Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Little Light in the Dark

March 31, 2013

Dear Friends,

In liturgical churches the Easter Vigil, sometimes called the Great Vigil, is regarded as the first celebration of Easter. It is held, however, in the darkness between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter morning.

One year throughout the Lenten season, I attended services at a downtown Anglican cathedral in the city where I was living. I had participated in Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, so when I arrived to keep Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday evening I was already prepared to find the altar stripped and unlighted, the previously consecrated Sacrament removed and hidden. The cathedral itself appeared stark and unadorned. The sanctuary was silent, the lights dimmed, the soaring Gothic ceiling remote and dark with shadow.

The music spoke of Christ’s Passion with solemn beauty and deep sadness. The splendid cathedral choir sang portions of the Requiem by Brahms.

The Gospel reading was, as I remember, from Mark:

And he [Joseph] brought fine linen, and took him [Jesus] down and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulcher which had been hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulcher. And Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joses, beheld where he was laid. (Mark 15:46-47)

In the progression of the service that night there came a period of complete silence. The lights dimmed further into what seemed to be utter darkness. Like small fragments of fallen stars, only tiny floor lights remained to mark the main aisle to the sanctuary door. Worshipers sat in the dark silence. Waiting.

As I waited time seemed to slow and stretch. Reality consisted only of the darkness and the silence and the waiting.

But after a while as I sat in the darkness and silence, I realized I was inwardly fidgeting. What are we doing, I asked myself impatiently. But I knew: embracing the darkness remains a necessary prerequisite to entering the light. And in that understanding, I began to discipline my restless self to become quiet and open to the silent darkness.

Then, for the first time, in that darkness and silence, my limbic brain began to understand something I had long known cognitively: Jesus is the light of the world, just as He told us. Without Him there is no Word, no light, only the silence of God and the darkness of death.

I have no idea how long I had sat there when suddenly into the darkness and silence came the crashing sound of cymbals and the responsive deep drum roll of the great tympani.

I think I must have jumped six inches off the pew. The hair on the back of my neck literally stood up. The air, the dark, and the people around me were filled with an electrified expectancy.

Then from the back of the sanctuary came the soft wavering light of the newly lighted Paschal Candle, a small moving glow in the darkness. The Celebrant led the processional up the main aisle of the cathedral to the chancel, the Paschal Candle still the only light. And in the Candle-lit darkness as the Celebrant held the Candle high, he paused three times to say “The light of Christ.” And, speaking our hearts out of the dark,  each time there came a great drum roll of sound into the silence as we responded, “Thanks be to God.”

Thanks be to God.

On Easter I take joy in the traditional greeting of Christians: “Alleluia. Christ is risen,” and in the traditional response, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.”

But since the year I kept that Easter Vigil I say this with renewed gratefulness and deep awe.

It was a great battle that first Saturday. There was nothing automatic or easy, no playing, no pretend in the duel Jesus fought with death and the powers of that terrible darkness. "He descended into hell,"  the old creed tells us.

Sitting in the dark and the silence of the cathedral that night I sensed for a moment something of the terrifying consequence for us all if He had not prevailed. Death would have triumphed. Life would have been forever held captive to death if that Paschal light had not broken out triumphantly into the darkness of the world.

Thinking with you this Easter, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia,” and, with you, responding joyously, “The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia.”

Thanks be to God.

Seeking with you to live out the Resurrection in ways that light up the world.
See you next week.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Colonel's Green Beans

March 24, 2013

Dear Friends,

Often we develop emotional habits that serve us well in the “ordinary normal.” However, these habits can have  a treacherous capacity to turn on us in unexpected ways in time of stress. The story of “The Colonel and the Green Beans,” has pushed me to think about the dangers of becoming too dedicated to patterns of living that I habitually find comfortable.

The Colonel’s story came to me in three parts. These parts, however, were not exactly a beginning, middle, and end. As with other stories from my adventure, you’ll have to devise a proper beginning, middle and ending and figure out the meaning for you from the context of the things you have learned on your life journey.

The first part of the story that caught my attention was the Colonel’s posture and his hat.

At each meal the Colonel was brought into the dining room in his wheelchair by a staff member. So far as I observed, he  did not choose to help himself although he appeared able to do so. He sat stiffly in his wheelchair, holding his body rigidly, as though he were on inspection. Each day he wore a billed cap set ‘uber’ straight on his head as though his cap’s position were a “regulation” practice that had become automatic for him. He made little or no eye contact. In response to his icy isolation, no one made a gesture of greeting to him except for the man I came to think of as the Sergeant.

The Sergeant was (I guessed, of course) a former military man. I thought this in part because in the rehab unit he often acted as if he were still on duty and it  was his responsibility to muster a group of wounded, shocked survivors and keep them moving. He regularly made a place for the Colonel at his table. The Sergeant was the only resident to whom I saw the Colonel speak voluntarily .

