Yesterday I was driving a friend from hospital to a sober home in Huntington Beach
following the map-voice from my phone and so immersed in conversation that I only suddenly became aware of this building filling my windshield. Hadn’t been at this intersection in decades possibly, and it all flooded back in an instant. Count up four rows of blue glass and back some thirty years, and I am sitting behind the window near the middle as communications director for a health care firm and had just seen Marian for the first time as a temp hire placed just outside my door. She only sat there for three months, and I didn’t see her again for over four years, but next Wednesday is our 23rd wedding anniversary, so you know there’s much more to that story.
Amazing how life moves us in ever widening circles, bringing us back again and again like time travelers to scenes that highlight our passage. Sitting there waiting for the light, the man behind the windshield and the one behind the blue glass are the same, but would the young man looking out approve, identify with the elder down at the intersection? Looking up, would the elder welcome such youthful approval or see it only as evidence of life long lessons unlearned? At the intersection waiting for the light, it’s hard to know such stuff. But twenty three years next Wednesday with the woman who knows us both…
I’ve got that going for me.
We had to put our dog to sleep today. Part of our family for fifteen years and the dog our boys grew up with, but what we’d been putting off for months couldn’t be put off any longer this morning. Never had to do this before; it happens very fast, and I can still see her face in those last moments. In this subdued mode all day, thoughts of the the dog I grew up with inevitably came to mind…and a story I’d written about her and me. This won’t be for everyone, but if you like short fiction, maybe give it a few paragraphs and see…
I remember the first time I saw Sheba.
Of course we didn’t call her that then. She was just the tiny, almost insignificant piece of white fur trying to balance itself in the bottom of the brown paper bag as we peered down between the two big hands which held it low enough for my little sister and me to get our faces over the edge. And I didn’t so much wonder then, but later, why the bag. Why he didn’t just carry it around like people usually carry puppies: in their arms, or peeking out from under a jacket—unless it was to make sure that he got all the way to the front door without warning parents to keep their children well away before they could produce the wailing “eeeeee” that was coming from my sister’s throat and preceded any serious begging. I suppose the proper vowel sound for such an occasion would have been an “aaahhh” or “ohhhhh,” but my sister even at that age wasn’t much for convention, so she said, “eeeeee.”
And we stood in the doorway, my sister and I, looking down at the white shape poking around at the brown paper trying to find a solid spot to stand on, and listening to the deep voice aimed well over our heads to where our parents stood quietly with sort of a tired, resigned look on their faces, as if they knew what was coming and how could he do that to them, being a fellow adult and all.
But maybe he just didn’t know about all that because he was still too close to not being an adult yet himself, and then being new on the block, having just moved in with his wife and they not having any children of their own. Anyway. he kept right on, my sister and I listening to the words sailing over our heads telling how his wife had a dog, a little mongrel named Angel which wasn’t much bigger than a puppy though it was full grown and how much she loved the dog and cried when it swallowed the fish hook and died the day before and only cried more when he brought the little white puppy home and said to take it away, she didn’t want it. And I wondered if he’d brought it to her in a paper bag also, and if not, maybe if he had, he wouldn’t be standing here with it in one now.
But anyway, he said it was all paid for and he’d just have to take it back to the pound unless maybe someone wanted it and then he wouldn’t have to, and then after his wife was better, he could get another one for her. But he didn’t have to do that either, because after his wife got better she got a baby instead and didn’t need a puppy anymore.
And my sister was just getting going good, and our parents looking more tired than ever, what with our six eyes against their tired-looking four, and two of ours being the loudest in the business; it wasn’t even fair.
We got to keep the bag too.
Rain is falling outside the open window at my desk. Seems ages since I’ve heard the sound in the midst of this drought. I can almost hear the earth gratefully absorbing each drop, feel it slide all the way down like a cold drink on a hot day. Hard to work with my attention continually drawn outside. School children and parents walking to school under umbrellas; a little girl’s voice cuts through: my hair’s wet. So I give up for a few moments to write this. Reminds me of another moment just over twenty years ago that I captured in a journal entry. Before blogs, before another twenty years of life. But I can’t say it any better today…
Monday 2/7/94, 6:35 AM
Storm has been coming for two days. Right on schedule, storm is here.
