My wife and I woke up to another day crammed full of family time. We don’t get to northern Indiana much, so when we do we come on vacation and we visit family. Plans are made for days and evenings, meals and places to go. The matriarch and patriarch of the clan on my wife’s side seem to assume pride of place. Of course we will eat with them first, and whenever we’re not eating with someone else. Of course, though they are in their late 80’s, early 90’s, they will be showing us all the places they find special. Of course, our concerns that the hectic pace they want to set will wear them out are none of our concern! I think it’s cute!
But it’s also right. We are both struck with the degree to which the accumulation of birthdays in the body increasingly clogs their minds and stiffens their limbs. We will have the rest of the family with us in this life longer than they. The chances that this is the last yearly visit with them are much greater than with the rest, so it is fitting to spend the pride of time with them. They are precious people.
Precious because they are family. Family gives us roots and a past. The roots aren’t always secure and the past is not always as polished clean as we might imagine, but they are roots and a past, nonetheless. The real specter of human loneliness raises its horrific head when one tries to imagine a life without roots and past—even miserably disfigured roots and terribly painful past. They are still the past, and denying them is dis-ease of the soul. Life comes from reconciling, owning, loving and finally transcending all that family hands us on the platter of our collective DNA, no matter what it is, good and bad together.
Family is an exercise in redemption.
Yesterday was Father’s Day, and I had a special treat. I gathered with my middle son, who a father, my father-in-law, and two brothers-in-law who are also fathers. A special meal was prepared, and we sat around and talked about life. There were no special activities, no program, just gathering around life-giving food in the context of family. Fatherhood hardly has meaning outside family. Perhaps it was the perfect way to celebrate the day.
Fatherhood does mean family. Our youngest son’s wife is expecting, and when he called last night to wish me a happy Father’s Day, he expressed his surprise as people gave him the same greeting. Being a father is a new idea to him, but all of us who are, know that it quickly worms its way down into the very fabric of our identity. His will be a biological child, as are mine, but I’m sure that even those whose relationship with their children is not by blood still have the same sensation. Fathers are part of families; families are part of societies and it is in society that we live and move and have our being. Parenthood of any kind is an antidote to the alienation of our day.
Fatherhood is history. I just had lunch with my father-in-law, and we made reference to my father who passed six years ago. Our sons are fathers or fathers-to-be, and it won’t be long before their sons become fathers. Parenting of any kind is an antidote to our inclination to forget the past.
Fatherhood is at once permanent and passing. My father will always be my father, even though he is no longer with us. My wife keeps catching me acting like, talking like, responding like my father. The heritage lives on. Even if forgotten, the fact of his heritage will never be erased from the annals of this family tree. At the same time, the years in which I was a young father have given way to my sons being young fathers, whose sons will become fathers and push them into the grandfather slot I now hold. The day will come when I slip away and become part of that building heritage of history, remembered or not. Parenting of any kind is an antidote to the hubris of our day.
Being a father means drinking deeply from the stream of what it means to be human.
This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. A trinitarian understanding of God was made mainstream in the Christian faith in the 4th century. Some people give a lot of the credit to Constantine who just wanted harmony in the realm and forced the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. I think that’s a bit simplistic. This discussion forced the church to think theologically in ways it hadn’t before—a question beyond the concerns of a monarch. The discussions at Nicaea were about nuancing words to capture ideas that were inherently beyond the words used. The careful parsing of the Greek begs an underlying truth: Everything we ever say about the divine is by means of metaphor. The discussion ultimately did not have to do with the words themselves, but the constellations of meanings conjured up in the minds of those who used them. The very need for discussion reminds us that the metaphors may be the map and not the territory, but maps are only as good as they are accurate. Metaphors are only as good as the meanings conjured.
And so it must be. Words spin constellations of meanings into the mind. Poetry combines constellations of meanings in ways that drive us beyond the well-worn ruts of our usual thoughts, to jar us out of the idolatry of thinking our words limit reality, tame it into something manageable, force a bit into its mouth so we can imagine we know where our words will take us. Just visit a good court trial and you will see that such could hardly be further from the truth. Anything you say may be used against you…some innocent words still contain the potential to damn you. The Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel is myth at its best: We constantly suffer the innate confusion of language and find ourselves alienated from one another.
Words force us onto a humble knife-edged ridge. On one side one tumbles off the cliff of self-certainty. On the other one slips down the scree of meaninglessness. Along the center lies a path that allows us to use words as metaphors, never taming them, but availing ourselves of their willing service.
