Last night one of my aunts, a bunch of my cousins, my brother and my wife sat around in the living room eating pie and ice cream. We called my younger sister and put her on speakerphone on the coffee table—and we talked. Stories flew about what had happened over the last year. Then they pushed further back, tying the stories of yesterday to those of before. Some of my cousins have considerable First Nation blood through their father, but they were telling us about their Celtic heritage through their mother. The one big story that we barely touched was about the death of one of our number, taken by cancer, the first of the cousins to go. His widow sat with us, telling stories of her grand-kids that she was helping to raise because a couple of years back her son-in-law had died precipitously and way too young. We had lamented him, and the local cousins will gather to lament the recently fallen in September. It seemed a bit premature to name the elephant in the living room. (One names such elephants in small bites.)
They say there are only a few human stories, with a million variations. One of those few is the story of origins. Another is about destiny. In a way, all stories are ultimately about origin and destiny. We weave them, warp by woof, moment by moment, event by event, recounting by recounting, sitting around the eternal camp-fire, eyes looking at once forwards and backwards, glazed in meaning.
Picture credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/776167317005906669/
I just received word that a dear friend has passed away. The wife of a close colleague, she was a wise and loving soul, full of creative color and important words. Sometimes her words didn’t seem nearly important when she said them as later, when their full import became obvious. She was one of those people you always wanted to listen to. Now her husband is in mourning, and so am I.
What is mourning? I know the psychological and sociological functions of mourning, the struggle to reorder life after a great big hole has been blasted in it. But maybe there is more. Maybe mourning is an attempt to put OUR lives in order, an order that, like this woman’s words, isn’t always obvious at first glance. Maybe it is an effort to see differently, more deeply, to a level where somehow this hole, blasted out of the middle of life, can become a tunnel through to greater humanity.
I do not know what you think about what happens to the consciousness after death, whether it’s nothing at all, the great white light, an emptying back into the sea of existence, a welcoming into the arms of Jesus, or a deep awareness of connectedness linked to the memory of the living, but I do know this: mourning is something the living do. This woman and her husband were committed Christians. May the faith they share with me be their comfort, and may I learn to love more deeply, listen genuinely, and know truth more profoundly because I knew her.
This morning I found a Facebook post that referenced an article by a New York reporter who visited a small town in Nebraska for the Testicle Festival that takes place over Father’s Day weekend. The town is rural, and the feast consists of deep-fried bull testicles, along with fries and other fixins, and plenty of adult beverages. Consuming testicles is an ancient tradition, she notes, as a way of not being wasteful after the spring castrations in livestock. It was a nuanced piece that clearly denounced unbridled testosterone-driven violence that occurs in some events of this kind. This is clearly family-friendly. It’s owners are unabashed Christians who live under the assumption that being Christian means being homophobic—which they are not. She describes how this deeply red part of the country is trying to tease out what it means in our society to be male, and finds that the ways the conversation is unfolding along the coasts and in the heartland are different, but the goal is the same. Being a man means caring for others, helping others feel safe and providing for their needs. In fact, she observes that it’s really an exercise in being human. What one might expect in deep red country is not what she found. She found genuine people facing the issues of the day genuinely, in ways she didn’t share but could understand.
She writes, “In the face of human complexity, I suppose it is always disingenuous to concoct a thesis.” It’s not her official concluding statement, but it summarizes her article nicely. Someone wise said that we can only do violence against those we put in a category. Each face is a window into a world. Worlds overlap, but they are never the same. Each person deserves the honor of an honest look, and each person has the responsibility to look out from their world genuinely.
As a fellow Christian who is not homophobic, I would like to think that Jesus taught us the same wisdom.
I had a really interesting conversation with my conservative Evangelical brother-in-law last night. He co-pastors the large flagship congregation for Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He also sits on the board of the College and Seminary. The Grace Brethren Church denomination is known for its conservative theological and political position. However, there are changes in the wind. The changes are not a drift toward the theological or political middle, but a drift back in liturgical history. His new Worship Arts Leader, who is also the teacher of the same subject at the College, has introduced a formal confession into the Sunday worship, and would like to celebrate what he calls the “bread and the cup,” or “Eucharist” every Sunday. He asked me to guess who was giving him the most push-back on it and I said, “The older folks.” That was right. The younger people are all for it.