Not much of a storm right now, just a gentle rain in the gray outside my half-opened window. The rain is hard enough to make continuous sound, but still light enough to hear individual drops. As I listen I can hear where they are falling: on concrete or the wide leaves of shrubbery, on the steel drums of the barbecue pits. I can hear where they are in space: some close, others falling into the middle distance of the courtyard, others much softer, blending into delicate white noise several hundred feet away. Little drops have made it through the maze of barren branches to directly hit their targets; other, larger drops have collected on branches or rain gutters and hit with a heavier splat.
It all makes a beautifully spacious music. I can’t tell you how pleasing it is to sit here in natural light and just be here sitting in natural light. Sitting. Listening. Trying to write, but drifting back off into the rain.
This storm has been coming for two days. I heard about it Saturday morning. After the rain Friday the air was clean and the patches of sky between the high, shifting cumulus formations were very blue. The way it only is here after rain. Immediately after. And I thought about this storm still hundreds of miles out to sea, squalling uselessly over the face of the water, unheeded except by satellites passing overhead and occasional ships underneath. After all, the fish couldn’t get any wetter.
It has been coming all this time. While I had lunch and read. While I came home and worked at the computer until 11:30. While I was running yesterday morning before church. While my pastor thundered his sermon. While I bought a friend a birthday present and then worked again at the computer until it was time to go to the birthday dinner.
And sometime while I slept, it arrived. The leading edges of the cloud system looked blindly down as the monotonous face of the water gave way to white diagonal lines of breakers dissipating against the sand and then to the strip of coastal highway beyond the sand and the six, short miles of rooftops and parking lots until it looked down and did not see the little, wooded courtyard outside my window.
Sometime while I slept the wind picked up a bit. Sometime while I slept the first drops began to fall.
All this without my knowledge or permission or volition. While I lived my last two days. While I slept. I simply wake up to the gift of this beautiful sound. To an hour of precious solitude with my window and my Lord and these words–that you had no idea were being written for you, while you lived your life and slept, and that have been on their way to you ever since; until the pages were placed in your hands to sit on your shelf; until you first cracked the cover and waded through page after page until you came to this very word.
And then moved on.
I am told the storm will last until tomorrow. Then we will have another clean, blue day. Eventually we will have another storm. I don’t know when. I am glad not to know such things. To wake up and find that storms need nothing from me, but graciously include me in all they have to give.
Eventually we will have another storm. I will try to spend some time with it also.
Last Sunday after our gathering, as we were all milling about afterglowing, our little guy Brennan discovered the joys of a live microphone and began doing what he does best–talking. But what came out–just audible above the recorded music–silenced the knots of conversation around the room as we were all drawn one by one to that little voice. It didn’t make sense in the normal sense of that word…it wasn’t logical or sequential or even grammatical, but it created its own logic as it went along. And we could all read between the lines of a four year old mind struggling to put internal knowings into newfound language: “Love…I have my family, that’s for real…I have all my friends and that’s how I have my conversation…you are all, and thank you for that…living for Jesus…and now that you are all alive, that’s how the cross is going to…and that’s how you know it’s good to have love–Jesus.” At that point he walked off the stage, but then came running back a few seconds later to say, “Amen.”
When our children speak, we smile and nod and think “how cute” or “how touching,” even as we remain separated from and untouched by them–as if they’re little aliens having nothing in common with our world of adults. Yet Jesus quotes the psalmist to tell us that “out of the mouth of infants and nursing babes you have perfected praise.” Brennan’s prayer was an unfiltered look at the deepest experiences of his life. He knows what’s important; he knows what brings him life and safety, but he barely has language enough to express them. He opens his mouth and out come words he’s been taught…love, family, friends, Jesus…and he strings them together with…real, conversation, alive, thank you, and amen. He knows these sounds point to something central, but doesn’t know enough to think through grammar and syntax and logic. He just opens his mouth in a room full of people and unselfconsciously speaks, and in that speaking, praise is perfected, made complete. We think it’s cute, but of course much more is expected of us as adults–that we have to make sense, have to truly articulate our faith and our praise to make them real.
The moment we begin to understand that we can never make sense of faith or articulate our praise; that thoughts and words can never do more than point in the general direction of what’s really important; that no matter how old we get, we can never do better than Brennan or any child in expressing the inexpressible…in that moment of just letting out whatever’s in, something happens: our faith and our praise become perfect. Without understanding or making sense, we lose ourselves in a perfect moment.
Here for audio of Brennan’s prayer.
The purpose of a preacher is to persuade.
The purpose of a teacher is to make students ready to engage.
I’m a teacher.