One evening at dinner a small storm of distress and anger erupted at the Sergeant’s table. One of the staff members immediately moved to deal with the disturbance.

At the moment other residents blocked my view of what was happening. Then I heard the Sergeant say in an “I’ve-got-everything-under-control” voice, “Oh, it’s nothing serious—it’s just the green beans.” The staff member said something I could not hear, and then the Sergeant said, “Well, if it’s not too much trouble, could you bring him something in place of the green beans?”

This was done, and as things settled down and people became preoccupied with their own dinners, I could see the Colonel with a look of angry distaste pushing small pieces of what looked like carrot around his plate.

The next piece of the story occurred two days later. I had stopped in the activity room after therapy, and while reading there, one of the administrative staff ushered an elegantly dressed woman to a table at the far end of the room. Shortly a staff member wheeled the Colonel into a place at the table where the woman was sitting.

“Ah, ha,” I said to myself. “The Colonel’s lady has come to visit.”

Conversation between the two became immediately less than amiable. They were keeping their voices low, however, in a clear effort to avoid being overheard. I moved further away to support their desire for privacy, and resumed my book.

After a short interval, however, I looked up when a third woman joined the Colonel and his lady at the table. Having met her at orientation, I recognized this woman as the dietitian in charge of food services. As the low-voiced conversation continued, the Colonel continued to sit rigidly, stiffly, his body language plainly expressing his anger and impatience.

After a short interval, the staff member returned and wheeled the Colonel away, leaving the two women sitting at the table, looking at each other in wordless frustration. Then after a few words together, they too went out of the room.

The last part of the story occurred some days later. Residents were again gathering for dinner, and the Colonel was seated at the Sergeant’s table. Those of us who had arrived early were seated at the front of the dining room, and food service had already begun. I looked down at my plate, and there in all their vegetable glory, were green beans.

I confess that with an inwardly wicked grin, I began to watch the Colonel who was now being served.

The Colonel’s displeasure became immediately apparent and highly audible. He threw his napkin on the floor, and banged his fist on the table.

I,” said the Colonel in thunderous tones, “I do not wish to be served green beans. Remove them.”

Again a staff member came immediately. He quietly, courteously, rectified the strategic blunder. However, everyone within earshot clearly understood that the Colonel did not wish to be served green beans. So far as I know, the staff kindly insured that it did not happen again. I saw no further disturbance at the Sergeant’s table in the days that followed.

But I continued to think carefully about the pieces of the story I had observed.

As a resident, I was aware of the difficulty in monitoring my own behavior under stress. I knew first hand the frustration and helplessness that residents can experience when—despite the efforts of patient thoughtful staff—when it becomes ridiculously difficult to get the smallest request met. Self-control and self-management are not always easy, and sometimes in the stress of the moment impossible to achieve.

At this level, my sympathy was with the Colonel. My guess was that the Colonel from a former place of privilege and power found the common life of the unit incredibly difficult to tolerate. To him, I feel certain, it seemed a small thing to ask that his frustration not be increased by the indignity of being served green beans. And despite his rigid code of behavior, the green beans were too much—he snapped.

But at another level, his behavior pushed me into some serious thought about my own.

I remembered something Paul wrote:

“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and, being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2: 5-8)

At this beginning of Holy Week I am remembering with you that Jesus calls us by His behavior to be willing to lay down privilege and power whatever our  experience and personal identity may have been.

Seeking to learn how to deal with green beans in a Kingdom-honoring fashion.

Have a joyous, thoughtful Easter.

See you next week.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Play "Laura"

March 17, 2013

Dear Friends,

At a superficial level, what you see may be what you get in many relationships. Nevertheless, what we see initially often presents less than a thin sliver of truly significant information about people. Knowing this—and knowing that, at best we know only part of the story—makes us more charitable in our judgments and more cautious in our behavior if we are wise. Today’s story reports only a glimpse of a woman’s inner world, but that glimpse taught me—again—to be cautious about the meaning I assign to first impressions.

To tell the truth, I am uncertain about what I saw. I know only that for a brief moment I saw past the cold hard surface that this woman presented to the world, and that what I saw seemed the shadow of a person to whom my first impression gave no clue.

My first contact with this women occurred in the context of the dining room at the rehab center. She habitually ate alone at a small corner table that gave her a relatively clear view of the entire dining room from which she could watch  those residents who choose to eat their meals there rather than in their rooms.

She presented a commanding appearance. Her shoulders were broad and even in her wheel chair she was obviously taller than most women. Her hair was quite dark although it was clearly streaked with silver; she wore it up, coiled in an elegant bun held by a beautiful comb. During meals, she watched all of us with a disinterested indifference that (paradoxically) missed few details about any person present. Her face was remote, cold, and oddly fierce. I thought when I first saw her, “There’s a woman who in her lifetime has likely taken few prisoners.” In my mind I dubbed her “The Duchess.”

