure. While I don’t remember an exact moment of such a decision, I think that maybe, at some point early on, I made up my mind even as a child, that I didn’t want a relationship with them. Some of my embarrassment was certainly typical of most all of us growing up: floundering for independence and embarrassed by our dependence. Like every child and adolescent, like every teen, like every human, I wanted to be and to belong. But there were other factors that grew the need in me to retreat to my imagination; to cocoon in my room. When my refuge was ruined, when my retreat was destroyed, I would eventually rebel. But, before there were clearly drawn enemy lines, before I defected, it’s true, I fought for the cause.

If Mom and Dad had a “cause”, or purpose, or a life at all it was the country church we drove forty-some miles to attend. Every Sunday morning and every Sunday night; every Wednesday night, and at frequent week long revivals, the piano and tambourines were banged, people “spoke in tongues”, desperate altar calls were given, and “sinner’s prayers” were repeated. Best of all, my Sunday school teacher, Sister Opal, would routinely amuse and frighten me by “shouting” the vast number of bobby pins out of her carefully constructed, pinned, and sprayed hair. If the old joke about Pentecostals, “the higher the hair, the closer to God”, is true, Sister Opal surely must have touched the nail prints in His hands. At home, Dad didn’t allow a television in the house for years. No secular music was allowed in the house at all, none; not jazz, not country; only gospel. This was, for the first part of my life, the only world I knew. I knew nothing else, so I emulated what I knew, certain that it would please Mom and Dad; and ‘pleasing Mom and Dad’ if nothing else, had to hurt less.

An aunt of mine is still fond of recalling how at five-years-old, I would take my little wooden chair and stool that Dad had varnished and painted with my name, “Jimmy” and turn that little chair into a pulpit for some of the fieriest sermons stuffed animals never heard.

"You MUST be born again! Huh!," I shouted at Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and my sister's harlot Barbies, who always sat in the back pews. I pumped my fist and pounded the Bible and worked myself right into a little five-year-old-holy-roller-frenzy. I was  determined  that my polyurethane-stuffed congregation would REPENT! and be spared hellfire.  Now, what I knew, at five-years-old, that you had to have for a good sermon were three things:  a sturdy Bible, a glass of cool water,  and a handkerchief, or a "hanky" where we were from."
“You MUST be born again! Huh!,” I shouted at Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and my sister’s harlot Barbies, who always sat in the back pews.
I pumped my fist and pounded the Bible and worked myself right into a little five-year-old-holy-roller-frenzy. I was determined that my polyurethane-stuffed congregation would REPENT! and be spared hellfire. Now, what I knew, at five-years-old, that you had to have for a good sermon were three things: a sturdy Bible, a glass of cool water, and a handkerchief, or a “hanky” where we were from.”
The “prayer hanky” came from my favorite family friend at church, Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams was round and happy and chocolate brown and had the very best laugh and I loved her. I reckon I believe that if anybody ever did know anything at all for certain (and most of us don’t), Mrs. Williams knew something for certain and from the very first time that I had special permission to sit with her in church, I just wanted to be like Mrs. Williams. So it was only natural that I had to have a prayer hanky in my belt, just like Mrs. Williams kept in the belt of her dresses to dab her eyes or mop her brow, but it wasn’t the female accessories, it wasn’t the belt or the hankies that was alluring. “Pentecostal drag” is frequently gender-neutral: soaked hanky, dry hanky, Bible, and lotsa perspiration. What I wanted to be near; what was magnetic, what I wanted to be like was what folks like Mrs. Williams were like. I wanted what they had, or what “had them”, to know what they knew that made ’em move like they did -real sure and real humble; to know why Mrs. Williams always did seem like a calm sky and a solid place, no matter what, when everybody else felt like hard rain.

Deepest the deepest convictions of my pre-Evangelist trail-five-year-old-self, I was still only five, so even I eventually grew impatient and restless in church services. As a result of my talking and squirming, I became so accustomed to being taken out of church and into the Ladies Room to get switched, that one Sunday on the way into the church I simply looked up at Mom and said, “We might as well go in now and get it over with before church starts.” Now, I imagine the resignation that must have been in my little boy voice, knowing that this, violence, was just a fact of my day, and it makes me sad for a moment, to know that at five, I felt beaten. I felt so beaten in fact, that I soon gave up the continually prophesied big calling on my little life to be a preacher. Soon, I hardly spoke at all. Ever. People began to inquire aloud as to if I was mute. “Can’t your little boy speak?”, people would ask my Mom, their voices offering pity even before she could answer.