Ultimately, I don’t care what you believe. But I care deeply how your beliefs affect your behavior and the quality of your relationships–that is, the quality of your life and every life you touch.
Belief is overrated; it’s only idea, the representation of reality small enough to survive the filter of your worldview. But what your beliefs allow you to do consistently is what we call faith–not what you think, but how you act–and how you act repeatedly over time creates the repeated experience we call trust.
Belief is idea. Faith is action. Trust is experience. Belief is only as important as the faith it makes possible and faith only as important as the trust it makes possible. Because trust is what makes relationship possible.
Always approximate, no one has a completely accurate belief system. No one. Yet we preach and persuade, denigrate and excommunicate over thoughts we can’t even know for certain are true. And all the while, what is concrete and inescapably real are the choices and actions we absolutely know are true or false by their ability to connect or divide our relationships.
It’s not my job to tell anyone what to believe. Belief merely received is untested, and untested belief is untrusted, has no ability to connect…but can certainly divide. What I teach is what I’ve become convinced of, what I’ve tested for years in the laboratory of my life, risked my choices and actions on and proved to myself whether it has power to bind relationship. But reduced to words, these convictions become belief again, idea again in the student’s mind. Untested. Untrusted.
All I can tell you is what I am convinced of. Go become convinced of what you are convinced of.
Because persuasion is overrated too. The only person we will ever convince of anything is ourselves, living the truth we believe we believe until we experience its truth in the nature of our relationships. And if the way you express your truth is different than the way I express mine, no matter. It’s not important that we see eye to eye, only that we can stand shoulder to shoulder, connected to each other and everyone we meet along the way.
A friend called and asked if I would speak to a friend of hers–a cancer patient who was staring down a hard road of chemotherapy and radiation. I didn’t know him or his family, but my friend said she thought he could really use a chance to talk through some spiritual issues with which she knew he was struggling.
I said if he was willing, I sure was, and our first two conversations got all the basics out of the way: I learned about his condition, how rare it was and how difficult to treat. How he was only 38, a construction supervisor who had been let go after several months of inability to work, having to move his family into his mother-in-law’s home because finances were so tight. I learned about his wife and two small boys and how they were dealing with his illness–wife pushing through with busyness, boys young enough to be oblivious… And little by little I began to hear about him, about all that had to be going on inside. But with each little personal glimpse, he’d smile and take a sip from the water bottle he always had near and quickly say that he just had to push through, fight on no matter what.
Then I got a call from his wife saying that the chemo had worn a hole in his esophagus, which couldn’t be closed with surgery without too much risk, which now meant he couldn’t do radiation anymore, or perhaps the other way round… But like the moment on a chessboard when you can see two or three moves ahead that you’re just checkmated no matter where you move, there was no more that could be done. She said he was too weak to come to our offices now and would I come to their home, and on the way over, acutely aware of the significance of the moment, I began to plan the conversation as I often find myself doing, then forced myself to stop. To just show up and respond to what he actually had to say instead of any of my best imaginings was all I could do. What could I possibly say of value to someone in checkmate that didn’t come out of our moment together? What could I possibly bring in from the outside that could be relevant…other than myself?
He met me at the door and already looked older and thinner. Moving slowly, he took me out to the back patio where we sat under a slatted cover in bright sunlight, only the water bottle between us. The smile was gone, but he led the conversation with his fight on attitude until I asked him pointedly how he was really feeling. He simply said, “tough.” That the hardest part was the thought of leaving his family—his wife, the boys. Then he stopped and stared for a couple beats and out of the blue asked, “Do you believe in guardian angels?” And his voice broke, and his curtain parted, and I saw that everything he was, all emotion and hope and everything he was fighting for lay in that one question. Would his family be protected, guarded, guided without him here? Would he, could he possibly be assigned to that task? What would be his role, his purpose, his identity after checkmate? The sum of all fears in a single, seeming non-sequitur.
I said yes I do believe, though I don’t know how it works. No one can know how it works, but I believe in a God who protects and guides and guards whether through angels or us or anything in between. And then, out of the blue, I remembered a moment in first grade Catholic school when a girl in the row next to me asked the nun if she would have her dog in heaven, and I wondered if I should share my own non-sequitur with him, if what was coming to me out of our moment was of any real value or relevance. I told him the nun simply responded, “If you want your dog, you’ll have your dog.” See, that’s it. We don’t know how it works, but in God’s presence there is no felt need. In God’s presence the sum of all our fears has no meaning. If you want your dog, you’ll have your dog. If you want your family protected and guided, they will be–in ways we just can’t know right now.
