Our Jackson Home posted a piece I wrote reflecting on this year’s Remember Me Walk for survivor’s of homicide loss. This group is astounding to me, and I’ve copied some of the post below with a link to read it in its entirety. And if you have not yet checked out Our Jackson Home, you should probably get on the ball.
The crowd was larger this year than any crowd the past seven. The Carl Grant Events Center at Union University was filled with tables surrounded by people of all kinds, ages, colors, and worlds held together by the sad reality that someone they loved has been murdered—some of them fifty years ago and some five months ago. The reality that no one truly understands this grief is echoed in the camaraderie across the room. “Lord-willing,” they say, “we won’t keep growing. We don’t want other people to know what this feels like.”
Grief is breathtaking. All have experienced it, and we know the deep-down grumbling in our guts that must be an echo of the deep-down grumbling in our souls.
A life is lost. A story ends. …
There is a rumble of insistence for
an end to preludes without their symphonies.
Beyond announcements and proclamations,
beyond ceremonies and unveilings,
crowds of regular people gather
who are still working and sweating
to raise their families
to help their neighbors
to reimagine their surroundings
to dream their futures
and to build into their communities
into something a little more whole.
Beyond the prelude
the people are still waiting
for the movement to begin.
Beyond the prelude
we are waiting and clamoring,
we have become restless waiting and clamoring,
for the movement to begin.
There is no longer an acceptance of only preludes;
we’ve learned the movement is supposed to follow.
We don’t expect it to be played for us;
we’ve been learning to play for quite some time now.
We expect to add our own music to the work.
We don’t expect it to ring without error;
we’ve been learning from our errors for quite some time now.
We expect to mess up, tell the truth about it, and continue to play.
We don’t expect to hear it immediately;
we’ve been learning how long it takes for good music to be born.
We expect to see it both in small pieces and suddenly in finished products.
But let us be clear;
we will no longer accept the preludes without their symphonies.
If there is intent to impose again
an acceptance of the status quo
of all prelude and no movement
of all proclamation and no production
of all appeasing and no activity
of all explanation and no substance,
We do not accept your offer.
You will not scare us into silence.
You will not threaten us into acceptance.
You will not bully us into appeasement.
We know that the prelude is only the prelude;
there’s music to be heard.
And we know that while terrifying,
it is the music of the kingdom.
And we will play it together.
And we will hear it together.
And whether or not you join us,
we will move beyond the preludes.
There’s music to be heard.
You know it.
Don’t act like you don’t know it.
Don’t act like you don’t know what the funeral laugh is. If you pretend that you don’t know it, I’ll know you’re lying and that’s an entirely different thing to address. We’re together here, you and me.
We all know what the funeral laugh is.
And we’re all guilty.
That inappropriate laugh in the moment where we are faced with the reality that the clock stops ticking one day. The clock stops ticking and the reality rushes in that we are more time-limited than we are prepared to admit. And we don’t know why things happen the way they do, why pain and progress get shaped and honored and forgotten the way they do; why pain lasts and hope lasts; why the possibility of something different for the future can operate with larger and stronger and broader strength than the reality of the way things have been in the past.
That completely inappropriate laugh that surprised us as much as anyone who heard it before we muffled it with a cough or choke or some other lame cover.
We can pretend as though we are wired for money or wired for sex or wired for love or wired for prestige.
But we can’t pretend for long.
Because once we catch anything we chase,
it sheds its skin
and we realize that we are naked and selfish,
and powerless in more ways we care to consider.
And that’s when in stings.
It’s gonna be the funeral laugh or the funeral wail. One is coming out and we can’t help it.
We are at the funeral. We know that the person in the casket is highlighted by a story that now has defined lines of what was and wasn’t accomplished.
And we are terrified.
And rightly so, because we are afraid of what the present reality means for us when we shove it up against the reality of the future.
But, it’s that laugh that comes out. And in the same way it’s poorly timed and poorly placed, it’s also unexpected and sends a surge to the abdomen which sends a surge to the brain. And the surges remind us that we are, today, in this moment, alive. And we are alive in a place that is filled with people on the edge of laughter or tears, people ourselves included, who are still making the little choices one after another because our clock is still ticking. Our story still has options.
So we remember our inside jokes and laughs.
So we send cards to the mailbox with stamps and seals that say thanks again for everything.
So we let the other person in front of us in traffic, in line, in thought.
So we pause and raise a glass to make a toast that’s more a prayer than the blessing would have been.
So we make a decision to risk admitting we are powerless and hope that something rises to catch us.
So we wear party hats when making grown-up decisions that aren’t fun because we are alive and here to make them.
So we decide to choose the laugh at that inappropriate time that’s marked by real and gritty silence and seriousness. We know that we will wail again in a moment, and we know that both are actually fine.