Now, I was born in 1966 and unfortunately for me, any changing with the times my parents might have done stopped a decade before my arrival. Looking like an extra from “Peggy Sue Got Married” surprised by the 1970’s, even Mom’s best Sunday dresses were worn with the ever-present white bobby socks. Our modest home felt like a time warp. Mom alternated between secret shopping trips and illness. Dad always stank of the burning rubber he molded into tires at Cooper Tire and Rubber. When he wasn’t breaking his back at work, Dad would sometimes sit and read his Bible and write early in the morning and sometimes late at night. Sometimes he would lose himself in the garage, which was so full of stuff, that getting lost was actually possible. And sometimes to break up that routine up, he’d beat the daylights out of me. As I grew older I became more ashamed of my parent’s simple, poor, country folk ways and “old time religion” fervor. In a world in which I increasingly felt I didn’t belong, these two characters were apparently sent the long trip down Walton’s mountain to be certain that I never would. In our family’s defense, it should be noted, that there was not a velvet oil painting of Elvis over our couch. Appropriately enough, the velvet oil painting over our couch was of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was a kind of a morbid marquee:

“Now Playing, In It’s Record Breaking Twelfth Year: “SUFFERING.”

In the picture, Christ is kneeling at an altar of rock, arms outstretched, hands clasped together in prayer, His face pained and pleading, as He and I ask that this bitter cup pass from us.

My bitter cup, as I saw it, was to survive, not only my father’s welts and blows, but also the crushing embarrassment of my Mom’s elastic-waisted polyester pants and incessantly cheery habit of answering the phone, “Hello! God loves you!” I imagine myself as Carrie White in the Brian De Palma directed movie and Stephen King story, “Carrie”. I can see the scene now; although, unlike Carrie, returning home from gym class where she was terrorized by her first period and tormented by the other girls, I am returning home from a church youth group gathering where the very people that I saw in church each Sunday played records that, to my serious horror, were not (gulp), gospel!

Imagine, me, twelve and Piper Laurie as my mother:

“I can see your dirty little Top 40 music, Carrie.”

“It’s not dirty, Mama. It’s just pop music. It’s just Anne Murray. Even the folks at church like her, Mama.”

“Heathens and Hypocrites. First sin was secular music. Say it.”

“No, Mama. Why didn’t you tell me? They all laughed at me ’cause I was so surprised they weren’t afraid of going to hell for listening to “Daydream Believer”. You shoulda told me Mama.”

“First sin was secular music. Say it child!”

“No, Mama!”

“Go to your closet!”

And so, I did go to my closet. I could be found, but it bought me time. Sometimes just a few minutes could give mom enough time to calm Dad down a little. So, in the cramped, smothering hiding place in my bedroom closet I continued to learn the value of retreat; the safety of invisibility. If my bedroom was going to be my safe haven to retreat to it must be guarded and insulate me from all that was frightening, painful, and tacky just across the its’ threshold. However things might be outside the four walls of my bedroom, they would be as opposite of that as I could make them within.

Since the rest of the house was unkempt and cluttered, my room would be immaculate: no clutter, no dust, no wrinkles in my bedspread. In my room I countered the harsh light the living room picture window cast on my reality by creating indirect lighting with night lights and desk lamps hidden behind the removable speakers of my 8-track stereo. Since the only music in the rest of the house was country gospel, there would be classical music in my bedroom. I won the battle to play classical music as an exception by emphasizing its’ lack of lyrics and syncopated beats. Just by being thought about in my room, the lowly fiddle became a violin. There was a cork board that hung over my desk that I decorated to celebrate each season and holiday. My “desk” was actually a carpenter’s workbench. Of course, I had stored away all of the ridiculous carpenters’ tools and now imagined it to be a roll top desk.