His head went up and down as if in agreement or at least understanding, but he took a sip from his water bottle, and I watched the curtain close again. His mother-in-law sent me an email just last week to tell me he had died suddenly in his sleep the day before. I’d like to think that our talks helped. That in his last few weeks, he came to trust things he couldn’t possibly know. I can’t know if I helped, but I do know that now the tables are turned: that he now knows what I can only speculate, that he has whatever dog he wants, and that there are certainly some questions I’d like to ask him. But not yet.
Desert House of Prayer—Tucson, AZ
Tuesday, November 12, 2013; 9:29PM
Retreat. Silent. As in no talking. At all.
Three days of centering prayer and meditation in the desert outside Tucson—in the middle of a saguaro forest no less: their arms pointing all directions, towering into the distance over palo verde, mesquite, prickly pear, barrel cactus, agave, cholla, and low scrub I could never name. Or would need to. Seemed like a good idea three months ago when we booked it; now the timing couldn’t be worse with year-end audits, fundraisers, holiday programming… Just cut it off and go. See if three days of silence can somehow balance the other three hundred and sixty two.
A Catholic retreat, of course, [Evangelicals are rarely silent] so there will be Mass and saying the office, stations of the cross. But I come experienced, having grown up Catholic with twelve years of Catholic school and many silent retreats under the belt—even a brief stint in a monastic order. Driving up, it’s about what I expect. Gravel paths connecting a loose grouping of prefab-looking buildings all painted green. Who paints anything that color? Inside it all seems familiar. Catholics have a way of decorating that is always so…Catholic. Even smells familiar, comforting somehow.
We get a tour from Ann, a sweet older woman who knows everything about the center, the desert, and the rules: silent meals here, silent dorms there, silent library, chapel: don’t walk here, be on time for silent group prayer—no late arrivals allowed. Then finally, at the edge of where they pushed the desert back, the hermitages. We had booked hermitages. Don’t know what image the word hermitage evokes for you, but think free-standing motel room, and you’ve got it. Prefab. Green.
The farthest two are reserved for us, one for Frank and one for me. First one we’re shown is nice and bright. Great views out both windows, cool-looking air conditioner with remote control. The one down the hill is darker inside; a stand of palo verde trees blocks the eastern window. No air conditioner. It suddenly hits me that I really want the first one…forget Frank…don’t I outrank him or something? I’m a pastor of eleven years, founder of a faith community and recovery ministry here on spiritual retreat, and suddenly I’m ten years old again trying to talk my little sister out of something I really want. The feeling amazes me: that I still haven’t put a stake in the heart of fears I thought I’d killed off ages ago. Trying to be casual, I give Frank the choice, and he takes the first one, of course. I swallow the envy, hoping my secret is safe and dignity preserved, but the desert is just warming up on me. (more…)
It’s hard for us to imagine a voice and a personality as large as Jeff’s to be silenced, but that is what the process of our grief will teach us: to accept life on its terms, to find meaning and purpose in each moment no matter how painful, and to begin to step into the space left by Jeff–to learn to become first causes ourselves, to get things rolling.
Jeff showed us what it looks like to be active and impetuous, discerning and outrageously overextended, to hold opposing energies in a single embrace. And if Jeff sometimes showed us what it looks like to go a bridge too far, he also showed us we can go further than we may have thought possible.
We will miss our friend as we turn our attention to his family and everyone grieving his loss. And we pray that our grief will not be so great that we can’t be fully present to the grieving person in our path.
Thank you , Jeff.
I picked up my mother’s ashes from the mortuary today.
Before that I had breakfast with a friend who told me he was diagnosed with skin cancer and had surgery scheduled on Friday. Before that I spoke with another friend still in her hospital room after blacking out, falling, and breaking her arm. The tests have all been negative, so no one knows why she lost consciousness or whether it will happen again. Last night there were calls from a mother whose daughter may lose her children in a court battle the next day and a girl we helped place in a rehab center who I could actually feel shaking through the phone saying she didn’t know if she could keep on with her treatment, that she was ready to run. She always runs…
I haven’t written here in awhile, but I hadn’t realized how long because sometimes life comes in clumps. Too much too fast to process. Only time enough to breathe and hope to God I helped a little in some way not immediately apparent.