These were forms abandoned in the post-reformation period of the tradition from which the Grace Brethren arose (German Dunkards) because they just smacked too much of the Roman Catholic Church, and these folks were Protestants who protested the alleged abuses of Rome. The highly clericalized Roman church at the time drew a great gulf between clergy and common people, one that often held the every-day Christian at arm’s length from the ministrations of the Church. But what the reformers failed to remember was that the basic forms of an introduction to worship, reading from Holy Writ and prayers developed among the Jews during the Babylonian exile, and was borrowed by the Christians in the first century after Christ. The rite of the bread and cup, or Eucharist, likewise emerged in the first century and celebrating it every Sunday was standard until the Reformation. These are forms that function, and this harmony is enduring in the Christian psyche. After all these years my Evangelical sisters and brothers find them bubbling up organically in their midst once again.
Thanks be to God that the deep structures of the faith transcend the recurrent divisions we so often struggle with. Perhaps on this ground we can build a common house that does good things in the world.
It’s raining outside again. It’s quiet in the apartment as Karisse sleeps in. I’ve said my prayers and played several games of Candy Crush. Nothing is going on…
Last night we sat on the couch watching inanities on the TV while Karisse tatted and I played Candy Crush and Angry Birds 2 until the battery on my phone ran out. I said lamely, “I want to go for a walk or run, something to get some exercise.” She made us some supper without me moving from the couch. Then that part of me that watches me took a step back and shook me by the scruff of the neck. “What’s going on here? You usually get up and do what you want to do. You’ve gone all blah inside.” At first, I wanted to blame Karisse somehow, but I knew that was futile, so as I did the dishes (at least I got up to do that) saying, “Will you go on a walk with me after I’m done?”
She chided me gently, “Oh, you want me to go with you! I wondered why you hadn’t moved.”
After we were on our way I confessed. “I’ve gone all blah inside. I can usually set out to do what I decide to do, but for some reason these days I just don’t have it.”
She responded, “Maybe that’s exactly what you need to be doing—nothing at all. You are on vacation, after all.”
I relaxed into myself. She was right. I had been given the gift of a Holy Blah, a quiet, empty place inside that isn’t carrying some sort of concern or another, isn’t trying to prove itself responsible or reliable or worthy, isn’t trying to be anyone or anything at all. I stepped into the walk with renewed energy but a simpler agenda—to simply enjoy the Holy Blah with the one I love. We had a delightful walk.
I remembered a card our niece had left on our doorstep with some beautiful flowers after breakfast yesterday. She said that when she is with us, she feels unconditional and non-judgmental love, and it means so much to her. It pleased me deeply that she felt that way with us, because I think that kind of love reflects in some small way the divine love that undergirds us all.
Maybe the Holy Blah is me extending the same thing to myself for once.
We’re having breakfast this morning with our niece, the daughter of my elder brother and his wife. She just graduated High School, and she came in in the top 10 contestants for Miss Indiana. She’s really an exceptional young lady. She’s smart, she’s beautiful, she can sing, she can act, she made good grades in school, she’s obedient to her parents (most of the time,) she has the trust of her friends….what’s there to say negative about her? Whatever it might be, you won’t hear it from me, because I’m her uncle, after all. In her I see what kind of daughter I would like to have had (we had only sons.) Yes, I idealize her. I know it. It’s my duty. I’m her uncle.
Uncles and aunts are, perhaps, underappreciated in the Anglo culture. Hispanics know exactly how important they are. We constitute that extended company of people who believe in someone because of who they are, not what they do. We lend support. I admit that this can be toxic when support is given regardless of behavior, but that isn’t really support. It’s a crutch given because of the need of the giver, not the receiver. True support is a function of who the person really is. What counts is that family is supposed to believe in you and expect the best of you, assume the best about you, and support you in all the messy gap between creed and deed. My niece is not perfect, but I will stand beside her as she struggles, offering what help might actually be helpful because—she is family. Aunts and uncles remind us that family is an expansive idea that reaches well beyond parents and their children.
If we’re all related by less than six degrees of separation, then all the world is family.
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.