Perhaps the most stark cultural contrast between the world inside my room and the “outside world” of the rest of the house was during the Christmas holiday. One of my more vivid childhood memories is of the annual Christmas conflict over whether or not we could have a Christmas tree. Dad saw it as an unwieldy arm of evil meant to replace Christ with commercialism. Mind you, I didn’t necessarily disagree with him, it was just confusing and embarrassing when he threw the Christmas tree into the front yard. If there would be no Christmas or only Christmas conflict outside my room, then it would be a Christmas-effin’ wonderland in my room. It began at Thanksgiving with a huge roll of colored paper from school on which I would create a Christmas mural. By the time the holiday arrived I would have a wall-size chalk depiction of the nativity. Garland and evergreen lined my dresser, bookshelf, and windowsill. Scented candles burned while Christmas carols played softly on an 8-track loop. From the ceiling I painstakingly hung hundreds of individual icicles, for what I saw as a tremendous effect. By just the streetlight from my bedroom window, when the furnace kicked on blowing warm air through the floor vent, all I saw were dancing flashes of silver light; stars in the low-slung heavens of my very own room. Here, it was a little easier to believe that I was somewhere else. Here, maybe I could find that hope again, that hope I use to have when I was sure I must have been adopted. Here, maybe I’ll find hope while I ponder the question posed by the quietly playing carol, “What Child is This?” What child is This, indeed.

In the end, I retreated to my room so frequently that my dad, the enemy, began to infiltrate my camp, even in the daylight. It became a rule that my bedroom door had to be left, not only unlocked, but open all the time. I broke no rule more consistently. As a result, my bedroom door was unhinged and removed by my Dad, as I would be very soon. It was sort of a cocoon C-section, and yet there would be wings; tattered and atrophied, but still, wings – wings that I could flex and extend, strengthen and bend – wings that could heal and mend and, for now, wings that would keep me warm while I learned to walk.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 2004/20014

*sorry, Texans, but well, you’re in Texas, you’d better have a sense of humor.

**a slightly different version of this story first appeared in the chapbook, “Growing Up Jimmy: Tales of Bible Belt Survival on the Yellow Brick Road”, at http://www.sematikon.com, and in “Dayton City Paper”.

“One Size, One Way, One Love”

One Size, One Way, One Love

There’s a lot of conversation lately about “third ways”, “middle ways” and new ways. There’s a good deal of energy being spent to “discern” what our approach should be to God’s children who don’t affirm our sense of “normal”, who are outside of our self-blown bubble. So far I’m convinced that most of these efforts are just more gently worded barriers to inclusion. A wall painted with a beautiful mural remains a wall. Most of what is manufactured and passed around as new angles and perspectives are actually “subways”, that is “sub-way”, not The Way, less than The Way. They allow those in power to feel better about themselves while those that they hold power over and who they are making decisions about remain “sub”; a little less, sub-“real” Christian, sub-“real” man or woman, sub-“real” human. It seems that our constant push back against the fact there’s been no revision to “love one another” is to do a little, or a Lot less than what was asked, by which I mean commanded , or we actually don’t do it at all, but instead do something maybe related, but still altogether different than what we were told to do. This reaction reminds me of my sophisticated tactics from childhood when I would do anything else, any other chore to try and appease my parents to make up for the fact that I had not done the chore they had actually requested done.

Picture it: Findlay, Ohio, 1978 (spoiler alert: more than just about anything, I hated doing
the dishes when I was a kid.)

Findlay, Ohio, 1978, and my parents return home, having told me to do the dishes when they left.

Mom: “Did you do the dishes like I asked?”

Me: “I took out the trash.”

Dad: “​Son, I think it was the dishes your mom was asking
about. Did you do the dishes like your mother asked?”

Me: “Well, I think I ran outta time because, Look! I
dusted Everything!”

Now picture it: Your church, my church, The Church, Judgement Day (which by the way, is
everyday; every day ​we’re judged to be living love or loving our life.)

The Church Judgement Day (tomorrow, for instance)

God: “Did you love women?”

Us: “We did Lord. They’re fine Sunday School teachers, just fine. Don’t have to tell you how
much we love’em at the church potlucks! Oh, and in the choir;like angels in the choir.”

God: “And did you love your brothers and sisters of color? Did you love black folks?”

Us: “Lord, we do. We love what they’ve done with their church on the other side of town.
Oh, and you know, the three that do go to our church have voices that are just such a
blessing in the choir.”