One should always speak from a place of humble gratitude.
I am making arrangements for our dogs while we go on vacation. Dogs are a study in community. On the one hand, they love to lounge around on your lap and be pretty (they are all small dogs.) On the other hand, each one has a personality, an agenda in the house, and ways of seeking that agenda. The Jack Russell is top dog, and makes her location just below the humans known to the other dogs on every occasion that presents itself. Then the full-sized long-hair dachshund who is content to sit on your lap—as long as you’re petting her; and beware of any food near her nose! The bottom of the heap, the long-hair mini-dachshund, is just cute and he knows it. He sits on your lap with puppy eyes until he has had enough, and then he gets down to do his own thing. Beware of ignoring him too long, however, for he can be very passive aggressive, getting revenge with surprises on the floor. They have individuality, but they also have order. Super-imposed on that order is the order we demand, which keeps the JR in her place under us, yet gives room for her own abundant energy to be expressed.
Order and spontaneity, structure and chaos, groups and individuals, these are the flip sides of community. We all need them both. When order suppresses individuality people rebel. When individuality suppresses order people get neurotic. One and the other, a constant dynamic tension which in itself creates a delicate and ever-changing same-ness which is community.
Human’s community with the divine isn’t much different: The Ground of All Being is also the One known to me. God is both present and absent, behind all things and yet somehow very much within and through all things, imminent and transcendent, personal and transpersonal. The Christian metaphor for God is community—a trinity of persons in oneness of being. Perhaps God is known in the delicate and ever-changing same-ness which is community because of such is the nature of the divine.
Yesterday I baptized a young man of about 6 months of age on a piece of property belonging to his family. The property encloses a small lake with a pier and a boat or two, and lots of bull frogs. It is surrounded by conifers and blackberry bushes. A beaver is making a lodge on the far side. We used lake-water, and the ceremony was performed on a grassy lawn that spans between a pretty little cabin and the water. Three elementary boys were there, too, relatives of the baptizee.
Water and boys are made for one another. I did a little fishing in the lake after the reception, and the minute a hauled in a small trout all three of the boys were there to see it, touch it, talk about it and help me release it. Their feet were already soaked from walking in the water. A tiki light took a swim at one of their hands. They talked about swimming in the water later in the year when things warm up a bit. Care was taken that they not fall off the pier into six feet of numbing water and need pulling out—a thrill that just made the edges all that much more attractive. Boys and water are made for one another.
So, we created another water-boy, someone who by the gift and sign of water is recognized as containing the potential for full and abundant humanity. As Christians we see that full humanity reflected in the life of Jesus, whom we name in baptism. They make a three-legged stool: the boy, the sign and the potential. We watered the little growing one well.
Some things desiccate and kill. Others overwhelm and drown. Three-legged stools are stable. Water boys are built, one wetting at a time, on stools.
Last Wednesday Karisse and I watched as the driver of the semi containing most of our life’s possessions sealed the door while I took pictures of the seal, it’s number, and the corresponding paperwork. Then we loaded up three dogs, a turtle, and clothes for five days and headed out. We arrived in Los Alamos by midnight and spent Thursday with our grand-kids (and their parents, incidentally.) Then two days of hard driving put us at the home of our youngest son, his wife and the promise of her expanding belly. Sunday, we scooted up to Spokane to see my 94-year-old uncle, then plowed across Washington and the Cascades to arrive at our new apartment in Burlington in the evening. Someone from the Church graciously provided supper. Monday, we met the truck, verified that the seal had not been broken and began to unload, appalled at the sheer quantity of our stuff. Now, two days later, we’re enough settled in that Karisse could go to a job interview, and I’m catching up in the office. We aren’t in the home we hope to buy yet, but for all intents and purposes, we have relocated.
Someone from Silver City sent me a clipping from the New York Times, May 12th, a piece by Rojer Cohen about a man from Guatemala who moved. He left a hopeless situation there with his son, rode trains and pick-up trucks across Mexico and is now awaiting an asylum hearing in August. If things go as they often do, his court date will be pushed back more than once, and it may be years before a final determination is made. Will he have to move back to the hopelessness of an imploding Guatemala (to use Cohen’s word,) or he be given the gift of hope to live the American dream? My move took me five days. His will take years. My move was predicated on a change of jobs. This man’s move was predicated on a desperate bid for hope and a future. He would rather not have to move, but he’s up against the wall with no other options. I’ve got plenty of options.
If governments could move out of self-serving corruption and narrow protectionism maybe he, too, would have options.