But right this second, we choose the laugh. And then it won’t stop. We can’t stop it.
At this funeral, in this thin space where we are asked again that huge question about what it means to move forward in the world we will stop moving in, for a time, one day, we choose the funeral laugh. Because we can. And because we must.
He sat down at the table with me briefly while I ate and he waited on food to go from the cafe. Since he knew of the chaos raging, not much had to be said. I looked up and tried to squint in the way we try to squint when working to hold back tears that we are tired of.
The same way we squint that usually fails when someone knows of the raging chaos.
As tears began to crack and run down the edge of my runny nose, he said, “It’s like a bomb got dropped in the backyard.”
More tears. Nods. Then conversation about weather, salads, and other things neither of us cared about.
I’ve noticed a sense of being caught between surveying the damage and trying to move. The quote housed about my desk that refrains often in my own mind and heart when things seems unbelievably devastating felt a little out of reach at this point. To quote it, even to myself, felt like cheating the grief and confusion and fury and loss that was gripping everything inside of me:
We fill the craters left by the bombs
And once again we sing
And once again we sow
Because life never surrenders.
– Anonymous Vietnamese poem
I could not imagine myself filling the craters yet, much less singing and sowing because I could not yet fathom or feel the extent of the damage, I could not sense the size of the crater left by the bomb in our backyards. I could only survey the damage. And with every glance, its complexity became deeper and harder to wrap my hands around. I would find myself staring into the crater and disappearing in my thoughts. I was beginning even to have trouble remembering what used to be in it’s place. All I could sense and see was a crater. Impossible to fill.
But somewhere, a sense that we, in community, always fill the craters, kept me from jumping in completely to the loss. Phone calls to friends and mentors. Visits to kitchen counters and living room floors. Weeping and asking and not answering.
And then, somewhere, even while still surveying the damage left by the bombs, something somewhere insists that we are our sorrow, but we are also more than our sorrow. We are also our hopes and dreams and work and errands and children and families and lives and friends and promises of the future. “We are more than our sorrow” Thich Nhat Hanh says, and so we enter into the reality that is the only thing stranger than the reality of the chaos. We enter into the reality that we are all of these things at once, in our humanity, and we must be all of them at once to find a way to move.
And so we move.
Because we are more than our sorrow, even as real as the sorrow may be.
Michigan Ave, Chicago
There’s poetry of space. And poetry of context. And poetry of memory.
Sitting in the City’s courtroom, where one of my Drug Treatment Court clients reminded me is where the District Attorney’s table is usually placed, I sensed a strong push to remember that holiness shows up in the places we forget to look. And when it shows up, it reminds us that we often look for truth and good gospel news in places that, while religious, are dry and sterile and only shadows of the actual good news. And then there are these other places, where we anticipate the bad news and the emptiness, that we discover the thick and sticky good news that we couldn’t not notice even were that our intention from the beginning.
And in that poetry of space and context and memory, I sit eating a meal and celebrating process and progress with those at all stages of recovery from addiction. Recent drug dealer sitting next to the city mayor. New addition to the Drug Treatment Court program sitting next to the judge that made an offer to seek treatment in lieu of jail.
I find myself sitting next to program participants, grateful for their insight, their courage and the ways they push the truth of the church into my own heart and head through their recovery-minded honesty, acceptance and perseverance.
And the poetry of space and context and memory seems to be ringing louder and louder every time I scan the room. The poetry of people landing themselves in the courtroom after committing a crime in the wake of substance abuse. The poetry of other people, long on the road to recovery linking hands and holding out hope for a future of clarity that seems impossible at that dark time. The poetry of sitting in the very place where you were once sentenced and forced to stare, maybe for the first time, the ugly truth and lies of addiction and powerlessness and unmanageability in the face, now sitting in that very place to celebrate your sobriety and recovery with those ahead of you and those walking in the path left a little more believable in your wake.
And you breath it in deeply because it’s easy to forget when the music isn’t as loud and the poetry isn’t as bold. The day to day and the task to task and the decision to decision doesn’t feel like it’s actually saddling up next to transformation of whole persons with the whole of the good news. For the clients, for the families, for the therapists, for the attorneys, for the judge. The one step at a time mentality feels like it’s actually leading absolutely nowhere.
And then you sit in the room where people were once on trial, convicted of a crime, and watch them now celebrate their newfound strength and resilience, sharing a meal with the ones who made the arrest and the sentence as they cheer for each other.
It’s a sign of the kingdom, no doubt. A sign of the hard work and tested patience of transformation of whole people in communities with the church finding them rather than waiting for them to show up to building. A reminder that we find Christ all over again when we do life with each other because we find him when we look the truths and the lies in the face. The sign of the kingdom stands as a reminder that the presence of the church better be in every crack and cranny of every need in every community before we rest, because there are great opportunities and great stories to be told and great poetry to be created. In our own lives and the lives of those in the margins. Even in the courtroom.