God: (inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly)
“I see. And my gay children? Did you love them?”

Us: “Well, Lord, we do love them . . . and we’re talking a lot, still, still meeting a lot
about how best to, You know, do that, but You know, there are a couple of very well-
behaved ones that have been attending,and You know where they really shine,
of course, is…”

God: (interrupting)
“I’m gonna just go ahead and guess, the choir?”

Why do we remain unconvinced that the same essentials that nurture and sustain us, nurture and sustain everyone. Too often in government, education, in The Church, our signifying differences and individual and cultural qualities are seen as “issues to deal with” or “problems to be addressed” and then we end up with serious seminars promoting serious new books that wrestle with proposed serious questions like:

“How do we minister to people of color? or single people?”
“How do we reach young people?
“How can we honor And define women’s role?”
and, of course,
“What is our new plan on how to deal with the ‘issue of the
gays’ in The Church?”

When we’ve chipped away enough of their humanity we create a new label for another category of “other”, of “subs”, and we comfort ourselves that they are not really like us. And, sometimes, you know, through terrific sacrifice and several years of listening committees and assembly debates and synod councils and after much division, we have finally “wrestled with the Scriptures” enough now to decide that God’s love does, after all, even include them, too. And then, sometimes we really “hear the message” and we “pick up our cross” and (deep sigh) deign to “love” those people. Some of us do this by ministering to them in their own special group. “Them”. “Would you look at them? Aren’t they something?” “God sure is good,” we crow, pretty pleased with our new “missions”, our “project” that we’re pretty passionate about now that we understand that God, in His grace, even loves them too, even though they’re not white, or male, or heterosexual, or coupled, or monied, or even Christian. Yes, God is good and now that we’ve decided that God loves Even them, we’d better let them know, too! (Imagine, right now if you will, Everyone who’s Ever been a “them” collectively doing the Most Epic eye roll EVER. Thank you.)

Our obsession with “us” and “them” confirms my often repeated suspicion that most of us, like myself, are on the spiritual path and most of us, like myself, are also on the short bus on the spiritual path. We’re slow learners, to put it mildly, repeating Love Class over and over again.

Not a “fresh approach”, but still the ancient words stand:

“Love one another.”

God, neighbor, and enemies, the unlikely “one-cruciform-size-fits-all” proposition, commandment actually, is to love them all.

But how do we really understand this beyond just an undeniably noble sounding idea? There’s none of us unwounded or learned in how to actually trust and how to be free, free indeed; free, even to be vulnerable. We’re all learning, all struggling until loving one another becomes so natural that it’s just how we live with each other. A vital part of our witness is helping each other understand that we’re not the lowest or the worst or broken beyond repair. It’s a vital part of our witness to distribute hope and relay the Truth that, contrary to echos from childhood playgrounds or the constant media assault of advertising, we are, Still and Always, loved and lovable. We need reminders from each other that our outstretched hands and open arms are not a siphon, but a bridge; a bridge somehow strengthened by the shared weaknesses of its’ frail and burdened crossing pilgrims.

When my spouse, Kevin, and I first attended the church that would become our home church, I noticed him right away across the sanctuary. First, of course, I noticed his outrageous full head of dark, curly hair. I say, “of course” because even though I’m not even fifty yet, I haven’t needed a barber in a few decades, just lotsa hats, and his hair is great. If a man can have beautiful hair, Rocky does. What? Does admiring another man’s hair sound gay? Really? Well, I promise that I am not saying that any man, straight or gay, with thinning hair or a bald head that says that they don’t notice other men’s hair is homophobic. I am Not saying that. What I am saying is that they’re lying. All of them. They’re liars. Their pants are on fire. We do notice. Rocky’s hair is pretty cool, pretty unforgettable. And then, of course, there’s his name, “Rocky Banks”, with its’ comic potential forever seared in my memory. I decided immediately upon meeting him that with a name like “Rocky Banks”, he’d better be a boxer or a patched-eye blues singer. But beneath the great hair and in addition to the great blues singer sounding name, there is in Rocky such a solidity and a tenderness that somehow coexist in him simultaneously that you feel welcomed. His integrity invites trust and a sense of safety. As Rocky and I have shared some responsibilities at church and a few lunches we’ve gotten to know each other better and discovered, among other things, that we have an Evangelical upbringing in common. Rocky shares custody of his daughter with his ex-wife, Sandy. Yes, that’s right, her married name was Sandy Banks. Personally, I’d like to think that if I was Rocky that I would have considered our first names and my family name and would have considered that a foreboding enough of a warning that this union canNot be a good idea. Recently, I aimed directly out of my comfort zone and asked Rocky if I could crash at his place in the city so that I could make it to an early morning meeting at church the next day. I stayed over, keenly aware of the new territories of trust that I was exploring for myself.