I picked up my mother’s ashes and brought them home in the paper bag the woman at the mortuary gave me. Plain white bag with handles like you’d get at a nice department store. The woman was very sweet. Very calm, very deliberate: called me sir in almost every sentence. I watched her watching me, and I could only imagine the reactions she’s seen from people she’s watched in that room. I gave her my check and walked out with my bag and came home and put the bag next to the hallway door and didn’t touch it all day.
I remember a forgettable movie I saw a long time ago. A man and his wife are involved in a car accident in which the wife is killed, and after the emergency vehicles and lights and frantic work, the sirens and trip to the hospital, the police and questions and statements, he comes through his front door with her blood on his shirt. That’s the part I remember. Coming home alone with blood on his shirt. Because at the end of everything anyone else can do, you just come home with a bloody shirt. Or a white bag.
It seems like there should be more to it. That at least you would get a clean shirt.
Coming up the stairs, my wife gives me a long look and asks me how I’m doing. But after all our years, I know that like a good lawyer, she knows the answer before she asks. Later she makes a good dinner, uses a lot of pots and pans–maybe all of them–while our eight year old buzzes around alternately asking me to pick a card and reading green eggs and ham out loud until I reel him in on the floor, my little human ballast…his fifty pounds or so somehow perfectly balancing all of the last twenty four hours. Down there on the floor he whispers he loves me daddy, and I tell him that’s only fair because I loved him first. I can still make an eight year old laugh. Even today.
What do you do when you come home with a white bag or a bloody shirt? With surgery in four days or court tomorrow or a doctor’s report any minute? Details endlessly vary, but I think you just use every pot and pan you own, eat a good dinner, reel in anyone close and begin the days of balancing whatever’s gone with all that’s left.
I turn out all the lights downstairs and make sure the front door is locked. At the foot of the stairs next to the hallway door I stop, then kneel and take the urn out of the white bag and place it on the shelf next to pictures of our kids and a little African sculpture we bought on an anniversary vacation. I close the glass door until it clicks. The white bag is empty now. There is still the memorial mass on Friday and then the cemetery, so I will use it once more. But I won’t bring it home again.
Life just keeps coming.
So much of it comes in December, I can barely keep even. From the moment the Christmas lights come on after Thanksgiving and for as long as they burn seems one held breath. The last lights on the block, the ones outside my window on the house across the street are finally out. Down. It’s all about the Christmas lights. Maybe exhale now. Maybe not.
My sister calls to say our mother isn’t doing well. She had a fall a couple months ago that accelerated everything it seems, but she was doing better. Now she’s not. Thirteen years ago we brought my mother and father to live with us because dad wasn’t doing well. Now living with my sister, it’s my mother’s turn.
I work on as many December-turned-January items as I can until the boys are home from school and we all climb into the car and drive to visit mom, nana. It’s an hour and a half, just far enough to make it difficult to do regularly, unfamiliar enough to miss an exit and wander side streets for a bit. But we get there. Long hugs at the door, the hum of the oxygen machine at the hallway, the hospice nurse at the kitchen table logging charts. Our oldest daughter is already there, so we’re all there, my whole family, my sister, my mother, the whole bloodline in a two bedroom apartment…with a nurse.
My mother’s room is dim, and she startles awake at my sister’s touch. There’s recognition in her eyes when she looks at me, a smile. We all stand around the bed, my sister narrating loudly in her ear. She seems just a face above rumpled bedding, and after a few minutes she’s asleep again so we file back out to talk in the front room. My sister offers coffee so I follow her to the kitchen where she asks what we should do about arrangements. We need to make arrangements. We talk for awhile then bring out coffee. I slip back to my mother’s room.
There in the dim light, I take her hand and she startles again, sees me, squeezes. I tell her I love her; I’m sorry I’ve not been around more. Not as loud as my practiced sister, I get close to her ear but don’t know if she hears. She drifts off again, and I remain with her hand and her face and the voices in the next room–sitting squarely between the oxygen machine and the Sponge Bob stories from our animated eight year old.
Life just keeps coming. Who knew I’d get this old, have this family, outlive one parent, maybe another soon? I’m not sure what I should feel. Don’t feel anything at the moment. Just the awareness of being exactly in the middle of life drifting off one side and just catching stride on the other. Thinking of life in snapshots is not accurate. It’s always in motion but hard to see, like the hands of a clock. Except in a dim room caught between generations when the curtain is pulled and the gears show for just a moment.
Life just keeps coming. I need to remember.