I had no contact with the woman until the day before the Christmas party. There was a piano in the activities room, and the Recreational Director had asked me to play some Christmas carols before the party. Out of experience I have developed a severe distrust of the playability of pianos in public places; I postponed my answer until I had had an opportunity to try out the piano.

The night before the party when the activity room was empty and residents in their rooms, I wheeled myself down to the piano to determine if it was in fact playable. It was not. Many of the keys made no sound at all when struck; the damper pedal was disconnected or broken; those keys that did strike a string sounded as though they had been tuned by a tone-deaf, mischief-making Christmas elf. Playing this piano for a Christmas sing-along was simply not possible.

Still, I sat for a bit in the now dimly lighted room, “noodling,” amusing myself by attempting fragments of Christmas music in unusual keys. Since more white keys than black keys had been damaged, I tried things like playing “Silent Night” in six flats. After a while I wondered how old the piano was, and what kind of music had been played on it when it was “young and playable.” I began trying fragments of old jazz classics and standards from the 40’s and 50’s, and wandered, willy-nilly, into some of Johnny Mercer’s old tunes.

I was attempting (unsuccessfully) to the find the bridge in “Dreams.” I played the phrase “as smoke-rings rise in the air, you’ll find your share of memories there, so dream. . .” about three times, found myself stuck in exactly the same place each time, and gave up the attempt with a grumpy unmusical bang on the poor piano’s dysfunctional keyboard. Turning to go, I discovered that without my awareness, a number of residents, including the Duchess, had left their rooms and come quietly into the activity room to listen.

“Please, play some more,” said a resident whose stoke-slurred speech was barely audible.

“Play ‘Laura’,"  said the Dutchess clearly in a no-nonsense voice.

I was startled into obedience. As I fumbled for the keys, the lyrics began to sing themselves in my head and the music came back to me:

Laura is the face in the misty light,
Footsteps that you hear down the hall,
The laugh that floats on a summer night
That you can never quite recall.

And you see Laura on a train that is passing through,
Those eyes how familiar they seem. . . .

Unfortunately, at that point the music required that I play a large number of keys that were not playable on that piano.  My mind shut down and ability to think appropriate substitutions for the harmony vanished. I stopped with unceremonious abruptness.

In embarrassment, I turned to the Duchess and said, “I know the rest of the lyrics: ‘…that was Laura, but she’s only a dream.’ But I’m sorry; I just can’t get the music that goes with that ending right.”

The vulnerable, unguarded face that the Duchess turned toward me caught me totally off-guard. In that moment I thought I glimpsed the shadow of an enormous loss and a grief that lay beyond words for both the Duchess and me.

The moment passed as quickly as it had come.

“That is quite all right,” said the Duchess curtly in her usual no-nonsense voice. “You played enough.” She turned her wheelchair and rolled efficiently through the door back to her room.

When I returned to my room I thought about what I had seen, or thought I had seen. I briefly entertained a silly impulse to imagine a romantic story as a context for my experience, but the memory of the Duchess on a daily basis quickly made that process appear ridiculous (which, of course, it was).

What I more sensibly concluded had little romance in it, but, I trust, some wisdom. I thought: “I do not know the Duchess. What I see is the protective mask she wears. I cannot know what lies within, and guesses are highly dangerous, almost certain to be wrong."

I do not like my occasional willingness to draw conclusions about people on the basis of unreliable and potentially misleading appearances. I suspect that at times I do not want data about others because I fear it will call me to costly compassion and generous patience.

Trying with you to be open to knowledge of others that leads me to love mercy and to do justice with patience and compassion.

See you next week.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Not by Bread Alone

March 10, 2013

Dear friends,

Like all the experiences from my rehab adventure, today’s story is one in which the beginning and ending of the story lie beyond my knowledge. Again, I trust you to use your own life journey to make a context for understanding this fragment from another traveler’s life.

As I have explained, my adventure extended over the days immediately before Christmas, and included the day of the official Christmas party for the unit in which I was a resident.

Since I was a temporary resident and scheduled to go home before Christmas, I was strongly inclined to watch the party preparations without participation. The staff respected the clear “Sorry. I won’t be coming,” of my emotional RSVP. However, without my conscious consent, the stories being played out around me pulled me into the human struggle to be and do more than merely exist.

On the day of the party the routine unit activities had been largely suspended so that staff could assist residents to get ready for the party. Showers, hair “appointments,” and party preparation preoccupied the staff and residents alike.

Returning from therapy, I stopped to wait for the  traffic temporarily blocking entrance to the hall to my room. While waiting, I noticed that a man in his wheelchair and the staff person with him had squeezed their chairs into the awkward corner near the dining room, and were intently involved in some activity. They were not talking; they were focused on their task in the quiet oasis they had made in the midst of the noisy activity around them.