Then, Rocky called just the other morning. Another dating situation ended recently and he is, in the plainest terms, lonely; an intelligent, handsome, compassionate, tender-hearted and lonely man. My heart aches for his. I want so badly to somehow lift his heaviness, to help him know that his loneliness right now isn’t a price he’s paying for something in the past, but is instead, maybe, the cost he’s paying now for something beautiful still to come, and I want to dry his tears or know that he’s held while he cries them. Rocky had called to talk about how we experience God’s presence and those dark, quiet, desperate times when we simply don’t feel God’s presence at all; when the ether’s that previously seemed to spirit our prayer and longing to the ear and heart of God have suddenly become an echo chamber mocking our every plea.

“Hello? God? It’s me,” we speak again into the ridicule of the resounding silence and when the inevitable echo of our own voice returns,

“Hello, God. Its Me,” we are too easily fooled by the Holy inhabiting our voice. We don’t recognize the inflection and authority in the returned words and fail to credit the affirmation to God. We miss the lack of question in our echoed words. Where there was fearful, doubting desperation in our asking, “Hello? God?”, the same words returned are now, not a question, but a statement of recognition. God recognizes God seeded within us. Our prayer, it turns, might be like a two-way mirror that God passes. Looking out from our non-reflective side, we see everything or nothing depending on what appears on the side of our window. But God, drawn by our prayer, passes the mirror and whether it’s me avoiding vulnerability, or Rocky speaking his loneliness into the shadows, or you on the other side of the mirror, God, forever and always, sees only God – the image and likeness and spark of God, Herself.

We look out in fear of strangers.

God looks in and sees only family.

I imagine angels cooing and fawning over tiny, ethereal soul bassinets. One, shaking his head, warns, “He’s got a heart of flesh. That’ll be trouble for sure.” The other angel, though, looks more closely and says, “Yes, but he’s got his Father’s eyes.”

The family resemblance is always what God notices first, no matter how many other lovers or tribes we’ve tried to belong to.

He sees us.

He sees His own.

He sees His children, God’s co-creators created to look like and behave like their Savior. Designed to imitate God’s qualities and reflect the character of the Creator, we, too, are called to see the family resemblance in each other first. We were made to see each other and be fulfilled in each other’s vision. It is by design that we live the truth of St. Augustine’s words, “In loving me, you made me lovable.” (“Quia amasti me, fecist me amabilem”) It is on purpose that we were made to rightly feel like something is missing if we don’t know the regular blessing and balm and refuge provided by a firm handshake, a close, tight hug, or simply that look that assures us that we are each other’s own. We belong to each other and this, too, is the liberating work of the Spirit. Our broken places are mended and old wounds are healed as we practice the agape love that knows that the first healing is in being heard and in hearing and hearing comes by the Word of God and the Word of God is this:

“You belong. I belong. We belong.
We are reconciled and one day all of creation will be reconciled, but it begins now.
We rehearse,
with each breath.”

Rocky and I talked for awhile. I hope I said anything at all that was helpful. I hope I made any sense, but mostly, I hope I listened. Our conversation was ending as both of us needed to get the day started and just as I was about to say that I’d talk to him later in the week, Rocky said, “Thanks, I love you, man.” Half a beat later I responded, “You know I love you back,” trying to sound confident not startled, which is kind of what I was. I mean who knew? How long are you friends with a straight man before somebody uses the “L-word”? Who knew they even said that to each other?! But here, is such a man; a man whose priority is love; a man who offers hope through his humanity and points to God. I’d like to be that kind of man.