Pine Tree Dr.
I remember well sitting on the long and curved wooden benches that creak with every move at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville several years ago. I was frantically scribbling lyrics of a song, the chorus ringing in my ears and head and heart for weeks to come. The phrases I remembered out of order I now know, of course, were these:
It’s true, kingdoms and crowns
a God who comes down to find us
and angels sing through the night
I’ve later memorized the lyrics from the album which later was released by Sara Groves. But I notice every Year that the album has become a part of my Christmas rhythm.
A few days ago, on a couple-hour drive back from training, I found myself with blurry vision singing loud and raspy with teary eyes and a heavy heart. Don’t act like you’ve never done it. A lyric from the song I didn’t scribble down that night has come to bear much weight for me and all I find myself working on and with and through toward God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven.
Heard it told, you think it’s odd
The whole thing fraught with complication
The play begins with a baby God
And all his blessed implications
I find myself in board meetings and counseling sessions, in conference rooms and churches, in arguments and gripe sessions, at parties and dinners, I find myself noticing over and over again in multiple contexts that in following suit with the prayers we are bold to pray, Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are more often than not called to play the game by wholly other, ridiculous rules.
Let’s address systemic sin, injustice, oppression, blindness and heartbrokenness with a baby God.
Let’s address self-centered, self-righteous, power-mongering and king-complexes with humility.
Let’s address loneliness, addiction, anger, despondency and bitterness with unconditional acceptance.
Let’s address greed, materialism, xenophobia, racism and ignorance with generosity, hospitality and forgiveness.
It’s makes no sense.
It feels all wrong.
It sounds as good a plan as the whole story beginning with a baby God.
And yet, when we hold our breath and close our eyes and take our steps
in wholly other and wholly odd directions with wholly other rules
kingdom comes, just like it crashed in
when the play boldly began with a baby God.
The promise brought in by time is hardly ever known beforehand, and even if it were we wouldn’t have the slightest idea what the promise meant. We can’t know until it’s time to know, and we can’t be healed until we’re ready, really. Healing becomes available, but time brings the promise. We can attempt to rush it if we want to, but we’re likely swinging in the dark.
Rev. Becca Stevens’ most recent book, Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling captivated me earlier this year (as written about here). While reading this book, I knew that one of my very closest friends would soon be ordained in November, and I also knew that he was learning more about what it means to anoint those we love, those who are hurting, those who are dying, and those who are wandering with oil.
I love the notion that anointing with oil is a kind of prayer made physical. We put our hands and fingers in oil, smear it on the flesh of those we desperately want something better for, and then hold out hope that Jesus wasn’t killing time when he said that we would take on the kind of life-bringing and truth-telling that he had been doing. We pause for a moment as flesh and flesh separated only by a thin space of an ancient substance. And somewhere in that thin space rests the deep hope and the breath-stealing promise that God shows up when we come together and ask him to.
So we know we don’t know what we’re doing, but like most things worth doing at all, when we show up and do them even while admitting that we are fumbling our holy way through something we don’t understand, God shows up.
Of course God was already there.
Of course healing isn’t buried in the molecules of oils.
But God shows up in a way that he hadn’t already,
and we even become bold to ask him to in ways we hadn’t already.
And so I woke up early the morning of his ordination, pulled out the random collection of olive oil, essential oils and Shea butter, and headed toward the stove. Fumbling over a pan and these tiny bottles that feel like tools I don’t know how to use, I followed Stevens’ recipe for anointing oil. That is, I followed it until I decided I wanted to change amounts and add other things.
Slowly the kitchen started filling up with the scents of rose pedals, grapefruit, rosemary, olives, bergamot, and lemon. I stood over the stove, noting how time has passed and the truth is a little clearer and healing has come at its own damn speed no matter how much I was ready for it to hurry up, and watched a tear drop into the oil.
Even while making my first batch of oil, without anointing and without meaning to pray, God shows up and reminds me that all this time, through the two years waiting to know what promise was on the other side of waiting in grief, I reminded of a the words a friend prayed over me two years ago in Cape Town while pushing in on my chest: “God is holding your heart, Don. He wants you to know this. And he is shaping it. And he is thrilled at what it is becoming. And when you think he is not paying attention, I pray you will remember that he is holding your heart in his hands. He will push and prod and squeeze, but he is perfectly gentle and perfectly stern. And it is his hands that your heart is held.”
Those words came at a moment when the ground was cracking open and I was most unsure where to stand. I see now that the sky was cracking open as well, and my heart has been in very good hands through all the cracking. And the promise is a little clearer now on the other side of waiting things out.