The man I recognized as an individual who usually sat in the far corner of the dining room, and who was often a source of loud complaints and disturbance at meals. Now he was sitting quietly, his face unusually peaceful, intently watching the staff member who was sitting facing him, and who was, I finally realized, giving him a careful, unhurried manicure.

As I watched (covertly, I confess), I understood the party at a deepened level of significance. For this troubled man, party preparation permitted someone to touch his hands, gently, without coercion, without reference to disturbing behavior or emotional and physical pain. In that moment, this man was not a problem—he was a person, a man going to a party. This was a man whose hands were being touched with the implicit promise that having been touched (a manicure!) he might at the party risk touching someone else in turn.

As I wheeled myself down the hall, I felt ridiculously near tears. The human need for touch—to touch and to be touched—is as essential as air to breathe. Without it—borrowing the stiff formal phrase of professional assessment—without touch we, all of us, fail to thrive.

Remembering with you today that in the early church, by apostolic command, greeting included touch. Paul instructed the Christians at Rome to greet one another with “a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16).

Wondering with you how in this crazy culture Paul’s directions should be understood and obeyed.

Holy manicure, anyone?

See you next week.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

You're a Good Man, Charley Brown

March 3, 2013

Dear friends,

Learning from books and thinking new ideas were relatively easy for me as a child. I often completed my assigned school work with time left over.

One afternoon I asked my busy teacher what I could do next (I am sure it was not the first time that day I had asked that question).

“What do you want to do?” she countered patiently.

I hesitated. Then inspiration struck.

"I’ll write a story.” I said. “You tell me how and I’ll write a story. How do you write a story?”

It was my teacher’s turn to hesitate. After a moment she said, “Well, you start and make a beginning, and then you work out a middle part, and then you tell the ending.”

I could see the logic of this, but I could also see a major problem.

“Yes, but how do you know where to begin?” I asked.

I smile now remembering this early conscious confrontation with one of a writer’s continuing dilemmas. I now know that beginnings are often difficult to find, and often make no sense at all until you can see the end. Consequently, the writer sometimes begins with something from the ending tacked to a piece of the middle, and only then tackles the difficult task of saying a beginning. And sometimes the writer is faced with telling only the unboundaried piece of the story that the writer can see with little sense of its beginning, middle or end.

Today’s story is like that. I am sharing the fragment of another person’s story that overlapped with my own. Perhaps your life will give you good context for this story and you will add a good beginning, middle, or end.

This part of the story happened at that difficult time when afternoon therapy and structured activities were ended for the day, but it was not yet time for dinner. Residents were restless and tired. Many felt discouraged with the day’s small progress or disheartened by the apparent lack of it.

As the day drew to a close and the lights came on, almost all residents sensed again their displacement—they could sit in the activity center, or return to their rooms. But both options echoed a painful reality—no one was going home for dinner. It was a space in which it was dangerously easy to trigger unwittingly aggressive behavior that carried pain and anger and unvoiced disappointment.

I was returning to my room when behind me I heard suddenly raised voices, and then a man shouting unintelligible words, his voice full of rage. I turned my wheelchair awkwardly and then could see the usually quiet man who sat at the table near the window at meal times. He was standing in front of his wheelchair, shouting, waving his clenched fist at the tiny nurse who was trying to reason with him, his body shaking, his voice thick with anger.

At that moment a young administrator entered the residential area from the corridor that led to the business office. Without altering his pace, he walked quietly up to the angry man and said with calm good humor, “Hey, dude, I need you to help me solve this problem.” He then touched the man’s shoulder lightly, and said, “You know, I need you to help me and sit down here in your chair.”

There was a long tense moment in which no one moved. Then the man stopped shouting, and slowly, clinging to the young man’s arm, he sat down in his chair, his body still trembling, his face distorted by emotion.

Clearly, however, the crisis was past.

People traffic began to flow around the three, individuals moving by without comment, intent on their own affairs. The young man waited for a quiet moment, then bending his head so that he looked directly into the man’s eyes, he said gently, “Thanks, fella. You’re a good man.”

The man did not move. Then he said, “You know, I try.” I thought that his voice was thick then with tears, not with rage. He covered his face with his hands as the young nurse wheeled him away.

Later as I sat in my room thinking about the piece of the story I had seen, I could hear again the man’s voice as he said, “You know, I try.”

I will never know more of this story, but it teaches me. That part of people’s behavior that I see does not always give me an accurate picture of the effort and struggle and the desperate desire to ‘do it right’ that lies within.

We are commanded to do justice.

We are also commanded to love mercy.

I am committed this week to saying more often, "You’re a good man, Charley Brown."

See you next week.