Our hearts and lives, communities and even our world depend on our answer to our call to care for each other and tend to each other: women and sisters and mothers, brother-to-other, and brother-to-brother living in the simplest acts of devotion like just hearing each other, like reminding each other that there’s Nothing we could do to be “trespassed out” of each other’s heart, and there is Nothing that can taper or tame God’s ferocious love for us. So many simple acts heal us, like extending trust, like risking intimacy, like surprising your friend by saying, “I love you, man.” These are witnesses to an outrageously subversive hope! These are words of Life speaking words of Life from the Source of Life and spoken by another living reflection of that Source right in front of us! If the light was less dynamic, if the hope was less radiant, unbelief might be a choice, but there wasn’t a moment of choice. There was only a moment with no hope and the next moment seeming to matter as if the next moment after that could somehow be different now.

Brennan Manning tells the story that “in 1980, the day before Christmas, Richard Ballenger’s mother in Anderson, South Carolina was busy wrapping packages and asked her young son to shine her shoes. Soon, with proud smile that only a seven-year-old can muster, he presented the shoes for inspection. His mother was so pleased, she gave him a quarter. On Christmas morning as she put on her shoes to go to church, she noticed a lump in one shoe. She took it off and found a quarter wrapped in paper. Written on the paper in a child’s scrawl were the words,
“I done it for love.”

Like Richard’s returned quarter, wrapped and placed in his mother’s shoe, inside our reaching out and back to each other is wrapped a bridge; a bridge that somehow grows more durable with use, a bridge made of and sustained by the One who “done it for love” and who guards our heart, sets its direction toward our Source and destination, wraps it, and places it, not in a shoe, but in the middle of our bridge and requires two sets of hands to lift it.

It may seem a simple thing to go on about: a man said, “I love you,” but in my life and in our world That IS cause for notice and celebration. Three or four days after Rocky’s phone call, one morning just before I was really awake, I smiled and relaxed more deeply for just a few seconds before I could even realize why. Because of Rocky’s call I remember some essentials, and when I do wake up, I feel lighter. Slowly, I realize that something is missing – the low-grade ache and the echos – they’re not here. Maybe this is when we really wake up: when we realize that our glorious differences are not obstacles and don’t require an approach fresher or a campaign newer than, “Love one another”, when we realize finally that our shared humanity makes the divine prescription always the same: Love, of course, but not love as a concept from a distance, but love that holds us close till we exhale; love that draws us home to roam in the vast hills and valleys of the heart space between outstretched arms; love that is, as that old chorus said, “deep and wide”: deeper than any hurt, wider than all our fears; love that plants hope with a phone call, love that waters that hope with tender truths and a gentle witness like, “I love you, man.”

– PreetamDas Kirtana
11/11/14

“Why ‘Jesus Loves Me’ Doesn’t Make Any Damn Sense”

Why ‘Jesus Loves Me’ Doesn’t Make Any Damn Sense

The gap between what we say we believe and how we live is often tragically stunning. I’ve explored different religious traditions to a lesser or greater degree before returning, to my own surprise, to a reclaimed version of Christianity, so I understand that this gap is most definitely not confined to any single tradition. I wish that were the case. It would make it so much easier to avoid, well externally anyway; of course we retain our individual proclivity for this behavior ourselves – our unfortunate bond of human nature. Americanized, Santa Fe/Sedona-style Eastern religion-lite (heavy on accessories, light on transformation) and new-agers (same ol’ ego) are at least as likely to mumble a sanskrit greeting while passing hateful judgement and practicing exclusion as are mainstream religionists are to tell you that God loves you while hating you in every practical way. And therein lies the rub, doesn’t it? What in the ‘h’-‘e’-double hockey sticks does it matter to any of us that God loves us while what we feel and experience from each other is exactly the opposite of love?

I can speak best about Christianity because, despite my pit stops in other traditions, it remains the source of my greatest abuse and my greatest hope and life’s blessing. Goodness knows I’ve witnessed progress, an opening of love in the tradition; the irrepressible love of Christ seeping through all our best dogmatic attempts to choke the life out of it . The fires of hope and the authentic Way of Jesus-love I’ve been exposed to and transformed by through reading Brennan Manning, Brian Zahnd, Jimmy Spencer, and Shane Claiborne, among others; discovering the true to the first church, alternative to the empire foundations of the Anabaptist tradition, the life-saving witness of my adopted family: Sue, Charlette, Bunni, and Kapri and others, first-hand in my own life, and the Love that captured me as a child and simply would not let me go have all conspired to “draw that circle that drew me in” in Parker Palmer’s words. Yet that chasm, in my life and in our lives, between what we profess and the frequently profane way we treat each other haunts me and makes a mockery and fetters of a love that we say sets us free. We are horribly morphed from intended witnesses to sacrificial, other-centered love to bondsmen withholding mercy, simutaneously jailing others and ourselves.