I gave my friend the small jar with the few ounces of oil in the parking lot after the ceremony, stumbling over words about a gift and an experience and process that has been years in the making. That bottle made it to a worship service the next morning, was used to first pray a blessing over his daughter, then to pray words over those being confirmed. Those being confirmed happened to include not only people I have grown to love, but also people who have loved me and walked with me over these last two years.
Just as the scent of the oil filled the space, the reminder that if I’m willing to stumble my way through things I don’t fully understand while asking God to show up, he is good and ready to do so. And he is holding on to our hearts. And he is breaking them over the things that break his very own. And we are, all of us, stumbling toward healing in one way or another. And we can only stumble toward it in the company of others. And we can’t be in a hurry.
Well, we can be in a hurry, but it’s a waste.
Healing always comes.
Pine Tree Dr.
I ironed every shirt I ever actually wear today. I stood in the den ironing and hanging one after another on the pull up bar connected to the door frame.
I’ve noticed my own ironing habit over the last twelve months. It’s often after a long day at the office where people allow me the chance to journey with them through their personal, familial and communal junk as we work to find what good can be uncovered in its midst. While some days it’s an archeological journey worth photo-ops, full of good findings and the perfect blue skies to offer backdrop to their discoveries, many days end after journeying together where we don’t actually find anything.
We may have found better questions, or better ways to let go of bad questions, or better standards by which to gauge ourselves and others, but we end without any picture-perfect discoveries. We end without the pain and the mess being over. We end, after having given it all we know to give and finding that there wasn’t light at the end of the tunnel. Not yet, at least. Not today.
I often come home on those days, pull out the ironing board, and start working on a task that I know will begin and end well in one try. It helps me suspend hope, if just until the sun rises again, that some things get settled, some things end up making sense, and some things work out before the sun goes down.
Today was not a day of counseling, but a culmination of multiple days of reminders that many good people holding out great faith can’t make the pain stop and the heartache end. We can’t hope our way to the phone call giving us the news we were begging for. Today began with the news of loss. The loss of a man whose personality and gestures were in themselves reminders that there is another world buried under this one that creation itself can hardly wait to see break through. The loss of a man who made it clear, even on the day of his murder, that there is something rumbling underneath the cracking present age that speaks of a kingdom of light and a community of icons of God himself.
And we can hardly wait either, you know. We can hardly wait especially on days like today where we know what is good, but we don’t know how to get there and we feel powerless to bring it here. So we iron ourselves into some kind of sanity, so we can see something finished and something in order like all of our button-up shirts hanging on pull-up bars.
But night falls and morning rises, and we realize that as much as we would like to settle ourselves with tasks that we can see from beginning to end, neatly pleated and orderly hung, we also realize that our hearts are only truly alive in the tasks that leave us with great heartbreak, for now. And so, while they are too big to carry, we can’t help but doing our best to pick them up again. And, in the words of the pastor calling us to move toward the kingdom, it’s in picking up the things that are too heavy to carry that we realize we are actually on our way home.
I was up late, and woke up late, and made it into the church service about ten minutes late. My voice was much deeper than normal, and was still deep when we made it to the words of the Nicene Creed. I think it was the unfamiliar cantor of my voice that made me hear what I said today as if it was the first time I had ever heard it.
“…and his kingdom will have no end.”
There are often moments where I see it. It’s clearly present in ways that don’t make any sense, so I lean back, squint my eyes so that tears don’t fall out, and try to breathe it in. There are moments where I see what Nora Gallagher references as “thin space,” moments where the space we are in is touching the space we will be in when the kingdom comes in all of its fullness.
Sometimes, these moments of heaven meeting earth are in
the monotony of daily chores
the normalcy of singing with the windows down
the clinking of glasses and forks and plates at dinner with friends
the deep breaths after long days of good work.
Sometimes, these moments of heaven meeting earth are in
the deep grief of watching one we’ve lived loving be lowered into ground
the deep heartbreak of waiting to hear the horrible news we’re hoping isn’t true
the deep sadness of holding our hair in our hands because we know we are powerless and things are out of control.
Sometimes, these moments of heaven meeting earth are in
the brilliance of art, laughter, hard work
the sharp edges of a brilliant sonnet, sunset, silhouette
the joy of eyes meeting, hands shaking, understanding.
But every time, for now, these moments of heaven meeting earth
have ends. Endings. They are over after they begin.
They have an end.
And we are then reminded that
the things that feel true, honest, just, lovely, pure
don’t last, for now.
So we stand together, deep voices on early Sunday mornings, and say the words that have come from the mouths of men and women for hundreds and hundreds of years. In the echo of their voices and the startling depth of our own early-morning voice, we hold out hope that the day is coming when it has no end. The kingdom made up of thin space, where heaven and earth meet for good and hold hands for good, will have no end. So those moments where we know and see and tell and sense the truth, and we hope that they would last forever…we wait for the day when they will.
We wait for the day when it finally has no end.