I’d like to think that most folk’s childhood was less abusive than my own. I know that many suffered much worse. I know that when I was a kid in church, like many of us raised in Evangelical homes, we sang the chorus, “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.” And as a child there was a claim layed on my heart by the Great Prospecter that is undeniable, but it was also undeniable that the gap between a Sunday school kid’s chorus and the reality of my little life at home nearly destroyed me. “Jesus loves me” we sang, but I could not figure out how He loved me when my legs were welted, my mouth bloodied, or I was crammed into the crawlspace under the house. How is it then that Jesus loves me if my parents clearly hated me? How is that? How does that work?

When women, like the dear woman I know that I’ll call Janie and millions like her, are driven to desperation and eventually to divorce and are then condemned by The Church for “their sin” of choosing life and survival, are made to nearly break under the weight of risking offending God and being denied communion in in The Church or continue in the daily death of their soul, and sometimes their body, and remain subservient to the “head” of their toxic household, how does it make any sense to them that Jesus loves them when The Church hates them? How does that work out? The love of Christ is a real tough sell when the witness of Christ in the world doesn’t bind and heal wounds, but instead deepens old wounds and tears fresh ones and in the pews we pass and pour the salt of judgement, inflaming the wounds of Christ’s first disciples, rather than comforting and supporting our sisters. How is it that Jesus loves me if The Church hates me?

When the LGBTQ community is ostracized, dehumanized, and demonized by religionists and pastors making money from hawking lies and fear, how does it matter to them, to us, when you say Jesus loves us? Religionists favorite refuge for their prejudice and hate and our least favorite tired old funds-a-mentalist “pop” refrain is “Hate the sin, love the sinner”. Newsflash: if this is “love”, we can’t tell the difference between your love and hate and shouldn’t that be a problem? Like Margret Cho said once, “Christians have lost their minds. The Christians are so mean, even the Satanists are like, ‘Oh that’s mean!” By the way, just something to consider: apparently our “sin” is love, but clearly yours is hate. Just something to consider. And consider this as well, for the very generous among us who say that “being gay is a just a sin like any other, no better or worse”, thank you, thank you so much for your generous orthodoxy that compares my love of my spouse to “any other sin”, say like lying, theft, or murder. Thank you, thank you so much for negating our love in equating it to “any other sin”. When we try to disguise the hate hidden deep in our hearts in spiritual love language, we repel others as effectively as we secretly intend to. No one, no one ever quotes “Hate the sin, love the sinner” to love them in, but to hate them out. Ever notice that. How is it that ‘Jesus loves us’ can make any sense, how can it be real at all when no matter how much we love God or how much you say God loves us, you can’t.

And finally, I wonder is that other children’s church song still sung that I remember? “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight! Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Do they still sing that? Do they sing it before or after preaching nationalism and strengthening America’s borders where the children are hungry and terrified? Did the president’s daughters sing it as little girls? Did Malia and Sasha sing how Jesus loves all the little children in the world while their father’s ordered drone strikes continue to kill children as collateral damage on a war game video screen? How is it that ‘Jesus loves me’ makes any damn sense to those children when we treat them like so much skeeting with a backdrop of a flag draped cross? Can you explain that to me? Better yet, and much more importantly, can you explain that to them?

I’m afraid we’ve been mislead for at least decades, much longer really. The challenge to our witness is not our “fallen, sinful world”.

The challenge to our witness is our perpetually denied hate for our enemies hidden in our hearts. No matter how we try to dress it up, no matter what doctrinal spin and justification we try to give it – it always feels and has the effect of the hate that it is.

If we cannot confess the deep incongruency between what we say we believe and how we live together, there cannot be any way for Jesus to bridge that gap and ‘Jesus loves me’ just won’t make any damn sense.

-PreetamDas Kirtana